Why Bad Things Happen in Good Fiction

Years ago, I had a conversation with a police officer visiting our school about the Percy Jackson movies. “I won’t see them,” he told me. “I can’t enjoy a movie where kids get hurt.”

I don’t begrudge him that at all. Usually when I watch a movie or television show, I am also looking for some level of escapism, and sometimes real or painful things take me out of relaxation mode. But that’s not to say there isn’t value to real or painful things in fiction, especially for children.

Because, real and painful things actually happen to children. And to people children know.

I remembered this conversation while watching A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix, which I find to be quite a good adaptation (and I am loving Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket). The theme song, which features slightly different lyrics every episode, continually exhorts the viewer to “look away, look away” from the distressingly unstable lives of the Baudelaire orphans. Naturally, curious children are tempted to watch further (or, read the books).

As an adult, I do feel the urge to protect children, not just from “bad” things, but sometimes the knowledge of “bad” things. But I am not a perfect shield, and we don’t live in a perfect world. Let kids read (and sometimes watch) the stories with the “bad” stuff. If they see it on the page or screen first, perhaps they’ll be more ready for it when the hits start comin’ in real life.

Hidden Figures Is Incredible, You Should Go See It

Spoilers ahead.

Hidden Figures is a film about three women “computers” — people who worked doing math calculations for NASA in the time leading up to manned orbital flights. Katherine Goble (later Johnson) is an actual math genius, who, due to her hard work and unmatched talent, pushed her way up to the Space Task Group, where her knowledge of analytical geometry earned her respect. Mary Jackson, with the encouragement of her supervisors, goes to court to secure her right to continue her education at an all-white high school, so that she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. And Dorothy Vaughan, frustrated by doing the work of a supervisor with neither the title nor pay that comes with it, sees an opportunity in the IBM computer; she teaches herself and those she leads to program the monstrous machine and make themselves indispensable.

It is an excellent movie. It is a movie about scientific progress, and the risks and rewards that come with it. It is also a movie about civil rights. It is a movie that demonstrates the important lesson that progress depends on progress.

There are no bad guys in this movie. I haven’t seen every movie ever, but I’ve become inured to the trope: when a movie is about racism, there is usually a big ol’ racist jerk, like an inverse white savior; for example, Hilly Holbrook in The Help. It’s a character who conveniently embodies prejudice and discrimination, and in defeating them, protagonists symbolically defeat racism. In Hidden Figures, racism is not so much a part of characterization as it is a part of the setting. White people are dismissive or ignorant, but never overtly, intentionally cruel. Racism is something that the white people in the story are simply not sensitive to until confronted with it. Kevin Costner’s character is confronted with it when he realizes that Katherine, who he relies on, has to take forty minute bathroom breaks because the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is a half a mile away. Like a good manager, realizing that the rule helps no one and hurts his team, he abolishes the rule. I think perhaps the most powerful interaction of this vein occurs in a women’s restroom between Octavia Spencer’s and Kirsten Dunst’s characters; the scene is so thoughtful and polite and well-acted that I audibly gasped.

I liked how the cinematography used color to draw attention to our leads, especially Taraji P. Henson’s character. In a room filled with white men in white shirts and black ties, where the only other woman is wearing neutral tones, Katherine Goble is wearing turquoise as brilliant as her mind. Her mug is the one brown one among alabaster ceramic. She is special, and it’s not hard to see if you’re willing to look; her rise feels hard-won yet also inevitable.

These were important stories to tell, and I’m glad to be an audience for them. I highly recommend this film.

School Week Round-Up: Week Six

Only 149 days of school left!

LessonsThird grade is getting to a point where they’re figuring out how to be more independent, sometimes by necessity and sometimes because they are really motivated to. One class kept themselves so on task that they had ten free minutes at the end of the period. I put all the “time filler” activities into a Google Doc and put the Doc in the “About” section of their Google Classroom. So now whenever they have free time, they can go to the Doc and see what they’re permitted to do. The other class that did well this week did so out of necessity. I needed to finish a task for the principal and I didn’t have any prep time left, so I told students they needed to work as independently as possible and I would still help them if they really needed help. This, I really enjoyed. They didn’t get done in the same amount of time, but if I told one student a tip, they passed it along to other students who needed help. I think I should give them commendations next week of some kind.

Support: We have one of those approved vendor assessment systems to keep track of student growth measures in our district. The tech department has been trying to sync it with our online gradebooks. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to work so well once we actually work out all the kinks. But we’re still in the thick of things for the moment.  It’s going to be so rad, eventually.

Things I Did Well: I’m working hard to get my seating charts settled. This in and of itself hasn’t been a priority, but I need to do seating charts to make another task work. It’s a tedious task but I won’t procrastinate any longer! In case you were wondering why I didn’t have seating charts ready to go at the beginning of the year, it’s because out of 28 seats in my room, around five were at computers that were not functioning, or functioning so slowly that it would be cruel to force a child to use it. I also had some other routines I wanted kids to get used to first, like new and beautiful headphones, the optional cardboard privacy screens, and so on. Also, our school district has a lot of student movement, so rosters at the very start of the year are very rarely accurate. Finally, I took some advice I saw on Twitter about letting your students choose their seats first. That way you get a sense of who gravitates towards whom, for good and for ill. I realized after a couple weeks that some friends need to be separated, some kids need to be alone to focus, some kids need a buddy beside them that they can ask for some help. And rather than revise seating charts, I find it easier to go with the flow and then make them. And even then, I often have to adjust them on the fly, because one computer decides to freeze or something like that.

Things I Will Do Better: I’m continuously working to improve our school’s morning announcements. There are many ways they are imperfect. Last year students could run it very independently. We’re not there yet with this group. But I started doing pre-produced segments so it’s less of a panic in the mornings! We’ll see how it goes. If you want to check them out, click the link — I’m very open to feedback!

Cold Prickly: I needed to talk to a student about something and found her feeling the lowest she’s maybe ever felt at school. She told me she had just failed a test, and she’d never failed before. It was a speed test on the three times tables. Having known this child for a while, I know she’s very bright and one of those kids who is naturally good at school, and accustomed to success. So when she failed she took it really, really hard. I relate to that — I was a student who succeeded pretty naturally at school, and the first academic subject that brought me to tears was also multiplication. We’re trying to foster a growth mindset culture for our students, though, so I chose carefully what I said to comfort her. “So you didn’t do as well as you wanted to. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get it. It just means you don’t have it yet.”

Warm Fuzzy: I’ve allowed a colleague’s thirteen-year-old son to have some influence on my classroom decor. I like where he’s going with it. (Toriel would be so proud she’d make a butterscotch-cinnamon pie.)

Steven Universe and Mindfulness

Another post about cartoons. I swear, kids get all the good cartoons these days!

Mindfulness is a hot topic in education right now. I see it come up on Twitter a lot, and many of my teacher and principal friends share links about it on Facebook.

So I think it’s interesting to see this reflected in children’s entertainment as well. In a recent episode of Steven Universe, one character mentors another in the art of staying focused despite distracting thoughts, particularly ones that elicit negative emotional responses like regret, anger, and fear.

And now that I think about it, I doubt this is the only such example I can find in children’s entertainment. If I dug a little deeper, I’m sure I could find examples from PBS’s Sesame Street and Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender.

It’s actually a pretty common thread for cartoons and kids’ shows to teach social and emotional lessons through narrative. But I don’t remember shows from my childhood doing quite as good a job with lessons that are otherwise difficult to put into words and on the screen.

My Little Pony and the Value of Feedback

We had another RESA meeting this week where our mentor led us in discussion of the difference between summarizing and reflecting. Ups to my colleague who nailed it, very succinctly.

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We got a little off track but had a good conversation on how our previous mentors (and some current administrators) are really good at giving feedback. Having a quality mentor teacher, we agreed, was crucial in the beginning of our career.

I even had an experience just in the past couple of weeks where a current admin dropped in at a time I was struggling with a particular child; she gave me a piece of advice and I tried it out. It worked then, and I mentioned that I would try it again when I next had that student. A few days after that, the admin followed up with me to see whether her advice continued to work — she was seeking feedback on her feedback.

Our current mentor had concern, because we were particularly praising mentors who knew what it was like in the classroom, our fellow teachers. She has been out of the classroom and in school administration for long enough that she was concerned her feedback wouldn’t be meaningful to us. “It’s not about time and distance,” I assured her, “It’s about perspective.

And then I further elucidated my point by citing an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Yes, in a professional meeting. Nerd alert on high.

6561441147In the tenth episode of the sixth season (I had to Google that), Applejack and Rarity try to enjoy some time at the spa, but service is backed up. Applejack investigates and discovers a small problem that the spa employees hadn’t noticed. Not only that, but in trying to resolve the issue, the spa employees were actually exacerbating it.

Rarity: Honestly, how in Equestria did it never occur to you to check for leaks?
Aloe: There’s just so many other things to worry about! I suppose ve get used to the vay things are, and we don’t realize there vas problem.
Rarity: You obviously need an outside eye to evaluate the situation.

Applejack insists on fixing the small problem (because she is a pony who has a toolbelt and she can operate tools despite having no fingers don’t question cartoons) despite using up the only bit of time she had to enjoy the spa.

Then they return to Applejack’s farm, where she left Twilight Sparkle in charge of feeding the pigs. (Why do herbivorous ponies raise pigs? Because it’s a cartoon). Despite having an hour, the job is not done. It turns out, the instructions Applejack left were long and overly complicated. She had gotten used to doing things a certain way without realizing her routine now contained inefficient, unnecessary steps.

Not only is this a helpful reminder to me for the next time I leave lesson plans for a substitute, it’s a helpful reminder in general. You can be someone who finds problems and comes up with solutions for others, while being unable to see your own problems and find your own solutions. Being open to feedback is one way I continue to grow as a teacher.

Binary of Feelings: Oversimplifying the Spectrum of Human Experience

In reading more on Colin Kaepernick’s protest, I read this opinion and many things about it resonated with me. I especially appreciate this bit about moving the conversation forward:

The rub lies in how we move the conversation forward. Free speech is a right, but it’s also a test for both the speaker and audience. It demands grace and conscientiousness. Criticism of America won’t always be accurate, it won’t always be fair, and it won’t always be delivered in an articulate fashion. There’s nothing wrong with pointing this out. But we need space to disagree on views of America without making the leap to that’s un-American or you aren’t patriotic or you don’t support the troops. These are nothing more than verbal grenades, McCarthyisms designed to denigrate the speaker at the expense of engaging their ideas. It’s cheap, it’s dumb, and it’s beneath us.

Another friend posted this link to a comic by the Oatmeal (some language may be unsafe for work). “I’m not ‘happy’ because our definition of happy isn’t very good. It’s a monochromatic word used to describe rich, painful spectrum of human feeling.” Especially after reading Ross Richendrfer’s Whose America Is It?, it got me to thinking about how many feelings we treat as binary: if you’re not happy, you must be unhappy. If you don’t love America the way I love America, then you must hate America.
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And what problems does this really cause? In a post about undemocratic schools, Will Richardson describes the “race to the bottom” in campaign rhetoric, and how our binary polarization feeds it. Acknowledging spectrum would make room for nuance but might be too complicated for us.

We’ve become a nation of dull-witted consumers of whatever partisan drivel we might subscribe to, preferring  just to cement whatever worldview we already have rather than engage in some type of reasoned conversation that negotiates where the “truth” might actually be.

And this is a scary thing. It’s no wonder one candidate for president proclaims “I love the poorly educated,” because that’s a great way of getting elected these days.

This isn’t good for the health of democracy overall.

Seeing the world critically and not simply accepting what is is a fundamental part of what democratic societies need their citizens to do… I’m talking about “reasoned conversation” of an intellectual type that I don’t think we’ve seen at all this year in the primaries or general election. In fact, at least in politics, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen two candidates just sit down at a table and have a conversation about something they disagree on with the intent of understanding the other side more fully.

When we treat these issues like a binary, we’re taking shortcuts, we’re jumping to conclusions. We’re putting people into boxes without taking time and energy to try to see and understand their perspective. We’re kind of turning into the mob from the end of Beauty and the Beast.

So what do we do? We begin by acknowledging complexities both in ourselves and in other people. By remembering that we can’t always know someone else’s point of view without listening to them first. Beyond that, I don’t know. I want to build more empathy, cooperation, and democracy into my life and into my classroom. I stand open for suggestions.

Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem

Here comes another hot take nobody asked for.

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Colin Kaepernick is an American football quarterback who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. At a recent preseason game, he declined to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Some time after, he explained:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Kaepernick pays attention to issues of race (and other social issues) in the United States; even a casual glance at his Twitter reveals this about him. This is not new. But sitting during the national anthem is something that created shockwaves across social media platforms. I would wager that most reactions are angry, scandalized people who vehemently disagree with him. Some folks are a bit softer, reminding others that freedom of speech means that the government allows speech you don’t agree with, like whatever the opposite of patriotism is. A lot of the latter takes on the tone of, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

But there’s the rub, for me: I don’t disapprove what Kaepernick says, and I defend his right to say it. And I feel so strongly about not disapproving that I felt the need to break it down and discuss it with myself.

Firstly, the concept of respect and how we convey it and demonstrate it is not as universal as many seem to think. Yes, we are taught to stand during the national anthem (and men take off their hats). But I don’t think choosing to sit is inherently disrespectful. If he wanted to show outright disrespect, there are a number of rude gestures he could have employed. But choosing to sit seems more like… more like not showing “the proper amount” of respect, rather than actual disrespect. And “the proper amount” of anything is really up for debate, and varies largely across our population.

Secondly, I strongly feel there are so many ways to be a good American. Let me explain: sometimes my spouse is a good spouse because he does things for me. Sometimes he’s a good spouse because he supports me. And sometimes he’s a good spouse because he calls me on my nonsense when I’m being awful. Some people are good Americans because they sacrifice for this country; some people are good Americans because they support this country in less direct ways. And some people are good Americans because they remind us that our country falls short of its own ideals for many Americans, and they try to move us closer to those ideals. Reflexively we don’t like to be reminded of our imperfections, or imperfections in the things we love. But I would rather attend to a painful, true reminder from someone in that last group; then hear another hollow recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from anybody else. After all, if we all conform to the same uniform demonstrations of banal patriotism, who will challenge us to make positive changes?

I don’t know who Mike Reed is, but a friend of mine shared this image of a post he made on Facebook:

qbYou have as much a right to free speech as Colin Kaepernick does, and you are well within your rights to answer his free speech with your own. But I urge you to think about what, exactly, you are trying to say, and how exactly you’re saying it.

Because Colin Kaepernick certainly did.

Edited to Add (8/31/16 7:23am): It occurs to me, too, now that many people who feel offended by Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem feel strongly about the symbols of our country. It’s possible that these symbols – the song, the flag – only represent the things that are good about the United States. And that’s not inherently wrong. But it is narrow-minded. Clearly the song and the flag do not mean the same things to Colin Kaepernick as they do to many vocal people on social media. And symbols can mean different things to different people. But I think there’s a big problem in assuming conformity – that the symbols do and should mean the same things to all people. Because that leaves no room for differing viewpoints to be voiced and heard, and without that, we live in an echo chamber. Without dissent, the right to free speech seems meaningless.

Shakespeare and Straight Outta Oz: A Case for Pop Culture in the Classroom

My spouse and I recently saw a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged at the local university. To be honest, I wanted to see it because my twin sister and I did it as a speech cut for duo interpretation our senior year of high school. I realize now how many of the jokes went over my head at the time!

More importantly, I realized how many things about Shakespeare are still deeply embedded in our culture. Turns of phrases like “my kingdom for a horse” and “to thine own self be true.” Characters like Iago from Othello remind me of political figures currently looming large. Narratives like from Romeo and Juliet have surfaced across cultures throughout all of history, and the lessons we mine from them depend on our context.

I first read Shakespeare when I was in fifth grade, perhaps. I first studied and learned some in class in ninth grade, then again in twelfth grade. We touched on some Shakespeare in some of my college courses, and I was in a couple productions of Shakespeare comedies at that time as well.
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I’ve seen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Things inspired or influenced by Shakespeare like The Lion King and House of Cards. I’ve seen hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of Bollywood movies and I think about the structural similarities between those and Shakespeare’s contemporary stage productions.

When we teach Shakespeare, we’re teaching students to notice some of the water we swim in – things like references and vocabulary words that we might otherwise take for granted. And when we take them down for deeper dives through such material, we’re hopefully helping them to pay attention and interpret meanings for themselves.

And that brings me to “Straight Outta Oz” by Todrick Hall.

(Some language and visuals in the links may not be appropriate for work or classroom, depending on your work/school culture.)

So, yes, I’m running for president of awkward transitions.

“Straight Outta Oz” is an album by Youtube star Todrick Hall. While I think all the songs on this particular album are original, he has built a large following for himself by playing around with pop culture. Disney princesses singing a medley of Nicki Minaj songs and retelling Alice in Wonderland to a soundtrack of Taylor Swift. So it seems a natural choice for him to use an iconic piece of media – The Wizard of Oz – as the vehicle to tell his own life story.

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Todrick Hall and actress Uzo Aduba, who portrayed Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz Live! (2015). Photo from Todrick Hall’s mobile uploads album on Facebook.

This is not his first time referencing The Wizard of Oz, but this is clearly his most personal turn. He depicts all the major players himself: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and even the Witch of the West. He uses events from the narrative of Wizard of Oz to illustrate his own journey through the fame machine. Along the way he explores, through song, reflections on sexuality, masculinity, race, and identity.

Were I a high school teacher with flexibility of curriculum, I might use this album as a way to introduce concepts of literary criticism. There’s a tendency to focus on “high brow” texts and media, things that are well-established in the literary canon. Or, if we include newer things, they are almost always books. I do love books, but they do not have a monopoly on storytelling. Here are reasons I might try to incorporate Straight Outta Oz:

  • Access. The visual album is available to all viewers on Youtube, for free. Many of the songs are available individually, though the voiceover narrative only comes up in the album video. Youtube can be accessed on many devices or at public libraries.
  • Intention. In weaving together autobiography and fictional narrative, Hall is very clearly commenting on culture or illustrating his ideas. The material is there to be mined. There is a clear arc, buoyed by symbolism, laced with themes.
  • Relatability. Adolescents are going through a stage in life where they question the world and how they fit into it. This piece of media would probably speak to many teens on an emotional level. Also, this is the water they swim in. Shakespeare speaks to us today because the stories are rooted deeply in our culture since before William put them into plays. But the language and the settings sometimes get in the way. When we change the setting and language to be more familiar, it is not just an update — it’s an attempt to reduce obstacles to comprehension.
  • Cross curricular potential. There’s no question that music, dance, and costuming are all integral to Hall’s style of storytelling; that brings in the arts. Commentary on current events could fit in with social studies.

I know a high school teacher who last year taught a unit on the first season on popular podcast Serial, to great success. I know another high school teacher who, powered by the momentum of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit, has been coaching students through Chernow’s biography of Hamilton for summer reading (and using Twitter to send reminders!). From Khan Academy to Crash Course, a resource like Youtube has found a place in the classroom in STEM subjects. So why not humanities as well?

Now, I make a case for Straight Outta Oz on the basis that I really enjoy it. Obviously my enjoyment of a piece of media is not the sole rubric to measure its appropriateness for the classroom. (Otherwise The Little Prince book would have gone over much better years ago when I taught sixth grade.) What relatively new medium do you dream of teaching in your classroom?

“Ghettoside” and Charles Kinsey: A White Teacher’s Developing Reflections on Race

Let me start by saying that no one needs my hot take on anything in current events. Not individually, anyway. On the other hand, need to add my voice to the conversation. Not because the conversation needs me, but because the conversation needs many.

Secondly, it’s a conversation I find difficult to enter. I am a white woman who is not directly, personally affected by racism. But it does affect me, like dominoes. My students and their families are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My friends are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My family members are affected by racism, and so it affects me. I struggled with finding a point of entry into the conversation without speaking over someone else, without co-opting someone else’s narrative, without making it about me. So up til now, I’ve mostly been sharing links and retweeting.

But now, two things: I have been reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. I am not yet done with this book, but I do have a lot of reflections on it so far. I was waiting to write anything about it until after I finished it. Then, this morning, I checked Twitter to read that yet another unarmed black man has been shot by police. Charles Kinsey was not killed, but he was injured while assisting a client of his, an adult man with autism. He identified himself by his role and complied with all directions. As I commented to a friend on Facebook:

I watched this and wondered, if I were in the exact same position, what would have happened? I would have behaved the same way — complied while explaining. I would have spoken in the same volume and tone. I would have said the same words. Would I get the same wounds? No. What exactly is the difference between me and Charles Kinsey? I’m a white woman. He is a black man. And that difference puts a reticle on him where there isn’t one on me.

Charles Kinsey is just another black, male victim of a police shooting, and for me, the most relatable yet. And that’s a problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Again, I haven’t finished Ghettoside, but it’s already given me a lot to think about. The author’s intention is to focus on the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of “blue before black” L.A. homicide detective Wally Tennelle. But the entire first portion of the book attempts to give context. The author has, so far, discussed:

  • statistics and history on black-on-black crime, locally to Los Angeles, calling it a “plague of murders.”
  • the personalities and histories of individual detectives who work in the predominately black neighborhood where Tennelle was killed.
  • the overall culture of the police (and how the individual detectives may differ in their philosophies).
  • aspects of the culture of the community of the neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles, and the things that shape it like stereotypes, and lack of media coverage for major crimes.
  • numerous stories of families affected by homicide investigations.

The author focuses on Los Angeles, but there were several ideas and facts that came up that made me feel like this was also relevant to other communities. To my community.

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The poster on the left was made in response to the death of Eric Garner, but could apply to any number of homicide victims mentioned in Ghettoside.

Okay, so, there’s a lot to sort through here. The first part of the book discusses “black on black” violence, admitting that it is statistically higher than with other demographics. But then it dives deep into the tangle of reasons that may be.

First, I want to express my emotional response to this book so far, as a teacher. The author works hard to delineate between “the police” and “a police officer” and so on. What I mean is, the institution and the individuals who make up the institution are different entities. When the detectives go out into the neighborhoods, they represent the institution rather than themselves as individuals. So when residents accuse them of racism by saying things like, “You don’t care because he’s a black man!” they don’t take it personally. They realize the person is referring to them as police and not individuals. Privately, they may even agree with this perspective.

As a teacher, I felt very affected by this. I am also a public servant who represents a larger institution. And there are definitely instances where my personal philosophy diverges from the one embodied by the institution I represent. I have been accused of racism before, and in the contexts where it has happened, it’s not necessarily wrong. I may, through my job, be asked to enforce an inherently unfair policy, one that was never intended to be racist, but in following it through, it is. One example on a large scale I can think of is standardized testing.

As a teacher, I also related to the description of the allocation of resources, and the workarounds the detectives use. The leader of the department asks for, and is repeatedly denied, things that would make the detectives’ lives easier and help ensure the safety of members of the community they serve. “His requests seemed pretty reasonable for a department that ran its own helicopter fleet,” the author writes on page 68, “Again and again he was turned down.” Resources are not distributed according to need.

I also related to the part where the author discusses some prevalent attitudes in policing policy on page 58 of the hardcover edition:

Cops were told they were supposed to “be proactive,” focus on “suppression,” or practice “crime control.” Showered in such nonsensical orders and jargon, they couldn’t really be blamed for struggling to find purpose in their work… It could feel quite pointless. It didn’t help that even as they were supposedly held to high standards and expected to display the skill and initiative of trained professionals, many so-called innovative policing strategies tended to reduce them to cogs.

I defy any public school teacher to read that and not see yourself and your colleagues in it.

These details did not constitute the bulk of the first part of the book, merely part of it. There are narratives of specific homicides and their investigations. The author discusses some major barriers to homicide investigations in neighborhoods where “the shadow system” of law is more pervasive than the formal system. Witness intimidation. Distrust of police. The author discusses how programs and policies meant to address these issues, well-intended as they may be, fall short.

On reflection, it feels very easy to blame black people for their own circumstances. “When your business dealings are illegal, you have no legal recourse,” the author writes on page 79. “Violence substituted for contract litigation.” But on the very next page the author describes how gangs, “pointlessly self-destructive” as they may be, form. Banding together for mutual protection is a normal human response to the vacuum of legitimate legal authority. “Fundamentally gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause.”

But Ms. D! you say. There are police in these neighborhoods! People just don’t respect them! Ah, well. The police department, as an authority, undermines itself when it hyper-focuses on small infractions and fails to follow through on the appropriate response to serious, community-destroying crimes such as homicide. “Street hustlers would make it clear that they would rather have formal justice if given the choice: they’d call 911,” the author states on page 83. “Skaggs learned to think of his job as persuasion: selling formal law to people who distrusted it and were answering to another authority — shadow law.”

And the author discusses the struggle between what you experience in your job and what you want to believe in your heart. From page 65:

No one in the wider world wanted to talk about it, but black residents, to many officers, seemed more violent than Hispanics. Their own eyes told them so. Statistics backed them up. Few officers wanted to believe that black people were somehow intrinsically wired for violence.

Many cops fell back on a rhetoric of “choice,” that some individuals choose violence. That way they didn’t have to make uncomfortable generalizations of black people as a group. But if people choose violence, then they also can be blamed for violence. “And since blame also served as a satisfying distancing mechanism, officers ended by blaming not just suspects but victims.” And when many cops carry that attitude, it becomes easy to distrust all cops, because you can’t tell just by looking at someone what they think of you and how they’re likely to behave. As reported by Psychology Today:

The tendency to classify our experience into categories is a fundamental and universal aspect of human cognition. We create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. This is a necessary part of human thought, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly… In social categorization, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, people tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular.

And that’s also why it’s problematic that I see Charles Kinsey as a “more relatable” victim. The author writes on page 33 how a particular detective learned to view all homicide victims.

“She ain’t a whore no more,” he said. “She’s some daddy’s baby.” Wally Tennelle loved that philosophy. Whatever the wider world’s response, the homicide detective’s call was to treat each victim, no matter how deep their criminal involvement, as the purest angel. The murdered were inviolate. They all deserved the same justice.

Many words are devoted to describing attitudes towards the black residents of Watts; conveying that “gang member” is the new “n” word when diminishing the value of a black male’s life, for instance. How some police officers felt that “the whole culture of the black community is crime;” “they love selling drugs;” they “could better their lives, but they don’t.” “I like to think it is a choice,” says one gang detective on page 65. “Even in this environment, you have a choice!” A different detective, one set up by the author as a protagonist, has a different perspective described on page 88:

Skaggs had concluded that many residents connected to Watts murder cases were ordinary people, trapped by conditions of lawlessness. Coercion and intimidation lay behind much of their apparent “acceptance” of violence, he thought… Skaggs also saw that many victims had no role in provoking the attacks that killed them. His colleagues insisted that Watts had no real victims.

It’s important to point out that the focus of Ghettoside is not police brutality or the misconduct of police officers. It’s focus is the fact that there is a “plague of murders” affecting a community that the media largely turns a blind eye to. Jill Leovy, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, wrote the book with the knowledge that her employer was only covering about ten percent of all homicides in the city. But it does shed light on attitudes and on policy, both in policing and in society at large, that could stand to be scrutinized and reformed. #BlackLivesMatter not only in terms of police interactions, but in terms of media coverage and our prevailing attitude towards black on black crime.

My thoughts: when we call on the black community to address these problems, we overlook and diminish the ways in which they already are addressing these problems. And we, as white people wearing the blinders of privilege, make it harder for the black community to make positive differences. Our attitudes change at our convenience, not upon real conversion. We derail discussions when we respond by saying, “All Lives Matter!” And while we may follow through as far as arguing that point on social media, we fall short of demonstrating that all lives matter to us when we fail to challenge policies that maintain inequalities and preserve discrimination. If all lives truly matter, than we need to act like we matter to each other.

So, white community, what if we use our white privilege for good? Acknowledge the goodness within individual police officers while addressing problems with policing, such as resource allocation and training — problems that also plague public education. Ask our government to study gun violence as a public health concern. Acknowledge that these issues are complicated and part of larger issues of prejudice that can’t be solved with hashtags alone. Listen to the points made by those most directly affected. Educate ourselves before joining the conversation. Understand that examining our own prejudices may be individually painful in the short term, but will be beneficial to our communities in the long run; it’s worth doing. When I choose to help dismantle institutional discrimination that benefits me directly, I’m actually being selfish, because I know I will reap benefits later on when my students and their families begin to experience the positive effects in their lives.

Update 7/23/16: According to NPR, the officer who shot Kinsey had actually meant to shoot Kinsey’s client.

The Power of Patty Compelled Me

At a recent family event, several of my sisters were discussing how much they enjoy raunchy sitcom Broad City. “I don’t like it,” my eighteen-year-old brother said, “but I understand it wasn’t made for me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“I’m not the target audience,” he explained. “So it doesn’t really matter whether I like it or not. I’m a young, white male. A lot of things out there are made with me in mind. Broad City doesn’t have to be made for me, too. Clearly, it was made for my sisters.”

Which brings me to my thoughts on the latest Ghostbusters movie.

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I understand that many people have emotional attachments to the Ghostbusters franchise of the eighties. I recognize that those feelings may complicate one’s experience with a new Ghostbusters movie. I acknowledge that the new Ghostbusters movie has some flaws.

But. But. But. The way I feel about this movie is the opposite of how my brother feels about Broad City. I feel like this movie was made specifically for me, and I love it for that.

I have felt this way about Paul Feig movies before. Bridesmaids made me laugh and resonated with me on an emotional level. Spy made me feel like, well, I had been spied on, because not only did it include fantastic British comedienne Miranda Hart (of Miranda and Call the Midwife), it also included one of the most over-the-top acts of recent Eurovision Song Contest history. Literally every other American I know who has any knowledge of the Eurovision Song Contest has it because I told them.

For this movie, Paul Feig must have asked himself, “What specifically will make that one crazy Midwestern schoolteacher nerd like my next movie even more? Oh, I know – I’ll include her favorite SNL cast members, and especially let Kate McKinnon be super weird and really awesome!”

And that did it for me.

I loved it. Sorry if you don’t. But, clearly, it was made for me.