Throughout my childhood and most of my college life I never really thought about race.
I don’t remember the first conversation I had about it. In fact, I don’t know if I ever had a conversation about race growing up. I don’t remember the first time I saw an act of blatant racism or interacted with a person of color. I mean, of course I knew to check the “white” or “Caucasian” box, but I never thought about what that meant. I never thought about how my race has benefitted me throughout my entire life.
I never thought about how we teach kids that the Indians were savages who needed to be civilized, when in reality we, the white Europeans, were the invaders.
I never thought about how when I thought about a Black person, I immediately pictured a slave.
(I was never taught that not all slaves were black.)
I never thought about how our culture tells kids from the time they are born that they should act a certain way— white— and look a certain way— white— through stories, television, movies, and literally everything else. All of the characters in everything I watched or read were all white.
All of them.
I never thought racism was something that affected me.
When I started teaching 4 years ago I knew there was something wrong. I knew that my most challenging classes were also predomintately Black and mostly from very low socio-economic backgrounds. I knew there was something wrong when I took my middle schoolers to a track meet at a middle school that I literally had to pass through a metal detector to enter and was afraid to be at past dark
I knew change needed to happen.
What I didn’t understand was that in order for that change to happen, I needed to examine my own race, identity, and self before I could even begin to worry about someone else’s.
This book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria," was recommended to me by my first principal, Teresa Stoupas— an educator who continues to inspire me to go deeper, to have uncomfortable conversations, to challenge and push myself past my comfort zone— and it certainly did that.
At first I thought, "Oh, it's just another book about the inequalities between people of color and white people. I've heard that before."
But that's the thing-- we need to hear it. We need to hear it again. And again. And again. And over and over until something is done. This book was first published in 1997 and is still relevant. It blows my mind that that is even the slightest bit possible.
I cannot recommend this book enough. Not just for educators, but for every person, regardless of race, gender, religion, or anything else. It needs to be read. It needs to be discussed. We've got to do something. Racial inequality is a problem that is embedded deep in our culture, our society, and our beings. So much so that many of us don't even see it happening right in front of our own eyes.
Success should not be determined by a person's skin color or zip code. Period.
“We all have a sphere of influence. Each of us needs to find our own sources of courage so that we will begin to speak. There are many problems to address, and we cannot avoid them indefinitely. We cannot continue to be silent. We must begin to speak, knowing that words alone are insufficient. But I have seen that meaningful dialogue can lead to effective action. Change is possible."
-Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD and author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?"
Over the past three months I have put over 800 pieces of electrical tape on the recorders of my 4th and 5th grade students. I have heard every variation of “Hot Cross Buns” and “Gently Sleep” you can imagine. I have argued with students over the fact that they HAVE to play with their left hand on top. I have given up my planning time, lunch, and just about every free second I have to hear my kids perform their belt tests. I have a google slideshow with over 300 slides of pictures of successful students earning their next belt that they obsessively scroll through (and inform me if I have not updated it). My iTunes is full of squeaky renditions of “Old MacDonald” and “It’s Raining.”
And that’s not even the half of it. I’ve seen the jumps of joy when they earn their green belts, the excitement over learning about the mysterious pink belt (aka the made-up belt), and the disappointment when I have to say, “sorry, keep practicing.”
In the past three months I have seen my 4th and 5th graders come to life through the recorder. The most unlikely pairs of students have practiced together and earned their belts together. Some of them surprised me by racing through the belts to earn their black belt. One student has surpassed every expectation I had and earned her 9th degree (by performing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik). My incredible autistic students proved once again that music is truly for everyone by earning their belts with the rest of their peers.
For me, teaching my students the Recorder Karate unit reiterated the importance of instrumental music study for every single student. Some students loved it, and truly thrived, others were just happy to earn their yellow belts. And yes, a select few were not huge fans of the instrument, but guess what-- they all earned their white belt. No matter what belt they finished at though, they all left knowing they accomplished something. I heard goal setting in action-- “Next time, I’m getting my RED belt!” I heard collaboration in progress-- “No, no, this is how you play a low E!” I heard support for one another and celebrations when goals were reached, and of course I heard gossip-- the gossip of who earned what belt and who had their recorder taken away because they were trying to sneak a practice session in on recess.
This wasn’t my first experience seeing children come to life through the recorder though. When I traveled to Kenya via my Fund for Teachers Fellowship, a large part of my trip was spent observing the Link Up Recorder classes with students at many different primary schools. I was blown away by the focus that the recorder brought to these young students, many of whom live with so little. Here they are, living in a slum with almost no money, and yet the recorder gives them everything they want. For them, it is a gateway-- a gateway to the Ghetto Classics Orchestra-- a gateway to performing in Poland and for Former President Obama-- a gateway to a better life-- all from this cheap piece of plastic. For us it is no different-- the recorder is not just a gateway to band and orchestra, but a gateway for students to feel confidence and self-worth at a time when they need it most.
I am so thankful I was able to share the energy that I felt in Kenya with my students Britt Elementary. At the same time, I am in constant awe of the power that music has to connect us all to one another. Here we are, in Snellville, Georgia, working on the exact same lessons as the students over in the Korogocho Slum in Nairobi, Kenya. How incredible is that?
The recorder gets a lot of hate mail. Yes it is squeaky. Sure, it doesn’t sound very pleasant the first few times you play it.... But you know what else doesn’t sound very pleasant the first time you play it?
Every instrument in the entire orchestra.
I am utterly amazed at the way my students came to life from this $5 piece of plastic, the same way I was in awe of the students I met in Kenya who played the exact same instruments.
Thank you Recorder Karate for the many glimmers of hope you not only gave to my students, but to me as well.
*All student names have been changed for privacy purposes.
One of my New Year's resolutions was to continue writing in my blog. It's literally been on my "to-do" list since January 1st, but hey, better late than never, right?
I’ve done quite a bit of thinking the past month, and things are looking up. Though I believe some of the change in attitude and mindset has to do with our new dog, Comet, who literally walked into our lives on January 2nd, I am convinced that she was the final piece to a puzzle that I had been assembling on my own for the past couple of months.
Rather than call this a “blog,” I decided to name it “Glimmers of Hope” because I hope that it will be just that-- little snippets of positivity-- stories of kiddos discovering the ukulele, Comet learning to walk without a leash, or why taking two months off from the gym was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
I am inspired by a friend from high school, Liz Buechele, who started her own nonprofit called The Smile Project. You can read about The Smile Project here. The mission is incredible, and so important in times of despair and uneasiness. For the past 2,600(+) days Liz has been posting “Happiness is….” posts. “Happiness is those perfect car rides where the radio just plays all the right songs." or “Happiness is the smell of fresh, warm laundry.” I love the idea of finding happiness in each and every day, so now it is my turn to share.
Happiness is… your first day back at the gym after taking two months off.
It’s no secret that both myself and my husband Joseph struggled during our move to Georgia. We left a place we loved, some really amazing friends, a job that I adored, a gym unlike any other, among other things. When we moved I was disheartened to find that the Crossfit scene in Statham, GA is rather bleak. (Surprised??) I was also disheartened to find I have a 50 minute commute to work every day and I’ve got to be there at 7:30 AM-- rough.
I tried out a few places, but none of them had the sparkle that my previous home, Crossfit New Haven had, and I wasn’t willing to drive an additional 30 minutes to go to a “so-so” facility.
Cue me joining a gym that was not at all the right fit but was ultra-convenient.
Without going into details, let’s just say this was not the right facility for me. I was pretty unhappy in general, and Crossfit used to be my escape. However, my so-called escape became an added stressor, and I was coming home from working out more stressed and anxious than when I arrived.
So I had to make a decision-- keep going there or change something. I opted for the “change” option, which leads me to my “Happiness is” statement. Rather than jump into a new place that might not be right for me, I chose to take some time off. Rather than leave work stressed about getting to the gym so I could work out, finish driving home, make dinner, go to bed, and do it all over again, I chose to come home from work and relax. I chose to find time for me. I chose to take my time and wait until I was ready to make any real moves or decisions.
I immediately noticed some things--
1. I was happier. The gym had actually been having the opposite effect it is supposed to have. Now that I wasn’t going, I was more relaxed, less tired, and able to adjust to my new schedule of pre 6:00 AM wake ups.
2. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t stressed about going back. I have been working out since I started Tae Kwon Do at 7 years old. I know it is in my mind, body, and soul to be active and work out. I reassured myself that fitness is a lifelong journey. In the grand scheme of things, taking two months off is such an insignificant amount of time and not going to make or break my athletic career. I knew myself well enough to know I would go back because it’s who I am.
3. I knew I would have to make a tough decision. There are no conveniently located Crossfit gyms in relation to where I work and where we live. Period. There is however, one gym that used to be a Crossfit affiliate and offers “functional fitness” type workouts. I realized that at the end of the day I just want to be healthy and happy. If I’m doing Crossfit, that’s great. If I’m not doing Crossfit, but am still happy and healthy then that is fine too.
I took two months off and finally felt like it was time to go back. I made that tough decision and found myself at Forge-RX, the first non-Crossfit gym I’ve joined since 2012.
Not only was the workout awesome, the facility was nice, coaching was spot-on, and above all, I actually enjoyed working out. For the first time in months I enjoyed being there, doing my thing, and putting myself through that self-induced suffering I’ve always loved.
Taking two months off was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It reset my mind, rejuvenated my body, and helped me to remember why I love exercising so much.
There is a special satisfaction that comes in knowing you made the right decision for yourself in a tough situation. That, right there, is without-a-doubt a glimmer of hope.