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:

  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.


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.