It’s been a while since I’ve felt the first-day butterflies. Whether because I’ve been teaching the same classes over and over, or teaching online, or teaching adults who are a little less nerve-wracking, the first teaching day of a semester has morphed into being just another day of work.
But not last week.
in late summer my tomato vines are
long exploded from their bed
sending roots and tendrils
filling a yard that should be
after the credits
the screen is dark but
you’re still seated
holding the story open
It is Day 427 of pandemic life. In those 427 days, my children have attended seven days of school. I have attended zero days of campus-based work. I have spent 48 hours away from them. 418 days of forced, full-time togetherness. 418 days of spontaneous statements of "I love you" and "I hate you." We keep thinking we are in Mile 24 of this marathon, and then the calendar and the days and the exhaustion keep yawning ahead and we realize that, actually, we are still at Mile 15. These have been the strangest, most exhausting 427 days of my life. And this is my lament.
I am tired.
There are a lot of stories I can tell about why I became an educator, but the truth is really quite simple: I am here because of my teachers.
At 18, I found myself alone on a plane to Paris. I had about $2000 in tips I’d saved up all summer, a one-night reservation at a Left Bank hotel, and a letter of permission from the French government to apply for seasonal work. I did not have a return ticket to the States.
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.
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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