Just conversations

Yoga had ended and Melanie and I were waiting in the narrow hallway for our friend Pam to catch up to us. As other students came and went, their awkwardly shaped yoga mats slung over their shoulders, we tried to make space by flattening ourselves against the wall and then, when that didn’t work, moving away from the studio door and towards the exit. This maneuver was complicated by the custodian’s unfortunately placed cleaning cart. I sighed, waited for a break in the flow of people, and scooted around to the other side.

I leaned against the wall and realized that Melanie had not followed me. She was on the other side of the cart, chatting with the custodian. Snippets of their conversation floated down the hallway: “So far!” she exclaimed. He gestured and smiled, leaning towards her and saying something quietly. “Well, I hope it goes well for you.” Melanie nodded. Then Pam appeared, Melanie said goodbye, the custodian flashed a smile at all three of us, and off we went.

The whole exchange was fleeting – maybe 30 seconds – and, in many ways, it was no big deal. Except for this: I literally had not seen the custodian until Melanie talked to him. And not because he wasn’t there. He was. I had registered his cart more fully than his person. I had been more aware of the obstacle his work presented to my progress than I was to his physical presence as a human being.

I was humbled. Oh, I know that I am not a bad person. Sometimes – often! – I am a person who notices people, who acknowledges them and talks to them but, on this day, if Melanie hadn’t paused to chat, this man would have been entirely invisible to me. To make matters worse, he was a person of colour engaged in cleaning an area that was largely used by white people. And I had not seen him at all. I wonder how many others I have missed entirely?

Melanie and I have started a podcast called “Just Conversations” about our journey to become antiracist educators; we just put out our first episode. If I felt vulnerable starting this blog a year and a half ago, I feel vulnerable all over again talking about my teaching practice and all the things I need to learn about equity and inclusion and racism and more. This moment in the hallway screamed at me: “What right do you have to talk about this? You didn’t even see him.” But I can’t do better if I don’t try. I can’t do better if I don’t turn and see what others are doing. I can’t do better if I don’t even know what I don’t know.

I haven’t told Melanie about the moment I witnessed – she’ll read about it here first – but I’ve been thinking about it. She and I have been thinking and talking about racism and equity for a while now; she won’t begrudge me either what I saw or what I didn’t see. We’re good partners for this journey. I’m lucky to be talking, reflecting and learning with someone who can see things I cannot and do so without judgment. May I offer her the same.

And, if you’re up for adding another podcast to your queue, here’s our first one. In it, we ask the question How do we handle challenging conversations with students who come from a position of privilege? We talk about a classroom lesson on cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes; some of the white students seemed to miss the point. Then we have to wrestle with what to do. Kind of like I need to do on a regular basis.

 

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23 thoughts on “Just conversations

  1. Your bravery and honesty is not only admirable but inspiring. We have to always be reflecting, seeing, and trying to Do and be better…it’s a journey worthy of constant conversation. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. I’ll listen to your podcast later today on my way home. LOVE that you are doing this and sharing the missteps along the way. You are brave and reflective and honest, and thank you for making the world a kinder place and inspiring us to all try to do the same.

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  3. I’m at a loss for words that you noticed this and honoured that you chose to write about it, Amanda. You are such a great partner for this journey because of your dogged relentless persistence in pedagogy and life. I am better because of us.

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  4. We’ve been doing a lot of thinking around the same issues at TWT. When we know better, we do better. Taking the time to reflect, in an effort to consistently do better, is what we’re striving for.
    I have never been a podcast person, but perhaps I need try them. I’d love to hear what you and Melanie have to say.

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    1. I only recently got into podcasts myself, so this is a real leap for me. Still, a chance to have in-depth conversations with a colleague I admire is hard to pass up. It’s a favourite way for me to reflect.

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  5. I love podcasts, so I will add yours to my queue. You’re brave to launch into this topic. I would love to choose a book on this topic for our adult book club (not educators, just friends). What would you recommend?

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  6. I’m amazed at your bravery to 1) admit this, and 2) create a podcast. After my experience with the custodian at our school dying, I’ve become so much more conscious of noticing them. I called Angelle by name this morning. She hadn’t noticed me first. To me, this was a move in the right direction.

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    1. The hardest part about noticing this moment was the blow to my own sense of self: I know all the custodians at my school and I think of myself as “someone who sees people.” Realizing that this vision of myself is more complex than that was tough.

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  7. You are an inspiration, Amanda. I admire your honesty and determination to do better. Your piece is beautifully written to support your experience and reflections. “I had been more aware of the obstacle his work presented to my progress than I was to his physical presence as a human being.” I wonder how often I do this, and will certainly be paying more attention. I’ll also be listening to your podcast. Last month in my writing group’s poetry challenge, we were supposed to pick a mentor author and write a piece inspired them. Although, in the end, I went in a different direction, I seriously considered using your writing. I think now I’m going to consider you my mentor in how to be a better human, too. Thank you so much for your honest sharing and striving.

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