When I taught middle school social studies, I had a set of questions that I taught to my students to guide how we encountered historical narratives. I called these “The Critical Historian’s Essential Questions” and had them written on a big, handmade poster at the front of the room:
While I taught these questions as a way of engaging students in critical disciplinary thinking (and I’ve written about that as part of my scholarly research here and here), I’ve come to realize that these questions are more than that. These questions are a kind of moral compass, helping to orient us towards voices and perspectives that might be otherwise overlooked. In fact, a few of these questions— Whose perspective does this narrative represent? Whose voice is missing from this narrative? How would this narrative be different if told from another perspective?—have helped me unlearn whiteness, an idea I’m going to come back to in a bit. Suffice it to say when I wrote and taught these questions in my middle school classroom, I didn’t know any of this. I only knew that I had to teach a textbook called The Medieval World & Beyond, and that I knew little about the medieval world but a lot about how to approach curriculum critically (thanks, PhD in Multicultural Education). I also knew that a teacher didn’t have to be an expert in every single fact that they taught, and that it was often more powerful to apprentice students into habits of mind, visible thinking routines, and academic discourse (thanks, Paolo Freire). My students and I could learn the facts together while I modeled what it looked like to encounter those facts as a critical thinker. These “critical essential questions” were how I turned these broad ideas into a concrete instructional practice.
If there are any angels in heaven, they’re all nurses.”
Picture a nurse. What do you see?
For most of us, we see a woman. Teachers have used this thought experiment for years to teach about gender stereotypes, helping us see how they live inside our own imaginations and then debunking them with stories of “Anyone can be anything they want.” This is an important lesson! I remember, after all, my own shame during a high school history class when I realized I drew only men as doctors and firefighters and scientists and professors. Me, an under-18, card-carrying NOW member! I was guilty of stereotypical thinking, too.
For there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it. —Amanda Gorman, "The Hill We Climb"
What is a prayer?
Palms together. Fingers at heart. Eyes closed. Calling out or whispering into the universe for: Help. Love. Guidance. Clarity. Safety. Gratitude. Peace. Desires. Someone must be listening, right? We keep praying, or we stop, but we know that surely this is prayer: Palms together. Hands at heart. Eyes closed. Calling.
We were on the shores of Lake Superior when we learned about George Floyd’s murder, just as we were when we learned about Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s murders. We were in Eagle Harbor, our home-away-from-home, where generations of my partner’s family have lived and worked and played. We were getting bonus months up north in this very white community thanks to COVID-19 and our stable white-collar jobs that had us working remotely. We had fled north when school closings and shelter-in-place orders were popping up back in March in order to be available for my mother-in-law, who lives alone, but we also knew that, for a while still, we were safer up north, where we joke that social distancing is the way of daily life. And so we were also on the shores of Lake Superior when we began to learn about the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on Black and Brown communities in Milwaukee. As we mourned and raged and talked in that grand kitchen with in-heat flooring while looking out over another lakefront sunset, I was reminded that we were also here when Sylville Smith was shot in 2016 and Sherman Park rose up. And I started jogging my memory to remember, what other explosions of injustice were witnessed from afar, up here in Eagle Harbor?
Laying in the Peruvian emergency room, a few hours after breaking my leg and with the shock of the pain wearing off, I looked over at Margaret, my currently designated “responsible family member” and said, “I’m wondering what the message is from the Universe in this one.” She smiled at me, but having known me only about ten days, didn’t quite know what to say. “Be careful on stairs? That seems like the logical lesson.” Logical, yes, but not a sign from the Universe.
Jim just wanted to watch the birds.
It frustrated me so, the incessant focusing of the binoculars, the prattling on about beak shape and wing colors. I’d be craning my neck to try to see the lions camouflaged in the early morning grass, and Jim would be looking the wrong way. When it was time for sundowners, the kids and I rushed to gulp ours, eager to get back on the hunt for a Big Five spotting. Jim, though, he lingered. Smiling to himself as he watched something flit by and land in an acacia tree. Some warbler, maybe, or a tropical tree-sap-sucker. He told me, proudly, and probably patiently, how he identified each bird, but me, I was distracted by the baboons calling from up on the ridge. I remember thinking—and I hope not saying—that we have birds at home. They’re nothing special and not worth wasting our time on But leopards! Rhinos! Elephants! Lions! Hippos! Not to mention the swirly horned kudu and the massive wildebeest and those noisy baboons…now those were special. Now those were worth lingering for.
But Jim, Jim knew otherwise.
The honeybee is nature’s linchpin, a keystone species, without which there is a ripple effect of ecological destabilization. More plainly, without the honeybee, our ecosystem could collapse.
Honeybees are, after all, workers. Flitting incessantly from pollen source to pollen source in pursuit of honeycomb perfection. Feeding the queen while also feeding the rest of us, not only with the sweet delight of their honey but in all that cross-pollination that keeps the rest of our food system alive. They are simultaneously dogged and sensitive, single-mindedly pursuing clovers and wildflowers and blossoms while ever-so-vulnerable to changes in the world around them. When the snow melts and they no longer need to warm the queen, they should return to our gardens en masse. But whatever we humans are putting out into the world makes it less and less likely that we’ll hear that C-sharp wingsong in our own gardens.
Fierce. Productive. Vulnerable. Celebrated for their hard work and its sweet payoff, the honeybee holds us together. Wings flapping, fuzzy legs coated in yellow life, the stinger of last resort. One of the most productive species on earth, and also one of the most imperiled.
Three weeks is a long time to be without your mama. And it’s not just three weeks, I know. Yes, it’s these three weeks in Peru, but it’s also another two weeks in India, and those long weekends of conferences and girls’ weekends. It’s those hours after school when I’m finishing up work and you’re in after care. It’s that once-a-week late-night of teaching and the occasional night out with Papa. And when we finally are home together, it’s all those hours you want me to play but I’m feeding us and picking up after us and signing permission slips and checking the calendar and giving you baths and trying to make clean clothes magically appear. It’s when I’m sleeping in my own bed, but you wish I were just sandwiched between the two of you, Anna’s arm wrapped around my neck and Rory snuggled into my arms.
I remember the first time I was groped. On the school bus in elementary school, some boy who lived in our apartment complex and touched me in a way that I knew was wrong. He grabbed me, and I punched him in the stomach.
There is a sense in which we are all each other's consequences. | Wallace Stegner. All the Little Live Things.
Milwaukee burned while we relaxed in the North Woods.
This is the inequality we live with, in our Milwaukee home and also everywhere. The fires, the rage, the sadness, the explosion – it is not mine. Mine is from a distance: while we explain to Anna that no, not everyone has a vacation home, we are also reading the news of a community in crisis just down the road from our 'regular life' home. We are heartbroken for our neighbors but also unaffected and wrapped in security systems.
You, Wisconsin, with your lime green leaf buds, with your sun heating my hair and your wind chapping my cheeks, with your crowds of Badger red that break up the dull palette of wintery grays, with your lakes that glitter and freeze, with your rains that never stop and snow that always falls and summers that always bake.
You, Wisconsin, with your ice quakes and thunderstorms, with your beer fests and freak fests, with your hippies and hunters and hipsters, with your bipolar politics and bipolar weather, with your locally cured bacon and organically ground bratwurst and sustainably caught bluegill, with your moody North Woods music and marching polka bands and banjos thundering the Capitol, with your blaze and your black and your cardinal.
There is that moment when you realize they are no longer you.
Before, you are entangled as one. Arms and legs and bellies together as one. You, mama, are also the baby. At first, literally, with your baby nestled safely inside of you, and then later, when you are the baby’s entire world. You and your baby, attached—at the hip or the arm or the shoulder, in a snuggle or a carrier or a nap. You know each cry, and you know all the ways in which you are the answers to those cries: Milk. Snuggles. Sleep. Silly faces. Mama voices. Together. Exhausting and exhilarating, this oneness. But you take it for granted, this weaving of two people into a unit.
Until one day, you catch her playing, really playing, with a friend, and you realize you have no idea what they are talking about. Until one day, he cries so loudly and for so long, and you are not the answer. Until one day, you hear them together, laughing and “reading” books and talking and happy by themselves, not looking for you or crying for you or climbing on you. They have inner lives that are entirely their own–and you realize then, they are no longer you, and you are no longer one.
These babies, they grow into people. So fast.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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