According to one of my 6th graders, when her older brother noticed that she’s in middle school now, he told her, “Tell Ms. Napper hi! I love that teacher, she’s really nice.”
That’s very sweet, of course. But this is why it’s surprising… This older brother, who is a young adult by now, was never actually in my class. He wasn’t my student; I barely even knew him.
He was one of those notorious students, though, that just wasn’t into playing the school game. He was much more interested in the press-all-my-teachers’-buttons game. I don’t know his background story, but I’m sure he had one. He also had some wonderful, patient, skilled, compassionate teachers, who I know were constantly bending over backwards, trying to meet this kid where he was at, and help him get on a better path. But he wasn’t too interested. I don’t know what happened in his life post-middle school, but at least at the time, it didn’t seem like any effort made much of an impact.
I do remember making a conscious decision to be his “hello in the hallway” buddy. He was friends with several of my students, and I’d see him in the halls all the time. Since he wasn’t in my class, I had no personal issues with him, and he had no problem with me. (It’s easy to get along with the teacher that doesn’t make you do stuff!) So I made a point of regularly calling him by name, giving a warm hello, maybe making some small talk.
And that was really it. This didn’t develop into a meaningful bond. I don’t remember ever having a conversation that lasted more than 30 seconds. I don’t remember getting more than an indifferent response from him. I didn’t change his life, and I wasn’t trying to. I was just a friendly face in the background of his life, no more and no less.
So it really surprised me that years later, he remembers me at all, let alone remembers me warmly.
I don’t share this story to toot my own horn. I didn’t do anything great for this kid; I hardly did anything at all. I share it because–confession–I’ve rolled my eyes so many times when people say, “Sometimes all it takes is a smile or a hello to make someone’s day.” I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t be so judgy, but it always sounds to me like this lazy way to excuse ourselves from doing the hard work of really loving or showing compassion. I appreciate smiles and hellos, but I can’t think of a single time when one “made my day.”
But maybe I’m wrong.
I’ve also been struggling a lot with the enormity of… of the everything. Of all the ugliness in the world, and how it weighs down on the people I love. I constantly feel like the guy in the starfish story, telling myself that even though the beach is enormous, I can make “a difference for this one.” Except that as fast as I’m throwing the starfish back in the sea, they’re getting hit by other forces and predators, and I’m not sure that I actually can make a significant difference for any of them. I keep wearing myself out trying, because I can’t just quit, but does any of it even matter??
And maybe it does.
Smiling and saying hello won’t save a starfish’s life. It probably won’t have any measurable impact at all. But it might just matter anyway.
Apparently some smiles and hellos mattered at least a little to this kid. At least enough that he remembers me, a nobody a in his life, years later. That feels good. There were others doing the real work with this kid, and I’m sure they had a much bigger impact. But maybe we all need those small impact players in our lives too.
And if something as low-effort as being a friendly hallway buddy makes more of an impact than I could see, then maybe some good also comes from when I pour my energy and heart into something/someone.
Writing this so maybe I’ll remember on the days when I’m feeling discouraged….
So we’re still talking about straws. Have you noticed? In between the cat videos, baby photos, and Fuhrer Trump articles filling your social media, the straw ban talk isn’t going away.
Do you know why people are so excited to jump on this “ban the straw!” bandwagon?
Because it’s easy.
The straw ban is such a classic example of white liberal activism. That doesn’t mean there aren’t non-whites or non-liberals on board this time. And obviously not all white liberals are riding this train. But it’s straight out of the white liberal playbook!
White liberals love to feel like we’re good people. Maybe that’s not fair; it’s human nature to want to feel like a good person. But white liberals seem to have an extra intense craving for it.
But… we don’t want to work too hard. We don’t want to leave our comfort zones or stretch ourselves. That’s why we love sharing memes, wearing awareness bracelets, and signing change.org petitions. Easy! I can rack up all kinds of Good Person Points before breakfast! In fact, if I sign a straw banning petition before breakfast, and then drink my orange juice straight out of the glass at breakfast, that’s two Good Person Points already.
It doesn’t bother us that these actions are super low-impact. Even if we get rid of every plastic straw from the face of the Earth, we’ll have eliminated only .03% of the world’s plastic waste. Look closely–that’s not 3%, it’s point-zero-three percent. Three one hundredths of a percent. I don’t know what exactly that number means, but it sounds like the best we can possibly hope for, if the entire planet bans plastic straws, is saving the lives of half a dozen fish and a couple pelicans.
But just think how good we’ll all feel about ourselves! Never mind that 99.97% of the plastic waste will still be polluting our oceans. We’ll feel like we made a difference! And there’s nothing white liberals are better at than low-impact, feel-good activism. (Tangent: Do you know how many discussions I’ve sat through just in the last year or two about whether my students should be called English Learners, English Language Learners, Emerging Bilinguals, Emerging Multilinguals, or something else? It’s such an enormous waste of time, and it makes everyone in the room feel like cutting edge changemakers without having to do anything.)
If we were serious about cleaning up the ocean, then we’d tackle the estimated 46% of the ocean’s debris that’s made up of abandoned fishing equipment. We would create systems and incentives for more environmentally friendly disposal of this equipment. We’d figure out how to tackle the problem in different countries with different resources. It would require an investment of time, money, thought, and effort. And in the end, the oceans would actually be cleaner…. But that sounds hard. And we wouldn’t get the fun little dopamine boost every time we enjoyed a strawless meal.
Is white liberal activism really about the earth? Or is it about the dopamine?
Of course, when I say that the straw ban is low-impact, what I mean is low positive impact. It will absolutely have a very real negative impact on the disabled community. It’s already happening.
Recently I went out to brunch, and asked for a straw with my water. The server gave me a judgmental look, because obviously I hate the earth, and said “We have some paper straws for now…. but we’re trying to phase those out too.” I was taken aback, and told her directly that’s really inconsiderate of customers with disabilities. She shrugged and walked away. She returned shortly with a paper straw, which made my water taste nasty.
A week later, out for dinner, I forgot to ask for a straw when the server was taking my order. I forgot again when he brought my meal. I only remembered when I wanted to reach for a drink of water. But he didn’t return to our table until he was bringing the check and I felt silly asking for a straw after the meal was over, so I didn’t. To rub salt into my thirsty wound, he then told us proudly about how he’s keeping the straws hidden now as a matter of policy.
Sure, yes, it’s my fault that I didn’t ask. Sounds like it would have been provided if I had asked. (No telling whether it would have been provided with a smile, though. I might have been shamed again for hating the earth.) I also didn’t ask for a fork, knife, napkin, plate, or glass, but those were provided.
This is why the disabled community pushes back against the phrase “special needs.” Why are your needs a given, and mine are special? The entire world is designed to accommodate your needs. As an able-bodied person, you’ve never been invited to an event that didn’t accommodate your need for a place to sit. Your need to enter the building, through the main entrance no less. Your need to eat, drink, and use the bathroom to your heart’s content. These buildings and events aren’t a product of nature; they were designed special to meet your needs. Except, your needs aren’t special; mine are. And “special” means I can’t expect you to care about them. I can ask politely, and watch you earn more Good Person Points when you grant my requests, but if you come up with an excuse not to meet my needs, I’m supposed to smile and be understanding.
It’s so exhausting to have to ask for things all day. My brain seems to have a set number of asks, and once I’ve reached my quota in a day, I just don’t ask for any more. I’m not sure what that number is, but I can feel when I reach it. If I’ve already reached my quota, I’m not going to ask for your help opening the candy bar; I’m just going to hold it and let it melt. I’m not going to ask you to hand me the blanket on the high shelf; I’m just going to be cold. I’m not going to ask you to move my foot a little to the right and forward just a skosh; I’m going to live with it hurting for the rest of the day.
So asking for straws isn’t something I love to do. I do it when I need to, except for when I forget, but I don’t love it. Especially now that I’m afraid I’ll be shamed, or told no, or given some nasty paper straw. Now there’s an extra layer of taking a deep breath and gathering my courage before asking, “Can I have a straw?” It doesn’t feel like asking for a water refill, or something I could reasonably expect to receive. Now it feels like begging a favor and hoping for kindness.
And this is why white liberal activism is so exhausting. The environmentalists originally chose the plastic straw issue, because it seemed like an easy win that wouldn’t hurt anybody. When the disabled community spoke up and said, “Actually, it hurts us!” that should have been the end of the conversation. That was the cue for the environmentalists to say, “Oh, our bad, no problem, we’ll pick a different thing.”
But, no. Instead, they get mad at us for letting our negative impact get in the way of their good intentions. We aren’t awarding them Good Person Points, and they want their Good Person Points! It doesn’t matter that they’re trampling on a marginalized community to get them.
People like being advocates for the environment and animals. You know why? It’s easy. Relative to activism and allyship for groups of humans, I mean. The environment doesn’t talk back and tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Animals don’t tell you that your good intentions were misguided and they’d like you to take a step back and let them define their own needs. Humans are so much messier and more complex.
It might not seem like a big ask for the disabled to carry their own straws or whatever. And if this were going to actually save the sea lions, I would probably be willing to make the sacrifice. But it’s not going to do that. This is asking the disabled population to bear the burden of a trendy phase of low-impact activism.
So leave us alone. Don’t make us pay the price of your Good Person Points. It might seem small to you, but this could be the “straw” that breaks some camels’ backs. (See what I did there? I’m so funny…)
You have no idea how much effort goes into creating the illusion of an effortless, typical day in my life.
Just getting out of bed in the morning requires coordination of assistants, equipment, schedules, government agencies, trainings, hour sheets, materials… Everything I’m going to need for the day has to be arranged where I can get to it. I choose clothing that’s going to keep me warm, because I’m always cold, but isn’t too heavy, because that weighs me down and makes it hard to move, but doesn’t require taking layers on and off, because I can’t do that myself and whatever I put on in the morning is what I’m wearing all day, and doesn’t have a waistband that digs into the spot on my skin that’s sore from wearing something that was digging into me all day yesterday, and is aesthetically appropriate both for work and for the thing I’m going to after work…. (And THEN, someone will have the nerve to laugh at me, “Did you forget your coat??” No, you idiot, I put more thought into my outfit this morning than you put into your wedding day outfit, so how about you leave me alone?) My morning routine gets thrown off if somebody absentmindedly picked up my mascara and tightened the lid, so now I’m by myself and can’t get it open. (You’d be surprised how often people pick up random things and tighten the lid for no reason.) I don’t have time to mess around, because I have to be ready to walk out the door the minute my bus window is open. And I also have to be ok with sitting around and waiting for the bus all morning. There’s no way of knowing if this wait-and-ride-the-bus routine will take 20 minutes or two hours, so I have to be ready for either. I carry the things I’ll need in my lap, arranged so that I can balance everything. And when I get to work, I hope that all the buttons to open all the doors will work, but I usually have to find a helpful person for at least one of them.
That’s just getting my day started. Getting the plane off the ground. We haven’t even gotten to the substance of the day yet. And it’s already exhausting.
So maybe just let us have our straws? Maybe don’t add that to my list of things to plan for and/or be ashamed of? The straws aren’t hurting anything, not really. Science is more than welcome to work on creating a better straw. But until they do, just leave us and our straws alone! Put them in a dispenser on the table, same as you do with napkins. If you don’t need a straw, don’t take one. If you do, there they are. This doesn’t have to be a thing!
What this is really about, white liberal activists, is you wanting a win. Living in the times of Trump has been hard for you. It’s been hard on all of us, and harder on some of us, but you aren’t used to things being this hard. You’ve marched, and you’ve protested, and you’ve called your senators, and you’ve argued with your racist relatives… and none of it has seemed to matter. Things are worse now than before you started hashtagging #resist all over your social media. You’re tired of crying and feeling helpless. You’re tired of yelling and feeling helpless.
Believe me, I feel you!! Some of us have spent our entire lives feeling this way to some extent or another.
But it isn’t about Good Person Points. It’s about people. When your good intentions aren’t having the impact you hoped for, and are actually hurting people, it’s time to change your course.
I’ll never be asked to speak at church during the first weeks of July. They usually like to start the month with patriotic talks, and they like those talks to be given by older white men, preferably those who have served in the military, definitely those who vote conservative. Because, of course, these old white men have the market cornered on patriotism.
It’s too bad that a liberal wildcard like me will never get asked. I think I could give a good talk. I daresay I’d even talk about values that conservatives sometimes think they exclusively own.
For example, I would talk about personal responsibility. We live in a country founded on beautiful, lofty ideals. We live in the only remaining world superpower. But as Spiderman tells us, with great power comes great responsibility. As the Doctrine and Covenants (Mormon book of scripture) tells us, unto whom much is given, much is required.
Patriotism asks much more from us than waving flags and unconditionally loving our country regardless of what it does. In fact, it doesn’t ask that at all. Screaming that “we’re number one” isn’t patriotism; it’s the ugly kind of pride that the Book of Mormon warns us about on every page. Patriotism demands that we take our responsibility seriously to keep our country accountable for living up to its own ideals.
Is it patriotic to repeat over and over again how much we value our religious freedom? Maybe. That depends. Do we value everyone’s religious freedom, or just our own? If we’re rhapsodizing about our religious freedom, while staying silent on the travel ban targeting Muslims, then we are hypocrites. If we believe the thin disguise trying to avoid the appearance of bigotry, then we’re fools. A patriot has no room to tolerate this egregious attack on freedom. Of all people, Mormons should know best that the United States is willing to turn on a religious group that they’re uncomfortable with. We should be most ardently defending that freedom for all people. We should consider it our duty.
If I were asked to speak about patriotism, I’d spend some time talking about where this value ranks in our lives. Love of country is good, as long as we’re continually engaged in making the country better, not covering up its problems. But is it the most important thing? Loving God is the first and great commandment. Loving our neighbor is second. Loving our country is somewhere further down the line. If it comes before God, then it’s idolatry. Which master are we serving with our full heart? Are we quoting scripture in the spirit that its intended, or are we perverting the word of God to defend moral atrocities?
Talks about patriotism often refer to the Book of Mormon’s promises to the “promised land.” But if I were giving the talk, I’d be compelled to point out that the United States is only a fraction of the promised land. The BOM is referring to the American continents overall. The promise of the promised land is that we can enjoy liberty when we keep the commandments and serve God. It also explicitly states that the land is cursed when we are unrighteous….
Two thousand years after these blessings and curses were spelled out, Europeans came along and committed mass genocide throughout the American continents. We enslaved millions of people. We haven’t loved our neighbors; we’ve massively oppressed and dehumanized our neighbors every time we got the chance. We’ve trampled all over the most important of God’s commandments, and in most cases, made no attempts at repentance.
How can we call ourselves Mormons, Christians, or patriots when this is not only our heritage, but a heritage that we cling to proudly? We know that God specifically said our land would be cursed if we were unrighteous, but we have no interest in making these sins right? I don’t believe that righting our national wrongs is some crazy liberal agenda. I believe it’s our patriotic duty. A good country can’t survive with so much rot in the foundation.
If I were speaking about patriotism, I would restate the need to evaluate the ranking of patriotism compared to other values in our lives. Love of country is great. But the nation isn’t the fundamental unit of society. The family is the fundamental unit of society. I know, because I’ve listened to about eleventy bazillion talks quoting the Proclamation on the Family. Patriotism demands that we care for our society, so we have to prioritize its fundamental unit. Not just our own families, not just families that follow a prescribed formula, not just families that look like our own, and not just families that are on one side or the other of arbitrary, man-made borders. It’s our responsibility to strengthen and support all families. If we’re patting ourselves on the back for “defending the family,” while staying silent about immigrant families being torn apart, then we’re hypocrites. If we believe the thinly disguised lies from this administration about how they’re protecting families, then we’re fools. A patriot can’t have any tolerance for such callous attacks on families.
I won’t be asked to speak in church anywhere near the 4th of July. This year, I’m not even singing any of the patriotic hymns. It isn’t because I’m angry (although I am), or because I’m trying to make a statement (not this time). Frankly, it’s because I know I can’t get through them without ugly-crying. I can’t even listen. Instead, I bury my face in my phone and distract myself with anything else. Singing about the America I love is too painful right now.
I do love my country. I consider all the lofty American ideals to be my guiding stars–independence, freedom, equality, opportunity…. My life’s work is welcoming families to the United States and supporting their pursuit of the American dream in every way that I can.
I could tell you about the stars in kids’ eyes when they arrive here, ready for a new start. Sometimes that’s a true story, and it’s an exciting and inspiring one. But then I would also have to tell you about the demons in their eyes, when they come carrying more trauma as a child than a person should have to face in a long lifetime. That story is true more and more often…. I want to wrap a red, white, and blue blanket of healing around these kids, and promise them that they’re home, that they’re safe, that everything will be better-than-ok. But the blanket is pretty tattered and not offering a lot of comfort right now. All I can offer is my own hands.
My hands are full, and they’re tired. My heart is heavy. I don’t have the strength to hold my head up and sing about an America that feels more like a myth than a reality. But I want to. I desperately want to believe that we can get the American experiment back on track. I don’t know if we can recover from the place we’re at now. But I believe it’s my patriotic duty to keep fighting as if we can.
I’ll never be asked to speak in church about patriotism. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking it, feeling it, breathing it, and fighting for it every day.
I was coming down the hallway at school, and another adult clearly wasn’t watching where she was going. I needed to cross her path, but she was looking in the opposite direction. So I made a very wide turn, creating tons of extra space between me and her, just in case she did something erratic. Just then, she turned her head, saw me in front of her, and made a big show of stopping and screeching, “You almost ran into me!” (I wasn’t even close to it.) I responded, “No, you almost ran into me.” (And she definitely would have, if I hadn’t been doing all the watching-where-she’s-going for her.) She laughed like I was making a joke. I didn’t, because I wasn’t.
Again, coming down the hallway, this time crowded with kids. We’re all following the normal traffic patterns of a hallway. Nobody is doing anything wrong. Nothing interesting is happening. Just another day in the hallway… Until an adult monitoring the hall screamed at a bunch of kids to “Watch out!! Give her space!!” The kids, who were nowhere near me, looked confusedly in my direction, since that’s where the adult was gesturing… She just pointed at me, though, didn’t actually look at me, so she didn’t see the mix of confusion, irritation, and embarrassment that had to be on my face. (Sidenote: her shouting caused everyone to slow down and move in weird patterns, so new hallway congestion was created that definitely hadn’t been a problem moments before.)
Out and about somewhere, a mom was walking with her preschool-aged daughter. Cute kid; I smiled at her and she smiled back. They were on their side of the nice, wide sidewalk, and I was on mine. We were all meandering in the sunshine, nobody in a hurry. Then the mom noticed me, grabbed her daughter’s hand, yanked her even farther away, and yelled “Look out!” Let me reiterate: the child was nowhere near my path, and we were in the middle of greeting one another like civilized humans.
I was traveling down another sidewalk, and an older couple was coming out of a store and crossing the sidewalk. I was moving at about nothing miles per hour anyway, and when they appeared, I further slowed to a complete stop. There was probably six feet of space between me (stationary) and them. The wife, who was a step ahead, saw me, gasped, grabbed her husband’s arm, and shouted “Watch out!” The husband, who seemed to struggle with walking anyway, looked like he was dangerously close to toppling over when she pulled on him.
This wasn’t a remarkable week. It was completely normal. It was my normal.
People get confused when I use the word “ableism.” It often confuses spellcheck too. So I expect even more confusion when I use the less common “disphobia.” (Spellcheck didn’t like that.) But I don’t know what else to call it. People have a very real fear of disability. It manifests itself in all kinds of ways, but it’s most obvious when implicit bias drives automatic reactions in situations like these. If any of these hysterical women had taken an entire second to actually look at and think about the situation, they would have seen there was no danger. If the situations had been identical, and I’d been making the exact same movements at the same speeds on my own two feet instead of in a chair, they wouldn’t have reacted. There would have been nothing to react to. But when they saw a wheelchair, their instincts overrode their sense, and their brains shouted “danger!”
(Yes, I know I used the phrase “hysterical women,” which is decidedly unfeminist phrasing. But you know what? This particular response seems to come from women more often than men. The behavior fits the definition of “hysterical.” And I’m not using the phrase to uphold the patriarchy and oppression of women; I’m calling out the oppression of the disabled. Like the phrase or not, I’m leaving it.)
I’m not dangerous. From my observations of the world, you’re much safer when sharing the sidewalk with a wheelchair user than anybody else. I know that I’m generalizing, but wheelchair users tend to have fantastic spatial awareness. We know exactly how much space we need, and how every slight bump, crevice, or slope in the ground will affect our use of that space. We also manage to look in every direction at the same time, and keep track of how everybody around us is using their space. (Yes, we have eyes in the back of our heads. I got one extra set of eyes for being a wheelchair user, and then another back-of-the-head set when I became a teacher, so I can see all the things.)
It’s the able-bodied you need to look out for. They’re careless. Believe me, I’ve spent a lifetime studying them. They pay very little attention to where they’re going. They find it completely acceptable to walk in one direction while looking in another. They change direction or come to complete stops without warning or taking a look around. They think texting and walking should be simultaneous activities. If they carelessly crash into another able-bodied person, they usually have the decency to own it and apologize. But if they crash into a wheelchair user, they claim that they “got run over,” even if the wheelchair user was sitting perfectly still!
It’s a lot of work being responsible for the physical safety of every head-in-the-clouds able-bodied person that wanders through this world without a license to be on the sidewalk. (They also think it’s hilarious to ask if I have a license to drive my chair. Such comedians…) You probably don’t even know how many times your life has been saved by an everyday hero in a wheelchair looking out for you, dodging your erratic movements, protecting you from yourself. Sometimes I have to make a quick call in the moment, and realize there’s no way to avoid being run into, but I can swivel just enough to minimize the impact, or make sure the able-bodied person doesn’t fall on my joystick, which would send me flying into yet another person. In those moments, I’m thanked for my quick-thinking with a glare for “running them over.”
Don’t message me with your stories of the times you really were run over, and it really was the other person’s fault. If that’s where your head is right now, you’re missing the point. It happens. Everyone has had their careless moments, including me. And when it’s my fault, I’m quick to apologize.
But everyone hasn’t had (at least) four people this week freak out at the sight of them, as if a hungry lion were lunging at them. Everyone doesn’t get treated as an object to be feared.
And I’m only talking today about the most basic fear of physical safety. I’m not even getting into the more complex social fears. The people who “don’t know how to talk to someone with a disability.” (Hint: follow exactly the same social rules that you use when talking to someone without a disability. So complicated and confusing, I know.)
I wonder if this is kinda sorta what it’s like to navigate the world as a black man. (Or woman… But I feel like the fear response is especially common with black males.) To be seen as a threat everywhere you go. Watching people jump, gasp, grab their children, lock their doors, get away, reach for a weapon… before they’ve had a chance to check themselves. Given a moment to think, they might insist that they’re “the least racist person” they know, but it’s that first split second reaction that betrays their fear. The fight or flight response.
It hurts to live in a world that’s afraid of you. It’s exhausting to carry the burden of easing everyone’s fear, convincing everybody you meet that you’re not a threat. Because if you don’t, as every black person in America knows, their fear can quickly turn into a dangerous situation for you.
At least in my case, the harm done by disphobia is usually limited to shame and discomfort as the other person makes a scene.
Disphobia threatens both my life and my livelihood in plenty of other ways. But usually not on the sidewalk. I guess I should be glad?
I wrote a lot of words about TEDxPortland, so this is Part 2. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you might want to start there.
Friday morning, I was at the Keller Auditorium for rehearsal on the stage. (Shout out to Jillian, a true hero! She gave me sub plans so that I could more easily take the day off work, and having that task removed from my plate was ridiculously helpful!) It’s a REALLY good thing that I got to be on the stage and in the space before the day of the event. I had pictured it being huge and overwhelming and terrifying up there… but the reality was a hundred times more so!
The lights were brighter than I thought, the teleprompter was smaller than I thought, and the microphone was just as awful as I thought… I’m actually significantly more afraid of microphones than audiences. Hearing my voice bouncing back at me is super awkward. (Also, the mic guy told me the earpiece microphone would make me look like Beyonce, but… I checked the mirror, and I didn’t see Beyonce. It just looked like me, wearing a mic attached to my ear.) Seeing people’s faces gives me energy to feed off, but the lights were so bright, I couldn’t see faces anyway…. I underestimated how completely alone, vulnerable, almost naked I would feel on that stage. Typically when I’m on stage, it’s with a choir, and I’m just part of the group. Or I’m teaching/facilitating a group, where I may be in front, but I’m leading a conversation with lots of participants. But on the Keller stage, it was just me. There’s nothing else to look at or listen to. Nowhere to hide or blend it. Nobody to pick up my slack. I knew those seats were going to be filled with 3,000 people the next day, plus the internet, but I’d never felt more alone than on that stage…
My head was still spinning when they gave me the go-ahead to begin speaking. I got about a sentence and a half in, and my brain shut down. I couldn’t comprehend any of the words on the screen in front of me. (Ironic, since I was trying to get to a story about a kid who also wouldn’t have been able to read the stupid screen…) I wondered if it had been a poor choice to write bullet points, and if instead I should have written out word-for-word what I wanted to say. I stumbled, stopped talking, couldn’t think, and then asked, “Can I start over?” That presumably inspired no confidence from anyone. My inner choirgirl chastised me for it, “Never stop! No do-overs! Just keep pushing forward, proving that you can recover from a misstep! What are you doing?? Ms. Duck taught you better!!” The second time through, I got to the end, but it wasn’t good. My affect was flat, and my pacing was slow. I was pretty sure I could do better, but I wasn’t sure I could do better by the next day!
That was my time on the stage, so then I went off with Annatova to practice some more in a dressing room. Originally, I had wanted to hold the clicker and move myself through the visual slides. I mean, I handle my own visuals in the classroom every day, so how hard can it be, right? But midweek, I realized how stressed I was going to be with coordinating reading/speaking/breathing, so clicking could be outsourced. That turned out to be the right choice. Annatova’s a gem of a person, and was completely dedicated to creating and executing visuals that would highlight my strongest points. And she was encouraging and kind and ready to help me with anything I possibly needed through the entire process. We made some minor tweaks to my notes, and then went through my speech two more times. It felt better…
Let me just insert here how dazzled I was by the entire theater experience. I was wandering back stage in the same theater where I’d seen so many of my favorite shows! Just two weeks earlier, I’d watched Hamilton on that stage! Days spent at the Keller have always been my very favorite, watching talent on stage that blows my mind. What was I doing in the same spots where Alexander Hamilton and Elphaba and Christine Daae and Brian Regan and the Cirque du Soleil performers had been?? I kept trying to stop and just drink it in. I have a couple theater friends in my life who hang out in those spaces all the time. But for someone like me who usually inhabits the back row, those are mystical, magical, sacred spaces.
Anyway, after that, I went back into the audience to listen to other speakers rehearse for a while. I was told I’d feel better after watching other rehearsals, and see how we’re all human and in the same boat together…. But that’s not how I felt! It was actually really stressful to watch everyone else give the talk they’d been practicing and polishing for 6 months. I could see the results of months spent choosing every word, practicing delivery, cadences, gestures. Plus they all got like 16 minutes or something to deliver their messages. I was supposed to do my talk in 7, which was a stretch from the original 5-6 I’d been given. At first, I’d been directed to speak really specifically, at the micro level, about techniques and applications for techquity. Then we’d talked more, and it expanded to the more macro-level–let’s go change the world and influence public policy. So I need to cover all the levels, plus introduce myself, and introduce a word nobody had heard before, and explain why it’s important in education, and why it’s important to non-educators, and how we’re all educators, and tell a story about a dear-to-my-heart former student…. All in 7 minutes?? With only a week to prepare?? Would you like me to spin some straw into gold while I’m at it?!? I wasn’t sure anymore if this was really the amazing opportunity I wanted it to be. I was afraid it was actually a giant practical joke from the universe…. Opportunities like this only come around once in a lifetime if you’re really lucky. I was trying to grab it with both hands and hold on tight, but it felt like a real set-up for failure…
I needed to get out of that space… I did my best to keep my game face on while making my exit. (Although I’m told that my face keeps no secrets, so it probably wasn’t successful.) Even though everyone had been nothing but supportive and kind through every single step of the process, I found myself wanting to scream at them for putting me in this impossible situation. I knew that was irrational, and I knew the irrationality was amplified by the fact that I had barely slept in a week. I was running on adrenaline and Dr. Pepper. So instead of screaming at the wonderful people that were constantly giving me the royal treatment, I left!
Got lunch somewhere, and then I still had some time to kill until my Erin was arriving. (Erin was on her way from Mexico!!! She flew out for the weekend, determined she couldn’t miss this moment. On the one hand, everyone needs an Erin in their life. On the other, who really deserves a friend like her??) With that window of time in my day, I honestly didn’t want to do anything at all. I didn’t want to practice any more just then, and I was so drained. I badly needed a place to just sit back, close my eyes, and maybe doze off if I was lucky. But where do you go to take a nap downtown? I had a wave of empathy for the houseless population… Then I wandered over to the library. That seemed like a nice, quiet place to just be. I found a random spot between shelves in the back of a room, and tipped my chair back. They probably don’t love people taking a nap between library shelves, but I decided to bank on my “white girl in a wheelchair” status to keep them from kicking me out. It worked; nobody bothered me.
I had only been there a minute when I suddenly burst into tears. Didn’t know that was coming! Such a week, so many feelings… I alternated between crying and pseudo-napping for a while. Such a hot mess! I tried to think invisible thoughts and hoped nobody could see me. Not my finest moment….
And then Erin showed up! Found me in my library hole, and we hugged and cried and laughed as only we can! I always feel stronger with Erin around…
We went for some pre-dinner nachos, like ya do, and talked at Gilmore speed, like we do. And then we met some friends for dinner at Habibi. It was exactly the evening I needed before the big day! Just friends I could relax and laugh with. Plus delicious food.
With a little help from a priesthood blessing, I was able to sleep better that night than I had all week. Still not a lot of hours, but it was something.
The next morning, I got dressed in the outfit Karista had picked out for me, and the earrings Erin had brought from Mexico. (What would I do without friends to take care of the important things?:)) The bus dropped me off, and I sailed through the stage door like I belonged. Not gonna lie, it felt good to bypass the long line I’m used to standing in! We had determined the previous day that the green room wasn’t going to work for me—there were five steps, and while they tried to put up a ramp, it was crazy-steep. So we’d chosen a comfortable dressing room I could use instead. I went straight there, and started running through my talk again. Annatova joined me, and we practiced going through it with the slides, making sure that I was fluent in my delivery, and she was clicking at the right spots.
Then there was a knock at the door. “Is it ok if Ann puts her dress in here?” What? Who’s Ann? Oh… oh! That’s Ann Curry! She came in, shook hands, and introduced herself, asking if it was ok to share the space, or if she’d be in my way. (What kind of person would tell Ann Curry no?) Then she asked if she could get us coffee. (This time we said no, thank you.) As she bustled in and out, I heard her offering coffee to everyone else, and actually delivering to a few. It’s like she didn’t know that she was Ann Curry! Except, I’m sure she did know, and she was using her position to fully support and lift up everyone around her. What a classy woman.
You know that moment in the movies, where the scrappy underdog is about to go do something scary, and then a wise celebrity/hero/cool-person-they-have-no-business-talking-to appears out of nowhere to give just the advice they need? I totally got that moment. It was cinematic. Ann started to give me the usual “just be yourself” blah-blah, and then she got more focused and intense, “Just remember, nobody is paying you to do this. You’re giving them a gift. And if some people don’t want the gift, fine, they don’t have to take it. But your job is to give the f***kin’ gift. So go out there, and give the f***kin’ gift!” Yes, that’s exactly what she said, exactly the attitude she said it with, and exactly what I needed! Life highlight, right there.
We chatted a little more. I told her that I was looking forward to hearing her speak. That got a delighted “Are you really?” in the same tone any of us normal humans would have used, as if my opinion actually matters to you when you’re Ann Curry. She talked about how a TED talk is different from her usual job of telling other people’s stories. This one required introspection, telling her own story, and talking about journalism in the context of our broken society. We talked about the importance of telling stories, and how the stories are told, and which stories are told…. It was lovely. I feel a little bit like I failed by not getting a photo, but I just couldn’t bring myself to kill the vibe.
I even got a bonus awesome-person-moment while waiting for the event to start. Greg Bell sat with me for a few minutes, encouraging me to drink in the moment. Every moment. Even this one. I told him that I want to be his friend, and I wish I were cool enough for that to be real, because I just love his vibe. He’s like this Zen-Master-Morgan-Freeman-Mr.-Rogers combo. He also gave me some brilliant advice: “There’s always going to be some fool trying to get in your way. Just make sure that fool isn’t you.” (I love that so much. I fully intend to repeat it to the kids whenever the moment calls for it.)
After soaking in all the goodness, I was as ready as I was going to be. I hung out in the narrow hallway for a while, making faces at Ron Artis II’s adorable baby girl, and getting my chair decorated with flowers, because why not?
Then it was my turn to get mic’d. Still didn’t look like Beyonce. They put lots of tape behind my ear to make sure it would stay in place, and sent me to wait just off-stage. I didn’t hear much of my introduction, but I know that my name has never sounded more strange and out of place than when it came out of Luis’ mouth just then. I felt like he’d just announced Big Bird was going to give the next talk. Or maybe that would have even sounded more normal.
I thought I was ready, but I’m pretty sure Dave had to say “go!” like three times before I went. And then I went! Found my spot on the giant red X carpet. No false starts this time. I knew that once I started speaking, I had to keep going. So first I took just a second to breathe, look around, and feel myself in the space. Then I went for it!
It still bothered me that I couldn’t see people, but I heard laughs when I opened by reinforcing my “did this in a week” crazy situation, and that helped. Laughter helps me relax and feel connected. Somehow that makes it safer to then open up and get vulnerable… I kept talking. I got to my story about “Jose,” which I can’t tell without my heart spilling out all over the place. I didn’t know if anyone was picking it up, but I was putting it out there. I love that kid so much, and still wish I could do more for him… I punctuated his story by comparing it to my own. The technology withheld from him had been offered to me twenty years earlier. You’d expect students today to get a better tech experience, but not so. It’s a matter of who has privilege, and who doesn’t, plain and simple. It was important to me to make that crystal clear.
I brought it back to techquity as a concept and a paradigm that has the potential to take our current efforts to a deeper, more meaningful level. I tried to be clear that I wasn’t proposing any easy, quick fixes to education. I was encouraging more intentional approaches to individualize and provide access to learning. If I had an hour, I could have shared a million examples. And it would have been clear that I don’t have all the answers, and that I fall very short of being the teacher I want to be. But my vision is becoming clearer all the time about who our students are, and what they can do, and what they need, and how we need to step up and do better. With access to technology growing, I see all these dots in place with powerful potential, but we’re not connecting the dots very effectively… We need to do better, and I said so…
Remember how we made minor tweaks to my notes the day before? Those tweaks didn’t make it to the teleprompter. There’s a moment mid-talk where I give what sounds like a dramatic sigh, and it’s actually because the teleprompter was only showing me words I’d deleted, and I was panicking. I needed to keep talking without being able to see the next portion of my notes… I did, and they caught up with me pretty quickly, thank goodness.
And then it was over! I heard applause, but still couldn’t see faces or anything, and for a moment I felt a little out-of-body while exiting the stage…. There I was greeted by the world’s most enthusiastic praise and high fives and hugs and slaps on the back and kisses on the cheek! I wonder if that’s what it’s like when you run a marathon and cross the finish line? My heart was racing and I breathlessly repeated like ten times, “That just happened! That just happened!” My brain couldn’t even compute that I’d just given a TED Talk! Nobody does that! Definitely not a little nobody like me! Did I really just give a TED Talk??! Such a rush!!
As they removed my mic, Ann Curry ran around the corner to give me a hug and tell me I was amazing, and that I’d received a standing ovation, “Did you see it?!” No, I actually hadn’t! And now for the rest of my life, I’ll be able to say the sentence, “I didn’t know I’d received a standing ovation until Ann Curry told me.” That just isn’t a sentence many people get to say. So far, I haven’t gotten tired of saying it.
After that, I got to settle into my front row seat (never sat anywhere near the front row of the Keller before!) and just enjoy the rest of the day. I felt super lucky that I got to speak early in the program, so then it was off my shoulders, and I could listen attentively to everyone else. So much goodness to take in!
I also got to enjoy warm and kind feedback from all sorts of people. Both that day, and ever since. The best are people saying “I was that kid…” or “I know that kid… Could we talk about strategies that might help me serve them better?” I’ve heard my own language echoing in professional conversations, and seen a renewed energy and desire to be creative and outside-the-box in meeting students’ needs. My own classes watched the video while I was gone, and have been soooo sweet and supportive and interested in having conversations about all of it.
Overall, I’m just indescribably grateful for the incredible opportunity and platform that the amazing folks at TEDx offered me. How many people actually get the chance to shout from the rooftops about their passion? Taking an idea that’s existed mostly in my head for years, and handing it over to thousands of people, hopefully igniting conversations and action beyond what I’ll ever know about, is so surreal. So humbling. Techquity has always felt bigger than me, or like it should be bigger than me, and now it can be. I’m not the guardian of the idea anymore. It’s out there, and now the world can grow it, shape it, apply it, however it sees fit. That’s a little scary, like watching your baby leave the nest, but mostly it’s thrilling to imagine the possibilities.
I’m also beyond grateful for all the friends and community that have surrounded me with love and support through this whirlwind of a process. I heard the sentiment several times that week, “I’m so excited and nervous and my heart is racing… I feel like it’s happening to me!” The sweet fruit of tu eres mi otro yo.
What’s next? I have no idea. The world somehow seems more open and full of possibilities to me now than a few weeks ago. I hope that in some shape or form, I get more opportunities to collaborate with people who are trying to do better for our kids.
One of my super cool 8th graders randomly said last week that “The world is going to end on Saturday.” She didn’t know about my upcoming talk that day, and it was such a weird comment, which she couldn’t explain…. But afterward, when she’d listened to my video, she changed it to, “Actually, I think something just got started on Saturday. It was a beginning.”
Someday I want to reread this and remember every single thing about TED week, so I wrote a lot of words. Below is Part 1, the week leading up to the event. Go to Part 2to read about everything after arriving at the Keller Auditorium.
On March 8, I got an email from TEDxPortland, which I assumed was advertising their upcoming event. This would be my fourth local TED event, which I enjoy with my friend, Afrita, every year. Always such a great day where I get inspired to care about things I didn’t even know I would care about! But this email was advertising something brand new, something that had never been done at any TED event in the world—an idea booth. They had set up a booth downtown, and were inviting anyone to come and record 90 second videos pitching their idea, with the promise of one (or two) being chosen to give a talk on the big TEDx stage!
First of all, I thought this was brilliant. The team does a great job curating fantastic speakers every year, but what a perfect way to break through the inherent limits of “they don’t know who/what they don’t know.”
Second, I knew immediately that I needed to pitch an idea, and exactly what that idea would be. My idea had been brewing for years, slowly fleshing itself out, and waiting for an opportunity for a larger audience.
Third, I took a close look at the photos and videos, because I’ve rarely seen a photo booth that was wheelchair accessible, and this looked similar. Sure enough, there was a visible step up into the booth. That seemed like a terrible reason to give up on my idea, though, so I contacted the TEDx people, and asked how I could submit my idea. They were very kind and apologetic for the accessibility oversight, and offered to either meet me somewhere to record my idea, or to let me submit my own video via email. I’m perfectly capable of opening up iMovie and talking at my computer for 90 seconds, so I did that.
(Note: This response was perfectly appropriate for this year. Next year, I expect better! Accessibility requirements and info about alternative plans should be posted both on the website and at the physical booth location. Just a little pro tip for anyone planning events and such!)
And then I tried really hard to forget about it! I was sure there were tons of great ideas submitted, and the likelihood of mine being chosen was probably slim. It wasn’t too hard to let it fall to the back of my mind, because my personal life was a giant mess. Every time I turned around, another loved one was facing a huge crisis and in need of major “thoughts and prayers” and any other support I could offer. Life was hard… and I was pretty sure I was making a nuisance of myself to God, begging him to fix things.
TEDx didn’t fall completely out of my brain though. I was aware when the April 5 deadline came, that people would be reviewing all those videos and making a choice. I wondered if it would be wrong to pray about it… Praying for my idea to be chosen didn’t feel right, so I didn’t do it. But I finally found the words that felt right, and I prayed that an idea would be selected that would have the most positive impact in the community. Because that’s the whole point, right? It’s not like I was dying to be on stage; I just wanted good things for the community. I submitted my idea because I believe in its power to do good, but I would wholeheartedly support any idea that could do more good!
Some time passed and I didn’t hear anything back, so I assumed they had chosen someone else. That was fine; I knew it had been a long shot. I just hoped they chose someone good!
Then on Friday, April 13, I started my morning with an email from David Rae, the executive producer and face of TEDxPortland. (It’s important to note here: the big event is scheduled for the next Saturday, April 21.) They weren’t committing to anything, but they wanted to hear more about my idea. Could they call me in an hour? And could I be thinking about five concrete points I could share about my idea?
When David Rae asks, you say yes. That’s just a life rule we all should live by. Thank goodness it was a grading day, so I didn’t have a classroom full of students. I put grading on hold, and spent the next hour furiously scribbling thoughts and arrows all over paper. I also called Nicole, who had been bouncing this particular idea around with me for a couple years. I heard Lin-Manuel in my head, singing “I’m not throwing away my shot…”
Let me add here, I don’t work in the entertainment industry. I don’t work in the corporate world. I know pitching and selling ideas is a thing people do, but I have no clue how it’s done! I didn’t have time to seek advice from wikiHow. I was just going on instinct and authenticity.
The phone call came, and all the important people were on the line, while I sat in my lil’ classroom, waving away everyone who came by with a grading question. (Don’t worry, I followed up afterward!) We chatted for a minute, and then Dave asked if I could get my list of five concepts to them within the next two hours. Not sure if I was doing it right, I just said honestly, “Well, you emailed me an hour ago… So right now I have two lists of five in front of me. One with very specific techniques, the other more general guiding principles. I also have an anecdote about how I came to this work that I feel frames the entire concept quite nicely. I can share as much or as little as you want to hear.” (Spoiler: that “anecdote” was “Jose” in the final talk.)
Apparently this wasn’t the common or expected response? I don’t know. I still don’t know how these things are done. But after a pause, I hear, “Ok, that’s it, we’re just calling it right now. We want you.”
“What? Wait… what? Just like that?”
“Just like that. Are you willing to give a talk next week at TED xPortland?”
“Are you sure? I mean, yes!! Of course I’m willing! But you didn’t even hear my points. Are you sure about this?” (I’m sure the professional idea pitchers don’t try to talk their audience out of saying yes to them… But what can I say? I’m an amateur.)
“We’re sure. If you have the passion and tenacity to pull all that together in an hour, then that’s exactly what we’re looking for. And we already loved your idea. It’s strong, it’s catchy, and we googled it; it doesn’t seem to be in the lexicon. We’re going to make some more phone calls and get at least one other speaker, but we definitely want you.”
(I later found out that one of the other Idea Booth videos was made by a little boy pitching an idea for an airplane that dropped “cash bombs and love bombs and chicken bombs.” I can only assume that TEDx approached him first, and he was busy that weekend, so I was their second choice. Who could compete with love bombs and chicken bombs??)
And then I went back to quietly grading…. Just kidding! Then I launched into a whirlwind of telling my news to everyone I knew, getting a tentative talk outline to them in the next two hours, freaking out, breathing, and completing grading day responsibilities. It was a crazy day, and the volume would only get turned up with each day that followed. My first phone call, of course, was to Afrita, since she’s not only a dear friend, but also my TED buddy! Her excitement level didn’t disappoint, and she gave me the perfect reassurance/advice: “No matter what you say up there, it’s going to be great, because you’re so others-focused. You’re going to bring attention to others and their needs, and people are going to listen.”
The second I emailed that first outline, I already hated it. Over the next couple days, I scrapped it and started fresh at least twice before landing on a strong skeleton. Then I spent the rest of the week refining that.
It was very exciting to meet with the team in their office in the WeWork Custom House that first weekend. I’d always passed by that gorgeous building and wondered whose lives were cool enough to have a reason to go inside. Sitting around the table with Dave and Allen, whose names and faces I knew from years of attending TEDx, and meeting Annatova, who was introduced as my designer but turned out to be something closer to a guardian angel, I heard Hamilton music in my head again, this time singing about “the room where it happens.”
In that powerful room, I got to talk about TECHQUITY. This idea had existed mostly in my head for years, occasionally discussed with like-minded educators. But there we were, talking about it like an idea that matters. They asked me questions to get past the veneer of a catchy buzzword, and helped me dig into the heart of the concept, why it matters so much to me, and why it should matter to the larger community. I watched their faces catching the vision, which was then reflected back to me in a more refined and larger scale vision. Such a rush! I left feeling more enthusiastic than ever about techquity, and confident I could express it to a crowd.
Well, the confidence came and went as the week progressed. But when I’d start spinning out, suffering big time from “imposter syndrome,” sure I didn’t deserve to be on that stage, I’d come back to what Afrita said about an others-focus. Maybe I didn’t deserve to be on stage, but so what? It’s not about me. It’s about my idea, and its capacity to impact others. Believing in myself is hard, but I believe in techquity. I believe in the kids that can benefit from techquity. That deserved a stage. I just had to focus on doing justice to the idea.
Allen was my go-to during the week who kept checking on me, answering my questions, rehearsing with me via video chat, and generally holding my hand through the whirlwind. He has that rare superpower I always admire of making people feel like they’re super-important to him. I knew that he had to be under enormous pressure of being one of the heads of this HUGE event, but any time I talked with him, it felt like I was his top priority. (I’m sure I wasn’t, but it felt like it!) He seems to remember everyone he’s ever met, and everyone they’ve ever met. And not in the fakey politician way, but in the sincere, I-want-to-connect-with-everyone-and-help-them-connect-with-each-other way.
Thursday night was the fancy TEDx dinner, which seemed to include everyone who’s ever been involved with a TEDxPortland event. I was surrounded by so much greatness, and I loved just soaking it all in. Met all kinds of cool, interesting people. (Somebody said in a speech that “If you’re in this room right now, you’re interesting!” And I wished my insecure 13-year old self could know that’s coming.:)) Everyone I met looked horrified when they learned that I had just found out I was speaking less than a week before. They all knew how much goes into preparing one of these talks! Then they always tried to quickly replace the horrified expression with a supportive one, “You’re going to do great!” Yeah, ok, thanks guys…. None of them, of course, actually knew if I’d be any good. They didn’t know me. And they didn’t know if a speaker could be chosen from a booth (sorta) and show up ready to go in a week, because it had literally never been done before!
Most importantly, butterscotch pudding happened. I know, who really cares about butterscotch pudding, right? But I’m telling you. Run, don’t walk, to the Irving Street Kitchen, and get the butterscotch pudding. It will change your life. They offer it to-go in mason jars, so it’s not even necessary to sit down for a meal. (Although if you’re looking for an amazing meal too, stay!)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve said and believed the same things as any other mainstream liberal regarding gun control. I’ve rolled my eyes at overly defensive conservatives and assured them that nobody wants to take away their guns. I’ve acknowledged the importance of the second amendment. I’ve insisted that we’re only looking to compromise on common sense regulations, blah blah blah….
And I meant it. I wasn’t lying. It’s just that my opinions have evolved…
For the last few weeks, as I’ve listened to the latest round of reminders that the second amendment is a key element of our democracy and protects us from tyranny and oppression, something shifted in my thinking…. If that was the intent of the second amendment, then it’s been an epic failure. As noted in this screenshot that’s been making the rounds….
A right to arms made sense in the 1790s, at least in theory. But look at the legacy of oppression that the United States has upheld throughout our entire history. How has the second amendment protected us against any of it? (Yes, I consider every group of people listed above to be part of “us,” not a bunch of “thems.”) Obsession with guns is one of our defining traits as a country, and we’re certainly not using them to protect the oppressed!
Conversely, we do use guns both directly and indirectly to continue oppression. Think about how many people were “uncomfortable” with Trump’s long list of blatant -isms, but let them all slide because they were afraid that a Democrat, any Democrat, might limit their access to firearms. “Here, government, let me hand you this blank check to do anything you like to other people, as long as you leave me and my guns alone.”
In other words, exactly the opposite of the original intent. We aren’t using the second amendment to keep the government in check. They’re using it to manipulate and control us. Getting us to oppress our neighbors.
I’m over it. If the second amendment doesn’t do what it was designed to do, then I no longer support it. And no, that doesn’t make me unpatriotic. It’s ok to reevaluate ideas that are over 200 years old, and come to new conclusions now that we live in a different context.
So, in a surprising turn of events, it seems that conservatives were right about me–I do hope that we find a way to come around to every single household in the US, and take away all the guns. I hope the conservative nightmare comes true. I hope we’re completely stripped of our second amendment rights.
I understand that most guns are used responsibly. And that makes no difference to me. Most people use their guns mainly for sport, and generally don’t harm anyone. But to protect their sport like a right on equal footing with freedom of speech? To prioritize their right to play with guns above our fundamental right to safety? Nope. I’m out.
As far as I’m concerned, obtaining a deadly weapon should be the single most regulated pursuit a person can undertake. We regulate all kinds of activities that are significantly less lethal. Responsible regulation doesn’t make us un-American; it makes us a civilized society.
Do you have any idea how many bureaucratic hoops I have to jump through just to receive the “privilege” of getting out of bed in the morning? (When people tell you that healthcare is a privilege, not a right, just remember what that means–some of us don’t have the right to get out of bed in the morning. Read that sentence a couple times. Let it sink in.) Getting a deadly weapon should be one hundred times harder. You should have to work a hundred times harder to get access to firearms, than I have to work to get out of bed in the morning.
Do you have an idea how many bureaucratic hoops there are to legally enter the United States and pursue the American dream? If you don’t already have the right kind of status, money, and/or connections, there aren’t even any hoops; there’s just a closed door. Getting a deadly weapon should be one hundred times harder. You should have to work a hundred times harder to get access to firearms, than a single mom fleeing from violence and poverty has to work to become a tax paying citizen and give her children a chance to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. For many people, there shouldn’t even be a hoop; that door should be closed to them.
If you want your death-toys so badly, fine. But you should have to work for them. Your head should be spinning from all the processes and red tape. You should be thoroughly and comprehensively evaluated to make absolute sure you’re a fit gun owner. And that extremely lengthy process should be repeated at regular intervals, except a little different each time, because it shouldn’t become anywhere near the realm of easy or routine. Your privacy should be intensely violated. Getting access to a gun should be the hardest thing that you ever do in life.
Or, you could just get a new hobby.
Am I sounding extreme? Maybe. I don’t actually expect to get my way, at least not any time soon. But I can dream. If ridding the country of deadly weapons, improving my kids’ chances of living to adulthood, is an extreme stance, I’ll own it. Because I’m a teacher living in an age where saving my students’ lives is part of my unwritten job description. I can’t throw my body in front of all the kids at once. But I can use my voice and hope somebody listens.
I was 14, a freshman in high school, when the Columbine shooting happened. Kids today will never understand how big that news was. Just like the rest of the country, I obsessed over the story. I knew the names of the shooters and many of the victims. I took in so many detailed accounts from all corners of the school, that I could see vivid pictures in my head as if I’d been there. The shooting became part of me. It shook me. I went about my days feeling deeply unsettled, as my world had turned upside down. The world wasn’t as safe as I once thought. Schools weren’t safe. I knew bad things happened in the world, but not at school. How could a building full of kids trying to learn, be a dangerous place? If schools weren’t safe, what was? Fear settled deeply into my bones. My entire world felt like it shifted, and I desperately wanted to return to the innocence and naivete I enjoyed as a child. The innocence and naivete that today’s kids don’t get to experience.
We promised we would never forget.
Instead, we did something much worse than forget Columbine.
We accepted it.
We could have done something about it. We chose not to. We chose to do nothing after Columbine, and nothing after the 209 school shootings that have happened since then. We chose to do nothing after the 70 mass shootings that have happened since Columbine. Fun fact: Did you know Columbine no longer even ranks in the top 10 deadliest shootings in modern US history? The situation has gotten so much worse than 14-year-old-me could have imagined, and not by accident. This was deliberately chosen. We decided–and keep on deciding–that we value guns more than we value human life.
How many lives? Since Columbine, 164 lives lost in school shootings. Since Columbine, 607 lives lost in mass shootings. I know because I went through the lists and counted them. I invite you to check my math and count them yourself. It’s quite the experience to scroll through all those lines, adding up the numbers. At first, you feel the weight of every individual–the family, friends, and everyone affected by each lost life. Then, as you keep adding 3, and 5, and 6, and another 3, something scary happens–you start becoming numb. They’re just numbers… Until you hit a large number, where a couple dozen lives are lost at once, or your grand total crosses yet another hundred mark, and reality gives you another jolt. The weight of all that loss, all that tragedy, all that pain, comes crashing down again. I cried as I calculated. It turns out math can be a form of mourning.
We chose to sacrifice those hundreds of lives. We chose to ruin thousands of lives of those left behind. And I feel confident that we’ll keep on choosing these tragedies. There’s no reason to think Parkland, Florida was the last straw that will finally convince us to reset our moral compass. We know how to greatly reduce the violence and death. Every other developed nation on earth has managed to avoid this kind of carnage; their laws and methods aren’t a secret. We don’t follow their example, because we don’t want to. Human life isn’t actually important to us in the United States. We didn’t forget Columbine, and we aren’t surprised when it happens again and again. We’ve just decided that we’re ok with it. That this is acceptable damage.
My kids won’t ever understand how big of a deal Columbine was, because to them, a school shooting is just another Wednesday. There were more deaths today than in the 1999 shooting, but I’m guessing half my students don’t even know about it. Or if they do, they’ll have forgotten in a couple days. The city of Parkland, Florida won’t be forever engraved in their brains like Littleton, Colorado is in mine. It’s barely a blip on the radar. As adults, we won’t remember today’s details for long either. It’ll blend into the blur of indistinguishable horror with all the rest. Just white noise.
The details of the day won’t be on my students’ minds. But it absolutely stains their psyche. The human need for safety and security is as primal as it gets, and our society doesn’t offer it to our kids. There’s no avoiding the negative impact on their development.
Tonight will be another one of those nights when I fall asleep with terrifying images in my head of “what if it happened here.” I’ll play out every possible scenario in my head. What if my kids are the victims? What if my kid is the shooter? Maybe it doesn’t do any good to obsess about these terrible thoughts… but what if it does? What if I actually have to act in the moment one day? This might come as a shock, but teachers aren’t trained to be first responders. We work with police officers to learn and practice our school’s procedures, but it doesn’t help me feel much safer. I’m sure the 209 schools that have had shootings in the last 19 years had procedures too, and hopefully those procedures minimized the death count. But 164 lives were still lost. The thought of any of my own kids being added to that total….. I can’t. I just can’t.
People say they’re sending thoughts and prayers after each of these tragedies… but a lot of those people are lying. Actual thought and prayer leads to action. Leads to compassion. Leads to solutions. Leads to peace. If people, especially our elected leaders, were actually thinking deeply and praying sincerely, our culture wouldn’t be in the mess that it is. This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. (Matthew 15:8)
We don’t have to live like this. The rest of the world doesn’t. This is a uniquely American problem of our own creation. We need to start by overhauling our gun control laws, because duh. Choose any other developed nation, and design laws like theirs. It doesn’t even matter which country we choose as our model at this point. Any of them will be an improvement.
Then, once we slow the hemorrhage of American blood, we need to start addressing all the underlying problems that fuel the violence. We need to deal with why people are hurting so badly, that they want to harm others and themselves. We need to deal with why people are living in such desperate despair. We need to treat the pain. We need to treat the solitude. We need to strengthen our communities and care for each other. We need to make the wellbeing of our children the country’s number one priority.
Anything less should be unacceptable. That’s my thought and my prayer.
Years ago I coined a phrase that still feels right. I like to say that I suffer from LMA, Liberal Mormon Angst.
It was hard during the Bush years, especially when I knew I was expected to defend Prop 8. And I tried. I was a young, faithful Mormon girl, and I tried so hard to feel good about Prop 8. But my heart was never at peace. I’m pretty sure I said some stupid things, which I regret, in my attempts to defend the Church’s stance. I prayed and prayed, trying to get God to tell me what position I should take on marriage equality, which fight I should fight. But God never directly answered the question. All I ever got was, “Just love the LGBT people in your life, no strings attached. That’s what you can do, so do it well.” Well, ok then. It leaves a lot of unresolved concerns in my mind, but at least I don’t have to fight against LGBT families. I need to love. I can do that.LMA was hard during the Obama years. Especially during that darn “Mormon Moment,” when it wasn’t just the normal expectation to support the GOP candidate; now I was expected to support Brother Romney! But how could I? (Sure, compared to what we’re dealing with today, he looks good. But my neighbor’s cat looks like a good candidate when put against today’s White House, so that’s not saying much.) My moral compass wouldn’t let me support his big corporation loving, 47% of the population hating, binders full of women toting, flip flopping self… Although if he’d stayed true to who he was as the governor of Massachusetts, I might have been able to get on board. He did good things as governor. Then he changed his position on virtually everything, taking a hard right in his presidential campaign, so I ended up A) disagreeing with his positions, and B) unable to trust that he has any moral backbone. Also, I still have the same questions about all the Romney loving Mormons in my life…. If Mitt had run for president with the same pro-healthcare, pro-gun control, pro-choice, pro-environmentalism ideals that worked for him in Massachusetts, would they still have supported him? Would they be claiming different positions on all these issues too? Did it bother them that their hero couldn’t make up his mind about his stance on anything? But as morally confusing as I found the Romney camp, I was the one who constantly had to answer the question, “How can you support Obama and call yourself Mormon?” (Short answer: because his values align very closely with mine.) Those were hard years.There was a brief window of naivete in 2016, where I thought my LMA burden might get a little lighter. Mormons weren’t pleased with Trump gaining traction, and support for the leading Republican candidate was at an all-time low. Utah didn’t vote for Trump in the primary. And then they scrounged up Evan McMullin out of nowhere, giving me hope that Mormons were willing to think outside the GOP box. I even had some sympathy for my conservative LDS friends, left without a a candidate. But I hoped that in this new world, where Mormons were checking out other options, maybe there would be more room for me and my liberal ways? I might still not agree with a lot of church members on politics, but at least we could mostly all agree on #NeverTrump, #AnythingButTrump, right? A common enemy has brought groups together more than a few times before.
My hope was short-lived. The Mormon resistance folded like a house of cards…. True, less than 50% of Utah voted for Trump in the general election, but it was still enough to give him the state. I was disappointed, but not shocked. The heartsickness started setting in when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang at his inauguration. Helping to celebrate a man that we all knew was dedicating his life to terrorizing most Americans, as if he were just another president.
And then this new report, that Mormon approval of Trump’s presidency ranked higher than any other religious group throughout 2017. (Read about it here.) 61% of Mormons reported approval of this president! We’re the only group that showed over 50% approval. It shouldn’t surprise me. Mormons have always been so predictably Republican, that the GOP doesn’t even try to actually court our favor. They assume that we’ll vote how they tell us to, and they’re right.
But call me crazy–I thought this time could be different! Every time there’s an election, the Church issues basically the same statement about how “principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties,” and reminds members that we should “seek candidates who best embody those principles.” Now we have a leader who demonstrates a total lack of any principles on a daily basis, and we’re ok with it?? We’re giving him a thumbs up? The biggest thumbs up in America? Who are we??? Why can’t we make a stand for values with at least the same showing as any other religious or non-religious group in America?
People both inside and outside the Church question whether I’m really dedicated to my faith, since they can smell the LMA all over me. But what neither seem to understand, is that my stubborn moral code is a direct result of being raised LDS. By the time I was grown, I’d listened to countless sermons and taken home eleventy gazillion cutesy handouts, all telling me to “stand for truth and righteousness” and to seek after things that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” So I feel a deep rooted obligation to stand up against the direct opposite. I can’t figure out why 61% of my fellow Mormons aren’t standing with me. We don’t have to agree on what steps we should be taking as a country. But it should have been a no-brainer to agree on all these lines that should never, ever have been crossed…. 61% approval. Not 61% expressing tolerance, or resigned disappointment. The I’m-not-happy-but-I’m-not-the-type-to-protest crowd are presumably mixed into the other 39%. No, 61% of us actually approve of all these moral lines being completely erased.
I don’t actually know who the 61% are. Most people aren’t as vocal about their support for Trump as they’ve been for others. And that’s fine, because I don’t want to know. Once I know that someone is in favor of my oppression and the oppression of so many others, I can’t un-know that about a person. But I do notice all the people who aren’t expressing disapproval or dissent. I notice when they don’t have a word to say when the president and his posse are attacking others, whether it’s via words or policies. And I can’t figure out what happened. We all grew up doing the same role-play activities, preparing us to be bold in the face of moral danger. When has there ever been a better moment to take a stand??
Of course, there are two sides to the LMA coin. It doesn’t just make it hard to feel safe around fellow Mormons. Sometimes it isn’t so safe around fellow liberals either.
The Book of Mormon musical is coming to town again. (It probably doesn’t make the rounds any more often than other big shows, but it sure feels like it comes around a lot!) So here comes another round of listening to my open-minded, coexisty, liberal friends talking about what fans they are of this show. They don’t hide it from me either; it never seems to occur to most that I might possibly find this offensive. That’s weird, right? If the Fox Newsy folks made a big Broadway musical called The Quran or The Torah, making fun of their respective religious groups, I can’t imagine anything but outrage from this same circle of friends. Likewise, if the show had been called The Bible and mocked any other Christian group, the Fox Newsies would be seeing red. But the Southpark guys were smart, and they picked the religious group that nobody would care about defending, and wouldn’t even defend themselves. The Church has consistently shrugged it off, which maybe isn’t the worst strategy. “Don’t feed the trolls,” right?
But here’s the thing. I don’t believe in mocking or demeaning anyone’s religious groups or beliefs. Particularly groups that have been historically oppressed. (We haven’t forgotten about Mormons being chased out of the United States at gunpoint, right? Mormon history is complicated, and we’ve taken our turns at being the oppressors. But let’s remember how we landed in the desert with our circled wagons.) So, I feel like I owe my own religious group at least as much respect as I’d grant any other. And it’s disappointing to feel pretty alone in that belief. The LMA has never made life easy or comfortable. It challenges me every day. My beliefs aren’t easily fit into one box. I’m not sure that deeply examined, truly consistent beliefs could ever fit neatly under one label. I don’t mean “consistent” as “never changing,” which would imply “never learning.” But I try to be consistently true to myself in what I believe and how I use my voice.
I don’t need everyone to agree with me on everything–how boring would that world be? I would just like to see, in these deeply upsetting times, people willing to upset their own comfort zone a little more. There will be people today posting MLK quotes about peace, and using his words to justify their own silence and deterrence from rocking any boats. They see themselves as promoting unity. This misuse of King’s words is an insult to his legacy. Silence about the plight of the oppressed only deepens the divides created by the oppressor. If we’re ever going to move closer to achieving Martin Luther King’s dream, we need quiet moments of introspection to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions. And we need loud voices to promote our convictions.
You never know which random moments will stick in your head forever. There’s a day from my AP US History class that still haunts me. It was my junior year of high school, so that would have been in 2000 or 2001. (In a pre-9/11 world… That’s not actually relevant, but I just have this general sense that it was an entirely different era.)
For some reason, our teacher showed us this video from…. Dateline? 60 Minutes? Something in that genre? It was all about the standardized testing culture in Texas. Their students had to take a test called the TAKS, and it was a big deal. We watched clips of pep assemblies to hype kids up for the TAKS. We watched cheerleaders jumping around with their pompoms and cheering about doing your best on the TAKS. We watched walk-and-talks down hallways covered with motivational TAKS banners and posters full of test-taking strategies. We watched glassy eyed teachers explain all the ways they’ve been getting their students to practice for the TAKS and incentivizing them to do well…
It was terrifying. And completely bizarre. My 16-year old brain couldn’t wrap itself around what I was seeing. I was used to taking fill-in-the-bubbles tests every year, but I’d never for a moment thought they mattered. I knew there was some sort of connection between our test scores and our parents’ property taxes, but that wasn’t enough to make me care about those mind-numbingly boring tests. I couldn’t fathom what kind of kool-aid could have convinced the entire state of Texas to get so worked up about filling in bubbles! I’d known since early elementary school that standardized testing was the most meaningless waste of time all year. Who managed to fool an entire state into wasting even more time and resources??
Little did I know….
I couldn’t have imagined what was coming. I didn’t understand that No Child Left Behind was being passed at the time, and that it would force-feed the same kool-aid to the whole country. I definitely didn’t imagine that I’d become the glassy eyed teacher administering these pointless-at-best, harmful-at-worst, and misuse-of-resources-in-any-case tests year after year. And every year, I have flashbacks to watching that video in US History, blissfully unaware that my future was playing out on the tv screen.
(I won’t go into all the reasons our testing obsessed culture needs to be stopped. There are a million articles and videos on the subject. But for a quick refresher, I’ll direct you to John Oliver.)
As we enter another year’s testing season, I find myself retreating to a dream world. I have this fantasy about a world where teaching and learning were treated with the same respect and reverence that we give state testing. What would that be like…?
Imagine the emphasis every day for every kid to “get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast; you have important learning to do.” Snacks might even be provided.
Students would treat every class with the best focus and effort they could muster, because this matters.
There wouldn’t be interruptions over the intercom. Ever.
Nobody would get pulled out of class.
Fire drills and earthquake drills and lock-out drills and lock-down drills would never cut into class time.
We would be extra certain that every student with a disability or other need was getting every accommodation necessary for their success. Not just on paper.
Those who need small groups to focus, would get all of their learning time in small groups.
When a student needed more than the allotted time, somebody–a learning coordinator, an administrator, somebody besides the teacher–would give them as much time as they needed. Students would be encouraged to go at their own pace.
All necessary materials would be provided. Teachers wouldn’t be paying for their own supplies.
Speaking of dollars, all the money going into the testing industry would instead be coming into both our classrooms and our pockets.
A teacher’s professional judgment would be utilized as a valuable resource and prime piece of data.
Phones would never be in students’ possession.
Cheating in any form would be a BIG DEAL.
Curriculum and materials would be developed around teachers’ stated needs and desires.
Basically, I’m dreaming about a world where everyone cared, like, really cared, about teaching and learning. Didn’t just care with their words and with memes on social media, but cared with time, dollars, and respect. I’m dreaming about a world where teaching and learning never had to compete for a place on the priority list in school.
The crazy part is, if we could convince everyone–children and adults–to invest as heavily in the learning as the testing, guess what? The testing would take care of itself! If you want better output, you have to focus your energies on the input. How is that not obvious?
Put down the testing kool-aid, America. Those cups are full of poison.