Checking my Reflex

Check my reflex

When I was 2 or 3, we were visiting close family friends and there was a fire across the street, with lots of fire trucks and emergency personnel showing up on the scene. The fire was big and afterwards, every time I heard a siren, I’d start to become anxious and cry. After awhile of fussing and carrying on over every siren I heard, my dad decided to see if a tour of the town fire station and being able to climb on a fire truck might help me overcome my fear. It did.

Check my reflex

During the late spring of 1992, the long weekend of April 29-May 4 to be specific, I was doing a good-bye tour before I started Peace Corps, and was in Atlanta, visiting my good friend Kerry, who lived in Buckhead. I remember taking a long walk around the neighborhood on the 30th, marveling at how diverse Buckhead and Atlanta seemed to be. The day before, the not guilty verdict had come through in Los Angeles, acquitting 4 police officers in the Rodney King beating the year before, a brutal beating that was caught on camera. Rioting had jumped off in LA as a result, but things seemed peaceful in Atlanta. However, that evening, as we watched the last episode of the Cosby Show, I got a call from my dad, wondering how we were. Turns out, Atlanta had started having marches downtown in the early morning of the 30th and by the afternoon things had turned violent. We were fine in Buckhead, very disconnected from the rioting a few miles away, and basically spent the weekend as if there was nothing wrong.

Check my reflex

After 2 months of pre-service training during the summer of 1992 and living with my wonderful homestay families on St. Lucia (the Steeles) and Antigua (the Harris Family), I moved in to my home in Antigua’s Willikies Village. A really cute place that I loved dearly for the two years of my service, however, I remember being terrified that first night, living there alone. I was a white woman, with lots of baggage from growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in a Detroit suburb built on white flight and all kinds of fears surfaced that night. However, that living arrangement ended up being one of the safest experiences of my life.

Check my reflex

While I didn’t make friends with Antiguans my own age right away, I was a novelty to the village kids and we built relationships immediately after I moved in to my house. I was like the big sister or young tantie (aunt) who didn’t make them do housework, who would help them with homework and who was able to create a safe space for them to hang out in the evenings and on weekends. My home was almost a community center kind of thing. These kids were my regular buddies when I went to the beach, as well, and I cherish those memories.

One afternoon, well in to my Peace Corps service, I had been in Town (St. Johns) and was heading back out to Willikies on the bus. I didn’t generally have issues when I rode the bus, even when we were all crammed in to the buses and mini-buses like sardines. People who didn’t know me, generally ignored me and I was ok with that–especially if I didn’t dress like a tourist; however, this one late afternoon, I had issues. An Antiguan man got on the bus and sat near me and instead of just minding his own business, he started on this whole tirade about how awful white people were and while I couldn’t understand everything he said, I knew I did not feel safe. He got off at the same stop I did when we got out to Willikies, but he went in a different direction. I went home and immediately my favorite kids came over for a visit. Ezran and Juni Quinland were there and I told them about this guy on the bus. Almost as soon as I got the story out, guess who comes strolling by? Yep, the guy from the bus had already found out where I lived. Turns out his name was Amber and he had either just gotten out of jail or rehab, so he was not particularly stable. However, Juni and Ezran went home and told their dad and Mr. Quinland, who worked at Antigua’s airport and was a fisherman, let it be known to the village that if someone–in particular, Amber–so much as laid a finger on me, he would chop that person up and feed him to the fish. After that, I would see Amber on occasion at the beach, where he would be selling trinkets and t-shirts to white tourists, and he would go in the opposite direction, as far away from me as possible.

Check my reflex

When I finished my Peace Corps service in 1994, I headed back to my parent’s and got a job as a Peace Corps Regional Recruitment Representative where I spent 1 and a half years working out of the Detroit Office and another 3 working out of the Chicago Office. Recruiting for Peace Corps was truly one of my favorite all-time positions. I worked with the most diverse staffs and built lasting friendships with the coolest people. The majority of us had been Peace Corps Volunteers, living in one of the 70 plus countries at the time where Peace Corps Volunteers served and had experienced living in countries where we had been the ‘other’. I learned how to have hard conversations about race and membership in this crazy world of ours, to find strength in our differences–and to celebrate those differences.

Check my reflex

From July 1999 to July 2001, I lived in Los Angeles. One of my jobs was working at the University of Southern California as an academic advisor. USC itself was a haven, however the area surrounding it had been right at the heart of the LA riots. 7-8 years on, this area had definitely rebuilt itself; however, remnants of the riots remained, as did people referencing their individual experiences. USC staff and students were predominantly white, however one of my advisees was a relative of film director John Singleton, whose most acclaimed film was Boyz in the Hood, and I remember having the most enlightening conversations with him.

As my original Michigan provisional teaching certificate was expiring (and I was envying the professors being able to teach at USC), I re-upped my certification and became certified to teach in California. I only taught in LA for a semester, but was fortunate enough to teach at Bancroft Middle School, a magnet arts school that was truly a melting pot. We had students who were Armenian, Russian, Asian, and Mexican, as well as white students from the Hollywood Hills (Carol King’s daughter had once attended the school) and black students from Compton (the 90s singer Brandy attended). The teaching staff was also diverse, which was incredibly insightful.

I also spent a year living in a LA community that was ‘in between’ wealth and poverty in a duplex that was built in to a hill. Because of its location near the 105, there were occasionally helicopters flying overhead and police sirens blasting at night looking for people running away from law enforcement. It was a safe neighborhood–except when those helicopters started flying and the sirens went off. Extremely unsettling, but I was never personally threatened.

Check my reflex

In the summer of 2001, I moved back to Chicago and found a teaching job at Harper High School in West Englewood, on Chicago’s Southside. I spent 6 years teaching at Harper, a school with 97-100% African American students and at least 90% of the students on free or reduced lunch plans. Something crazy like 6% of my students were at grade level in reading and math and to say a lot went on during those 6 years would be an understatement. School fights because it was safer to fight in school than out on the streets. Students being shot and killed, like Starkesia Reed one morning while getting ready for school. Spotlights being placed on the school by Oprah Winfrey and Jesse Jackson. A high teen pregnancy rate. A school population that went from more than 1800 at the beginning of the 2001-2 school year to around 1200 during the 2006-7 school year (and has continued to drop these past 14 years down to 100 students–but that is another story). A school that was studied and written about in college education programs focusing on Urban Education. A school that in 2008–the year after I left–became one of the district’s first ‘turn around’ school experimentations where they removed the majority of the staff and teachers and hired new. A school that during the 2012-13 school year, became This American Life‘s only 2 part/2 episode story in 487–Harper High School-Part I and 488–Harper High School-Part II.

On a personal level, teaching at Harper is an experience that needs to be sifted through periodically, to gain new insights. The culture shock was huge–especially my first year when I was teaching freshmen world studies without a dedicated classroom of my own and so had to share rooms with 3 other teachers while traveling from classroom to classroom for each class. But I persevered through that year–and 5 others, setting up shop during years 2 and 3 in a sunny classroom on the 3rd floor and then down on the first floor/in the basement during years 4-6 across from the cafeteria, in a room that had once been the principal’s office when the school was an elementary school and so I had not only a classroom, but also an office and storage room. I became a social studies teacher in one of Harper’s small schools, the Construction Technology Academy, and became not only its lead teacher, but also the social studies department chair. I also built strong relationships with students and my colleagues, even when it didn’t seem like I was connecting.

I also sought counseling during the first year or two and went through 2 therapists, neither of who felt that it might be important to talk about race or white privilege or finding ways to flourish in the midst of being the ‘other’.

Check my reflex

During my first year at Harper, I met my husband Terry who on his application specified that he was ‘biracial’.  We have now been in a relationship for 18 years and married for 15. While race is definitely a big factor in our lives, we don’t often discuss its impact on our lives and our relationship.

Friday was Loving Day which commemorates the anniversary of the US Supreme Courts striking down state bans on interracial marriage on June 12, 1967. This year was the most meaningful Loving Day since I began recognizing its importance a few years ago. I was heartened by who weighed in on my Facebook post–especially considering how many of those people were either my former students and colleagues or were in biracial relationships themselves.

Check my reflex

2 weeks ago, I spent Saturday finally doing the annual setting up of our deck, which included planting seeds and bringing plants out from inside the condo. It was a beautiful day and in the early evening, Terry and I headed to Chinatown to pick up dinner. When we were driving over, we realized that Lake Shore Drive had been closed going in to downtown. While that didn’t change our plans, it gave us a heads up that something was going on. I assumed it was that protests over George Floyd’s death had shutdown the downtown section of Lake Shore Drive, which was something that the Chicago Teachers Union nearly did during the fall teachers’ strike; however, when I watched the evening news, I found out that protests had devolved into looting, vandalism, and unrest. I was upset and ended up calling one of those dear friends from my Peace Corps recruitment days in Chicago, Carol, who helped talk me off the ledge.

Check my reflex

2 weekends ago, I spent a beautiful Sunday morning in a Zoom erg practice with ROW, cleaning the condo, and making scones. In the midst of all this, it turns out the looting, vandalism, and general unrest of Saturday had spread out into the Chicago neighborhoods and by Sunday noon, emergency sirens were blasting and helicopters were starting to pass by overhead. As all of this was unfolding, I went out into the neighborhood to walk our dogs and ended up talking to a number of our neighbors, including my former Harper student Stephen, who was cleaning his car. Our conversation meant a lot to both of us, and I know that I will definitely not soon forget that experience.

Sunday was not about protests, instead there was general mayhem going on all over and the sirens and helicopter noise became incessant. It was an incredibly stressful day, which because of our proximity to the drama, we experienced on a visceral level. Forget grading or having a peaceful conversation on the phone!

Check my reflex

By that Monday, nearly everyone in Chicago was on alert and feeling things with all of their senses. Sirens in our area were already blaring by 5:30AM and it turned out there was a fire and possible injuries within a block from our condo. Monday was simply stressful and uncomfortable and by the time I signed into ROW’s Coping with COVID class Monday evening, I knew I needed guidance in dealing with everything that was going on. Dr. Mike did not disappoint and we had a great virtual group session and people felt heard. Dr. Mike also gave us some guidance in relation to checking our white privilege, to ‘check our reflex’ and do the work necessary to help bring about positive change.

Check my reflex

During the past 2 weeks, I’ve been ‘doing the work’. Terry and I participated in a faith based march through our Southside Community of Bronzeville that one of my neighbors referred to as ‘cathartic’ and it was. I’ve had lots of conversations with my neighbors and we are still trying to figure this all out. It’s not easy, but two weeks in, I’m feeling hopeful tonight as I wrap up this post.

Check your reflex

5 thoughts on “Checking my Reflex

  1. Thanks Marilyn, for reading and the support. These have been a really challenging couple of weeks figuring out how to process everything; support Terry, my current students, and myself; and recognize that I have a responsibility to find ways to share my experiences. Grateful that I have cultivated this blog so that I can write and at least put my thoughts out there. I don’t think this post is my ‘final say’ on the matter, but knew I needed to wrap up this portion.

  2. Deep, JoAnn. Glad you and terry marched; Melissa and her daughter marched in NJ. I did not walk downtown with my boys to protest—wooden bullets and tear gas from Columbus cops kind of was a draw back. What is chicago like now after Atlanta??

    • Thank you, Kelly, for weighing in. Wooden bullets and tear gas in Columbus?????? Cincinnati maybe, but I wouldn’t expect it there. Ugh. Glad Melissa and her daughter marched in NJ. Chicago stayed calm last weekend for the most part, despite what happened in Atlanta. I think the end of the school year has had a big impact. 8th graders and Seniors in CPS were technically done on June 5th with COVID impacted graduation activities rolling out over the 2 weeks following. Thursday (the 18th) was the last day for students. Southside neighborhoods were hopping yesterday for Juneteenth! I’ve never seen this kind of energy or recognition before near us. Fireworks (representing freedom and independence) were going off well into the night all over the city. I sat in on a Black Rowers and Coaches Zoom Roundtable sponsored by US Rowing last evening that had over 500 people in attendance which I found really impactful.

  3. Almost missed this one. Must’ve been things going on in Florida and I didn’t see it till now. Dad and I Have always been invested in your life and it was good remembering so many of these things. Can’t say your life has ever been boring! Hang in there baby!

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