Harry Potter and the Trip Through Time

Last week I loaded Harry Potter and the Cursed Child onto my kindle app, excited to read it on the train ride to my parents’. I didn’t expect it to live up to the original series or anything, but I figured it would be a fun read, and what could be a more perfect place to read Harry Potter than a train? In my head, I was basically rocking Platform 9 3/4.

I’m not gonna lie–the first couple pages had me cringing a bit. The dialogue felt a little clunky, and I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to get into it…. But the plot picked up quickly, and I felt myself getting sucked into the adventure. I kept reading. It was like when you see an old friend after years apart, and it’s a little awkward as you’re trying to figure out this new person. You kind of see glimpses of the person you remember, but aren’t completely sure whether you’re still friends… But then you work through the awkward and find your new rhythm, because you remember how much you actually love each other. That was me and the Hogwarts gang. They’ve changed, and I’ve changed, but being reunited feels so good.

The book that lived...
The book that lived…

I didn’t fully appreciate just how appropriate the time and place was for reading this new Harry Potter, though, until the next day as I read the last few pages. By that point, I wasn’t just reading for plot anymore; I was fully wrapped up in the humanity and heart that our wizard friends offer, feeling all the feels. Suddenly, I realized that I was sitting in the exact same spot–my bedroom at my parents’ house–as the last time I read a brand new Harry Potter book.

When I both eagerly and reluctantly read the last in the original series, it was July 2007, and I was a hot mess. My parents had just moved from the only house my family had ever lived in. I’d just graduated and left BYU. Being a person who doesn’t handle change well, it really threw me to be uprooted from all the places, and most of the people, I’d ever known as “home,” all at the same time. I was interviewing for jobs, but didn’t know where or if I’d land. The future was a foggy black hole. I had a shiny new teaching degree, so I was interviewing for teaching jobs, but I’d hated student teaching. I wasn’t at all convinced that I had what it takes to be a decent teacher, and I was pretty sure I’d never be happy doing it. But what are you supposed to do when you’ve just invested five years and a zillion dollars into a degree you then think was a mistake? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a great way to escape reality for a day or two. But then it ended, just like every other era in my life had just ended. Did I mention I was a hot mess?

A couple days after finishing Deathly Hallows, I interviewed with Whitford. The job was different than all the others I’d been applying for, but it also felt so much more right. I wanted that job. And I got that job.

And then I blinked, and it was 2016, and I was back in that same room, reading Harry Potter. There was never going to be more to Harry’s story, but it turns out “never” was a strong word. (I prefer #always anyway…)

I was never going to make it in teaching, but here I am, about to start year ten, and I’ve done more than just survive teaching. I’ve lived it, slept it, and breathed it. I’ve found passions and areas of growing expertise within my teaching world that I never would have guessed. I’ve amassed a list of hundreds of kids–not all of them such kids anymore–who I love dearly. I can confidently say that I’ve made a difference for at least some. I laugh every day. Maybe it wasn’t a mistake…

I was afraid I’d never find a place that felt like home again. But I dropped my roots onto Oregon soil, and they like it there. It’s still a struggle sometimes to be alone and feel like I actually belong in a place with no family. But it’s a really good place, filled with really good people. I have communities that I’m grateful and proud to be part of. I have friends and connections that I treasure. And as half the country, unfortunately, seems to have discovered, Portland is just really cool!

Gave my heart to Oregon, then pinned in on my bag.
Gave my heart to Oregon, then pinned it on my bag.

I was sure that my parents’ new house in the middle of nowhere was never going to be home…. and, well, that’s still mostly true. I can’t visit without getting homesick for our real home. But, funny thing, becoming an aunt has helped a little. There’s been life and memories attached to the house now. That’s where I spent hours cuddling those sweet babies. I just spent a week hiding, seeking, and running around like a crazy person with my cutie pie niece in all random corners of the house. This is a house they’ll look back on nostalgically someday when they’re remembering their own childhood. My 2007 self didn’t imagine ever caring much about the next generation in Harry Potter’s world. And had no idea how deeply in love I’d be nine years later with the next generation in my own family.

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The first time I finished Harry Potter forever at my parents’ house, I couldn’t see where my life was about to go, and it terrified me. This time, as I finished the turns-out-it-wasn’t-forever Harry Potter, I had to smile about all the unexpected directions it’s taken. If I had been able to see my future, I wouldn’t have recognized it. How could I have recognized the 32-year-old version of myself who would color her hair like a peacock, earn an IMDb page, become a minister-by-the-powers-of-the-internet, write stuff on a blog that eleventy billion people would read, and occasionally ask herself if life in Nebraska would be so bad? (Ok, there aren’t that many regular readers of my blog…. But some days it feels like it.) And who knew that version of me would be reading a new Harry Potter book?

Life is weird. I should stop trying to predict it.

When the tragedy hits way too close to home…

This really, really isn’t what I wanted to write about this weekend. But after pushing through and doing all of this weekend’s have-tos, I’m finding this to be the only thing I can write about….

Like everyone who calls Mukilteo home, I’m thinking about the shooting that happened late Friday night. I don’t want to write the details; you can read about it at the link, or plenty of other news sources.

My peer group and I are reeling. We didn’t know the people involved, but shave off a few years, and we would have known them. We basically were them.

They went to Kamiak High School. So I’m remembering Kamiak. I remember feeling pretty safe and protected from the world most of the time; we were 90s kids in an idyllic town overlooking the Puget Sound, and I don’t think lockdown drills were a thing yet.

But you know what else I remember? I remember the bookends to my KHS years–freshman year was Columbine (Remember how that was a tragedy we’d never imagined, not “oh no, another school shooting?”), and senior year was 9/11 (Remember how that felt so impossibly surreal and nobody knew what to do next, instead of “Here come the pundits, seizing another chance to make the same political arguments as always, and everybody will have added a filter to their profile photo within an hour…?”). The world wasn’t safe then either, and we were just starting to realize it. We were teenagers, still kids, and we didn’t know what to do with that kind of fear. But we were also teenagers, on the brink of becoming adults, and the world was asking serious questions about how to become a safer place while maintaining the freedoms we treasure as Americans… and we were starting to realize it would be our responsibility to answer them.

You know what else I remember? I remember the choir room. The safe space. When life was too much to deal with, choir was always comfortingly predictable. Always the same people, in the same routines. We went on a retreat in the woods every fall, sang the Messiah and Carol of the Bells every winter, and went on some big trip every spring. We made beautiful music and memories together. It’s almost cliche to refer to the “choir family,” but I realized how extended that family is when I went back to visit several years later. The kids didn’t just follow all the same routines I remembered, they’d heard of my class! “You were one of the blesseds?!” Yes, I was. Yes, I am.

The shooting involved choir kids. That means they’re extended family. When I watch videos of them singing, I just have to close my eyes, and I can see my own generations of choirlings, plain as day.

You know what else I remember? Coming home from college in the summers, and reuniting with friends. Having people to “catch up” with made us feel a tiny bit adult, while falling into old patterns made us feel like we’d never really grow up, or maybe wish that we didn’t have to. Exactly the same as these college kids were doing Friday night. On the same street they were partying on. The only thing separating us from them is time.

You know what else I remember? The Harbour Pointe LDS Church building. I went to church there, youth activities there, early morning seminary there. I got to know God there. I felt the love of being part of a giant church family there. It was a refuge.

It was also the gathering place for kids and their families after Friday night. It hosted a vigil on Sunday night.

You know what else I remember? Every single mass shooting since I became a teacher. Every lock-in, lock-out, lock-down, whatever they’re calling them this year, drill since I became a teacher, all of which stir up memories of those shootings. Because now it’s not just about feeling unsafe; now it’s worrying about the safety of the kids. Kids who I love like my own. Kids who trust me to keep them safe. Kids whose families trust me to keep them safe. And on a regular, day-to-day basis, I do a pretty good job of it. Most kids feel safe enough in my room to express themselves, to make mistakes, to have fun, to ask for help, to try things, to share bad news, to share good news, to be themselves. But what about when I can’t keep them safe? What about the stuff I can’t protect them from?

Those kids in Mukilteo had some of the same teachers I had. And those teachers are living one of my nightmares right now.

You know what else I remember? Every kid I’ve taught that was holding onto some deep and unresolved issues. Emotional issues, psychological issues, issues that clouded the light in their eyes. Kids who got everything I had to give and services from those more qualified than myself, but it never seemed like enough. They might be the bullied, or the bullies, or both, or neither. Kids that were hurting somehow. Kids that might be capable of hurting others one day, especially if they have easy access to a weapon. I hurt for them when they were my students, and if the worst should ever happen, I’d hurt for them then too.

Those same Mukilteo teachers are living that nightmare also.

I don’t know how to end this post. A plea for better gun laws? For better mental health services? To stop hate and remember love? Do I express my love for the communities that I’ve found homes in? Do I express my faith that God is still with us? Hope for a better tomorrow? Despair for how the todays feel like they keep getting worse? Condolences to the families and those close to them?

All of those things. But… I don’t have closure right now, so I can’t write closure. Just… here we are.

How To Teach A Social Norm

A few stories.

Story #1:

I remember getting on an airplane, headed to Disneyland with my family, full of all the can’t-contain-the-excitement feels that you expect from a kid headed to Disneyland. I was probably about seven years old, and my brothers were younger. (Still are, actually.)

disneyland with dopey
Cheesin’ with Dopey!

The flight attendant cheerily brought us crayons and coloring books. (That seems strange now. Do flight attendants really give coloring books to kids? Did they back in the day? I don’t even know.) There were three coloring books–one  Barbie, and two dinosaurs. As she held them out for us, I didn’t realize that I’d already been assigned the Barbie coloring book; I innocently thought we were being given options. I had lots of dolls, but Barbies were never my favorite. I loved The Land Before Time though! I watched that movie so many times, I still remember the Pizza Hut commercial that came before it started on the VHS. (See? YouTube remembers it too!) So with the coloring books fanned out in front of us, I quickly claimed a dinosaur book, excited to start filling in the “long necks” and “three horns.”

Then I saw the adults giving each other, and me, The Look.

Let’s describe The Look a bit. It isn’t an angry look. It’s a mix of awkwardness, embarrassment, disappointment. It seems to beg, “Please don’t make us explain why that thing you just did is wrong. It just is, and you should know better.”

It wasn’t until I saw The Look that I realized there had been two boy books, and one girl book. I don’t remember for sure what happened next, but I think I held tight to my chosen dinosaur pages. I’m not sure if one of my brothers ended up with Barbie, or if they complained about it, or if a third dinosaur book was rustled up, or if I folded and took the Barbie book after all…. But I do know that I learned a few things that day– 1) I should play with girl things. 2) Dinosaurs are not girl things. 3) Boys shouldn’t have to play with girl things.

Story #2:

I was in a toy store, looking at dolls. Despite the Barbies vs. dinosaurs mix up, I really did love dolls, and the 90s had so many great dolls. There were Magic Nursery Babies, Kid Sister, Baby Alive, Quints, the doll whose makeup magically appeared when you painted on water, the doll whose hair grew and changed color, the dolls that smelled like cupcakes…. It was a great time for dolls.

The 90s were also all about token racial diversity, so some of the dolls that were white in all the ads, also had a black counterpart on the store shelves. This particular day, it was the black version of a doll that caught my fancy, so I pointed it out and said, “I want that one!” I wasn’t trying to make a statement for social justice or anything; I just thought she was pretty.

The adults gave The Look again. I saw it.

“Are you sure?” I was asked.

“No,” I mumbled.

I don’t think I got a doll that day. I think I escaped the doll aisle and went to look at stuffed unicorns or something. I don’t remember. But I do remember learning that white girls play with white girl toys.

So many rules to remember!

Story #3:

I grew up, and became a teacher. Now I listen to my students define a nurse as, “a girl doctor.” I hear girls say they want to be a doctor when they grow up, and the boys shoot them down with, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” I hear the girl who loves soccer say she’s not allowed to play like her brother can. I hear the boy who doesn’t like sports say he can’t just have a conversation with his dad like his sports-loving brothers can.

Every time, I try to give my version of The Look. I try to express my disapproval of restrictive and nonsensical gender rules. My look does nothing. I can tell nobody even sees it.

So, during the career unit, I invited one nurse to speak with my classes–my RN brother skyped in. Talked all about the work he does in the ER, and the work it’s taken to get there. He didn’t say a word about gender, but the message was clear. Nursing is a great career option for men and women. Both. (Incidentally, his two-year-old daughter kept interrupting, waving her toy dinosaurs in front of the screen, and roaring for us…. Right on, lil’ sister suffragette!)

skype with kasey-2
My brilliant niece, in the middle, loves princesses, dinosaurs, cooking, doctoring, baby dolls, big trucks, reading, counting, and her family…. She’s not such a fan of the patriarchy. :)

A female doctor spoke to some of my classes about her work with natural medicine, and the people she’s been able to help around the world. A female PA talked about her career, and completely won over the kids when she gave them surgical caps and masks to dress up in.

We heard from women who practice law and accounting.

We heard from men who write.

We heard from different kinds of therapists who work with the disabled…. We also heard from disabled people about their careers as a graphic designer, news producer, social media outreach specialist, and software engineer.

The year before, we wrapped up a unit of study about the brain with another guest speaker–a neurosurgeon, and a woman.

Conclusions:

It’s easy to teach traditional social norms. You don’t even have to try; a slight and momentary facial expression will do the job. But unteaching those norms? Teaching kids to think beyond social norms? Takes a lot more work. A simple Look isn’t going to cut it. Occasionally repeating a throwaway line, “Everybody’s equal,” isn’t enough. You have to be really intentional about what they’re seeing, hearing, and doing. They have to see behavior that falls within the traditional norm, and outside of the norm, and somewhere in the middle, and feel that it’s all worthy of approval.

And you have to mean it!

Not Even Pretending To Be Cool

“Ms. Napper, do you have a Snapchat?”
“No.”
“Instagram?”
“No.”
“Twitter?”
“Nope.”
“Kik?”
“What?”
“Vine?”
“No!”

There were about five minutes at the very beginning of my career when I was cool, because I used Facebook. Then I blinked, the kids had moved on to the next shiny object, and I began my descent into dinosaur status. I guess we all know that we’ll become out-of-date relics eventually, but who knew it would happen so fast?

dino-me with background

The evolution of social media mystifies me though. I was along for the ride as we went through the phases of AIM chats/profiles/away messages, LiveJournals, Xanga, MySpace, etc, until we all landed on Facebook. After that, it stopped making sense.

Remember the old days (or, at least, the movies about the old days), when grocery shopping meant a list of visits to the butcher, the produce guy, the baker, and the milkman came to you? Then grocery stores became a thing, and now we can get everything at Safeway. We consolidated, simplifying our lives, so now we can get all the things in one place.

Or remember when we used calculators, maps, cameras, dictionaries, flashlights, notepads, music players of some sort… And then smart phones entered our lives. Consolidation. All the things in one place.

So why is social media going in the opposite direction? Facebook gave us all the things in one place, but ever since, we’ve been fragmenting.

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Instagram lets you share photos… Or I can put photos on Facebook.

Twitter lets you share messages in 140 characters or less… Or I can share messages of any length I want on Facebook.

Vine lets you share videos of 6 seconds or less… Or I can share videos of any length on Facebook.

Snapchat, Kik, and whatever other messaging apps are out there… Not only does my phone already have text messaging, but Facebook has a messenger too!

Now, the question we should be asking ourselves–why isn’t Mark Zuckerberg paying me to write this?? (Hey, Zucks, contact me, and I’ll hook you up with my PayPal….)

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It sounds so crazy when you hear people in the public eye promoting themselves, and they rattle off this long list of usernames on all these different platforms. Why? Why is that necessary? Who can keep up with that?

As it is, Facebook sucks up an unhealthy amount of my time and attention. Also, I’ve been terrible about checking my personal email ever since Facebook became a thing. I can’t imagine how I’d manage my time if I were juggling half a dozen more social media apps, all of which I’d surely think needed to be checked every three minutes.

So, sorry-not-sorry, but my social media status piqued in 2005, when I was an elitist, college-student-only user of TheFacebook. The kids can shake their heads in disappointment at me, but it’s cool. I can always shake my fist and tell them to get off my lawn.

One Last Bout Of School Year Sentiment

Not gonna lie, I spend all year looking forward to the magical last day of school, when the insanity takes a break, and summer begins. That should come as no surprise!

But here’s the thing. Underneath my thick layers of snark, awkwardness, and whimsical nonsense, I’m also a sentimental sap. And ending the school year is always tough. Goodbyes are tough. I’m horrifically bad at them.

Goodbyes to students are tough, especially the 8th graders. Laugh and roll your eyes if you must, but you have to understand, I teach many of them for up to three years in a row. I meet them as 11 year old children, stick with them through the crazy hormonal storms, and then say goodbye to 14 year olds who are actually bordering on maturity. By then, magic happens when I look at the kids, and I can simultaneously see shadows of the adults they’re becoming, and of the lil’ kids they once were. I miss the latter, and hope to someday meet the former. But after all that we go through together in three years, they have a pretty huge place in my heart!

The kids actually aren’t who I’m thinking about today though.

It’s also hard to say goodbye to the adults. I happen to work at the best middle school in the west–possibly the world–and it’s not coincidentally staffed by the best professionals you could ever want to work with. Ending the school year means saying goodbye to those who are retiring or moving on to other jobs. Of course, nothing will ever be as bad as the years after the economy crashed, when teachers were being moved against their will, and nobody had any control over where they ended up. At least now people generally only leave when they choose to. But that only makes it marginally easier!

I’m pretty anti-change in general. I like my routines. I like things to stay comfortable. I like my people to be right where I expect them to be. Always.

And I don’t like losing people who are such talented, kind, integral parts of our school community. So many times over the last few days, I’ve thought “How will we ever survive without _____?”

But I think that every year, and this year I tried not to say it out loud. Because you know what I’ve learned? We will survive. And we’ll continue to thrive. That’s part of how the much-talked-about “Whitford Way” works.

In nine years at Whitford, especially these nine years, I’ve seen a lot of incredible people come and go. The magical part, though, is watching their ripples. A person’s influence doesn’t stop when they leave Whitford. The good they’ve done keeps working its way around, evolving into new shapes and forms, but maintaining its flavor. Sometimes people leave a very tangible mark, where you can point to specific objects, practices, or traditions, and you know who did that. Usually it’s a less tangible legacy.

Speaking for myself, I know that I carry many pieces of other teachers with me. Sometimes it’s even mildly against my will: “If So-And-So were here, they would do such-and-such. But they’re not here, and it should still be done, so I guess I’ll do it…” Most of the time it’s with a much better attitude though, I promise! “This person always acts this way, and I want to be like that too…”

As a new teacher, it was easy to name the qualities I wanted to have as a teacher. For example, “I want to have high expectations for all students.” Very easy to say! But what does that actually mean in the trenches of a classroom? I can read lots of articles about high expectations, and maybe they help a little. But nothing helps as much as being around teachers who consistently model successful ways to get students meeting high expectations. In my head right now, there’s a long list of Whitford names, past and present, and specific things I’ve learned from each, that help me keep the expectations high in my own classroom.

I try to pass those things along to others, both students and teachers, because the Whitford Way works in ripples. Some of the most valuable advice I’ve received can be traced to teachers I’ve never even met, so I try to do my part to keep passing it forward.

A few months ago, I randomly came across a gathering of the Whitford retiree group. Some I knew as friends; others I mostly knew from legend. But there was something comforting and circle-of-lifey about that glimpse of what I hope my future looks like, still a part of this special family.

I’ve always felt lucky to be part of this community, experiencing the Whitford Way magic. And I think I’m starting to finally believe the magic doesn’t have an expiration date.

Another Opportunity To Check Your Racism

I’m not a big fan of our biggest local taxi service. Some bad experiences have left me with a sour taste and general distrust. But you know what I hate more than the taxi company? I hate that I can’t complain about the cab service, and just be talking about the cab service.

This is what happens, probably nine times out of ten, when I tell a story about a cab driver who was dishonest, or unsafe, or whatever the complaint is this time. The listener immediately asks some variation on: “Was he… from another country?” “Did he speak much English?” “Was he [insert race or ethnicity here]?” Often the question is preceded with the classic, “I’m not racist, but…”

The answer to the question doesn’t even matter. My problem is with the question itself. Why is anyone asking it? Why are so many people asking it? What kind of assumptions and biases are they trying to validate, and why?

When I tell stories about people being kind, thoughtful, witty, fun, or smart, nobody ever responds by asking about the person’s racial background. Never, at least as far as I can remember. If there are any assumptions made about that person’s ethnicity, they go unspoken.

And when I tell a story about bad behavior, I don’t remember anyone ever asking, “So, was he white?” “Was he European American?” “Let me guess, he was a native English speaker?”

IT’S NOT OK WITH ME. A story about bad behavior shouldn’t make your mind default to dark skin!

I resent being put in the position of answering such an offensive question. It’s easier when I can say the person was a white American with no trace of a different accent. In that case, everyone accepts that it was an individual acting poorly, and nobody gets stereotyped. But when the person is from any other racial or cultural background, there’s a knowing “hmm,” and I feel like I become complicit in the racism by answering the question. No matter what words I may say about an individual’s actions not reflecting the group, I still have this sense that I just reinforced another person’s stereotypes, and helped racism score a point. I never wanted to be part of something so ugly; I just wanted to vent about a bad taxi experience!

It gives me some empathy for an experience that people with privilege don’t often understand very well–having to represent an entire community. Maybe my fellow Mormon friends can understand this one. Once people find out I’m Mormon, they forever view my actions through that lens. They want to know how my words, actions, thoughts, politics, relationships, emotions, morals, etc. relate to my religious identity. They tell me all kinds of stories about “the Mormon neighbor” they used to have. All of that is completely fine with me, by the way. But it shows me how much power one person has to affect another person’s entire schema of Mormonism, for better or worse.

It’s a different experience for a person of color, but there are parallels. And that’s what comes to mind every time somebody asks if my negative experience was with a person from a different race. I feel this pressure, related to what a person of color must feel all the time, to represent an entire community. And I feel like I let that community down when my story doesn’t reflect well.

It’s not ok.

After tragedy…

I joked on Facebook that my next blog post would be something light and fluffy, like a tribute to Lisa Frank pandas. And you have no idea how badly I want to just sit back and write about Lisa Frank pandas! Why can’t the world stop being terrible for two seconds, and let me write about Lisa Frank pandas??

But here we are, staring at another senseless tragedy. And, predictably, the internet is splitting into its usual camps, all pointing fingers, promoting causes, trying to outshout each other. I completely agree with some of those fingers and causes; others, I find reprehensible.

One that hurts in a unique way, though, is the rallying cry to stop praying, and take action.

I hate a false dichotomy. One doesn’t have to choose between prayers and action; they’re stronger together. I don’t appreciate my faith being characterized as weakness, as turning a blind eye to the real problems in the world.

I do believe in prayer, and I have good reason to believe in that power. I do believe in God. And as hard as it is to believe right now, I believe that God still believes in us too.

So I will pray.

I’ll pray for comfort, healing, and eventually peace, for the families and friends of the victims.

I’ll pray for the shooter’s family. I don’t know what their story is, or what they need right now, but God knows.

I’ll pray for my LGBT friends, family, acquaintances, and fellow humans, that they’ll be safe and supported, physically and emotionally.

I’ll pray for my Muslim friends, acquaintances, and fellow humans, that they won’t suffer more social punishment for this man’s actions.

I’ll pray for our lawmakers to worry more about our safety, and less about their highest paying lobbyists.

I’ll pray for the refugee families throughout our nation and world, that they can have support dealing with trauma, before it gets passed down through generations.

I’ll pray for all of us to have help speaking and acting from a place of love and compassion, not a place of anger and fear.

I’ll use my voice and actions to do as much good as I can within my tiny sphere of influence. But you’d better believe I’m praying for all the help I can get.

You know who else has been doing a lot of praying lately? My Muslim students. They’re celebrating Ramadan, and to watch their dedication to fasting–no food or water, from sunup to sundown, even in the billion degree heat we suffered last week–has been pretty inspiring. The other students are curious about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, so they’re asking questions and getting answers. The conversations have been full of nothing but interest and respect. (You see that, fellow adults? Interfaith dialogue and respect isn’t so hard!)

We have our cultural traditions for dealing with tragedy. Lately they seem to involve lighting candles, wearing ribbons, putting a filter over our profile photo, or wearing an assigned color on a predetermined day. But you know what I think would be really cool?

What if this time, we united after tragedy through a day of fasting? Our Muslim friends and neighbors are already in the middle of fasting. What if, instead of labeling them as enemies, we joined with them for a day? Fasting can mean many things to many people. But regardless of our religious affiliation, what if for a day, we recognized that we’re all spiritual beings? What if we all came together and fed our spirits instead of our bodies for a day? A unified effort to bring a little more peace, understanding, and good into the world?

How I Feel About “Better Dead Than Disabled”

I don’t usually talk about what I’m planning to write until after it’s written. My process involves more internal processing, figuring out my thoughts while writing them, before I’m prepared to have discussion later if anyone wants to talk about it. But this time was an exception. I stated multiple times that I’d be writing this over the weekend, mostly so I couldn’t back out of the commitment. I have so many intense and deeply rooted emotions on this one. Now I have to dig them up; sit with them; see, hear, and feel everything they have to say; and then try to capture them in words…. It’s going to hurt. So here goes.

I’m pretty sure that I heard whispered warnings of the movie Me Before You in my disability circles long before it came out. Immediately placed on the list of things I didn’t want to think about, my selective memory filtered it out. So a few weeks ago, when someone mentioned the movie to me, I sincerely had no idea what they were talking about. But they only had to describe the exposition for a sentence or two before I cut them off, “Let me guess. Is this one of those ‘assisted suicide’ movies where the disabled character dies in the end?”

Yes, yes it is.

Let me give you some context. In all my years of movie watching, I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the romantic lead. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the CEO. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the crime-solving detective. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the gifted musician/artist/athlete who goes all the way. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the doctor saving lives. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the justice-seeking lawyer. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the snotty mean girl. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair playing the dumb jock. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the save-these-at-risk-kids teacher. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the hard-hitting news reporter. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the mom or dad. I’ve never seen a character in a wheelchair play the brave teen who saves us all from dystopia.

Are you getting the idea? I don’t mean rarely, or sometimes, or that one time. I mean never have I ever.

Instead, you know what I’ve seen? I’ve seen the character in a wheelchair  play a tragedy-wrapped-up-in-a-person. The plucky character in a wheelchair who suffers nobly and inspires everyone around them, all while yearning for a life on their feet. The character typically dies in the end. And these days, the character “bravely” decides to die on their own terms.

That’s it. That’s how Hollywood sees me, and broadcasts me to the world. According to the movies, my friends and I don’t even exist, and/or we’re better off dead.

Do I really have to go on? Isn’t it self explanatory how messed up this is?

If you think these are just movies, no big deal, not real life… Well, friend, I’m going to be one of those people and tell you to check your privilege. These movies promote a “better dead than disabled” mindset that absolutely impacts my real life.

I can’t tell you how many times people have said to my face, “I’d rather just die than live your life.”

What?! How is that ok?? There’s never a reason to say that to anyone! I’ve watched a lot of people face a lot of tough life circumstances, and while I don’t generally envy them, I’ve never had any inclination to tell someone their life is worse than death. Never have I ever. What’s the right response to that anyway?? I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to agree, “Yeah, you’re right, I probably should just off myself.” Or maybe I am? Am I supposed to argue and persuade them that my life is worth living? That’s a really crazy position to put a person in. Why should I defend my quality of life to random people on demand? Typically I just settle for looking at them with a baffled look on my face. It’s the most sincere response I can muster, and it puts the burden back on them to explain themself.

It isn’t just socially inept individuals who make me defend my life’s value either. It’s society at large. Let me tell you about the cognitive dissonance it takes to be a liberal Portlander in a wheelchair.

To be a card-carrying liberal Portlander, it’s basically required that you can deliver a lecture on environmentalism, income inequality, or LGBT issues at the drop of a hat. That’s cool. It’s also highly recommended that you can at least throw around a few terms to show your awareness of racism, feminism, and immigration issues. Also cool. But when it comes to disability issues, my people suddenly turn on me. I challenge you to find an able-bodied liberal that can even name some actual, relevant disability issues.

The only pseudo- disability issue that I ever hear in conversation is assisted suicide. I can’t tell you how much I dread those discussions. I can be in a circle of friends, colleagues, people who I generally like, respect, and agree with on most things…. And then they’ll start talking about the latest “right to die” story. Suddenly I’m listening to descriptions of a life very much like my own–a life where a person needs help with most personal care and hygiene tasks–and everyone agrees that it’s so undignified. They swear that if they ever end up in the situation, they’ll choose death over becoming a burden to their loved ones.

So apparently that’s how they all see me. An undignified burden. An undignified burden without enough going for me to justify living. Thanks for your honesty.

(Don’t tell me that assisted suicide laws only apply to people who are going to die soon anyway. That may be the intent on paper, but not the reality of how it’s carried out.)

People think they’re being so open-minded and compassionate. But here’s the thing–is there any other group of people where you advocate for their suicide? I try to be careful about making comparisons, but sometimes it feels appropriate: The LGBT kids get an “it gets better” campaign, and we get euthanasia. They get suicide prevention hotlines, and we get a needle.

Do you understand how terrifying it is to be in the group that society agrees is better off dead? If you, my able-bodied friend, are ever feeling suicidal, you can bet your friends and family will do their best to support you and make sure you get the help you need to manage your depression. They’ll encourage you to get counseling, medication, whatever it takes, and assure you that eventually you’ll feel better about the world, that your life matters and is worth fighting for. But me? I can’t count on that. There’s a perfectly good chance that if I’m ever back at a place in my life where I’m thinking about suicide, people will just go along with it. They’ll hook me up with the resources and help me do it. Later, one of them might get a book deal, or a movie, or at least a TED Talk, where they’ll tell “my” story, except that it won’t really be my story.

Is this dark enough for you yet? Trust me, I’m enjoying this much less than you are. But this is the dark story that you keep applauding in Hollywood, America. All I’m doing is removing the faux glitz and romance.

Here’s a novel idea. What if we treated depressed and suicidal disabled people like we treat any other depressed and suicidal person? What if we encouraged counseling, medication when necessary, and warm, supportive communities? Life with a disability is hard. But generally it’s only hard because of a lack of resources and/or support. When I’m feeling depressed, it isn’t because I’m in a wheelchair; it’s because I feel pretty alone in the world. And I’m terrified that as I get older and more disabled, I’ll be more alone. Why don’t we take the approach that we take with other marginalized groups, and tackle the issues that make life with disability so hard? Why isn’t suicide prevention our primary concern?

How about now? Too dark? Too honest?

I’m going against my better instincts and sharing on such a personal level, because I believe “human face” is the best way to get people to actually listen and care. And Hollywood isn’t giving you faces that say “disabled people are a valuable part of our society,” so I guess I’m offering my own face. It’s all I can give.

….I started to write something about how upsetting it is to watch us “losing our humanity” in this way. But you know what? That implies it’s a new problem. This isn’t new. Disabled life has been devalued throughout history. Cast aside, locked away, killed off. We don’t even vocally criticize Hitler for killing the disabled. It’s not a pretty history or a pretty current reality.

But I’m going to hold onto this idea that humanity can and should be better than this. That we’re capable of judging a human life as valuable–priceless–regardless of their physical ability. We all need to be taken care of in different ways and at different times in our lives. Shouldn’t taking care of each other be a central, driving purpose in our lives? Not a burden that we view with disgust and shame?

I’m never going to be able to provide the same level of physical care for another person as what I receive. But so what? I give in all kinds of ways, and what I give matters. My disability often puts me in a unique position to give and provide care in a way that others can’t.

There’s no lack of dignity in that.

My dignity is only robbed from me when the able-bodied make me into a vessel for their fears and insecurities. An object of misplaced pity. A tragedy-wrapped-up-in-a-person.

Do better, Hollywood. Do better, everyone.

Let me tell you what I think of the wall…

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time. I need to write about it now.

First, I’m going to tell you a story. Then, I’m going to tell you another story. And then, I’m going to tell you why I’m so full of anger, hurt, sadness… that I can’t even talk much about it.

*  *  *  *  *

First, a story. Many of my friends have heard it before, because it’s one of my favorites.

My first year teaching, our student council was made up entirely of white students. Election season came, and once again, only white students were running–with one exception. A brave Latina girl from our Beginner ESL class decided to run for president. She was still new to the English language and new to the country, but she committed to getting up in front of the school and giving a campaign speech. Just her decision to try made me proud!

Then I watched her designing posters, putting them up around the school, and carefully preparing her speech. I assisted a little with the English, but the ideas were all her own. Her process and effort made me prouder still.

Election day came, and this student got up in front of the school, beginning her speech by introducing herself in Spanish. Still in Spanish, she asked for everyone who could understand her to please raise their hand. About a third of the hands in the room shot up, and the looks on so many faces were just priceless. They were all looking around, confused and surprised, as if noticing for the first time how many Spanish-speaking students go to our school.

The rest of her speech was in English, and it was some of the most beautiful English I’ve ever heard. She talked about the importance of every student voice being heard–no matter who you are, where you come from, or what language you speak, your voice matters. She very honestly expressed that she loves our school, but feels some voices don’t get listened to. She promised to do her best to listen and represent all students. It was beautiful. I’d heard her practice it multiple times, but I still teared up listening to her delivery. So proud!!

Maybe my favorite part was listening to the students’ conversations as they filed out of the cafeteria. It was mostly summed up by the one (Latino) kid I overheard saying, “I didn’t know we could do that…”

My brave student changed things that day. She didn’t win the election (although they found another space on student council for her), but it didn’t matter. She let a huge portion of our student body know that this is also their school, and they belong, and their voices matter. She gave them permission to walk taller and take ownership of their school and the spaces they occupy.

*  *  *  *  *

Another story.

My second year of teaching. I’d already gotten used to hearing little comments from my students that communicated their feeling of “not belonging” in the United States. It didn’t matter that many of them had lived in the US for most, if not all, of their lives. They spoke of themselves as “others,” not as Americans. They spoke like kids without a country–lost, hurt, jaded, afraid.

But it was 2008, and Obama won the election. We didn’t talk much about it, because politics at school is so sticky. Then it was January 20, 2009, and TVs were set up around the school for anyone who wanted to watch the inauguration before school started. That wasn’t politics; it was history.

We didn’t start class on time that day. We couldn’t tear the kids away. They were glued to the screen, completely riveted. I’m telling you, the light in their eyes changed that day. The comments changed. It was just like the student election the year before, “I didn’t know we could do that…” The kids started speaking with hope in their voices. They talked about the United States as their country too. If a person of color could be president, then who knew what else was possible?

I don’t care what you think of Obama or his politics. His election and inauguration was a powerful moment in our nation’s history. It meant something very real, and very personal, to my kids.

Today, when my students learn that Obama is the only non-white president we’ve ever had, and that we still haven’t had a female president, their jaws drop. We’re raising kids now who can’t fathom a country where only white men get to be in charge. Their perspective is skewed, and I love that it’s skewed! They believe in a world the way it should be.

*  *  *  *  *

America, you broke it. All of it. We’d made so many steps forward, and then you had to go and break it.

I can’t tell you how much it hurts me to be living in a Trump world. It doesn’t even matter that he’s only a presidential candidate at this point, and hopefully will never be more than that. The damage he’s already caused is enormous.

I’m not so naive to think that everything was sunshine and roses pre-Trump. I’m not one of those people who think racism ended the day Obama took office. I’m very aware that it’s been there all along, never went away. But we were making baby steps. And now this.

Once again, my kids are walking around in fear, outsiders in their own country. It isn’t just that Trump says terrible things about them; he’s made it ok for anybody to say terrible things about them. All the time, they’re hearing hate spewed in their direction. They’re hearing that they’re unwelcome here. That they’re what’s wrong with this country. After all the sacrifices their families have made to be here–sacrifices that most of my readers and I will never really be able to understand–to work, learn, and contribute, they’re treated like this.

They’re just kids! America, how dare you treat my kids this way! How dare you keep handing the microphone over to Trump! He may have a loud voice, but we never had to listen. We could have changed the channel a long time ago. But instead, America, you’ve egged him on. You’ve gotten on his bandwagon. You’ve spread the hate, loud and proud. You’ve validated the ignorance and treated the racism as worthy of air time. You’ve defiled democracy by allowing Trump’s name on the ballot, and then you’ve continued voting for him. How could you? How could you do this to my kids? To your kids? Because guess what, America, these are your kids too. And you’re failing them.

The kids are so confused right now. They’re full of hurt, and anger, and fear… And I don’t know how to help them. They don’t understand what’s happening in our country right now, and how could they? It doesn’t make any sense. They have all these feelings, and no idea what to do with them. (Also, I have all these feelings, and no idea what to do with them.)

Much like the adults (who have more developed prefrontal cortexes, calmer hormones, and way fewer excuses!), the kids are getting swept away in the fervor. There are the kids spouting lines they hear from the Trump camp, with very little understanding of the harm they’re causing. And there are the kids fighting back and standing up for themselves and their friends and neighbors. But they’re kids, and they don’t always know how! They have so many thoughts and feelings, but they don’t know how to make sense of them, how to express them, how to be heard. They’re leaping into action, with no thought for where they’re going to land. Some are getting carried away by tidal waves that they can’t even name. The emotion is infectious, and emotions lead to choices and actions that aren’t always thought out…

America, you say you’re going to build a wall, but you already have. You’ve built so many walls this last year; I can’t imagine how much time and work it will take to ever bring them down. You’ve built walls between people. You’ve built walls around people. Inside people. I’ve spent my career working so hard to break through my kids’ emotional walls, to find their soft and vulnerable inner voices, to help them express what’s inside. But now I’m watching those walls go back up. And helping them find the words, the safety, and the forum to express themselves, to share their voice, is harder than ever. Helping them to feel empowered and hopeful, when I’m feeling helpless and despair myself, is so hard. I want to assure them that things are ok, that the adults have this under control, but none of that’s true. It’s not ok, and it’s not under control…

All I can tell the kids is that we need their voices, their thoughtful contributions to society, more than ever.

Building walls is easy. It’s tearing them down that takes real work.

My fellow humans are pretty impressive.

It used to drive me crazy that I teach a subject without a real curriculum. Combined with the fact that my education program was insanely light on teaching curriculum development, I was left pretty lost, overwhelmed, and frustrated as a new teacher. But now I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve come to embrace teaching one of the only subjects left with significant creative freedom. There will never be a canned curriculum that I enjoy teaching as much as my own units, and nobody knows how to meet my student’s needs better than I do. (Sad how that feels like such a bold claim these days, rather than like stating the obvious….)

There are plenty of topics that I love teaching for the impact on the students. But there’s one that I also love for my own personal enjoyment–guys, the career unit is the best. It feeds me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Lots of elements come together in my career unit. The kids are doing research, taking notes, summarizing, evaluating, and after lots of exploring, creating a presentation on a career of their choice. And that’s all great. But the fun part, the part I talk about incessantly to anyone who gets stuck listening, is the guest speakers!

I’ve taken the traditional “career day” model, and exploded it. I’m sprinkling career speakers over the course of 7ish week, and they all come from my personal network of friends, family, friends-of-friends, etc. And thanks to the wonders of Skype, I’m not limited to local speakers! We’ve had guests from all over the country chat with us about their careers.

(Fun random video about career day!)

Each class ends up getting a different assortment of speakers, and we’re not done yet, but so far we’ve chatted with a(n):

  • physical therapist
  • speech pathologist
  • naturopathic doctor
  • historian/writer
  • professor
  • embalmer/aspiring funeral director
  • public defender/judge
  • news producer
  • immigration attorney
  • doctor/urologist
  • advertising copywriter
  • social media/outreach specialist
  • physician’s assistant
  • stage manager
  • educator
  • graphic designer

(I hope I didn’t miss anyone…) It’s been fascinating! For the kids, obviously. But I’ve learned from every speaker too! It turns out that everyone I know is an expert in something. Everyone has a wealth of knowledge that I don’t tap into very often. And my brain loves being woken up and fed these tidbits from fields that I’m only barely aware of. I love knowing more about how the world works.

Did I mention that everyone I know is an expert in something? It’s so inspiring. I think most of us have a certain way that we tend to relate to each of our friends–the topics that we usually talk about, the tone our conversations usually take, the jokes we usually tell. But I’m seeing everyone outside those usual ruts. I get to hear the details of what they do, what they love, what they’re passionate about. Many are digging back into their roots, and sharing where their journey started. Some admit to weaknesses, vulnerabilities, stumbling blocks that have made their path tough. And everyone projects an air of confidence as they discuss the stuff they know, the stuff they’re good at. It’s fun to see my people shining in their comfort zone, while hearing the story of how it became their comfort zone. I keep gaining new levels of respect and love for everyone I have the opportunity to listen to!

One of the most common themes I’ve heard is “I never imagined that life would take me in this direction.” A few people are doing exactly what they always planned, but most aren’t. Most people seem to start going in one direction, and then trying this other thing, and then meeting this person, and learning this thing, and then applying it to something else… Looking back, they can talk about how all the steps along the way taught them something that’s valuable now, and brought them closer to where they are. But in the moment, they had no idea the direction life was going to take.

I find it inspiring on such a spiritual level! The way we don’t have the perspective to see the big picture in the present moment, so we just squeeze all the value out of it that we can. Then we carry those things with us, and make them part of us, so that we’re better prepared for the next opportunity/curveball that life throws at us. I fully believe that it’s not random, that God can see the full map, and knows how all these things will work together for our good. And I kind of love how messy it is! Daily life can feel so chaotic, but with distance you can see the order, the form, the beauty.

My fellow humans are pretty impressive. Everybody has such a wealth of stories, knowledge, and wisdom to share. We don’t appreciate each other nearly enough.