Can You Dab?

IMG_1451

“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

IMG_0046

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.

Learn Their Names, Learn Their Story

In fifth grade, my teacher was firm, but loving. She played the harp, had emerald green eyes, and read aloud Tuck Everlasting to our class. We rapped about rainforests, memorized the Fifty Nifty United States, and kept chameleons in aquariums (except for the one that escaped, making for a frantic morning search around the classroom!). I loved being in her class, but every day, the whole grade switched to different teachers for reading. Despite being an enthusiastic reader at home, I dreaded my reading teacher’s class from the beginning, all because of one thing. She refused to learn my name.

My name is Aliza.
It is derived from Hebrew.
Depending on the etymology, it means “joyful” or “oath of God”.
There are not many of us. I have only met one other Aliza, in person, in my life.
My name is pronounced “ah-LEE-zah”.
It rhymes with (The Leaning Tower of) Pisa and (The Pyramids of) Giza. Caesar, if you’re from Boston.

My entire life, I have heard my name pronounced incorrectly. Alyssa, Alisa, Alizay, Elise, Azalea, Aliva, Liza, Allie, Eliza (thanks Hamilton!). I empathize with the harried baristas, well-meaning teachers, and hopeful telemarketers as they bite their lips and take a stab at my name out loud. If it’s wrong, not to worry. I say “Thank you. It’s ah-LEE-zah.” (Although the telemarketers get some version of “I’m sorry. Eliza isn’t here right now. She’s out with Angelica and Peggy at a revel with some rebels on this hot night.”)

So, imagine my experience as a shy, rule-following, teacher-pleasing 10 year old when my reading teacher looked at my name on her attendance sheet, wrinkled her nose, and tried…“Alisa”. Correcting her, “It’s Aliza, with a Z.” She tried again. Man, Zs are difficult! Giving up all too soon, she spoke words that have stuck with me to this day:

“Ack! That’s too hard. I love Charlotte’s Web, so I’m going to call you Charlotte.”

She nicknamed me after one of literature’s most beloved characters, and Charlotte is a lovely name, but there is one problem. It is not MY name. Embarrassed, I cried the whole bus ride home that afternoon. When I told my parents that night, they encouraged me to tell her I did not like that name. It took every fiber of bravery saved up over my entire life to walk up to her soon after, surrounded by her favorite students, to say: “I don’t like being called Charlotte. It’s not my name.” Her response? An eyebrow raise, a smirk, and

“Oh! You don’t like Charlotte? Then I’ll call you Wilbur.”

A pig. A boy.

I suffered in silence, afraid to speak up again, to correct or share my hurt feelings with this adult. Too introverted to take the risk. Too anonymous to overcome my fears of becoming an original human with a name again. So I faded into the background for the rest of the year to survive her class.

Names are more than just words. They are an intangible tattoo of a person’s identity. They represent tradition and heritage, originality and creativity, honor and hope. Our name is the first thing that ever belongs to us in this world. Receiving a name is a ceremony, a rite of passage, in many religions and cultures. Being Jewish, I had a baby naming, where my Hebrew name, Havalah Shira, was bestowed. My Catholic dad chose his confirmation name, Paul. Names are a clue to identity, an invitation to others to learn more. They help cultivate a sense of self and can embody who we are and what we want to become.

Names have stories. They honor family members, here and gone. They reference favorite characters in literature and films. They allude to memories, feelings, places, and inspirations. Years ago, I had a student whose parents named their five kids with anagrams of their father’s first name. If you are like me, your name was chosen because your parents liked it and thought it to be original. The story of your name might just start with you.

Names can change. Whether by force or by choice, they transform and adjust. Names have inherent power and meaning. Name-calling bullies, dehumanizes, and denigrates others. To show respect to others, learn their names.

When you know someone’s name, it is the entry point to knowing that person more deeply. When you learn your students’ names, you acknowledge their existence. You convey to them “I see you. You are important to me. I value your story.” Learning their names is the first step in growing trust, rapport, relationships, and equitable classroom communities.

It’s as easy as:

  1. On the first day of school, ask students how to pronounce their names. Ask them to teach you and insist on taking the time to get it right.
  2. Ask students what they prefer to be called. Do they have a nickname? Does Christopher prefer Chris? Does Jasmine feel comfortable with Jazz?
  3. Have multiples of the same name in your class? Allow Sophia and Sofia, and Jaxon and Jackson to steer a conversation with you about how to avoid confusion in using their names aloud. Will you use last initials? A nickname? And if Jaxon and Jackson prefer their name and nothing else, that is what you accept and honor.
  4. Start every morning (or class period) at the door outside of your classroom to greet your students by name: “Good morning, Dejah!”, “Love that new haircut, Henry!”, “Oooh, what are you reading, Ahmed?”, “Mia! How was swim practice last night?”
  5. Whether through a formal project or stolen moments, take time to ask students about their names: how they were named and what their name means to them.
  6. If it’s your own name that throws the curveball, remember to kindly correct, be assertive, and offer opportunities for others to practice and learn it. I put the pronunciation of my name in my Twitter profile.

Many years later, near the end of summer, I saw that teacher in a restaurant. In the fantasy scenario in my head, I would have walked up to her and said:

To my dad, I’m Leezie.
To my mom, I’m Ali (ah-LEE).
To my nieces and nephews, I’m Auntie Leez.
To my high school softball teammates, I’m Al.
To my coach, I’m Z.
To my Deaf Education professors in college, I’m the hand sign for the letter “A” with a twist on my cheek.
To my students, I’m Mrs. Werner.
To you, I’m Aliza. It rhymes with Giza. Please learn it.

Instead, I walked mindfully into my classroom that new school year ready to learn the names of 22 young people. Pronouncing our students’ names accurately and respectfully is a true welcome into our classrooms. They hear you speak their names and their hearts ignite. Their confidence grows. Their dignity is defended.

Learn their names, learn their story.