Today in San Bernardino, California an elementary school teacher was shot dead by her estranged husband who later killed himself.  Even sadder, the murderer shot two of her students who happened to be standing by the teacher.  One of the eight year olds later died from his injuries.  Many people are asking how could this have happened.  The answer is scary and I don’t think many people realize how teachers risk their lives every single day.

During my 17 years of teaching elementary school in the inner city, I have faced irate parents who have threatened me with bodily harm, been confronted by unstable staff members, been told to look for suspicious packages (bombs), walked students while pregnant with my first child to and fro during a school lockdown because of a nearby shooting, left work alone after dark through questionable surroundings, watched my students drop to the floor while gunshots rang out nearby, and watched unknown people stroll onto the campus with no school business.  Schools are looked upon as safe zones because the the teachers and staff are determined to help students feel safe.  Unfortunately, there is not enough training to prevent the unexpected from occurring.

With the Betsy DeVos poised to dismantle  public schools, I reflect on how the public tend to disregard the hard job teachers are expected to perform in less than satisfactory conditions. Not all teachers are saints or inspirational in a Dead Poets Society way, but the majority of teachers are hard working, selfless individuals who find themselves charged to do the incredible in impossible circumstances. Miracles are expected with little to inadequate resources. Overcrowded classrooms of children who need their basic needs met before learning geometry are the norm in the inner cities.  Clueless politicians, stressed administrators, and a shaming media pressure teachers to teach, nuture, and protect children with stellar results. Some teachers succeed and some fail. Some live to fight another day, and some never return home (Sandy Hook).

Something to Believe In

20 years ago this week 39 members of a religious cult committed mass suicide in order to transcend to the alien spaceship following the tail of the Comet Hale-Bopp. I remember hearing about this tragedy and wondering what kind of madness could take over a large group of people and convince them that this was not insane. 

People need something to believe in. As humans we are blessed/cursed with the need to know why. The questions of why and how are the engines that keep humanity moving forward. If humans don’t indulge their natural curiosity, they die. Some people believe retirees die shortly after they retire because they believe they don’t have purpose once they stop working.  People need a reason to believe. 

Atheists may not believe in a God, but they have beliefs that keep their engines moving forward.  For a person deeply rooted in their religion and sacred rites, they may not understand the more secular beliefs rooted in science and reason. The extremes of religious beliefs may not agree with each other, but they have a lot in common in regards of having something to believe.  

In my opinion, I believe people steep themselves deeply into their belief system because of a personal trauma or tragedy. Christians call it a come-to-Jesus moment. I think once someone had hit rock bottom they need to find something to believe in so they don’t drift further away from life.  Maybe that is why many recovery programs have a religious component. As a good shepherd, churches and religious leaders are poised to welcome all lost sheep into the fold. The welcoming sheep are there to say how Jesus (church) was there to save them. For this salvation, the saved members press their roots deeper into the soil of this manmade concept and curse anyone who does not believe like they believe. 

Unfortunately, there are many predatory religious factions who lead the sheep to slaughter. It may not be as final as the Heavens Gate tragedy, but in many cases the collective brainwashing of a group of people looking for something to believe in could be just a different shade of the same color. 

Keep your engine running with questions of why and how, but keep your eyes and ears open. Not everyone is a shepherd, but most are sheep. It’s normal to be a part of a flock, but it’s not normal to turn off your brain and let the shepherd lead you away from your natural instinct to learn, move forward, and survive. Be wise and always question the narrative whether your belief system is religion, science, and/or politics. If you stop asking questions, you may find yourself wearing the metaphorical uniform of madness that seduces you to drink the poisonous Kool-aid. 

Lately, I’ve copped this phrase to prettily sum up how I feel about most things.  I go through the motions of life but that kernel of caring is getting more elusive everyday.  I wake up every morning embracing my yoga practice.  Then the day starts with a cup of courage brewed from that single kernel of caring.  I teach my sons, cater to their needs, and maintain the house.  As the rest of life barrels around me, I couldn’t care less.  I don’t clutch my pearls or get my feathers ruffled over anything.  My Twitter and Facebook feed are filled with an abundance of things I should care about, but it’s overwhelming.  Day to day concerns that would’ve had me in a state do not faze me.  I don’t care.  I shut it all down and wait for the next day to roll around so I can do it all again.

It’s a curious state of being.  Have I found my zen?  Maybe I’ve found nirvana! (hello, Kurt)  Living day to day with no expectations or caring allows me time to just be.  The minutia of life is really not as important as living in the moment.  Life is too short to rage at the machine.  If no one hears you scream, don’t scream louder, find a different way to express your displeasure.  If your family and friends do not know you, don’t try to make yourself known.  Get to know yourself and all else will fall into place.  Clean out that closet you just crammed your emotional baggage.  Find that single kernel of caring and nurture it for what matters. 

Maybe I’m not dead inside.  Maybe I’m enlightened.

I have a friend who has an amazing Resting Bitch Face.  When I first saw her, I thought she was…well…a bitch.  A mutual friend said, “Alisa?  A bitch?  She’s the nicest person you’ll ever meet.  She’s a sweetheart.”

Well, I had no intention of finding out if she was a sweetheart until we happened to be working at the same school.  Hesitantly, I introduced myself to her and that Resting Bitch Face broke out into the warmest smile you could imagine.  Instantly that first impression melted away and I discovered that Alisa was indeed one of the sweetest people I ever met.  It’s funny how my initial impression of her was so wrong.  Ever since that encounter, I have always kept my mind open to giving people a chance.  This way of thinking has helped me to unearth genuine moments with people I would’ve initially written off.  I have a friendly relationship with a local homeless man named David because I gave him a chance and didn’t write him off because of his status and lack of hygiene.

Currently as our government has been nothing but fodder for comedians, sketch comedy shows, and drive by media hounds, I keep hearing people say to give a certain world leader….

…oh, my stomach!

…a chance.  Honestly, I don’t know what that means.  People can say and do whatever they want in resistance to this person’s ascension to the throne of the First World, but in all rights, he has the job and he has the chance to prove he is not a person to have an unfortunate Resting Bitch Face.  No one is stopping him from doing anything legal within his rights as a leader of a soverign nation.  This person could honestly prove to everyone that our first impression was wrong and he is definitely a horse worth backing by doing something.  Now people may say he is doing something, but the constant tweets, rants, and blustering doesn’t reveal a warm smiling spirit behind the bitchy facade.  His thinly veiled attempt to be inclusive with a prolonged side-eye at everyone who dares to not LOVE him shows the first impression might be…right.

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Sociology is the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society.  In other words it’s the study of what makes humans tick.  In college, I played The Color Game which is a social experiment that dealt with racial, socio-economic, and gender issues. 10 weeks living in the shoes of another was fairly eye-opening, but the real surprise was how resistant some people were to opening themselves up to learn and/or empathize with people unlike themselves.  The social experiment taught many that there were many sides to an individual than just their color.

W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard University.  He was a professor of sociology, history, and economics at Atlanta University.  He was also a co-founder of the N.A.A.C.P.  Du Bois was an activist for full civil rights for African Americans.  He spoke out against Jim Crow laws, discrimination and legisilation that marginalized African Americans in a post Civil War era.  Being well-educated on history and sociology, he approached his activism through the prism of his education.  His activism transcended the struggles of African Americans on American soil to the African colonies under European rule.

During the Reconstruction Era in the United States, blacks were scapegoated for the many failures of the time.  Du Bois contradicted that prevailling theory through prolific writings speaking on the matter.  He believed that capitalism was the root to racism in America which underscored a lot of the machinations used to further marginalize African Americans.  Du Bois, being a student and teacher of sociology, delved into the dual mindset of the African American which holds true to the present day.  In his collection of 14 essays in The Souls of Black Folk,   he explores the double consciousness of black folk in being American and black.  He saw it as a handicap in history but it being a possible strength in the future.

Observing the current day treatment and reception of African Americans, I believe W.E.B. Du Bois was correct in believing the double consciousness would be a strength.  There is a sense of pride in African Americans who embrace both sides of their coin.  When Beyonce performs for the Superbowl with a Black Panther tribute, James Brown tells us to say it loud (I’m black and I’m proud), and James Baldwin let’s his pen do the talking, America knows that the African American is growing into a strength and pride that cannot be denied.  Unfortunately, with the growing need for movements like Black Lives Matter, there is still a residual part of society that only see the color black as something to eradicate under the umbrella of fear.

 

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Recently I discovered another hero of the Civil Rights Movement who made inroads to equality 100 years before Dr. Martin Luther King was the face of the Civil Rights Movement.  My discovery was from a shared post on Facebook by a friend.  Octavius Cotto was born free in the Deep South in 1839.  His family migrated north to Philadelphia  where he studied and graduated valedictorian of his class.  Soon he became an educator.

Later he became a Civil Rights activist who worked with Frederick Douglass and other leaders to recruit black men to join the Union effort in the Civil War.  Catto later became a community organizer.  His belief in garnering equality for all men had him linked with many African American movements of the time.  He resisted the segregation of public transportation nearly a hundred years before Rosa Parks made her historical stand in Montgomery, Alabama.  Blacks were banned from riding on horse drawn streetcars in Philadelphia.  To protest the ban, Octavius Catto slept in one overnight and encouraged others to participate in this civil disobedience.   In 1867, blacks in Philadelphia were allowed to ride the desegregated steetcars.  Catto also fought for voting rights for black men.  With the ratification of the 15th amendment in 1870, Catto was passionate about getting black men registered to vote for the 1871 election.  This movement did not sit well with the white southern Democrats.   Sadly on election day, Octavius Catto was shot 3 times.  His attacker was acquitted of the murder.

Octavius Catto was murdered trying to get former slaves voting rights.  Malcolm X stressed the importance of using the ballot like a bullet to target what the black community needed.  Frederick Douglass escaped a life of hell to freedom using education as his guide and lifeboat while fighting for the rights of African Americans.  Now we have someone like Kanye West who stands on the bones and blood of these late heroes and announce with something like disdain that he didn’t vote in the last, devisive election. Is this how we should remember a forgotten hero?

 

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During the first week of Black History Month 2017, two historical figures were clumsily brought to the forefront of the American consciousness with snide remarks and clever quips.  One reference was about Abraham Lincoln in reference to Black History Month. The successes and achievements of African Americans did not begin with slavery which shows an alarming disconnect the person who had made that acknowledgement had revealed. Another reference was about Frederick Douglass.  The person who referenced Frederick Douglass in an acknowledgement of Black History Month made it appear that Mr. Douglass was still alive and was now getting properly recognized.  This revealed a lack of comprehension of who Frederick Douglass was in the 19th century.

Imagine a runaway slave having a meeting with the POTUS.  Well, it happened.  In 1863 Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln met at the White House. Douglass was very critical of the president and his policies, so he declared to stop recruiting black men for the army.  Black troops were being ill-treated, and as an abolishionist and reformer, Frederick Douglass wanted better treatment for the black troops.  Lincoln proved to be a politician with his words and deeds which did not immediately create changes for the troops, but Douglass grudgingly liked the man and felt there was room for improvement for the treatment of his people.

“Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery….” -Frederick Douglass

Being born a slave in 1818, Frederick Douglass was determined to better himself.  He was secretly taught to read by others.  This early education began his enlightenment.  He shared what he learned with other slaves and read any and everything to educate himself.  At the age of 28, he escaped. Once free, Frederick Douglass travelled and educated himself.  He was a reformer, abolitionist and orator.  He wrote antislavery editorials and was very outspoken about the treatment of African Americans pre and post the Civil War. He also spoke out on women’s rights.

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In Frederick Douglass’ 2nd autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, he stressed how important literacy was to the African American.  His message is still important today.  As the eyes of the world turn toward the United States of America for all the political and controversial machinations of highly visibile individuals, it’s important to realize the education is the key to self preservation and success.  If Frederick Douglass was alive today, I wonder what he would say if he saw the deplorable conditions of inner city schools.  I wonder what speech he would give to have his people not only focus on sports and entertainment as a means of bettering themselves.  Would he see progress or regression?

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Barack Obama: Hope and Change


A month ago my friend and I took our children to visit our alma mater, Occidental College. In front of Haines Hall is an amazing collage of black and white photos of a young Barack Obama. From what I had gathered,  his old dorm room was kept as a shrine to America’s first black president.  Although he spent only two years at Oxy, he had referred to these early years in his education as his motivation to persue politics. 

Barack Obama is living history and it won’t be until later his accomplishments will be properly examined and appreciated.  In 1998 Tupac Shakur rapped in Changes,

” And although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready, to see a black President, uhh”

10 years later a junior senator from Chicago gave Americans of all races, creeds, and colors a message of “yes, we can” and “hope and change”.  The ballot or the bullet message from Malcolm X given 44 years before most likely hit the target.  With a youthful wife and young daughters in tow, Barack became the 44th president of the United States.  His message galvanized a generation to turn away from seasoned politicians like McCain and Hillary Clinton. 

A mere 145 years after the abolition of slavery, a black man was elected to the highest office in the United States.  Black men and women were not officially included in the US Constitution until 1868 which was a mere 143 years ago. It’s important to teach our children that Barack Obama’s achievement was loooked upon as an impossiblity decades ago. 



Today’s Black History Month historical figure is Malcolm X. Malcolm X has always been my inspiration.  His story and what he stood for  gave me the courage to find and embrace my truth.  When many people think of Malcolm X, they think of the picture of Malcolm standing by a window holding a gun with the phrase ‘by all means neccessary” printed above.  People tend to slice and dice the man to suit their agenda, but very few know the whole story.  The Autobiography of Malcolm X  by Malcolm X and Alex Haley is a rich history of the evolution of a man.  It’s a compelling read.

Malcolm X gave a critical speech in 1964 regarding elections and the power of the ballot.  He said the white politicians were going to suddenly remember the black community was a voting bloc and would make promises they had no intention of keeping to get the black vote.  If black people were to unite, the black vote would be powerful thus having a significant say in who will sit in the White House.  He said the ballot was like a bullet.  If a person had a gun, they would aim at a target.  He encouraged the black brothers and sisters to use that ballot like a bullet and aim at the desired target.  He also said if the African American failed to use their ballot as a bullet, then an actual bullet may have to be cast.  Powerful.

Malcolm X was pushing past civil rights to human rights for African Americans. He was leading a movement that was picking up steam and many saw that a a threat.  I still mourn the loss of a man that died many years before my birth.  The losses of Malcolm and MLK deeply wounded the African American community and in 2017  the wound has yet to heal.

From kindergarten to 12th grade, black history was taught in February.  I went to Catholic school and was taught by strict nuns who spent a lot of time making sure we knew the Bible, saints, prayers, rosaries, and Commandments.  When it came to Black History, we learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks.  If a student didn’t seek information on Black History, they would think these three individuals were the only ones that mattered.  When Stevie Wonder released Songs in the Key of Life in September of 1976, my young mind was blown when I heard the song Black Man.  I remember reading the lyrics to this song and feeling my mind open to an education that transcended all I knew. Names like Dr.Charles Drew, Crispus Attucks, and Benjamin Bannekar dropped like jewels into my lap. Wonder’s song, Black Man, also named prominent men and women of other races, and my mind soaked it all up.  My favorite part of the song is toward the end when there is a traditional African call and response between the adults and children of notable individuals and their achievements.

My thirst for knowledge grew in leaps and bounds.  I read biographies, poured over encyclopedias, and had conversations with my elders about the Black History that was not taught in the books.  In college, my self-studies increased and expanded to Africa.  Apartheid was the tragedy of the time and I marched against my well-heeled private liberal arts colllege and local businesses demanding these institutions divest from South Africa.  I demonstrated and protested for what was right while being armed with the knowledge of a rich history that laid the foundation for me to move forward  and continue to build for the next generation.

Black history is American History.  No one should limit themselves to text books and teachers because the history will remain two dimensional.  Here is a list of some notable Black men and women I taught to my children who have changed, challenged, and enriched the world:

  • Sojourner Truth – abolitionist,women’s rights activist
  • Dred Scott – reformer (sued for his freedom Dred Scott case)
  • Maya Angelou – poet
  • Colin Powell -four star general
  • Harriet Tubman – abolitionist
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – activist.
  • Malcolm X – activist
  • Josiah Henson – abolitionist
  • Marcus Garvey – political leader
  • Harriet Ann Jacobs – abolistionist, writer
  • Garrett Morgan – inventor
  • Rosa Parks – activist
  • Mae Jemison – astronaut
  • Jackie Robinson – athlete
  • Muhammad Ali – athlete, activist
  • Dorothy Dandridge – actress
  • Thurgood Marshall – US Supreme Court Justice
  • Frederick Douglass – abolistionist
  • George Washington Carver – botanist, inventor
  • Oprah Winfrey – philanthropist, entrepreneur
  • Madam C J Walker – enterpreneur
  • Ida B. Wells  – activist
  • Stevie Wonder – singer, songwriter
  • Quincy Jones – music producer
  • Jesse Owens – athlete
  • Marvin Gaye – singer, songwriter