Let’s talk about race

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As I was walking towards the VP’s office today, I passed a student putting up a mural. I teach at an Arts magnet school, and every Spring sees another round of grade 12 students painting over wall space and creating a mural as part of their final Visual Arts project. It’s one of my favourite times of year, and I’ve been thinking about writing about it – I have loads of great pictures to share. But when I walked by Mankaasha Umba quietly hanging one gel print after another, mug shot after mug shot, my breath stopped in my chest.

Mankaasha was carefully displaying her critique of our racism in the hallway right by the VP’s office.

I don’t know her at all, but I stopped to say thanks. “This is just what we need. Can you tell me about it?” Oh yes, she could. These are pictures of her brother, a fourth year university student who plans to continue school and work in cancer research. This is not how she sees her brother, but it is how too many others perceive him.

She and I chatted for probably 10 minutes. We talked about racism in the school and in the world. We talked about perception: how when I talk about racism, I am “passionate” but if she brings it up she is “angry;” how her brother had been followed home by police officers who were “just making sure” he wasn’t loitering; how even in this day and age, she’s had English teachers in our school teach books with the “n-word” but  not even bother to discuss it. We talked about how she struggles more with the subtle racism of the every day than the overt racism of the special occasion. She said, “Go ahead and call me any name you want, I can handle that. But I don’t know how to fight what people never even say.”

She talked about how frustrated she gets because White teachers don’t want to talk about race for fear of making mistakes. She said, “other people have a voice, too. I don’t need to be the one calling this out all the time.” I admitted to being scared sometimes – even in our conversation – that I will say the wrong thing, but I’ve decided that the discussion is too important to avoid. She talked about how Black people have no choice but to talk about it whereas White people get to decide whether or not to engage. We talked about #BlackLivesMatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and Jason Reynolds and Miles Morales and so much more. Finally I asked her if I could write about this and she said yes.

While we talked, people passed by and stopped. And stopped. And stopped. “Yes,” they said. “Yes.”

“This is great,” they said. “Amazing.”

I think Mankaasha has just changed our school. I am so damn impressed I can hardly stand it. These kids, they are going to change the world. It gives me shivers to think about it. Mankaasha, thanks for starting the conversation.

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Funke inspiration

While the woman now on the stage had a magnetism that had drawn our eyes to her even when she had been over in the shadowy corner, I was, to be honest, a little nervous.

img_8730After all, I had take half of a personal day and pulled my children out of school for this. And not every author is a great speaker. But the kids had begged. “Please,” said Eric, turning his big brown eyes on me, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” His brother, more self-possessed, simply added, “I really really want to go.” 

So I had bought tickets to see Cornelia Funke, author of the Dragon Rider and Inkheart series (among others), in the middle of the day on a Monday.

I need not have worried. Cornelia Funke was, frankly, amazing. Relaxed and funny, she filled the room, putting the young moderator at ease, telling us stories, opening her writer’s notebook for the next Dragonrider book to let us see her sketches, her playfulness. I thought Eric might fall out of his seat with excitement when she opened the notebook to show us a giant jellyfish she had drawn. Thomas craned his neck to see what else she had taped into those exciting pages. And then she read to us. Her hands moved, her eyes twinkled, her eyebrows raised and “she even did the voices!”

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The room was full of mostly adults and some teenagers, but Funke was keenly aware of my two boys and one other little girl, all seated in the front row. The little girl asked the first question during the Q & A and Funke complimented her, “What a great question! No one has ever asked me that before.” Afterwards, when we talked to her as she signed books, my boys were a little shy, but they warmed up enough to tell her about the sand sculptures they built during our winter vacation – sculptures of the characters from The Griffin’s Feather. They made me show her on my phone. Delighted, she gave them an email address and told them to send them to her so she could put them on the website.

As we left, Thomas said, “I’m so glad we went. She was… inspiring. It’s like I want to draw and write more just from listening to her.” Me too, as it turns out. Me too.

 

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https://twowritingteachers.org