The Parent Promise

Every teacher goes to their fair share of parent/teacher conferences. There are those that are very in and out, and then there are those that feel like they gut you. They are the ones that you sit or stand there and know that if something doesn’t change with this child their road might end soon. And you’re standing there thinking how much you want to shake that child and tell them LOOK AT ALL THESE PEOPLE WHO CARE ABOUT YOU! A large part of the heavy feeling for me during these particular meetings is the look and reaction of the parent. They are frustrated, tired, angry, sad, but most of all just looking for an answer to keeping their child on point in school and on a path to doing something meaningful with their life. And from that develops the parent promise.

Whenever I think about promises made to parents, I have a flashback to my first parent promise. And it’s one of the hardest memories in my recent years that I recall. During my time teaching summer school in Tulsa, I had a student named Brett. Brett was a bit of an introverted student at first and seemed very disinterested in everything, so when parent phone calls happened at the beginning of the summer, I was interested in talking to his dad. Dad explained to me about Brett’s social anxiety and how he had been taken out of school to be home-schooled for awhile but then had to return to finish in public school. He explained how Brett is a very smart student, but sits in the back of his classes forgotten and not pushed by his teachers he had previously had. As a wide-eyed new teacher, I eagerly drank in everything he was saying and was quick to make a big declarative promise that I would not be like those other teachers. I excitedly told him how I would not be like Brett’s other teachers and that I would challenge Brett and push his capabilities forward. I was certainly a wide-eyed new teacher.

Fast forward five weeks later, and I am sitting in my last reflection session of the summer. It’s a more intimate setting so we can sit and reflect more personally on three types of students: the one who we felt we had put on a different life trajectory, the one we felt we had helped close the gap for, and the one we felt had slipped through the cracks. As I started reflecting, I thought about the first two students and felt momentary joy at the thought of what the summer had accomplished for them. But then I came to the last category and my mind became consumed by thoughts of Brett. He was my one who had slipped through the cracks. And when it came my turn, he was the only one I could share. Tears welled up in my eyes and I let them fall as I retold the story of the promise I had made to Brett’s father. Then I paused and said that at the time I thought the promise would be easy, but then all the weight of the students who I felt really needed me because they were so far behind, spelling everything wrong or barely speaking or writing English, and I got so overwhelmed by their immediate needs that summer school came to an end and I–just like all his other teachers before me–had let Brett sit in the back of the class and had not pushed him. I had boldly told Brett’s father I would be different, and I had not kept my promise. And that still sticks with me.

I made my own self-promise after that summer. I promised myself that I would always remember that parents entrust their children to my care every day that they send them to school, and when I made those promises in the future, I would choose my words carefully and I would not let them down as long as I could prevent it. So I find myself again making those promises to parents that I will make sure their child does not fail freshman year, promise that I will get them to behave better, promise to sit with them and do all their major projects so they don’t fail any of their classes. And those parents believe, and I cannot take that faith lightly. I’m working towards keeping every last one of those promises. Even though I failed to keep my promise to Brett’s father, I use that memory to spur me on in not letting that happen again.

Days Away

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” 
― Maya AngelouWouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

I am no stranger to spending Thanksgiving break away from my family in Indiana. Staying here in Miami over break thus felt natural to me, although it felt very akin to college to be surrounded by people going home for the holidays. And even though break promised two extra days out of the classroom, there was still much to do. But I realized that the work could wait a few days while I rested my body and mind. Maya Angelou’s words rang very true for me over these last four days. During these days I have filled my stomach with delicious foods, enjoyed the sunshine and beach that I often do not get to enjoy though it is so close, sat with friends and laughed about things unrelated to students, and drank in the fresh night air of young freedom. I needed to take those days as days away. I had to put away the gradebook, the lesson plans, the constant swirl of educational thoughts, to remind myself that I do deserve the days in which no solutions are searched for and I can simply exist in a moment without confronting my problems. Momentary withdrawals are not permanent but they are necessary in order to continue this type of work. This year for Thanksgiving, I am most grateful for these snapshots of restfulness.

The Best is Yet to Come

I was so excited to attend my first Harvard-Yale weekend since graduation. Ghana did not make it very conducive to going back my first year as an alum, and I had now not seen my college friends (minus about two) in about a year and a half. I kept telling my students all week how excited I was to finally have a vacation and to see so many loved ones in one place for my birthday. And it could not have been a more wonderful weekend.

What made the weekend so special to me were the people who went out of their way to see me, to make sure that they spent time with me not only for my birthday, but because they valued me as an individual worth putting in the time to see. From brisket dinners in Brooklyn with Scott to epic sangria toasting birthday dinners in Inman Square, I felt the love poured over me. My favorite moment was at dinner when my 9 dinner guests went around and made toasts about me. It’s not my favorite moment in the narcissistic sense that I loved hearing people talk about me, but it was a great reflection piece on why it was that people would be willing to dedicate so much time to making sure I had a wonderful weekend. One of the elements of the toasts that came up repeatedly was my ability to stay in touch with people even though I’m often so far away. It made me think back on this past year and all my reflections on trying to perfect the art of ‘being there’ when I’m hardly ever able to actually physically be there. I guess the concentration on that is paying off. And as we toasted one final glass of sangria, I could not help but look around and think how extremely blessed I have been during this 23rd year of life. I had accomplished everything that I had wanted to do on my list last birthday except have something published. And I’m not even worried because looking around that room full of friends who have helped me through every possible high patch and low patch, there was no doubt in my mind that for me, the best is yet to come.

Here is my look back and look forward in 24 ways:

3 Things I Accomplished During the Last Year

1. Successfully implemented my peace education program at the pilot school Edbek Academy in Ghana

2. Passed my certification tests for my temporary education instructor license in Florida

3. Helped my summer school students in Tulsa, OK grow several levels in writing over 5 weeks

7 Things I Did or Places I Went During the Last Year

1. Got lost for 15 hours on trains in Bulgaria with Caitlin

2. Celebrated Christmas in beautiful Istanbul with Caitlin

3. Sampled fruit wines in the Greek mountain town, Sirince with Caitlin

4. Rang in the New Year with Mom, Dad, and Scott at Le Casino in Monaco after lounging on the Mediterranean

5. Had an epic adventure all over Ethiopia for 11 days with Tristen

6. Took in the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland with Mom, Dad, and Scott

7. Moved to palm-tree, sunshine filled Miami Beach, Florida

5 Things I Want to Accomplish Before 25

1. See a growth of 2 reading levels in each of my students

2. Help my brother expand the start-up

3. Have something published or performed that I have written

4. Research and make proposals for greater access to mental health resources for corps members (with the help of my good friend Aley)

5. Instill in my students a lasting sense of work ethic and good habits, meaning hard work always pays off in the end

5 Things I Want to Do or Places I Want to Go Before 25

1. Spend time this summer at home in Indiana

2. Travel to 2 new countries

3. Spent part of my summer in San Francisco

4. Finish writing two scripts

5. Visit most of the major tourist sites in South Florida

4 Things I Learned This Past Year

1. I should always follow my gut when I think something is a serious matter, even if others do not believe it is

2. The best friends are those who are always ready with a listening ear

3. Holding students to consistent and daily high expectations is a really tough job

4. Transformational change for students takes a lot of time, patience, and eternal optimism

Second Miracles

I read a passage from a Bible sermon the other day online. The passage came from the Gospel of Mark and described when Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalene, and Salome went to Jesus tomb to put spices on his body. When they were walking there they asked themselves who would roll the rock away because it was very large. But when they got there they saw that the stone had been rolled away and an angel told them that Jesus had risen from the dead and was no longer there.

The first miracle in this story is easy to identify–the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. However, the sermon focused on the second miracle of the verses. The second miracle is that the rock had been rolled away from the tomb. This rock was so large that it would have been impossible for the three women to remove it from the entrance. But when they got there, it was already gone. Without this second miracle, the first would not be truly known.

I return to this passage of Scripture today because faith comforts the soul, as a porcelain frame reminds me that sits next to my bed. When I was younger, I asked God for a miracle in the life of a loved one. I prayed day and night and fasted for this miracle. And God granted me that miracle. Now, I find myself needing that same miracle again from God. It would be easy to ask God if he really, truly granted me a miracle that first time, but I know that He’s the master storyteller with a greater story than I as a reading teacher could even imagine.

Mary and her companions could not have removed the rock by themselves, and they felt hopeless about getting inside the tomb. The sermon reminded me that we all have rocks in our lives that attempt to stop us from fully enjoying our lives, and we have tried to move them, but we cannot. And then we find ourselves starting to let doubt creep in and the hands of hopelessness grab hold. The preacher writes, “Let me tell you anytime you start talking about hope in the past tense your soul is in trouble.” Again, I glance to the reminder by my bedside that faith comforts the soul. Faith and hope are not far from one another. Because when that feeling that God can do what he has done all over again goes away, that’s when life shatters.

That’s why second miracles are so encouraging. They rekindle the fire in the soul that one need never walk hard paths alone. “And if you and I could look with our mind’s eye at that rolled away stone that these women saw that Easter morning, not a single person in this room would leave without hope.” I know God is capable of granting me a second miracle because my eyes are firmly placed on that rolled away stone.

When Standing on a Precipice, There are Unknown Arms Around You

(A creative conversation piece written with my dear friend and college roommate, Alexandra Wilcox)

 

My mother weaves a beautiful bedtime story

For her daughters as the lights dim at night

Brave, bold, and beautiful

Our voices rising strong above the waves

 

I waited on the sidewalk until she ascended the steps

Children happily pounded on the window, waiting for my wave

When the door was closed, I turned to go

And realized I’d been holding my breath.

 

She had been more comfort to me than I to her.

 

Her life says: Take my daughters, America

And let the talent from their souls

Not wash into the abyss of lives that could have been.

Let them live.

Let them be clothed in the pursuit of happiness

And fed by the scales of equality and justice

And let them be remembered

 

She had been shamed yet remained standing tall

With a grace I could never equal

Two days before, I stood in her living room

Balancing a child on my hip

“I’ll support you—no matter what you decide”

She looked at me with clear eyes—

“I can’t afford to do this. I can’t do this to my kids.”

 

Her life for my life.

A long-standing payment to history.

But in America, “Nobody says you have

to take the circumstances that someone else gives you.”

This is why in this day and age

When a woman cannot earn the same amount as a man

For the same job and has her rights tossed around

By men in suits in big chairs on big hills,

I do not take those circumstances lightly.

 

She was open about the failings—

Some were her own; many were not

But no matter past or present, she remained a fierce woman with fierce love.

I aspired to model her resilience—to be able to rise up

After being struck down

To survive again and again and again

 

In a paper always nestled in the back

Of my arms-length memory,

I had imagined a different life for myself.

I had created a world in which

I conversed with the greatest scholars.

As I took my seat at the table,

I whispered in the ear of Adrienne Rich

That her dreams were being born in the lives

Of the women of my generation…

Now only to wake to nightmares

That when I open my mouth to speak,

There are no words, no sound, no voice

 

It was the season of primary debates and

The phrase “sanctity of life” was center stage.

Succumbing to exhaustion on the subway after that long day

I wondered—

Why don’t we see any sanctity in hers?

 

If I am in search of my mother’s garden

I am afraid my search is confused

I thought she had planted it right here in her daughter

But so many have tried to cut down the roots

 

When we de-legitimize rape, when we silence victims of violence

When we remove choice, when we steal away opportunity

When we shame

The consequences do not only linger around those we’ve oppressed.

They filter into every corner of every home.

They lay with us in bed at night;

They commute with us to work the next morning.

They hang in the air between those who have and those who have not,

Between those who are and those who are “less.”

 

I fancy myself a recoverer of history

A hand that stretches back to pull out lost remains

It is a role I have crafted for myself over the years

Since I was first allowed to truly explore the complexities

Of what it means to be black, and especially a black woman

A role often owned by others throughout time

But the hand that rocks the cradle and molds the nation

Is the one that can survive.

 

We refuse to claw at the institutionalized oppression.

We instead claw at each other, convinced that to succeed another must fall.

Convinced that if we have made it, it is safest to pull up the ladder

before those next in line reach the bottom rung.

 

What shall freedom look like? Who will bring us back together?

It is she, the one whose beauty shines like the velvety night

With eyes that sparkle with hope from the stars

With hope that even though the role of the mule

Asks of her to bend over year after year

With the burden of the babies, the men, the creating,

That the harvest will not be in vain

 

And then, how do we survive? How can we possibly survive so divided?

The consequences will carve a chasm that is wide,

Too wide for any bridge to overcome

United we stand, divided we fall.

We will fail without one another.

We will fail if we don’t see the sanctity in each other.

 

This is my story. It is woven with thread so thin, yet so strong

So intricate and yet so simple

I wear its tattooed symbol on my face, my arms

My legs, the hollows of my body.

It is a familiar marking that I have found in other women in life.

Lives that have been lived, are living, and will be lived–

Different faces yet the same molds on the canvas.

 

Before she ascended the steps to her home,

She and I faced one another

I fumbled with words of comfort

But prayed she knew that I meant it

She nodded and thanked me,

That it would have been hard alone.

But she had been alone—when no one stopped the fist or ended the rape,

When no one else held her newborn, when her dreams were deferred

Her daughters, my daughters would be even more alone

If the rhetoric that had been passing through our ears

Became law

 

“And so our mothers and grandmothers have,

more often than not anonymously,

handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower

they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter

they could not plainly read.”

 

No longer am I anonymous. WE no longer are anonymous.

No one can take my body and make it their own,

on ballot nor in the streets at night as I walk.

I carry the spark and only I can out it.

This garden is a place of sanctity.

 

Yet, despite having no reason to trust me

And every reason to believe that I would fail her,

She allowed me to stand beside her.

She let me be on her side and reached for my hand

To tell me that she was on mine

The side of our mothers, the side of our daughters

 

I am never alone in the telling of this story.

I am not the first, but when will there be a last?

We who usher the future into the world

Through the life-bearing passages of our very souls

Must not be silenced.

We who have but one life, must not be forced only to give.

 

Because at the end of the day, we are inextricably linked

Because at the end of the day, our fight is the same

 

The responsibilities we have to ourselves.

The responsibilities we have to each other.

So when I say I’m writing this for me,

I’m really writing it for you.

 

“The truth of our [women’s] bodies and our minds

Has been mystified to us.

We therefore have a primary obligation to each other:

Not to undermine each other.”