Playing Favorites: My Anthropological Declaration of Love

To love humanity we must face humanity in all its transcendence and tribulation.

Advertisements

“Guess my favorite animal.”

I’m with a former student, Julia. We are in Baltimore, about to walk into YES, the Youth Empowered Society, a drop-in center for homeless youth that offers services and supports.

Julia has spent the last several moments of our journey talking about the profundity of elephants, her favorite animal. Their wisdom. Care. Matriarchal lineage. Cosmic connection. Julia is clearly inspired by this, her totem animal.

So I ask her to guess mine. She guesses right.

“You don’t have a favorite animal.”

Weird, right? Everyone has a favorite animal.

I have other favorites.

Tree: Sycamore.

Flower: Chicory.

Color: Periwinkle.

A favorite smell, a favorite song, a favorite city.

But no favorite animal…at least, until roughly a year later.

You see, I was looking in the wrong place. I was looking “out there” in the wilds of the world for my favorite. I needed to look “in here.”

You ready?

It’s you. You reading this. You are my favorite animal.

Humans.

My favorite.

Whether you’re being adorable or ornery. You remain, always, my favorite.

As I began to share this affinity with others, I got the gamut of responses. Julia’s was quick and enthusiastic.

“Of course!” She exclaimed with a laugh and a hug.

For others…confusion. Disdain.

“Humans are definitely NOT my favorite animal,” one of my close friends said with a shake of her head.

My children, too, were at first puzzled.

“We’re not animals.”

And there it is. Homo sapien exceptionalism.

Such an innate belief in our difference and distance from the rest of our planet that we can at once propel ourselves to amazing heights, defying gravity as we stretch towards the moon and beyond, and, at the same time, we can declare ourselves lords and masters of all we survey, subjugating it to our whims and desires.

Subjugating each other.

What makes a human? What perfects and perverts our purpose? My declaration of love for humanity is inextricably tangled up in these questions.

To love humanity we must face humanity in all its transcendence and tribulation. We must face refugee crises where humans flee the cruelty and violence of their former neighbors. We must face poverty that enslaves humans to labor in fields of oppression as they harvest higher class hungers. And simultaneously we must embrace the invention and ingenuity without borders that cures polio, creates prosthetics, composes symphonies, and climbs to mountaintops.

This is the human paradox; that both unfathomable creation and unimaginable destruction reside side by side within each of us.

Those of us who fancy ourselves humanitarians and philanthops, we must face this truth in our brothers and sisters. We must face it in ourselves.

I am honored to enter into this writing space dedicated to the human experience. My personal calling and vocation, education, is a remarkable space to nourish, heal, and propel humanity forward. I look forward to asking how we can make all our spaces and professions more humane, more capable of bringing forth the best of humanity. The best in ourselves.

Humans.

You’re my favorite.

Always.

This is my declaration of Human Love.


barbBarbara Ellard Dziedzic manages a youth work force development program in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, building partnerships between the private sector and the public good. She is trained in dialogue development, restorative practice, and cultural proficiency. Previously she worked as a classroom teacher for over a decade as she developed and implemented a Community Development and Global Citizenship Signature ProgramOriginally from Missouri, she received her BA from Carleton College in Minnesota in 2002, moved to the East Coast to volunteer at an AIDS hospice with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and began her teaching career in Baltimore City in 2003. As part of her graduate work in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, in the summer of 2009 she worked as an Advocacy Project Peace Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya.  In her work, she taught youth how to document their efforts for social change through photography, video, radio, and blogging. Barbara lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband, Zachary, and their twin children, Ivy and Kipling.  As a family they enjoy all manner of outdoor antics including backpacking, snowshoeing, and canoeing.  

Rwanda Bests

The six weeks Carolyn, my wife, and I spent teaching in Rwanda was a trip of firsts; my first trip to Rwanda, my first trip to Africa period, first time south of the Equator, and my first extended time in the classroom since retirement. A voyage replete with so many “firsts” fairly demands a set of reactions. Here are just some of the images and feelings I know are destined to last.

  • Most Lasting First Impression of Africa: Standing Day 1 in the crowded hallway of a Rwandan fabric exchange surrounded by stalls of brilliantly colored cloth and dozens of Rwandans (many of them dressed in equally striking colors) all playing “Let’s Make a Deal” at the same time. A more exotic din I’ve never heard. “Toto,” I said, “this is definitely not Kansas.”
  • Most Favored Delicacy: The East African avocado; soft, lush, flavorful, easy to peel, and falling off the trees! Could those hard, shriveled, overpriced green things they call avocados back home really be of the same species as these?
  • Most Glorious View: Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is a labyrinth of tall, steep hills and deep cut valleys. And at night, all of them twinkle with lights that turn the city’s highs and lows into enchanted vistas. If you are able to catch the panoramic effect of Kigali’s landmarks all aglow–from the Emerald City-like downtown on your left, to the multi-colored eggshell dome of the Convention Centre in the middle, to the planes circling Kigali International on your right– count yourself lucky indeed.
  • Most Endearing Reaction: Offer a “Mwaramutse” (good morning) or a “Mwiriwe” (good afternoon, good evening, or good just about anything else) to Rwandans who aren’t expecting a greeting in their own language and watch their faces light up! It’s like offering a Brit a biscuit to go with his tea. The joy is unconfined!
  • Coolest Mode of Transportation: You simply must take a ride on a Kigali city bus! The routes and stops seem to change from trip to trip, seats are folded down to hem you in completely as additional riders get on, and your driver may leave the bus to drum up more business at any given stop. Oh, and the bumpiest jolts are reserved for the timid mzungus cowering in the back, wondering how on earth they’re going be able to wade through those folded-down seats so they can get off. A ride, by the way, costs 200 francs, which is–roughly speaking–a quarter. How can you beat that?
  • Favorite Restaurant: Kigali is an international city in all respects, including food. We sampled Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, Italian, and Thai places during our time there, and reveled in all of it. We also enjoyed Heaven, Rwanda’s best known eating establishment. But The Hut–right up the dirt road from us–reigned supreme. The introductory fried avocados and goat brochettes accompanied by mounds of rice, chips, mashed sweet potatoes, or plantains were the odds-on favorites. The brochette platters, by the way, cost less than a cheeseburger at Five Guys. How I love this country!
  • Most Fun in the Arts: Like Baltimore’s Visionary Arts Museum, Kigali’s Inema Arts Center is a grand place to see old bikes, radios, bottles, cars, and metal fixtures transformed into contemporary art. But wait, there’s more! Inema also is a place for yoga, troupes of young drummers and dancers, wine tastings, mixology demonstrations, and an on-site women’s cooperative dealing in arts and crafts. What’s more, the small cafe is peaceful and cool; the sort of place you could find yourself chatting with a smartly coiffed young banker from Zimbabwe about to head off for her massage, or a group of medical students on holiday from their service projects in Uganda, or a Maryland couple working to bring a smattering of Jewish culture to interested Rwandans. (No, really.) Inema is that kind of place.
  • Best “Rwanda Is A Small Country” Moment: Chatting with a lovely student of tourism in downtown Kigali, only to have her turn up on the beach of Lake Kivu–hours from the capital and several days later– to reintroduce herself to us as an old friend. Did I mention that Rwanda is a small country?
  • Most Sheepish Feeling: The power went out? Oh my, how dependably undependable life can be in these “lesser developed countries.” Well, maybe if we had settled the pay-as-you-go electric bill like we were supposed to in the first place, the power would have stayed on.
  • Most Worthy Idea for Export: How about a presidential campaign that lasts for two weeks instead of two years? That’s Rwanda’s political practice, and it would suit me just fine. Of course, they know who’s going to win since the same guy has been in power for over 20 years. Still, what a rational, utterly appropriate time frame. Any takers, America?
  • Speaking of Which, Most Embarrassing Question: “How you in America find Trump?” I’m still not sure what they were asking. I’m even less sure what I was supposed to say.
  • Least Surprising Teacher Moment: Honesty compels me to report that faculty meetings in East Africa aren’t any more useful or interesting than they are here. Zzzzzzzz……
  • Best Pun: Jean Marie, APACOPE’s gentlemanly Dean of Studies, looked at his students dancing happily with their American visitors and proclaimed our visit to his school as a “Rwanda-ful time”. Clever, and so very nice to hear.
  • Most Sobering Venue: Peering intently across the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, you see a bit of Africa that isn’t Rwanda. The frontier is one of the busiest border crossings in the world, with a sea of men and women carrying goods and services to the other side. It’s less noisy than you’d think given the numbers involved, and there is a grimness to it all. Heavily armed soldiers are everywhere. Poverty is in the air in both countries, but there is a grayness to the squalor across the DRC line that changes the lighting in the distance. Granted, the Congolese make nice music; but they are not known for political stability, and there are those on the other side who wish Rwanda harm. The lack of ease at the frontier is palpable. How nice it was to know that we could just edge back and stay home in our new country.
  • Saddest Place: The mass graves at Kigali’s Genocide Memorial can break even the hardest of hearts, and there are exhibits that depict even more graphically the horrors of inter-tribal murder on the grand scale. But the small, poignant memorial to the 243 students, teachers, administrators, and founders of Ecole APACOPE who were killed in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide against the Tutsi is magnificently sad in its intimacy and simplicity. I looked at those pictures and read those names every day for six weeks, and feel as if Theogine, Pierre, Esperance, Claude, and the others have been ripped from my world as cruelly as they were from their own. The same photograph of APACOPE’s founder, Charles Shamugika, whose broad, sparkling smile lights up that wall of remembrance hangs in the living room of his daughter Christine, a gifted architect who currently serves as president of the school’s board of directors. Christine also lost three brothers to the madness. May their souls rest in peace along with the rest of APACOPE’s dead, and with the hundreds of thousands of Rwandans who perished from the twin evils of genocidal murder and world-wide indifference.
  • Most Lasting Impression: If any nation could be excused for pitying itself into the doldrums or tying itself up in knots of endless recrimination, it would be Rwanda. But a little over two decades removed from the 1994 genocide that claimed nearly a million of its people, Rwanda is a country full of kind, friendly souls doing their best to forgive and move on with life. The survivors have remade the notion of family, as uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends have come together to live as de facto parents, sisters, and brothers. Some of the country’s 30-somethings are so hungry for family that they’ll happily embrace white schoolteachers from Maryland as their surrogate mothers and fathers. So however painful its past or precarious its future, Rwanda’s present is a tribute to hope and reconciliation. And after living and teaching there for six weeks, I can tell you that they have blessed the world with children as smart, as beautiful, as friendly, and as precious as any on earth. May God be gracious to them all.

 

Phil Greenfield is a teacher, musician, writer and college adviser who taught at Annapolis High School from 1979-2014. Phil was a Fulbright Exchange Teacher to Great Britain in 1996-97, and when the opportunity was extended to teach in Rwanda for the summer of 2017, he couldn’t say no. He and his wife, a music therapist, flutist, singer, pianist and teacher live in Cape St. Claire, just outside Annapolis, MD.

Love and More Social Studies

It’s time for me to go back to the classroom where I teach teenagers about civics and current events. It feels enormously consequential, as it always does.

I’ve been known to jokingly hashtag social media posts #loveandmoresocialstudiesclasses when someone in the public eye says or does something that betrays their lack of knowledge. Recent events have had me saying it very seriously; America does need love and more social studies classes. Desperately.

The throngs of men waving guns and Nazi flags make that quite clear. But so do the frantic Facebook posts about how the removal of a statue is “destroying our culture,” the panicked wonderings about “who will go next – George Washington?!?!?!” and the angry insistence that “kids need a history lesson!!!!” followed by one link to a Wikipedia article on the Civil War.

When I read that kind of thing, I can’t help but think that decades of cuts to and devaluation of social studies education are at least in part to blame.

I’m fortunate in that I teach in a district and a state that have long valued my field, but the demand for more civics and history classes, in particular, is gaining nationwide momentum. This is good, and should put the fears prevalent in social media to rest.

A robust social studies curriculum includes national, state, and local history. It builds cultural literacy, empathy, mindfulness, and comprehension. Social studies classrooms are a place for students to develop their critical thinking skills – which make it pretty easy to differentiate between a Founding Father who would fall short of meeting today’s moral standards, and a military officer who took part in a violent rebellion against this nation. We teach that one source is not research, and that opinions are strengthened by the examination of multiple primary and secondary sources – not just Wikipedia.

Anyone who is truly concerned about the preservation of history should be attending local school board meetings and demanding that quality social studies education be a priority in all schools. This will bear fruits of thoughtful, engaged, civil discourse – and action – and through that we will create a more perfect union.

A generation educated with love and more social studies classes may well be a generation that decides we will no longer commemorate a dark era in our past with statues. But it won’t be one that has forgotten history, or failed to learn from it.


kathleen

Kathleen Murdough has a hard time explaining where she’s from because she’s an army brat, but North Conway, NH, the town where she lives now, has been her home longer than any other place that she’s lived. She has been a high school social studies teacher there for twelve years, and can think of no more awesome privilege and responsibility.

Not Your President

To My Son,

As I watched you sleep that November morning, my eyes traced the delicate outline of your perfect upturned nose. I watched your chest rise and fall rhythmically with each peaceful breath. I paused to take this in because I wanted to cherish who you were in that exact moment, before you realized how dramatically the world had changed. I wanted to remember the sweet innocence of the little boy that you were yesterday, the one who was certain that, fundamentally, the world was good and that decency would prevail.  

I knew that the news I was about to share would be a lot for you to absorb. But more than that, when you awoke that day, November 9, 2016, you would awaken to a reality that you wouldn’t recognize. Our world would turn upside down.  

But not yet. In that brief precious moment, on the cusp of change, your innocence endured.

I leaned over your bed and wrapped my arms around you. I hugged you tightly, a little more than normal, because my heart was filled with such a heavy burden. I took comfort when you reached around to hug me back. Even before you opened your eyes your arms locked around my neck and you asked, “Did Hillary win?”  

I squeezed you a little harder and, unable to speak and afraid to look you in the eye, I shook my head from side-to-side in the crook of your neck. I couldn’t stand to look at your face as you took in the answer.  “What?  Did she win?” you asked again with a concern I hardly ever hear in your voice. I finally said “no” as my chin quivered and I found the courage to look into your eyes. I’ll never forget the expression on your sweet little face as your eyes filled with tears. I wondered how you could know, at eight years old, that the impossible had happened.  

I’m sure that when I sent you to bed the night before, when the results were being announced and things seemed to be going awry, you didn’t understand the worldwide implications of the election. But that morning, you knew, even as a small child, that the implications were enormous.  

You knew that the same vitriol the next president bellows from podiums would get you in trouble at your elementary school. You knew that he talks to and about women in a way in which you would never want your sister or me to be treated. You knew that the venom he espouses about people from other countries and of different religions is aimed at your immigrant father. You knew that things should have been different.  

That morning, as I looked you in the eyes, I was terrified for our country. I was frightened for my immigrant students who weren’t sure if their parents would be deported, tearing their families apart. I worried about my sick friends, family, and neighbors who rely on health care through the Affordable Care Act. I worried about you and your sister’s classmates who fear for their safety and their rights because they’re gay or transsexual.  I was concerned about the protections for our local waterways in which you play, so happily, all summer long.  

There was so much that terrified me that morning; much more than I can express here. But the fear that I couldn’t seem to assuage, is that you, my sweet, sweet boy, were going to have this man as an example of masculinity during some of your most formative years. How will you and other boys across the country reconcile the ideas of manhood that he perpetuates with what you know in your hearts to be right?  The thought of this was eating away at me. I knew you deserved better.  

It is now early August, about nine months since that morning.  Since then, the absurd displays of power are almost too much to recount.  

We’ve seen Muslims banned from entering our country, then judges blocking unconstitutional executive orders, only to have partial bans reinstated by the Supreme Court.  There have been close-calls on healthcare, threatening access of millions to medical care.  There’s been mudslinging within the President’s own cabinet, where he seems to relish pitting people against one another as if watching gladiators fight to the death.  Liberties have been stripped of those in the LGBTQ community.  Women have been made a mockery of as he’s once again demonstrated his total disregard for our humanity as he threatens reproductive health services across the country.  He disparaged his predecessors and political opponents at the National Boy Scout Jamboree as tens of thousands of boys listened eagerly as he went off the rails, in something reminiscent of Lord of the Flies.  We’ve seen an increase in hate crimes and an emboldening of racism disguised as “diversity of thought.”   

While the president makes a joke of the United States, what I’ve seen in you was unexpected.  You protested, even when I suggested you stay home.  For better or worse, you shouted, “Not my president!” as loud as you could.  Even when I urged you to find another mantra, this was the one that resonated with you the most.  You passed out safety pins to your teachers, even when you were told that it was better if you just wore one yourself and didn’t mention it.  You donned your knitted pink hat in solidarity as your sister and I marched in protest in Washington, D.C.  You had begged to go, but with a broken leg, stayed home and watched longingly as history was made.  You asked me, with a tremble in your voice, if your Papi would be allowed back in the country after a visit to family overseas.  And then you thought pensively and stoically about what that would mean for our family. Your sensitivity and empathy at each ridiculous turn has warmed my heart and renewed my hope for your future and our country’s future.

You discovered that we all have a voice and that our voices matter.  You saw that each of us has a responsibility to those around us and that a community takes care of those who are vulnerable; we do this even more when things on the periphery look scary.  You’ve seen that even when your rights are safe, that it matters to defend the rights of everyone.  You’ve understood that being a man isn’t about being in power, rather that being a human is doing the right thing even when it’s hard.  

I had worried that this president would negatively impact your idea of manhood. Indeed, whether I like it not, he has an effect on children across the country.  What I’ve realized, though, is that this example doesn’t define who you are.  The examples around you in your family, your school, and your community are far stronger than the one on Pennsylvania Avenue.  

Now, when I watch you sleep, I don’t worry as much about the type of man you’ll be. I’m certain that as you grow, you’ll remember these tumultuous times and know that he was never your president.  

 


Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 5.10.04 PM
Tema Encarnacion works supporting the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program as the ESOL Specialist near Baltimore,  Maryland. Previously, she worked as an ESOL teacher and in various other capacities in another local ESOL program. Tema has dedicated her career to working with immigrant students and their families. She has been honored as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow by National Geographic Education for her commitment to geographic literacy through environmental advocacy, by PBS Learning Media as a digital innovator for integrating technology in the classroom and by Maryland Public Television as an American Graduate Champion. She currently lives with her husband and two children, Nina and Jonas, outside of Annapolis, MD. You can follow Tema on Twitter @temabell.  

Teaching in Wartime

“Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war.”  

-Pope Pius XII

After Mass one Sunday I shook hands with the priest and asked him to pray for me. I reminded him that I teach about government and world affairs. “Father, think what this week is going to be like for me!” I said with a half-laugh.

It’s something of a selfish request because, of course, there are people in the world who need far more prayers than I do. It’s always going to be worse to live through terrible hardships than it is to teach about them. But, if there’s ever a time when I need an understanding heart and all of my God-given wisdom in my classroom, it’s when I have teach about war.

Unfortunately, I have to teach about it often.

It’s easy to explain why a war is happening, to connect causes to effects, to rattle off key players and events. If that’s all I ever had to do, I’d probably never have any anxieties to share with a priest. But – and I’m alternately proud of and daunted by this – my students will always ask more challenging questions.

Is there ever such a thing as a good war? Are we just going to make a bad situation worse? Is the use of deadly force justified if it saves lives? What will it say about us as a country if we do nothing in the face of human suffering? What does it really mean to love peace in a violent world?

What does peace even look like?

I’m not sure I can answer any of that. I – Champion Knower of All the Things (or so my students tell me) – have as much trouble figuring this out as they do.

But I can let them discuss their thoughts freely. I can point them towards philosophers, generals, heads of state, and – yes- religious leaders who have thought about the same things. And I can publicly wrestle with my own confusing, conflicting thoughts on war: as a historian, as the daughter of a military family, as a believer in our moral responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and as a woman whose faith teaches that all life is sacred.

I can be honest with them about who I am, what I believe, and what I’m not sure about yet.

I can face it when they ask me what I’ll do if my brother ever has to go to war again (the same thing I did last time: get up, go to work, teach about the war he’s fighting, and pray that he comes home).

I can show them that, even though it’s hard, we shouldn’t shy away from these questions, or decide we don’t really need the answers that badly. Citizens in a powerful country owe it to themselves and the world to do better than that.

So this is your assignment, too: think about war. Ask yourself and others questions about its efficacy, its morality, its justness. Determine why and how it should be waged – if ever. And pray, or send good thoughts, or whatever you do to spread love and light in the world for all of those living through its horrors – and, a little bit, for those of us teaching in wartime, so that we may always do it wisely.


kathleen

Kathleen Murdough has a hard time explaining where she’s from because she’s an army brat, but North Conway, NH, the town where she lives now, has been her home longer than any other place that she’s lived. She has been a high school social studies teacher there for twelve years, and can think of no more awesome privilege and responsibility.

Their Humanity Requires It

Their brown eyes stare up at me with indescribable expectancy, hopeful anticipation, and a dire sense of urgency. Their fingers tremble on the desks in front of them, and I can almost see their hearts pounding through their chests. They look at me; the intention and eagerness in their souls is palpable. I stand in front of them in awe, because I know the expectations they have for me are almost, almost, impossible for me to meet.

Some of them arrived only days ago, fleeing unimaginable violence and undertaking a journey that could have easily taken their lives. But they survived. They survived war, violence, refugee camps, earthquakes, mudslides, rape, poverty and horrors much too awful to conjure up. They have overcome obstacles that no one should have to endure. And here they are with the belief, despite what they know exists in the world, that life can be better.  

They made it to an American high school and they know, and I know, with an eerie clarity, that they are exactly where they need to be.  They are looking to me, their ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher, with the hope of an education. They know, as do I, that their futures depend upon much more than learning English. But we also know that learning English will be one of the most important tools they have in forging ahead in the United States. They have come to the U.S. for a better future, safety, freedom, life.  They have found, whether I intended this or not, a refuge within the four walls of my classroom; a haven in a new, unfamiliar world. They know that their new lives begin here, in their ESOL class.

And so, they expect me to teach them English; the single most important thing they may learn in high school. Their dreams for their futures are now inextricably intertwined with my livelihood. I look back at them from the front of the classroom and the enormity of my responsibility as a teacher takes my breath away.  

This happens every year, with every student who crosses the threshold into my classroom. I welcome them at the door every class period and I see in their faces, everyday, that they expect the best from me. When I don’t give them my best, they know it. And I know they deserve better. I used to think, as the years passed, that this sense of responsibility would not overwhelm me as much. It has been the exact opposite. Every year, with every student I meet, my sense of responsibility to them grows. As the times change and as children enter my classroom for ever more varied reasons and in an ever more hostile political climate, the gravity of what I do as an educator, and what ESOL teachers (and all teachers of ESOL students) throughout the country do, weighs heavier and heavier on my heart.

They are looking to me, and to all of their teachers, to guide them in their new lives. As they enter our classes, they have no choice but to hope that our intentions for them are good. They have no choice, because the alternative is too scary to consider. They have been through so much in their short years on earth, but they hold out the certainty that the people in front of the classrooms want the best for them.  

These students are looking to us to teach them. They don’t want us to feel sorry for them because they may not understand everything in their classes. They want us to support them in understanding. This may mean more work for us, but after what they have been through, we owe it to them to strengthen our efforts. They don’t need our sympathy.  Sympathy gives them, and us, an excuse not to do our best and they don’t need our excuses. They deserve better than that. They need high expectations. They need us to hold them accountable, while understanding that they do not have the same experiences as other students in the school.  

They need teachers who believe in them. Every child needs that. They need teachers who understand that because their lives didn’t begin in a country that ensures education for every child, they may have gaps in their education, but they don’t have gaps in their life experiences. They need teachers who can look beyond what they’re missing and see the richness in what they bring. They’re not asking for us to give them a break, or a free class period. That doesn’t help them. They know it and we know it.

They need teachers who can look beyond the politics of immigration and see the children in front of them.  

So every day, when I look at my students’ faces and I see the hope, fear, and anticipation in their eyes, I remember that they have overcome horrors I could never imagine and I owe it to them to be the best teacher that I can be. I owe it to them to encourage my colleagues to be the best educators they can be. I have to do this and I have to do this with every fiber of my being because their struggle is now my struggle; we are now wonderfully and brilliantly entangled.

I have to stand with them and for them because the humanity that stares back at me through their beautiful and hopeful eyes requires it.

************

Tema Encarnacion works supporting the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program as the ESOL Specialist in Baltimore,  Maryland. Previously, she worked as an ESOL teacher and in various other capacities in another local ESOL program. Tema has dedicated her career to working with immigrant students and their families. She has been honored as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow by National Geographic Education for her commitment to geographic literacy through environmental advocacy, by PBS Learning Media as a digital innovator for integrating technology in the classroom and by Maryland Public Television as an American Graduate Champion. She currently lives with her husband and two children, Nina and Jonas, outside of Annapolis, MD. You can follow Tema on Twitter @temabell.  

Choosing Daycare in an Anti-Semitic World

 

I don’t remember how the topic came up, but I’ve never forgotten the answer to what must have been my question.

“No, we don’t do infant care here,” the preschool director’s voice, trailing off. “I don’t know how we’d get them out in time.”

She didn’t have to say any more; I knew what she meant. She meant in the worst case scenario. Not a fire, like every organization might drill and prepare for, but an anti-Semitic attack. A bomb threat, or worse.

This was in 2008, pre-Sandy Hook, before mass shootings reached our peak level of consciousness. My husband and I were touring a new preschool/daycare facility for our daughter, then four years old, who had a new baby brother and a current daycare program that was struggling with high turnover and a lack of leadership. Hers was also a Jewish program, but a smaller one, nestled far down the street in an office park. In my mind, it was less likely to be attacked, or at least I told myself that. This new program we toured was in a JCC, a Jewish Community Center, more than 100 of which across the U.S. have been the targets of bomb threats in the weeks since President Trump’s inauguration.

More than one hundred times, babies had to be evacuated during these cold winter months. And not just toddlers, but senior citizens in these buildings for social interaction, swimmers while dripping wet, and employees and members of all different ethnicities and religious backgrounds (JCCs are open to all). Had it been during the summer, my now nine year old son might have been pulled off the stage of his arts and science day camp that is also held at the JCC.

“I don’t know how we’d get them out in time.” Honestly, it’s not much more comforting to think that at least my son could run and hide. That he’s been trained in this type of exercise at his public school.

I’m sure I asked other questions on the daycare tour that morning so many years ago. I probably asked about swimming lessons, school vacation schedules, the late fee policy in case we ever missed the pick up deadline. I asked about Jewish content in the classroom, as I attended a Jewish preschool myself, and had fond memories of dressing up for holidays and spending Friday mornings preparing for the weekly Sabbath. While having a Jewish tie wasn’t our main criteria in choosing her program, it was definitely a great bonus.

And yet, I asked myself, what if? How would I live with myself if something happened to her there, when there are lots of other daycares she could have gone to instead?

But what kind of life would I be living if I decided only out of fear?

I looked at my life up to that moment. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, the fear of anti-Semitism hadn’t made me shy away from Jewish opportunities, but to embrace them further, because I had the chance that many of my relatives did not. I went to Jewish overnight camp and filled my high school weekends with youth group events. I went to a college with a large Jewish community and spent two years on the Hillel board there. I sought guidance in a synagogue after 9/11. My husband and I had named our daughter and entered our son into the covenant, and they were Tot Shabbat regulars before they could even speak. I hadn’t lived my life in fear. I wasn’t about to start with my daughter’s preschool choice.

I still wish I hadn’t heard the answer to that question, though. I wish she hadn’t verbalized what was a nagging fear I tried to push to the back of my mind. Something I still push to the back of my mind all too often.

My daughter enrolled at the JCC, and attended without incident, as did her brother for many years. It was the right choice for our family, but I know that some families have left their JCCs because of these incidents. It’s a shame, but I understand their concern.

They eventually made some renovations to the building and did add an infant room to our JCC. Infants who had to be evacuated when our facility was threatened back in January. They deserve better. We all deserve better.

*******************************

cherylCheryl Pollock Stober is a wife, mother of two, VP and product manager at an investment firm, and blogger atBusySinceBirth.com. Cheryl has been trying to figure out how to have it all, at the exact same time, for as long as she can remember. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Kveller.com and Boston.com. In 2014 and 2015, she co-produced and performed in Boston’s productions of the internet phenomenon, “Listen To Your Mother.” She can be found on twitter at @cherylstober.