On Humanity and Humility

The past 36 hours have been a humbling and humanizing journey.  I left my home at 5:15 am yesterday morning for LAX to take off for the National Association for Multicultural Education 2012 Conference in Philadelphia where I was to co-present today on the work that my school community did over the loss of a dear student last year on campus.

Crafting the presentation itself was a deeply emotional labor of love, for several reasons.  First, losing Paul, a seemingly healthy 8th grade football player and all around great kid, was a painfully traumatizing event for students and for myself.  I have always had a very close relationship with my students and watching their pain while dealing with my own was difficult and a very personal process.  This brings me to the second “labor of love” point, which is that I connected so deeply with Paul’s death because of the sudden death of my own mother when I was 16 years old.  The death of a 14-year boy and a 56-year old woman might not seem so obviously connected, but the pain of dealing with seeing someone in the prime of their lives, with hopes and dreams yet fulfilled, one day and then saying good-bye forever, completely without warning the next is the same no matter what age you are or they are.  And if you experience this type of loss more than once in life, every subsequent loss brings you back to the pain and inexplicability of the situation.

But, my presentation wasn’t about loss, it was about life and moving from tragedy to honor.  Being a middle school teacher for 10 years was, for me, the biggest honor (next to motherhood) that I’ve ever experienced in countless ways, one of them being the way that several staff members and students came together to honor Paul after his death, even in the face of administration and district pressures to “put the incident behind us” and move forward.  We did move forward, but we did so through the grief, through several ceremonies, celebrations and even through curriculum that honored the reality of loss and of the people we missed in our lives.  I wanted to share this testimony of strength and character that my students showed with others who might benefit.

So, I arrive at the airport, ready for an 8-hour day of travel.  I was not ready to receive an e-mail from the women with whom I was sharing my session (who were also supplying an LCD projector and laptop for our intersecting presentations) that they could not attend the conference because of last minute illnesses.  I’ve learned from being the mother of a daughter with a serious illness that you can’t really get mad when people are ill.  I mean, you can (and I have before), but really, people can’t help that they’re sick.  What could I do?  I sent a gracious e-mail thanking them for letting me know and resolved that I would figure out the problem upon arrival in Philadelphia.

When I woke up this morning, I decided that I would just go old school on the presentation.  Sure, it had visuals, and more importantly an embedded video, but I had to make the best with what I had.  I headed to the conference.

I chose for my first session a film screening and diversity dialogue led by Lee Mun Wah on his upcoming film, If These Halls Could Talk, a documentary about the discussions between eleven diverse college students over 8 days. I expected to see an interesting (and tidy) dialogue about emergent cultural understandings that developed over the time students were together.  What I actually saw touched me deeply.  I saw men and women engaging in honest and open dialogue with people of other races and the opposite gender.  I saw people have the courage to confront one another and to state their real feelings about race-based (and to some extent, gender-based) oppression, guilt, shame and pain. I saw people give voice to what I wish I could say, but often feel so paralyzed and so unable to convey.

Tears began to fall, fast and furious.

I cried because I saw in the film the work that is my passion—dialogue between people who don’t talk in “real life”, breaking down barriers, and being real with one another.  I cried because I saw in the film the world that my own children and my students live in today. I cried because I felt the pain of silence, the pain of fear, and the pain of societal judgments and assumptions.

Then Lee Mun Wah said, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.”

It was then that I realized that I was crying because I felt my humanity.  My tears were not just professional and related to the work I do with students; my tears were personal, the tears of a child, a woman, a mother that I had suppressed or apologized away for many years because I didn’t feel that what I had to contribute was good enough, that it mattered or that even if it was or did, that I would be heard.

It turns out that there was a Mac store down the street and an LCD projector in my room.  After two sprints back and forth between the conference and the store (I got the wrong cable at first), I got my presentation set up and waited…and waited…and waited.  Finally, Margaret, a woman whom I had met earlier that morning at registration came and helped me recruit another person.  By the end of the session, I had a grand total of 3 people.  3,000 miles, $30 (for the cable) and 3 people.  Humbling.

But, not really.  What was really humbling was seeing that I had lost touch with my passion and my life’s work, my humanity and my heart.  For reigniting that commitment, this conference has been priceless.  I hope that those of you reading this will keep in dialogue with me about social justice (in and outside of education), ask me about why its so important, and push me towards honoring the real work of my heart.  I can’t get there without community reminding me of who I am and reminding me of the importance of breaking this type of silence.

11 thoughts on “On Humanity and Humility

  1. I love this. I have stumbled upon social work and social justice by some act of fate (seriously! I thought I wanted to leave science and move toward a career in psychology/counseling). Then I began volunteering at a shelter and it is absolutely where I belong. I am more passionate about helping my kids and families that I work with at the shelter than I was about anything I did for the past 6 years (my entire college career). There is so much wrong with the world, but so many people working to make it right.

    Don’t know how this turned into a comment about me. Anyway. Let’s keep talking. =]

    • I love you, Gina. Your courage in sharing in your blog has been so inspiring to me and I look forward to lots and lots of dialogue about our mutual experiences and goals in the future!

  2. I saw your Facebook invitation to visit your blog and read a very moving account of connection to your own humanity and the importance of recognizing the humanity in others. I too, am an educator deeply moved by social justice and I recognize how easy it is for me to get caught up in my own survival. Bless you, for this reminder, of what is really real.

  3. I got a little teary-eyed reading this. I just think this is so spot-on. I think we really do forget, sometimes, that there is an outside world, which the school is a part of. We block out all of the trauma and attempt to “go on with life,” but part of going on with life is learning from the pain that we face and using that to guide us towards making new connections and building new models for ourselves. Thank you for allowing us to see your vulnerabilities. I think it’s a very brave thing to do.

  4. I appreciate you posting this because it reminds me that the work we (eleven students in the film) did in that room is in the world making a difference for the better. I’m touched by your story and hope that you never stop the dialogue.

    • Thank you, Marc, for your courage in participating in the film which will spark dialogues for many other students as well. I definitely hope to hold a screening on my campus, but beyond this, I am committed to using the film in my courses on diversity for years to come. It’s so important to bring issues of inequality to the forefront of people’s consciousness and through sharing our stories, people see that it’s not about ideas, it’s about real experiences.

  5. Pingback: On Trauma and Teaching | The Life and Times of an Assistant Professor

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