Tuesday, January 26, 2016

I remember the first time I realized what it meant to be cold. Not southern California cold, but actually cold. It was after lunch, my students had just filed into my classroom from playing on the yard. (By that I mean standing on the broken pavement outside the lunchroom, there wasn't anything more than a parking lot and broken basketball hoop.) In most schools, you would expect the students to shed their winter gear for the warmth of the indoors. But we didn't have that luxury, not in this corner of the nation's capital. I moaned as they flooded into my room. It meant I had to pull myself away from the corner where I had been huddled up by the space heater I bought with my own money. As my students liked to say, our school was "raggedy." The windows didn't shut all the way, more than a few of the panes were broken out completely. I had done my best to trouble shoot the issue of vagrant pigeons by taping pieces of cardboard over the gaps. There was no insulation to speak of and the heating system was even more fickle than the weather. 

My seventh graders found their desks as I pulled my fingerless mittens back on, buttoned up my coat, and psyched myself up to walk to the front of the class. I looked around the room, noticing that something was different today. See, my classroom was rarely quiet. There was always a hum and a conversation happening somewhere. I liked to think it was about what I was teaching, but sometimes it was just Billy telling Marco that his mama needed to lose some mass to reduce the amount of friction she was creating. I spent about two months fighting that, until I realized that Billy actually understood what mass was. And its relationship with friction. The thing about this moment, though, was that it was actually quiet. 

All around the room students were gently tugging off their beanies, smoothing their hands over their hair, and rifling through their backpacks for mirrors or brushes. If there was one thing my students had been taught, it was that you never wore a hat inside. "Guys, c'mon!" I said, "Bellwork? Let's get started please." And for the first time all year, all I heard was silence. Pretty soon the boys with the shortest hair picked up their pencils and started writing, then the girls with braids joined in. But the boys who were maybe a week overdue for a trim? Or the girls who were just giving their hair a rest for a day or two before it went back into a style? It took a while for them to join the activity. 
Before that day, I had never thought about hats. If it was cold, I wore one, if it wasn't I didn't. I didn't give a second thought to the fact that beanies are knitted from cotton or wool. When I take mine off, my hair might hold a little static electricity for a few minutes, but then all is well. With their hair, the fibers sucked the moisture right out of their curls. The friction broke their strands and made it look frizzy, even though they had spent hours conditioning and moisturizing earlier that week. Like a magnetic force, the fuzz balls from the cotton held fast against their scalps. And it was embarrassing to look unkempt. It was tacky to walk around with fuzz balls in your hair. It was mortifying to look like you didn't care, when in fact, you cared very much. 
The things I know now are the things I didn't know when I started that job. In a school where 99% of the students were African American and only two of us on staff were white, I had no idea that the hat thing was even a thing. Sure, you can chalk some of it up to growing up in temperate California. But there's a part of it that can't be blamed on anything. The part that I now know there are actually silk-lined beanies for those with deeper pockets. The part where there are schools with adequate restroom facilities for students to care for their appearance. The part where students are actually unable to learn until certain physical needs are met. 
Since caring for a son whose hair is different than my own, I've begun to realize what a big deal my ignorance was. It was so much less about appearance and so much more about acknowledging that something was important to my students on a level that I didn't understand. I think that's what has begun to strike me lately, over these past months where the thread of racial tension is being wound tighter and tighter. I don't pretend to know the answers to these problems. I know they're much deeper than my experience allows me to understand. But I am convinced, as white American Christians, that we need to learn how to listen, without judgement or excuses. To acknowledge that maybe the frustration is something so far outside the scope of our understanding, that we can't identify. We will never fully grasp why people are so upset or angry or hurt, but we can learn to empathize. We can learn to sit in that uncomfortable spot of saying, "I don't know, I don't have an answer, but I'm not going to negate your experience or your feelings or your voice just because it doesn't resonate with me." Instead of keeping an icy distance and cold indifference, maybe its time to initiate a thaw. 


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Today we played legos. We sorted and snapped the pieces into makeshift tanker trucks and cement mixers. We zoomed them around the floor and barked orders about where to fill up or unload. Moses decided he needed a guy to drive his truck, so he scurried off to sort through the mess of tiny pieces strewn about. He started humming while he searched. I guess it was a pretty typical afternoon, as far as three year old boys are concerned.

The part that wasn't so typical was the squeaky little voice that broke through the humming. "Pwaise da Lawd, O my soullllll."  Time stood still. I closed my eyes, the memories came.

Easter 2010. "Praise the Lord, O my soul." Sitting on my bed for the fortieth morning in a row, meditating on Psalm 103. Realizing that God had met me in the darkness of those 5am meetings, those quiet times I threw at Him as an ultimatum to show me that He was real. He transformed the heart I had hardened and made it soft again.

August 2011. "Praise the Lord, O my soul. And forget not all his benefits." Burying the tiny form of our child and the hope that he held. Trusting that those benefits were enough to sustain our broken hearts.

January 2013. "You're rich in love." Soaking up the mornings in Samuel's nursery as the sunlight fought its way through the dense fog, casting a soft glow through the big bay windows. Marveling that this tiny human was given to me, the most unexpected of gifts.

October 2013. "Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes." Morning and evening, walking the perimeter of the hotel compound in Kinshasa carrying the tiny frame of my son. Singing into his ear the words that became our anthem. Dreaming that each morning would be our day to go home together and crying out each evening as hope set with the sun.

January 2014. "When my strength is failing... Still my soul will sing your praise unending." The weekend I arrived back from Congo, without Moses. Standing in the auditorium of Everret Middle school in San Francisco, the voices of my friends singing for me. Sobs wracked my body, tears streamed down my face. Their hands reached out, offering comfort and courage.

June 2014. "The sun comes up, its a new day dawning." The weekend I arrived back from Congo, with Moses. The weekend we dedicated our boys back to the One who entrusted them to our care. That same group of friends reaching out their arms in love and support to greet the boy they had prayed so hard and so long for. The applause that arose, not for us, but for a God that meets us in the impossible.

A thousand other dates. A thousand other memories. Greetings and farewells. New beginnings and devastating endings. Life, death, and everything in between. Phrases of this passage and song floating around our little piece of the atmosphere.

I doubt Moses remembers the hundreds of times I sang that song to him in Congo.  But I'd like to believe my small act of faith imprinted on him. That is became as much a part of his song as my own. That when he heard it sung at preschool, a familiarity struck him. That through the chaos, he took away, "Praise the Lord, O my soul! Ooooooh my soul!" Loud and clear. Unhindered. Uncomplicated. On repeat. Our soundtrack.

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