The word “essay” first entered our language in 1597. It comes from the French verb essayer, “to try.” Today I try to capture in words my recent feelings regarding race in Middle America.
Let’s start with a conversation I had with my oldest son. He’s 13 now, with the muscles and build of a young adult. He walks with the weight of extra burdens not cast on many of his peers.
He’s had trouble this year with a classmate who carries a heaviness of his own. At one point this student made fun of my black son for the color of his skin. My son reacted in his own heavy way. Heavy seems to be the word of the day.
Black parents often refer to “The Talk” that they must have with their young kids of color. This isn’t about the birds and the bees, however; this is about survival. How do you respond to the police? How do you handle yourself when faced with confrontation? How can you take measures that, while not guaranteed, will hopefully keep you safe?
So in our own heavy moment at home, we have our version of The Talk. (Think about how strange that must feel for my son. We look like the oppressor, not like him.)
We tell him that of course he wants to respond when hateful things are said. Lashing back is in our nature. But he must learn to control the anger. The white boy will instigate, and you will be caught. It’s the law of the land. My husband compares it to basketball, the language my son understands best. One player pushes another, but the push back gets the whistle for the foul.
I call on the powerful words of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Let the classmate go low, but you must always rise high. You have no other choice.
And perhaps the saddest fact of all? We took this child from a country where he was the majority. Where the color of his skin allowed him to blend in and was never the ammunition forced into the weapon of childhood bullying. And we brought him here.
Here. Middle America. Where just last week I had to push pause during a short documentary on the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 because a handful of my 10th and 11th graders couldn’t control the giggles and suspicious sideways glances every time the n-word was uttered. Here in my home state, Steve King, who says “we can’t restore civilization with someone else’s babies,” routinely wins elections and the support of white supremacist David Duke.
This is also the Middle America of my childhood. Of leisurely bike rides around town with my best friend when our number one priority was having enough change for candy at Casey’s. This is the Middle America of rolling farmland and highways straight like an arrow. This is the Middle America where I first encountered Jesus and had my first kiss and received my college degrees. I love this place.
But this is the Middle America where every year, still, in 2017 my two sons face racist remarks in school. It’s the same place where a student told me that she didn’t experience racism in our high school, saying, “Well, just from my friends, but we all know it’s a joke.” It’s the same place where the Confederate flag is routinely featured on screen savers and in the backs of farm trucks. (For those who need a history refresher, Iowa was a Union state.)
I don’t know what will bring about change.
Last week when we watched the documentary on Selma, I simultaneously marveled that just a few decades ago blacks were denied the right to vote and mourned that we still have conversations today about the motivation of new voter ID laws that most directly impact minorities. I look at the fact that Loving v. Virginia invalidated laws against interracial marriage in 1967, and now 50 years later my husband and I can adopt transracially without fighting in court. At the same time, I look at the racist garbage posted on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes by my students, and think that 50 years hasn’t afforded too much change. I see pockets of progress around me, but I also see the dark corners of Middle America; I peek under the rug where we don’t like to sweep, and I see remnants of a segregated past, an unspoken “know your place” that hasn’t gone away.
And there it is. I’ve tried as Francis Bacon first did in 1597. I haven’t made a clear point. I haven’t drawn any strong conclusions, but I'm trying. I’m sure I’ll try again tomorrow. And the next day and the next day. I’ll try until I get it right.
This month's existential crisis came in the form of Esther. (Is it normal to have a monthly existential crisis?)
I've heard the story of Esther since I was a young girl. Esther, the beautiful queen destined to save her people. Today Pastor John taught on this story again, and I've been emotional since. Mordecai, Esther's uncle, persuades her to act on behalf of the Jews who will otherwise be exterminated at the hands of Haman. Mordecai says, in one of the book's foundational verses, "For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14).
For such a time as this...
At lunch after church I was distracted. "Esther had a real calling on her life," I said to Chris, "a true Purpose."
'Yes," he replied. "But she didn't know that when she became queen."
And he was right. She didn't know right away, but she eventually knew.
What if I never know?
I had a snow day on Friday and found myself doing some deep cleaning and organizing. In the bottom drawer of my nightstand I found a roll of black and white film that Chris had taken before we were married. I stared at those pictures, trying to remember what I was like at 22. My skin was so smooth with no wrinkles around my eyes. I had not yet decided to become a mother by adoption, and I had yet to lay eyes on my two beautiful sons. I was finishing up my teaching degree, and as always, I loved learning. I stayed up later and said yes to more adventures. I wore thrift store t-shirts with cut-off camouflage pants.
I believed there was a Purpose for me.
Soon I had a vocation: English teacher. And I've had moments where my work feels like a passion, but I wouldn't say it's ever felt like Purpose. I felt a hint of that purpose during my summers working with youth at camp. I've felt similar hints when I've met with young girls for Bible study. And of course there's always been my dream to be a back-up singer. I don't need the fame and spotlight of a lead singer; no, just give me a mic and let me sing harmonies. Likewise, I read the work of professional bloggers and think, "Oh, I would love to do that," but that's not my calling either.
I'm always living in my head, asking all of these big questions and not often getting answers. Maybe I'll never know my "for such a time as this." Maybe my purpose isn't saving a whole people group like Esther. Maybe it's being a mom and teaching students about Orwell and helping young writers find their voice. Or maybe it's something totally different. Or nothing. Or everything.
See what I mean? Existential crisis.
My personal and professional lives overlapped in the power of the prodigal son.
It was the assigned reading for College Comp II, a part of our chapter on analysis. This is a class all about close reading and writing. It comes with a heavy serving of reading and discussion. Maybe you know the story. Father has two sons. Younger son takes money and runs. Lives the party life. Finds himself destitute and living with pigs. Literally. Comes home to rejoicing father. Older brother is peeved. Still, celebration ensues.
"This is a story about bad parenting," a student remarked.
I nearly spit out my tea.
"Can you explain more?" I queried.
"Sure. The kid didn't learn a lesson. The father gives and gives and gives. The older son has every right to be angry. How does the dad expect the son to learn from his mistakes?"
A lively discussion followed. We talked about grace and forgiveness, about cultural context, about the importance of character placement. (Just why is the older son there? What is his role?) We talked openly about how our own parents might shape our interpretation, and my students looked for my input as the sole mother in the room.
"Well, you know," I began, "in my house we mess up every day. In big ways and little ways, myself included. When my kids come to me and say they're sorry about something, my first response is always to hug and kiss and forgive. Then I move into teaching and correction."
"Oh, in my house that was always opposite," the same student who initiated the conversation reflected.
That same night as I sat in church, I thought again about the parable that I've read hundreds of times and heard dozens of sermons about. While many of my students connected to the older brother, I always find myself relating to the younger son, maybe because I've been the one messing up so very many times. Unlike the younger son, it seems like I'm always drifting away, not necessarily running at full speed. But then I blink and discover I'm away from my Source, the One who really loves and welcomes me home. (Oh, I do so love the love of Jesus.)
I sat in church and reflected on my own parents, the ones who first introduced me to that deep, deep love of Jesus around the oak kitchen table as Dad read devotions. The parents who took me each week to sit on the stark wooden pews with a soundtrack of rumbling hymns that taught of "streams of mercy, never ceasing."
My parents always sided with grace. Family folklore tells the story of the night I missed my curfew. (I'm sure my siblings can also recite the details by heart.) I was sitting in a friend's yard on a perfect summer night when I saw headlights coming down the road. I had already missed my midnight curfew by at least an hour. "It's my dad," I joked. And it was. He cranked down the manual window and said four words to me: "Get your butt home."
And I did. I learned from that lesson, too. I wasn't berated or shamed when I got home. I was first hugged because my parents had been worried that my car was in a ditch on a gravel road. Yes, there were consequences for my actions because I had broken the rules. But I was corrected in love. Grace always won.
This lesson will come back to the classroom, too, because I label this as a teaching blog. I hope I'm known as a teacher who sides with grace. This morning two senior boys came into my classroom on the day our Kate Chopin literary analysis is due. Our school has had district-wide filtering and network issues this week. These boys had both been victims with no access to their first drafts. I could have said, "I'm sorry, but there will be a penalty for your actions." And maybe I should've. But I will forever be that young girl in an old church singing, "Let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee." So instead I said, "I understand extenuating circumstances. I know the tech is up and running now, so try to get it to me by the end of the day." And each boy smiled and said, "Thanks, I will."
So that's my response today, too. "Thanks. I will."
Today to start the new year in my classroom, I introduced my students to Naomi Shihab Rye's poem "Burning the Old Year." I reflect on this poem each year at this time, and my hope is that my students can take something away from it as well.
I teach people. Real people with real problems and hearts and dreams and favorite foods.
Sometimes I forget that when I get annoyed with immature behaviors or overwhelmed in responding to student writing.
Today, though, I remembered.
During most semesters in my College Composition class, we celebrate with a literary luncheon, an idea I stole from my time with the Ozarks Writing Project. (Shout out to Keri and Casey!)
Every student must bring some kind of food or drink item to share, but there is, of course, an academic component. They must also write a short essay explaining the significance of the item they brought. During class we share our food potluck style while each student takes a turn reading his/her essay to the class. We're hitting some Common Core standards for writing along with speaking and listening, but more importantly, we're connecting.
Today Anjelica shared about her passion for Fanta after her time living in Mexico. Mari wrote about sweet memories cuddled on the couch with her family, a movie, and her mom's famous chocolate chip bars. We learned about Bryce's grandma hiding the monster cookies up high so he and his brother couldn't overindulge, and Ali wrote symbolically about how her family represents the various components of trail mix.
Food brought us together, and so did our words.
Last night at our small group at church we talked about King David and the results of his sin. Yes, he repented and received forgiveness, but he also suffered consequences for his sin for the rest of his life: the death of his infant son, the rebellion and death of his son Absalom, the rape of his daughter Tamar. The list goes on. Yes, David was a great and mighty king, but his story also teaches that our actions do indeed have consequences.
How does this connect to teaching? I'm getting there.
This week I gave a vocabulary quiz over 16 words from Of Mice and Men. We discussed these words, created associations for them, and quizzed ourselves using Quizlet flashcards. One particular student received a low score on the quiz and immediately asked, "Can I retake this? I forgot to study."
I get similar questions when students earn a low score on an Article of the Week reflection.
"I forgot to do this until last night. Can I resubmit it?"
"I didn't get that done, so can I turn it in later this week?"
Our school has various policies by department. Some teachers allow retakes no matter what; other teachers allow retakes after some kind of "corrective" work. Other teachers don't allow any retakes. I've struggled with this decision.
On the one hand, the ultimate goal should be learning, not just getting a grade. With that perspective, then, I should allow retakes in the hopes that redoing the Article of the Week reflection or retaking the vocabulary quiz will lead to greater understanding and mastery of the material. And from a Christian perspective, I'm also showing my students an extension of grace.
On the other hand, I see more and more what it is like to live in a world where it seems there are no consequences. In a world of post-truth and fake news, it feels imperative to teach my students that their actions ultimately do have consequences. What am I teaching them but to game their way through the educational system? "Sure, it maybe took me 18 tries, but by attempt #19, I aced the test." And should that student earn the same grade as the student who studied throughout the unit and knew all of the words by test day?
Today I struggle with these questions. I recognize that this is a broader philosophical question, not just the simple question of "Do I allow my students to redo assignments and retake quizzes?" In the meantime, I'm grateful for any feedback my 12 readers could provide.
Sometimes in my writing classes we'll do an imitation writing. We learn best by copying the masters, right?
One poem I like to introduce my students to is "Learning to love America" by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim.
I also like to teach my students by writing with them. Last year at this time, I wrote this imitation. I'm trying to decide now, a year later, if I still feel the same way. I've experienced some inspiring hope in the weeks since the election, but I've also read horrifying news stories, and not the fake kind.
(in the style of Shirley Geok-Lin Lim)
because its bravado knows no shame
because the flat farmland of Iowa
makes infinity feel like a possibility
and because of mountains and swamps
and rivers and oceans
because I can use my voice
because my sons are now citizens
and call this desperate land their own
because we all need a place to belong
and I want them to know Home
because I believe in change
because I witness a powerful uprising
and because I have to have hope
or I would wither up and die
because it is time
At some point in your school career you were probably made to read Steinbeck's classic tale Of Mice and Men. Each year it is a favorite unit of my students. I read several parts aloud, and my students grow to love Lennie. We laugh at his simple mind and dream along with him. While many students know of the ending before we get there (thank you, The Middle and Family Guy!), many others are shocked by the abrupt and discouraging outcome.
We like happy endings best, don't we?
As we wrapped up with discussion today, I introduced my students to Robert Burns's poem, "To a Mouse." In the second-to-last stanza we find the allusion for the novella's title: "But little Mouse, you are not alone, / In proving foresight may be vain: / The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go often askew." I quoted a translated version, but you can read both here. In a nutshell, a farmer is plowing in his field when he runs over a nest of mice, causing him to reflect on the gossamer fabric of our lives.
My coworker Angela was called away on a family emergency today. I went next door to watch over her class for a few minutes, and I couldn't stop thinking about just how damn transient our lives are. Angela had been planning a relaxing break and time with family, and suddenly she was whisked into the bleak unknown. It's true for all of us, isn't it?
We plan, we scheme, we hope, we dream, but ultimately, one turn of the wheel or one call from the doctor, and it all goes up in smoke.
Depressing, isn't it? That's the heavy mood that hung over my classroom today as we discussed the dream of Lennie and his rabbits. "Does that mean we stop dreaming?" I asked my students. Their reaction was split. "Does it even really matter?" some wondered.
I won't stop dreaming. I know that. But I also know that I'm going to hug my boys a bit closer when they get off the bus this afternoon. I'm going to tell my husband just how much I love him, and I'm going to walk away from this building for the next five days reflective and wondering. And in the meantime, living.
Well, I guess you could say Miss Honey is back. It's the last day before break, and it's raining instead of snowing. Over the weekend I had a glass of wine, some Ethiopian food, and even a few bites of ice cream. I can no longer blame the weather or my lack of sugar and alcohol for my problems, so I guess it's time to put on my cheerful face.
My job as a teacher is complex because my curriculum and content are always shifting. Yes, we read Of Mice and Men in English 2 every year, but I'm also constantly thinking about how to engage my students with the world around them, how to create lessons and experiences that will benefit them beyond the walls of my classroom.
I wrote last week about the proliferation of fake news in our world today, and today I'm bringing awareness of that problem to my students.
I've been using Kelly Gallagher's Article of the Week in my English 2 class this year. The students are generally grumpy about this because in this one weekly assignment they are required to read analytically, think critically, and write responsively. It's hard work, but it's necessary work that will hopefully engage them with relevant and timely topics as well as improve their reading, writing, and thinking skills. So far this year we've read about Colin Kaepernick, the billionaire space race, and the new war on cancer, to name a few. Today's assigned article is about Facebook's response to fake news. We'll discuss this in depth next week, and hopefully my students will be encouraged to look at the world around them a bit more critically. (Hopefully they will not be inspired to move to Macadonia and start their own fake news empire.)
Additionally, we'll conquer the topic in my communications class. Each week these students participate in a "Freaky Friday" discussion (Okay, so it's not Friday, but we'll be flexible because it's the day before a break.) I give them a task or a topic, and I set them in small groups to practice their communication skills. Sometimes they are discussing a current event. Sometimes they are working together to improve outlines for a public presentation. Sometimes they are collaborating on a summary of a TED Talk. At the end of each discussion they must reflect on their role as a communicator. (Did I listen well? Did I ask relevant questions? Did I participate without dominating?) Today we're digging into fake news. We're going to watch a news clip from CNN, read some articles, and then discuss together the impact of this fake news on the world around us.
My goal nearly always is awareness. I'm amazed every week at the things I mistakenly assume my students already know. Many don't know how to properly greet a teacher in an email, 99% didn't know the definition of "omniscient," and while many do know they need to capitalize proper nouns, that doesn't mean they always follow the rule. So I certainly can't expect them to know that fake news stories are lurking around every corner. I want to do my part to raise the next generation of informed voters, so today this is the work I do.
Supermoon, no sugar or alcohol, a few short days until break, and now.... SNOW!
But not enough snow to get out early or have a snow day. (See photographic evidence.) No, just enough snow to make my high school students behave even more like second graders.
Have you ever herded cats? Me neither, but I imagine the experience is akin to my teaching job today.
I have a lovely wall of windows in the back of my classroom, the perfect place to view the softly falling snow. And after today, that lovely window is covered with approximately 56 nose prints where fifteen and sixteen-year-olds gazed at the flakes as if they were seeing them with virgin eyes.
"Mrs. Witt, do you think we'll get out early?"
"No, get your book out."
"Mrs. Witt, I heard they already had the buses lined up."
"No, get your book out."
"Mrs. Witt, look at the radar."
"No, get your book out."
Repeat. Ad nauseam.
At one point I exclaimed, "If you recently moved here from Hawaii, I will allow you a moment to be excited over the seventeen flakes in the air. But the rest of you live in Iowa, and it's November. This isn't new. Now settle in and get to work."
You can imagine how effective that was.
So, Miss Honey's vacation has been extended until Monday at least.
I like to teach.