The Book We Need Now

Had I known when I was younger what these students were sharing, I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis–a paralysis that arose from never knowing enough of my own history to identify the lies I was being old: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today. (Clint Smith)

In this shocking era, when states are passing ill-advised, deceptive laws to prohibit K-12 students from knowing about the sickening, wounding realities of their own history, we truly need a book like Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.

The students Smith is referencing, above, are performing as part of a rich Juneteenth celebration on Galveston Island, TX. They were part of a six-week summer program sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, designed to teach children the real story about where they live and what happened there.

Don’t all children need to know about the place they come from? Its triumphs and failures?

In the book, Smith—then a doctoral student at Harvard—visits a number of historical sites around the country that chronicle the record of slavery and its impact on every aspect of American life. He begins at Monticello, sharing his conversations with two white women in his tour group who had no idea who Sally Hemings was– the enslaved woman who gave birth to four surviving children by Thomas Jefferson. These older women, interested in ‘seeing history,’ are astonished to hear about the 600 human beings owned by the great statesman.

Each of the chapters is distinct, featuring plantations, graveyards and annual memorials. The chapter on Angola Prison, in Louisiana, is grim, beginning with its original purpose, in the Reconstruction era: to round up, then house, a low-cost workforce for plantation owners who can no longer rely on the enslaved. The chapter on New York City makes clear that nobody north of the Mason-Dixon line can claim that slavery only existed in the South.

The chapter on Goree’ Island takes us to coastal West Africa, where captured Africans were sent off to their new lives (or deaths) as enslaved workers, and includes this quote from the curator of the House of Slaves, a museum on the Island:

After the discovery of America, because of the development of sugarcane plantations, cotton, coffee, rice cultivation, they forced the [Native Americans] to work for them. And it was because the Natives died in great number that they turned to Africa, to replace the Natives with Africans.

And there it is—this is and always has been about gross economic development. How to make money off exploitive and unpaid labor of others, and the ugly rationalizations used to defend such ugly practices. And how far back this goes—long before the Middle Passage.

In a time when employers are begging for workers after a deadly pandemic (that some employers denied or downplayed), this is a particularly resonant message.

This is, indeed, the book we need now.

Smith tells us, in an Afterword, that he went to many more places than the seven he describes in great detail in this volume. That suggests that there are always places nearby—places where students have been, places they are familiar with—that can serve as testimony and memory of our local history.

As educators, it is up to us to teach that history. This is what all the anti-‘CRT’ protestors fear: the truth.

Smith illustrates that learning the truth is never divisive. It may be painful, and may produce rage—but knowing how this country was built, whose backs and hands produced the wealth and power only some of us enjoy is the cornerstone of building a more equitable society. The truth can unite us, over time. But we have to listen to each other.

Clint Smith is a published poet, and he writes like a poet and storyteller–there is lots of detail and description. Once you get past an expectation of fact-based academic writing, you begin to appreciate his nuanced depictions of people and places, the colorful, palm-strewn islands and damp, gray prison cells. Smith adds only enough data and dry content to enrich, not drown, the narration.

The book is easy to read. I read it one chapter at a time (which I recommend), pausing between to absorb and think, because each segment shares a unique perspective. Smith reiterates, in a dozen ways, that slavery didn’t start in Africa, and African-American history didn’t begin with the capture and selling of human beings.

It was a global wickedness, economically driven, but it still impacts America–the idea and the reality of America–deeply. We can’t get past it until we know the history.

Read this book.

Excellence vs. Winning

It was everywhere on Facebook yesterday. A guy named Byron Heatha teacher, natchwrote a powerful post about Simone Biles, remembering Kerri Strug’s stupendous gold-medal vault performance in 1996, landing on one foot, as the other ankle was injured: 

Yesterday I was excited to show my daughters Kerri Strug’s famous one-leg vault. It was a defining Olympic moment that I watched live as a kid, and my girls watched raptly as Strug fell, and then limped back to leap again.

But for some reason I wasn’t as inspired watching it this time. In fact, I felt a little sick. Maybe being a father and teacher has made me soft, but all I could see was how Kerri Strug looked at her coach, Bela Karolyi, with pleading, terrified eyes, while he shouted back “You can do it!” over and over again.

My daughters didn’t cheer when Strug landed her second vault. Instead they frowned in concern as she collapsed in agony and frantic tears.

“Why did she jump again if she was hurt?” one of my girls asked. I made some inane reply about the heart of a champion or Olympic spirit, but in the back of my mind a thought was festering:

*She shouldn’t have jumped again*

The more the thought echoed, the stronger my realization became. Coach Karolyi should have gotten his visibly injured athlete medical help immediately! Instead, Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. And he got what he wanted; a gold medal that was more important to him than his athlete’s health.

There’s more—Heath makes several points, perhaps the most important being our new national lenses on what constitutes heroism, going above and beyond—and what’s abusive. What I remember most about that incident is Karolyi scooping Strug up after her jump and carrying her off the court and up to the podium. Strug is tiny—4’8” and childlike–and the image in my brain now feels less triumphant than creepy.

I also thought of my first year as a HS band director, at band camp. We had a good group of college-age sectional coaches, including a color guard instructor who had those girls eating out of her hand–drinking milk at dinner (strengthens your bones!!), going out to the field 15 minutes ahead of the band for extra practice, pushing them even when they were pale with exhaustion, to show the band that they were trying harder than the rest.

Mid-week, she came to me and told me one of the girls was slacking off–a whiner, a baby. Saying her wrist hurt. Crying. The girl was brand new to the band–I didn’t know her at all, so I didn’t have any idea if she was, in fact, a whiner. The guard coach told the girl it was put up or shut up–if she wanted to be in the band, she had to do all the moves. Work through the pain. The other guard members, and the band, were depending on her.

I sat down with Megan at the sidelines; she was sobbing and clutching her wrist. I called her dad from the camp office—this was before cell phones– and offered to take her to the closest hospital for an X-ray. He said he would drive up and meet us there. Sure enough, her wrist was broken. Shattered, in fact.

Her dad drove to camp and picked up her things. He was furious after hearing that the coach had shamed her and made her do things that may have made the break worse.

Of course, by the time band camp was over, and we were back at school, she had quit the band and never returned.

The color guard coach was young, maybe 21 or so, and mostly doing what had been done to her in her years as a flag twirler—demanding the physical and mental effort necessary to put on a good show.

But I was the teacher, the arbitrator of pushing kids to excel vs. pressuring teenagers to ‘work through pain.’ There is a difference, and I thought I understood which was optimum for teaching and learning.

I know lots of coach types (and lots of band directors) who have adopted the blood-and-thunder school of drill, discipline and devotion. And maybe a little pain.

The question is always, I suppose, why? What’s the desired outcome?

Is it about winning? Or is it about excellence—which, as Simone Biles has amply demonstrated, does not require competition? Two different things.

We’re a winner-take-all society. But it hasn’t served us particularly well.

A Story about My Dad and My Refrigerator

There are lots of stories I could tell about my dad. Some are heroic and wonderful, others not so much.

My dad died young, at 58, of brain cancer, and one of the greatest blessings in my life was that, by the time I was 28, we had reconciled all our old grudges and battles.

Here’s one story: A few years before my dad got sick, my very young marriage had failed, and I was moving downstate to start my first teaching job. Of course, I had zero money and no car. But I did have the promise of a job in September, so Dad took a day off work, drove me three hours up to where I’d been living, then three hours back downstate to help me move my few possessions (think card table, mattress, stereo) into a teeny tiny upstairs flat in Howell.

One of those possessions–probably the most expensive thing I owned at the time– was a refrigerator.The apartment had a rickety outside staircase. After everything else had been moved up those stairs, all that was left was the fridge. We didn’t have a dolly or strong young backs available.

So my dad, using the trailer strapping, strapped the fridge to his back and carried it up those stairs, and plugged it in. It still worked. We drove home (another two-hour trip, to the west), where he sold me his car (a brown Buick LeSabre) over the kitchen table, with excellent, low-interest terms. He happily got himself a new Buick the next day.

I paid that Buick off, $50/month. And later sold the fridge, to pay my phone bill, watching the newlywed who bought it strap it to his back.

Down is better than up, when it comes to moving refrigerators. And dads are what you need, when you’re down.

The Best Woman for the Job

Now that I’m not in the classroom every day, I occasionally have breakfast with a group of retired band directors who live in Northern Michigan and meet monthly to reminisce about the good old days in public school music education. Here we are, in September. Notice anything?

cadillac breakfast.jpg

I’m guessing the gender ratio would be similar in any state, if you got retired school band teachers together.  Kind of looks like Congress did, in the 1970s, when I started teaching. Or graduation day at any law, engineering or medical school, back then. A man’s, man’s, etc. world.

I have a large collection of stories around being the only alto in a room full of tenors and basses, year after year. Some of them are funny (like my very first regional band directors’ association meeting, where I was offered the position of Secretary five minutes after introducing myself—and I took it). Some are terrible, heart-rending memories of being belittled, underestimated and ignored. Or worse.

The funny thing is, I didn’t set out to be a pioneer.

I wanted to teach instrumental music, for two simple reasons. One, playing music was my greatest joy in life. Nothing moved me and fulfilled me more than the challenge and the glory that came from making beautiful music.  That may sound like rhetorical overkill, but it’s true. I got hooked on gorgeous music early in life and wanted to turn it into my life’s work. I wanted to share that joy with kids—make their lives richer and more rewarding.

The second reason I became a band director is because I thought I’d be good at it.  I’d observed many instrumental conductors at all levels, played in lots of groups other than my school band—and knew something about what motivated me as a student musician. I had already worked hard to successfully master an instrument and was confident that I could learn the skills and knowledge necessary to become a school band teacher.

Of course, I knew that most band teachers were men. In fact, I’d never worked with or even met a woman director. My high school band instructor told me that he ‘didn’t believe in lady band directors’ and suggested I pursue elementary music education as a college major. The university I chose (like other universities at the time) did not permit women in the marching bandit took lawsuits to make that happen, around the country. Nobody was encouraging me or mentoring me.

Nevertheless, I persisted. It really wasn’t a dramatic personal quest to break a glass ceiling with my piccolo.  I just wanted to teach band.  It seemed like a fun and rewarding job. For anyone.

I went on job interviews where my fitness and stamina in directing a band were questioned. One principal I interviewed with told me he had no intention of hiring me—he just wanted to meet the girl who thought she could handle his HS band.  When I finally got a job, teaching middle school band, the principal who hired me had been on the job one day.  Maybe he didn’t know the rules about band directors? In any event, once I got a job, I was a band director for 30 years.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal, as mid-term election outcomes have become clear. You’ve probably seen the photographic comparison of Republican vs. Democratic freshmen in the House of Representatives.  ‘Diversity on Stark Display’ says the headline—and it would be difficult to argue, in a representative democracy, that diversity isn’t the crucial ingredient in a fair and equitable decision-making body—or teaching staff, for that matter.

Senator Debbie Stabenow wrote a piece about how the top four offices on the ballot in Michigan were won by women. Not because they were women. But because they were the best person running for the job. The entire mid-term election was a festival of firsts, on the diversity front—and the outcomes were good.

Numbers, in all jobs and experiences once thought to be (usually white) men’s work, are leveling out. The visible trends are positive. And that—in politics, education and the world of work—is good. I’m grateful to every woman who carved or smoothed the pathway for those who came after her.

That doesn’t mean that subtle, deeply embedded sexism has gone away, though. It hasn’t.

It’s often understated and frequently not recognized by its perpetrators. Men relate differently to other men than they do women, in the workplace (and on line). Sometimes, our buried assumptions drive actions in ways we can’t predict. It’s complicated. I learned to work around bias toward women as band directors, but it never went away.

I’m not just making this up, by the way. There’s research.

Whenever I’ve written a blog about the lopsided gender relationships in education, I get a lot of negative feedback. There is lots of room for growth in the way we value who’s teaching second grade, and who’s writing the laws that govern education, however.

You have to be careful before leveling a charge of sexism. But the fact remains, sometimes the best woman for the job is passed over for someone whose qualifications are being louder and ‘bolder.