We Teach The Girls

We teach the girls.

We teach the girls
with braids in their hair
curls down their backs
and perfect pigtails

Purple hair
shaved skulls
and frizzy ponytails.

We teach the girls who wear
flouncy skirts
glittery tees
and fuzzy big boots

Basketball jerseys
hand-me-down shirts
and baggy blue jeans

We teach the girls who love
double-dutch
dancing
ponies
and princesses

Football
skateboarding
dinosaurs
and superheroes

We teach the girls who color with
pink
purple
and sky blue

Black
orange
and royal blue

We teach the girls who dream to be
ballerinas
actresses
and fashion designers

Firefighters
engineers
and monster truck drivers

We teach the girls who feel
shy
introverted
and unseen

Confident
bold
and strong

We teach the girls with
scrapes on their knees
paper cuts on their fingers
and sore texting thumbs

Wounds on their wrists
bruises on their back
and pain in their bellies

We teach the girls who have been told
what it means to be a girl
as if sugar and spice
and everything nice
could define it

We teach the girls who have been told
they need pink Legos to build castles
they throw like a girl
they must greet relatives with a kiss
that dressed up means wearing a dress
that cute is more important than curious
that sentences should always be qualified with “I’m sorry…”
be nice
be polite
wait your turn
stop being bossy
you’re emotional
you’re sensitive
you’re inferior
you’re less than
you’re not worthy

That people exist only in binary systems
female, male
rich, poor
straight, gay
black, white
missing the millions of shades of gray, and brown, in between

To wear shirts that read
“Allergic to Algebra”
“Future Trophy Wife”
“I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework”
(Can a girl get an empowering message or stegosaurus shirt, please?!)

We teach the girls who have been told
love is conditional
affection is earned
it’s probably their fault
“No” is a fluid term
their body is not their own
not to tell…

We teach the girls. All of the girls.
We have the opportunity to teach the girls to
demand apologies like Serena
reclaim their time like Maxine
speak out like Malala
sit down like Rosa
stand up like Gloria
play like Billie Jean
organize like Fannie Lou
face challenges like Helen
influence like Oprah
write like Maya
speak like Emma
create like Coco
express like Beyonce
lead like Indira
tell their truth like Christine

We teach the girls
and we teach the boys, too

They all need to know that girls are
complex
capable
powerful
and more than worthy

Because someday
soon,
even now,
the girls will teach us.

 

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The Shamash, The Helper

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‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the world
All the presents were opened, all the wonders unfurled;
The hugs were all given to those loved so dear,
In hopes that this light and this warmth lasts all year.

As many as two billion people around the world celebrated the Christmas holiday yesterday. Here in the Midwest, it was a beautifully sunny, snow-covered day, reminiscent of childhood holiday seasons. It stirred up the nostalgia in my Christian-raised husband, as he fired up Netflix, searching for “White Christmas”, while I washed out the hot cocoa mugs our family sipped from that evening.

It had already been over a week since my menorah was cleaned of melted wax and placed back in the china cabinet, and the air was cleared of the smell of latkes sizzling in hot oil.

“So, is Chanukah like Jewish Christmas?” asked my dental hygienist a few weeks ago as she scraped and prodded, while I could do nothing more than respond with garbled grunts. Finally sitting upright and all instruments of dental torture out of my mouth, I shared the Reader’s Digest version of the holiday’s history…

Over 2,000 years ago, King Antiochus ruled over the land of Judea, and decided that he wanted all of his subjects to worship Greek gods. The Jews were not down with this plan, as they were a monotheistic people who prayed to one God.  One of those Jews, Judah Maccabee, possibly a Jedi, gathered his fellow resistance fighters, and fought back against Antiochus’s army, pushing them right out of Jerusalem. The Jewish people went right to work cleaning and spiffing up the Temple, restoring it to its original state. They decided to light an oil lamp, but seeing there was only enough oil to last one day, they expected their light to burn briefly…however, the oil continued to burn for eight days! Chanukah, “The Festival of Lights”, is now celebrated to recall this miracle and success over those who wished to oppress them.*
*So, no, Chanukah is not Jewish Christmas.

One of the enduring symbols of Chanukah is the menorah, the nine-branched candelabra which is used to recreate the burning of the oil in the Temple. Chanukah lasts eight days. Each night, a new candle is lit on the menorah, until the 8th night, when the entire thing is ablaze. But, WAIT!!…say my mathematically-minded readers. There are eight nights, but nine branches. That does not add up! Ah, there is, however, a ninth candle, which takes a humble, yet significant role in lighting up the menorah each night.

The Shamash, the ninth candle, is Hebrew for “servant” or “attendant”. It is also informally known as the “helper candle”. On a traditional menorah, the shamash is usually in the middle of the menorah, either taller or shorter than, or set off to the side of, the other 8 branches. The job of the shamash is to kindle the light of the other candles, which then provide a full menorah’s worth of light. The menorah’s light is not meant to serve us, to read or do work by, but to illuminate the darkness, to chase the shadows away.

There is a beautiful sentiment to consider in that the menorah’s light is not created selfishly for us, just as the world was not created for any single one of us. The Earth does not belong to us. We are here to be stewards of this place we call home, maintaining it for everyone else we share it with and for those who have yet to exist. Just as we are caretakers of the Earth, the shamash attends to the lighting of each Chanukah candle. If a candle accidentally flames out, the shamash takes up the task to light it again. One unglorified, plain candle has the ability to bring light to the darkness.

This Chanukah season, after a year of heightened anti-Semitism in the United States, lighting the candles left me pondering the metaphor of the shamash as the candles burned each night in my home.

How can we be a shamash in our teaching lives? How can we kindle the light in others?

With our coworkers, we can be patient, supportive, collaborative, reflective.

With our school’s families, we can be kind, helpful, thoughtful, communicative.

And most importantly, with our students we
Smile
Give them a pencil when they need one
Offer hugs, fist bumps, and high fives
Share a snack when they don’t have one
Talk about their lives and the ever-changing world around them
Show them how to be a good friend
Listen to their stories
Validate their stories
Teach them how to amplify their stories
Introduce them to diverse, life-changing books
Make time for them to read those books
Allow them to wonder, explore, be curious
Tell them they are important and unique
Let them teach
Learn from them

We find it is in the simple acts, the quiet moments, the ordinary interactions that we have the opportunity to be a shamash, a helper, with our children. As teachers, we serve our students best by raising them to be stewards of not only this Earth, but of the people who populate it. When we light that fire in our students, they learn how to become a shamash of their own someday, attending to others for the greater good. It is never too late to kindle a flame, or to rekindle a flame that has extinguished. Once ignited, it may last a day, or eight. Or a lifetime.

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Can You Dab?

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“Can you dab?”

A fourth grade boy sitting twenty-some rows back from the front of the auditorium asks. Eyes sparkling, face beaming, perched on the edge of his seat, he waits.

“Can I dab?!” grins award-winning author Jason Reynolds, wearing a knowing expression that humorously reads ‘how-old-do-you-think-I-am?’

“Yeah! Can you dab?!” the young boy repeats.

Jason walks up the aisle, dragging the microphone cord, as middle school heads whip around to follow his every move. He is dressed head to toe in black, his dreads tumbling over each other. Reaching the boy’s row, Jason looks over to him. This fourth grade boy, now standing, is
enraptured
engaged
enthralled.

This fourth grade boy, who is black, gazes up at this adult black man who says:

“Yeah, I can dab.”

One heartbeat flutters. One breath exhales. One boy wonders…

He need not ask for proof. Jason bows his head into his elbow. He dabs. The crowd goes wild. Clapping. Smiling. Cheering. Dabbing back. It’s a response, a conversation, between 450 middle school students and a man who, through one seemingly simple question, let them know that they were
seen
heard
acknowledged.

* * * * *

For several months, I had been co-organizing an author visit to our school district with Jason Reynolds. We were lucky beyond measure to get the opportunity to host him. If you’re not familiar with Jason, visit his website, read his poetry, hear his story. His literary accolades and honors are stickered across the covers of his books for young people:
Coretta Scott King
National Book Award
NAACP Image Award
Kirkus Prize
Schneider Family Award

Jason’s good fortune as an author of children’s literature was a long time coming before it was finally realized. Way before the awards, the book tours, and the bestselling novels, there was his childhood in Washington, D.C. A childhood that drives him to create authentic characters, stories, and voices for his books, putting the “real” in realistic fiction. He stood in front of our students and told them stories, his true stories about
eating ramen noodles and generic peanut butter
dying hair with kool-aid
popping cassette tapes into Walkmans
playing basketball

And then there were stories that made us gasp, laugh, sigh…think.

He told them that he didn’t read until he was 18 years old. Our reading workshop trained, book loving kids were horrified. This was unthinkable. Why, they asked. WHY didn’t you read?! Because the only books that were available to kids like me were “classics” like Moby Dick…and I couldn’t relate, because there weren’t any whales living in my neighborhood, he explained.

He told them that one of the first cassette tapes he ever bought was a rap album by Queen Latifah, and it changed his life. The more he listened to her, the closer he grew to realizing that her words, her raps, were poetry. This epiphany began a daily practice of writing poetry, as he told himself, “I’m going to be Queen Latifah when I grow up!”

He told them that he moved to New York to pursue his writing dreams.

He told them that he was living in his car a handful of years ago.

He told them that he was working in a clothing store a couple of years ago.

He told them that through all of this, he was writing. Two pages a day. Squeezing in time to write in the edges of his days.

He told them that he was on the verge of giving up his writerly dreams, but was prompted to start writing stories and characters who
looked like him
talked like him
acted like him
lived like him

He wrote through a lens of “everyday diversity”, showcasing characters with authentic
voices
families
challenges
interests
stories,
creating books to read about black people outside the oeuvre of “boycotts, bondage, and basketball”, because “black kids do more than play basketball”, Jason told them. He knew children of all kinds needed to be able to hold up a book as a mirror and see themselves in it. And he was determined to tell those stories.

* * * * *

“Curry or Jordan?” another black student asks Jason, challenging him to name the greatest basketball player of all time.

“Ooooh, you’re asking me difficult questions,” Jason plays along.

After a long pause…

“Jordan.”

And the crowd goes wild.

* * * * *

While Jason was presenting, I was kid watching. Scanning the faces of our very diverse district, I saw one face after another light up, engage, and connect. That was when I realized the profound impact this author visit was having on our children.

When our student raised his hand to ask if Jason could dab, he wasn’t really asking “Can you dab?” He was wondering
Do you see me?
Do you hear me?
Do you know that I have stories, too?

And Jason, a man who mirrors him in many ways, wordlessly responded, in one gesture
I see you.
I hear you.
I am writing my stories for you.
(Jason Reynolds is the author of When I Was The Greatest, The Boy in The Black Suit, All American Boys, As Brave As You, The Track Series (Ghost, Patina), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and forthcoming Long Way Down.)

Confronting Anti-Semitism

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We need to talk about anti-Semitism.

We need to talk about how Nazis, swastikas, and outstretched “heil” arms are direct embodiments and symbols of Jewish genocide.

We need to talk about the history of oppression, racism, marginalization, and degradation of Jews in the United States of America.

We need to talk about our lack of awareness and understanding of Jewish-American identity, and how the white privilege many American Jews experience today is a recent phenomenon, only two generations thin.

And right now, we need to talk about how the dialogue in response to the events in Charlottesville has, so far, minimally included discussions of Jews and the blatant anti-Semitism that was on display this past weekend. Talking about Nazis without acknowledging Jewish suffering is forgetting, and possibly condemning us to repeat, history. As Jews, we are aware, more than ever, that modern day Nazis will readily use us as a scapegoat for their dangerous agenda again.

Many Americans have been lulled into a comfortable complacency, a false sense of security, believing an atrocity like the Holocaust could “never happen again”. There exists a feeling that anti-Semitism is something that happened “back then” and “over there”. We’ve been looking beyond our fences for long enough now, that we have forgotten to see the evil that has not been fully eradicated from our own backyards. When conditions are favorable, the long-ago planted seed of anti-Semitism germinates and burgeons, radiating toxic hatred, one swastika, one salute, at a time.

Never in my life did I imagine I would have to legitimately fear for my safety because I am Jewish. Growing up in an interfaith household, my sisters and I were raised Jewish. I attended Sunday School and Hebrew School, had a Bat Mitzvah, was consecrated and confirmed, participated in the synagogue youth choir and the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, and attended Jewish summer camps. My public school teachers always happily obliged my mother when she asked for permission for me to share with my class about Chanukah as the winter holidays approached. The day I brought in a picture book about the holiday, our family menorah, dreidels, and gelt (chocolate coins) to share with my classmates was special, a source of pride for our unique culture. Never did I feel fearful because I was Jewish. Never. Until now.

My own direct experiences with anti-Semitism are rare and isolated incidents. I was once told by someone I considered to be a friend that I was going to hell, since I had not accepted Jesus as my savior. He had the gall to say “No offense, it’s just a fact”. I have wrestled with my Jewish identity my whole life, asking myself questions about faith and practice. Do Jews have to believe in God? Is Judaism a religion or a culture…or both? Am I Jewish enough?

As American Jews, many of us walk precarious lines of identity. We are our own individual melting pots of overlapping identities, Venn diagrams with multiple points of intersection, assimilation, and cultural preservation. Unlike identities more easily observed externally, Judaism can be invisible. A yarmulke adorning a head or a Star of David dangling from a necklace can make our identity visible. The reason that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew may have survived the Holocaust, is also what allows many American Jews to assimilate with white America, post-World War II. Invisible identity is both the reason for our survival and the cause of our assimilation. Judaism can blend into the background, slide behind other identities. It can even become so transparent that we are erased from the story.

Last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, a crowd of white supremacists, armed with guns and torches marched onto the University of Virginia’s campus. The hate-filled rally encouraged hurt and harm of non-white people. The Confederate flag that people carried is a symbol of enslavement and oppression, our shameful history and the racism we have not yet resolved. Keep talking about this. Acting on this. Be unrelenting.

But please turn around and look. The target of a Nazi organization is the Jewish people. And we are standing right here, desperately needing your alliance and support. We need you to see us. We need your awareness. We need you to embrace us in your defenses and discussions. We need you to cry out against hate, consciously denouncing anti-Semitism, as you rebuke other forms of racism and bigotry. We need you to include us in every resource you share and conversation you have. We need you. Now. Amplify our voices, undertake our plight, too. We are notably underrepresented in the narrative of the Charlottesville Nazi rally. We have been interjecting, waving our arms wildly, trying to insert ourselves back into the story. We are asking you to see the hate as anti-Semitism, name the hate as anti-Semitism, and fight the anti-Semitic hate.

Here we are in 2017, witnessing white men and women, red-faced with hatred, waving swastika flags and flaming torches, punching the oxygen out of my lungs with each extended arm, heiling Hitler and Trump. Every chant of “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” marches us one step closer to the history most of mankind has vowed never to repeat. There is a history of oppression and otherness stretching back through our entire existence, to the very first moment someone drew a line, pointed, and said “you are not us”. Right now, you have the ability to interrupt that history. Step over that line. Stand with us. And vow, “you are safe with us”.

Teachers and parents, take a look at all the resources you’ve collected, articles you’ve saved, and links you’ve shared over the past few days. Check the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. Check the crowd-sourced Google docs. Analyze each one and ask yourself: Does this resource acknowledge the anti-Semitism of the Charlottesville rally? Does this resource help me and my children/students learn more about anti-Semitism and how to combat it? If the resource discusses Nazis without acknowledging Jews, it has missed the mark. It is erasure, whether purposeful in its omission or not.

Now that we know better, let’s do better. Here are some resources to learn and teach about anti-Semitism, and articles that address the anti-Semitism witnessed in Charlottesville.

Resources:
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Global Jewish Advocacy
Anti-Defamation League
Teaching Tolerance
Yad Vashem

Southern Poverty Law Center

Facing History
USC Shoah Foundation

Anti-Racist Resources (Crowd-sourced Google doc)

Articles:
”We Need To Talk About The Anti-Semitism At The Charlottesville Protest” (Refinery29)
”Why the Charlottesville Marchers Were Obsessed With Jews” (The Atlantic)
”What Jewish Children Learned From Charlottesville” (New York Times)
”In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On” (Reform Judaism)
”State Department’s Anti-Semitism Office Will Soon Have No Staff” (Huffington Post)
VICE News Documentary Charlottesville (VICE HBO – film)
”Not In Our Town” (Facing History)
”Hate in America” (Slate)

The United States has a stormy past in regard to American Jews, but we now have the knowledge to say “we have seen this before”. We have the power to make good on our promise of “never again”. We have the ability to cultivate only peace and love in our backyards to drown out the howls of hate. I am hopeful. The conditions are favorable. One teacher, one student, one voice, at a time.