The branches of the learning tree …

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, friends and neighbors!

Today’s Google Doodle was lovely: https://g.co/doodle/hjchhys. Fingers crossed they have one of these every day this week!

My Teacher Appreciation tonight goes out to Michael, an extraordinary adult education teacher. I met him at one of my first adult ed jobs. We didn’t work together then, but I had the chance to observe his class once and had several opportunities to get some impromptu professional development training when I found myself lucky enough to be in the teachers’ office doing prep at the some time he was there.

Years later, we ran into each other in the hallway at grad school, and he mentioned that the program where he was currently working was looking for a new instructor. I got the job and then began seven excellent years of teaching with and learning from Michael.

I arrived at that job with some teaching experience, but a lot of that had been teaching high school students, and adult education — especially adult literacy — is entirely different from teaching high school English. I had taught both literacy classes and high school equivalency classes before I started working with Michael, and I’d learned a lot in those jobs, but I wouldn’t say I was a good teacher then. I was good-hearted, and that maybe counted for something. I wanted to be a good teacher for my students, and that surely counted for something, too. But I really needed to just simply be a good adult ed teacher, not just dream about being one.

Working with Michael was the bright, dividing line for me. Before that job I was well-meaning and okay. That job helped me become well-meaning and good. I learned to calm down and trust myself more. I learned new ways to imagine what a classroom could be. I learned that I could fully lean into my creativity and bring my whole self to the classroom. I learned to create different environments and experiences for the students to offer opportunities for them to experience and exhibit mastery even while reading and writing remained steep hills to climb. I learned to ask questions and more questions. I learned how to study my own learning. I learned how to be wrong without shame, drama, planetary implosion or other catastrophes.

I was learning pretty much all the time. For all of those years. The entire team of our program were pivotal in my teaching and development. I wasn’t only working with Michael, after all, but my significant collaboration was with Michael. In our last year of teaching together, he and I received the New York City Literacy Recognition Award, the first (and I think still the only) teacher team to receive the award. Working with Michael was one of the best gifts of my career.

And one of the hidden gifts of that experience? Teaching with Michael brought me back to writing poetry. I had stopped writing poems after a horrible experience in a poetry workshop my freshman year in college. The wall between me and poetry was erected then, my firm belief not only that I couldn’t write poetry but that I absolutely shouldn’t. Poetry was for other people, for talented people, for POETS. And I was most definitely not one of those.

Michael is a poet. And we brought a lot of poetry into our adult ed program. And we encouraged learners to write poetry. And Michael pushed me to not be afraid to write poetry, too. That was when I saw that I couldn’t very well push my students to try things that were challenging and daunting for them if I wasn’t brave enough to try them myself. After 12 years of not writing a single poem, I wrote my first poems in that program, in class with my students. They weren’t spectacular, but they were poems and I had written them.

The wall between me an poetry is still high in places, but it’s also cracked and crumbled in many other places. I mean, I write at least 30 poems a year these days because of National Poetry Month, so I can’t pretend that I don’t write poetry. I still feel some of the damage from that ugly workshop so many years ago, but I also remember the fun I had in class with Michael and our fabulous students, playing games and finding rhythms and getting words on the page.

Michael. Thank you for everything you taught me in all the ways you taught me. I cannot imagine what I’d be doing with my life if I hadn’t worked with you at SINC. Those years are the foundation that has made the rest of my career in adult ed possible. Thank you, thank you, thank you. ❤

Psychokiller, qu’est-ce que c’est …

(Before I dive in — all vax shot side effects seem to have passed! I feel like myself again.)

Forever ago, I worked nights as a video transcriber for Inside Edition. This was back when the show was first on the air, when David Frost was the front man and Bill O’Reilly was an anchor (did they call them anchors?). It was my second year living in the City. I shared an apartment with my sister and spent my days working as a word processor (is that even a job anymore?). My sister worked at Barnard College, maybe in Student Services or something like that. Whatever her job, it gave her access to the jobs that were posted for the Barnard girls, and in at least two instances, I applied for and got those jobs. The Inside Edition gig was the first of them. (Should I feel guilty about “taking” a job from an undergrad at Barnard? I don’t. My sister and I had next to no money. We needed every penny we could earn. And, too, both jobs were awful. I think I actually did the Barnard girls a favor by sparing them.)

All of the other video transcribers were guys. We worked in tiny rooms, just enough space for a TV, VCR and a typewriter (yes). It was a miserable job for which I didn’t receive an hourly wage but was paid by the number of tapes I could get through. And I’d leave the Upper East Side studio around midnight and have to make my way to Washington Heights. Because I was a woman, and the only woman on the transcription team, my supervisor gave me permission to add an extra video to my tally each night to cover the cost of a cab home. But since I had that job during the time my sister and I referred to ourselves as “The Poverty Twins,” I absolutely added the extra tape to my tally … and absolutely kept taking the bus uptown after work. Sometimes the trip was unnerving — the long wait for the bus transfer at a super-isolated stop on Riverside Drive — but groceries and rent seemed more vital, I guess.

Most of the interviews I transcribed were painfully stupid — the police chief who was angry because the teenager at his local sandwich shop had put too much salt on his roast beef in what was surely an act of anti-police violence.

Then one night I got a bin of tapes, and it was an interview with Diane Downs. I transcribed for hours. Hours alone in that tiny room just listening to this disturbed and disturbing woman. And I’m thinking about this now because — for reasons only the algorithms know — FB put a link to the Inside Edition episode in my newsfeed this morning. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about Diane Downs. I think about her far more often than I’d like. Because of Farrah Fawcett’s excellent portrayal in the TV movie, Small Sacrifices — the “Hungry Like a Wolf” courtroom scene in particular — and because that always reminds me of transcribing the interview.

My instructions for transcribing videos were to write down everything that was said, with timestamps, and to include camera movements (close-ups, wide shots, etc.), and flag any interesting responses or facial expressions or bombshell moments that the reporter might particularly want to take a look at to consider including in the final piece.

Clicking through the FB link this morning was the first time I ever saw the piece as it ran on Inside Edition. They should have included more of Downs.

Transcribing the interview that night, watching Diane Downs, was both fascinating and terrifying. I’m being silly with the title of this post (and now have that song as an earworm), but Downs was absolutely a psychopath. I watched her and had no doubt she was capable of anything, no doubt that she was guilty. At one point, she tried seducing the reporter. I mean, “seducing” isn’t quite the right word. Not exactly. But definitely trying to win him, to get him to be interested in her and to like her — so that he’d believe her, I imagine. And her actions with him seemed automatic, as if she didn’t plan it or have to think about it. That kind of seduction was her go-to way of dealing with men. And when it became clear that she wasn’t going to win him to her side, she changed. Nothing dramatic. It was like the really good eye acting some people can do (Gary Oldman comes first to mind). They don’t move a muscle, but something in their eyes shifts and everything is suddenly different. I could watch the moment when she stopped seeing him as useful, when she stopped caring that he existed. He must have seen it and I’d guess that it felt a little unnerving. I don’t ever want to have someone look at me like that.

She scared the crap out of me.

She scared me because she was scary but also because she was so … anybody. She was such a regular person, someone I could imagine knowing, being in class with, working with. And something about the ordinariness of her masking the absolute horror of her upended me, blew my sense of equilibrium. The idea that anyone could be so regular and be a ruthless killer isn’t new, of course. Perfectly normal-seeming people do all kinds of vile and violent things. But something about Diane Downs was different for me. What I saw when I watched her interview tapes settled in me and freaked me out. I left my dark little cubby, dropped off my videos, transcriptions, and tally sheet, left the nearly-empty studio and headed up to 79th Street for the crosstown bus. Every person I saw on the street made me nervous. I could feel fear rise in my throat. I got to 79th Street … and hailed a cab.


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Continuous Passive Motion

Today, in a BIPOC antiracism group I co-facilitate, we talked about Atlanta, and one of the women in the group brought up the belief that Black people and Asian people don’t get along. She talked about some of the responses to the Atlanta attack that were coming up in her friend circles and in her family. And that conversation reminded me of this:

After my first knee surgery in 2016 (not my first knee surgery, but the first one I had that year … it’s a long and un-pretty story), I left the hospital and did the first couple of weeks of my recuperation in a really nice rehab facility in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Most of the nursing assistants in that place were Asian women. Many of the patients were Asian, too, but not all.

I had brought a lot of pass-the-time stuff with me, imagining that I’d need the distractions, that I wouldn’t just be doing physical therapy or sleeping, which is generally what one does after knee surgery. One of the things I brought with me was the baby blanket I was knitting for a friend’s newly-arrived first child.

Everyone was interested in my knitting. They would all ask what I was working on, and I’d tell them, and they’d say it was a nice gift. One morning, I’d gotten some super adorable pics of my friend and her baby, so when the first person asked me about the blanket, I decided to also show her the picture of the gift recipient. I pulled up the photo on my phone and handed it to the nursing assistant. She looked shocked, which wasn’t the response I was expecting. She turned the phone to face me.

“Your friend is Chinese!”

And that was true, but so? I acknowledged the yes, my friend was Chinese. She nodded and handed back my phone. “Wow,” she said quietly. I’m not sure she actually looked at the baby at all. I was puzzled, but let it go. I showed the picture to some of the other Asian women who took care of me and got almost the same response each time.

Months later, after my second knee surgery that year (as I said, a long and un-pretty story), I was back in the same rehab place. A friend had come to visit me, and then another friend arrived. Both are women I knew from my old job. The first woman who’d come by is white. The second woman who came by is Chinese — not the mother of the baby, whole different friend group. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call the white woman Anne and the Chinese woman Miao. While we were hanging out, one of the nursing assistants came in to check on me. She looked stunned to see Miao and immediately excused herself. Thirty seconds later, another assistant came to the room, got a look at Miao and dashed away. This continued. Maybe five or six more times.

Anne remarked on the incredible attentiveness of the CNA staff. It seemed pretty clear, however, that the staff were coming to see Miao with their own eyes, some in-the-flesh proof of my having Chinese friends. When I said this and told Miao and Anne about the baby photo, Miao nodded. “Yes,” she said. “It’s surprising that you have Asian people for friends. I was taught to think Black people don’t like us. Maybe they were, too.”

Which made me feel sad and naive at the same time. The idea that Black and Asian people don’t get along wasn’t new. I just hadn’t thought about it or seen it play out in such a glaring way in my own life.

my friends wondered if seeing Miao would mean I’d get better treatment. I waved that off as ridiculous, and am happy to say that I was proven right. I was already getting fabulous care. The only way they could have improved on their treatment of me would have been for one of them to morph into my mom and come sing me lullabies to put me to sleep each night.

The idea that Black and Asian people don’t like one another is absurd … or it should be. In the BIPOC group today, we talked about the ways anti-Black racism builds walls between groups, keeping everyone under its thumb, keeping everyone busy laying blame on one another rather than looking at White Supremacy. The careful and intricate constructions of racism keep doing their work, keep humming along under everything.

One of the tools used to support recuperation after knee surgery is a CPM machine: Continuous Passive Motion. You put your leg in this device and it moves your knee through its full range of motion until you turn it off. I both loved and hated that machine. And in our BIPOC group today, thinking about the shocked women in the rehab center, I made the connection that one of White Supremacy’s powerful tools is that it functions like the CPM machine. You don’t have to move a muscle. You are strapped into the apparatus, and it cycles you through the various ranges of hateful motion. It functions in the background with no need for your awareness and will continue to do so until you take deliberate action to shut it down.

When will we be ready to turn off that switch?


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
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What I Didn’t Do

Content warning: Atlanta shootings

I had a crap day today. I’m overtired and cranky. I discovered a huge error in the big project we’re slogging through at work. There was a worsening of a pain in my right arm that feels distressingly similar to how my rotator cuff tear started four years ago. I left work too late to make it to the UPS store, which likely means it’s too late to return a nonsense purchase I made a while ago.

I had a crap day on Monday when I hurt my hip and smushed my finger in a door and had a snarky interaction with a neighbor who refuses to wear masks or respect socially-distant space.

I could have an entire blog dedicated to writing about the crap days I have. The days when I come home feeling defeated. The days when it’s hard to get out of bed because what’s the point when everything sucks. The days when I’m more sad, angry, lonely, tired, fed up than I am anything nicer. I generally have pretty good days, but I have quite a number of super-bad ones, too.

I don’t imagine I’m all that unusual. Don’t we all have crap days sometimes?

I had a lousy day. What I didn’t do was pretend that my unfortunate day was a reasonable catalyst for terrorism. What I didn’t do was go on a killing spree and explain my actions by saying I was in a bad mood. What I didn’t do was make my victims out to be villains who left me with no choice but to end their lives. Somehow I managed not to do any of that.

I had a crap day and this is what I did: some impulse grocery shopping when I was finally on my way home and got back here with watermelon, tortilla chips, and ice cream (hey, my binge doesn’t look like everybody’s binge). What I didn’t do, it bears repeating, was kill anyone and then blame them for my violence.

I’m not surprised that a police officer (one who has been revealed to be — surprise! — a racist) would talk about Robert Aaron Long’s act of domestic terrorism in a way that offered up excuses for the murder of eight innocent people. I’m not surprised that this racist police officer told the killer’s story and erased the victims from the narrative as easily as Long did with his racist, misogynistic violence. I’m not surprised. But I am, too.

I had a bad day. And it was made worse by the reverberations of this latest act of white male violence against people of color. Robert Aaron Long isn’t some lone wolf, some individual crazy guy who had a bad day, some unfathomable mad man. Long is one more in a line of violent white men we are asked to ignore over and over again. This morning I wrote on FB that he looks like all of his brothers — like Dylan Roof, like Tim McVeigh, like Biggo with his feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, like every murdering incel. They all look alike, because they are all alike. And we are asked to ignore everything that is plainly similar about all of them, asked to pretend that each of them is a stand-alone case of mental illness rather than force the conversation about the violence of angry white men, rather than act.

I had a bad day, but I’m still here. I wish I could say the same for the eight innocents who were gunned down yesterday.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Grading on the Curve

My no-longer-so-new job is the largest job I’ve ever had. It’s a job I wanted for several years before the opportunity to apply for it came along. I had some ideas about what the job would include, the kinds of work I’d be doing. And I figured there’s be a world of other things I hadn’t imagined. And I knew I’d have a lot to learn.

Right on all counts. Even the familiar things and the things I figured would be part of the job have presented plenty of mountains to climb in the need-to-learn category. I’ve spent the last 18 months on a learning curve with a broader, more sweeping arc than anything I’ve ever taken on.

All that learning, all that needing to learn, has made lots of room for La Impostora to stride in and get all up in my business. (If you are new to this page, La Impostora is my pet name for and personification of impostor syndrome. She and I have a long and unpleasant history.) And she has been riding shotgun with me since the day I accepted this job.

There is a large piece of my job that has been particularly difficult for me. It involves: 1) learning and understanding two sets of rules, 2) overlaying those rules on some moving parts that tend to move in completely non-complementary ways, 3) fitting the whole swirling chaos into a governing system the logic of which I am only made aware of when a) catastrophe is about to strike or b) catastrophe has already been precipitated by me. This piece of my job impacts every other piece of my job. This is where La Impostora comes to play.

This part of the work stresses me out and calls up all my doubts and fears, so of course it’s La Impostora’s favorite place to be. She has done a great job of reminding me of all the ways I don’t understand this critical piece of my job and how I am more likely to burn everything to the ground before actually learning how to do one part of it even passably well. (You can see why La Impostora is not exactly my favorite imaginary friend.)

This week, however, I tackled this aspect of my job in a way that bordered on capable. Because sometimes I can see La Impostora coming and I can shunt her off into a side room and bar the door. I can remember all the things I came into this job knowing and all the things I’ve learned since I got here. I can actually work through messy problems and find solutions and make disparate pieces function as parts of a whole. This week has surprised and pleased me by being full of moments like that, most particularly in this one super-stressful aspect of the work. I didn’t see it coming at the start of the week, and wouldn’t have guessed that it would keep up for the whole week, but here we are.

I have so much to learn in this job (I mean, SO MUCH), and not everything this week went swimmingly. But it always feels good to be able to turn down La Impostora’s loud, resonant voice, to be able to listen to my own voice. It feels good to see that I have been learning all this time, that I’m moving further in and farther up … that I’m on a curve, not a hamster wheel.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot