When Words Fail Me, Life Takes Over

Words have failed me for so long now. The first half of this year launched me headfirst into the depths of fear, loss, anger, despair, relentless work ethic and longing for the familiar escapes of faith, family, nature and self care that have sustained me through the years. Here I am photographed in my outdoor armor (even in summer), as I placed a neck covering shawl over my maxi dress, and tied an African wrap over my nose and mouth, with my mask firmly in place underneath. The few times I’ve ventured out to run essential errands my survival instinct has been kicked into high gear, because I’ve lost so many family and friends. I have wanted and even tried on many occasions to commit pen to page and just write. But so often, words failed me and life (in the time of Corona) simply took over. Writing for pleasure has been nearly an impossible task since the onset of this dreadful pandemic. The novelty of this coronavirus and my people not just feeling, but actually being, under attack since February, 2020 has taken its toll. So the things I have always done effortlessly (breathing, writing, introspection and deep thoughtful activism), have been limited to going through the motions and doing just what was needed to survive.

For six months (and counting now), I have kicked in high gear in a major way, in virtually every area of my life. To God be the Glory! And if I’m being completely honest, it has certainly taken its toll. I have done my level best to cultivate the joy and gratitude I have for each day to maintain a peaceful solace and stability in our admittedly peaceful household. I have felt immensely blessed by the presence and quiet, unassuming yet indomitable strength of my creative, brilliant and thoughtfully beautiful adult daughter. She brings me joy, hope and abundant blessings as she weathers this difficult period of life’s trajectory with the exploration and enjoyment of the arts, music and painting especially, and in crafting brag worthy culinary feasts. Meanwhile, I have somehow begun to rise to the occasion as a leader in my immediate and extended family -by enthusiastically convening weekly family connection calls since March, which have now (thankfully and admirably) morphed into bi-weekly business meetings which have united us in a collective desire to forge ahead undaunted by fears of gloom and doom. In addition, I have spearheaded the near all-encompassing immersion of my entire church family and membership into the 21st Century age of technology as we now surpass snail mail totals with our online PayPal business account for the submission of our tithes and offerings. Also, we have been blessed and spiritually nourished via our now routine weekly Zoom worship services – which are streamed live in the true spirit of unity. These joint family and community initiatives have been a labor of love to be sure, but no easy task to maintain as it has meant an increased commitment of time (over and above my already busy work schedule). Most importantly, I have also been intentionally prayerful and even more intimately connected with my own mother – my best friend, confidante and a revered elder in both our family and local Black Nationalist and activist community alike – to ensure that as she has been routinely pulled in countless different ways and called upon to minister, give unselfishly of herself in leadership as a tenured professor or a retired elected official and grassroots community activist leader, that she continues to thrive physically, emotionally and mentally and that ultimately she counter her physically active days and nights, with a more predictable “shelter in place” norm which ensures that she is healthy and whole. This has been an especially important priority for me through this time of crisis. As she has lost an inordinate amount of peers to this tragic virus and as the eldest daughter, I consider it both an honor and my absolute responsibility that all of my Mother’s needs are met (despite her continuing refrain that “she’s got it”) ❤️. As such, nothing has given me more satisfaction than to have my Mom and honestly every other member of my family within my immediate (or technology savvy reach) be as: healthy, centered, happy and most importantly the picture of wellness as they can possibly be; our people overall are under attack in experiencing the acute impact of pain and loss during this horrific time in human history.

On a professional level, I have experienced a perceptible shift in the scope of my primary work as an Instructional Coach working directly with select school districts across the country to ensure that equity is leveraged as an all-inclusive priority. Despite the in-person closure of districts, I have ramped up my work on a global, virtual platform to ensure that I am instrumental in the development of our collective capacity to lead as administrators, lead teachers and ELA subject area practitioners. This meaningful work has been largely fueled by my life’s work and overarching mission to dismantle oppression and mis-education in such a way that the needs of Black students, in particular, are met commensurate with the unique genius, culture and exemplary humanity we bring to the world is similarly acknowledged in educational spaces. Well, in this time of unprecedented chaos and given the potential for substantive change, one of the ways I have certainly stepped up the very real challenges of meeting the wide-ranging needs of our youth leadership (aka students), has been by using news articles to design rigorous, Common Core curricula aligned lessons that were inclusive of close readings, text and life experience-based analyses, oral/written critical reflections, and formative evaluations. After fashioning an intentionally engaging high school distance learning curriculum from scratch (with only a unit theme and the accessible Newsela site as a guide); I then commenced to connecting virtually with students via a digital platform and hosting daily videos in a pre-recorded series of lesson accompaniments designed to at least mimic the sort of seamless, caring, engaging instruction my teaching might otherwise offer in person. The resulting immersion in student facing, content creation and a coveted opportunity to counteract trauma and otherwise contribute to an integral part of their abrupt, post-school closure/early onset of the pandemic daily lives, became as much of a soul-enriching blessing to me, as I pray it was to each of them. Admittedly, this work was highly fulfilling and close to my heart over the course of the 10-12 weeks duration in which it was produced. Since then, I have been committed to consulting an increasingly extensive body of research to determine the ‘best practices’ of an equitable school restart plan which would empower us to essentially reimagine school on a solid foundation of Revolutionary promise which would capitalize upon the spirit of the day and prioritize the needs of students. However, over time the challenge has been to fulfill my own personal, self care centered goals with my trademark of excellence…as the death toll increased exponentially in my own personal life and as the world was literally falling apart all around me/us. I’m sure you can more clearly see how/why blog writing took a seat wayyy in the back of life’s priorities.

During the interim period in which words and my love of writing failed me, I did manage to write a very therapeutic, narrative poem as a sort of ode to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic We Wear the Mask. But it laid bare so much raw pain and revolutionary fervor that I opted not to publish it at the time it was written as a means to maintain the public facing integrity of this educational blog. In retrospect, if I have stepped up either personally or professionally, in ways that did disappoint, it truly was not my intention to do so. As I progress through my forties, showing up as my authentic self means that white supremacy norms and unattainable dispositions towards perfection are no longer feasible. I am unapologetically me. In fact as if the aforementioned jobs were not enough, because I have always been a multifaceted high achiever, the noted primary work obligations were uniquely complemented by my ongoing and very active vocations as: a college graduate professor (to a host of truly brilliant and selfless educators), and an online international ESL language teacher to a small cadre of brilliant and highly motivated Chinese students (but, only on the weekends, given my expanded schedule and professional obligations since November of last year). Lastly, as a small business owner I have suffered significant lapses in clientele and company growth/expansion with the overwhelming constraints of conducting business in a post-pandemic and failing American economy. Essentially, through all this admitted busyness, I have scarcely had time to breathe, sleep, eat, exercise, meditate and pray. So writing: my self avowed first love (only rivaled by my loves of reading, being immersed in loving relationships and enjoying and loving life overall), had been forcibly thrown to the wayside in the hierarchy of priorities. Having honestly admitted these heartfelt truths is therapeutic for me. I must say how grateful I am for the faithful blog supporters who stuck around and hung in there with me, through lengthy periods of absence and the literal deafening silence which had come to be the reality of this beloved blog in the time of Covid.

In conclusion, I wish I could say that things would be back to normal soon, whatever that means, in terms of post pandemic life and our collective new normal. Sigh…but sadly, the death toll here in Detroit had only falsely appeared to dissipate and it now seems to be back on the rise with no end in sight. Also, the pivotal work of dismantling oppression in education is especially needed right now and does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon. While I am due for a coveted and long awaited week long vacation – that I hope to soon schedule and enjoy – I can only commit to keeping myself, the health of my family and friends and my life’s work uppermost in my priorities for the foreseeable future. I would LOVE nothing more than to write like my life depended on it, (because really it does), and to once again think deeply, rest sufficiently and experience joy without limits. Alas, the reality of this dual pandemic of COVID and racism means that my survival (and that of those whom I love) is truly not guaranteed and thus, the world turns in such a way that duty calls. What I can promise is that when I do get an opportunity to pour out of myself on this very public platform, I will do so authentically and somewhere within the unique intersectionality (thanks Sis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, #CiteBlackWomen), of Black woman, Mother, Scholar-Educator, She-Her-Hers, my health and wellness, fighting on the front lines of liberation and education. Until then, please be well! Asé ❤️✊🏿

Published by Nefertari Nkenge

Nefertari Nkenge, Ed.D. is a well respected transformative leader in pedagogy. The unique combination of over two decades of classroom instruction, curriculum/professional development innovation, urban school administrative leadership and a lifelong commitment to grassroots activism and social justice - informs the empowering Educate to Liberate model.

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