Krista Christensen

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On White “Gifted-ness”

My 8-year-old son is in what the state of North Carolina calls the “Academically and Intellectually Gifted” program. Just tonight, the school district asked me to complete a survey in which I replied to the following open-ended question about my son’s education:

“What do you like least about our school?”

Below is my response:

Unintentional (or intentional?) racial and socioeconomic segregation within the gifted program. Alter the manner and/or measurements by which students are allowed into the gifted program to allow students of color who show promise this extra attention (even if they don’t perfectly meet standardized scores) and thereby move us all closer to a more equitable society and world. My gifted student would be a better person if more people of color were in his gifted program (even if they “slowed things down a bit,” whatever that means) and those students of color and/or living in poverty deserve that opportunity, since much of the reason students of color and/or students living in poverty don’t perform well on standardized tests has to do with cultural, sociological, or nutritional elements beyond their control. Being rigid in the measurement system that allows students a label of “gifted” only perpetuates the cycle of poverty and/or institutional racism.

In fact, The Institute for Educational Advancement has cited “a quiet crisis in the education of gifted students, as there is a disparity in the proportion of students identified and served in gifted programs among talented children from economically disadvantaged homes and/or from culturally or linguistically diverse (CLD) groups.” The Atlantic recently posted that “the odds of getting assigned to such programs are 66 percent lower for black students and 47 percent lower for Latino students than they are for their white counterparts.” And Scientific American showed, over four years ago, that gifted programs “typically enroll outsized numbers of European American and Asian American students hailing from relatively well-off homes. Members of other ethnic groups, meanwhile, tend to be underrepresented, as judged by the percentage of these students in a school district relative to that in its gifted program.” As as Hechinger Report notes, “Even between children with the same math and reading scores, a white student was twice as likely as a black student to get assigned to a gifted-and-talented program.”

It is this racist discrepancy in enrollment which so irks me.

Of the 31 listed staff on my son’s elementary school website, not one is a self-disclosing person of color. What this means is that I looked at all of the staff’s personal websites; some I know just from being a parent there. There are seven instructors who might not be white, because I don’t know who they are and they don’t have a picture posted. The rest: white. All of them. The principal too, and the two front office staff. Of course there are all the educational assistants, who don’t get their own webpages and so whose races I cannot determine. What I can determine is this:  the teachers in my son’s school are 77 percent white, 23 percent undetermined (likely white, based on my experience of various festivals and school programming).

Public School Review, by contrast, lists that 27 percent of the school attendees are students of color. My son reports that of the 8-10 people that are in his pull-out Academically and Intellectually Gifted class that meets once a week to work on god-knows-what… some special-kid shit like advanced fractions or something… zero are people of color.

Zero.

In a community where more than a quarter of his school attendance is comprised of people of color, not one, NOT ONE, from his third grade made it in to this class. Of course, some students might identify at two races and/or be white-presenting (to him–an 8 year old) but the fact remains that HIS experience of his class is one of white kids being pulled out to learn special, advanced stuff. His truth, his experience, is one in which 27 percent of his Regular Ed classroom (17 kids x 27 percent = four or five kids) are black or POC but NONE of his Advanced class is.

What does that teach him about the world?

It teaches him that smart kids are white, of course.

Alternatively, it teaches him that the white kids are smart.

I hate both these options.

In spite of all the advocacy and explicit teaching that I do at home about race and racism (which is probably not enough but goddamnit, it’s some), what my son sees, day in and out is his regular classroom, is a system full of people of different abilities and different backgrounds, and then, every so often, he goes to a specifically labeled smart classroom with all-white peers where they can do advanced learning.

This is a fucked up worldview to pass on to my son–an impressionable, extra-conscious and super-just individual. A boy who cries when confronted by the injustices of the world. A boy oozing compassion.

What is he learning from all this “advanced” work?

And as a parent, I ask myself, is it all worth the trade-off? Is his being “academically challenged” more important than his appreciation that all people from all backgrounds should work toward a greater good? Is his being “academically challenged” more important than a struggling but obviously intelligent child of color being omitted from the Gifted program because they didn’t perform well on a battery of tests? Or because their white teacher judges how they don’t sit nicely in their seat?

I know I’m generalizing here. I’m a teacher myself, and I know not all teachers are like that. I know not all students of color struggle to stay in their seats. I know white children struggle to stay in their seats. (Don’t get me started on recess). I know not all Gifted classrooms are 100% white. But generalizing is often how we access ugly, fixable truths. Like America is a racist country, despite having lots of anti-racist citizenry. Like America is a sexist country, despite having a large proportion of feminists.

I guess my question, as a parent, is this: Is what my white son learns in an mostly- or all-white Gifted program worth more than learning patience and respect for all people working in a regular-ed classroom?

The ultimate question though–the more real and important one–is this: what will it take for school districts to identify children of color and make room for them [READ: for a proportional, and not token, amount of them] in Gifted programs?

Even if it means adjusting the acceptance rate just for them (I know, this smacks of Affirmative Action… and I mean it to). Even if it means letting them test several more times than the other students. Even if it means that the school is trying, very hard, to correct the effects of institutional racism by explicitly reaching out to people of color and helping them–really helping them–to understand what it takes to fill that notion of “gifted.” A notion developed by a society mostly intending to keep them out.

Listen: my son shouldn’t have to sacrifice his gifted education, and neither should a child of color who acts out in class from boredom and doesn’t garner a teacher-override recommendation because the teacher is white, and accustomed to expecting too little, or has too high an expectation of stillness and quiet. Together, these children are the generation that are going to dismantle the racist cisheteropatriarchy, and we need all hands on deck for that shit.

Further reading on diversity in gifted programs here and here and in above links.

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On Veterans and Veterans Day

Yesterday was Veteran’s day.

Here’s what I hate about Veteran’s Day.

I see a lot of images and memes “Thanking Veterans.” For a few brief hours, the internet swims in stars and stripes and purple hearts. But it’s important to remember that putting a yellow ribbon magnet on one’s car, or file cabinet, or fridge, doesn’t help a veteran in need. Embroidering a Thirty-One tote with a yellow ribbon, or putting an image of one up as one’s profile picture: these are all very visible ways to look good supporting a good cause without actually having to do good works and help a fellow human.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s all well and good to post an image of an American Flag superimposed over a Purple Heart overlaid with the words “Thank a Veteran Today.” But shouldn’t we be thanking veterans everyday? What about the smelly ones that live under a bridge? What about those veterans holding a cardboard cutout with “Hungry” scrawled across it sitting at the freeway offramp–do those veterans deserve our thanks? And furthermore, would we–as individuals, as a nation–give it? Currently, we do not.

Not on November 11, and not on any other day.

The pictures making the rounds yesterday–Veteran’s Day–are of two brands: images from actual war service (which may not be so pretty) or images from clean, shaven, polished vets in dress blues–or better yet, images of statues and monuments, clean and bronze and shiny. Nowhere do I see memes sharing the reality for more than a million vets who are homeless or at risk of being unhoused.

In fact, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, nearly 50,000 vets are homeless on any given night. And, like you may have guessed, veterans of color account for far more of these depressing statistics. The vast majority of unhoused veterans, by the way, are young–returned from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan–people my age, or younger. Want more? Read this article about the veterans and substance abuse. Read this article about the prevalence of suicide among vets. Read this article about female veterans seeking redress for sexual assaults which happened during their service. Read this article about the high rates of veterans on death row.

I teach at a community college–remedial English–and every term I have veterans on my roster. One, I remember in particular, dozed off in class repeatedly. This was because his bunk at the VA was infested with bedbugs–as were all the bunks. He was up all night scratching, and spent his days wandering through a fog of sleeplessness. He could not pass my class. He could not pass any of his classes. When I spoke with him, during office hours, did I thank him for his service? Yes. Was it November 11? No, it was not.

Yesterday, I wondered if those who thanked a veteran by spending a total of 30 seconds clicking “share” would crawl through the brush to get to a homeless veteran, living in a tent on an over-pass and drowning their PTSD in Mad Dog 20/20 in order to thank them for their service. Or better yet, bring them a hot meal. Or take them for a hot shower. Maybe some job training. A lice-free bed to sleep in.

More importantly, would I?

Changing one’s Facebook Profile picture for a day “in honor” of veterans does nothing to help them survive the struggle of re-assimilation into civilian life, or help them cope with PTSD, or help them gain secure employment when their military training doesn’t translate to a civilian job, or garner them safe, secure, drug and alcohol free housing. It doesn’t fund the necessary psychologists and specialists the Veteran’s Administration would need to help those returning from service assimilate back into civilian life.

So in the wake of this Veterans Day, in addition to thanking my brother and sister in law, and my father, and uncle… I am also thinking about those who may not look or smell as nice, but who all the same served our country. In many ways they gave up even more: their mental and physical health, often long past their time of service was up.

Here’s a place you can look up organizations helping homeless vets get stable housing and substance abuse treatment in your area. Here’s another organization that focuses on housing as well. Here’s an organization helping veterans who sustained injuries during their service. And here’s one specific to assisting assimilation for returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. This organization serves female veterans specifically. And this one that works to help women serving in the armed forces. In the Asheville area, check out this and this wonderful organization.


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Opting Out of Beauty

Stars_by_ethereal_forest303_pe_girlfriendWhen I was seventeen (exactly half a lifetime ago), I worked in the the Juniors’ Department of a major department store chain. One day, I wore a knee-length skirt. A coworker, also seventeen, and heavily made up, gasped in horror at my legs.

“You don’t shave?” she squealed.

“Nope,” I shrugged.

“Do you ever, you know…” she began, then faltered, working to formulate her question. “I mean, what do boys say? Do you ever get asked out, looking like that?”

Like that? I laughed. The truth was that I had a boyfriend, and I’d had several prior to that. I’d never had a problem with interest from the opposite sex. “Sure. I mean, yeah, I get asked out. If a boy doesn’t like my legs, why would I date him?”


Recently, a spate of op-eds and columns have addressed the implicit sexism that suffuses women’s appearance. This is not just a question of female insecurity: women today are not considered completely dressed until make up is applied and hair is neatly coiffed, a standard that is not applied to men. This article noted that the time lost constructing a well-dressed female form was, in itself, a penalty for being female. And this recent article in the New York Times hit home the notion that, as women continue to kowtow to today’s expectations of dress and appearance, they struggle to teach their daughters how not to value appearance over merit.

Nowadays, I do shave my legs. Originally, it was to please a few conservative family members at my wedding reception. Once I shaved (for the first time in six years), I realized that the tattoos on my legs looked nicer–realized that I myself liked looking at them more. I continued to shave, and still do, not because my partner likes it, or because I fret over my job security (usually I cover those tattoos anyway).

I shave for me.


Throughout my teens and twenties, though I didn’t eschew make up, I rarely wore it. I owned one tube of lipstick, which I trotted out perhaps a half-dozen times a year, and some tinted Chapstick, and a compact of translucent powder. For a short time, I wore mascara, but after a grain of sand lodged in my eye and had to be medically removed, I gave up decorating my eyes; black clumps clinging to my lashes only reminded me of the painful foreign object.

In my thirtieth year, I visited a specialized salon and had my waist-length hair knotted into dreadlocks. I’ve worn this hairstyle for nearly three years, and I spend about as much time on my appearance as my husband does on his; a few times a month, I twist my roots and otherwise neaten and tidy my hair. Most days, for work, teaching college composition classes, I sweep it back into a bun. I pat some translucent powder over my nose, forehead and cheeks, both to dim the shine that will build over the day and also to provide a bit of sunscreen. I dress conservatively, in comfortable skirts or pants, a plain shirt and a cardigan sweater (working in that department store taught me that fully dressed for work is three pieces, and I never fail to follow this rule… one which applies equally to men and women). I put on a set of comfortable 1/2 inch heels and am out the door.


Thing is, now that I’ve revealed to you that I didn’t shave, that I now have dreadlocks, that I reject make up, I will be labeled. Perhaps even now, the dreaded H-word lingers on your lips: hippie.  But I remain unconvinced that any response other than outright rejection of an industry built on capitalization on female insecurities will win what women fear they continue to lose, what women fear they cannot teach their daughters–to value themselves for their abilities, for their heart–while trucking about makeup-ed and in four inch heels. Because those women–brilliant, intelligent, successful women–fear the backlash that rejecting the fashion industry might bring.

The problem with this logic, however, is that the whole debate, the whole farce of the feminist rant against make up and fashion, misses the point completely. Yes, it’s unfair that today, men do not have to concern themselves with their appearance as much as women do. But just as the mommy wars keep women battling one another, so does casting the problem of female preoccupation with image as one of feminism, as one of inequality between the sexes, miss the point.

The issue is, at its core, one of blind consumerism. Companies of all kinds prey upon consumers and highlight their supposed deficiencies in order to convince them of their need for products to alleviate said deficiencies.  This kind of advertising thrives on competition, on the consumer’s competition with her peers. Underlying this competition is a fear: of looking bad, of being judged, of some terrible fallout sure to occur, should a successful woman suddenly be revealed as unpolished, average and normal, in a candid Instagram photo.


The fears only have power because women, collectively, validate them. If a woman rejects the implicit notion that she is somehow deficient, the need for the product–eyeliner, hair dye, cuticle lotion–disappears. The more women play into the fear of never looking their best, the more money companies make off of them. That collective insecurity dooms us all, yet insecurity is a choice. We can choose confidence instead. We can reject judgments, rather than whine about them. If a person has a problem with my appearance (beyond the basic modesty and hygiene required for the proper execution of my job), the problem is not mine. No, that issue lies with the person doing the judging, not the person being judged.

Let’s teach our daughters and sons that buying products and keeping up with the Jones’ will not bring happiness: not with make up, not with four-inch heels, not with new cars or bigger houses or bigger salaries or matched bedroom sets or coordinating separates. If a daughter will learn to value herself for what’s inside, she will learn it from her first, and most loving, teacher: her mother.

As for me, I will busy myself teaching the future husbands of those daughters, my sons, the true nature of beauty.


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Keep or Toss?

Yesterday, a person from my MFA program shared this piece by Megan Mayhew Bergmanin, “Tidy This.” Go ahead and read it, if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.


Clutter Books

It’s good, isn’t it? Humorous, self-deprecating, an excellent commentary on the nature of value, of the worth of things. I really enjoyed it.


At my first MFA residency, my instructor and several of my classmates gasped in appalled horror when they learned that I had recently thrown away (“tossed”) two journals chocked full of early twenties angst, journals written after I moved a thousand miles from home with a boyfriend ten years my senior who promptly dumped me.

 How could I? my writerly colleagues wanted to know. How could I throw them away? That stuff is writing gold! 

Yet when I placed the two journals, one spiral bound and covered in cheesy stickers, the other a cloth-covered perfect-bound, into the garbage can (I didn’t even recycle them) I felt lighter, like I had thrown away the heaviness of those experiences, not the happenings themselves.

Bear in mind that I had heretofore stored them in four separate houses in Portland circa 2003-2009, and another three houses and a storage unit in Alaska the following four years, and more recently, two apartments in Asheville in the years after we moved, before I cracked them open for the first time since abandoning the practice of journaling altogether (yes, I’m a writer who doesn’t journal. Sue me.)

Here’s what happened when I cracked those journals open: I was confronted with a me I didn’t like, a me I had hated being, a me that didn’t like who she was or what she did and thought terrible things. A for instance: I met my husband in the waning days of my journaling, after many, many bad decisions which I documented in desperate, creepy detail, complete with pages full of mulling over my inadequacy and the perceived judgments of others.

After this depressing thumb-through, I decided to poke around the area of the journal where I might discover something positive, might be able to relive the absurd flurry of pseudo-romance that categorized my initial courtship with my future husband. But here, I found something else entirely. I found I had written judgey, suspicious, awful things about him, things that made me recoil, things I hoped he would never read, things I wanted to time-travel and erase, not just from the page, but from my mind. Though I had fallen for my husband almost immediately, had been in love with him during the entire scope of writing in my journal, I didn’t write my love down: I wrote my fears instead, small, mean, un-joyful fears, fears masquerading as anger and bitterness and hopelessness.

In fact, this was logical, healthy even, I would argue. The journal was a safe space, a place to put my fear of abandonment so that I wouldn’t drag that dead animal around a burgeoning relationship. And it worked: I didn’t drag my fear and bitterness into it (not too much, anyway). But nonetheless, in 2014, eleven years after the fact, it was shitty to read. These were not thoughts I wanted back. There was no deep spiritual experience. They were clutter, in the deepest sense of the word: the books themselves, which I had dragged across a continent (twice) as well as the thoughts buried within. They both weighed me down.

So when I read them, I asked myself the same question that the Tidying Expert uses: Do these did bring me joy? The answer was clearly no.

Toss.

I believe in this: a life of curated joy. I select what I surround myself with carefully, and I do not trudge through my life lugging items, snail-like, that do not benefit my existence in a direct and palpable way. I let go of things that don’t bring me joy. I do it constantly, methodically, removing items from my home with frequency, working hard to make a habit of this. I want to do this with my mind as well, removing thoughts unbeneficial and small. I want to make room for the big, important stuff of life. I don’t want my mind, my home, my life, so crammed with old and burdening things that there is no room for new opportunity or growth. I refuse to become pot-bound by an addiction to things that don’t create space for joy.

I, too, would have tossed Wuthering Heights. (But maybe that’s why I never read it in the first place.)

Back to the for instance: if I want to write about the loving romance, and the fear, of meeting my husband, I can do that without my bitter documentation, dragged over 7,000 miles and eleven years. I can write my story because it was my life and I lived it and I trust my memory. The oral tradition tells us that millenia of humanity held many a story in a single mind, and furthermore, that these persevered, so much so that we still have them today. I don’t rely on journals or other paraphernalia to under-gird my writing or my life. My writing needs no validation: not even from my former self.


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Making Nice

Some of you may know this, but after many, many years rejecting the social network, I am now on Facebook. I made this concession because I wanted to network professionally: I still have serious concerns about FB’s privacy policies as well as their legal claims of ownership on all media posted therein. So, I don’t post pictures of my family. I don’t share internet cat videos (although the occasional literary or grammar meme does slip in!). But I’m there, nonetheless, and sometimes, I’m worried about stepping on toes.

In this “digital age” we so often slip into new habits of interaction without really considering their consequences, and of course, as the Buddha says, we become our actions. Now, I do feel silly asking friends who have been on FB for years whether or not it is “okay” to post on someone’s timeline. But aren’t virtual friends still friends, nonetheless? And shouldn’t they, at least in theory, be actual friends, as well as virtual ones? If so, the risk of offending one should be considered carefully, just as I would in “real” life.

Here’s a second tech-iquette issue, and one I deal with much more directly: phones in classrooms. I’ve seen a range of responses to students on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or, heaven forbid, just simply texting. Outright prohibition works about as well as liquor prohibition in the 20’s. So teachers are left with what they do best: teaching. The problem is, there is no common code of digital etiquette. Evan Selinger’s TEDx talk proposes some, but do others have any ideas?

What does digital-age etiquette look like? What sorts of smartphone/social media faux pas truly anger you? Tell me, because though I am a digital native, I’m struggling to fully understand the etiquette of social networking, and I do find myself facing my phone instead of my children, or dashing off an inappropriate comment. Talking about these issues, I think, will foster that community we so crave.


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A Sacred Space

In my modest town-home, off the master bedroom, is a nook, with a sink and a towel bar. At the opposite end of the nook entrance is a door to the bathroom, which itself is centered between the two upstairs bedrooms; there’s another door to the bathroom at the top of the stairs.

Since moving in, we struggled with a way to use the space effectively: at one point, it was a baby-diapering area, at another, it was a supplemental clothes closet. We have never used the nook as it was intended: who needs a second sink in their bedroom? Maybe people who shave or wear makeup–things Leif and I rarely do.IMG_20150129_103723

Finally, six months ago, I found a purpose for the room. In the sink I placed a Pothos plant. On the counter, a few magazine holders, stuffed with copies of Creative Nonfiction, The Sun, the Southeast Review, River Teeth. In front of that, a jar of pencils, some sticky notes, a candle. I pinned a scarf over the mirror covering the entire wall above the sink, and unscrewed three of the four vanity bulbs above it. I rigged file holders to the towel bar using wire twist-ties from bread bags. I flipped a closet rack upside town and mounted it as a book display shelf using cup hooks I screwed into the wall. I slid our camping cooler beneath the sink. I stuck an over-sized rattan chair in the nook, placed my tea on an overturned plastic file box, and voila! A writing space of my own. Virginia Woolf herself couldn’t have been more proud.

So this is where I sit, right now, writing this post. Ambient music floats up from my Pandora app, and the candle warms lavender oil, sending the calm scent into the air. It’s all very zen, very pleasant, very comfortable. It’s easy to assume that I would do all my writing here.

IMG_20150129_103713But after investing so much time and effort into crafting a creative home for myself, I’ve realized that what surrounds me is far less important that what is within me. I only do about 30% of my writing here, while I do about 90% of my filing and paper-storing here. It’s nice to have just one place for things, to know that all my literary journals are here, to know that all my MFA paperwork is filed right there. It’s also nice to have a retreat from the bustle of children downstairs, now that we are keeping the baby home in an effort to save money.

But I don’t need a special space to be creative. Sometimes I do my best writing in a busy coffee shop. Or a bustling library vestibule. Or a darkened dive bar. In my children’s bedroom as they fall asleep, just because they want me there. It would be a tragedy if, because I created a sacred space, I came to depend on it, to need it, to be unable to create without it. In germinating my sacred space, I’ve learned that I don’t actually need it, the way I don’t actually need lots of things. The way I’ve learned that by holding onto things too tightly, I choke myself in that grip.

I’ve learned that, because I carry the sacred within me, the sacred surrounds me.


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The Malleability of Words

When I teach my developmental English classes, one of my first exercises is on the malleable nature of words. I drag out that old standby, the word that is fabled to be but is not actually the longest word in English, antidisestablismentarianism. Then, methodically, I coach students through recognizing the prefixes and suffixes, one at a time, until we are finally to our root word: establish.

Carefully, we sally forth through each affix until we’ve finally decoded the meaning of the word. As much as possible, we determine the meanings of these roots and affixes as a class, rather than looking them up.

  • Establish. We know that buildings are established, therefore we know this means to make or to build.
  • Establishment. Technically, the suffix -ment refers to a process, so this would mean the process of building or making something. However, we know, too, that an establishment is also a free standing thing, a building, a government, a place of business. (Usually I do not go into the specific establishment that the word references, the Church of England, but if the question is posed, I’m game for the digression).
  • Establishmentarian. Here, we discuss suffixes that shuffle words into different categories; -arian is a suffix that shows support for some idea or concept, sometimes a person like librarian  or disciplinarian, or sometimes  a adjective like egalitarian or humanitarian. It is at this juncture that we can begin to see the cumulative nature of these affixes, and to determine, based not on a dictionary but on our own understanding of language, that establishmentarian means to be in support of the establishment.
  • Disestablishmentarian. This one is often a gimme for students, and a welcome break from the nebulous suffixes of –ment and -arian. Dis-, they know, means separate, or apart from. Now they know that disestablishmentarian means to be separate from those in support of the establishment, or even more simply, a person or belief in destroying the establisment altogether.
  • Antidisestablishmentarian. Another gimme here, and now students begin to feel as though this word is making sense (though many still determine it to be a foolish kind of sense, and at times I’m inclined to agree). Anti– means against, we all know, so now antidisestablishmentarian becomes easy, almost old hat: against those who want to destroy the establishment.
  • Antidisestablishmentarianism. The –ism initially confounds students, but they soon recognize their old friend; the list of –isms they collaboratively build in class is quickly long and varied. Because it simply “belief-ifies” a word, students know now that antidisestablishmentarianism is a belief that people should oppose those who want to break down a particular establishment.

Hardcore grammarians will perhaps tsk-tsk, as the true root here is the word disestablish (disestablishmentarians desired the disestablishment of the Anglican Church as the state church). Still, the sense of the definition that we arrive at communally is, for remedial students, serviceable. What’s important here is not that students understand the nuances of the word, but rather, that they appreciate the malleability of words, and the process by which words are broken into their component parts.

The full effect of this lesson can’t be conveyed in a blog post; there’s too little room for scribbled notes on whiteboards. Still, the purpose of such an exercise is, for developing writers, to demystify words. Too often, people are shuffled through our education system without developing a true depth of understanding in any one concept. But, to understand fully the fluidity of words and their component parts is to understand thinking itself. It’s a worthwhile endeavor for, not just writers, but humans.