I’m on the phone

Photo by Alex Andrews on Pexels.com

The cellphone lights up on my desk. I glance at it: my colleague from down the hall has a question. I type in “I’m on the phone” while I continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.

I don’t have any students assigned to me this quadmester. My colleagues are muddling their way through a convoluted teaching schedule that involves teaching one class for 225 minutes per day (plus a 75 minute at-home work period) for one week during which half the students come one day while the other half are online; then the two cohorts switch. As if that weren’t enough, teachers must deliver both synchronous and asynchronous instruction for the students at home while remaining masked and socially distant from the students in the room. Then the next week they do the same thing with a different class. And then they start again. While all of that is happening, I have been assigned to Spec Ed, and I am on the phone.

We have about 225 students at our school who have IEPs. Usually, we send forms – thorough, if impersonal – home to parents to ask for input; I would guess we average about a 25% rate of return, maybe a little more. Usually, we meet face-to-face with every student. We sit with them for five or ten minutes and look at their IEP, showing them what accommodations they have, asking what works, what needs tweaking. Usually, the Spec Ed room is full of kids coming in to pick up a Chromebook, get some extra explanation, figure out how to study more effectively. Usually, I interact with my partner, EAs, other teachers and guidance counselors every day. I squeeze in the occasional phone call and respond to email as quickly as I can, but usually my focus is on the students in front of me. Usually Spec Ed is the kind of job that asks me to juggle a knife, a fire stick and a teddy bear while standing on a beach ball. But 2020, as we all know, is not a usual year. So I am on the phone.

My partner and I are calling every family and every student about their IEP. We call on the days when the students are in the cohort that is working from home. We cross our fingers that we aren’t interrupting their parents’ workday, that we aren’t waking the student up. We leave messages, send emails and, most of all, we talk on the phone.

This is a completely different way to support students. I am simultaneously lonely and overstimulated. I find myself exhausted from listening – really listening – to the way each family and each child is experiencing our education system during this crisis. They are thoughtful about their needs, their child’s needs. They are alert to what changes have happened this year, how their students have responded, what might come next. They are hopeful and fearful and mostly they just want things to be good enough. Mostly they are hoping to muddle through. Almost always they are surprised, delighted, impressed that we are calling – as if this is entirely unexpected amidst the chaos of the school year. Most of the parents are kind. Most of the kids are upbeat. Almost everyone understands that we are part of a team that works best when we work together.

Of course, it takes time to build those teams, and right now I’m spending that time on the phone. I jot down notes as I listen, little memory jogs to help me remember what information to email teachers, when to call my administrator, when to give Guidance a heads’ up. I give out my email, my phone number again and again. I say, “don’t hesitate to call as soon as you sense a problem; this year classes are moving very quickly.” I say, “If you’ve tried to get in touch and I haven’t gotten back to you, please send me a gentle reminder. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed.”

I’m overwhelmed. I long to be in the classroom, juggling through the chaos of the class schedule created for us. I long to be reading and writing and talking with students as I try to convince them that their voice matters. I miss the physical presence of people in a room, of my colleagues and my students. I imagine that sharing their overwhelm will feel better, more present, than these voices on the other end of the phone.

But I am on the phone. And I am convinced that their voice matters. “I know this year looks different; please call or email right away if you’re struggling. We can work together to fix just about anything.” I listen for the silent nod on the other end of the line. I say goodbye. I hang up.

Then I turn to the computer and pull up another IEP. I read through the assessments, the accommodations, the transitions. I find the student’s timetable. Deep breath. I look at the student’s picture, call up a memory of the child from years past, hold tight to that connection, and then I pick up the phone. “Hello, this is Amanda Potts, calling from Canterbury High School. I’m your child’s Learning Support Teacher this year. Is this a good time to talk about their IEP?”

The cellphone lights up on my desk. I type “I’m on number 8. You?” and continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.

Almost ready

I’m exhausted. I haven’t blogged for the last two weeks. I have plenty to say but no time to say it. I’ve put my entire classroom library into boxes and put all of the boxes onto shelves in the book room. I’ve cleaned classrooms and shelved more books than I could keep track of. I’ve thrown out papers and binder and, yes, books. Old books. Damaged books. Doesn’t matter because, as it turns out, we’re not allowed to hand out *any* books. For a week? two? the semester? No one knows. We are now teaching bookless.

I’ve been making up words.

With two colleagues, I’ve created a course shell, a course outline, and a Google Drive full of mentor texts to help English teachers make sense of how to teach for 225 minutes a day to groups that are in school every other day of every other week for a “quadmester.” I’ve copied and pasted and searched and linked and categorized until my eyes nearly crossed.

I’ve tried to connect to the internet, changed my password, moved to a new room, sent in call tickets to support staff. I’ve done the required PD in the early morning and late at night, sitting at the kitchen counter, grateful that my internet works.

I’ve argued about class novels and talked about racism. I’ve asked questions, said no, said yes, and said, “I have no idea” over and over. I’ve suggested changes. I’ve encouraged people to be kind to themselves. I’ve encouraged people to lean in to discomfort. I’ve publicly said, “We’ve got this” and privately fretted that we don’t have it at all. Then I’ve changed my mind. And changed it again.

I’ve limited my children to two hours of internet a day except when they took an online class that lasted 1.5 hours per day and taught them how to program, aka use the internet more than two hours per day. I’ve told them to play outside and said, “it’s just rain; you won’t melt” even as I opened the door and greeted them with towels. I’ve prepared them for classes that may or may not end up outdoors or indoors or on line for who knows how many hours per day.

I’ve baked banana muffins.

I’ve shamelessly taken advantage of my spouse who took two weeks off so that I could prepare for a school year unlike any other. He has magically produced three meals a day, done the laundry and managed to landscape our backyard. He has not complained though he has taken refuge in board games.

I have given up checking the news, drinking alcohol and eating ice cream, then changed my mind within a day or an hour or a minute when yet another new announcement arrived and all of the rules changed again. I’ve avoided social media and the news; I’ve allowed social media and the news to swallow me whole.

I’ve walked every day. I’ve laughed and cried and talked and raged and read and written. I’ve picked up the phone and sobbed; I’ve ignored calls from those I love because I couldn’t bear to utter even one more word about school. I’ve recorded a podcast. I’ve recorded a podcast that didn’t record. I’ve said things I wish were not recorded.

I’m exhausted, but I’m ready. Half of the grade 9s came today; the other half come tomorrow. By Thursday, classes will start. The IEP system isn’t working; there are no paper towels in the girls’ restroom; the class lists are still changing; no one knows when teachers get bathroom breaks; we still cannot hand out books.

And despite it all, what I want more than anything is to see the students. What I want most is to look at them and say, “Welcome! I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve been waiting for you!”

2020-2021 is going to be a year like no other. I’m exhausted and incredibly excited for the changes that it will bring.

Book club

This summer should have been a summer of stasis. COVID19 grounded us, kept us home, slowed things down and denied us many of our usual summer activities. Instead, I’ve found the summer to be one of growth. The slower pace – sometimes maddening – meant that I had time to spend thinking, reading, and talking in ways I often don’t. (Ok, and also way too much time online, but such is life.) In particular several groups of educators came together to learn and think deeply about racism. Yesterday marked the end of one of these book clubs (we read Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist) ; Thursday will mark the end of another (we are journaling through Saad’s me and white supremacy). A third, focused on fiction, ended a week ago.

I also spent the summer all too aware of Tre Johnson’s cri de coeur: “When black people are in pain, white people just join a book club.” (His article is excellent.) As a result, I have been reluctant to write about the book clubs, though I have written about my own understanding of racism and anti-racism. I’ve been worried – as I am almost always worried when it comes to anti-racism – that the book clubs are not enough.

But I also *need* to write about this because writing is one way that I make my thoughts concrete. I need to be open with other people about what I’m learning and how it is changing me. I need to be public in my commitments to dismantle our racist society. (And it is racist. If you’ve read this far & you don’t believe that, feel free to get in touch & we can talk.) I need to have on record that I am going to take the racist novels out of our bookroom NOW, that I am going to insist that teachers in our English Dept develop an understanding of why #ownvoices matter and learn to engage those voices thoughtfully, that I am going to speak up about racist actions in my workplace.

More than that, I want to acknowledge that these book clubs are leading to change in myself, my colleagues and our school. Teachers are committing to changing their curriculum – African history will be taught this year, for example – and to speaking up about who gets to take which classes and how discipline is enacted. We are holding each other accountable for making change, and this has come about because of hours of reading and discussing in, yes, book clubs.

After yesterday’s book club ended, I found myself thinking about how our group has moved to action over the course of the summer. The more I thought, the more a poem formed. So here’s a draft for today’s Slice of Life:

We are in
a backyard near the pool,
the white concrete firm under our feet
as we tentatively reach
for cool slices of watermelon.
The pink juice sweetens our understanding.
We talk to each other
for the first time.
No one swims.

We are in
a backyard under the tree,
an empty house beside us
as we lean in.
Surrounded by a privacy fence,
we talk to each other
for hours.
The rain pierces the canopy
that shelters us.

We are in
a backyard in the sun.
The black dog roams between us
as we recognize
racism.
Alarms blare: tornado warning.
The clouds build;
the wind blows;
the rain begins.
We commit to action
and leave to prepare
for school.

Thank you to Ibram X. Kendi for his book How to be an Anti-racist which inspired a summer of discussion, a developing group of allies, and a commitment to action this school year.

Myers Briggs personality

I took the Myers-Briggs personality test sometime during college. I’m pretty sure everyone took it around that time. I definitely found it interesting – look! That’s me! I’m like that! – but I quickly forgot the details. And by “forgot the details” what I actually mean is that I forgot the four letters that are the point of the whole test, really – the four letters that tell you and other people what personality type you are.

“I’m definitely an E,” I would respond when someone asked, “and maybe an N?” My voice would rise hopefully, as if perhaps the person who had asked could see inside me and determine who I was. “Is N the one that is the opposite of F? or is that J? I’m pretty sure mine ended with P.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t take it seriously: I was 19, I took *everything* seriously. It was just… well… I couldn’t remember those letters because they didn’t make any sense to me. Was I thinking or feeling? Why yes, I was. Judging or perceiving? Also a yes. The only letter I could really hold on to was “E” for “extroverted” and even that one had become almost “I” for “introverted” when a “sensitive” boyfriend had me take the test again years later. He honestly wanted to know the letters I couldn’t recall for the life of me.

No shock that I didn’t stay with that boyfriend: labels and numbers still escape me more often than I would like to admit. My spouse is able to remember not only the actual date we met but also the year. He knows things like the birth weights of both of our children and the names of characters in books he read long ago. I can remember who sat at which table at the wedding where we met, which student wrote what essay 15 years ago, and the names of all of my teachers since kindergarten. He knows his Myers Brigg personality type and he probably knows mine, too. We make a good team, so I fearlessly forgot my letters.

Then, a couple of years ago, a colleague stumbled across a funny little article called “The Definition of Hell for Each Myers Briggs Personality Type” and was quizzing us all as we ate lunch. She read hell after hell out loud as various colleagues shared their “type.” I laughed and played along until the inevitable, “What type are you, Amanda?” I sheepishly admitted that I had no idea. “But it starts with an E!” I chirped.

Then she read this hell: “Somebody is wrong, and they’re directing a large group of people! You can’t do anything about it and will have to obey whatever inefficient policies they decide to implement.”

My horror was physical. A shiver ran from my shoulders all the way down my spine. I shifted uncomfortably. There it was – no questions asked – whatever the letters are that go with that one, they define my personality type because that is absolutely my hell.

And that, friends, is also the moment we are currently living in education as politicians make inefficient policies about education based on… well, I honestly don’t know. Just another set of labels and numbers I appear to have forgotten.

But at least now I know my Myers Briggs type. Well, sort of.

Haiku moments

This week, I am attending the virtual Digital Pedagogy Lab 2020 conference. I’m in the “Critical Visual Dialogues” stream and, after only two days, my mind is full of images and my brain is questioning them in all sorts of ways. One of yesterday’s assignments was to “choose an image that is significant to you in some way and write a poem or some creative writing in response to it.” Despite having approximately a million photos at my fingertips, I could not choose an image. I got myself all wound up in what any choice would say about me. To make matters worse, we are sharing lots of our work on Twitter and Instagram, so there’s a public nature to it.

We also had to (ok, we *have* to do nothing: our leaders, Daniel Lynds & Francesca Sobande have been very clear that we are driving the course. That said, they offer us activities every day, and the activities are really interesting, so I want to do them.) “share some form of a visual self-portrait… anything from a memoji or selfie to a painting or photograph that you feel tells us something about you.” I was startled at how long it took me to choose a picture. It’s been a while since I felt out of my depth at a conference, but that’s what I’m feeling. I know this means good things in the long run, but right now it’s uncomfortable.

I’m a slow thinker – or at least a slow synthesizer of information – so I’m not quite ready to put all of my thoughts about this into a blog post, but I did try to write about all this for a while this morning. I found myself getting frustrated – my ideas were swirling too fast to catch, and everything I wrote seemed trite even though my thoughts feel complex. I was ready to give up. Then, I read Jessica’s blog post, Glitter, about a moment when one of her daughters’ observations about the ocean in the morning turned into a haiku. Jessica’s ability to bring the joy of words into her children’s lives is inspiring. Her ability to see those precious moments & capture them in writing, even more so. Her post was like a deep breath of love.

Suddenly, I knew what images I wanted to use: pictures of my children. And I knew what I wanted to capture with my words: the sense of the fleeting nature of their childhood. Images capture moments – slices of life, if you will – and haiku does that, too. Both photographs and haiku can leave us with a definite, though unstated, emotional response. Perfect. So, here’s my response to yesterday’s assignment:

T underwater
Underwater boy
caught between the elements
who will you become?
E plays with fire
He controls the fire
his power barely contained
on a glowing stick


Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly blog and to Digital Pedagogy Lab for organizing a conference that is shaking up my thinking.

Behind closed doors

Every month Ethical ELA offers a 5-day “Open Write” for teachers. Various teachers and writers “host” and share one way to write poetry. I often lurk there, but have only written a few times. Today Mo Daley & Tracie McCormick shared the monotetra, a form developed by Michael Walker. When they challenged us to write from headlines and ideas in the news, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about.

Last night, I lost sleep after reading an article that said “The Ont Ministry of Ed says teachers who stand at the front of the class, keeping two metres away from their students, don’t need PPE.” I kept tossing and turning, trying to figure out how in the world I’m supposed to teach effectively while remaining two metres away from my students. And yes, I know I teach high school, but, no, I don’t stand in front of them and lecture. I literally woke up at 2 in the morning thinking that maybe I could conference from behind a plexiglass screen.

So this morning when I saw the prompt, well, my sleepless night spilled into daytime cynicism. At first, I was horrified that my poem was so DARK. Then I thought, heck, it’s playfully dark – right? At any rate, now I have a great poem to show my students where the speaker of the poem and the author of the poem are not necessarily one and the same. Plus, I can teach them the monotetra and possibly link that to our media studies… but only if I bring my own PPE.

Behind Closed Doors: The Ministry of Education talks about teachers during COVID19

Teachers are a dime a dozen.
They get sick, we bring some more in.
There’s no reason for their dudgeon.
Bring some more in; bring some more in.

Who says they need those PPEs
to keep them safe from this disease?
No teacher gets those guarantees.
They’re employees; they’re employees.

And while we meet safely online,
we’ll tell the teachers they’re “front line”,
that classroom teaching is designed
to help mankind, to help mankind.

Tell them that, though school is scary,
online classes were temporary.
Now we know teachers are very…um
necessary (yes!), necessary.

PPEs are too expensive.
Teachers mustn’t be apprehensive:
If we provide them no defences,
It’s inoffensive; it’s inoffensive.

The parents must return to work 
So we’ll explain that teachers shirk
And PPEs are simply perks
Get back to work! Get back to work!

Convince the parents they’ve been had.
Remind them that the Spring was bad.
You were not scared, you moms and dads.
Not scared, but mad; not scared, but mad.

Workers need to be productive.
Children need to be instructed.
Our plan is purely reconstructive
Don’t obstruct it; don’t obstruct it.

Th’economy must be maintained
We knew those teachers would complain.
Did they expect us to explain?
Their loss; our gain. Their loss; our gain.

And if a few good teachers die?
We’ll sigh on screen, we’ll dab our eye,
Then we will find a new supply.
And who will cry? And who will cry?

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting the weekly Slice of Life

Cross words

My 9 year old and I are snuggled tightly together in a small armchair designed for one. His bare back warms me as he unconsciously presses his body into mine. Toes, knees, legs, back, shoulders tangle around me. Only his hands are his own, and they are holding my phone. His stormy face bends towards it, and his dark eyebrows draw together in concentration: he is helping me with the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Armchair decidedly for one

We should be outside. We’ve rented a cottage for a week with friends, and everyone else is taking advantage of a beautiful day at a quiet lake. But my boy got angry earlier, and his anger is a monster that swallows his words and hardens his body. When he is angry, he often will not speak and sometimes will not even move. He curls up, hides under a soft dark blanket and refuses to engage with the world or any of the people in it. Today, this meant that he could neither explain his anger nor participate and tidying the cottage after lunch. Tidying is not negotiable, so today he got in trouble, then he screamed, and then he cried.

He stomped off to settle himself down a little bit outside, and then he returned for the sure fix: a snuggle. “Crossword?” He pleaded, oral language still almost too much for him. We have declared this week device free, but three days ago, after another frustration, he sat with me while I worked the crossword. To everyone’s shock, he loved it. Today the only crossword in this cottage is on my phone, and I relent. We snuggle together, reading the clues and guessing. “Christmas ____” is easy, and he loves the clue “suds maker.” Slowly the grid fills.

I would never have guessed that these horizontal and vertical lines, these interlinked squares with so many possibilities and so few right answers, would calm him. His breathing slows; his face lights up when he gets an answer; his body relaxes. With each completed box he puts words in their place. Slowly his world becomes more orderly. We finish the whole puzzle in less than 30 minutes.

Now he can tell me what made him upset. It was nothing, really – a typical sibling spat, easily solved. But cross words and compromises are tough for my boy. I know this, though I can’t fix it. We agree on a non-verbal cue he can use next time to ask for extra time before we try to talk to be honest, I don’t think it will work, but it’s worth a try. And I think I’ll invest in a book of crosswords.

Overheated

T has his first real babysitting gig this summer. He’s watching our friend’s six year old and seven year old three mornings a week so that their mom can work. Yesterday he biked home, plopped down on the back deck and said, “that was worth WAY more than $30.” He proceeded to regale me with tales of fishing (“…and then the hook got caught in a frog and that was the end of fishing”), finding outdoor activities to entertain the kids (“she said the only thing to do outside was eat grass. That doesn’t even make sense”), feeding them (“…so I said, ‘what do you mean you don’t like it? You haven’t even tried it’ and I made them take another bite since they didn’t even give it a chance) and generally dealing with kids. I nearly bit my tongue off trying not to laugh.

He was still red-faced and sweaty – “I got over 10,000 steps and that doesn’t even count the bike ride there and back – and it’s not even 1:00!” – as I sent him inside for water and food. “I’m so hot I can barely eat,” he yelled through the still-open door. “Drink some water!” I yelled back, “and close the door!”

I grew up in South Carolina, so I made some remark about my wimpy Canadian kids (conveniently forgetting my response to winter) and casually ignored him. Wuss.

This morning, I took a long walk before it got too hot, then headed over to a friend’s house. My pre-teen slept in his attic room until moments before his buddy showed up at 11. His dad roused him & sent him off, tousled and unfed, to the local park. T didn’t have time to complain about how hot his room had been last night before they were out the door. The boys scooted around for over an hour, then took their pocket money and headed to Subway for lunch. Each of them put on a mask before heading inside.

And then: disaster. Apparently T knew that he was feeling nauseated and a little dizzy, apparently they tried to tell the guy behind the counter that T felt sick, but they’re 12 and wearing masks and… he didn’t hear them or didn’t listen until my Canadian boy sat down and threw up.

Horrified, the boys shoved their subs and sodas into a backpack and left. Then the reality set in: what if it’s covid? T’s buddy was stoic. He accompanied him home, mask on, two metres apart, making sure T was ok. When they got to our house, he came up the driveway and found me on the back deck (just getting ready to write, in fact), and blurted out what had happened. Meanwhile, T came through the house, briefly spoke with his dad, and arrived on the back deck similarly upset. “What if I have covid? I have to get tested!

The boys were doing an elaborate dance to maintain their distance, and T’s friend still had his mask on. Both of them were sweating. T was upset that he might have gotten people sick. “I have the symptoms!” he moaned, “I’m really tired!” I was trying to get T to sit down. His friend was trying to call his parents but his cell phone only works on wifi and he didn’t have our password. After a chaotic minute or two passed, I managed to get my hand onto my child’s forehead. As I suspected: cool & clammy. “Heat exhaustion,” I proclaimed, and both boys looked at me doubtfully. Still, I held my ground, and moments later one boy was outside with a telephone and the other inside with a glass of water.

Parents came to pick up T’s buddy, arrangements were made for the left-behind bike, mid-day movies were approved, and everyone was fine. Within the hour, T declared heat exhaustion a pretty good deal: he got to stay in during the day, be on a screen, drink lemonade and eat ice cream. He even dangled the idea that maybe he shouldn’t babysit tomorrow because it’s still going to be really hot, and he might get overheated again. “The problem is,” he said, “I’m so hot that sometimes I just have to play it cool.” I groaned and told him that he’s still babysitting.

As I sat down to write again, I found myself reflecting: T’s friend thought this was the moment that he had been exposed to the very disease we’ve upended society to avoid, but he didn’t leave and he didn’t panic. He brought T home and made sure he was ok. He kept himself as safe as he could and took care of his friend. He even made sure T had his lunch before heading home with his dad.

That is a friend indeed. We’ll keep that kid around.

Who gets the credit?

One week before the end of school, four school days before marks were due, she still hadn’t handed in any work. Not. one. thing. I’d known we might end up here because I’d taught her before. Now, the impending deadline made the reality undeniable: she wasn’t going to pass.

This was her second semester in my class because, after turning in next-to-nothing the previous semester, she had failed. Then her failure had slipped through the cracks, and she’d started the next English class, only to be “discovered” three weeks into the semester and forced to come back to my class. Separated from her friends, publicly humiliated, she had spent the week before the Covid 19 closure showing up late, refusing to work, and taking extraordinarily long bathroom breaks. I’d let her.

Why? Because I know her. She has no reason to trust adults and often barely earns her credits. When she was in grade 9, we’d connected a little after I kept finding her in the hallways. I couldn’t get her through the class she was skipping, but I could sit with her and listen, so I did. Last year, she and another friend, both Inuit, sometimes came to the Spec Ed room to work. She doesn’t have an IEP, but that didn’t matter. Together, we muddled our way through a History class she hated. As I worked with her, I realized that she had very few academic problem-solving skills and little willingness to play the game of school. So when I’d seen her name on my roster first semester, I’d known she would be a challenge, but I’d thought we would get through it. We didn’t. Well, she didn’t. 

She had spent the semester being, frankly, difficult. She brought food and ate noisily, then left the wrappers everywhere. I don’t mind students eating in class, but there was something aggressive about this. Aggressive eating? I swear it’s true. I reminded myself that many students need to eat in class, and I politely cleaned her trash when she had finished. Then, she refused to comply with my seating plan. I don’t love seating plans, but the class was divided and I wanted them to work together, so I used often-changing seats for group work. When she wouldn’t move, I planned around her preferred seat. And, during our twenty minutes of daily reading, she talked incessantly. I found myself increasingly angry, so we did a problem-solving session which ended with a plan that allowed her and her friend several days a week to talk in the hallway during reading time. Anathema to my goals, but she swore that she read “all the time” at home and begged me not to call her parents to confirm. I didn’t love it, but I acceded; it was better than nothing.

I felt like I had compromised everywhere, and still she had produced no work. It was maddening. One of the only things she did last semester was write a thank-you note to a speaker, an Inuit man who came to share his culture – her culture – with our class. He was fascinating, and she listened intently. Her thank you was heartfelt and honest. She earned an A.

And now here we were, the end of the craziest semester I’ve ever seen and our second semester together. She had attended no synchronous meetings and done no asynchronous assignments. I had called her regularly, and we’d had some nice chats, but she never followed up with actual work. Still, we’d talked about the books she was reading – she loves Rick Riordan – and, eventually, about the fan fiction novel she was writing. No, she was not interested in sharing it with me: it wasn’t ready. Sometimes, she called me back after I left a message. (I’d unmasked my phone number early on because I suspected no one would answer if I didn’t.) She hated being stuck at home, longed for fresh air, felt stifled by her family, her situation, her “crappy” internet. She read all the time because there wasn’t much else to do. She missed her friends. She missed school. I laughed, “but you don’t do school!” 

“That’s not true,” she said, “I just don’t do school work. It’s different.”

I spoke to my friend and colleague, Melanie White, who is my accountability partner in anti-racist work. “I feel like I’m failing her,” I said. “I feel like if we were at school, she might be passing. This whole system is stacked against her, and I’m just another person letting her down.”

Melanie was quiet for a minute. “Then pass her.”

Round and round we talked. If I pass her, am I telling her that she deserves pity? Or that she can’t do it? Will she think I have so little faith in her abilities that I will pass her with no evidence? If I don’t pass her, will she learn anything by repeating the course for a third time? Will she even bother? So many of these questions are, at their core, about me not her.

I left the conversation uneasy and undecided. I checked the curriculum document: in Ontario, credits are awarded when a student demonstrates the knowledge and skills mandated by the curriculum. Awarded. Mandated. So many words of coercion. In my heart, I knew that this child’s skills were at least as strong as many of her classmates’, sometimes stronger. The biggest difference was her lack of compliance. True, in class she only rarely talked about books or shared her writing, and true, she had only once done the classwork I assigned, but… Then, a niggle: no, the biggest difference was that she wouldn’t do the work. And then my brain circled back: isn’t that just compliance?

I sat with my discomfort. I thought a lot about Inuit ways of knowing, about systemic and institutional racism, about what it means to honour someone for who they are.

Finally on Friday, one week before the end of school and four school days before marks were due, I called her and left a message. On Monday morning, she called me back. We chatted about her latest read – a Riordan I’m not familiar with – and why she had decided to go back to the drawing board for her novel. Then I launched into it: “I needed to talk to you because I’ve been sitting with the question of how to figure out your mark for a while now. I feel like there’s a gap between what I know with my soul and what I have evidence for – school evidence. In my heart, I know that you can do all the English things – reading and writing, speaking and listening – more than well enough to pass this class. But my teacher brain knows that you haven’t really done any school work.” She laughed ruefully. “I’ve observed you enough to know that you can do this work. I want you to get this credit, but you need to believe that you have passed, that you are good enough, that this is what you have earned, not what you have been given. This can’t be a pity pass because I don’t pity you. This has to be about what you can do, not what you haven’t done.” I paused.

Silence.

Chewing.

“Yeah,” she said, “I can see that. Like, I didn’t turn much in, but you know I like to read and write. Like you trust that I can do the work when I’m ready.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “I trust that you can do it. And you will have to do it because I won’t be your teacher next year. You’ll have to show someone else what you can do.”

We talked a little more about what mark she had earned and where she saw herself in terms of the curriculum and her own skills. We talked about the summer and how much she longs to see her friends, though her parents won’t let her right now, even with a mask.

After we hung up, I sat in the sun on my porch for a few minutes. I felt lighter – I’d made the decision – but I was still conflicted. Was my choice racist? I definitely allowed this child to pass with scanty evidence; I did not hold her to the highest standards. Perhaps I had sold her short. Anti-racist? I definitely thought about this child as a person harmed by a system designed to oppress Inuit and Indigenous people. I think I did the right thing, but I don’t know. I just don’t know.

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Who’s anti-racist?

I’d been sitting at my “desk” – aka a table that we quickly repurposed into a desk for the now months-long COVID19 work-from-home set-up – for way too long. It’s not quite high enough to be a work space, and when I really settle in, I end up aching more or less everywhere. A quick stretch didn’t do nearly enough to help, so I decided to go for a long walk. After all, those student projects weren’t going anywhere, the day was beautiful, and I had an errand to run: I was picking up the book Unsettling Canada from a local independent bookstore. Colinda Clyne is leading a book group about it on her podcast “Anti-Racist Educator Reads” (listen live Wednesdays at 7:30pm ET), and I was eager to get reading.

I tucked my headphones into my ears and queued up my podcasts. I was finishing up Episode 147,  “Why White Students Need Multicultural and Social Justice Education” where Jennifer Gonzalez interviews Dr. Sheldon Eakins Cult of Pedagogy podcast. I love her podcast in general, and this episode had already given me some food for thought. When this one finished, I already had Brene Brown’s interview with Austin Channing Brown from her podcast Unlocking Us

The day was warm and sunny, and I relished taking a break when I needed one rather than living by the dictates of the school bell. I meandered out of my (rich, largely white) neighbourhood and into the next (richer and possibly whiter), pausing to take pictures of flowers and giving friendly nods to many people. I noticed some Black Lives Matter signs stuck to various poles and a few chalked sidewalks reading, End White Silence and other slogans. “Wow!” I thought,  impressed to see these in this neighbourhood. That’s great! If someone had stopped me on the street, shoved a microphone in my face and said, “Tell us, how are you feeling right now?” I probably would have said “content.”

I probably would not have said “self-congratulatory” or “complacent” but… the virtue signaling is everywhere: “local independent bookstore,” the book title, the podcast, the book title, the other podcast, and the other one. No one reading this doesn’t know exactly what kind of white woman I am.

As I neared the bookstore, I noticed a gray-haired white woman putting a sign up on a telephone pole. Her body was pressed against the pole, as she held a sign in one hand and tried to unfurl the wrapping tape with the other. It wasn’t working. She moved her hand and I saw the words: Black Lives Matter. Pleased to be part of this, I crossed the street and offered to help. “Thanks,” she muttered, not looking at me, “It’s hard to get this tape to stick to the wood.”

At that moment, I recognized her. We had been friendly when our children were babies, spent some time together in a moms’ group and shared a few playdates. When I went back to work, she stayed home and eventually we lost touch. Actually, that’s not quite truthful. As I followed her on social media, I was overwhelmed by her activism on *everything.* I found her exhausting, even shrill, and I suspect she found me ridiculously naive. Her partner wrote angry opinion pieces in the local paper; she wrote screeds on Facebook. I finally unfollowed her when I realized that just seeing her name was making me anxious. She seemed angry at every injustice, and I couldn’t handle it.

She didn’t look at me as I held the paper – she was still fighting with the tape and had colored chalk under her arm – and I quickly turned my face away: I didn’t want her to recognize me. I couldn’t bear the thought of the conversation we might have. She got the tape to stick, I made some comment like “Good luck”  and walked away. Suddenly the Black Lives Matter signs all over the neighbourhood didn’t look so appealing. I found myself thinking, “It’s not even her neighbourhood,” though the truth is that I no longer know where she lives. 

I realized how sweaty I was. It was actually quite hot and the sun was really bright. Why did I decide to go out at midday? I wondered. I noticed more chalked sidewalks, more signs. My stomach clenched. I am NOT like her, I thought. I do not want to be like her. I kept walking towards the store as my mind churned.

What does it mean to be anti-racist? I am reading and listening and talking. I’ve read a lot already but I feel like my reading list gets longer daily. I am learning and learning and learning, but what am I doing? Should I, too, be putting up signs and chalking up sidewalks? Should I be shouting this from the rooftops? Should I be angry? 

One of my black students recently told me that her mom keeps her home when she’s really angry so that she doesn’t get into trouble. Angry black women get in trouble, get arrested, get mocked, get turned into memes. An angry black woman putting up Black Lives Matter signs in that neighbourhood, well… I actually don’t know what would happen because I can’t even imagine it. Maybe I should be using my white privilege to be more vocal, to put up signs and scream about this issue. Maybe when my old acquaintance wrote End White Silence she meant me. In fact, she probably did.

But that doesn’t feel right either. If I am to accuse myself of anything, I suspect that I am far more apt to be complaisant than complacent. I know I need to raise my voice, to be less fearful of others’ displeasure, but surely that doesn’t undo my efforts toward anti-racism. My thoughts are going in circles, and I find myself wanting to enumerate the “things I’m doing” as if to prove my anti-racism to… to whom? To myself? To her? No. That won’t do. My mind, relieved, jumps to vilify her: she *is* shrill; she *is*… what? Wrong? My thoughts circle again.

Then Ibram X. Kendi’s voice fills my ears – I had realized I wasn’t concentrating and switched to a podcast episode I’d already heard: “the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, is admission, is acknowledgment, is the willingness to be vulnerable.” This. This I can do. This is the heart of what I am trying to do with my students, how I try to de-center myself, to listen, to believe them. And when my students tell me about the racism they experience… ah, there’s my anger. I feel it now. The urgency I feel comes from their lives, their truths.

I am still walking. I can make myself vulnerable in my relationships with my colleagues, my friends and others, too. I can admit my mistakes and learn from them. I can be relentless. I can share what I learn, act on my beliefs. I can keep learning. My paradigm has shifted, and I can share that shift. There is space enough in anti-racism for her way and mine – there has to be – because in the end, we all need to be anti-racist.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for the space they create for so many voices.