“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”– James Baldwin
This week students are reading The Things They Carried, and working on definition essays about love, or war. It’s fitting, because right now, it feels as though our society is definitely on a precipice suspended between the two. Due to the daily trauma of never knowing what violent event will occur next, or where, or which group will be targeted, both children, and adults are carrying a lot.
Working in education, I know I have to do something, but what? Do I declare war against those who create policies altering school environments so dramatically that neither my students, nor I recognize what it means to have fun getting an education? Or, do I work to help others transform our practice room by room, teacher by teacher through the slow spreading of radical, and revolutionary love in the classroom?
Monday, our school was given a gift. NY Times Bestselling author Nic Stone came to Montbello. For us, this was nothing short of miraculous. She signed books for students, read the first chapter of Dear Martin aloud, answered questions, gave hugs, and words of advice, and was generally a beacon of love and support for our children. I continue to feel so immensely grateful for her visit, because seeing the looks on my children’s faces, and the life she breathed into them as readers is like nothing I’ve ever personally experienced.
As just one example, one of my students had a mother, a grandmother, and a girlfriend die last year. This particular student lit up in her presence in a way I have never seen in all three years we have known each other. After the visit, when I asked the student if they wanted another book from my library, they said, “Definitely, but let me finish Dear Martin first.”
This is the power of reading living writers.
We live in a book desert, so we do not have access to bookstores. Our public libraries exist, but none in schools, and our hard-working immigrant community is much more focused on generating income to pay for college, and upward socio-economic mobility, than they are on purchasing books for in-home libraries.
For all of these reasons, Nic’s visit was a game-changer. As I looked out over the sea of students–many of whom had not read Dear Martin because of lack of reading time or established habits–I sensed their responsiveness to her presence and her reading in such a powerful way. Nic is one of those people who embodies that unique combination of passion, talent, and drive that really is transforming our world. The students, and our entire community, felt this.
After the assembly, Nic said that our students had her feeling like #BookBeyoncé, which they did (I can testify to it because I was there).
What she doesn’t know is that she made them feel special, too. Most of my students do not have firmly established reading identities,
- knowing she cared enough to come visit
- hearing her read aloud from her engaging, and culturally relevant book
- having the experience of meeting her
- talking with her
- receiving a signed copy of the book with a personalized message
WILL change that.
The thing about working with students in communities like mine is that students are not quick to trust strangers. They do not really know what to do with someone who shows them love without an ulterior motive. But, they can tell when someone actually loves them. Nic loves kids. They feel it. They know it.
This is miraculous, because from their perspective, accepting love from adults you don’t know when you are so used to feeling suspicion toward, or rejection from them–is a battle.
Nic came to our school because of our mutual association with #ProjectLitBookClub and my dear friend and colleague Jarred Amato. I will forever be grateful to the Project LIT Community for the book love and support we share on a daily basis. They are a consistent force for good in my life and that of my students.
Project LIT truly is changing the world–making it possible for authors and teachers and students to come together to share a love of reading that will open doors for children in underserved communities. We use our love of socially conscious and culturally relevant books to ask the big questions of society, and empower our youth to be proactive about producing change. Students initiate projects that bring literacy from the schools into their communities–and so much more. Reading the Project LIT books this year has given them the confidence to see themselves as experts. It has validated and affirmed their lives, identities, and experiences.
Four years ago, the district closed our library and our librarian quit. Blame it on the bureaucracy, as people do, and as dystopian as it sounds; there are no longer any libraries or librarians in any school in Far Northeast Denver. The physical library spaces (with books students cannot check out – thrown haphazardly on shelves) remain. The expectation that students demonstrate literacy scores on standardized tests equal to their counterparts in suburban schools persists.
It is a grim situation. And, it is precisely for this reason that author visits, grants for classroom libraries along with generous classroom donors, and programs like Project LIT are so important. I am one who believes that a life without books is a hollow life indeed. It is true. I am biased, but love is a battle–love is a war. I believe in fighting for what, or who you love. I love my students, so I will do whatever it takes to win this battle with and for them. I also believe that “books save lives”, so I will go to any length for my students to have opportunities for high quality education, forming reading identities, and participation in life that they deserve.
This week was also Valentine’s Day, and another senseless incident of violence took place on the very day when we have traditionally celebrated our love for one another. In a Valentine’s Day PD session, we talked about radical love in the classroom and what it means in our white-dominated educational landscape if students of color do not feel loved by their teachers.
What can we do to change that, especially if cultural differences in “love languages” are the reason our students do not feel loved? What is our responsibility to them to make sure they DO feel love at school? How does this translate into an individual’s sense of alienation or rejection by a teacher, class, school, or the system as a whole?
I would be remiss if I ended this post without recognizing the 18 victims of yet another mass shooting in a school in our country, most of them young people with brilliant futures ahead of them. This did not have to happen.
We will never heal if we can’t examine the relationship our country has with violence and it’s rampant disregard for humanity. It is my belief that this is a direct consequence of living in a society where we treat one another as objects and live segregated lives; culturally, geographically, psychologically.
These are not values that belong to my community. Here I will say something radical: My children believe themselves to be safer in the “ghetto” than they would be in the “white world”, and they might just be right. Despite what you see on TV, people in communities of color — though we may have our issues stemming from the deliberate destabilization of individuals, families, local businesses, and our educational systems — do not prey on one another with surprise attacks involving AR-15s. We are for the most part united because of our cultural traditions, because of our shared experience of being othered, and because we’ve realized that for means of survival, if nothing else, we have to belong to each other.
“Love is a battle. Love is a war; Love is a growing up.” We must, as a country, grow up and raise our collective consciousness to the point where we are no longer able to see one another as objects, separate from ourselves, if we truly want to stop the cycle of violence.
Love is also a verb. It’s not just what you think, feel, or say. It is not the expression of now-becoming-defunct “Thoughts and prayers”. It’s what you do. If we truly want change, we have to show that with our actions. The future is now. We cannot afford to wait for “someday”. Change has to begin today.