Dear daughters: I hope you never have to write #MeToo.
Daughters: #MeToo is trending on social media. My first reaction when seeing that on Facebook was an adamant, loud: “No, not my daughters.” No, not them. World, you can’t have them. Men, you can’t grab them. My hopeful hashtag is #notyoutwo. Two, not too, because you two beautiful girls are my focus.
Daughters, you are only seven and twelve-years-old, entering crucial years of development. I am sure this will be an uncomfortable topic, but I am compelled to tell you my #MeToo tale with the sincere hope that sexual assault or discrimination is not part of your story.
Daughters, my wish for you both is that a boy like “D.S.” doesn’t grab you at “your” third base just because he thinks he can. I hope if a boy (he and I were only 11) does that unwanted thing to you, you won’t stay silent like your mother did. I hope you kick him, yell at him, shame him. How dare any person just grab another. Why did D.S. have the audacity to do such a thing to me at such a young age? How, in 1984, did he know he could grab me and be free from the consequences? Had he grabbed other girls before me? Was he emboldened to repeat this assault after he was free to do it to me? And why did I feel so worthless? Why did I stay silent?
Daughters, the President of the United States has been recorded saying that it is okay to grab a woman by their pussy, especially if like him you are a rich, famous man. Dear daughters, even that word “pussy” can be a derogative term. Don’t let anyone call your anatomy a negative term. Own that word for yourself; own your own body. Know that it is yours and not “his.”
Daughters, maybe the president’s words emboldened that young man at your school to grab that young woman’s private area. Remember how angry I became when you told me about that incident? Remember how I told you that it was criminal behavior? You giggled uncomfortably. I was serious.
Daughters, you might not even know the person who grabs you. I was twenty-one, in Rhode Island, at an outdoor restaurant ordering a drink when a young man grabbed me “there.” Again, I was in shock. I silently turned around and walked back to my table — never telling my family that I was just assaulted. Later, I would tell your father. I was ashamed. I rationalized it — he was probably drunk. I even thought about the short dress that I was wearing.
Daughters, intoxication, and attire, however, have nothing to do with sexual assault. Ironically, sex has little to do with sexual assault or rape. It is actually about power. When D.S., or that boy at your school, or that unknown drunk young man in Rhode Island grabbed a female by her genitals it was not about attraction. No, it was about their pleasure in their ability to dominate women. Their actions are symptoms of a larger cultural issue and a perennial problem of women being perceived in limited ways. The president of the United States was elected even though he said it was okay to assault women. He dismissed his recorded comments as “locker-room talk.” No, unfortunately, we have not come that far in terms of equality of the sexes.
Daughters: always recognize that no one has the right to touch you without your consent. Your consent can always, at any time, be revoked.
Daughters, if it that ubiquitous sexual harassment-discrimination-assault-rape does happen to you, know that it is not okay. And, if you are a victim of sexual discrimination, harassment, assault or rape, I want you to tell me. Silence is the rejection of your power. I will be your bullhorn and your audience. I will scream: not these two, not these two!
You have planned and executed over five weeks of meticulously crafted lessons.
You have established classroom norms.
You have read many Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).
You have attended meetings and staff development days.
You have listened to district initiatives that you hope (or hope not) to implement this school year.
You have assessed your students’ gifts and challenges.
You have wrangled with classroom technology.
You have collaborated with your colleagues.
You have chaperoned events.
You have battled your first cold.
You have read a hundred emails.
You have graded papers and completed progress reports.
You have met many parents both informally and formally at that annual Back to School Night.
You is tired.
If, however, you are as energized as the first day of school, please tell me your secret. Sell me your magic pill. Because I am surviving with caffeine. If I could get it into my veins, I would.
October is a pivotal month. A month where fall turns to winter, the holidays loom, and the real work of teaching coincides with family issues and “real-world” drama. It is a time when our paychecks don’t stretch quite enough to dig us out of the credit card bills accrued in summer and we realize that our own children have no college funds.
October is the time of the school year where the real work of teaching begins. The honeymoon is over — kids and their teachers are no longer on their best behavior.
October is also the month we teachers choose to be the kind of teacher we want to be. So, what will you and I decide to do this year?
Will we reach back into that file and repeat what we did next year, or will we improve that unit or lesson?
Will we worry about the standardized test, or focus on the students taking those tests?
We will let our exhaustion and stress consume us, or we will recognize when we need to say “no,” or maybe even, God forbid, take a personal day?
Will we shut our door and teach, or will we reach out to our colleagues for collaboration?
Will we look out at our classroom as a collection of students, or will we try to see each of them as individuals?
We will allow those struggling learners to tread water, or will we throw them a lifeline?
Will we be open or closed?
Will we take risks or remain stagnant?
Luckily, we are not powerless. You and I can answer each of those questions listed above and dig deep into the art of teaching.
I am sure as I grapple with those tough questions, I will have a carafe of coffee nearby.
Before the first meeting of the UMOJA-Step Team began, the team captain arrived at my classroom early and immediately pushed back all of my desks and chairs. I grew nervous. What the heck did I agree to do?
Last spring a student asked me to consider advising the UMOJA-Step Team at the high school where I teach. I had reservations. The team had a negative reputation and I am a busy mom. A few people told me that the team was drama filled, loud, and difficult to control. However, at every pep rally, the students in the bleachers look forward to the step team’s performance. The cheers for this crew are always thunderous and authentic.
That student’s request gnawed at me all summer. When the first faculty meeting of the school year revealed that the group still lacked an advisor, I decided, for many reasons, to give it a try.
Now it is September 14, 2017, and all of my desks and chairs are piled up in the back of my classroom. Twenty-five kids have entered my room, eager to be members of a group that puts the pep in the pep rallies. While listening to the team captains explain expectations, the other students devour the candy that I left out like a trusting house at Halloween.
The leaders, two young women of color, emphasize qualities that adults respect: promptness, dedication, and maintaining high grades. After laying down the law, the captain smiles and says: “We are a family.” Many kids nod their heads in agreement.
After the power point presentation, the students begin to dance. I now understand why the desks and chairs were moved — my classroom is a dance floor! I thought this was just an informational meeting, but these kids came to move — they are dancing with enthusiasm and delight. It reminds me of watching the television show F.A.M.E. When I was a kid I loved how the students on that show would spontaneously burst into song and dance. F.A.M.E. was happening in my high school! I was on F.A.M.E.!
Reality, however, entered in the form of the sweet school secretary who informed me that F.A.M.E. was disturbing a parent-conference going in the office next door. I apologized profusely.
At the end of that first, boisterous meeting, the team leaders made a circle where each student demonstrated their “moves” in the middle of my classroom. As I watched these young people, I began to realize that I was going to be a part of a rare and special group.
We moved the subsequent meetings to the cafeteria where, unfortunately, the kids needed to move the tables and chairs. The teardown and setting back up of the room ate into about ten minutes of precious rehearsal time. Not to mention the occasional squished grape that the students danced around.
Mostly, however, what I noticed about these rehearsals was an intensity of engagement with student-led participation. The pressure of performing for the entire student body in just a few weeks motivated them to practice, learn, adjust, practice, and repeat.
At the end of every rehearsal, I filled out twenty-five bus passes — these high school students do not have rides or cars like many of their high school peers — they must take the late bus home. The team includes mostly female students, most of whom are African-American. Three are white. There are a few young men sprinkled in the group, and they can move.
I teach in a suburban high school that houses over 1,800 students a day. The demographics are mostly working and middle-class households, over seventy-five percent Caucasian. The UMOJA-Step Team members flip that demographic. The word umoja means unity in Swahili and the team is both a cultural and performance group. February brings the celebration of Black History Month and a dinner for the school and community. Although African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture is highlighted, the group is inclusive of non-Afro students. If you have dedication, spirit, and talent, you can belong.
A former student, one of the student leaders, says: “You should dance with us, Momma Brown.”
I laugh and say: “Yeah, that is what you need, an old white woman to mess up your beautiful group.”
She laughs. I am serious. This is a student group.
As the first pep rally approaches, I begin to look forward to staying at school later. It is crazy, but in many ways, these dedicated dancers are renewing my teaching spirit. I adore them, especially the leaders.
Two weeks before the pep rally, the captain invites me to go bowling with the group. I felt so honored. I gave her my cell number in case plans changed. (I have never given a student my phone number.) I didn’t go bowling with the group, but I really wanted to. That pull between my own family and my school “kids” was difficult.
A week before the pep rally, I noticed a familiar frustration in the captain — she wants the team to get the dances perfect. She wants the UMOJA-STEP SQUAD to get the school crowd roaring. She feels the pressure. I tell her that I know her crazy — her statements and body language are reminiscent of mine the weeks before the New York State Global Regents Exam. Every June, I look at my classes, drill them constantly on their “moves,” encourage, scold, and prepare them to get the “best” grade they can earn. She is doing the same thing: she is showing them that perseverance breeds excellence. Her frequent refrain is, “Do it again.” She would make an outstanding educator. She has got “it.” You can’t teach that sort of with-it-ness. It shines off of this strong, young woman.
After the cafeteria is unavailable one day, the squad moves practice from the cafeteria to the auditorium commons, a large space that does not require the time of tearing down and setting back up of cafeteria tables. The open space in the commons allows other students to stop and watch the team practice. I enjoy these voyeur students’ expressions: they smile, they clap, they take video.
However, I wish the team could have a space of their own. I teach in a large building that is always busy, with the two gymnasiums and the auditorium reserved far in advance. What this team needs is a room with mirrors!
The captains want this year to be drama-free. They want a faculty advisor to stick around. They tell the members to bring problems to me. I act as their human boundary, happy to let the captains lead the dance. I am strong enough to handle the management of people. My role is one of organizer and advocate. This group, I repeat, is student-run.
By Thursday, October 5, 2017, the pep rally is only eight days away, and a long Columbus Day weekend interrupts the flow. Everyone is feeling tired, run-down. The student dancers have a poor first rehearsal on the field. The pressure mounts with only three more possible after-school practices. They are allowed only thirty minutes on the turf until the football players are suited up and ready to practice. Time is the enemy. The captains are worried, but I have faith in this group. I can see that they only need to tighten up a few moves.
On the eve of the pep rally, the team is a well-oiled machine. Their timing is on fleek! (My twelve-year-old gave me permission to use that term.) As they practice, I notice that they are truly enjoying themselves. I drive home smiling.
On the day of the pep rally, I wake with nervous excitement. I normally have very little enthusiasm for pep rally days — they make my teaching time shrink and the kids get off kilter. Typically, when I wear my school t-shirt, my husband (who thinks he is hilarious) will ask me:
“Did you bring it?”
I will respond with, “Bring what?”
He will say: “Team spirit.”
This day, however, I am actually bringing it. I am both excited and a little bit nervous for the Step Team. They are an amazing group of students, but there is also enormous pressure on them to perform at a high level.
At 12:45pm the athletes are dismissed, the lead captain, who the kids affectionally call “Grandma” instructs the dancers to meet her in the auditorium commons for one last run through before we take the field.
When I arrive, they are decked out in red shirts, black leggings, and red shoes. Those are not the school colors of orange and blue. The excitement is electric. The quickly rehearse their routine one, more time.
Walking to the stadium, I ask the kids why the color red. No one can tell me why red is important. We will need to discuss colors and their significance later.Today is not the day to discuss the future, it is a day for them to show off their hard work.
The students wait on the field for their turn in the pep rally, a group in red, in a sea of orange and blue. I tell them that they will perform near the end, joking that the best is saved for last.
When they perform, I feel like a proud parent. I didn’t choreograph the moves, or pick out the music, or act as a dance “coach.” All I did was make some meetings calendars and help organize the group. That is all that they needed.
We still have more to learn and prepare for: another pep rally in December and February’s Black History celebrations. There are still many questions to answer: Are they a dance team, a step team, or an African-American cultural team? What are the team’s colors? We need to discuss the group’s name and identity.
Right now, however, we are a happy group. Next week, we will celebrate with pizza in room 811 where my classroom might become a dance floor yet again.
Since 1995, I have stood in front of my students’ parents twenty-two times. Usually, in late September or early October, I have watched adults navigate their child’s confusing daily schedule as they go through a “typical” rotation of their son or daughter’s school routine.
Typically, I get about ten minutes to convey my personality, teaching philosophy, expectations, and classroom routines. I also offer a glimpse at the history curriculum that I am responsible for teaching. The night always feels rushed and false. Teaching is part acting and Open House is like a movie trailer for a film the parents will never see.
Open House Night often leaves me feeling unsatisfied.
Maybe it is my age or my perspective as a parent, but last night I actually enjoyed Open House for the first time. The parents were funny, engaging, and most importantly, involved in their children’s lives. Of course, many parents could not or chose not to attend, that is the perennial issue with Open House: teachers often feel like they are preaching to the choir. The parental participants are the parents who don’t always need to meet me.
I remember pleading with my own mother to attend my own Back to School Nights. Not formally educated herself, the mother of a high achieving kid, she did not always see the point of wasting an evening at my school. However, even as a teenager I sensed that “good” parents attended school events, especially Open House. As a reflection of myself, I wanted my mom to be perceived as an involved parent. I wanted to fit into the suburban schools that I attended.
Now I work in a large, suburban school. The families have diverse resources and varying needs. Many parents work evening hours. Other parents do not see the benefit of a high school curriculum night — viewing their adolescent as an independent young adult.
Last night felt different. There were laughter and smiles. It felt like a community. I shook hands of parents for whom I had taught all of their children. I called those parents legacies. I told one father that I loved having siblings because in a big school familiarity breeds connections.
I was different too. In an attempt to liven up the ten-minute “show” I had previously photographed my students holding signs declaring the places in the world where they wanted to travel. I teach Global History and I desperately want to put a pin in my students’ small bubble of experience. I was able to make a short video of the pictures — telling the parents that the kids were hoping that they might get a trip out of their cute pictures. I loved watching the adult’s expressions as they anticipated seeing their baby’s face appear. No matter their age, they are always your baby.
Ultimately what I realized last night is that Open House is an opportunity for teachers to be ambassadors for the survival of public schools. I showed my parents last night that I was a hometown girl, listing only one private institution on a slide of images of the public high school and college that I attended and the two public schools for which I have been employed. I wanted my students’ parents to know that public schools promote excellence and are filled with enthusiastic, compassionate teachers.
My activism and the march for public education this past July has renewed my faith in public schools and has given me a sense of purpose. Open House, although nerve-wracking and incredibly flawed, is an opportunity for teachers to spread the “good” word of public education.
Maybe next year I will actually look forward to Open House.
When will your death (or mine, or our children’s) be marked as a dot on the map of the United States?
That is what the gun violence debate comes down to, folks: when will your number be up? When will that mass shooter enter your kid’s school, your place of work, your local park, or your shopping mall? When will the end of your life be marked by a red dot on a map?
Or, do you believe that it won’t happen to you? Do you think that our national disease will not infect you and yours? Do you think your pistol that you wear so proudly will give you immunity?
My husband is a concealed carry pistol holder. He is not naive. He has no hero fantasies of saving innocent lives. He is a realist. He is a student of human nature. He carries because he appreciates his vulnerability, but he also has no ideas of grandeur. He does not feel the need to own an AK-47 or a silencer.
I ask my students: how does this end? They discuss with such intellect and analysis. They debate using the best of civic discourse. We are studying the Enlightenment and they point out that those historical philosophers were reformers.
The students brainstorm reforms. They are willing to do what our bought- and-paid-for-by-the-NRA-politicians are unwilling to do: discuss reasonable gun violence solutions.
Our children have inherited our sickness, and they are tasked to find the cure.
America’s penchant for violence (perpetuated disproportionately by white men) is a cancer.
Mass shootings are the symptoms.
The cause is fear.
Fear of losing control, power, prestige, wealth, face, life, liberty, and supremacy.
America’s cancer metastasizes as hate combine with fear and more weapons are bought and sold.
We are the disconnected states of America, slowly destroying the dream.
Our children are the victims, or they will be when they are located at the next red map dot.