Things Are Going to Get Weird

A short essay on the need to consider the voices of educators.

“I do not want to alter one hierarchy in order to institute another. . . . More interesting is what makes intellectual domination possible; how knowledge is transformed from invasion and conquest to revelation and choice.”

  • Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

“Again, there is no clear priority given to the avoidance of harm over the goal of providing help.”

Me. Pre-teaching career. In my office in Philadelphia. After an hour-long lunch. Different times. No regrets. But lots of thoughts. (2012)

PREFACE

In the words of Scheherazade, “I will begin with a story.”

You are standing at the front of the room, leading a writing warm up to a class of thirty-six fifteen-year-olds who run the gamut of locked-in to fully asleep to grinning at their phone to raising a hand to go the bathroom because “they locked the bathroom by the lunch room” to drawing on their desk to sitting at your desk because they “need to talk as soon as you’re done” to writing down the prompt — the one part you asked them not to write — to filling up the bottom of the first page because “I’m just a writer and I can’t stop myself and also I have another poem to show you.” But you. The teacher. You see all of that and really you just see the fifteen-year-old kid standing in the doorway, eyes dim, heart-broken. And you see him walk over to the girl who broke her foot playing volleyball (“Miss Dion, I cried and cried when the doctor told me it was broken. And then she started crying. And we all cried. It was a mess.”) You see him go up to this girl and she rolls him the mobility scooter she’s been using and you see him casually grab the foam covered handlebars and kneel one leg on the seat, and use his other foot to just… push off —

“Miss?”

Your reverie is interrupted and you turn to see a girl who sits in the back and does her make-up (and you’ve told her she is too pretty to need any of that) and she says,

“Miss? When is it my turn?”

And you realize she is not talking about anything related to the assignment you’ve given. She’s not talking about a bathroom pass. Or a pass to get a Powerade. Or a pass to somewhere, anywhere, other than a classroom. No. She’s talking about when is it her turn to ride the mobility scooter.

“Well,” you say, looking deep into her eyes. “I’ll tell you this. Whenever it is, it isn’t going to be until after I’ve had my turn.”

Teaching. Teaching school. Teaching school in 2022. Teaching school in an age of economic precarity, extended systemic racism, mental health crises, open enrollment, teaching shortages (yes, it’s real), pandemic fallout, decades of poor policies and politicization. Teaching during the age of digital media, social media, personal devices, smartphones, airpods, VPNs, TikTok. Teaching during an epoch of relaxed gun laws, gun violence, mass shootings, school shootings.

Teaching during [picture me gesturing to everything around me] — this.

I’ve said it before. With respect. Whatever you think teaching is, it isn’t that. Whatever school was for you, whatever you’ve seen depicted on screen, whatever your retired spouse experienced or your sister shared, whatever you watched and learned while volunteering at your child’s school, whatever article you read, whatever you’ve imagined — it still isn’t that.

I’m not saying this to be difficult or inscrutable. I’m saying this to try to help you understand, and to help myself feel understood.

With love: When was the last time you had a student show up late to class, demonstrably high, and you know his brother just died, unexpectedly and traumatically, and you know you are a mandated reporter, and you know he depends on and trusts the feeling of safety you provide?

I follow education writing — in scholarly journals, popular media and social media — and #teachertwitter notwithstanding, there’s a curious phenomenon when it comes to teacher perspectives. From podcasts, to newspaper articles, to press conferences, teachers’ voices are hard to find.

Twitter scribbles. https://twitter.com/abbimireille

Education, like every field, every domain, every aspect of life is theoretical as well as practical. There is the idea of the thing — and the reality of the thing. Teachers have a unique perspective of their professional field, their world. Just as public defenders do. Just as parents do. Just as nurses, delivery drivers, and anyone with direct, immediate, intimate knowledge of their world does.

Because teachers have a unique perspective, should education analysis and criticism be the sole provenance of educators? Of course not. That would be folly on the level of our current disregard of said perspective. While I am making the case that educator perspective is critically lacking from education writing— that is not to say it should be the lone voice. Not at all. Outside perspectives — from a wide and diverse range of voices — are critical and instructive.

But seeing as less than a quarter of writing about education references teachers’ words, I’m going to say, we need to consider why teachers’ voices are frequently absent. We might have reasons to be skeptical of educator perspective. (Good. Skepticism is healthy.) We might disagree. Passionately. But we must include this perspective. If we listen, we might learn from it.

The end. Goodnight!

My children and me at my mother’s house in Shoreview, MN; 2018
Mom. Kids. Chaos. Our house, bought with a loan for low-income buyers. Minneapolis; 2020

THE AMERICAN SCHOOL & SCHOOLTEACHER

School and the American Dream: History, Culture, and Society

Whether you’re talking with fellow travelers, the Chair of the School Board, or your sworn foe, you cannot talk about schools without talking about people. And you cannot talk about people without talking about money, wealth, class, race, language, gender, sex, ability… It will come as no surprise that most stay out of this fray. Emotions can and do get big.

A popular idea among many who rightly notice that our schools are not serving ALL students equally (or equitably, as you wish) is that we can reform education to better serve our students. I agree.

Another popular idea is to suggest that school itself is the variable which controls the learning potential of the child, and that perfecting a school can be done irrespective of social and economic conditions. This sounds good. Schools are the great equalizer, right?

Short answer:

No. Schools are part of the historically-situated and -determined nexus that is culture and society. They are not inert. They serve a powerful and shaping function — but they cannot, alone, control for the entirety of human activity. (And many people think they should not try to do so; in fact, they should replicate societal conditions (i.e., social reproduction theory)). Horace Mann hoped that schools could level the playing field. And such a wish has taken root in many economists’ and philanthropists’ souls. I’ve wondered if this wish isn’t tied to a sense of guilt about having so much when others have so little. If the playing field is equal, why, there would be no need to feel shame for your castle, your vacations, your handbags, cars, or Patagonia jackets. Everyone had a fair chance, see? (Ah, pesky conscience, you can rest easy.)

Long answer:

Consider the question of why public schools were created in the North American colonies. Joel Spring asks us to consider why we believe schools were conceived: “Were public schools established to ensure that all citizens would be able to protect their political and economic rights? Were they established to protect the power of an elite by controlling the economic and political ideas taught to students? Were public schools established to ensure the dominance of Protestant Anglo-American culture over Native American, Irish American, and African American cultures? Were public schools necessary to ensure the education of the whole population?” (Your thoughts?)

Spring adroitly suggests “Many people do not remember the details of history, but they develop images and emotions about past events […] The attitudes and feelings about public schools of a person who concludes that public schools were established to protect the political and economic rights of citizens will be quite different from the attitudes of a person who concludes that public schools were established to protect the political and economic power of an elite.”

Philadelphia; 2010 (?); photo by author/me/Abbi Dion. On my lunch break at Temple, I took the train to City Hall where one of the first Occupy Wall Street marches was taking place. Soon the entire plaza would become an encampment.

Schools have been part and parcel of the systemic hellscape that is racism, sexism, ableism, and lgbtq phobia/panic/persecution. Because all kids must pass through the school system, it seems like a good place for those of us with egalitarian principles to focus our efforts. Schools have the added function of serving as — or being SEEN as — a ticket to greater prosperity via higher education, career opportunities, and social status. (Does this hope, one which I also was taught and hold on to, bear out? Results are mixed, but the most recent evidence suggests or I guess clearly shows education does not lead to the kind of mobility we continue to believe in — and promise.)

How To Solve for the Sins of Society

Well, you might be thinking, perhaps then the problem is the teachers. Teachers must be the real problem. They aren’t teaching kids in a way that helps them learn, or rise above, or see themselves. Interesting theory. One that demonizes while valorizes, an interesting wager. But in any case a wager that is nonetheless wrong. (More on that below.)

How about data — maybe teachers aren’t utilizing data? Standardized tests and other metrics will get our schools (our teachers) in line. Again, a tempting premise. However. If data were key, NCLB would have saved us. Race to the Top would have saved us. If data were the way to fix our deeply stratified society— we’d be there. Data — far from being the wunderkind savior as it is currently touted — does more harm than good. In theory, history, and practice. It turns teaching into a remedial, skills-based activity that serves no one and has no applicability outside the classroom. It’s decontextualized skills-heavy humdrum and the only one who loathes it more than the teachers is the students.

Do I have all the answers for how to assess students? No. I do not. I do mention one thought on assessment later. And I do know my experiences, my students’ brilliance *shit a test never shows, no matter what* and I also know the harm these tests do to our kids and our learning environments. For example, the storytelling unit I designed for my ninth-graders draws on the work of many fellow teachers, academics, and community members. And when my students write and recite their stories of personal heroes, there is no test that can measure what transpires. Not even a rubric.

Slide from a story-telling unit I designed. This one features activist & survivor Kay G Wilson.

Education as a Cultural Phenomenon

School is weird. We act like it’s normal. Like it’s as normal as being born, and going to the grave. Like it exists on that plane of inevitability — a biological fact. Life has certain… certainties. A person will be born, they will be schooled, and they will die. Marriage? Maybe. Employment? Probably, but not absolutely. Rearing children? Could do, or not. But school. School will happen. Education will take place. One will undergo some form (and likely multiple) of schooling, educating, learning.

But why do we see this as inevitable? (We will postpone a conversation about why schooling need function as the rather factory model that it currently resembles.) For now, we will simply ask when in the development of human genealogy did schooling become, as the internet says, ‘a thing’?

If I wasn’t a teacher, I would probably think that the two most critical factors in determining a child’s success in school would be: the teacher and the curriculum. And I would be right. Sort of. (Curriculum — as it is popularly understood — is not the panacea, cure-all, teacher-proof variable some would like it to be. Curricula matters, but it is a variable that is utterly dependent on other factors.) The teacher, however, for better or worse, is a factor with enormous shaping power on a child’s trajectory. But another factor has a stronger determining power.

Wealth. A child’s zip code and their *father’s* level of education will predict their achievement more astutely than anything else. Without doing an exhaustive retelling, a major point to consider is this: schooling, the concept of educating someone in a formal manner (which is not to say, setting) has been throughout history the provenance of the wealthy. And I mean WEALTHY. The rest of us plebs (actually the Plebeians were a class several rungs above the lowest castes (who knew?)) have been left to fend for ourselves. (Up until frighteningly recently, most of us wouldn’t have been formally educated.)

So how is it that today, fifteen hundred years after Rome gave itself over to Christianity and fell away, it is the law of the land that one and all (including my lower-middle-class children) be educated, formally and with a multitude of federal and state laws governing the entire process? We may not all be familiar with England’s Education Law or IDEA or the Carter Administration and the Department of Education, nor FERPA, nor Lau v. Nichols, nor Title IX, nor Brown v. Board II, nor NCLB and Common Core and the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647 and Milwaukee’s Charter School initiative. But we all know this: education is something we all believe we (and especially our children) are entitled to. Further? We are all entitled to an excellent, dare I say top-notch, education.

How this belief has been pursued — in the legal system, in individuals’ lives, in classrooms that by all accounts should be grateful just to exist, and in collective actions driven by people who believed that education could be the key to social and economic mobility or civil rights or dignity — sometimes with enormous success (though the full stories are often much more complicated) and sometimes with broken hearts.

What we often fail to consider is how extraordinary it is we try to do mass education, given our extreme levels of economic inequality, racism, sexism, and ableism. We utilize a tax code and legislative system that keeps funding to schools low, but costs high. We ask our children and our teachers to bear the brunt of these factors. For teachers this means: to go into debt to go into a low-paying, low-status career; to be competent in their subject-matter; competent in teaching and pedagogy; competent in culturally relevant, multi-lingual, multi-abled groups — and to advocate for their own well-being/pay/insurance/contract with a ready smile — then wonder at a profession that cannot attract such martyrs. When we acknowledge this, we start to get a glimpse of why it seems education, as a social practice, is not working out as brilliantly as Horace Mann hoped.

Kaia, Nancy, Melissa, and moi; St. Paul; 2019

A Note On Merit Pay and Teacher Awards

Since we’ve decided there isn’t enough money to go around, BUT we need teachers (dammit!) we’ll have to figure something else out. Ah! Merit pay. Merit pay and pay-for-performance are interesting ideas, and many people outside of schools support these programs. They make sense if you believe you can isolate a single teacher’s influence, control for outside factors, and believe in the test’s ability to reveal increased knowledge–and ability to utilize or transfer this knowledge to multiple situations and contexts, including future learning environments.

Tests are meant to measure something, absolutely, yet the things we know for certain that standardized tests measure best (i.e., zip, race, SES) are not always useful for teachers, administrators, families, never mind the public. Some very bright students do poorly on tests. Less commonly, some students can get lucky. Often, students cram or utilize the ‘shadow education industry’ to pump up their scores. Who can blame them? They are playing the game as the rules are written. Did teachers write these tests, never mind make money off of them? No. (Money is made, of course.) Teachers generally detest these tests (wink). We know their inherent value. (Nothing.) We also know the damage they can do to a child. The environment and medium of the test can lead to results that are of little to no worth; some computer-based tests are difficult for students to manage, often developmentally inappropriate, and for students who see the tests as pointless, there is a temptation to “click through.”

So, no tests then? Nay. Teacher-created tests are valuable; in fact, they are profoundly revealing of student learning. Teachers know what they’ve taught and can design questions that allow for students to demonstrate not only skills but critical thinking, including critical application. Teachers can implement modifications or adaptations such as: oral delivery as opposed to written (or vice versa); multi-language services; real-time dialogic refining; and the enormous benefit of analyzing a student’s work on the student — the teacher knows the student’s strengths, differences, and ways of communicating. Blind review makes sense in a meritocracy, but we don’t live in a meritocracy; we live in reality.

So, teachers, what does matter? I’d ask us this: Do your students want to come to your class every day (more or less)? Do they ask questions, write interesting things, think through the tough stuff? Do you go home with ideas about what went well and what you want to learn from? That’s what matters.

Will you get an award for that? Maybe. Probably not. But who knows. More importantly, who cares? Who gives a single damn, to be honest. Do you know a single teacher who even wants an award? I don’t. And I’ve been on the receiving end of them. Not to sound ungrateful. (But, please, don’t apply market-based crap onto us; this is not a competition.) These awards, especially when doled out by outside organizations, are likely meant as a boon, a kindness, a gift card for your troubles. Maybe they are meant to prove: ‘See! I do support teachers!’ Maybe they are meant to shine a light of some kind. But far from elevating the profession, they reinscribe dichotomies and stereotypes (martyr/loser, savior/tyrant, magician/dummkopf). I don’t know if the people presenting these prizes think they’re doing educators a solid by granting awards and publicly feting — under their own logo and banner — and finishing it off with a tweet about how there is “no money” for a raise this year. (Here’s an interesting perspective from a fellow educator.) And here’s my take:

I’d suggest, humbly, that entering an arena where you don’t work and haven’t worked, for many years and/or currently, and handing out awards is… problematic. The very idea is offensive, colonial, and cringe. Even if innocent or intended to reward (see: power dynamics) the effect of these intentions might be worth considering. My advice: Skip the awards.

My classroom; AHS; 2021

What is a Teacher?

You might be thinking I’m a bit too opinionated for a teacher. Shouldn’t teachers be invisible? If you were to picture the ideal teacher, right now, what do they look/act like? The media shows us the rebel teacher, the renegade cult of personality who saves people — and the disaster: the hapless fool who either harms children through acting derelict or being a nightmare of a person. In general, exceptions aside, we can’t help but see our teachers as: women. Either kindly grandma or young and unbetrothed.

Hence, Teacher as:

  • Selfless
  • Self-sacrificing
  • Self-immolating
  • Childless (if you are a teacher, you can’t be a parent, even if you are), Partner-less, Devoid of other responsibilities (aging parents, siblings, illness, conditions, needs or demands)
  • No real purpose or call-to-action other than saving children from the ever-encroaching sins of society

Ha, too funny, you say. I don’t feel like that! And yet… we see the seeds of all these beliefs in the criticism of teachers, the demands placed on teachers, the “power” granted teachers (NB if you are granted the power to perform an impossible task — that “power” ain’t power.) Someone who respects and understands educating, would not ask an educator to perform a pedagogically and logistically impossible series of duties — feats that even Wonder Woman couldn’t perform — in a 9-hour work-day.

Me and my youngest; grading papers, parenting, drinking coffee, trying to hold it together; 2019

And what about the discourse in the public square? The statements made on social media about teachers ring so quaint to those of us who do the job, that it’s hard to drum up any real contempt for the condescension they contain. They are frequently dehumanizing, degrading, and more often than not blatantly sexist and misogynist. (I considered quoting some, but decided it felt too personal.)

The history of teaching — as a societal role — has been written, and it is not a straight road from hearth to high school. Women, white women, were not always the dominant presence in the school room, but once they were — once teaching came to be associated with women, especially older women, the entire enterprise could readily be dismissed. “Here,” those outside the profession said, and say. “Let us explain it to you.”

The caveat to being a woman who dares to speak is, if you are wealthy, your voice is allowed — perhaps not celebrated, but tolerated. This may appear to be a resentment-inflected caveat but it’s really just an acknowledgment of the “deep need to secure the boundary separating the printed eloquence of educated men [and women of wealth] from the mere chatter of women.” (Tatar, 2021) If you are a woman, you’re already on shaky ground, but if you are a woman and you aren’t wealthy, well, your stories and insights might be technically allowed, but they’re likely to be dismissed. They may be ignored, straight away or, if you’re lucky, considered trivial, problematic, mere gossip.

“Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

  • Samuel Johnson to his biographer, James Boswell

The powerful tell the stories; the weak listen. Indeed, the experiences of teachers and schooling have been mediated again and again by voices of power. Teaching is a profession that is defined by a gender: feminine. And feminine means being defined by your role, by what you do for others.

This mediation and dismissal or your voice makes it somewhat of an impossibility to tell your story without appearing as if you are mounting a rebellion, scratching the record, or like the hopeless romantic Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility, crashing the party. And as a seasoned party animal — who doesn’t drink or smoke — I am not here to kill the buzz.

Me, being me, with two MPS parents and rockstars; Minneapolis; 2018 (?)

I’m here to kick it up a notch. Calling the talk of the workers, the teachers, petty or selfish or somehow at odds with the children we teach is deeply hurtful never mind patently untrue — but it’s actually quite brilliant as a strategy. What an effective rebuke to the concerns of the workers, to call their concerns petty or drama or not student-focused. Such a claim is nearly impossible to argue with. Arguing with it makes you look legitimately petty, dramatic, perhaps even selfish. (Kind of an epic rhetorical move, from a debate standpoint.)

And yet, some of us go back to the mat, again. And again. History is full of those who dared to speak truth to power, and we frequently praise them, revere them — sometimes mythologize them — but how rare it was for any of them to be remotely accepted during their lives. (The status quo does not enjoy being disrupted, and if it seems as though that disruption will benefit a group, class, or arena that is meant to serve others — watch out. Self-interest is unnatural at best, grotesque at worst.)

In terms of societal function, what it takes to be revered as a professional woman (as a teacher) is not a mystery: abnegate yourself. Disappear. Become vapor. Perform your good works and take your check, grateful you’ve been allowed to a social role. Be grateful your dim wit has been given a stage on which to fret and prance. How lucky for you a curriculum written by a corporation landed on your doorstep.

Curricula Will Save Us!

Curriculum-in-a-box is what guarantees your employment. Agency belongs not to you, but to those who have power–and perhaps to some extent those who’ve allied themselves with the powerful. (Are any of these people poor? Perhaps one, or two — whose way was paved by dollars, paradoxically. No diss to them; just acknowledging the impact of finance.)

Teachers have asked politely, marched on Washington, voiced objection in heightened and/or measured tones at board meetings, spoken cris de coeur pleas on various media platforms, written letters to the editor, and often remained totally, perfectly — ideally — silent (we love a teacher who stays out of the way). But I promise you, that a teacher wants to vet a curriculum; some of us want to create our own; and most of us know that curriculum is a living thing. While there are some very poor ones, yes, there is no perfect, ready-made curriculum. And no curriculum, irrespective of its pontificators and agents — many acting in utterly good faith — will work for every child, nor solve, fix, or erase the material conditions in which we all live. The much heralded LETRS curriculum, for example, should be applauded for its many attributes. But one area that I’ve not heard paid much attention, is its ineffectiveness for multilingual or English-learning students. This seems a pretty sizable oversight for those of us committed to educating all students, focusing on the students most vulnerable to the systemic oppressive forces that exist within and beyond school doors.

Acknowledging that educating, schooling, learning is more complex than any one factor — even SES — doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t worth having. It means, we all have more to learn and consider.

** Interlude **

Oh, still here? Wunderbar. I’d like to thank you for reading this, for considering it, for allowing my voice to be part of this conversation. Gratitude and inclusion need not be mutually exclusive.

We’ve never had a profesh family portrait taken and I’ve never sent out a holiday card. I’m not opposed I just can’t even properly respond to texts, emails, make appts, check backpacks, do my job, and/or all the rest of it. Philadelphia; 2022

In Conclusion

Empathy

I’m currently in the middle of a story-telling unit with ninth-graders. We write every day, share pieces of our writing aloud, and read/watch/listen to stories from voices local and immediate as well as far away and distant.

Will story-telling change power structures, redistribute wealth, desegregate neighborhoods and allow our differences to be seen as real, as natural differences, as good differences, instead of a threats? I don’t know. I know that language is limited and shaped by masters. And Audre Lorde told us, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” implying language alone cannot bring genuine restructuring of power. Still, we need to believe in the redemptive, enlightening, potentially connecting power of story-telling. Storytelling, not data, is what forges connections and helps people understand others. What keeps us from listening, then? From saying: I have something to learn? Even from my opponent.

We want to be in control. Or to feel control. It’s not a narcissistic impulse so much as it is a biological, survival impulse. Power, like control, can intoxicate us. And some of us are more susceptible to its charms. (I remember my seventh-grade health teacher asking us to complete an inventory and one of the questions on this list was “Do you prefer to be a leader or a follower?” (WHAT. Who would pick “follower” I thought. And then it hit me: some of my classmates would. Not everyone got drunk off the sound of their own voice.)

My iconic black, female boss once told me that the biggest problem in our higher education workforce was, and I quote, “white women.” As a white woman from Minnesota, I was taken aback. WHAT? It struck me as sort of funny and, well, most definitely wrong. She must be wrong. How could white women–in toto–be the problem? Sure, I’d known some insufferable wretches, some straight up nasty B’s (not in the fun way) but as a group, weren’t we actually pretty great? We wanted to help, fix things, step in and up, raise babies, sing songs, teach classes, and otherwise just “be.” When my boss, a university VP, replied as she did, surely she was referring to the bad ones. (I wasn’t one of those ones. I was safe.) I nodded, and started thinking about how I couldn’t wait to tell a friend of mine (who was black) and who would reassure me I was, indeed, one of the good ones. But her words stayed with me for many days, and now, years.

As my experience in the world has deepened, and my lens has both widened and sharpened, I’ve come to see exactly what she was talking about. White women were like the scary girls from high school who you simultaneously wanted to be accepted by and hoped would just leave you the hell alone — they make the rules. They ask the questions, see? (In the words of Sun Yung Shin, It’s not White Fragility, It’s White Flammability.)

Worse, if white women were (are) the prob, this implicated me — ME! And furthermore, this wasn’t a small problem — this was a problem that was big and tangled and never-ending. “Lurking beneath the abstract principle of justice are social inequalities and asymmetrical power relations, along with personal disputes and vendettas,” writes Maria Tatar (personal hero). Tatar is talking about Penelope and the chorus of the twelve maids in The Odyssey, but apply it to your town and see how it fits. (Same shiz, diff centch.) We are all beholden to our truth, our feelings, our perspective. AND a “single perspective cannot tell the whole story or resolve the question of moral culpability.” If you take nothing else from this essay, take this: I am a voice, not THE voice. Roll your eyes at that, if you must, but beware: The eye roll, like the backchannel text, is a hallmark of a toxic culture. While not universal (see Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece for a less obnoxious use) the eye roll can be a cheap way to express or feel power. Roisin O’Connor says, “In the Anglosphere, it has been identified as a passive-aggressive response to an undesirable situation or person […] used to disagree or dismiss or express contempt” (2016). In its one-way, indirect nature it signifies the opposite of what Brene’ Brown calls a “Daring Greatly” culture. It indicates the norms/values of the relationship or space are not strong; thus, poor conditions for belonging and growth.

Maybe our schools and feeds would be better, healthier, stronger spaces–for all of us–if we openly discussed how we listen, or struggle to; how we feel hurt, and hurt others. Maybe most of us don’t know how to experience discomfort, how to share or receive feedback–acts that require vulnerability–and we need to learn, intentionally, how to do this. Empathy, far from being an intrinsic timeless virtue, is not even a term that exists as part of our shared lexicon until the first two decades of this century (Tatar, 2021) when its use spikes and instantly becomes one of our most cherished cultural values. Simon Baron-Cohen sees empathy as somewhat of a national obsession and, droll wit aside, concedes: “empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world.” Empathy is about trying to imagine someone else’s reality and asking them: what’s it like?

In Tania Israel’s book BEYOND YOUR BUBBLE she writes about the power of conversation. It’s not about agreeing. It’s not. It’s about feeling heard and understood. According to Israel there are ways we distort the ideas of people with whom we disagree. We see ourselves as having integrity and being logical, and others as potentially emotional, extreme, ‘mean’ — and just knowing this can help us better communicate. Of course, there’s something called the Negativity Bias, too (I learned about it while doing a guided meditation). Apparently we are programmed to basically think the worst. “Assume best intentions” clearly needs to be a mantra as we are not built to do that. To wit: In studies where tweets were received by people holding differing views, the tweets widened people’s gaps and led to heated battles that ended in disengagement and disappointment. However. All is not lost. We do have recourse against this urge. Giving people the opportunity to be heard is helpful. It can even be healing. We can hold very strong views AND remain interested in other views. It’s about “being righteous without being self-righteous” in the words of Israel.

There’s also a theory I have: we are all doing our best.

In Angie Thomas’ novel The Hate U Give — a book my students, across races, love and talk about, years later — the narrator, Starr tells us that most of the time she feels “un-brave.” Yet she steps up and speaks, defends, fights ”the good fight.” This appeal is not about weapons of war, guns, swords, knives. It’s an appeal to conversation. Thomas who herself suffered from bullying and suicidal feelings as a young person has insisted she is committed to “instilling empathy” in her readers. Sometimes I scoff at this goal, in my most hopeless moments. But there’s another part; that part of me that gets up every morning and feeds my kids, and laughs with my students, and holds hands with fear without denying it, and owns my part without denying it, and seeks justice without denying the complexity of it — and that is the part I ultimately subscribe to.

Peace.

Abbi Dion lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a teacher of English and AVID at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, Minnesota and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. A graduate professor at Temple (different degree) read her master’s thesis and commented: “Ms. Dion is very sensitive.”

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Abbi Mireille Dion

Teacher, Writer, Parent, Sister, Survivor, Spouse, Student. “Life itself is your teacher, and you are in a state of constant learning.” — Bruce Lee