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.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

 

 

He talks about me at home

Last week we had parent-teacher interviews. I don’t get much uptake on interviews, maybe because I have small classes, or maybe because many of my students – who are responsible for bringing home the information about how to sign up – are somewhat less than enthusiastic about their parents coming to school. This semester was no different: a handful of parents signed up; fewer showed up. It’s too bad, really, because I love parent-teacher interviews. I love meeting parents, talking about the class and their child. I love how as we talk we can become a team, cheering for a child to do well, looking for strategies to make that a reality. Mostly, parent teacher interviews are a good thing.

My favourite interview of the evening came when a mother showed up with all three of her students. Two of them are in my class, and I let them lead the first part of the discussion. One was quite forthcoming, the other, rightly, more sheepish about his work. Their mother looked on, amused. As the second boy stopped talking, she flashed me a full grin.

“He talks about you a lot at home,” she smiled.
“Mom,” he closed his eyes, fingertips on his eyelids, and shook his head.
“He can’t quite figure you out,” she continued, as he slid lower in his seat. “He’s always wondering what you’re up to.”

I gave him a sidelong glance. I thought he might actually turn himself invisible. Across the table, his brothers smirked.

“Oh yeah,” continued his mother, “he even wondered if maybe your partner is black. Apparently you teach a lot of black authors.”

I paused to take this all in. No one in my class has so much as mentioned my overt choices about which books I introduce. No one commented when we read picture books filled with stories of people with all different backgrounds as we started our memoirs. No one breathed a word when Jacqueline Woodson’s This is the Rope became a touchstone mentor text for that same assignment. No one has remarked that the authors whose videos we watch are almost all people of colour. No one has pointed out that I intentionally present diverse voices during book talks, that I often read own voices texts for first-chapter Fridays, that I presented Autumn Peltier alongside Greta Thunberg. If anything, when I mention that I am doing this, everyone looks away.

I had almost stopped. I have been wondering if maybe I am reacting to a problem that isn’t theirs. I’m a white female teacher. Many of my students are BIPOC boys. What do I know of their experience? Trayvon Martin was shot in another country seven years ago when they were only seven or eight years old. They don’t know the names Tamir Rice or Michael Brown. Heck, they can’t remember who ran for Prime Minister and that election just ended last week AND we talked about it in class. Their world is immediate in both time and place. They are 14. I had started to wonder if maybe my intentional move towards equity was more for me than for them.

And then I found myself sitting with three mixed-race students and their white mother. I heard the question in the statement, “He even wondered if your partner is black.”

“No,” I smiled, “he’s not. I really believe that our curriculum should be diverse. There are a lot of people with a lot to say, and we don’t always hear their voices.

We kept talking for a few minutes. I shared some of my story; she shared some of hers. The kids perked up a little and even joined the talk again.

The interview ended. My work with equity and diversity continues.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm