The Genesis of Violence… and the alternative, or no

Last night I stood with my candle in the cold November rain and witnessed the precipice.

As I stood with my refused-to-be-lit candle in the windy wetness, the sign that I held was filmed by no less than a dozen news cameras. Some of the reporters tried to initiate conversation, a few asked permission to take pictures, others simply took the liberty. The sign that I carry (made for me by my dear one) is an old slogan that is timeless, simple and yet powerful in its challenge: “No justice, no peace. Know justice, know peace.” While I desperately wish for the message to be heard, I have learned to be distrustful of strangers with cameras. I am silent while the lights flash.

In the absence of justice, we take to the streets and disturb the peace. We do so intentionally, prayerfully, and peacefully. But make no mistake: the goal is to disrupt the status quo. While low hanging fruit may be found simply in drawing awareness to the injustice, I would be disingenuous not to cede the ultimate goal of making the present state so uncomfortable that changes necessary for justice become preferable. The way things are may at least appear to be comfortable for many of us, especially the most of us that are white. Hidden in plain sight, however, is the terrifying truth that we are living in the backdrop of an American horror story. (Read) And if one dares to face this truth, one is forever changed.

My wife and I have been on the sidewalk in Ferguson enough now to know many names and faces, to share hugs and solidarity. We’ve also been to many quality trainings offered by organizers who’ve sought professional leadership to ensure that the movement is grounded in a sustainable tradition of non violent direction action. And we’ve been to church, more times in the last month than in the prior 12 put together. In the varying venues, we discover what should be obvious but is rarely spoken. While the movement may be expressed as a singular cry for justice, the parts are as many and varied as the individuals involved. In every single venue and with every person I encounter, the goal has been to secure a just peace. No one wants more bloodshed.  Indeed, “we are praying with our feet until there is no more blood on our streets.” (Rev. Traci Blackmann) In this much, our purpose is clear.

What is also clear is that as the town-criers for justice continue their plea, those bent on violence and those profiting from it continue to up the ante. Last night there was a small group of protestors dancing (literally, playfully) in the street. Rather than having a conversation with the few that are in the street, an unseen and muffled voice booms an unintelligible warning. I can infer that the voice is coming from the police station and I check that my feet are on the (theoretically legal) sidewalk. But I am left to wonder about the mode of communication which further dehumanizes the encounter. Thankfully we were spared the ridiculously unnecessary riot gear parade that has become common place at this intersection. Meanwhile the fear mongering has reached such an epic proportion that press from literally around the world have filled the sidewalks where we otherwise would have room to (lawfully) gather. The press is so legion that they begin to out number the criers, and so intent on finding a story that they begin to create one with their presence.

This morning I chanced to read one of the many hundreds of worthy articles written about the coming violence in (and indeed all around) Ferguson. Written by Heather Ann Thompson for the Huffington Post, the article (Violence in Post-Verdict Ferguson) describes historic protests and the bloodbaths that they became. Most importantly, as a historian she looks at where the peaceful protests took deadly turns.

“So, let us now be crystal clear: In none of these now-infamous protests were the protestors responsible for the extraordinary pain and injury that so many people suffered in them. In fact, in every one of these iconic protests, violence was caused by, and was in fact guaranteed by, local, state and federal officials who made the disastrous decision to prepare for, and then respond to, these episodes of popular sovereignty with ugly force.”

Thompson looks at the military-style escalation with the preemptive call of the National Guard and the tanks rolling into Ferguson and she warns:

These are the decisions and actions — historically and today — that turn otherwise peaceful protests volatile, dangerous and violent.

Thompson’s historical analysis mirrors what I see in real-time and makes sense of the knot that has made a home in the pit of my stomach. The anxiety I feel is real and even reasonable. I am watching the horror story morph into a nightmare beyond imagining.

Increasingly I have witnessed in real-time what Thompson chronicles in history. While protestors are committed to non-violence, when we stand in confrontation with violent systems we are burned by the very violence we abhor. The Rev. Rebecca Ragland could be the poster child for peaceful protester; she’s an Episcopal priest, exceedingly gentle, suburban mom, white and even pretty! But the police plucked her from the crowd on Wednesday night and dragged her through the streets, quite literally. (Read)  And not all of us are photogenic, nor should we be expected to be. We are not a perfect people nor a monolithic movement. This is real life and it’s messy. Crowds develop mentalities which are not always helpful, especially crowds pushed to the brink of sanity by zealous hordes of both police and media.  The instinct to wait out the storm at home is a self preservation instinct which is both understandable and not unwarranted.

As I sit in the morning light, holding the angst with fingers on the keyboard, I consider my options.

To stay the course is to stand with those who stand with Mike Brown. To stand in the street as the tensions mount, to stand alongside those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired; sick and tired of being sick and tired while being confronted by a militarized police, a blood thirsty media, and just enough agitators (of all persuasions) to incite disaster. To stay the course is to be willing to witness, to be touched by, and to be changed for good by the reality that is American life for those without white privilege. 

And in that final sentence I realize that my choice is made. I cannot unsee, I cannot unhear. The violence began long before the protestors took to the streets, long before Mike Brown became the name that awoke resistance. The violence is systemic and insidious. Those who perpetuate violence will lay it at the feet of those who resist, suggest that if only we had stayed quiet we wouldn’t not have to be violently subdued, but I cannot allow the lies to guide my steps.

So tonight, like so many nights before, I will put on another layer of warm clothing and head to Ferguson. First stop tonight will be prayer with allies at Greater St. Marks (6pm).

A “mass die in” for justice; mine is the red hat and scarf.

 

 

In Wait… November 11, 2014

After a long day with troubled teens, I listen to the winds howl and allow myself to feel the anxiety that burns in my gut. I live in St. Louis, Missouri and this is November 11, 2014. I am keenly aware that I am living in a historical moment.

Each of us has our own story as we come into this important moment. My context is my story. A white woman, a city-dweller, a retired minister, a teacher of troubled teens, a married-to-a-woman woman, a mother of children both white and black who are now out of the nest… and safe, for today.

Once upon a time I had a bully (and literal) pulpit in suburban St. Louis. In addition to a weekly audience, I was a regular contributor of op-eds for the Post-Dispatch, did interviews with the likes of Keith Olbermann and Charlie Rose, was featured in a River Front Times cover story, and worked alongside change activists in our community. Now I have none of those titles or platforms or audiences. The loss of this old life is understood in new ways this week.

After more than 20 years in the business (church work), I cashed in my chips six years ago and got honest with myself, my family and my church about what was real in my heart and body. I had scrupulously followed the rules of marriage for two decades, but to do so I had denied my truest self. Telling my truth, however, was costly. At first everyone (in my family and my church), good liberals all, said the right things but immediately there was a distancing. It was almost imperceptible and denied when’er I queried. Slowly but undeniably fissures became apparent and as my new life unfolded with incredible beauty (and it is oh, so precious), my old life evaporated before my eyes.

A house, the baby books, holidays with family… these were the first things I noticed missing. But soon it was undeniable that the big stuff was in play, even my professional life. The things that matter are won and lost not in courts or with martial law but with innuendo and nuance. When the proverbial delivered a clear message, I walked away. But the lessons are yet to be unpacked.

For the past year I have worked as a teacher with troubled kids, my former life experiences invaluable but unseen. So much of what is important in this world lies just out of view.

From this still unfamiliar vantage I listened to the news when Michael Brown was gunned down on a hot summer day, stunned and silent.  From the safety of my home, I watched in horror as the tanks rolled in and the dogs barred their teeth. I felt paralyzed, as I suspect most well intentioned white folk do. Evil rests on the default of silence.

It was several weeks later, in late September, when a call went out across social media: white folks needed in Ferguson. With the nest cleared and the school year started, my wife and ventured out from our home and spent an evening on the street in Ferguson. We were stunned by the compassion, inclusive welcome and safety we encountered. We were inspired by the hope that was so palpable. And we came back, again and again.

Freed from the glare and the responsibility of professional church life, my wife and I have spent now countless evenings standing with protestors in Ferguson, Clayton and on Shaw. We’ve held signs, marched for miles, and chanted until we were hoarse. And we have seen things. We have heard things. We have been changed.

As I sift through the emotions that collide as we await the grand jury announcement, I am aware that my grief tumbles together and new light shines on old shards.   What I experienced in leaving church was the culmination of micro aggressions, no one of which could have pushed me into abhorring a profession and community that I had loved so deeply. Micro aggressions are tricky because they are typically unseen by the casual observer and not life threatening in isolation. But what we fail to honor is that the wounds carry poison and that each repeated insult adds to the toxic soup. Eventually careers, even beloved ones, come to an end.

In the streets of Ferguson, I am forced to acknowledge that the stakes are yet higher. Micro aggressions are fed by “false Western binaries” (Starsky Wilson) that water the toxic soil of racist and homophobic cultures. Standing across from the Ferguson Police Department, I am face to face with the very struggle for survival. I am unable to unsee the pain.

Leadership (MAU)

School teacher by day and protestor by night, I begin to see what is hidden in plain sight. The twist of a narrative, the embellishment of one (not the other) side of a story. The subtle but undeniably pernicious play to fear-based stereotypes. And the incredible miserable lie that it is. What we have encountered on the street is powerful, is love, is a quest for justice the likes of which I have never seen nor even dared hope. This is the seed of just revolution that if watered with care and love could be so much more.

Stand Off

I am terrified and yet hopeful. The militarization of the police incites the very violence they claim to abhor, and I am fearful. The rush on guns stores by private (white) citizens in legion, and I am fearful. Young black men, the ones whom I privileged to stand with, express a fatalism that takes my breath. The mothers have called for the “wailing women” (Traci Blackmon), determined that they will stand in the streets until the blood stops flowing. And I will stand with them, praying and hoping and standing so that the story of justice is written on our hearts and in our history books.

Yet as I reach for my pen, I realize that my audience is gone. That the very gift of freedom that allows me to stand in the street, to see and understand, is at the same time the loss of the privilege to help craft the narrative. And now I see: a catch 22, the taproot of oppression.

Math is Worksheets… said only one student ever

He came to class on the first day where I introduced our “interactive notebooks” for math. Half way through my introduction, he interrupted to (loudly) announce that math is worksheets, not “those notebooks”. He walked out, muttering “math is worksheets, worksheets in a folder!”. (Note: Whatever name this student’s mother gave him is irrelevant to the story, in this story and in my heart he shall forever be known as “Sheets”.)

On the second day, I presented Sheets with a folder of worksheets and he sat at the edge of the room, hugging the pages of neatly ordered addition and subtraction. Half way through the class he began to complain (loudly and relentlessly) about the noise. At some point one ought see the irony in yelling about noise, but this student did not. He left the class and, quite literally, has not returned.

My supervisor and colleagues have all had advice and, to the best of my knowledge, I have tried all of the suggestions. Last week was something of a break through, Sheets sat in the hallway at a desk near my classroom and held the blue folder of worksheets. He did exactly 6.5 subtraction problems in five days (all done on day #1), the remainder of every class period spent (loudly) complaining about the noise and my ridiculous (to his mind) notion that he should be learning about fractions with the rest of the class. He does not do fractions, he explained, math is addition and subtraction. I tried to point out the shared pizza dilemma if we avoid fractions, but he was steely in his resolve. He is an adult, after all, and he knows what he does (and doesn’t) need. Maybe so.

Sheets is, after all, right about the noise. Even when he is far down the hallway and his rant not a part of the cacophony, this particular mix of teens has a ridiculously high degree of oppositional energy. This week the class will be doing very abbreviated daily work, spending the bulk of the class time playing cards (Monday, Wednesday), working in Khan Academy (iPads on Tuesday, Thursday) and (our favorite!) Farkle (Friday).  I’m not sure if I’m caving to the pressure of the group that resists instruction or being respectfully responsive.

To be fair, all of my classes have balked at my expectations as the year began and there’s been a process of mutual compromise. I am thrilled that most of my students are actually seeing and (to a degree) interacting with grade level material. In one class one student proudly asked if his notebook was his to keep after the class was over, yes! (Ok, maybe he was trying to curry favor… if so, it worked.) In another class a student giggled with glee as we played a logic game.

I have lots of reasons to feel success in this second first-year of teaching, but 6th hour is not one of them.

This class has yet to become a class. For 45 minutes every day I have a tiny room filled with 7 (not counting Sheets) antagonized and antagonistic teen boys. (Do you have any idea how many times I trip over their feet in 45 minutes?)

As week #7 begins, I raise the flag of surrender.

So Common Core, I bid you adieu. For the next week (and as many weeks as it might take), I am simply going to play games with my 6th hour class. I say “simply” but I have few illusions about the ease of even this task. Still, it is a focused and worthy goal; somewhat in terms of mathematics but more significantly in social value. My goal is to learn to like this group, to make my peace with their quirks, to find enjoyment in the daily interchange.

Ok, that’s clearly too lofty. If I expect a moment of Pollyanna bliss I might as well stick with the impossible Common Core.

Perhaps a more attainable goal will be to make it through one day at a time without thinking felonious thoughts. That would be success. And a subsequent goal might be to make it through one day without complaining about this challenging group. These are goals that belong to me, these are responsible adult goals. And maybe if I start with baby steps, nirvana will meet me on the other side (or not).

Meanwhile Sheets is in the wind. I wonder when, if ever, he will come back. Perhaps the more important question is what kind of community will await him when (and if) he does. While he is gone, we will work on becoming a community worthy of one another. I am suspicious that if we achieve this, we might also bring peace to the warring nations. But we all have to start somewhere with the candle that we have. Tomorrow I will light mine.

 

Microcosms of Community Dysfunction

While the world watched in horror last week as the streets of Ferguson were militarized, I was living a microcosm of a broken system that purports to be about social service. Somewhere, as a society, we have gone horribly wrong. Yet as I lived my tiny slice of life amidst the wider community drama, I find myself ever more perplexed.

Our story is that we became foster parents in April for two young girls, ages (now) 10 and 11. Prior to their placement with us, the girls had lived in a series of homes with relatives, never with biological parent, and always in extreme poverty. Growing up in the economic underbelly of our social structure, the girls were well acquainted with hunger, abuse, and neglect. Expectations around family rituals (meals, bedtime, bath time) were anathema; an indication of privilege not extended to every child in America. Highly skilled in manipulation and hopelessly delayed in academics, the girls had attended a new school every year and sometimes more than one; last year they attended three, this year they will begin their second as the second week of school begins.

To say that we had to navigate difficult behaviors would be an understatement, but my wife is a veteran 6th grade teacher (now working with troubled teens) and well equipped for the task. She was home for a couple of months (thanks to veteran teacher status) and was full-time mommy adding structure and rewards as needed. We had many difficult days, endless trips to doctors, and detailed reports to write. But as the girls packed their stuff yesterday, they carried their prized scooters, earned with good behavior, proudly to their case manager’s car.

Our time with the girls ended last night, one week shy of a four-month tour. By all accounts too soon except maybe not soon enough. For the remainder of our days we will likely process the lessons learned and unlearned. The girls’ challenges were, always, the small part of our challenge. And lest you read nothing else you should hear that everyone with whom we worked was a well-intentioned so-called liberal white woman. Like me. So what could go so terribly wrong?

From the beginning there was a struggle. And in the beginning we understood the trouble to be, appropriately, about transition. The girls had been taken from school on a Monday morning, told that they would never return home (an aunt’s home was their most recent home), and dropped into our lives with (literally) only the shirts on their backs. The move itself was nothing short of traumatic. Previously having lived in exclusively African-American homes and with extreme poverty, they were now expected to thrive in the glare of privileged white women: mothers, social workers, teachers, principal, counselor. All of us good peeps, not one of us poor, not one of us black, not one of us a terrified child. What they had was each other and in their relationship they brought what they knew, dysfunction.

Tragically the adults didn’t remember the cardinal rule of parenting: don’t eat your own teammates. Fostering is a team with parents, social workers, counselor and even a DJO. While my dear one and I grew closer (much) in the midst of parenting these young girls, the team as whole didn’t fare so well. First there was talk of our being (or not being) a good match as parents for the girls. Then  there was talk of the counselor being (or not being) a good fit. Then it was back to pointing fingers at us, the foster parents; apparently the supervisor also took a swipe at the case manager. For our part, we were indignant. Volunteering our home, our hearts, our lives and (yes) our expertise, we were not well suited to the innuendos and outright rudeness of those that (literally) attempted to distinguish themselves from us using the word “professional”. (Even as I type, my anger rises.) Ironically my wife and I, as individuals let alone in combination, had more experience and education than those claiming to be “professional”.  And so hubris lobbed and houses tumbled, ultimately a power play was made and the girls were moved from our home to a “more culturally appropriate” home (quote from the case manager to the child).

Also true is that the girls need more care than we will be able to provide during the school year. As teachers, both of us now, we cannot provide good supervision for children who are suspended and already in their first mont with us one was suspended. After their placement we learned that the other had also already been suspended once. Given the history of suspensions and the behaviors during the summer, we could only expect suspensions to become more frequent. While the decision to move the girls was not ours, and a product of “tension in the team” (quote from the case manager’s supervisor), we did not contest the decision. In part worn down from the adult struggle, we also knew the needed level of care was not sustainable in our home.

What I witnessed in the team decision meeting, however, was deeply troubling. White women, all of us (with one white man observer and one African-American dad via phone conference), talking nonsense about what African-American girls need. The case manager suggested that the girls needed to be in a black home because the elder child deeply missed her family (as if all black folks are from the same family!), that ours was a white home (completely dismissing our African-American daughter who has been a key presence in the girls’ lives with us), and suggesting that our home was “too restrictive” because we didn’t “let the girls have space to fight it out” (dismissing the real issue that their fights invariably escalated until one or the other was injured). Perhaps most shocking were direct lies made from “professional” staff, but most troubling were comments that belied an utter failure to understand the issues with which the children are really struggling.

Our experience with the system is one very small sampling, but it played out as I watched the news this week in silent horror. Michael Brown gunned down with his hands held high. Tear gas and rubber bullets sprayed as people prayed with their feet. Character assassinations used to trump sharing of relevant information. My heart sick with what passes for “public safety”, I found the same elusive in my home. Following the decision on Monday to move the girls, drama was in high gear at home and violence the only tool they had to express their rage. On Tuesday evening I had planned to attend a forum in Ferguson but the school bus was three hours late (yes, we are in a chronically underfunded school district), the social workers were sitting in our living room waiting for the girls and making racially insensitive comments, and when we were finally all home and the social workers gone, the elder child went into a rage and physically attacked first her sister and then my wife. I watched helplessly as my wife covered her face and attempted to get away from the raging child.  Thankfully now on the other side, I am left to hold the shards in sad wonderment.

Perhaps one small take away truth is the essential value of humility. We do not know what we do not know. This acknowledgement of what is unknown and openness to learning was missing from our Monday meeting, it was missing too from the police officer’s encounter with Michael Brown, it was missing again when the Ferguson Police Chief Jackson reignited rage by obfuscating the release of the officer’s name with footage of a cigar box theft. If at any point the adults had paused to listen, the outcomes would have been different.

With so much that we cannot change, this one small piece we can. We can own the story that is our own and in so doing acknowledge all the rest that is not and by definition unknowable. What we know is always a small microcosm of the whole, and (tragically) often a misleading piece. At the end of the day, I do not know what is best for the girls that came into our lives and I have every reason to believe that they will be well cared for and loved in their new home. My serenity rests in my humility, letting go of my need to control, to know, to dictate. As I find windows of peace this morning at my desk, I pray for this same humility to find root in our wider community.

Today I tune my ears to those who’ve been denied justice and who are now refusing to make peace. I cannot help but believe that the truth we need for this important crossroad lies not in my experience but rather in my openness to the voices of others whose experiences may be different from mine.

 

Kindergarten Lessons – Body Fluids

Let’s talk about pee.

While no one in their right mind would ever choose this topic, no rendering of this escapade with the children could be complete without at least one chapter devoted to the topic. Pee is a part of the human experience and for little ones too often publicly so.  In my classroom of 10, six have peed on my classroom floor (and a couple of more on the playground). Perhaps the abundance of pee is reflective of age (6-8 year olds), perhaps the severe emotional disturbances facing these kids, most likely the steady flow is a combination. Whatever the reasons, I have been well acquainted with body fluids (of all types) this year.

And here’s what I know: it hasn’t killed me, at least not yet.

On the almost-last day of the semester, Tyler pooped in his pants and strutted naked (and poop-smeared) while I attempted to direct him to first wiping and then washing (neither very successful). On the last day of the semester, Tyler got in a verbal altercation with a peer and, as it escalated, he dropped his drawers, grabbed his junk and… (miracle of miracles) he didn’t pee.

Here’s the second thing I know: mercy lives and laughter is healing.

There are a million reasons that a child might pee (or worse) on a classroom floor but I suspect Occam was right. The most likely reason is the simplest: they can. There are few things a child can control and where they leave their bodily fluids is one. As a teacher I can control how I respond, but I don’t get to control the direction of the flow. Like it or not, in this one I am powerless.

Sure, I try bribes. One of my new little guys, Ralph, naps every afternoon and pees at the end of every nap. For a couple of days he was interested in the little cars I promised and actually chose to wake up dry and collect his toy.  Even now I cherish the sweet smile he shared with his hand-held out as he reported: “I didn’t use it on myself.” He was super proud of the first car he earned and (the very next day) the second; but by the third day, choice trumped persuasion. Perhaps in time the rewards will trump the power play, but until then it’s to my advantage to keep a cool head and a bottle of order eliminating disinfectant.

Powerlessness is an essential human experience that none of us can ultimately avoid. We come into, and then out of, this world in a state of dependence. Childhood is fraught with vulnerability and in our adulthood the myth of self-sufficiency sets us up to fail every time. But powerlessness becomes blinding cruelty when children are neglected and, worse, abused. The enormity of the emotional pain suffered by some children is mind numbing and (quite literally) crazy making. And in the face of this powerlessness, some children make the one choice they can: where to pee.

On the one hand, I wish that I could find it in my heart to cheer the modicum of response-ability demonstrated as a child engages in such willful behavior. But let’s be real, sewer systems weren’t designed to hold rose-water and I know that the very storyline of this post is, well, disgusting. What the kids and I both know: pee stinks.

Tragically, for the most vulnerable of children, life does too.

Kindergarten Lessons: The Greenless Child

As I sit in the Sunday morning birdsong and ponder the sensations of the week, I am struck by the significance of one unlikely hug. It was quite unrehearsed and as silent as the child who surreptitiously slid beside to me to share it. Even in the moment, I was surprised and even touched. For the briefest of moments I turned my attention to him and said a quiet but heartfelt “Thank you.” And then he was gone.

As I hold that moment in the quiet of this morning, I realize that I had been introduced to this child long before he was born. Back on the other side of my adult life I enjoyed a collection of church poems written Ann Weems. Mostly happy poems with a slight edge, there was one that settled into my heart as a challenging omen: Greenless Child.
I watched her go uncelebrated into the second grade,
A greenless child,
Gray among the orange and yellow,
Attached too much to corners and to other people’s sunshine.

As I hold Friday’s brief and silent hug, I realize that it came from the greenless child. He is the child who has spent a semester in my classroom hiding under the desk, mumbling under his breath, screaming only (but frequently) when the classroom noise overcomes him, with a single sentence mantra: “You’re not listening to me!” Occasionally he’ll mumble a curse and even more occasionally strike a peer or even staff to gain attention, but most often he’s under his desk with his headphones trying to block out the chaos of the world.

http://www.spadecaller.net/shortstoryartclass.htm

http://www.spadecaller.net/shortstoryartclass.htm

And with a classroom of children throwing desks, I confess that I was grateful to let this one child quietly hide.  The challenge is that in his hiding he was neither happy nor healing. His accusation that I wasn’t listening wasn’t altogether untrue.

Midway through the semester, I realized that I needed help to connect with this child and asked a colleague who professed to enjoy this greenless child. I needed to learn to listen to him.  When my colleague referenced the child’s wit and sense of humor I was genuinely confused, thinking that we were talking about different children. But I began to watch and listen with new openness.

I’d like to tell you that I fell in love with the child, I was able to now discern his mumbled sentiments, and that he became a participating member of our class. Not so much. But there were times when I could hear his words, days when he did come out and participate, and moments when I was undeniably filled with a high regard for this him. In this child too I could finally see and celebrate the sacred.

As the day opened on Friday, I was walking with he and one other student to breakfast. The other child was on a roll of antagonistic and mean statements and when I successfully ignored him, he turned his verbal insults toward the greenless child. Now more in tune, I effortless dismantled the aggressors barbs, noting the genuine gifts of the child demeaned. “He is funny,” I noted, “with a great (if quiet) sense of humor and,” I chided, “if you don’t know that you haven’t bothered to get to know him.” I was, of course, talking to myself. But the mean rant abated and the otherwise greenless child gave me a look of wonderment. It was later that morning that he offered the stealth hug.

Now on the third day, listening to both the spoken and unspoken, I begin to realize that the child dismissed as greenless might be a rich and royal purple. A greenless child is only deficient if we insist on a world of blue and yellow. In a world that needs red, celebrates purple, and delights in orange, we need the one we would discount as greenless.

The only deficiency was my limited vision. I am grateful for this child’s healing teach because, quite frankly, we need every bit of the rainbow.

Church Shopping Begins: Not White, Gay Friendly, Theologically Past Liberal

Today I find myself at a bend in the river that I didn’t see coming.

Our lives were blessed last week with two very precious daughters ages 9 and 10.  For the past year we’ve been planning, taking classes and filling out paper work to become foster parents. And then we waited. When we got the call that Niah and Nae would be coming to live with us, it happened so suddenly that we are still catching our breath.

For one thing, we assumed that our children would be boys. The initial false-start calls had been about boys, white boys. It is mostly boys that are in the system. When we got the call about girls, we were both surprised and delighted.

For another thing, as is often the case in foster care, the children were forced to move without time to gather their belongings. The move for children means a total loss of everything material, and a scramble for the new family to build a wardrobe and the rudimentary trappings of life.

The most surprising piece for me, however, is how protective I suddenly feel for two young African American girls pulled from a world of extended family and tossed into a sea of well intentioned white folk. Social worker, therapist, school principal, and moms – all white women. Everyone is working together and truly impressive in their intention and commitment, but at the end of the day, we bring what we have and I fear that we’re missing a major piece.

As I stood in line with the girls at one of our family’s favorite haunts, Ted Drewes, I experienced in a new way the almost total whiteness of the crowd.  Reminiscent of my coming out experience, I was nonetheless surprised by the experience of otherness. For me, this is an experience that I sought and for which I prepared, for our girls it is not. I looked into their faces expecting to see delight as we partook of the treasured frozen custard, instead I saw distress and heard, “Can we eat this in the car?”

Safely in the car with my dear one in charge of music, the car rocked with girl power dancing and I knew. We need to find at least one community where faces of color are dominant and strong black women are smiling back into the faces of these precious children. But where? I am theological past liberal, having dispensed with the trinity and holding my own with the Friends (Quakers) probably because there are so few words. I suspect my theological qualms are more problematic even than our two-mom family configuration. Nonetheless, I need to swallow my theological attitude and find a church where we can dance as the children (and spirit) lead us.

I posted my query in Facebook: Need to find: racially diverse (not-white), gay friendly, theologically *very* liberal church in St. Louis. Recommendations?

The answers were heartfelt and precious, but illuminating. Several folk recommended a number of really wonderful United Methodist communities.  I think in every case, the churches are pastored by white clergy and in no case are these clergy allowed to honor our family. UMC clergy who dare to preside at same-gender marriages are actually charged and even dismissed from the ranks. While it is heartening to hear of local communities who stand in welcome, I have no desire to participate in an institution that is struggling to see me as fully human.

One friend pointed out the prophetic nature of the query and I pause to consider. Maybe so.

Or maybe it is time to turn the prism. If what our family needs is a place of gathering not headed by white folk, this white woman needs to stop pushing against the current and flow with the river around this bend.

In fairness, the biblical narrative sounds different when preached from a place of oppression. The story was written by and for oppressed communities as a word of both of hope but also of resistance.  Though I had wearied of the story preached from within the affluence of the ‘burbs, I was moved by it’s power in response to the modern passion of Trayvon Martin. Quite frankly, who we are dramatically changes the words we share, regardless of our intent. And today we need to find a not-white preacher.

The girls told me what clothing they needed and I ran around yesterday to find it. This morning we’ll start the arduous but important journey that so many families have faced: church shopping. We’ll start with a United Church of Christ community led by an African American, there are (I think) three in our metro area.

And I’ll watch the girls feet to see if they dance as I learn to follow.

Kindergarten Lessons – Trauma

The very hardest part of my job is not the kids and not my colleagues. Currently I work with a great team of adults and when in the emotional security of my own home it’s very clear to me that the children are sacred beings truly struggling to process trauma that is beyond their ability to process. The very hardest part of my job is facing the me that comes out when pushed beyond my own ability to cope. It is not a me that I wish to own, not a me that I wish to acknowledge, but is a me that I must face (or choose to deny) daily in this setting. This me brings tears to my eyes… and it is this me that I must come to face, own, and love before she too can find healing and peace.

For seven hours each day, I am in a self-contained classroom with 10 little boys and one other adult. Occasionally we go out together for meals (twice each day), PE (daily) and recess; always we travel together. Occasionally another adult is in our classroom for a short time or takes a child out for special services.  On really good days, I can slip out to the bathroom and turn in daily attendance (usually while the kids are in PE); on bad days I forget to drink water and go home dehydrated, grateful that I didn’t have to pee.  Most of our day is spent in the classroom and most of my time is spent catching flying shoes (and pencils and blocks), restraining children to keep them from pummeling one another, and trying to ignore the constant stream of obscenities that flow from any number of sources.  And on very rare moments, I teach reading and math and science.

I would like to write about the bulk of the day when I actually do feel and practice remarkable patience and genuinely high regard for my students. This is the part of the story that I would like to remember.  While it isn’t my goal to be Michelle Pfeiffer (read: the heroine of “Dangerous Minds”), swooping into the chaotic space to sprinkle love-dust that charms the children into new realities of hopefulness, it is my intention to meet the children where they are and without judgement. My task is simply (monumentally) to offer an educational opportunity for children whose behaviors are so egregious that (already in kindergarten) they have been exiled from the public school system.

The problem is that no one is addressing the cause of the behaviors.

The challenges that my children face are far outside my realm of expertise and control; severe and generational poverty, prolonged patterns of abuse and neglect, trauma of every imaginable sort and many beyond imagining. While I am expected to “modify” behaviors, I have no access or tools to address the causes of the behaviors. Quite frankly, every one of my children has a legitimate cause to tantrum and the louder they scream the more certain I am that they have a will to survive. They will need it. To thwart the lament is to disarm the survival skills that they most certainly need.

Yet in the meantime, the children are gathered together into one room with two adults and they have uncovered and are now trampling on my last tender nerve.

I’ve never been a big believer in imposed consequences, which is probably good because my kids, lacking all manner of impulse control, have already been consequenced out of schools and homes and any sort of normal privilege afforded to children. But what to do when the patience wears thin and one more child pushes one more button?  Consequences may be ineffective but safety is paramount and my need for some degree of control is my Achilles heel.

My job description includes physical prompts and redirections and I’ve been encouraged to be quicker to intervene with negative behaviors even as I’m coached to notice and praise the positive ones. The more “successful” I am in confronting the misdeeds (and literally corralling the room), the more I loathe the person that I see. I would like to tell you that I didn’t yell at Michael on Friday, but what was lacking in volume was present in tone. I would like to tell you that I guided him back to his seat, but when he refused to comply and laughed in my face, dragged might be more fair description. I wasn’t my best self.

Perhaps it is worthy to note the places where my spirit breaks. The constant whine of Charles’ foul-mouthed tantrums that mark the start of each new day, the backward spin of Carlton who’d been making such progress and is now inexplicably falling apart, or the tantrums that accompany Donnell’s almost daily toileting escapades (read: not toilet trained). As I type I realize that there is no one cause, no one Achilles heal, no one place where my spirit needs shoring. The challenge is the enormity and constancy of the barrage.

Dealing with trauma is in itself traumatizing.  Perhaps it is also true to say that the children strip away the mask and lie bare the wounded healer that is at my core. Beneath layers of practiced calm and grounded presence lies a child who is herself very tender, a little girl who has a strong need for order and a fear of chaos. This little girl, though unfamiliar, is fierce.  Much like the little boys that fill my classroom, this little girl within has a strong will to survive. I wonder how much of my adult energy has been spent hiding from her and how different my life might be if I found ways to befriend her.  Already she’s helped me to find more direct patterns of communication and inspired me to experience wonder. But like the little boys in my classroom, she needs to know that the adults are present and providing safe boundaries; without that reassurance, she is in full-scale rebellion herself.

For today, I take a moment to acknowledge that my heart hurts. I rehearse the small strategies that our team identified before leaving for the weekend.  Mostly I consider the upside down truth that in our vulnerability we find strength, in our breaking we find wholeness, in our embrace of the questions we let loose of the answers that keep us trapped.  Knowing this to be true, I know that on the other side of this strange current is a gentle stream.

And I give thanks for the resilient little girl who lives deep within, tantrums and all.

Kindergarten Lessons – Better than Skittles

My classroom closets are filled with candy and trinkets as I shamelessly use every possible form of “positive behavior management”. No piece of plastic crap can compete, however, with the power of relationship. Many years ago James Fowler, building on Kohlberg and Piaget before him, pointed out that while our most primitive ethical choices may may be based on cost and/or reward, our more significant and lasting work must be based on deeper values. Inasmuch as my kids stay seated for a reign (or rain) of Skittles, their attention is at best weak and invariably focused on the coming of the next sugar high. Occasionally I see evidence of a child finding inner satisfaction and even tangible evidence of their connection with others.

One day last week we were coming back from PE and Sam was, as usual, jumping up and down and tapping on the wall. I looked back, made eye contact, and reminded Sam that in the hallway, “our feet are on the ground, our hands are at our sides, and our mouths are quiet”. Sam nodded most seriously and we continued a few hundred feet. As I turned around in the corner of my eye I could see Sam starting to leap towards the wall. Facing forward, he caught my glance and then, miraculously, caught himself. Sam made a different choice not because I was going to punish him, I wasn’t. He made a different choice not because I was going to reward him, I wasn’t. He made a different choice because I believe in him and he wants to please me. And he did. I stopped what I was doing to celebrate his great choice.

Psychology students study the effects of rewards on classroom management and I work closely with some great young professionals studying and working in the field of positive behavioral coaching. While the positive energy of these young adults have had an incredibly great influence on our community, I wonder about the strategies themselves. Of course children, like all animals, can be trained to ding the bell on cue. But are these successes the ones that are lasting? Are these the strategies that will help the child understand their power in the face of an adrenalin rush? Are these tools that will transcend our particular setting? Training a child to behave for a reward (or worse, to avoid a consequence) is definitionally limited. Necessary to survive the day, perhaps, but totally inadequate to face the world and make meaning of real life.

On Friday, Wilson arrived having had another difficult bus ride. This time the driver sent Wilson in with a written report which described both his physically aggressive and sexually inappropriate behaviors. I read the note and felt at a loss for words. I called Wilson to the back room and sat down. As Wilson stood in front of me, I handed him the note and said simply, “read this to me.” Wilson began reading in his typically defiant mode. As he read further, having to speak aloud his behaviors with my disappoint silently facing him, he wilted. He stopped when he reached the most egregious part; head hanging he shuffled silently back to his seat where he put his head down and cried. No additional words were added. I was astounded to realize the power of simple relational accountability. No consequence in my repertoire would have elicited the level of remorse that he exhibited in that moment. No plastic trinket could deliver the powerful teaching that we encountered together.

To be sure, I’ll continue to buy Skittles and plastic trinkets. I’ll keep the charts and the reward systems for all of these tools serve a purpose and often buy time until relationships can be established. The real successes, however, are the ones without tangible rewards, where children discover that they have the power to make choices and even more miraculously that there are relationships worthy of their choosing.

Kindergarten Lessons: Looking Deeper

Even in my mind’s eye, Seth is furiously chewing his lip with furrowed brow. He’s small child who’s just turned seven, but his tense muscles are strong and when his fists swing there are bruises. He is quick to tell you that he is bad, that his favorite character is Michael Myers (Halloween), and that no one wants him.  Perhaps there are grains of truth in his litany, certainly his behaviors are intolerable as he pummels young and old with his angry fists and vicious words. But this is such an incomplete and misleading description.

Seth is also a remarkably bright child who looks for logic and documents patterns. He is a tender soul who reaches for hugs and chooses the puzzle with puppies and kittens.  He is articulate and charming and absolutely adorable.  Except when he’s not.

In our team meeting we talked about how Seth navigated the week and I mentioned his agitated state. I’ve learned to watch, to be prepared to keep both he and the other children safe.  Not his natural state, he has a visible cycle with a gathering of steam. A watchful adult can often intervene to redirect and de-escalate with careful timing and respectful interaction. With a room full of children and a steep learning curve, I have too often missed the window of opportunity.

As I talked about Seth’s agitation, the therapist on our team, a warm and loving professional, looked thoughtful and then offered, “he’s so very anxious. Have you seen his brow furrow?” Her gentle words were disarming and I mused at the also-true read of the situation. A child who is anxious may become agitated and then perhaps violent.  For our child, the pattern is both constant and consistent. I’ve been trying to read the agitation to prevent the violence, and have had occasional success in that endeavor, but what if we tended the anxiety that lies yet deeper?

While this work, of course, belongs between the therapist and the child, a respectful understanding of the anxiety shapes my compassion and thereby my interactions with Seth. Rather than trying to control his agitation, I am more inclined to bring empathy to the enterprise, offering whatever balm I have for the anxiety as I redirect the agitation and hopefully prevent the violence.

All along Seth has communicated as directly and clearly as a seven-year old can. He reports with remarkable clarity the things that he sees and feels and the underlying causes. Tragically they are simply too big even for my adult sized heart.  As I consider the sources of his anxiety with my own heart less guarded, I cannot help but see that his emotions are tragically commensurate with his situation. While his behaviors are outrageous and completely unacceptable, the anxiety that produces them is totally appropriate. The culprit is not the child but rather the life events that are traumatizing him. This child has, quite simply, been given more than he can bear.

My own fight-flight instinct is to righteous anger at a world that would hurt children, but I’ve already wasted too much of my life in this endless spin. We have no control of the life events for this little boy. It is our job to help him find (or create) an inner strength by which he can survive. We cannot do this for him, but we can bear witness to the struggle and point to the incredible gifts that are his own. Our therapist says that we can help him to write a new inner message, one in which he is worthy, loved and lovable.  We do this one day at a time and trust that over the days that become weeks and then months he will begin to claim this message as his own.

Although not my class, the emotion of this stock photo captures the collaborative spirit that I witnessed. Beautiful.

In the meantime as I watch him chew on his lip, I reach for the iPad to redirect his mind and for today it works.

He eagerly takes the toy and puts his head down as his fingers fly.  Just five minutes later I watch as he is now in a huddle of boys building virtual Legos together, sharing two iPads cooperatively, happily. Brow unfurled, lip no longer chewed, wow.

This is the child he came into the world to be.

I sit on the rug, mesmerized and holding the moment. There will be other moments not so hopeful, this I know. All the more I cherish this one in which his spirit shines bright.  It is so very very good.