Hester Prynne, #WhyIDidntReport, and Me: Now I Stand

On many bright Sunday mornings at church in Houston, Texas, I was a small child, sitting next to my Mother on the second pew, seeing my Father sitting on the first pew with other Trustees of the church and the Deacons sitting in front of the pulpit, filled with ministers, flanked on both sides by massive choirs. I have never forgotten to this very moment how I felt. My “home church,” as we used to say in the South, was a massive edifice, dating from slavery—a huge Hammond pipe organ and two Steinway pianos. I always felt safe, secure, and I marveled at what I would come to understand was the acoustical sound. This description was the one most often repeated every Sunday from my infancy until I left my home church when I was 21 to live in Dallas. As a small, only child, cloistered in a tight group of children, we assumed such to be the same at all churches—not simply at our Black Baptist Church. Now, as an adult, I am not so sure anymore.

But, there were “other” Sundays . . .

Not often at all, but so vivid were these “other” Sundays that to this very moment as I am writing, I can see each girl’s face; I remember the long transom in the middle of our church with the scarlet red carpet—which seemed even redder on these particular Sunday mornings, always before the sermon. No sound in this massive edifice. No movement. All eyes on the singular girl walking from the back, always from the very back of the church. My home church had an equally large upstairs gallery; so, eyes were fixed on the girl side-to-side, straight on, once she reached the front where the deacons sat in plush swivel chairs, and eyes from above, looking down on her.

Once she reached the front, the girl would say, “I want to ask the church’s forgiveness. I sinned.” She would then wait until the pastor arose behind the pulpit to say, “We forgive you of your transgressions, (NAME of girl). Let the church say Amen.” The adults said Amen. The girl would walk the long walk back to the end of the church. All eyes fixed. No sound. No movement. What her “sin” was on this Sunday when she had been at church every Sunday was never verbally revealed.

Young children such as I, never understood what was actually transpiring, and more importantly, nor did we ask. What was communicated to each of us  silently was “you never want to do whatever it was that warranted your having to do what each girl did.” I saw this same scene repeated until I myself was a young teen; My Father had passed away in 1966. It was only as a teenager that I realized what each girl had in common was     then described as “having had a child out-of-wed-lock.” And like Hester Prynne, whatever talent she had contributed to our church was suspended in-perpetuity. And each girl remained in our church every Sunday with her child.

I recount this scene for this Blog because much has weighed on my heart since Dr. Ford’s letter, her necessitated emergence in public, and the response from a bevy of men who should know better—who DO know better but have determined to turn their backs on us—all of us, regardless of our party affiliation, age, ethnicity, culture, religion—in this case only the gender is key.

My decision to share this Blog it has come as a result of reflecting 72 hours on a re-memory that because of Dr. Ford’s experience caused me to flashback to a moment in time that I had put into a place—a place never to forget, but one to just keep. After conversations with my beloved husband and with myself, I have decide to share that haunting, frightening memory. I share because I can no longer be quiet about the necessity for us as women, mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, along with our professional pursuits to come forth and say—enough of the attitude—as has been expressed on some of the news programs and in Tweets, such as, “Well, nothing happened.” Or, as one Senator stated,”He didn’t get away with anything.” Seriously?

As for me. I still remember the man who assualted me in an elevator—a colleague, and an associate, I thought. I can remember every second, in slow-motion. I became acquainted with him through his wife and through his institution’s affiliation with my own in Dallas, Texas. We had planned a meeting-conversation about an idea for students, and he suggested we meet for a glass—a glass of wine—after work. I said, sure. We met, discussed the idea, and I stood to leave. My one glass of wine not in the least finished. He followed me to the elevator, and we both got in.

What I remember vividly to this moment: we were talking, my back was to the wall of the elevator, and in what seemed to me a second, he was directly in front of me, forcing himself on me, tying to kiss me. I was struggling to remove myself, struggling to say stop, what are you doing???? I pushed him off, shouted at him, “Who do you think you are? What on earth are you doing, Don’t even come close to me.” He abruptly stepped to the other side of the elevator, and as the doors opened, I was so angry and frightened, I was shaking. He was following me , pleading that I not tell his wife. I was telling him not to follow me.

I ran to my car. Locked my doors, shakily inserted my key into the ignition and drove fast out of the parking lot.

No, gentlemen and some women, of Congress, I do not remember the date, the hotel, but I have never forgotten how violated I felt and was made to be fearful—even to this very moment. Even after two years had passed, I could not enter an elevator alone if there was a man in it.

Reporting this man to the Dallas police would have gotten me nowhere, as the discussion on the Hill at present clearly illustrates. That said, my Mother and my the love of my life to whom I am now married, helped me and “had words” with the man.

My Father, had he been living, along with my Uncles, would have taken another path.

What I hope now to accomplish by sharing this personal story is to add my narrative- experience to the quilt of painful narratives that some of us have had and continue to bear. We have had to bear the burden of attacks, jibes, touches, etc, far too long—long before Anita Hill whose experience is a beacon on the political scene. Before Dr. Hill, the message had long been silently and visually inculcated into us. The concomitant message, too, is that while we have borne the brunt of being attacked, disbelieved, and scarlet-lettered like the girls in my home church, the “boys” go along under the aegis of “right to passage,” “boys will be boys,” “so they were a little drunk.” No harm, no foul.

Not anymore. We must no longer be quiet anytime, anywhere—there are so many more girls following us, looking at how we stand. Hester Prynne’s Scarlet Letter no longer stands for Adultress but for Affirmation. We as women affirm our collective Voice, our Place, our Right to Be and be Believed. Equity, Ethics, and Equality.

And those men, who tried to take advantage of us, please remember, though you may say you “don’t remember;” we all know, as do you, that in the “wee small hours of the night”—as my Mother used to say—you most assuredly DO Remember. You will never forget what you did to all of us. As Launcelot Gobbo asserts in The Merchant of Venice: “ . . . in the end truth will out” (2.2)

“When Will We Listen? Mark Twain Through the Lenses of Generation Z”

“When Will We Listen? Mark Twain Trough the Lenses of Generation Z?”

This new Blog cited above I composed for The Center for Mark Twain Studies and have inserted here on my site, as well, because I know this is a topic with which we as ELA , Humanities, and Social Studies educators have wrestled for longer than some of us have been in  the classroom. Personally, as a woman of color, an African-American woman of proud ancestors–slave, freemen/women/white, and Native American–I remain ever-curious and proud of the history of African Americans in the United States. Ours is a history we initially did not write, AND ours is a history which we did own and tell–verbally passing them down and then writing them. Some, like my maternal Great-grandmother’s brother who dared to learn to read and write in the secret dark of night, ultimately forfeiting his life. All my Great-grandmother heard, she would later reveal to my Mother, was a scream. She never saw her brother again. She did, however, see her own Father sold in the front yard of their cabin. My maternal Great-grandmother could not write, but she could and did tell her story–what became my story, too. The Chadwicks and the Banks (my paternal side) on the other hand, survived and persevered: the Chadwicks as slaves totally mixed by many strands and threads of difference; the Banks–freeman.

What I continue to love about my family on both sides is their dogged determination that their children, their children’s children, and so on, would indeed know our history–the whole truth: the good, the tragic, the triumphant, the failed. Education was and still is the watchword among us.

I recount this personal narrative because what we cousins learned as we grew was that there was never an ALL of anything. Not ALL Black people are the same; not ALL people different from us were portrayed as VILE and untrustworthy. Difference, Tolerance, Equity, Equality, Ethics–my Father insisted and walked that walk until he died.

What great literature accomplishes, regardless of who writes it, allows our students to experience multifaceted  perspectives through their OWN 21st century lenses–assessing, evaluating, analyzing, inquiring according to their here and now–not ours. Students who have memory of their families’ pasts and history and those who do not–the literature we teach is the door through which our students can experience the world–warts and all.

No doubt, the past can inform the present, but our past must never-ever suffocate our children’s “now.” Every classroom I enter–physically or virtually, I am finding the experience with, as some now say,”old” texts and new with these 21st century students daring, refreshing, daunting, and even sad, at times. I describe many of these students as ones with “old eyes,” for they have indeed experienced and seen far more than we want to think about. But think about it, we must.

We have to trust them and trust ourselves as ELA, SS, and Humanities educators. And as a dear friend, Carol Jago said earlier this month, those of us who need help, ASK. There will always be those of us who will say, Of course, we are here.

Blog # 2: Defining Ourselves: Why Now? And to Whom?

If each of us had to define and describe in five sentences or less what we do as English teachers for our students—PreK-Graduate—what would we say? How would we define specifically what we do without using any of the following: grading, papers, long hours, inadequate remuneration, not enough time, trying conditions, and the list would probably continue. However, does such a list really define and describe what we do; who we are as English teachers, educators, intellectuals?

All too often, we rely on job-synecdoches—listing the descriptive “parts” of what we do in lieu of drilling into and revealing the “scope and sequence” of what we do—the order of units, plans, curricula. But what exactly do we do, and why is now, the critical time for us to know and share, and, yes, control, the narrative?

What We Do: The integral components requisite for a child, tween, teen, adult of all human and social iterations to function and succeed in daily living and career require that ELA teachers expose and provide the accesskeys through reading (fiction, nonfiction), writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, researching, and viewing. Sparking and fomenting sustained critical thinking contextualize the learning environment.

“What we do” has had resonance and consequence throughout the history of this country for educated and illiterate, for chattel and immigrant, indentured and migrant, for those born free and those who were later freed. “What we do” has enabled individuals to defy efforts to deny the vote, deny voice, deny one’s very presence, and to deny difference.

More importantly, students themselves articulate best what we do. Recently, I asked several groups of students—MS/HS—around the country to explain to me and to each other if their reading, writing, speaking, research, and listening in their English classes have or have not affected their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Their responses were thought-provoking. Here are a few nuggets:

• The books we read make me aware of different people and cultures I have not met yet.
• I understand better how to deal with difficult situations and when to speak and not.
• I did not know other people felt the way I do about split families; it was good to read about someone else and what he did when his parents left each other.
Who Is Our Audience and Why Must We Do Something Now ?
Emerson stated, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” (Self-Reliance). To be sure, consistency and certainty are not wholly undesirable. English teachers are consistent and constantly embrace change, ever-reflecting the notion of Emerson’s thesis—that we need not fear defining and redefining, adapting and evolving “what we do:” “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”
Ours is an ever-changing audience: students from generation to generation who actually don’t age and mature from year to year with us. In addition, both teachers and students from year to year are in a different space and place, constructing meaning and building relationships differently. Parents, too are our audience, as are local, state, and federal policy makers. Finally, another factor to this list is any person who feels comfortable commenting on the state of education and on who we are, describing us as some innocuous group who have weekends and summers off. Well. . . In the midst of these varied audiences, our students and their parents represent our permanent audience that is never in stasis. What affects this audience directly affects us. Parents and their children today, more than in the past, contend with social change, upheavals, uncertainty, a technology juggernaut, and a general, expansive sense of dis-ease.

While some of our colleagues yet contend we need not pay attention to any of these audiences, and others contend students decidedly don’t qualify as audience, we must pay attention to our students as audience—an audience who remains with us for a significant portion of their lives.

Within the dis-ease, the cacophony of non-teacherly voices, and our generationally-shifting students, we must acknowledge the immediacy of our using voices, best practices, and students’ testimonies as to the import and efficacy of our profession and our expertise within it. For too long, we have allowed others to intuit what we do. For too long we have been satisfied with the notion that people just know and remember what we do and its import.

Years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

We, ELA teachers, represent the sustained, coherent, cohesive, and substantive instructional pathway Dr. King articulated. Now, the path before us requires that we define, articulate, illustrate, and model all we have done, are doing, and will continue to do for life.

This is what we do and who we are as English teachers.

 

 

Blog#1-Who Defines US–ELA?

If there ever was a time for English language arts teachers (PreK-Graduate) to wrench out of the hands of those who do and would define who we are, what we do, how we teach, when we teach, and what we teach—the time is NOW! Over the next months, as we approach NCTE’s national convention in St. Louis, I want to have a conversation that explores our defining who we are—ourselves. This conversation is an important one if we are to re-acquire our Voices, our Agency, and our Mission.

As for me, I am a lifelong, dedicated passionate English teacher who loves students, literature, writing, research, reading, and other ELA teachers. Like our students, I remain ever-curious, and I have had and continue to have the unique privilege of teaching secondary and college students, as well as collaborating with colleagues as I present, work with students, conduct workshops, etc.

Despite the challenges we all have every day as educators, I still love the profession and know that WE must now tell our narratives. We much explain in no uncertain terms that what we do as English teachers, students in this entire United States of America depend—from cradle to grave– on the foundational life-long skills we teach: reading, writing thinking, speaking, listening, and viewing. English, yes, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and film, art and music—these elements abound in our classes.

Now is the time for us to rebrand and assume control of our narrative. Let’s talk!