Monday Earworm: Chris de Burgh

I was reminded of this song recently when we were discussing the Marie riddle, a moral dilemma from Donald Hall’s extremely dated piece “Argument and Persuasion.” The discussion was interesting, though, mostly because it exposed the societal prejudices my tenth graders have either absorbed or already, wisely, discarded.

This video used to be in frequent rotation in the early days of MTV, when I was glued to any screen playing that channel (much to my mother’s extreme consternation). How many of you remember this one?

 

 

Monday Earworm: Talking Heads

I signed up for an hour-long webinar on self-care for teachers back in August. I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend when it was live because I had a meeting to be in. But that was okay; I could have a link to watch it later once it had aired.

I got the link. It has been two months, and I still haven’t watched it, because teaching (including lesson planning and grading and a couple of new curricula) has kept me so busy for the last two months that I haven’t had an hour of free prep time to sit and watch it.

I’m almost done grading and am more than halfway finished with comments for my report cards. This is good news, since they’re due Thursday. I’m pretty far behind on my revision deadline for my next book — which is part of the Animal Affinities series, by the way, the first book of which was Finis. — but I’ll get there. And afterward, I’m hoping to have the chance to sit and watch that webinar.

In the meantime, do enjoy this song.

Monday Earworm: No Doubt

So last week at a faculty meeting, we all had a conversation about dominant versus subordinate social groups: to put it in extremely simple terms, we self-identified into a number of groups based on our identities that marked us as part of the dominant culture or targeted. For example, a person could identify as male (dominant) or female (targeted), as hetero (dominant) or LGBT (targeted), as middle- to upper-class or poor, as White or POC, Christian or Jewish/Muslim/Hindu, etc. You get the idea. And then we paired with one colleague and talked specifically about our own experiences, whatever we were comfortable with sharing. We were asked to discuss when we realized we were part of a particular group (dominant or subordinate) and then also when we realized how being part of that group would affect the way we were perceived or treated in society.

My conversation was with a male colleague from my department. He talked about being male, and I talked about being female. I realized that the moment I learned that I was female (and that this was different from being male) was when I was about six years old and my youngest sibling was born. My father and I were up at the hospital walking around the maternity ward, looking at the babies in the nursery. A nurse held one baby up in front of a large window, a boy who was naked. Dad pointed out the baby’s genitalia and explained that it marked that child as a boy, and that this was different from a girl’s body. I knew I was a girl, and now I knew on an intellectual level what the biological difference between the binary bodies was. I didn’t really think much else about it.

Then my colleague told me the moment he realized that being male meant he would be treated differently came along in his teaching career (at a different school from ours), when he heard a female colleague lament that her students weren’t showing her much respect, and he realized that if he’d made the same remarks to his students, their reaction would have been completely compliant. He recognized his male privilege in that moment.

The moment I realized I would be treated differently by society for being female had come when I was in second grade. We had to line up in our classrooms every day according to height, and dear reader, I am and have always been short. (Think Queen Victoria short. Literally.) And this was a sore point; I was teased about it for some inane reason on a regular basis. Anyway, we were lining up to go across campus to have our class picture taken, and for once I was not the shortest person in my class! There was one other person shorter than I, by almost an inch: my friend and neighbor and carpool buddy, P.J. Eubanks. And I proudly stood in front of him and smiled, giddy not to be the last person in line for the first time.

And our teacher, a generally kind older woman with short graying hair and a wardrobe full of floral print knee-length dresses, sauntered right over to us, frowned slightly, and moved P.J. to stand in front of me. When I began to ask why she’d done this, she explained that he was a boy and that it might make him feel bad to be the shortest person in the class. So she needed me to stand at the end of the line, as usual, so he wouldn’t get his feelings hurt. She straightened my position at the end of the line, smiled, and walked back to the front of the room to lead the class out the door. P.J. turned and grinned and shrugged, and I walked sullenly behind him all the way to the gym, my feathers crumpled in the knowledge that this was how it was going to be.

At least for a while.

When I told my colleague this story, he was appropriately bemused. He didn’t seem to find it any more important than P.J. had.

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me…

At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.

Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.

And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.

***

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.

When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.

And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.

And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.

One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:

“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”

“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

Things like that.

Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”

There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.

Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.

Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.

I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.

I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.

Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.

Monday Earworm: Lil Nas X (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus)

All right, look. Last week school started, and Friday through Sunday I was camping with the 9th grade class on their retreat. Today I am a zombie and was so during the whole school day. And this song really will not get out of my head, because high school.

But honestly? I sort of love this song. Also note you’re not likely to see Billy Ray Cyrus on this blog again. So please enjoy.

Monday Earworm: Simple Minds

This week classes begin in my part of the country. I know I will enjoy working with this year’s students, but right now, last year’s graduates are still on my mind. I saw several of them this weekend at a reading and book signing for The Sharp Edges of Water (Thank you for coming to that, by the way! What an amazing turn-out!), and I’ve been in touch with a few this summer as they prepare for college. This is always the case.

I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I say to them, Come back and visit now and then when you’re on a holiday from school and let us know how you’re doing. We’ve invested a fair amount of time and energy into getting you to this point, and we’re interested to see how things turn out for you. You might be nervous and scared and excited and scattered right now, but we have much confidence in you.

Everything is going to be just fine. You’re going to be wonderful. You have learned so much already, academically, and now you’re going to learn even more about living. Don’t forget these lessons, but be sure to keep them in context. College, on balance, is not always going to be easy, but it will probably often be good.

Drop us a line now and then. Your friends who haven’t graduated yet will be glad to hear from you, too.

All the best.