The Mask

emoji with smiley face on mask and frowning emoji with no maskLike you, I have lamented the fact that, in 2020, wearing masks out of caution and necessity robs us of the sheer joy of seeing smiles on peoples’ faces.

I saw a lot of smiles recently as I spent weeks looking at the scores of boxes and albums of photos our family has collected over the years. There were photos of family members, friends, colleagues, and some people I don’t even remember.

I smiled or laughed out loud when I recalled the circumstances or occasions around which some of the photos were taken. Nostalgia is one of my favorite pastimes—whether through photos, videos, journals, or conversations.

While I was steeped in the process of looking at hundreds of photos, I began to wonder about what might really be going on with some of the people who were smiling for the camera. Were the smiles on these faces a reflection of our reality at that moment in time or not?

When I looked at some of the faces, I imagined that the smile displayed was prompted by the entreaties of those taking the photos asking the person to say “cheese,” or “money,” or the photographer saying something funny that would make the person smile. Given the festive and happy occasions, however, I’m sure the majority of the smiles came without prompting.

Optimistically, all of these people with smiling faces were having a good time and were happy at the moment the picture was captured. Likely the smiles were articulating their true feelings. Yet, I wondered if some of the smiles captured may not always have told the story as it truly was. The smile itself may have been a mask behind which the person was masquerading as someone who was happy and having a good time.

I wonder if our new normal of wearing a physical mask actually makes this kind of masquerade harder. Perhaps covering the smile that used to serve as a mask will make us take more notice of the eyes to discern the true state of a person. They say the “eyes have it.” Can the eyes—like a smile—be warm, convey love, enjoy humor, express sheer joy? Or will our eyes unmask us and reveal more than we want to share?

Wearing a tangible mask, then, may also be a test of how sophisticated we are at expressing the range of our emotions in what may be more authentic interactions than when we could flash a spontaneous smile. How will we fare over time when the reflexive smile will not be as accessible in our arsenal of communication tools?

Pushing on…

Despite intermittent squalls, heavy rains, and poor visibility, students, faculty, staff, and administrators push on in preparing for what used to be the beginning of the traditional academic year.

Why students push on

To increase their learning, which contributes to the development of the means to challenge the fairness of the distribution of power and thereby contribute to the fulfillment of the promise in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Why faculty push on

To provide learners the opportunity to develop critical-thinking tools in order to discern for themselves whether or not there is a systematic plan to stratify people into groups where some are always the most needy.

Why professional staff push on

To provide the environment in which students have the opportunity to create experiences that will help them develop the skills to speak up about inequities and lead communities in public problem solving so necessary for a democracy.

Why support staff push on

To provide the safety net of strong, sometimes invisible, sinews that hold the academic community together.

Why administrators push on

To demonstrate strong leadership in turbulent times because our hope is in a new generation of leaders who can help the nation move toward the fulfillment of the promise in the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States…promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

 

Happy Birthday, Ida!

Ida B Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On this day—July 16—158 years ago, Ida Bell Wells, a tireless and formidable crusader, was born.

As an investigative journalist, Wells informed, bullied, and cajoled the readership of Black publications to fight for their schools, their rights, their dignity, and their lives against a racist and segregated Southern culture.

Writing for church publications and early editorials using the pen name, Iola, she is best known for her anti-lynching editorials and speeches, though she was a founder or prominent member of every civil rights organization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Famous during her own lifetime and revered after her death, she fought for racial justice, women’s suffrage, and human rights with both intelligence and heart.

In addition to her pamphlets and editorials, she excelled as a speaker at home and abroad, exposing the shame of racism in America, particularly as concretized and illustrated by the brutal lynchings and mass murderings of Black people. This diamond of a woman had many precious facets, and if she were pressed to identify any flaw, it might be that she had human feelings and could be hurt by the slights and betrayals of people who should have been some of her strongest supporters. Despite the hurt and sensitivity, she soldiered on, standing in the front lines of the cause even as she faithfully carried out her duties as a wife and mother.

Reflecting on the extraordinary life and monumental achievements of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, I see her as a beacon that shines the way and a staff that supports all of us who want to gain the right to call ourselves the sons and daughters of Ida.

Ode to Gwen B.

I still perspire when I think about how anxious I was as I sat waiting for my first interview after graduating from college. While I waited for the principal to see me, I tried to push back thoughts about not belonging at this predominantly white suburban high school. I tried not to think about how different my background probably was from everyone else who worked here. Who else was black and from the west side of Chicago whose only qualification for the job beyond the college degree was a traumatic student teaching experience at an all-white high school in southern Illinois?

I was sweating out my interview clothes as I sat in a chair with my back to a glass wall separating this office from the hallway. I was facing a long counter behind which at least half a dozen efficient-looking white women were engaged in various activities—at the counter responding to all entrants, typing on typewriters, or working in file cabinets.

I had been in the building for about half an hour and had not seen another black person. As I contemplated this fact—as if on cue—a tall, beautiful, black woman with short red hair cut and shaped beautifully breezed into the area smiling as if she had just heard a joke. She greeted everyone by their first name and inquired about their well-being. Everyone and the entire space seemed to brighten to match this woman’s mood. As a chorus of greetings were returned, I thought I heard my name. This startled me, and then I realized they were addressing “the other Gwen,” a descriptor that would be heard frequently once I was hired. How random that both of us would teach in the English Department. Not only that, but we both married men named Charles.

Gwen B. and I were among the very few black teachers and administrators in this predominantly white suburban high school in the late 1960s that was transitioning to become more racially diverse. There were tensions at every level as the community was adjusting to the change. Lucky for me, Gwen B. was “my person” during these first years of my career. She was friend, counselor, mentor, and coach. She immediately took me under her wing to do what we now call “onboarding.” She helped me understand the context in which we were working as competent teachers whose first responsibility was to our students. She modeled for me that we could be proud that we were black and also get to know and accept people who wanted to be allies. Most of all, she stressed that we didn’t get paid enough not to have fun.

I still marvel at my luck in being “adopted” by Gwen B. because everyone loved her and wanted to be in her presence. Light from her orbit enveloped me and made me feel and be regarded as someone who belonged. The teachers’ lounge was a fun place to be when Gwen B. was there. She loved to tell funny stories and make people laugh at themselves. She would always crack herself up at her own pithy one-liners. She was the party.

Because she was my confidante, I shared embarrassing moments with her, sometimes to my regret since she always found them to be funnier than I thought they should be. One day at school I fell and slid all the way down the stairs on my back. Luckily, there were no witnesses. I proceeded to my classroom and began writing on the board, Hearing some muffled giggling. I turned and asked the students what they were finding so funny. Laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out, a student asked, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?” It was funny and I had to laugh. I told Gwen B. about falling, getting dirt on my back, and what happened in the classroom. I lived to regret telling her because she never missed an opportunity to ask me, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?”

Gwen D and Gwen B smiling while sitting on couch togetherGwen B. was not only my mentor, coach, and counselor regarding my job, she was also the kind of friend who kept my spirits up as I planned a wedding. She coerced her husband, Charles, into taking our wedding photos. She persuaded her retired babysitter to take care of one more baby, so I could return to work. There were no major events during the first years of my career in which Gwen B. was not there as a confidante and supporter. I like to think that the supportive friendship was mutual, which is why after many years and much geographical separation, we never lost contact.

Lest someone think that Gwen B. is a natural nurturer offering sweet words of comfort and wisdom, I must correct that image. I always found it fascinating that this woman, laughing all the while, could turn any conversation into a litany of expletives that flowed like a river. I seldom used profanity except after a conversation with Gwen B., and then I could not help myself. Her big personality was infectious, and I wanted to catch some of her joy.

Gwen B. is a rare gemstone, the depths of which are yet to be discovered. Her defining traits that had the greatest imprint on me as a professional are courage and humor. To me, no amount of education and training could have been as effective in supporting my success as having “my person” with whom I could share anything and expect that she would help me discover within myself the strength and courage I needed to help me move forward.

Thank you, Gwen B., for being “my person” when I needed you most.

Do You Know Where You’re Going To?

orientation_SLCCM79It’s 1979. I’m at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, a suburb outside of St. Louis and it’s my turn to be the lead counselor in planning the fall semester orientation. All students are required to attend orientation, followed by a one-on-one session with an educational adviser or counselor in order to select their course schedule for the semester.

In satisfaction surveys across colleges and universities, orientation always fared poorly. Students didn’t want to take the time to attend and when they were required to attend, they often rated it as poor and a waste of time. Ever the optimist and striver, I wanted the orientation that I planned to be different than some of those I had suffered through along with students in previous years.

I had two objectives in mind as I planned the program. First, I didn’t want the program to be boring, so I needed something that was a little unusual. Second, and most importantly, I wanted the program to meet students where I thought their heads were when they decided to attend the community college.

Although mostly white, the students were diverse in age and background. Similar to today’s students, the one thing they had in common was their desire to acquire the necessary credentials to meet their career aspirations although many had no idea just what that eventual career might be.

The setting for the orientation was a large meeting room on the second floor of the Student Center. Following the orientation presentation, students would sit across from educational advisers and counselors at long rectangular tables where they would discuss their desired courses and schedule.

As my colleagues entered the room prior to the students, they exchanged glances with one another; some smiled and some rolled their eyes upon hearing the theme song from the 1975 film Mahogany starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Perkins. I was sure the students would know the lyrics, since Diana Ross’ rendition of the theme song had been more popular and successful than the film, but just in case I had the opening and most pertinent lyrics on a screen at the front of the room:

Do you know where you’re going to?
Do you like the things that life is showing you?
Where are you going to? Do you know?
Do you get what you’re hoping for?
When you look behind you, there’s no open doors.
What are you hoping for?

I chose this song because I wanted to encourage students to think about their future goals and not just the immediate courses they would take during the semester.

Using a cassette tape recorder turned up to the highest volume, I clicked through images on a slide projector to encourage students to think about connecting what courses they were planning to take with what their eventual career might be.

orientation_slides

As antiquated, hokey, and uncool as this effort might have been, I believe that my intention was on target. If students could not yet imagine a career, my goal was to let them know that it was okay to feel confused and that there were specific steps they could take to better understand where they were headed.

After a decade of one-on-one and group counseling and career advising of community college students, I realized that many of our students had no previous help in connecting what they were being taught with how these courses would help them in attaining a career. Many students saw college as one of the hoops to jump through for a better life, after which they needed to figure out what career they wanted.

Although St. Louis Community College at Meramec was better resourced with staff than many community colleges, counselors could not serve all the students who sought career counseling help when they were well into their college career. In addition to offering one-on-one and group career counseling, the Counseling Center created an efficient self-serve career resource center that included one of the first in the nation experiments with computer-assisted career counseling. Even with all these resources committed, there were still long waiting lists for students to see counselors about their career goals.

We know that when students can connect what they’re learning with what they need to know for a possible career, their confidence in their own abilities and their motivation to learn increase. Colleges today with reduced resources and increasingly high demand for career services will need to decentralize the responsibility for the career support process. This decentralization needs to be done broadly and consistently, enlisting a combination of personnel and online tools to help students organize their steps to decision making, preparation, and implementation of plans.

Helping students along their journey to work–life fulfillment is a continuing and ongoing process with better tools and more evidence of the need today than we had in 1979.

Today’s Graduates—In Their Own Words

Class of 2020 with graduation cap on zeroA major role of commencement speakers at the culminating event of a lengthy and often arduous course of study is to inspire graduates to move positively and purposefully forward to the next phase of their lives.

I’ve often enjoyed reading commencement speeches by famous people, but not this year. After participating in a bittersweet online high school graduation in which the only commencement speakers were the students, themselves, I felt that this was exactly the way the event should be for the graduating class of 2020.

I was so inspired by what I heard from these graduates in the Zoom ceremony that I looked for other graduating students’ speeches. I share just a few quotes with you from students looking forward to enter college – in some form or fashion – this fall:

Have a voice; wasting it is not an option.

 Be unafraid to challenge norms.

 This wasn’t our time. Our time is coming, and it’s coming soon.

 We’re the doers and the go-getters.

 We will be stewards of our environment.

 It’s not the crisis, it’s our response.

 Don’t tell yourself, “no.”

 Be aware of what values you hold and what values you show to the world.

 This is the end, and this end is our now.

 From these few selected quotes, I believe that students today are canceling out neither the reality that they’re now living in or the unknown world that lies before them. I sense that right now, they don’t need our commencement speeches because they have their own way of coping with whatever comes. The best that we can give them is to let them just be.

I’m hopeful and inspired about our future and theirs because today’s students intuit that the only thing that they can even aspire to control is their view of the world and their place in it. Is there anything more that we could tell them?

Words in Service to Justice

Words wash over me. Pictures pierce my heart.

There is nothing I can say that has not already been said. I’m grateful to all who express their heartfelt thoughts about the cause and effects of this raging tragedy called RACISM.

Some of the words that I’ve heard or read tell a story that has been told too often and yet still needs to be told.

Finally a turning point

 Catalyst for change

 Voices of the unheard

 Mobilize, organize, vote

 Ignited a flame

 Same issues—different trajectory

 Nation we ought to be

 Acknowledge the anger and hostility

 Broken, chaotic, destructive reality

 Gaslit by reality

 Direct action—spiritual impulse

 Psychic toll

 Ambient racism

 Outrage

 Mixed emotions

 Reluctant sense of hope

 Little ray of hope

 More than isolated events

 Racism, white supremacy, police brutality

 Law and order

 “non-violence works in tandem with threats of potential violence” (Carvel Wallace)

 “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible—even if you’re choking on it—until you let the sun in. Then you see it everywhere.” (Kareem Abdul-Jabar, op ed in the LA Times, May 30)

Whether we see the universal activism spawned by the image of a police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd until he dies as a reaction to the inhumanity of the act or an imperative for America’s reckoning about racism, the words written and spoken by those outraged are, indeed, in service to justice.