Me and #BlackPanther

Some topics feel too big, too complex, too unwieldy, just too dang difficult to write about. You may laugh but that’s how I feel when it comes to taking on Black Panther – not even as a movie or particular narrative but as a social phenomenon. More than ‘a thing‘,  Black Panther currently informs my jokes, several social interactions both online and off, my wild imagination and continues to impact my spending choices. (Yes, Disney, take my money!)

The evidence: Here’s what comes up on Twitter in a search for “@edifiedlistener + #BlackPanther”:

https://twitter.com/search?q=%40edifiedlistener%20%2B%20%23BlackPanther&src=typd

I’m writing this based on the assumption that you already know what I’m talking about when I say Black Panther. If that assumption is false, feel free to fix that.

 

I have seen the movie three times so far and I’m ready for the 4th, 5th and 6th times. I am smitten, charmed, enchanted, and awash in this peculiar pop cultural wave. I feel celebratory and buoyed, animated and emotional. Here’s some of what I think is going on:

The whole production is a giant shout-out to Black folks all over the world.

I not only feel addressed, I feel welcomed and embraced to claim that shared identity in a way I have never experienced previously. Before the film I don’t think this was on my radar as a distinct need or desire. My emotional involvement since tells me a different story.

The women in the film are phenomenal and I’m thinking maybe I could be that, too.

Identifying with characters is one of the reasons we can enjoy and participate in fiction at all. The women of Black Panther are exceptional because as one fan so aptly put it:

“I want to take a second to thank the Black women, too, because they were so strong on their own terms and answered to no one but themselves. They weren’t strong because they were angry, they weren’t strong because they were hurt, they were strong because they were strong. And that meant the world to me. Thank you.” (at 4:50 in video)

I could not describe it any better. I have watched this video a couple of times and hearing Black folks like me talk about what the movie has meant for them, I feel both understanding and also understood.

The other piece of relating to these strong women characters is seeing myself as also strong on my own terms. After opening night I was on my way home and had to stop for a moment and shed a few tears. I was shook. I had so much going on inside. It was heavy. We say, “representation matters,” but when it is still so rare and rarely so nuanced and complex, we just don’t realize what a difference it can and does make to individuals, to groups.

Watch this. It may help you see what I’m talking about:

For once, I am part of the in-group.

I’m not much of a movie goer so my range of popular character references tends to be limited. I am also celebrity-recognition challenged. I don’t retain the names of recent or past stars very well either. I did however follow the pre-release hype on Twitter and once I saw the movie I joined the club. I understood the jokes, I could echo the praise, gobble up all the extras.

Black Twitter has always been central to my social media involvement and diving into the #BlackPanther #WakandaForever stream, feels like a new rite of passage. I’m swimming in the stream and the water is just fine. I’m living my blackness a little differently and relating to blackness wherever I find it a little differently. Fiction can grow us if we let it.

I typically hate fight scenes. Seeing powerful women warriors in this movie changed my tune.

It’s not that I’ve become a new fan of cinematic violence. But after over 40 years of watching men fist fight, hold shootouts and the like, I understand why suddenly I could watch some of the battle scenes in Black Panther with protracted interest. It was those women warriors entering the fray with incredible finesse and savvy that caught my interest and held it. That and recognizing how this in no way diminished their femininity. And my favorite character has turned out to be Okoye, T’Challa’s general (it took me 3 viewings to decide). She is fierce, principled and of a distinct physical grace to which I can only aspire.

My 10 y-o and I have a whole new source of shared jokes, plus a wealth of conversation topics to explore.

I was not entirely prepared for the host of thoughts and questions seeing Black Panther with my 10 year old son would spark. But wow! it has been a revelation. We’ve been twice so far and his take-aways are so interesting. On our way home we debated the merits of identifying with Killmonger (his favorite character “Hey, Auntie”). He has also stepped up his humor game:

OK, there I’ve said it. I loved Black Panther and I’m excited to be living in this moment. Many thanks to so many friends and family members I’ve been able to share this ride with. Who knew?

I’m so glad I joined when I did.

#WakandaForever

(Un)Prepared.

Nine contact days in and I’m ok. The kids are great, my colleagues are helpful, our schedule is more or less settled, the year is truly underway. I’ve done this ritual at least 20 times before: started a school year of teaching elementary physical education. At this same school. I have experience. One might even say I’m a seasoned faculty member.

And yet.

My plans are rough. Not vague, but rough although we have a fairly detailed curriculum map with plenty of supporting documents and resources. The google doc planning sheet that I share with my team colleague is prepared week for week. Every class, I write my agenda on the board for students to read and work with. I prepare.

And yet.

It seems no matter how long I work at this, how many students I shepherd through a school year’s worth of physical education, I never, ever feel well prepared. Into every class, each section, in contact with each student, there’s a portion of doubt that stays in attendance. Like a spying question mark that sits heavily on my shoulder, at times whispering: “Was that really necessary?” “What makes you think that idea will work?” or “That’s your best solution?”

This heap of doubt I carry around lives to judge and dissemble.

I have thousands of class periods under my belt; by now also hundreds of students whom I’ve taught for multiple years. I know some stuff and I’m constantly learning and evolving. Every group is different, each child so wonderfully unique, and I of course have changed, too. In this way I have dedicated a significant portion of my life and livelihood to coping with and courting change; to making the most of and coming to terms with development.

My little heap of doubt is resilient, reliable and robust. Teaspoon sized today, boulder heavy the next, my heap can grow or shrink as the context and my reactions warrant.

So I plan and envision. I record and document. Confer and rehash. I also improvise on the spot. Change my mind in the moment. I decide to run the risk of failing miserably, succeeding wildly or both. I watch what happens. I encounter the unexpected along with the strongly probable and respond to the best of my ability. At the end of the day, we all emerge on the other side: the experience behind us and our options for reflection before us. We choose. (And even when we don’t choose we’re making a choice.)

I believe my students are going to be all right. Some of them, no, many of them will be fabulous. We are going to make some discoveries this year. We’ll run into some surprises. We’ll reach an impasse or two and get beyond it. I’ll make some mistakes right before their very eyes. Some of the mistakes they’ll notice and others they won’t.

The year won’t be perfect. It will be full of learning and growth and doubt for me and my students. It will be entirely our year. We are prepared and we’re not. It’s on, ready or not.

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Learning involves stretching…still, again.

image:  (c) @edifiedlistener Sherri Spelic

The Undercover Familiar

“Ich habe gedacht, Sie sind Oesterreicherin!”

Someone said this to me today (“I thought you were Austrian!”). Yes, they genuinely thought I was an Austrian, that I grew up here. And the reality is not so far from the truth. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio but Vienna is where I came of age. Surprising, though, even post 50 how muddled and mixed I portray my own identity in this special context – on Austrian soil, in my adopted homeland.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“I live in Vienna but grew up in the US.”

That was a new description. It felt a bit like flipping the script. Where I previously tended to confess the American citizenship first before adding up my decades of residence in this German speaking country, I decided on the spot that this description is far more accurate. Vienna is home, home, home.

Vienna is where I have lived in one district for 15 out of 25 years, where both of my sons were born, where I’ve worked at the same school for two decades – home. But I’ve never been Austrian. I neither have citizenship nor do I look the part (stereotypically speaking). I am an immigrant, not an expat. I am here by choice and this is my life.

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So while I’m out at my favorite mountain lake in a very different part of the country, enjoying the best speedskating conditions one could hope for, my unexpected presence as black woman traveling in the singular raises questions among fellow hotel guests and skaters. The attention I receive is friendly curiosity from the Dutch and German table neighbors. It’s funny to recognize that we belong to a common age range of well past 40 and maxing out probably under 65. Middle-agers mostly in couple formations, I probably fit right in – economically, socially.

Meanwhile, my language usage gives me away. I no longer sound very American when I speak German. Austrian service personnel usually need a moment to size me up and make that split second guess as to whether I will understand whatever query they might have in store for me:

“Sind Sie Frau Spelic?” (Are you Ms. Spelic?)

“Zum trinken, was moechten Sie?” (To drink, what would you like?)

“Haben Sie eine angenehme Anreise gehabt?” (Did you have a pleasant trip here?)

The relief when I respond without hesitation in a clear and comprehensible German is immediate  and visible. This often gives rise to another, different level of curiosity. Often people want to understand how this is possible: such clear German, so colloquial and familiar. That’s what throws people – the familiarity. How could she, how does she seem so comfortable, so at home here?

I left home without my passport as I usually do when I travel within the country. I’m driving my own car, I have an Austrian driver’s license and my residence permit with me. I also know where I’m going. I’ve been in this particular place often. Just yesterday I ran into the owner of another hotel down the road who greeted me warmly and we shared news of our respective children. Another reminder that my presence here is not incidental, it has a history and background. This place is familiar and so too am I.

I am a domestic foreigner. Outwardly, because of my skin color I am readily perceived as a foreigner, a non-native for sure. Once I speak and engage in easy conversation, then things change. I am that unexpected foreigner who defies the stereotype. I become a source of fascination. Internally however, I am working with a full deck of previous experience and local savvy. When I move about in this country I become the undercover familiar.

images ©Sherri Spelic / @edifiedlistener 2017

I Went For A March

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I went for a march which

can hardly be the correct terminology but

it is what happened to me or

was what I felt

when I showed up at the place

where they told us to meet because

I went. For a march.

The march.

And what I found was people:

people I knew,

used to know,

was glad to know again. We met

for a march

where we ambled and chatted.

I was a poor and hesitant chanter

although I had cheat sheets in my hand.

The seasoned and vocal protesters behind

us had volume and a repertoire

and I could not keep up.

But I appreciated their efforts

in teaching me about marching.

At the beginning

there was standing and spotting and running up to

and hugging and greeting and sharing.

Then there was listening and a moment

when I held my breath and thought

the tears might come.

I was offered signs but wanted none

preferring to keep my hands free

to wield my device which knows too much already.

When we marched

my feet were cold and our path oddly shaped.

It was a brief march,

well attended and a notable beginning.

I think we know we will be doing this

again soon.

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images: ©Spelic/@edifiedlistener

 

The Unsettled Here and Now

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I’m going to get personal for a minute here.

Sometimes I can be particularly observant of what’s going on around me and also in me. At present it feels like my powers of observation are a little out of whack. And I think this has to do with my increased traffic on social media platforms.

Since the US Presidential election, I’ve delved more deeply into my online engagements. Twitter has become my primary news source as well as my go-to space for a sense of community in troubled times. As incredibly grateful as I feel for the tremendous wealth of good will, necessary political resistance, and human warmth I experience, I also recognize the slow drain on my attentional and emotional resources.

Every day and on every tweet that I raise my #resist flag, I know this is what I must do, at the very least. I have picked a side and it happens to be against the incoming administration and majority aggressively Republican legislature. Even though I am geographically very distant, I experience the sense of dangerous and targeted upheaval on a very personal level. I fear for individuals as well as systems. And as I watch a group of overwhelmingly white, straight, so-called Christian males parade before multiple TV cameras and announce their policy plans, I feel sickened to know how quickly the country will likely find itself flat on its back not knowing how it got there.

I fear for our individual and collective exposure through our very willing and often enthusiastic embrace of digital tools and platforms which offer us convenience, speed, and seemingly unlimited choice. We are, at the same time, in fairly constant danger of becoming hostages of all the data we give away daily. With our clicks and instrumentalized acquiescence, we have created our most sophisticated and unforgiving monsters yet, which still maintain a miraculously rosy veneer of being society’s new great helpers.

All told, I’m feeling a lot of fear.

At my core I am an educator. My dialogues with students provide some of the richest contours to my thinking and doing. I look forward to starting classes soon in order to get grounded again; to be brought back to my core mission of helping students “Get fit, get better, and get along.”  We’ll have conversations about how we include, nurture, challenge and respect each other. They will remind me about the importance of fair play and being kind to one another. They will remind me to keep working on being my best. Perhaps more than at any other time in my teaching career, creating a classroom where fairness, openness and care are built into everything we do is the most important work I can do – for my students and for myself.

 

image: Spelic/@edifiedlistener

People of Color Conference 2016: Some Thoughts on Power

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Identity as the organizing premise.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference is over. I’m sad because I was having such a wonderful time in the company of so many thoughtful, engaged colleagues. I’m happy, however, that I had space and time to make connections that matter.

While I was in Atlanta at PoCC I observed the following:

  • The People of Color Conference places identity at the forefront of our conversations. This is uncommon among education conferences in my experience.
  • Because identity is the organizing premise, each individual attendee is called on to  engage on a personal level within this professionally oriented context.
  • As we talk about who we are, how we identify and where we find ourselves, we also come across intersections and overlap – no one is just one thing. Each of us is deliciously complex which can make for exchanges that can be confusing and clarifying for different parties, for different reasons, at different stages.
  • This is a conference where we learn to hold tension, work with and through discomfort, acknowledge judgment when we are unable to suspend it.
  • I witnessed thousands more smiles than frowns.
  • There are many more indy ed Twitter fans out there than I realized. The multiple real-time tweets are the gifts that keep on giving.
  • Hugging was prevalent.
  • The empathy lamp was switched on.
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Many more smiles than frowns. Honored to be with Caroline Blackwell of NAIS and Hazel Symonette of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To be on the other side of this experience is to have gained a shade more insight on who I am and strive to be. One thing I struggle with, however, is reporting. I’m not a very good reporter. To be able to succinctly describe how moved I was by keynote speakers Bryan Stevenson, Brittney Packnett, Zak Ebrahim, or Richard Blanco might take me a lifetime. To share how bowled over I was by the spoken word poetry of 15 yr old Royce Mann or simply star struck in the presence of Hank Aaron, Congressman John Lewis and Christine King Ferris on the same stage – seems beyond me.

What I know and feel is how these voices and their messages are working inside me daily. In this way, my PoCC experience will not let me rest. Yet. Rather, it is leading me in the direction of “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the words of Congressman Lewis. I’m spending time meditating on power and identity and where these intersect with education. The NAIS People of Color Conference felt like my own personal “Identity, Education and Power” Conference.

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Brittany Packnett was the closing speaker. A godsend.

Brittany Packnett, who is a product of independent schools, told our assembly: “In this room sits POWER. You are either developing leaders, or you are one.” I have been thinking about this ever since. Yes, we – who are the ones we’ve been waiting for- have power. Gathered together in intentional and supportive community, we have power. Sharing our expertise, claiming our seats at the table, unleashing our brilliance – we have power. I thought about titling this post “Power of Color Conference” – because of the power we find in coming together over and through our individual and collective identities.

And we are people working largely in elite spaces. Several independent schools cater to the 1% and even to the top 10%  and 20%- if we educators of color are there, we inevitably need to be aware of and thinking about power – our own and that of others. Knowing that the majority of community members who finance and govern our institutions rarely look like us, and that of those same institutions very few were built to (also) support the intellect and advancement of people of color – this is a necessary and real understanding we ought to have. It does not mean, however, that these schools and academies are not excellent places for us to work, to teach, to coach in or for us to lead. On the contrary, our schools can be extremely open and hopeful places, encouraging and strategically forward-thinking places. And they are, for the most part, predominately white institutions (PWIs).

Ultimately, the People of Color Conference seeks to bridge this divide between the reality of PWIs and the still somewhat tentative and/or limited supply of educators of color on their campuses. Many teachers and staff of color come to the conference as a sort of oasis of fellowship. It can be tiring to stay in the role of the “lonely only”* or to be just one of a handful of folks of color at a PWI. PoCC provides that unusual opportunity to ‘flip the script’ and find (in every sense of the word) ourselves in the majority; to experience power in numbers.

After the fact I feel both restored and stirred up. I spent valuable time in a “seat” of power and the act of “knowing my place” is irretrievably expanded.

As I rise, stride and direct my movement forward, I’m on the lookout for justice – the kind that extends beyond ‘just us.’ Attending PoCC provided that necessary affirmation – I’m not alone. I have supporters and co-collaborators. We have power.

Let’s do the good that needs doing and remember to “fight issues, not people.”

 

*I am grateful to my dear friends in the digital humanities,  Maha Bali and Anne-Marie Perez, author of the article “Lowriding Through the Digital Humanities” for the reference to this term  “lonely only.”

 “Most people, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases.”

All images by @edifiedlistener.

Twitter Talk, Year 3

I want to talk a little bit about Twitter. I do this periodically in different forms and I am still learning as I go. And I want to address folks who are perhaps new to this thing and are perhaps weighing the costs and benefits of engaging.

Some thoughts from my previous posts strike me as still true and relevant. On the one hand, I am quick to extol the virtues of this non-stop stream of eclectic content. On the other hand, I wonder about some challenges of engagement including, but not limited to overwhelm and unanticipated negative exposure.

Here’s the stuff I appreciate about Twitter now:

  • My people. Yes, my people. Through this platform I have developed relationships that matter. I have met people who encourage, support and challenge me. Over time I have learned about their lives, their concerns, their joys and struggles. And I, in turn, have been able to share my own. Safely and authentically.  It’s worth underscoring those last two words, because they are not a given on Twitter or other social media channels. This fact reinforces my gratitude for the community I enjoy and prize.
  • I think it’s making me smarter. The more I read, comment, re-read, and dialogue with others, the more thoroughly I am forced to clarify my thinking and develop my own positions.  This is definitely good exercise for my brain and my social and intellectual development building stamina, strength, flexibility and power.
  • I have opened myself to the world in ways I never thought that I would. Increased and more varied reading has prompted me to write more, to reach a growing audience, to explore areas of interest which extend well beyond what I thought I knew. My work is intentionally visible and public. That fact surprises me even now.
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Visible and public – on purpose. ‘Author, Audience and Parts of Speech’

  • Twitter allows me to distribute my work more widely. I blog here on my personal space, I use Medium for other posts, I’ve become a publisher and editor and I tweet (@edifiedlistener). I specifically use Twitter to share my content and to boost writing and perspectives I consider valuable. These actions go hand in hand for me. Without the contributions of others, I would not be out here engaging.
  • I’ve learned to have more fun. It took me some time, but I’ve developed my use of humor in under 140 characters. I chat more back and forth with friends, have begun to incorporate the occasional GIF, and find myself literally laughing out loud while scrolling through my feed.
  • My use of Twitter is still quite primitive relative to others. For me there is just the platform. I don’t use an add-on organizer like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck yet. I have 1 or 2 lists which I don’t really use. I’m okay with that. Efficiency is not my point at this stage.
  • As my follower count has climbed, the currency of established significant relationships on the platform has also increased. Meeting more & new folks can be invigorating and potentially distracting. Maintaining significant relationships requires a special effort and, in a fast-paced forum such as Twitter, a certain degree of vigilance. Making wise choices about whom you engage and recognizing how they affect your energy becomes more important.
  • My connections on Twitter have opened doors I didn’t even know existed. Thanks to @EdSpeakersCo I had the opportunity to travel to Denver for ISTE 2016 to address affiliate conference organizers in a keynote smackdown. Conversations with fellow independent school bloggers led to an accepted workshop proposal for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference to be held in December 2016. In this respect, Twitter has done more for my professional and career development than Linked In ever could.

This list is longer than I anticipated. As much as I aim to resist the trap of jumping on a particular branding  bandwagon, it is not lost on me that with this post and others I have written specific to this single platform, I am fueling the corporate machinery that keeps it all going. This post ends up as a wonderful display of brand loyalty and customer enthusiasm; a textbook testimonial. I want to acknowledge that and my conflictedness over it.

Rather than offer advice, I prefer to share my experiences (overwhelmingly positive to date) and leave it to you to determine what this platform might have in store for you. I am writing this after 3 years of fairly steady engagement. I feel like my growth by all measures here has been organic and manageable. I’ve had time to adjust and expand my parameters of engagement. And that has felt healthy. Which is saying a lot considering that we’re talking about social media.

Come for the intellectual buffet, stay for the kittens: