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.

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 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.

 

Odd friends of Ramadan

Transformed by curious couplings during #Christians4Ramadan

Tonight, on Ramadan Eve, I finished two books, both of which were given to me. One by my daughter. One by a first year teacher.

A month ago, my daughter came home from Pre-K4 with I am Malala in her Ninja Turtle backpack.

Holding it up to me in two hands, like a stone tablet.  She said earnestly, (Ivy says most things earnestly) “Mommy I want to read this!”

She’d found it in the fourth grade classroom and I can only assume connected immediately with the tranquil gaze of Malala on the front cover.

“Umm…I want to read that too, five year old,” I said bemused. “Guess this is our first mother daughter book club.” We let Kip join too because…top bunk privilege. At bedtime, for the last month, we have been reading about Malala, Pakistan, Swat Valley, the rise of the Taliban, her Father’s activism, her own fight for human and children’s rights…and her love for Ugly Betty. Kip and Ivy have both been surprisingly riveted, only occasionally petitioning for a respite with Star Wars Rebels or Rosie Revere. After they become drowsy to the wisdom of Malala, I choose my late night profundity from a different direction.

Early in the school year, my colleague Andy (who had actually been a student at the school where I began teaching) asked me “Do you identify strongly with Leslie Knope?”

I gasped and grabbed his arm…

“Do YOU identify me with Leslie Knope?” I asked with rhetorical Leslie Knope-like eagerness.

“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 towards herself or others but equipped with a bastion of binders to protect her…I guess I can see that.

I should mention here that my spirit animal is Leslie Knope riding a unicorn.

Andy took it all in stride and very thoughtfully presented me with Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, as a Christmas gift…which I finally finished today. I wish this pace could be explained by 1,500 pages, small print and no pictures…but the book is only 329 pages long and is laced with Polaroids, hand scribbled notes from 8 year old Amy, and large margins with riotous side-notes from  friends and colleagues. I have added to these with annotations of my own (should you wish to borrow my copy).

As I drink wine and write this, these two books sit next to me, the authors both gazing at me with challenge and expectation. I don’t think I seek out these kinds of peculiar pairings to be deliberately provocative. I’m just a reluctant sorter. They would seem an odd couple to anyone else…but to those who know me, this will likely not come as too astounding. The spiritual humanitarian alongside the hilarious hedonist. Sounds about right.

Ram-odd-an

I will write more specifics about my strange affinity for these powerful women and the lessons they have taught me in the days to come, but for tonight, I accept their odd juxtaposition in my life and their company into Ramadan just as I hope you will accept the oddity of an educational mystic once again inspired and cleansed by her pilgrimage through this holy month.

I don’t have a logical or convenient filing system for the world or the people in it. I don’t reject these curious couplings when they happen. When my daughter hands me book, I accept. When the first year teacher hands me a book, I accept. When a kid asks me to sponsor the Muslim Student Association…I accept. And then I also accept the possibility that, perhaps, we were supposed to co-exist all along. Become friends. Transform each other. Make the other giggle.

I think Malala and Amy might do some giggling together. I think I might join them. And you? You’re invited, too.

Giggle.

Accept.

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!”

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.

Declaration of SIG-dependence

Students are gathered in an outdoor pavilion at Arlington Echo hunched over a piece of poster paper. They are laughing, talking, calling out ideas and corrections while one student tries to get it all down.

“This is like the Declaration of independence,” declares one.

“Yeah, because Signature emancipates us.”

Displaying IMG_8032.JPG

This is a two day overnight trip for Signature Program Seniors. I have taught many of them since they were freshmen. The final activity of this reflective retreat is drafting a definition of what “Signature” is. Despite the fact that almost every student has declared the impact of this program on their lives, our greatest struggle has been and remains DEFINING it.

Five years ago I stood with a different group of students. Before the Signature Program was developed, it began with a “global cohort” of students and a question of “What should education offer to the local, national, and global community?”

Now, five years later, a different group of students are under the same pavilion on the other side of the question. They have been a part of program that has taken them to local farms and to international exchange programs. They have started diversity clubs and political internships. They have created curriculum, videos, conferences, and all manner of other real world products and projects swirling around their signature experience.

I am their teacher…but they have made me obsolete. Finally.

As they begin to string together a statement of purpose, I watch them with pride but also with poignancy, because I know something they don’t:

I am leaving them.

One week from now, I’m going to sit them down in the Library and tell them that I am taking a new job at a new school where I can bring and build Signature with a new group of students. I know they’re going to be shocked…but I have set them up to see they’ve outgrown me anyway.

Earlier in the week, under the same pavillion, I asked them to draft an annual plan for signature. What would they do personally and collectively by the end of the year? What were their goals and how would they get there. 10 minutes into the activity, I gave them a hypothetical crisis.

“The new Superintendent has declared he does not believe in Signature Programs and thinks they are a wasted investment. How does this change your plan?”*

10 minutes later I gave them a second crisis…this one less hypothetical.

“Your Signature teacher has been poached by the department of education to work on global citizenship education nationally. How does THIS change your plan?”

Arlington crisis

In both instances, the students responded that their plans were not dependent on even these seemingly cataclysmic scenarios. In the words of one of the students: “Sig is an institution. Not a single teacher/administrator will prove the downfall of the entire program.”

The following week when I announced that I was leaving, I hung up their plans and their words declaring the longevity of the Signature way.

Many of them wrote me emails and letters in the weeks to come. My favorite came from a student who over the course of the 4 page hand written note went from grief and anger to acceptance and confidence…with just a touch of doubt:

“I feel like signature is still a baby. The first sig completer class hasn’t even graduated, yet your’re leaving…so soon…But maybe it’s the best time…Even though I’m broken and sad, I know Signature will not die. We can’t let it. You’re forcing us to be strong. We have been ready for this all along, we just didn’t know it. Very clever of you to put that scenario in our activity at Arlington echo, then tie it to your announcement. Now I get it. Ha. I’m ready for this. Sort of. I guess.”

There were still tears. Still disbelief. Still anger. Still feelings of betrayal…but then on the other side there was strength. There was conviction. There was confidence that I was not the center of signature. THEY were.

When students at Arlington Echo finished their Declaration of SIG-dependence, they signed it and hung it on the marquee….where they hoped the visiting superintendent would see it.

Displaying IMG_8046.JPG

Julia ended her letter with a pledge. She wrote it for herself, but it belongs to all of us who have been touched by this thing we call “Signature.”

“I pledge to myself to myself and the program that I will do everything I possibly can to continue what we have been working so hard on.”

We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

“People like you” can learn to listen, too. – By Sig-Senior Gabby Kopf

“Some people never listen… some people never let others talk… some people ruin the class for everyone.”

I took a breath and said, “Some people like me?”

“Gabby it’s not just you, it’s people like you.”

People like you.

For all my life I have been eager to show the world what I can do. I’ve always realized I behaved this way: a showoff, a know it all, a bulldozer, especially in class. However, until that day in Leadership class, I never realized how it could affect my classmates and friends.

Leadership II is a mandatory class for completion of Arundel’s Global Signature Program, which is a collection of classes and activities focused on community development and global citizenship. This program has been my home, a place for me to grow and learn about the world around me.

Class constitution...

That day in class we were collectively writing a syllabus to outline what we wanted to accomplish for the year. The students’ voices were finally being heard, or should I say a few students’ voices; only I and few others were actively participating in the conversation. To me, the majority of my peers appeared more or less uninterested. Our signature classes have always been a place of trust, comfort, and warmth so the cold feeling from many lively students was puzzling. Why didn’t the classroom vibe feel the same as before?

Mrs. Dziedzic stopped the lesson and asked the entire class what was wrong.
Kaitlin, a classmate who looked particularly apathetic, raised her hand and began letting out her frustrations about “some people” in the class. As I listened to her describe her feelings I felt more and more attacked. She was talking directly about me. The rest of the class joined in to address how they felt voiceless in a class that was meant to hear them. I felt so ashamed.

I couldn’t help but cry because I took that class in hopes of becoming a better leader, someone strong and successful without being overpowering, and I had become just the opposite. When I realized peoples’ perception of me differed from how I saw myself, I
knew I needed to adjust how I act in class .

When I went to Mrs. Dziedzic after class I asked, “What can I do to change?”

“Simple. Just listen.”

Just listening...

I went back to class the next day with a new mindset. I just sat and listened, but more than that, I listened for the right reasons. I found myself listening to understand, instead of just listening to reply. There was a huge difference that I never truly understood until Kaitlyn gave me the opportunity to be vulnerable, which facilitated my perceptions about what it means to be voiceless. This allowed me to become a more empathetic community member, and consequently, a better leader.

As I began to participate in class again with new purpose, I formed much stronger relationships with my friends in the class. Kaitlyn was courageous and spoke for those who felt voiceless, and no longer rolls her eyes when I speak. I stepped out of my comfort zone in order to better our class, and that laid the foundation for very strong friendships.

As I go on to form new relationships in my life; I will remember the way Kaitlyn felt about “Some People.”

Lifting us up...

Now I actively try to understand what people are saying. Being a good listener and proactive member of discussion does not only just apply to the classroom, but also as a co-worker, or a friend, or even a daughter. While there will always be situations in which our failures make us susceptible to self-doubt, it is important to make these moments generate motivation for personal growth. Moments like this inspire me to make each “failure” count.

The above guest blog was written by Gabby Kopf, a senior in the Community Development and Global Citizenship Program at Arundel High School in Maryland. She wrote it as her college admission essay…and she better get in.