How Quitting Was the Most Courageous Lesson I Ever Taught

courageous lesson

“Fear keeps your achievements unrealized, hidden from yourself and the world. Love will set them free.” –Ralph Marston

My last 6 posts have partly told the story of what gave me the courage to quit my full-time high school teaching job so that I could write full-time.

To put that story into perspective and hopefully illustrate why I had to leave, I want you to read something I wrote after my first year of teaching.

7 Truths of Teaching and Learning

 

“Are you afraid?”

That’s the question I was asked when first interviewing for the Louisiana Teaching Fellows program. A wonderful principal asked me this because the program recruited teachers for the “toughest inner city schools” in Baton Rouge.

I never even thought to be afraid. Afraid of what? That question could be answered in two ways.

I could potentially be afraid of my self—doubting my abilities, feeling unworthy of the task, etc.

I’m sure, though, she wanted to know if I was afraid of teaching “those kids” who are often perceived as loud, ghetto, uncontrollable, violent, dangerous, and… unteachable.

It never occurred to me to be scared because I was too busy loving. I’m kin to my students. I am my students.

I had tea today with a couple who went through the teaching program with me, so teaching has been on my mind. I hiked a steep learning curve my first year, but here are some truths I’ve picked up along the way from personal experience, fellow teachers, books, and most I already knew from the life I lived before teaching.

1) “Fear keeps [my students’] achievements unrealized, hidden from [everyone]. Love will set them free.”

2) Students sense fear. When they act out in response to our fear of them, it’s probably to inflict pain similar to the pain they feel knowing that someone feared them without even knowing them. Also, they’ll take being feared over being threatened. Society has taught them that those who are feared stand a better chance of survival.

3) Every child is beautiful and BRILLIANT!!! But most importantly, they need to know it, and they need to know that I know it.

4) There’s no such thing as a student who “just doesn’t want to learn.” Students may not want to learn what we want to teach them, but they want to learn something.

5) I must be a student of my students, learning ways to best serve them. Teaching is not about me, so I scale my ego down to size. Teaching is not about my subject, so I dismiss the notion of sacred texts. No book, no curriculum, no standard could ever trump the sacredness of my children’s humanity.

6) I must love my students for who they are right now rather than for who formal education conditions them to be. I mustn’t tell them they can be somebody some day. I must show them they are somebody right now. Even if they have tattoos, gold teeth, or purple hair. Yes, even those things make them special.

7) The world cannot afford to lose out on my students. The world needs each of them to be productive citizens who know, live, and share their value daily.

Teaching and learning is not about fear; it’s about loving.

So, the final question I asked myself before realizing that quitting would be the most courageous lesson I could teach to the students I loved, was this: How can I lecture to my students about going after their dreams, when I’ve never even attempted to go after my own?

Should You Quit Your Job?

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Zora Neale Hurston Born and Read

At 16, I met Zora Neale Hurston. I tucked her inside like a sterling silver pendant worn close to my heart. Her spirit traversed through decades and the bedlam of high school to appear on my desk in the form of an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

This was the time in my life when I wanted to go, go, go. Zora’s words beckoned me to follow her lead:

My vagrancy had begun in reality. I knew that. There was an end to my journey and it had happiness in it for me. It was certain and sure. But the way! Its agony was equally certain. It was before me, and no one could spare me my pilgrimage. The rod of compelment was laid to my back. I must go the way. 

Zora Neale Hurston is a Daughter of the Dustleaving tracks along the many routes she’s traveled, always moving on but leaving imprints of where she comes from. Perhaps my obsession with roots & routes started there, within the pages of Zora’s book. I walk miles through her language, like the journey from a blank screen into the unknown stories we’re meant to tell.

Zora Neale Hurston

A year later, Zora and I reacquainted, this time in a novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her? Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short impatience. Waiting for the world to be made.

What artistry! How could a high school girl not be enchanted by such voodoo?

Though I fell in love in high school, it wasn’t until I changed my major from architecture to English midway through undergrad that I began to study Zora Neale Hurston’s text. Her depiction of a character’s emotional state and world view through their location in the scene. Geography is not only a metaphor depicting ideology, but the concrete manifestation of ideology. She tells the story of her time and her people with poetic prose.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

She enriched her work with anthropological research and publications on African American folklore. All of her writing celebrates the legacies crafted by blacks out of their environments, memories, and dreams. No matter how far she ascended into the Harlem Renaissance elite, or how much she traveled, she never distanced herself from those cultural roots. Rather, her travels brought her deeper, closer to them.

Beyond 1891, Zora Neale Husrton continues to be born and read, alive even today.

In honor of Zora’s birthday today, Jan. 7, I invite you to share what you know and love about her in the comments below or on Facebook.

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Django Unchained: Roots & Routes

Half a dozen black men in shackles, with festering welts on their backs, shuffling across a barren landscape, herded by two white men on horseback with guns.

A note that says we’re “somewhere in Texas,” and opening credits in tacky, red font.

Roberto Fia’s voice crooning the twangy, but Italian, theme song from the original 60’s version of Django.

The scene changes to a dark, cold night.

When the music stops, there’s nothing but the loud pulse of clinking chains.

From beginning to end, the moving images convey movement, transport, travel, journey, evolution, escape, venturing off into expansive, unknown landscapes and into unknown futures.

Sometimes the movement is solemn, ugly, and industrial. Shackled feet trudging through thick mud. A human conveyor belt with no visible beginning or end.

Then there’s the stoic odyssey through snow, across deserts, and eventually into the deep south.

Django Unchained is steeped in the symbolism of roots & routes.

Western Genre

This film was inspired by the classic, American film genre of the western, which features the classic American hero of the cowboy.

The title of Django Unchained and the plot to rescue a stolen love, are remixes of the original 1966 western, Django, by Sergio Corbucci, which has had a few sequels over the years.

The actor who played Django in 1966, Franco Nero, actually makes a significant cameo in Django Unchained in that infamous scene when Django spells his name and explains, “The D is silent.” Nero’s character simply replies, “I know.”

That scene is merely one display, I believe, of the fact that this was not just a whim for Tarantino. He grew up watching westerns the way I grew up reading Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes. It’s quite possible that watching those movies as a boy inspired Tarantino to make films in the first place.

Like any inspired artist, he’s not just remixing the old; he’s paying homage to the artists and the work that preceded him and keeping it alive for younger generations to appreciate.

The nod to westerns of old is the roots of this film. The remix is the routes.

Tarantino essentially says, here’s what my predecessors have done, and here’s how I can build on that, moving forward with a vision that’s all my own.

I love the intentional allusion to history in any type of work, and the will to perpetuate the evolution for a contemporary context.

Here’s how Tarantino explains the roots & routes (my term) of his own film:

Technically it’s a southern, done in the style of the western. The way we think of westerns, the characters go on a western odyssey. We start with our characters in Texas, to give everybody a sense of the familiar. And then we start moving toward where the cotton is. 

Southern Setting

Imagine pure, bright, white cotton . . .

Growing in tailored rows in a large field.

Can you see it?

The soft, billowy, fluff of a flower.

Now see it gushed with red drops of blood.

That’s one of my favorite images from Django Unchained.

And the ubiquitous presence of roads. Seems like every other scene features Django riding horseback through the streets of a town or down long stretches of country roads

Roads clearly symbolize roots & routes. They’re solely meant to facilitate transportation. On roads, we leave one place and travel to another.

With that physical movement, we occasionally experience a spiritual movement― a new start, a sense of freedom, or return for a reckoning, all aptly applied to Django Unchained.

I also feel particularly connected to this film because it was shot on an actual plantation in Louisiana. No Hollywood, replica set here.

Regardless of where they live now, many people who watch Django Unchained have Southern roots. Their ancestors routed to other regions of the American countryside, possibly experiencing their own type of real life western.

And of course, all Americans, not just southerners, share deep roots in American slavery.

Context of Slavery

How do you go all the way back to allow the ghosts of slaves or ancestors to speak through you? Jamie Foxx

Slavery sparks much debate about Django Unchained, controversy that enticed me to see it even more!

The roots & routes of slavery are parallel tracks in this film.

We get the typical slave narrative woven throughout: lowered eyes, quivering voices, the crack of whips, black mistresses, hungry hounds, lavish power and wealth, phrenology, and the overall social order of the day.

Simultaneously on the screen with those images is a former slave who looks white men in the eyes, talks assertively to them, turns the whip on them, and calls them BOY.

The route from slavery is that a time will has come when a black man doesn’t have to sit by, powerless and unable to protect his black wife while she’s captured, sold, beaten, and raped.

This is bigger than an escape route. The black man doesn’t just escape from this group of slave owners; he defeats them.

Like Django, the audience must journey into the South and into the past to confront evil and reclaim what’s ours, which I think is ultimately pride.

I say pride, because of the evolution of one, minor character, depicted solely by his facial expressions. (I’ll let you watch the film to catch that cue.)

There’s so much more to say, but my self-imposed word count has dwindled, and despite the fact that it’s become one of my new favorites, I’m simply not inclined to write more than one post on this movie.

My first attempt at writing about it approached the length of a graduate thesis. Here’s what my subheadings were for the original post:

  • audience
  • cast & crew
  • colorism
  • directors
  • genre
  • the German
  • humor
  • location
  • love
    • male & female
    • self-love
  • masculinity
  • the *N* word
  • slavery
  • soundtrack
  • violence
    • against blacks
    • against whites
  • women

Seeing as how I didn’t want to spend all of 2013 writing about this one film, I scrapped that draft and tried two more times. Even though I saw so much in the film, I had to choose the path that beckoned me the most.

I’m sure you have thoughts. Share them in the comments.

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Colorism: The Truth About Soledad’s “Who is Black in America?”

It struck a nerve.

Got under the skin of blacks, whites, and others.

Since Sunday evening, when Soledad O’Brien’s fifth installment of Black in America aired on CNN, many have asked, “Does it matter who is black in America?”

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Of course, proponents of the “I’m HUMAN” brand, and the “I don’t see color” camp showed up in full force following the documentary.

Several have insisted that people like Soledad pick at the scab of racism and won’t let us heal. That she and others are responsible for keeping racism and colorism alive because they won’t stop talking about it.

Other complaints included “I’m not represented,” or “This documentary doesn’t run the gamut of all black experiences.”

But I have another way to look at Soledad’s “Black in America” series in general, and more specifically at “Who is Black in America?” because it covers colorism, which has been a large focus of my writing since I began blogging in 2011.

Race may be something we’ve created, but created things are real.

Because they have real consequences.

Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine a person’s status as a slave. Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine who had the right to legally marry. Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine where you could sit, what water fountain you could drink from, and which door you had to enter.

When our social construct of race leads to bullying, physical violence and murder, economic disparities, educational disparities, and psychological pain, it becomes tangible, more than just a myth.

Unfortunately, the institution of racism that’s existed in this land for centuries is still reflected in our lived experiences, whether it’s residual, such as the economic and educational disparities between races, or whether it’s blatant acts of hate, such as bullying or murder.

Race is our Frankenstein. We’ve created it, so now we have to deal with it. I’m glad Soledad has the courage to confront this monster that so many want to run from.

Being “color blind” is not honorable.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with difference. The problem is allowing differences to divide us.

We don’t want homogeneity. We don’t want to be clones of each other, no more than we want flowers to all look the same.

The key is to recognize the beauty in our differences. God created us all unique in some way, not to segregate, but to celebrate. It’s human nature to recognize patterns, similarities, and differences, not just among people, but amid all elements of creation.

Yes, the entire world has a history and way of using differences to establish hierarchies or castes to gain power and privilege, and to oppress others. That’s the evil of the world.

But we don’t have to deny ourselves the blessing of beautiful colors. We need to create societies that accommodate,  appreciate,  and celebrate differences, not try to neutralize them.

Insisting on “color blindness” actually has an opposite effect. It results in making skin color differences taboo.

If what you really mean is that you don’t show differential treatment based on skin color, then say that. But don’t pretend you can’t see skin color.

Talking about race and colorism is part of the solution, not the problem.

On Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien, Michaela Angela Davis said,

Soledad, you’re in the solution.

On the Google+ Hangout with ESSENCE, Perry “Vision” DiVirgilio used an analogy that I like:

If you have an open wound on your arm, and you don’t treat it, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to stay there and fester.

Because I’ve already written about why I kept silent for so long and why I’m not any longer, I won’t go into great detail here.

I will simply ask, when has not talking about a social problem, ever helped people solve it? Would the Holocaust have ended if everyone in the world had just stopped talking about it? Would Apartheid have ended if everyone had just stopped talking about it? Would slavery in American have ended if everyone had merely stopped talking about it? Would women have gotten the right to vote if people stopped talking about it?

No.

Racism and it’s offspring, colorism, will not disappear because people go silent about it. People consistently bring about change in this world by first speaking up, and then taking action.

Consider what happens when you try to put a lid on a boiling pot.

One documentary cannot encompass everything.

It’s not fair to require one blog post, one article, one movie, one documentary, one book, one school, or one person to be the ultimate and final answer to all the world’s problems.

When I began blogging about colorism, I received similar criticism as Soledad did for her documentaries. People wanted to dictate what I should be writing about.

I say, if you don’t see what you want to see, go somewhere else and find it, or create it yourself.

We need all hands on deck. Soledad can’t do it alone. Yaba can’t do it alone. Vision can’t do it alone.

Plus, the documentary is a series. That means what you haven’t seen in the first five episodes, might show up in the sixth, seventh, or eighth. And the documentary is less than an hour long (if you consider commercial time). Let’s be logical about that.

“Who is Black in America?” merely opens the door a little more.

The bottom line is that I’m overjoyed that the issue of colorism has a national stage in mainstream media for the first time ever. In an earlier post on the media, I explained that the media covers weight issues, bullying, violence, interracial discrimination, single mothers, rape, and a host of other painful issues, but has never discussed colorism on such a prominent platform.

It’s been talked about, no doubt, but never in a forum so big as this.

I know the documentary barely scratched the surface of colorism, but it’s fueled the discussion like nothing ever before. Because of that, I applaud this segment of Black in America, and personally view it as success.

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