Labor (Union) Day

I have been working “official” jobs — the kind that give you a check with all your taxes siphoned off — since I was 17: first as a camp counselor in the Adirondacks the summer before college, and then during freshman year in my first work-study job in the library at my school. In nine days I’ll be 57, so that’s 40 years of sometimes-gainful employment. I worked other jobs before college — babysitting kids in the neighborhood, collecting for my brother’s paper route — but Treetops and the Esther Raushenbush Library were the first formal paid gigs of my life.

Forty years of cobbling together enough money to live on, to pay back my student loans, to take myself on vacation, to indulge my fountain pen habit.

No one ever taught me anything about working when I was in high school. I wasn’t on a vocational track, so I didn’t learn any saleable skills, and it never seemed to occur to anyone that I might have to find a job one day. I wasn’t on a vocational track, but my guidance counselor was still taken by surprise when I walked into her office saying I was ready to apply to college. I have no idea what people thought I was going to do with myself if I had no skills and wasn’t going to go to school. Crazypants.

Working was important to my family, buy my parents were too busy actually working to impart much wisdom about working. When I left for college, my mom asked that I study something that could help me get a job after graduation. I … had no idea what that meant. My answer to that request was to take a chemistry class, of all things. A class I dropped in the first month and back-filled with a class on Renaissance and Reformation England … because that was sure to lead me to some kind of quality employment. That ill-fated chem section was the only course in four years of college that I chose with the idea that I would one day need to get a job. It’s a wonder I’ve survived at all. Seriously.

In 40 years I’ve had any number of jobs, some good, some solidly crappy. I’ve learned that there are things I can make myself do and things I absolutely won’t make myself do. I’ve learned that I can put up with bullshit and take advantage of others’ stupidity. I’ve learned that sometimes I’ll have the good fortune to meet some of the best people of my life on the job and that when the job goes away I’ll be lucky enough to hold onto some of those gems. I’ve learned that I could be someone’s boss and be sexually harassed by them but not trust myself enough to believe what was happening. I’ve learned that the 90-day wait for health insurance to kick in on a new job can be the longest three months of my life.

 

In July I started a new job, a job I sincerely hope will be the last job I ever have. There’s so much to do in this job and so many ways I can imagine being productive, being challenged, being pleased at this job that it’s easy to see myself staying until I’m ready to not be working anymore.

At orientation, a representative from the union came to talk about membership and why we might want to join. The other new hires looked at the union cards and asked if they could think about it before signing up. I handed my completed card to the rep.

“You’ve already decided.”

“Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be in a union. I feel like I can check something off my bucket list.”

Everyone laughed. The other new hires looked at me as if I was the weirdest, silliest, most careless person they’d ever seen. I just smiled, felt something settle inside me, like a giant, iron slide-lock slamming home.

It was true what I’d said to the rep. I have always wanted to be in a union. I just hadn’t ever said that out loud to myself before, hadn’t ever articulated the truth of it. There had been a few moments in the past when I’d talked a lot about my support for unions. I’d had a couple of jobs that had seemed on the cusp of becoming unionized, but in each case, it hadn’t happened. I was secretly jealous of my union-member friends. So, naturally, when presented the option of joining, I jumped right in.

The same was true with the choice of retirement benefits: sign up for a pension or choose the not-quite-a-401K option? Choosing the pension seemed so obvious, I almost didn’t do it. Surely I must be missing something because why wouldn’t I choose the pension? Why was there a need to consider other options? What wasn’t I getting about the equation? Of course I chose the pension. (It is actually true that I get to do both with this job, have a pension and sign up for retirement savings, so I really don’t get why anyone would choose not to have a pension.)

 

My parents were union members early in their work lives, but not for long enough to have long-term benefits from those memberships. Signing up for the pension plan and joining the union felt momentous to me, felt like things I should have been able to do 40 years ago when I started working. Somehow the idea of “work” for me, the idea of what a worker should expect from a job, included unionization and retirement income. And that feels super old-fashioned, and I guess it is, but it’s also real. And I didn’t know just how real it was until I got to sign those forms earlier this summer. No one “taught” me any of that, so where did it come from?

Driving in rural Louisiana about 15 years ago, I saw a billboard that showed a white hand clasping a black hand across a brilliant yellow background. The test read: Black and White Together — To Crush the Unions. What in the actual, mind-numbingly-against-your-best-interests fuck was that? I stared hard at that sign as we drove by, totally unable to fathom the logic of any worker anywhere wanting to break the unions.

Workers, unionized and not, owd so much to unions: the 40-hour work week, weekends,  unemployment benefits, FMLA, the 8-hour work day, workplace safety standards and the creation of OSHA, Worker’s comp, sick leave, paid holidays, collective bargaining rights. And so. much. more. Unions are the fucking bomb.

And they also have a super-problematic history. My feelings about unions aren’t really based on all the great things workers enjoy because of union organizing. When I think of union membership and why it’s important to me, I think of my father. He and I certainly never once had a conversation about unions. But somehow — in that way that children understand things about the adults in their lives — I got the sense that his no longer being in a union was a sore point, that he thought his life and our life as a family would have been made better if he’d been in a union.

The more I learned about union history and the concerted effort to exclude Black people from organized labor, the more I understood the barriers between my father and a union job. And, while I have still grown up thinking unions are fabulous, I’ve also grown up with anger at their codified racism. In this context. joining a union as a Black woman becomes all that more meaningful. I join because I want and deserve the benefits of my union membership. But I also join for my ancestors who weren’t allowed to, who were systematically cut off from the benefits of membership. And I do it for the Washing Society and the Sleeping Car Porters, and for the members of every other Black labor union in this country’s ugly history.

I can’t explain why the other new hires at orientation with me didn’t jump to join the union. They were all people of color, but they were all a) non-Black POC and b) non-native to the US. So my history isn’t theirs, and the weight of union membership didn’t reverberate out from that blue membership form for them the way it did for me. Maybe. I won’t speak for them. I just know I am THRILLED to finally, after my whole life of working, be a member of a labor union. Achievement Unlocked!


(And yes the ILGWU song was embedded in my psyche. So, as much as my father and my history as a Black person explain my feelings about unions, this ad with its so-memorable song is another reason I was such a pro-union kid.)


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.

Done. Undone. Redone.

I was in a reading last week. I haven’t read in a while, but I always love reading for Big Words, Etc. The lineup of readers is always interesting, Stacey and Jess are such warm and lovely hosts, and the folks who come out are always so supportive of every reader.

Wednesday’s theme was “redo” and I struggled with it for a while, didn’t find my idea until the day before the reading, and didn’t finish pulling this piece together until about 10 minutes before the reading. Some of this will sound familiar, and that’s because the story within the story is one I’ve told many, many times. Working on this piece for Big Words is the first time I’ve thought about that moment in this way. The magic of the redo, right? If “redo” can also mean “rethink,” or “re-remember.” My piece didn’t have a title when I read it last week. It does now.

Done. Undone. Redone.

Redo is the dream, right? The fantasy of erasing failure, acknowledging a screw-up and fixing it. I need them all the time. One redo wish pokes at me, a moment when the universe offered me magic and possibility and I squandered it. And that squandering drives me crazy, even more today than when it happened.

* * *

I was in Paris for my junior year abroad, and working on a project on the Civil Rights Movement.  I was days and days in the American Library, my table piled with books. (My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! I kept it on my table to scare people away.)

One afternoon, a guy handed me a flyer.  “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d be interested in this.”  James Baldwin was going to be speaking somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”

(And that would be because I was a pure fool. I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was. )

My mother and sister came to visit, and I was wrapped up in seeing them and set other things aside.  We were standing on a train platform one afternoon, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”

My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.”  (Still young and dumb.)

A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?”  So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him and ….

… started talking and talking and talking about myself!  Because, obviously, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about.  On and on I went. In the bar, on the metro, walking to the lecture hall.

He was unbelievably nice, asking questions, offering advice, basically putting up with my unfathomable stupidity in the gentlest, more generous way.

And then he gave his talk.  And, with every passing moment, I realized just how brilliant this “funny-looking little man” was, just how uncommonly stupid I was.  I wanted to sink through the floor.

* * *

The most obvious “redo” here is to be less stupid, to have read Baldwin before that moment so I’d know who he was and appreciate the gift I was given to meet and talk with him. I would of course have wanted a redo on our conversation, to talk about something other than myself

My deeper dream is a redo knowing what I know today, a time-travel redo that lets me talk to him from the future, get some “I am not your Negro” insight into this world I’ve grown up into. 

There was a point in our metro ride when we could have gone there, when our conversation strayed from my nonsense. I told him about my study project and my frustration after all the reading I’d been doing, the obviousness of an ongoing problem and no organized action taking it on. I asked him why he thought the Civil Rights Movement’s push for equality had stopped.

He told me I was mistaken, that there was a movement, and it was active, even if I wasn’t aware of it, that the work had gone underground and would resurface in its own time.

I always forget about that exchange. When I think of this story, I focus entirely on my ignorance and idiocy, not on this flicker of light.

I still want my redo because, my god, can you imagine all James Baldwin  would have to say in 2019?

But I have what he did say, and  wasn’t it totally about today, isn’t it the Movement for Black Lives, isn’t this the resurfacing Baldwin was so certain would come? I want my redo so I can expand that conversation, talk about what my work in this resurfacing could be. That conversation might have kept me from floundering as I struggled against despair, struggled to find my way to work for change.

Remembering what Baldwin said on that train brought Naima Penniman to mind. She wrote:

“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide, and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil. How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental justice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

Reading that was both a strong embrace and a body slam. I have spent so much time in the last five years castigating myself over the ways I do and don’t step up in this fight.

Then I saw the Toni Morrison movie. She spoke about her choices during the Civil Rights Movement, and it shook me, made me recommit to writing about racism, about misogynoir, about the vast sea of white folks needing to do the work, all the ways they could and don’t do it. Morrison’s reminder nudge, coupled now with this memory of Baldwin’s assertion about the work underground are breathing me back into being, back to what I know is true.

This redo isn’t erasing failure, isn’t about failure. It’s about remembering and starting again, about resetting my course, about picking up my tools and moving forward. Redo. Redo. Redo.


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.

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

Some dust has been bitten.

Another year of the Slice of Life Story Challenge comes to an end. I didn’t do as well this month as I’d hoped, but I’ve made it through to day 31. Having surgery early in the month knocked me for a much harder loop than I’d been anticipating. I missed posting a couple of days — which, considering how sleepy and silly some of my posts were, is probably more a gift to blog readers than anything to be sorry for. Much more importantly, I was supposed to be welcoming new folks into the slicing ranks by reading and commenting on their posts every day, and I deeply regret how hard I fell down on that promise.

I participated in this challenge in 2008, the very first year. That was also my first year of blogging. I’d only had my blog for a month when I stumbled onto the TWT blog and into this challenge. Such a lucky thing that I did! I absolutely credit that first challenge with pushing me across the line from maybe-I’ll-have-a-blog to being a blogger. So grateful to that original group of slicers and to all the great folks who’ve jumped into the challenge over the eleven years between that first run and this one.

What my blog is and how I use it has morphed fairly dramatically since 2008. It’s interesting to look back at early posts and see the ways my voice has changed, the ways it has stayed the same, how some of the more embarrassing posts still sound totally like me. I clearly have a voice (“a Voice“), and it’s interesting to hear it over time.

I’ve come to think of March as my blog-iversary because of this challenge. No matter how absent I’ve been from this space, I always find my way back for Slice of Life in March. I exhaust myself with daily posting … and then I’m ready-not-ready to dive into April and writing poetry all month. March reminds me why I like having a blog and primes me for the rigors of National Poetry Month.

Thank you Two Writing Teachers, for another excellent slicing challenge, for giving me the chance to read such an interesting cross-section of blogs and for getting me reacquainted with my own little corner of these internets.


It’s the final day of the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! Hundreds of folks have been participating. If you haven’t been one of them, maybe next year will be the year you’ll join in!

All I Want for TKD …

It’s the first frigid days of 2018. A new year. Where I’m sitting, the “real feel” temperature is -30. Yes, if I step outside, it will feel like 30 degrees below zero. There is so much wrong with that, I don’t have time or energy to describe it. But … where I’m sitting, it’s beautiful, and it’s quiet and calm, and I have a gorgeous space to myself for a few days of writing and dreaming and staring at the snowy landscape and organizing my brain.

This is a gift I’ve bought myself, these four days of contemplation and work. The drive up with my friends yesterday was lovely. The first moments of walking into this glorious space and seeing just how fabulous it is was lovely. Waking up to see sunlight creeping over the mountains out my window was lovely. Remembering that the only things I have to do are the things that I want to do was best of all.

These few days are the third DIY writing retreat I’ve made. Each retreat has been very different, and each has been just what I needed. In some version of a perfect world, all of my time would be like this. But I don’t live in a perfect world, so I have to create my moments of perfection when and where I can.

It’s Three Kings Day, the day Melchior, Balthsar, and Gaspar presented their gifts to Mary’s new baby. What gifts would I have of the Magi this year? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are nice, but my needs run a little different from those of the newly-born Christ child.

  1. Energy. I have a lot of plans for myself this year. If I have any hope of getting through even half of them, I’m going to need lots of energy. Lots of it.

These plans I have for myself run in all kinds of directions. When I set my new-year intentions before my birthday (the official start of the new year for me is my birthday, so January is a time for me to review first quarter success and re-up for the rest of the year), the primary focus of all my goals was my health. I’ve had a few years of non-stop crap, and I’m more than tired of it. So I started working on the most pressing items and focusing on maintaining the gains I’d already made. Dealing with the healthcare system and with healthcare providers exhausts the mess out of me, however. That’s one place the need for energy comes in. Pushing back against a system that wants to blame all my ills on my weight, insisting that providers actually listen to the things I tell them are happening with my body, fighting with my insurance company so that care I need is paid for … it’s a job of work.

I need physical energy, too, however. I have some clear and intensive goals around strength training and getting my body ready for the trip I’m planning in the fall. I need to be stronger, need to be a little less fearful of injury and pain, need to have a little more trust in my physical capacity. So, speaking of jobs of work … yeah.

And there are some things that need to be done, that only I can do, that I have no desire to do. I need to find the will to power through them, day after day after day. If I can’t do them, most of the rest of my plans for the year will have to be set aside, and I’m not here for that possibility, so I have to step up and get those things done.

  1. Pigheadedness. If you know me, you know I can be annoyingly stubborn sometimes. That’s true enough as far as it goes. But I struggle with not being stubborn enough to hold onto things that are for myself, things that feel selfish because they are just about me. I let plans for myself fall by the wayside all the time. I regret those falls later, but that regret doesn’t bring opportunity back. So I want some selfish stubbornness, I want the ability to keep my needs as my primary focus and direction this year. That doesn’t mean I want to ignore other people and their needs. It means I want to stop putting other people and their needs ahead of myself every time. I want to be pigheaded in my belief that I am worth that focus, that my needs are important and deserve my time and attention.
  2. Confidence. This one may be the most important one of all, the one that gives me the ability to have the other two.

I struggle with Impostor Syndrome on the regular. There are times when La Impostora is my constant companion. She is far too good at keeping me down, keeping me back, keeping me in a box of self-doubt. And I’m sick unto death of her power over me.

I wanted to say that the third gift should be “Wakandan pride.” And maybe that’s still right. Wakandans know they are the shit. I have never had that fierce a sense of myself and my value … and I want some of that. I’m not getting any younger. What am I waiting for? Mother Toni said it right in Beloved. I am my best thing. Me. I am. And I need to see that and know it and believe it and live it. And I need to start right this instant.

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And so, Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar. There are my wishes, my gift requests for this Three Kings Day: energy, pigheadedness, confidence. Work your magic, magi. Come through.