Dear Shea,

Once we got to the point where we could publish your piece, I was pleased, relieved, proud. The sentences had become familiar to me and there were passages that lingered in my mind hours after I had last read them. And I told myself, this is Shea’s story. This story of bearing burdens, of carrying heavy loads most often for others, that’s their story.

Well, we published the piece and I went to bed. Of course I stayed up later than I intended. I went to bed tired and woke up almost the same way. I know there is a better way, but I’m not pursuing that right now. I’m not.

I teach Physical Education. I rely on my body to tell stories that children will understand and follow. I paint the movements I just described with words so my kids can see what it is I want them to try. I walk up and down lots of stairs in a day. Depending on the lesson plans, I may end up performing any number of stunts including cartwheels, handstands, or squat jumps. And yet most of my class time is spent moderating, guiding, correcting, comforting, cautioning. My classes are full of movement, words, expression, music – they are loud and busy affairs.

When I woke up tired (again) this morning, I remembered your piece. About burros, about being a strong Black woman bearing loads proudly and without complaint. Until of course, you learned different. That you cannot bear the weight of the world without attending to yourself, to your own needs for rest and recovery and all the things that belong to keeping yourself well. I told myself, that’s Shea’s story.

Until it dawned on me that I am doing a lot of the same things, not to the same level of selflessness, mind you, but apparently more than I can bear well. The more public I become in my personal disclosures, the more thinly spread I feel. An avid communicator, I like to talk and listen and dialogue and share. But 200 or 50 or 3000 to one is not serving me especially well, I fear. I’ve become one more megaphone among many. And even if I believe that I am using that megaphone for good – good people and good things, I am losing things in the process.

It probably begins with sleep. I certainly need more of it than I am getting. Less time in front of a screen would make sense. Fewer simultaneous projects, less multitasking, more time off, time away; more recovery.

I stay up writing because I want to be a good responder. To show people I care, I’m here, I’m thinking alongside you. Putting my thoughts on the screen can seem like a relief but perhaps that’s merely a mirage. Those same words could just as easily find space in one of several journals I have handy, right?  But those are the words that stay private, that have no audience, that garner no further attention.

Yeah, so I’m wrestling with this tension between being in multiple places at once and ideally with the same level of care and authenticity in each space. And now I am spent. Your writing helped me see it because I really didn’t want to look too closely. Although I’m still standing, still climbing stairs, running down the halls, running to the store, my days at full steam are numbered. I need to put rest higher up on the agenda and let it stay there for a bit. The world will not fall apart if I take my foot off the gas for a minute. Everyone will have more than enough to read and process without me tossing more words on the pile day after day.

I hope I can learn to step back before I get knocked back the hard way. Thank you for helping me to see myself in a way that I needed but didn’t necessarily want. Honesty stings sometimes. This is one of those times.

Healing with you,

Sherri

*in response to “a burro learns to breathe” by Shea Martin

Reading “Same As It Never Was” by Gregory Michie

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Dear Gregory,

I had been on the lookout for your book to land in my mailbox and when it finally arrived on Halloween it felt like a real gift! I, of course, dug in immediately.

I started yesterday evening and finished this morning. I read with pencil in hand, underlining as I went, nodding in so many spots, feeling your pain while at the same time acknowledging my distance from the conditions and circumstances you describe. Like you, I read a lot, and teacher narratives that grab me the way yours did are few and far between in my experience. You are fully real on every single page and I didn’t know how much I needed that.

Early on you talk about offering your students mirrors and windows in their reading diet and also how you encouraged them to begin using this frame by first analyzing images. Perhaps it was the way you walked me, as a reader and teacher of a very different subject, through your process, but something in your presentation got me closer to thinking about mirrors and windows for myself. So once I finished and began looking at my notes in the margins I drew up this list:

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Of course there are several points where you provide me a mirror, yet the most captivating aspects in reading Same As It Never Was lay in the windows you provided: the many exchanges with students and colleagues, the truth telling about systems, the careful sharing of your students’ perspectives – for these I feel deeply grateful. I’ve never taught in (or attended) a public school, my teaching career has been spent primarily in a well appointed international school among a largely European and white North American faculty and student body. That said, I am the daughter of a public school educator and a Black woman. I live in the distance and my history is bound up in the inequities of a racialized American society.

You tell one story of an 8th grader who poses a remarkable question: “How does hope unfold?” Like you I am struck by the power and depth of the query itself, the way it turns hope into a process rather than a mythical object we can hope to attain. It made me think of how often authors of color are asked to reveal where they find or seek hope, only to find themselves in that familiar trap of appeasing a mostly white audience with a kind of balm or actually telling the truth. The notion of hope as something in which we as individuals and communities have agency, can build and sustain, emerges as a welcome perspective shift. In several instances you allow the brilliance and generosity of your students to take center stage, to shine and warm. As a reader and fellow educator, I dream of adding to that unfolding of hope, even when; especially when it seems a very hard endeavor.

There are several instances when you voice disappointments and faults in things you did or said. You are deeply critical of yourself and do not shy away from naming your mistakes. Even if we as educators can usually afford to grant ourselves a little more grace, I benefited from your mistakes mainly because you showed us your work. You put on paper what you learned and did (or will do) differently. We see that despite the years of experience, doubt still exists, reservations are never entirely absent. That seems important in a stirring teacher narrative. We encounter you as entirely human, as someone capable of misjudgment, reflection and who also corrects himself. Publicly, in front of students.

I really want teachers to read your story and see how much potential there is for change, growth, recovery and also joy in this field we’ve chosen. Our kids deserve so much better than what we are delivering. The “OK, boomer” sentiment makes perfect sense to me. Our young people are not wrong. They are getting the short end of every stick we extend to them. Being with them and for them in these years of crumbling democratic institutions is among the most important work we can do.

I am humbled by your example and believe we all have so much to learn from you, your students and colleagues. Thank you for putting your community’s stories in my path. I am changed for having read them.

In gratitude,

Sherri

 

Gregory Michie, Same As It Never Was: Notes on a Teacher’s Return to the Classroom, New York, Teachers College Press 2019.

 

 

The Day After: A Reckoning

I shared:

I was happy to disclose the positive result after the fact. Now it’s the day after and I’m wondering.

My learning

I’m still OK although running this distance untrained was punishing for my joints, especially my knees.

I would actively discourage my friends of a similar age from doing any such thing.

Nevertheless, I signed up (without telling anyone) because I think I know my body. We have a long history together, have even run this course several times in the last 25 years. And while I know I’m not in “running shape”, I know that I have remarkable fitness reservoirs – considerable leg and upper body strength, well tuned joint and muscle flexibility, plus a baseline cardiovascular fitness level that is highly adaptable. I also went into this race with years of experience. I knew how to pace myself for a safe return, how to build in recovery during the race and also let go of any other expectations beyond completing the course in good health.

That’s important. At almost 54, with two knee operations behind me and a job which requires substantial physical investment, I could not run “as if there were no tomorrow.” On the contrary, I ran precisely with tomorrow and the next day and the day after that in mind. I took it slow from the outset. I paid attention to my limbs letting me know if something was amiss. I let myself speedwalk with a smile in some spots, or jog backwards downhill to relieve pressure on my knees. All of these techniques worked.

The final 4 kilometers are a steady downhill in familiar territory. I was able to run the last bit with surprising energy. As I got closer to the finish I was reminded of the hundreds of training runs I had done on this same stretch over the years. I let those layers of muscle memory carry me through the finish line.

 

My body

issued a few murmurs of regret this morning, especially my knees.

My knees and I went for a neighborhood walk up through the vineyards and back down past the posh houses and apartment buildings. The left knee wore a brace and both were forgiving since I wasn’t making extraordinary demands like yesterday.

I may keep the brace for a couple of days just as a comfort measure. I owe my knee that much courtesy.

The rest of me appears to be fine. I never struggled to catch my breath yesterday. Slow and steady didn’t win the race but it did return me to my car safely.

My ambition

grows contextually explicit.

My husband runs long distances more regularly. I don’t envy his training rhythm as much as I might. I had my time in the competitive limelight of middle and long distance running. I won’t be back. Knowing this is a help and relief. It leaves me open to surprise myself at will.

My ambition now consists of outrunning the menaces one comes to expect in middle age: the prospect of disease in one form or another. Not even the healthiest lifestyles are immune to disruption by illness. I think of this often when I choose to spend time writing on my laptop rather than hitting the trails for a hike, bike or other outdoor exertion. It’s not that it has to be either or. My point lies in acknowledging the scope and efficacy of my efforts wherever I apply them. Like my peers, I have no guarantees or significantly better prospects of a longer than average life.

I do have a body that mostly still cooperates with whatever I am asking it to do. That constitutes a blessing in every sense of the word. My ambition becomes one of seeking agreement with my body and its blessings. Satisfying needs, curiosity, and even spontaneous wants – my body, mind and heart are in constant negotiation with each other. Middle age seems a season built for keeping such negotiations as positive and mutually beneficial as possible.

That may be what I wanted to achieve by participating in an event for which I had not specifically prepared and yet could hardly have arrived better prepared to enjoy the experience the way that I did.

Differences

Choosing alone as a feature not a bug. I didn’t ask anyone to join me. I did not recognize any other runners as in the past. I spent most of the time pleasantly on my own while moving along. I appreciated the space to be alone in a dispersed mass.

My inner dialogue during the run was much gentler, forgiving and encouraging than in my competitive days. What a glorious discovery to make!

Given the time without other commitments (son & husband away for the weekend), it was a pleasure to challenge and surprise myself almost secretly. (I only shared the outcome with my husband hours later.) Maybe it’s a guarded selfishness, a way of preserving dignity in the event that the outcome is not so rosy. I’m not sure but I will say that I derived an odd satisfaction at revealing an unexpected morsel of news about my accomplishment.

Truth

I’m moving a bit slowly today and need sufficient warm-up to walk smoothly. That said, I am curious to see where my curiosity may strike next.

It rained and I did not melt.

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Once it’s done

Once this book is done…

Once this conference is over…

Once this school year is past…

Once I get over this illness…

Once that bill becomes a law…

Once that child is out of diapers…

Once we’re done paying tuition…

Once my loans are paid off…

Once I get my paycheck…

Once he realizes that I’m gone for good…

Once she sees that his talk is really cheap…

Once we know who the winner is…

Once we find out how much more it will cost…

Once they discover the extent of the damage…

Once we hear our own hearts grow faint…

Once we notice how wrong we were…

Once we come to our senses…

Once we decide to make the change…

It will all be more different than we ever imagined.

Only

Once.

*Shout out to everyone who accomplished something they set out to do. I see you and celebrate you. We did it!

Also, the book is really done. You can order it here if you’re so inclined.

Shame Cycles and Twitter Rage

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image credit

While scrolling through Twitter recently I kept coming across explicit mentions of shame. Shame associated with being called out for misogyny/homophobia/racism/islamophobia/transphobia/ or ableism; shame for avoiding debt paperwork; shame for not knowing better… And each time I could relate, relate, relate. I want to try to reconstruct some of what was going through my mind in these different instances.

Let’s start here:

The thread that I started was in response to another thread detailing the progress of recruitment of young white males into white supremacist thinking through gaming and social media channels. Specifically this tweet where Joanna Schroeder (@iproposethis) suggests that a young person’s first response to being called on posting racist or misogynist stuff is shame which then leads to poor decisions.

This made soooo much sense to me. I have 2 sons who like their games and although they are not white, they are still ripe targets for all the other messages which demean girls and women, ridicule gay and trans folks, and promote obnoxious, toxic masculinity as peak coolness. Confronting them with my concerns and objections can be more than a little challenging. Shame corners us. So we put on our armor and fight back.

I say “us” because I know shame quite well. I experience it on the daily. And no matter how well I can rationally tell myself that shame should not be my default response, it posts up with stunning regularity and confidence. So I fight back, too. My armor comes out faster than Ironman’s suit. Ask my loved ones. They know.

Shame is powerful. It will make us behave in ways we may not intend, have difficulty controlling, and in fact, lead us in directions we weren’t prepared to go. But we go anyway. That’s the catch I’m wondering about how to avoid – in myself and in others. Which is where a different thread had me thinking about this dynamic of calling out – generating shame and defensiveness in the other – responding to that defensiveness – and escalating to point far past learning or real recovery.

It’s cycle we see displayed regularly on social media. In fact, social media platforms live for this kind of inflammation that raises emotions, blood pressure and above all, engagement. How often have you found yourself drawn into an online confrontation, even as a bystander, and felt emotionally tapped? We don’t even need to be directly involved. Those emotions – the embarrassment, hurt, defensiveness, and often aggression – reach us right where we are sitting or standing. All the more, if we are the ones engaging head on. Overexposure is certainly unhealthy.

A couple of people brought up the topic of tone in confronting students expressing misogynist or racist beliefs. Confronting, yes but in a way that is not entirely damaging to the prospect of learning from the exchange. That is a tough challenge. Yet in the classroom we at least have a frame for structuring our dialogue; there are also power dynamics at play which will further influence the possible outcomes. Out on social media, while we may not be entirely on our own, we are open to public scrutiny and commentary in a way that poses different and potentially farther reaching consequences and challenges than a classroom exchange between teacher and student.

How do I engage someone whose viewpoint differs significantly from mine without necessarily triggering the shame-defensiveness-anger cycle?

I don’t have definitive answers but I’m thinking of ways I can help myself wrestle with these situations more effectively – which means in a way that I consider my own care and safety first before trying to save the world that’s already on fire.

  • Ask myself seriously: Is my engagement here necessary or essential? If not, then maybe leave the debate to others. I’ll go drink tea and read a book.
  • Before I wade into an ongoing conflict – I try to get as complete a picture of the existing context as possible. I read up and down the thread of tweets and responses to find out exactly who’s involved and try to guess why. Will this conversation be helped by my intervention? In what way? What do I have to offer that might be constructive or helpful?
  • I can use a side commentary by quote-tweeting the original source of conflict. I did that in the example below to make a point about context collapse and how we might mitigate the shaming cycle:

  • In the event that I decide to confront someone, I use questions or invite the person to elaborate on a point of confusion. I only do this where I see evidence of learning potential based on other tweets, the person’s profile and timeline. I do my research first because if this is going to cost me some extra energy, then I want to spend it judiciously.
  • I pay attention to my own emotional household. What is this involvement calling forth in me? Where and how do I need to be careful? Who’s got my back if I need it?
  • I pay attention to my time expense. Is this time I have to dedicate to this cause right now? Should /must it wait? Often the real answer is yes. Not responding immediately gives me time to also sort out the steps above.

 

While this may not be much of an answer to dealing with shame in online confrontations (or elsewhere), it feels helpful for me to articulate how I decide which hill I’m willing to go to battle on (if not die on). Being intentional takes time. And everything about the platforms we use argue precisely against taking our time, pausing, and resisting urgency.  The platforms we use are everything but neutral in shaping our online experiences. We make our decisions within the frameworks we are given, not those we have created on our own. This matters greatly.

The next time we feel drawn into a rage-inducing exchange, we can perhaps first ask ourselves how the platform benefits and if that’s where our energies are really best spent. Twitter loves our rage. Our individual and public health do not.

Headlines With a Chance of Substance

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Image via Pixabay.com

I began collecting headlines*

2017

Why Does T Remain So Witless About the World?

Will T be the Death of the Goldwater Rule?

What Did DT learn in  Texas?

What Would War With North Korea Look Like?

Could T alone kill Obamacare?

2018

The Beginning of the End for T?

Will T Fire Rod Rosenstein?

Is T’s Vanity a Threat to the Economy?

Will T Abandon a Reckless Saudi Prince?

Is Fraud Part of T Organization’s Business Model?

Does T Think The War on Terror Is Over?

Is Optimism Dead in the T Era?

2019

Can T Invoke Emergency Powers for the Wall?

Does Congress Care About T’s Emergency?

Is America T’s Banana Republic?

Are We In A Constitutional Crisis?

Is T Provoking A War?

Will T Outsource the Border Crisis to Mexico?

 

Headlines have a several functions: they should grab our attention, give us the gist of the topic, and make us curious enough to keep reading. In the digital attention economy, the most successful headlines elicit a flurry of clicks, followed by hungry eyeballs. That’s the goal. Hijacking the amygdala or viscerally activating your mirror neurons can all be strategically planned. Platforms that draw crowds know well what it takes to move the masses to click, comment and keep the attention machine running at high speed.

We’re tied up in this business model. In our attempts to stay informed, up to date, critically aware, we also click, click, click our way from one data mongering platform to the next leaving our digital breadcrumbs that will make others well off. Meanwhile these same platforms heap more oil on the dumpster fire of liberal democracies, and we all watch our precious civil liberties disintegrate before our very eyes. Somehow the profitable 1% will survive every political weather – they own our media, their power will not wane anytime soon.

And those headlines, increasingly designed “for your eyes only”, play us one song in 10,000 variations. It’s the song of inevitability, of market forces, of the End of Times. We listen over and over again because it’s ubiquitous and to be honest, it’s kinda catchy. Like the crime novel we can’t put down, we keep turning the pages of this ever unfolding horror story that doles out these pin prick closed questions: Will T do this? Can T do that? Each query a stab at our previously held beliefs about governance and decency and legality.

 

 

Here’s what we can do: Listen to folks who know these ropes. Take their advice, learn from their example.

Take the headlines for what they are: Click-bait with a chance of substance. Read carefully, astutely. Follow Mike Caulfield who is my go-to expert in all things media literacy, especially fact-checking and avoiding disinformation.

Above all recognize that there is no need to go it alone. There are good people all over the internet doing good, meaningful things. There are helpful resources and we can support each other in finding and applying those resources. I resent the complicity of mainstream media in surrendering so fully to the tug of the attention economy and away from shoring up democratic norms through transparency, critical reporting and by countering bigotry. But I see this is where are and not elsewhere.

My illusions are no more. The scales have fallen from my eyes. The trouble is deep and so are our resources if we get our act together.

 

*2-3 times per week since mid 2017, I have consented to The New Yorker sending me updates to my mailbox on their latest editions. And through the headlines, I noticed patterns. The headlines above are a selection of e-mail headers that I received.