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Now there has to be an “us”

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian society brought to devastating life on Hulu, elicits the jarring combination of awfulness and familiarity that makes dystopias so disturbing. It is a world where brilliant women are subjected to the rule of mediocre men, where heavily armed police abuse their authority, and where gays, lesbians, and dissidents live in constant fear of physical assault. As a hatchet-faced matron explains to the enslaved handmaids, “Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now. But after a time it will.”

In our America, that time has come. In the era of the Trump administration, the unthinkable has begun to seem ordinary.

I never dreamed that a man who boasted about sexual assault would be named to the highest office in the land. I refused to believe it possible that someone who rooted his political career in racism would gain the support of almost half my fellow Americans, including members of my extended family and colleagues at my school. Even after the shock of the election, I didn’t anticipate that almost every member of a major political party would defend overt racism, sexism, religious discrimination, and anti-immigrant rhetoric simply because it had put their party in the White House.

It feels like a bad dream, Ebenezer Scrooge’s fervent wish that Marley’s ghost might simply be “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a fragment of underdone potato.” But it isn’t a dream. It’s real. It’s happening.

The only good thing to be said about ugly eras is that they give rise, always, to heroism.

I’m tired of euphemisms. I’m finished with bland descriptions of “this era,” “these times,” “this political climate.” Those vague terms fail to name the crimes of this national nightmare, let alone their perpetrators.

The only good thing to be said about ugly eras is that they give rise, always, to heroism. As the heroine of The Handmaid’s Tale observes, “Now there has to be an us. Because now there is a them.”

Over the past two months, through an extraordinary series of posts on social justice and equity, I discovered the collective heroism and strength of that “us.” All seven pieces were written by teacher leaders who are LGBT, people of color, or both. Two of the writers are African-American, one African-Caribbean-American, one Asian-American, and one is Latina; three are openly gay or lesbian. Their insights and experiences come from a perspective that straight white teachers like me--no matter how much we listen, learn, and care--will never be able to provide.

Consider these searing lines.

From Fear: A luxury we can’t afford by William Anderson:

"Fear freezes us up. Fear makes us stay home. Fear can push people, any person, into paralysis. But I need my students and anyone feeling afraid of the changes that are happening in this country, the world, and in their lives to know that fear is a luxury."

From Students of color matter by Jozette Martinez:

"We need to teach our students of color how to see themselves differently. We need to see them differently. I struggle, because there is such little time. I wonder: How can one be a teacher of color, with students of color, and not assimilate to white culture in an educational system set up to benefit white culture?"

From Hiring Black teachers only solves part of the problem by Val Brown:

"Integrated schools often function in a “school within a school model.” The teachers of color are assigned to teach the students of color. You know what you have when all of the teachers of color teach all of the students of color in an integrated school? Segregation."

From Leaning into my truth by Lori Nazareno:

"I am a lesbian. There. I said it. It’s not that people don’t know; it’s that I rarely say those words out loud. And I never said it out loud when I was teaching. I can’t help but wonder how being more visible during my teaching years might have impacted the thousands of students with whom I worked. What did I teach them about standing in their truth (or not)? Did I inadvertently convey that they should hide who they really are? I know I can’t go back and do it differently. Reflecting on it now, I wish I could."

From Finding the courage to support queer youth by Rich Ognibene:

"Most kids in America never read a book or see a movie at school with an LGBTQ character. Most kids in America don’t learn anything in Health class that’s specifically tailored for people with diverse sexual orientations and gender-identities; this lack of knowledge can have life-changing consequences, particularly for young gay men who are high risk for HIV/AIDS. Most kids in America never see an openly gay or transgender teacher. Because most schools in America are afraid to acknowledge that queer people exist."

From You don’t get to disengage by Jemelleh Coes:

"There is one barrier to injustice that we can begin to correct immediately…ourselves. Every time you choose to disengage, you miss the opportunity to better understand exactly how science or all other academic content is connected to equity and justice. Every time you choose to disengage, you shrink from your responsibility to bridge links between schooling and social justice. Every time you choose to disengage, you send the message that what is happening in the lives of your students is not connected to what is going on inside your classroom."

From Three essential responses to Trump that will change the world (or at least your part of it) by Shanna Peeples:

"Charlottesville snapped something inside me. It wasn’t just the faces of those white guys carrying torches that were young enough to have sat inside one of my classrooms. It wasn’t just the video of a man driving his car into protestors where a girl almost the same age as my daughter was killed. It was that plus the grotesque response of the man who occupies the White House. The whole season of his presidency has filled me with daily dread and personal poison. What if we allowed his words, the words of his supporters, and the actions of his enablers to function as a mindfulness bell or church chimes? As a call to action that asks us to be peace for each other?"

These courageous teacher leaders have inspired me to ask three questions of the collective “us” who teach truth in a time of distortion, kindness in a time of cruelty. They are questions relevant to the work we do in our classrooms, our homes, and our lives.

What will I start doing?

What will I stop doing?

What will I keep doing?

Our most vulnerable students need us to seek, discover, and live the answers to these questions.

Join me and these incredible bloggers as we wrap up the Equity and Social Justice Roundtable with the #EquityInEd Twitter chat on November 14th at 7:00 CT.

Justin's post is part of CTQ's blogging roundtable on equity and social justice in education. Join the discussion by commenting on this blog and checking out the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to chime in on social media. 



Renee Moore commented on October 26, 2017 at 11:45pm:

Love the graphic!

This has been an amazing series of discussions, and I'm hoping they will continue to generate much-needed conversations and action for a long time after this roundtable ends. Great work, all. 

Ann Byrd commented on October 27, 2017 at 3:26pm:

Proud to be part of "us"

Thanks to all the talented and courageous educators who have contributed to this roundtable discussion. CTQ's goal grounded in the power of these stories is that this is indeed the conversation that does not end. Just the beginning of "giving rise to the heroism" Justin so poignantly described. Well said and well done, all. #onward

Tricia Ebner commented on October 28, 2017 at 6:12am:

Call to Action

I want to thank all the writers for a thought-provoking, powerful series of posts. Just as the conversation needs to continue, we also need to make our decisions about what we stop, keep, and start, and then do just that. 

Carl Draeger commented on October 31, 2017 at 2:56pm:

Clarion Call

If not us; who will stand for the voiceless?

If not now; how bad does it need to get before we do something?

Justin, your words are a warrior cry to my spirit. It reminds of the words of a French hero of WWII. When asked if he was afraid to join the resitance movement against German occupation, he said, "Afraid of what? The risk was the same if you do nothing. So at least in the resistance I could fight. I was fighting for humanity." Make no mistake - there is a war going on. There has to be an "us" for the sake of the black lives (which have not mattered for too long), the Dreamers having the rug pulled out from under them, and for the LBGTQ kids who just want the freedom to be themselves. It has to be "us". 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on November 10, 2017 at 9:43am:

Haunting, true words.

Carl, I love this: "The risk was the same if you do nothing."

We have to remember that. I love the spy novels by Alan Furst set in World War II, because they're often about ordinary people--French farmers, villagers in Greece--taking small actions as part of the Resistance. Risking their lives by pedaling old bikes up a country road to mark a safe place for Allied paratroopers to land. Smuggling crates of provisions in the back of their barns. It reminds us that it's not always charging a bunker or storming a beach; it's often small acts of courage.

For me, this week, that meant gently pushing back when I felt that one of my students was being overly defined by the number of sight words she had learned rather than her imagination and spirit. It meant an awkard conversation at a PLC when we got a flier in our mailbox to send home with students promoting a Bible club for a particular Baptist church in town. And, of course, it means that daily work of summoning the patience, heart, and love to teach vulnerable students to be strong writers, readers, scientists, mathematicians, and thinkers.

Thanks for your heart and your words.

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