Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: University

Online Learning for Those Who Just Can't Anymore

So I’m in the unique position of being able to look at the pandemic through the lens of the exhausted higher education faculty member as well as the eLearning professional.

In the past year, I’ve started working as an eLearning professional at a community college. Before that, I taught for 15 years as an ESL instructor with almost all of that teaching done in the face-to-face modality. I have also taught online and used a flipped learning approach frequently over the past few years.

My Lens as a Teacher

Just last week, a new group on Facebook emerged: Pandemic Pedagogy.

In the first few days, as instructors swarmed to the site, it became clear that there were a few currents of sentiment that went like this:

Just… like… how the hell am I supposed to teach online?

I’m utterly exhausted from teaching already, and now I have to do even more work?

I’m an adjunct instructor and I don’t get paid for this extra work. LET’S REVOLT.

Be kind to your students! Their lives are completely disrupted, just like ours, and they may not have reliable internet access! Figure out how to maintain educational equity!

I’m falling apart because the kids are home and I’m creating all this new content and I’m not keeping up with grading and I keep getting desperate emails from students and I’m worried about my health and the federal government is a mess and I can’t find toilet paper anywhere and my spouse says my job is so easy because it can be done online and I CANNOT DO THIS ANYMORE.

My empathy for teachers everywhere right now is real. This flat-out sucks. Teaching online isn’t “easier.” Having done it, I can say that it is definitely more time-consuming, as you are constantly communicating with students, generating or posting content, and trying to keep up with grading.

Then, multiply all those efforts times THREE, FOUR, or FIVE and you start to understand why some teachers are seriously ready to bail out in the middle of semester and work at Kroger or Amazon (They’re hiring!).

What I want to say is that you have every right to be frustrated and stressed about the situation. I hope you take your moment to blow this whole thing off for a period of time. But when that moment passes, and for most of you I think it will, please know that no one (at least reasonable people) is expecting you to perform miracles.

So when the anxiety keeps you up late at night, you are definitely not alone.

My Lens as an eLearning Professional

As an eLearning professional, I’ve been reviewing hundreds of courses over the past week to check whether the course is ready to go live on March 23rd.

At this point, we are not looking for stellar courses. Quality Matters alignment is out the window. We are simply looking at whether students can access an updated schedule and can find the content that they need for the first week or so of class.

So let this be my first reassurance: If you’ve got an easy to find document/post where students can tell what they should do on which date, you are already ahead of the curve.

As for the rest of it, here are some snippets of advice:

On Getting Oriented

Consider prominently posting an introduction to the second half of the course on your LMS course page. Video is best because it establishes visual instructor presence, but even a nicely worded document can do. Reassure your students that you will get through this course together. Practice kindness with your students and ask them to be kind to you. Go over any FAQs that you want to make sure that all students know before you embark on this journey. Make what works for you. Providing this kind of introduction provides reassurance and stability to your students that they desperately crave right now.

On Teaching Synchronously

Please, please don’t feel that you have to generate all new content for every lesson. Don’t feel that you have to record all of the lectures that you would have given face-to-face. And if you’ve been given different advice from administrators, I implore you to do what is best for your students anyway. This is not the time to listen to bad advice.

Here’s the truth: Students do not want to watch you teach synchronously during the same hours that you had been spending together face-to-face. Their lives have been completely disrupted. Their kids are out of school. Maybe they lost their job or are working a new one. Maybe they have limited connectivity at home.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t teach your content. It means that you find accessible ways to do so. If you used to teach for 50 minutes on a topic, extract the key points and boil it down to 10-15 minutes, followed by a series of exercises, problems, or case studies, whatever works for your field. Make sure your students have access to the answers so they can assess themselves and track their understanding. Remember that your students can re-watch the videos. There is an incredible amount of repetition, re-clarification, and reiteration that happens in in-person teaching that is simply not necessary in online teaching. Say what needs to be said and move on. They can re-watch the videos and ask question in the forums that you provide. (And don’t be afraid to embed instructional videos that others have made. If the videos are on YouTube and allows for you to embed it on your course page, the content creator benefits from the additional views.)

My advice is: Offer an optional synchronous office hours time, maybe just 1 hour per week, where students can drop in and ask questions.

Be prepared: It’s likely that the ones who come won’t even want to talk about the class in the first session. They may just need someone to process the disruptions in their lives. This is how you build rapport, community, and more importantly TRUST. If your students trust you, they are more likely to stay engaged over the long haul and struggle through the challenges of learning in an era of disruption. You don’t have to be specially trained to do this. Just BE KIND and listen. Acknowledge what they are going through. If you feel like it, share how this crisis has affected your life.

I also encourage you, with the permission of your students, to record your office hours and share the recording with the class, to build that sense of community for your students who are not able to attend synchronously. Even simply watching an asynchronous recording of you talking with other students can go a long way toward helping all students feel connected to you in this time of uncertainty when everyone is so isolated.

On Organizing for Student-Centeredness

Give students a course schedule, an updated syllabus, or even a basic pinned announcement or post that is your students’ cornerstone for the course. Tell them what to do on a weekly basis so they can keep track. I recommend labeling modules by weeks or dates and organize content inside of those weeks. Students don’t want to go to 8 different modules to pull together all of their content for one week’s work. (Spoken by a teacher who has organized her class like this! Learn from my mistakes!)

Rest assured: No one is expecting you to do a stellar performance this term.

On Online Quizzes

If you’re going to administer a quiz online, please preview the quiz as a student and consider any tweaks that can make it less stressful for students. Do what works for your situation and remember that some of your students are likely to have spotty connectivity, which can make it stressful for them to do an online quiz between a certain time period, especially when it’s timed.

Final Thoughts

So if you just seriously can’t anymore, you are definitely not alone.

Keep your class simple and clear.

Do what you can.

Be kind.

We are all just trying to get through this.

Playing Video Games While the Kids are in Daycare

Final Fantasy VII Characters: Red XIII, Barrett, Cait Sith, Aeris, Cloud, Tifa, Cid, Vincent, and Yuffie.
Final Fantasy VII Characters

Summer is usually the time that I write more, but I’ve ended up using the past two and a half weeks just immersing myself in the healing power of Doing What I Want to Do.

This past academic year was rough. Extremely rough. I took six graduate classes in one year while teaching full-time. And I presented at three conferences. And then there were the two kids.

I don’t mean this to sound like I’m so Amazing Because I Do So Many Things. It was actually kind of stupid of me to over-commit myself to so many responsibilities. If I learned anything from this past year, it’s this: Although my mental breaking point has risen dramatically since I had the kids (surprise! surprise!), IT STILL EXISTS.

In mid-June, there I was. Dissolving into tears at a Saturday Morning Breakfast when a friend asked, “How are you doing?”

How am I doing?

Does it matter?

I’m dying inside. 

I haven’t had more than thirty minutes to think about something besides responsibilities in over SEVEN MONTHS.

I don’t do anything besides chores, work, school, chores, work, school. 

Well, yes, I exercise, but I get up at 4:00 a.m. just to do that. 

I haven’t seen adult TV since April. Period.

I haven’t done anything creative, FOR ME, for ten months.

I think that’s what has hurt the most. I’ve been holding onto a list of Things to Do that is about 100 items deep, and every time I knock enough of the things off the list and edge closer to a moment when I can do something that I want to do, SOMETHING ELSE FOR SOMEONE ELSE TAKES ITS PLACE.

Well, that’s just motherhood, hon’. Get over it, part of me thinks. You can do something for yourself in fifteen more years. 

And so the fight goes on.

This is the headspace of Mother of Two compared to Mother of One.

I truly don’t know how my mom survived being Mother of Five.

She didn’t drink. She had no vices that I could see. Her weapon was optimism.

I still don’t know.

***

So this is what burnout looks like.

Dusting off the ole’ PS 2 (purchased in 2001…) and playing Final Fantasy VII from the beginning, this time checking off the acquisition of each and every damn Enemy Skill, leveling up the characters beyond what they need, and grinding away at enemy fights with high AP.

Burnout is reveling in the complete obliteration of fake monsters, which you’ve already beat at least five times before, mind you, (even if it was years ago) that cower with your use of Beta or Bolt 3. It is actually mentally and physically enjoyable to watch yourself knock out Boss after Boss in a few major magic attacks–when you’ve spent the entire academic year grinding away, teaching the same classes over and over again, wondering if you’ve yet told that joke to this current roster of students.

Oh, they laughed, so nope, that joke was still new to them. But you are so very tired of yourself. You don’t find yourself clever or interesting anymore. Teaching has become a bit of an out-of-body experience where you actually–while verbally giving instruction–imagine a reality in which you are finally completely ALONE in a cabin, high in the mountains, with nothing but silent snow falling all around and six more books in the Wheel of Time series to read.

That’s burnout.

That’s what I’ve been coming back from over the last two weeks.

***

In mid-May, I came across this blog post about the level of burnout that working moms feel, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

However, it’s conclusion was this: Hey, Moms. Be vulnerable and let people know that you can’t do it all. Be real and don’t pretend that it’s all okay.

Um. Thanks. That’s not helpful.

I’m real all the time about how things are going. A month ago, an energetic co-worker saw me in the office’s kitchen and cheerfully asked how I was doing.

I said, “Running on fumes.”

“Awww, poor thing. Sorry to hear that.”

Which, yes, is somewhat nice to hear, but it doesn’t do much. And I’m certainly not expecting acquaintances to solve my burnout problems. I might also hear or “Eck, that sucks” or the murderously infuriating, “Well, this time goes fast, so don’t waste these moments!”

But it’s not helping to be vulnerable and real with people about the stress that I typically carry when I’m working full-time and taking care of two little ones.

That’s because the problems are systemic. When you live in a country that PITIFULLY supports parents, you end up with high levels of stress and burnout among working parents. (Not just working moms, hello.)

The 40-hour work week sucks for parents because you’re probably spending an additional 3-4 hours each day just caring for kids. And when you’re done with that, you just want to sleep. So really, between working and caring for kids, you’re putting in 60+ hours.

AND THEN HERE COMES THE WEEKEND.

Only it’s not the “weekend” anymore. It’s 24 waking hours of taking care of your kids, or at least keeping them safely occupied.

And if at any point in this post, you’ve had the thought, Oh please, move on, hon. This is your responsibility–You are proving my point.

Being real and being vulnerable about these issues doesn’t help because too often society says that parents (in particular, moms) should not only selflessly accept their responsibilities–they should revel in these most sacred of moments, when the children are small. Because that is what GOOD MOTHERS do. They find endless amounts of fulfillment and life satisfaction simply in seeing their children thrive.

If that’s what a good mother is, then I’m doomed to be a Mediocre Mom.

As much as I love my kids (and I really do), I cannot pretend that neglecting myself for months on end doesn’t have its consequences.

Right now, the consequence looks like this:

final_fantasy_vii_rerelease_screenshot_01

Of course, it truly does help when you hear your two-year-old says this:

***

Okay, truthfully, that’s not all I’ve been doing. I’ve definitely needed time to myself, but I am still very much me–and there’s part of me that just cannot be tamed, I guess.

We have finally filmed a video on knife sharpening for our YouTube cooking channel, which we have been planning to film for the past ten months. I’ve laid it out. It’s edited. It’s mixed and almost produced.

There’s also another project that I’ve been quietly working on, which I’ll debut in a few weeks, if not earlier.

More to come.

And, hey, thanks for reading and not judging.

Hopefully, I’m not scorched in the comments for “being real.”

PoP # 12: Preschool Graduation Humor

When you pay $$,$$$ for 4.5 years of full-time, year-round infant/toddler/preschool daycare, you’re damn right we get a tassel.

felicity-graduation.jpg

There goes your college fund, Kid. Love you. Hope you had fun.

Just kidding.

We never had plans for a college fund. That’s why your mom teaches at a university.

For the win. Again.

What I Know About Muslims

prayer

 

If you’ve never talked to a Muslim, I write this for you. Maybe you’d like to know more about what Muslims are like, but you’ve just never had the chance to talk to one.

Maybe you are a little afraid of Muslims.

Maybe you’re a lot afraid.

Wherever you are in your familiarity with Islam, I write this for you.

Not many Americans have had the opportunity to know and interact with as many Muslims as I have. And so, I consider it both my duty and my gift to share what I know and what I have seen.

***

I first started teaching university international students in 2006, which was one year after King Abdullah II of Saudi Arabia allocated a boatload of money for Saudi citizens–both men and women–to study abroad. Indeed, for the past ten years, I have taught hundreds of Saudi citizens, not to mention students from Kuwait, UAE, and Libya. Nearly all of my students from these countries were Muslim, though it’s important to mention that not all of them were.

Before I started teaching Muslim students, my knowledge of the Middle East and Islam was relegated to what I had read in the news of my post-9/11 world. I was a sophomore in college when September 11th happened and it awoke in me a new desire to understand the Middle East and Islam.

Why do they hate us? I remember thinking. Why do they want to hurt us?

Most of what I pieced together included a bunch of disjointed ideas about the Middle East, gathered from the news.

  • Many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian.
  • The United States wanted to have a presence in the Middle East to get oil.
  • Women in the Middle East were oppressed, couldn’t drive, and were forced to wear veils.
  • Jihad meant “holy war” and it was required of all Muslims.
  • Criminals could be beheaded.

This fragmented understanding of Islam and the Middle East is what I took into my classroom at the beginning of my career.

Just as all Christians cannot be described in generalized terms, neither can Muslims. They have their Five Pillars of Islam. But referring to their Pillars of Islam didn’t show me their humanity in the same way that teaching them did.

Allow me to share some stories with you.

***

Zeanab

My first Saudi woman was named Zeanab. She was all smiles. Smiling. All the time. That is how I remember her. She was married to another student, Ali. They were newlyweds. Zeanab believed in destiny and God’s presence in her life. She told me that she had a dream of her husband before they met.

Zeanab was sharp and studious. She always, always, always did her homework. She talked in class. Frequently. She enjoyed working with other students. I loved having her in class.

I remember that another teacher had asked Zeanab if she had helped her husband with his essay. The teacher felt that Ali’s essay did not resemble his usual work and suspected that Zeanab had, probably unknowingly, committed academic dishonesty.

I remember that Zeanab came to me, in tears, at the beginning of one of my classes. She told me,

“I swear to you now that I am not helping Ali with his homework. But if you believe that I am, I will take the zero.”

I remember that.

***

Abdullah

Abdullah was like a lot of my young, 20-year-old Saudi men: single, humorous, and a bit clueless about general life skills, not to mention study skills. He lived with some cousins and friends, other young men just like him. They congregated outside of the building and smoked together during breaks. He was constantly coming to class late and not doing his homework. He fell further and further behind. His test grades were poor. He started acting out in class, and it was driving me nuts.

I scheduled a midterm conference with him, totally expecting him to be either defensive of his actions or combative. I was ready for chauvinism. I was ready to level this guy.

But when he walked through my door and sat down, I changed my mind. Instead of bringing the pain, I asked him what was going on in his life.

He stared at his shoes. He was silent.

“What’s going on, Abdullah?” I softened my voice. “Why aren’t you getting to class on time?”

Silence.

“Is something wrong?”

He looked away, but quietly said,

“This is the first time I live without my mother.”

With his profile facing me, I could see the tears. He pinched his eyes.

In that moment, I was ashamed at myself for assuming that he was just another tough guy who couldn’t stand having an American woman teaching him. Here was a boy trying to be a man, uprooted from his culture, and handed an armload of responsibilities that he never had before. It was like watching a novice swimmer trying to dog-paddle across a lake–with anchors attached to his feet.

***

Asma

Asma joined my class in 2008-2009. She and her husband came from Libya, just several years before the 2011 revolution and toppling of Gaddafi’s regime. They had a little boy, I think around 2-3 years old at the time. While she worked to finish her English language studies so she could start a Ph.D. in pharmacology, her husband stayed with their son at home.

And then she got pregnant.

We talked with her about how the pregnancy would impact her studies. She was determined to finish, but her due date was about one month before she would complete her English study.

It didn’t stop her.

In my morning writing and grammar classes, she was like a tiger feasting on a fresh pile of meat. She would devour everything that I said. While other students struggled to stay awake, she would take mountains of notes. She asked questions. She wrote my answers to her questions in her notebook. She reviewed her tests and asked about her mistakes. Then, she tried to learn from those mistakes.

But she was also putting her body under intense stress.

She went into labor early. I can’t remember how early she gave birth, but her daughter was born just under six pounds. Tiny. But perfectly healthy.

She missed Thursday and Friday classes.

She was back in class on Monday.

She finished our program on time and started her Ph.D. program.

There are few students in the past ten years that I can remember being as driven as Asma. But what made her truly unique was that she always, always, always asked how everyone else was before she talked about herself. She would periodically bring in Libyan snacks and sweets to share with the whole class, including a carafe of Arabic coffee.

She did not complain. She would privately talk to me about the stress that she was experiencing, but she never outsourced her frustration to external factors.

She always saw herself as the one who had control over her life.

***

Hathim

Hathim was in my Fall 2011 class. He was a brilliant student. He was one of the few students in my career who asked me to explain the past perfect tense to him–and then immediately got it. And immediately used it correctly in his writing. Hathim was preparing to enter the Master’s program in electrical engineering.

One day, Hathim was talking excitedly to another student in Arabic before we got started.

“What’s going on?” I asked him.

“You know what King Abdullah just did?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“He’s going to allow women to vote in local elections soon.”

His eyes shone.

***

Fahad

My father passed away on a Thursday night in June 2014. I found out the following Friday morning. We drove to Minnesota over Father’s Day weekend to attend the funeral. I was gone from class for a whole week.

When I checked my email after returning home, I saw email after email from students, most of them from my Muslim students. All expressing their condolences.

Then Fahad came to my office.

“Teacher, we just wanted you to know that we are so sorry about your father. Be patient, Teacher. God is with you.”

***

Here is what I want to say about Muslims:

When I was in my early 20s, I used to think that Islam somehow convinced its followers to hate Americans and Christianity.

But after just a few interactions with my Muslim students, I knew that could not be the whole story.

I could not simplify terrorism’s origins to strictly religion. My students followed a different religion, but I could still see myself in them. I could see their humanity. Their vulnerability. Their generosity. Their love. If they followed a religion that necessarily espoused hatred, how could their hearts be so tender to someone like me?

It just didn’t make sense.

The jihadist terrorists that we so often hear about in the news are sacrificing themselves for a distorted, extreme version of Islam–but the people who are nurturing and training those terrorists are doing so for much more complex political and economic reasons. Islam doesn’t teach Muslims to be terrorists and jihad doesn’t call all Muslims to strap on suicide vests.

Islam is being used as a tool of terrorism, but the roots of terrorism are economic and political.

But blaming the whole religion of Islam is much easier to explain.

It’s more convenient.

Even though it’s completely misinformed. Even though it’s devoid of context. Even though it’s devoid of humanity.

So when I hear that the idea of establishing a registry of Muslims in America is being floated as an idea that the Trump administration is considering, I smell opportunism ready to reap the harvest of fear.

I can see plenty of Americans–many who have never personally interacted with someone who is Muslim–nodding their heads along with the idea.

Jihadists terrorists need to be stopped! Look what they did to Paris and Brussels! We’re next! Find out who’s here and vet them! Give them tests! Find out who supports Shari’a law! We’ve got to know what they believe and what their values are! They’re anti-American! They’re the next Trojan horse!

To those Americans, I offer you not only my stories of teaching my Muslim students, but also my stories of learning from them what the heart of Islam is.

It’s their intense love and devotion to their family. They cannot understand how Americans could support the idea of nursing homes.

It’s their generosity and hospitality. I cannot tell you how many plates of dates I have been offered and how many cups of Arabic coffee have been poured for me.

It’s their devotion to their faith. To witness all of your Muslim students, faithfully fasting every day in the month of Ramadan. To hear them fall collectively to their knees during Jummah, their Friday prayer. To see them stop in the middle of the day to pray.

These are values and behaviors that I have witnessed over and over again across a range of students from many countries over ten years. To be sure, there is a great range across all of those I have known. Some are more conservative and some are more progressive. Some are a little more hesitant about participating in American culture and others throw themselves headfirst into the American life. Some were amazing students whom I enjoyed teaching every day and others were a pain in the neck and teaching them was a struggle.

But even across the wide range of my experiences, I could see the values and behaviors that were shared among all of them.

I am humbled by my Muslim students.

Because in the beginning, they were more accepting of my religion than I was of theirs.

The Things You Can’t Leave Behind

I’ve spent most of my life counting.

Adding.

Subtracting.

For most of my life, everything has been numbers. Everything has had a price.

When I started to work at 16 years old, I learned that even my time had a price: $7.14 per hour. Eight hours of cashiering, standing on my feet, and pushing Target credit cards on customers–that was worth $57.12.

Minus taxes.

Plus the ten percent discount on anything I bought there.

Minus the cost of uniforms.

Minus the cost of gas and car insurance.

Plus a hot dog if I got to work the food court—and if there were any left at the end of my shift.

***

When I started college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was surrounded by new rules that I didn’t understand.

Why didn’t she finish her fries? Is she just going to throw them away?

Where did this “North Face” brand come from? Everyone here is wearing it.

Am I going to what? Rush? Rush what? What are you talking about?

At some point in my freshman year, I learned that thirty percent of my classmates were coming from families with an average income over $200,000. Over $200,000.

Oh.

I couldn’t even imagine it. $200,000. It was an astronomical figure. It was fourteen full-time Target cashiering jobs. Fourteen!

I was fairly certain that my parents may have managed to pull in about $75,000 together, at the height of both of their careers (but then downsizing and disability stepped in.)

Although I moved solidly into the upper middle class when I married my husband (yes, I’m one of those kind of women), I still don’t feel like I belong. For me, this new social class is a coat that I’ve been trying to zip up for the past ten years. I can’t ever get the zipper to the top to keep everything in place because it keeps getting stuck on past assumptions and expectations.

I feel this tension at odd moments—when I’m talking with another mother who is pushing to get her 2-year-old in the next class, because he can already count to twenty. Or when I overheard a group of college girls talking about when their flights leave for home. Or how about when I was sitting with other members of my church, and they were talking about just how many activities their kids have to do to get into college. Orchestra, soccer, show choir, it’s outrageous!

I find myself nodding politely in these situations, fake smile across my face, Oh yes, that’s a tough spot.

I feel like a liar.

I feel like an impostor.

I feel like at any moment, someone is going to figure out that I don’t belong here and call me out on it.

***

It wasn’t until I got married and we joined our bank accounts that I felt like I could really breathe. I had about $50,000 of student debt from my undergraduate degree (working while going to college didn’t make that much of a dent). Thankfully, my graduate degree came for “free.” All that was required of me was two years of my youth and my commitment to teach and grade stacks of essays for first-year composition courses.

Although my husband got a job as an electrical engineer as soon as he got out of college, I stumbled around academia and the world of on-line education for five years until I couldn’t stand making $18,000 per year anymore. During those five years, my time was segmented and measured unevenly. $11.00 per hour for the on-line tutoring job. $18.00 per hour for grading standardized tests on-line. $1200 for teaching a three credit hour course for ten weeks. Multiplied by three courses. Minus any benefits. Divided by the uncertainty of knowing if I had a job in another ten weeks. No one could decide how much I was worth and so *I* couldn’t decide how much I was worth.

From my first year of teaching at a university, 2006. Making maybe $17,000 per year for teaching a full-time course load.

From my first year of teaching at a university, 2006. Making maybe $17,000 per year for teaching a full-time course load.

When will we have full-time jobs? Well… we want to stay small. And your pay is similar to what others are being paid for the same work elsewhere, sooo…

Although everyone wanted a piece of me, no one wanted to take a big enough piece that they would have to insure me. And they certainly wouldn’t take a big enough piece of me that would require them to accept any criticism or–as I call it–“guff.”

Do your job, keep your opinions to yourself, and we’ll all get along fine.

As fortune would have it, when I finally decided that I had had enough of academia, the floodgates of international students opened and ESL teaching jobs became abundant where I lived. Full-time jobs for everyone!

Benefits? Yes! Full benefits! Can you start tomorrow? Do you have friends we can hire?

Ah, life.

***

It wasn’t easy for me to make the mental shift into the middle class.

I remember a few weeks after we got married in 2005, my husband and I were shopping for a Christmas gift for my parents. We decided to buy them new sheets and a new comforter set. We stood in Target and all I could do was look at the price tags: $69.99… $89.99… Oh, here’s one that’s only $49.99! I picked up the cheapest set of sheets and handed them to my husband.

He turned the package over in his hands and then gave it back to me.

“Sweets, we should get them nice sheets.”

I looked back at the price tags. Is he really okay with spending $69.99 on sheets? I reluctantly picked up the more expensive set.

He shook his head and picked up the $89.99 set.

I was dumbfounded. That set hadn’t even been a possibility in my mind.

“You don’t think that’s too much?” I asked.

“No. They’re your parents.”

I bit my lip.

“What about the comforter set?” I asked.

“Okay,” he turned to look at the options on the shelves. “Which one do you like?” he asked.

“We’re still getting a comforter?”

“Yeah, that’s what we came for, right?”

“I just didn’t know we were spending so much money.”

“It’s Christmas. It’s your parents. How much money did you think we’d be spending?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know… maybe $50?”

***

We had a lot of these conversations early in our marriage. Me, constantly dumbstruck that we had enough money to go out to eat several times on the weekend; constantly amazed that my husband never, ever looked at the prices of food when he bought them; constantly waiting for a bill to come in the mail that we couldn’t handle.

That moment never came.

Maybe I was so surprised by his somewhat cavalier attitude toward spending money because he also came from a working class family. He was the youngest of six kids. A Catholic family. His father was a carpenter, his mother a stay-at-home mom. Money was always tight—but somehow they made it work.

And that was how I remember my childhood. My father was a baker (and later a bakery specialist).

Dad in his element, 1990

My father in his element, circa 1990.

My mother was a cake decorator. Our family of six moved from rural Minnesota when I was four to a rough part of Dayton, Ohio. We adopted my youngest sister (my biological cousin—a long story) and became a family of seven.

In urban Dayton, I learned the difference between poverty and working class.

Poverty was the children at my school who descended hungrily on their hot school lunch trays,  ripping the plastic film that sealed them, scraping the sides of each compartment clean. Not one carton of chocolate milk went into the trash.

Poverty was a friend’s house that I visited when I was six—its carpet spotted with dog shit.

Poverty was that friend’s refrigerator, warm to the touch, holding ketchup and orange soda.

I was not in poverty.

***

When I was seven, we moved away from the urban Dayton to a working class suburb, Huber Heights, Ohio. There, we rented a three-bedroom ranch house for the seven of us. My parents got a room. My two brothers got a room. My sisters and I got a room. It was 1,080 square feet of close quarters. We furnished it with a living room set from Rent-A-Center and my parents even splurged on a Nintendo (five years after its original release date).

But it was home.

Sadly, one of the best kid pictures we ever took. I was especially proud of my pink sweatsuit. (circa 1989)

Sadly, one of the best kid pictures we ever took. I was especially proud of my pink sweatsuit. (circa 1989)

***

For me, I still see the world through working class eyes. I feel deep compassion for issues like increasing the minimum wage, providing universal, affordable health care, and fighting food insecurity. I’ve seen the difference that an extra $100 can make. It means a week of groceries from Aldi. It means you can afford to stay home from work while you’re sick.

Seeing the world through upper-middle class eyes feels like an exercise in putting on someone else’s glasses. Everything is distorted. Prices seem too expensive. I underestimate how much my time is worth. But it’s more than money. I also do this with possibilities and opportunities. The world is not my oyster–at least this is my default mode. I have to jazz myself up with positive self-talk and assurances that things can change. My life can be different. I can reach the goals that I have set for myself. If I lose that rational, optimistic side of my brain, I become a prisoner to my own self-doubt.

***

Growing up as a child of a working class family shaped my core identity. It set limitations and boundaries on my dreams. (Maybe I could be one of those typists in a courtroom!)

It taught me that my chief value as a human being was determined by what I could do for others, especially when I could be used to help someone else make a profit. In those situations, I had the most value. I wasn’t explicitly taught these lessons. Instead, I learned them by observing my father put up with a stressful job his whole life, rather than looking for another job somewhere else. I saw his fear of the uncertain–the fear of redefining himself. He was a bakery specialist. That was who he was, damn it. How could he be anything else?

***

I’m keenly aware of my own struggle to define and redefine myself.

Fat girl, thin girl. Poor girl, rich girl. Retail girl, academic girl. Single girl, married mother. All of these boundaries I’ve crossed and all of those that still remain ahead of me.

And yet…

…it’s not like crossing over, as if you leave those things behind.

I’m still overweight and poor, a retail worker and a single girl.

It may have been years since others have seen these facets of my identity, but they are still there, buried beneath the others layers of self that I’ve put on over the years.

I still have all of those identities. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave them behind because they are too much a part of who I am.

Who I am is… every version of myself that I have ever been.

These are the things I can’t leave behind.

***

This might be the biggest weight upon my shoulders as I consider parenthood–knowing that the life that I build around my daughter is creating its own set of assumptions, limitations, and boundaries. This life that we are creating for her is also creating things that she won’t be able to leave behind.

This cannot be avoided–it is a part of socialization.

But I feel that one of my greatest responsibilities (perhaps even greatest “calling”?) as a parent is to create opportunities for my daughter to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Because this fosters compassion.

And compassion, I believe, is the only thing that has ever changed the world for the better.

Talking about the hard stuff: Teacher as agent of social change

**Disclaimer: This post is quite off-topic compared to my usual posts about motherhood, but, hey, I happen to think a lot about other things, too.

Every now and then, some topic comes up in my advanced speaking and listening class that causes me to put on my social-justice-superhero cape and tackle an issue head-on. Sometimes, the topic is the death penalty. Sometimes, it’s death with dignity.

This term, it was rape.

First, some background: I teach English to international students in an intensive English program. In other words, I’m teaching adults who want to earn a college degree… but don’t have strong enough English skills to do so yet.

Our students primarily come from two countries, but, trust me, we have all kinds of students. The motivated. The goofballs. The hapless wanderers. The spoiled rich kids. The budding scholars. The “I-here-for-vacation-only-Teacher”s. The lost. The dreamers. The future politicians. The victims of their own self-doubt.

We have them all.

Some days, I leave my job feeling like nothing that I do makes a difference. Some days, I feel that my students don’t care about anything besides this grand illusion that they can just extract the essence of this “academic knowledge” from the university and then infuse themselves with all of it, like a patient hooked up to an IV. (And, hey, there are days when I totally wish that I could simply transfuse all of them with a healthy dose of phonics).

It’s hard for my students to understand that all knowledge is culturally situated. No knowledge is pure of the context and culture in which it is taught, so they can’t simply absorb academic knowledge at an American university without absorbing pieces of American culture along with it.

Hell, it was hard for me to understand this when I was their age (and I was struggling with these ideas in my native language). In my freshmen English class in college, I struggled particularly with an excerpt of Paolo Freire’s Pedadgogy of the Oppressed, for two main reasons:

1) I couldn’t understand the excerpt because–even though I had been an Honors English student in high school–my reading ability wasn’t developed enough to easily parse out academic English

2) I had no personal experience to understand Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

With the help of some in-class discussions, I finally understood Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

Yes! I get it!

But why did he write about this? Everyone knows that this is how people learn. You listen to your teacher, memorize, and repeat.

Well, maybe not in English, but for math and science, that makes perfect sense.

Oh… wait. Freire thought the banking concept was bullshit?

Oops.

And even though I eventually understood that Freire was decrying the widespread belief in the banking concept of education, I still couldn’t quite understand what he meant about critical pedagogy or transformative social justice. What did any of that mean? How did empowering citizens to transform society have anything to do with getting an education?

Wasn’t an education just learning how to do your future job? Wasn’t that why we were all studying in college? To become teachers and doctors and lawyers and business people? That was why were studying, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

This is where I got stuck. And I think this is where my students get stuck, too.

***

As a teacher, now reflecting back on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I not only understand Freire’s argument to move education into the realm of social justice, but I also understand how limiting the definition of “education” to “technical skills for a job” keeps a population from making societal change.

It keeps us believing in the American dream, that if we just work hard enough, all of our dreams will come true. Even worse, it keeps us believing that the poor, the uneducated, and the imprisoned are in those positions for the sole reason that they chose to be. That they have earned their lot in life solely because of their lack of enterprise and effort. In this extreme sense of individualism, no other factors are strong enough to influence a person’s life as much as his/her individual ability and effort.

I believe that teachers are especially situated in society to confront these myths.

***

At the same time, I am an agent of this very narrow view of education.

I deliver language lessons.

For the purpose of increasing my student’s English language proficiency.

For the purpose of them preparing for jobs.

My job description does not include any language about the necessity of teaching for social change. Although my particular university does boast about its Marianist values–one of which is social justice–my primary job is to deliver instruction that helps my students improve their English, and (hopefully!) develop their ability to be independent learners.

***

And yet, I found myself in a classroom of international students with a teachable moment ripe in the air. One student had just said that he thought boys and girls should be taught together until they are 10 years old.

Why? Because it would decrease the instances of rape.

I did a double-take. “Did you say rape?”

He nodded.

“So this is a problem in your country?”

He nodded.

I thought for a moment. “How does putting girls and boys together in the same class decrease the number of rapes?”

He shook his head for a moment, as if processing the idea. As if figuring out how to phrase something that was so obvious that it didn’t usually require words.

“It’s just, maybe it happens more when there are a lot of girls together in one room. When there are boys and girls together, I think the rape will be less.”

Oh boy.

This is the moment that language teachers dream of–that moment to engage. That moment when language takes it rightful place as a conveyor of ideas, not this monolithic body of knowledge that my students need to acquire before they can actually communicate.

This is the moment when my students move beyond the in my country, we do this, and in my opinion, it’s very important because...

This is the moment when I have a choice–to confront age-old, culturally embedded stereotypes about gender and violence–or to move on in the language lesson because of my fear of the emotions that the discussion would summon forth.

I chose to engage. Carefully. But to engage nonetheless.

“What causes rape?” I asked.

Silence.

“Anyone?”

Silence.

“Is rape going to happen if a lot of girls or women are gathered in one place and a man is teaching them?” I asked.

Slience, and then a quiet, “…maybe.”

“Okay. Here’s a question: Why do people rape?”

Silence.

“Why do you think people rape?” I repeated.

“…maybe because the woman is dress very… not nice. Maybe too sexy.”

I didn’t laugh or roll my eyes. I just shook my head. “Nope.”

Someone else spoke. “Maybe because she walk alone at night.”

“Nope,” I said.

“But I know a story, Teacher,” one student said. “One woman, she walk alone at night, and this happened to her. It terrible.”

“I agree. It is terrible. But it’s also not her fault.”

Silence.

“Listen, rape is not the woman’s fault.” (I used “woman” because for this group of students, the concept of a woman raping a man is totally impossible–but that’s another topic).

At this point, I could see the fierce agreement in the eyes of my female students.

“People rape because they want power or control over someone else. It’s not because a woman is too sexy. Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control. And rape happens over and over and over again… Why?”

Silence.

“Because we don’t talk about it,” I said. “Because rape is so shameful that we’d rather go to our graves not talking about it then to invite that shame onto our families.”

At this point, the heaviness in the room was palpable.

“Isn’t that right?” I asked.

Around the room, heads nodded. Even those of my male students.

“Rape happens because of power and shame,” I stated emphatically. “And unless we start talking about it, it’s going to continue to happen. Can you imagine if this happened to your daughter? Your sister? Can you imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t do anything about it because you didn’t want people to know about the rape? Can you imagine this?”

And at this point I could see on their faces that they could imagine this horrible reality–because some of them had lived it.

One of my students softly said, “It’s happen in schools sometimes, but also it’s happen a lot in families. Like between cousins.”

Heads nodded.

***

Some days, I leave work feeling like nothing I can do makes a difference.

Some days, I leave work feeling like this is the only thing that I can do that makes a difference.

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