The Truth of Who I Am

"Only the truth of who you are, if realized, will set you free." -Eckhart Tolle

Cute Little Black Boy

Some days I forget that I am raising a Black boy. Some days I erase my knowledge of the world around me and get in my bubble and live the day as if it doesn’t matter what race is attributed to my son and that who he is and what he is capable of and responsible for and expected to be is solely based on the truth of who he is. Some days I parent him as if his chances of living up to his highest potential are the same as any other boy’s chances.

I did not experience the world the way my son is experiencing the world. I did not expect to be raising a Black boy. And in this country. Thus, I did not prepare myself for it. I did not ask questions to try to understand. I did not listen intently to experiences that were shared with me. I didn’t seek out books about Black boys and Black men in the United States.

But here I am, as on most days, carrying this weight of knowing that my son is a Black boy in the United States. I understand this weight is only a tiny fraction of the weight he will carry. And Tamir Rice is on my mind.

In an ideal, truthful world, my son would not be any race. He would not be any race because race is not anything – it’s not genetic nor biological nor anything at all other than a social construction. Something we made up and agreed to and live by as if it’s something real.

In a slightly less than ideal world, my son would be multiracial (I’m Indian and his Daddy is Black). He would be seen as multiracial because everyone would acknowledge the deep influence of each of his parents’ ancestry, culture and experiences.

In the far from ideal world we live in, my son is Black. He’s Black because the influence of the one-drop rule STILL legitimizes race as biological. His Indian ancestry and the influence of his mother having been born and growing up in Tanzania and Zambia is often overlooked unless I am around to state it.

Call it serendipity, but well before I even dreamed about the funny, loving, witty and loyal man that I married, I became aware of and was disturbed by my experiences as a teacher and what I became conscious of concerning Black boys. I had no idea, at the time, how personal this would all become for me.

This…

“That little Brandon is just so cute, I could eat him up! Guess what he did today?!”

“Oh my gosh! Kevin said the funniest thing today. He is so cute, that boy!”

“I just loooove K.C! I can’t get enough of his cute little personality!”

I was in the teachers’ lunchroom and once again subjected to stories about another “cute little Black boy” told by a White middle class teacher. More often, the stories were told by my White, female colleagues talking about Black male students in their Kindergarten classes for whom they had developed a special affection. It was always the younger grades, never 3rd-5th grade cute little Black boys. The cuteness seemed to have disappeared by the time they got to those grades.

One teacher in particular, Belinda, regularly talked about a Kindergartner in her class, Ronnie, whom she thought, was “just the cutest little Black boy in the world.” It wasn’t unusual for her, like it was for several other teachers, to have had much contact with the child outside of school. Belinda had, on various occasions, invited Ronnie on a family outing to a basketball game, for lunch on a Sunday, the zoo on a Saturday and for various other activities. Always on Belinda’s turf. Never on Ronnie’s. I certainly could not imagine her going to Ronnie’s church on a Sunday or spending time in Ronnie’s home other than the time it took to pick him up to take him somewhere on her turf.

As comfortable as my colleague was with Ronnie, I was aware that outside of school, Belinda had practically no contact with other Black people – nor any other people of color for that matter. Her life was quite typical of many White, female teachers who lived in suburban areas that were a fair distance from the diverse (read NOT White), low-income schools in which they worked.

I was torn. On the one hand, it was pleasant to hear a teacher enjoying her student so much that she was compelled to tell stories about him to the rest of us. It should have been especially pleasant considering all the negativity associated with low-income, Black students, particularly Black, male students. But on the other hand, something about the frequency of these stories from the Kindergarten teachers did not sit well with me. I could not, at the time, articulate what is was, but something about their attachments to these particular individual students – cute, little, Black boys- and the general under performance of these students on standardized tests did not make sense to me. It would have made more sense that if White, female teachers so easily connected with and loved on little Black boys, then it would set them up to be successful in school from an early age. But the numbers did not show that to be true.

I often wondered how long Belinda would continue her relationship with Ronnie. At what point in the lives of these students, I wondered, did teachers’ perceptions of them change from “cute little Black boy” to “scary, criminal Black man?” At what point in Ronnie’s life, I wondered, would Belinda begin to see him as a Black man, and, therefore, one whose reputation is questionable according to society’s stereotypes? At what point would Belinda (or would she?) become fearful of Ronnie? Might there be a day when Belinda would find herself in an “urban” area and see, but not recognize a fully grown Ronnie, and clutch her purse a little tighter while crossing over to the other side of the street?

I wondered these things because Belinda is a not bad person with bad intentions or even someone I would label racist. Belinda was a likable, competent teacher. In fact, most teachers choose their profession because of their desire to do good and make a difference in kids’ lives.  I wondered the same of all the White, middle-class teachers, as well as teachers of color, who work with “cute little Black boys” while consciously or subconsciously carrying negative perceptions of Black men. What causes teachers, and possibly society as a whole, to perceive the child version of Black males as a separate or innately different being from the grown version of Black males? And what influence do these teacher perceptions have on Black boys as they grow into Black men?

In an activity I do with my college students who are pre- and in-service teachers, I ask them to list all the stereotypes they know about various groups such as “Asian woman,” “Latina,” “Gay,” “Lesbian,” “White man,” “Black man,” etc. Prior to generating the list, my students always want to clarify that I am looking for stereotypes they’ve heard of but to which they do not necessarily subscribe. We are sensitive to accusations about prejudice. After they have silently written their descriptors under the headings on chart paper, we have a discussion about where they first became aware of the stereotype, the source of the stereotype, how the stereotype is perpetuated in society.

The list under “Black Man” knocks the wind out of me. EVERY time. No matter that I am aware of the stereotypes. It hurts. It angers. It saddens. It worries. It perplexes.

Inevitably, among the list of stereotypes of Black men, are the following descriptors: thug, lazy, playa, athlete, unemployed, drug-addict, rap artist, bling-bling, well-endowed….you get the picture.

It’s not this:

IMG_1776

Nor this:

David 19

Nor this:

I could get carried away with opposite images I have…

On the flip side, the list for White man is usually more varied and includes: rich, can’t dance, hard-worker, good husband, privileged, provider, executive, regular guy, educated, etc. The world is far more open to different ways of being for White males. There are more options. More options that depend on the merit of the man.

It takes a lot out of me to see these lists. It’s become even more unbearable on the days I remember that my son is Black. I think of this list when I tune in to what people say and how they talk to and look at my son. I think of this list when I listen carefully to what teachers tell me about my son. I’m sensitive to hearing about my son’s behavior before I hear about his mind and his heart. I feel desperate and vulnerable because I don’t know what’s really happening in their subconscious. I don’t know if they see him as a child to be managed or as a child to be nurtured to his fullest, incredible potential.

I started writing this piece years ago and have sat on it and played with the words several times. But these last two days have had me thinking about Tamir Rice again. I was compelled to finish and share it.

We should talk about these things. We should ask questions and we should listen carefully to try to understand. We should take risks with our vulnerability and own our prejudice.

Black lives matter. Tamir Rice’s life matters. My son’s life matters. Yes, he’s a cute little Black boy. The cutest one I know. He’s also funny and witty and loving and generous and thoughtful in the most delightful ways.

017

Some days I forget my son is Black. Today, I’m thinking about Tamir Rice and remembering ever more seriously that my son is a Black boy.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

 

 

 

 

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Raising Kids or Raising Test Scores?

I was reminded just last night by a friend that I hadn’t posted a blog for a while. Well, as I sat down to write today, I came to the realization that it has been five months since I last posted something! This means it’s been that long since I wrote about truths in my life. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right to have set aside what I dream of for so long. My friend is a dreamkeeper.  Dreamkeepers are those special people who listen intently and eagerly to our dreams when we share them and store our dreams in their hearts and bring us closer to them every chance they get. I’m lucky to have a few of those in my life. We all need them, don’t we?

A wise woman described good teachers who work with students whose dreams are often overlooked or ignored by society as dreamkeepers. The good teachers of these students never once forget their students’ dreams, though, and at the center of their work is keeping those dreams safe and helping to fulfill them. The wise woman’s name is Gloria Ladson-Billings and she wrote a book about it. I highly recommend it for all teachers.

So much has been happening in the world in the last five months and, frankly, I’ve been feeling a little drained by the great space I am in as a teacher of teachers and the even greater space of the context of education. This is a scary time for education. So much is influencing education and education can influence so much. While I don’t want to step into the politics of education on my personal blog, I believe that all politics stem from what is personal to each of us. The question I keep asking myself is, “Are we raising children or raising test scores?” My sense, increasingly, is that we are losing sight of the true purpose of education.

Recently, I was in a clearly well-run classroom with a pleasant atmosphere  – the teacher was calm and respectful, the children seemed content and engaged and there was a sense of efficiency as everyone went about their business. Throughout the lesson I heard certain phrases that seemed foreign to my days as a teacher years (and years) ago. I heard things like “learning targets” and “objectives” and “goals” throughout the lesson. This was not merely the language of a lesson plan, but that of the teacher AND the students. It turns out all the kids knew their group and individual learning targets for every lesson and activity.

For a moment I thought, “Huh. How efficient.” I mean, each child knew what they were supposed to be learning. The teacher and each child could focus on this target and know at the end of the 30-45 minute segment of time whether or not and how well they had achieved their learning target. I could certainly see how all this efficiency would contribute to higher test scores. After all, the learning targets were the ones that would be assessed during the standardized test. For a moment, I questioned how I could have ever thought that I was an effective teacher in my past when this had never been part of my practice. I doubted my ability to even support the student teacher I had come to visit. What did I have to offer that could complement or improve what was happening in the room?

And then I heard a resounding scream in my gut and a WTH just inside my mouth.  I also felt overcome by an immense sadness at the thought of what we’re doing to our children on a larger scale. Again I heard the question in my mind, ‘Are we raising kids or raising test scores?” Have we forgotten that schools are filled with children? Children are new to the world and are learning about the world and how to be in it well. School for them is just a part of their human experience. They are simply having a human experience. That’s sacred. We have to preserve the sacredness of their human experiences! I wondered what happened to the kind of school experience in which a few kids might have a good idea and in the moment the teacher could help them run with the good idea? How could that be possible when there was a learning target specific to a content area for each minute of the day? What if a child came in from having greeted his new baby brother during the night? Was there room in that case for reading some books about being a big brother and for everyone to write notes of advice and congrats to the new big brother? Or would the teacher have to quickly check to see if there was a learning target for such an activity? And how about if two new Syrian students entered a classroom having just arrived in the neighborhood two days earlier. Could the teacher then take some time to help the students learn how to welcome and care for and understand what it might feel like to be in the shoes of the new classmates? Or is knowledge about the Syrian crisis a learning target for later in the school year, or most likely, NOT a learning target?

I’m worried about the state of schools and what surrounds schooling in this country. I teach teachers and I believe and uphold the value of good teachers. I consider it an honor to work alongside teachers on their journey into teaching. And I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to hear about the daily little and big wins that my former students experience as teachers. But I have to admit a hard truth that, these days, when I tell my students they can be amazing, wonderful teachers, I feel a knot in my gut as I wonder about whether or not they really can become amazing and wonderful within a system that does not support their potential. And not only does it seem like the system does not support good teachers, it seems more and more, that the system is actually attacking and depleting good teachers. This is not an academic blog so I will spare you the details, but teacher burnout is real and the teacher shortage has arrived.

I used to insert humor so effortlessly into my blogging, but it’s not coming to me right now. I feel worried and a little defeated. In the next few weeks my darling, creative, imaginative, little and mighty girl will be sitting through two sets of days-long tests and I will feel the same knot in my gut each day I send her to school. I will feel helpless and worried about the human experience she will have. And I will count on her teacher to keep her dreams while she takes her tests. I will hope for and count on the dreamkeepers at her school to smile and notice and consider her human experience on a daily basis. I have no happy or funny ending to this post today. What I cling to and am grateful to have are the dreamkeepers that wake up early each morning, get their armor on and insert the dreams of our children in their pockets and walk into their classrooms to teach. Tonight, I send out a wholehearted THANK YOU to the dreamkeepers who teach our precious young humans.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

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The Big Bad Wolf

Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived simply and happily with her family. She loved her family and her family loved her. Then one day an uncle, who was not really an uncle but a friend of her parents and whose families knew each other well, came to visit. He played with her and her little brother and big sister and he seemed to be a lot of fun. He made them laugh. He gave them hugs and kisses. He made them all feel special. So the shy little girl opened up a little and played right back and laughed when he tickled her.

Then one afternoon, he offered to read to them all before he took a nap. Of course they all wanted to hear a story. So they gathered around him, eager to hear the story and see the pictures. And when he said he had to touch her while he was reading, she felt a strange new feeling in her tummy. Her heart and her throat hurt a little. But there seemed to be no questions about it and it seemed like a normal thing to happen. He was a grown-up after all and she was taught to obey her elders because they knew about things and they took care of you. So while he read the story and touched her, her mind took her away from her body. She became the character in the story who had an adventure and was running away from the big bad wolf. She ran really fast. Faster and faster, her little heart pounding harder and harder. Fear taking over her entire body. And the whole time she was not in the room in her house that was offered to her parents’ friend. She was in the woods, in an adventure. Running for her life and her sanity. She got away from the big bad wolf. In her mind at least.

And when the story was over, she walked to her room with a heavy heart and a puzzled mind. When she got to her room, she crawled up into a ball in her bed and cried and cried and cried. And she never told anyone about the big bad wolf. It was a story after all. And who would believe that she had run so fast and gotten away from such a big bad wolf? And who would believe that her parents’ good friend was a big bad wolf, anyway? She only knew that she would avoid that big, bad wolf whenever she was in the woods. Maybe she wouldn’t go into the woods again. She would stay away when he came to talk to her and play with her and pick her up to swing her. She wasn’t sure she could run that fast again. 

Wake up, parents and everyone else who takes care of young children! Open your eyes and keep them open! Talk to your children. Teach them to listen and pay attention to strange feelings in the pits of their tummies and in their throats and in their hearts. Be very clear about their beautiful bodies and teach them to protect their private and very special body parts. Give them and practice the words and actions they should use to respond to any attempt to touch them inappropriately. Without those tools, it’s far too easy for those who prey on children – boys and girls – to take advantage of their gentle, trusting and loving spirits.

Unfortunately, the people who do this NEVER look like big bad wolves to children. They look like uncles and family friends and good neighbors. They think about and plan and create friendships and build trust with you first, knowing that your children are so much easier to get to when they go through you. You are their protector. You are their gatekeepers. And listen to your children when they tell you they don’t like particular adults. Tune in to their subtle reactions to the people you bring into their lives. Don’t get me wrong. I love people and I love having lots of good people in my life. And I believe MOST people are good. But even if it’s to protect my children from the one out of the one hundred or one thousand, I know I have to do everything I can to protect them, including having uncomfortable conversations.

And if your children are brave enough to tell you about something that happened, please, please don’t brush it off in the hopes that it’s not true or to avoid an awkward situation. Address it head on. Our children deserve that from us. And it’s time we started talking about this openly with each other. I am constantly amazed by how many people I know in my circles who have been molested or abused and who never told anyone. There is no shame in having been a victim! Tell the story. Tell everyone – especially if the predator is still out there. Chances are that predator is preying on some other child. It’s not okay. And while we’re at it – can we please get serious about how we feel about it in this country. Committing such crimes on our young children deserves more than a mere couple of months in jail and an early release back into the world. The problem is that we simply “frown upon” but don’t really, really detest and abhor the crime enough.

The little girl grew up and one day her father called her to tell her about the death of the uncle that had read to her when she was very little. She was silent on the phone as she felt her heart get lighter and her tummy unwind. She took a deep breath and said, “Oh,” to her father and added silently as she looked up, “Thank you…”  

The End.

Last week while helping my daughter to wash her hair, I, once again, took the opportunity to remind my little girl about her private, special body parts and talk about when it was okay for someone to touch her there (the doctor while one of her parents was with her). She brought up a variety of other scenarios and we discussed them until she was satisfied and clear about what she should say and who she should tell immediately. A few minutes later, dried, lotioned and dressed and playing with her baby doll, I watched her cradled her baby doll close in her arms and whisper, “Ava, don’t let anyone touch your private parts. Okay, Ava? Mommy loves you so much!”

I giggled and my heart swelled with pride and gratitude that I could talk with her and teach her these things. And then I felt the usual ache of fear that she might, one day, need to use her skills.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

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A Letter to a Phenomenal Future Teacher

I teach teachers and wannabee teachers. There’s a special place in my heart reserved for teachers and the work they do. This work with teachers challenges me daily because of who they are and what they’re getting into and with whom they will work. I spend a lot of time thinking about each one who comes my way and admiring and caring deeply for them because they have chosen to be a teacher. Because they have chosen to be on the front lines with our children. Because they have chosen a career that matters in this world and if they are among the good ones, they will never get paid their worth. It’s impossible. We should try, but it’s impossible.

It’s the end of the semester and, sometimes, if I am lucky enough, I give this letter to future teachers when I leave them because I see that they will be the good ones, the heroes. If you happen to be one of them, this letter is for you, too.

Dear Future Phenomenal Teacher,

I’ve had the opportunity to say a lot to you in this course. In the end, however, I realize that most of what I said will, likely, be forgotten. I decided that if I chose what I consider to be the most important things and put them on paper, maybe then you would remember. Three seems to be a time-tested magical number so, in the spirit of being unconventional, I will go with four. Here goes…

             First, know everything you need to know about good teaching and apply it. Learn about content and pedagogy and content pedagogy. Learn about how children learn, what they love, what motivates them, what scares them, what sharpens their minds and what dulls their minds, who loves them, and who does not consider them. Learn about the world – its people, its problems, its future, its wonders, and its fragility. Learn about how curriculums get developed and chosen, how schools get and use their funding, who makes decisions about standardized testing, why you have to do what you do. Know your worth as a teacher and show it.

             Second, know the students who enter your classroom. Really take the time to know them. Don’t underestimate the importance of informal conversations, eye-contact, humor, and attentiveness. Know your students so well that you can’t help loving them…or at the very least having a deep concern for their well-being. Ask them about themselves, ask their parents, ask anyone who cares about them. Actively take the time to know them and then be sure they know you know them. Acknowledge their presence daily. Speak to each of them at some point everyday. Let what you know about your students guide the way you teach them. Be the teacher that will stand out in their minds as the one that challenged them to realize their potential.

             Third, be an advocate for children. Discover what you stand for and be the teacher that speaks up for it, knowing that you will be empowering others to do the same. Challenge those things we do to children in schools and in society that we know are harmful to them. Determine your comfort zone and then challenge yourself to step out of it, when necessary, to advocate for what is best for children. Be an advocate, not just for your students, but for all children. Become political.

             And fourth, love life. Make a sincere attempt to thoroughly enjoy your life. Go to movies with happy endings; go to the beach and swim in the ocean; walk barefoot on soft grass; ride roller coasters; laugh every chance you get; fall in love with another person; try new foods; remember hilarious jokes and tell them every chance you get; talk to strangers; dance; sing out loud – off key or not; eat good ice-cream; have dreams and hobbies and books that have nothing to do with school and teaching and social justice. Be passionate about life. Enjoy life to the fullest because you will need to refuel yourself as you go through your career as a teacher and take on the lives of your students. Many will come to you from fortunate backgrounds, but so many will not. And whether or not you like it, you will take on and feel their pain. So fill yourself up on the good things in life as often as you can to balance out the tough stuff.

Teach to change the world…one little person at a time.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

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My Girl. Our Girls.

There’s a little girl I know. She’s 7 and bubbly and smart and precocious. She joined me on a walk with my dog and our friendship grew to where she’d come knocking on my door whenever she could and bring her friends to meet me. She staked out a very special place in my heart and I happily welcomed her in. Her family came here from Iraq as refugees. She’s one of the most delightful people I know. She could light up any room with her smile and her bright eyes that dance when she looks at me. I love this little girl.

Except she’s not 7 anymore. She just turned 19. And she’s been serving time in prison…a two year sentence. Long enough to smother her bubbly, smart, precocious personality. Long enough for her to learn lessons that could harden her for life. Long enough to see and hear things that could change her forever. Long enough to slow down her path to college and independence and a happy life.

How she got there through the ridiculously flawed justice system sickens me to my stomach. The punishment far from fits the mistake (NOT crime) she made as a teenager. Far from fits it! The fact that the juvenile system left her case sitting long enough for her to be tried as an adult is beyond problematic in itself. The fact that the prison system is using her as a means to profit is despicable. Have I said enough about how I feel. To protect this young woman’s privacy, I will not delve into the details of her case, but trust me when I say that SHE DID NOT DESERVE ANY OF THIS. ANY OF IT. If you knew the details, you would agree with me. I have no doubt.

I am deeply disturbed about the path of girls like her, who live in a world where the right opportunities are just enough out of reach so that the wrong opportunities get taken. It’s girls like her that can change the world. Girls like her, who are bright and lovable and precocious growing up in a community that bears the brunt of poor decisions we’ve made as a society, can make a big difference. Girls like her grow up to become mothers who make choices about the education and care of their children and about the things they tell their children about the world. Mothers who have to teach their children how to know the difference between the right and the wrong opportunities. Mothers who could know about the opportunities that are available and how to get access to those opportunities. Instead, our system, more often, leads girls like her to grow up to be mothers like her own mother whose heart is a little broken because, no matter how much she loves her children – and she does – she did not know of or have access to all the opportunities that could have helped her along. There is a way and a need to change the systems that aim to punish rather than teach our young people – systems that capitalize on the mistakes of some teenagers knowing that they cannot afford to pay for a good defense. We have to change the systems for girls (and boys) like her.

This is what “the girl effect” is all about globally. This girl – my girl – is one of many girls. We have to start seeing them as OUR girls. I’ve said before how much I believe in the power of women – in the way we know and nurture and love and make wise decisions for the people around us. I believe in the power of us women and I also believe it’s our time. Our innate nature and the wisdom of that nature has a purpose on this earth and it’s our time. It’s our time to say STOP and to begin tapping into the wisdom of our nature. Time to listen to that voice, which for some of us has been been quieted down to a whisper that’s barely audible.

The louder voices that silence us often come through the media. We are told that we are not strong enough or smart enough or creative enough or tough enough or able enough to change the world. We are told that we are here to be pretty – not even for ourselves but for others. We are told that we are princesses who live in castles and get saved by knights in shining armor and that our purpose is to do all we can do to be ready and recognizable and pretty enough to take on the role of a princess.

Kaya Pirate

Yes, we’re in a bit of a princess-free zone around our house and whenever talk about princesses comes up, I find a way to have educational discussions about royal families and monarchies and freedom. I try not to lay it on too thick. Really I try. But I do have an aversion to princess talk and I am bored by the big eyes and long hair and feet that remain pointed even while barefoot. There’s just too much else in this world to occupy my children’s minds to let them get stuck on princesses. I’ll admit that I sometimes feel a twinge of doubt and guilt when I pretend not to hear my little girl’s request for a princess doll. But I still mostly believe I’m doing what’s best for her by holding off on the princess and Barbie dolls and teaching her to question the meaning and value of beauty.

But I digress. I believe, with more conviction everyday, that women are the answer to today’s human problems. There’s a certain kinship and consciousness brewing in the last few decades that’s preparing us to change the world. And it’s going to take us tapping into our womanism. It cannot come from understandings of power in the way that our current society has established. It cannot come from the historically male-dominated society that we are in. And let me clarify that womanliness is not exclusive to people born with the physical body parts of women, but is open to anyone who is truly in touch with that other side of “manliness” that has become the standard by which we measure power and success and strength.

-Sojourner Truth

I believe change will have to start with women. Change will have to start with womanism – a way of being and knowing that has been around the world for hundreds of years. Womanism is an idea that differs from and precedes feminism. We need to reach back into the wisdom of our woman souls. Layli Maparyan wrote about this in her book The Womanist Idea. Womanism reaches back into the nature of who we are, into our core spiritual nature, and calls us into activism. Womanism is what drew women together to care for each other during birth and celebrations. It’s what drives women to do impossible things in the name of love for our families. It’s the no-nonsense, go-getter, put-up-with-bullshit so we can take care of what needs to be taken care of wisdom and strength we carry inside us. It’s what makes us fierce and phenomenal when necessary. We need to understand and tap into our womanism. And we need to teach our girls about the womanist idea when they are young so that they know better than we know about the Divine feminine force within them.

Hindu Goddess Shakti: The Feminine Divine Force

The kind eyes of a little girl whose face could be from any part of this earth watch me from a vision board that hangs near my desk. She represents my girl. Our girls. She beckons me whenever I look up and reminds me that the work needs to begin. This beckoning may just be another truth of who I am. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about my girl. Our girls. I know there’s something brewing in my heart. It’s a wish and a whisper I’ve carried in my heart for a while now. I may even have been born with this wish that refuses to quiet down. The little seven year-old girl that joined me on my walk and chatted up a storm right into my heart gently awakened the dream in my heart. Her last two years have beaten up my heart. It’s to the point where I can no longer ignore the dream.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

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A Gift From an Angel

Who knew when I went to bed feeling blah and then woke up this morning still feeling blah that I would be meeting an angel? I believe the Universe knew. But I had no idea.

I was having just that kind of morning in which tears and cuss words were on the brink of falling on whoever was in my path. Feeling restless. And angry. And disappointed. And misplaced. And scared. And so very guilty that I was not waking up wholly and completely joyful about all the amazing things I have in my life. After all I have a good (and handsome) partner, two hilarious, darling kids, co-workers whom I love and who blur the line between co-worker and friend, a comfortable home and a body that works well (but could use some exercise and a couple vegetables daily).

So being on the brink of tears and cussing makes me feel scared that the Universe might snatch it all back just so I REALLY appreciate the beauty in my life. And I feel guilty for feeling restless and wanting something else because I feel a little lost. With all the quotes I see daily that remind me to love and to be positive and to be brave and to just do the thing that has to be done, feeling the unrest seems so wrong. But there I was leaving the house with all of it and venturing into an elementary school to observe and offer feedback to budding teachers. I would much rather have stayed in bed and wallowed in my pity and negativity.

As I sat in the atrium of a lovely school and got irritated at the sight of pictures of kids who looked nothing like the kids who attended the school advertising STEM education, I heard a loud thud out of nowhere and found a young boy sitting next to me in tears. There was no-one else in that big room and I could have sworn he came from the sky or wherever angels live. He was mad and sad. He was NOT having a good day. Neither was I, so I immediately connected with him and scooted closer and patted his back. That simple act ignited a tiny spark deep inside me. After some probing and angry tears and through a shaky body (all him, not me), I managed to gather that 1. he did not feel like he could do anything right, 2. a friend had just said (loudly) inappropriate things about his mama (!!!!!), 3. his teacher had not been helpful and 4. he wanted to move to another country where he would be more liked. Apparently we were sharing the same experience under different circumstances.

That’s where I got to use my magic. See, THAT’S what I do really well. I can comfort a child like nobody’s business. I can help people – friends, strangers, loved ones – feel better. It’s sort of a gift I’ve been given.I can’t play any instrument well nor do I have a stage-worthy voice. Line dancing stresses me out and sports have failed to keep my attention for very long. It took me a large part of my life to choose teaching as a career, even. I used to wish I had a definite talent that propelled me through every choice including WHAT I WANTED TO DO WHEN I GREW UP. I never liked that question because I never knew an answer. I’m still not sure I have an answer, actually. But I have learned that I have this gift of being able to get people feeling better – even if it’s simply feeling better while still feeling their sadness or hurt or disappointment. I know it’s a gift because I receive it every time I give it away.

My ten minutes with with my angel boy were the best moments of that day. I lit up from the inside the moment I started to share my gift and the little spark grew into a bonfire by the time I left him. I drove home thinking about him and wondering what it might be like to do that all the time, everyday. What might it be like to ignite my spark and feel a bonfire every day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Goals and Intentions and the difference between the two. One of Oprah’s friends wrote about it and it stuck with me. Intentions are more important than Goals. You can fulfill your intentions through a variety of goals but goals should always begin with an intention. For example, it’s been my intention to nurture teachers into their most authentic and successful selves in the classroom. My goal of getting a Ph.D. came from that intention. Or another example – my intention is to be a GOOD mother and raise kind, happy children. My daily goal is to be patient and to NOT yell at my kids even when it’s the 51st time I’m making a request. Another example – my intention is to bring out the best in people, including myself. And I translate that to mean simply that we live from our souls, from our insides, from the place that God resides, from the truth of who we are.

I had to pause a moment after that last line, and even before it, because I didn’t see it coming. I just stated the intention of my existence. I realize, in this moment, that all the things that make me sad or mad or frustrated or disappointed or pissed off and on the brink of cuss words begin with not witnessing myself or others living from the truth of who we are. The opposite is also true – all that makes me feel happy and joyful and loving and amused and peaceful comes from witnessing myself or others living from the truth of who we are. Funny – I didn’t know when I named my blog that I was also naming my life’s intention. I suppose my goal of starting a blog fits with my Intention.

As for my little angel – our talk was just what we both needed. He walked back to his classroom with a lighter step and a promise to me to tell people and show people who he is on the inside so that they would know. And if they knew, then there could be no other way to feel about him than to love him. Same applies to the rest of us. Sometimes, the truth of who we are is harder for others to see because we’ve gotten so good at masking it. The truth of who we are is our Divine Self and all anyone could ever feel when they come in contact with our Divine Selves is love.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

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Analogies for Teachers

“The most inspirational man I knew only reached his potential by helping a child reach his.” Mitch Albom

I’ve often heard teachers being compared to doctors and I’ve always had some kind of reaction to that analogy. Not a positive reaction. My husband did it in the car the other day and, as has become an integral part of our romantic interludes, we delved into a heated discussion about the teaching profession – a topic that is close to our hearts. I was eventually able to understand his perspective and his use of the analogy but not once (and don’t tell him this) did I really believe it was a great analogy. This is my story and my truth and I’m sticking to it.

The reason I’ve always been confused or downright put off by the analogy of teachers as doctors is because there is an implication that the children are sick or diseased or unwell or hurt or in need of help of some sort. I don’t like this analogy. I don’t believe that children come to school deficient in any way. Not at all. On the contrary.

It seems to me, children go to school and should be seen by those of us who work with them as whole and beautiful and amazing! We should FIRST see that they come in with unique and very special and NEEDED contributions to make in the world. Every child holds something the world needs – a song, a story, an invention, a kind word, a perspective, a piece of art, a solution, a purpose that the world needs. We have to see their brightness and we have to know without a doubt that each child is necessary to the world and it is just as necessary for the world to receive their gift as it is for each child to give their gift to the world. Everything else that happens in school is secondary to this first step. It is the work of teachers, the honorable, necessary work of teachers to do everything in their power to ensure each child receives all the tools they need to give their gifts to the world. The little bodies that enter their classrooms are simply boxes that hold beautiful and amazing gifts. The wrapping may not always be in the most beautiful state, but the gift inside is always precious and beautiful and NECESSARY.

The next step then simply becomes, “Oh…you’re too cold to concentrate on learning how to write the story you will write one day. Here’s a coat and let me teach you how to buy your own coats some day.”

Or, “Oh…your first language is Burmese and you need to learn how to speak and read English so you can learn about the human body and learn how to heal it. Let me show you how to read.”

Or, “Oh…you’re carrying too much anger to learn how to nurture others and you will one day need to nurture the kids you will raise. Take my kindness and let me show you how to express your love.”

Or, “Oh…you’re too scared to trust people with your story for fear they may laugh. Let’s talk about being daring and vulnerable and here’s a paintbrush and some paints. Try drawing your feelings.”

Or, “Oh…you love to laugh and cut up with your friends. Let me show you how to deliver your jokes so that you will do a great job when you stand up in front of a crowd and make them laugh while teaching them how to take themselves a little less seriously. We could all use a little of that.”

Or, “Oh…you’re sad, often sad and you can’t concentrate on learning geometry – something you will need to design that awesome building. Let’s figure out what you can do to cope then you can start designing.”

That’s the work of teachers. They KNOW even before they see and sometimes often before the student knows, that there is a precious gift that must be unwrapped for the world. And the good teachers know it and then get to work. The analogy fit for teachers may be that of an artist with the children being all sorts of things that may look nothing like their potential, but certainly contain all the potential they hold – a sheet of paper, a pen, a paintbrush, a ruler, clay, stone, whatever those things are from which our creations originate. The work of the teacher is to figure out or at least assume that there is something amazing within those items. The gift is already there. Michaelangelo had to have known that David was already in the marble before he began his work. The gift was already there. Always. The artist simply had to uncover it.

We come into the world whole and remarkable and necessary to the world. There are no throwaway babies. There is no room for that. We need every life that comes our way, no matter how short the visit. I believe this. Teachers must believe this. It would make everything else so much simpler. Because then, you don’t have to use assessments to figure out to WHOM you should devote your time and effort. Instead, you use assessments to figure out HOW to use your time and effort more effectively. You stop wondering whether or not a kid values education. Instead, you realize that each child deserves a quality education or the rest of us may miss out on that child’s amazing gift. What if Joanne Rowling had NOT learned to write and was never able to put in words the story and characters that lived in her head? What if Annie Sullivan had not begged for and been permitted to attend the Perkins Institute where she learned how to be just the kind of teacher little Helen needed. What if Mrs. Bertha Flowers had not offered little Maya Angelou many, many books by wonderful authors that gave her just the words and means to live and write the stories and poems that go straight to our hearts? What if the world had missed out on these gifts? What if we do miss out, EVERY SINGLE DAY on the gifts children have? What if…

Teachers matter. Teachers matter so very much. I don’t take my work with teachers lightly. In the limited time I have with teachers before they go into their own classrooms, I work my hardest to make sure they know they matter. Their names and faces and words may not be remembered and their students may never ever invite them to be on the Oprah Show or CNN. But good teachers – the ones who do the real work from the heart and for the world – their work will live on in the world and does change the world. Their work matters.

When I was in Grade 5, despite all my good grades in the academic subjects, my teacher, Mrs. Ubhi, taught me how to write creative stories and macrame and draw and paint. She nudged me to compete in a drawing competition and when the piece I’d worked on for weeks was destroyed two days before it had to be submitted, she gave me all of the two days in class to work on my art so I could participate. And I did and I won! It was the first time I saw myself as an artist. Before then, I knew only that I was good at math and science and social studies. She saw something in me that was barely visible and then gave me the time and the tools and her belief in my creativity. Thank you, Mrs. Ubhi. Your work mattered to me then and surely matters today.

Teachers have to commit to the work without the expectation that they will be celebrated and remembered. Although it IS very nice when a former student does just that, the real work of teaching may happen and be wholly successful in changing the world by putting some good in it, but the teacher may not be remembered or acknowledged for it.

My analogy for teachers? Well, I can’t think of any one analogy, but many all together. Teachers are the brilliant compilation of artist, doctor, gold-digger, mother, father, entertainer, philosopher, leader, follower, therapist, custodian, sociologist and dream weavers. They are all of it and then some.

So, one more thing – if you do happen to remember a teacher and a moment or a year that helped you realize the amazing potential you have. Take another moment, if you are able, to tell that teacher about it. If that teacher is not around or reachable, please tell me as I always, always love a good story about a great teacher.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

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The Last Day of ‘Cool

It’s been a really busy three weeks and as much as I promised myself I would keep writing through it all, I broke my promise. I need to work on this. I have got to keep my promises to myself better.

Kaya, my daughter, has been repeating the statement that, “Today is the last day of ‘cool. Today is my last day of ‘cool foreber.” She means “school” not her general popularity or ability to maintain her dignity no matter what kind of fall she takes. This time of year brings about many “lasts” and I have always been one to notice and feel them. I believe in feeling sadness and other feelings wholeheartedly and without trying to water them down with “but just think about how great it’s going to be when…” or “…you should look forward to….”, etc. I let myself and my children sit in their sadness over goodbyes. I’ve had a lot of experience in this area so I know something about it.  Kaya’s last day of preschool was on Monday and David’s last day of first grade was on Friday. It’s more bitter than sweet.

Both my kids have been so lucky to have been with truly amazing teachers this past year. I don’t know how to find the words to express the deep, deep gratitude I feel for having had my children go to school and be in the care of people who genuinely like them and care about their overall well-being. It’s all I truly hope for each year when I drive my kids to school and leave them with another person. True – I teach teachers. I teach them many great ways of being teachers. I get them thinking about important things like social justice and equity and being change agents of a system that does not offer everyone equal opportunities. I teach them to be aware of many isms such as racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism and linguicism. Then I teach them about culturally responsive and critical pedagogy and problem-posing education. These are certainly important and so necessary in our world today. I love this work I do and am very passionate about it.

But then…I drive my kids to school and leave them in the care of their teachers and the most important thing to me becomes their overall happiness and well-being at school. I want them to have good days. I want them to have fun. I want them to play. I want them to find joy in their life. I want them to love – their teacher, a story, creating, the world, a friend, a game, writing, art, fairness, a song. And I want them to be loved back. These are important things to me. So it was a hard last day for me when I picked Kaya up from her preschool. Here’s what I wish I could have said to her teachers but choked on the words as I watched her hug them goodbye through my tears.

Dear Miss Kiah & Miss Mo,

Thank you for loving my daughter, Kaya, during her preschool years. It meant so much to me each time I saw you wrap your arms around my little girl in the mornings and I knew you were genuinely happy to see her. She is so lucky to have been with you. You said this morning, Kiah, that she was one of the kids that taught you how to be a teacher because you’ve been with her for three years. What a beautiful thing to say! What a beautiful thing to say that she taught you how to be a teacher. It’s really something that you could see it this way. Because you and Mo taught her so much in the short time she was with you. You taught her to care for her friends and also to care for critters. You taught her to be curious and kind and generous. You taught her little bits of who she is. You taught her how to throw a basketball and how to help a friend who is hurt. You taught her that she is important. You taught her that she is lovable and fun and creative. You taught her that she is tough. You taught her how to get dirty in the mud and sand and then how to clean up. You taught her how to see her world – really see her world in ways that many of us miss in our everyday busy lives. You taught her how to slow down and take peace breaths when she needed to – she taught me how to take those and I take many these days. You are both teachers at heart and it is beautiful that you see your students as your teachers. I loved hearing stories about what Miss Kiah and Miss Mo said and I could always count on you to say things with love no matter how hard some moments may have been for you.

Thank you for being her teachers. And thank you for always, always being so patient and gentle with me as I learned how to be a parent of school-age kids. I appreciated your kindness and patience more than you will know. You were always, consistently, reliably calm and happy each day I brought my little girl to you – no matter how frazzled, tired, unprepared or late we were. It meant a lot to this mama.

My hope for you is that all the love you have poured into your little students will surround you wherever you go in your life. While showing up everyday and dealing with all kinds of noises and bad moods and snotty noses and spills and tattling and willfulness and preschool tears may not seem so glamorous on a day-to-day basis, it is indeed glamorous to those of us who bring our little ones to you everyday and leave them with a heart that beats calmly and a mind that rests easy because we know that they are safe and loved by you. You are rock stars in our world. I am one of your biggest fans.

Thank you for loving my daughter for these very important years of her life and for teaching her lessons that will stay with her the rest of her life.

With love and gratitude,

Rhina

(Kaya’s mom)

Miss Kiah & Kaya (so much love)

Miss Kiah & Kaya (so much love)

 

Miss Mo & Kaya (post tearful goodbye)

Miss Mo & Kaya (post tearful goodbye)

And here’s what I wish I could have said to David’s teacher after my conference with him over his First Grade Portfolio.

Dear Ms. Deaton,

Teachers like you give me hope in the work I do. You exemplify all the things in the books about good teachers. If I could, I’d bring in my university students daily to watch you and learn. You have created an amazing community of learners and I have been so thrilled to see all the big ideas we talk about put into action. But today, I want to thank you for what you’ve done for my son.

Thank you for nurturing David’s curiosity about the world. Somehow you found a way to learn about his interests and then ran with it. You asked him questions but you also encouraged him to ask lots of questions. And instead of giving him answers, you showed him how to find the answers for himself. You taught him that he could seek out answers for himself. I love that he wrote down his questions and was so proud to have sought the answers to write them down. You showed him his power to be a part of the world he lives in. 

And thank you for teaching him how to read! Reading opened up a whole new world for David! And it wasn’t just that you taught him to read words, you taught him to read the world. This has been one of my greatest joys this year to experience his love for reading and I will be forever grateful to you for teaching him to love reading. 

Thank you for giving him the opportunity to experience being part of a community that encourages and supports and cheers for the successes of everyone in the group. Thank you for giving him the gift of feeling essential to a community. In the world we live in today, it’s so hard to find this kind of space in the world. Because David has experienced it, he will seek it out for himself and strive to create it wherever he goes. 

Thank you for the peace of mind I had every day I sent him to school because I knew that he was in the care of someone who cared about his spirit. It meant so much to me to know this. It was a joy to have you be a part of David’s life and learning in this world. We were honored, and some may say highly favored, to have you as David’s First Grade teacher. Thank you for an amazing year!

With love and gratitude,

Rhina (David’s mom)

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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

I love some mirrors and I hate some mirrors. They are not all the same. I find, post babies….okay, okay even before the excuse of having had babies, that the extra curves in some not-so-desirable places, look different depending on the mirror. Lately, I find myself shopping more and buying more from the stores that know this little trick and install the mirrors that reflect back a more svelte, more cut me and somehow calms down or blurs the extra curves when I am trying on outfits – or even when I am in the vulnerable space between trying on outfits. I find myself looking a little longer and feeling more svelte and cut than when I walked into the fitting room. Really I do. And it doesn’t matter how lovely or comfortable or fancy your fitting room is, if it doesn’t reflect back a svelte  and cut me, furrgetaboutit. That store will not be getting my business. This is the response I want when I’m looking in the mirror:

vanity

It so happens that the stores with the “nice” mirrors that lie to you tend to also be the “nicer” stores with the bigger price tags. Don’t panic, friends who know me, I am a bargain shopper REGARDLESS. Compliment an outfit or pair of shoes or handbag and the first thing out of my mouth is the happy bargain price I paid for it. I have no shame in this. I actually take pride in it. Back to my point, though – mirrors matter. They can affect the lightness or heaviness of the steps I take – whether they are lying to me or not. They can even motivate me to get in a workout to maintain the svelte and cut self I saw in the mirror.

In many ways, we are also mirrors for each other. We are constantly, whether we like it or not, holding up mirrors that allow others to see themselves. And when we see ourselves in the mirrors held up for us, we live up to – or down to – the images we see in them. The mirrors we hold up for each other matter and we must be careful with them. Friends, strangers, family and loved ones alike hold up these mirrors daily. As a parent, I hold up mirrors for each of my children.  Teachers hold up mirrors. Aside from the mirrors that parents hold up for their children, there are few other places in which these mirrors matter more than when teachers hold them up for their students. The mirrors teachers hold up reflect the potential teachers see in their students and every teacher has a different mirror for each child they teach. This mirror that teachers hold up in front of each child is powerful beyond measure. And, as with any kind of great power, comes great responsibility.

You see, our school system reflects what society has decided is valued. School is where teachers are asked to look for those things we have decided are valuable to society – that gift or talent or genius or fast-track stuff that will advance us as a nation. Teachers are also told to look out for and measure these things so we can decide how much to invest in the little bodies holding said valuable items. Teachers develop their mirrors and hold them up to their students through the words and time and effort they put into each of their students. At the very beginning…no, even before the beginning of formal schooling, we begin this search for those valuable things in children. Teachers give tests and take anecdotal notes and refer children for various placements. We try to be really efficient with this because there are so many kids and so little time after all. The quicker we can identify who to invest in, the better it is for all of us. We can then get on with our investments and cut our losses. Right? Not right. See, there is a much longer list of valuable things that don’t make it to those mirrors and this is what I believe is at the core of our problems with the education system that is in place.

Girllookinginmirror

Teachers, imagine if you will, that very first day of school. Your classroom is ready. Freshly made name tags in place. Clean desks. Labels around the room. Brand new crayons and full, sharpened pencils in their tins. Your furniture is positioned just right and morning work is waiting to be completed. You are wearing a new outfit because it fits the newness of the school year and you are ready. Imagine that as you’re standing at the door greeting each child and welcoming them to their new class, there is a person standing next to you in a clean suit and a clipboard in her hand and she’s looking up the name of each child. She carries a special clipboard that tells you, not the potential that you might have imagined, but the reality of what each child will be some day. So as each child walks in, she looks up the name of the child and says things like:

“Can you see that tall girl who as poured out all the different blocks into one big unorganized pile and is building a tower? She’s going to one day design the most beautiful building that people around the world will want to see.”

“You see that little boy there with the curly hair and big smile making paper airplanes with his morning work? He’s going to one day fly airplanes full of people who are loved by many.”

“Do you see that soft-spoken little girl with the scribbly, messy handwriting? She’s going to be a neurosurgeon one day and change the lives of many people.”

You see that dirty little boy over there playing with the water colors and mixing them and making a mess? He’s going to find a cure for cancer some day.”

“And that funny-looking kid over in the reading corner? He will one day be an amazing father to four little girls.”

“And that little guy over there that no-one wants to talk with because his clothes smell a little? He’s going to say something so kind to a stranger that’s hurting that the stranger will change his mind about ending his life. One day.”

“And do you see this little girl who is talking up a storm and is surrounded by half the kids in the class? She’s going to lead a team of people to change some laws that will make the world a better place for women.”

You listen silently and take mental notes about each child. You are awed and increasingly more anxious about the responsibility you now have to lead them down the road intended for them. Their Purpose for being here. Each child has a Purpose. You know this to be true. You begin to form their mirrors.

If you knew these things about each of your students. If you had the magic of knowing exactly how amazing each child could be, would be, would you then, in the busy moments of your teaching day take just one extra moment to guide the hand of the child with the messy handwriting? Or ask some good questions of the boy making a mess with the watercolors? Or say a kind word to the quiet boy who is by himself? Or offer a cheering pat on the back of the chatty girl before asking her to get to her morning work? Would you do just a tiny bit more just because you KNOW. You KNOW exactly what to reflect in that mirror you hold up for each child. Would you shine up each mirror just a little more carefully because you wanted to be sure that you reflected just the right image of the amazing potential of each child with whom you have the honor of spending this school year?

Unfortunately, there is nobody there with you standing at the door on the first day of each school year. There is no magic clipboard to peek at. There really is no way of knowing each child’s Purpose. And what you see as each child’s potential rests on you.  On your knowledge about what you teach, your beliefs about people, your attitudes about the qualities people have, your biases, assumptions and expectations of the capabilities of people. You may create your mirrors based on what you know (or don’t know) about the family or race or language or social class or immigrant status or personality of the child. You have to explore what forms your lenses and perspectives and filters. How you create your mirrors and what you hold up for each child is important. You have some important work to do. They can change the world. They will change the world. You change the world.

BeachglassHeartMirror

What do they see when you hold up their mirrors?

My truth is that as a parent, I am vulnerable when I leave my child with you. I don’t know and I have little control over the mirrors you will create for my children. I do know this truth. I know that you will create those mirrors and you will hold them up everyday. And my children will look into their mirrors everyday and they will live up or down to what they see. My children are my most precious gifts I leave with you 180 days of the year. Please be thoughtful. Please be intentional. Please careful.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

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Slap Some Sense Into Me

When I was seven years old I learned a lesson that has shaped what I do today. It was a very valuable lesson and I learned it in an instant. My first experience of primary (elementary) school was in a rural school in Mzumbe, Tanzania. At the time we lived there, Mzumbe was a small town with mostly Tanzanians and a few expatriates (AKA foreigners/aliens/wazungu/wahindi). My siblings and I were all born in Tanzania and had Tanzanian citizenship. However, true belonging was never an option no matter what. This was an accepted fact by native Tanzanians and expatriates alike and there were not hard feelings and even deep friendships. All the other expatriates in Mzumbe chose to send their kids to a private school, but not my parents. They seemed determined to have us get the full experience of our home town. My parents saw no reason to pay for us to go to a private school when the local school was free. So we attended a very rural school. Being THE ONLY kids who were not native Tanzanian, we were a curious sight to many of our school mates who were rarely, if ever, around anyone who was not like them. Our hair, for one, raised a lot of interest and often got touched or pulled or played with on a daily basis.

I have several memories of the 2 years I attended Shule Ya Msingi Mzumbe (translates to Primary School Mzumbe). Can’t say that most of them are fond memories as I spent most of my time there a little afraid of the teachers, confused because I did not speak Kiswahili fluently, and extremely shy because that was just a part of my little Rhina self. I was extremely and painfully shy and school was not a happy place for me when I was little. I would much rather have been home with my mother or hiding behind her sari in public.

Little 7 year-old self feeling very stylish.

Little 7 year-old self feeling very stylish.

Every morning, holding on tightly to one of my older siblings’ hands, I walked to the local primary school, hoe in hand on days it would be needed in the field. Yes, we planted maize and cotton, picked it, shucked the maize and ground it throughout the school year. Tanzania was a socialist country at the time and all local schools were preparing students to sustain themselves and their communities. At the end of each term, enough maize was boiled for the entire school and we got to stand in a long line and pick one cob when we got to the humongous pot sitting on the stones with a fire lit under it. We had no electricity nor running water at the school. Our one shared toilet was a tiny brick room sitting atop a deep, deep hole in the ground. I peed as little as possible while at school for fear of falling into the hole I could look into. At random times in the school year, a medical van would pull up and everyone was lined up for vaccinations whether they wanted them or not. I vaguely remember someone walking up and pulling me out of the line once and telling the nurse I didn’t need to get the vaccination because I’d probably had one already. First thing every morning, the entire school, from grade 1-7 gathered outside in straight lines, sang the national anthem, announcements were made by the headmaster and those who were tardy to school were called to the front, asked to lean over and obediently received their “back” lashes for being late to school. Unfortunately for Henry, my oldest brother, when I was called up a couple of times the headmaster looked at me and declared I was too little so could Henry come up to the front and take the lashes for me. He did. We still laugh about this but I’m never quite convinced he thinks it was that hilarious. Once, there was a big commotion at the school because a group of Masai came and camped out in the middle of the school yard, cows and all, because a group of kids who attended the school had insulted some of their kids on the way to school. One of the elders had insisted on speaking to the headmaster to get an apology. Of course, the kids responsible got their lashes and all went back to normal. Never a dull moment for a timid little girl like me.

The quality of education was by no stretch of the imagination stellar in any way. Teachers talked at us from the front of the class pretty loudly, wrote our names on the board for lashes when we were caught off task, and instilled a deep fear of school and authority in us. I vividly remember getting to school late one morning, running into class crying after receiving my lashes and then having my teacher yell at me and hit my knuckles with the edge of a ruler because I wasn’t writing my word problems small enough to line up on the paper to create a neat little math equation on the end. I was six at the time. Everything was taught in Kiswahili and English was taught as a second language. Needless to say, when it was time for tests and the teacher was in the classroom writing out the test questions on the blackboard, classmates would lift me up to see the questions and ask me to tell them the answers. I often obliged because I was too afraid and too timid to speak up for myself, particularly since most of my classmates had started school much older than I had.

This is how I remember as the inside of my classrooms at Shule Ya Msingi Mzumbe.

This is how I remember the inside of my classroom looking like at Shule Ya Msingi Mzumbe.

So it was at the end of a term after we had our grades for each subject posted outside our classrooms for everyone to see that I learned the lesson I never forgot. I was in our living room with my Daddy and we were talking about how I’d done alright at school. I then shared what I thought was a brainwave of a thought. I said to my dad, in an unusually confident tone, “Daddy, I don’t understand why the other students don’t do well at school. We have the same teachers, the same books, the same pencils and time in school. So why don’t they do as well as I do?” Laugh away. Or cringe if you will. It’s embarrassing to share this publicly, but…the truth of who I am, right?

Well, I was not at all prepared for what happened next. My father (can’t call him Daddy in this sentence) spun around and slapped me on my face and said, “Rhina, don’t you EVER say such a thing again! Those kids don’t have the same things you have. Look around you at the books in our house and the fact that we read to you and take you places and do things with you to help you learn about things. Do you know what they do? They go home and cook dinner for their families and wash their clothes and then, if they can afford it, light a candle to help them see in the dark when they clean up. Everything is NOT exactly the same!”

It was not typical of my father to lose it like that. I must have hit a nerve. His line of work was rural development so he knew some things and cared about why things were the way they were. He often spent weeks at a time in the field with his students. He had compassion and a deeper understanding of how people lived there.

I was silent. My face was hot. I felt so silly and embarrassed to have thought such a thought. How could I have imagined that it was all the same and that my privileges were givens? Suddenly everything was very clear to me. You could say my Daddy slapped some sense into me that day and I have not forgotten it. It was the difference between equality and equity. Getting the “same” things in school did not mean that we were getting what we needed to succeed in school. Our mere presence in a classroom with a teacher was no guarantee for success. It wasn’t that I had it better or they had it worse. We had it different. And what made the difference in school success was simply that I had the things that “matched” what schooling was about and my parents, because they were first generation college graduates, knew what I needed to succeed in school and provided me those opportunities. What they had was exactly what they needed to succeed in life but it was not the things that matched what school was about.

This truth remains the same to this day. I attempt to teach this truth to my college kids… er…students who are teachers or wanna-be teachers. In my work with teachers, I want them to get this first – that there are no deficits. There are no holes to fill. It’s not because kids are lacking in something that they don’t succeed in school. It’s not because their families are broken or because their parents don’t care about them or school. (And, incidentally, if their parents really didn’t care about them, isn’t it then crucial that YOU do). No, it’s not that they are deficit. All children are born whole. All children are born complete. All children are born curious and equipped to learn about their world. To learn how to survive and communicate and connect and play and seek joy and love. All children have this natural instinct. We are wired this way. All of us. When it comes to school success, what matters is the match between what we, as a society, have decided is what we value in school and your everyday life experiences. Basically, how much of the school-valued stuff do you get at home? Because many children’s ‘home selves’ don’t match school well, they struggle to succeed in school, while for others, it’s a smooth transition. There’s a plethora of professor knowledge I could delve into but I did not envision professor talk in telling my truths. I can humbly admit that could be boring for some and sometimes requires that you add some unnecessary but impressive layers of 4-syllable words and references, i.e. culturally responsive pedagogy, critical pedagogy, culturally relevant teaching, cultural synchronicity, etc., etc., etc. There – that was my plug. Done.

I learned a valuable lesson at age 7 and have spent the time between then and now exploring it and mulling it over and practicing it and trying to find ways to teach my students that lesson. Slapping that sense into them seems inappropriate, so I tell them the story sometimes and tell them often that they must be the bridges. They must create those bridges for the families who are filled with so much valuable knowledge that happens not to match well with school knowledge. After all, it was not those families that chose what to value in school and how to teach it to their children. But in order for them to succeed in the dominant society, they must double up and learn both – their home knowledge as well as the school knowledge.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

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