What I Show to the World

Sometimes the inspiration our students need is right there, in real time.

Sherri Spelnic @edifiedlistener is a wonderful writer and educator, and her poem is beautiful. On Tuesday, I shared it with students and my own shameful experience from several years ago, around 2009. There was a strict rule, and I mean STRICT – no hats, scarves, bandanas, even headbands. We teachers were in charge of policing the hallways for any hoodie, hat, cap, beanie, toque, etc. Hijabs, of course, were fine. I say “of course” but I am certain in some American schools they are misunderstood and targeted. One young Black girl came to class a few days in a row with a red bandana. I told her that the school rule was that type of head covering was against dress code. After three days of her wearing it, I called for support from the office. One of the best admins I’ve ever had, Lavonta Howard, who was an AP at the time, quietly told me to let it go, because her mother had cut her hair in an alcoholic rage, and the relationship between hair and a Black girl is unique. I don’t remember his exact words, but I got it immediately. I was angry at her mother for the pain she caused her daughter, angry at the ridiculous “rules” that put me in a position not to be compassionate, and mostly at myself for not understanding what was at stake. The psychology of cruel authority took over my better judgment, and from that day forward I never let a ‘rule’ interfere with my humanity or deny others the dignity of theirs. I am forever grateful for Lavonta to provide me with grade and understanding.

When I shared that with my current students, they also offered me grace. We walked through our own process of thinking about our physical selves:

  • Hair/face
  • Clothes
  • Weight/height

I modeled that I would take about some things, but didn’t feel like I wanted to talk about my weight. I took that risk and tried to show vulnerability, that we don’t always want to share what we think about ourselves. We don’t want to be mocked.

This process didn’t work for every child in the room — but it allowed a place for many. And for those who shared, and those who didn’t, we all came to a better place of empathy. Some people often make fun of teenagers and selfies, but I get it. I loved self-portraits and looked at myself in the mirror, more than I’d like to admit, as if I would see my identity form and shape in front of my eyes. In a way it did.

From one of my students from Tanzania: “My mom used to say I was a King.”

Thank you to Ms. Spelnic, for your grace. My students needed this–right words, right time.

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