Was I that kid?

The classroom is most definitely a microcosm of society. Just like in “the real world” — also known as the world outside the classroom — there are moments of imbalance and injustice. What I’ve been struggling with and turning over in my head the last few weeks is what I can do about it, both as the adult in the room when I’m teaching and as a person in the world when I’m not.

Columbus Day just passed and I was going to say something about that, something about how it’s a bullshit day, that it should really be a day to honor the African Diaspora and the First Nations People rather than the conquerors. Then I was going to say something about facing the reality of our American culture, that many of the most “American” things emanate from non-white people and non-white places, ranging from the music we listen to to everyday technologies we take for granted.

But that statement alone wasn’t going to be enough; this nationwide, even worldwide negligence of balance, truth, and justice is part of it for me. It’s part of my slowly roiling frustration when I’m in the classroom this year. Another part of it is that now that I’m working with white kids — my first time in 11 years of teaching — I’m now seeing my biases up close on a daily basis and I’m seeing how extremely fucking sneaky they are, and worse yet, how little innocent white kids rely on them, base their entire stance in the world on them — and how adults like me perpetuate the cycle.

And so I arrive at a buffet of doubts and questions. Was I like these white kids when I was a kid? Did I take up so much space with my whiteness and the privileges it brings that I left no space for anyone else? Did my entitlement over-magnify me to the detriment of my peers? Did my implicit expectation that of course I’d win or get what I asked for or be chosen or go first take that experience away from someone else who was just as deserving — or more deserving? Did I just go through most of my life thinking I was a sweet girl in grammar school, friends with everyone, darling to all, while my classmates were just waiting for me to leave the room so they could finally breathe and take up some goddamn space?

I’d love to believe that I wasn’t like that. But maybe I was. Maybe I did take up that much space in the classroom, in the teacher’s psyche, in my classmates’ mental and emotional space. And with every inch I took, every time I raised my hand, answered a question, made some subtly domineering move in the classroom, my non-white peers got just that much less space for themselves, for their self-expression, for their self-exploration, for their risk-taking, for their leadership, for their ideas, for their questions, for their existence.

And there’s nothing I can do about it now, unfortunately, no way for me to go back and fix it, fix myself, teach my younger me how to not be an entitled jackass kid. But what can I do now? What can I do?

Well, I have to see this as my chance. I get to be a defender and a bridge and a guide all at once. My job is to guard the classroom space, keep it clear and open for all of my kids to lead, question, grow, take risks — to defend all of my kids’ rights to experience education, the act of learning and engaging and growing past their current boundaries. My job is to bring these kids together, bridge their differences, draw them close together and set up the expectation that they will always mingle, always integrate, always know one another, and always wish to know one another. My job is to guide them through rich and diverse materials, highlighting the beauty and value in everyone, in all of us, honoring our shared humanity. How exciting. How terrifying.

I acknowledge that I’m going to fail, and do it wrong, and forget myself and give in to something deeply coded into my brain. But I’m trying to push through my own shit to open up space and keep it open, one inch at a time.

Leadership is… (the kids version)

This entry is inspired by the way I found my classroom on Friday afternoon. I’d been out all day at a teacher leadership meeting, and returned to my building after hours to meet with my team. But before that, I stopped by my room — my home away from home — to reset a few things for Monday, and came upon a giant mess:  my desk overflowing with disorganized papers, pencils and facial tissues littering the floor, chairs strewn about the room, the morning message still left up on the board (eight hours later!!), a full newspaper stuffed into the teacher trash can, and a nearly untouched stack of assignments and activities that I had prepared the night before and left for the substitute teacher to lead the kids in doing. I can only imagine what they got up to all day. If only I could’ve been a fly on the wall.


Exhibit A: The messy desk — I promise, I don’t leave it this way!

We’ve had many examples — interesting examples — of leadership in the news in the recent past. And many people have delved into those newsworthy examples, people who are better informed than I am, so I will leave that to them. But the classroom and the school setting are very often parallel worlds to what’s going on in the larger community — the citywide community, the statewide or national community, the global community — and that made me think about what I’m going to tell my students, my kids, on Monday. So humor me as I work through a draft of it here:

Based on the conditions I found in the room on Friday, I can make a few assumptions about what happened, how you behaved, and how your substitute teacher behaved. Some will blame the teacher for being a bad leader — in some ways I do — but I also put responsibility on you — all of you — for letting this happen. I know you are just children, only eight or nine years old, but your experience on Friday was an important lesson. And unfortunately you’re going to see as you grow up that the leaders who are meant to be in charge, to direct you and your daily activities, who are supposed to make decisions that are on your behalf, designed to benefit you — they will fail. And when you find yourself in that situation, you have choices.

One, let go and have fun. Don’t resist and follow along. And why not? It’s not your fault that the leader’s doing a bad job, making decisions that aren’t best for you or your community. It’s not your job, it’s someone else’s. And I understand. However, in those times you have other options, ones that are more powerful than that.

Once you realize that the leader, the person who’s supposed to be at the helm, driving the bus and choosing the path, isn’t making good decisions, then it’s up to you. Because you see what’s lacking, it is up to you — it is up to you — to take the lead. I’m not asking you to be defiant or disrespectful of the adult in the room, the leader of the classroom, but I am asking you to look around and think. Consider what would be best for you in this moment, and think about how you can bring others along with you into positive, respectful, and responsible choices. That’s a leader and that’s leadership. Start with the people nearest to you, and suggest that you all do something together — read, study, work on something as a group. If you can, spread out and visit other parts of the room, urge and encourage those friends to do the same. Stay optimistic, be persistent and positive, be flexible in your approach to the teacher and your classmates, show resilience and bounce back when you are ignored, and strive to do your best — even if the final, positive results are only with you. That’s being a leader.

And being a leader, a true leader, a sustainable and honorable leader, does not often lead from the helm, lifted up on a platform, dictating or bossing or threatening. Leaders are living and learning and moving among their friends, striving to be their best selves in all circumstances, welcoming their friends into better choices, searching for and magnifying their peers’ strengths, supporting and encouraging them through challenges, believing in them persistently — all the while with their eyes, their minds and their hearts set on creating a bond and a community among everyone, with mutual respect and responsibility as their goal.

So, we are going to take a step to the side today, to reinvest in one another and to plant the seed of leadership in our hearts — in each and every heart here in this classroom. We are going to build our community stronger by getting to know one another more deeply, by creating personal goals, sharing those goals, and pushing ourselves everyday this week to be on each other’s team, to encourage everyone to reach their goals and to be their best selves. Because if we can find that leader in ourselves, then we will always have a choice — no matter what may come — and we will know how to stay strong as individuals and as a community, and we will reach our goals no matter what.