Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Little More of the Story: Teaching Concurrent in a Pandemic Part Two

 After the last piece I shared, so many people offered me words of care and support and gratitude. I’m truly grateful to be on the receiving end of such positive relationships. For those of you interested, I thought I’d offer up another glimpse into what a day looks like for a teacher. This, too, is just a glimpse. In a piece about the importance of diversity in text selection, Rudine Sims Bishop wrote that a text can be a window, a door, or a mirror, and I humbly offer to you a window into my classroom--and for some of you, a mirror. Welcome back to English 12.


Once upon a time, months and months ago, back in the year 2019, we used to have to keep our doors closed and locked at all times just in case someone wanders the halls with a gun, which, unfortunately, used to happen somewhat regularly in the United States. As a result, every few months, schools are required to perform “lockdown” drills. Although kids are no longer allowed to leave their desks, we still need to do these drills. We knew in advance that the drill would be happening early in the period. After I logged into the Zoom and connected my laptop to the projector and tried to get students talking about the question of the day, we had an announcement that it was time to start the drill. We blocked the windows and turned off the lights and became silent. The drill lasted longer than I thought it would. I texted the situation to the kids at home, since I wasn’t supposed to talk, and told them to just keep writing. 


As a side note, I am curious why students who originally elected to attend school are now logging in remotely. Is it because it’s easier to stay home? Because 7:20 is a ridiculous time to start school and they slept in? Because they aren’t feeling well and don’t want to risk exposing others? Because of some other reason? It’s odd how hard certain members of the community are campaigning for in-person school while the students are simultaneously choosing not to come to school. The group in my room yesterday, however, was full strength, so I had almost half of the students in person.


I’m currently teaching my seniors about narrative voice, a nebulous and complicated topic. Even for a total nerd with a couple of degrees in English, it’s so often one of those “I know it when I see it” skills. As part of the mini-unit on syntax, we’re working on sentence structure. Yesterday’s focus was on combining sentences, and to break things up, I showed “Conjunction Junction.” After the video finished, and the kids were smiling (Ok, I can’t see their mouths, and I can't see the kids not in the room at all, so I pretended they were all smiling,) I started to explain how I wanted them to continue to learn about and practice using conjunctions. I was mid-demonstration when suddenly the projector disconnected and my computer screen started flashing black, blue, white and what I think was a frame of “Conjunction Junction.” I tried to click on something, anything. I tried to use “escape”--a word that always amuses me when I’m trying to use it in such technology-hostage situations--and asked my in-person kids if they had any other ideas. I showed them the screen and they all gasped and were sufficiently impressed with the situation. This particular group, as you will see, is a very satisfying audience. Meanwhile, though, I had no idea if I was still connected to the Zoom. I had been narrating the situation into my computer, a habit that’s starting to feel a little less awkward. (If I’m ever talking to you and start narrating my every moment--right now I’m stirring this pot of spaghetti sauce and then I’ll take a quick sip of water before putting the potatoes in the oven--you know why.) However, since I could not see them and they were either not saying anything or I could not hear them, I had no idea if they could hear me. Just in case, I shouted into my laptop, “I think I’m going to have to shut down my computer, but since I am the owner of the Zoom room, I think you’re all going to be kicked out! Give me two minutes and then try to rejoin! Hang on!” I hit the power button and my screen went dark. The students in the room were silent behind their masks. We stared at each other for a beat.


There were still fifteen minutes left of class at this point, and my lesson was already behind schedule, and since the next day was going to be asynchronous due to yet another standardized test, I needed to quickly adjust what was going to get done that hour and what would be shifted to the next day and what would get moved to next week. I did some mental replanning and tried to turn my computer back on. The power button lit up and then went dark. 


I should maybe mention at this point that my schedule on “odd” days involves five hours in a row, but my computer battery only lasts about two and a half. It was possibly nearing the end of its charge although I still had more than half of the day to go. I have figured out that, lacking the technology that would make concurrent teaching work, I can almost jury-rig together a functional classroom if I just walk around with my laptop open and in front of me. I can sometimes move near someone who is going to speak, which is probably a nice change of pace for the students from me just repeating what everyone says for those at home, but I cannot do this if I am plugged into the wall with a charger. This, however, was an emergency. I went to get out my charger and...it wasn’t in my bag. I looked at my students, still wide-eyed and focused on me. I looked at the clock--only ten minutes left. I thought about the kids at home, some of whom were probably off microwaving pizza and some of whom were probably obediently trying to log back in. “This isn’t going to happen, is it?” I asked the kids in the room. They all shook their heads no. I had a choice. I couldn’t do anything about the kids at home. I could try to keep teaching the kids in the room about conjunctions, or I could teach them something potentially more valuable. I shut my laptop and said, “I can make and email you a video of what I was going to show you just now and have you do today’s assignment tomorrow. Do you want to just have a conversation?” They all exhaled, slammed their chromebooks and nodded. If I could have seen the bottom half of their faces, I think they would have been smiling. I imagined they were.


A kid in the front row said, “So what do you think is going to happen?”


“What do you mean?” I asked. “Happen with what?”


“Oh, you know...everything!” he said. “Do you think things are about to get really bad?”


I suspected I knew what he was talking about, but I also do not know the political persuasions of all of my students and I do not want to alienate any by being too political myself. “What things are you asking about?” I hedged.


“You know, all the things. Like, do you think when there’s a new president... or the same president... things will just...get better?”


I paused. “No,” I said. There were gasps in the room not unlike the gasps that occurred when, earlier in the class I had said the word “sh**.” Seriously, these are some innocent seniors. I asked if anyone was 18 and able to vote. No one was. “Take a deep breath now,” I said. “You’re up next. I think that regardless of who wins, everything won’t be magically better. I’m sort of bracing for that to be the case. I have scenarios in my head that it’s not really my place to talk about here, but I do think we have some serious moral differences in this country, and I don’t think one election is going to change that. We have some hard work to do as a country. I think things might get worse before they get better. The next few months are going to be...rough.”


The same kid pressed, “But do you think they’ll ever get better?”


“Yes,” I told him. I didn’t pause on that one.


“Why?” he asked.


“Because I’m a teacher,” I told him. “For a career I meet and get to know a LOT of people. And I know a lot of people just from living this long. Leaving out the people in power who I’ve never met, I’ve actually MET very few people who were just...bad. I believe that we’ll turn things around because I believe that most people have some good in them. Most people, when you meet them face-to-face, don’t want to hurt you. I wouldn’t do this job if I didn’t think that most people have some spark of goodness in them. So I think that in the end, we WILL make things better. It might get worse before it gets better, but I think it will be OK in the end. I believe there are enough people who want to do the right thing.”


I stopped talking and looked around. I met the eyes of the teenagers looking back at me over their masks. A few of them nodded. “Yeah,” said a kid in the back. “Ok,” said the kid in the front who had started the conversation. We looked at each other for another beat. We nodded again.


I looked up at the clock. Time to go. I told the class I’d send them and the kids at home an email about what to do, and I apologized for the lockdown and chaos and technological difficulties. As they left, they told me goodbye. They looked me in the eyes, and their eyes smiled. I apologized more and told them to have a good day. As he walked past me, the student from the back said, “Hey, it’s all good. Really.” A couple of weeks ago, during an office hours meeting with this young man, I had complimented him on a stand-out detail he had included in his personal statement. “You know it!” he had responded. “I’m learning from the best!” Maybe it’s idealistic of me, but when he said, “It’s all good,” I believed he truly meant it. We are part of that good.


I ended my previous post by saying that this situation is eating me alive. That wasn’t a lie. After this class, I still had two more classes to teach, each only half in front of me, and I still had a dead computer. I was so tired afterward that I could hardly sit up to eat lunch and seriously contemplated lying down instead. I only stayed upright because I thought I might not have the energy to save myself if I started to choke. But what I thought about later that evening was not the list of frustrations from the day but the sound of the kid’s voice as he met my eyes and said, “It’s all good. Really.” I thought of the feeling in my chest when he said that. I thought of him telling me he was learning from the best. Yes, this job eats me alive, but sometimes it also feeds my soul. It is frustration and hope in alternating and sometimes bewildering flashes, like a dying laptop screen that can’t settle on one view and doesn’t respond to a repeated pounding on the “escape” key. I suspect we’re making some poor educational choices as a society, but I’m also pretty sure we’re doing some good as individuals. It’s hard to tell where the lines are sometimes. These days, when I’m speaking into a silent laptop and flipping through blank assignments, it’s easy to despair. As cases of COVID and hospitalizations and death counts rise in our country and our county but local restaurants sue the governor when he tries to keep the pandemic on the level, it seems likely things might get worse before they get better. That said, the other moment I replayed in my head that evening was the moment when I told my class that I believed it would be OK in the end, the moment when I looked in my students’ eyes and believed that we’ll be OK. These are hard times. They might get worse. But there are reasons why we’re still trying to stumble through an impossible task. Sometimes those reasons speak up and promise that it’s all good. Really. And sometimes I believe them.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Teaching Concurrent Hybrid in a Pandemic

A week and a half ago, at the turn-around point of our group run, someone asked me to describe the new model the school district in which I teach had just adopted. I explained that while the “A” students (generally the first half of the alphabet) are in my classroom, the “B” students and students who had chosen to stay fully remote would be connected to my laptop via Zoom and would, in theory, hear/see what was happening in class. Later in the week, the “B” students (second half of the alphabet) would be in the classroom, and the “A” and remote students would be at home listening in. When this was proposed, all of the illustrations of how this would work depended on some technology that makes it possible for students not in the room to see/hear what is happening in the room. We do not yet have that technology, but here we are, trying to make this work without it. 

As we started running, one of my friends asked, “So what do you think about this plan?” Frankly, at that point I was pretty numb. I told my friend that I would get back to him after I saw how/if it worked. 

To be truthful, remote teaching was difficult. I am not a teacher who relies on fun gimmicks or who is good at “gamifying” my 11th and 12th grade English and writing curriculum. I have reason to believe that my students love me and learn from me in ordinary time, but my teaching style relies heavily on my own passion for both the material and for the education of my students. My formative assessment relies heavily on looking at facial expressions, body language, and peering over kids’ shoulders to see what/how they are doing. My classroom management relies heavily on placing my physical presence where students feel awkward being off task and using my face and tone of voice to make them understand that I care. It works surprisingly well. But none of those things work as well in remote learning. I’m pretty sure my passion is diluted through a screen. I try to love my students through a screen, but several weeks into the school year, I had only SEEN a handful of them that would turn on their screens. Most do not. None of them turn on their microphones, which is often a necessity to cut down background noise. I’m pretty sure some students log into my class and then walk away from their computers. What am I going to do about it? They don’t respond to questions I ask. They don’t even log off when I tell them class is over. They don’t work on assignments during class--I can see no progress made on their shared Google documents. In short, during remote, I cannot see or hear my students. They can see and hear me if they try to, but I don’t think my particular students are rare animals who realize they can pretend to go to class but then never actually go. 

So, although I was frustrated that the school board committed to a hybrid concurrent model for which they had not previously acquired the equipment and at a time when it seemed maximally dangerous to do so and without time to really prepare for it, the push to get some kids into the building and into my physical presence wasn’t entirely wrong. 

But here’s the problem: I see each student (except those who chose to stay full remote) in person once a week for 70 minutes. Once a week, each student who chose the hybrid model will be sitting at home watching me teach in-person kids. Remote kids only get the full me on the “full remote” days which will only happen twice between the middle of October and Thanksgiving. I am painfully aware that I can EITHER make eye contact with my in-person students OR my remote students. (Eye contact for remote students meaning I look at the camera and do not see them in return.) If I move around in my classroom, my remote students can no longer see or hear me. It is not possible to teach all of the students at once with any kind of equity. If I was going to try to be as fair as possible to the remote students, I would focus my attention on the students at home, as I have been during remote teaching, and ignore the kids in front of me. That said, I have no idea if the remote kids are really “there,” and my in-person kids are. It feels terribly wrong to never look at them or move among them and just talk always to a laptop. 

Add in to all of this that the technology we need has not arrived and the technology we have is unreliable and clunky. I can share my screen with kids at home and then project my Zoom screen for the kids in the class, but then I cannot “see” the students at home, even if they have their cameras on. I have to hide or look away from the chat box to see the lesson on the board, and the kids at home are disconnected from the kids in the room. I feel like I am failing ½-⅔ of the people, or maybe everyone, all of the time. 

I cried in class on the first day of concurrent teaching. 

Here’s what the schedule of a concurrent in-the-building teacher looks like. On “odd A” days, I start in the room of a remote teacher. I welcome her students, remind them where they sit and to sanitize their desks and to log into the Zoom meeting with their actual teacher. I’m really only there to keep order, be a responsible adult, and write bathroom passes. The class is a small one and an elective, so the students are very easy to manage. For that, I am grateful. Partway through that first period, though, another teacher arrives to take over, and I walk halfway across the school--probably a good quarter mile, although I haven’t measured it yet--to supervise another classroom for another remote teacher. When that class ends, I log off the computer projecting to that class and walk back to my room, which is back near the first classroom. I have five minutes to get there, log into my Zoom, admit all of my remote students as they enter, greet my in-coming in-person students, reminding them where to sit and to sanitize their desks, connect my computer to the classroom projector, open up the lesson slides for the day (they must all be electronic for the kids at home), and, at some point, take attendance for the students who are present AND the ones at home whose Zoom tiles are black boxes. In case that sentence feels long and confusing, let me assure you that the lived experience is far more stressful than the reading experience. By the time all of that is done, I’m flustered and frantic, and I have yet to really teach anything or even connect with the humans I’m supposed to be nurturing. 70 minutes later, I log off that Zoom and log off that projector, pack up my stuff, walk to another room and go through the logging-in, greeting, setting-up and attendance process again. The next class starts five minutes after the previous one ends. The pace is such that from 7:15-12:15 I cannot eat or go to the bathroom. I can only sip some coffee if I surreptitiously move aside my mask for a few seconds, which I probably shouldn’t be doing, but one must survive somehow, and I choose one cup of coffee over the course of five hours. 

On the first day of concurrent teaching, the technology just wasn’t working well during my last period class, which happened to be a small group of seniors. The class period just before had been stressful, with kids at home complaining loudly over the class speakers that they could not hear me and that the whole situation was ridiculous and infuriating. My co-teacher, who is remote, confirmed this was true, although in kinder tones. The only way I could be heard was if I stood in one place in front of my laptop and didn’t interact with the in-person students, but the kids in the room looked bored and unengaged whenever I stood behind my laptop. Their masks drooped off their faces repeatedly. During this last-period class, though, I had trouble getting everyone logged into Zoom on time, my laptop refused to connect to the speakers and screen in the room, and I felt like I was failing all students on day one. A really sweet student kept saying in response to my repeated apologies, “It’s really OK! You’ve never done this before!” She said this over and over, and finally switched to, “Oh my God, Mrs. Drexler, this isn’t your fault!” And that’s when I started to cry. If any of my remote students were actually on Zoom, I cried in front of them too. My tears soaked my mask, and I, against all health advice, wiped my face with my hands as best I could. My in person students, one of whom I had last year, looked like they wanted to hug me, but of course, they cannot. 

Here’s the dilemma: this isn’t my fault, but it feels like I am failing all of the time anyway. I can’t fix the problem, but I’m still part of it. Managing two groups of teenagers in two locations is impossible, nevermind TEACHING them something complicated and nuanced. I haven’t been able to sleep much between staying up very late to try to get everything set in a way that will have a small chance of succeeding the next day and getting up early enough to eat and get to school by 7am. I won’t be able to eat at school, of course. When I do sleep, I have a different type of teacher dream. Last night, for example, I think my body needed to wake up and visit the bathroom, but my sleeping self would not let me wake fully because I was dreaming that I was teaching concurrently, and I wasn’t allowed to leave the room and if I did, I’d lose all of the kids in the Zoom, and I’d never get them back! They wouldn’t know where I went or what to do next! My sleeping self thought this was a tragic, horrible outcome. Later that night, I was half-wakened by my husband snoring, but again, I was trying to teach in my dream. The way one of my rooms is set up, I must stand with the board to my left. My extended screen that I’m projecting, though, is to my right. So I have to move my hand/cursor to the right to get it to appear on the screen to my physical left in order to advance slides or to do anything on the screen that both groups of students can see. It’s disorienting, and it’s one more little challenge. In my dream, I couldn’t figure out how to move my body to poke my husband. Did I need to move to my left to nudge the person on my right? Why is everything so hard? 

So is the concurrent model better than remote teaching? What do I think? I still don’t know. It’s not like the students in the room are having a normal experience where they get my full attention or where they can even partner up or work in groups to figure things out. They aren’t getting assemblies or even lunch periods. They can’t go to the library. But some of them seem genuinely grateful to be back in the building. The usual magic that happens because I love literature and writing and learning and my students is again showing up in a teeny flicker every now and then. Is this teeny flicker worth what is probably a far worse experience for everyone not in the classroom? Maybe? Maybe not? I don’t know. It’s possible that, from the student perspective, it is. 

I can tell you, though, that this concurrent model is eating me, the teacher, alive. If I get through the school day without crying from exhaustion, frustration, and bodily discomfort, I am utterly incapable of functioning for about six hours afterwards. I fell asleep while driving home last week. I have nothing left to give my own children or home, having poured every ounce of my concentration on two groups of teenagers in two locations constantly for five hours. I am terribly far behind on my grading, and I am getting hundreds of emails a day. I have missed multiple things on my own family’s schedule because I am just broken down beyond functioning. 

As my student reassured me, this isn’t my fault. I also have no idea how to fix it, though. I don’t have any better ideas. I also don’t know if I can find a way to survive this current plan.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Today, I...

Today I… ...told my son he’d need to drive himself to practice. He told me my keys weren’t in my purse, so I… ...looked through my purse. No keys. So I… ...figured out that I must have locked them in the car WITH the valet key, so I… ...called my husband to ask him to leave work immediately to unlock my car so that my son could drive to practice. After my son returned, I… ...went out to retrieve my keys from the car. No keys. So I… ...dumped out my purse, and I… ...found the keys. Today my daughter asked what time her orthodontist appointment was, so I… ...looked in my calendar. No appointment. However, I… ...remembered moving her appointment to Thursday afternoon because cross country ended on Tuesday, so I… ...scrolled through my old emails and found the appointment verification: it said 4pm. But I had parent teacher conferences all day and into evening, so why would I do that? Ugh. So I… ...called my husband and asked if he could take my daughter to the orthodontist appointment I had foolishly moved and apparently not put on the calendar. He did. Then he texted me from the dark, locked orthodontist office that it was dark and locked. So I… ...scrolled through my old emails, and I… ...found that the appointment is next week. I am still trying to think of a way that I can mess up my dog’s schedule and then ask my husband to fix it unnecessarily. Ideas?

Sunday, September 20, 2020

When God Provides a Worm

Yesterday, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. It felt like just one thing too many to handle. I never met her, but I almost believed in her the way you believe in a Bible character (I read Notorious RBG but also knew her to be heroically serving the country for the good of us all in spite of multiple rounds of cancer and the fact that she was a frail 87.) Her death felt like the worst kind of blow. How can we survive her loss in the midst of everything else? It was too much.  


I had been on a long walk with colleagues, talking about the dismal state of educators and education when the news broke, and I was cold. I decided to take a hot bath and read the book of Job. Job loses everything. And yet, he somehow manages to still bless God, to say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” And when things get worse still, and even his wife says, “Why don’t you just curse God and die?” he tells her that if we are going to accept blessings why should we not also accept hardship? It’s oddly helpful stuff. 


Before I got to Job, though, I finished the book of Jonah, which I had started the night before. Jonah feels familiar. We were both called to serve people who we sometimes think maybe don’t deserve us. We both tried to run away from the call. We both eventually gave in and did what God wanted. And then the people who we thought would certainly not hear us, oddly... do. Here I am, doing a job I didn’t plan to do and was weirdly called into doing--twice. And now, again, I’m being called into teaching in an impossible situation for a community this is being vocally disrespectful and mean. And then kids email me from last year and say mine was their favorite class, and could I please write a letter of recommendation? And what can I do with that except sigh, cancel a few more hours of sleep, and write the letter? And then the kids who are currently failing suddenly turn in all of the things from the last month with a sweet email saying they are sorry it’s all so late, but it’s finally done. Sometimes I just want to walk out of the city of Nineveh and lie down in the blazing sun. I get it, Jonah. I get it.


I had gotten so far in the story on Thursday night and stopped because that was the part that I had really needed. I figured, “Why not finish the last chapter before moving on to Job?” 


In Jonah 4, God provides a great plant to grow up over Jonah and shade him from the sun, and Jonah is very happy about the plant. But the next day God PROVIDES a worm that chews the plant and makes it wither. Then God PROVIDES a scorching wind. It made me pause, this repetition of the word “provides.” Like it’s a gift? Like it’s something Jonah needs? Jonah, still angry that he has successfully saved the unworthy-now-worthy Ninevites is angry. So angry, he wishes to die. And God says, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” 


The end. 


Seriously. The book ends there.


I must have known that. I’ve read Jonah many times before. But I still felt shocked. 


All along, I’ve been thinking about the story of Jonah as our (his and my) story: we get called, we resist, we get called again and again, we obey. The Ninevites hear, repent, and live. Jonah might be a jerk, but he saves them. I never thought the book was about the Ninevites. I thought it was about getting called until you cannot resist, about how we can choose to ignore God, but eventually God can be really really persuasive. I had not really thought about what it means that after Jonah obeys, after the Ninevites are saved, God provides a worm. Even after Nineveh and the 120,000 people and also many animals are spared, God is still saving Jonah from himself. 


The story is God’s. The people and animals are God’s. The plant is God’s. The worm is God’s. He will save us from ourselves, whether it takes a storm, a fish, an asshole prophet, or a pestilent worm. 


The book of Jonah ends with the words of God, as it certainly should, but that means we don’t know how Jonah responds. Maybe, for once, he doesn’t talk back. Or maybe it’s because the story is as unfinished as it feels. Fish, worms, winds, pandemics, political chaos: God provides. 


Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Bystander Metaphor


This morning, while running and talking, a friend and I witnessed a bicycle/pedestrian collision. I confess that (a) I must not have been paying very close attention to the trail ahead, or (b) I make a lousy eye-witness. My friend said that he saw the accident unfolding. I didn’t see it until maybe two seconds before it occurred. What I saw was an older woman in a white shirt turn in such a way that she clearly didn’t see that she was stepping right in front of a bicycle which was not traveling at top speed but was moving quickly enough to make quite an impact. The bike hit the pedestrian straight on. It was not a side-swipe. Both the woman and the bicyclist fell immediately.

There were several other women walking with the one who stepped in front of the bicycle. They gathered around her as she lay on the ground. My friend and I checked on the woman and the bicyclist. We stayed around to help with calling and directing the ambulance and making sure the cyclist was OK too. My friend gave the cyclist his name and number in case the cyclist realized a mile or two down the path that he did need help, or in case there turned out to be some sort of legal ramifications and witnesses were needed. 

After the EMTs had attended to the woman, a police officer approached the cyclist, and my friend and I heard the description he gave to the police. The cyclist, who was clearly upset and shaking and worried, had previously told us that he had been trying to avoid the woman, that he had slowed and was keeping his eye on the group of women. He kept repeating that he tried to avoid her. Of course he did. I never suspected him of hitting her on purpose. Plus, I had paid attention just at the moment when she moved somewhat erratically, just a second before the impact. It seemed like both parties and neither party owned the “blame” for what happened. When the cyclist described the scene to the police officer, though, he repeated what he had told us about seeing the group of women on the trail as he approached and thinking about whether/how he could avoid hitting them, but then he said something else: “There were runners coming from the other direction, and when she moved to avoid them, she stepped in front of me.” (The scene from The Great Gatsby came to mind, but I’m a literature nerd.)

My friend and I turned and looked at each other. The “runners” were us

As we left the scene of the accident, we discussed the cyclist’s story. Before he told it to the policeman, neither of us had considered that we were a factor in what happened. In our version of the story, we were just witnesses. We happened to be running in the direction of the accident. We decided, though, that the cyclist might be right. In my memory, the woman did turn oddly and step sideways shortly before the impact. It is possible--likely even?--that she did turn and move that way because she heard us coming. It is possible--likely even?--that our roles in the scene were not just detached witnesses but somehow integral to the event. It is possible--likely even?-- that the events would not have happened as they did if we were not running in that place at that moment.

I do not mean this to be an invitation to place or even discuss blame. None of us meant to cause that accident. I do think, though, that it’s an interesting reminder that sometimes we need to see a situation from a perspective other than just our own. 

Writing this in June of 2020, during the resurgence of a pandemic so many people are trying to either avoid or discount, during the moment when my white friends and I are suddenly awake to racial patterns that we have been privileged enough to observe as “innocent bystanders,” I feel like today’s situation might be a metaphor. 

It is possible--likely even?--that none of us are ever just innocent bystanders.


When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." --John Muir
 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

"Played" Paranoia


I suppose I should probably start out with the disclaimer that I’m currently in a pretty angry mood after having been played by my eight-week-old puppy who refused to pee outside in the rain and then peed in the kitchen while we were eating dinner. She went out of sight of us, so I think she knows it’s wrong. We took her out over and over in the rain, and she refused to pee--she made us think she didn’t have to go. We were totally played, and I don’t like it. I was played, I tell you.
 
That said, I’m annoyed with the obsession the general population (OK, maybe this isn’t equally distributed among the population, but I hate to stereotype by pointing fingers) has with being “played.” Exhibit A: I opened Facebook this evening (and whether or not I should just “unfriend” all of the mindless followers/reposters/conspiracy theory minions is another debate) to see that a “friend” (not one I’m close to, but someone I believe means to be a good person) had posted a meme that said the following (and I’ll preserve the punctuation for full effect): “Imagine watching a televised funeral with hundreds in attendance after being told you cant go to your own family’s funerals or even your kids graduation. Imagine watching it and still not realizing youre being played” [Yeah, no period at the end in addition to most of the missing parentheses. This meme was not written by someone with finesse or education or maybe only an elementary grasp on English, Russian being the primary language….]
 
I immediately wanted to write back the following: “Who exactly do you think is playing you? WTF?” Seriously. Who is supposedly “playing” us in this scenario? The virus? The governor? The CDC? The WHO? Again, WTF? Why would anyone have ANY f-ing interest in whether you went to your kids’ (please note that I can punctuate!!!) graduations?” (Side note: this person’s children are both out of college. So no, s/he didn’t miss her kids’ graduation. Also, I don’t think s/he personally missed any funerals either.) Basically, this person found this meme on social media and thought, “Yeah!! They’re playing me! I didn’t get to go to the funerals and graduations that weren’t even happening! I’ve been played!!” (Insert scream of rage here. Played!! Played, I tell you!! Oh my God!! Played!!) 
Then I thought, would it be nicer to write the following? “Dear friend, please earnestly consider the possibility that the only person ‘playing’ you at this moment is the person/bot who created this meme you copied. It is clearly intended to sow discord and confusion. Please consider the evidence that you have probably been denying that much of the vague incendiary poorly spelled/punctuated memes on social media are created by one of the following: (a) people trying to create division, or (b) bots trying to create division. And you are helping him/her/it. Please stop trying to play me.”
 
The bottom line is that whoever figured out that “being played” is one of the worst things that can happen to an American these days is totally playing this person and many people. It made me wonder: when did “being played” become something we have to guard against so vigilantly. When did “being played” become the primary crime being committed against the common wo/man? After 114,145 Americans have died of a virus, why would protecting people from it be seen as “playing” them? Is the implication in the above meme that if you’re overly kind and cautious about caring for others that you’re a chump? We are really worried that we might accidentally care about each other too much? Seriously, America. You ARE being “played,” and the game is that no one in government actually cares about your personal kids’ graduation ceremonies (and very especially no one is trying to manipulate you to not go to your kids’ ceremonies that happened several years ago. I’m dead serious about this. NO. ONE. CARES about the ceremonies you didn’t even miss!) The game, then, is the “people”/bots that know they can rile you up by suggesting that you (you! Of all people! They are after YOU for sure because...well, you!) are being played ALL. THE. TIME.  Virus? Played. Killed 114,145 Americans to mess with you. Police brutality? Played. Killed black people for hundreds of years to mess with you! Ha ha! Gotcha.
 
Seriously, gullible people, what’s next? Tornado sirens? You. are. being. played sucker!! I bet you actually looked out the window and believed that those high winds bending the trees in half were real. Played. I bet you went into your basement and sat there like a fool. Played, played, played. And when the next town over was flattened? Played. “They” did that to mess with you. And you bought it. I bet you even tried to help the “victims” whose homes were destroyed. Played. At least until a meme on the internet helped you wise up to what was going on. 
 
Thank the powers that be that we have a President who will tell you that the skinny 75-year-old who was pushed over by police and bled profusely from a head wound while police walked over him on their way to...the next block...had been participating in social activism and peaceful protests for half a century so that YOU would fall for it right now. It was all about you. You being played. 
 
Be careful out there, folks. You’re going to hear a lot of people wanting you to feel sorry for victims of all kinds. You’re going to hear “recommendations” for how to keep everyone safe from things like pandemics and traffic accidents (you are so being played by those “red lights” and “stop signs”.) Do yourself a favor: don’t buy it. Stop washing your hands. Stop driving on your side of the road. You are being played, and there is literally nothing worse than accidentally being too kind to others. That, my friend, is called “being played,” and it’s happening to you and at you. These things are about making you look gullible, and it’d be better to, you know, kill someone than look weak. Kill your neighbors if you have to. Refuse to vote. Paint the town with lead paint. Be strong. Don’t get played.
 
OK. I’ll end the rant there. I need to go pet my puppy. Because she probably just doesn’t know what the hell is going on with the high winds and the rain and she just wanted to go in the nice calm house and pee in peace. The only dogs actually playing me are the ones that convinced that my teeny puppy is part of the deep state that wants me to believe in urine.

 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

From One White Suburbanite to Another

In this past week, the United States surpassed 100,000 COVID19 deaths (105,557 as of this writing, although there’s some evidence that thousands of deaths should have been included in that number and were not.) Also in the news was the horrifying video of the murder of George Floyd after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. This follows closely on the video of an incident in which a white woman refused to put her dog on a leash in a leash-only section of Central Park and then called the police on the black man who was bird-watching and asked her to do so. These events come at the heels of the recent murder of Amaud Arbery by two white men because he was running and black. And the murder of Breonna Taylor, also black, when police raided her apartment for a crime she didn’t commit and shot her.
 
It’s been a dark couple of weeks in America even if we don’t talk about “politics.”
 
I want desperately to be able to write something to help make sense of all of this, but I’ve been reading some very compelling narratives from black men and women about times they’ve been harassed, accused, and endangered because their skin is darker than mine. They live in a world where it’s not safe to go running, to sit in a car, to sit in their home, to watch birds. I have nothing to say more eloquent or relevant or true than what they say. I am grateful to them for their stories and grateful for the people who have been amplifying those stories.
 
For some reason, God saw fit to make me a white woman born into a middle-class suburban life. Maybe She thought I was too tender to take life as a person of color. Or maybe She intends for me to use the circumstances of my birth somehow. I am ashamed to confess that, due to my continued residence and employment in an area that is largely white, most of my friends, colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances are also white middle-class suburbanites. It turns out that in allowing myself to stay in my comfortable life, I have not put myself in a position to be very helpful to the people of color whose lives are obscenely more dangerous and complicated than my own. I believe, though, that God can use us from any place at any time. It’s not too late for me. And so I start with my own people. 
 
This is for my white middle-class friends who, when I listed the deaths in the first paragraph said in their minds, “But what about the riots?” This is for you who felt as much or more anger and indignation over those riots as over the killings, who think they are equivalent crimes. I write to you with full knowledge that minds and hearts are hard to change and that the people who need to read this either won’t start reading it or won’t make it to the end. I get why the black community is cynical about white allies. I’m cynical too. And yet, I’m not being a better person for not trying. So here goes.
 
Do this for me: look around you and find the most valuable item you own. Maybe you have a really nice car. Maybe you have a really sweet media room with a big TV and surround sound and multiple reclining seats. Maybe you have a really nice phone. Heck, maybe you have ALL of those things. That’s fine. You don’t have to choose. Hold them all in your mind, if you like.
 
Now walk into your bathroom and get close to the mirror. Look into your own eyes. Look until you really see yourself there. 
 
Now decide: which is more important to you, your valuable item(s) or your life? If you could keep one or the other but not both, which would you choose?
 
And here’s an extra credit assignment. Do you have a son? Go look at him sprawled out on your couch or shooting hoops. Or, if he’s not with you right now, look at a picture of him. There’s probably one in your house, right? Now decide: which is more important to you, your valuable item(s) or your son? If you could keep one or the other but not both, which would you choose?
 
If in either scenario you chose your car or your TV, OK then. Let the fury over the riots build in you like boiling acid. Go out into the street and scream. Search for, read, and post more about the riots. Raise awareness about the sanctity of shop windows and Target merchandise. Also, you can stop reading now.
 
If, however, you chose your own life and the life of your son, I’m with you. Me too. But here’s the thing you need to hear: if you chose your life and your son’s life and yet spent more time and energy condemning the riots than the murders that sparked them, you are a racist. I bet you don’t feel like a racist. I bet you feel angry that I’m accusing you of such a thing. But the riots that you think are repulsive are about things, and the murders are about lives. Calm down--I’m not endorsing looting, and I’m aware of the news reports that the evolution from peaceful protests to riot seems to coincide with the interference of outside forces, including allegedly white-supremacist groups, and I don’t endorse that either. Focus. Don’t let yourself look away from this just yet. This essay is about you, my friend. If you are willing to say your life and your child’s life matters more than any possession but you are more upset about someone’s possessions being damaged or stolen than someone’s LIFE being stolen, you need to ask yourself why. Why does the one upset you more than the other? Why do riots raise your righteous indignation more than murders? Why do the riots demand more of your attention? Is it because your things could be stolen but those kinds of murders would never happen to you? Because you never go running? Because you never sit in your home watching TV? No, the difference is something else. 
 
Imagine living in a country in which most of the police, lawyers, judges, governors, senators, and president are black. Really pause and imagine. Does it make you feel uncomfortable? I confess: I feel weird about it. Why? What if every time you saw one of those policemen a story ran through your head about how he could kill you on the spot? Because you’ve seen it happen over and over again on TV. Because it happened to your neighbor. Or your son.
 
We are talking about racism, friend, and you and I need to do the first hard thing and call ourselves out for it.
 
I doubt you set out to be racist, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t soaked into you. There are plenty of books and articles and talks about where this came from, and I’m going to continue to read and listen so that I can understand better, and I invite you to do the same. You can do it secretly if you’re embarrassed. Just start somewhere somehow. Seeing it is the first step. Or maybe the first step is just wanting to see it, even if you don’t yet. Maybe someday you and I can talk about it. And maybe we’ll know more about what to do next when we know more about what we’re dealing with. And maybe someday our sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters will live in a world where they don’t even have to ask themselves which is more important, stolen items or stolen lives.