Monthly Archives: December 2014

Narratives, our stories: Empathy and Presence in the Face of Madness

I haven’t written a blog post in a while—I could blame lots of busy-ness, or a host of other things, but the truth is that it’s sometimes hard to know what to focus on, what to write about as a teacher and father in the 21st century. But here on December 5th I find myself feeling sad. I know lots of other people are angry; angry about unarmed black men and children being killed by police, angry that our society is alarmingly unbalanced with competing narratives of class and race, angry at stagnant wages and income inequality, angry at sickness and disease, and angry at what is an inadequate response to all of these. But also we are angry that we can’t seem to have a conversation about these things without dismissing one another and demonizing the other side. There is a great deal to be angry about, but I find myself to have a heavy heart. I spend a great deal of time with teachers and graduate students who share many of my views on race, social justice, and education. I am also lucky enough to spend time with lots of working class folks, usually coaches and other parents I know. Finally, I am blessed to spend lots of time with students. While most of my teacher friends and many of my students have been outraged at these deaths, I have also read and heard accounts and had conversations that blame the people who were shot. They blame them because they should have followed police instructions, or because little boys shouldn’t have toy guns that look so real, or for a lot of other reasons. These folks are some of the same ones from whom I hear that it’s people’s own fault that they are poor, and by implication, it is African-Americans’ fault that they are poor. I hear, too, that if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you don’t have anything to fear from the police. I find these to be naive views that don’t fit my or my students’ experience. Many of the people from whom I hear things like this work hard and are good community members, good parents, good church members, good people who often absolutely refuse to see the role that racism has in these events. It’s disheartening. It’s complex. It’s hard to understand. One of the things that I’ve realized is that I can’t fight all of those battles or have all of those arguments and, while I disagree with their sentiments from my toes to the top of my head, I don’t think it’s ever made clear that these attitudes seem to be the prevailing ones. In fact, my non-teaching friends, especially my friends who are working class, often feel like they are the ones being persecuted. I often feel like voices that speak out against systemic racism and classism aren’t heard or are dismissed. Every one of these interactions is exhausting—overt and coded racism are everywhere. Unfortunately, in my experience, it’s most overt with white men when they’re together with other white men. Perhaps it’s the blaming that I find most difficult. After all, it isn’t as if I wasn’t in trouble all the time when I was a kid and it isn’t as if my own children have been angels either. I could tell people that I ran around with a BB gun that looked just like a rifle when I was a kid and that no one shot me, or that my stepson, who is 20, shop lifted at a Wal-Mart and was simply told to come back inside and was released with a ticket when he was 18, or that he stole a truck and that the wide response to that was that boys will be boys. I could write that I am the same size and shape as Eric Garner, and I can’t imagine a police officer speaking to me that way, much less three of them attacking me. I, too, have asthma, like Mr. Garner did, and know well the constriction of airways brought on by panic or highly emotional situations. I could be Eric Garner; my stepson could be Michael Brown; and my 10-yr old, who is big for his age, could be Tamir Rice. Yet, we couldn’t. Some of the reason for that is class privilege, but a greater portion of it is our while privilege. Having this conversation outside of classrooms and teacher offices is exhausting and difficult. It isn’t always worth it. I know that some people will be angry at that statement, but it’s true, the conversation isn’t always worth the trouble. Therefore, I’ve been searching for some narrative, some story, to be able to explain just what many of my students face that my own children don’t face. Here is one example that I think is worth thinking about. We began classes at Metropolitan Community College this week. It’s our winter quarter and I’m teaching two sections of students who are in our dual-credit high school completion program. I love them already. The afternoon group happens to be made up entirely of African-American women. I am a double minority in that class. This week we’ve been talking about definition maps, vocabulary acquisition strategies, note taking and all of the other things that go on in my blended reading and writing section, but we’ve also been getting to know each other and learning to trust each other. This task isn’t easy—it never is. But I wanted to write and share about some of the things that I’ve learned this week. One of the texts that we read is Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos, who I will hug if I ever meet him. It chronicles Jack’s mistake of selling drugs in the early 1970s and his subsequent incarceration. But Jack is also a writer and the book chronicles his literacy journey and his work to become a writer. My students love it; I love it. And it gives us a great deal to talk about. Jack tells us in the beginning of the book that he’s been to nine different schools. When I read that the first time, I was stunned. That’s a lot of schools to have gone to, especially given that he’s not even out of high school yet. I went to three schools. I had never considered the advantage of the stability of my school life, but here it was. About four years ago, I began to use Jack’s number of schools as a writing prompt. I was interested in having the students count up the number of schools that they had gone to and to have them write about why they changed so often. It’s been an immensely successful prompt and lets us talk about their story and their wounds from school (see Kristin Olsen’s important book, Wounded by School). So what did the students say? The numbers are high. Usually, Jack’s nine schools isn’t even close to the top. Yesterday, one of my students could count 20 schools, the lowest number was 8 and the mean was 13 (if you trust an English teacher’s math). Why is it important that students switch schools so often? After finding that so many of my students, especially students who are economically struggling, and who have other disruptions in their lives move so much, I became suspicious that it affected their learning in a detrimental way. This revelation is one of those “well, duh” findings, but I hadn’t really considered it and I wonder how many of my colleagues at post-secondary institutions do either. We don’t necessarily get to see those disruptions or see the history of those disruptions. But we are often bitter and upset about students’ lack of preparation for our classes and we’re often disheartened by how many of our students begin in our developmental classes. The research shows that my “well, duh” moment is accurate. Students who move frequently have trouble succeeding academically for a variety of reasons. A study authored by scholars at Portland State University and Center for Community Research and a study by an Economics Professor at Notre Dame make the effects of frequent moving quite clear. Academic growth, social integration, and variety of other items are negatively affected by frequent moving. These studies don’t quantify the losses as simply as I would like, but my students are often three grades behind in reading according to our measurements at the community college and are even further behind in math. My students report going to different schools and starting in the middle of a curriculum, or having to relearn something they’d already done, or that a school was much easier or harder than the previous one. It’s easy to generalize that these disruptions are difficult and are catastrophic in their accumulation. So, one of the takeaways here is that my students, who are dropouts, who resist and dislike school for the most part, are students who have had a great deal of disruption. This disruption is a kind of wounding and requires our empathy rather than our contempt. There are many other wounds, which require our empathy too. What else have I learned about my students this week? I have learned that substance abuse has ravaged their families and their own lives in many ways. I learn this every quarter, actually. I hear stories from my students who are recovering alcoholics and addicts. I hear stories about their parents who are still addicts and alcoholics. Often these students have had to live with their grandparents and have been bounced around the foster care system, to say nothing of the moves that they’ve had to make with parents in the middle of the night. At the end of last quarter, the administrative assistant told me that one of my former student’s mother had overdosed and died. She probably could have been saved but for the fact that, while she was choking on her own vomit, her partner was passed out on the couch and unable to help her. This week, one of my students told me about how both of her parents had died of drugs, and that she is now in recovery herself. Another student’s mother is working at a halfway house after getting sober herself. And I know we’d like to believe that these are isolated incidents, but they are not. They are the lived reality of the students in my program. And it is the reality of my students regardless of race. Substance abuse, poverty, frequent moving, and the resulting low-academic ability/achievement form a powerful and mostly inescapable combination. All of this, the racism, the classism, and the frequent moving, the substance abuse, combine to make my students’ lives challenging. I haven’t even touched the trauma of violence and rape. It adds up and is staggering. I respond to my students with empathy most of the time, but sometimes I don’t or I struggle with it. When a student cannot keep still or quiet, sometimes I remember that she is the daughter of two drug addicts, was abandoned by her father, and has been to 20 schools, all of which has combined to prepare her very poorly for my class, and sometimes, despite my training and reading and experience, I respond with anger and frustration. Sometimes I cannot hear students in these circumstances. I have to practice what Mary Rose O’Reilley calls listening like a cow in her book Radical Presence. That kind of listening and acceptance of a student where they are at is hugely difficult and goes against my training as a teacher in the current-rhetorical tradition. Am I not supposed to make students learn? I don’t think that anymore, but I feel like it’s hard wired in there sometimes and that some of the old wiring just hasn’t ever been removed. All of this makes me wonder if my friends see my students and the victims of police violence completely; have they really heard and considered their stories? Would they call public safety or the police on my mentally ill student who got under the table and curled into a fetal ball and cried? I didn’t; I couldn’t. I think the value of the story of my students isn’t that it’s sad or exploitive like some kind of dystopian narrative, but that it evokes empathy. If I am at my most present, my most human, then I must listen to and respond to my students’ humanity. I wonder that if we could tell their stories, then we might just raise more empathy for the worlds that we live in, which are so often segregated by race and class. I don’t know the answer to this, but I know that I’m a better human being for trying to listen to my students rather than to exercise my authority over students. Of course, my authority, to my knowledge has never killed anyone directly. I’ve never choked anyone to death or shot them. But I think of Sherman Alexie’s Character Mr. P in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Mr. P apologizes to the protagonist Jr. telling him that he and other teachers did horrible things in an effort to “kill the Indian and save the child”. Obviously, there’s a long and terrible history permeating every letter of that statement. But I want to extrapolate an analogy here—through listening and empathy I’m killing fewer students, perhaps by refusing to assimilate them and by valuing them. What is the equivalent of that for law enforcement and our national dialogue? How do we listen and be present in a way that fosters the valuing of black students and people—black fathers who are overweight and have asthma and children just like this white father? It’s so radical a notion to think that listening and presence are an answer to this madness that makes my heart so heavy. Perhaps it’s madness, but it’s what I have today.

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