It’s Tuesday evening. A faculty meeting just ended. I am sitting here with lots of thoughts I need to process. For some reason, I feel less fearful about sharing my thoughts recently. I don’t know if anyone else is going through similar things, but I’m sharing this post to hold myself accountable to this work, but also in case others can see glimpses of themselves and their thinking and feelings in my experiences. Here it goes. Stream of consciousness. No editing. Just writing.
Thought 1: I ended my classes this week. Our last classes were held on Monday and Tuesday. I didn’t know how to end them. I wanted to close the year with some solemnity and definitely not frivolity. I know when I’m feeling the most dark and depressed about the state of the world, I hold two things close. First, the starfish story. Second, it’s showing gratitude to others. Sharing with someone how they’ve affected you, thanking someone for some specific action they took or some role they’ve been in your lives, for helping you grow, or showing you grace. So I talked about these things. And I had students read the starfish story to themselves, and then write an email to: (1) a teacher who you want to thank for their work in online teaching, because students often can miss the humanity of teachers (just as teachers can miss the humanity of students), (2) a person who they haven’t been in contact much during quarantine but they appreciate and want to reach out to and tell them so, (3) someone who called them out and pushed them but helped them grow, or (4) someone in math class who made them feel validated and seen. I wanted to end the year by thinking about community and gratitude. Now that it’s over, I wonder if I did the right thing. I debating having more conversations on recent events (in two of my classes on Friday, we talked… you can read about that here…), but it didn’t feel like a way to bring closure to the year. But after my last classes, it just didn’t feel like closure to me. It wasn’t what the kids needed. And I had the even more horrifying and insidious thought. Maybe kids left with a message I never intended to send but also never specifically disavowed: “when the world feels dark and hopeless, the way to fix things is just to simply be kind.” Since I’ve had this thought, it’s been like an anchor weighing me down. I spent a long time trying to figure out what to do for the last class — and I still don’t know what I should have done instead — but this maybe wasn’t it. Or maybe I’m overthinking things. It just felt off. But then again, everything about the last few months in school has felt off.
Thought 2: Last night I had a revelation/insight which I wrote down and shared with some friends: “The anxiety and inability to have heart stop beating so fast. The repeated pain that Twitter and the news brings me. The tears and exhaustion. The past week has done a number on me. I’m going to try to say something openly and imperfectly. I remember saying a few years ago that I could intellectually understand when I heard poc talk about ‘trauma’ but I knew it was only intellectual and I was never going to be a strong ally until I could understand the word more deeply–because it’s a strong word and it wouldn’t be used without a lot behind it. I think for the first time I’m finally getting there. The weight of oppression feels — not intellectually, academically, but viscerally — heavy. Terrifying. All encompassing. Repeated. Relentless. I’m not saying I’m feeling trauma or know what it’s like to be a black poc. A student today in a discussion used the phrase “radical empathy.” I hope this discomfort and general awfulness I feel stays with me — though I hate it — because it’s allowing me to finally experience radical empathy. <don’t mean to center me-just trying to archive this insight.>”
After typing that out, I remembered I had written this sentiment down a year ago as I was thinking about this work and where I was when trying to grow:
This was in a much longer email to my friend Hema when we were planning last year’s Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics. It took me over a year from recognizing this deficit of mine to actually being able to say I finally get it… I think. And that deficit was truly understanding one word.
Thought 3: I feel like I don’t neatly fit into a category when my school has conversations around race. I’m not white. I’m not black. I’m Indian, and first-generation American. My parents tried to Americanize my sister and me. I don’t find myself aware of daily slings and arrows, not a thousand cuts, not in overt ways, not often. I have a few examples that I can bring up, but not a whole bank of incidents. Because of the privilege I have had through most of my life, I often feel it’s easier to identify as white than a person of color.
I’m also not introspective — probably because it shines a light on things I don’t want to think about. I find it truly challenging to do identity work. I can think deeply about my teaching and my core values and my students, but somehow I’ve gotten away with not doing a lot of deep self-examination in my life. I know I’ve been deeply affected by the way I was viewed by society growing up, and I’m certain racism had a lot to do with it — but I’ve never done the work to think about myself through that lens. I literally only had one friend at school until late junior high. Surprise, surprise: he was also a student of color. I think maybe we were the only two students of color in our grade. I literally don’t think I ever put that together until now. That’s how little introspection I’ve done. I never got invited to birthday parties. But since that wasn’t a thing in my life, I never knew I should be missing them. I was bullied in junior high. I just didn’t know it was bullying because it was so normalized in my life by that time. I honestly wasn’t a sad kid. I just didn’t know any different, so instead of friends, I read books. I know I’m scared to do the identity work to see the ways that structural and insidious forms of racism and homophobia have played a role in my life. I’m a first-generation gay Indian living in America. How could they have not? I’ve clearly had a lot of privilege which has allowed me to get to this point without doing this identity work. But at the end of the day, doing this work, this introspection, forces me to contend with the inner core of who I am and how I see myself. To revise my own definition of myself. It’s easier to just… not.
Thought 4: I recently came off of a zoom meeting with all our school’s faculty (we’re a K-12 school). The anxiety I wrote about above hit me this afternoon. My heart was racing again and I had to lie down in my bed and take a nap. I woke up not feeling any calmer. For the first time, I turned my video off in a zoom meeting. At the start, I heard so many words. Kind words. Sympathetic words. And… I am so tired of words. And so as I heard everything all I could feel was cynical and angry. Give me time and space. Just cancel things. You want to help? Take writing narrative comments off my plate so I can work on healing. I don’t want to know that you know we’re grieving and how things aren’t normal. Just give me something concrete. Just give me something. And at that moment, I realized two things. I wanted them to fix me. I’m broken, and I just wanted someone to wave a magic wand, and I knew they don’t have the power to fix me. I also deeply understood, again at a visceral level, the repeated call that black people have had that sounds like: <<stop talking. stop talking. STOP TALKING. I’m so tired of all the nice sounding talking. So so so tired.>>
I also heard a lot of anger and white people calling for immediate change. Accountability. Demands that we all revise our curriculum this summer. I’m for that also. But I felt such cynicism. Because I just kept thinking “is this performative? is this virtue signaling?” You’re ready and now want everything to change immediately because you feel moved? What about all the people who were at the party demanding change before now? Their voices had been ignored and lost.
And the horrifying thing about my own cynicism is that it’s not like I’ve been one of the people demanding this kind of change for myself or for the school. I’ve been moving along in my personal diversity work, content with doing some work but never getting to the point where I was centering the work. I felt cynical and frustrated listening to people making these statements, even though I have no right to feel cynical and frustrated.
Although I mentioned I often feel white, it was at this moment that I realized all these things I was feeling were what those advocating, crying for anti-racist humanizing curricula, had been feeling for ages. Again, I don’t have any right to those feelings, but in the moment, I had those feelings of frustration and cynicism. I’m grateful — because even though I don’t deserve to have those feelings — I had access to something I hadn’t had before. I was hearing the well-intentioned words that people were saying but from a different perspective, through a different lens, a lens I didn’t have before.
I also was nervous that in the fervor, in the tidal wave of support and sometimes hope that we were going to turn our school into a shining-palace-of-anti-racist-work-so-show-up-teachers-or-get-out, that we were going to do harm. Yesterday I read a tweet that said something to the effect of “if you’ve never talked about black issues in your classroom before, just don’t just come into class tomorrow and bring up George Floyd. Just don’t.” The fear is that if we don’t do this work right, if we rush into things without being strategic and thoughtful, we can do way more harm to students. White saviorism wasn’t really mentioned, but I was thinking about it. Others were probably thinking it. A colleague brought this up, articulated it better than I could have, and I was grateful.
Thought 5: I wanted to reach out to this colleague who brought it up. I wavered and went back and forth on whether to send an email. I wanted to say thank you and I support what you had to say. (I did chime in, in the chat). I wavered because I’m hyperconscious of people who have been doing continual anti-racist work saying they’re tired of words. They’ve been given words over and over. Instead of signaling support, show your support by acting. I wavered but decided to send the email anyway. After writing it, I checked myself. I wanted to show solidarity and that my colleague was heard. But I realized what I wrote boiled down to “thank you” and “I heard you.” I wanted to do better. Without that, the email would have been more about me and virtue signaling. I wanted to demonstrate I really did listen and hear, and I am grateful. So I wrote down what I heard them say, specifically. I still don’t know if I did the right thing by sending the email. But I know I’m now asking the right question: how much of sending the email was about me, and how much about sending the email was about the person I was sending it to? In the weighing, I think I had my answer, and so I sent it.
Thought 6: I am broken. I am tired. I can’t stop thinking about what this all means for me this summer, when all I want to do is heal from this school year. We’re going to be required to do online professional development on remote/blended learning. I’m going to be writing 22 college letters of recommendation. And now I suspect there will be anti-racist readings and professional developments that we’re going to be asked to do, in addition to submitting ways we’re going to alter our curricula. I’m can’t tell you how intellectually and emotionally and physically tired I am. Writing narrative comments on all my students in the next week is a mountain I have to climb but carrying an anchor. But what comes after? That feels impossible.”
Thought 7: I think it’s time to end this post now. Believe it or not, I initially was intending to make this blogpost a list of actions I have started taking, plan on taking, or ideas I have and want to think through before I implement. In other words, concrete ways I’m going to do The Work. I fear that when all these immediate feelings fade away and I’m not being bombarded day and night on twitter and facebook and the news, I may just “opt out.” So I wanted to type some things down to be public in my work and accountable. Maybe I’ll do that post tomorrow. But for today, I’ll have to settle for writing about of my feelings and thoughts, so a month from now, I can try to come back here to a place where I feel destroyed… but ironically because of that, motivated.