This is Anna Williams, a student in my AP English class this past year. This year she wrote a research paper on police brutality, finishing it up during at-home learning. With her permission, I am sharing her work with you now in light of the murder of George Floyd and killing of Breonna Taylor and the national protests that have followed. Her voice on this issue is more important than mine because she is a person of color, her father has experience as a police officer, and she is a child of the next generation. It is people like Anna who give me great hope for this country.
I present her paper to you now as she turned it in to me. I encourage you to read this student's argument with an open mind and heart.
Police Brutality: Racism or Fear
Liberty and justice for all. This has a nice ring, but it does not always ring true for members of all communities. I am associated with two communities, the black community and the blue community. The black community comes from the biological roots of my family. The blue community comes from my father’s years upon years of training and experience as a Kentucky State Trooper.
These two communities have been in conflict for hundreds of years. From the days of the slave patrols to the current use of excessive force towards members of the black community. Yet, my family has found themselves in the middle, but not by choice. The movements of “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” have forced my family to decide which “lives” we stand with. We believe that all lives are equally important, but the violence between them must be stopped. Many other families across the nation have found themselves in the same situation. In the United States there are 18.1 million Black employed police officers in the force as of 2018 (Date US: Police officers). Because new ideologies can be exposed by the Black officers, the involvement of Blacks in the police system can be seen as a positive. However, white police officers still claim the majority in most areas. In the United States, 110 million whites were employed as officers as of 2018 (Data US: Police officers). Therefore, the precedent racist ideologies from white officers still carry over in the system to the civilians in contact with the police. Not only that, but if black officers were to act against these ideologies, their voices may be notoriously shut down by the majority (i.e., white officers). These men and women can change the fear law enforcement diffuses by resisting the racist assumptions in civilian interactions. However, White police officers still claim the majority in most areas. This makes it harder for Blacks within the force to fight the injustice dispersed on the streets.
In the United States, 110 million White officers are employed as of 2018 (Data US: Police officers). Black police officers are trumped by 91.9 million White officers. Therefore, the precedent racist ideologies from White officers still carry over in the system to the civilians in contact with the police. Not only that, but if Black officers were to act against these ideologies, their voices would be notoriously shut down by the large number of White officers. It can be argued that the interests and needs of minorities (i.e. Black officers) may not be accounted for in such as a white male-dominated field.
Unfortunately, these dismissive ideologies from the police system victimize Black civilians more than any other group. We see this through emotional court cases, news stories, and first-hand accounts posted on social media. The debate of this recurring abuse from police is formed on these main ideas: police brutality is based on the racism that has been embedded in the system for years or it’s based on the fear that comes with the job as an officer. It is impossible for this concept to be considered correct for just one side, therefore police brutality stems from fear brought on by racial ideologies which may permeate the law enforcement subculture in some instances.
The true mission of policing is to serve and protection, but unfortunately, discrimination has become a point of concern. As Katie Nodjimbadem states in The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality, “Modern policing did not evolve into an organization institution until the 1830s and 1840s when northern cities decided they needed to better control over quickly growing population.” As different groups came in contact with the police, harsh interactions resulted. First, it was the European immigrants from Ireland and Germany. Then, long lasting harsh tactics were targeted at African Americans from the result of slave patrols and those who fled to the north from Jim Crow laws (laws that forced racial segregation) in the south (Katie Nodjimbadem, The Long, Painful). Northern police officers, who were fueled by stereotypes and negative attitudes towards black, became a source of brutal and punitive victimization to refugees instead of serving as protection.
This abuse from police eventually continued into the Civil Rights Era during the 1960s. This was a time of peaceful disobedience from the African American community, yet violence still erupted on the scenes. During this era, the most common forms of force by police towards protesters were police dogs and fire hoses (Katie Nodjimbadem, The Long, Painful). Because of the abused power from the police, Black civilians suffered dog bites and bruises all over their bodies. As Katie Nodjimbadem states in The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality, “One of the deadliest riots occurred in Newark in 1967 after police officers severely beat black cab driver John Smith during a traffic stop.” The explanation for this account was nonexistent, but if you look close enough, you can see it was merely based on racism.
The observation of frequent violent accounts between police officers and blacks has been clearly documented. The numbers for violent interactions between blacks and police officers have been significantly higher than any other race. This statistical increase indicated that there is an underlying cause. The complexity of the disproportionate contact between blacks and police, the disproportionate use of force against blacks by police, and the racial bias by the police all contribute to the large amount of police shooting of African Americans (Clark et al. 1). Racial bias has proved to be the most supportive evidence to this statistic. There is a higher degree of racial bias in the decisions by officers to shoot Black Civilians compared to non-Black civilians (Clark et al. 3). Social scientists have been invited to dig deeper and observe racial patterns in policing (Clark et al. 2), making it apparent that this issue goes further than just a few negative police shootings toward blacks.
As injustice has been fought over the years in the police system, there is less evidence of racism being the main contributor in police violence and more evidence of fear influencing the interactions. As Sarah K. Smith perfectly puts it in Are Police Officers Really Afraid, “It occurs to me that the vast number of police officers are not bad people.” The ignorance and incapability to understand what another race goes endures clouds the eyes of many officers in the force. Recruits are usually young and come from areas where they have little to know about interactions with African American (Sarah K. Smith, Are Police Officers). They align their opinions of Blacks based on what their skewed, sometimes racist, community has to say.
It is important to realize that officers are human too. They have family issues that they go back home to, they have health issues they have to face, and most importantly they feel emotions (such as stress just as others do). As Lauren Walter explains in On-The-Job Stress Negatively Impacts Police Officer Health, Study Suggests, “They also face stress, which can negatively impact their physical and mental health, according to researchers at the University of Buffalo (UB).” Ironically, the police system is focused on training invincible officers who are prone to conflict. However, the system also breaks them down by discouraging humility. John Violanti, Ph.D., states, “If you go for mental health counseling, you may not be considered for promotions, and you may be shamed by your peers and superiors. In some cases, your gun can be taken away so there is a real fear of going for help.” (Lauren Walter, On-The-Job). Officers face fear within the streets and the system, so for them there is no escaping it. All they can do is manage it; however, that stress can build up into violent, impulsive actions.
Police who act violently against other races usually talk about fear. What they fear, oftentimes Black suspects, is usually an indicator of their ideologies. For example, George Zimmerman, the self-proclaimed authority figure who killed Trayvon Martin, a young Black male, said he was scared for his life, so he shot. If Zimmerman was scared for his life when he encountered a young Black man, most likely his fear was triggered by Martin’s race. This fear was not an excuse to act violently towards the young, black man. However, it is probable that fear may fuel an impulsive action, such as gun violence.
Police officers are also fearful because of the experiences they have to endure on the streets that alter their morals towards Blacks. The line “I was in fear of my life” justifies the excessive force used by officers (Sarah K. Smith, Are Police Officers). These underlying feelings of fear will surface during stressful situations. This is especially true if one is constantly receiving threats to their own health and safety, while being exposed to people in distress and pain. As Sarah K. Smith describes it in Are Police Officers Really Afraid, “Officers who are afraid approach black people like they are the ‘enemy,’ no less dangerous than an ‘enemy’ in a combat zone, and the action demanded, based on the fear, is to take the enemy out before he or she takes the officer out.” The job requires officers to understand all types of situations, people, and environments. Unfortunately, for some officers, blacks are immediately considered the enemy and viewed as presenting a threat.
Police brutality has improved from the first days of policing, when the northerners created their own forces to protect cities. Law enforcement agencies are beginning to take steps towards supporting officers' mental health, rallies are spreading awareness of the injustice, and people like me are diving deeper into the true cause of this recurring tragedy. It is important to note that all police officers cannot be characterized as racist, however the culture of the criminal justice system in which they work has been evidenced as biased in many ways. It is also important to note that accidents do occur, and it is unfortunate that the consequence is a human life.
In conclusion, it can be implied that police brutality may occur because of the fears held by individual officers toward a specific group of people. Consequently, this fear may be the result of racial ideologies possessed by the officer among other factors.
Clark, Tom S., Elisha, Cohen, Adam, Glynn, Michael Leo, Owens, Anna, Gunderson, and Kaylyn Jackson, Schiff. Are Police Racially Biased in the Decision to Shoot?. 13 March 2020.
Nodjimbadem, Katie. “The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 27 July 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-painful-history-police-brutality-in-the-us- 180964098/.
“Police Officers.” Data USA, datausa.io/profile/soc/police-officers#employment.
Smith, Susan K. “Are Police Officers Really Afraid?” HuffPost, HuffPost, 2 Dec. 2016, www.huffpost.com/entry/are-police- officers-reall_b_8683188.
StackPath, www.ehstoday.com/health/article/21915261/onthejob-stress-negatively-impacts-police-officer-health-study- suggests.
Every year at graduation, the principals and superintendent and several other important people fill the stage and smile for a couple of hours, cheerfully handing out diplomas, shaking hands, posing for cameras. They rarely get much attention—they are all dressed in the same black robes and the focus is on the hundreds of graduates crossing the stage, as it should be.
This year our graduation was held in the school’s auditorium. One student at a time was given five minutes and an audience of four family members. That one student crossed the stage, elbow bumped the principal, received her diploma from the superintendent, switched her tassel, and posed for pictures. All of it was recorded, including the commencement addresses and other pomp and circumstance that we will experience virtually later. The graduation ceremony took a week and many, many, many hours. The principal was still in the background, like always, as each graduate filed by.
As these new grads started posting pictures of their separate, private graduation ceremonies on Facebook, I started noticing something about our principal that I think needs to be brought to the forefront.
Because he is the principal, Mr. Glass hears about almost every problem in our school, and many are blamed on him, even if they are not his fault. We expect him to solve all these problems without creating more. On any given day, he must deal with disgruntled parents, exhausted teachers, troubled students, and a budget that does not come close to meeting all our school’s needs. He gets emails and phone calls that demand answers and add to his workload. If things go right at our school, students and teachers will get much of the credit. If things go wrong, he will take much of the blame.
Even with all of this, Mr. Glass, like any good principal, loves his job. He serves our faculty, staff, and students with genuine kindness and infectious positivity. I saw this in the background of picture after picture on Facebook. Mr. Glass was grinning in each picture with real pride. With real affection. With real joy. For several days, for several hours each day, for almost three hundred students, Mr. Glass greeted each graduate with excitement, with warmth, with love. The smile you see in these pictures is not the fake upturn of lips for a camera. This is the look of an educator who is dedicated not just to his profession but to his students.
I love this picture of Miranda. She has her diploma and has just switched her tassel. Mr. Glass is in the back, not posing for any picture. He looks on as Miranda’s family captures this moment. What I see in this picture is a principal understanding that his part in the commencement ceremony is something other than drudgery. What I see is an educator who delights in the successes of his students. I see a principal who knows Miranda is important, and so he does not have to pretend to be excited for her.
Graduation this year, like any other year, is not about the grown-ups—the teachers or principals or superintendents. It is and should be about our students. But I love that our principal has shown up in the background of so many pictures smiling.
On the first day of Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought perhaps I should share some about my own mental health. I’ve always been one to be fairly candid with my heart, but until the last couple of years my mental health was quite a secret. I have found that this is common with people with OCD and other mental disorders. We are afraid of what you might think of us if you really knew what was going on in our heads. And we often don’t know it’s a disorder. We just think we’re bad people.
That’s what I believed. In a thousand ways for a thousand reasons.
OCD manifests itself differently in every sufferer, but at its core, it thrives on uncertainty and breeds fear. It contorts thoughts, sees danger where there is none, makes nightmares real. It is powerful, destructive, and deceptive. There is nothing cute or funny or neat about it. Anyone who has the disorder will tell you that.
Most people are familiar with the manifestation of OCD that causes people to want everything clean or orderly. While this is one way OCD can wreak havoc, it is not the only way and not even the most common way. Most people are unaware of the invisible obsessions and compulsions we are plagued by.
Often OCD will focus on what we value and cause us to create irrational fears around those things. For me, and many others, it was my faith. I became a Christian as a young child and lived out my faith with a fierce devotion, both publicly and privately. There was no pretending—I was and am completely in love with Jesus Christ.
As a young adult, I stayed active in church. Sunday school teacher, VBS director, wife to a seminary student, in the choir, on the women’s ministry counsel, Bible studies in my home. I was involved in everything I could be involved in. The quintessential good Christian woman. It was genuine. I did everything the church asked me to do. Everything I felt the Lord leading me to do. Everything I saw Scripture saying I should do. I was devout, in every area of my life.
While I was a believer, saved by grace, I was also dealing with an undiagnosed mental disorder, and I had no idea. Please pause and read this slowly. It was not a spiritual issue. I was not in unrepentant sin. I was not outside of faith. I was not rebellious. Of course, I was not perfect, but I was living my life to please and honor the Lord as best as I possibly could. But my brain was not functioning properly. Let me write that again. My brain was not processing thoughts correctly. Again---the biology of my brain made it such that intrusive thoughts were getting stuck on a loop and creating anxiety so that I was having to do mental and physical compulsions or just deal with anxieties, and none of it was my fault. And I was completely unaware that I had a disorder—this is a common issue with people with OCD. It often takes people more than twenty years to get a proper diagnosis. They think the thoughts are their own, that this is just normal.
Some of the intrusive thoughts were terrible things like –maybe God will send my kids to hell if I don’t pray the right way – maybe God hates me –maybe heaven is not real, and I need to know if I am to pursue life any further. And so on. OCD is a disorder that craves certainty. Faith exists on uncertainty.
Before my diagnosis, I kept these thoughts, and so many more, a secret, except from my husband. I thought I was a blasphemous, sinful, hypocrite headed for hell. I thought that if I missed reading the Bible to my sons at night they would die in their sleep and go to hell. I thought if I prayed the wrong way, God would kill my children as punishment. None of this was logical, none of it was consistent with the God of the Bible. But OCD is not logical. The torment was endless. And remember, I did not know I had OCD. I thought this was real.
And now, to the church--this is why we must be so careful how we approach those suffering with mental health issues. I heard something today online that broke my heart. The speaker, a Christian, said about mental illness that we suffer because of sin. While I appreciate his zeal for God’s righteousness, this is not what the hurting mental patient needs to hear. While I live in a fallen world, I don’t have OCD because of any particular sin I committed. Jesus said as much as he healed the hurting when he walked this earth. Do we tell those with cancer that sin made them sick? The stigma and shame around mental illness are already so pervasive and potent, we should not add to it.
I also heard today that therapy and medicine is not sufficient, that those suffering from mental health issues are in treatment for years and not getting better and it’s because they need Jesus. Again, I appreciate the sentiment. But let me approach it this way: I spent more than thirty years in church and only got worse and worse mentally. In fact, I got so bad that I had suicidal ideations. I got so bad, that I had to pretend to be happy. Early on when I had mentioned some of my anxieties to a church leader, I was told that I needed to spend more time in Scripture. I was also told once, many years ago, that a Christian should never need to see a therapist or need antidepressants. I was told to just keep praying, of course that person did not know that I was using certain prayers as compulsions, making the OCD even worse. I didn’t know this either at the time.
Thankfully, the church has progressed so much since then, but we obviously need to continue to make strides. My point is this. Mental health is not a spiritual issue any more than a heart condition is. We would never tell someone with a blocked artery to avoid the doctor. Nor would we chastise him by saying, “but going to the doctor is just not sufficient. Your heart is not getting better because you’re not praying enough” when their blocked artery does not improve. We would know it’s biology.
OCD is a part of my brain. I cannot pray it away. I will have to deal with it every single day for the rest of my life. Really, it’s always been that way. The difference now is that I know what I’m dealing with and I’m equipped to deal with it. I also have a lot of support around me. I wish the same were true for all those suffering with the scary thoughts that creep in and threaten to steal everything they value.
To those of you who have a friend or loved one with a mental disorder or illness, do not presume to understand. Their pain is too deep and too weird. Just be there, without judgment and with lots of love.
To the Christian, I say this. Care for those with mental illness just as you would care for anyone else who is hurting, with a great deal of compassion and generosity. Those suffering with mental disorders need love, acceptance, and medical help. They need hope that comes from God. And they need sweet fellowship from you.
If you are suffering with mental health issues, I would say this to you: I know there is shame and hurt because I have felt it, too. But I also know there is hope, even if you can’t see it or feel it. I cannot presume to know how to help you, but I can tell you there is help and I can urge you to get that help. I would also tell you that it is not your fault. Let that last part sink in. Not your fault. Mental illness does make you a bad person.
**I am excited to share with you a piece written by one of my students, Lauren Redding. The assignment was to write about how place affects our identity. As we are all stuck at home, I thought it more than fitting to share this now, even though she wrote it several weeks ago. I hope you are blessed by reading this. I know I was! Lauren has a strong voice and is so candid in her writing. I love grading her essays! -Rebecca
I gently punch in the code to the garage door and patiently stand there and wait for there to be enough room for me to quickly creep under the door and run to the warmth of my house. I let out a sigh of relief. Finally, I'm home.
I live in a town where Friday nights at the only high school we have is the highlight of everyone’s week. In my town, you take a drive down the winding back roads passing several churches just to reach a “famous” abandoned bridge. On this bridge you write out your name with the $3 can of spray paint you bought a few hours before. In the town I live in, many people often mutter the words out of anger and boredom, “I can’t wait to get out of this town.”
What about the people who never want to leave? I know I am for sure one of them. In my short sixteen years of living, I have been raised in Lawrenceburg, KY. I have moved for short times, but have always made it back to my hometown of what many call, “The Burg”. Some may say driving around with your friends or going to Walmart isn’t fun, but it’s something I haven’t seemed to get tired of.
It’s mid summer and I’ve been counting down the days till we made our way to the beach. My dad drives me to my friend Emily’s house, and I’m ready to leave for summer vacation. My dad and I pull into her driveway, and I prepare to tell him goodbye. I do not know then that this is the last time I will speak to my dad in the little town of Lawrenceburg, and the last time I will look forward to going to the beach.
The next day, after 10 hours stuffed in a small Toyota Corolla, Emily's family and I finally make it to the beach. Although I am so excited to put my feet in the water, I know my dad back home is missing me and I miss him, too. Only a few days at the beach pass by, and I am told the next time I will speak to my dad will be somewhere unearthly.
Experiences that happen in a specific place can influence how we may think and how we feel. Because I was in North Carolina when my father passed away, I often don’t enjoy going to the beach or anywhere far away because I'm afraid of what may happen at home. As a 16 year old girl, I'm aware I may not be able to stop instances like that, but staying home gives me a sense of comfort. Not only has the feeling of warmth and family kept me loving my hometown, but so have the memories.
In Maggie Smith’s poem, “Homebody”, she explains her love for staying put. “Thirty years apart we were buzzed through the same ward doors and we emptied ourselves there”, In this quote from the poem, Smith explains that her mother, herself, and her children were all born in the same hospital, in the same town. Similar to the type of fun that goes on in my hometown, the author also explains how “Driving around my hometown is a game”. Being a homebody, I know that not all happiness is within the warmth of my home. I know that going on a random trip will dampen my smile. I may become worrisome at times, but I know that I will make my way back home to the place where I have become who I am.
Because I have been spending a lot of time at home lately, it is fitting this post is about home. Even better, I am excited to share some of my students’ writing about home. Several weeks ago we wrote poems modeled after Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”. My students wrote lines that are so genuine and particularly encouraging right now. I’m also sharing the one I wrote, but I do so with great trepidation--I am no poet. Enjoy!
And the roads that never seem to end.
They tell me it is nothing
They tell me it is small
They tell me it is not known
They tell me they’re just passing through
They tell me they do not see what I see
I say to them it’s home
I say to them there is no other
Here is a town that is genuine
Here is a town that’s truly together
Show me another town that make you take a second look as if leaving is the right decision.
Under the water wishing you could stay
Paused in midair after letting go of that rope...laughing
Singing in your friend’s car at the top of your lungs late at night...laughing
Screaming on Friday night lights for that one touchdown that the whole town is counting on…
Proud to be football;
Proud to be Bearcats;
Proud to be Main Street;
Proud to be nonexistent mufflers;
And proud to be on the road that just never seems to end.
Basketball and football players
They play their hearts out here
Big, tall, fast
Home of the Big Blue Nation
They say you’re this and that
But underneath that big blue jersey
You’re a farmer and a distiller
An athlete and a doctor
A student and a cop
I tell them it’s more than horses and bourbon
It’s more than slums and basketball
But show me another city where everyone bleeds blue
Where horses hold the biggest importance in sports
Where nearly every person is tried and true.
The Beehive of Kentucky
The home of Ale-8
The horse capital of the world
Home sweet home
Stop on the Bourbon Trail.
On the Kentucky River.
Town on top of a knob where we watch the clouds go by.
A city so small no one knows we’re here.
But we are.
They tell me you are too small to matter--
A bedroom for those who work
In larger places
That show up on maps.
They say there’s nothing here--
Nothing to do
Nowhere to go
Nothing to see.
I say to them--they are looking in the wrong direction.
Show me another town humble enough to make the outsider feel at home--
Offer him a little bourbon, a glass of wine, a bowl of burgoo.
Here is a town that is so Kentucky, so America, so Home--
So much more than nothing.
Show me another town that stands so beautifully
When so many pass her by.
Like an owl, resting among branches and in barns, in silence you watch over us,
Grinning in the satisfaction of an old woman looking after her own.
The spreading of darkness is the spreading of your wings,
Grinning you sail through the openness of these skies, looking into the blue-green below,
You see the farmer, the distiller, the happy child.
You grin more.
You see the lonely, the broken, the hurt. They’re here, too. But you’re glad.
You are proud to be a stop on the Bourbon Trail, on the Kentucky River, on I-64,
A place to sit atop a knob and watch the clouds go by,
A place for the weary to sleep.
In eighth grade, my English teacher, Mr. Davidson, who had been my English teacher all three years of middle school, told me he loved grading my essays and looked forward to seeing my work published one day in a book. I shrugged it off. Only other people wrote books, not me. And what would I write anyway? All the good stuff had already been written.
Sadly, Mr. Davidson passed away a few years ago.
But I have not let him down.
I am thrilled to announce that my debut book, Both Sides: The Classroom from Where I Stand is set to be released by Propertius Press this spring, sometime between April and June.
It’s really happening!
I look forward to sharing with you all this collection of narrative essays about my personal experiences as a student and teacher. Whether you are involved in education or not, I hope you will find value and beauty in these stories, because really these narratives extend so far outside of the classroom and into the reaches of what it means for us to care about other people.
Over the coming weeks I will have updates on release dates, signing parties and readings, and how you can get your own copy of the book! Out of an abundance of humility and gratitude, I cannot wait to celebrate with you all!
I would be happy teaching almost any subject. Why English Language Arts?
Several years ago, after I had been teaching for about ten years or so, I sat between strangers in a back pew at an African American church in Louisville because Maya Angelou was there. So I had to be, too. She had changed my life. I needed to see here.
She was an older woman by this time. Her strong, tall frame stooped over a bit as she shuffled across the stage to her chair. But she still exuded strength with every step. Majesty with every move. Beauty with every bend. Oh, Maya Angelou. In the flesh.
It wasn’t a rock-star moment. This was different than seeing Celine Dion or Pink perform. This was spiritual. Magical. This transcended time and space.
I took notes as Maya Angelou spoke. I needed to record every word she uttered. Of course I’ve lost the notebook--this was over a decade ago and I have more than fifty journals in my home. I’m sure it’s here somewhere. I’ve decided to rest in that for now, rather than using my energy to look and then be crushed when I can’t find it.
While I took notes, I wept at Angelou’s words. She told us not to apologize for who we were, and I knew she was speaking to me personally. Her poetry captivated me; I watched her recite line after line, her face animated and her arms outstretched, the words rolling over all of us in thunderous conviction and triumph. And she sang, her voice syrupy and deep, coarse with age, like an aged bourbon sweetened and drunk slowly. Maya Angelou’s voice, when she spoke or when she sang, was not tender or delicate, not gentle or light. No, no. At the church that afternoon, her voice poured over me with the strength of a heavy current reverberating against my chest, her notes held long and deliberate. And she let those notes carry so much emotion with them, with no shame! Her voice wavered with sobs, shook with delight, and slowed down with some secret sorrow. When Maya Angelou sang, I felt like she was offering part of herself to me.
The women on both sides of me rang out “Amen!” and “Preach, sister!” and waved their arms wildly above their heads. They let out great singing wails. I let my tears stream down my cheeks and kept writing quietly.
When I was in middle school, I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I don’t remember why I read it. It was not a school assignment. Maybe I got it from the thrift store or picked it up at the library. At that time, I read whatever book happened to be lying around. I had no idea what it was about when I opened it.
I also had no idea I would be an English teacher when I began that book. Since I was a young child I had been drawn to the idea of teaching, but I never knew what subject or what grade. I was in middle school; I didn’t have to know any of that yet.
Reading Angelou’s story changed me. It was almost immediately after I finished the book that I knew with a fair amount of certainty that I wanted to be an English teacher. But her book did more than provide me with a vocational choice. Her words affected me, and still do. Somehow Angelou was able to transport a white girl living in Kentucky in the 1990's to Stamps, Arkansas in the 1940's as a young Black girl. I learned more about American history and the human experience through her narrative than a textbook or lecture could ever hope to teach me, not to say that textbooks and lectures are unimportant. Angelou's powerful use of language engaged me through their rawness and their beauty. I saw in her character a realness that insisted I grow in empathy, and thus compassion. Her story made me a better person.
Angelou writes “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” After a series of tragic events, Angelou was mute for a long time during her childhood, afraid her words would kill people.
Quite the contrary. Her words have brought life in millions of different ways. I think she knew this. I think this was the caged bird’s song--her story.
So this is why I teach English--because I read Angelou’s book in middle school and it changed my life forever. Because I, too, know why the caged bird sings. Because I want to help my students understand how to read the stories of others in appreciation of the truth and beauty in the meaning, to learn empathy and compassion, discernment and wisdom.
Because every student has a story that must be told.
Because I want to teach them to sing.
Teaching is not fair.
I thought about this over the weekend when I faced the stack of papers I needed to grade and the lessons I needed to plan. My husband went into work yesterday, but at least he got comp time for it. I got nothing.
It’s not fair. But let me explain what I really mean about it not being fair.
Every year I tell my students about my dad. This past week, I got a new fourth period, so I told them about Daddy, too. Here’s what I told them.
My dad is one of ten kids. He grew up poor, so poor that he was often a Salvation Army angel, so poor that he often went hungry, so poor that he couldn’t play sports in school. He had to drop out of high school to work to feed his siblings when he was in eleventh grade, which happens to be the grade I teach. It wasn’t fair. My Daddy is smart. Gifted, even. Brilliant, probably. But he was hungry and not treated well.
But my daddy made a decision early on in life to make things right. He chose a good person to marry. He chose a woman who embodied love, hard work, dedication, and all the things he wanted to see in his children. And he worked. So during my childhood, while we weren’t rich, we never went hungry. Daddy made sure we had everything we needed not only to survive but to fly. He made sure my sisters and I would not be tethered to chains of poverty and ignorance. He did this not by buying us lots of stuff. He did this by educating us, by working hard, by speaking words of strange and wonderful wisdom into us that would follow us always. He did this by loving us.
So when I stand in front of the classroom, I see my daddy in these children. I see him 45 years ago: sarcastic, maybe not wanting to be there, maybe wishing he were out fishing, maybe thinking the story was pointless, maybe flirting with the girl sitting next to him. I see him every single day in my classroom. And because I see my Daddy, who I love so very much, I work hard. Of course I want him to be proud of me, but it’s more than that. I see him there, in my students, and I want the best for him. I want to turn back time so he can have everything he never had. It’s not fair that I can’t. All I can do is make it right for my own students. In so many ways, I teach for Daddy.
There is another way my job is not fair. So much of public education is broken, and so much of it angers me. However, I find great solace within with walls of my classroom.
The joy I find in instruction makes up for the frustration and exhaustion I feel outside of my classroom. When I entered the teaching profession almost twenty years ago, I entered it with an attitude of a minister. While my job is to teach Language Arts and Rhetoric, I provide that service to my students out of love, not just for a paycheck. Every student who enters my room has immense value and deserves to be loved and cared about. Every student has potential to do good in this world; I have the great honor of being a part of that.
It truly isn’t fair that tomorrow morning while the rest of the adults have to go to their jobs, I will get to go to a place where I will get to talk about Mark Twain and Plato and subordinate clauses! I get to discuss how place is important in literature, what the message is in pop culture, the meaning of epistemology and how we can escape Plato’s metaphorical cave. And later this month my students will write for me, and oh, what an honor it is to have them trust me with their words! And we will read Miller and Fitzgerald and Walker and Plath and Emerson and Hemingway and Descartes and Hobbes and whoever else they want to read, and what joy there will be! I don’t mean to make you jealous, but I get to read The Great Gatsby aloud to fourth period next month. We will read Walker’s “Everyday Use” and I will cry. I always do. I will get mad at the end of The Crucible. Darn you, Abigail Williams! No!
What will make all of this especially wonderful are the students. I will get to share all of this with my kids. They are the best part of my job. Tomorrow 123 students will filter in and out of my classroom. I am honestly thankful for each one, because each one is a life with immeasurable value and beauty. Also, teenagers are weird and interesting. Sometimes they make the job challenging, but they are worth the challenge. Even on the worst days, they give me so many reasons to smile and remind me why I am there at all. Make no mistake, it is not the children who drive the good teachers away from education. In fact, the children are the reason I stay. They are a constant source of joy for me. While I love teaching writing and literature, I think I would be happy teaching almost anything, as long as my students were there.
I went into teaching to share the love of God to others and to serve others. In truth, I have been the one ministered to. I have been the one who is continually blessed. I thank God for this job. More importantly, I thank God for every single student I have ever had the pleasure and honor of teaching.
And I thank God that I get to go to my classroom tomorrow. Like Carroll O’Connor’s character says in Return to Me when his granddaughter offers to help him, “No darlin’. Not at all. I’m blessed with work.”
No, teaching is definitely not fair.
I stayed home from work today because my baby was sick. He started feeling bad yesterday, and there is a virus going around, so I anticipated he would probably have to stay home today.
When your child is sick, it is stressful, whether you work or stay at home. Beyond the heartache of your child not feeling well, there is the burden of having to miss work, which means you have to use up a sick day or not get paid. You have to reorganize and reschedule and redo. You might have to do some work at home. You might worry what your boss thinks about you missing work. Depending on the job, it might mean putting your co-workers in a bind or creating inconveniences for your clients or customers, or in my case my students.
Last night when Joseph, my baby, told me he felt bad, I emailed my boss and school secretary and let them know I might be missing work. Then when I had to call in this morning, I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t feel stressed. I didn’t worry over what my students would do, how I would have to change my lesson plans, how I was using one of my precious sick days. Instead, I chose to embrace with joy the opportunity to stay home with my child.
Because I know the days of staying home with him are almost at an end.
My baby is twelve and in sixth grade. My baby is as tall as I am. My baby is not a baby at all. He doesn’t need me as much as he used to, and sometimes it is hard to let him not need me. I have been taking care of my children for over sixteen years, and so I don’t remember what it’s like to not have someone rely on me. My two older children, both in high school, still love me and need me, but in a different way, not the way a young child needs his parents for completeness and safety and even for his identity and survival. And now Joseph is on the edge of that. One day he will not need me to stay home with him, in the same way he doesn’t need me to read him stories at night or fix his dinner plate or cuddle with him when we watch television.
So today was a day of watching movies and napping and being with my son, because today might have been the last time I will need to stay home with him. I did grade papers, but I did so in our family room, with my Joseph close by. Several times throughout the day he hugged me and thanked me for taking care of him. At one point, maybe after the fifth or sixth hug, with Joseph’s big arms wrapped around me, my head on his shoulder, I said, “Sweetie, I really haven’t done that much.”
He responded, “Yes, you have. You’re here. That’s all I needed.”
I do not write about what goes on in teacher leader meetings. Often we are dealing with confidential issues or we are sharing grievances or we arguing policy. Sometimes we’re just complaining. Everything else is probably too boring to write about in a blog: paperwork, new procedures, calendar information. But I am making an exception to write about our meeting this past week.
We sat in the student desks in Ms. Vasser’s cozy Social Studies classroom. The conference room where we usual meet is currently inaccessible, as is the lobby, the teachers’ lounge, several classrooms, and part of the hallway that leads to my room. So we made do somewhere else.
Mrs. Rhody and Mrs. McCarty, the math teachers, sat behind me. Mr. Cooper and Mr. Barnes sat a couple desks in front of me. Ms. Vasser sat at her teacher desk, at least for a while. Mrs. Haddix, the other English teacher on the committee, sat too far away for me to whisper to, which I usually do too much during meetings. The others were scattered throughout the room.
We are all a little tired. The newness of the year has worn off, the weather is turning gray, and our workload is more daunting than ever. New policies, old problems, different paperwork. Our feet hurt. Our hearts hurt. The kids are sleepy or grumpy, so are the teachers. Some of the kids are dealing with allergies and viruses. We all have issues at home. And then there’s the construction at school, which means displaced classrooms, blocked hallways, closed bathrooms.
At one point early in the meeting, as we discussed data monitoring and teacher collaboration, I monopolized the conversation with dozens of questions trying to understand something everyone else seemed to get. “But, Bridget, please explain to me again…” and Mrs. Wells, one of our principals, did. Then later as she covered important information about student data, I wrestled to keep my eyelids open. The numbers and charts on the overhead projector screen blurred. I thought of my students in first period who struggle the same way in the mornings.
Later we brainstormed together ways we could address specific issues in our school. We chuckled when Mrs. Wells wrote under the improvement column that Mr. Sayre’s ego was slightly smaller than it was, by his own admission. The rest of the conversation was necessary and productive, but a little heavy, only because a room full of talented, passionate educators were, like always, trying to find ways to move our school to as many stars as possible. The weight of the challenges in public education is carried by these kinds of teachers. It is a constant struggle for them, and for all educators, not to tumble under the overwhelming amount of work, public scrutiny, and limited resources. It is overwhelming and exhausting. And we were feeling it.
Then Mrs. Rhody, the practical and analytic Calculus teacher, said, “We need to remind our teachers that it’s okay to enjoy our students. We went into teaching because we love kids. They are why we are here. It’s okay to relax and just enjoy our kids.”
This was the best and most important comment made at the meeting. And the reason I decided to write this week about what goes on behind closed doors in education, at least at my school. And one of the hundreds of reasons I am proud to be a teacher at Anderson County High School. We’re not perfect, but we do care about what matters most—our students. With so much against us, we are trying hard to be excellent for our students, even when they have gone home for the day and we are in a meeting.
There is no way I am going to be a perfect teacher tomorrow or finish everything on my to-do list. However, I can absolutely do what Mrs. Rhody wisely reminded us to do. I can enjoy my kids.
Welcome to my Blog! I am a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, and a graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Before anything else, I am a woman of faith.