What it means to be “racist” and how accusing everyone of it doesn’t help

Part of the wonderful craziness of teaching middle school students is the perpetual existence of catch phrases. Young people hear adults and their peers use a word or phrase and its meaning is vague to them; after awhile, students are testing out the word in various contexts, trying to figure out its actual meaning. We start hearing the word used incorrectly and, as teachers, decide whether or not to stop everything and jump into “teachable moment” mode.

Sometimes the word is just a novelty — words like “dab” or “lit” come to mind — and are soon forgotten. We don’t spend time on those words. In the past, we have taken time with insensitive uses of “gay,” “fag,” and “queer” and I like to think that those talks had a little to do with a more healthy attitude toward our LGBTQ community, as well as the emergence of the Alliance club at the high school. Words like “creeper” and “foreigner” are also misused often and we may need to address those soon (fear of the unknown is a powerful thing). More recently, though, students have heard the word “racist” being tossed about (with our President being accused of racist remarks and some police being seen as racist toward minority groups) and have started casually accusing each other of being “racist.” This seems like one of those teachable moments to me.

The dictionary definition is a good place to start: racist — “a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.” (Oxford Dictionary) Some middle school students don’t recognize how serious this accusation is. They toss the word around quickly and freely without realizing it’s actually in the same intensity as yelling “FIRE!” or “RAPE!” The word racist carries a history with it that involves Native American displacement, white supremacist groups, hate crimes, and lynchings.

It’s a challenging topic but that isn’t a reason to ignore it; as an educator, I believe we can discuss almost anything with students as long as we do it in a sensitive, thoughtful manner. I understand that I need to be aware of my own biases and that I’m not expert on the topic, only an authority on my own experiences. These experiences are influenced by a multitude of factors, not the least of which are the culture in which I was brought up and the degree of privilege I have benefited from in my life.

I have never consciously thought that one race is superior to another (as the dictionary definition describes the word), but having taken the Implicit Bias Test and (at the same time I realize the test is not the whole picture) understanding a bit about the power of unconscious behavior, I am fully aware that I have my biases. I try to stay aware of them as I talk with people of color, but I really try to treat each person I talk with as a person first and listen to their concerns; some people say they “don’t see color,” which I think is ridiculous. I focus on the person in front of me and that means trying to take into account the little I know about his or her experience, asking questions to fill in the blanks in my head.

So part of my message, students, is to think before you accuse and to know your own biases, in general.

Instead of calling someone racist, “concentrate on why the person’s words or actions hurt you. Explain why you take issue with the person…” instead of attacking them with this strong, hateful word. (ThoughtCo) By calling someone racist, you are making an unfair, quick judgment about the person and situation — that judgment itself is a type of pigeon-holing or stereotyping that adds to the problem instead of trying to solve it.

We have been talking about using precise language in our poetry unit. The importance of our word choices is a theme you’ll see played out in The Giver, also, which we read next marking period. It carries over to many professions like law and advertising; the words you choose make a difference. And words have more than one meaning and connotation. If I was to say that I want you to discriminate, you might think I’ve lost my mind. The word, “discriminate,” however, means more than one thing. It’s actually an important skill in this sense. I would like you to discern or figure out when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate to accuse people of things…that’s one definition of discriminating…to be a thinking person who distinguishes between right and wrong.

Just like when bullying happens, there are bystanders when the word “racist” is spoken. Those bystanders have a major role in what happens next, just like when bullying happens. They have to discern if the situation involves a suggestion that one race is superior or if it’s an exaggerated, inappropriate use of the word; in either case, the bystander has a responsibility to speak up — to see justice done or to tell the speaker that he or she is wrong. Their role is key to ending this misuse of the word.

Using language (whether thought, spoken, written, visual…) is a complex thing. Learning how to use it precisely and effectively is a lifelong process. My hope is that, throughout your life, you will accurately communicate your ideas. To do that, always think before you speak.

One Time at a Time

Time in the airport — staying calm amid the hustle and the bustle, sitting on the tarmac for one hour before the flight was cancelled, waiting 12 hours for the next flight, playing several games (Clubs, Five Crowns, Hearts…), and arriving in Seattle after having been awake for 24+ hours, dazed and grateful

Time in the rental car avoiding other cars and walking/biking/moped-riding people, as well as avoiding traffic jams with Rachel’s knowledge of the city

Time with family hiking up to Rattlesnake Ledge — only 4 miles roundtrip, but up 1200 feet in elevation for some glorious views

Time walking around Seattle seeing quite a few homeless people, wondering what their lives were like, are like, will be like

Time reading a novel about time-travel and, at times, wishing to jump into the story to experience the 18th century for a few hours or days

Time virtually dangling my feet over Washington (Snoqualmie Falls, breeching whales in Puget Sound, Olympic National Forest, the San Juan Islands, the Walla Walla Valley Balloon Stampede) as part of Wings over Washington

Time watching Arrival and wondering if time is the subtle, constant force I’ve always accepted it as being or if one can move forward and back within its vastness

Time with Judy listening to Ravel, Beethoven, and Gliere played by the Lansing Symphony Orchestra; Judy had worked with french horn soloist, David Cooper, decades before which made it even more special

Time standing in the hall outside my classroom at MacDonald Middle School looking at each student that passes and picturing each one walking across the stage getting their diplomas as graduating seniors

Time to construct a letter about an issue I care about and put it out there in the world — and having a friend make a meaningful comment about it

Time to candidly talk with a past student and see what he created from our talk

Time listening to a sermon entitled “Timing,” hearing a voice from the past say “Hell is truth seen too late,” and automatically thinking that the owners of Eastwood Towne Center will rue the day they didn’t work out a deal with Schuler Books, causing it to close; I’ll always remember one customer grieving the bookstore’s closing by saying,
“I mean,
we
lived
here”

Continuing to Re-Learn

Lisa Genova wrote the movie, Still Alice, several years ago. In her recent TED talk called “What you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s,” she concludes that continuing to learn throughout life seems to be very important in preventing Alzheimer’s Disease. This makes sense intuitively as well because if I am always learning, I stay fresh and current…like a constantly sharpened pencil never getting dull.

For me, though, it’s more like learn, learn, forget, re-learn, re-learn.

Another short, four-day writing camp ends and I have learned many things — I hope the students came away with something, too. For at least ten summers, I have taught teens in the summer at the Red Cedar Writing Project’s Spartan Writing Camps. For years, I led a camp called “Digital Writing,” but more recently I have been widening the focus to “Creative Writing.” I like the flexibility that such a class affords and often I include some digital writing as part of the camp.

One techie thing I re-learned was how fun and useful Storybird can be. It’s a great tool for sharing longform stories, picture books, and poems. I also was reminded that their notion of a poem is something you create with the words they provide (like refrigerator magnets); choose “picture book” to share a previously written poem and you can add photos to go along with the poem. And who did I learn all of this from? A teen named Elaina. Seeing her enthusiasm for the website, I asked her to teach the camp about it with a 10 minute introduction. She jumped right up and did an amazing job. Five more students were using it in minutes and ended up presenting their final project with it. This bright 13 year old even inspired me to create the following haiku on Storybird.

On the last day of camp, I was able to get Lansing’s new Poet Laureate, Dennis Hinrichsen, to visit our camp. That simple act re-taught me a couple things to start: it doesn’t hurt to ask and even relatively short notice is sometimes enough notice. Dennis did a marvelous job explaining the context of a couple poems and reading them. He answered students’ questions for quite awhile and in a very genuine, personable manner.

At the end of his talk, Dennis said he was willing to work with someone on their draft in front of the group. None of the 35 students or two other teachers took him up on his offer. So, I went to the computer, found two of my pieces of poetry, and was reminded of that exciting, queasy feeling called risk. He spent over 20 minutes workshoping them (for free) and both poems were markedly better. I enjoyed watching him talk through his suggestions and questions, while engaging and challenging the students.

NOTE: Dennis would like to talk about poetry in classrooms around the tri-county area in the fall. If you are a K-12 teacher in the Lansing area, shoot him an email at LansingPoet@gmail.com. I highly recommend him for his rapport with young people and his insights into poetry.

I also learned what it means to power through. I had surgery to remove a benign growth on my parotid gland (near my right ear) on the Wednesday before the Monday camp began. My four days to recover were shortened since I needed to stay overnight in the hospital due to the mass being infected and surgery lasting five hours (instead of 2-3 as expected). I also had an extra trip to the ER on Sunday due to inflammation and swelling. All of which is to say that I was in less-than-favorable condition to lead 11 sixth-eighth graders in much of anything.

Here’s what I looked like when I came home from the hospital

The stitch started at the top-front section in front of my ear, went under and behind my ear, and then petered out on my neck. I’m not sure if I grew my beard so I wouldn’t have to shave or to hide the gruesomeness of it all.

I, of course, used the surgery as an example of taking life and turning it into creative writing: “What if instead of just taking out the growth, they put in a tracker or made me bionic in some way?” That inspired at least one story. Fortunately, I had wonderfully creative and cooperative 6th-8th graders. They jumped on everything on the camp agenda and cut me some slack when I needed to relax a bit. When you throw in that it didn’t rain, we all got ice cream, and they actually pay me to lead the camp, leading this camp felt like a success (thanks to regular pain meds and a bunch of antibiotics).

I’d like to give a special shout-out to Hannah Schulte. She pinch hit for me on Tuesday morning when I had a doctor’s appointment. She’s a recent, Spartan graduate looking for a teaching job. She was in my class regularly a couple years ago and I was very impressed. May the Force be with her.

Limericks to Help Us Cope

Enjoy these three topical limericks. The first I’ve ever shared.

There once was a group from SNL
They noticed an unusual media swell
Focused their skits on party gaffs
Poking fun, inducing laughs
Helped a nation collectively say “What the hell?”

——-

A liberal Democrat named Keene
Discouraged by the race of 2016
Reconciled to hope
Or at least not to mope
By mulling over what might have been.

——-

A lame, cocky billionaire named Rump
With the intellect of Forrest Gump
Distorted the facts
Obnoxious to the max
And somehow still got over the hump.

Poetry and Politics

Here’s a poem I wrote this month. Happy National Poetry Month!

In a Democrat’s Car

I’m at a red light
That hasn’t changed in months.
And I can’t see around the edge
Of the light
To see what the moving traffic sees.

My guiding word for this year is
Listen.

So, I’m sitting at this red light
Watching traffic
Zip by.

I’m listening.

The silence is damn deafening

Until I hear a verse from the Bible
In my head.

“’This is the day the Lord has made
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Though the reception was a bit fuzzy.
And I thought I heard

This is the conflict the Lord has made
Let us rejoice and deal with it.

Hmm. That’s odd.

Oh, the light is changing.
Finally.
Damn.
It’s caution.

——-

I’m also writing for a blog called Letters2Trump. Today’s post is mine and I get to write about once a month. I recommend reading them as often as you can stand thinking about the fact that Trump is really our President.

Help When We Need It

I was looking for encouragement, browsing through the books in my office (instead of cleaning it). Here’s a poem I happened upon from a book called Poems To Live By In Uncertain Times:

May 1915

Let us remember Spring will come again
To the scorched, blackened woods, where the
wounded trees
Wait, with their old wise patience for the
heavenly rain,
Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
Sure of the sun. And even as to these
Surely the Spring, when God shall please,
Will come again like a divine surprise
To those who sit today with their great Dead, hands in
their hands, eyes in their eyes,
At one with love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered
things and changing skies.

By Charlotte Mew

Being naturally curious, I wanted to know more about this poet who was new to me. Her biography is quite interesting.
You can learn about the World War I context of the poem, hear the poem read aloud, and read an analysis of the poem at this website. I’m sorry to say that I could not capture the exact form of this poem due to the odd formatting of this edublogs editor.

Something about that poem spoke to me. Maybe it was the hopefulness. The repetitive reminder that even in dark times (winter’s cold darkness, 45 and the gang, climate change…), Spring exists around the corner. Deep in the midst of our crazy lives, we need that reassurance sometimes — I do, anyway.

Singing also fills me with hope. Many times, I have willed myself to go to choir rehearsal. Even though the choir members and conductor are like a second family, sometimes I’m not in the mood to rehearse. However, I’m always filled up by singing. I always come out of rehearsal with my spirits filled and a song on my lips and heart. I sing with the Earl Nelson Singers and we sing this Saturday, February 18 at Bethel Seventh Day Adventist Church, which is 4817 Bristol Road (off Reo Road near the corner of Jolly and MLK) in Lansing. We are singing what I think is a very uplifting lineup of spirituals and gospel music:

WALK TOGETHER CHILDREN

OH, FREEDOM

I’VE BEEN ‘BUKED

AINT A THAT GOOD NEWS

KING JESUS IS A LISTENIN’

JUST TELL JESUS

WHEN YOU WANT TO TALK TO JESUS

JUST A LITTLE TALK WITH JESUS

UNDER HIS WINGS

I LOVE THE LORD

I BELIEVE (From the Gospel Mass)

LIFT EV’RY VOICE AND SING

THAT’S ENOUGH

Feel free to join us that morning!

Verna Holley, our director, just produced a new CD entitled “In a Time of Trouble” which is very comforting. It is made up of 15 hymn arrangements and is just beautiful. She may have some copies with her on Saturday.

What Now?

The unpredictability is becoming predictable. So many aspects of life are on the verge of being jiggled off the tightrope. If life is a series of tightrope walkers (which is an unnerving analogy, I realize), we seem less and less sure which ones will get across to the other side.

The easiest example is the weather. Mr. Weather tightrope walker is a Rodney Dangerfield-type character. He’s so annoying it’s funny. He gets no respect since the headset he’s listening to is obviously not giving him accurate information. He thinks it’s God or the Weather Channel and it’s more often Gilligan’s Island reruns and Nirvana songs. The chances that Mr. Weather makes it across to the other side are 1 – 51% (weather is a male in my example because he has trouble asking for directions and is sure he is right, until he’s not). Worthless predictions galore.

The political race is a troubling (possibly drunk), “What now?” tightrope walker. From now until November, we will be wondering about the outcome. And even after the election, “What now?” will fit. I don’t really want to get into which candidate is better or worse (though I have strong opinions). All I want to offer the discussion on that matter is to say that we all have a responsibility and privilege to vote. The unpredictability factor is lessened a bit when we know we’ve had input. I’ve heard too many folks saying they aren’t going to vote because they don’t like the choices. Instead of opting out completely, I hope for civil discourse (reasonable discussions) and participation. And beyond that, I have faith that things will work out. But faith isn’t enough. We need to be active. I view the U.S. like a P.B.S. show sometimes: “This show, called the U.S.A., is presented by the generosity of voters like you; it’s up to each of us to participate and then we’ll really know what this country wants its show to look like.”

Some have lost faith in the system, but I believe we need to use the system and be active in improving the system. I was a teacher for over 25 years; public schools are flawed, as is our democracy. As part of these systems, however, we have more power than we realize and than we’ve used. One model for sharing this voice we have is called Letter to the Next President (another model is called…just contact your representatives and senators). It’s a nationwide initiative designed to give 8th-12th grade students an audience to share their concerns. And if I may plug a free workshop I’m leading…If you are interested in learning how you can get students participating in the initiative, check out this brochure about the workshop. Be vocal without being annoying or disrespectful.

Why am I staying impartial on the political question? I liked what Michelle Obama said in her Democratic Convention speech:
“So in this election, we cannot sit back and hope that everything works out for the best. We cannot afford to be tired, or frustrated, or cynical. No, hear me — between now and November, we need to do what we did eight years ago and four years ago: We need to knock on every door. We need to get out every vote. We need to pour every last ounce of our passion and our strength and our love for this country into electing Hillary Clinton as President of the United States of America.” So there it is.

People love to ask questions and make predictions about my retirement also. “What now?” is a logical curiosity. I’m only 55; I could live 30+ more years if I play my cards right. Many like to predict I will miss being with young people and miss the teaching…and in some ways they are probably right. However, predictions about me being bored or wishing I hadn’t retired (I predict) seem improbable. If I can go back to the tightrope walker analogy, I feel quite content on my walk; as a matter of fact, I’m embracing the unpredictability of retirement. Open to the possibilities of life.

As a wrap-up, I have to give a shout out to our POTUS on the occasion of his 55th birthday (yesterday). President Obama has led us admirably. There will never be a perfect president. I thank him for his level head, his intelligent way, his vision, his humor, his songs, his family focus, and so much more. Here are 55 photos of him on his 55th birthday. And I have to wonder “What Now?” for him, too.

While I’m doing shout outs, I loved New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s speech at the convention (here’s the text). I wonder if we’ll see more of him in four years…

This article by David Korten points out more of my thoughts on the campaign…
Yes Magazine’s article entitled “This Presidential Race is a Clear Choice: Flight, Fight, or Fellowship” May the Force be with us.

Carrying On

There’s so much to do.
There’s so much to see.
Time is an open book
Or the wind or a key.

Sure, I hear you say,
After one leaves one’s work
It’s easy to view
One’s life with a smirk.

But I mean what I say
I’m not being flip.
I retired; it’s not like
I jumped from a sinking ship.

“There’s so much to do”
Is a reference to
All the work, not the play,
That one could do each day.

Garrison has retired,
And Obama leaves soon,
I bet they won’t be found
Lazying around all afternoon.

The retiree feels the enormity
Of options for one’s time.
The myriad possibilities
Are out there…bigtime.

One could write poems that rhyme,
Songs that swing, or
Biographies that inform and enlighten,

Or one could read poems that rhyme,
Songs that swing,
And biographies that enlighten and inform.

You see what I mean?

One could practice the guitar.
And one could play and sing in a bar.
One could learn to play the bassoon
And play in a band or a saloon.

Choice is a two-edged sword
Of black and white.
A gift one looked forward to
But may not fit just right.

Choice and time together
Equal freedom of a sort.
And I hope to use them
As life’s second-half passport.

(It’s amazing what I can do with the Rhyming Dictionary…or maybe amazing isn’t the word)

P.S. Garrison Keillor’s last show on Prairie Home Companion was awesome this past Sunday. If you are up for the
complete show, click here. I suggest going to this link of individual segments of the show, however, which allows you to go right to President Obama’s phone call, one more Catchup commercial, or his last News From Lake Wobegon story.
garrison

Poems I Read This Month

Some April days, I didn’t write a poem. I read one instead.
Here are many, but not all, of the poems I read this month:

Billy Collins – “Carry”
Billy Collins – “Schoolsville” and others
Sarah Kay – “Montauk” and her commencement keynote at Scripps College (which is near perfect)

Taylor Mali in the house with “Like Lilly Like Wilson” (text)

Nikki Giovanni – “Poetry” and other poems

James Wright’s “A Blessing” which is a classic in my book. Always brings me joy.

It’s not April without e.e. cummings – “In Just”

Marianne Forman,
Rulaine Stokes, and
Joyce Benvenuto read poems at Schulers with me.

Mary Oliver’s poetry (I’m also reading a book she wrote about how to write poetry)

Kevin Hodgson’s amazing blog and poetry

Here’s a blackout poem I wrote and a website to create blackout poems of your own

Here’s one original poem from April 12th —
It’s called

Disconnection Turned Connection

There you go again,
Texting away,
Pretending to give me
Your attention.

So I look out the window
And a sparrow lands
On the wrought iron
Deck chair and looks
Directly at me.

Looks away
Looks at me
Looks away
Looks at me.

I look at you
Then at the sparrow
At you
Then at the sparrow.

I tell the sparrow
About my day,
How that damn umbrella
Drips on me
And the microwave at work
Can’t be counted on.

The sparrow nods
And flies away.

You look up
And see me staring out
The window
Longingly.