Shut Up and Listen

Photo credit: Kitt O’Malley via / CC BY

I’m walking through life with a heavy heart these days. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Terrorism. Brutality. Hate. Division. It’s hard not to think that this is the end – of tolerance, of brotherhood, of America, of humanity. The assassination of police officers in Dallas, Texas last night had me mourning from my rural Oregon hometown, but even before that, the video of the latest police shooting of Philando Castile yesterday left me heartbroken. Still, to watch officers hustle protesters to safety while they ran toward danger was something we needed to see. Most police officers are not bad cops.

White America, what they say is true. We cannot comprehend the extent of what is called white privilege. I grew up in this privilege. I lived in a relatively safe area. My dad grew up poor, but that didn’t stop him from entering the military or going to college. It didn’t dictate where he eventually lived or how accepted he would be by his neighbors. He was able to give us all of the things this experience offers. Safety. Accessibility to jobs and education. The ability to walk most areas without being questioned.

I married into a Mexican family and was shocked at the treatment of my relatives and continue to be shocked at the racism and xenophobia even some of my acquaintances thoughtlessly throw out on social media. Don’t they understand that when they spout racist comments, they land on my children, who incidentally are friends of their children, where they burn like acid rain?

My husband also grew up poor. He came to the US and got permanent residency. He worked his way up, and I mean worked. He learned the language. He learned business skills. He never took government assistance and always gives to those in need. He coached soccer for our son’s team and was loved by the other parents for his kind heart and egalitarian spirit. Yet he is still discriminated against because he’s Mexican. One time we called the sheriff because someone had thrown a rock through our car window, and the sheriff asked him for his social security number. Really? I can honestly say that’s not happened to me before.

To be white in America gives us an instant in. We don’t have to prove ourselves, at least not with other whites.

Part of my life experience was going to college in Portland. I went to a mostly white school, but I was friends with a couple of African-American students there, one of whom became one of my best friends. (Cliche, but true in my case.) We had countless late night conversations about our experiences and worldviews. I was welcomed into their homes and their neighborhoods. I was respected as a friend and not looked at with suspicion, yet if you’ve ever been the standout white person in a non-white world, it’s an otherworldly experience. I gained insight into how my friends might have felt, the inability to blend in or fly under the radar in the group. What if that group didn’t respect you? What if you were looked at with suspicion? My mind began to be opened because I was willing to listen.

I saw, through my friend, many instances of discrimination and the reaction of white people, the dismissal of the feelings of inadequacy that accompanied it. Oh, people aren’t really racist anymore. You’re just imagining it. Yet the fact that she and I could go places together and have very different experiences was telling. It opened my eyes. Yes, racism still exists in America. Yes, we still need to fight together to combat it.

My husband continues to plow forward with his stellar attitude, treating people with kindness and winning some over in the process, but I see him when he comes home. It’s exhausting. It’s like being a missionary to the masses. He’s selling his heritage, his culture, to people who want to send it all back and build a wall to keep it out. He’s the person who makes white Americans think that maybe Mexicans aren’t so bad after all. Ask yourself why he has to convert them in the first place.

Are there people who genuinely accept my husband or anyone in his family as part of the human race without labeling them as part of the Mexican race? Sure, but they are few and far between. It’s a sad reality, but it’s our reality, and so we soldier on. What else can we do?

I think it’s really important for white America to be quiet for a moment and listen. Mothers are telling us that they have to teach their sons to walk on eggshells or they might be killed by police. Killed. By the people who are charged with protecting us from one another. I cannot even imagine having to go there with my three boys.

But I hear them.

When my eldest moved out on his own, he was a darker skinned (Latino genes) young American man driving a beat up old van. He was stopped by the police a number of times, but because we live in a relatively quiet place that’s all it was, a routine stop. However, because he had these experiences, it’s not a stretch for me to extrapolate and imagine how it might go down for an African American male in a beat-up car, or on the street, or walking in the dark, to be stopped and questioned, and when you stop and question someone, doesn’t that imply that the suspicion is already there? And when you are suspicious, doesn’t that heighten your state of alert?

Police are human. They have a dangerous job. They never know what they might encounter when they walk up to that car door, whether it will be a gun-toting, anti-authority sovereign citizen, a drug dealer, a meth-impaired driver, or a law-abiding citizen like you or me. I wouldn’t want their job, never knowing what I was up against. I don’t think holding them all accountable for the quick trigger finger of a few is the answer. Assassinating them certainly isn’t. Police are human beings, and as such are like anyone else in any other job. There are some really good, dedicated public servants, and there are some jerks, who unfortunately are reflecting on the whole system at this moment.

So, let’s all take a moment to really listen to one another. Only then can we come up with solutions.

Don’t let darkness win.

My heart goes out to all of the victims and their families on both sides. Thank you to the many, many LEOs who truly make a positive difference in our world.


Photo credit: hepingting via / CC BY-SA

They occupy a corner classroom in a regular elementary school, a rag-tag group of special needs kids. Their numbers are few, but the classroom feels full – full of life, full of toys, and full of noise. Each student has an assistant, and they switch around throughout the day, helping with learning goals, sensory experiences, meals, and restroom breaks. It’s a room of diverse needs, with everyone yearning for connection.

I have been returning here since the first day I hesitantly stepped in as a sub for a teacher friend. That day I was nervous. I had not spent much time around special needs people, and I knew that some in the class, when overcome with frustration, would resort to biting. I reluctantly went, but held back and watched the assistants work their magic with these kids. Since then, I’ve discovered it’s one of my favorite classrooms.

To the outside eye, the atmosphere can occasionally seem chaotic. Special needs kids don’t often vocalize their frustration the same way we do. They may scream. They may bang their heads. They may bite and hit. They may jump up and down, waving hands. They may run away. To the outside eye, it can be very frightening.

When you spend time with these kids, however, you begin to understand the frustrations. To some kids the mere mention of a fire drill sends them into a panic as they remember the loud noises and masses of student bodies exiting the building. Earmuffs are scattered throughout the room for those occasions where screaming alarms or screaming children threaten a young student with sensory overload.

Some brains can become stuck on repeat with the desire for one particular item drowning out all other stimuli.  It’s like a record that’s skipping, and sometimes no amount of redirection can budge that needle. Pressure builds and builds in the child until he breaks down and the adults in the room converge to keep things safe and console him. It’s tough being a kid sometimes in the best of circumstances. It’s tougher when you can’t make your needs known or understand why they can’t be met.

To not be able to express what’s wrong must be very frustrating. It may seem that these kids are volatile and explosive, but when you get to know them,.you can see the signs of frustration building. Body language changes. Eyes may narrow. They may start to make growling noises. The pencil that was tracing letters starts tapping, then pounding. Assistants pull out the visual reminder of emotional levels 1, 2, and 3, with green calm and angry red. Before things blow up, they begin soothing reminders to have a calm body and calm voice, then pull out icons and ask them to use their “words.” Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the communication is important. Everyone gets frustrated and angry, and expressing these emotions appropriately is difficult for all of us. Sometimes just having someone understand that you are angry and you know it is enough. We all desire calm, even the kids.

Because I sub all over the building, I know how some of the other students react to the outbursts. Many shy away from these kids. They make comments when the screaming and banging start. They don’t understand, though I’m always quick to point out that we all have things we’re dealing with in life.

A couple of student ambassadors have ventured into the classroom. Often these are troubled kids who need an outlet. They are often the kindest, most understanding helpers, and they are quick to build trust and rapport. The special needs kids light up when they make an appearance, and they play and make attempts at communication before the students have to return to class and things go on as before. But these are new friends who stop and say hi in the long and lonely hallways.

screen322x572I have been in the classroom many times now. I know the kids. I know where they started and what incredible gains they’ve made. The child who wouldn’t speak to anyone, who yelled and screamed, now says hello to me in the hall and greets others in his classroom with a good morning. He still occasionally falls apart, but it’s the exception, not the rule. The child who once clung tightly to objects is now able to pass things out to his classmates. The girl who started out kicking and screaming can use an app on her thickly padded iPad to communicate her needs. She pushes the icons, the machine does the speaking, and she looks expectantly for a response. It’s magical. Trust exists here, and that’s a truly fertile ground for growth.

I sat with a student just the other day. He loves the iPad, knows how to work it, and would often get sidetracked from lesson apps to video clips. Removing him from the gadget used to be a battle. The other day he picked up another student’s iPad, one used for communication, with the intention of getting on YouTube. I explained that this belonged to someone else and started telling him how it was used to communicate. He was calm. He was listening. He pushed button after button, exploring her communication program. He didn’t once try to exit out and turn on YouTube videos, as he has been known to do. The owner of the iPad shifted position. She was happily playing on the floor, but now with an ear tuned to what we were doing. A subtle energy radiated; a tenuous connection had been established.

If you’re quiet and listen, you can hear what these kids are telling you, even if they don’t say a word. If you’re really lucky, they will include you in their world.

This corner classroom, this overlooked part of the school, has amazing things happening in it. What is the corner classroom in your life?

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in special needs. I don’t really have much more experience with these challenges than in the few classrooms I’ve been in. I don’t know what it’s like to parent a child with special needs. After working with these kids, I feel the need to share my own experiences in the hope that it will prompt people to be more understanding toward kids with special needs.

Written in response to the Daily Post’s one word prompt: Connection