Like Claude McKay said, we have always worn the mask. That part of our lives is not new. Only now, it seems that all of humanity wears an external, tangible mask-not just an eerily symbolic one. It’s true that the whole world is donning a mask right now. But your masks still ain’t like ours. We are not the same. When you take off your masks you can breathe deeply again. Fill your lungs with oxygen, expand your chests and breathe life unencumbered by suffering. While all the while . . .
We literally and figuratively: Can. Not. Breathe. We wear the mask 24-7. We wear the mask eternally. We wear the mask and yet, still – We are dying. We are not allowed to mourn or to bury our dead. We attend drive through, virtual or nonexistent funerals for the countless Black lives that have been lost to the pandemics of racism and Coronavirus and we suffer silently. We mourn inwardly, cause we have to work and don’t have the time or capacity to heal. We mourn inwardly because y’all can’t stand to see our pain. We cry intermittently and out of necessity we work, serve, teach, pray, move, sing, dance, pretend, play and all the while . . . we are grasping at breath and dying slow, miserable deaths in alarmingly disproportionate rates to everyone else. We. Wear. The. Mask.
Why should the world be over-wise,
in counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
To suddenly see people everywhere wearing a mask should be startling, an anomaly to our very spirits and souls. But somehow it makes sense that the truth of the guile of humanity should be partially hidden in plain sight. As for me… I don’t want to see your smiling faces when your wretched souls harbor such hatred for Black lives. To see Black people wearing masks so faithfully, while others fight to go without and declare their rebellious right, indignation to live freely without them; should be evidence that we are simply not the same. What means life or death to us, is truly a nuisance to others. Your privilege absolves you from the losses of life, agency and joy that this global health crisis has uniquely inflicted on our lives. You seem to only know the inconvenience of Black people and other people of color from faithfully and willingly serving you. While we know all too well the very real toll the violence of dual pandemics of racism and its sister global killer, COVID can and will continue to wreak on Black lives.
Empty streets. Economy at a standstill, sane school systems engaged in online instruction. And yet, the vast disconnect between those who want a swift return to business as usual and those who want a reimagined future (without your oppressive foot on our necks), is only widening. Assault-rifle armed Klansmen, women and children protest at state capitols to demand a return to business as usual. Their efforts encouraged by the demented, unfit madman at the helm of the country who increasingly ridicules, berates, poisons and kills at will in the name of a vast, white supremacist version of America’s greatness as their driving force. And sure enough, slowly but surely, states buckle under the pressure to begin to open (but slowly, in stages), so that they can once again be “served” as Black lives and those of others low on the priority rung, re-assume their essential (read expendable), lives and duties continue to engage in the performative preservation of the status quo.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”
Meanwhile as cities burn and mass protests ensue the pandemic lingers on to encompass a new normal and way of life. One in which there are no more illusions of power, democracy or social justice and order. The masks on our faces only reveal the long term stratifications and intersectionality of identities, layered beneath the surface. Teachers, nurses, doctors, certified nurses assistants, orderlies, maintenance staff, service employees and restaurant staff have now become the essential fabric and components to a society that cannot function without us. America seemingly can’t abide the round the clock, 24-7 realities of life with their own children and families in their own sprawling homes, communities and living freely on their own expansive plots of land. Indeed, from tortured souls arise the cries of a crumbling economy and the disintegration of an age-old facade of a global superpower, now uncovered to be the sordid, broken infrastructure of a vile, racist and rotten to the core cultural framework.
How ironic that as America hastens to its inevitable demise and irreconcilable doom . . . You too, wear the mask.
In this most non traditional and admittedly difficult year – I would be remiss not to pause to pay reverence and salute all teachers, everywhere.
What a taxing year of loss, learning, lack and under appreciation this has been for each of you! My veteran educator, always a teacher first, and whole heart goes out to you for having persevered this unsustainable storm of mis-education personified and increased accountability; without the slightest hint of gratitude and/or compensation to appropriately match your priceless, invaluable input.
We have not survived this year unscathed however. This year will most assuredly, always be the year that an entire world endured a pandemic. But that an entire nation, spoiled by privilege, also showed its proverbial ass. We taught and worked from home, whilst enduring the same sickness and loss an entire world experienced. Yet, the recurring albeit inappropriate refrain seemed to be: when are the schools gonna open up? Like what?! Really… the physical buildings may have been closed, but for so many of us the business of educating other people’s children continued seamlessly. How utterly privileged and out of touch were you all, not to even notice.
You have wondered when, if ever, you would get your mundane, unimportant and capitalist driven livelihoods back, while all the while our people were dying. Our children were suffering and crying out for your attention. Teachers were all but creating magic and attempting to pull rabbits out of our hats to instruct to off-camera virtual screens and all the while you could only lament your missed opportunities to troll the bars, eat out in fine dining establishments and to attend public sporting events and concerts. Not to mention the incessant moaning about missing the coveted opportunity to travel domestically or abroad. All the while, the teachers were teaching their overly exhausted hearts out, students were oftentimes struggling to keep up and/or adjust to this new norm.
Meanwhile, clueless administrators and professional development providers persisted in evaluating instructional staff best practices, and scarcely even pausing to take a valiant pulse check on teachers/students and staffs collective health and wellness. Nor was there any allowance for our the prescient need to ensure the longevity and support teachers’ virtually insurmountable instructional obstacles. No, indeed. It would seem the end of year priorities maintained alignment with the customary and no doubt, outdated methods of accountability such as poorly managed high-stakes teacher evaluations and standardized testing protocols. Alas, I digress…let’s get back to the business of celebrating those who courageously withstood all of this dysfunction without scarcely batting an eyelash: teachers.
This is a heartfelt, wholehearted and deep bow of gratitude to all who endured the absolute thankless job of pandemic teaching (amidst so many, countless horrific scenarios), within this past year and somehow, miraculously making it to the finish line. May we collectively pause and afford a moment of silence to the many, unnamed masses of educators, who perished while on the front lines of doing this most necessary first-responder aligned work in the field. ——————————————————————— We honor those we lost to the Coronavirus; those lost to retirement and those who whose time to bid adieu is imminent. May we collectively honor those in our midst who exasperatedly declared no more/no mas and who opted to throw in the towel this year; determining that their lives or their health or both, could not withstand the strain of giving anything more without doing so to their own detriment.
We similarly acknowledge those who remain steadfast, even at the conclusion of this academic year. Many of whom have seen unveiled, the sordid underbelly of dysfunction which lies just beneath the surface of a system which survives off the cheap, undervalued labor of teachers but which fails to honor and recompense educators, in kind. We salute all of you from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. We also commend those who teach within the hallowed halls of academia. We extend this salute to the countless parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, neighbors and extended family and friends who somehow assumed the coveted roles of teachers this year and who joined our distinguished ranks; albeit unwillingly (Lord have mercy), and who now understand it better, by and by, just a snapshot of what it means to be a teacher.
We respectfully extend a nod of gratitude to the few administrative leaders, boards of directors, partners/vendors and professional development stakeholders who innately sensed the urgency of taking their lead from teachers and ultimately students, and made sound decisions aligned with our highest, most priority needs rather than succumbing to the lowest, common denominator of the bottom line. Thank you to those who intuitively centered the voices of our students themselves and were responsive to the pressing needs of their families who often partnered directly with us in whatever semblance of success is yet to emerge from this 2020-2021 school year.
To the innovative, shape shifting, ultra flexible and highly competent teachers everywhere…to those who are anti-racist, culturally relevant and responsive…to those who spoke truth to power in reflecting and/or amplifying students voice and choice…to those who occupied the front lines of movements and social, community activism and who themselves embody the beauty or stand in the gap as allies and co-conspirators to the value of Black lives and intersectional pride in all of its many iterations: Thank you! To those who went above and beyond the typical call of duty and to the many who stood in alignment with their educator peers who were at times under siege this past year: your solidarity is appreciated. The simplicity of the words “thank you” seems so insufficient – but it is certainly a start. So we say it nonetheless: Thank you one and all! Asé ❤️✊🏿💚
As I struggle to give voice to all the parts of me that yearn for recognition, I wonder how to become more of who I am authentically and somehow manage not to offend others, still desperately in search of themselves. Then, just as quickly as the thoughts come, to make myself palatable and creatively package all the components of me that the world might find digestible, I reject this assimilationist nonsense and conclude, I may always be “too much” for others. And what’s more is: that’s okay. Imma just sit with all this splendor and offer up my unique parts as a “take it or leave it/love me or leave me baby”, type deal. Yeah. Blackness-proud-unadulterated-unapologetic and full. Perhaps, X-Clan said it best “My science is deep. My Blackness is deep.”
A few weeks ago, I needed to find a baby picture for a virtual shower I looked forward to attending, to celebrate a friend/colleague and her partner in welcoming their baby in May. Here’s the catch: I have never really been a big fan of baby showers, especially of engaging in the seemingly endless games that accompany them. But recently, that all changed, especially considering that in the winter just before the pandemic it was my turn to host such an event for my own younger sister as she enthusiastically awaited the birth of my beloved nephew that January. Aside from the sheer challenge of hosting a traditional baby shower event – mind you my own baby shower two decades ago, was a creatively themed “MamaToto” or Afrikan-centered, mother-child celebration event, which totally matched my personality and value system in design and execution and ensured that zero games were allowed. LOL. Although they came armed with somewhat traditional gifts as opposed to engaging in gameplay, my own baby shower guests also came armed with personal stories of being (or having themselves become) mothers. As such, the real gifts of the shower, those most memorable 22 years later, were not the seemingly endless list of store bought blessings – for which they all received a personalized thank you card of heartfelt gratitude. As you can imagine, the true “gifts” were the stories of self and countless gems of wisdom as shared from women who had been where I was headed. How fortunate I was to glean from people’s unique maternal tapestry, woven together by their respective family traditions, but as eerily similar as is the Black experience.
Ours is that of a shared value system of nearly identical cultural norms – as the “inside jokes” on Black Twitter seem to prove more and more everyday. Blackness is not purely native African traditions because, well the Maafa all but ensured an erasure of that which we instinctively knew and held dear (or so they thought). And Blackness is certainly not American, because what is that? To conceive of yourself as antithetical to the myth of a white supremacist ideal, which has but a singular trait to unite the masses and enact its poisonous agenda, which is that it despises us so. No, Blackness is its own ideal and the rewards are as innately divine as is our irrevocable connection to God. It is the universal blueprint for all things creative. Because I Am, we are the progenitors of the earth. And as God’s first people forged in his/her image, our very nature is to create. Just like haters gonna hate, creators must create. And it is this enigmatic component of who and whose we are, that is impossible to annihilate. Infinitely appropriated, but alas imitation of the divine is expected and is, after all, merely a shameless attempt at flattery. Non-duplicatable. Unfuckwithable. Yeah. Blackness-proud-unadulterated-unapologetic and full.
To this day, I remain immensely grateful for those intentionally unique baby shower gifts that centered powerful traditions and cultural heirlooms, that were undoubtedly of great value to raising a uniquely well-adjusted, Black Nationalist child, in a thoroughly racist and spiritually devoid culture, which obsessively centers whiteness. Jendayi’s rich, full, innately affirming Pan-Afrikan, Nationalist upbringing was fashioned after me and my siblings own coming-of-age. What results from a full-scale immersion in your God-self and your Blackness as unadulterated by outsiders influence is and was astoundingly rich and memorable – a foundation needed to nurture greatness and to fashion an unconquerable sense of self. It is upon this solid rock foundation that I present myself and all of my parts to the world: full-circle, African Woman, possessing deep, deep Blackness. She/her/hers. but I digress . . .
It was not easy to put my hands on the baby pictures for which I sought. I am frustratingly and distressingly apart from both of my parents-who might have more easily put their hands on one of the faded, undoubtedly dated, 70s photos. An image featuring me with a knowing smile, and a contented, well nurtured-fresh from homemade peanut butter cookies look. I might have an afro, naturally reddish-brown and framing a heart shaped smiling face. Or me with two cornrows, one on either side, symmetrically feeding into afro-puffs. Perhaps photographed solo, but likely accompanied by one, or both of my brothers. Damon, with his handsome, chiseled features and huge grin. Or Stephen, with his pillowy soft skin, and rounded baby parts, grinning infectiously from ear-to-ear and being held by my gorgeous, afro-crowned, ebony faced mother and/or affectionately cradled by my handsome, bearded and reddish-brown, football playing father. Either way, my initial search turned up empty. And we, as a family, now separated by the miles and still secluded from one another as a direct impact of having lost (at least) a dozen family members, give or take a few, to this horrid pandemic…have yet to commune under the same roof. So locating baby pictures of Nikki, my affectionate childhood nickname, was admittedly pretty low on the totem pole of our collective priorities. Or so I erroneously thought.
All of a sudden, it was as if the entire universe conspired on my explicit behalf, so that I could put my hands on at least a digital copy of a childhood photo and somehow manage to show up as graciously requested, for Rachel and Jenna’s highly anticipated and ultimately intimate, lovely, and memorable animal-themed baby shower. I sort of casually mentioned to my sweet, revolutionary and fiercely family-centered, Queen Mother that I was having a bit of trouble attempting to comply with not the conventional, obligatory gift request to contribute the amount of your choosing to the Venmo group-gift pot. But in fact I was struggling to fulfill the seemingly routine request of submitting our baby pictures for a collage to be prominently displayed at this memorable, joint virtual party and baby blessing inspired event. Well unbeknownst to me, mom launched into action from her corner of the world (roughly less than 5 miles away from my own, secluded abode), and called/texted no less than 10 members of our huge extended family, to see if anyone in our collective midst, could forward a baby picture of Nikki-stat. Like whoa! 👀
Soon, pictures of me at all ages (one as young as 3; but many from my teens and early adolescence), began flooding in through text. Funniest was when my own Mama, who birthed me as the second eldest fruit of her blessed womb – sent me a beautiful photo of my own, one and done, peacefully sleeping baby girl (ha!). Meanwhile , members of our family I never imagined would be solicited on my humble, baby-picture-needing behalf, shared of their collective bounty and reasoned that most of all family pictures were likely to be in the possession of a singular, oft-time photo-hoarding Auntie in particular. But alas, an immediate call to her turned up empty. Then, there was a bit of hope when later, one of her two daughters admitted that she had once had in her own possession, many of our family pics (that she had gotten from her mama), but that they had sadly been destroyed in a flooded basement some years ago. The other daughter of my beloved, picture hoarding aunt, convincingly hinted to my mom that she would soon make a visit to her mom’s house in accordance with her frequent, pandemic style check-in’s and that she would keep her eyes on the lookout for any such baby pics of yours truly. In fact, it could be that during one such visit, my sweet , community activist baby cousin soon unearthed a long lost family photo of many of us surrounding our beloved family and extended family matriarchs, including my own maternal grandmother, famed Detroit City Council trailblazer Erma Henderson, and legendary freedom fighter, Rosa Parks. Yeah – that part! But ultimately, it was the sheer “all hands on deck” nature of the baby shower inspired, baby picture of Nikki, all-encompassing search that endlessly affirms and otherwise speaks to my indescribable yet deep well of gratitude and appreciation for the fullness of my Blackness. Non-duplicatable. Unfuckwithable. Yeah. Blackness-proud-unadulterated-unapologetic and full.
I will end this baby shower story with the proverbial happy ending that I did, in fact, show up to this animal-themed, virtual baby shower in accordance with the animal theme: gasp-I was wearing a skin-tight, cheetah printed, move something dress, with a plunging neckline (thank God that Zoom covers up a multitude of sins!). But most importantly, I was confident in reflecting both my 1970s version as juxtaposed against this inappropriately dressed 2021 version. I was admittedly relieved, proud and grateful to have sent in my earliest recovered toddler-aged picture either on, or surprisingly maybe even before, the appointed deadline. As such, my collective family project artifact was somehow unassuming and neatly situated within what turned out to be a diverse and beautiful collage of my closest educational warrior-colleagues; within which a long-legged, pajama clad and distinctly poised George literally stole the spotlight from all of our adorable pics. As his striking beauty and camera readiness is the unmistakable focal point amongst a bevy of beauties. Except that my baby picture had an entire narrative of the Black experience behind it and in its representation I was and am eternally blessed to have been in the midst. It is of little consequence that the honorees, and other shower attendees were thankfully none the wiser for the collective sacrifice my entire beloved family (and especially my mother), made to ensure that I was represented in my self-assured state of full-circle Blackness (she/her/hers).
Though it was telling that some of my adolescent and teenaged photos were only notable in that they were absent my trademark smile, from my earliest childhood depiction to my current iteration – it is me in unapologetic and full formed Blackness. And I am proud. In perhaps the most touching spirit of brotherly love, just yesterday my big brother shared an open-mouthed, gleeful photo of my younger sister and I when she was clearly a teen and I was in my early twenties. I appreciate this representation as well, because I had already morphed into the self-assured, well read, Pan-African Nationalist named and fully formed woman I am proud to have embraced. I will conclude this love letter to my family, ode to our Blackness and perhaps way too personal blog post, by sharing a representative few of the photos discovered, in our collective quest to ensure that my own, rich and deeply immersed Black experience might be shared with others. I am immensely grateful for I Am because We Are. Asé
February has, rather quickly, come and gone. March is upon us and for some, brings the familiar promise of spring while for others, NCAA Madness. But somewhere at the intersection of our rightful centering and celebration of Black History Month + Women’s History Month there is the delicate balance of beauty and power that is the Black woman. In this hallowed, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined space of Intersectionality, we respectfully pause and pay homage to the truth of the power of The Black Woman.
Ours is an inheritance of birthing all of humanity and giving divine light and love to civilization. We are at the same time God/Goddess, Mother Earth incarnate, giver and sustainer of life and from our very ample bosom flows the coveted milk and honey, from which all people derive nourishment. We are: Mother, daughter, sister, souljah, she/her/hers and in us is every woman, “Its all in ME, anything you want done baby, I do it naturally” ala Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, Chaka Khan AND Whitney Houston. In a word (or two, or three): I. Am. Bad.
And as my favorite poet, Nikki Giovanni so poignantly stated, “I’m so hip, that even my errors are correct”. I mean, I’m so aligned with the creator and source of life – God – that even the Black woman’s thoughts wield the divine power to grant y’all the presidency (ala Stacey Abrams), or to strip unearned power, whenever and wherever warranted. And since we have effortlessly blessed presidential eras with our anointed words, commanding inaugural podiums in unforgettable and patented, Black woman style, with inter generational, poet laureate energy – let’s just take a few moments to deconstruct the ways in which we have read your thoughts from A to Z while casting spells and mixing special brews to put fire inside of you. From adeptly weaving America’s bloody, historical past with an optimistic, hopeful nod to the future in the Clinton era with Dr. Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning”. To the impactful, spoken word science and socially conscious, sober acknowledgement of “The Hill We Climb” in Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem . . . it is Black women’s words that have symbolized a mic drop simultaneously heard and felt around the globe.
And as further evidence of who (and whose) we are, Black women are equally poet/Goddess and conquerers in our everyday resonant context. We. Are. Bad. And every Black woman in America who survives (and ultimately thrives), does so in spite of an oppressive duality which seeks to upend our ethereal spirits and progenitor humanity. In fact not one, but both aforementioned poet laureates, equally exist as powerful testaments to our predisposition to overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. From Dr. Maya’s transformative coming of age triumphs over so much including: her parents’ divorce/abandonment; a victim of childhood rape; one well versed to both courageously exercising and then intentionally withholding the power of her voice; to a teenaged mother whose son Bailey was the divine blessing which resulted from merely her first, consensual sexual encounter-explored as a means to willfully define her own identity, against the backdrop of adolescent bullies who erroneously asserted that she was a lesbian. It is as important to chronicle Dr. Maya Angelou’s brief stint as a sex worker and madam, to which she proclaimed “I had managed in a few tense years to become a snob on all levels, racial, culture and intellectual. I was a madam and thought myself morally superior to the whores.” -Dr. Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name as it is to celebrate her countless honoraria and international esteem because she authored her own narratives as inspired by her brother friend James Baldwin to both mourn the murder of her friend Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and to accomplish the huge undertaking of writing her own autobiography as literature. This self-named, intensely self aware and fiercely outspoken Black woman of Stamps, Arkansas would later emerge as one of the most prolific, highly awarded and celebrated literary giants/philosophical thinkers of our times. Asé
And little sister Amanda, gifted with a spoken word artistic flair reminiscent of an innovative and legendary hip-hop era which precedes her birth, but is her righteous inheritance as it was born of the beauty and genius which is Black people – we have one who is as transparent about grappling with a childhood diagnosed auditory processing speech impediment as she is forthright about her intentions to run for president in 2036. Righteous indeed. A native of Los Angeles who had already named the first, national youth poet laureate of the United States in 2017 (at the tender age of 19), the recent Harvard graduate notes that it was her stutter that drew her to poetry in the first place. She told the Los Angeles Times “It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be. When you have to teach yourself how to say sounds, when you have to be highly concerned about pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sonics, of the auditory experience.” The naturally beautiful and stunning, 22-year old phenom recently signed a modeling contract with IMG Models. And while some erroneously proclaim that she ‘landed both a modeling and a Super Bowl gig’, Black women the world over smile and even laugh subtly, because we know that it is the divine power of the inimitable intersection of our Black womanhood that gives others the permission and privilege to elevate your brands through our very presence, endorsement and existence. You’re welcome world . . .
Given the overarching, national priority to return to school, as if educators have not been literally working ourselves to the bone since the onset of this global pandemic, there’s a clear public perception that if schools are not physically open that learning is not in progress . . . Well, teachers would beg to differ.
How bout you (meaning all y’all – outside education) consider that teachers’ and students safety is more valuable than the free childcare you clearly valued schools for in the first place? How bout you consider that the reality of learning differently: across a remote/virtual platform at a differentiated pace and with varying degrees of success, based primarily on social stratification and proximity to white privilege/resources/personalized learning access, does not equate to not learning at all. Honestly let’s say for the sake of argument that even if remote learning isn’t working as a model of success for most students – let’s be clear that the ONLY students for whom these results dictate your collective action do not look like me – thus, your rush to return still rings hollow for those of us for whom school was always a means to social advancement and freedom from oppression and not as merely custodial care of underaged children. You see, education has never been equivalent to childcare for oppressed people, even if it afforded the opportunity for working class people to assume employment, narrowly escape poverty and to assume our respective roles in a societal structure. Of course now that everyone is universally suffering and restaurants, brick and mortar stores, airlines and movie theaters/entertainment giants alike are suffering widespread bankruptcies, here’s a list of 67 such companies, you naively insist that schools rush to re-open. Oh really? Yeah, okay. See, it’s not lost on educators that President Biden and so many others have made re-opening schools such a priority not because everyone all of a sudden got a conscience or justifiably concluded that education is a universal salve to what ails us in the midst of white supremacist, government led coup’s and chemical/germ warfare killing hundreds of thousands of people. No, indeed. School is priority #1 because it is seemingly a sole means to ensure that Black, Brown and working-class white parents and families return to the subservient class of laborers to (once again) service your varying needs in this reprehensible model of an inequitable, capitalist society.
At some point, we must come to the inescapable conclusion that perhaps, the inequities laid bare by school in its current form as it now occurs in your living rooms, truly always existed and in many cases were only intensified in our previous, physically intimate form. So, a mere return to what was irreparably broken, unfit, insufficient and failing is no more logical than taking a collective bath, followed by an en masse fine dinner meal/movie trip (all without wearing a mask), simply because we miss it so and cannot afford to do without it. How about we don’t ever return to in-person schooling at all? How about educators not just in Chicago, but the world over simply say to clueless Mayor Lori Lightfoot and others: “no”, “not I”, “no más” and/ or “I quit” en masse? How bout y’all suggest, demand or even attempt to legislate that we do and we simply don’t, especially given the reality of working on the front lines in an apparent war against human sensibilities and the very sacrificial lives of educators, which is unlike what those outside of the profession could scarcely imagine. What’s inhumane in your asking, especially without consideration for our input you might wonder? Well, where to begin: there’s the dealbreaker in the reality that U.S. schools are overwhelmingly outdated, dilapidated buildings with air filter systems ill-equipped to halt the spread of a deadly virus. There’s the knowledge that classrooms are lifeless, soulless, institutional spaces that teachers, support staff and administrators have always somehow managed to bring alive through the combination of our own sweat equity, personally financed accoutrements and enthusiastic zeal and energy for life and for our poorly paid and yet beloved careers as educators. Mind you, none of these prior realities are conducive to our present-day nightmare so how bout showing teachers and school districts (especially urban ones) the money? How bout educators, students and their families are (scarcely) surviving a pandemic too. And many of us have heard the deafening whispers and mentions of countless colleagues, family and friends who have lost their lives to this deadly virus and we would never dream of, much less be moved by any external threats to putting our lives on the line daily, for an insufficient return to business as usual. Especially when doing so is clearly a means to merely ensure the semblance of this economy’s norms, through our free, poorly paid labor. How bout y’all have pushed us to the brink of extinction this time and teachers, support staff, administrators and countless critically thinking parents (who have now witnessed the farce known as the failing education system, up close and personal), simply say NO to the return to the norm you are now in pursuit of?!
Has anyone outside of education ever even considered the toll of your choices as imposed on our human reality and very real possibility that a return to business as usual in in-person school settings can/will never be retrofitted to meet the needs of a post-pandemic reality? Have you paused to consider that your vision of a widespread, nationwide return to in-person schooling will never happen at the pace or at the very least operate in the same underfunded and overpopulated manner in which it did in pre-pandemic form? Well, you had better start listening to teachers on public social media spaces, in our documented pleas in districts across the country as each of you (outside of our ranks) conveniently decides what uniquely works best for those of us in the rank and file. Perhaps the greatest testament to the failure of education in 2021 is that so many of these decisions are still driven by levers outside of those who matter most: the teachers, parents and students of the very institutions you are making large-scale decisions on behalf of. It would be utterly disastrous for K12 education to get to the point of an even more exacerbated state of emergency whereby certified teachers/admin, substitute teachers, students (the poorest most underserved in our midst, who you would like to see driven like lambs to the slaughter) are few and far between and/or not to be found in significant numbers at all to fill the quotas of your seats and positions and empty promises of normalcy. If we, the people, should decide that a return to business as usual is no longer feasible to US – and trust me it’s the us in educational decision making that counts – there had better be an alternative to what must happen to address the reality of post-pandemic education. Whatever schooling looks like from now to its future iterations, must of necessity include ALL stakeholders at the decision-making table and will never be legislated from outside our ranks. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that Chicago is merely the tip of an iceberg of Titanic proportions, IE: you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Something which has really nagged me about education since I was myself an innocent student subjected to the faulty logic of perhaps a well meaning, yet no less abusive teacher and an issue that still bothers me to this day (except to a much greater extent), is the rampant abuse of power consistent with our profession. Though power imbalance is prevalent in nearly all disciplines, the abuse of power in education is so commonplace that it makes one wonder how/why there aren’t more scandals tied to schools, teachers, psycho principals, pompous professors and self-serving district leaders/school board members who regularly abuse our collective trust.
Honestly, in an industry where the customer is effectively children – it baffles me how there can be so much incompetence routinely swept under the rug or kept out of the public’s purview (like each school’s “dirty little secret”). When in actuality the stuff that we have all witnessed in educational spaces would give even career criminals pause, for its brazen disregard for humanity and decency. Let me not just speak in general terms here though . . . this blog post could honestly be an embarrassingly long testament to malfeasance – and that alone speaks volumes. But, I will attempt to keep my examples here short and specific, to allow for the welcome possibility of a more hopeful counter narrative to this practice. My fear though, is that others are likely to share eerily similar reflections of schools and educators abusing their power, which means that we must all strategize ideas for how to transform this muck and mire in a timely way. It’s high time that we invite another model of excellence in education that can ideally complement a fresh start across today’s seemingly less invasive, virtual platform.
The first realm to be called out for an abuse of power in education is also the most obvious, inescapable dynamic because it lies at the feet of teachers and operates at the high-priced expense of our students’ collective wellbeing. For so long, teachers themselves have been individually allowed (I daresay encouraged), to operate with impunity and utilize their classroom as their own, independent universe in which they, alone, rule supreme. In no other profession is one afforded such free reign of methods, content, rules, best practices and rewarded for results which go against the grain except for the teacher evaluation based, competition driven school environment. In these otherwise dictatorship-ruled spaces, the word of the teacher, far too often the only adult in the room, is absolute law. And their beliefs, ideology, idiosyncrasies (no matter how warped, racist or flawed), are held up as a model of simply “the way things are”. Students literally have no viable escape from the potential abuse of power which can (and in the case of Black and Brown students), often does occur.
Here’s several cases in point: An elementary homeroom teacher once labeled me a troublemaker and behavioral problem, because I didn’t sit idly by after completing my work early (like some of my peers). Typically, after I finished my too easy assignments early and began buzzing about the classroom to help other students struggling with their own work (while my teacher, a young, white woman commenced to permanently cementing her behind to the chair behind her teacher’s desk), my initiative was labeled via a deficit lens of problematic. The novice teacher’s belief that peer-to-peer academic engagement and critical thinking is in fact misbehavior, was undoubtedly fueled by her own bias and otherwise limiting; especially in an inner-city Detroit school with a 100% Black student population who equally required much more stimulation than her brand of passive teaching could provide. This insidious level of unpreparedness is akin to the countless cases of dated enslavement re-enactments and other reprehensible projects which crop up, every year in schools across the country within which racist, white teachers impose taboo assignments (which later require reprimand or apology), simply because there are no existing checks and balances on subjective micro aggressions causing students harm. Finally, in a similar case of lowered expectations, one of my high school English teachers, a meticulously manicured and seemingly highly educated middle aged, Black woman; would perch herself upon her desk and inappropriately cross her long, high-heeled stockinged legs as she proceeded to engage in daily lectures about which of her 9th grade English students would or would not “make it” in college and/or life based upon our work ethic, dress, socio-economic status and/or speech. Her inappropriate, elitist mantra was: “I’ve got mine, so you get yours” and she would regularly dismiss latecomers to class because her particular brand of perfection was the unrealistic ideal upon which we were all expected to aspire to and attain. Certainly, in her alternate world of a classroom, where only the use of the Queen’s English dare cross your lips, there was nothing worse (to her) than operating on CP time – please use your imaginations here. So she punished us unmercifully for what she deemed her duty to prepare us for the “real world”. As you can imagine, rebellious students like myself began skipping her class, 3 out of 5 days a week, because being subjected to her daily tirades of judgmental proportions, appeared to us to be a unique form of punishment. Later, after I was individually reprimanded for the misbehavior (skipping) and shared my rationale for missing class very candidly with both of my parents – who were admittedly strict. My mother then arranged an unscheduled “pop up visit” to observe the class in session and when the teacher inserted her trademark judgmental commentary into instruction, Mama immediately enacted the proper protocol to complain and have me transferred out of the class, effective immediately. The result is that I was upgraded to a much more challenging and developmentally appropriate, advanced placement English class. However for many of my peers the ineffective teacher was neither corrected nor reprimanded because she reportedly continued on with her daily lecturing/non-teaching routines unfazed and was clearly never appropriately held accountable for her actions (thus contributing to the gross mis-education of high-performing scholarly students for multiple years thereafter). In each of these distinct cases, the teacher’s unique ability to wield with absolute power, resulted in a literal atmosphere of hell on Earth for impressionable students. This translates to 6-8 hours per day in an elementary school setting and/or accounts for 1-2 unbearable hours per day in the high school setting. Either model of an abuse of educational power, is unacceptable.
In the case of leadership, in my 20s I once served under a male principal who rather harshly told a scantily clad 3rd grade teacher to “go home for the day” because of her unprofessional dress code. Then later in my 40s, I worked with a male principal who had a sick penchant for sleeping around with countless teachers, support staff parents and even administrative assistants, all while Bible thumping and giving meaningless voice to “family values” especially when his dutiful wife (also an educator), would show up on the school site from time to time. Certainly, both men exerted their leadership power in ways that might be deemed unorthodox from an external albeit feminist point of view, but you can likely guess which school leader ultimately left a powerful legacy of service, commitment and high expectations governing the school in which he founded and the one who is now universally deemed a pariah and is routinely walked out of/released from more administrative positions than the law allows. Speaking of the law, immoral sexual deviance became one of the trademarks of the school led by the imposter leader/preacher in the three-pieced suit. In this school the educational environment became one consistent with rampant gossip, innuendo and sexual harassment lawsuits became the embarrassing norm as countless adults began engaging in clandestine affairs with one another much more openly. No doubt this unhealthy climate was spurred by the flagrant abuse of power at the top – and before long, one of the longtime, highly respected teachers (who was known to have had an affair with a fellow colleague though he too was married), was soon cited for inappropriate relations with many of the underaged girls under his watch. Needless to say, no one suffered in this school atmosphere more than the 450 students under our collective watch who were the unsuspecting victims of the deleterious impact of a focus on everything else BUT their quality education. Smdh . . .
I’ll end with the mention of unforgivable abuses from upper level administrative, central office and school board members, as they are not immune to harsh critique, though somehow these policy makers appear to be sheltered from proper oversight and regulation. In multiple schools, I have been a parent or have worked in, I have had the misfortune to witness such egregious abuses of power from the top, that I began to regard mis-education as much as an inside job as it was a function of institutionalized racism. These abuses have been consistent with damnable misuses of funds and the widespread double standard of the “family and friends” program in which those connected to leadership benefit from the countless contracts, positions, perks and paychecks which each school subjectively wields. One might wonder how board members could engage in such questionable, conflict of interest in explicit ways without checks and balances. But I venture to say the abuses allowed free reign in any given school can almost always be tied to poor oversight from the seemingly independent governing body. Examples of power trips here include board members and administrators who take long-distance, overnight, conference adjacent business trips but who never actually appear in any of the sessions or even bother to register in person. This common pre-pandemic scenario ultimately rendered a school-sponsored educational investment to the meaningless level of a personal vacation for persons misusing the public trust and I have never been more appalled at the wastefulness of it all. There’s also the popular tendency to ensure that the board is armed with enough of your colleagues, extended family and friends – so as to ensure the on-paper legitimacy of votes for policies and contracts in favor of your own people. Meanwhile, such blatant inconsistencies with the limits of the law are modeled in government politics on the regular. Perhaps considered a harmless abuse of power by many, I was also heartbroken to observe a superintendent (who hand-picked the vast majority of their administrative staff), then begin to systematically deem others on staff as undereducated (read Black, male/female teachers), and start to attack them via a highly subjective progressive discipline practice, based solely upon their bias, internalized oppression/racism, and/or favoritism. Teachers nationwide have noticed the trend to replace tenured, higher paid, veteran educator positions with lower paid, inexperienced Teach for America, novice level salaries – and we collectively call foul on this seemingly common abuse of power.
Decisions rooted in an abuse of power have always been in opposition to best practices and often disregard the unique, high integrity needs of Black students and other students of color – who disproportionately suffer from mis-education – but they persist nonetheless. Adding insult to injury, now after having worked in the misnomered “hallowed halls of academia” for several years now, I am also painfully aware of power abuses on this educational platform as well – as underpaid Black and Brown adjuncts bear the brunt of carrying the academic course load while higher paid, tenured professors paint a white, male portrait of privilege that so many other institutionally racist industries mirror. I’m almost certain that others must have similar stories of such legendary abuses of power in educational contexts . . . who is willing to share their horrors? Sadly the dirty little secrets within education will persist until we each regard equity as an action word and disrupt the systems which fail us.
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