What I am Learning about How to Be A White Ally

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This will come as a surprise to no one: I am white. Though that’s never been a surprise to me, I have never been so aware of my whiteness as I am while living on the outskirts of Harlem. I confront my whiteness every day.

I try to be conscientious and introspective about my identity. I want to acknowledge my whiteness, and in so doing, I must acknowledge my privilege. I do not feel defensive about my privilege. Acknowledging my privilege doesn’t mean that I was lazy, and it doesn’t mean that I didn’t work hard, and it doesn’t mean that I haven’t earned my spot at Columbia. It simply means that I was in a system that was engineered for people like me to thrive. Perhaps most importantly right now, it means that I can walk basically anywhere in the United States and not fear that I will be accused of a crime. It’s ok to acknowledge those things. It doesn’t hurt me to acknowledge that these privileges exist.

What hurts is that these privileges don’t exist for everyone.

I’ve been Captained, and I’m a Puddle of Happiness

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There’s something completely irresolute about finals week; as such, unless explicitly directed, I avoid giving final exams. Instead, I like to leave my students thinking about the final chapter of their high school career with something less final and more… open-ended, more upbeat. I want my students to leave my literature class thinking about morals and the self–because, at least for me, that’s what literature actually is–words that express morals and self, and those concepts can’t really be tested by an end of year exam.

To my Graduating Seniors of 2015

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Dear Seniors of 2015,

I need to make a tiny confession. You were already winners before the contest began, and you’ll continue to be winners long after it’s over.

I need to make another confession: I’ve been manipulating you to think that I am “The Keeper of the Words.” And yet, I struggle too–just like you–when faced with a prompt. And today, the cursor blinks patronizingly as I try to answer the prompt instructing me that somehow I must “Say Goodbye.”

I’m older than you, and by extension “wiser,” and I’ve got your captive attention for probably eight more seconds, so allow me a moment to share the thesis that you, your wisdom, and the time we have shared together has helped me to articulate.

I’ve had my Dead Poet Moment.

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It’s my prep period. My desk is overflowing with an alarming amount of grading that I’ve procrastinated and resented. I need to plan two separate lessons for tomorrow, and I carry with my no small cloud of stress with me at any given time. So prep periods are sacred, stress relieving times where teacher gets to play catch up.

But I have to stop, ignore the pile and swipe away my stress cloud,  so I can record what just happened in my classroom. I’ve never had more fun in my class than I had just now.

Performance at the Center

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I liked walking on the grates in the sidewalks in New York, and once I realized this, I instantly began searching for ways to make this observation into a metaphor: walking with a world beneath me, walking on top of shaky foundation? Nothing really fit, so I gave up and let it be simple:

I liked walking on the grates in the sidewalks. I liked sliding my fingers along the stone of the building next to me. I liked looking up, but I liked looking down too. I grew to appreciate my humidity hair.

It’s hard to verbalize what it is about the city that spoke to me so much. Maybe it was the creaking of the train or the hum of an intersection. Maybe it was the smell of bagels and cronuts and giant sticks of lamb rotating in a street cart. Or perhaps it was the subtle joy of meeting and visiting your soul people.

Glue Sticks, Literature, and the Project at the Center.

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I’m not a “shoe-in” kind of person. Back in high school, getting a lead role in a play was always a pleasant and shocking surprise, and even though I “talked the talk” so to speak, I was always terrified I wouldn’t get elected into student body government. I didn’t think I was a shoe-in for BYU; I worked my butt off in high school to get there, and any talk of “I don’t want to go to BYU anyways,” was a preemptive defense mechanism preparing me for the eventuality of not getting in. Even the job at Timpview was an ambiguous uncertainty until I actually signed my employment contract and signed up for benefits. It’s strange, but “glass half empty” outlooks leave me room for the delightful surprise of success. It works for me.

End of Year Earmarks

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It must be acknowledged: Sometimes teaching sucks. Sometimes the amount of your paycheck represents only 1/10 of your ink, sweat, and tears. Sometimes students are mean, and sometimes they are manipulative. Sometimes (all the time) you work through lunch and sometimes (too many times) the students never seem to learn. Sometimes teaching sucks.

(Yes, I do need to cool it with the anaphora. Find a new literary device, Penrod, sheesh).

To be frank, most teachers have that period of the day that doesn’t jive like the others. That class period of hell filled with (individually lovely but compositely grumpy) students that simply refuse to think that what you are teaching them is worth anything. That hour of the day that not only reminds you that sometimes teaching sucks, but ensures that it does.

And then there are Michael Rudins* that wash away the sins of “Nth Period” in one fell swoop. In one fell binder full of ink and sweat.

I try not to write about individual students very often. I do this for a couple of reasons.

  1.   Students’ personal lives are their own, and I imagine there would be a reasonable amount of horror were they to know that a teacher blogged about them.
  2. By picking one student to write about, I worry that sometimes it invalidates the beautiful experiences, kindness, and worthiness of all of my other tremendous students, many of whom slipped by expressive, kind, affirming Thank You Notes my way on this their last day of high school.
But today, I simply must. I must write about Michael Rudin. He is a metaphor for all the other many wonderful students that have made this year worth it.

He is shy. I do not identify with shyness. I am not shy. But for some reason, I love my shy students. It’s perhaps an unfair generalization, but I am fascinated by their untapped depths.

Michael Rudin is shy, but not quiet. Throughout the year, whenever I called on him, he always surprised me with ready, boldly stated, poetically worded responses.

I was briefly out of the classroom today when a ragged binder and a Dr. Pepper appeared on my desk. As I thumbed through the pages (some pages earmarked) of my desk’s new arrival, I found “Youthful Thoughts: the Complete Works of Michael Rudin.”  A binder full of poetry and short stories, of secret, untapped depths collected over the years.

I won’t embarrass the student by posting my favorite poem, “English Class,” in its entirety (even though it’s insightful and perfect and made me cry), though I will include the charming refrain: “In Penrod’s class is a chance to learn.” I won’t detail the joi de vivre I experienced as I thumbed through each of his earmarked pages. I won’t belabor the pride I feel for this student (and all of my students’) ability to feel the world.
But I will share this one tenderest of moments of my own experience with Youthful Thoughts. Michael Rudin had about 50 poems, and had earmarked about 20 of them for my perusal. And then, I came across this:
To you, this is nothing. An unbent earmark. Big deal.

To me, this is Michael Rudin carefully sifting through his poems, deliberating, deciding, and changing his mind. This is Michael Rudin, in a quiet, pensive moment, unsure whether or not this poem was a good enough representation of himself. This is Michael Rudin folding and then unfolding an earmark. This to me, is a moment of tenderness, of attention to detail. This is a moment of care.

I am not sure why I am so taken by this unearmarked corner, but the corner itself is poetry to me. Because it speaks.

I hope forever these students, not my students anymore, but these continuing students continue to speak boldly, quietly, articulately, and joyfully.

I am reminded everyday why I continue to teach. 

Dusting Off the Typewriter

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Someone recently said to me, “Sierra, do you still blog? I miss your words.” And it took me a minute to respond, because if my answer was truthful, my answer was no, I don’t still blog. Something happened to my blog psyche this year.
My words, well, they’ve been here all along, but they just got stuck somewhere in transit. I’m not sure if the words were busy or just intimidated, maybe a little of both, but they’re back now. I missed my words too, or at least, I missed the saying of them.

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

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Ordinarily, this post might include a shame-faced apology for not blogging in so long. But there has been nothing ordinary about this past year, so the usual excuses of laziness or busyness just don’t apply. For once in my life, the most cathartic thing in my life has been–not writing–but in fact, teaching. So I can’t apologize for throwing all my efforts into that, and becoming the somewhat invisible thing that this blog is trying to catch.