My mind swings these days between the mundane concerns of an idle teacher enjoying vacation and the profound concerns of a worried citizen of this world. I won’t say that I bounce back and forth like a pinball, but I rock like a person on a wave-tossed boat, always trying to regain his balance.
This morning I wanted to write, but what I wanted to write changed from moment to moment. At one point I thought I’d write about canoeing yesterday with Sarah. I wanted to capture the peace of the paddle, that dipping of wood into water, but also the energy, the swirling churn of water first pulled, then pushed. I wanted to write about that rhythmic glide, like the lub-dub of a beating heart. I wanted to write about the way the grasses rose proudly out of the mud, the way they created a meandering maze in that marsh, how we wandered, not caring whether we found new paths or dead ends. I wanted to write about the birds, the little ones flitting impatiently across the marsh and the larger ones posted along the edges, eyeing us warily yet clearly not spooked. I wanted to write about the way the breeze buffeted us, disguising the heat of the afternoon. I wanted to write about the sail that Sarah had given me for Father’s Day, how she’d found the perfect moment to spring it from its nylon case, how she held it aloft at the bow of the canoe, directing me toward the best angle for the canoe, and how that sail filled, swelled, and then tugged us forward, almost too fast, through the open water and back into the marsh maze.
But I couldn’t just write about that. Somehow it seemed escapist. Somehow my head couldn’t quite escape this, the nervousness of the now. I descended to the midpoint of the pendulum swing, thinking about me and my own place in this weird time. On Friday my sister-in-law asked me: “So how are you feeling about going back to school?” The answer is, I don’t really know how I feel. What I want, what we all want is for school to be what it used to be (well, sort of). I’m speaking of the routines and the surroundings when I say that. But that’s not one of our options. I want to be in school with kids. I want to meet them face-to-face and get to know them. Then I want to help them form a community, work together, learn together, gain strength and confidence and fortitude. Yes, I know it’s also an equity issue, the kids who most need school are the ones whose parents often can’t work from home, the ones who count on two meals at school, the ones who might not feel safe at home. I also want to help multitasking parents get back to a more manageable life, where they can return to work and find some balance in their lives.
But, I know the precautions that my dentist now takes. He sees only two patients at a time, allowing no one in his waiting room. I wait in the car until the coast is clear. His hygienist takes my temperature as I enter. She asks me questions about my health, my history, my travels, and my interactions. She makes me sanitize my hands before I enter the room. She has me gargle with a hydrogen peroxide solution before the session begins. She wears a mask. I wear a mask until I can’t. She skips any routines that cause extra air flow. I gargle a second time before the dentist checks me. He stands apart as we talk, briefly. As I return to reception, I use a pen from the “clean” holder, sign a form, and drop the pen in the “used” holder. I use my elbow to open the door as I leave the building. I ask myself, “If that’s the way a medical doctor feels he needs to run his office to keep his staff and patients safe, how can my classroom of 20 or more be anywhere near as safe, for me or for my students?” So how do I answer my sister-in-law? I don’t really know how I feel? I want to be brave. I want to do the right thing. But I don’t want to be foolish or irresponsible.
This morning, after I walked the dog, I wanted to do something that would help me get ready for school. I’ve just finished reading a teacher book called The Artful Read Aloud. It gave me a lot to think about. I loved so many of the quotes Rebecca Bellingham shared in the book that I found myself reading the works cited section much more carefully than I usually do. I noticed one podcast series showed up several times: On Being, with Krista Tippett. Maybe it’s as well known as some of the other items in that Works Cited, but it was new to me. This morning I searched it and listened to a brilliant interview with Jason Reynolds (click here). It immediately swung my pendulum over to that other side, the one that worries so much about our society and wants to find ways to “fix it.” Reynolds talked about his youth-friendly remix of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning. He talked about narrative and imagination, that crazy way that an imagined narrative of race and racial difference could influence minds so deeply that it spawned 400 years of injustice and inhumanity.
Of course, Reynolds, who exudes hope and optimism to temper his rage, reminded me of the flip side: that means that moving forward we can also imagine a narrative that gives birth to 400 years of humanity and justice. He exercises that imagination muscle daily. Among the cool things he does is create synonyms for common words, to help us picture them anew. He made up the word breath-laughter as a synonym for freedom. It’s life. It’s shared. It’s joyful. And it spreads.
I know that the real mission for my learning and teaching this year is to help kids come to terms with a truer narrative about our country’s history and its current condition. It’s also to help them see that they can imagine and then pursue change. Reynolds believes that we’ve probably sheltered kids too much from some of the disturbing parts of our past and our present. He thinks they are more savvy and resilient than we give them credit for, and that our role should not be to act as shields, hiding the ugliness from our kids. Rather, we should act as supporters, helping kids understand and process the conditions around them.
So many things he said will lead me to re-listen to this interview, but here’s one thought that helps me see my summer better. He said, “My white friends are saying, ‘I’m trying to become anti-racist.’ But that’s not a thing.” What they need to understand, he says, is that there’s no finish line….It’s a very American thing to think that there are winners and losers. You’ve either succeeded or you’ve failed. But it’s not a binary thing. You don’t just go from being a racist to an anti-racist, as though they are two fixed points where you can land. It’s ever-elusive; it’s a journey. Since the world always changes, you have to always adapt, and you (and our society, I think) will always be on a journey toward becoming more anti-racist.
So, here I am, mid-journey. I rock back and forth between celebrating the breath-laughter of a Sunday paddle and drawing in the masked-breath of a nervous navigator on troubled waters. I’ll inhale the voices of harsh truth and optimism and imagination and hope…that in the future, I can also share a hard-earned breath-laughter with the wider world.