Honoring #MLK with Action from Anger

Last week, I tweeted about one of the two restorative circles I ran in my two math classes that weren’t functioning well. I haven’t tweeted about the second class because there’s been more on my mind about it, and I haven’t been able to put it all into words. However, in honor of MLK day and several of his quotes, I want to share something that happened in my last period class during our circle on Thursday (and then my follow-up after school & on Friday/this weekend).

I started with the four agreements from courageous conversations about race:

  1. Stay Engaged
  2. Experience Discomfort
  3. Speak from Your Truths
  4. Expect and Accept non-closure (still open).

I explained what each of those meant in kid-friendly terms and expressly said we weren’t “naming names,” but speaking about how WE felt during class. Then I asked the same opening question, “How does math class feel to you right now?” and I listened to the students. Because this was last period and their issues are different than my other class, the conversation went very differently. I had three students talk about DREADING school & many kids who spoke about feeling bored, burnt out or ready to go home from school at the end of the day. I asked them about what they found engaging in their lives and what would help keep their attention on math at the end of the day as our two follow up questions (different from the morning’s class who was having trouble with calling out and interrupting people making mistakes, who I asked how it feels when they make a mistake in math class & who they ask for advice). I heard the students of last period request more games, physical activity, and hands-on activities, as well as stories that were more “fun and deep,” so my Friday lesson attempted to incorporate several of those aspects to be more engaging for them. While it was obviously just a start, many students who were there expressed that it did feel different and fun and nice (some of the students who said they dread school had not come to school on Friday, supposedly fearing a math test – but that’s for another post).

There was one student in that last period class who spoke up whose contributions were very different. She mentioned that students had been laughing at her because I call her by a different name than the other teachers do, but that in her culture, it’s traditional for people to get two names, not just one, and so the second name I was calling her was actually part of her name and not just a nickname I had made up for her (which was what other students insinuated). But most teachers just read off the roster what your name is, and they don’t ask you what you want to be called, so the other teachers just called her by the first part of her name. She said she was sick of being teased and harassed about the name that I called her because other kids didn’t understand.  Names and naming have been on my mind a lot lately, in part because of my own experiences with names, realizing I was mispronouncing a white student’s name earlier this year, and another student for most of last year. Plus, Dulce-Marie Flecha had just posted about pronouncing her name correctly on twitter (Duel-seh-Marie, for those who don’t know), so I was thinking about the importance of student names already.

I spoke with my student after class a bit more about it, and she expressed that she had students who were in 7th and 8th grade that she didn’t even know teasing her in the hallway, and I felt angry. I began writing an email to my colleagues to call her by both names, but I decided to stop by the 6th grade AP’s office, since I had just seen he was in. I told him a bit about what had happened, and he expressed that he thought it would be a better message coming from guidance, and that I should refer the situation to our guidance counselor. I told him I didn’t understand why, since I was the person this student had felt comfortable sharing this with, and that it felt like passing the buck to pass off the issue to the guidance department – and also, I didn’t understand why teachers would be more receptive to hearing this information from the guidance counselor and not from me, one of their colleagues.

The other piece that felt uncomfortable throughout the conversation was the fact that he suggested we talk to her parents and find out what name they wanted us to call her. I expressed the fact that it shouldn’t be necessary to ask parents – especially in the case of a trans student, that would be violating their right to privacy and self-determination (NYC protects a student’s right to be called ANY name THEY use and identify with, and doesn’t require parental notification of such, especially if it would potentially harm the kid). He pushed back & said that for all of the other students whose names differed from the names on their records, the request to use an alternate name came from the parents. I said that it didn’t have to and shouldn’t have to, that we should be asking the students about names and pronouns and not making assumptions.  He expressed that she had never told any other teacher about this name difference, and I challenged “Which other teachers asked?” & he said something about her being capable of self-advocating. I said maybe, but why should she have to. I also expressed that not every parent felt comfortable or spoke English fluently enough to make these kinds of demands of the school, & he said he’d spoken to her parents about other (disciplinary-related) things and they were fluent in English and seemed capable of asking for that if they had wanted her to be called a different name. Our conversation didn’t seem to be moving forward, and he was distracted (and continually shutting down my attempts at engaging with “I still stand by what I said…”). I left with this unresolved, but continuing to chew on what he had told me.

He thought about it for a bit, and came to find me in my classroom a bit later to continue the conversation. I appreciated the fact that he acknowledged the conversation was unresolved, that he wasn’t feeling well and hadn’t been giving me his full attention, but now he could give the conversation more attention (though he was still feeling ill). We continued talking about the two issues. He mentioned the idea that people might be more receptive to hearing critical feedback from someone who didn’t seem like a “peer” but seemed like an outsider (i.e. guidance) because it would feel more accusatory coming from me. I expressed that I felt angry, like we had robbed this student of her name.

He also mentioned a fact that infuriated me (though I don’t remember now whether it was during the first part of our conversation or the second part). My school population is about 50% Hispanic students and has been for all of its 6-year history. This was NOT the first example he could think of a student who used two names at home that our school hadn’t “caught” initially, and that eventually (perhaps by 8th grade, where our curriculum focuses on self-advocacy) most students who wanted to go by a name different than the one on the register ultimately asked the school to do so (that he KNEW of! was the piece I thought but didn’t articulate at the time).

I pushed back on this assumption, and tried to make an analogy to my experiences in college using Kit, a name different from my legal name at the time (and even in K – 12 school, I never used my legal birth name, always a nickname). I expressed how every year, at the start of class, I had to tell my teachers to use a different name than on the register for me because I didn’t use that name. He expressed something like, “You should be proud of yourself for advocating for yourself like that!” and I snapped back, “No, I didn’t want to have to ask for that. It’s exhausting to constantly have to fight that battle. I wanted the teachers to ask me what name and what pronouns to use, and not just me – but to ask EVERYONE, so I didn’t stand out as different.” He tried to make a connection with the 8th grade curriculum teaching our students to advocate for themselves, and I said, “But that’s ridiculous. Not everyone is going to stand up to a teacher and tell them to do something different. We’re the adults; we’re the ones in power. And we have the power to change the system so that the names we use for students are the names they identify with. We shouldn’t be changing their names or making them ask us.”

He seemed to chew on this idea a bit, and said next year, things could be different, and we could discuss how at some of our Wednesday 6th grade meetings. He reiterated how he thought that the guidance department would be better suited to introduce this topic to the 6th grade team and recommended I refer the student to the guidance counselor.

I vented about the situation to my black colleague the next day, and she expressed no surprise, but sympathy for my position (and agreed with me at the absurdity of making students request something that teachers should be asking for as a norm). I also wound up seeing the guidance counselor during fourth period (after she’d had a chance to speak with the student) & I spoke with her about the situation. She told me the student had said she would prefer if I only called her by the first name since everyone else was doing that. She said that the kid had expressed that she had wanted to try out using both names (since half her family called her both), but no longer felt comfortable doing so at school and would just keep that other name for outside school/family. The guidance counselor mentioned that she had a similar experience (she is also Latina/Hispanic). The guidance counselor was having her lunch in the staff lounge at the time of our conversation (I ran into her on my way to the bathroom, which is in the staff lounge), and she was seated with the other guidance counselor and one of the office secretaries. I mentioned how I felt angry that we hadn’t created a system to ask students about their names, and the secretary shared the story of her son’s Greek name being Americanized in school (because it is spelled differently than it is pronounced, so teachers/students made assumptions about how to pronounce his name). They all seemed relatively complacent with this situation though – it felt like they expected it and they didn’t think there was another alternative (i.e. students having their names, even “foreign-sounding” ones or double-names used and respected by people at school, people OUTSIDE of their home culture). I mentioned that I wanted to try to change the policies and how we asked students about what name to call them, and I asked if the guidance counselor could come talk to the sixth grade department about the situation. I expressed to her what my AP had said to me (that the idea might be better received, coming from an outside source like the guidance department), and she agreed, though she expressed the fact that our meetings are always during her lunch (I said she didn’t have to come for the whole meeting if she couldn’t stay). She’s (supposedly) going to come talk to us during the Wednesday meeting next week; I’ll see how that goes.

I’ve been thinking about this all weekend (my partner has heard me yell about stealing a kid’s name from her no less than three times since Friday afternoon). I think I want to propose that next year’s “summer assignment” is for each student to video themselves saying their names and their pronouns, and then the first week of school, every student’s HW is to watch the other students videos and learn the names and pronouns of the students in their classes. That’s a WAY better assignment than the “flashy” one they do now with reconstructing a puzzle cube over the summer. (I plan to propose this on Wednesday, during our team meeting).

For me, sharing this experience about what happened last week honors MLK’s work because I now understand his Letter from the Birmingham Jail SO MUCH better because of this situation (especially these specific quotes).

The first is this quote from Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (Emphases mine)

The second is this quote, “I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.” (Emphasis mine)

I used to be offended by his statement that the white moderate was a stumbling block for the black stride for freedom, because I saw myself as a white moderate (though now I begin to recognize I might be more of a white radical…?). I thought that surely the oppression and hate felt from active racism like the KKK was far more harmful than the passive racism from the white moderate. I didn’t get it. Until now. I see it now, in this experience with my colleague (who has been involved in courageous conversations work in the school system, so he is not unfamiliar with “the work” to be done) and being furious at him for not recognizing how expecting the students to “advocate” for themselves when he/we (the staff/faculty/teachers/admin) have the power to CHANGE the system perpetuates systemic oppression of students whose “legal” first names don’t match the names they go by (for WHATEVER reason – whether it’s due to cultural differences of having multiple first names, going by a middle name, or being transgender and using a name other than the one on the birth certificate – or even just as simple as having a nickname that feels more true to ones’ self than their legal name).

I recognized that I see the structural solution to the “issue” of mis-naming students and misusing students’ names which he was blind to. The structure that we need to put in place is to disconnect the birth certificate (and a student’s “official” record) from the name we (the teachers, the students, and the school community) know a student by, and instead, use the name that the students themselves use for themselves. In order to do this, we can restructure how we learn students names at the start of the year to ask students to tell us what names to call them (and not just SOME students whose names we read and think look “different” or “unfamiliar” but instead to ask ALL students and make NO assumptions about whose names will be familiar for US to pronounce vs. unfamiliar!). This works for students of multiple cultures as well as for transgender students. It honors students’ identities and grants them the dignity of having their names (and pronouns) respected by their peers & by the people who hold the power in their school – the teachers. We can root out the injustice of robbing students of their names not just for individual students (and thus have to keep repeating this work for each individual student), but systematically, by changing the way we interact with our students and their identities. By shifting the paradigm of student names from assumptions that the name on the register is correct or the student will advocate for themselves to asking ALL students to name themselves for us and each other, we shift the labor from a small group of students who are other-ed by the restrictive system to the entire system and to ALL students, so that ALL are on equal footing when we enter school. No assumptions made about whose names we need to repeat or practice, no assumptions about whose names will be hard for US to pronounce, but rather, an assumption that everyone has a right to hear their name pronounced correctly and be called by the pronouns & name they identify with (and that the burden should rest on the community to unpack our assumptions and biases rather than on the individuals to “advocate” for themselves in an unjust system that privileges some “familiar” names above the rest – which reminds me of this video from Key & Peele about pronouncing names according to the way a name is pronounced within a particular culture – and feels like the Ann-ah vs Ahn-na discovery from earlier this year).

My colleague, had (has?) a narrow vision of supporting our students. Instead of acknowledging that the system is BROKEN and that the SYSTEM is oppressive, he would instead teach our students to “speak up” or “advocate” for themselves – not paying attention to the weight of that (constant) emotional labor. I realized in this moment that he didn’t (as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, man) understand how heavy it is on you to continually have to advocate for your basic human dignity. I realized this is one of the ways that the “moderate white” can act as a stumbling block on the path to freedom – instead of using the power he has to change the structure of how our school learns the names to use for students, he instead has perpetuated this systemic oppression without even recognizing that there was an alternative. He told me that for 6 years this school has known that students from Hispanic backgrounds often have two names, and yet there is STILL no structure in place to ask ANY students what name we should call them.

I am beginning to learn the hard truth behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s quote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” I hoped that the people at the school I currently work with (who SEEM to be open to conversations about race & inequity) would better see how to support our students, how to free our students, but instead, their vision of freedom is only within the current oppressive system, rather than re-envisioning an entirely new system/replacing the parts of the system that are broken. It seems like their vision is still limited; we’ve got more work to do. I get the sense that they’re open to doing this work (some of them, at least), even if they don’t know how. As I was bringing up the issues of trans students to this AP, during this conversation about names (and making the connections to my own experiences with names and pronouns in college and our students with multiple names), he mentioned that he had never really done any research about trans issues and wasn’t as familiar with them. I mentioned that two years ago, when I came out as trans on-stage at my school’s annual GSA assembly, my principal commented to me afterwards that she learned she was “cisgender” that day. He said I should be proud of that and making those changes, but I said that it wasn’t my job to educate her about that. She should’ve been doing that work on her own – and I recognized in this conversation what my fellow colleagues who are Educators of Color experience on a regular basis. People who are well-meaning and congratulate you for educating others, not recognizing their privilege and power in the situation means THEY should be one the ones educating themselves and advocating for people with less power than they have (both centering those people’s voices when it’s relevant, and helping to bear the emotional load of advocacy when possible). Shortly after this conversation with my AP, I saw the threads on twitter about something that seemed too similar (I can’t recall now what I posted this in response to, and it’s no longer attached to the thread it came from… Maybe it was about the incident this weekend with the Native Elder & the MAGA bigots?), but I tweeted, “It isn’t the oppressed’s responsibility to educate oppressors. It’s the responsibility of allies with privilege & power to use it to educate others who are (unknowingly) supporting oppression. Placing that responsibility on the shoulders of the oppressed perpetuates oppression.” And I recognized the analogy to what happened in my school there in tweeting that. So I’ve been considering what my role as a teacher with privilege and power is towards my students and my colleagues.

I’ve begun to realize how I’ve been complicit in white supremacy by not better educating myself about the history of racism and oppression in this country, by not having read more Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, more James Baldwin, more Audre Lorde, more Maya Angelou, more authors of color. I’ve said before (including in a facebook post recently) that I cannot remember a SINGLE black author whose NOVEL we read IN-class (and then analyzed, etc.) from grades K – 12!! And I remember A LOT of the books we read, including the Joy Luck Club (by an Asian-American author, at least one non-white author?). I don’t even know that I ever read a book by an African until college, when I took a human resilience class (taught by my first black teacher! Senior year of college!!) and we read several memoirs by black people (including the books, Warriors Don’t Cry and A Long Way Gone). I do remember reading excerpts of books (like Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit) in other college classes by Black authors (and other Authors of Color), but I had such a white-washed upbringing, despite growing up in Queens (one of the most diverse counties in the country!). Now, thanks to the #DisruptTexts movement, I’m way more intentional about seeking out a variety of stories in my media consumption, so I don’t fall into the trap of the “single story.”

My reflection on this experience last week and how it relates to the teachings of MLK bring me to thinking about a different quote that I first heard as an undergrad in college from the Office of Service Learning. The office was run by two people who seemed to truly understand that “community service” couldn’t begin and end with a one-time contribution, but that service to the community required understanding the community, becoming a part of the community, and figuring out what the community needed from you in order to support them. The quote was this, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,” from Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s. I see this quote as connected to a different quote from MLK’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Which, as an aside, I’ve included in my family’s Social Justice Haggadah, inspired by my first Social Justice Seder with Rabbi Mike in college).

For me, it was recognizing the oppression and injustice that I face as a transgender and queer person is tied up and connected to the oppression and injustice that people of color face (in my school’s case, the Hispanic students, in MLK’s speeches, the black people of America). While it is uncomfortable to admit, I was very much raised with the “white savior” complex (thanks to parents & ten years in Catholic school in Queens, NYC), and that influenced the ways I saw some of my students in the past. It’s unfortunate that it took me feeling the weight of oppression myself to understand others’ oppression, because if that’s what’s required to feel empathy, then we’re in trouble. I have begun to realize that it is my job as a white educator to support and push my colleagues and my students in doing this work of unpacking our biases and recognizing systems of oppression (and how we can be complicit even while not thinking of ourselves as racist). It is my job as a white educator to amplify my colleagues’ of color voices & ideas, and to decenter myself and my own experiences.

I have begun to grow through my intentional expansion of my teacher twitter network. Although I originally “insisted” it was only going to be for math educators and following math education, once I began following the José Luis Vilson & Marian Dingle, I quickly realized that there’s no way to keep social justice out of my education and still honor my students’ identities and dignity. From my conversations with them, as well as through following EDUColor on twitter, the #DisruptTexts twitter chat run by Tricia EbarviaLorena GermanDr. Kim Parker, and Julia Torres, and #CleartheAir twitter chats, run by Val Brown, the resources from Tolerance.Org & voices like Shana White, Julie Jee, Absurdist Words, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Clint Smith III, Chris EmdinTsɔɔlɔ Awo, Kelly Wickham Hurst, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Melinda D. Anderson, Dr. Kim Tallbear, Dr. Debbie Reese, Leslie Mac, Cornelius Minor, Sara K Ahmed, and so many more than I can name in the time I have tonight (if you’re not directly following BIPOC on your social media/news consumption, though, you need to diversify the voices you listen to and amplify), I’ve begun to recognize the work I still need to do to be anti-racist in words AND in actions. I’ve begun to distinguish between my intentions (which may be “good”) from my impact (which may not be good for ALL people), and analyze both to make sure I’m having the intended impact. I’ve watched allies like Christie Nold & Jess speak up on twitter and through their blogs (in particular, thinking about thinking about the amazing work I’ve seen Jess do with her 5th graders on her blog, Crawling out of the Classroom, and shifting the lens to inquiry about whose stories are heard and whose voices are absent). I’ve begun to be more aware of what (systemic) racism looks like, and I’ve begun to use my voice to disrupt the status quo, challenging people (students, educators, family, tweeters, etc.) who are ignorant to the impact of their actions or inaction. The more work that I do, the more I recognize how much more work there is to be done (on myself included). I’ve learned to question my own assumptions, my own biases, and my own blindspots and complicitness in racism.

I’ve read and thought about twitter threads like the following about whiteness & equity work in schools & how to stop being complicit and start being a disruptor:

 

I encourage you to seek out voices like these and listen to them, think about them, and begin to do this identity work on yourself, ESPECIALLY if you’re an educator, so you can then support your colleagues and students in unpacking & examining their assumptions and biases and their impact in the classroom. Here’s a link to the next website I’m going to be reading about how to dismantle white supremacy in our schools. I’m doing some learning right now about understanding Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain by Zaretta Hammond (reading the book & taking an MfA course on Building & Rebuilding Authentic Relationships that references it).

I shall end this post with one of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Tarfon, also quoted in my Haggadah, that I find reassuring when I am feeling overwhelmed by oppression and how far we still have to go. This quote originally appeared in the Pirkei Avot (Chapters of Fundamental Principles) as part of the Mishnah (Jewish Oral Law), and simply states, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” (Avot 2:16).

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