Friday, November 18, 2016

In Atlanta, November, 2016

At the National Council of Teachers of English conference and feeling the best it's been since the election. Not that it will get better, not unless we make it though to the other side of this catastrophe for democracy, this aberration of American ideals, this national nightmare.

That Wednesday dawn was as quiet and clear as 9/11 and bore the same strangely serene sky. The night before I had sent the girls to bed early. The Titanic steerage mother sees no escape and tucks her children in for a few last minutes of rest and peace before the inevitable icy agony.

I wore funeral black to school for a week; the kind and wise social studies teacher stops me to say, smiling and hopeful, "All things change." I appreciate his solicitous words.

At home, there is sticking to routine, comforting the girls, giving them as much extra attention and gentleness as I can muster. Randy's been away in Mexico and New York for work -- he even missed celebrating the Cubs' win with us. That ecstasy the city enjoyed together feels so far away now. I am nostalgic for that golden age we enjoyed in the faraway innocent world of October.

When the panic rises, I deliberately walk through doorways, hoping for the anesthesia of forgetting, hoping to reset my train of thought. It works sometimes -- (try it!) but it's not so easy in the 3 a.m. dark. I make airline reservations, plans for Georgia, KC, DC. The Women's March is a bright spot on the horizon but I know the reservations are come from a desire for escape that cannot happen. In desperation I even message the Old Boyfriend, begging for a word of solace. He has none.

I try to console Nora, my little actress, with the story from Camelot about Wart asking Merlin what to do when he is sad.  I dig up T.H. White's original words.

“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

And so I go back to studying coal-rolling, wrestling with these words:

That’s what ethnonationalists mean when they talk about big government — not that government is exceeding some libertarian theorist’s notion of constitutional limits, but that government is on the wrong side, backing the wrong team.
From an ethnonationalist perspective, government overreach is when government tells people like me what to do. The proper role of government is to defend my rights and privileges against people like them.
I review novelist and scriptwriter Attica Locke, whose blunt words saved me on the way to work that Wednesday morning:

"...the incredible optimism I felt on the other side of Obama is dashed, that this really is a sense that this is a backlash to that. That there is a large segment of the population for whom having a black president was such an assault on their identity. That their reaction to it has no reason. It makes no logical sense...In the sense that the president is, like, the - a father of the nation or a man that we're meant to look up to. I think there's a large segment of white folks who could not take that, the idea that this person was above them in some way. I think it was very dislocating in terms of their sense of identity."

For now I see the red cap as a repudiation of our great president's skin. The scales fall from my eyes and I realize a sufficient amount of voters did not see Barack Obama's blackness as a culmination of our greatness and a step toward redeeming our country's original sin. "Great again" is not a slogan about a vague time somewhere between Eisenhower and Reagan; it means "a black man ruined our country." 

Ta-Nehisi Coates will speak at the convention on Saturday. I read Between the World and Me on the plane. Its poetry is an antidote.

Downtown Atlanta is a city of glass pinnacles soaring over shabby smoky streets. From the Olympic park to CNN, the city seems 30 or so years past its heyday. But the bright green convention signs and the balmy morning are nice and so are all the friendly teacher faces, "Good morning," "Good morning!" and the first general session is "Authors as Advocates" although I haven't heard of any of them but it turns out G. Neri wrote Yummy, a graphic novel about poor sad Yummy Sandifer, murderer, murdered at 11 by fellow gang members that several of my students have read and Sharon Draper was Teacher of the Year in 1997 and now we're getting warmed up and I don't know when I started clapping, maybe my chai caffeine kicked in or maybe the few thousand of us in the auditorium needed to commiserate together and these panelists who were telling us that literature changes lives, that books save lives and telling their stories to back that shit up, maybe they weren't going to let us just commiserate, but activate us again, or if not again then for the first time and we're cheering for Jason Reynolds telling us to raise power out of the mundane and love literature that lets children be children and we're cheering Palestinian Ibtisam Barakat telling us over and over how to say her name until we all call it out and vow never to let the pronunciation of a child's name, first or last, be less important than that of our own. And Meg Medina reminds us that 56 million people in the US call themselves Latino and so the story she is writing is the American story. And on and on, to cheers and the teacher crowd yelling approval and Good Morning, Good Morning, welcome back, Hope and Inspiration and Courage.

But that was only the beginning. Chicago public school students performing their original, wrenching, beautiful, staccato hip hop poems. The Folger Library work-shopping fun Shakespeare activities for every kid: how many different ways can you say "O"? Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, the writer and illustrator of March, Representative John Lewis's three part account of the Civil Rights movement, still giddy over winning the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Cartoonist Nate Powell was especially moving when speaking of his artistic decisions about where to place the point of view when depicting violence and how the experience re-sensitized him after years of drawing brutality had done the opposite. Smokey Daniels, Kelly Gallager and Peggy Kittle, a teaching superstar trio, blowing us away with truths about speaking and listening skills in a conference where writing and reading take most of the real estate. 

And that session, to an adoring crowd (it really is like teacher-Lollapalooza here) had the greatest moment of the day, one that I'll be thinking about in the hard days to come. Peggy Kittle, whose joyous book Book Love, Developing Depth, Stamina and Passion in Adolescent Readers is full of infectious fun and great teaching ideas and success stories, ended her session with a video of Game of Throne's Jon Snow standing alone with his drawn sword in the face of an mounted attacking horde. Some of Peggy's New Hampshire students were in favor of arming her in the classroom -- the arms we were all given today were no less powerful, some "louder than a bomb," to quote one of the Chicago hip hoppers, but they will require our greatest skill to wield in the face of Ignorance and Want. Over the image of the warrior standing alone and to the driving strains of U2's paean to Dr. Martin Luther King, Peggy implored us to use our voices to empower all, in the name of love.