Se Sentir Bien dans Sa Peau*

In high school, when it was time to pick a language to study, I chose French. I suspect this was out of some misguided notion of French making me more … polished? sophisticated? Something. As a kid, I’d always imagined studying Latin. Who knows where that idea came from, but there was no Latin on offer in my high school. Only French and Spanish. Why didn’t I choose Spanish? It would certainly have served me better in my eventual career. But alas, I chose French.

French class was mostly comical. Talk to my brother about it. French was the only class we were ever in together, and I think it might be one of the things that helped us start being friends after an unfortunate period of sibling disaffection. Tony can still recite the ridiculous dialogue we had to learn in our ridiculous textbook. (Poor little Philippe LeDoux. I wonder if his problems were ever resolved.) French class was also one of the places my school’s single non-English-speaking student was warehoused. That kid needed ESOL instruction … and instead, he was put in French class!**

But I learned a little bit. And I made a yule log one year. And I got a good recipe for beef burgundy that my family enjoyed the hell out of. I got to go to Montreal, which was a great trip. I had fun in French class. I didn’t finish my four years of study with anything even vaguely resembling command of the language, however.

Then I was off to college. No French for me freshman year, but in sophomore year I had a sudden interest in maybe actually learning another language. I was cocky enough to think a strictly-beginners class would be too easy for me … but not cocky enough to think I could find my way through an intermediate class. As luck would have it, there was middle ground available: an advanced beginner class!

Course enrollment at my college included a step that I now find fascinating but which at the time I mostly found intimidating. Students have to interview instructors before they can sign up for a class. This went pretty badly for me every time. I had no idea what I was doing. I remember some of those awful interviews. Ugh. My interview for French class must have included me speaking some French, me forming some opinion of the woman who would be my instructor – other than that she was beautiful and much more stylishly pulled together than any other instructor I’d met. Somehow, we both saw and heard the right things in that initial conversation, and I signed up for the class.

My instructor was Gisele Barrau-Freeman. She was French, and I was surprised to realize that it had never occurred to me how much sense it made to have a native speaker teaching me the language. In high school, my teacher certainly know more French than we did, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Gisele was a great teacher, and I discovered that I liked learning languages. I even got to practice creative writing, working over several weeks on an invented memoir about my childhood (about a childhood, not in any way mine): “Quand J’etais Jeune.”

In the spring semester, two things happened. First, Gisele encouraged me to participate in a theatrical showcase the French club was putting together. This seemed like a crazy idea – act? In French? – but also seemed like it could be a lot of fun. I wound up taking on two parts: a scene from Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (Socrate est un chat.), and a monologue from our textbook, a grande dame talking and talking and talking and revealing herself to be quite ridiculous. Both scenes were funny, so I was taking on comedy in a language I barely understood. Right. Sure. No sweat.

Gisele worked with me to help me prepare. I remember her giving me hilarious tips on how to play the grande dame. She did a fabulous impersonation of one of her older relatives to give me the idea of what to aim for. She didn’t have any doubt that I could pull off both performances. She took my success as a given. Remembering that, I realized all of the teachers I’ve written about this week – and the ones I’ll write about for the rest of the week – have this in common. They all believed in me without question. They all took my intelligence/talent/skill/whatever as a given. And that is simple, but it’s also magical, right? I’m sure there are plenty of people who grew up hearing consistently about how skilled and fabulous they are. And then there are the rest of us. Some of us have had some positive reinforcement from time to time. Some have had none. For us, the gift of having someone take your ability as a baseline, the starting fact of who you are, is just about earth shaking.

The performance went off pretty close to perfectly. All the things I’d worried about came to nothing. I remembered my lines, I remembered Gisele’s tips on playing the grande dame. I can’t swear that fund times were had by all, but they were definitely had by me.

The second thing that happened spring semester was that Gisele pushed me to apply for the junior year abroad program in Paris. She’d overheard me talking about wanting to take my junior year off campus. I’d been thinking small and shallow – my college had very few men, and even fewer heterosexual ones, and I wanted a break from all that manlessness, so I’d been looking at colleges that had lots of men, more men than women. Gisele pointed out that there were, in fact, men in Paris.

Applying to a study abroad program would never have entered my mind. Leaving the country? Leaving the country for a year? And, while I was learning French and I wasn’t the worst I could be, I certainly didn’t speak well. How was I supposed to navigate France in French? And how would I ever afford such a thing? My family, by just about every measure, was poor. Unquestionably-poor. Ultra-poor.

Gisele listened to my concerns, but she asked me to set them aside. She assured me that my French was better than I thought. She pointed out that, whatever my French proficiency, there was no better way to improve it than living in France. Money was an issue, yes, but I would still have my scholarships. I wouldn’t have to pay for a year’s worth of expensive room and board at our expensive college, and that would make room and board in Paris affordable. And she reminded me that an application wasn’t a commitment. If I was accepted and couldn’t manage the costs, I wouldn’t go. If I didn’t apply, there were no options at all. She kept encouraging me to apply until I finally did.

For people who’ve read this blog for more than a minute, all my crazy travel stories? They only exist because Gisele talked me into applying for the Paris program. I had never traveled alone, had never thought seriously about going to Europe or anywhere else. My year in France opened something in me, showed me another way of imagining myself, gave me permission to see more possibilities for myself.

In the spring of junior year, Gisele came to Paris and we spent an afternoon together. We had lunch, then poked around the stalls at the Clignancourt flea market. She bought me a pretty scarf and a pair of small chandelier earrings. She called me out a little for hiding behind my baggy, non-descript clothes, wanted to show me I could have another look, could have other looks. It felt too difficult, too scary, to take that on in that moment, but I held onto it – and the scarf and earrings 00 and when I finally decided to stop trying to erase myself, her voice was in my ear, encouraging me to see who she saw, encouraging me to step into the light.

Gisele taught me French, yes. But that was the lesser of the things I learned. She told me what she saw in me: I could be funny, I could take center stage, I could take chances, I could do things no one expected me to do, I could embrace myself. And then she held up a mirror and encouraged me to see myself, too.

As with Mr. DeBlois, I have no idea how she saw what she saw or why she chose to push me. She must have done this for plenty of other students, but I definitely felt she was making a special effort to lift me. And I am grateful for it. Thank you, Gisele. You encouraged me to see a broader world, a broader range of possibilities for myself, a broader version of myself. I was slow to some of those lessons, but I learned them. Thank you.

_______________
* Feeling good about myself
** The insanity of this, boggles my mind to this day. I’m pretty sure my school had no services for non-English speakers. It wouldn’t have occurred to the administration to create such programming. But once they were faced with a student who needed to learn English, how could they ignore that need and schedule him into classes in not one, but two languages he didn’t understand?! Seriously, WTF?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

webteacherappreciation

Being Seen

It’s day two of Teacher Appreciation Week. Yesterday I was thinking about third grade and the two great teachers I worked with that year. I noted that the haven I found in that classroom was short-lived, that I found myself in a very different kind of classroom the following year.

The next important teacher for me was my English teacher in my last year of high school. Yes, the gap is that big: third grade and then skip ahead to senior year. It’s a long way, but it could have been longer, so I’ll count myself lucky.

Skipping to senior year is particularly interesting because I had that English teacher, Mr. DeBlois, for ninth grade English, too. He wasn’t a bad teacher in ninth grade — though I will admit that all I remember about that class is being made to watch the film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” followed by In Cold Blood, and having to fight my way through The Old Man and the Sea.

I cannot remember who I had for English in 10th grade, so that was clearly a scintillating experience. I had a pretty awful but ultimately easy 11th grade English class and then back to Mr. DeBlois for senior year.

What made the difference in my experience between 9th and 12th grade? It’s surely true that Mr. DeBlois went through some changes of his own in that time, but the primary change was me.

I started writing “for real” when I was about 11 years old, started showing my writing to other people when I was 12. Back then, I was pretty certain I was a poet. I wrote a lot of poetry. Correction: I wrote a lot of painfully, aggressively BAD poetry. A lot. But people liked it. In junior high I won some local newspaper’s youth poetry contest. I’d written an awful thing about loving yourself for who you are — as if I was anywhere near doing that at that time! My poem won for my age group and was “published” in a mimeographed anthology with the other win-place-show writers. It was a very big deal for me.

So I was definitely already thinking of myself as a writer when I landed in 9th grade English with Mr. DeBlois. I don’t think I let him know anything about my artistic delusions. I kept my head down and did my work, I responded with predictable horror to the Jackson and Capote films (and with the additional, unexpected horror of seeing how funny my male classmates found the murder of Nancy Clutter). There weren’t any occasions I can recall when sharing any of my glaringly awful poetry would have been appropriate.

But in 12th grade Engish there were plenty of opportunities. I wrote a contrived short story about violence in the Jim Crow south. I wrote some sing-song-rhyming poems about God only knows what. I wrote a Dr. Suess-style story about some creatues (the Bushelbracks) that lived in the bushes behind my grandmother’s house. Whatever.

(The fact that I remember any of this is terrifying, but it is also not very surprising. My mother, who has always been the number-one fan of my writing, kept all my work. Eventually, these works would be collected and stored in a green and yellow plastic bag from my favorite clothing store: Tempo Fashions.

You really cannot make this stuff up.

The Tempo Fashions bag would come out from time to time and we’d pick through its riches, reading some bits, laughing at others. For a bunch of years we thought that bag of fabulousness had been lost. That green and yellow pattern was pretty loud and distinctive, and it couldn’t be found anywhere. My mother solved the mystery: the bag had been replaced! She found all the writing, just in a different container. We can all rest easily now.)

Rather than point out that my work, even at its “best,” was pretty bad, Mr. DeBlois encouraged me to keep writing. He didn’t just grade my assignments, he wrote comments and questions as if we were in a writing workshop and my wacky offerings were worthy of considered critiques.

No one had ever responded to my writing in that way. People were nice about my work — even people who weren’t my mother — but no one had ever taken the time to have something to say about it, suggestions for how I might do more, might improve. Mr. DeBlois treated me as if I was a writer. And that unquestioned acceptance was beyond powerful for me.

What did he see? It was most assuredly not good writing. Really. That’s not modesty or La Impostora. The things I wrote that year were awful. The strongest piece I turned in was a poem I stole from my little sister!

So, he didn’t see talent, exactly. What, then? It could really just have been my energy for writing. I don’t remember anyone else in that class being as into the creative writing assignments as I was. So maybe he wanted to support me in doing something I was passionate about.

Whatever his reasons for giving me the time and attention he did, I am grateful. I wrote jokingly about my Tempo Fashions Collection, but having someone take my efforts so seriously was invaluable.

Yes, it’s true that the very next year brought the start of college and the awful poetry workshop experince I mentioned in yesterday’s post. And it’s true that I shut down after that workshop. I was still writing, but I stopped sharing my work with anyone. I stopped thinking of myself as a writer and started saying that I liked to write, that I wrote a little but wasn’t a “real” writer. That was surely the year La Impostora became my constant companion … BUT … I didn’t stop writing.

How many people do good teachers reach? How many of their students have that special experience that changes something about them? How many other students in my high school did Mr. DeBlois see something in? There have to be others, plenty of others. Because he taught for years and because I’m not that special. In what ways is the support he gave them still meaningful in their lives?

Mr. DeBlois isn’t the only or the best writing teacher I’ve ever had, but he was the first, the first to make space for it to be okay for me to be a writer. That was almost 40 years ago. Thank you, Mr. DeBlois. I was on this path before senior year, but you set me more firmly on it, gave me some sturdy, comfortable hiking boots to carry me through. Whatever you saw in those crazy assignments I wrote for you, I’m grateful for it. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

webteacherappreciation

Learning to Learn

This is Teacher Appreciation Week. Sunday’s Humans of New York was a young man talking about a teacher who changed his life. It’s a beautiful story. I’m sure many people have great stories like that: a teacher who made the difference in their ability to process information, see themselves more clearly, envision possibilities for their future that were well beyond what seemed expected or obvious. I have a couple of stories like that, too.

I also think about the people who’ve had not a singe positive experience of education, not a single teacher who cared enough about them to be that one beautiful story. I think about the poet I studied with freshman year of college who regularly belittled us. She told me I was a greeting card poet. She asked us to critique a Roethke poem and then told us we didn’t have the writing talent to be allowed any opinions about Roethke’s writing. Sigh.

But this is Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’m going to set those unfortunate stories aside. Who have been the stand-out teachers in my life?

The first answer to that question is easy: Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa, my third grade teachers. They co-taught the experimental class I was lucky enough to be placed in. We had lots of options for learning through lay, for self-directed learning, for small-group activities. Our classroom was the school’s old cafeteria, so it was huge. We had stations all over the space — with books, with toys, with tools, with animals (which I enjoyed until I was bitten by the gerbil) with big floor pillows.

I’d worked with Miss Rittenberg before that year. In first grade, I’d been sent to study reading in her second grade class because at that point I’d been a reader for almost three years and many of my classmates were newer readers. And then she was my second grade teacher. So I got the wonderful experience of working with the same good teacher three years in a row. She knew me, knew how I learned and what I liked and how to draw me out of my painfully shy silence. Such an incredible luxury, finding a teacher who liked me, saw potential in me, encouraged me, knew how to support and inspire me … and then to have that teacher year after year.

loved my third grad class. I loved the non-traditional shape, size, and set-up of the room. I loved my teachers. I loved the freedom I felt in that class. I’m sure I wouldn’t have known to describe it that way, but that’s the overarching color of all my memories of third grade: I was free, I was in charge of … my brain, I guess. I wasn’t being pushed to do what everyone else was doing, I could move ahead in a book or stay behind to repeat something over and over if I wanted to. Freedom.

To this day, my favorite way to learn things is like third grade. I never had another learning environment like that, but it has been at the base of my thoughts about education ever since. When I read Mosaic of Thought in the late 90s, I was far from third grade. I was already an adult education teacher, working with emerging readers, adults reading between first and third grade level. I spent a lot of my time back then trying to remember how I’d learned to read, trying to remember how I’d learned to read for meaning. Though it wasn’t really the answer to those questions, one of the first things I thought about was being sent to Miss Rittenberg’s class as a first grader, being given the chance to read closer to my level rather than being made to wait for my classmates. And that wasn’t not about learning to read but was about facilitating learning, about acknowledging that people take-in information differently and that it’s possible to meet learners where they are and encourage them to keep pushing forward. I remembered how good it felt to not be held back, how good it felt to discover books.

Reading Mosaic was an incredible gift for me as a teacher. The book resonated with me on so many levels. The description of the ways to help learners come to reading, come to books, felt entirely familiar, felt like third grade. I didn’t know how those ideas of teaching would translate to the adult classroom, but I was instantly ready to try. (And so, happily, was my teaching partner and our bosses.)

Some things were definitely not going to be transferable. I wasn’t going to hold a student on my lap during reading time, for example! But there was so much to think about in the “simple” question of how to we become skilled, thoughtful readers?” And again I thought about third grade. What I remembered from my experience in Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa’s classroom was part of what I was trying to create in my adult literacy classroom.

Almost immediately after I started blogging in 2008, I stumbled onto Two Writing Teachers. The creators of the site — Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayers — taught children, not adults. Reading their posts, I quickly realized they were my modern day Rittenberg and Felepa, that their ideas about teaching connected with my Utopian memories of third grade. Amy of the teachers whose blogs I’ve read as a result of finding TWT have given me that same vibe.

Third grade shaped the way I envision classroom learning, and that’s huge, but it’s not the only thing I got from that year. I think it set me up for trusting my own mind. A lot of the learning I did in that classroom centered around things I chose to work on, things I chose to explore. I have no memory of anyone ever telling me there was one clear “right” way to do the work or find the answer.

After third grade, I was shoehorned into an uber-old-school classroom with a teacher who was nothing like my third grade teachers. We had moved to a new town and I didn’t know anyone. We knew nothing about my new school, so my parents couldn’t advocate for my placement in a classroom that might have suited me better (which is probably how I wound up in that experimental classroom in the first place … and, too, I doubt my new school had any classes that resembled third grade even vaguely).

“Freedom” was definitely not a way I have described fourth grade … or fifth or sixth or seventh … All the same, I made it through with my dream of third grade in tact. I made it through with my understanding that learning could happen in a lot of ways, not just with the teacher standing in front of the classroom telling us what to know and how to know it.

I was a weirdo in a lot of those classrooms, letting my third grade brain show out in some of the projects I created or the work I turned in. For the most part, my “weirdness” was tolerated, though sometimes only barely, and I was allowed to keep moving forward.

The things I learned about learning and about my own ability to think was made strong enough by what I experienced in third grade that it was able to survive the rejection of independent thought, self-direction, and creativity that I faced in the classrooms that followed.

I stayed shy and meek, and in some ways those traits gave cover to my weirdness. My thinking and learning were mostly silent endeavors. I looked studious, and I was, just not always in the ways my teachers might have imagined. And looking the part could be enough for teachers who weren’t interested in investing too much time or energy in their students — or, as the case sometimes was, in me specifically as the lone Black child in the sea of white children who “belonged” in the room.

So I’m kicking off Teacher Appreciation wee with a hearty thank you to the first teachers I ever had (outside my family) who saw and cared about me, who helped me start learning how to learn. Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa, I honestly can’t imagine who I would be — as a person or an educator — without you. Thank you.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

webteacherappreciation

Something for Adults — SOLSC 11

Overheard on Adams Street, downtown Brooklyn, 5pm, mother and seven- or eight-year-old daughter:

Mother: “Well, it’s something that happens between a man and a woman, or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman.”

Daughter: “Or sometimes three people?”

M: “Oh, well … I hope not. So it’s something for adults.”

D: “But what is it?”

M: “Well, when two people really like each other a lot …”

And when Alex Trebek plays this dialogue for your Audio Daily Double, your answer should be: “What is, ‘Mommy, what’s sex?'”

Yes, I kind of love this mother. First because she was answering such a charged question while walking down a busy Brooklyn street, carrying a big pink backpack and a scooter. Second because she spoke really calmly, as if answering  that question was the easiest thing in the world. Third because she made a conscious choice to be pretty inclusive in her description of who might actually be engaging in the mysterious, adults-only sex. Sure, she falls down with that, “Oh, well … I hope not,” but I’m giving her a pass. I’m sure that caught her off guard.

 


It’s week two of the Slice of Life Story Challenge! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

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We’re always rooting for you.

“I see a lot of black faces here.”

And the air sharpens to fine, crystalline points as every pair of ears on the bus perks up. The speaker, a small boy, white, maybe five years old, is riding with his mom. We are all on board my morning B65, en route from Crown Heights to Downtown Brooklyn.

At this point in its route, the B65 is definitely a Black World bus. This side of Crown Heights, despite rampant gentrification and displacement, is still predominantly black. There are plenty of newer, non-black residents, and many of them are parents with small children.

I can’t see the little boy or his mother from where I’m standing. We boarded together two stops ago, but they went immediately to seats at the back. I saw a neighbor up front and stopped to chat.

“I see a lot of white faces,” the little boy says. He has the high, clear, carrying voice of small children. I can hear him as if he is standing at my side, speaking directly to me. “A lot of white faces,” he says. “And a lot of black faces. Why?”

I can’t see the boy or his mother, and I wonder how she looks in this moment. Is she mortified, worried that the next words out of her baby’s mouth will be problematic, making some kind of value judgment that should (at worst) be kept to himself or (at best) not be thought at all?

In the tone of the child’s voice, there has been no indication that he feels any kind of way about what he’s seeing. He seems simply to be making an observation. The same as if he were looking at cars: I see a red car. I see a blue car. I see a lot of tan Camrys (or is that just me?).

The collective ear-perking, breath-holding on the bus is electric, palpable. Because all of us — Black riders and white — want to see where and how this goes. This is a moment, maybe, the kind of moment where a parent has the opportunity to settle something in her child’s mind, plant a small, sturdy seed.

But those of us not sitting near the mother are thwarted. In the way of many moms, she has the ability to speak clearly but quietly without whispering. I can hear that she is speaking but can’t actually hear what she says.

Whatever she says, the child’s response is inaudible. So, at the very least, her self-consciousness in the moment has made her hush him.

But I want her to know that we’re probably all rooting for her. We want to hear what she says and we want her to get it right. And, even though we want her to get it right, mostly we want to know that white parents can and will answer those questions, that they will try to plant those seeds. We want to know that neither fear of erring nor the false belief that a) some age of child is too young for this talk or b) this isn’t a conversation they as white people are able to have will keep them silent, make them hush their children.

How do you have this conversation? What do you say to your child that doesn’t silence her, that doesn’t make him feel as if he’s done something wrong, that leaves the door open for more conversation? Surely it’s easier to have this conversation at home, and that may be the reason the mom asked her son to speak quietly. But if you shush your child on the bus then try to bring up the subject when you’re on safer ground, the moment is lost. You’re no longer surrounded by all the black and white faces and the immediacy, the curiosity, is gone.

I keep saying that I’m no longer going to do white people’s homework for them, and that’s true, that’s entirely true. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see and hear how well they’re doing that homework. Seeing and hearing how people respond in awkward moments like this morning’s bus ride is one way that happens.

I hope I see that woman and her son on the bus again soon. I hope her son forgets to speak quietly and has more to say about the people he sees. What he says, whatever it is, might tell me how the mother answered this morning’s question, how she explained that there are light and dark faces on the bus.

When I went to see Selma, many of the people in the theater were parents and kids. And the kids were young: most were probably eight or nine. The daughter of the mother and daughter who sat beside me was maybe as young as seven. At first, I was surprised to see so many young ones, but it pleased me, too. How the parents taught their way through the movie pleased me even more. Throughout the film, they leaned over and shared history, context, meaning. They drew attention to specific people and actions. They asked their children to share their feelings and thoughts and ideas. They did this calmly and with care and in ways that didn’t disturb my viewing of the film. They stayed in their seats after the movie ended to keep talking, keep teaching.

This is one way white people can do their homework, can help their children start doing theirs.

No age is too young for this conversation. The first times I encountered racial prejudice, I was five years old. The people who created those encounters were also five years old.* Those children had clearly already heard a whole other conversation. Moms like the mom on the B65 this morning, like all other moms and dads need to figure this out. Yes, it’s awkward. Yes, you worry about making a mistake. Yes, of course. And maybe you think it’s better to teach your child the myth of colorblindness.** Don’t do it. Telling your child color doesn’t matter, that they shouldn’t see color is a disservice not only to your child, but to all of us.

This isn’t easy. None of it’s easy. Not for you, not for anyone. But really, you can do this. And, just like on the bus this morning, we are all rooting for you.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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__________
* I’ve written about those happy memories and then turned that story into an episode of my comic.

** Seriously. Colorblindness is a lie. If it’s a lie you’re telling yourself, you need to stop. No, seriously.