Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Turning Their Backs on Justice

If the police want to turn their backs on NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio, that's their prerogative. They are citizens and have the right to make a political stand, even on their jobs. To assail that right is to assail the 1st amendment rights of all workers. Unlike the military, they have a union that can sound the alarm when something is wrong in the system. In this way, the political expression of police is deeply tied to the health of our democracy. And that's why the stand that many in the political leadership of police unions have chosen to make has been both disappointing and unsurprising. 

Talkingpointsmemo.com has an interesting article about the reactions of police unions to widespread police brutality protests. The article notes that police are feeling under threat and their political leadership is more aggressively answering their critics. The back-turning on DeBlasio is the most high profile, but before that Gabe Crocker, president of the St. Louis County police association, was publicly demanding "discipline" for what he deemed the "misconduct" of Saint Louis Rams players who protested with a Hands Up salute before a game.
Note to Rams Players: Hands up only denotes innocence
when you're catching a football. For a touchdown.
The article talks about the shift in philosophy in law enforcement after 9/11, that went away from community policing to counter terrorism and how it lead to a deterioration in community relations. Charles Wilson, national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, puts it this way:
"People just don't think the system is working fairly for them. In some respects, I have to tell them, 'No, it's not,'" he said. "The basics of community policing are still the same. You have to understand the people in the community. You have to be able to gain their trust and respect.
Now that's a start. We need police union bosses to make more speeches about the ways that the integrity of police work has been undermined by the prison industrial complex: how officers are encouraged, and sometimes required, to put as many black men in jail as possible, no matter their innocence or guilt; how decades of corrosive drug policy has snatched whole generations of black lives, either on street corners or behind bars;  how some municipalities use the court system as a fundraising enterprise, ensnaring poor communities in a web of exorbitant fees for tickets and court services; how police lives are endangered to enrich the lives of white collar criminals on both sides of the law. Give that speech and I'll burn all my hoodies, remove Chief Keef from my spotify, and give out free belts to all the children with the lowly pants. Ha-lle-lu-jah.

Instead, they want to talk about respecting the law. They want to talk about accountability. They want to talk about "impoverished culture." They want to restrain us with bootstraps and Cosby sweaters.

Cos Conspiracy Note: Cos is no conspiracy victim. If ever the people who conspiritate
needed his pudding pops and victim blaming, they need it now. Don Lemon ain't cutting it.
One of the main dilemmas that police as a political force have is a simple equation that hasn't changed much since this country was a tiny Slavecom startup: demand for police is proportional to White fear of Black men. There are whole libraries with laws designed to imprison black bodies. And there's a job, with a badge and a gun, for each of those laws.

Slavery Note: Amendment 13 doesn't ban slavery, it bars
involuntary servitude "except as punishment for crime". 
It's no slander to police at large to point out this connection. In its most humane form, police work, whether it's in America or Europe or Africa or Asia or wherever, ensures that justice and the rights of the afflicted are protected. We are, quite simply, how we police. The people who are willing to take up this responsibility, people of moral conscience and humanity, should be honored for their sacrifice. They tend to us in our most human, and inhuman, moments. They can restore a sense of order and hope to shattered lives. The problem is that the inherent injustice of the system makes it so hard to act morally, especially when such action threatens political capital.

It would also be hypocritical as a teacher to deny the connection my profession has to the justice system. Teachers can pretend like we don't see the prison pipeline awaiting our students at the door, but it's there. Ask a prisoner where they learned their first lessons about systemic brutality and they'll probably direct you to an elementary school classroom.
Illustration: Seth Tobacman
And that's one of the reasons that it's so important to have organized teaching labor that has the opportunity to have a voice, even if that voice has been compromised by self-interested politics at times. Think what you want about Chicago's teacher strike a couple years ago, but who else was willing and able to put the corporate takeover of our school system on blast? Who else but Karen Lewis was calling out the inherent racism in the setup? Teacher's unions are far from perfect, but who else is going to be left to speak on behalf of poor children of color once they're gone? 

And that goes the same for police. Teachers have to defend ourselves from critics who say that we care more about our salaries than reforming the educational system that inequitably serves the children in our care. In order to have any credibility within the communities they work, police have to show they are advocates in reforming a racist justice system designed to destroy the lives of poor people of color. It's a tall order, that flies in the face of entrenched economic and political interest, but anything less is criminal.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rain poured like a mirror of heaven: The Writing of Don Belton

Ross Gay got me thinking more about Don Belton lately. It takes some digging to find actual words from the man. But those words.

You should do yourself a favor and read his story, The Pentacostal Bridegroom that was published in Indiana Review back in the day. The story of a preacher who attempts to deliver herself through faith from the cancer that consumes her thoughts. 
Odessa lay in bed awake. Mr. Deal lay beside her hard asleep. The time was soon for the sun to rise. She moved to the edge of the bed and sat, her feet moving to find her slippers on the floor. She murmured as she rose in the dark, “Good morning, Father Jesus.” Then she hissed at the Devil, “Satan, you can’t have my life today.”
Her fo
otsteps cracked against the wood of the ragged floor. Odessa was lean and tall with hair that lay like smoke around her head, shoulders and back. She came and sat at the dressing table, turning on the kerosene lamp.
“Ride on, King Jesus.”
She braided her ferocious shock of hair into three braids, then folded and pinned the braids together at the top of her head. Inserting the last hairpin, her fingers stopped, and she stared at her image in the dressing table mirror.
When Odessa watched her face in the mirror, she did not see herself as others might see her: a once-radiant girl turning mysteriously attractive in age. To her, the face in the mirror was nothing more or less than a hallmark of her covenant with God. God had promised to fortify her life and keep her in health and grace. Each hair on her head was numbered. God had numbered every one of her bones.
The story is Beautiful, in the classic sense. It enters the world of its characters and illuminates their goodness. Belton well knew that the we perceived goodness, the more aware we could perceive beauty, which is our only real hope. The story feels like a sermon, but only in the ways that make you feel cared for. 

Belton had an essay called Voodoo for Charles that was featured in the anthology he edited, called Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream. The essay hinges on the moment when Belton's nephew, Charles, called him to let his uncle know he was on the run for attempted murder. Belton, as a disciple of Baldwin, is a master of metaphoric, authentic, powerful image that serves Beauty and shatters on the same line. In the essay there is a moment where Belton describes him and his older brother being caught in a rain storm when they were kids. 
The following is one of my earliest memories. It emanates from both my memory and my imagination. It is literally true, however, in terms of the organic infrastructure informing my life, it has the quality of supertruth. Once, when I was four and staying in Philadelphia for the summer, my brother and I were walking home from Sunday school. The afternoon was sultry-hot. We were in no hurry to get home. I held his hand, as I always did when we walked down the street together, and he swung our arms in a jovial way. Soon we heard thunder and saw the zig-zag lightning. The swinging of my arm slowed. As we walked, we were caught in the downpour.
The rain pounded so hard it hurt my small body. I had never been outside in weather like that, away from home, in the street, without my mother or my father. All I had was my brother to protect me. He was lanky, athletic, almost as tall as my father. We began to run. The rain poured like a mirror of heaven. My brother held my hand tight. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and I began to scream and cry.
I stopped running, and my brother stopped. I couldn't move. I was too terrified. I believed I would die. God was angry. He was tearing up the world and washing it away. I fully realize now what I only realized then in part, that my brave fourteen-year-old brother was terrified too. But he said, "It's all right. I'm with you. I'll get you home." This vow was punctuated by a burst of thunder so loud it threatened to crack open the street before us. My brother took me and ran first in one direction and then another. We rushed along the flowing curb. Then we were standing near a tree. We had reached the elementary school building two blocks from our house.
"We're almost there," my brother shouted over the ringing wind. "Do you want me to carry you?"
"No," I said, "I'm scared."
"All right," he told me. "We'll rest for a little while."
We ran from the tree to the awning leading into the school building.
As soon as we came up against the closed glass entrance, there was a big burst of lightning. For an instant the world went white. The skin of my neck and arms tingled. We held each other. I felt his heart leaping just above my head, but he held me, and I didn't cry. We stood there holding each other until the rain slowed. Then we walked home in silence.
My father was sitting in the living room, reading the newspaper. My mother came out from the kitchen. I was excited. I wanted to tell them how my brother had saved me from the storm and brought me home safe like he promised. "You better take off those wet things," my mother said immediately. "Go on upstairs." As we turned on the stairs, my father said my brother should leave his clothes off when he removed the wet things and remain upstairs in the bathroom. He said that he'd received a call from church, that Wayne had stolen money from the Sunday school collection. My father had also found money missing from the coin collection he kept hidden in our basement. He was going to whip my brother.
The terror I'd felt in the storm returned. My father was a strong but soft-spoken man. I waited in the bathroom with my brother until our father came in with the piece of ironing cord. Wayne and I had been sitting on the rim of the bathtub. He was naked except for his blue jockey shorts. I had dressed myself in my Daniel Boone outfit. I held my brother's hands, telling him not to worry. His saffron body was still marked from the last beating he'd received from our father that summer.
Our father put me out, but I turned and stood at the door. I could see him through the slightly opened door, lashing my brother's legs and back with the cord. At first Wayne fought back and my father lost his balance for a moment near the sink. He righted himself and bore down on my brother, muttering and striking him, lashing him into the floor with the ironing cord. I ran downstairs to my mother in the kitchen. I told her to call the police. I said Daddy was killing Wayne. She did not move. Had she ceased to be our mother? It was a long time that we stood in the kitchen, listening to the lashing and crying upstairs before she said flatly, "He's got to learn. Your father is beating him because he loves him. He's beating him so the police won't have to."
Goddamn we lost a great writer, a great man.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Teaching While Awed

It's been a couple of weeks since I wrote about grading papers and I've been thinking a lot about one of the most important experiences I left out when reading student work: Awe.

In Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach, he talks about how important awe is to good teaching. Awe is about witnessing, not dissecting. Awe is not about grading, but appreciating.

A teacher needs to have a sense of awe for their subject, meaning recognizing that something within your area of study is greater and far more encompassing than the limits of your comprehension. We are drawn to that large weighty thing in the same way we're drawn to this huge spinning rock in the middle of the universe. Awe gives gravity to our teaching.

(Side note: children, who have not been robbed of their innocence, are deeply in touch with their sense of awe--and that's why they are the best students.)

So, I have to stay in touch with the staggering and humbling feeling that I've only scratched the surface in my understanding of the literature that I present to students. I could teach a book like Fahrenheit 451 a thousand times and still not feel like I've found everything there is to appreciate. I have to feel like I have a lot to learn, not because I'm so ignorant, but because the material is so great. And when I stop feeling that, maybe I shouldn't teach it. And maybe I should change professions, too.

But that's not the only type of awe that's vital. I also need to allow myself time and space to be awed by the children I teach. That means that after completing all of the "work" of grading and responding and entering and conducting the "business" of teaching, I have to set aside time to appreciate the beauty in the writing of my students.

This type of beauty ain't always easy to see, but in order for me to really know my students, I have to be observant and present enough to be awed by them. I have to recognize some essential good thing in their work that connects to some essential good thing in the material we're exploring in class. If I can't see a connection, I'm not the teacher to help them discern the connection themselves, and the class will be a waste of time.

But if I am able to help them connect their goodness, there are few things more powerful than a classroom glowing with the awe of true learning. Yup.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The 5 Stages of Grading

Another winter break is drawing to a close, and this is the time when I get most misty-eyed about my life as a teacher. A time for reflection on the beauty and majesty of the profession I've been called to.

It's also the time when I've got a lot of grading to do. The kids cheered when I said I wasn't going to give homework, and I felt good for them. But with the school bell echoing in my ear, and the students sprinting off towards their break, I started to enter my stages of grading.

Step 1: Denial and Isolation

Looking at your inbox stacked high with papers needing to be graded, you'll look at them, take a deep breath and mouthfart something about a teacher's work never being done. Besides, grading all of your students projects at once couldn't be that difficult. It might even be fun. You grin through your lying teeth and isolate yourself from the papers.

If you live alone, you drop them heavily in your empty house, giving added pathos to your Ikea coffee table. If you have a family, you drop them heavily on the dining room table or some other very public place. Everyone should know about all the fun you're going to have grading awesome awesome papers at home instead of relaxing.

So yeah, you're feeling a little confrontational. And that's why it's a good thing that you just want to isolate yourself. Any conversation you have with a member of your family is going to involve that cue of student essays. No one wants to be around you because you're denial is wearing off. You stink of resentment. You are starting to realize that you are going to spend hours and hours grading. The suck.

Step 2: Anger

Now you're starting to get pissed off. You sit down to see what the papers look like and you are angry. How dare you have to spend all this time reading the thoughts of these pipsqueaks, these ne'er d'wells, these cusses! What they need is for you to go Joe Clark on them! And so what, almost all of them completed it! They didn't do it good enough! And that's because they weren't paying attention in class and didn't take the learning seriously! You're so angry that it starts to feel good. 

Step 3: Bargaining

Well, perhaps things are not that bad, you think. Perhaps there's a way to keep the whole class from failing with their terrible, terrible papers. Perhaps there are a complex series of algorithms that will help drag them up from the depths to which they have fallen. You start looking at the grades and seeing what happens if you increase the value of the signed syllabus assignment to 1000 points.

But looking at your students in this way makes you feel unlike yourself.  You've become a pencil pusher. An accountant. A box checker. You're Ben Stein reading the roll. Beueller. Beueller. Beueller. You feel like a phony.

Step 4: Depression

You are a goddamn phony. This whole time, you thought you could teach, but instead you're just really good at sucking. And look what you've done. You've gone ahead and warped the minds of scores of children. You haven't been teaching them anything, and on top of that, anything they did learn, they learned it wrong. Their minds will be forever misaligned like stripped screws. Ruined by a charlatan.

This is the point where whatever coping mechanisms you've developed over your lifetime start to kick in. Whether it's your family or your religion or your cat, or even a 1/2 gallon of ice cream, you're going to need them. Teaching clarifies the soul, it doesn't tend it. Not in this context anyway. You need a way to renew yourself to be effective. And more importantly to be human. So handle that.

Step 5: Acceptance

You're buoyed by the positive lift you got from your renewal source. You pull out the papers and you take things from a different approach. Flipping through the papers, you stop seeing them as a mass of work, further documentation of your horrible teaching. Instead, you listen to the voices behind them. You read them with the ear of someone who is actually trying to hear what the author is saying, instead of just waiting for the right moment to interject a critical remark. Even in the most garbled writing, if you listen closely, you can hear the voice that wants to be heard.

Hopefully as you hear the child's voice, you don't let yourself get sucked into your comfortable role as evaluator. If you do, you'll probably go all the way back to Step 2. But if you can, just pull back for a minute and realize that the world of this child is bigger than you could ever imagine. Your class, your teaching, occupies space, but you are just one of many teachers. Your job is not to judge who they are as people, but help them be qualified to judge it for themselves. 

But, you also have to assign a grade to the daggone things. In the end, the integrity of the learning requires transparency. A kid deserves to know where they stand, no matter the education they've received. The barber should not hesitate with the mirror. So, you grade them and make as many helpful comments as you can. Re-articulate the objectives for the assignment, and just as importantly, find something in their thinking to praise. Even if it takes a while.

Finally, you will need to frame the experience for your students. After they get their papers back, they need to hear what you heard in their work and how that will affect the learning from here on out. All of this takes time.Time you don't have because you got so good at Step 5, and its resultant insight, that you thought it best to write about grading the assignment, instead of grading the actual assignment.

You might say that's a new level of Stage 1 Denial, but we all know a teacher's work is never done.