Sunday, July 21, 2013

Yes, I Was Fired and Still We Will Win

At 9:11am Friday morning, on a quiet, scripted phone call from my principal, my teaching career ended. Again. 

Many of you have already read the exact details here:

And I hesitate to blog on it, as I could never match the beautiful words of friends and accomplished bloggers Stephanie Rivera and Fred Klonsky.

In many ways, I feel out of generous love, people have focused too much on my story and I don’t want to perpetuate that dynamic—there are some 3,000 other educators who are going through the same.

But I always teach my students that our voices may not be the strongest; our writing might not be the most polished; we may be nervous and stumble; but our experiences are precious and must be heard and we are the only ones who can make that happen.

I am deeply thankful to all of you who have reached out in this time. I am sure it is jarring and sad to watch someone’s life passion torn away, and it has been immeasurably helpful to have each and every one of you supporting me.  

Beyond that, I feel so blessed by my community. I feel fortunate to work with amazing students who communicate directly and frequently the difference my work makes, a supportive professional group of colleagues and the warmest community organizers and allies anyone could ask for.

I say all this because I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me.  I want them to start by acknowledging the beauty that my students and I conspired to build and understanding that it cannot ever be destroyed; even by an action as cruel as this.

I would ask each of you to pause to capture in your mind that one teacher or several that altered the course of your life. Now tear them from the fabric of your experience. What would it look like? How would you be changed?

Our city inflicts that sadistic exercise on our impoverished students of color as a regular occurrence.
I don’t pretend to have been that life changing teacher for every one or even most of my students, but like my 3,000 colleagues, each of us was the difference maker for some students.

And as it happens again and again, the message that the district sends to our students is clear, “You are uncared for. Even those you thought loved you dearly have abandoned you, and it’s your own fault.”  Again, this is not just a happenstance; it is a regular matter of practice. When I was let go in 2010, my principal first told students that I simply left, (He didn’t care about you) and later told them that “There wasn’t enough interest in Japanese” (You didn’t care enough). Both were lies—lies that made students feel worse about themselves.

So this time, I need my students to understand—we did nothing wrong. We did everything right, and through our honest collaboration we created many treasures. We spoke for justice when others were silent and we took consequences to fight for what we knew to be right. Now, as one of those consequences, I must go on a journey, but it is not out of lack of love.

This was my best teaching year by far. Better than the year that I raised the scores the most; better than the year I won that national teaching award. This year I listened most deeply to the largest portion of my students and learned to support them in all the right battles: for student voice, against sexism, homophobia, ableism, and racism, for student/teacher unity and against the school-to-prison pipeline. The classroom was open and the youth shared amazing personal stories that I will share-with their consent-in this space over the next few months.  I would not trade this year away for 100 years as the football star I dreamt I would become when I was a tiny little 10 year old who didn’t really understand the physics of Professional Football.

I know that in the reactions, many people were shocked that with what I do each day, I could be treated in this fashion. Thank you for your outrage. But I want to be very clear about your dismay:

This was not those who run the Chicago Public Schools System failing in their mission; it was them succeeding.  While it took me by surprise when I was laid off in 2010, I had planned for it this time. I was relatively sure I would be one of the thousands of people who devote their lives to the children of Chicago who would be mechanically thanked for our service and tossed aside as if our students didn’t need us anymore, so I made plans in case of this situation.  A former student understood:

Janai Cooks @Kitty_luvs_Unot19m (Japanese/Social Justice at Julian 2008-2010)
Why is the CPS board so scared of @xianb8 ? Because that man has got more heart and drive to actually educate teens & watch us grow !!!!

If I had taught what I taught in Mayor Emanuel’s hometown, I would still be employed. If the children I taught had been rich enough and white enough, I would have continued to collect my paycheck and accolades and they would have been affirmed in all of their accomplishments.  I am unemployed and my students are without their teacher today because I chose to teach students of highest need. I chose to actually address the opportunity gaps in our society, and not in theory but in reality supporting impoverished young people of color to fight to improve their own lives and demand to be treated as equals.

But it was more than worth it. While to many these constant horrible disparities can cause resignation and hopelessness, what students have taught me is that while consistent injustice can numb some, they have reached a stage of consistent righteous struggle beyond where others despair.They have shown me that it's not enough to urge those in power to treat us humanely; if they will not, they must be removed.

This is exactly what we need at this time. Rather than be models for the students who are the victims of this injustice, let them be your models. The deep, consistent social inequities that transport our students from their crib to the jailhouse door will not be vanquished with a phone call or momentary righteous indignation. Unlike the white abolitionist that John Brown spoke of derisively who can be outraged and then quit whenever he wants, this struggle is our students’ and communities’ daily struggle. And they must and will lead it.

So I thank you for your anger at my unjust firing, but I would ask you to reserve the same rage for the educations ruined by arrests on school grounds, over testing and under resourcing.  Get furious at the total indignity of a system that calls a dedicated worker’s momma to inform him of his termination, but get more livid about the teen mothers who get shamed into giving up the education they so desperately want for themselves and their children. Get angry that I didn't get due process, but get madder about the millions of young people who had to plea bargain out to a crime they didn't commit or go another day without employment opportunities or access to health care. 

The depth of the injustice in our society is so deep that it’s a miracle that many of our young people can see any light at all, and yet they pursue it with all they have.

And so we must too. This fight must continue, and it must not end until Rahm Emanuel and those he serves are vanquished from any position of power that they could use to further hurt the children of the City of Chicago..

For me, I've decided to that this might be the right time to step away from the classroom for a moment. I realize looking back that I've neglected self-care for quite a long time, and do not have the energy to work with a new group of amazing youth people to build to a new vista.  This isn't a permanent state, but with each heartbreak, we must heal.

While I won’t be in the classroom, I will be teaching next year. In our broken city, in this jacked up state of Illinois, in this great country of ours that seems to have forgotten that education and such things are basic rights, there are a few people in need of instruction more than my students. I will take my expertise to teach those failing to run our society. Are they prepared for their lessons?

We all continue this beautiful struggle and we will win because we must.

And one day I will return to my classroom, and another adventure will begin.