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.

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.