Culmination Address for the Class of 2016

Last year, after working with Lily, our school's speech and debate coach, I wrote a culmination speech for the class of 2015. We were using speech and debate guidelines and I like to model what I ask my students to do, so when we introduced the speaker competition this year, I started writing another sample. But I kept getting stuck. But when our eighth grade field day lined up with a shooting at UCLA landing my students and I in lockdown for hours, I sat down to write again.

I shared this with our speakers, and Lily paved the way for me to deliver this speech at our graduation. I wrote a graduation speech in 1988, when I graduated from eighth grade, but my speech wasn't chosen. This was my first opportunity to speak at a culmination and it was an honor to share the stage with our graduates.

To our students in the class of 2016,

I have been trying to write this letter to you for the last couple of months. I’ve started drafts, finished some, and even shared one with some of you, but here I am, once again, thinking about how to put our year into words.

What is the story of our year together?

At first I thought about writing about feminism, because this year more than any other, we have fierce young women who speak truth to power, and I have some young men who have learned about misogyny, privilege, and prejudice, and hopefully have thought about how to be advocates for justice. I thought about our study of refugees from World War II and the Vietnam War and the current refugee crisis. I thought about Black History Month and what you taught me about what it means to be an ally. And I thought about Harper Lee’s death and how with her passing we lost a mockingbird who used her voice to give us the story of Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus, Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson. I thought about all of the poetry you penned where so many of you found your voice leaving me in awe.

I am writing about all of this, but I’m also writing a new story because now we had field day together.

This year’s field day is a day I will always remember. It was a day when all the work we’ve done together diminished in the face of a crisis.

As we sat together in silence, I called each of your names, or I skimmed over your name
if you weren’t on the trip with us, and in the quiet of that room, where the tension was still thick with not knowing, I wanted to say your names over and over again. I wanted to see each and every one of you. I wanted to hold each of you close and tell you that you were safe, and that I loved you, and your family loved you. And even though I couldn’t say it with 100% certainty, I wanted to tell you everything would be okay.

Instead, I simply called your names and hoped.

But that night, after field day, from the safety of my home, I realized we have shared something: we have shared the space of fear and it reminded me of Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien who wrote about truth and storytelling in The Things They Carried. He wrote, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others.”

And I think that is why it has been so hard to tell the story of this year because there is so much we have carried together. It is many stories and many truths. We have mourned Johnny and Dally in The Outsiders, and Ha’s Papaya Tree in Inside Out and Back AgainIn To Kill A Mockingbird, we grieved for Tom Robinson and for Scout’s innocence as she stood on the Radley porch on Halloween night.

But more than just reading stories, we shared our own, in essays about poverty and taking a stand and in novels about friendship, family, immigration, and struggle. You have been funny, sentimental, ironic, and profound, and all of these stories have been ours.

Now we have a new story to tell. A shared story. And as each of you leaves for high school, college, and ... life, so many more stories will unfold for you: stories of perseverance and triumph, love and growth, and sometimes fear and death.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story, the only story. Stories matter. Many stories matter.”

So, as I send you off, as we read your names again, this time in a space of celebration, I hope you will tell your story. I hope you will share your truth. I hope you will share your many stories because your story matters. All of your stories matter.

I hope you will use the voice you found this year and that you will sing because the world needs to hear from you. You are our mockingbirds and the world needs your stories.

Tim O’Brien also says, “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, and hope that others might then dream it along with you.” Keep dreaming and your story will follow.


Mother's Day 2016

I only celebrated Mother's Day three times as a mother before my own mom passed away. This is my second without her. The missing persists daily, but feels even heavier on weekends like this. Here is a poem from this year's NaPoWriMo collection: The Equilibrium of Lost Change. It's inspired by the poem "Before" by Ada Limón about "the hazardous bliss before you know what you would miss." Enjoy...

by Ada Limón
No shoes and a glossy

red helmet, I rode

on the back of my dad’s

Harley at seven years old.

Before the divorce.

Before the new apartment.

Before the new marriage.

Before the apple tree.

Before the ceramics in the garbage.

Before the dog’s chain.

Before the koi were all eaten

by the crane. Before the road

between us, there was the road

beneath us, and I was just

big enough not to let go:

Henno Road, creek just below,

rough wind, chicken legs,

and I never knew survival

was like that. If you live,

you look back and beg

for it again, the hazardous

bliss before you know

what you would miss.

and here is my response... 


On my last night in your house
we argued about your happiness.
When you came to visit, I was
annoyed by your exhaustion

before I knew I was pregnant
before your surgery
before I came to understand a hospital bed
and how doctor’s rounds worked and final goodbyes.
before decisions were made 
and I learned about death
there was the mundane
and annoying:
the conflict that only matters
with the ones we love.


What I Learned from Black History Month This Year: Part III

Emerson held its Black History Month assembly on an early release day. I spent the early morning printing up the programs LaTrina designed and then the performers and I spent the rest of the morning rehearsing.

Things, of course, took longer than expected. Mics had to be set, audio uploaded, and not everyone got the chance to run-through their program onstage. But after the break, the students started filing into the auditorium and ready or not, it was time to begin.

We planned to start the assembly with everyone singing together. I wasn't sure how this would go off. We played the song as everyone took their seats, and once we were set to start, one of the MCs invited everyone to sing The Black National Anthem. There was a pause, and as the lyrics scrolled onto the screen, to my surprise, a chorus of voices rang out behind me. Students were really singing and they sounded so good I was tempted to keep the song going, but there was a program so we continued on.

LaTrina's son, Joshua, provided context for the assembly with his opening remarks followed by a powerful rendition of Common and John Legend's "Glory." The Tim Wise video clip from "White Like Me" elicited some uncomfortable laughter from the audience and I hoped this discomfort would help students begin to explore the ways race and privilege play parts in all of our lives.

The program unfolded, not without its glitches, but our students learned that Black History wasn't just about Martin Luther King Jr., or slavery. We explored The Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou's poetry, students' original poetry, music from "Hairspray," and introduced the Black Panther Party.

At the end, when one student still didn't understand why we needed a Black History Month assembly, one of the participants said if we didn't, all of the months would be for white history. I continued to hear about conversations unfolding in classrooms after the assembly. Students and I discussed take-aways from the program, about their need to further explore privilege, and learn more about The Black Panther Party. Other students said they were beginning to understand what it meant to be an ally and in the end, that was what I learned too. Being an ally isn't a given. It's something earned.


What I Learned from Black History Month This Year: Part II

There were a few moments when I was organizing this assembly that I thought to myself, "Why am I doing this? How did I end up being in charge of the Black History Month assembly?" I said it to colleagues and friends in the overwhelm of organizing students and culling resources.

One of the obvious answers was that I have a hard time saying no particularly when it's something important or when it's a "teachable moment."

But being in charge of this assembly also forced me to ask myself: "What is my relationship to Black History? What do I have to contribute and learn?"

I knew from long ago nights of watching Eyes on the Prize with my mom that Black History was part of American history, a history of oppression, resistance, and iconic moments. But I also wanted to be careful not to appropriate this powerful part of history. I could identify with Black History as an ally, but as a multiracial woman who could pass, I could not claim it as my own. I had to acknowledge my privilege as someone who had never felt obligated to do something for Black History Month.

My thinking started to shift. Instead of feeling resentful for being in charge of this assembly, I started to feel honored. I was organizing something incredibly important. My students and their families were trusting me to do something with this opportunity and as an ally, I had an obligation to rise to the occasion.

It was with this shift in thinking that I thought about what Emerson's diverse student population could contribute and learn. I wanted all students to feel like they could speak up, so I showed a few powerful spoken-word pieces and hoped students would feel inspired. Then, at the Speech and Debate tournament, I spoke with Latrina Reed, the parent who started it all, and we brainstormed how the event might come together.

Then, it was SuperBowl weekend. Beyonce released "Formation" and her halftime performance and the media's response reminded me of how much people didn't know about Black history and our shared history.

LaTrina and I met again, and we started to see an assembly that could teach and push our students: not just the performers, but the audience as well. We agreed to show pieces on white privilege and The Black Panther Party. The cheer coach helped her students learn choreography for "Formation" and the drama teacher helped with microphones, staging, and lights. And when I spoke with my students about the assembly they signed up. Students of all backgrounds agreed to a variety of levels of participation. Students signed up to emcee, sing, recite poetry, facts, biographies, and perform skits.

Before I knew it, we had prepared an assembly.

In my next post: Emerson's Black History Month Assembly and the conversations that followed.


What I Learned from Black History Month This Year: Part I

This past February was a tough one.
There was the loss of a couple of former colleagues at Emerson.
There was the exhaustion of these winter teaching months when spring seems so far away.
There was the prospect of a new job for David that made me question my own career choices.
There was a disturbing, hateful, and divisive presidential primary.
There was a heat wave hinting that our planet is doomed.
There was Black History Month.

In the past at Emerson, Black History Month was marked in a variety of ways. Mrs. Cowart would sing over the PA. Maybe Ms. Randall or Ms. Dawson would make announcements from a moment in Black history. I observed the month from the periphery, conducting my traditional President's Day lesson about our founding fathers and their roles as slave-owners.

But this year, a parent spoke to me early on about doing something to mark the month. Other teachers agreed to curricular lessons about Black scientists, artists, and mathematicians. At our charter board meeting at the start of the month, I proposed a Black History Month assembly, got it on the calendar and figured this committee of teachers could help make it happen. But as the month unfolded, rather than dedicating specific lessons to Black History Month, I was focused on To Kill A Mockingbird and helping our Speech and Debate team prepare for the up-coming tournament we were hosting. Teachers got busy, grades were due, parent conference night loomed, and Black History Month was pushed to the back of all our minds.

As the end of the month neared, I tried to envision how this assembly might look. Who would participate? What would the audience gain? After all, Emerson is a unique school. It is diverse like few schools are. There are Black kids, Latino kids, white kids, Persian kids, Asian kids and mixes of all of these backgrounds. There are kids whose families have been in Los Angeles for generations, and kids who arrived just this past week. So, what could we present at this Black History Month assembly that would educate and inspire and hopefully spur conversations? I wasn't sure, but what came together surprised me.

You can read all about it in my next post.


#ReadDiverseLit Post for "Book with a main character who is mixed race"

Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet. 1977, May 3, 6:30 in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. 

These are the first lines of Everything I Never Told Youa novel, by Celeste Ng. It's written in a shifting third person, a pov I don't read much, and tells the story of a missing (dead) high school girl. By hovering over the thoughts of her parents and siblings in this shifting, but close, third person, the reader sees events from many different perspectives. Ng writes lovely sentences and her plot kept me turning the pages.

What really set this book apart for me, though, is that it's the story of a mixed-race marriage and of mixed-race children. These are the kinds of books I write as a mixed author, but I haven't had the opportunity to read very many of them. Wait. I haven't read any novels like this. And the few books I have read are about the black/white mixed-race experience: The Color of Water, by James McBride, Caucasia by Danzy Senna, and Dreams of My Father by Barrack Obama.

Everything I Never Told You is a truly Asian-American novel, revealing some of the loneliness of what it is to be an outsider in small-town America, something I know quite well.

So, in addition to Everything I Never Told You and the books mentioned above, I have to recommend Through Eyes Like Mine and Overdue Apologies for people looking to read more about from mixed race characters. Apparently, there aren't too many book likes this out there!


#ReadDiverseLit Post: Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me

I took my time reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, Between the World and Me. From the opening pages, it reminded me of James Baldwin. Both writers challenge me to think through their pages, to consider their arguments, and see how their view of the world connects with my own. But the part of his book I couldn't stop thinking about, was the protection of the black body, of the value of the black body to our nation, and in particular how he describes his walk to school as a young man.

"When I was your age, each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not—all of which to say, I practiced the culture of the streets. [...] I do not long for those days. I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things. I think I felt that something out there [...] had robbed me of... what?"

The other evening, I rode my bike home from work. It was a little later than usual, so I was paying close attention to cars and bumps in the road that might sneak up on me in the darkness. The sun was setting and the cold, winter, LA sky, glowed brilliant shades of red and orange against bright and blue darkening to navy. Every time I looked up, I was met with a different version of this beauty and tried to smile in appreciation. I also couldn't help but think about Coates and the protection of the body. I relate to this as a woman, a small woman, and a small woman riding through LA traffic. Yet I still do not know what it is to hold the fear of violence as a black man in America like Coates describes. When I was young I walked home from school musing red cinder on asphalt or juniper pollen or ice under mostly blue skies. I recognize this privilege and hope more of America will pick up this important and timely book to explore how our experiences connect and differ. 

As part of the #ReadDiversLit challenge, this counts as a memoir or biography by a diverse author. This category has so many titles I love to read (and write) so here are a few books I recommend if you're looking to fulfill this part of the challenge:

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje: A nontraditional, beautifully rendered memoir of the author's family in Sri Lanka.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward: The unique structure of this memoir beautifully and brutally sheds light on the violence of growing up poor, black, and male in the American South.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Essays on pop culture and feminism from an intelligent Black voice.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin: Coates' letter to his son brought me right to Baldwin's letter to his nephew from this work.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Alex Haley and Malcolm X: This book was my introduction to the Civil Rights movement beyond Martin Luther King Jr.

Through Eyes Like Mine and Overdue Apologies by Noriko Nakada: The story my early childhood and middle school years from a multi-racial perspective.

Oh, and on my list to read in this category: Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow


#ReadDiverseLit Challenge

I'm always looking to diversify my reading list and today I stumbled upon Thien Kim's blog, From the Left to Write. She is offering up this great reading challenge for the year and I'm in. I'll let you know what I'm reading, make recommendations of favorites in each category and invite you to come along for the #ReadDiverseLit ride!

This is what Thien Kim has come up with and I'm excited to get started. Will post about what I'm reading now soon (hint: it's #10 on this list).

2016 Diversity Reading Challenge Checklist:
  1. Contemporary book with a person of color on the cover (set in present day)
  2. Historical fiction about marginalized group (due to race, ethnicity, gender, mental ability, physical ability)
  3. Book in which character suffers from mental illness
  4. Graphic novel featuring protagonists of color
  5. Book written by or about someone with spectrum disorder
  6. Romance novel with main character of color
  7. Book of poetry by LGBT writer
  8. Science fiction or fantasy with female main character of color
  9. Book in which a main character has a physical disability
  10. Memoir or biography by or about a diverse author
  11. Book with a main character who is mixed race
  12. Novel with an LGBT main character
What qualifies as a diverse book?
Diverse books include books about or written by (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.


The Only Three Books I Loved This Year

So, I only read/finished 10 books this year. I guess I was a little hungover from last year's 50 book challenge. I don't think 50 will ever be possible for me, but who knows. Maybe I'll go on another reading tear in 2016. These are the three books I loved this year:

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander  

This novel in verse kept me turning the pages like novels-in-verse should. A story of basketball and family, love and loss, I was invested in the characters that weren’t stereotypes even though they were basketball-playing twin boys.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay 

This collection of essays was a great way to restart my brain after it was taken over by sleep deprivation and all things maternal. Gay's conversational style makes every essay approachable and she writes about many things that I think about and write about: cultural appropriation in The Help, white privilege, feminism, sexual violence, and the internet. Mostly, her essays made me want to write essays about my multicultural feminist experience and how motherhood sharpened my perspectives on gender inequity and violence.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson  

I devoured this novel in about a week. It took me a minute to get into the hyperbole and magical realism that the narrators play with, but ended up really loving the story and the way time and one event were the hinge on which the story folded.