Photo by Michael Henry via Unsplash.
It is the eve of Week 2: remote learning with my coteacher and 26 fourth graders. Week 1 of 2020 was more difficult than Week 1 of my first year teaching, 22 years ago, and believe me, that week was rough. There are so many reasons for this that I won't go into. If you are an educator, you don't need me to.
I am writing this for you, my educator friends who have not yet begun this year. This summer, many of us dealt with our own trauma, sickness, death of loved ones and acquaintances. We tried to imagine what to expect as our districts and schools were deciding how to do school. So many of us learned new tools, curated new resources, all to be prepared for what we had not yet done. It is what we do. We prepare. I get it.
And this is why I am compelled to tell you this now, after completing my first week. You know how they say that you can't really prepare for the SAT? Yes, I know there are prep classes, and this helps with format of questions, and general knowledge. BUT. Those prep classes are based on a bank of knowledge gleaned from those who have taken the test many times. Pandemic teaching Part II is a complete unknown. The test items are not predictable like the SAT. There is no format. At some point, you will have to draw upon all the knowledge you have obtained from many areas of your life. Some days were unending triage.
I have friends who are struggling with making the correct moral decision. Do they choose to teach remotely and care for their health? Or should they choose to teach in the building and tend to their students' needs? Should they keep their own children at home for their learning, knowing that other parents are not able to make this choice? Is it cheating to actually put yourself first if you are an educator? Is that in the handbook? Doesn't it conflict with the section called "Sacrifice Yourself At All Costs"?
Ready? Here is what I know.
You did not conspire to create these conditions. None of us did. While I know that you are busy looking for the right answer to your moral dilemmas, and the right platform and right tools, none exist. And that is not your fault. The first week may very well feel like an ER for which you were not trained. Yes, I know. It sucks.
You absolutely cannot hold yourself responsible for this. Please remember to forgive yourself continually. You will address each issue as it comes. That is your best. It will look different because your best is now limited by conditions you can not control.
I also know that while it is difficult, you will also get through it, because that is what we do. You will find the words you did not know you had, the expertise to troubleshoot unique situations, and the grace to extend to those who need it most. And you know what? You will receive that grace in spades. IN SPADES. Those around you will always remember what you did for them, all the effort you put into planning. Your families will see you. And it will be enough.
Remember this, please.
Photo by Carolyn V via Unsplash.
I have awesome friends.
It seems no matter how much I receive
In hugs from family
It doesn't last long enough
So much death
No one wants to discuss
They deny it will come to us
We are "strong" and pretend
But that is violence
The violence of silence
That we perform
On each other
And now the violence continues
This time in my own home
I feel it
Others feel it
It is worse than in March
There was so much time to prepare
The strongholds are much tighter now
We try to comfort each other
And phone calls
How can you give what you don't have?
Photo by Dave Adamson via Unsplash
Five months. Five glorious incredible months with my 21-year-old son home. This gregarious social butterfly was summoned home at the end of his Miami Spring Break. Hunkered down to resume virtual school work. With few distractions, he earned the best grades of his college career so far.
I couldn't have been happier. I got to see my son months earlier than I had thought, and without an internship that would take him out of the state. We spent a summer together, as he did not socialize nearly as much as normal. No job (UberEats was not worth the risk), but lots of video games, and of course faithful workouts.
We talked about so many things - social issues, education, politics, finance, religion, sex. He schooled me on the new spirits and we experimented with mixed libations. Mother and son, but also friends with deep history. We talked of risking your life for those you love, death, joy, advocating for yourself and others. And, I made sure he knew that his life has worth far more than a football player, that he had choices. He can walk away from anything. No judgment, no questions asked. And still, he chose to return to school.
He is an adult. I cannot dictate his moves. He must make his own decisions. As his mother, all I can do is love him enough to give him the best knowledge and wisdom I have. And I did. It is his life.
I can rest easy knowing that I left it all on the field.
Photo by Hannah Wei via Upslash.
The phone rings. It is late. The voice on the other end immediately apologizes for the hour, but there is something else. I hear the pain. Then silence. Then, the news that my friend has lost her mother. That like mine, succumbed to a long bout in the hospital. With her sister now also gone, I was the first call. She knew I would understand.
I did the only thing I knew to do. I cried, too. I helped with logistics, took care of whatever details she would entrust to me. And I did it happily. And wished I could do more. I loved her in ways that I did not know I could - because that is what you do when your friend loses their mother. The feeling of aloneness is vast and easy to get lost in. She would not be lost on my watch.
That was years ago, and I figured that this is simply what adulthood is now like. But then, my 21-year-old son got that call last week. In a pandemic. A college friend had lost his cousin unexpectedly. Someone who was as close to him as a brother. Sam described to me the wails of pain that came from his friend. He still remembers.
Tomorrow, Sam heads back to his college campus. In a pandemic. Although it is not my choice, what my daughter has taught me (from refusing to move from NYC in a pandemic) is that his childhood home is not his real home anymore. He is an adult, who was on loan to me for a time. He has done everything he needs to do to be healthy, and he needs to finish this last chapter of his life - finishing his senior year of college and two degrees. Right now, his home is in another state. After graduation it will likely be a different state. This is parenting. This is life.
I respect his need to care for his friend. I get it. He is me, just a better version. The way he loves is forever. A loyalty that seems more mature than his years. His bond to his friend was already deep, and now it is deepening. Soon it will be in person, despite my misgivings. After all, I think about him maintaining his health constantly.
But I also am reminded of every testimony I have. Every one that he has. We have been blessed and delivered from some dire circumstances. I will trust Him now, also.
Photo by Nick Fewings via Unsplash.
In four more weeks I will be in a building
That will not be disinfected with regularity
Not because of staff
My colleagues, families, and students will be in our building
No masks required
The collection of droplets in the air may be lethal for us
Especially when you consider how people have been living
But there is no consideration
We are teachers
We serve the children
We will just have to fill in the gaps, as usual
Buy thermometers to take temperatures
Buy cleaning products to disinfect classrooms
Wash hands frequently
Only one staff bathroom
Kids bathrooms run out of soap
And paper towels
Be a team player
But don't make colleagues social distance
Be a team player
Teach extra kids when colleagues are absent
Because there will be no subs
And my increased risk is not a concern
But we must have school!
Because babysitters are a must
Not because education is a must
No school is bad
I say: Why can't we do all virtual school?
They say: What about the businesses?
To which I respond:
Who will be left to patronize them?
Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash.
I refuse to believe that being concerned for my own safety is selfish. It is not. Being made to feel this way is nothing more than gaslighting. Since when is the overarching concern for human life unnecessary? Why does it have to be balanced?
I am a proud educator of children. I have found success in doing this in person, and recently, and to a lesser extent, through virtual means. Being an educator is part of my identity. It is my passion. However, I do not think my need to educate should supersede children's need to survive. I think that is selfish.
The way we have always done it - capitalism and a "booming economy" - this will have to be rethought. We simply can not have schooling used as babysitting while parents work to fuel the economy. That model will not work in a pandemic. Perhaps this, too, is part of what we always knew, but is glaringly obvious now.
We must begin to care for each other. We really never have on a large scale.
Photo by Robin Benzrihem via Unsplash
You came into my space with no mask
Knowing you could infect me
Knowing that if I get sick I would die faster
Knowing that so many of us have lost loved ones
Because someone decided
That wearing a mask was
How nice it must be
To treat people as replaceable
You have no idea
What humans know
How humans behave
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Remember when this question was but an extension of a greeting - something said out of habit? We didn't always really want to know how someone was doing. We were quite content with the expected "Fine."
I've asked this question a lot since March 13. Actually, I have asked it constantly. Part of my coping strategy. Friends and family (and even not-friends) ask me all the time. It's nice to be asked. But you know what? It is taking me longer and longer to answer it.
Why? Because first of all, I am not fine. And even if I lied and said I was, it would be obvious that I was lying.
"How are you" alternatives:
Are you physically safe?
Are you healthy?
Are you in a space for a conversation?
Would you like me to just listen?
Did you sleep last night?
Do you have enough food?
Are you going to the protest?
Will you social distance?
Do you promise to be careful?
What time is your curfew?
Are you sure you can trust them?
Did you pack an emergency travel kit?
Can you stay on the phone with me and not talk?
Can you send bail money?
Will you use your body to protect mine?
Will you care for my loved ones if I don't survive?
What a difference a day makes.
Photo Credit: Mike Von via Unsplash
So we are in a pandemic. Most of the country is on some form of lockdown. Those who can work from home, are. Those who can't risk their own lives to survive, so that the rest of us can. Teachers are expected to continue to teach. Remotely. Assuming they are able - outfitted with technology, stable in their homes with parents who can stay home with them, healthy and with healthy caregivers. The world is expected to continue spinning until...
So, in the midst of trying to cope and establish normalcy, I spend time in emergency remote teaching during the day, fortunate to have stable employment and a safe work environment. My family is healthy. I am in virtual contact with many, and often. I enjoy escape as much as anyone, but am finding it impossible to pull off.
I reach for the familiar pursuits. I throw myself into antiracism. There certainly is no shortage of projects, since we are in a heightened state of things. It is a balance of speaking up and telling the truth and fighting feeling that the words are useless. After all, can I really afford the stress physically? Can I afford to expend energy that may need to be stored for literal survival?
Is this all there is? Just a count-down until the last day? Do my students feel it? That I am not okay? I am not used to this silence from them. They are way too polite. We are not talking about the thing we are most afraid of. It is not normal. When will it be normal? Would we recognize normal now if it presented itself?
Beginning on September 3, Tyrone Martinez-Black, Kelly Wickham Hurst, and I will be moderating a Twitter chat on the book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard written by Eve Ewing. The story of its conception follows, as well as other thoughts on my mind. It all starts with a math conference.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) is having their annual meeting in Chicago in 2020. In fact, this gathering is special, commemorating its centennial. As I attended my first annual meeting in 2019, I kept thinking about the next year's conference and its connections to history. I wondered about the organization's stories and anecdotes of the past. Specifically, I wondered if I would even be welcomed as a member a hundred years ago. I could not imagine I would.
Although I had this discussion with other members back in April, these wonderings still populate my thoughts. The concepts of equity, social justice and cultural responsiveness have made it to the fore of our American math world, yet the definitions are far from universal. Also not widely understood is how best to implement culturally responsive pedagogy or teach mathematics with social justice in mind. Yet, these pedagogical moves are not new. How did we get here? Or, how is it that we are still here?
Land acknowledgments now occur with more frequency in math spaces than they once did. These are acknowledgments that the lands we inhabit in these gatherings are stolen from indigenous peoples. Sometimes, it is a mere mention of this fact, other times, it is a more elaborate tribute, involving naming the nations in question and/or asking for their blessing. And yet, what seems to occur without much thought is the lack of deliberate place-based consideration that goes beyond a list of tourist attractions.
The more history I learn of my own people, and others from groups still marginalized, I am curious about stories of resistance. Did Black mathematicians have to fight to gain membership? How did they do this? What methods were effective? How hard has it been for marginalized mathematicians to make their way? How hard is it still? What I was yearning for is the place history, or as Tyrone has aptly named it, place value.
Chicago Place Value
With the NCTM centennial event being in Chicago, I couldn't help to be drawn to Ewing's 1919, a book of poetry, written about Red Summer. While researching her book, she stumbled upon a 1922 report that followed the hundreds of deaths during white supremacist attacks in several cities, including Chicago. Red Summer. A hundred years prior. A haunting coincidence. Again I wondered about how my identity as a mathematician would have been realized in that environment.
Eventually, I found myself tweeting about 1919 and wanting to read her other book to learn all I could about Chicago. If we were to inhabit this place, it made sense to me that we honor it by being as knowledgeable as possible about its history, especially its recent history, as it related to education. Tyrone, a Chicagoan tweeted back and offered to read along with me. Kelly, another Chicagoan, chimed in as well, and we found ourselves talking and planning. In no time, we had decided to create a Twitter chat so that all of us, not just those in math education, could benefit from the history that surely we hadn't before known.
To truly acknowledge a place, we must value its history, beauty, and struggles. What is it that still hides? Where are the ghosts? I am honored to learn from Tyrone and Kelly, who are making Chicago history. We live in a time when it is difficult to discuss racism openly, let alone its effects. Yet, the history must be faced, and the hard work of change must be done together, in community. We invite you on the journey with us.