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at Idlewild Amusement Park with my young daughter
Callie and I start with the Spider.
Our first twisty-spin-and-sudden-dip around,
my body remembers this feeling and relaxes
into the wild ride and the wide blue sky.
But Callie is a crunched “C” atop the seat,
back forward, head down, fists clenched
around the safety bar, arms and legs
braced rigid against the movement.
My right arm finds its way around her in the
swooping chaos, draws her to me;
my left hand releases the safety
bar loosely grasped and holds her
left arm firmly.
I am an out of control cocoon.
Spin madly with me, my Monkey Girl.
Laugh and scream with me in
Feel my arms around you and feel safe.
Don’t notice that I’m holding onto nothing—
Nothing except you.
first drafted July 2010
I wrote up my reaction to the presidential election from my perspective as a mom of two politically-aware teens, but my response to the entire election season has been shaped just as much—or more—by my work as a teacher.
Trump and his campaign betray the values I hold most dear as a teacher.
The values are simple.
- I care about careful research, evidence-based arguments, and appropriate communication.
- I care that every student in my class is treated with respect and knows that their voice matters—that there is room for each and every one of them to speak and to be heard.
During the election season, I saw both values betrayed on an everyday basis, and every time each of these values was betrayed, I felt like a failure. I felt like my vocation was meaningless. I felt like the work I try to do every time I interact with students was not valued by anyone outside of campus. I might as well be moving an ocean a spoonful of water at a time.
Often, I couldn’t even articulate why I was so full of angst and frustration and anger. I just felt it, over and over, in debate after debate after debate after debate (there were a lot of them! I’ve been paying attention since the primary debates: Yikes.); in Facebook post after Facebook post; in news report after news report.
I still feel betrayed and frustrated and disappointed.
But I have to be fair and tell the other side of it. Do you know what has come of me working to hear students? It’s been a privilege. They have taught me so much.
One of my students told me after the semester was over that she had been homeless. I have become a kinder person since then because I learned that I could never really know what was going on in another person’s life.
I’ve had students tell me about sexual assault and eating disorders and escaping from a cult. Each and every story shaped the way I think and respond to others. I’ve learned from students who are funny and wise and sarcastic. One student loved awkward situations, and I still enjoy my awkward moments a bit more because of listening to her.
Have you noticed that I haven’t even mentioned paper topics? Oh, if you had the opportunity to read all the ideas I have read—it’s tough to imagine if you’re not a teacher yourself! but I have learned about so many topics that my students have spent time researching that my brain is overly full and I don’t blame myself at all when I cannot remember a single thing anymore without writing it down.
And then there are the backgrounds. My former students are from so many parts of the world that I cannot even name them all. And I haven’t even taught in diverse schools. Even in the mostly-white universities where I have taught, I encounter people who are so different from me that I feel privileged to learn with them, to laugh with them, to grow with them.
When I feel angry about this election season, it’s partly because values I hold dear have been betrayed. And it’s also because these students—and these former students—whom I respect and often love have also been betrayed. I read about their fear on social media. I read their stories of their children. I read their activist calls to do better and stand strong.
I wonder about the people who post about immigrants or Mexicans or Muslims or poor people or transgender people or black criminals. Yes, I am connected with many people on Facebook who post things I consider offensive. I wonder: Do these people simply not know people from diverse backgrounds? I cannot imagine that they would say such things if they knew my students, even if they knew them a little bit. I don’t unfriend these people because I want to hear what they think. Sometimes I address their offensive remarks. Sometimes I have been unable to do so, usually because I am so angry that I do not know how to speak effectively.
So. On that note.
As I move forward into this post-election world, I cannot remain silent in the face of decision-making that is bigoted and oppressive. I cannot sacrifice the people I care about in that way. But I will try to speak up in ways that are respectful of others—even others with whom I disagree—and I will work to find common ground. That’s not because I’m patient or understanding, because right now I’m not. It’s because I think it’s the only kind of communication that actually has integrity and hope attached to it.
I will also speak up against decisions that ignore careful research and clear evidence. (Climate change, I’m talking to you!) We gotta be vigilant about addressing global environmental issues. We can’t be lazy or rely on the manipulative propaganda that populates so much of our news feeds. We gotta do the work and hear the answers, even when they’re tough to hear, even when they challenge us to change in ways that might be uncomfortable.
There’s more. I know there’s more. But that’s what I’ve processed so far. I know who I am as an educator. And for me, the classroom has never been about walls.
On the morning of Tuesday, 8 November 2016, I put on a symbolic outfit and posted my #ImWithHer enthusiasm on Twitter and Facebook.
But the rest of the day was characterized more by worry than excitement. After work, I stopped at home for my voting card and brought my daughter Callie with me to the polling place, but my jubilance from the morning had disappeared. I was physically sore from tension, and a headache was threatening to fully invade at any moment.
I went to bed earlier than my teen kids, both of whom are very politically aware. Jace, age 14, is a fan of Paul Ryan, and in this election he hoped for a Clinton win because he couldn’t support Trump. Callie, age 17, fully supported Clinton as I did.
I woke at midnight to a text from Jace:
I went into Jace’s room and told him it wasn’t over yet. I looked at the results at that point and I held out hope, but Jace is on top of things, and he knew that Trump was going to win before I did. He punched his bed frame in anger at the American populace and vowed that he would run for office one day. I reassured him that it would all be okay and he went to sleep.
An hour later, I was holding Callie as she cried and worried about Roe v. Wade. She’s 17. She wants to own her own body. I don’t fucking blame her. And I puzzle at the women I know who had abortions—who supported their friends through abortions—and voted Republican.
I promised Callie that, no matter what, it would be all right.
As I spoke to my kids, I wasn’t sure if I was lying to them, but I knew 2 things.
- My kids have far less to worry about than many do. They really will be all right.
- They would never be “all right” again. In this moment, they were experiencing a terrible awakening. They were recognizing that the world sometimes completely sucks. They saw that someone who repeatedly said mean things and lied publicly could be fully supported by a huge percentage of the population. And because they are the kids they are—very well-informed and with strong opinions—they saw far more in the election results, and it was all disappointing.
I told my husband Scot that he needed to be good to the kids because they were upset, and I told him I was also devastated. Scot is conservative, and he didn’t tell me how he voted, but he did not support Clinton and probably voted for Trump. He gave me space to grieve.
I went downstairs and stayed awake until 4:00am falling apart by myself.
Before I fell back asleep, I knew what I would say to Callie and Jace. I decided they needed to hear about my life philosophy, developed when I was a teen when I suddenly realized that there was more pain in the world—sometimes more pain in a single person’s life—than could ever be addressed adequately. And I wasn’t even thinking about pain that results from natural causes. Thinking only about the pain of what people do to other people….it’s overwhelming.
I don’t know what sparked this awareness way back when I was a teen. But it made me wonder:
How do I respond?
If I couldn’t fix things and couldn’t take away the pain, I saw only two possible choices. I could either lie down and mourn or I could stand up and do my best to experience joy and be kind despite the pain.
I chose the latter, of course, and I really do enjoy an incredible amount of life, like singing in the car with the sunroof open and rolling down hills and eating dark chocolate with salted caramel (but not all those at the same time, which would be both weird and dangerous).
I try to be kind. Kindness is an interpersonal thing, but it’s also about activism—it’s about standing up for others. And I also admit that I cry on a regular basis, maybe because the pain is always there.
I told this to the kids in some form or another, though I might’ve left out the part about why I cry so easily.
I don’t think they even paid much attention when I was able to talk with them. They are probably sorting out election disillusionment in their own ways, and their ways are probably smarter and wiser than mine.
But knowing what I would tell them was healthy for me. My election-day headache returns whenever I think too much about what is coming because I feel powerless and frustrated and worried. But I cannot remain in that space consistently.
There are only two choices. Dwell in the place of overwhelming pain, which helps no one. Or stand up and go on despite the pain, which doesn’t make everything better for everyone all the time. But it does make some things better, for some people, for some of the time.
So, mostly, I stand.
Background (you can skip this & scroll down if want to quickly see what the students got up to)
As I watched the election results roll in and found myself unable to sleep in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I worked on preparing my Wednesday night class for a course called Gender, Race, and Class. We were finishing the book Little Bee by Chris Cleave and students were beginning to work on creative projects.
And in the face of the election, I knew I needed to give these students opportunities to engage the ideas of Little Bee (and the ideas of the whole course, really) without relying solely on class discussion. I needed to give the opportunities to be creators during our class, to respond actively, to have the power to interpret and to express.
I didn’t really articulate those ideas to myself at the time. It was just instinct. But I thought about a lesson plan I learned from Dr. Lauren Esposito and decided that would work for a good chunk of the class, and the students thought it would be good to share what they did online, so here I am. (They really want Chris Cleave to see their work because he retweeted me when I quoted from Little Bee on election night. But I’m glad if others see the student work as well!)
What the students did: The process (you can still scroll down more if you’re all about the tableaux…)
- Each person in class reread the same passage and marked words or phrases that contributed to the impact of the scene.The passage is fairly early in the book. The child, Charlie, is dressed in a Batman
costume and jumps into the grave of his father and desperately tries to pull open the coffin. Charlie’s mom, Sarah, narrates this part of the novel, and she is held back when her instinct is to go to her son. It is a dramatic scene because both characters break in some way at this point.
- The students gathered in groups of 4 or 5 and shared what they underlined in order to develop a single sentence that would get at the heart of the passage.
- The students found a way to enact the sentence by creating a tableau—a still scene—in which everyone participated, either as a narrator of the sentence or as part of the scene.
- Each group had a turn to share the tableau and read the “caption”—that is, the group’s sentence about the scene. The rest of the class then interpreted the scene by identifying figures and emotions and the significance of certain body postures. The group enacting the tableau added to the interpretive work of the rest of the class if necessary.
- The class had a discussion about how this activity either helped or hindered us in processing the novel. The overwhelming response was that it helped. Students appreciated the way their individual interpretations of the passage grew and stretched in a variety of directions as they talked with small-group members and then with the entire class via the tableaux.Students made connections to ways the themes in this scene played out in other parts of the novel. And these connections were brilliant, far beyond what I could’ve anticipated—acting versus holding back, the battle between one’s own priorities and societal expectations, looking at what is difficult to look at, hearing another’s anguish, feeling powerless, responding to another’s pain.
The experience was richer than what I expected. I don’t think the tableaux and captions below capture the class very well, actually, because so much of the richness was in the conversations that took place before and after these enactments. But maybe it was the enactments that allowed the conversations to happen.
What the students did: The tableaux
It is hard to be the first to help with something as complex as a child first experiencing death.
As one continues life, it becomes harder to overcome challenges and one loses grasp of one’s own world and gains the cold truth of reality.
The discovery of death by a child invokes horror, takes away innocence and invincibility, is worse than death itself, and can break your heart for the rest of your life.
I joined a Faculty Writing Forum (FWF) at Pace University where I just started working. It’s basically a writing workshop. We meet five times over the course of the year, and the goal is to write a journal article over the course of the year. That seems achievable, yes?
We had our first meeting, and it was both wonderful and anxiety-producing.
The wonderful: Out of approximately 15 of us who were at the first meeting, it seemed like no one’s research was similar to mine except two writing faculty from Pace’s NYC campus (I’m at the suburban Pleasantville campus in Westchester). And the FWF leader, Jim, said we should all partner up with someone whose research was somewhat similar, with pairings being the ideal.
Oh, no, I thought. Meaghan and Mara belong together, and once they are paired, I will not fit in at all.
But what actually happened was that Meaghan and Mara immediately brought me on board, flouting the guidelines for pairings. Jim seems okay with it.
And I am excited to learn more about what Meaghan and Mara are working on. It’s a cool thing that the three of us speak the same disciplinary language, but we also have research-specific insights to share with one another.
The anxiety-producing: Part of the work we did during the first meeting was to commit to writing every day. We were given a chart, and we were asked to fill out when we would be writing each day.
I looked at that chart that listed times throughout each day, and all I could think of was all the ways writing would not fit into my schedule.
I work best in the mornings. I learned that when I used to play Words with Friends—I made dumb moves at night and was brilliant in the mornings.
But often in the mornings I struggle to wake up and get out of bed. I often am catching up on email. I often am prepping to teach a class. I often am giving students feedback on their writing because I was too sleepy to do it effectively the night before. I often end up going back to sleep because I’ve been up in the middle of the night with insomnia or with my difficult-but-loveable dog.
But no other part of the day is better than mornings. My days are filled by my to-do lists. My days are more challenging now than they were last year because I just moved my family to a new state and began working at a new campus. I’m chairing my department, which is work that I enjoy, but my learning curve is steep (I first published this post with “sleep” here instead of “steep,” which seems like a wonderful accident), and very few parts of my life feel like they are simple routines that I can run on automatic mode. Instead, almost everything I do requires my attention and focus.
Even when I go to take a spoon out of the drawer or turn from the sink to throw something in the trash can, if I am not paying attention I end up moving in the wrong direction. My muscle memory is based on eleven years in another kitchen with another system of organization. I have to retrain my body and my mind to fit my new situation. My time in the kitchen is a microcosm for my entire life right now.
I filled out the chart to show that I would write 20 minutes in the mornings Monday through Friday and 40 minutes on Saturday and Sunday. I think if I can do it I will feel good. I love to write sometimes, and even when I hate it I end up feeling good about having done it.
The time will be for me. The time will be a way for me to start off with my own priorities.
I will make time for students and colleagues and the dog and even my husband and my kids, but I will also find time for me.
When I do not write in the morning because I need to sleep, I will allow myself to sleep. And on those days, I will write something, even if it’s only for a few minutes later in the day. I will remind myself that writing is a treat that I deserve.
Take-away? Commitment: Meaghan and Mara reached out, and the three of us made a commitment to one another. That felt wonderful.
In the face of my time-commitment anxieties, I think the only answer is to make a commitment not only to my writing-group friends but also to make a commitment to myself.
They say the body never lies. Something has been moving me, shifting walls and boundaries I didn’t know were there. I find myself in front of screens, believing I’m killing time with a kind of disengaged viewing, and suddenly I’m overcome, undone.
I grew up with the 70s women libbers as both heroine role models and punch lines to a joke. I must’ve buried the pain*–I coped as many of us do, buffering despair with low expectations, reassuring myself that it was really all okay despite evidence to the contrary.
But in the last weeks, the tears have come. It’s been like that moment in Good Will Hunting when Sean (Robin Williams) tells Will (Matt Damon), “It’s not your fault. Will, it’s not your fault.”
Here are the women (or, in many cases, girls) who, in the last couple weeks, have tapped into my despair and released a pressure I hadn’t know was building. How? by offering hope.
Let me say their names.
- Hillary Clinton at The Democratic National Convention when she is the first female U.S. presidential candidate nominated by a major party. I can’t even write that sentence without getting emotional.
- Simone Biles when she is an incredible athlete and Olympic gold medal winner and she says, “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.” This young woman has displayed strength on the mat and on a narrow beam and in the air, moving in ways gymnasts from my childhood could not anticipate. And she has displayed strength in her words as she has fought to construct her own narrative.
- Simone Manuel when she is an incredible athlete and Olympic gold medal winner and she says, “I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not Simone, the black swimmer, because the title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records.” She, too, has shown strength in body and in character, using her swimming ability and her words to move forward with agility and confidence.
- My daughter, Callie Anderson, when she says to me, “Watch this,” and the video is a poet deconstructing the policing of female voices. The day after Callie shared this with me, I posted it in the comments of an “Upworthy” article advising women that their language habits were making them weak. Callie is aware in ways I couldn’t begin to fathom when I was sixteen years old. At that age, I was doing my best to ignore gender because that seemed like the best way to make sexism go away. It wasn’t!
The body doesn’t lie. My tears bear witness to watershed moments. They have come, unbidden, helping me appreciate these women, helping me to acknowledge that things have not been right, helping me to say that things are still not right.
But I have hope that they can be.
*The pain I refer to may be obvious, but in case it isn’t: I’m talking about the pain of feeling like you’re less than others, like you don’t matter, like you’re not of value. For poor old Will Hunting, it was an individual thing to a great extent because his parents didn’t take care of him (though there are issues of economic class that play into it as well).
In the situation I’m discussing here, it’s a socio-cultural thing. Patriarchal culture is based on devaluing the feminine. Because this tendency is so generic and impersonal, it may seem like I shouldn’t experience pain and woundedness. But that’s not how it works. It’s like the conversation from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
In other words, even if there’s no individual intent, everyday sexism hurts in a very personal and individual way.
I came across this bit of writing today when I was cleaning out some Notes. Notes are some kind of app that comes with my Mac and my iPhone and my iPad (back before my son somehow acquired my iPad for his own use). I don’t know why I wrote this particular thing in my Notes, but it was interesting for me to read a year later. So I thought I’d share it here.
Day after commencementI’ve taken the dog to the parkSwept out the garage andVacuumed cobwebs from the underside of the wheelbarrowI weeded one bed, newly defined and mulched at last summer’s endI took Callie out to breakfast. We chatted about writing and poems and we laughed when walking back to the car because she said, “I have to write a sonnet. I don’t know what to write about. I really don’t want to write this sonnet” and only minutes before we had noted that she is always Tom Sawyer at first, never wanting to whitewash that fence, but she always turns into Tom’s friends, finding joy in the chore that is now pleasure well executed.I assisted Jace as he made brownies with chocolate chip cookies on top.And nowI’m in the sun on the back deck in a blue bikiniReading and dozingAnd summoned to look at the wonder of the backyardThe chattering invisible birds punctuated by a regular 2-note reminder of a voice and a pattern and the lives beyond my own.I’m restless: Can I look and not notice the weeds? Can I relax and wonder and be in the moment without the evaluation and coming up short? Can I love this weedy yard and my big thighs and the conversations I had yesterday that I don’t understand because so many so often seem ready to take offense?I notice my impulse to fix and improve. I tell myself Iove the whole thing, weeds and all. I tell myself that “weed” is an unfair word; it sets up the undesirability of the plant from the get-go.My thoughts spin lazily round and round, the sun brightening the inside of my eyelids, me wanting to make things better, me wanting to accept things as they are, me, knowing I won’t ever be a bird without a care but at least I know to take time to read in the sun on the back deck when one more academic year is done.
- I had forgotten about making brownies with chocolate chip cookies on top. How yummy!
- I still wear that blue bikini (and a couple other bikinis as well, but not all at the same time) and I still read and doze on the deck. Ahh.
- I have no idea what I was referencing when I described “a regular 2-note reminder of a voice and a pattern and the lives beyond my own.” Was that my phone? the peepers in the creek behind my house? something else? I really don’t know….
- I vividly remember a reception I attended after commencement last year (“the conversations I had yesterday that I don’t understand because so many so often seem ready to take offense”). Two people—both were administrators in love with the university president—reacted with great umbrage to innocent questions I asked, which is an unusual experience for me. But lots of stuff went down in the following year, and it turns out I’m occasionally a force to be reckoned with, so maybe those two people somehow already knew as much. It’s funny that I exaggerated with the phrases “so many” and “so often.” Um, two, Laurie. Just two people. Just two times. Lol. So dramatic.
- I can’t believe how much I got done that day! I’m like some kind of freaking super woman. Part of me wants to edit some of that out of the writing, both because it sound a bit show off-y and because Guilt. Past Me is making Present Me all ashamed of my lack of productivity. Which is totally not the point of the writing. But I’m too lazy to edit. (did you see what I did there?? embracing my lack of productivity, baby!)
- I still struggle with the tension between improving and just loving things (including myself) as is. I feel like the kinds of wisdom I constantly hear are about acceptance, but that’s not always so practical, and even total acceptance seems like something I’m supposed to strive for, which is annoying. Don’t make me strive and tell me not to strive at the same time! Ugh.
- I just reread, and I think the part about Callie and Tom Sawyer makes me feel better about productivity and acceptance and laziness. All kinds of moments can be filled with joy. Sometimes I get too caught up in what I’m “supposed” to do or “need” to do, and the pleasure disappears until I remember that often these exact things are what I want to do. I think I enjoyed all kinds of activities in the day after commencement last year, and writing it out was not a way to inspire guilt in Future Me but instead was meant to remind Future Me of an ordinary day that was full of pleasure. Again: Ahh.