Neighbors or Nothing (Pt. 1)

As an undergraduate, I interned with several youth groups in local churches. When I started my first internship after my freshman year of college, I was 19. On the first day, the youth minister overseeing me and the other intern informed us he took a job in another state. He’d be gone in a week.

Most 19-year-olds are not given the responsibility of 50 teenagers on summer break (and rightly so), but there I was, learning the ropes of youth ministry with the other intern who also had little experience with leading youth before this.

I look back on that summer and laugh often, how many mistakes I made, how much I got right by chance. I still call most of those teens (now adults) friends. I’m in graduate school with one. Another is my girlfriend’s best friend. One leads worship at the church I just started attending.

Lately, though, my mind wanders to one night that summer that could have gone wrong. Before the reader (aka my mom) worries, this story has nothing to do with the teens, and more with the aftermath of poor logistical planning on my end. Toy Story 3 released that summer, and many of the teens wanted to attend the midnight premiere. Most of their parents would not allow them to go to the movies that late without an adult, and somehow 19 years on earth qualified me for the role.

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Identity: Capable

In the fall semester of 2015, I started a Master’s program in school counseling. Three months later, I hated it. I felt I was pursuing this path because it seemed like the logical next step in my career. My life has never followed a “logical next step” trajectory, and it felt dishonest to who I am as a person. I don’t say that to discount the wonderful work of counselors, just that it isn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself as a counselor ten years out, and that’s not a good start to a two-year program.

Three months is not long to decide to quit graduate school. You can imagine my embarrassment when family and friends asked how my first semester went, and only months after telling them I was going back to school, I was telling them I wouldn’t be returning for a second semester. When I cited that “my heart wasn’t in it,” I could see older adults give me that generational side-eye reserved for millennials perpetually “figuring it out.”

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The Age of Solitude, Issue 1, April 2016

In December of 2014, I set out to share poetry with people via actual, physical mail. In 2015, I sent out 10 mailings to about 60 people. Over that span of time, I received mail from roughly 15 people, and texts and messages from many others involved in the project. In 2016, I vowed to keep the project up, but dropped everyone who did not engage with me in some format. The purpose of the project is, in part, that we are living in a time when we fake connections and I want to offer a chance to make real ones. Every month (or so) I send poetry that (hopefully) challenges my readers to reconsider a mindset held by society at large. I share some personal thoughts in addition to the poetry, and I have forged several excellent pen pals because of it. Above, you can see the new(s) format of the dispatch. I’ll be posting each on here a few weeks after sending them out via mail, but if you’d like to receive a physical copy and engage with me on a more personal basis, please email your physical address to therealbenshady@me.com. I promise not to show up at your door.

Looking forward, I would like to expand the dispatch to include the work of others. Reach out if you’d be interested.

You can follow on Twitter here.

Shadow Living

I recently turned 25, which is an age that seems like it would come with some additional amount of withheld wisdom or at least a senior discount at the movie theater, but so far has only made my students react with wide eyes and the confidence-building question, “But weren’t you really young when you started teaching us?” It’s been quite the ride.

In my 25 years on this earth, I haven’t ascribed much significance to ages. I didn’t start driving until I was 18. 21 didn’t find me at a bar. 22 did not feel like one of the Taylor Swift’s nights on the town. By all accounts, significant moments in my life haven’t come attached to specific ages.

I do frequently think about the 6th grade. In the grand scope of my youth, that was a defining year. That was the year I became my class’s prime candidate for bullying. I was invited into friend groups, only to be kicked out for “making them look bad.” I was asked questions about myself, only to hear the information retold later in jokes at my expense. I was a loser, a lame, that horrible f-word that has been used to degrade the LGBTQ community for decades now. I was pushed around when the teachers weren’t looking, the recipient of spitballs to the back of my head. Teachers assured my mom that they didn’t see anything. My principal asked if maybe I didn’t possess a sense of humor, if I hadn’t understood that “boys will be boys”? Most days, my mom would sign me out for lunch so that I could cry in her Chevy Astro van in the parking lot, a brief reprieve from the harassment.

It was a terrible, terrible year, but when the seventh grade rolled around, it was over. Nothing significant changed in me, but the class moved on to other targets, and I was safe at last. One would think that this was the end of all that noise.

If you look at my high school track record, the sixth grade underdog came up big. I was the class president and valedictorian, involved in Art, Theater, Student Council, National Honor Society, UIL Academics, and my school’s first-ever all-male “dance” team, the Crazy Cats. It was a classic Cinderella story, one that used to make me think that I was real cool.

Of course, life never leaves off where the happy ending in a movie does. There are always more dragons to face after the credits, and rarely do they go easier on you because of past victories. As I entered college in 2009, I was confronted with the challenge of making a new name for myself in a new place. This sea of 8,000 faces was an opportunity to make new friends and make the most of my four years as an undergraduate.

But that’s not how I viewed this new landscape. What I saw were 8,000 faces that could call me a loser again. What I saw was an infinite amount of scenarios in which I could reveal part of myself only to have it thrown back in my face as a joke. I felt vulnerable, exposed to the possibility that I could be hated again for no reason at all. I was standing in the shadow of my sixth grade self, or what those kids had told me about my sixth grade self, and I was afraid of what would happen if I tried to outlive him.

I’m not the only one who does this. I know people who have yet to outlive words people said about them what seems like lifetimes ago to everyone else, but just yesterday to them. I know people who have yet to outrun past mistakes because they can’t believe that grace extends to oneself. I know people who have yet to let go of missed opportunities, believing that life will never be as good as that alternate route they failed to take.

In some ways, we are all shadow people. We all live out, over and over, the words or actions that we cannot seem to shake for all of our successes and triumphs. I have lived a good life filled with so much joy and so much love, yet sometimes I am standing in a room of people I don’t know and am afraid to speak for fear of what they might think of me. I sometimes have entire weeks of feeling sensitive and remaining quiet, avoiding friends and interactions so that I can protect my bruised ego. I am always on guard for people who might belittle me and revert me back to that insecure boy who stopped trusting others to save his self.

For me, stepping out of the shadows of that fateful year is dangerous. It is a constant risk that I do not always perceive as worth taking. I am risking my ego, my feelings, my self-esteem that took so long to build up after that time, and ultimately myself. Whenever any of us decide to step out of the shadows we are hiding in, we run the very scary risk of losing part of what makes us whole.

But when we decide to stay in the shadows, to lick our wounds for our whole lives, to never trust that there is light for us outside of this darkness, we run the even scarier risk of never truly being whole.

I never fully left the shadows of my sixth grade year in college, and the consequence was only being left with a few good friends from that time, friends I can’t even say know the whole me despite how much I cherish them. I have met up with long-time friends to catch up, only to realize I never fully revealed myself to them, and no longer know them because they never really knew me. I have spent months with my guard up around people I could have loved deeper and received deeper love from, had I only let them in sooner.

We deserve to step out of the shadows. There is light on the other side of whatever darkness we wrestle every day.

We deserve to believe that there are truer, kinder words to be spoken of us by people who actually have our best interest in mind. Better stories exist if we only pick up the pen to write them and share them with our loved ones.

We deserve to accept the grace we extend to others. We can spend our lives paying for the past, but we’ll never settle the debt unless we learn to live forgiven.

Shadow living is a difficult and heavy way to live, but it is also incredibly easy, for it is a pain that is known, comfortable, and predictable. Living in the light requires more of us, is a challenge not everyone wishes to risk, but is ultimately a lighter load to carry. Its pain is the pain that James Baldwin describes when he says, “Love is a growing up.”

We deserve to step from the shadows and live in light, so that we may know love and give love and let go of the rest.

Being Brave

When I tell people I teach in Oak Cliff, I am frequently met with the same response. “You’re so brave,” they say. Occasionally they will add some variation of, “It must be so tough to teach those kids.”

It is an infuriating response. These are children whom I love, and this person who has never met them or heard a single story about them already assumes they are tough to teach, difficult to reach, and easy to label. And—amidst these kids’ impossibility—I am a brave soul for choosing to teach them.

Over the years I have made varied responses to this statement, everything from passive silence (I am ashamed to admit) to passive-aggressive quips like, “Isn’t every teacher anywhere brave?” Time and again, I excuse myself from calling them out on the implicit racism within their pseudo-compliment.

Teachers are not brave based on where they teach. My children in Oak Cliff are just as good and bad as the children I grew up with in a small town in the suburbs that has no reputation, just as good and bad as the children who grow up in the “rich” neighborhood 15 minutes up the highway.

I don’t mean to be a reductionist, because certainly not all children are dealing with the same issues. But my point is not about what children are going through, but how “teachable” different children appear to be to people. And to that point, children are children, regardless of differences. They have curious minds, breakable hearts, and a propensity for making mistakes. Adults are the same, albeit many tend to lose their curiosity.

Teachers are also not brave just for being teachers, as my passive-aggressive quip once suggested. In my three years in education, I have met teachers from many different schools. Unsurprisingly, some teach for the money, some look at their kids and only feel malice, and some push packets onto desks every day and tell the kids not to bother them.

It’s a funny thing about the world that we have failed to grasp: being in a profession doesn’t make you good at it. There are bad teachers, bad police officers, bad mechanics, and so on. Professional labels are not as simple as the Village People made them out to be. Our world would benefit from learning not to treat a critique of a profession as a damnation of everyone who works within it.

So what makes a person brave?

Hollywood has a dangerous model. The most successful movies are always the ones where superheroes fight evil on larger scales with every sequel, or extraordinary humans survive the escape of dinosaurs in theme parks or intergalactic oppressive regimes. How many of our professions call for us to pull off such feats? (Seriously, if you’re dealing with escaped dinosaurs or intergalactic oppressive regimes, please reach out with more info.)

Even the movies about teachers romanticize the classroom, building up big breakthroughs of kids who once seemed unreachable. They play like highlight reels of teachers’ lives, when more often than not my life as a teacher would end up in very unentertaining deleted scenes and bloopers.

At their best, these movies can inspire us to live braver in our daily lives. But when we get caught believing too heavily in the Hollywood narrative, we can easily feel like something is wrong with our lives. A bad day turns into a bad year. A relationship didn’t turn around like it does in the rom-coms. The student standing up for himself at school didn’t transform into the hero getting back-pats and high-fives in the hallway. Where is the happy ending? The deus ex machina?

Charles Bukowski has a poem about the athletes who aren’t the all-stars, and ends with this reflection:

there are times when we should
remember
the strange courage
of the second-rate
who refuse to quit
when the nights
are black and long and sleepless
and the days are without
end.

Perhaps bravery has less to do with who we are (or what we call ourselves), and more to do with our daily choices.

Bravery is the single mom or dad who wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning to make lunch for their child before working a 10-hour shift.

Bravery is the kid who is called names every day, and looks at himself in the mirror and knows better. Or, on days when he doesn’t know better, chooses to love others anyway.

Bravery is the woman afraid to speak in front of crowds, who stands up and inspires audiences of hundreds and thousands (or even just ten).

Bravery is the social justice advocate who continues to fight for the oppressed even as their personal character is attacked for attempting to help the hurting.

Bravery is anyone who wakes up in this world today and decides to spread positivity amidst all of the negative energy emitted by the human population at large.

Bravery is more often found in the small details of the day than the larger victories that only come around a few times in a lifespan.

Another dangerous definition of bravery is the phrase “putting on a brave face,” often advised when people should hold in their negative emotions to pretend they are fine. But what if the bravest face is the one that cries in front of others in a moment of vulnerability so rare in our modern age? What if the bravest face is the one dealing with depression, and openly talks about the experience of living with a terrifying chemical imbalance that gets stigmatized by society?

We need to redefine the brave face. It’s not the one smiling through the pain, swallowing sadness to look ‘presentable’. The brave face is feeling what it feels, and sharing it with others. Let’s not call people brave for tucking their true emotions away.

Let’s call people brave when they wake up on their worst day and still go to work. Let’s call people brave when for struggling with this beautiful, broken thing we call life. And let’s call ourselves brave when—having failed—we look in the mirror and still call ourselves loved.

Don’t make bravery synonymous with a certain profession, with Hollywood heroism, or with concealed feelings. Bravery is, simply, making the effort to live well in spite of the overwhelming amount of reasons not to.

If we start to see bravery as a daily choice to make the most of our smallest and most unrecognized moments, then maybe we can look at each other and say, “You’re so brave,” and it will finally mean what it should.

Bukowski, Charles. (2007). “Bruckner.” The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Soundtrack to 2015

Music in 2015 was good to me. I like to reflect on the albums that impacted me over the course of a year to understand myself, and others, better. Continuing my yearly tradition, here are my top albums and what they meant to me.

Honorable Mentions:

Adele’s 25, Miguel’s Wildheart, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf, mewithoutYou’s Pale Horses, Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind, Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$, Of Monster and Men’s Beneath the Skin, CHVRCHES’ Every Open Eye

  1. Depression Cherry—Beach HouseBeach_House_-_Depression_Cherry

I only bought this album recently, so admittedly it is a last minute addition, but I feel like it will easily climb this list as 2016 progresses. Beach House know how to create a feeling with their lush instrumentation and singer Victoria Legrand’s dreamy voice, and that all begins with the opener ‘Levitation,’ in which Legrand lamentingly accepts, “You grow up too quick/then get over it.” The album is full of these melancholic musings, and you can’t help but get lifted in the process.

  1. Coming Home—Leon Bridges

Coming_Home_Leon_BridgesMy Fort Worth bias may heavily come into play here, but Leon Bridges is undeniably talented and only starting to show what he is capable of with Coming Home. Throughout the short 10-track debut, Bridges shares his family history (‘Lisa Sawyer’ and ‘Twistin’ and Groovin’’), swoons over girls (‘Coming Home’ and ‘Better Man’) and preaches the gospel (‘Shine’ and the album’s highest moment ‘River’). All of these songs capture an old-fashioned sound (the Sam Cooke comparisons are so frequent they no longer need noting) that perfectly embody an age where vinyl and vintage are peaking, yet what will keep Bridges here for the long haul is not his nostalgic sound but the authenticity in his writing and voice.

  1. Seeds—TV on the Radio

WheTvotr_-_seedsn it comes to a breakup album, TV on the Radio don’t think sadness necessarily calls for heavy music. “Could you care for someone above your bright lights?” singer Tunde Adebimpe asks, over a boisterous horn section. Even when the album makes less noise, the feelings of a love lost are felt deeply (see ‘Trouble’). On the title track, Adebimpe details the initial feelings of a new love (“I told your sister that you’re all I ever dream of” is one of the most romantic lines ever written), and it is clear that this album will not let pain over heartbreak stop hope from coming (“rain comes down like it always does/this time I’ve got seeds on ground”).

  1. Strangers to Ourselves—Modest Mouse

Strangers_to_Ourselves_coverStrangers finds frontman Isaac Brock still angry about the world and its follies. Brock tackles everything from environmental destruction (“pack up again, head to the next place/where we’ll make the same mistakes”) to the Internet age (“the way we feel about what we do is by who has watched us”). But the album really shines when Brock gets quiet and vulnerable, like on ‘Ansel,’ a reflection about losing his brother in a mountain accident, and the regret that comes with things unstated before it’s too late. On the album opener he muses, “we’re lucky we’re so easy to forget.” It’s one of many contradictions expressed, as much of the album hones in on the irreparable damage we’ve done. And yet, Strangers to Ourselves understands the human condition is contradiction, a long history of unknowing, anger, fear, and regret, but still somehow trying to manage and move forward as best we know how.

  1. Kintsugi—Death Cab for Cutie

Death_Cab_For_Cutie_-_KintsugiDeath Cab returns with a refreshing take on romance in modern times. Beginning with ‘No Room in Frame,’ singer Ben Gibbard asks an ex-lover, “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?” It is a question about celebrity romance, but one that could reach into every broken heart burdened by an age when selfies reign over settling down. Throughout the album, Gibbard explores long-distance romance, the ghosts that follow you throughout life, and the constant reaching and not finding that he has always been so good at exploring. The standout is ‘Binary Sea,’ the final song, which narrates the day Atlas realized the world got bigger while he got weaker. “You took photos capturing his defeat,” Gibbard describes, “and messaged them to all your friends/and we all laughed at his expense.” The subject matter of the Internet’s effect on our compassion and connections has not been explored enough in music, and certainly not this well yet.

  1. Carrie & Lowell—Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan_Stevens_-_Carrie_&_LowellAs far as reaching into the deepest emotional places goes, Sufjan Stevens made the best album this year. Exploring the grief he is dealing with in the loss of his mother, Sufjan takes a headfirst dive into their long-estranged relationship, the reunion near the end of her life, and finally, her departure. Sufjan leaves nothing out on this sparsely instrumented album, from his suicidal ideation on ‘The Only Thing’ (“do I care if I survive this?”) to his feelings of abandonment as a child (“I should have wrote a letter/and grieve what I happen to grieve”). But what makes this album beautiful is that, amidst his grief, there is still so much life to be found. “Search for things to extol,” he sings on ‘Blue Bucket of Gold,’ and Sufjan has created a wonderful album for which to do so.

  1. How Big How Blue How Beautiful—Florence & The Machine

Florence_and_the_Machine_-_How_Big_How_Blue_How_Beautiful_(Official_Album_Cover)How Big finds Florence maturing into her big sound in all the right ways. Opening the album with the line, “Don’t touch the sleeping pills/they mess with my head,” Florence lets you into the dark night of her soul within seconds of the first song. “Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch? Did I build a ship to wreck?” she asks. When describing an abusive relationship, Florence surrounds herself with a choir and pulsing rhythm section while asking, “What kind of man loves like this?” This album shines through Florence’s incredible range of emotions, as she express her deepest regrets, deepest hurts, and deepest gratitude for life itself through the darkness (see the title track). It is the fact that she has felt pain so deeply that makes the listener feel her victories even deeper near the end of the album, on ‘Third Eye’ (“you don’t have to be a ghost here amongst the living”) and standout track ‘Mother’ (“mother make me a big tall tree/so I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me”).

  1. Beauty Behind the Madness—The Weeknd

The_Weeknd_-_Beauty_Behind_the_MadnessOn Beauty, The Weeknd embraced pop without compromising his dark, dark, dark lyrics. It’s hard to quote almost anything he says about the nameless women that move in and out of his life, but what makes this album complex is that—amidst his oft-regretful trysts with these women (“in my dark times baby/this is all I could be”), the voice of Abel Tesfaye’s mother weighs heavy on his mind (“mama called me destructive/said it’d ruin me one day”). She appears throughout the album as the good angel on his devilish shoulder, and as he wrestles with whether the fast life is the good life, we find that the Ice King of Pop is not rotten to the core. Nowhere is this more evident than the end of the album, when—his mother’s voice absent—he hopes for something real in a relationship and concedes, “but if not, I hope you find somebody to love.” Feelings, engage.

—-Between_the_World_and_Me
I’m currently reading Between the World and Me, a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son on what it means to live free in a black body in America at this time. I am certainly no expert on the black experience in America, but these albums have done as much for me in seeking to understand it as my students’ personal reflections and my own independent reading have.

  1. Summertime ’06—Vince Staples

Summertime-06Vince Staples’ 20 song debut album describes the scene on Long Beach, California, where Staples implores if white people chanting his lyrics at shows are aware that he knows “they won’t go where we kick it at.” Whereas Kendrick’s brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly attempts to moralize many of the issues plaguing his mind, Staples strips the fight between good and bad from the conversation to offer striking insights like, “I never vote for presidents/the presidents that change the hood are dead and green.” The album challenges and engages as Staples does not attempt to be a model citizen for the youth, but rather describes what it is like to be a youth in the suburbs we are afraid to talk about, the ones we whisper about without thinking about the real children and parents and siblings there fighting to survive while we cast judgment and proclaim to know what they need. “My teacher told me we was slaves,” Staples sings, “my mama told me we was kings.” Caught in the middle of a world that is fighting over the value of a black body, Staples confesses, “I don’t know who to listen to/I guess we’re somewhere in between.”

  1. To Pimp a Butterfly—Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick_Lamar_-_To_Pimp_a_ButterflyMeanwhile, Kendrick Lamar, amidst massive stardom, promised to bring Compton to Hollywood and the White House and did just that. In many interviews he talked about a nation that wants to use him—an exception to the rule of how many kids succeed coming from a neighborhood like his—by selling his body and value for profit, aka pimping a butterfly. Rather than settling for the totally justifiable route of simmering criticisms of corporate America (“I can see the dollar in you,” Lamar states in the voice of Uncle Sam attempting to buy and sell him), Lamar explores every wall that contains him, including the mentality that tells him he doesn’t deserve to speak for the people. “As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression,” he requests of the listener. Some articles said this is a specifically black album, and how are white people to take it? I find myself learning something new with each listen, not forming opinions based on empty politics, but from the perspective of a real human with real hurts rooted in real racism, as King Kunta takes me for a walk in his shoes while “everybody wanna cut the legs off him.”

  1. Rodeo—Travi$ Scott

RodeoalbumAlthough Vince and Kendrick offered up incredible takes on the black experience in America, there was something about Travi$ Scott’s debut Rodeo that really affected me. Forget that it features the best guest verses from the likes of The Weekend, Justin Bieber, and 2 Chainz. In an age where Drake’s overconfessional raps reign supreme, his antithesis is Travi$ Scott, a Houston emcee offering almost zero personal details about his life. “Give you some of me, you want all of me,” he groans on the first track, and it is this statement that defines the album’s themes. On the cover of Rodeo is an action figure version of Travi$, a man who himself almost never poses with his face fully visible to the camera (seriously, check out his Instagram). We live in a time where black culture is lauded while black lives are taken too soon, with no consequence to anyone but the families and communities that are left without them. So what does it mean when a rapper like Scott intentionally does not allow you into every corner of his life? It could be his means of hiding one’s self for survival, something Coates talks to his son about in Between the World and Me. It could be his way of not being pimped as corporate America’s butterfly. On a single song, Scott celebrates the fast life (“pray for my liver when I’m up in this club”), then later laments, “I’m tired of seeing black kids’ faces on Fox.” Some may scoff at a man who tries to be political while trying to party, but Rodeo, in its very name a form of entertainment to some that is life-or-death for the actual participants, is just the outline of a portrait of a black man who demands the right to a truly free life, as he wants it, on no one’s terms but his own. “I don’t want your apple pie, mama,” he boasts on the finale, “I need my own pepper, please/my own legacy/my own recipe.” We owe this freedom to choose our own paths to more people.

The Neutral Lives of Teachers

I teach at a school that once was a church, and the steeple still resides atop the elementary school building. Most of the students I teach identify as Christian or Catholic. So far as I am aware, there is not a single Muslim student in our school. Based on what my students have disclosed in class, they have never met or regularly interacted with someone of the Islamic faith. Most of what they know about Muslims they have heard on TV or seen on social media.

Lately the media has abounded with hateful, degrading, and dehumanizing comments toward people of the Islamic faith community. After a certain politician took degrading comments about Muslims to a new level last week, I decided to tell my students that regardless of religious beliefs, we owe every faith and non-faith tradition the respect that we would expect to have from them. I gave my kids the option of sharing a letter on social media to tell Muslims that they have value, they are beautiful, and they have a place at our table. I myself wrote a letter which—although I stand by the overall message—I will not repost here as I wrote it quickly in class while keeping one eye on my working students, and thus did not polish my words to communicate everything exactly right.

After posting a picture of my letter, a (former) Facebook friend commented that I should not “indoctrinate” my students with my own personal opinions. And, although I generally do not take teaching advice from people who have never taught, I thought seriously about his position on the issue. Should teachers reserve their opinions in the classroom at all times? Does taking a stance in front of my kids inherently push my values onto them? Are educators expected to remain neutral in the professional setting of their classroom? Indeed, a poster above my desk says, “The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see” (Alexandra Trenfor).

I spend a lot of time teaching my kids where to look. If I had to guess, I would say that I spend more time than the average teacher talking about how to critically analyze the messages my students see every day. That is no dig to other teachers; if anything, it is a dig at a government that has consistently placed high stakes testing over the ability to actually think. I have an advantage by teaching an elective that focuses on the vague principle of “postsecondary preparation.”

I believe a large part of postsecondary preparation is having the skills to critically analyze media messages. Many college courses are student-driven discussions based on readings, and I believe that I am preparing my students for college by teaching them to critically read about current events. I just wrapped up a unit with my students where we studied the basic principle that (1) all media messages are constructed (2) using a specific language (3) with an embedded set of values and (4) are typically seeking profit or power. We talked about the myth of “unbiased news” and spent a lot of time reading, writing, and debating the messages we observed. Who is giving us this message? What message are they giving us? Why? And, ultimately, do we accept it or not, and why?

One of the best lessons my kids have taught me in the last three years is that you have to earn a relationship with someone; your age, expertise, or authority do not excuse your need to know someone before you start trying to teach them something. One of Maya Angelou’s many pieces of wisdom was that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Thus, my kids have learned to not take any message at face value. It doesn’t matter if they like the person saying something: what are they saying, and do I agree with it?

As their teacher, although many of them seem to like me (fingers crossed), my position doesn’t make my words gospel to them. I know they feel comfortable disagreeing with me, because they do it all the time. And I don’t mean in petty arguments about their behavior; I mean in the real issues that drive at the heart of what it means to be human in 2015. I have deeper and more respectful conversations with my students about political issues than 99% of Facebook is having right now.

I would hate to leave the classroom someday and have my students wonder who I really was. I like to think that they are getting all of me, not some paid pawn reading from a script. I am a fan of NPR’s Secret Lives of Teachers segment, but in my classroom, there is no secret life of Mr. Taylor. I am the same to them as I am to my friends. We argue about rap, I use my trademark self-deprecating humor, and I occasionally share an opinion about topical issues. On my birthday this past Monday, one said, “So you’re 25. No wife. No kids. No prospects.” This is indicative of how much they know me, and how sad my life sometimes seems to them.

I think more of us should recognize the distinction between telling people what we think and telling people what to think. In telling people what we think, we trust them with part of who we are, the experiences and environmental conditions that led us to believe something about the world, ourselves, and others. Conversely, in telling people what to think, we insult them by forcing our own experiences onto them and expecting them to fall in line with us.

If I could destroy one cliché, it would be “because I said so.” It implies that authority supersedes a relationship. It says that your power outweighs all other considerations. It says that an adult’s words are good enough evidence, when we live in a world where adults often abuse, mistreat, and otherwise disregard the feelings of children.

Instead, I tell my kids what I think and why I think it, and then I let them, as fully functioning humans, determine if it is true for them or not. They don’t absorb my words as facts; they have more critical eyes than all of the conservatives and liberals who read the same news sources every day and repeat what they’re told.

I also wonder what effect it has on kids to put them in front of eight adults a day and expect those adults to never share personal opinions. Take a look at your social media, your last family gathering, or the last time you were in the break room and Donald Trump was brought up. Did everyone stay neutral? Did everyone sidestep the conversation and reserve their personal opinions? I highly doubt it. And if in most cases adults do not maintain neutrality amongst their peers, what kind of false reality are we building for our kids when eight times a day they interact with adults who don’t seem to think anything about anything?

I would rather my kids know where I stand on certain issues and strongly disagree with me than assume that adults mostly feel nothing about critical issues. I would rather they know that the world is not a neutral place, and they need to know how to disagree with people and still maintain relationships. The person who posted on my letter has never actually hung out with me one-on-one, or spent any time in the last four years with me, so I felt compelled to remove him from my Facebook (and essentially, my life), and move on. I don’t want to teach my kids that eliminating friends with different viewpoints is how life works, nor is imposing viewpoints on people when there is no relationship present.

When it comes to neutrality, I think teachers need to do two things. The first is to teach kids how to think, because without teaching them how to think they will never truly be prepared for the realities ahead of them.

The second is to teach them, by example, how to be human. More often than not, when my students have class debates and discussions, I step out of the way and allow them to learn the ins and outs of forming opinions and having respectful conversations. I don’t share my opinion, because I don’t want to be the loudest one in the room. It’s a good way for everyone to try to live.

But every once in awhile, when the world seems to be going awry, and not enough people are speaking up for Muslims, or women, or people of color, or children, I open my mouth and I speak from the heart. And my heart, more than my brain, more than my opinions, more than anything else, is what defines me as a teacher and a person. I would rather be wrong in front of my kids a million times than not speak my mind to them even once.

Reverse Drake

IMG_0302I gave a LIFETalk at my school’s convocation about our responsibility to undo oppressive narratives about our kids. This is part 3 of 3 of the speech, edited and expanded to better fit a written format.

I recently became engulfed in the still-unresolved beef between Drake and Meek Mill. A good friend once introduced me to a new teacher by saying, “Taylor’s expertise is pop culture.” This was a high compliment. I can playback high profile, tweet-by-tweet coverage of any celebrity scuffle.

If you’re unfamiliar with what took place between Drake and Meek Mill, do not fear: I am here to navigate you through the inner workings of the rap game and feuds herein.

A few weeks ago, Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to express her disdain for “Anaconda” getting snubbed for the MTV Video Music Awards. As she lit our feeds up, her fiancée, rapper Meek Mill, decided to fire a few rounds on Twitter as well. What was on Meek’s mind? Well, he accused Drizzy Drake of using a ghostwriter on a song he was featured on for Meek’s latest album.

Now, if you don’t know a lot about the rap game, to be accused of using a ghostwriter is a pretty steep claim. What you are suggesting is that, according to kris ex, a rapper’s authenticity or realness is false. A rapper must first and foremost be real, and to use a ghostwriter is to be unreal, inauthentic, un-hip-hop.

Drake did not appreciate this. Drake, who has a Twitter, decided not to tweet back, but to release two dis tracks (“Charged Up” and “Back to Back”) aimed at Meek Mill. And, of course, Meek responded with his own dis track (name not worth remembering). And, naturally, Drake then played his favorite Meek-mocking memes on the screen behind him as he played his annual OVO Festival.

The beef got so hot (I AM UNSURE IF MY LINGO IS STILL CURRENT) that Whataburger tweeted, “Meek, if you’re going to serve beef, make sure it’s high quality.”

Most incendiary, in my opinion, is that there is actual video footage of Will Smith, Kanye West, and Drake laughing at a Meek meme on Will’s phone. Talk about beef served cold (I AM AWARE THE TEMPERATURE OF THE BEEF KEEPS CHANGING).

I started to wonder why I was so fascinated by this high-profile interpersonal conflict. At first, I thought that I just pay attention to the wrong things. I do hate when people try to psychoanalyze celebrity’s choices and lifestyles, but when the celebrities are publicly displaying their grievances with one another, it’s not my fault if the dirty laundry was hanging outside and I happened to catch a whiff.

But then I dug a little deeper into my fascination with this beef, and I realized that the same way that Drake escalated Meek’s tweet from 0 to 100 is the same way we teachers often escalate our students’ misbehavior to unnecessary levels of humiliation and oppression.

As the school year begins, we all hang posters with our expectations of students. They include classics like “keep your hands, feet, and objects to yourself,” “use appropriate language,” “raise your hand before speaking.” All of them boil down to respect.

But what happens when we don’t live up to what we expect from our students? What happens when we tell our students to respect us and then don’t return them the same respect we demand?

My students like to use the bumper-sticker phrase, “You have to give respect to get respect.” It’s a troubling motto, because it implies that we both wait for the other person to respect us, and end up in a standoff where no one ends up respecting anyone.

Yet we do the same thing with our actions towards students. A student will make a comment that is as small as Meek’s tweet, and we will escalate it to yelling, rude comments, negative reinforcement, and outright oppression of our students.

Sometimes a student’s facial expression will set us off. Other times a student will say something we misinterpret. How often do we wrongly punish a student for a small miscommunication that we mistook for disrespect, or overly punish disrespect we grossly overreacted to? How seldom do we apologize when we realize we over-disciplined?

I have been guilty. I have let my bad moods affect the way I speak to my kids. I have raised my voice after telling my kids to never raise theirs. I have given full, impassioned lectures in what could have been powerful, teachable moments.

It is our responsibility as educators to Reverse Drake. We have to take moments of tension from 100 to 0 real quick, not the other way around. If we don’t stop to reflect on our cultural biases, we can mistake positive traits like outspokenness for open disrespect. Our choice of words can cost us the ability to reach a student and love them like we are called to do.

I don’t mean that we allow our children to run all over us. I have a strong classroom management system in place, but there is a difference between good leadership and oppressive dictatorship. One makes people want to follow you out of mutual respect and desire; the other makes people follow you out of fear or rebel against you altogether.

Children absorb messages from us, and they are taking on some of our character every day they spend with us. My kids know and point out all of my quirks, and I have noticed some of them adopting some of them as we grow and learn together. Your kids will learn character traits from you. Are you living the character you want them to have? If the answer is not always yes, or even often yes, perhaps you should live up to your classroom expectations before you ask anyone else to do so.

Maybe you need to read into your responses and discipline like I read into celebrity beef, and check whether you are taking tweets and turning them into dis tracks. You know where Twitter beef never gets resolved? On Twitter. If it ever goes away, it is because of a private conversation between the two tweeters.

Or maybe you have continued cooking the beef long after it burnt. I know teachers who hold onto grudges with students for years. We are human. We are not infallible, or impervious to personal feelings or prejudices. What is important is that we recognize these emotions and biases and work actively to reverse them.

We have a greater duty to our kids than teaching them equations and sentence structures. We need to teach them good character, and we first do this by practicing good character in front of them. Our words and our posters and our expectations are worthless without congruence of actions. Squash the beef and dish out more grace, more compassion, more love. Learn to Reverse Drake, and get back to the heart of teaching: to show children their immeasurable worth and lift them up in a world that is constantly trying to bring them down. Your children need you more than ever.

Lift Their Voices

I gave a LIFETalk at my school’s convocation about our responsibility to undo oppressive narratives about our kids. This is part 2 of 3 of the speech, edited and expanded to better fit a written format.LIFETalk

Last week I wrote about my love for movies and how reading reviews relates to the oppression of our students. Something I love less than movies but have nonetheless participated in is dating. I was wondering (I would say not recently, but…) what is the proportion you are supposed to achieve in terms of how much talking each person does on a date?

I assumed that I should be talking 10% and she should be talking 90%, so that I don’t end up saying anything that ruins my chances. The less you try, the less you fail, right? Don’t make that a classroom poster, by the way. Terrible advice—for dating and teaching.

What I actually found, after extensive Googling (again, I’d like to say I embellish details sometimes, but…) is that ideally you want to achieve the rule of 50-50, in which each person talks an equal amount of time. That makes perfect sense when you think about a healthy, equal relationship, but it is so hard to do, both on dates (if you’re me), and in schools.

In the classroom, we assume that we should talk more because we get paid to teach and hopefully know what we are talking about more than 50% of the time. However, when we create a teacher-centered classroom in which we are the authoritative holders of all knowledge, we create a system where we are the experts and no one else is allowed to be smart on the subject we are discussing. In the same way that we oppress our students by reading reviews about them, we oppress them through actual silencing of their voices.

I hear a lot of teachers make flimsy excuses like, “My students don’t want to talk. They sit silently when I ask questions.” What we often fail to consider is why our students are not talking. If we establish a 90-10 relationship from the start, we communicate a clear message to our kids: “I am the authority, and you are the subordinate. I hold the knowledge, and you absorb it. I know everything, and you know nothing. Soak up my wisdom.”

When we only trust students with 10% (or less) of the conversation, we excuse them from their responsibility to participate. When students learn that all of the knowledge is at the front of the room where you stand, they are content to sit back with the understanding that the knowledge is not with them.

Oppression lives in the subconscious signals we send our kids. The passive belief that we are the only experts in the room actively silences our children’s ability to take ownership of their learning.

Worse, we not only excuse them from taking ownership of their learning, we then blame them for it. We ignore the fact that we have effectively silenced them to wonder why we do so much of the talking. We start sentences with the finger-pointing phrase, “These kids never…” rather than starting sentences with the self-owning phrase, “I never let my kids…”

“These kids never answer my questions,” is often a stand-in for, “I never let my kids answer questions.”

“These kids never turn in their homework,” is code for, “I don’t maintain high expectations for homework to begin with.”

“These kids never do better than this,” is oppressive and lazy language for, “I don’t ask my students to do better than this because I assume they won’t.” Or, conversely but equally oppressive: “I set unreasonable standards and then don’t offer support when they flounder.”

If we ask our kids questions, and there is silence, we have to learn to be comfortable with it. If we ask a question, and let the silence simmer, eventually someone will talk. It cannot always be us. We must learn not to cave in uncomfortable, eerie silences. Silence in the room is not oppression; silence of our students while we keep talking might be.

We must also learn to maintain high expectations even when they aren’t met immediately. Often we assign homework Monday, make it due Tuesday, and then change the due date to Wednesday when no one turns it in. Or Friday. Or stop giving homework altogether. Lowering the bar does not help our students jump higher; it just makes it easier to step over a very low bar. Keep the due date on Tuesday. Maintain the bar. Offer support. Then wait. Consistently expect the best from your students, and eventually they will rise to the challenge.

I have a student who is in my first period, and then is my aide in second period. After hearing me teach the lesson, she asked if she could teach it the next period. Without hesitating, I gave her my place and sat in her seat. She rocked the lesson. She did not just read my PowerPoint: she explained the concepts and asked questions. The rest of the class took notes attentively and participated. As I tweeted about her teaching, a girl leaned over and said, “Excuse me, we don’t use phones in this class. Just trying to help you.”

Another student asked if, when I start grad school next week, they can create lessons to teach the class. I will be out of a job by December when they are running the class without me.

Our kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Donald Miller writes that “the world would be fixed of its problems if every child understood the necessity of their existence.” Are we the reason they don’t already understand?

May we not stand in awe of the kids who succeed in spite of the obstacles, but move those obstacles—our perceptions, low expectations, oppressive power structures—out of their way. May we come to understand the necessity of every child’s existence, and may we lift their voices higher than ours.

Miller, D. (2011). Father FictionBrentwood, TN: Howard Books.

Reading Reviews

I gave a LIFETalk at my school’s convocation about our responsibility to undo oppressive narratives about our kids. This is part 1 of 3 of the speech, edited and expanded to better fit a written format.

LIFETalkI love to see movies. Every week, I try to make it out to the movies at least once. People with children tell me this is a great source of jealousy for them, as the movie-going days end when the little ones take center stage. I will probably forgo having children for a long time.

Being a known moviegoer makes me the go-to guy amongst my friends for recommendations. I often attempt to convince people to see movies that are not in the never-ending Marvel universe. If I have negative feelings toward something, I will ask people general questions about their preferences before saying anything too specific. “Do you enjoy cliché romantic endings? Oh, you do? Then yeah, you’ll love it.” I’m very helpful and nonjudgmental in this way.

On one hand, I enjoy being a trusted source of movie recommendations for people. It’s a source of pride for me. It is also a source of tension, because I hate when people try to form my opinions for me, so I worry that I do the same to others when I talk a movie up or down.

Everyone wants to know what to see and what to avoid so they save themselves time, hassle, money, boredom. Put simply, we want somebody else to tell us what to love and what to hate. It is amazing when someone who has not seen a movie rattles off everything that is wrong with it because so-and-so who writes for so-and-so told him so. We let somebody else form our opinions about things we will never experience for ourselves.

And there is more hate in movie reviews than anything else. A recent review of Adam Sandler’s new movie Pixels said that a justifiable reason to see the movie would be “having a loved one held for ransom” or suffering “a serious blow to the head.”

A review of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 said it offers “possible evidence of a civilization in decline.” Look, I’m not thrilled about Kevin James’s career choices either, but the most harm he is doing to anyone on that Segway is himself.

It’s easy to be negative; it can even be fun.

It’s also poisonous.

Our problem in education (and the world at large) is that we read the reviews about our children before we give them a chance. Inevitably, the beginning of the school year brings a lot of jitters and chatter about which unlucky teacher got ‘That Child’. We look over each other’s shoulders and groan in sympathy when a teacher has one of our former troublemakers on their roster. We begin to recount stories of disaster and mayhem that we ideally think will prepare that teacher for what misfortunes are about to befall them.

What we really do, however, is write that child off before that child gets to write themselves a new chapter. We deny that child’s right to be better than before. We silence the possibility that people can change. We oppress our students before they even enter the classroom.

When people hear that I teach in Oak Cliff, their eyes all but pop out of their heads. They make some comment along the lines of, “Wow, those kids must be so rough.”

Nine times out of ten these people have never been to Oak Cliff.

Ten times out of ten these people have never met the wonderful children I am lucky to have known for two years.

They have read the negative reviews and spat them back out as facts. They know all about a movie they haven’t seen.

Make no mistake: this review-reading and regurgitating is nothing short of oppression. When we make assumptions about people who are young, or black, or brown, or live in a certain neighborhood, or look a certain way, we willfully and actively push down a group of people we have not begun to try to understand. With the multitude of obstacles that children face in the 21st century, our ill-informed assumptions are just one more roadblock they will have to overcome on their journey in becoming. Turn the news on: some aren’t even getting the chance to prove they are more than these categorical reductions.

So what do we do—as educators, as adults, as advocates for our kids—in order to unravel these oppressive threads and allow our children to write their own narratives?

The actress, writer, and producer Mindy Kaling tells a story in her book about Steve Carell, whom she worked with on The Office. It’s rumored that Steve Carell is the nicest guy in Hollywood, and Mindy’s evidence of this is that anytime the cast of The Office gossiped about someone, and asked Steve to weigh in, he would (at most) say, “Wow. If all they say about him is true, that is nuts.” He would then “politely excuse himself to go to his trailer.” She said it was infuriating. But you know what? The world needs more Steve Carells and less TMZs. The world needs more moviegoers and less movie reviewers.

We need to take it even farther than Steve Carell. There are so many negative narratives about our kids that it is becoming more and more urgent for us to push back on these narratives with better, truer stories.

When people make ignorant comments about my kids, I feel angry, awkward, and ill-equipped to respond. But I have slowly grown to counter these microaggressions with stories that I believe diffuse the moment’s tension without making a scene. One person went so far as to say that teaching in Oak Cliff must be “scary.” I lowered my voice as if I was about to share a spooky story by the campfire and replied, “Yeah, on my last birthday, my children threw me a surprise party. They planned it for weeks and had snacks, gifts, and hugs all around. Very scary.”

Let’s make a promise to each other: Let’s not read the reviews before we meet our children. Let’s not hear the story from someone else. Let’s not return to our classrooms and start gossiping about kids we haven’t met, or about kids who haven’t finished growing yet—which is all of them.

If you aren’t an educator, be careful how you speak about children you don’t know.

If you are an educator, be careful how you speak about children you do know.

Let’s recast ourselves not as critics ready to write scathing reviews of our kids, but as active participants in the movie of these children’s lives. Imagine that our names will appear in each child’s credits, and realize how important it is that every child gets to tell the story they set out to tell.

There is an incredibly inspiring, daring, challenging story inside each of us—we all deserve to tell it our way.

Chang, Justin. (2015, April 17). ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2’ Review: Kevin James Heads to Vegas. Variety. Retrieved from http://variety.com/2015/film/reviews/paul-blart-mall-cop-2-review-kevin-james-1201474644/ 

Kaling, M. (2011). Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns. New York, NY: Crown Archetype.

Mohan, Mark. (2015, July 22). ‘Pixels’ review: Adam Sandler battles video-game space invaders; why won’t someone say ‘Game Over’ to his career? The Oregonian/OregonLive. Retrieved from http://www.oregonlive.com/movies/2015/07/pixels_review_adam_sandler_bat.html