Tonight, my writing is going to be about love.
Why, you may ask, why are you going to dedicate a whole reflection to just one word?
“We’re not evolving as a civilization. We’re devolving…What is it going to take?” These were some of the poignantly raw words Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, spoken upon hearing the acquittal of her son’s murderer tonight. My heart broke for her and my mind raged against the thought of the injustice of another innocent life taken at the hands of another human begin.
So you may ask again, Why all about love tonight? Because. I have to. I have to focus on love tonight. At the end of the day, at the end of all days, love is the only force powerful enough to create the space for our humanity to redeem itself. For the collective “we” to recognize the humanity in others. I steadfastly believe that if we were to truly know one another, how could we possibly commit atrocities on other human beings that I see in our world today? So much injustice in the world exists, so many acts of hate are perpetrated on the lives of innocent human beings. So much unkindness meets my eyes, my mind, my heart as I look to the world each day. I fear that the people I hold in my heart will not live to see gray hairs. Those whom my heart bleeds for each day, may not live to see gray hairs upon their heads. I sit with that for a moment. That’s the reality within which I live my daily life. You may not understand my perspective nor why I name this as my truth, and that’s alright with me. But know this: the lives that surround me are the most magnificent beings I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. I cannot reconcile the truth that the beauty that exists around me may not one day reach the age of wisdom that affords us gray hair. I sit with this and my heart breaks little by little, actually for 373 days since my young child emerged to the world as a visible transgender boy. Although you may tell me not to worry, things are changing, we’re progressing month by month, I don’t believe you. And, that’s my right.
I think it’s unfair that my kids, being young White boys of relative societal privilege by sheer right of birth into a patriarchal, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic country within which we live, never have to have the talk that so many Parents of Color have to have with their children. A few months ago, we watched the PBS documentary The Talk: Race in America (found here), which illustrates “the increasingly necessary conversation taking place in homes and communities across the country between parents of color and their children, especially sons, about how to behave if they are ever stopped by the police.” So tonight, as I told my boys about the injustice that just happened against another innocent life, we circled back to when we watched the documentary. My boys had so many questions, “Mama, why would they shoot him in front of a child?” “Are the mom and daughter okay?” “He worked at a school with kids, why would they kill him?” I didn’t have answers for my two boys on so many of their questions, so I named what I saw: “Guys, we live in a racist society and this is what happens as a result. I am of the belief if we truly knew one another, knew one another’s stories, knew one another’s humanity, we would grow closer because we have empathy toward others. Then, atrocities like this perhaps wouldn’t happen.” But, I don’t really know. I just don’t know anymore. I went on to remind my boys of the conversation from The Talk. I told them about what so many families were probably talking to their children about tonight, again, hoping they would one day see their child develop gray hair. I know my best friend has had this talk with her three precious children of mixed race, who are dear friends of my two boys. She’s had this talk countless times, and again, was having this talk with them tonight. I told my boys, “If auntie and her three kids have to have this conversation again tonight, so do you.” After we reviewed what to do in the circumstances of danger, my young transgender son thought for a minute, then asked me this soul-slicing question: “Mama, will I get shot, too, because of, you know, I’m trans?” Damn. Trans identities are often ones that aren’t visible upon first glance, as skin color is, but my child has experienced many circumstances of overt aggression from folks around him this year and is beginning to, unfortunately, learn the oppressive nature of his identity in our society. So when I looked into his big brown eyes, it was one of the first times I didn’t know how to answer him. So, I was just honest with him. Here’s what I said, “I don’t know, babe. For most of my life I thought absolutely not, but now I question everything and I just don’t know. I guess it depends, it depends on who you’re interacting with if they know your identity if they empathy in their heart. I want to tell you absolutely not, but I just don’t know. I so sorry, but I’ll do my best to keep you safe.” He just stared at me, thought for a minute, and then continued eating his dinner. The air was thick tonight.
I try to reconcile the fact that my young child has to live in a society within which he even has to ask the question if he is confronted by authority of any sort, will he make it out alive. First, my heart breaks: I would gladly trade places with him in that circumstance in a heartbeat, as I’m almost assured by the privileges society affords me, that in the same situation, I’d walk away unscathed. It’s just a plain fact that because of my skin color, hair color, eye color, and my way with words, I’d be walking away alive. That’s unjust and that’s the reality I see. Second, he’s now old enough to recognize how the world works in increasingly unjust ways. And finally, he’s awake enough to see the parallels between his marginalized identity, which renders him invisible in much of the public spaces that he occupies, to others experiencing similar realities. My heart breaks here, too.
So, with all the ways my heart screams against the injustices I see in the world, in our country, and through my child’s eyes, I have to focus the rest of this reflection on the one force that I believe will have the most impact on shifting this narrative for generations to come: love.
The day after the devastating national election mere months ago that rendered our future, specifically that of my visible trans child, less safe, our family began to repeat this mantra, one that has become the words we speak to one another each morning before leaving our home: “I choose love today.” We borrowed this language from a hero’s words that gave us some comfort during the unsure dark days after the election: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is the stance I hope my children take as they navigate their paths in life and one we repeat religiously daily. I truly believe love is really the only way we have to move forward as a society. So, I want to shine a light on some of the ways I’ve seen or been apart of watching this love become reality, namely, how children, and the adults who create space for their voices to be privileged, be known, be heard, are making love a verb. I invite you to experience the beauty of love enacted by children and adults as a way to live this truth: if we truly know one another, we have no other choice but to grow our empathetic hearts and our love for all of humanity’s gifts.
Photography of Love: Safe Spaces
When a teacher saves your child and makes his life possible, you are indebted to this teacher for life. That’s what happened to us this year. Here is but a glimpse of why my child’s teacher is the best human being on the planet. I wrote about this in a previous reflection, but for the purpose of setting up what his teacher did in a beautifully human way, let me give a bit of context and then illustrate what she did to respond.
Within a few weeks of my third grader’s transition at school, where he bravely chose to live his truth as a visible trans boy, he heard hateful words uttered to him by a peer. How my child responded and ultimately, how his teacher responded to this painful situation, are something we can all learn from in big ways, so that the actions and words of fiercely brave children around us, and the adults who advocate for them on the daily, will be seen and heard. When a child confronted my son telling him that who he was, as a transgender boy, was wrong, my son responded by quoting the words from a book we’d read a few weeks prior. My kid had remembered this poignant scene where the main character had first seen the word transgender in print on the poster in the principal’s office and the poster’s association with safe spaces: “We support safe spaces for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth” (Alex Gino’s George, p. 125). I remember how excited my kid and I were when we had read this scene and how the character had responded. We had talked at length about how that must have felt and how the main character was finally finding an adult to support her at school. Wow, impactful at the time, but I had never truly known how impactful those words from that scene had been in my kid’s life.
So, a few weeks later, during a transition meeting for my child, attended by all the key players in a child’s academic team, I turned to the room full of adults and asked them to indulge me for a moment as I read aloud a few paragraphs from the book George. After reading the excerpts, I recounted the experience that transpired for my son. His teacher hung on every word and every part of my son’s experience. All adults in the room were blown away by his self-advocacy in finding his voice to stand tall for his identity so early on in the school year. His teacher, though, was thinking more deeply, I could tell. Over the coming weekend, my child’s teacher purchased the book, read it cover to cover, and approached me the following week. The idea of safe spaces had struck her so vividly and she wanted to delve deeper into this idea. As a truly compassionate educator that wanted to know her students on a deeper level, she discussed her desire to follow the idea of safe spaces in a visible way. We collaborated on what happened next: an experience that illustrates the notion that when a teacher truly understands who their students are, it makes all the difference in the world for how children navigate through the landscape of a classroom. They are seen, they are heard, they are valued.
We both believe in the power of children’s voice: namely, listening up when children have things to say. As adults, we can agree it is our responsibility to listen to children when they’ve things to say, right? I’d assert to know a child or a person for that matter, you need to seek to see through their eyes and have empathy for their lived experience. So, my child’s teachers and I embarked on a journey to truly know her students, not only through their words but through their eyes. And, here’s how: she asked her students this question: “What makes you feel safe? And think, especially at school.” She wanted to know her new students in a deep way, through their eyes, so when they were having a hard time a school or feeling complicated emotions, she would know what brought them a sense of safety. As a teacher, this is the kind of life work that’s essential in the spaces we create with children. As they thought about what made them feel safe, they began to realized there were particular spaces on the school campus that created a sense of safety for many of them. Instead of having her students merely describe these spaces, we decided the metaphor that a “picture speaks a thousand words” was apt here. We accompanied groups of students as they went to the places on campus that made them feel the safest to snap pictures of these spaces and reflect upon why the space made them feel safe. Using the art form of photography to illustrate their voice was a beautifully inclusive way for children’s artistic spirit to shine through while being vulnerable to reveal the spaces they held sacred. Below, I hope you find joy in reading through the ideas of why these particular spaces brought a sense of safety to these young children while also getting a window into how their sense of safety lends comfort to their world.
“No one can see me, so if I feel sad, I can sit by the pole in the small space.”
“Friends make me safe because I feel comfortable.”
“It’s safe because you can sit on it whenever you want, even when you’re lonely.”
“The library is a safe spot because you can just focus on reading and the book can take you to a good place.”
“There are teachers here, so it feels safe.”
These are but a few of the poignant images and reflections from these young children. The last makes me smile: “There are teachers here, so it feels safe.” What an immense responsibility we have as adults in children’s lives to create spaces where they are known, seen, and listened to. This kind of work begins our journey into truly knowing one another, not just at a level of interests and hobbies, but at a deeper level of our emotions and sense of safety. My kid’s teacher now knows when her students come to school feeling any complicated emotions, some may need space that is quiet and alone to work through their thoughts, while others might need to curl up with a comfy pillow and a good book in the library to sort out their thoughts. It’s this kind of work to actively know and build our empathy toward one another that can be a first step into building a more just world that we seek. If we know one another in deep ways, how can we interact with anything but love in our hearts?
Words of Love: Chalk Messages
Children have a multitude to say–anyone who spends any amount of time with kids knows this truth instantly. In the dark days after the national election, that illuminated feelings of divisiveness illustrated by a nation with hatred just bubbling under the surface, children were feeling the effects of the nervous energy adults were exuding, too. We all felt it, right? Anyone with children in their care, as parents, guardians, family members, educators, coaches, community members, you felt their unease, right? Whenever people have visceral reactions to situations, I’m a big believer in taking action. Putting our minds and hands to work feels like we’re working toward something larger than ourselves and creates a space for us to feel productive and work toward a bigger goal. So, having the honor of working with third and fourth graders the days after the election, we decided to do two things: read the beautiful story, Doreen Rappaport’s Martin’s Big Words, a picture book that speaks to Dr. King’s life’s work through his own words, and two, we decided what big words we wanted adults to know from us as children. We decided we’d write these words all across our campus, so when adults emerged, they could read the words children wanted them to see, hear, and know.
Here’s what unfolded from children’s hearts and minds, including the brainstorm of the words and phrases children wanted adults to read and some images of the chalked words on the campus.
Our Words for Adults:
Letters of Love: Voices of Empathy
Another illustration of making love a verb actually happened on the most commercialized day of love in our country: Valentine’s Day. As a firm believer in showing love daily and resisting the draw to celebrate a capitalist’s version of the intent of this day my entire adult years, a group of adults created a space where the young children in our lives could shift the narrative of the day in big ways. We created a gratitude party, comprised of six families, around fifteen children ages five to eleven, big hearts, and broad minds.
We began by talking about who in our lives we admire and why. We generated a list of the people we admire, why, and possible ideas of love we could communicate to them. We then created postcards with the words of gratitude we wanted these personal heroes of us to hear (and a few pleas to the newly elected president, too). Below are just a few of the words of gratitude these young hearts wrote about their heroes, which we promptly sent along that afternoon.
Our list of people we admire and why
“Help us hillary clinton trump won’t help”
“To: Gavin Grimm All of us give you hope and bravness. You can do what you want to do. Love,”
“Dear Michelle Obama, you are a great speaker and also inspired me. you have true girl power. I love that you speak your mind. For these reasons you are amazing.”
“Dear President Trump, I think that black people and people from other countries are the same as white people. They might have different colored skin or talk different but they still love people and are loved the same. People that haven’t done anything and live in a different country.”
“Dear Mrs. Yates, Thank you for standing up to President Trump and fighting for Muslim rights. Although I am not Muslim myself, I still appreciate you because you are a wonderful role model to all women -young or old- who are quietly mourning in the shadows. You have encouraged them to fight for their rights openly and write letters, email, call, and text, to tell the person they are writing to that they appreciate them, such as I am. Keep doing what you’re doing!”
“Dear Senator Elizabeth Warren, When we heard you speak for the first time, you inspired me to speak up more. We love how you don’t give up! You remind us that we must speak up for ourselves and for others. Thank you for being a great role model. Love,”
When spaces are created that render children’s voices heard and words visible, we grow closer to one another. Our love expands to envelop our communities into spaces of visible compassion.
Poetic Love: A Window into our Humanity
I am a firm believer in this statement: poetry is a window into one’s soul. To know one’s stories through the medium of the poetic stance is to truly embark on a journey of radical empathy. Adults have the responsibility to co-create spaces with children so their voices can be privileged, be known, and be heard, not silenced and erased from the spaces we occupy together. If we agree that love is a verb and we show our love toward one another through actions, creating space for kids to explore their world through poetry is one pathway to seeing this love take flight. And, once we begin to truly know one another at this deeper level, we have no other choice but to grow our empathetic hearts and our love for each other. A dear mentor of mine recently sent me these words from a poet’s perspective on the notion of silence, “The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?” -Adrienne Rich.
Wow, right? What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken? So powerfully beautiful. Three teachers and I embarked on a study of student voice and expression, to get to know their student’s young minds in a deeper way, through the study of one technique from one of my personal heroes, author, and poet Georgia Heard. We used her technique of the “Six Room Writing” to guide second grade, third grade, and fifth-grade students, through a journey of poetic thought. Below is the illumination of our study: both the technique we used and the masterful poems that emerged from the souls of these young minds. The depth of insight is going to blow you away, it did for us.
Six Room Writing Technique
We had the young poets jot a quick structure divided into six parts. We then guided them through each “room,” modeling what it looked like for us, then they tried it out. They shared their ideas periodically with a thinking partner. In the end, we modeled many ways they might to use this six-room writing technique and invited them to create their own ways of using these ideas to create poems. Some students even jotted their technique on the board and named it after them, highlighting their ownership of the work in powerful ways.
Room One: Think of a memory or observation of the world around you. Jot words and phrases.
Room Two: Ask yourself, “What did you see?” A hyper-focus on the visual, lights, and colors. Jot words and phrases.
Room Three: Ask yourself, “What did you hear?” Jot words and phrases.
Room Four: Ask yourself, “What do you wonder about? Be authentic, if you don’t have a wonder, leave it blank.” Jot your wonderings.
Room Five: “Describe what you felt in that memory.” Jot words and phrases.
Room Six: “Read over your words and summarize your thoughts by picking the essential words that stood out to you. Repeat them three times.” Jot the words or phrases three times.
Below is an example of the chart build out with the description of each room’s focus:
Below is an example of some possible strategies of what to try out with all the words and phrases populated in the six rooms, with some student strategies as well.
Now, for the window into children’s hearts, minds, and souls. When we know one another, how can we help but grow our hearts bigger and minds broader?
This young poet’s six-room writing memory of a hospital waiting room with his grandparent…
The Waiting Room
in the waiting room
A pen to sign
in to go to the room
I had to
I got a licorice
This young poet’s six-room writing memory of a car ride with their mom…
In the car
mom’s phone rings
Who’s in the Phone?
what is my mom crying about?
This young poet’s six-room writing the memory of the birth of a new baby brother…
Early at the Hospital
A new baby brother
Thinking of names
A happy baby cake
cake throw up
Baby Brother crying
Laughter, loving tears
Why was I mad about having a brother?
Why is he loving?
Why was he born on my b-day?
loving, caring and tears from happness
This young poet’s six-room writing memory of feeling denial in the face of death…
she go so
If we are to know one another in a deeper way, in so doing grow our love and humanity toward one another, one pathway to begin to build this understanding is through the power of poetry. I want to comfort the young poet who was denied entry into his grandparent’s hospital room upon a trip to the hospital, where he clearly sees the injustice in this situation of being made to wait separate from everyone else. I want to provide space for the young poet to talk about the worry they felt at watching their mother cry during their car ride. I want to celebrate the joyous feelings the poet felt at the birth of their baby brother, even if it was on their same birthday. And most strikingly, I want to explore the feelings of denial in the face of loss. All of this I want to explore, with the consent of these young minds. As poetry is a window into our deepest feelings and reflections, ideas that emerge must be fiercely protected, shared only in deeply safe spaces, and always with consent. The power of the written poetic word to build our connections with one another and grow our love is innumerable.
180 days of love.
I’ve spent the past 180 school days enveloped in the love and compassion of children and the adults who labor on their behalf daily. I think a lot about our responsibility toward one another. I think a lot about parents who’ve lost children to violence and children who’ve lost parents to the same. I cannot reconcile my feelings of deep sadness of this narrative in our country, in our world. The only thing I can do, though, is seek to understand the people in my life, in my community, in our country and world, at a deeper level. And teach the children I have under my care and the children in the spaces I have the honor of being a part of, to do the same. I believe it begins with our children. As Frederick Douglass once stated, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I believe if we can make a daily commitment to grow our minds broad, our hearts deep, and take action in the spaces we have influence and teach our children, students, and youth we’ve relationships with to do the same, it’s got to make a small difference toward creating the world we hope our children will one day inherit: one illustrated by empathy, compassion, kindness, awareness, respect, equity, justice and above all else, love for one another.
Published with permission from the educator allies featured in this writing piece.