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. ūüôā

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.

tree-200795_1920

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….)

facebook-box-1334045_1920

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.

A story all about how my life got flipped-turned upside down…

Since I started teaching, I’ve referred to summer as my “time to get to know Kristine again.” Being Ms. Napper is pretty all-consuming. But the last couple years, I’ve made steps toward holding onto Kristine during the rest of the year. This year’s New Year’s thing–not exactly a resolution, just a thing–was starting this blog. I needed writing back in my life. Putting my thoughts into tangible words helps keep my feet on the ground.

In 2015, my back-to-Kristine thing was joining a choir. And I’m still thanking 2015-me for being smart enough and brave enough to make that leap! I needed music back in my life. So badly.

I was a choir kid throughout middle and high school. Started in 6th grade, and fell instantly in love with everything about the music-making process. Instantly idolized Ms. Duck, who expected us to comport ourselves like professionals at all times and accepted nothing less than our best. I also idolized the older students who’d been in choir longer, and were doing cool things with leadership positions, small groups, solos, musical theater, etc. I wanted to do everything they were doing!

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I did get a little taste of all that when I was in 8th grade. I was choir vice president. (And I honestly still don’t know how I got nominated or elected….) I sang baritone in the girls’ barbershop group. I got a teensy, tiny little part in the school musical.

At the end of 8th grade, I was thrilled when our teacher announced that she was also moving to the high school the next year. Being the kind of person that hates change, I was a big fan of something staying the same when I started high school. I still remember that first day of 9th grade, when everything was crazy and overwhelming, and I couldn’t even get to half my classes because of a broken elevator. Choir was my last class of the day, and it was such a relief and boost to my spirits to walk into a room where everything just felt right! New room, a handful of new faces. But it was the same energy, the same routines, the same musical journey. Only better! We got to pick up where we left off, and keep moving forward, excited about what our slightly more mature voices could do.

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I stayed with it throughout high school, and I loved it. I really did.¬† Even during The Dark Year, my senior year, when Ms. Duck had to abandon us for the year and everything in the choir room was terrible, I never considered quitting. (I don’t even know why, because I don’t remember actually enjoying choir that year… Pure loyalty to the program, I guess.) But the truth is, it was also hard for me. As much as I loved singing, I always knew I wasn’t a very strong singer. All the hard work and dedication in the world wasn’t going to do more than marginally change that. I got 8/10 on every “voice test” I was ever given–not a bad score, but so frustrating to never break the ceiling! High school is a bigger pond than middle school, and I was a small fish. I was never chosen for anything I tried out for. Rejection always hurts, no matter how much we pretend that it’s rolling off our thick skin. And it was hard to watch everyone else (at least, it felt like everyone else) bonding over shared groups, shows, and events that I couldn’t be a part of. I spent so much time on the periphery, wishing I were one of them, that I can still tell stories¬† from trips I never went on, recite quotes from shows I was never a part of, and sing lines from songs I’ve never sung. (Have I mentioned what a cool kid I was? Goodness….)

By the time I went away to college, I couldn’t do it anymore. If the high school pond was already too big for this little fish, then BYU was an ocean I’d surely drown in. I didn’t want to sing in the “no audition necessary” group, because I knew I’d be bored. I needed more challenge than that. But there was no way I’d be accepted to any audition groups. So I declared the choir chapter of my life over. I tried to sing in church choir on-and-off over the years, but most of those groups at BYU tended to practice in places that were upstairs with no elevators. The directors would shrug helplessly and tell me “I wish you could come.” But I knew they didn’t wish it that badly. It was BYU, home to a gazillion pianos! The campus had plenty of accessible spaces where they could have held practice. Inaccessibility was a choice, and I wasn’t going to beg to be included.

Adult life had been pretty much the same. I’d sing in church choir now and then, but accessibility issues got in the way a lot. And even during the periods when I was actively participating and even enjoying, church choir is only church choir. It has its place, but it doesn’t come close to meeting my musical needs.

At age 30, I finally recognized that there was a giant choir-shaped hole in my life, and it wasn’t going away. I always figured I’d stop missing it eventually, but I was wrong. I needed singing back in my life.

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I spent a while exploring the internets, looking for local opportunities, and not finding much that fit. This group looked too intense. That group looked too sing-alongy. These groups practiced in inaccessible spaces. Those groups were too much time commitment. I’m too old for that group, and too young for that other one.

Until I finally stumbled across PDX Vox! The locations weren’t ideal for me in my westside suburb (a fact that has since changed), but everything else looked like exactly what my soul was craving. When my “is it wheelchair friendly” inquiry was answered with the most thorough, detailed, thoughtful response I’ve ever received to an accessibility question–decision made.

And it was such a good decision. I nervously showed up by myself to a place I’d never been, with a hundred people I’d never met, and immediately felt I’d come home. It was like 6th period on the first day of 9th grade, all over again! It was amazing to be with “my people” again, speaking a language I hadn’t used in years, exercising parts of my body and brain that had been neglected, but still mostly knew what to do. When I was 18, I’d been so afraid of the too-big pond, that I’d taken myself completely out of the water! I don’t know how I even survived like that until 30. But it felt fantastic to slip back into the water and start swimming again.

Choir really does feed my mind, body, and spirit. I’m one of those nerds who loves every step of the process. I love getting new sheet music, reading the notes on the page, figuring out my part, and how it fits into the song. I love letting go of the sheet music, finding out how much of it lives inside me now, and moving from the mechanics to the artistry. I love interpreting, shaping, and playing with the song. I love the performance piece, where we invite a room full of people to feel something with us–to feel lots of somethings with us, actually.

And I love the group dynamics. It’s truly magical when a group of people come together, blending their different voices, to create something as one. Everyone breathing together, feeling the same rhythm, shaping their mouths the same way, listening to each other so the harmonies are tight, bringing the volume up and down, creating a mood, telling a story… Is there anything but music that can bring people together on that level?

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I’ve only been part of Vox for a little over a year (three sessions), but I’ve already heard Andrea say many times, “I came for the music. I stay for the people.” Andrea’s not wrong. (Ever.:)) It turns out that the world’s warmest, friendliest, kindest, funniest, most genuine people all live in the Portland metro area and have a passion for singing a cappella. (Who knew, right?) I was overwhelmed with welcome the first time I showed up, and I feel so lucky to now be part of a such a great group of people. These aren’t the kind of people who make you beg for accommodation or inclusion. They’re the kind of people who naturally accommodate, not just for me, but for everyone and their unique needs. Because of course. That’s just what you do. They’re the kind of people who make a space feel safe. It’s safe to take risks. It’s safe to choose not to take a risk. It’s safe to laugh or cry or both; you’ll be encouraged in whatever ways you need.

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The magic of Voxers being such high quality humans is probably the trickle down effect from our director. Maybe I still have the childhood habit of idolizing choir directors. But I’m pretty convinced they don’t come better than Marie Schumacher. I have endless admiration for her as a musician (look up her stuff, and thank me later), as a teacher, and just as a person. I know she’s always juggling a million things at once in her life, head, and heart, but she still speaks and listens to you as if you were the most important person in the world. I think we all want to be a little more like Marie, and maybe that’s why we bring our best selves to Vox. Or at least we try to!

Every week, I have to talk myself into going to rehearsal. I’m always so tired, and surely I could just skip it this once… But then I suck it up and go, because I’m always crazy-glad I did! I leave reinvigorated. Tired, but fed. My soul needs this. Choir needs to stay a priority in my life.

How I Became A Liberal…

Sometimes people ask how I turned out to be (mostly) liberal, given the (mostly) conservative world I grew up in. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. There are many, many answers–enough so that if anyone had been paying attention, they’d have known from day one that I’d end up a registered Democrat. It was inevitable. But today I’m going to trace my political leanings–and, more importantly, a large chunk of my value system–back to three literary moments that have stayed in my head since childhood.

Starting with Bruce Coville. Somewhere around 3rd grade, Bruce Coville became my favorite author, and held that spot for as long as it was age-appropriate. His books were so full of magic, mystery, silliness, and scariness, all wrapped up into the perfect package for my already overactive imagination. I’d love to get copies to share with the children in my life, but they’ll have to be old copies, because I resent all the new cover art. The originals were so much better…

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I mean, come on. The rainbow book is so much more enticing.

Anyway, that’s a tangent, and not the book I’m talking about. Coville also wrote the “My Teacher Is An Alien” series, ending with the only one I still vividly recall, My Teacher Flunked The Planet.

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Original cover. Because duh.

In this book, a group of aliens are filing a report on the planet Earth, determining whether they should destroy it. At one point, the aliens take our team of child-heroes to witness world hunger up close and personal. They see the vacant look in people’s eyes as they’re told there will be no food again today. They watch a baby die in its milkless mother’s arms. The shocked kids demand of the aliens, “Why don’t you fix this?! Why don’t you feed these people??” The aliens respond, “Why should we, when you can fix it yourselves?” They then take the kids on a quick trip around the world, showing them all the food that’s going to waste.

That scene must have pierced my little heart, because it’s never left my head. I was thinking about it again just last week, when I attended TEDx in Portland, and one of the talks was all about hunger. The speaker kept repeating that we don’t have a food supply problem; we have a distribution problem.

A cynical adult might side-eye the book for brainwashing kids or simplifying a complex issue. And sure, it is a simplification. But you know what? I don’t care if you call it brainwashing. I’m in favor of teaching values like, “we should feed people,” “sharing is good,” “waste is bad,” and “we should feed people.” (Yes, I repeated that on purpose.) We can argue over the details of how to carry out these ideas. But I remain convinced that humanity could totally solve the whole hunger problem if we all agreed to make it a priority.

So, sorry-not-sorry, but since that scene etched itself into my brain, I’ve firmly believed this…

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(The version with a family is probably a stronger image. But I feel weird about posting photos of people who probably didn’t consent to being spread around the Internet…)

As I outgrew Bruce Coville, I remained an unashamed book nerd. Anther gem that helped solidify my liberal leanings was in The Once and Future King by T. H. White.

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There was a chapter where the Wart was transformed into a goose, and he migrates with the flock. At some point, he asks one of the geese if they’re at war with other geese, and the response is shock and disgust. The goose can’t imagine what wretched species would intentionally kill its own. The Wart insists that they must fight over territory. The goose responds, “There are no boundaries among the geese.” The Wart, still a child, asks what boundaries are. “Imaginary lines on the earth, I suppose,” the goose answers, but “How can you have boundaries if you fly?”

Again, I remember almost nothing about the rest of the book, but this scene still pops into my head all the time. Sometimes because of the war and violence issue. We all seem to accept war as a natural part of life, but when you stop and think about it, it’s mindblowing that a supposedly civilized species deals with problems by killing each other. We teach toddlers to use their words and not hit, but then somewhere along the line, that lesson goes out the window.

But more often, I think about the boundaries between countries being “imaginary lines.” Ever since reading that book as a kid, I can’t see borders as anything more than imaginary lines. We place so much importance on those lines. Everything about your circumstances–your access to wealth, resources, opportunities, and likelihood to live another day–depends so much on which side of a line you were born on. But pull yourself up into the air a bit, and look at the world from a goose’s level, and you can’t even see those lines. They’re imaginary. Pretend. Make-believe.

Simplification of complex issues again? Sure. But regardless, I’ll never be able to view my fellow humans as being less “one of my own” just because they were born on a different side of an imaginary line. I’ll certainly never be able to use the common slur of calling anyone “illegal” because they crossed an imaginary line. I can’t and I won’t.

Ok, my third example is a major stretch of the word “literature.” It isn’t a book; even a book nerd like me watched plenty of 90s Nickelodeon. But TV shows have scripts and stories, or at least they did pre-reality TV, so it’s kind of like literature, right?

Whatever, my third scene-in-my-head-forever came from an episode of “Hey Dude.”

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90s kids, you know you remember the killer cacti!

In this episode, Ted was putting together some stereotypical movie portrayals of Native Americans, and Danny called him out on it. The argument led to Ted accepting a dare to go an entire week without using anything that originated with the American Indians.

Throughout the episode, Danny kept taking food and other things away from Ted, telling him about the ingredients that were first used by Indians. The challenge ends with Ted in a towel, all of his clothes off limits, and after explaining the influence of Indian government in the founding of the US government, Danny tells Ted that even his towel violates the terms of the dare. Danny admits he was wrong, and together they recreate Ted’s original presentation with more accurate and respectful portrayals of Native American history.

And that was the day I started thinking about the vast overrepresentation of white people in the media, the entertainment industry, and the history books. I realized how little I actually knew about any other group’s stories, and yet how much those stories probably influenced my own life in a million ways I wasn’t even aware of. I was too young to eloquently talk about those thoughts, but they were taking shape. By high school I was complaining about how my education had consisted of eleventy billion courses on American history, a little dabbling in western Europe, and then crammed the rest of the planet into a single year of “world history.” I was seeing the token diversity in everything I watched on TV through the non-white friend of the white main characters, and it wasn’t good enough for me. I knew there were still Indian reservations around because that’s where people bought their fireworks for the 4th of July, and they’d show up on the news occasionally to debate whale hunting. But other than that, my education would leave me believing they’d all died off a hundred years ago, so I wondered what else I didn’t know.

Thanks, Nickelodeon, for making me think and ask questions that I wouldn’t be able to put into words until many years later.

I’m usually terrible to discuss books and other entertainment with, because I forget the details so quickly. When I’m enjoying a story, I tear through it as fast as possible, eager to know what happens next. After finishing quickly, the details don’t stay in my head. I think it’s significant that these three scenes have stayed strongly rooted in my mind for decades.

I’m afraid that publicly expressing my beliefs via children’s books and TV makes them seem childish. I really do understand that the world is more complicated. But none of those complications can change my core value, and I think it’s important to¬† reflect now and then on what those values are and where they came from. This is the soil that my more nuanced adult beliefs are planted in. It anchors me through the storms and ugliness of the “real world.” I’m not apologizing for any of it! And then I wonder, does the world even have to be as complicated as we make it?