Saturday, June 27, 2020

Summer Reading, with Purpose


            The last three months have challenged us in ways we never could have imagined, and we know that the work is not done. Our public health crisis is still with us, as is the social crisis of race relations in America. Many educators, students and citizens are taking time this summer to read books about race. We read these books not simply to know more, but to have the knowledge and perspective needed to influence our actions in pursuit of a more just world.
            There are a lot of books to read, and here are a few I’ve read that are well worth recommending. So many more are out there beyond this list, and I hope you find time to read and continue the dialogue.

            Nonfiction for the Moment
            The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
            Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
            The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
            The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
            Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
            Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
            How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
            White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
            The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
            Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
            The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
            These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes
            Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
            Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M. Steele
            Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow
            Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward
            Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
            The journalism of Nikole Hannah-Jones, including The 1619 Project, her New York Times Magazine and This American Life pieces on school integration & segregation, and her story in this week’s New York Times Magazine
            “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
            “The History that James Baldwin Wanted America to See,” by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
            The social commentary inside the arts criticism of Wesley Morris, including this piece
           
            Fiction
            The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
            The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
            The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
            Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
So many works by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson, James McBride, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, to name a few

Books on My Summer Reading List
Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
Begin Again : James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
            Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life by Howard Steven Friedman

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Race in America, Through a Grandfather's Lens


            It was around 1930, and my grandfather was playing baseball with a bunch of kids at his elementary school in the Concord section of Staten Island. He was playing third base, which was rare for a lefty, and his brother Jack was pitching. It wasn’t Jack’s day, as he walked a half-dozen batters in a row. Jack turned to the teacher who was coaching, and asked if his brother could pitch instead.
            The teacher, Mr. Henry, agreed to the position switch. He handed my grandfather the ball and let him pitch, for the first time ever. It was one of those small moments that change a life. My grandfather spent the better part of his adolescence striking out batters, and at 18 he was offered a contract to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. He had family obligations and it was the Great Depression, so he declined. Six years after that, though, he signed to pitch with the Boston Braves organization, and had great success as a minor-league pitcher before calling it quits in 1945.
            Throughout every one of those 15 years between my grandfather’s first pitch and his departure from the minor leagues, the door was open for him to make the major leagues if skill and fortune allowed it. As for the man who’d pointed him in that direction, this was never an option. Mr. Henry, you see, was black.
During our childhood, my brother and I would spend many Sunday mornings with my grandfather. He’d pick us up from Sunday School, at a church that is part of the whitest denomination in the United States. Then he’d drive us around to see relatives, play ball, and visit his soda warehouse – a distributor business he’d leveraged toward success using his notoriety as one of the better Staten Island athletes of his generation.
Our favorite part of these Sundays involved a trip to a cigar and candy store on Bay Street, where my brother and I would load up on baseball cards and comic books while our grandfather placed a few bets on that Sunday’s football games. We’d hustle into the store, as many of the men walking around this area looked poor and somewhat desperate to us. Most of them were African-American, and we didn’t know many people who were black.
Some 35 years later, one mile down the street from that cigar store, a 43-year-old African-American man was approached by police under suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. His conversation with police, the attempted arrest, the chokehold – all are well-documented, and Eric Garner’s parting words of “I can’t breathe” have been echoed around the world many times over.
My grandfather was a role model to my brother and me throughout our lives, in particular for the ways in which he shared clear-eyed stories of his own mistakes, especially with substance abuse. He lived most of his life within three miles of the spot where Eric Garner died, and he did far worse in his life than selling loose cigarettes. But never did a police officer lay a hand on him, save for his own father, who was a cop.
The world in which my grandfather lived was built to protect him – a white heterosexual man of German and English descent who saw around him not just friendly neighbors, but a community in which systemic racism was as ingrained in society as any law. He was able to make mistakes, get back on his feet, and live to tell the tale. He could take advantage of opportunities or bypass them, knowing that there would be a way forward for him either way. He could buy a house or sell it, and could avoid Bay Street except for the bets and the baseball cards and the bars where he’d deliver soda. He could tell his grandsons the story of Mr. Henry and his first pitching gig without even seeing the irony, because his worldview didn’t require that he notice it.
When we tell stories of our grandparents’ generation, part of the narrative is supposed to include the message that things have changed for the better. Yet throughout my grandfather’s life, people of color on Staten Island and throughout America faced racism every day, in every way. Eight years after my grandfather died, a man lost his life on Bay Street in a police chokehold for no reason, and many others died in similar ways. Six years after that, the streets of America were filled with protests – in the midst of a pandemic, mind you – after more individuals of color died in ways we cannot understand.
I miss baseball. I’ve never experienced a spring without it. The pitcher’s delivery, the swing, the defense, the cheers, the high-fives. The absolute necessity of teamwork. The clear lines between fair and foul. The belief that anything is possible, and the knowledge that ballplayers of every race will do things that take your breath away.
In his later years, my grandfather never stopped talking about baseball. In fact, shortly before he died – melanoma got him in the end – he asked me about the following year’s Yankees team, and whether I thought they’d win it all (they didn’t). Some of his favorite players were African-American by then, as was his visiting nurse, and some of his neighbors, and some of his fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members. My grandfather had taken some clear steps forward for a man of his generation.
If he were still here, I know he’d say that this is not the way for us to treat one another. He’d say we’re supposed to improve upon generations, not regress. He’d say that Mr. Henry, Eric Garner, George Floyd, and so many others have every right to the opportunities he had. He’d say these individuals deserve equality at every level – from the right to walk down a street to the right to play ball. That shouldn’t be a question for the world’s biggest experiment in democracy.
And yet it still is.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Role Models Who Guide Us


            One of the difficult things about this time is that many of us are hard-wired to help others, and of course the best way we can help right now is to stay where we are. There are important ways we can offer assistance, from donating to relief organizations, to making masks for essential employees, to donating blood. Another way we can help is by paying attention to the lives of individuals who guide us toward the better angels of our nature.
            A few weeks ago, my high school commemorated the one-year anniversary of the death of our late principal, Derrick Nelson, who died from complications while donating bone marrow to a teen-age boy in France. This past week, our school initiated a quarterly award honoring students who selflessly help others. It’s named the “Lift While You Climb” award, in honor of a statement Nelson once made. He said, “We have an obligation to our fellow human beings that if we are in a position to help someone, you do it. You lift as you climb. If you can do that, you have contributed more to society than anything your bank account can produce and, ultimately, contribute more to your own well-being.”
            I think of Nelson and his words while reading the stories of medical professionals who risk their lives in emergency rooms around the world. Lacking in sufficient equipment and in experience with a virus quite like this, our doctors, nurses and other medical staff are using skill, instinct, collaboration and heart as they serve on the front lines of this crisis. Last week, I read a doctor’s diary of life in a New York City ER, and I strongly recommend it. The author, Helen Ouyang, describes what it looks like to stare down a virus as it rages around you. She feels the stress every day, yet keeps coming back to do the job, then takes the additional step of sharing that experience with us.
            More than 50,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., and we mourn those deaths in our own thoughts and in our collective grief. Some of us have lost loved ones, while others know students or colleagues who have lost family or friends. My family is actually mourning the loss of a dear friend who died last week from a different cause. One of my childhood friends, Scott Salinardi, died suddenly last week of a heart attack at his home. Scott was a man who had all of the qualities needed to succeed in any field – intelligence, personality, optimism, compassion, insight and connections, to name just a few. After graduating from the University of Chicago and dabbling in some initial jobs, he chose to devote his working life to serving developmentally disabled adults. Working alongside his father, Richard (a leader in serving the developmentally disabled for five decades), Scott helped run an organization called Lifestyles for the Disabled. He found productive working environments for hundreds of developmentally disabled adults on Staten Island, from cooking to horticulture to education to journalism. When not raising his four daughters with his wife, Sherry, Scott was working all around his hometown, making it possible for so many adults in this borough to feel fulfillment and pride in their lives.
            Scott was 45 when he died last week; Derrick was 44 when he passed away last year. Many others have died far too young during this time of COVID-19, and others, like Scott and Derrick, have left us too early for other reasons. Losing a loved one can feel paralyzing and helpless; living through a pandemic can feel like a true onslaught of despair. And yet, these stories of service can make it much harder to give up. We ask ourselves: If Derrick could give so selflessly, if Scott could make service his life’s work, if doctors can risk it all to aid those in need, then who am I to give in to the despair?
            We walk through a different world right now, one that requires us to keep our distance. But we still have the ability to walk together in all the ways that matter. And we have role models to show us the way.    

Monday, April 13, 2020

Walking Through the Unknown, Book in Hand


This is not a time for giving advice on how to manage the moment. For all of us educators included – we can do no more than be present for one another, support one another, and listen to one another. There is no right way to handle things right now, other than to follow the directives from our health authorities and hang tight.
In the past month, I’ve worked at helping run a school from behind a laptop and smartphone. I’ve spent time with my wife and daughters doing the things that help keep us sane, from family dinners to game nights to movies. I’ve rigged together a workout routine, gone for many runs, walked the dogs each day, tried a few crossword puzzles, and cleaned the house.
And I’ve also read. I want to focus on the reading in this blog post, because for me, reading has been a way of making sense of this current crisis. Reading has always been a way for me to broaden my worldview and gain perspective. During the past month, I’ve tried to be selective with reading material that can help me deepen my own understanding of life right now, and in that sense nourish my soul.
I've definitely read news sources, choosing to stay away from most television and focus on a variety of reputable daily newspapers, from The New York Times to The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal. I find it essential to know what’s happening without absorbing too much repetitive information, so I give myself a time limit when reading the papers. I’ve also read news sources that give me something else to think about. In particular, the fabulous sports site The Athletic has offered many intriguing stories, most notable Joe Posnanski’s countdown of the top 100 baseball players of all time, featuring a thousand-word essay for each. The countdown ended today with No. 1, Willie Mays.
In terms of books, I started with a book that a friend had given me, titled The Peanuts Papers: Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life. Edited by Andrew Blauner and featuring essays by many renowned writers, this book analyzes the impact of Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy on our culture. It’s a relevant book for our current moment because the dominant theme to the book’s essays is this: Charles Schulz’s comic strip embraced the idea of feeling disappointment while also hoping that the next time will be better. The Groundhog Day­-like moment we now find ourselves in is not unlike Lucy pulling that football away from Charlie Brown every time. And yet, without fail, he keeps coming back.
I moved on to a history book that's been on my shelf for a few years, about one of the most trying moments in American history: the Dust Bowl. It's titled The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, written by Timothy Egan. This one felt like a book I needed to read right now. It is, after all, about a time when part of this country was enduring a nightmare whose end was in no way clear. A time when people walked around with masks on, and could not shake hands (the dusters produced so much static electricity that physical touch could bring about shock). The Dust Bowl is in many ways a story of human-produced climate change, which gives its tale relevance for us already. It’s also about individuals who suffered years worth of weather-related disaster in the High Plains while living in the midst of an economic depression. The stressors compounded, yet these folks had an ability to persevere through hardships I cannot fully understand. Their determination to keep going astounded me.
            My next choice was a novel that another friend had given me. The book Open City by Teju Cole features a narrator who walks the streets of Manhattan and mingles with others in search of meaning – an idea that is refreshing in and of itself right now. Cole’s narrator, Julius, has elements of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and Meursault from The Stranger in him, and his detailed descriptions of the life and art around him serve as windows into his own soul and into human nature. Julius also spends a lot of time with other people, and there are moments when the words in his conversations stayed with me. In one scene, for instance, Julius is talking with others about how prepared we are for unexpected crises. He says, “We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world ... we are just as susceptible as any of those past civilizations were, but we are especially unready for it.” Although written several years ago, these words sound like statements we’ve heard many times in the past month.
            My most recent choice was a book by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Tracy Kidder. Titled Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness, this book tells the extraordinary story of a young man who (just barely) escapes violence in both Burundi and Rwanda, and finds himself in New York. As a former medical student in Burundi, he arrives in Manhattan with
no home, and sleeps in Central Park while delivering groceries for $15 a day. To tell you how he goes from refugee to homeless man to Columbia University student to builder of a health clinic in his native country is to give away the rich details that make this such an inspiring tale. It is a story of true grit, extreme trauma, and unyielding aspiration toward a better world. It offered me inspiration in ways that I most definitely needed.
We are all living through our own traumas right now, and stories can serve as powerful beacons of hope. They don’t need to be uplifting to do this. They simply need to bring us closer to a truth that we find real and relevant to the narrative we’re trying to piece together in our own minds. When the words on a page help us do this, we find ourselves living part of the miracle that is human existence. We find words, written by a stranger, that are present for us, that support us, and that listen with us. They empathize, and help us take another step forward through the unknown.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Facing the Tipping Points of 21st-Century Stress



            Last week’s helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others is a horrible tragedy for the nine individuals who died, as well as for the many who are mourning their deaths. While Bryant’s life and legacy are both inspirational and complicated in different ways, it’s also true that he was 41 years old and in the prime of his adult life. The death of someone so vibrant and active, who was just starting the second act of his life, strikes at the heart of anyone in touch with their own mortality.
            This particular tragedy may have also served as a tipping point for some, as they may have experienced so many stressful events in their communities, country, world and planet in recent years that they had trouble handling yet another.
            We all have personal stressors in our lives, and there are times when those stressors become true crises that profoundly impact our day-to-day lives. But even when there’s no crisis, and the stressors are manageable, there seems to be this underlying layer of despair in the world today. This can make it even more difficult to handle the personal and community struggles – because we look around and see so many problems tearing at the fabric of our social, political, ecological and cultural institutions.
            Those who have been marginalized in society have felt this underlying stress every day of their lives. Those who are in positions of privilege may be able to look back on certain decades, such as the 1980s or ‘90s, with some degree of nostalgia. But the present century has brought with it so many widespread challenges to all of us: September 11. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Deadly hurricanes, from Katrina to Sandy to Maria to Harvey. Other climate-related disasters, from rising sea levels and record temperatures to massive wildfires and flooding. A global financial crisis. Mass shootings. The presidential election of 2016, and the pronounced polarization that has followed it. Mass migration, and the debates over immigration throughout the world. The shootings of unarmed people of color. Sexual harassment. Deadly viruses. A widespread lack of civil discourse.
            Someone who is stressed about a loved one’s illness, while also dealing with daily personal, domestic and work challenges, might still find room in their life to take on a couple of these communal crises: Perhaps they are engaging in some environmental activism, and also reading about all the presidential candidates, in preparation for voting this year. They’re full to the brim with things to worry about, and are using their own version of the Serenity Prayer to stay on top of it all. And then, one Sunday afternoon, they hop online and see that, of all things, Kobe Bryant is dead. It can feel like one too many stressors, enough to bring us to a tipping point.
            When Malcolm Gladwell authored The Tipping Point in the first year of this century, he ushered in a new era of social science books dedicated to helping us figure out how and why we do the things we do. With that book, Gladwell studied what he called “social epidemics,” and what causes a series of smaller changes to reach a point where a larger, more systemic change takes place. Two decades later, we are nearing a point at which our collective psychological well-being is near a tipping point.
As educators, one of our challenges is to help students and communities find a way to transcend and avoid that level of despair. Education can inspire us in that way. Social and emotional learning can inspire us in that way. And building communities of lifelong learners can inspire us in that way. We can’t control the overall stress levels of our students, but we can help them search for a way through the stresses by learning, processing, sharing and growing together.
            It’s no coincidence that in this time period, many have turned toward the words of beacons of light such as Fred Rogers, Freddie Mercury, Michelle Obama, Bryan Stevenson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The same mind that identifies overwhelming stress seeks out ways to manage and overcome that stress. We feel the despair in the traumas that surround us. But we also search together for ways to identify and feel hope in the midst of that despair.
            During this century, no athlete has impacted the sports world more than LeBron James. Now a Los Angeles Laker, James found himself standing before the crowd at Staples Center on Friday in the Lakers’ first home game after Bryant’s death. As he held the microphone and spoke, James’ words applied both to this specific tragedy and to so many of the crises we all face.
            “We’re all grieving, we’re all hurting, we’re all heartbroken,” he said. “But when we’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.”
            When that tipping point arrives, James seemed to be saying, we don’t have to handle it alone. We never have to handle it alone.

Our Mental Health Moment


            Since I began teaching more than 20 years ago, I have seen three seismic changes in education. Early this century, the passage of No Child Left Behind ushered in both standardized testing and the role of analytics in education. Seven years ago, the shooting in Newtown, Conn., led to a series of wholesale changes in school security. And over the past decade, the increase in mental health struggles among our students has become a constant presence in our schools.
            The movements toward data analysis and school security are established components of education today, and many schools have spent years fine-tuning the ways they address these issues. As for mental health, many schools are still grappling with how to address the increased numbers of students in need. In the past few years, many schools have emphasized student wellness as well as Social and Emotional Learning, and schools also have deepened their partnerships with outside agencies that focus on mental health. Students have spoken up publicly about their struggles, and teachers have taken leadership roles in helping students who are struggling with stress.
            The causes of this trend are still up for debate. In her book iGen, psychologist Jean Twenge draws a correlation between tween and teen smartphone use and adolescent mental health struggles. Many others have agreed with this theory, but other studies have refuted this connection between device use and anxiety or depression. Some point to the pressure of today’s college admissions, and the many advanced courses and extracurriculars that students are taking to impress universities. But there are many students struggling with mental health who are not taking advanced courses. Mental health illnesses also are less stigmatized today, leading to the possibility that more students are admitting their struggles without fear of being ostracized.
            In all likelihood, there are multiple reasons for this significant increase. In the meantime, schools are working diligently to address the struggles our students bring with them to the classrooms and hallways. I see this every day in my life as an educator, and also in my life as a parent. I work with students and parents to address issues of stress, anxiety and depression, and then come home to a teen who is struggling each day with those issues. My wife and I communicate our daughter’s struggles to the school, just as many parents do with me. We also support her at home and connect with outside therapy and agencies, just as many other parents do. We have made mental-health support a primary part of what we want in the college she attends. And we try very hard to help her take life one day at a time.
            As a parent, it’s enough to wear you down some days. I carry this experience with me into school, reminding myself that those parents and students with stories similar to my family’s are likely doing the best they can. As parents and educators, we don’t yet have clear-cut solutions to the mental-health struggles of teens. But we know that the one thing we can’t do is give up.

Writing Less (And Learning More)


            For the past year and a half, I have written much less than in any time period since I switched careers from newspaper reporter to teacher. From the time I left the newsroom for the classroom in 1999, I kept my fingers close to the keyboard, writing free-lance magazine stories, blog posts, and even manuscripts. But since I made the transition from teacher to administrator 19 months ago, I’ve done far less writing.
            And the reason is simple: I have so much to learn.
            I’m a veteran educator with plenty of experience and points of view on the subject of supporting high school students and teachers. I put my experience and perspective to work every day in the challenging job that I have. But I’m also paying attention to the many areas of education that I now view from a different vantage point. As I focus on this learning, I want to allow for as much growth as possible. To me, that means opening my own mouth (or blog site) less and spending more time reflecting and processing.
            There have still been experiences I’ve found well worth sharing. After all, I enjoy using my communication skills to engage in educational dialogue. But it’s also important to understand the true nature of the dialogue before entering into the conversation.
            I hope to serve as an educational leader for many years, and to support as many lifelong learners as possible. But first I need to focus on the learning, and grow with this job. I’m doing my best, and keeping my eyes wide open.