There’s really only one thing to write about today, and it would be thoughtless to just ignore everything that is happening in the United States right now.
So let me start by saying: I don’t know anything.
I have been following things on Twitter, reading articles, watching impassioned speeches.
But as a white person with the privilege that comes with it, I can’t ever fully understand.
Growing up in rural Saskatchewan, my classmates were a homogeneous group. When I look at our grade 1 picture, it’s twenty little white faces and one little girl who is not. I don’t like naming people when they don’t know I’m writing about them, but just so it is clear, my unnamed school friend, is black. As a kid, I never noticed. That is the god honest truth. No one was uttering racial epithets in our home, no swearing or derogatory language was used, and the message at home and church was always ‘love one another.’ In fact, her mom was my Sunday School teacher for many years.
It wasn’t until I was in grade 10 that she moved to attend school at LCBI, just down the road in Outlook. I don’t remember who asked it, except that it was an adult, but their exact words stuck in my head:
“I wonder how she will make out there being black?”
For the first time in my life, I saw my friend through a different lens.
Omg. She is black! How ridiculous that must sound, I know. It was something no one had talked about, and in hindsight, how absolutely stupid of me not to notice. <facepalm>
But for a long time, I felt an odd bit of pride in thinking that I’d known my school friend for over a decade without noticing, so that obviously showed that I didn’t pay attention to race, so that obviously meant that I wasn’t racist, right?
Except here it is. Race matters.
Ignoring it, or not noticing it at all, is another sign of the privilege that being white has given me. Ignoring it, or not noticing it at all, lets me pass over history and pay attention only to the (aptly-named) whitewashed version that is comfortable to me. Ignoring it, or not noticing it at all, lets me off the hook in understanding what her lived experience has been, especially here in Saskatchewan.
So although I grew up in a home where racism was not tolerated, the whole premise of systemic racism is that it’s everywhere and in everything, “a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not.” (Scott Woods) And it sure is. This is what I learned elsewhere:
At school, the little kid’s chant, “Eeeny meeny miny moe, catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eeeny meeny miny moe.” That’s the version my daughter learned, but the word we used wasn’t tigers.
At the convenience store for treats, we knew the names of the black candies and it wasn’t licorice babies. (And why do these even still exist??)
Driving in Saskatoon, hit a certain neighborhood, and you’d press your door lock down. Look the other way or don’t make eye contact with that person.
Books and tv shows all filled with white faces and characters, any diversity was for comic effect and little more.
Schools run by white people. Government run by white people. ‘Important’ jobs all filled by white people.
The list could go on and on. So many subtle ways that we learn to be racist.
Is it better? Again, this is not my experience to speak to. From my privileged vantage point, it’s sure easy to look around and point out examples of change. But we also know that in 2020 more children’s books are written with animal protagonists (27%) than with black characters (10%). That Indigenous children are still disproportionately affected in areas of poverty, lack of healthcare, and foster care, and that Indigenous people are incarcerated and murdered at much higher rates. That the reality of taking a walk with a headscarf on is much different than walking with a toque. But those things happen elsewhere, to people we don’t know, so we are quick to think we are immune from racism in our own small towns, right?
Well then, I have a story about a Grade 6 girl who came into our senior ELA classroom this year to talk about being called the n-word.
In our community.
While playing hockey.
By another kid.
And this happened to her
More than once.
So hang onto that not-in-my-backyard thought, and press a little harder to figure out where that word is coming from: where it’s said out loud, and where it is practised and repeated, before it is spat out at little girls in hockey rinks.
That’s just the part we can see and hear. There’s so much more to racism. This is where it gets tough for white people to understand.
“Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe…it is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.” (Scott Woods)
There is so much to unpack that it can be overwhelming, but it has to be done. As a friend and former colleague, Tracy Woodward, posted: “We can all learn what it means to be actively anti-racist and start to dismantle the systems that are in place and inequitable. It’s on each of us to pursue this intentionally.”
For me, as the clashes and violence continue, that means to stop writing. Right now. I don’t know anything and I can’t fully understand. But I can keep listening to the voices that are fighting not to be silenced.
And then listen some more.
Here is the full passage from Scott Woods:
The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people's expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn't care if you are a white person who likes black people; it's still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don't look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It's not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It's a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.
The title written on the cover of the journal beside me is “Be Brave.”
Dr. Jody always says, “We are wired to do hard things.”
Glennon Doye writes, “I say to myself every few minutes: This is hard. We can do hard things. And then I do them.”
Oh, but it’s hard.
What am I agonizing over? A facebook post, of all things. I know that I need to reply. I know the feeling that I want to express.
It’s the words that won’t come.
I can’t remember who said, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.” Maybe it was Dr. Tam, in one of her COVID updates, which would be appropriate since that has been my mantra to get through the pandemic so far.
But this post requires me to be more than ‘good’ and I’m sure it could never come close to being perfect.
Because the post I need to write is for a high school classmate, who just let everyone on his social media know that he is dying.
If you haven’t read Infinite Mindset by Simon Sinek, he talks about the idea of a ‘worthy rival.’ Sorta like a growth mindset version of your nemesis! My friend above? In high school he was my worthy rival.
I’m a fairly competitive person, just ask my family when we play crib. But in school, particularly in the time period where marks were on everything and everything was marked, that meant EVERYTHING was a competition between the two of us.
When those pink, handwritten, carbon-copy report cards came out? The sleuthing began.
“SOOOO, what did YOU get?”
When you were burning to know if you had the top mark or not, there was no time for subtle reconnaissance lol.
We either had the same marks, or were off by just one percent, but if he beat me? Ohhhhhhhh, I would be mad, and determined to make sure the next time, it would be ME with the highest grade.
Super healthy behaviour, I know….and I pity teachers for the searing interrogations I must have put them through to explain to me where that 1% went missing!
We know that grades are not a motivator for most students, and in fact, are de-motivating for learning to happen. I just listened to a Project Based Learning Webinar facilitated by A.J. Juliani. One of the lines that resonated with me was this: Assessing says “I want to help you” while grading says “I want to judge you.” We went (almost) completely gradeless in grade 7 this year, aside from a mark that we co-constructed for the January progress report. Not in high school, you say? In ELA 30 we didn’t enter any marks until October 1, and a vast majority of our assignments utilized the 1-4 scale. I want our students to care about and learn for the sheer joy of learning. The emotion I felt most was not that of joy, but antagonism and rivalry.
Most definitely, not the same thing.
But marks aside, this boy did make me better.
He was by far the smartest kid in our grade.
He was by far the best male writer I knew.
And I worked my ass off to just stay in the same league as him.
We lost touch, and are friends only in the distant facebook way where social media only superficially semi-connects us. I don’t know what happened to his own dream of being a writer.
But I hope he still writes.
I hope that he will still write.
I hope that some miracle can stop the rare virus that is attacking his brain and that, as he says, is going to kill him within months.
I hope that I can find the words to write on that facebook post.
This is hard. We can do hard things. And then I do them.
Today is my dad’s birthday. It won’t matter that I announce it here, partly because he doesn’t read this, but mostly because as a 77 year old farmer in the middle of seeding, he likely won’t stop to celebrate it.
But I am going to do that because my dad is one of the most amazing people.
He grew up a bilingual second generation immigrant, translating for his dad, fluent in both Finnish and English. Even with few opportunities to speak it anymore, he hasn’t lost the language at all.
He attended the one room school just north of the farm, riding horses, and raising cattle and chickens. Even through decades of technological change, he is still full-time farming.
When he was young, in the wintertime he worked construction for the Gardiner Dam. He peeled potatoes the first year, too young to wield any equipment. But after that, ran trucks behind the mole. He can drive and fix anything that moves.
He was an RM counsellor for many years. He’s still a volunteer on the board for the museum in town.
He and mom taught social dancing in the schools, and were members of the Scandinavian Club in Saskatoon, enjoying the dances there. He can still cut a rug with the best of them.
He was a pilot, getting his licence in 1967 and flying all the way until 2000, at times volunteering with search and rescue. Tracking flights and online flight simulators still keep him occupied when there’s no curling on the tv.
He’s owned every kind of vintage truck and car around, and his yellow Karmann Ghia was a staple with the Volkswagen people every year at Cruise Night. All car questions still go straight to dad.
He’s kind and caring and a crokinole phenom. There’s so much more to list, but you get the idea: my dad is hands-down one of the smartest, hard-working, and handiest people I know.
And, like so many men of his generation, he has accomplished all of this with a grade 8 education when he left school to work full-time on the farm.
Dad has never placed limits on what he could do, what he could learn, or what he could achieve. When we talk in education about growth mindsets and lifelong learners, that’s him, and no doubt a generation of people just like my dad. Learning did not stop when their schooling did.
There’s a lot of internet chatter from education folks all over North America about disengaged students during the pandemic. Article after article, the reasons are detailed, suggestions provided, all of them totally valid.
Absolutely, it is difficult to compare today’s children to my dad’s time, or even to my own childhood. There’s an expression: an idle mind will seek a toy. I was used to being bored and having to find my own things to do on the farm, with only my siblings around. “Bored” has never been a large part of modern kids’ highly-scheduled lives. For us, the party line on the telephone still existed, so technology overload, let alone technology disparities, didn’t exist. We had to use our imaginations to make our own fun and no matter the season, we did: chasing snakes and finding kittens in the spring, dingy races and play-forts in the summer, making straw-houses in the fields after the combine had gone through in the fall, and cross country skiing and shinny on the slough in the winter. Self-isolation was our way of life.
I just finished Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed and although it is about the social conditioning and societal expectations of women, there are many lessons in there. This part about boredom caught my attention. “When we are bored, we ask ourselves: What do I want to do with myself? We are guided toward certain things: a pen and paper, a guitar, the forest in the backyard, a soccer ball, a spatula. The moment after we don’t know what to do with ourselves is the moment we find ourselves. Right after itchy boredom is self-discovery. But we have to hang in there long enough without bailing.”
There were many great ideas in the book that made me draw parallels to education. In fact, she begins the book with a story about a tamed cheetah called Tabitha.
Day after day this wild animal chases dirty pink bunnies down the well-worn, narrow path they cleared for her. Never looking left or right. Never catching that damn bunny, settling instead for a store-bought steak and the distracted approval of sweaty strangers. Obeying the zookeeper’s every command, just like Minnie, the Lab she’s been trained to believe she is. Unaware that if she remembered her wildness - just for a moment - she could tear those zookeepers to shreds.”
A little girl asks if Tabitha misses the wild?
The zookeeper smiled and said, “No. Tabitha was born here. She doesn’t know any different. She’s never even seen the wild.”
But if she could ask Tabitha what she is feeling?
I knew what she’d tell me. She’d say, “Something’s off about my life. I feel restless and frustrated. I have this hunch that everything was supposed to be more beautiful than this. I imagine fenceless, wide-open savannas. I want to run and hunt and kill. I want to sleep under an ink-black, silent sky filled with stars. It’s all so real I can taste it.
Then she’d look back at the cage, the only home she’s ever known. She’d look at the smiling zookeepers, the bored spectators, and her panting, bouncing, begging best friend, the Lab.
Every time I read that part, it makes me think deeper.
Coincidentally, this quote by Stephen Downes popped across my timeline through George Couros this morning. This was, and more than ever still is, the goal: “We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves.”
At some point we will move beyond this emergency-teaching, and a new normal will begin. It will not be the same, at least not for a long time, so examining student engagement will be a priority.
But let’s say it all ended today. That my grade 7s never set foot in a classroom again, not dissimilar to my dad’s experience.
Would they take part in local government?
Would they learn to keep a business going?
Would they learn to fix things that break?
Would they learn to fly (literally or figuratively)?
Would they know they were a cheetah and meant for the wild?
Or would they stay in the cage of what they believe education is, not looking away from the pink bunny or running off the path?
When we started this alternate learning months ago, our Director of Education Lori Jeschke emphasized that Learning Is Everywhere.
That’s a lesson I learned from my dad, and one that I hope our students are taking to heart as they learn at home too.
Oh, and if mom hands you this to read when you come in from the field tonight dad, Happy Birthday!!!
There was a song called “Magic Penny” that we used to sing in Sunday School. It went like this:
Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.
It’s just like a magic penny. Hold it tight and you won’t have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor.
In our staff book club this last week, I was thinking of this song. I even brought it up, but apparently it was a niche melody from a rural protestant church, because no one else had heard of it! As a kid, the whole paradox of the lyrics blew my mind. How can you spend something and get more? How can you hold something tight and not have it?
Like most people, except the truly introverted who are completely at peace with this, I have had ups and downs over the past 8 weeks.
I try not to think about all the people I’m missing. All the things that I am missing, or missing out on. I try to check myself once in a while, knowing that I am enduring this with a giant amount of privilege. But I also let myself be sad sometimes, and it doesn’t matter if you are 7 or 17 or 70 (or going on 79 days without seeing your daughter) comparing pain is moot. As Dr. Jody says, “If you’re old enough to love, you’re old enough to grieve.”
So when I feel that I have spent too much time in that place, the best way to get out of it, is to do something for someone else.
The Magic Penny song nailed that concept in the 1970s.
Think literally about that magic penny. Hold it tight and you won’t have any. Well technically, you’ll have one, and that’s it. But lend it and spend it, and it will come back to you over and over again, sometimes with interest. I’m sure this is an actual economic strategy that CERB and other stimulus packages around the world are based on, presently trying to keep local businesses afloat.
As a simile, love is like a magic penny works too. If I hoard emotion away, it’s all there inside me. Full of love but not giving it to anyone else? Well, that’s kinda lonely. Full of anxiety and stress and resentment? Well, that’ll just eat you up when you tuck it away.
But lend that love to someone who needs it? Be that listening ear?
Spend that love? Spread appreciation around like confetti? Forgive?
There’s lots of research on how you benefit more in giving, than the recipient receives in getting. The whole premise of servant leadership is predicated on giving to others.
I know that when I cause joy for someone, I feel more joyful.
That when I bring some happiness through a small surprise, I feel happier.
Jeesh, even when I crack really cheesy jokes in our class time online, and I hear a little giggle, I feel a small glimmer of connection that I’ve missed so much. And knowing that I made someone laugh makes me feel better.
As Dr. Jody Carrington writes in her book, “Anxiety or depression cannot live in a relaxed body. Slow it down as many times a day as you can muster. It’s magic.”
A virtual colleague tagged me in an article this week. It was on teacher burnout in the pandemic. I loved this part:
“While no one has the answers, I’m starting to feel the best thing I can do is help students manage and cope with their uncomfortable feelings…Instead of quickly assuring them that things will be over soon, I ask them, ‘What can you do right now that will make this hardship feel a little easier?’”
It reminds me of Dr. Jody’s questions: Tell me more. What am I missing? What is the hardest part?
If feelings of failure and frustration can’t co-exist with success and confidence, then I need to do things that ease someone else’s hardship, or make someone else’s day, and in the process will feel better too.
I know it’s true.
I’ll share one. Some of you will know that I live stream a half hour of piano music every day, hoping to reach shut-in seniors or care homes.
There were literally dozens of reasons that I gave myself for NOT doing it. The top ones included not wanting to see myself on the internet, knowing I am not the best piano player out there, and actively avoiding the embarrassment of making mistakes on a live stream (which would just reinforce that I’m not the best piano player out there, and round and round we go in a vicious circle lol.)
You know what?
None of that mattered.
On days that just a handful of people tune in (my mom, my grade 4 teacher, and my friend Lisa are my faithful listeners) I know that they are there because they want to be. They don’t care what my hair looks like, or that my phone goes off, or about any of my mistakes. They don’t care that my piano is out of tune, is missing some key tops, and that the Db in the left hand doesn’t play at all.
You know what they notice?
That I played their favorite polka.
That they were enjoying the music as they reorganized their recipe binder over lunch.
That their mom had sewed special dresses for the square dance club they had in grade 9 called the Belles and Beaus.
When I come back the next day to record again, sometimes twenty people have watched it and sometimes two hundred. All of them have seen my hair just pulled back in a ponytail. Heard the mistakes. Watched the music fall off the piano mid-song.
And you know what?
They don’t care either.
“One of my favorites.”
“Makes me want to dance.”
“Thank you for sharing.”
Love is something if you give it away folks. You end up having more.
The world is full of mixed messages.
It’s not like it wasn’t before Covid19, but it certainly is now that we are in the thick of it. I feel inundated by both of these truths:
This is an unprecedented time to accomplish all of the things you ever wanted.
This is an unprecedented time and it is enough to simply survive.
On Saturday, I signed up for a virtual conference with Dave and Rachel Hollis. I have a notebook full of takeaways, but like the mixed messages above, there were things I loved and things that made me uncomfortable. This one bit of Dave’s speech did both:
“You do not yet have the skills for the life you say you want five years from now, because none of us have yet what it takes to be there….”
Um, okay. That’s a slap of reality. All the work that a person can put into their development as a human, isn’t enough? Won’t ever be enough? Then why are we even trying, if we are perpetually unqualified for what we want to do? <collapse in puddle on floor now>
But he finishes with this.
“…and the beauty of confidence is that it’s something that is built in the *journey to there* as long as we are willing to go into a position of trying and failing and learning.”
And there it is.
It’s everything that I have learned about courage and vulnerability and resilience and innovation over the past few years, and I know that I am reading and listening to the right people. I feel like I’ve always had a growth mindset, whether it was learning to play hockey at 33 or going back to school at 42. I love to learn. My mom was telling me stories recently that reminded me that I was always this way, part of it in my genes and part of it formed in the freedom (and isolation) of farm living in the 1970s.
But is that something that can be learned? Fostered? Encouraged?
Of course. That’s the whole point of a growth mindset! I know that. And I am quick to reinforce students when they get stuck in the “I can’t” fixed mindset to redirect that to a “I can’t YET.”
But what can I actually DO to provide more support to others?
It was John Maxwell (I think…my notes are pretty harried) that said something that really hit home.
I need to be a courage companion.
I love that.
I often think of the quote that floats around the internet, “People who feel appreciated will always do more than you expected.” Part of me hates that wording, that by appreciating people, you are subliminally hoping to get more out of them. Because that’s selfish and self-serving.
I wish it read, “People who feel appreciated will always be more than they expected.”
I know that is true for me. When I feel valued and encouraged, I am more confident. More confidence makes me feel capable. And when I feel capable, I am more willing to be vulnerable, and in turn, courageous, which leads to risk-taking and innovation and....well, you get the idea.
In our book club, we discussed this week’s chapters from Dr. Jody Carrington’s Kids These Days, in particular her Five Keys to Reconnection. This is what a courage companion looks like to me.
1. Show interest in things they care about. Real interest.
2. Get down to their level.
3. Say their name. Look in their eyes.
4. Food and drink. Regulating strategies, not rewards.
5. Proximity. Don’t leave them, especially when they tell you to.
I need to be the person who fills other people up with the courage they need.
I need to be the person that is a listener, not their problem-solver.
I need to model what courage looks like, sounds like, and feels like.
Connection before direction. Also Dr. Jody’s words.
Somewhere in my notes, I wrote this: “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision. Leadership is courage. You’ve got to embrace it first before you ask anyone else to do it. It is no one else’s job to carry your fear.”
I get that. But I also know from reading Dr. Jody Carrington’s work, that if the ‘people holding our babies aren’t okay, then they aren’t okay.’ And if the people holding all the rest of us (politicians and senior health officials included) aren’t okay, then we aren’t okay either.
Which is why, sometimes we need to set our egos and fears and hypothetical worst-case scenarios down, and just ask: Are you okay? *Tell me more. (*Again, Dr. Jody lol.)
Because if you’re nervous about getting it wrong, then you’re making it about you. (My notes are bad, but that one for sure was from Rachel Hollis.)
Since I’ve spent this whole blog post stringing together quotes from other people, let me finish with one more. Definitely John Maxwell. “Courage is not something you store up. Courage is something you use up.”
As we enter another week of our altered lives managing the mixed messaging we are surrounded with, and managing both successes and struggles of work and home, be courageous.
But most of all, be you. In both crazy and non-pandemic times, that’s more than enough!
Take care everyone.
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