Reason to Knope: how character conversion might transform America

How American whimsy and binders full of inspiring women might lead us to the Beloved Country…

There are a lot of coping mechanisms we fellow Americans have employed to get us through this political season. Facebook rants. FiveThirtyEight. SNL episodes. New York Times Op-eds. Hashtags. Drinking games.

I have partaken in a few (read all) of these strategies with varying success. I have decided it’s time for a change. A cleanse. To let go of my coping mechanisms and claim instead my KNOPE-ing MECHANISMS!

So I’m going for KNOPE.

Leslie Knope.

nahgirl

If you have not yet encountered the television wonder of Parks and Recreation or its protagonist Leslie Knope, frankly, I don’t know whether to be mad or jealous. Mad because where have you been? More importantly, how have you survived this political season without Parks and Rec re-runs or Leslie Knope (and cast) memes and gifs to get you through?

Jealous, because if you give yourself over to the six seasons of Parks and Rec that await you on Netflix, you will be revived, renewed, and ready to once again believe in the American Dream. Your patriotic soul will be exfoliated.

This year for Halloween, for the election, for America, I am becoming Leslie F-ing. Knope.

(I wrote the actual “F-bomb” then deleted it because I think she would go with “F-ing” given her long term goals for public office.)

Last year I came to two (initially) grudging (eventually) proud realizations about myself.

These moments of epiphany came around the same time. The first one was inspired by my colleague Andy asking me during a field trip… “Do you identify strongly with Leslie Knope?”

I gasped and grabbed his arm…

“Do YOU identify me with Leslie Knope?” I asked with eager (read, overwhelming) anticipation.

“Umm…well that all depends…I guess some might see her as a little naïve.”

If by naïve you mean hopefully exuberant as she fearlessly charges into the world with blinders on to the peril to herself or others but equipped with a bastion of binders to protect her…I guess I can see that.

It was also around this time ANOTHER colleague accused me of believing in unicorns in the midst of a professional development. (And no. She didn’t mean it in a nice way.)

Rather than take offense at either mythical association, I realized there is power in owning our magic. After all, Leslie AND unicorns (perhaps not coincidentally) have experienced a revival of believers amidst these darkened days of American Mordor. The world can use all the benevolent mythical characters we can imagine, particularly now.

Unicorn1

So I’ve been plotting my binders. Planning my Pawnee city council stump speech. Purchasing my waffle laden iPhone cover.

Confession. Knope’s not cheap.

Part of this process has been Amazon intensive. Between “I voted” stickers, a blonde wig, a Ron Swanson t-shirt, I had to PROMISE my husband I was done accessorizing for America. The final straw came when he looked over at me annotating during an episode of Luke Cage and asked what I was doing. I said “homework” and held up a copy of Pawnee: the Greatest Town in America.

pawnee-for-me

He closed his eyes, shook his head, and said, “I thought you were doing real work.”

When I claimed to be channeling the spirit of Knope for the greater good, he said simply.

“No.”

(He meant, “KNOPE.”)

It’s time for him, and ALL of us to say “yep” to Knope.

This is not just about a costume. This is about a conversion. Conceived amidst the RNC convention, this has become a symbol of defiant hope in America’s Super Ego rather than her Id. It is a way to channel all of my well-informed optimism and share it with my family, friends, students, and neighbors who are frightened of the future.

Leslie Knope would not let me go gentle into that future. She was like,

“Nah, girl. Not gonna happen. Not if you and I have anything to do with it.”

And I was like,

“Please stroke my hair, make me a throw-pillow with my face on it, and call me a poetic, noble land mermaid.”

And she was like,

“Only if we don’t tell Anne Perkins.”

Deal! Saddle up your unicorn, Leslie!

Then, something ELSE occurred to me. I realized that the power of this journey could be collective. Open to all. Super Socialist. Like Obama-care except less mired in political partisanship. After all, Leslie rarely goes anywhere or does anything without the efforts of her Pawnee people.

Parks and Recreation is an infinite resource! There’s enough Knope to go around! Our entire COUNTRY could be Knopeful!

So, if you’ve been feeling a little glum due to a combination of the demise of the American ideal and because you don’t have a Halloween costume yet, get your hands on a red hat (but not THAT red hat), just a plain one you can plaster with random buttons (but preferably “New Kids on the Block” memorabilia) pull out a pantsuit (or a pair of overalls if you want to get “folksy”) and you’re ready to hit the pavement and do some canvasing (err… trick or treating).

knope-in-a-hat

Don’t feel comfortable in a blond wig? I feel you. Consider becoming another amazing human on Parks and Recreation. There’s literally millions of quizzes to determine “Which Parks and Rec Character are you?” (Full disclosure. I have taken all of them sometimes more than once until they confirm what I already know. I’m born to be Knope).

Love bacon and woodworking but hate the government? Opt for Ron Swanson.  Want to make sardonic remarks all night long? April Ludgate’s for you.  Over-weight but endearing and married to a hotty? Jerry/Gary Gergich awaits. Have guitar and gift for ridiculous ad-libbed songs? Andy Dwyer is YOUR spirit animal.  “Treat-yo-self” to fine threads and friends with Donna Meagle or Tom Haverford as you live-Tweet the night away. Just want to be friends? We’ve always go room for one more Anne Perkins. Distracted by my earlier inappropriate use of “literally”? Chris Traeger it is!

The point is, America, there is room for ALL of us in this country and in this effort to make Halloween GREAT again. We all have a role to play. There is reason to Knope and reason to Hope and it begins with a combination of righteous whimsy and an Amazon account.

ivy-and-leslie

Saddle up those unicorns! Summon your land mermaids! We are Leslie Knope! The beloved country is waiting, America, and we’re going to need some binders!

binders-full-of-knope

P.S. In honor of Leslie, #womancrushwedesday , binders, the final #debate, and my BIRTHDAY, October 19th I will be live tweeting the unfolding of this “Binder of Inspiring Women” during the #debate – Embrace the Binder! Nominate women for inclusion who have given you reason to hope! @whimsagogy on Twitter and Instagram

Circumstantial Racist

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

 I fled the scene of my first teaching job in Baltimore City, accused of being a racist by the principal.

Those of you who know me now may find this surprising.

YOU??!!

Global Citizenship teacher?
Muslim student association sponsor?
Diversity conference planner?
Multi-cultural education trainer?
Restorative Justice facilitator?

You?!

For you who know this intercultural work that I’m always deep in the thick of, you may see this accusation of racism as proof that no matter what a white person does in contexts of color, they will almost inevitably be accused of racism.

But for others…particularly people of color, you will likely be asking a different question:

Well….were you? Racist?

My answer may surprise you.

How could I not be?

Born in the Ozark foothills, raised in a transition zone between rural and suburban, liberal arts educated in Garrison Keillor country in the upper-Midwest, the first time I lived in an area that was not disproportionately white was when I moved to Baltimore after college.

In my first teaching position I worked across the street from central booking, caddy corner to a cemetery, surrounded by infamous drug corners captured by The Wire, and cast in the very real flashing blue lights of police cameras.

Now how in is any 23 year old white girl supposed to make sense of all that? How likely is it that most 23 year olds regardless of color can have the historical, political, social, economic, spiritual perspective to understand the causes and consequences of such a stark human reality?

So…was it true? Was I racist?

Of course I was.

But not on purpose.

I was not raised in a context of deliberate and cultivated bigotry. I was raised in a compassionate Christian household where, above all, my mom insisted our faith was rooted in caring for the most vulnerable in our community. She was a champion for children. She hated bullies and would confront them in schools, church suppers, and super-market aisles. Despite the socially conservative constraints of the Bible Belt, she was bold enough in 1988 to reject the callousness of trickle down solutions and vote for Dukakis.

Her 8 year old staunchly republican daughter was appalled.

Her 36 year old progressive daughter couldn’t be more grateful.

No, my racism was not by personal design. It was by systemic proximity (or more precisely a lack there of) from neighbors who’s narratives could disrupt the mass media education I was getting from Law and Order and the nightly news.

Structural racism does not just keep people of color out. It keeps people of the pale in.

We move through an insulated existence where there IS such a thing as normal. Where there ARE absolute answers. Where you CAN trust authority.

And then at some point we come to the edge of our enclave. With our gaze off in the distance on our endless horizons, we step off the curb we didn’t expect into a pothole we didn’t see, twist our ankle, and collapse in the middle of oncoming traffic.

You want to know why white girls are always crying?

We weren’t raised not to.

And now we (overly) protected lily-white children have wandered into a world full of struggle our communities gated us from seeing.

3 years ago I took a group of public high school students on a study abroad trip to rural England. It was a group that reflected the diversity of their school and country from skin tone to head-covering.

During the day, they visited schools in pastoral settings. At night we would cook together in the kitchen where we would process the discoveries of the day. Many of their conversations with their British peers circled around race and culture.

When Miles told yet another story about yet another English kid comparing him to yet another black celebrity he looked nothing like, he laughed and said…

“You have NO idea how racist you sound.”

As we washed dishes together I asked. “Why do you think it feels so different to you to talk about race here? Why doesn’t their ignorance offend in the same way it would back home?”

After a few jokes about all the things that sound better with a British accent, Chloe was quick to put her finger on the difference.

“If you don’t know about race in America, you just haven’t been paying attention.”

These kids in North Yorkshire growing up amidst sheep farms, they were nestled snug in their culture. Where would they have ever had a chance to make friends with a black kid who could call them a racist?

I could identify. I grew up around sheep with Midwestern drawls. None of them black.

But unlike my planned community of the past or the physical spaces of the present, the virtual spaces most of us occupy today are NOT gated in the same way. There’s no way to not pay attention…unless you’re averting your eyes.

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

Don’t flee the scene. We must bear witness. And then we must decide whether to aid and abet or become first responders.

Despite the risks.

The wounds are deep. So is the fear.

Apply pressure.

Hold.

 

Unvarnished Writing

When our paint is peeling, we must decide whether we layer on a glossy new coat or strip ourselves down to the unvarnished beauty that lies beneath.

I struggle when I’m writing to trust my intentions.

What is my agenda? Truly?

Do I seek attention?

Gratification?

Admiration?

When I look back and re-read the things my earlier selves have written, journal entries and college essays, blog posts and Patch articles, whether I grin or grimace is determined by whether I wrote to perform and charm or confess and console.

As in writing so in life.

Throughout the day we decide moment by moment which parts of ourselves to hold up to the light or hide in the shadows. Which parts of ourselves will play well to the audience. What was once conscious choice becomes habit. We spend our days obscuring and augmenting ourselves. With eyeliner and intellect. With high heels and bicep curls. With job titles and Instagram posts. We pluck and polish. Dye and comb over. We posture. We avoid eye contact.

Writing, too, can be like this. I can edit. Refine. Find my best angle. Control the lighting. Amend a position. Strike a new pose. I can re-write this line so it better captures my precise thought. Or I can leave it alone as it emerged the first time. Only I will be able to distinguish one line from the other.

In writing as in life, we can vacillate between a frantic need to be seen and a desperate fear of the same. The words become flesh. The flesh shapes the words.

But oh the power of eyes that see and accept. The heady sensation when we do reveal ourselves and find a gaze that doesn’t turn away or gawk. We long for someone to look at us, see us, celebrate us.

This morning I sat in my car at Anne Arundel Community College before a meeting and wrote:

“Are we a culture that encourages authenticity? Are we people conscious of how we condition our fellow humans to reveal or revile themselves?”

This afternoon, I ran into a former student on campus who (after lifting me off the ground in a bear hug) showed me a screen shot of a text message I sent him over two years ago:

IMG_1459

You better have chills.

We long for spaces characterized by this culture of authenticity and trust. When we graduate or outgrow these spaces, we seek them again and again. Even better…we create them anew.

Hanging on the wall of my classroom was this poem called “Our Deepest Fear”.

It begins…

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

It ends…

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

The Lenten season is my space to practice what I already believe deeply to be true.

When our paint is peeling, we must decide whether we layer on a glossy new coat or strip ourselves down to the unvarnished beauty that lies beneath.

I want to see you. Shine who you are. We’ll be blinding together.

Jeremy

“You got a date a with a date!” – Ramadan with the children of Islamth

It is Iftar at the Makkah Learning Center. I sit next to my student Anaum as an older women speaks to her and gestures to me. I assume she is speaking in Urdu, the language of Pakistan. When the woman walks away I whisper…

“What was she saying?”

Anaum whispers back…

“I have no idea. Every time she talks to me a just smile, nod, and say…Gi!”

“Gi,” in Urdu, means “yes.”

And this, my friends, is why I love learning alongside Muslim Millennials. Often they seem just as confused and bemused by their culture and religion as I am, and that’s just fine by me.

Anaum and Rabia, my Muslim Millennial guides at Makkah Learning Center...
Anaum and Rabia, my Muslim Millennial guides at Makkah Learning Center…

As the accidental sponsor of the Muslim Student Association at Arundel High School, I was in a near constant state of inquiry. My students, in turn, were in a constant state of amusement at this Midwestern white girl who was skipping blithely down the cultural-religious fault line of American Muslim Identity. (For a more in depth explanation of how I took on this role, refer back to #Muslims4Lent inspire #Christians4Ramadan).

Who’s in charge here??!! Was a frequent refrain at our Wednesday meetings. It couldn’t possibly be me. I mean, I know next to nothing about Islam.

5 pillars. 5 prayers. No pork. Submit. Did I get everything?

Consequently students from Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Nepal, Egypt were thrust into the role of “experts” because whatever the limits of their own understanding, they certainly knew way more than this girl.

What happens if you can’t pray 5 times a day?

What constitutes and acceptable Desi profession?

Can you be a good Muslim in a mini skirt?

How does your faith differ from your parents?

Kosher and Halal aren’t the same thing?

Anaum has served as my particular spiritual guide as I began to bumble my way towards #Christians4Ramadan…

RamadanTexts1

RamdanTexts2

This brings us back to my first Iftar. Thank goodness Luwaila brought me back that Abaya from Sudan as a souvenir, or I would have had NOTHING to wear. As it was, I threw it on over my tank top, swapped my ball cap for a scarf, and Tah-dah! I blend right in!

A quick costume change in the car and I'm ready for Iftar!
A quick costume change in the car and I’m ready for Iftar!

(On a side note, can an Orioles ball cap work as a head covering in a pinch? Or is this haram? ‘Cuz it totally matches my Abaya.)

Rama-yep or Rama-no? #GoOrioles #BeMore
Rama-yep or Rama-no? #GoOrioles #BeMore

Anaum meets me at my car, adjusts my head scarf, explains that the fixture on top of the building lit with Christmas lights is a minaret (I mean, I knew it couldn’t be a Christmas tree), and leads me to the girls side of the divided tent where we will have Iftar.

I sit looking longingly at the bowl of watermelon in front of me.

“You got a date with a date!” She jokes as I take a selfie.

Date with date

Some of you certifiable adults and sanctioned Islamic experts out there may feel that teenagers teaching about the faith should itself be Haram. After all, what must my impression of Islam be when left to the theological understanding of Muslim youth?!

But I will tell you unequivocally, if NOT for them, I would never have begun to face my own fears and prejudices about Islam, never begun to reach out to Muslims in the schools and community of Maryland, and certainly never embarked on #Christians4Ramadan.

Thank them or blame them, your kids are why I’m here.

Sara shows us what Desi love looks like at our
Sara shows us what Desi love looks like at our “Blend Arundel” sidewalk chalk party…

Anaum leads me by the hand through what would otherwise be a prohibitively intimidating experience. She explains that the opaque tarp used to divide the men from the women used to be transparent, but a new Imam came and has more firm interpretations of these divisions…

“So now if you want to see your Bey, you gotta meet him in the parking lot!”

It’s commentary like this that humanizes what seems like a very foreign experience. She shows me where to take of my shoes in the mosque,  she jokes about the folks trying to cut in line for the food, she warns that we’re not allowed to have the pizza that sits next to the naan.

“Apparently that’s only for kids under 10. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Her theological grasp of what is going might be a little thin. When I ask her to translate the call to prayer, she can’t quite remember. The older women next to her quickly jumps in to explain.

But give me a choice between Anaum and  Imam? I will pick the Anaum every time.

When I was in college, I was a member of the Carleton Bible Study Fellowship. This was a group completely led by students. Brandon Yerxa had founded it and was a senior when I met him. We met on Tuesday nights, read a passage, and then proceeded to discuss and debate, laugh and shout our way through these passages. Some of us were older than others. Some of us (this girl) had grown up in denominations where you memorized bible verses. Some of us weren’t Christians at all; just exploring our options.

Carleton Bible Study Fellowship 2001
Carleton Bible Study Fellowship 2001

Occasionally amidst this ecumenical chaos Yerxa would attempt to assert SOME divine authority. We called these his “bottom line” moments. But even these interludes of dogma could be easily obfuscated by the fact that…he was 22 and wasn’t the boss of us.

What might make pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams uncomfortable (lack of a centralized authority figure) was the very thing that made this sacred space welcome to the searching souls within.

There is a place for certainty…but there probably should be more places for confusion. And if we don’t make room for those spaces of doubt and questioning, young people inevitably forge them elsewhere…like in the shadows of the parking lot.

Islam, your children have led me. Clothed me. Fed me. Taught me. Forgiven me. Loved me.

Luwaila has not only bought me an Abaya, she loaned me her Obama Swag to wear to the inauguration...and let me keep it.
Luwaila has not only bought me an Abaya, she loaned me her Obama Swag to wear to the inauguration…and let me keep it.

I have also watched them do this for each other as they struggle to understand the religious and cultural riffs even within their OWN faith communities. It is easy for me to believe that Heaven AND Earth belongs to such as these.

Amina Love

All faiths have their “bottom lines.”

As I delight in my date, I will sit with the kids, smile, nod, and say…

“Gi!”

#Muslims4Lent inspire #Christians4Ramadan

 “I’m sorry, Muhammad…are you talking to me?”

It is spring of 2009. I am sitting at the front of my classroom during lunch, and I’ve just about fallen off my stool.

It have not heard a divine voice from above…rather a human voice from within my classroom. Muhammad Khan, a Junior at Arundel High School and an active member in our Global Citizenship program…has just asked if I would sponsor the founding of a Muslim Student Association.

I’m confused.

I’m not a Muslim.

I’m not a student.

I’m a third wave feminist with a Christian background, a glow-in-the-dark Buddha on my desk, and an affectionate irreverence that has me blending religious teachings into a mystical fabric that suits me just fine but tends to confuse everyone else.

I swivel around on my stool with a comical glance behind me, looking for someone else he MIGHT be talking to.

“Are you sure Muhammad? I mean, you know I can get kinda’ sassy.”

I have him think about it for a few days…give him time to doubt the wisdom of including me in this endeavor. He comes back a week later, resolute.

…and this is how I become the sponsor of the Muslim Student Association at Arundel High School.

Rockin' the Abaya...
Rockin’ the Abaya…

This is also how I cross the following things off my “It’s a tough Hijab but somebody’s got to do it” Bucket List…

  • Learn how to tie a head scarf,
  • Research Middle Eastern Migration patterns in the Mid Atlantic,
  • Realize Pakistan is NOT in the Middle East
  • Learn how and why and when to say “As-Salamu alaykum”
  • Visit the Saudi Arabian and Omani Embassies
  • Eat Iraqi style crunchy rice and tomato stewed Okra
  • Contemplate how to ward of unwelcome Desi proposals
  • Learn that marshmallows and Starburst are NOT halal
  • Receive a grant for the first Muslim American Student conference in Anne Arundel County, Maryland

Not bad for an irreverent Midwestern Mystic.

This odd journey is made even more ironic because as a comparative religion major at Carleton College, the one religion I could not bring myself to study was Islam. It was all about the women. I inevitably felt this rising anger when I saw women shrouded in burkas, segregated at prayer times, silenced in the public forum.

Righteous indignation feels really good…but makes it hard to meet and befriend new faiths.

I came to understand later that this anger emerged in part as a reaction toward my own (to a much lesser degree) gendered upbringing where God was male and women obeyed their husbands. I also came to understand that what is theological and what is cultural is often so entangled not even practitioners of a faith can sort it all out.

During this past Easter season, my Lenten practice was an attempt to write a 30 minute blog post per day. I called this my reflection in “imperflection.” As I was reading others thoughts about Lent, I was delighted to come across the #Muslims4Lent movement championed by the website Eid.Pray.Love.

I quickly tweeted back the idea of #Christians4Ramadan…

Christians4Ramadan

You might think this endeavor would be a natural fit for a woman who meditates to Sufi poetry and has a babysitter who teaches her kids Arabic. But I fear that this “Month of Blessing” as Ramadan is called, will necessitate more than a few sun-up sacrifices on my part.

First and foremost, I might rock an abaya, but I’m not sure I should rock the title “Christian” with equal zeal. I mean, the Unitarians would probably have me.  I like to hang (and drink) with the Episcopals. The Jesuit Volunteers have let me pursue Social Justice with their crew. My Catholic husband (and baptized children) don’t give me a hard time…but Christian? Not in the born again bible belt kind of way that would bring my parents peace in their sunset years.

And then there’s the folks I love on the OTHER side of the spectrum. My agnostic and atheist besties. Like my soulmate Meg who (according to us AND a weird Facebook algorithm) I will grow old with once we are both widowed in our 80’s. She is a scientifically minded, ornithology loving, AP environmental science teacher who I’m pretty sure didn’t read that “Religion for Atheists” book I bought her.

This is my Spectrum. Where do I plot #Christian4Ramadan on that line?

For this reason I’m happy to promote  other folks less ambivalent and more certifiably Christian than me. Like Francis Ritchie a Methodist minister in Aukland or Jeff Cook, a Colorado pastor who explains definitively why he’s “waging peace” in the month of Ramadan.  If you are Christian-ish and looking for a theologically justifiable reason to fast in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, try this on for size:

“I am not interested in fasting this month for ascetic reasons. I am not converting to Islam. I will embrace the self-sacrificial practices of others around the world because Jesus reminds me that it is those who hunger that will be filled, that the meek alone will inherit the earth, and that those who make peace will be called children of God.”

As far as my aspirations and inspirations for this… I will definitely utilize the time to write and reflect on the many moments that have shaped my soul and psyche. Some of the reflection will be spiritual in nature. Much will be absurdly and authentically (hopefully NOT offensively) secular.

For example, I know for certain I will need to talk about Bacon. I mean….it’s gonna happen.

I don’t have anything like the plan I did for Lent. I can pretty much guarantee things are going to get messy. I’m certain I’m going to fall off the wagon.  I’m fearful that the Facebook friends I love on BOTH ends of the belief spectrum will unfollow me because of the patchwork quilt of cognitive dissonance that keeps me warm at night…but others want to throw in the wash or throw out altogether.

Despite these anxieties. This is one of those moments I’m taking on faith.

You looking at me Muhammad?

Ramadan?

Or Rama-nah?

Rama-yep.

Allah (and Jesus and Buddha and Missouri) be merciful.

That goes for the rest of you, too.

Owed to Chloe…

America meets in the classroom. We need cultural diplomats like Chloe who serve as a bridge between.

Ain’t no mountain high enough to sing the praises of my girl, Chloe. As a tiny tribute to the way she has let her light (and our lights) shine, I wanted to make visible the often invisible act of the recommendation letter. 

This is about her…but its also about us, America.

This song of praise.

This song of freedom.

I am writing in support of Chloe Hill’s application for your scholarship. I can say with utter certainty, Chloe has done more to shape me as a teacher and as a person than any other student I have ever encountered. She is a compassionate, deep thinking, and justice minded human being.

Justice Minded Human Being
Justice Minded Human Being

Over the last four years, Chloe has been an integral part of a Signature Program at our school entitled “Community Development and Global Citizenship.” This program is open to all students who attend our school. Chloe opted in early and will be a part of the first graduating cohort of Signature students.  Even more importantly, though, is that through her participation she has shaped this program for all students who will come after it.

To illustrate how and why, I need to tell you two stories. One is a story of collective transformation. The other is a story of personal transformation.

With mentor and spiritual sister Katara West.
With mentor and spiritual sister Katara West.

Leadership II is a required course for students in their Junior year of the Signature Program. This collaborative class allows students to create projects that benefit their local and global communities. Chloe’s project, “Growing Global” was aimed at teaching elementary school students about empathy and cultural awareness. How can students work together on projects, though, if they don’t trust each other? It wasn’t long in this seating-chart-free class before a pattern began to emerge: Self-segregation. Black students on one side. White students on the other. Only a smattering of outliers as the bridge between.

Having taught in public schools for a decade I have come to realize that schools reflect the schisms of the societies in which they are embedded. I usually see it as my role to help students see this pattern, question it, understand it, and decide how they should act to address it. For the first time, though, I watched as the students within the class began to navigate this journey naturally on their own. One person at the center of this social evolution was Chloe Hill.

Chloe and #Squad

A day that students now simply refer to as “the class” began with an impromptu spoken word performance. Students having memorized poetry for English classes began to recite for the Leadership class. Quickly, other students began to recite other works. Then came Chloe with a piece that addressed the systemic inequalities of tracking students into segregated AP classes. Though it has been written by another student in another state, its resonance in our class was immediate. What ensued was a breakthrough moment where students of all colors began to confess long held family prejudices disrupted by the relationships in the class.  They asked questions of one another related to their experience of race in America.

Students looked at each other not with judgment but genuine compassion…and none of it would have ever happened without Chloe. The ripple effect of that class has effected the trajectory of ALL who witnessed it. There were students who changed career paths. Students who changed political parties. Students who began to believe that ignorance is not inevitable. Students who began to trust one another in a new way. Students who began to hope for more in their class…and their country.

“I didn’t say it would be funny…”

On another day, months later, Chloe and I were reviewing for an AP HUG exam. We stood in front of a hanging wall map of America and spoke about where we’d visited, where we had family, what regions of our country were calling to us.

“I’ve always felt drawn to the South,” Chloe said.

I had a different confession.

“I’m scared of the South.”

Chloe was surprised…so was I. I had never named this fear before. Didn’t realize it was there. Began to examine it.

It wasn’t until this conversation with Chloe that I realized my aversion to the South was about the racism that I feared would bowl me over. I went on to explain that I wasn’t afraid of the black people, but the white people of the South.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t afraid of “them out there” I was afraid of “me in here.” I was afraid of my own part being from a privileged class. I didn’t think I was strong enough to face the history of cruelty and oppression that the South has come to symbolize.

But standing in front of America, arms linked with Chloe’s, I was suddenly emboldened…

“I’m scared of the South…but I’d go there with you.”

And I will. To visit her at Bennett. To visit her classmates in Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi. I will go south to face America. To face myself.

Right on Time

This is Chloe’s power. She somehow makes us face that which we fear and emboldens us to move towards it, not alone, but in community. With conviction. With the knowledge that we are braver together.

America meets in the classroom. Chloe has been a vital part in helping her fellow students…and her teachers not just BRACE for this meeting but EMBRACE it.  Chloe is a bridge between. She stands between divides of race, gender identity, and generations. She is a cultural diplomat who has a rare ability to question systems of inequality while compassionately confessing her own fears and vulnerabilities.

Meeting America

I feel truly privileged to have had Chloe as a student and whatever influence I may have had in her life, she has and will continue to shape the trajectory of mine.  America needs the lessons and leadership that students like Chloe offer. I have no doubt that just as she has challenged her classmates to face the social divides that keep us a part, she will do this for all the classes, communities, and countries of which she is a part.

I would happily answer any other questions you have about this remarkable person.

#BeMore in the Classroom

If we can solve it in the classroom, we can solve it in the world.

This is what I have come to believe after 12 years in the American classroom. It was reaffirmed Monday as I watched children in backpacks hurling rocks at the “rule of law.” People (young and old) don’t attack communities of which they feel a part. They attack communities from which they feel estranged.

I started teaching in Baltimore city when I was 23. Over a decade later I remain certain that though schools didn’t cause the VAST majority of problems our students bring with them to the classroom, there is no better place to begin solving these issues not FOR the students…but WITH the students. Mind your pronouns. They matter.

Over the last few days I have been inundated with love and questions from present and former students about this event. Today I received the following email from a former student that illustrates the tremendous roll civic classrooms can play in the lives of our young citizens:

Yesterday on my way to school I had a lot of thoughts and emotions about what is happening in Baltimore and I wondered which class I would be able to express my feelings. I walked through my day in my head and I got really sad when I realized I’m not taking any classes at UMBC where I can have that close connection with the students and faculty like I did in Signature. I kept thinking back to the day we had in class after the Boston bombing and I remember everyone expressing their feelings and Gaby crying and everyone understanding where she was coming from. I think when a traumatic event happens, it’s good to have a community around you that you feel comfortable enough to express your feelings with and I think that’s a big part of what Signature is; a caring and understanding community.

I feel really grateful that I got to experience this community. The people that I met along the way helped me grow as a person and taught me numerous lessons, but most importantly to always listen to what someone has to say even if you don’t agree with it because you might be able to learn from them. I’ve been thinking about the people rioting a lot and there’s no way I can fully understand the pain and suffering they’ve been experiencing for years but I do sympathize with them. I also don’t blame the people who are rioting. I realize it is not the most productive way to handle a situation, but then I remember that when I’m stressed and angry and bottle it in for a long time, I do end up exploding after awhile (aka, my meltdown in the Signature office senior year). These people have been oppressed for decades, I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of pain and anger they have in them. But I’ve been wondering if there was a place for these people to be heard and properly express their feelings without judgement, like we had in Signature, what kind of a difference that would make in their lives.

Public schools are public space. They are where America meets itself. They are the first society where our young citizens learn how to become active or disengaged. Empowered or helpless. Every teacher (whether they realize it or not) is the community organizer of their classroom reinforcing or renovating the social infrastructures of that their students will go on to replicate in the world beyond.

Arlington Declaration

It is time we understand the classroom as a direct reflection of the community it serves. It is time we recognize both teachers AND students as CIVIC engineers. It is time we start pursuing COMMUNITY core, not just the Common Core. It is not about propaganda or politicizing the classroom. It’s about understanding the classroom as the microcosm of the society we will live in 20 years from now.

Rebuild the classroom, rebuild Baltimore.

Here are just a few glimpses of students seizing their citizenship in the classroom…

Declaration of Sig-Dependence 

“The People” vs “Some People” – Transitional Democracy in the Classroom

People like you can learn to Listen, too

The Fabric of Society is Woven in the Classroom

Muslim Amercian (sp?) Idenity (sp?) and the power of imperfectly wonderful youth