Pandemic University’s Teacher of the Year

You guys.

This year has been…a lot.

We’ve learned who among us is considered “essential” and who is not. 

We’ve schooled from home out of necessity only to push our kids back out the door once the schools reopened because we realized we are *not* equipped to be their teachers. 

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We’ve worked from home. 

We’ve masked up to restock our groceries. 

We’ve hoarded TP.

We’ve learned which stores offer pick up and have become experts at navigating their apps and website.

And we teachers have adapted – to virtual schooling of kids who may or may not have consistent access to internet or parental support; to hybrid learning models with sometimes inadequate supplies of the necessary technology; to longer passing periods so we can hastily sanitize desks and chairs between classes and keep our students and ourselves healthy.

And we’ve done this without an increase in our salary to match the increase in our workload.

We’ve shown up for your babies and our own. 

We’ve re-established consistent routines for them. 

We’ve fed them snacks from our stash. 

We’ve given them bottles of water since fountains are shut off and unsafe to drink from. 

We’ve listened to what students tell us as well as what they selectively leave out so we can assess their true needs. 

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We’ve pushed past our own fear and trepidation to keep showing up for kids whose homes aren’t always welcoming or inviting, for kids who need school to be their safe, warm place. We’ve elbow-bumped in place of high fives and hugs. 

We’ve hatched project plans to engage students. 

We’ve fostered curiosity and encouraged questions to help quell nervousness and apprehension in the face of vaccines, insurrection, and impeachment and all the accompanying uncertainty. We’ve deepened the bonds we nurture with students so they can know more than ever that we are their safe place.

Some of us have died as a result of contracting COVID – possibly at school – after being told we can’t work from home

Some of us have retired early because having contracted this illness once we don’t want to speed our death along by sticking around to contract it again. 

Some of us have quarantined due to immediate family members being ill. 

Some of us have begun teaching this year – straight out of college, and are currently weathering that struggle-filled first year of teaching amid a pandemic that many of us didn’t know was coming.

We have kept quarantined students aware of their work to ensure they don’t fall behind. 

We have enforced six feet of space between students.

We have kept showing up as best we can. 

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Yet soon – perhaps because of a desire to regain normalcy, perhaps to recognize the “exceptional” teachers – we will be asked to nominate the colleagues whom we think deserve of the title “Teacher of the Year.”

Hear me when I say this to you: Here at Pandemic University – where all the world’s children are enrolled and all the grownups are teachers – Teacher of the Year is all of us. 

Teacher of the Year is the medical professional spending weeks and months away from their own family to care for our own.

Teacher of the Year is the parent stumbling to make coffee and accidentally showing her child’s Zoom class her new bathrobe because she walked through his dining room table virtual classroom.

Teacher of the Year is the administrator who is retiring after decades of dedicated service to her school and community. 

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Teacher of the Year is the grocery chain store worker, who has shown up day after day to earn minimal dollars so we can feed for our families.

Teacher of the Year is the older teenage child who left school last March and never returned because she needs to help her parents by earning an income and by minding her younger siblings while they go to school.

Teacher of the Year is the educator who took every precaution to deliver remote instruction safely and yet still wound up perishing as a result of this dreadful disease.

Teacher of the Year is every parent, mentor, teacher, librarian, custodian, aide, and paraprofessional we’ve failed to notice or appreciate before.

Teacher of the Year is you and me and everyone we know.

Accept your flowers. Add the trophy to your case. Frame your certificate and display it in your home office.

Cheers to you, Teacher of the Year. Your resilience inspires me.

In the future, may we find that the years we spent at Pandemic University taught us to replace popularity contests with support for each other that is so fierce that we never think to compete with each other. Instead, may we busy ourselves with making sure we never forget the fundamental lesson Pandemic University taught us: that we are enough just as we are.  

Source: Me

Congratulations to you, Teacher of the Year!

The world is your classroom, and your students are waiting.

Onward.

Piece 35: Black Church

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Much of the spiritual tension and growth I have navigated as an adult has been wrapped up in reconciling my joyous, liberating black church upbringing with my being dunked into fundamental evangelicalism as a young adult. The rough transition from one faith tradition to another felt very like being excited to be baptized only to find the water too cold and the preacher unaware that you can’t breathe underwater so he holds you down so long you begin to panic. So when you finally emerge for air, you feel gratitude and joy – but it takes you awhile to recover so you can revel in the exuberance of the moment because you are quite literally focused on breathing.

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The black churches that taught me to memorize John 3:16, that baptized me and drew me out of my introverted shell in Sunday school, that put me in the choir and let me lead a song – is a place of uninhibited expression of oneself. A place where service would always go long, so Nonnie was ready and willing to let me nap on her lap and was sure to keep a few peppermints in her purse to help me stave off lunch hunger. A place where Youth Sunday once a month would highlight our dance group(s), mime troupe, drill team, and choirs. A place where each Sunday’s altar call might see the same handful of folks coming down front for prayer – where each time they would be welcomed and prayed for, whether they verbalized their needs or not.

It was a precious and very specific place where I was seen and loved, where a song might move me to tears or a sermon bring me to my feet, where I might rub a friend’s back and fan her when unspoken emotions overcame her. Even now that I have attended the same Episcopal church for 18 years, I believe I could walk into any given black church and feel instantly welcomed and at home, knowing the order of service by heart, and embracing a space that welcomes my heart and my humanity. A place to release the stress built up from the burdens we carry from day to day – not because we “lean not on our own understanding,” but because we can sing, dance, shout, weep our woes aloud, and know that our spiritual siblings will understand our struggles implicitly, and support us in the fullness of our lived experience. A place of solace and catharsis. Of shared joy and pain. 

It’s a feeling that for me has been unmatched by any other church I’ve been in.

So I am so thankful that PBS and Henry Louis Gates presented a mini-docuseries that provided a survey of black American church history. I watched with rapt attention, took copious notes, and sat glued to my spot for four hours to try and absorb our history. To try and understand the beautiful, mysterious, deeply affecting figure that is the black church. How have my people maneuvered through being forced from our continent, so that we could be beaten and broken in forced bondage, and created and sustained an institution that sees us, knows, us, loves us, and provides omnipresent hope for our bodies and our souls?

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I’m astounded by the beauty of the tradition we have built.

One of the most lovely and moving characteristics of the black church is her music. The organist plays softly while congregants mill about, greet each other, and find their seats. Deacons intersperse their opening prayers with call and response hymns. Choirs process, sing, and then remain at the ready to back up the preacher as he draws his sermon to a close. Song ushers in the altar call, beckoning those who will to come to Jesus while they have time. Music is the constant undercurrent throughout service – pausing briefly for the beginning of the sermon. 

Songs assure us that our living is not in vain, remind us that Jesus is more precious than silver and gold, and extend to us the blessed assurance that since the world didn’t give us the joy we have, the world can’t take it away.

I hope that you will watch this two-part series from the brilliant mind of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. And I hope you will sit for an hour with this playlist I’ve curated to draw me back to one of my first loves: the black church. Each and every track holds with it a precious memory of the unique, glorious place where I first became cognizant of my love for Jesus.

As you watch and listen, I hope you will reflect on these questions: 

  • What are your earliest memories of being loved, held, and seen? What sounds, smells, or textures are inextricable from those first moments of feeling truly accepted as you are?
  • If you are a person of faith, how still or vibrant was the church of your earliest years as a believer? When you feel far from God, what anchor from these early faith days holds you fast?
  • When you think of the terror that has been inflicted on the black church in this country time and again, how do you imagine you might feel if the black church was that first place of faith for you? Would you feel safe to worship in the space where you truly felt at home?
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I hope that learning about the black church blesses you as it has me. And I hope you find yourself embracing the tension that arises when we realize how segregated our churches are, why that is, and what the way forward may look like for us all. I hope, as always, that you will meet me back here again next week, so we can keep constructing a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Or, as my pastor back home would say, “The doors of the church are open. Won’t you come?”

Piece 34: Black Love

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Most of this series is intended to be instructive: to plumb depths of a black cultural experience that are unable to be explored unless you yourself are black and also immersed in black culture. But I noticed a comment in an online group recently that much of our Black History Month celebrations is offered just to show nonblack people that we are human, just as they are. The statement was astute and frustratingly, incisively true. Our time and energy can be so invested in convincing the culture at large that we are worthy of life and liberty, that we neglect to promote and publicize our own pursuit of happiness

Since June, I have come to this digital space most weeks to share bits of black American history, a perspective on how race relations in our country came to be how they are, and offer a small mirror to reflect the emotions which emerge when white people examine new-to-them information about a people group they thought they already knew thoroughly. What I have perhaps neglected in this series – which is devoted to guiding would-be allies in reflection to help them unlearn racial bias they may not even realize they espouse – is the complete joy I feel in being black. The pride I feel in the resilience and hopefulness of my people. 

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Amidst the love I feel for my blackness, nothing is quite so magical as witnessing the strong, deep bonds of love between us: romantic, platonic, and familial. 

This week, in honor of black love and Valentine’s Day, I’ll be sharing a playlist of love songs by us and for us, in celebration of our resilience and determination and outright refusal to accept the pain we constantly endure without also consciously making space to seek out and nourish joy and connection with each other. This playlist is a salute to ’90s and early 2000s black music: the melodies that take us back to our middle school crushes; the themed music videos that feature our favorite ‘90s sitcom stars; the smooth, unfiltered voices that used to flow from the speakers of our parents’ cars; the Saturday afternoons we’d spend listening to the radio with our fingers poised over the “record” button on our cassette players so we could capture the newest tune and memorize all the words by the time we made it back to school Monday morning.

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In addition to this week’s black love songs playlist, I invite you to spend some time learning about Loving vs. Virginia. Several movies and documentaries about the Lovings are available to stream, and a host of books and articles have been published as well. Interracial couples like my husband and me could not marry and live in peace without the crooked road made straight by the Lovings’ 1967 Supreme Court case. Some legal scholars have also posited that the Loving precedent paved the way for marriage rights being extended to our LGBTQ siblings. 

Generations of consenting adults who are not same-race, opposite-sex couplings will continue to stand on the shoulders of the Lovings, whose quiet, steady persistence won for them the right to build their lives as husband and wife.

As you explore these resources, I hope you will marvel with me at the strength of black culture to withstand constant attacks from the dominant culture and its dogged determination to keep living and loving in freedom.  And I hope you’ll ask yourself – 

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  • Have you ever resisted a black friend or family member’s assertion of their truthful lived experience because it causes you to feel bad? 
  • In that discomfort, have you pressured them to put on a happy face or recount a happy experience so that you can balance out your own emotional response to their truth?
  • When you think of classic love songs, how many of them are by black artists? Why do you think that is – a lack of black representation in a certain genre or a lack of diversity in the music you grew up listening to?

I’ll meet you here again soon, so we can keep struggling, rejoicing, and learning together – to build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.