Monday, December 4, 2017

Be a Light and Shelter for LGBTQIA Children in a Season of Darkness





When I was an elementary school Librarian, I chose winter to teach Hans Christian Andersen as a long author study. We started with his winter stories: The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Snow Queen, The Little Match Girl. Andersen's tales, as he originally wrote them, and not pre-digested into a Disney remix, are not well known among kids today. That's one of the reasons I taught them. Other reasons are the ambrosial language, the celebration and elevation of the underdog, how Andersen's stories build empathy, sensitivity, and an awareness of others, as well as context and culture, and how they speak to children as if they are real people-- that is, they often express the world as it really is.

The Little Match Girl is a story that does that. A little girl, abused and unloved by her father, is set out in the streets to sell matches. It is freezing, but she knows if she doesn't sell her quota, she'll be beaten and turned out again. She stays in the snow, forlorn, one over-sized slipper lost, as happy Christmas shoppers rush past her. She looks in the windows of the bakeries she passes and remembers dinners with a Grandmother her loved her. She passes homes, in which happy families decorate trees. Finally, she sits and tries to warm herself, and watches the stars. In the morning, the townspeople find her, frozen, and they realize that as they celebrated Christ's birth, among them, a child they despised died because of their neglect.

For gay and trans kids, acceptance at home and school is a matter of life and death. That's what I learned when Project Silk, an advocacy group for young people of color who are gay or transgender, came as guest speakers to Perry Library's Student-Staff Book Club last week. We were wrapping up our second book choice of the year, The 57 Bus, by Dashka Slater. The 57 Bus is a book about an agender teen who is critically burned by another teen on a bus ride home.

Richard and Michael, our Project Silk presenters, told us about a cycle that can too often drag young gay and trans kids of color into a life of crime, sex work and death. It can start in school, and it can work like this: 

Thrown out at home for being gay or trans, harassed and bullied at school for being who they are, kids often have no alternative but to live in the streets. Doubly discriminated against, they can't get hired for a job. This can lead to young people turning to sex work to survive-- some as young as thirteen or fourteen. Picked up by police for doing sex work, they go to jail, where they are often harassed, assaulted, and sometimes even raped.

 Richard said that when fighting to protect themselves, young gay or trans people have a tendency sometimes to "do the most." Who could blame a person who had been subject to so much for so long? Unfortunately, this can place the young person on an additional terrible cycle: discriminated against within the criminal justice system, gay and trans youngsters sometimes are blamed for defending themselves. Without a place to live, transportation or money, it is hard to make it to court dates reliably, on time, dressed presentably, with adequate legal representation, and pay legal fines and fees on time, or at all. This can place a young, now offender, even deeper within the cycle. 

I asked Richard and Michael how we interrupt this cycle. Their response? Do everything you can to make school a safe place. Make it a haven, where kids who are unloved and unrespected at home find a shelter. Teachers, students, and administrators alike: this is our calling within this season of darkness and light. We are called upon to be sheltering place for the unwanted child. We are called upon to light up the dark. No matter what one's religious or ethical training, we are responsible for all of us, most especially children. Love and light to all of us-- especially our LGBTQIA children.

NYT Magazine: The 57 Bus

Project Silk

Friday, October 27, 2017

Break Me On Life's Wheel

I have thought "Break me on life's wheel," would be a good adage for my life, and I have tried to live that way-- so much so that I thought for a long time I'd paint a giant canvas full of cogs and wheels, to remind myself. I try to live as fearlessly as I can-- for my students and for myself. Live so hard, so outside the usual, so big-- that the calendar, the wheel of events itself runs right off its post.

It's good to break. It's good to lean in to pain and tragedy. I'm trying, when things from outside and inside just pulverize me. But it's so much easier to redirect pain into something nicer. 

Today I was in a really low place. I left the Library, to go see teachers and kids, who were excitedly setting up for an after-school Halloween party. I thought I would stay, but I couldn't even manage to help them. I was down, actually heartbroken. Too much tragedy in my kids' lives, a story that I have become aware of that feels too close to home. I took my sour face out of there, and was walking back to the Library when a colleague needed a break in the ISS room. It was on my way. I stopped, went into the ISS room, while he ran out for a second. 

A kid said something dumb. I redirected him. Another kid said-- "Don't disrespect Ms. May. She's like-- the mother of the school." And then the kids started to argue over which powerful, beautiful colleague of mine was the "real" mother of the school, along with me. One kid, the one I had initially redirected, started to passionately argue that the "real" mother of the school is Mrs. Sharon Brentley-- an African-American woman who remembers being spit on, when she and her husband helped to integrate Perry as school children. The one arguing for her? He's been known to use the "n" word toward kids who don't look like him.

I'm not going to say it made everything right. But it reminded me-- there is light in the dark. Much love.



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

An Open Letter to the Students of Brooke High School




Hello. You don't know me, but many of you, and your parents, hate my guts. I don't hate you. At all. I understand completely, and fully, that I do not know you. But I do know one thing: you and I have a chance to learn from each other.

I am a high school Librarian. I LOVE my job. I LOVE my school and my students. I think of them as my own children. If I worked in your school, I would think of you as my own children, too. It's a magical thing that happens to teachers: our hearts stretch, the longer we are in a classroom, and we find our capacity for love increases with the number of children we get to know. I hope that in this letter, I can be of some service to you.


I grew up poor, white, and rural. I dreamed of having clean, white leather tennis shoes and pants long enough to cover my skinny ankles. Instead, I had funky Kmart burgundy tennis shoes and hand-me-down jeans, floods--showing off 3 inches of mismatched socks. My immediate family was unabashedly racist. It bothered me. I grew up, somehow made it to college, and learned better, because I liked to read, and the university I attended was a great one. I became a school librarian because I love books, and I love kids.


Several weeks back, a friend of mine messaged me a picture her husband sent her from the Perry football game he was attending. You were the opposing team. Some of you had painted a big banner that read, "Trump Perry." It was in all red, white and blue, and the President's hair was drawn over his name. In the picture, you were behind the banner. You looked like an all-white crowd dressed in red, white, and blue, holding your arms out with a #1, or, in a few cases, flipping the bird.


I gaped at it, stunned. Then I went to Brooke's Twitter account and got a better, more frontal view of the banner, and of you behind it, and had the same reaction: from the gut: like someone had punched me. Irrationally, as I am 50, white, and was far away from where the banner was being held, I felt frightened. Then, I felt incredulous, and sick to my stomach. I thought: "Why are these kids doing something so cruel and heartless?" I tweeted, retweeting the picture your school had put on their account, and wrote: "My mostly Black, inner-city school played this team last night and were confronted w/this. Sickening racism."


The banner became a story that went places. The Pittsburgh paper covered it, the USAToday covered it, some other local and national papers covered it. I started getting hundreds of hate tweets from folks who thought what I had said about the banner was itself racist. Never mind that the definition of racism says this:



rac·ism
ˈrāˌsizəm/
noun
  1. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.


so--me talking to white people as an example of "racism" is nonsense.


It didn't occur to me until weeks later that I hadn't stopped to analyze what my own reaction to "Trump Perry" meant. Why had I reacted with fear, anger, and the desire to protect my students-- just to the President's name? Why had that image created such an intense response in me-- when people who were tweeting at me, furious, claimed not to have had any ill intent at all? Some of you started tweeting at me-- some openly, some of you privately. Some of you were red-hot angry. Some of you called me names, mocking me, my school, my students. Some of you were polite, and just asking: Why are you saying this is racist? We didn't mean it to be!! We had no ill-intention! More than one of you was ashamed, apologetic.


If we were together right now, this is what I would say to you, face to face: I was scared when I saw your banner. This is why: for my students, there are implicit dangers to living in America. Those dangers are especially pronounced when entering a mostly white community. And my students were a long bus ride away from home.


Many of you may honestly not know that, because you are not Black. You haven't walked through the world as a Black person in America, lived the history of a Black person in America, or grown up as a Black person in America.


That's not meant as a put-down or in any way as an angry statement toward you. I'm white. But the banner your school put up at the football game was a mistake. Whether you were part of it or not, whether you were for or against it, here are some facts:


1. The parents of the only Black player on your team asked the Custodian in your school to take the banner down. The Custodian asked the Principal to take it down. Your Principal refused. It is clear that for at least one person in your community before the game, this banner was a problem. To his credit, your Principal has admitted not listening to the parent was a big mistake. However: this incident should begin to start making you ask: whose voices are elevated in your school? Why? Why not?

2. Every high school team trades film before football games, usually a week in advance. Your football team would have seen film of our team a week before we played. Your team knew our team was primarily African-American. Who knew that, other than the team, is something only you know.
3. It is time for you to understand that Black people have experienced, and experience America differently than white people do, and that to be a good person, and a good American, you individually, and collectively must be sensitive to that fact, work to deepen your understandings about what that means and why that is, and take on your work as an American.

The "Trump Perry" incident happened within an educational setting. The work to set it right can and should be educational. If we all are humble enough to acknowledge the need to keep learning, we will all come out the better. Here are some things I have learned, both while doing my undergraduate and graduate work, and while having the privilege of working in a racially diverse school district.


We white people live in a world where our race is invisible to us. That is a function of a thing, a term, called whiteness. It's related to white privilege, something we all have, if we are white, no matter how poor, how hard we had or have it, where we are from, or where we are going. It's just a fact in America that if you are white-- you have a kind of privilege you didn't earn.


Check this out: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack


I had white privilege when I was that ten-year old in my weird shoes and floods, because I wasn't going to be profiled by a racist power structure-- police in the street, teachers, store owners, doctors, Principals-- few of them saw me as a physical threat, followed me around stores, thinking I was going to steal because of how I looked; they didn't assume I was engaging in risky behavior if I wore a hoodie-- they thought I was most likely like their daughter at home. Because I was white.


So what is this thing I am calling whiteness?


Consider Calgary Anti-Racist Education's collection of definitions for it: Understanding Whiteness


Here is an article I like. Check it out, written by Nell Irvin Painter, who is the professor emerita of history at Princeton University. Professor Painter wrote the book, "The History of White People." What Is Whiteness?


Criminally, oppression against our Black brothers and sisters did not end with slavery, or with the Civil Rights movement. It is really important to feel the weight of history when you try to appreciate someone else's experience. For a great introduction to historical injustices suffered by Black people, read Ta-Nehesi Coates' ground breaking essay from The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." This is a long and kind of difficult piece, but it is worth every word.


Ta-Nehesi Coates is an incredibly important writer for you to read right now. To better understand why some people, not just myself, react to Trump's name alone as a symbol of whiteness, read this: The First White President. It is worth it to find and read a lot of what Coates writes. 


The following articles will give you background on how Trump's name is being used as a threat in schools nationwide: In Some High School Gyms, Trump's Name is a Taunt and this: Bullies Have a New Intimidation Tactic on Campus: The Name "Trump"

I think it is important to read a LOT of fiction from the perspectives of people who do not look like you, or have the same background as you. At Perry, we have a Student-Staff Book Club. Start your own. Challenge your parents, your teachers, your favorite aunt and uncle, to read with you. Here are some great books:


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds
Black Lives Matter by Sue Bradford Edwards
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

This might seems obnoxious to you; some lady from far away, who you don't know, finding something you did or didn't directly do really wrong, then lecturing you about it in a blog, and worse, presuming to give you homework and reading. Like I'm some race expert, right? Like I'm some enlightened being who knows so much about how to be "woke."


I don't. All I know is that I love my students. I am pretty sure that if I knew you well, and if you were my kids, I'd love you, too. That's what teachers do. And the best way I can love you-- from afar-- is to challenge you to be whom I- and who your teachers, administrators, school district, parents, community, and country need you to be-- people who read widely, think broadly, unlearn and relearn ideas, and try on new ways of being in this world. So-- pick up a book, read two or three of these books and/or articles, and write me a long comment about what you think about them. I'll write you back if you promise to truly think about what you read. Let's learn from each other. 


Love, Ms. May

More Book lists:

Oakland Public Library Blog
Black Lives Matter: A Reading List
Book Riot Black Lives Matter Book Video List












Thursday, August 31, 2017

Queering the Ceramics Curriculum

Every year, the Ceramics teacher does a relief-tile project with students. Kids look at the work of a famous artist, choose an image they like, and build a tile with the image in relief.

The Ceramics teacher came in to the Library today, looking for books with color reproductions of art works to take to her Ceramics studio for the project. When I was researching LGBTQIA people of color to help teach about the Day of Silence last year, I came across the artist Kehinde Wiley. I love when Wiley reimagines classical works of art, centering people of color.

When I look at a Wiley, I feel as gorgeously love-drunk as a bee afloat in a jar of honey. Afloat, and free of the material world, and in a zone where color and shapes and design reign. It is delicious. Check him out:



The Ceramics teacher listened to me kvell about Wiley, and flipped through the giant coffee-table book I was able to buy for Perry's Library. She snatched it up, as well as a big book on Banksy's work, also new to the Library, and took them up to her class to introduce to her students.

 So now, kids will have the opportunity to learn about two living artists, one of them a gay Black man who plays with ancient artistic themes and modern African-American culture, the other a mysterious entity who challenges political and cultural norms.

#SchoolLibrariesMatter
#QueerTheCurriculum
#WeNeedDiverseBooks

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Speak the G-D Truth


Do you remember what it was like to be in high school? I kind of do. Fucking Vietnam. Take that hill with no bullets, Private. Don't tell me you don't have what you need. Go.

Yeah, that's pretty much what it's like. Fuck you if you think I'm exaggerating. I'm there every day. We send our kids into situations we couldn't control and hopefully don't face now, as adults. Being in the same school as a neighborhood you're warring with. Knowing you're going to get jumped. Being isolated, feeling so lonely and alone. Having nobody to sit with at lunch. Having no friends. Having the wrong friends. Being terrible at sports. Being gay and being tortured constantly. Not being gay and everyone thinking you're gay. Not knowing if you're gay. Being weak. Being poor and having terrible clothes. Being homeless. Not having soap, or deodorant. Coming to school after your Dad beat the shit out of your Mom and then out of you. Being raped by your uncle-- then having to come to school. No running water or electricty at your house. Not understanding what is going on in class and feeling unhelpable. Not understanding why the kid next to you acts so loud and wild. None of these problems apply to you? They apply to your classmates, and nobody is helping you understand how to be in relation to your classmates. Not your teachers, not your parents, and not the curriculum.

If we can't avoid this as adults, we do the best we can to deal with it. We send our kids into that situation at school, hoping for the best. We try to manage if we are teachers, and many of us are trying our damn well best. Some of us love our kids.

It's not like I'm only speaking of inner city high schools. Don't kid yourselves, private school parents, suburban parents. Ha! Where do the school shootings happen? Not in inner city schools. Where are the best drugs found? Sure as hell not in Black inner city schools. Some private and suburban parents just blind yourselves to that stuff. You think you've bought your way to safety. You just pretend your way out of the menace, while your kids shoot heroin and steal your Xanax.

Why am I writing this? I'm not trying to terrify or enrage anyone, or worse, jeer at anybody. I'm leading up to this--high school is not always safe, physically or emotionally for kids. It's a jungle, whether your kids have 400 kids in their marching band and win awards for their big-budget musical, or whether Principals threaten children's lives and retain their jobs, like the Woodland Hills case.

I asked my nephew if his friends at his suburban school were watching the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. It is about a girl who kills herself, leaving 13 tapes behind to the 13 people who contributed to her death. My brother said he would never watch something like that-- I told him he should--rape culture, rape, suicide-- all real issues covered in the show were things to talk about with his kids.

If we can't talk about rape, rape culture and suicide in the suburbs, we damn well start. And we damn well better start talking about violence in schools, too. In his ninth grade year, my son went to arguably the most academically well regarded high school in Pittsburgh. That year he told me about the most disturbing and horrible fight he ever saw, in which a kid pounded another kid's head against the pavement over and over and over.

I walked up to check on a colleague after a fight last week, past blood on two flights of stairs. There stood a maintanence man with a mop, erasing the pools of blood that drove those rivers down the stairs. I pushed through groups of kids, excitedly watching and rewatching the fight which has been shot from every angle by their peers on phones.

If you are a parent reading this, or a person who would use my words to prove how public schools are "failing," violent and to be avoided, hear this: suburban and private schools may or may not have violent fights such as this. But as a person who has worked in both suburban and private schools, there are problems that are terrible there, too.

 In private schools, rich parents can set policy to protect themselves, not children. This results in wholesale violations in special education law, grade inflation, the richest kids being able to bully/miss school/etc. without consequences. You may think this wouldn't happen to your child, or be your child. What if it does? And if you think it can't be true: why wouldn't this be true when the school answers to parents, not the state?

Suburban parents may think they have purchased themselves the distance and the resources to have opted out of the problems that beset the inner city. But white privilege is it's own problem. And uber competiveness to get into the Ivies and other prestigious schools, combined with a relative curricular disinterest in social justice and diversity keep suburban kids from a full and rich understanding of the true and real world.

There is an answer. We belong together. All of our resources, human, material, financial-- we belong together. Building moats around ourselves, our resources, our humanity, disucssions about the truths we live-- this is stupid. The truth is the truth. Let's open it up, bring it out and just freaking talk about it. Nobody is better than anybody else. Black inner city kids and adults have resources nobody else has. So do others. We should stop being afraid to speak the truth.

What does that look like explicitly? Public school does a good job of bringing people together. It has FAILED to teach people directly how to DO diversity. We need to teach directly how to live in a diverse classroom and school community. We need to acknowledge explicity how to live in a "beloved community" where we are trained to see some of us have gifts of lived wealth, some of us have gifts of artistic wealth, etc. If we see each other in term of our strengths, not our deficits, we may learn to live together better.

We need to teach diverse curricula. We must teach about LGBT people, Latinix, and all the missing parts of humanity in our curriucula: not just because we got sued by somebody, but because elevating the stories and contributions of the world create and recreate our humanity.

We need to teach about all the issues kids are facing-- rape, rape culture, racism-- let's drive the elevator up Bloom's Taxonomy to Critical Consciousness. If we want our kids to be SAFE-- we must arm them with the ability to THINK.

And EVERY Pittsburgh Public School, IMO, needs to be trained in Trauma Informed Practises. IMMEDIATELY. Because all of us, teachers and students, are traumatized, over and over again, by the violence we see and terrors we hear and know of.

And by the way, DAMN, largely white, rich capitalist pigs need to stop offshoring what should be tax dollars and pay into a democratic society so our country stops circling the drain. But that's for another blog post.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Perry High School's in-school Food Pantry: By Kids, For Kids. By K.



Ten of Pittsburgh Perry’s student body are in the beginning stages of something truly great and inspirational.  We are creating a food pantry within our school. We began a committee to create a food pantry when we realized there are a lot of students who are going hungry at home. For example, we know of a family with twelve members and eight children who gets less than $200 in food stamps a month. Families every day are struggling to get by, even on public assistance. When students don't eat they tend to be very angry and irritable and this causes a lot of fights at school.


Some of us get the backpack program. Your parents have to sign up for the backpack program, which allows you to take home blue plastic Giant Eagle bags with non-perishable food in them on the weekends. The problem with the backpack program is that  those bags are not enough to satisfy the hunger of a growing teen,  let alone them and their family. So, two of our ten food pantry members met with the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, the head of Oliver High School's Backpack Program and Mary Shull, a community activist,  to see how we could work together to get our program off the ground. We discussed why we wanted to have a food pantry within our school. We showed them our plans up to that point, which included giving students choices about what kinds food they wanted to have in Perry’s food bank. We think if you have more of a choice between foods,  it won’t be a waste. We showed the Food Pantry people the space Mr. Cooper has designated for us.


The Greater Pittsburgh Food Pantry told us they are willing to work with us, and would give us a list of foods and hygiene products they could possibly provide for us.


Since then, with they help of Mary Shull, we created a survey for the student body to take. The survey lists what the Perry Food Pantry might be able to supply, and allows students to choose what they want in the pantry. When students take the survey, it will help us determine both how many kids might use the Perry Food bank and what items they want.


If the students come to our student-run food pantry, they will be more comfortable because it is not random people there judging them nor is it the staff there, it is their peers that are there. Our 10- members are very respectable and trustworthy. This is something small that could turn into something nation wide all we need is faith and a little help. -K.
Please support our GoFundMe campaign, which will allow us to purchase items we need for our Food Pantry. Thank you! Go Fund Me: Perry's Food Pantry Campaign

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Starving Students: and how we might respond



My friend told me her 7th-grade daughter just passed the Algebra Keystone our 10th graders at Perry keep failing. She was morose about it, because she teaches at Perry, and she gets beat over the head with A+ Schools' "Report to the Community" every year, and the PowerPoint presentations at every faculty and Parent-Community meeting. The data, the data, the data, the data that says our kids are underperforming on math and reading, math and reading, not to mention their dismal Biology Keystones, and God only knows, when the folks at the PDE come out with a standardized test for Social Studies and Home Ec and PE and everything else but what our kids are doing great at: surviving, and being every kind of beautiful in a world bent on destroying them. 

It's not just hyperbole. Our city may be the "most livable" for some, but it has one of the highest levels of Black poverty, our schools are some of the most segregated, our state offers zero aid to homeless children, and our public schools are made to do more with less, and less, and less and less. While white, suburban, socio-economically segregated schools roll and drip with cutting-edge technology and professional-grade scoreboards with video screens and marching bands 400-kids deep, replete with a glistening fleet of trucks to haul the brand-new instruments they play. 

In our school, children arrive so hungry that they ask teachers for food. They sleep in class. After long weekends in homes without food, or with food insecurity, they return to class angry, they can't pay attention, they have stomach and headaches, their chronic illnesses are flaring or are in crisis. We have not had a full time school nurse in many months, and so finding a nurse in her office to help is catch-as-catch-can. If we had a doctor on site, her prescription would be food, healthy food, a steady stream of it, and lots of it, as needed. 

Since we don't have a doctor on site, Perry students have decided to come to their own rescue, and this is how: they are working on a plan to develop an in-school Food Pantry. Working with community activist Mary Shull, and Oliver City-Wide teacher Holly Sousa, an 11-student Perry committee will soon meet with the Pittsburgh Food Bank. The idea is to have students create, manage and run a Food Pantry inside Perry in co-operation with local funders and resources that will serve their peers. Agency, choice, voice, some kind of food security, a reason to come to school beyond learning: to serve others. To make a difference in the lives of your peers. To help yourself, to learn how to run an "agency" in your school that might just calm your school. That might just heal your school. That might provide a measure of peace, for you and for your friends, and your not-friends. Food heals. It literally and figuratively nourishes a body, in this case a student body. There is nothing Perry students can't do. Watch this space to learn how you might support their effort. Love.





Saturday, October 15, 2016

Love Song to My Students



"When my Dad sees this," C said, holding his first report card, "I'm going to be the new IronMan." 
"How?" I said.
"Imma have a hole punched right through my chest."

I howled. He laughed, too, but it clearly wasn't that funny to him. He was the one, after all, who had to go home to face his Dad with bad grades.

C. is one of my favorites. Last year, when he was a tall, skinny freshman, he performed at City of Asylum with my film students and the music kids. He sang Am I Wrong by Nico & Vinz in a wide-brimmed black felt hat, with a three-foot red pheasant feather hanging out of the back. The kid can sing, beautifully, one thin wrist raised high, imploring-- "AM I WRONG???"-- and he moonwalked all over the stage, bumping the pretty girls, upperclassmen, who were his backup singers. Poor C. Even during his glory moment-- during his actual moment in the spotlight-- he was annoying girls. 

M. joined the Gay-Straight Alliance this year, but not easily. I turned him away. I actually threw him out, several times, thinking he was joking, or being a jerk, or just wanted to chow on the pizza I order every week for the club I sponsor for our school. He kept coming back, asking to join, refusing to touch the pizza. I let him in. He's made some crazy suggestions-- let's raise money for the GSA by having a Powder Puff football game!-- but when somebody talks about being harassed for being LGBT, or different, or weak, or whatever-- M.'s eyes go cold. He is as hurt and angry as the rest of us.

We designed Little Free Libraries last year for the neighborhoods on the North Side, and M.'s was stunning. This big kid, for whom football is vitally important, spent hour after hour painstakingly drawing-- freehand-- the Roberto Clemente and Andy Warhol bridges, and then painting them in exquisite detail, each plate girder and eye-bar in place.

I'm a morning person. Every day, I stand in the hall at Perry with Library passes, greeting kids as they walk in. I am there, inevitably in a dress, wearing a crazy, bright shiny necklace (it's kind of my thing) doing a stand-up routine like a caffeinated Effie Trinket.  I don't know where it comes from, but as kids walk in, I have to bleat like a sheep at them. There's a kid whose name sounds like part of a Hebrew prayer. So I sing the prayer to her. Every day. I tell kids they look good. I tell them it's good to see them. I say Yo a lot. I say Hello, Perrrryyyyyyyy! If they are wearing blue I congratulate them on wearing the school color. I don't know. Having an excess of personality in the morning is definitely a character flaw, and I'm not working on it. It's loud. It's obnoxious. I can't help it at all. 

A. walks in everyday in a Star-Wars hoodie, bleary eyed. She gets her breakfast from the cafeteria, then stands in the doorway where I stand and observes the May-Stein show, perhaps as a way to wake up. It's unclear. But every day, she's there, and she won't share her breakfast with me, which is definitely uncool. 

A. is as stalwart, hardworking, and trustworthy a person I think I've ever met, and she's not even a senior in high school yet. She worked for two weeks straight to make a power point to explain the differences between genderfluid and intersex, asexual and ally, transgender and bisexual: these terms and others the GSA needs to master in order to teach teachers and students at our school. 

Every day she breaks minor rules all other students are made to follow at Perry because she simply can. Why? Because she's the kind of kid who does everything right, who teachers trust implicitly, and who can get away with it because she deserves it. A. captains the sports teams she plays, gets good grades, is a great student leader, and basically is the President of the GSA. Here's what makes me worry: when, oh when, is A. going to cut loose? I worry: am I doing enough to help her know that she doesn't have to be perfect? Does she know that she doesn't have to be perfect for me? That even though I do count on her-- she doesn't have to be the one everybody counts on all the time? That she can figure things out, too? That she's allowed to be wild and crazy? To make mistakes? Be a goofball? 

When school started, I told myself I was going to make a note of every time something beautiful or funny or good or lovely happened-- a time a child revealed their vulnerability, or their goodness, or their gifts, so that I could hold on to how much beauty is part of my daily life and chosen field. But I have given that up. There's too much. I'm inundated with beauty, where I work. My kids shoot me through with it, all the time, just breathing the same air. They fill me up. 

So when I read the article about the folks in Bethel Park who showed their hatred of kids like mine, I felt sad for them, especially since their acts are getting national coverage. Their ignorance and shame stand before the world now as another example of what happens when Americans willingly segregate ourselves from each other. 

When I go to work, I see the enormous privilege I have because I work in an urban inner city school. Suburban school districts may have purchased themselves an illusion of socioeconomic uniformity and privilege, but in doing so, they won't know C.'s ability to draw. His humor. How he sings, and dances, his world-class wit. If they ever see an athletic young Black man like M., they'll never assume he is capable of intense sensitivity, or know his mammoth talent, acting ability, or how multi-faceted he is. They won't know he pushed his way into a club to protect his vulnerable classmates. Bethel residents may not be able to imagine that a student like A. is teaching an inner-city staff and student body about LGBTQIA diversity and needs, but she is. 

A love song to my students. You give me life. I'm so grateful to you, and to each one I didn't name. You know who you are. I love you. You know I mean it. Ms. May.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/10/13/crowd-shouts-racial-slurs-at-all-black-youth-football-team-when-some-players-kneel-during-anthem-coach-says/


http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/real-time/Racial-slurs-heard-when-youth-football-team-takes-a-knee.html




Wednesday, June 29, 2016

PA Budget Cuts have UNMADE Education: and our Voices must REMAKE it


The Reel Teens: Pittsburgh Episode 3 from Steeltown Entertainment Project on Vimeo.


As an eighth grader at Reizenstein Middle School, I had an art teacher who gave me the coolest assignment ever. She handed out drafting paper, a nice, sharp charcoal pencil, an artist's eraser, enormous pieces of thin cardboard, the kind of rubber cement with the brush on the lid, and actual Exacto blades-- with extra blades when yours got lost, or dull. Can you imagine that kind of trust now?? Anyway! Our assignment was to imagine, then plan out and draw our dream home. The next step was to BUILD it, based on our plans. Mine had a conservatory, a library, a Scarlett O'Hara staircase, and three floors. It looked like a bad wedding cake, listing heavily to one side, and it won no beauty contests. Who CARED? The fun, the process- the swoosh of the glue from that awesome, fat brush, struggling through the cardboard with the blades, trying for a clean edge-- the process, it was the process that was so. much. fun. 

I'll never forget that project, although what the clear details of the class, the teacher, the grade I got on the project are? Long forgotten. It only occurs to me now, as an educator, that the art teacher had collapsed boundaries between art, math, technology, and engineering in that assignment, and all I knew as a kid was that I wasn't going to miss that class-- ever. And my best friend from the time, Jami Rosen, can tell you that she and I missed classes on occasion to do crazy things-- like.... well, never mind. 


Anyway--- again! Hands on learning-- that's the kind of stuff that brings kids to school. I had a kid in my Film class this past year who only showed up on Tuesdays and Thursdays because those were the days the teaching artists from Steeltown came to class. On those days, she was going on field trips to interview people on the North Side, eating food she hadn't tried before, learning about RandyLand, the Mattress Factory, the Warhol, City of Asylum, Manchester Craftsmans Guild-- and filming it all herself with professional equipment. Her other teachers were so angry at the situation that they talked to me about it, and asked for help, which I tried to give. But I understood. Because when kids are excited about doing things with their minds/hands/hearts all at once, it is hard not to identify with them.


My film class was featured in The Reel Teens Pittsburgh, which stars one of the former students of the Film class, Hazell Azzer. The third episode of the show focuses on ReMake Learning, which is the brainchild of Gregg Behr, the Chairman of the Grable Foundation.


ReMake seeks to put an emphasis on hands on, student-driven learning like I did at Reizenstein, like the kids of Reel Teens do, like the Film class does. Some of the other hands-on learning that happens at Perry High School is also featured in this wonderful television show, created by kids from across the city and produced by my partner for Perry's Film class, Steeltown Entertainment Project. 


As you saw if you watched the episode (and you should) ReMake is a big deal in Pittsburgh.  A representative from the White House came to congratulate the effort, Gregg Behr was honored by the President for his leadership, and millions of dollars have been pledged to help bring STEAM and project-based learning to schools and out-of-school providers across the region. And all of that is a huge boon to our area, and I am so glad, and grateful. But there is one elephant in the room, and I need to talk about it, with the hope that all of us ReMakers can work together now in this time of real educational crisis. 


Reizenstein had a great woodshop, possibly a metal shop (I did't go in there, so I don't know for sure), an enormous swimming pool, a gigantic library, a drama department (I was in Babes in Arms with THEE BILLY PORTER!!) What's my point? Bear with me for a minute more.


Connelly trained high school kids in machinery, welding, HVAC, carpentry. South Vo-Tech fought closure to add a vocational-technical training program to their school in the 80's. Home Economics. Computer Class. Keyboarding. Art. Musical Instruments. Music. Ceramics. How many of these classes are STEAM skills, and cut to the bone, or non-existent in Pittsburgh Public Schools, because we don't have any money to fund them? Perry used to offer jewelry class in a fully equipped metal shop, with the ability to weld. We have a greenhouse in disrepair that is not functional (but could be.) We used to have a woodshop, but it is not used any more. 


How many other Pittsburgh Public schools have un- and under-utilized spaces for the kinds of learning that are now offered by Tech Shop, the Children's Museum, the Carnegie Libraries, the Science Center, et al? This is not to say that the immaculate Maker Spaces in those facilities shouldn't exist-- they should, and they are doing beautiful work. But here's the elephant in the room: not everybody has transportation, admission fees, and/or an adult to accompany them to out-of-school facilities. 


I understand that one of the purposes of ReMake Learning is to provide some of the enrichment that suburban and private school kids get outside of school inside of school. That won't happen until the brick-and-mortar investments in our public schools are made (and remade.) It is lovely that the Manchester Academic Charter School has been given residence in the Children's Museum, but to my knowledge, no traditional public school was offered this opportunity. Until public schools are actually given the chance to co-locate inside world-class (and partially publicly funded) museums with Maker Spaces inside of them, we'll have to go begging to make or remake our own facilities, inside our own walls. Or, preferably, our constitutionally guaranteed right to a "thorough and efficient" education will be safeguarded by Pennsylvanians who care about kids.


As a group of educators, innovators, philanthropists, community leaders, and stakeholders, we have to work together not only to restore funding for pubic schools, but to ensure there is a fair funding formula. According to the Education Law Center, "Pennsylvania is one of only three states that creates a budget without using a statewide education funding formula. As a result, the quality of a child's education often depends on their zip code. High-poverty public schools in Pennsylvania spend an annual average of $3000 less per student compared to wealthy schools, adding up to a funding gap of $75,000 in a classroom of 25 students." 


Governor Wolf and the House have proposed a state budget that would almost restore education funding to the pre-2011 level, before Governor Corbett made $1Billion in cuts that decimated our schools. We have to call our state legislators, have lunch with them if we have that kind of access, lean on them, and say that school funding in our state is not a political football, but a first priority. While state Republicans have unmade Pennsylvania education budgets, it is incumbent upon us all to REMAKE it, and remake it in the way it should look for all children. Please ask the Senate to pass the budget our Governor and House have proposed. Because we stand united in the belief that they all deserve it, equally. 


How Gov. Wolf's Proposed Budget Affects Your School

http://www.elc-pa.org/fighting-for-fair-school-funding/

How Governor Wolf's Fair Funding Formula Will Work

For-70-years-Connelley-school-did-A-work


Pittsburghers protest school closings


http://remakelearning.org


Although Corbett has been voted out, his disastrous educational policies have not. Read this excellent blog post by my friend Jessie Ramey to learn more about why we're in the place we are in in our state, and how to talk to your state legislator about change: /top-10-education-reasons-to-vote-corbett-out/













Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Jewish and Confused



It is a confusing time to be a Jew in Pittsburgh. It is an election year, and a year in which more and more parts of Pittsburgh are "transforming," I have lived here all of my adult life. I am blessed to know Jewish people from all walks of life, rich, poor, urban, suburban, unpolitical, left, right, center, Marxist, and Tea Party Republican. I have been a member of two Reform congregations, worked in a Conservative Day School, have a cousin who is an ordained Hebrew Priestess, more than one who grew up Orthodox, and I myself converted. It is a lovely swirl of viewpoints, but a swirl.

Add social media, where voices intrude at all times of day and night if you let them-- boiling with election madness, with people talking about gentrification, with my own thoughts-- OY! So much to think about and so much to hear.


And as we know, there is a season for everything. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. I would like to frame this as an open letter to my community, in a way, because I am so confused right now about what it means to be a Jew, both in America and in Pittsburgh. Things are happening close to home and in our country that seem so upside down that I feel as if I am living inside Chagall's shtetl paintings. When Louis Farrakkan "likes what he sees" when he hears Trump, because "Trump isn't taking Jewish money" in his election, (Farrakhan) and my Jewish friends say they'll vote for Trump if they have to-- you can see why I feel so fershimmiled that writing to you and to the world and to the cold, dark, remote bright stars seems like a good option.




So many voices are speaking in an election year, in a year in which we must transition from the now-known era of the first Black President and the rise of a new kind of opposing Republican party.


What may have started with turning Southerners against the Democratic party during the Civil Rights movement has become something else in 2016-- in fact, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have argued, perhaps what we are witnessing now is the unfought and unwon parts of the Civil War. When we are still arguing whether or not to fly the rebel flag of the Confederacy over state buildings, the point sort of makes itself.


In fact, the 2016 Republican party is perhaps not what is new, but what is newly allowed to be out in the light. And for that, maybe we have Trump and Cruz to thank, as well as our first Black President, who together have blown open a festering dark place in America's soul. This election cycle gives voice to it.



Of course the voices given the most time and volume are those Republican voices like Cruz's and Trump's, the current Republican front runners for President. 

Cruz proudly is endorsed by Mike Bickle, an evangelical pastor who preaches that Hitler was sent by God to be a hunter of Jews because they wouldn't convert to Christianity. See him preaching here: Mike Bickle Preaching Hunters to Kill Jews 

Cruz believes America is a singular Christian nation, and he will strive to keep and make it that way. He is anti-gay, anti-women's rights, and plans to eliminate the IRS, and the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development.

Trump is openly supported by the KKK and other hate groups, an endorsement he has refused to repudiate. Trump cannily plays on the anti-immigrant, anti-Brown people (for lack of a more specific term) undercurrent and enthusiastically encourages supporters to mistreat opposition voices at his rallies, which do not bring visions of Brown Shirts to my mind alone. 





Both Trump and Cruz are proudly supported by many Jewish people, which to me makes about as much sense as a chicken who wants a fox in charge of the hen house. Which of course-- exposes a big conundrum. When I look at my Tea Party or right-wing Jewish friends' Facebook or Twitter feeds, I see mostly pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian, anti-terror posts. 
Increasingly, some of their posts say things like, "anybody but the Socialist." Huh? Because National Socialism and Democratic Socialism have anything in common? 


These are people whom I respect, who are smart, kind, good people making statements on social media about how they will vote for Trump or Cruz over the first viable Jewish candidate for President the United States has ever run. Bernie Sanders has spoken for 35 years about things like health care for all. A living wage. Choice. Respect for immigrants and "other." His platform could have been written by Emma Lazarus herself, the young Jewish immigrant who gave voice to the identity of the American ideal.


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"



Forgotten are those words now, apparently, by American Jewish supporters of Cruz and Trump, some of them children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims who may have survived had they been welcomed to our "golden door." Those folks are slathering over themselves to write checks, or holding their noses while they write checks, whichever it is-- for surely, checks are being written by Jewish hands-- to build giant walls to keep out new generations of wretched masses in the name of the same "security" that kept out forefathers and mothers.

I hear those Jewish voices who support Trump and Cruz. I read their words in the news and I wonder about those I know. And I think about those Jewish people I know or know of in my own city who own successful businesses or whose children I have known or taught, and the choices they are making in different ways here. Not choices about for whom they will vote necessarily, but political choices nonetheless. Their voices and their choices puzzle me too, and confuse me and concern me. To be a Jew is never to feel alone, at least not in my experience. The community is always a part of me, and I feel part of it. But that was not always true.


The first time I met a Jewish person I was aware of as a Jewish person was at Reizenstein Middle School. I was put into advanced classes by kind teachers, and with me in those classes were a few quiet and very reserved African-American kids, most of Squirrel Hill's kids, and me, white trash from Highland Park. We were let out for recess on a giant green space, most sadistically before lunch, across from a Nabisco factory that scented the air with chocolate chip cookies. Today that Nabisco factory has been turned into Bakery Square, the home of Google Pittsburgh and many high-end retail stores and restaurants. Reizenstein and the glorious green space that surrounded it was purchased for a song from the Pittsburgh Public Schools for an unknown reason, and was promptly torn to the ground.


As everyone in Pittsburgh knows, the advent of the Google age in Pittsburgh has been loud. "Transforming" is one verb that has been used, but the word "gentrification" is louder among the voices I hear most often. Googlers have come, and they have needed places to live. So Walnut Capital and other companies have built new housing. One of my students at Perry actually asked me if the special skywalk that bridges Google Pittsburgh to the new building going up on ashes of Reizenstein is so "Google people" won't have to see Black people." Micro-apartments, that is, one-bedrooms of 510 square feet costing $1340-$1600 per month are available in this new development.




Of course all of this is nestled into and surrounded by Homewood, where I did my student teaching. Where this happened. Where this is. Where in 2006, the infant mortality rate was 40.7%, while Pittsburgh's as a whole was 9.6%. (Allegheny Dpt. Human Srvcs) So what, right? Businesses coming to poor neighborhoods can bring everybody up, right? Pointing a finger at one specific business or at several is nonsensical, right?


Is it? Last week a glamorous party was held at Bakery Square, a fund raiser for a non-profit with the laudable goal of raising funds for communities hard-hit by natural disasters. At the party, one party-planner "took partygoers on a decadent journey with a nod to Versailles. Green balloons floated on the ceiling, glittering bonbons were nibbled as the “Queen” and “King” of Versailles picked lucky guests out of the crowd for delicious chocolate treats that the Queen, herself, poured chocolate sauce over as a finishing touch." (P-G


If it raises funds for poor communities, who cares who pours chocolate on what, you might ask, but you'd be lame to ask, and you'd know it, because that juxtaposition stinks. The geopolitical reality of dying infants and reenactments of Marie Antoinette within the same neighborhood, if you are aware and alive to it, is too gruesome and too much. 


Bakery Square is 2 miles from Wilkinsburg High School, which is closing and sending its entire student body, along with all of its middle school kids, to Westinghouse next year, a Pittsburgh Public school 1.3 miles away. Wilkinsburg (nicknamed "We'll Kill Yinz Burg" because of neighborhood violence) can't afford to educate its own children, you know....2 miles away from Google. But-- uplift. Great things. Progress. The recipient of the fund raiser at Bakery Square? New Orleans.


Bakery Square, Google, East Liberty, the fundraiser-- not all the work of Jewish people and/or Jewish business, of course. However, some major players there were-- and because this is my place to think out loud, and to wonder what it means to be a person and a Jew-- I have to say-- what the hell is going on? 


Moving a little further into East Liberty, or as some developer tried unsuccessfully to rebrand it, "East Side,"--How can the owners of Pennley Park South give their impoverished, sometimes handicapped and elderly residents $1600, 90 days and "get thee out so," so their home can be "redeveloped to residential and retail space?" Even worse--how can our city give these owners 2.2 acres of publicly owned land as a bribe to even do this much for the owners, thereby privatizing park land that previously belonged to all Pittsburghers? See: Pennley Park South 


I hereby claim the right as a Jewish resident of this city to call out fellow Jews I've never met on this bullshittery. Throwing the old and the weak out into the street for profit? For profitable bribes? When do "Torah" and "business" intersect? 


If you tell me they don't, you have your answer as to why the world sucks. And how in the world can we Jewish people act astonished when African-Americans have some historical anger at us? How can we continue to self-righteously point at pictures of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King? It's been a long road since those days-- and perhaps no road longer than here in the 'burgh.


Can we stop looking to vote for somebody who would be the one to protect us from our worst fears, and start looking to vote for somebody who would be our partner in making the world less to be afraid of? Can we start talking to our friends, even knowing what could be lost, when they make choices we think are weird or wrong? How is possible to get closer to living our values?


Maybe trying to be an upstander--taking those risks-- is the price of being a Jewish person in a small town in an election year during what feels like the Civil War. Maybe in writing all of this---that person could be me. 


why-in-the-world-would-american-jews-support-trump/


jews-for-trump-maybe


For an alternative viewpoint of Jewish person writing in support of Bernie Sanders for President, see David Harris Gershon's excellent Daily Kos article: The-First-Jewish-President


For a tremendously impactful look at gentrifiation, see: wilkinsburg-the-side-of-americas-most-livable-city-pittsburgh-doesnt-want-you-to-see/



We can't fix economic inequality without addressing racism.

Posted by Demos on Saturday, March 12, 2016