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.

Things I Tell My Civics Class

My friends always ask what my first lesson is going to be in my Civics class. First lessons are a big deal because they’re first impressions; they have to grab students’ attention and convince them that what they’re going to study is worth more than just the credit they need on their transcripts to graduate. They also have to set a tone. They’re an indicator of what kind of teacher you’re going to be.

In a nutshell (or, as my students would say, tl;dr)? They’re tricky.

I’m fond of telling stories during my first lessons. I’ve told different classes about my first day of college (September 11, 2001), my older brother’s extended deployment to Iraq, my friends’ efforts to teach in some of the most deprived parts of Pakistan, my former students’ work to build wells in villages in Sub-Saharan Africa. I tell these stories to make two points: we live in interesting times, and we do not live in isolation.

I’m apt to quote something in my first lessons, too. It’s usually Auden (There is no such thing as the State, and no one exists alone; hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police; we must love one another or die), but sometimes it’s Tolkien (All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us). Lately, I’ve also drawn from Phil Klay’s immense “Citizen Soldier” (Ideals are one thing—the messy business of putting them into practice is another).

I’m very clear that what I teach about is messy, but I tell my students not to be afraid of the mess. Things are happening- and will continue to happen- that will affect all of us, and we can’t do anything in response to them if we’re scared, or if we’re not paying attention.

Paying attention, I like to say, is our first civic duty, and we’ve got a whole semester to cover the rest. I tell them they can look forward to formulating fact-based opinions, knowing our rights and what it’s taken to get them, knowing how much more work there still is to be done, understanding that our government’s decisions will always have a far-reaching impact because we’re a powerful country, and recognizing that we can- and should- all show up to have say in what those decisions are.

I have a new Civics class starting tomorrow.

Tonight my friends are asking me what my first lesson will be because half of them are jealous that I get to teach it, and the other half can’t think of anything more frightening (aside from everything in the news, that is) than having to stand in front of a room full of young adults and teach Civics right now. There’s chaos at the airports, people are marching in the streets, and there may be a Constitutional crisis- or five- brewing everyday. So they say it would be too much pressure to teach what I teach right now.

It is too much pressure, and it’s definitely not something they covered in teacher training, but I’m going to do it anyway.

And I’m realizing that what I’m going to say is what I’ve always said:

We can- and should- all show up to have a say in what our country’s decisions are. Our country is powerful, so those decisions matter.

It took a lot of work to get us here, and it’s going to take more, and we’re going to need strong, fact-based opinions to do it.

Democracy is messy.

Pay attention.

Don’t be afraid.

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

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.

 

Otherness

On the first day of first grade at the Doha British School in Qatar, I discovered that recess was hot, dusty and not entirely pleasant. What it was not, was cool, green Nairobi where I had lived until recently. I found myself shunning the overheated, running, shrieking kids in favor of the small playground area where the metal play equipment baked quietly in the desert sun. I was testing the creaky swing with my hand (before trusting it with the rest of me) when my new classmate, Jennifer Bentle, approached. My heart leaped at the thought of making a first friend and I offered Jennifer a shy “Hello” as the swing groaned to and fro, on its own now.

She looked at me with a frown, scrunched up her freckled, button nose and whispered into my ear, “I hate you. You have brown skin.”

I remember reflexively examining my standard-issue, Indian-brown arm, to see what might be so repulsive. Skin color was an unexamined idea in my life until then, so I assumed her distaste was valid, perhaps requiring some action. When the self-inspection yielded no clues, I looked up with an honest query on my lips.

“Why?”

But I had addressed the back of Jennifer’s blue gingham frock: she was walking away, her neatly bobbed brown hair swinging triumphantly with every step

Maa responded to my tears that night by arming me for the playground the next day with a script. She was driven by a dark, retaliatory rage that I understand only now, as a parent myself.. Braiding my long, black hair with extra gentleness at bedtime, she promised that the next day would be better. Not convinced, I went to bed with a heart full of dread but mind steeled with resolve to make a stand.

I still remember the nervous ring of my feet on the metal stairs that brought me from class to the school yard at the next recess. Jennifer was standing by the see-saw when I marched up and tapped on her shoulder. She turned around and recoiled slightly at the sight of me. My resolve started crumbling at the imminent rain of horrible words, and before my courage could desert me completely, I blurted out:

“I hate YOU, Jennifer, because YOUR skin is white!”

It was exactly what my outraged mother had coached me to say. It didn’t occur to me until recently that she must have also been smarting from echoes of the ‘brownie’ Colonial insults that had haunted her freedom-fighter father. My mother is not usually given to vitriol of this kind.

Thankfully Jennifer didn’t hear my hateful little speech. She was, at that moment, blurting out her own nervous script right over mine. More than one mother had been coaching the previous night, apparently. It went something like this:

“I don’t hate your skin! I was nervous about the first day of school yesterday and grumpy. I’m really sorry, Chandreyee: I didn’t mean it! My Mum’s SO cross!”

The fact was that six year old Jennifer Bentle had just come from England to this bright, hot, desert country and was utterly unnerved by the otherness of everything. This included her first day of school and…me. I know this because of many subsequent recesses worth of chattering, games, and playdates. She became one of my best friends for the next 7 years I spent in Doha. Our fathers knew each other professionally, so polite notes inviting each to the other’s home to play passed between our moms via our grubby little hands as often as our fathers’ cooler ones. She came to my birthday parties and I, to hers. In the photo at the top of this post, she’s wearing two ponytails (just like my two braids) and is seated next to me. It was my last day at that school before I moved to Saudi Arabia.

Of course my friend Jenny was parroting over-heard racism, but what’s important in this story is her self-awareness of being wrong and most importantly…that she communicated it to me.

Before Jenny apologized, I had been on the offensive and  thus, on the path to hostility and division. My inevitable aggression was for the sake of my dignity; had she not spoken up and had I not listened, ours would have been a familiar tale of division and hate.

That was my first brush with empathy: a look at how feeling for someone else can turn perceptions on their head. If Jenny’s words scarred, they also showed me that first impressions are not always the whole ball game. My blundering discovery of empathy and understanding was in addition, the path to coping: with the otherness I would face as well as being the ‘other’.

We are each of us, ‘other’ to one another: urban/rural/ex-urban, black/white/shades-in-between, white/blue/pink colors-of-collars, all degrees of ability/disability and the spectrum of sexuality. Whichever groups we occupy, the others are different, discordant in the moment, with our worldview, values, and lives. But only until shared human experience cuts through the noise, reducing the primacy of differences, rather than their existence.

Since the 2016 Presidential election, I find myself continually revisiting this idea of ‘otherness’: of the need to open ourselves to similarities as well as differences, to ask, respond and engage so we can understand what can be understood and co-exist with the rest of it. Neither gloss over ‘otherness’, nor pretend to accept it fully, but to know that we all have the capacity of holding more than one opinion in our heads without shuttering our hearts.

I’ll never forget my first day of school and I hope you who are reading this, don’t either. If for no other reason than when you meet your Jennifer Bentle and hear her hard words, you will ask, or at least think, “Why?” and try to understand, rather than dismiss, her.

You might be surprised at what happens next.

=====================================

screen-shot-2017-01-18-at-6-06-05-pmChandreyee Lahiri is a geographer and GIS Specialist (Geographic Info. Systems) who works in environmental conservation. Originally from Kolkata, India, she made her way to the U.S. via Africa and the Middle-east, making ‘home’ a slippery idea. Right now, home is Waltham, MA with her husband and 10 year old son. Chandreyee dabbles in short fiction, children’s literature and story telling and believes that Faith in human goodness is the only kind she needs. Her blog silverliningscloudydays.blogspot.com, focuses mainly on valuable moments that fall between moments. She hopes we’ll all keep trying to reach and help one other because even ‘a little bit of something is more than a whole lot of nothing’.

Telling Stories, Building Bridges

Most who know me, know that I love stories of all kinds. As an oversized, outspoken, homeschooled thirteen-year-old, I would go to my town’s library every week, walk out with 13 books (all fiction), and come back the next having voraciously read every last word. As an involved-in-everything high school student, I found ways to keep my story habit through quiet study halls, bus rides home from basketball games, and half-hour breaks in the lunchroom at the grocery store where I worked on Saturdays. Now, in my 30s, I attend a handful of Story Slams each year, sometimes by myself, just to have the opportunity to immerse myself in an hour focused solely on celebrating and sharing stories.

When I became a high school English teacher, I delighted in the challenge of helping others access stories. I remember working for hours on lesson plans for British Literature–trying to build a bridge from Chaucer’s Middle English to the world of a millennial teen because I refused to allow a centuries-old story to be words on a page: endured and dreaded. I tried to create access points for all kinds of stories for my students, staunchly believing that every story has some magic to share if we only know how to find it. I’m sure I was successful sometimes and a marvelous failure others. But I did love the challenge.  

I pushed my students to share their own stories through writing and presentations and projects. I cajoled them to share a personal anecdote to engage their audience in a speech. I pleaded with them to let their authentic voice permeate a persuasive essay. I challenged them to throw away the rules and write the scariest of all stories: a poem.

Ironically, when my students asked me to tell my own stories, I usually refused. At first I claimed it was because they were only trying to distract from the lesson (not a wholly untrue claim), and that I needed to create a professional distance. Being a 23-year-old teacher who sometimes was mistaken for a student caused me to have all kinds of insecurities about “proving” myself as the adult in the room. Plus, I always felt more comfortable writing my stories, not telling them on the fly when my brain was working through the intricacies of English syntax or Shakespeare’s use of motif.

But now I realize that more than anything, I was scared. Not of the stories themselves, but of how vulnerable they would make me. Sharing an authentic story can feel like a glaring exposure, and vulnerability was the last thing I wanted for myself in a classroom full of teens or in a staff room of peers. At school, even as I toiled to elevate stories and connect others to them every day, I often rejected my own. I wore invulnerability like a cloak, thinking it was a source of strength. What I know now is that it is more like a crutch. Vulnerability, not its counterpart, is the core of human connection, and through our connection to other humans we find solidarity, courage, support, and inspiration.

2016 was a year where the world became more fractured. People became divided across ever-widening gulfs. Chasms of anger, hurt, disillusionment, and fear opened up in communities, among co-workers, between old friends, and through families. Politics became the spotlight for these divides, a way to label ourselves and others, an excuse for retreating to safe camps and throwing rocks at those outside of them. More than in recent memory, this election cycle seemed to surface the very worst in us and among us.

How many chose the cloak of invulnerability when faced with these conditions? How many of us swallowed our stories for fear of attacks or derision? How many of us backed away from the stories of others because they required our empathy? I know I did. The cloak was easier to choose and felt comforting to wear. It had a familiar heaviness around my shoulders.

We are past the election now and more divided than before it. But the truth remains that we are families who spend holidays together, colleagues who solve problems together, and communities who live together. We don’t have to ignore the divides, but could we start building bridges across them? Could we put down our memes, our graphs, and our articles… and our cloaks?

I’m not proposing a “forgive and forget” mentality. I’m also not proposing that we don’t spend significant time advocating for our values, ethical government, and the rights of the marginalized. I’m not proposing that we pretend that free hugs are going to make us all feel like we are on the same team. None of those are a lasting and powerful solution to the very real chasms running through our Main Streets and Wall Streets, our kitchens and yards.

Instead, I’m proposing that we start sharing stories and asking for the stories of others. I proposing that we intentionally focus on building human connections through the exchanges stories offer: vulnerability for empathy, empathy for vulnerability. And I don’t claim that this will be easy. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it myself. Here are some questions that I have: How can I focus on sharing stories around a card table filled with plates full of ham at Easter dinner? How can I listen deeply to the stories of people who think differently from me and whose life experiences look so different from my own? How can I share a story about that issue in addition to (or instead of) that well-reasoned argument? How can stories cut through the noise to reach hearts and minds? How do I face my own stories and accept the truth I find within them? How can I share stories that make me feel vulnerable in moments when the only thing I want to grab is that cloak?

I believe stories are a start. They are the means by which we often can make an exchange with others: vulnerability for empathy. They build bridges which offer us new access, new journeys, and new perspectives. They don’t force us to cross chasms, but they offer us that possibility. Our world needs less chasms and more bridges, and I hope you will join me in finding ways to use stories to build them. Here are a few places stories are being celebrated and used to bridge divides:

What is the story you need to share and how will you do it? Whose story do you need to hear and how will you ask for it? What resources can you add to those I’ve given above? Add your thoughts (and stories!) in the comments.

***********

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-7-45-58-amBrianna Crowley is a National Board Certified teacher who taught high school English in Hershey, PA for nine years. She currently works at the Center for Teaching Quality to further innovative and systemic change through elevating teacher leadership and teacher’s stories. Brianna has also contributed two books: How to Bring Technology Into Your Classroom and The Best Lesson Series: 15 Master Teachers Share What Works.  She embraces innovative approaches to learning and leading, and deeply believes in the promise of technology, the power of the written word, and the deep capacity of students and teachers to solve complex problems.