It was a very good summer. All the stars aligned. Good vibes all around. I recorded specific encounters and activities in my journal and found that most journal entries ended with some acknowledgement of how fortunate I felt to have my family, friends, and colleagues. In retrospect, I wonder if the events are what made it a good time or if my attitude helped me to see the positive in some situations that could have been interpreted differently if I had not been working on a personal challenge.
I challenged myself to be deliberate and intentional in practicing graciousness and respect during encounters, especially when my instinct might be to push back. My challenge to myself was like a New Year’s resolution or a change in behavior that some implement at the beginning of the Lenten season. I wanted to experiment with how I might be able to change my experience by changing the orientation of my mind.
I determined that I would look for opportunities to honor the basic goodness in others and act without rancor when negativity invaded my space.
I had several opportunities to try out my experiment during the summer of 1999. One opportunity was during a professional development program being run jointly by my organization and another on a campus in the Northeast. Our team of facilitators was excellent, and I made no journal entry indicating that there was any friction among colleagues.
My opportunity to implement my personal challenge came instead from an encounter with a woman who was working at the cash register in the dining facility of the host college. I noticed that unlike most people who might have an occasional bad day, this person seemed to be having a bad day every day. In my journal notes, I describe her as impatient, unfriendly, and rude. One morning, when this woman’s supervisor (who was always kind and smiling) was near, I praised the worker at the cash register for her patience with us because it had to be frustrating when visitors didn’t know or follow the processes that made everything go smoothly. Within earshot of the supervisor, in a teasing manner, I commented that this worker should receive a bonus for having to put up with us.
A change in attitude was immediate. By lunchtime that same day, the once unfriendly woman appeared to be in a much better mood. On subsequent days, when I was not in her line, she would give me a smile and a nod across the way. On our final morning in the dining hall, my new friend came to the table where colleagues and I were having breakfast to wish all of us a safe trip home. I recorded this episode in my journal because I was so moved by the power of honoring the positive and basic goodness in others especially when the first instinct is to respond in kind.
Family ties were strong. My skills were stretched and appreciated. Travel for my work was exciting. And, when there were mishaps and possibilities for negativity, I harkened back to my challenge and reframed the situation. The summer of 1999 was a very good summer.
Is it too late for us to see one another as good neighbors? Is there anything that will make us honor and value one another?
Optimists used to think that extreme threats would bring people together in harmony and mutual caring. Now they might not be so sure. Since 2019, the entire world has endured a potential life-ending threat and during that time, rather than bringing people closer, the schisms and reasons to separate have become more apparent. The threat itself became a cause for disunity and separation.
Witnessing the failure of a pandemic to make us mortals live together in harmony, one might think that even “the really big one,” such as a catastrophic earthquake, would not make a dent in softening the hard hearts of many people who have staked out their position on every conceivable topic.
A metaphorical earthquake is occurring all around us when voices escalate over ideological conflicts, when citizens arm themselves with lethal weapons, and when states roll back laws protecting civil rights. It’s no wonder that people get drawn in and fixate over TMZ-brand news, reality shows, soap operas, and other distractions that “stream” into our homes.
When I attempt a philosophical perspective on how people treat one another, I come back to a thought I’ve had for many years. That idea is that we are part of each other’s becoming. What I experience from you is only a part of the equation. My reaction to what you initiated completes the formula. Your behavior toward me and how I react determine how both of us are growing into or away from our ability to live as social beings. What if we purposed to become each other’s foil in our quest at becoming? Then our principal role would be to help those we encounter to become the best that they can be.
We’re all works in progress tasked with learning how to value our connections. It’s not too late for us. However, the impetus for honoring and valuing one another is not outside of us. The motivation comes from us. We know what the right thing is. We just have to do it. One person at a time.
The inane and insulting questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee about critical race theory, her sentencing record, transgender women in sports, and on and on were unable to crack the composure of The Honorable Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during the hearings to approve her for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though she maintained judicious silence despite the barrage of questions and statements that impugned her integrity as a judge, I imagine that the hardest minutes and most difficult moments of the hearings were the 19 minutes and 23 seconds of Senator Cory Booker’s emotional and passionate comments about her capabilities and worthiness for the role as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.
As I focused on her face, I realized that she was the portrait of all Black women. As she listened to Sen. Booker praise her for her “grit, grace, and extraordinary demeanor,” she kept her composure. It was when the senator began to speak about her family that a light was shone on this portrait of Black women.
Notwithstanding the one time she allowed herself to smile when the senator said something humorous, she held frozen the muscles of her face. She pressed her lips together and folded them inside her mouth as we Black women often do when we want to suppress our voice. However, her clasped hands could not keep her thumbs from agitating one over the other as they smoothed and soothed her skin. My heart broke when uninvited her tears started to roll down her face as she sat unmoving all the while experiencing an earthquake inside her body and mind.
I don’t know how she will rule as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and I may not agree with all of her opinions, but I agree with Senator Booker that she is “[our] star and harbinger of hope.” She, perhaps more than any other prominent Black woman today, is the embodiment of all of us who put a burden on ourselves to maintain composure in the face of disrespect and efforts to make us feel unworthy and less than.
By title and official authority, you’re the leader of the group. You work hard to carry out your responsibilities and you show respect to every member of the team.
You knew from the beginning that in this very hierarchical environment there was one person who, though below you on the organizational chart, would hold more sway or influence than you. You puzzled why this person had not gone for the position for which you now held because their desire for power and influence was apparent.
Nevertheless, this person who technically held the subordinate position to you also had authority over a segment of the population and had the ability to make work life comfortable or uncomfortable for a sizable number of people. They had an uncanny knack for influencing others to like or dislike who or what they deemed worthy or unworthy based solely on their personal sense of justice and fairness.
You refer to the person just described as Judge Everybody.
You worked with some of your team members to plan the annual retreat. There were to be serious and fun exercises, good snacks, and a very special lunch. It was during the lunch that the “real leader” of the group was publicly anointed.
During the exercises, Merry Merry, a charismatic sycophant, gleefully insisted that Judge Everybody be the leader for every activity. Others gave you side-eye glances to see how you were reacting to this enthusiastic robing of Judge Everybody.
It was during the lunch that Merry Merry made a proclamation that Judge Everybody was the “REAL Leader.” Merry Merry, who was your friend when not in the company of Judge Everybody, would not make eye contact with you.
At the time when all were to be seated for this special lunch, it appeared that your team was waiting to see where Judge Everybody would sit before finding a seat as close to Judge Everybody as possible. You deliberately left seats between you and Judge Everybody in order to give more space for those who wanted a closer seat to better inhale the aura of Judge Everybody. A couple of brave souls sat near you. You think to yourself, is my faith strong enough to get me through this gauntlet of disrespect and humiliation?
Fortunately, you have become an expert at compartmentalizing. You use this defense mechanism to put the feelings of humiliation in a box for later reflection. You know that you become impervious to slights by immersing yourself in work. Work is your refuge. It helps you trick your mind into denying reality by reframing the experience with a palatable interpretation.
You know that you’re not the only one who has struggled to hold strong in such an environment. You understand that designated leaders who have reluctant followers have to separate and insulate themselves mentally and emotionally by compartmentalizing. You accept that though you hold fast, wounds of humiliation never heal. They are merely rationalized and compartmentalized.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: As part of my personal motto, represented by the acronym FIRE, I make a habit of reflecting on experiences and what can be learned from them. I have used my journals over the years to do just that in the process of writing. It is my hope that sharing these reflections through this BLOG may have some value for others, but please note that I intend for people who I do not specifically name to remain anonymous to readers. For the record, this blog post is not about NASPA or anyone I worked with at NASPA.
As educators struggle with the implications of a new state law, a Texas school administrator made the news after advising teachers “that if they have a book about the Holocaust in their classroom, they should also offer students access to a book from an ‘opposing’ perspective” (NBC News, October 14, 2021).
Here in Arizona, a similar law was held unconstitutional on procedural grounds, but that hasn’t kept its affect from being felt. On a Phoenix neighborhood email list, a neighbor expressed dismay about what she heard had happened to educators at the neighborhood school: “A principal and English Department staff are going to be fired or placed on leave for giving the AP English class an option to read a book about public shaming that referenced sex and porn.”
Another neighbor responded with this post: “Let this be a lesson for high school AP parents. AP math and science should be fine as they are not nearly as corruptible, but AP English (and college English) can turn into a moral cesspool exposing children to every vile vice and attitude today. Time to take our children back.”
Even while some states are limiting what can be taught, others are expanding “education on racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics” (Chalkbeat, July 21, 2021). National and local news about K–12 makes me wonder whether any person or group is thinking and talking about the broader societal consequences of the contradictions and tensions over what can and cannot be taught in school.
Discussions about the fundamental purposes of education appear to be absent. There was a time when education discussions were about pedagogy, learning outcomes, core cultural values, and career competencies. There was a time when parents trusted teachers to deliver in these areas of expertise.
The contexts in which teachers work today will not only impede their creativity and initiatives, it will likely reduce their desire to teach at all. We should all fear the consequences of the current unsettling atmosphere regarding schools and what can and cannot be taught. These consequences include the creation of a society without social mores, common decency, or civic responsibility, and a generation of young adults with a devastating lack of skills to acquire and retain employment.
I get it that these actions at school board meetings may stem from one of the strongest motivations–to protect one’s children. What this generation of parents must hope is that their rage at schools and teachers will not ultimately and unintentionally sacrifice the futures of their children.
There was a time when a family’s having meager means was an embarrassment, something to hide. Nowadays, it seems that just about everybody was “born by the river in a little tent.”
With pride, the nouveau poor assert that their family was really poor, but they didn’t know it. What the just-discovered-that-they-were-poor need to know is that real poor people know that they are poor. Indeed, having always lived in a house and had enough food to eat qualifies one as rich in the eyes of real poor people.
When I hear the nouveau poor tell sad stories, then, about what they describe as a hard life, I sometimes wonder if these stories are just a way for people to boast and pat themselves on the back for overcoming. And because of this overcoming, they seek praise, respect, admiration, and perhaps your vote.
When these rags-to-riches bootstrapping stories seem inauthentic to me, I think how real poor people don’t have anything–not even their stories.
Recently I saw two memorable films: MAID, a Netflix limited series, and Mass, shown only in theaters.
I’m not qualified to speak to the technical aspects of films or the quality of the performances of the actors. Here, I want to briefly share what struck me hard as I watched these films.
In MAID, we watch as a young woman, Alex, attempts to escape from what she feels is an emotionally abusive situation. She is living with the father of their two-year-old daughter, Maddy. Along this road to freedom, Alex cleaned 338 toilets, had 7 types of government assistance, made 9 separate moves, and spent 1 night on the floor of a ferry station. All of this happened during the entire third year of her daughter’s life. And not only is Alex a mother, herself, but she also feels responsible for her own mother.
Watching Alex on this journey is exhausting. But beyond all the hard work as a maid and the toll taken by complicated relationships, her journey exposes a world that is impossibly complicated and restrictive when someone in need attempts to access government-funded programs created to assist people in situations similar to the one portrayed by Alex in MAID. Although Alex had a hard way to go, her homelessness was not nearly as humiliating and terrifying as it is for most people who can’t find a safety net when they fall into this category.
The movie Mass is about two sets of parents meeting six years after a tragic mass shooting at a school. The parents of the school shooter agree to the conversation, which is hoped to be therapeutically healing for the parents of one of the victims of the shooting. As the conversation unfolds, it is obvious that feelings of profound grief have been devastating for both sets of parents.
As we witness the excruciatingly painful toll the tragedy has taken on both sets of parents, we begin to understand the essence and the core of what it means to be human. These actors show us naked humanity. Naked humanity experiences a range of feelings such as anger, blame, and hate tumbling over one another in order to be recognized as the priority. And yet, in the course of a conversation, we also witness that intangible unique aspect of humans called grace. Indeed, we have the capacity to change powerfully negative feelings into something that resembles sympathy and empathy.