If You Aren’t Learning…

IF YOU AREN’T LEARNING AND GROWING, YOU’RE DEAD.

Right now.  Today.  In this very minute it is important that we are all willing to learn and to grow.  It is vital for our country, our communities, our neighbors, and ourselves.  I write this post with trepidation.  I know I am going to say something awkwardly and divulge how much I need to learn.  I’m inadvertently going to reveal why I still need to LISTEN and LEARN before I go on speaking.  Nevertheless, I feel that I need to say something now in the hopes that others will see their own needs in these areas and join me in trying and listening and learning.

I encourage people to become lifelong learners.  It has been a basic belief for me for as long as I can remember.  I am naturally curious about a lot of different things.  I seek out speakers who come to our area and listen to authors at local bookstores.  I listen to TEDTalks on a wide variety of topics.  I listen to podcasts and read blogs.  I read nonfiction on subjects I didn’t know about or don’t know enough about.  I learn from fiction written by authors who have a widely different experience of what it is to be human than I have.

Over the years I encouraged my students to learn how to learn and to realize that there is a wealth of knowledge out there that we know nothing about.  I tried (sometimes successfully) to get them into a habit of reading.  I introduced them to TEDTalks and to authors who had an enormous wealth of expertise, experience, and enthusiasm.  I taught them to evaluate what they read online for truth, for accuracy, and for bias.  

I’m retired and could sit back in my rocking chair reading fluff fiction and eating bonbons.  But that isn’t me.  I need more. I need to be engaged and growing and my guess is that you do too.

I’ve long been an advocate of working toward ending hunger.  It is inexcusable that there are people in our country, in this state, in my community who are food insecure on a regular basis.  I supported causes financially for years.  When I had a class right before lunch who constantly complained of “starving,” I took the time to do a lesson on what it really means to be starving as opposed to having your tummy growl because you’re ready for lunch.  We started our own little snack bar.  I purchased the food out of my pocket.  They then bought the food and drummed up other customers.  The class took the proceeds and made a donation to Heifer International because they liked the idea of a charity that helped people get out of poverty.  

This project led to another one. Part of my curriculum was teaching students how to do research.  I took that opportunity to also teach them about becoming socially aware, doing good, and being savvy about how to assess online sources and charities.  Each student was asked to do research on a cause or problem they would like to see solutions for.  They researched diseases, conditions like hunger or lack of clean water.  They learned about drug addiction, domestic violence, civil rights, animal rights, and many other elements that make life difficult or dangerous for people.  They then turned their attention to organizations dedicated to solutions.  They assessed the work these organizations did, how they used the money that was donated to them, and how people could get involved.  Finally, they presented their findings and made a case to their classmates on why it was a worthwhile cause. They talked about the organization they found to be most reputable and how others can get involved.  I learned so much from their work!  

I started doing volunteer work with a food pantry when I retired and had the time to do so.  Even with the involvement I had had over the years through World Hunger Year, Feeding America, and other hunger organizations, I still learned more.  Through my work with New Hope Ministries I am in touch with people who are food insecure.  I know the personal struggles of families.  And I am working with a group who not only feeds people but helps them to find a way to food security and being able to end the problems created by poverty. I see the impact on their children.  I’ve known from my teaching that kids who are hungry don’t do well in school.  But now I am seeing more.  I am seeing how hunger impacts our elderly and our mentally ill.

As I continue to learn new things, I am also learning about other things I thought I already knew.  I’m finding areas where my knowledge isn’t as wide and deep as I once imagined.  

From the time I was a child, I didn’t hate or judge anyone on the basis of race or religion.  I just didn’t.  It sure wasn’t because I was taught not to hate.  I was raised with grandparents and parents who were/are racist.  I can still vividly remember having a black child seated with me on a ride in the kiddie land part of Kennywood Park.  My grandfather threw a fit and made the ride operator move the child because he wouldn’t have me seated with a “n*****” now or ever.  I have relived that scene in my mind for over sixty years because I still think about what that did to a family just trying to have fun like I was having.  Then I think that maybe they don’t even remember that one incident because it was part of the fabric of their lives.  And that makes me even sadder.

I read biographies and especially autobiographies of Black entertainers and leaders.  I felt outrage over the things that happened in their lives due to their skin color.  The first one I remember reading was Yes I Can by Sammy Davis, Jr.  After seeing him on tv with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and so many others, it was shocking to me how he was treated not only prior to becoming famous but also after.  The thought of him not being able to stay in a hotel or even enter through the front door when he was headlining a show there boggled my mind!  I am still ranting over the fact that Maya Angelou’s autobiography is one of the top banned books – her life as a child was so awful that our kids shouldn’t read about it?  How about no child should have had to live it!

I fell in love with many authors from widely diverse ethnicities, cultures, races, and beliefs.  I introduced them to my students because I knew how much I was enriched by their words and stories.  I went further. I designed a short-story unit in which students were given stories to read that represented different ethnic, geographic, cultural, and racial backgrounds. The questions for thought on each story and eventually our discussions were centered on the universality of human nature. We talked about how the differences mentioned above led to different details and experiences in the stories but how the themes and truths didn’t change based on such things. This unit was recognized and given an award from the local Adams County Martin Luther King Memorial Committee and the National Parks Association.

I am not a racist.  I’ve declared that my whole life.  It was my truth…until I learned more and realized that isn’t enough.

I need to not only be “not racist” but I need to be anti-racist. There were things that I didn’t know or didn’t understand.  Taking the time to learn and especially to LISTEN have me moving along a path that I thought I had already traveled.  To just be “not racist” and not actively do something is being silent and thereby complicit.

While I never uttered the horrible “some of my best friends are…” statement, I have said the one that is almost as bad — “I don’t see color.”  Really?  WTF?  Of course I see color.  I see if a person is Black, Hispanic, Native American, or White.  I see if people have a disability.  I see their yarmulke and prayer shawl, beards or hijabs.  I hear the foreign accent, the redneck accent, the highly educated vocabulary, the swearing, the piety in their voices.  I know that when I said that I didn’t see color what I meant was that I don’t judge based on it or any other factor that makes us “other.”  What I mean and need to say is that I celebrate our differences as making the fabric of life so much more interesting and intricate.  Being color blind ignores the differences inherent in the other — differences that make our relationships richer and do not make anyone lesser.

I’ve also railed (only in my mind because I’m kinda PC, you know) at the term “white privilege.”  I didn’t have privilege!  I earn everything I get…  you know that drill.  And then I started reading and listening to what is actually meant by the phrase.  I was railing against something that I didn’t get.  I do have certain “privileges” based on the fact that my skin is white.  I have a different reality, a different life experience because of my color. I don’t get followed in stores because people don’t assume that I’m there to steal.  I don’t get questioned for why I am walking or driving in certain areas.  

I don’t get frightened when I am stopped by the police and don’t expect to be stopped unless I’m going 70 mph in a 45 zone!  I have been stopped by the police and had no fear of anything except whether I’ll be able to afford the ticket I earned.  I follow my parents’ instructions on how to deal with being pulled over – be respectful, be polite, and don’t argue.  If you argue or become disrespectful, you’re sure to get a ticket.  I’ve had a police officer apologize for giving me a ticket that I deserved because I was polite, respectful, and, as a white woman, posed no threat. I ended up saying, “Hey, you’re just doing your job.” And that was the reality of my situation.

When I read The Hate U Give and first heard about “the talk” that POC parents have to give their children, I was learning something surprising.  “The talk” in my house and many of your houses had to do with sex.  It didn’t have to do with how to stay alive if you are stopped by the police.  I know from listening that this isn’t an exaggeration.  My niece’s significant other was stopped in his own neighborhood on his way home from work because there had been a robbery in the vicinity. Dr. Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor, was arrested for entering into his own home and protesting being questioned about it.  My white brother-in-law had the police called on him once after he was seen climbing through the window into his own home.  He had recently moved into the house, had forgotten his keys, and so he “broke in.”  The police arrived and my brother-in-law couldn’t open the deadbolt locks without the keys nor could he produce an ID with this address.  Now this is suspicious!  He grabbed his wedding photo album to prove identity.  He and the police had a good laugh and all was fine.  

George Floyd was arrested for passing what was believed to be a counterfeit $20 bill.  I firmly believe that if that was me in a store handing over that bill, the police would have been called.  However, they would have asked me where the bill came from and asked to look in my wallet to see if there were more.  I don’t know what would have happened from there.  Maybe I would have been taken in.  Maybe I would have had my house searched for a printing press. Maybe they would have taken me at my word that I didn’t know the money was fake – I mean, I don’t have any record.  But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been handcuffed and manhandled.  I wouldn’t have been on the street with three police officers driving their knees into me.  I wouldn’t be dead over $20.  Mark McCoy, a white professor at SMU, related that he had once been arrested for passing a fake bill.  He spent the night in jail before the charges were dropped.  He commented on Twitter, “For George Floyd, a man my age, with two kids, it was a death sentence.  For me, it’s a story I sometimes tell at parties.”  

There are many other things I’m learning, but for now I will do something I am not known for.  I will shut up and I will listen, read, and learn.  Some of the books that have helped me get as far as I have are listed below along with some that have been recommended and are now on my TBR pile.  Join me in learning.

BOOKS FOR ADULTS:

  • Angelou, Maya – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • Baldwin, James – If Beal Street Could Talk
  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi – Between the World and Me
  • DiAngelo, Robin – White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
  • Harper, Lisa Sharon –The Very Good Gospel: HowEverything Wrong Can Be Made Right
  • Hatmaker, Jen – Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire (While not the main focus, there is a beautiful section in this book on the topic)
  • Hurston, Zora Neale – Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Jones, Tayari – An American Marriage
  • Kenan, Randall – The Fire This Time
  • Kendi, Ibram X.  – How to Be an Antiracist
  • Kendi, Ibram X. – Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
  • Magee, Rhonda V. – The Inner Work of Racial Justice:  Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness
  • Moore, Darnell L. – No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America
  • Morrison, Latasha – Be the Bridge
  • Morrison, Toni – The Bluest Eye
  • Reynolds, Jason & Ibram X. Kendi – Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning
  • Saad, Layla F. – Me and White Supremacy
  • Stephenson, Bryan – Just Mercy
  • Takaki, Ronald – A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America
  • Thomas, Angie – The Hate You Give
  • Walker, Alice – The Color Purple
  • Ward, Jesmyn – The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race
  • Whitehead, Colson – The Underground Railroad
  • Whitehead, Colson – The Nickel Boys
  • Wilson, August – Fences
  • Wright, Richard – Native Son

BOOKS FOR CHILDREN & TEENS

  • Alexie, Sherman Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  • Choi, Yangsook The Name Jar
  • Danticat, Edwidge Mama’s Nightingale
  • LaMotte, David White Flour
  • Lester, Julius Let’s Talk About Race
  • Lewis, John March: Book Three (three part series all of which are excellent)
  • Miller, Sharee Don’t Touch My Hair
  • Nelson, Kadir Nelson Mandela
  • Nelson, Marilyn A Wreath for Emmett Till
  • Pinkney, Andrea Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down
  • Ramsey, Calvin Alexander Ruth and the Green Book
  • Reynolds, Jason All American Boys
  • Reynolds, Jason & Ibram X. Kendi – Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning
  • Ringgold, Faith We Came to America
  • Shetterly, Margot Lee Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition
  • Stone, Nic Dear Martin
  • Thomas, Angie The Hate You Give
  • Tutu, Desmond Desmond and the Very Mean Word
  • Winter, Jonah Lillian’s Right to Vote
  • Woodson, Jacqueline Brown Girl Dreaming
  • Yang, Gene Luen American Born Chinese

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