What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

It will come as no surprise to most of my readers that I have gone and done a thing: I am running for the Jefferson County Board of Education.

If you want to know my big issues and where I stand on them, you’ll find that over at paulareedforjeffcoschools.com. This isn’t about that.

It’s about how I ended up doing this.

First, I should tell you that I was thinking about running when I retired in May of 2018. I kept my Columbine faculty graduation robe and hood in anticipation of one day being the board member handing out diplomas at graduation ceremonies for the high schools in my district.

So when I was contacted by one of the people working on recruiting candidates regarding whether I would consider running, I said yes. Just like that. I think she was a little surprised that I didn’t ask for more time to think about it. She asked if I had questions. I said no. She asked if I wanted to talk to current or former board members. I said no. In fact, I have only recently begun to make these contacts.

I didn’t want to know because, honestly, the prospect of doing this scared me shitless, and I didn’t want anything tipping the scales to make me back out. I was already well aware that it has been a brutal year for the current board. Still, I wanted to jump in over my head and swim, damnit.

I love kids. I love Jeffco kids. When it comes to Jeffco schools and Jeffco teachers, I will say what I used to say to my ACE kiddos all the time: I have good news and bad news. The good news is I have unshakable faith in you. And the bad news is I have unshakable faith in you. Any kid who had me for ACE can tell you, my expectations are high. I also understand that it’s pretty ineffective to tell people who are working their asses off to just “be better; be excellent.” They need support. They need resources. They need someone who will cheer and cajole and never stop believing in them.

I got that in spades.

What I didn’t have was any idea how to run for office. I am incredibly fortunate to have savvy people helping me out in a class I take every other Saturday. It lasts six hours every time. At first, I figured it would move more slowly than I needed it to, and I wondered whether they really needed that much time to teach us everything we need to know.

Yes. Yes, they do. And while I certainly feel I keep up, it is most assuredly not too slow.

And can I just say how ridiculous I think it is that a local school board race requires a $50,000 budget? That’s what happens when organizations like Americans for Prosperity stick their fingers into local races. Those of us whose agendas do not align with the uber-wealthy have to figure out how to raise big dollars ourselves. Given past school board campaign budgets, whomever my opponent is will appear to raise and spend far less than I because they will get support in ways that do not have to be reported. Sneaky things like “community newspapers” sent to every county resident that appear to report local news, but are actually designed to disseminate propaganda around upcoming election issues.

Oh well. It is what it is. Of the $50k I need to raise, I have about $10k in contributions and pledges. Virtually every penny has come from people I know, at one level or another. It has come from friends, family, former classmates, former colleagues, Jeffco parents, educators and teachers, fellow church members, retirees from all kinds of professions, from education to healthcare. 

These are not wealthy people. Their contributions, whether $25 or $500, are significant investments for them. With each donation, I feel that I am getting good news and bad news: The good news is people have unshakable faith in me. And the bad news is people have unshakable faith in me. I feel the accountability. I feel that faith. It’s scary and humbling and deeply moving.

Wish me luck over the next six months.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 1 Comment

Election 2020

Like many of my friends, I am torn between who I want to be (and usually am) and who I am at this particular moment, which is just so angry. I try to see all sides of issues. I really do. You’ll note that I said “all,” not both, because often there are many more sides than two, and I appreciate nuance.

But as I watch friends and acquaintances–people I went to school with, lived next door to, taught, worked with–blithely willing to turn their back on democracy and embrace fascism, I am devastated. I cannot see all sides, because right now we have two choices: democracy and fascism. 

Some of the people on my Facebook feed I have always known to be somewhat, or even very, narcissistic, so I’m not terribly surprised. They believe their identities place them at the top of American fascism’s caste structure, so they see only its advantages to them and don’t care how it hurts others. Ironically, they have no idea who’s at the top, because they are nowhere near that realm. Either way, with them, I figure being tied to them in an election is like the frog riding the scorpion–stinging is their nature.

But others I simply cannot fathom. I cannot wrap my head around people I always thought of as good, decent people willfully choosing fascism over democracy. And yet they are.

Look, there have certainly been presidents who have behaved despicably, so in the past, when people I know have decided that Trump’s childishness, his treatment of women, his narcissism haven’t necessarily disqualified him to be our president, I have been dismayed, but not infuriated. After all, I have made devil’s deals with candidates who were far from perfect, so I am hardly stainless.

But when a president will not agree to a peaceful transfer of power, works tirelessly with his party to undermine a U.S. election and invites foreign powers to do the same, encourages thugs to intimidate people at the polls and tells them to prepare to commit acts of violence should he lose, a vote for him is inescapably a vote for fascism. It just is.

Of course, those who support a shift to fascism will not be honest about it. Fascism is such an ugly word. Oh, they want fascism–a dictator who cannot be deposed by the will of people they deem unworthy of any power at all and who embraces violence against anyone who disagrees with them. They just don’t want us to call it that. (And before anyone cites violence around racial unrest, a) Trump’s own F.B.I. director pointed out that violent extremism from white supremacists has made up a majority of domestic terrorism threats, and b) has Biden ever suggested that members of BLM “stand back and stand ready”? No.)

Did you ever read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Huck spends a whole journey learning that Jim, an escaped slave, is a human being and not just a piece of property. The end of that book is ruined when he allows his friend Tom to turn Jim into a plaything. He follows along with Tom’s ridiculous plan to “free” Jim (whom Tom already knows to be free). There is a point where, wrapped up in an elaborate fantasy of digging Jim a tunnel with pocket knives, Tom realizes it’s impossible and says, “I’ll tell you. It ain’t right, and it ain’t moral, and I wouldn’t like it to get out; but there ain’t only just the one way: we got to dig him out with the picks, and LET ON it’s case-knives.”

There is only one way to vote for Trump and still proclaim your love of democracy: “I’ll tell you. It ain’t right, and it ain’t moral, and I wouldn’t like it to get out; but there ain’t only just the one way: we got to vote for fascism, and LET ON it’s democracy.” 

It’s a terrible way to end a story.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | Leave a comment

How Dare You Call Me Privileged?

I have seen a number of white friends post things like “If anyone calls me white privileged, I will delete that comment,” or “And then my friend called me white privileged; how dare she?” These are people who insist they are not racist, yet so far, they have resisted all attempts to explain this concept. But I’m a teacher at heart, so I’ll try again. 

First, “white privilege” isn’t something you are if you’re white; it’s something you have, and you have it whether you want it or not. If someone says you are speaking or acting from privilege, they aren’t calling you a racist; they are asking you to check this thing you have.  Don’t think you have it? I beg of you, keep reading.

The other argument I hear from white people to black people is “I never owned slaves, and you never were a slave, so nobody owes you anything.”

Let’s take these things apart in the context of today. I mean, it’s true, whites no longer legally enslave blacks, so how does privilege play out now? How does it pay out now?

You are an enthusiastic, hardworking white person, and you send your resumé in for a job that you just know you are perfect for. At the top of that resumé is your white-sounding name. You don’t even know that another resumé with nearly identical qualifications arrived in the same stack, but with the name Jamal Jefferson at the top. Your white potential employer looks at yours, likes what he sees, and puts you into the short stack of people to interview. It’s a big stack, and he’s skimming. He sees Jamal Jefferson at the top of one, skims it, and sets in the “not so much” stack. No specific reason, just not quite what he’s looking for.

Seriously, if you asked him, he’d say the person just didn’t look quite right. He’d explain that this is kind of a subjective process and he doesn’t have time to thoroughly examine every single one. If asked to review it, he’d find something he didn’t like. If you asked him to compare it to yours, he might very well feel the blood drain from his face as he realizes, “Oh, shit, I’m a racist,” because he’s a genuinely decent fellow who doesn’t want to be racist. The “implicit” part of the phrase “implicit bias” means he didn’t know he had that bias.

And unfortunately, no one is looking over his shoulder as he skims those resumés to make him check that bias. You get the job, and Jamal never gets an interview. That was your privilege, whether you wanted it or not, whether you even knew you had it or not.

Not only do you get the job, you get hired at 75 cents an hour above the standard entry-level wage in that company because he really wanted you to come work for him. Yay!

Two weeks later, your new teammate at work leaves and there’s another opening for the same job description as yours. Your boss goes back to the same stack of resumés, and this time, because you with your white-sounding name are no longer there, and your boss really isn’t an intentional racist, Jamal’s looks really good, so he interviews and hires Jamal. Now, here’s the next hiccup: Your boss went to a predominantly white school. He lives in a predominantly white neighborhood. His workplace is predominantly white. He recognized your enthusiasm and leadership potential right away, hence the slightly higher starting wage. He likes Jamal, but doesn’t see those same qualities shining through quite as strongly. Jamal has them, but your boss doesn’t see them. There’s something about Jamal that doesn’t look like most of the enthusiastic leaders he’s known. What is it? The color of his skin. Almost all of the other enthusiastic leaders your boss has known–at school, at work, at home–have been white, because most of the people he knows are white. It’s that sneaky implicit bias again. He doesn’t even realize that’s the difference. 

This isn’t theoretical. Studies have shown that when identical resumés are sent out, ones with white-sounding names and ones with black-sounding names, the ones with white-sounding names are twice as likely to get called for interviews, and white people are often hired at a higher wage.

Okay, with that 75-cent difference, so far you have $1,560 a year worth of privilege, not counting the two weeks head start you have because you got first crack at a job there.

Now you both take your paychecks out apartment hunting. You and Jamal have very similar renting and credit histories. You are offered several choices. Jamal gets turned down by most of the ones who offer you a place, but finally gets one in the same building you choose. Studies show that white people frequently get accepted into apartment buildings while black people with the same credit histories are told there are no apartments available. The thing is Jamal is getting charged $25 per month more than you for the same style of unit. Why? The landlord is the guy I recently saw post this on FB (not a friend, just some guy): “The reason black people have so much trouble with cops is they’re way more likely to get mouthy and disrespectful.” Racism is real, people. Anyway, this guy is the landlord, and while he’ll take money from black people, he believes they are more likely to be trouble, so he charges them more. You are blissfully unaware of this. Jamal picked up on it as soon as he met this guy, but he’s already been turned down at all the other places, so he’s taking what he can get. You are happy. Jamal is justifiably pissed but sucking it up.

Between wages and rent, you now have $1,860 per year worth of privilege. Did you ask for it? No. Do you even know you have it? No. Just because you don’t know you have it doesn’t mean you don’t, though.

Time for you and Jamal to go car shopping. You both know what you want to buy, and you have both budgeted carefully and are shopping within your means. (Your means are greater than his because you’re white.) You get shown the car you want and a loan at a good rate. Jamal is first shown cheaper cars because the salesperson thinks Jamal is probably looking a bit out of his league. Why does he think this? “The dude doesn’t look like he makes much money,” the salesperson would probably say. Why? That salesperson is never going to say, “Because he’s black,” but that’s what’s going on.

Finally, Jamal gets the car he wants, but his loan rate is higher for three reasons: 1) He’s got a “black-sounding name,” which studies show results in a higher rate; 2) he makes less than you do, and 3) he pays more for an apartment than you do. These are all very real financial advantages that you have for one reason and one reason only: You’re white.

And this doesn’t even touch on all the other non-financial advantages you have, like not getting pulled over by cops as often, not being afraid for your life when you’re pulled over, not getting followed around in stores and yet getting better service–all the ways that a person’s inherent worth and dignity are validated or invalidated in society. 

And you haven’t asked for any of this. I get that. But the only way this really changes is when we white folks call each other on it. It changes when we refuse privileges or insist that people of color be given the same benefits. It stops when these things we blithely consider, not privileges, but basic rights actually become, not privileges, but basic rights.

Step one: Recognize your privilege.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 6 Comments

Are Educators Truly Disposable?

Jeffco will be making its plans public tomorrow: Middle and high schools will be open for business–full classrooms, full time.

For my colleagues at Columbine, pretty typical in the district, this means spending 8 hours a day in a windowless or at least sealed-window room with poor air-ventilation. It will be full of 25-32 students seated perhaps three feet apart in 90-minutes cycles. With no air flow, even plexiglass partitions can only do so much, and there’s no word on whether or not they’ll have those. Classes will meet every other day, so these kids will cycle in and out, exposing educators to whatever 75 kids a day bring with them, from the common cold to the possibility of Covid-19. Masks will be required unless a medical reason prevents wearing one. We’ve seen how well this works getting parents to immunize their kids. Colorado is last in the nation for standard Kindergarten immunizations.

It’s ok, though. Children, we are told, have resistance to the virus and weather it much better if they get it.

No one talks about the educators. Some will be pregnant, now a group considered high risk. Some are immunocompromised. Some have battled long illnesses, and their bodies can’t really take another. Some are in high-risk age groups. And then, some are young and healthy, and they may still die of Covid anyway. It happens. Kids die of it, too. Substitutes have largely been retired teachers, a very high-risk group.

But the economy needs kids back at school. Parents need to return to work. Online school doesn’t net good results for most kids, and they’re falling behind. It’s hard for families to manage more than one kid at a time learning online, even if they can afford to have a parent stay home to supervise, and few families have that resource.

So we tell educators they must risk their lives, the lives of their unborn children, the lives of their own elderly parents for whom they care. After all, as educators get sick or even die, surely new ones will pop from a box like Kleenex. Isn’t that how it works? You use them up, throw them away, and grab fresh ones?

To be fair, this issue isn’t of Jeffco Schools’ making. We decided when the stay-at-home order was lifted that everyone should choose for themselves whether or not to adhere to social distancing and whether or not to mask. We opened bars and restaurants–again, for the economy, and also because we were bored.

After all, didn’t a few of our leaders suggest that we throw away our parents and grandparents, sacrificing them to Covid for the economy?

Have we really come to this?

If we had been more strict about masks and social distancing, we could have a different conversation about opening schools, but we didn’t. We want the freedom to choose, and now we are asking teachers to literally risk their lives for our poor choices. One parent compared teachers to health care workers. We need them, and they must take the risk. Show me the healthcare worker we expect to stay in an enclosed room with who knows how many potential carriers in a group of 25-32 patients with nothing more than a cloth mask and possibly a face shield for protection?

I have news. Educators are not disposable. Sooner or later, you’ll run out. First you’ll run out of licensed individuals with the skills and experience kids need. Then you’ll run out of people stupid enough to walk into this situation, qualified to teach or not. Of course, by then, we’ll be deep in the throws of another wave, partly set off by schools, in which thousands will die.

“But other countries have gone back full time without all of this!” I hear you cry. Countries that had greatly reduced and stabilized their infection rates. We are not one of those countries. In fact, the U.S. and Brazil are competing neck and neck for the honor of having the highest Covid rates in the world.

I have a pretty diverse Facebook feed, so I’ve seen more than my share of “I have the right to decide whether or not to wear a mask or socially distance. I must be allowed to choose what is best for me and my family.” Of course, other people comment that this has serious consequences for others, that non-maskers and bar drinkers are endangering everyone around them, and the reply is always some gently worded version of “tough shit.”

Educators MUST be allowed to decide what is best for them and their families, including whether they will teach in person or online. If not enough choose in person, and that leaves families without childcare and employers without workers, well, I guess the reply is pretty much the same. If opening schools was that important, the rest of us should have thought about that weeks ago.

If Jefferson County Public Schools, and every other district in the country, sees educators as something other than disposable; if my former colleagues are more to them than Kleenex to be used up and tossed away, they must allow teachers to decide whether to return in person or teach online until the Covid rate is on a steady and sustained decline.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 13 Comments

Fireworks and My Privilege

I’m going to bet every person who reads this knows what I’m talking about when it comes to fireworks. The damned things have been going off nonfuckingstop for weeks now. They go off from 8:00 right on through until there’s some random window-rattling blast at, like, 2:45 a.m. Pets hate it, people hate it. You bitch about it on Nextdoor, and it’s a surefire way to make the people doing it gloriously happy. Trolls IRL.

Our Nextdoor has a whole group about it. I’m in it. Everyone has resolved to call the cops whenever they can identify the source. A cop parked in the empty elementary school parking lot across the street from our house one night gave us blessed quiet. I was grateful.

Then I read this in the New York Times: A Minneapolis Neighborhood Vowed to Check Its Privilege. It’s Already Being Tested. The neighborhood a few blocks away from where George Floyd was killed has resolved not to call the police. For anything. A homeless encampment has sprung up in their park, and they feel unsafe. A guy got held up at gunpoint (not related to the encampment). A man wearing a hospital bracelet passed out in the elevator of an apartment building. The guy who found him called 911 and asked for an ambulance only. They got a cop.

Not calling the cops in these situations is hard-core allyship. I don’t know how I feel about this. I mean, damn, it’s walking the walk, but I don’t know if I could skip calling the cops when somebody just held me at gunpoint.

What I do know is I’m feeling pretty fucking privileged talking about calling the cops about fireworks, however annoying and dangerous in Colorado’s dry climate they may be.

And I’m feeling pretty hypocritical talking about defunding the police and then wanting them to deal with fireworks.

I’m not writing this to tell you how swell I am because I know exactly what to do to be all principled and moral. I’m writing this as a first step in reflecting on my privilege and my irritation and my desire to not have people’s houses burn to the ground or even have their pets freaked out. I’m just laying out my own hypocrisy and trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing.

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Paula Reed (by Any Other Spelling)

There are rather a surprising number of Paula Reeds out there. There is a couple with the last name of Reed who often sit behind me at church. Their daughter-in-law is a Paula Reed. Another Paula I grew up with also married a man whose last name is Reed. An OB-GYN I used to go to had another Paula Reed in his practice, and my bank has another patron by my name. In both of those cases, I’ve been glad that I also use my middle name in official paperwork, as it helped keep us straight. There is a Paula Reed Ward who is a journalist in Pittsburgh, and another Paula Reed who works in fashion, and yet another who is a photographer with a published book. There’s also at least one in real estate who lives in a city the same name as mine, but a different state. I get solicitation emails for her through my author website, occasionally. 

Yesterday, I was mistaken for another woman with my name, but the spelling is different: Paula Reid, the journalist who held President Trump’s feet to the fire at a White House briefing a few days ago, leading to a bit of a meltdown on his part. This created perhaps the most interesting overlap I’ve had so far with another Paula Reed/Reid.

Yesterday, this found its way into the messages attached to my author page on Facebook: “Totally disgusted with your lying, conniving accusations that you disrespectfully overtalked the President of the Untied [sic] States. The public was made aware of the list with dates of the steps & measures America’s President took in the month you were shoving down everyone’s throat BEFORE he took the podium. YOU KNEW you lying piece of &#÷\;-!:. That list, that you received before the press conference has now been made public. Guess what you look like! I don’t ever want to see your face or hear your voice again. Take your sorry ass to China, wuhan district & revel in your new home! They like liars & deceivers!”

Not gonna lie. Just minutes before this, I’d gotten an email from my brother about the similarity in our names, and I had laughingly expressed appreciation for this journalist repping for us Paula Reeds, however we might spell our names.

Still, I’m not going to take credit due to someone else, so I explained her mistake to the woman who’d sent me the message. She replied, “I apologize for sending to the wrong person. But not for what I said.”

Soooo…sorry, not sorry?

Look, this woman is entitled to her opinions. I disagree, but disagreeing with me is no sin. People do it all the time. There is one thing I strongly agree with her on, though it was as unintentional as her sending me the original message. We have become the Untied States. I would argue that this is, in part, because our president is untethered. Be that as it may, what has become of us that we send messages to total strangers calling them a “piece of &#÷\;-!:”? The fact that she didn’t spell it out changes nothing. She called a complete stranger a piece of shit. I’ve never called anyone that. Ever. People who have done unforgivable things to me have never heard that from me nor read it in any missive I wrote. It’s just not the sort of thing people ought to say to one another, in my estimation. (I realize not everyone agrees with me here, either.)

Anyway, for the record, I am Paula Reed, author of historical fiction, not Paula Reed the journalist or photographer or any other Paula Reed whose path I’ve crossed. Nor am I Paula Reid. Just in case you were confused.

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The Fallacies of Freud and Fox

Before I start this, let me just clarify that I’m meeting Freud where he was: The cisnormative culture of the early 20th Century. Work with us here.

If you had asked Sigmund Freud, in the early 20th Century, what women want, he would have told you a penis. He was wrong. We do not want a penis.

If you ask Fox News what Democrats want, they will tell you a country just like Venezuela. Democrats want Venezuela like women want penises. That is to say, we don’t.

If men wanted to know what women wanted, they should have asked women, not Freud. Women wanted property rights, suffrage, equal pay, stuff like that. We still like all of these things.

If you want to know what Democrats want, ask your friends who are Democrats. Don’t ask Fox. Or Breitbart. Or, really, any conservative news outlet if it is currently trying to convince you that we want the U.S. to be just like Venezuela.

We do not want socialism as in the government owns all businesses. Most of us like capitalism for many things. We think it needs some regulation to protect workers, consumers, and the environment. We don’t want children laboring in factories, adulterated milk, or the air quality of pretty much any major city in Freud’s era. We support unions and tax codes that encourage businesses to invest in their workers rather than rewarding the hoarding of wealth. Hey, you’re management and/or the investor? Great. Go on lovely vacations and drive nice cars, but not if your employees are working 40 hour weeks and qualifying for food stamps. That’s all we’re sayin’.

Fox will also tell you that we want a healthcare system just like England’s. Hmmm. Well, in the U.S., the average life expectancy for both sexes is about 79. In the U.K., it’s around 82. That’s better than ours. Deaths of infants and children under five in the U.S. is roughly 6.5 in every 1,000 live births. In the U.K., it’s about 4.3. Again, better. Maternal mortality rates? In the U.S., it’s about 19 in every 100,000 live births. The U.K.: 7. I will take not dying in childbirth over a penis any day. 

Still, while some of us might settle for the U.K.’s system, most of us want better. Like what? The average life expectancy in Hong Kong, Japan, and Macau is around 85. Switzerland, Singapore, Italy, Spain, Australia, the Channel Islands, and South Korea all come in around 84. Infant mortality rates in Monaco, Japan, Iceland, Singapore, Norway, Finland, Bermuda, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, South Korea, Macau, France, Spain, Aguilla, Italy, Luxembourg, Austria, Belgium, and Germany all fall in below 3.5 in every 1,000 live births. In Belaruse, Poland, Norway, and Italy, 3 mothers die in every 100,000 live births. In Greece, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Israel, it’s around 4. (Remember, in the U.S. it’s 19.) There are anecdotal horror stories of medical screw ups in every country; these statistics reveal the bigger picture.

So yeah, I’d take England’s system over ours, but what I really want is to look at other countries that provide free or very low cost health care, like Switzerland, Singapore, Italy, Spain, Australia, South Korea, Monaco, Japan, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Bermuda, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Macau, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Belaruse, and Poland (do the names of any of these countries seem familiar, like maybe you read them in the previous paragraph?) and see what we can learn from them.

You’ll note that what I want (not will just settle for) does not include England, Venezuela, or a penis.

Don’t ask Fox what Dems want; don’t ask Freud what women want. They’re both clueless.

Life expectancy; infant mortality, maternal mortality, health coverage

Addendum: My bad. According to a number of conservative FB posts, if we Dems can’t get the U.K.’s system of healthcare, we want Canada’s, where people wait in lines until they die. Oh, wait… Average U.S. life expectancy: 79; Canada: 83. Child under 5 and infant mortality rate in the U.S.: 6.5 in every 1,000 live births. Canada: roughly 5. In the U.S., 19 women die in every 100,000 live births. In Canada, it’s 8.3. Apparently, Canadians wait for some things but get to live. In the U.S., survival generally depends upon income. Push comes to shove, I guess I’d rather have Canada’s healthcare than our current system or a penis, but that’s not saying much.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments

White Fragility in Colorado

As a member of the board of trustees at Jefferson Unitarian Church, I have been assigned homework. I am reading the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. It has been eye-opening, to say the least. 

One little taste of lesson-learning for me was this: When did women get the right to vote in the U.S.? It was in 1920, right? Isn’t that what I learned in history class? Nope. White women got the right to vote in 1920. Black women could not vote until 1965. Perhaps that was covered later, during lessons on the Civil Rights Movement, but I know for damn sure that I was not explicitly taught that “white women” got the right to vote in 1920, just “women.” When people talk about women getting the right to vote, they speak of the white experience as though it were the whole experience.

This was the beginning of exploring throughout the book all the ways our society has been set up from the outset to be advantageous to whites and disadvantageous to blacks. And because our society was/is set up to be white supremacist, as a white kid, it was impossible for me not to grow up racist. True, I was raised in a home where my white mother washed my white brother’s mouth out with soap for repeating the n-word after another kid used it. I was told that everyone was equal, and consciously, I believed that.

But until last Saturday’s reading, if someone had asked me when women got the right to vote, I would have earnestly said 1920 and believed I was right. I mean, if someone had said, “What about black women?” I might have said something stupid, like “Oh, yeah. That.” But my first response would have said a whole lot.

The book talks a lot about how we have been taught that being racist makes us bad people, and obviously, when you’re talking about discriminatory and violent racism, it does. Closer examination shows that we are all racist, and that whites, having been raised in a white supremacist society, have been utterly inculcated in white supremacy–not in that we all consciously believe that whites are superior, but we believe our experience is the universal experience in America. It’s the only experience worth talking about. When we are confronted with the unconscious manifestations of our racism, we become defensive. In our rush to deny our racism (because being racist makes us bad and we want to be good), we push away every opportunity to grow and become less racist.

This incident at Colorado State University is a perfect example. A group of white students at CSU started out putting a charcoal mud mask on their faces, just being silly. (I almost just wrote “students,” because “white” is the default, right? I had to correct that; I’ve got a lot of learning to do.) Then they posted a picture on Instagram with a caption that said “Wakanda forevaa” with the crossed-arm salute from Marvel’s Black Panther. Poof! What was a charcoal mask was transformed into blackface.

The father of one of the students had this to say: “She has been so persecuted over this (that) her life at CSU has become almost intolerable…In the course of her being labeled this white racist, she has become a victim herself.”

That student, Leana Kaplan, wrote, “The damage done to me is way out of proportion to an act of poor judgment during a moment of silliness.

“Again, this is not to compare this damage to the life-long impact of racial prejudice. I’d like to say to those who have been offended, it is unfair to conclude that an awful photo is evidence of an awful person. If progress is to be made in the battle against racism, the full spectrum of sensitivity must include not creating any more victims.”

Here’s the thing: Her participation shows that she is a white racist. I’m a white racist. If you’re white, I’m 99.9 percent sure you are, too. How can we not be when we have, despite whatever our parents have said and done, grown up in a society based upon an erroneous belief in our supremacy?

What if, instead of being awful to Leana, all us white folk looked at her “act of poor judgment” as evidence that we still have a lot of work to do? You know, stuff like teaching that white women got the vote in 1920 and black women in 1965. It’s just history. It’s not about judging. It’s just about acknowledging that white history is not universal history. Then, what the heck, we can include every aspect of the black experience in history lessons chronologically, like we do the white experience, instead of isolating it as if it wasn’t an integral part of American history. It’s one of a million ways we can acknowledge that America was and still is structured to benefit white people. 

Don’t believe it still is? Look at these two pictures of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. 

All those white folks you see were steeped in the idea that the white experience is the universal experience. The intentional codification of white supremacy was not a particular focus of their education, though its influence is significantly woven into every moment of U.S. history. Without this perspective, how clearly can they even see white supremacy in the laws and structures of our country, much less feel intensely motivated to dismantle it? After all, they are busily taking care of white folks’ issues, which must be everyone’s issues, right? Because if it’s a white concern, it must be a universal concern…

What if we could step back and agree that Leana is not an awful person? She is a person showing the influences of an awful system. Maybe if she and her father weren’t so busy trying to prove that she’s a good person (I imagine she probably is), they could help us see how all “good white people” can still be racist. Then we white folks could really start doing the hard work of dismantling racism. (I almost wrote, “Then we all could start doing the hard work of dismantling racism.” I’m pretty sure black folk and other people of color have been working on this a good, long time. Like I said, I’ve got a lot of learning to do. Do you?)

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | Leave a comment

My Heroes

During the summer, my church has congregants speak in the pulpit about a summer theme. Last year was North Stars, the things that guide us. This year is heroes, and our minister asked me to speak this morning. I’m posting the content of that speech. At the bottom is the link to the minister’s homily afterward. (It says the speaker was Rex Nelson, but it was me 🙂 )

First, I’d like to say that I wish my heroes, chosen before last Sunday, weren’t so apropos this week. Three mass shootings in seven days.

As others who have stood in this pulpit before me in the last few weeks have mentioned, the temptation to speak of heroes as larger-than-life is tempting. We think of fictional characters or historical figures whom we’ve come to know through hagiographic biographies. But this summer’s focus on heroes specifically directs us to an idea expressed by comedian Jim Carrey when he won the Charlie Chaplin Britannia Award for Excellence in Comedy. “Heroes,” he said, “are people who remind us of our virtues.” I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and I realized that some of the most heroic people I have known were just children when the need to be heroic was thrust upon them. That’s right. When they were just teenagers, an often ridiculed group–millennials–reminded me of some of the most important virtues in all of us.

April 20, 1999 was a typical school day when one of my students, an 11th grader, left the tech lab to come ask me a question in my classroom. She was walking along, chatting with a friend, and when popping sounds came from farther down the hall, they both assumed someone had set off firecrackers. It was spring, after all, and a time ripe for senior pranks. When my student felt a burning sensation sear through her calf, she thought she had been hit by a firecracker. She fell and stayed on the floor to inspect the wound.

Her friend, however, was looking past her, down the hall, at the source of the popping. When she stopped long enough to grab my student’s hand, pulling her from the floor, and forcing her to run out the nearest door, she knew they were fleeing gunfire. She also knew they were in range, because my student had been shot. Still, this girl paused and risked her own life to save another on a day that would leave 13 people murdered, 2 dead by suicide, and 24 injured.

In the years to come at Columbine, I would watch similar scenes play out in other ways over and over again. Immediately after the shooting, we finished the school year at another high school, and one of my classrooms was near a spring-loaded door that slammed sharply when anyone came or went through it. The first few times it happened, my kids immediately dropped to the ground. This was the first time I saw children, traumatized and broken, reach past their own suffering to soothe others. Kids who were shaken to the core lifted classmates who had dissolved into tears off the floor, offering hugs and soft words of comfort.

As the next year passed, I saw kids who were struggling with their own suicidal ideations seek counseling – not for themselves first, but for friends whom they worried might be further down that path than they were, themselves. I saw kids whose anger and frustration over the unfairness of everything we’d been through yell and swear at classmates only to have those outbursts met with hugs and affirmations that it was okay not to be okay. Well…many times, anyway. Sometimes the exchanges got heated and hurtful, but even those passed with forgiveness. Life was just too uncertain to waste it on anger.

Time and again, they reminded me that we need to hold each other through life’s fragility. Students emotionally broken and bloody stopped to take each other’s hands and pull each other safely through the trauma. More often than you might expect, that exchange, that giving and receiving of support, occurred between students who didn’t know each other, or maybe even really didn’t like each other before the shooting.

For me, it wasn’t just heroic to offer help or a hug or affirmation. I saw that it was heroic, too, to accept that help. To be vulnerable. Do you remember being a teenager? The constant fear of judgment? The worry that, in some way, whatever way, it wasn’t safe to be you? Can you imagine navigating that minefield having experienced a trauma so deep that often–very often–you simply couldn’t control the way your emotions poured out? Or maybe you did have to do that. Children experience all kinds of trauma in their lives that never makes the news. Maybe you empathize all too well. Maybe you, too, were a hero very young–even if you never saw yourself that way

I suppose the kids at school had a certain advantage in having shared their trauma with nearly everyone else around them, but still…there is a temptation to stay on the floor and succumb to our wounds. It takes a certain blind trust to reach up and take a hand offered in help, especially if you don’t have a history of trust in that hand. And yet time and time again, they took the help that was offered, and later paid it forward to someone else who’d fallen. 

Day after day, I saw heroic selflessness, compassion, and perseverance from children who would have had their plates full if all they’d had to do was get through the normal course of adolescence. 

They carried this with them into adulthood. One of my students, Luke, who graduated in ‘99 was determined never again to feel helpless while others faced danger. He became a Navy Hospital Corpsman, a medic. His bravery in administering aid, even under enemy fire, earned him a Bronze Star. In 2007, a rocket-propelled grenade ended his military service and his life. To this day, Marines in need of medical treatment can get it at the Charles Luke Milam Clinic in Camp Lejeune, NC, named in his honor. He was not the only ‘99 grad to lose his life in the service of his country.

Other students have also found ways to serve as a direct result of the trauma they experienced. In the summer of 2012, a group of mostly strangers trooped excitedly into a movie theater in Aurora to see the midnight showing of the latest installment of Batman. I’m sure there are plenty of stories of heroism in those immediate minutes of gunfire that left 12 dead and 70 injured. I don’t really know those stories. The story I do know is that several former Columbine students, then in their early 30s, got together and said, “We had each other. Those people are strangers. How will they find each other? How can we turn our journey into hope for them?”

This was the beginning of a group called The Rebels Project, named after the Columbine High School mascot. It started with a small private Facebook group and monthly face-to-face meetings between survivors of the Aurora shooting and survivors of the shooting at Columbine. Our kids were still reaching out their hands to lift others up. Sometimes, these meetings brought home that Columbine folks still needed an occasional hand up themselves. The work wasn’t finished. To this day, there are times I go there to dump whatever baggage of my own that has been dug up by a news story or an insensitive acquaintance.

The Rebels Project Facebook Group now has 1,200 members, survivors of mass shootings from as close as Littleton and as far away as Australia. Every day, messages come through from people seeking support, and fellow survivors are always there to provide it, no matter how much they are struggling themselves. I have watched victims wander into that group barely able to articulate what happened to them and become, not just survivors, but leaders. They become the ones to offer wisdom gleaned along the way, either from personal experience or from words offered to them in the group years ago that became touchstones to be passed along again. Once a year, the leaders of The Rebels Project–no longer just Columbine survivors, but other survivors as well–work together to create an annual gathering. Group members travel from across the country to lift others and be lifted.

How can I do anything but follow their example? Even before all of these extraordinary kids graduated, Columbine staff members, including me, began reaching out to schools that came after us. The first was a letter from the staff of Columbine High School to the staff of Santana High School, which experienced a shooting in 2001.

From that point on, if we heard about a school that experienced a shooting (and you’d be surprised how often you don’t hear) Columbine’s staff reached out. Sometimes the other school reached back, but more often, they didn’t. My biggest frustration was how often bureaucracy in the other school district impeded our ability to speak directly to the teachers we hoped to help. 

The perseverance our students had demonstrated led us to never quit trying. Persistence meant that I would eventually be able to do things like engage in an email exchange directly with the chair of the English Department at Virginia Tech after their shooting, which she said was uniquely helpful. It was good to talk to someone who “got it.” I was grateful for the chance to offer a hand up. 

The example my former students set has taken me to places like Newtown, CT and Parkland, FL, other places with schools that have experienced shootings, where teachers seek assurance from someone farther down the road that they and their students will survive, maybe even thrive. I carry with me the virtues my students reminded me of–the importance of compassion and perseverance. I share with those teachers the necessity of forgiveness. Not of the shooters. That’s deeply individual, and I have never felt that was my place. I tell them to forgive each other as they blunder through the trauma together. I tell them they will have to rely on each other to get through it.

Those years of seeing heroism in every kind of kid, from overachiever to at-risk, informed my teaching for the rest of my career. It led me to see every kid as a possible hero. It meant I was much less likely than before to assume a student’s defiance was a lack of self control, and I came to look for possible sources of trauma. Instead of assuming the kid could “get a grip” if they simply wanted to, I wondered how I could best support that child in surviving and thriving. And then I persevered in trying to make that happen. It led me to tell my students on the first day of class every year: I have good news and bad news. The good news is I have unshakable faith in you. The bad news is I have unshakable faith in you.

I remember a student once screaming at me in the hall, “Why don’t you just give up on me? Everyone else does!” How could I? The kids of 1999 and the immediate years after had rendered me incapable of giving up on him. I don’t give up on myself, either. That’s what made it possible to stop berating myself for my PTSD symptoms and start taking the anti-anxiety medication I initially resisted for fear of being “weak.” There are times it’s been a lifesaver for me.

I still keep in touch with a lot of my students from those years. I know the toll the shooting took. I know the strength they found in spite of it. They are my heroes.

Link to homily

Posted in Columbine, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 3 Comments

To Build or Not to Build

I know we’re living in an either/or world these days: Either you’re liberal or conservative; either you think abortion is OK on demand whenever or you believe it’s never justified; either you’re completely pro-gun or anti. Now, in Jeffco, everyone is talking about whether the district is considering rebuilding Columbine High School because of security issues or because the building is in bad shape. Just like all those other either/ors, the answer is both. Just like all those other either/ors, it deserves more nuanced and complex treatment.

Because the school district sent out an email that addresses the security issue, let’s start there.

Back in 1999, as we were all reeling from the shooting, simply trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to us, there was some talk of demolishing the school building and constructing another. There was talk of changing the school’s name. There was a lot of talk, among we survivors and those on the outside—talk among the groups, but not much between them.

I was one of the survivors who felt very strongly that we should keep our building and our name. In fact, one of Jeffco’s school board members was also a member of my church, so I opened my church directory, called him at home, and made an impassioned plea: The boys had planted bombs. They’d tried to bring the building down. They tried to destroy everything Columbine was. Please don’t give them what they wanted!

While many other survivors agreed, mine was not the only view held by those in our group. Many wanted it gone, the painful reminder erased. This was not, by the way, the “wrong” reaction. In our world of neat little either/ors, both views were utterly valid.

In the end, though, the side in favor of keeping the building won, with one exception: The library where the majority of children died was demolished. It had been above the commons area, so over the next year or so, the floor of the library was removed, creating an atrium, and a new library was built off the back of the school  in honor of those we lost. Even this decision was not without controversy, but it seemed the best compromise. At the beginning of the ‘99-2000 school year we held a huge “take back the school” rally and tried to get back to the business of teaching and learning.

I don’t think anyone, at the time, was really thinking, “What will we do with all the looky-loos and mentally ill people who will be drawn to this building in the coming decades?” Sure, we went back that year to tour buses pulling up in front of the building (located just a few yards from the street), so tourists could hop out, walk around campus, and take pictures. Yeah, people wanted to come in and burn sage, open churches, perform exorcisms, and do all manner of other things, and while we were taken aback at first, we figured everyone would lose interest.

Anyway, we had bigger fish to fry—mainly not losing our individual and/or collective shit at any given moment.

Only people didn’t lose interest. We had no way of knowing that our tragedy would create a cult. We didn’t know that disaffected teens the world over would become fascinated by the two boys who had left us all so angry and sad and utterly bewildered. We knew there would be others; we didn’t want there to be, but we weren’t totally naïve. What we didn’t predict was that our name would become the synonym for a school shooting. We would never fall into the obscurity the schools before us had found. (That obscurity is also, by the way, a mixed bag.)

Every year, year after year, Columbine has dealt with threats to the school. They go on all year, usually peaking in April. One of the reasons Columbine has never again held regular school on April 20 is to keep people from targeting it on the anniversary, hoping to “finish what the boys started.” If you are not part of Columbine, you probably have no clue how often that phrase gets used, though it usually includes the boys’ names. I’m choosing not to, here. Once, a full seven years after the shooting, we evacuated the building and fled the grounds completely because of a bomb threat that included another threat that someone was in the park next to the school with a gun, waiting to mow us down. (We evacuated on the opposite side of the school.) We have routinely held lockouts where we go about our daily routines inside the building, but no one is allowed in or out while law enforcement evaluates yet another threat.

This is probably a good time to mention that, if you think it sounds like fun to pull this kind of thing, number one: It is devastating to the staff who lived that day. (Some were staff at the time, some were students who have come back to teach.) They are real people who care a great deal about kids and teach their hearts out. They do not deserve the agony your nonsense causes. Number two: Jeffco law enforcement is very, very good at finding these people. They’ve had a lot of practice. When they find them, the perpetrators are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. A number of them have gone to jail. Columbine High School does not fuck around with this.

Once, our staff resisted wearing our ID badges, because it was a change we knew would not prevent another shooting. Then we wore them gladly, because badges make it easier to distinguish new student teachers and substitutes from all the random strangers who feel free to try to walk into the school. They want to see where IT happened. Usually, we catch them quickly. Sometimes they get far enough to ask students, who by now weren’t even born in 1999, where exactly everything happened. People peek in the library windows. Now this next thing is really important: As soon as someone explains that this isn’t the library we had in 1999, that that library has been demolished, the looky-loos’ shoulders droop a little in disappointment, and they lose interest in the library.

This matters because right now, as we talk about possibly tearing down the existing building, the biggest factor cited by the district is the security issues created by this cult of fascination. Lots of comments online revolve around the idea that as long as there is a building called Columbine High School, people will be drawn to it. But the reactions people have when they discover that the current library is not the library belie this assumption. These people don’t want to see just any old library, just as they don’t want to see just any old Columbine. They want to see the exact place where murderers walked and innocents died. Don’t understand this? Good for you! You are probably a healthy human being. You have no idea how many disturbed individuals are out there.

On to the next objection I keep reading: It doesn’t make sense to raze a “perfectly good building” now because of this. A) So the safety and security of the current nearly 2,000 kids in there is not worth a couple of bucks a month on a $500,000 home? B) Perfectly good?

Now, it’s time for a history lesson. Once upon a time, in the early 1970s, three areas in Jeffco appeared poised for a growth spurt: one in Arvada, one in Lakewood, and one in unincorporated Jeffco near the Littleton border. The district built three identical buildings on the cheap, with an eye toward making them into places that could quickly be turned into warehouses if the growth didn’t pan out. The energy crisis was on everyone’s lips, and the plans for the schools included almost no windows. Walls were practically made of spit and paper, many of them temporary accordion-pleated affairs. Classrooms had no doors. All three buildings opened at the same time, designed to accommodate 1,300 students very snugly.

In Arvada, in 1973, my brother became one of the first freshmen to attend Pomona High School all four years. By my freshman year there in 1976, we had so exceeded the building’s capacity that we went on split-sessions—upperclassmen in the morning, underclassmen in the afternoon. In the winter, I walked home after dark. By my sophomore year, we had gone to year-round school, a schedule that had ⅔ of the kids in school and ⅓ on break at any given time. The boy I had started dating went to one of Pomona’s triplets, Green Mountain in Lakewood. They were still on split-sessions to accommodate growth. The third triplet, Columbine, was on Concept Six (year round) like Pomona.

I graduated from Pomona in 1980, went to college, and unable to escape that cave-like, harvest gold and burnt orange monstrosity, went on to start teaching at the identical Columbine in 1986. A new high school had been built to alleviate the crowding, so they were just going off Concept Six, but the student body kept growing. The building was sad, but the school itself was family. It was renowned for the warmth and love of the people who walked those dark halls.

In 1990, I was elected to be on the committee of staff, students, and architects tasked with designing a massive remodel. We were given three million dollars (a little more than 5.5 million today) to update the building, make it ready for turn-of-the-century state-of-the-art technology, and enable it to fit 2,000 students. We worked hard to get the biggest bang for our buck. We did nothing to one whole wing of the building other than to provide new cabinets, as well as new appliances in the foods lab and a new dark room for the photo classroom. We did nothing to the gymnasium. We gutted the old, windowless building and reconfigured as best we could. While we punched windows into exterior walls, there was nothing to be done for the interior rooms. They remain dark caves. We added a two-story addition that went down the side of the hill, not up on top of the existing level. At the time, since the upper-level science hall emptied into a main hallway at one end and a major stairway at the other, it didn’t occur to us to put in another exit, in case children and a bleeding staff member were ever trapped in the wing, unable to get to either hallway exit. The teacher who would one day bleed to death in that hall was on our staff during the renovation. The things you don’t know at any given time…

In the course of creating the addition, we came up with the cheapest way possible to build an auditorium that would fit almost an entire class of students—450 seats. We used the downward slant of the new addition to create the raked floor. It’s expensive to get rid of all that dirt, so our principal convinced the park next store to let us dump it there, seed it, and create a sledding hill. To this day, it is known as Rebel Hill. One day, it would hold 13 wooden crosses.

When the “new” building opened in 1995, there were problems from the start. The wing that had received minimal renovation still had old pipes, which we would later discover tested positive for low levels of lead (but still above that which is considered safe). The sewage system had problems that were never fully resolved and only got worse. Last year, raw sewage started seeping into classrooms from under the walls. It hadn’t really been possible to build an HVAC system that worked with the odd footprint we’d started with, so while some rooms are ice-cold, others are broiling. Students dress in layers year-round to accommodate the climate in every classroom as they move through their day. The gym has all the issues you would expect of a 45-year-old facility. A few years ago, the math wing, built on top of the 1973 foundation, started cracking off and siding downhill.

Now, this alone is actually not justification to raze and rebuild Columbine, for the simple reason that there are buildings in Jeffco with worse problems than ours. It’s shameful, really, but as one of an army of teachers who have knocked on doors fall weekend after fall weekend for years, begging for money for buildings and resources, I can tell you that Jeffco voters do not take care of their schools. They just don’t. Last year we finally passed pretty anemic (compared to all the needs) mill and bond issues. Pretty much anything is “good enough” in Jeffco. That’s how you get to the idea that a school building with all the issues I’ve talked about (and they are only the tip of the iceberg) is “perfectly good.”

So I get why people in other schools, ones in worse shape than ours, are less than enthused at Columbine getting a new building while theirs languish. All I can say to that is at least the money from the last bond that was supposed to go to putting a few new Bandaids on Columbine will become available for you.

And all the Bandaids in the world will not help with the looky-loos and mentally ill people who want to come see where it happened. A new building won’t deter all of them, but if reactions to the newer library are any indication, it will significantly decrease them. Nothing they see will look like any of the video footage of April 20 still available on YouTube. Bringing down a totally new building will not “finish” any job. That job will be done already. A building farther back from the road is harder for buses to pull up at for gawkers. Moving so the athletic fields are by the street and the building is set back allows security more space to intercept and assess those with ill intent or simple lurid curiosity.

And for those like me, who didn’t want the boys to win, well, perhaps we do let them win if we allow them to chain kids a full generation after them to a school that faces constant security and basic functional challenges. Maybe it’s time to let go for the sake of those there today, providing family and warmth for all the kids we never dreamed of in 1999.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 22 Comments