Monday, January 16, 2017

I am a racist--if you're white, chances are you are, too

If you're white and celebrating Dr. King's life today, may be a good time for a self-examination.


I come from an unusual school in an unusual school district. We are not a mostly white or a black or a Latino school. We are Muslim and Jewish and Christian and Hindu and Sikh. We hear Bengali, Spanish, Greek, English, Patois, and maybe another couple dozen languages and dialects in our hallways.

Crispus Attucks, first death in American Revolution
via Crispus Attucks Museum website
I'm not going to ruin all this by claiming a Kumbaya moment, but what makes this building work maybe better than most others is the constant infusion of immigrants into our town, an infusion of confusion, that keeps us all wondering who we are.

I've heard several times a different version of that discussion, as a small group of kids will discuss just which banner they fall under.

And that's a good place to start.
***

The other race conversation is the one acknowledging the price of color in this fine land of ours. The problem is not starting "the conversation" about race. Most kind, nice folks I know are eager, too eager, to start the conversation.

The problem is getting past the niceties, the politeness, the veneer of civility that subtly reflects our standing with each other.

The problem with the hard conversation is that most white folks I know truly believe two things:
  • They're not racist.
  • If they're not racist, then this does not involve them.
This skirts the whole issue of privilege, neatly tidied up in a universal statement of our humanity, and who could possibly argue with the idea that an unbiased, nice person who just wants everybody to get along had nothing to do with, well, John Crawford? 


Here's a place to start. You're not going to get off the bottle until you acknowledge you're a racist. Not a John Birch Society heavy drinking racist, just the social two-glasses-of-chardonnay kind. The kind who sits on the sidelines tsk tsking away a world that does not concern you.

But it should.
Make the declaration, then let's try having the talk. 



And if it does not, you are in deeper than you think.
This was originally posted a tear or so ago--seemed like a good day to post it again.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Dr. Martin Luther King, reduced by Kidzworld

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (not "MLK") had had his teeth extracted by the dominant culture, an abominable snowman reduced to a toothless grinning cartoon fit for white folk. I've said as much before. And he supported the poor white folk who voted for Mr. FortySixPercent far more than Trump ever will.

The "I Have a Dream" speech is wonderful, but only in context of everything else he did. If you know him only by that, it's like pretending to know Jesus because he once took a stroll on water.

So once again, I will print out several dozen copies of the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," leave them by the door, and encourage students to read it

Meanwhile, folks will continue to abuse the idea of the man with things like this:


Do the work that matters, and you will sleep better. You're going to die anyway.

May as well make your life one worth living.


As good a lesson as any for our lambs.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The price of today's words

Truth as written by some young folk in B362,

I keep a manual typewriter in the back of our classroom. Kids enjoy banging on it when they discover it, mostly, I think, from its novelty, but it runs deeper than that.

Not all words are meant to be permanent, Most of our day to day words are meant to be fleeting, as ephemeral as the chatter of the squirrels and pigeons that share our neighborhood, and with about as much meaning. When we send off emails and texts and tweets, they feel as ephemeral as the spoken word, but they're not.

Casual words spoken tentatively, spoken in anger, spoken in love, spoken as casual chit chat, all used to hang in the air between the few that heard them, as quickly gone as the next breath few breaths.

The printed word changed that, but it took effort and time to put words to paper. It took effort and time to get that paper to the person who was meant to see them. And in that time, before permanent words had a permanent effect, the chain could be broken. And it often was.

Kids throw out kid words with kid impulses and pay adult prices.

The price is far too high.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Dear White Men of America

From my other blog, but with the impending coronation, figured I'd share it here.


Dear White Men of America,

I’ve broken noses, both mine and others, shoveled shit off ships in Port Newark, and worked in the projects; I know the thrill of flying off a bike then feeling the heat of asphalt build up under the leather as you tumble next to your bike down the road; I’ve been knocked out several times, smoked cigars while pissing into the Atlantic, had a man die under my hands after being shot, and yes, I play fantasy football, too.

I drink too much beer, take too few vitamins, have plenty of physical scars with too little faith in the metaphorical ones, stick by my teams, love my whiskey, and slaughtered animals. I’m a white man in America.

We know each other. Or at least I thought we did.

Mr. Trump has done none of these things, has never worked a day in his life, and I doubt he could fix anything more complicated than a burned out light bulb, and even then he’d likely injure himself.


He’s the smarmy kid in class with too much money and too little sense with his crew of buddies ready to beat up the weaker among us. I know a few of you ran with that kind of crew, but I always believed most of us stood our ground when his henchmen came round.

And I was wrong.

What the fuck is wrong with you?

Yours,
Your fellow white American male




"'Dock stevedore at the Fulton Fish Market holding giant lobster claws.'
Photo by Gordon Parks for the Office of War Information" via Shorpy







Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Perihelion


We're a few hours away from our closest brush with the sun for the year. We are also a few hours away from the darkest 4 weeks of the year. Coincidental, true, but both are good news.

Because the perihelion happens in winter, we're blessed with a longer summer in these parts, and we're blessed with a larger sun when we need it most. (Yes, this is illusory, but so is pretty much everything else we pretend matters.)

As the days lengthen, again, I am reminded, again, of our ties to the light, to the ground, to the air and water. To say as much these days gets you labeled as some kind of Luddite or squirrel-kissing tree-hugger.

And maybe that's my gift to the students--standing in front of them, an old soul still more connected (if tenuously) to the world that sustains us than the one that merely entertains us.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A song is a song while sung

From two years ago today, because I need reminding
.
Dave Keeney is a friend of mine, who happens to be brilliant, though that's not a word he'd likely use to describe himself. He's an apple farmer, a musician, a story teller, a mensch.

Dave on the left, Old Town, New Year's Eve
(photo by Derek Daniel)

First time he met my Dad, my Dad (once a fighter pilot) was in bad shape after a series of strokes that made him pretty much unintelligible. Except to Dave. After trading stories, Dave got out his guitar and sang one of the funniest songs I had ever heard, "John Denver's Last Flight."

Later, after dinner, I asked Dave to play the song again. He would not.
"Why not?"
"Don't remember it."
"But you just sang it, how could you forget something you know?"
"I made it up."
I still regret not ever hearing that song again, and Dave never gave it a second thought. The song is a song while sung, and that's more than enough for Dave, even as I (and I am embarrassed to say it) thought of the song's potential commercial value..

If the product is the goal, then we lose the "we" in this thing we're doing, whatever this thing we're doing happens to be.


Once an object is made, a song sung, a story scribbled down on the back of of an envelope, it's no longer us, merely an artifact of who we were.

We become machines, we are machines, in our relentless chase to create the perfect product, make perfection a standard in whatever we do. We want everything to be professional, the new code word for standardized.

The us is in the process, the joy is in the doing.
A song is a song only as a song is being sung.



Fuck professionalism, it's no way to live nor love.
I'm going back to my ancestors' world of artisans,

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Curing our children of wanton behavior


Newton, by William Blake, at the Tate

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

William Blake, from "Auguries of Innocence"


We fear wilderness, and understandably so. We prefer edged lawns to thistle, Lord Tennyson to William Blake, textbooks to open and changeable sources.

A wild child fails in our culture. Thankfully, we do a pretty good job at school, curing our children of natural impulses, of wanton behavior.

***


Wanton is an old word, now infused with ill will. It comes from wan, or lack (as in "for want of"), and togen, or pull. The roots literally mean "unpulled." To be wanton means to be unbridled. The word used to mean "sportive or frolicsome, as children or young animals."

As we dive deeper and deeper into a culture of efficiency, a culture dependent on artificial standards and goals, a culture that defines joy on its terms, we have less tolerance for the wild ones.

***

The wild ones got us here:

Isaac Newton (the same man who predicted the Apocalypse may fall as early as 2060, a man obsessed with alchemy and the Bible) "seem[ed] to have shown little promise in academic work. His school reports described him as 'idle' and 'inattentive'."



Einstein, an excellent math and science student despite the myths, believed that “it is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education."

The history of science is littered with bright folks sticking things into places where they don't belong, just to see what happens. If you already know what's going to happen, what's the point?

School is designed to protect the order of things, to keep us safe, to tell us what is going to happen.

Except for science class.

Sparks fly, test tubes erupt and spew off foam and flames, white flies spontaneously generate among rows of peas and carrots that look so incongruous in a government building.

Stains on the ceiling, cracks in the world, and incident reports in central administration remind us that wilderness exists, even in a building where young lives are pre-planned, curricula set, protocols enforced.


If you teach, guide your lambs to the ledge:
  • If you teach language arts, push the wilderness. Read Blake with passion; you grasp that all this is miraculous, and that all this will end. Let your children see you bleed.
  • If you teach history, let the smells and sounds of battle waft into your room, let fear and hope swirl in your room as it swirls around us in the world. Let your children taste the blood that has spilled.
  • If you teach physical education, push a child to feel what reckless abandon feels like, when the body is allowed to break from the human forms of chairs and desks and burst into motion. Let the children fall and bleed.

We do not shed enough blood in the classroom, and there are good reasons for that. We fear lawsuits, we fear unruly classrooms, we fear chaos.

I think we most fear the wilderness. Order is seductive, civilization seduces us all. Schools produce the graduates we deserve.

Civilization matters, of course. I like my hot showers, my iPod, my tap water, my clothes. I like order and the daily insulation from death and entropy. I do not plan to paint anarchistic slogans on my walls.

I do hope, though, that I am a little bit more courageous sharing the wild with my students this coming year.




Yes, I know, we adore Blake now--he is safely dead, tucked in a dead and long ago age we call Romanticism. If you can read Blake without wanting to scream and run off naked into a July thunderstorm on the edge of the ocean, you're missing the point.

The Newton page predicting 2060 as our end is from, fittingly, Armageddon Online here.

Yep, a repost.