Friday, February 27, 2009

Me, a Role Model?

When I think about what my future kids might be like - in terms of their racial identity - if I were to marry a white woman, I often think back to a student of mine:

Three years ago, this student joined my school as a 6th grader, we'll call him "S." From appearances alone, he seemed white - light skin, blue-grey eyes, general "white" features. He hung out with all white kids, and he identified as white when it came up (which was seldom, because it seemed so obvious). However, I was surprised to learn that he was a quarter Japanese when he mentioned that his mother was half-Japanese during a conversation when students were talking about my racial/ethnic background.

S. and I established a pretty good relationship over the year, one of mutual respect (as far as that goes in middle school), and he seemed to trust me. So, one day, he comes up to me at the beginning of the school day to ask me what a word meant. I didn't understand when he said it, but it was clearly a vaguely Asian-sounding word, so I asked him where he had heard it. He said, "some gook said it to me on my way to school."

I had a little record-scratch moment, and I said, "Do you know what you just said?" And I saw this look of confusion on his face, as he realized that I wasn't so happy about it. But he didn't understand - he thought I was referring to the "Chinese" word he had asked me to translate. And so I found myself explaining to a quarter-Asian kid why he shouldn't refer to other Asian folks as "gooks."

And I thought to myself: that's how disconnected from his Asian identity this kid is. And that is how it would be for my kid. I thought this story would end there.

But it didn't. It's three years later now. S. still goes to my school, but he's an 8th grader now, about to head on to high school. We've know each other for three years, and I have watched him grow, and we have established a really positive relationship (he recently said he's going to be a math teacher when he's older). He's often been in classes where I've talked about race, and my own background, etc.

So - the other day, he's sitting at a table playing dominoes with a bunch of kids in class (dominoes is probably one of the best games for having kids practice basic math skills without the kids realizing it), and he jokes with one of his friends, "Hey - are you lonely at this table because you're the only black kid?"

The other kid laughs it off and S. says, "I'm just kidding. Besides, I'm the only Asian kid at the table. But I'm not alone, because - insert the CVT's real name - is here."

I didn't say anything. I was caught too off guard. At this point, I always have something to say when race comes up in class, but this time - nothing. I just looked at S. And thought back to three years ago. And smiled.

Because S. claimed his identity so casually - yet clearly - right in front of my eyes. He claimed an identity that is an overwhelming minority at the school I teach (and in the area where these kids live). He claimed the identity of a race that is commonly ridiculed and mocked by the kids and adults that he is exposed to regularly. And he did it proudly.

And I can't help but feel an extreme sense of satisfaction about that. I definitely can't claim sole responsibility for this change (I'd hope his mom played a major part), but I don't really think it's a coincidence, either. I feel that my presence and way of being in the classroom and willingness to talk about my own identity must have had some influence on him. I'd like to think that the respect I've earned from the kids I teach - while simultaneously proclaiming my Asian-ness - has made "Asian" less foreign to them. A little bit less "other." More acceptable.

Maybe even something for those few with Asian blood to be proud of.

I've tried my best to be a positive, conscious racial (and otherwise) role model for the kids, and I think I mostly achieve that.

But I never saw this coming. I never expected to see S. identify himself as "Asian." And I never would have expected those around him to accept that so easily (not one kid said, "no you aren't" or "what are you talking about?").

Which makes me have to ask the question: if that's what happened with one of my students, what would it be like for my own kid?

Sometimes the world changes, and it starts like any other day.

Of course, this is by no means the end-all, be-all moment. He might change his mind in the future. He might never claim his Asian-ness outside of my classroom. My students probably think of me as "the exception" to the "Asian rules." Or maybe I reinforce them, somehow.

Be that as it may - I got to see a kid and his relationship to his own racial identity change (in what I believe to be a positive way). And I played a role in it. And no matter what else happens, that fact remains.

And it feels good.

And it gives me some hope for my kids (if they ever exist) - no matter the background of their mother.

And that's kind of reassuring.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On a Moment of Transition

So, for a second there, I was re-posting "lighter" posts from my old blog, one I wrote mostly for entertainment purposes. Since I've been slow on the new posts lately, I thought I'd post another one. This one isn't one of my more entertaining ones, but it pretty much pinpoints the moment when I decided to stop blogging to "entertain," and decided it was time to just start sharing my real thoughts.

(The little gimmick here is that it's written as a letter, so you must substitute all the "yous" with the subject of the post to make it make sense . . . )

This was posted last January:

Dear What I Really Think,

Before I even start writing this letter to you, What I Really Think, I just want to warn you that it's not going to be particularly funny. Yeah sure, I'm a hilarious guy, so some of it might be accidentally hilarious - I just can't help it sometimes - but that won't be the over-arching theme of this letter. Just wanted to give you a heads-up on that one, What I Really Think. Although you should have probably already known that. And are probably pretty used to non-hilariousness.

Right. In my letters, I don't really censor myself (outside of keeping my language mostly clean). I choose something to write to, and then I let it know exactly you about it. I'll rip on it a little bit, or shamelessly worship it, and then thank it for some sort of life lesson at the end. That's how it usually goes. And it's all pretty much you about the whole matter. No making things up here. I'm not so into that.

However, in CHOOSING the concept or thing to write my letters to, I DO end up holding back a bit. I'm not really going to choose to write a letter to something that I get particularly angry about (in a real way). Or sad about. Or other such strong emotions. Why is that?

Well, first and foremost - I have a Readership to entertain. If I was to tell them you about every major issue in the world, I would likely lose them quite quickly. Because it's great to have strong feelings about things, but it's quite another thing altogether to make other people share in those strong feelings on a regular basis. I have seen far too many blogs in which the blog-runner writes all sorts of heart-felt, emotional tirades about injustice and world issues and the like - only for me to stop reading about halfway because I get tired of it. There's a REASON most people only have a few close friends with whom they share their intimate secrets - because only a few people really want to hear it. And I'd even argue that maybe even less than that (most times).

Second, most of that sort of writing ends up coming off as whiny, melodramatic, and/or pretentious when spit profusely on a regular basis. None of us listen to the "God Guy" who yells at people in public parks about how they're going to Hell. I, for one, think it's likely true for most of them, but I STILL ignore him. And that's because nobody really wants to listen to a man (or woman) on a soapbox for more than about five minutes uninterrupted. People are made to enjoy frivolous pursuits that keep our minds OFF all those serious issues out there, so the last thing we want to do with our free time is get reminded of it all. Too much of that kind of writing starts to feel like reading somebody's diary, and that just feels creepy and a little bit sad.

Third, it's not much of a writing challenge. It's easy to spit emotions into a vat and call it "writing." Anybody can write "Dear World Hunger" and come off feeling like a Poet Laureate because nobody is going to dare critique that with anything but an over-arching, "That's deep." Or - even worse - "I KNOW, Man!!! That just SUCKS!!!" It's more difficult to try to write something entertaining on a lighter level while still giving a little bit of insight into you, What I Really Think. Deep writing - if done right - is meant more for lyrics and novels, in my opinion.

Fourth, I don't feel up to it. Most of my Readership knows me. And therefore most know that I don't particularly like to share the innermost workings of the CVT on a large-scale level with people that matter. I want to say it face-to-face, so I can read the reaction in somebody's face. If I'm going to say something about you on a serious level, I am not about to give the person I'm sharing that with an opportunity to ignore it and pretend that it didn't happen. I'm obnoxious like that. If I'm going to spit fire, I want to be able to see the look on the face of the person I singed.

And finally - because it's scary to share you with people whose opinions that matter because they might not like it. And that is sucky.

So why did I feel the need to address you in this letter, What I Really Think? Because I've been distracted from writing letters recently because I've been busy doing other things in which I share you. Writing music. Having conversations with people. Doing my job and planning for it. And it seemed odd that that should keep me from writing in this. That it should make it hard for me to come up with a "good" addressee for my letters. Because it would seem natural that I should just write to whichever concept was occupying my mind at the time. But when that concept had something to do with you, What I Really Think, I would balk.

Odd, and yet not odd at all (due to the previously-stated five reasons). And writing this letter isn't going to really change all that. Just thought it was a good idea to address it. And that's you about that.

All that said, I still thank you, What I Really Think, for all the creative inspiration you give me and all the great conversations I've been having lately. It's been grand.

Really Thinking About Eating Some Dried Mango Slices,

Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Sitting at the Same Table

The photo above is the best I could do to illustrate this post. I spent about a half hour searching for an image that showed what I was going to talk about - with little luck. Because what I'm about to convey is - obviously - very uncommon.

The other day, I was hanging out with my kids at lunch, munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (with apricot jelly - that's my lunch almost every day at school) and watching them interact. I looked around at the various clumps of kids talking and messing with each other, and something seemed strange.

They were laughing and playing with their food - nothing odd there. The girls and boys were insulting each other while simultaneously trying to find a reason to touch each other - perfectly natural.

So what was up?

OH! The groups weren't separated by race!


Now, a while back, I wrote a post (On Kids and Race) about the kids self-segregating themselves by race in the classroom and at lunch (when they had a choice of seats). Basically, I argued that that wasn't such a bad thing - inherently - and that it reflected true diversity in the fact that there were enough of each race for kids to actually do that. I said that it was all about being comfortable and finding security, and so it was good that the kids were able to find that (and that that's just how things fall out).

But, suddenly (probably not so suddenly, but that's how I noticed it), we're two-thirds through the school year, and the kids are sitting in groups that are all mixed up, racially.

So now, I have to ask - how did THAT happen?! After my post about how self-segregation is natural and happens everywhere, how can I explain how it stopped happening in our school?

The truth? It didn't.

That's right - even though all the kids are sitting in little photo-op racially-diverse groups at lunch, self-segregation has not stopped happening.

Instead, it's just the characteristics that the kids are self-segregating for have changed.

We're a small school (60 students total in our student body). We've kept our main group (probably about 40 kids) largely intact through the year (kids come and go all the time with us, but we've been able to retain more this year). We are a relationship-based program, so we are constantly talking about building our school community, kids sit down with each other and talk out their conflicts (it's hard to avoid connection when you're two middle school kids explaining why you're angry and sharing other feelings with each other). Our kids constantly talk about our school as a family (with the positives and negatives that come from that).

And so they know each other pretty well, now. They started by dividing themselves up by race for immediate comfort and security, but - due to the way we do things, combined with the small population - they couldn't avoid learning about each other. They couldn't avoid interacting with each other. And so they couldn't avoid finding common ground with each other. And, subsequently - they couldn't avoid making friends with folks outside of their respective races.

It's a beautiful little social experiment tied up in a neat little bow.

But does this all mean that there aren't cliques? Of course not. Does it mean that the kids "all just get along"? No. It just means that tensions and divisions drawn along racial lines are few and far between.

It's noticeable in behavior, as well. Earlier in the year, the kids of color who had trouble with our white teachers would often fall back on race as an issue and explanation for why they had trouble in those classes (to be honest, I think those were actually pretty accurate assessments); but now, the kids are more likely to find specific reasons and actions for the disconnect, without necessarily tying them to race.*

I don't hear the students lumping a bunch of students together by race in explanations of who they have problems with - race is no longer the unifier, and so they are much less likely to group or stereotype by race.

And these are all HUGE. Middle school kids are always going to have conflicts. They're always going to take out their frustrations on somebody else, at times (especially kids like the ones I work with, who have plenty of valid reasons to be frustrated). But if they have removed the lens of race as a means to focus on who to blame or who to be angry at, that's an incredibly important thing.

And it all goes to show that all it really takes is exposure. Science has proven this time and again, but nobody seems to follow through on acting on that. If kids (and adults) just had to work with large numbers of folks of another race (or many other races) on a regular basis over an extended period of time, their inherent prejudices and stereotypes would fade. Period.

The key being large numbers of another race. White folks like to talk about their (one or two) "black friends" as proof of their lack of prejudice - while living out a lie. The reason that is possible? Because those few black (or other raced) friends are only kept in mind as the exception. It takes much larger numbers - the true diversity I have mentioned before - to change rules (that's just how the human mind works).

Same thing for every other race or minority group. Enmity and anger and blame and misunderstanding attached to an entire group based on race cannot go away (or at least be handled reasonably) without full, consistent exposure to other groups.

Which makes me always think of my solution to the problems of race in this country: mandatory social service. At age 18, everybody enters a two-year social service program that entails moving to another state and living and working with a group of other young people of all different races and backgrounds. It would broaden folks' life experiences, improve our infrastructure (without using prisoners as slave-labor, but that's another story), and expose everybody in this f-ing country to people unlike themselves. Cause them to form bonds with people that don't look like them. And make it so much more likely that general empathy and understanding would start seeping into how people in this country dealt with each other on a regular basis.

And I know what a lot you are thinking - "like that would change anything - everybody would just self-segregate by race and background right off the bat, which would increase tensions." And you'd be right - at the beginning. But two years is a long time (in some ways). Enough to put folks in positions - time and again - to rely on the people from other backgrounds. To get to know those from other backgrounds. And, eventually (as with my school), to become friends with those from other backgrounds. And how beautiful would that be?

It won't ever happen, of course. But it would work. Maybe when I become the third mixed-race president . . .

*A quick note here - I really do think that race is a major reason for why the teachers weren't able to connect fully with those students (I think that's our biggest failure as a program, our lack of true diversity in experience and understanding by staff, in general). By no means were the kids playing the "race card." However, it's still very important that the kids are now able to specify exactly what things are happening that they have difficulty with, as opposed to extrapolating it out to simply a matter of race and leaving it at that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On Bad Timing for a Good Thing

So - if you've been reading this blog (somewhat) regularly, you know that I'm pretty frustrated with the education system these days. I find it misguided, often irrelevant, and completely unequal in the opportunities it offers kids based on class and race (and gender, I should add).

As a result, I've been pondering a break. With this frustration on me, with my seeming inability to do some inspired math teaching, it seemed like a good time to make a move. I've known for a long time that I need to spend some real time in China to finally figure out what that side of my blood all means to me, but things keep coming up. So I decided that - next Fall/Winter - no matter what, I was going to make that trip, and I wasn't about to let anything get in my way.

Which seemed perfect, since I was feeling a little burnt, anyway. So I gave word to my boss and my co-workers, and I started making plans. For the last few months, I've been slowly setting up my departure from this country, and it seemed like everything was falling into place to make that the best choice.

And then, today, something happened. I sat down with my boss (we have scheduled one-on-one meetings every two weeks or so) and started talking about improvements we could make to our school's structure and way of doing things to best meet our kids' (and our staffs', really) needs. I talked - again - about my frustration with the State math standards. How I felt they kept me from doing my best teaching. How my elective classes (Psychology and Music Production) have been so damn FUN and educational and positive for the kids (and me). How I wished there was a way I could do the same for my math classes.

And none of that was new, really. I've had this conversation before. And, basically, they ended up with me and my boss agreeing that I just wasn't as passionate about math, and so I didn't spend the time making it as dynamic and empowering as my elective classes. That's where it would have ended any other today.

But today . . . I don't know what happened. But right when I would have normally hit that wall I've hit so often this year (of "f-ing system sucks, no way around it, f--- math"), I kept right on going to a SOLUTION. Inspiration struck me right between the eyes, and I couldn't stop talking. I started talking about how I could totally restructure the math curriculum to stop even looking like a math class. How I could basically turn it all into faux-electives that just so happened to teach all the hard math skills I've been trying to teach - but in a more hands-on, relevant way to the kids.

My boss mentioned me not coming back, and I said, "yeah . . ."

But I couldn't stop. The meeting ended, and I ran to my room, sat down at my desk with a pencil and the state math standards, and I drew out an outline of my restructured math curriculum. Suddenly, "Math" had turned into a year-long project divided into three large pieces - from start to finish, the kids were going to come up with a new product to market, test "public interest" through surveys, design a corporate office building and product, budget and make projections on earnings and market shares . . . And I incorporated almost every damn state standard into the whole deal.

The kids were going to take control over their learning, be creative, while learning hard math skills and how to apply them to real problems. Holy sh--!!! It's the freaking Holy Grail of middle school math teachers. And it just came to me like a bolt from the blue . . .

A few months before I've decided to leave the teaching field for a while.

A few months before I've decided to leave the teaching field for a while. Not enough time to implement anything at all.

And, suddenly, I'm thinking about coming back for "one more year."

But I can't - because I promised myself I wouldn't let anything stop me from making this trip. Because I know there will always be some reason to delay it for another year. Every year will bring me closer to one commitment or another that will keep me from ever being able to go. So I have to go now.

But I just came up with something so beautiful . . . And what if I never end up implementing it? What if my trip to China changes the trajectory of my life and this inspiration and (possibly) brilliant idea never makes it out to the world? Because that's how things work - I know too well.

Why did this have to happen now!? Why not a year ago? Why not in two years?

So exciting and yet so disheartening at the same time. I'm going to have to do some serious soul-searching now, and I'd rather not.

I honestly believe "everything happens for a reason," so I'll find the reason in all of this, and it should all end up how it ought to - but that doesn't make it any less beautifully frustrating right now. Not at all.

Such bad timing for such a good thing to happen . . .

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On Sports as Art

Since my last post touched on the ugly side of competitive sports (giving folks all sorts of fodder for the "violence" of football, specifically), I figured it was long past due to finish this post on Sports as Art:

I know a lot of "artists." I'm friends with published poets and produced musicians. My roommate is a professional dance and drumming instructor. I work at a summer arts camp, and am subsequently friends with successful photographers, filmmakers, dance choreographers, and painters.

In my personal life, art plays a major (maybe the major) role: I write, I create original music, I draw and dabble with painting. I am interested in dance, and I try to learn about every genre of music. Art is very important.

And yet, somehow, in all of this, one major form of art remains unmentioned. In my many conversations with artist friends and the artistically-inclined, one huge section of artistic endeavor is not only unmentioned, but noted with contempt: athletics. Competitive sports.

At this point, my readers are probably feeling similar contempt - how are sports a part of the artistic family? Sports are overly-competitive, overly-macho, and violent. It is insulting to think of sports as the same as art -right?

Obviously, I disagree. So much so as to say that it's insulting and degrading for "artistic" people to so readily dismiss athletics, their value, and their aesthetic beauty.

For those who truly understand sports and immerse themselves in it, true grace on par with the most well-known dancer is seen every game. Athletes perfect their movements and body control just as much as dancers. In fact, athletes must be more perfect, due to the unpredictable nature of their art, and the need to constantly adjust and improvise based on the actions of the other artists on the field (or court, or rink, or whatever). Those who cannot see this are no different than folks who can't see anything more than a bunch of colored dots on a canvas by Matisse. It takes exposure and understanding to appreciate the subtle beauties that most people miss. Symmetry and synchronized movements can be derived from every play - just as with a dance troupe's performance.

On top of the physical beauty of the games is the mental aspect. Athletes hone their minds to be able to read the slight muscle twitches and movements of their opponents, so they can adjust accordingly. They must strategize and think steps ahead in the same way as a chess master. They do one thing at the beginning of a game to set up their opponent for a play or move not to be performed until an hour later. They see the way the person across from them orients their bodies, and they know what they are about to do next.

Participants in sports know that playing can put them in "the zone" (or a state of "flow" as eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it) - where focus is so perfect that time slows down, everything else disappears, and we achieve almost supernatural abilities to read other people. This is the exact same state achieved in the midst of intense artistic creation (I should know, as the only comparable state to how I feel when making music comes on the football field). Hunger, sadness, pain - all are swept aside during the minutes (or hours) of flow. It's a state of mental clarity that can only be equated with meditation - and its positive mental effects are the same.

And those who challenge the "overly-competitive" nature of sports are fooling themselves - do anybody but the most "competitive" artists succeed? Can anybody be a successful artist? Of course not. To reach mastery, you must be driven, and motivated, and work and practice all the time. And, in the end, the only way to achieve "greatness" is to be "better than" so many others. And art hardly teaches people to work well with others and recognize the inherent value of different skill sets and different levels of contribution to an overall goal.

Speaking of work, traditional art and sports echo each other in this way: innate artistic and athletic ability are often assumed of the most successful in either field. And yet, none of those people would ever claim that they didn't work their asses off, practicing constantly, to reach their goals. Those people know better than anybody else that you can always get better - they are the ones who didn't give up with recognition of that fact.

And violence? Have the sport-haters ever looked at, or listened to, the greatest works of art? Rembrandt's "Anatomical Lecture." Francisco de Goya's paintings ("Cronos Devouring his Children," for one). Symphonies based on battles and wars. East of Eden and a million other great literary works with violent depictions. The strongest emotions bring on the most beautiful art, and there is a definite beauty to the controlled physical aspects of many sports.

Folks will argue that the traditional arts use violent depictions to demonstrate their wrongness - but, as a football player, I was always taught proper technique so I didn't hurt myself or other people. When somebody gets hurt on the field, we take a knee out of respect, and we applaud their health when they get up. Never is it about hurting another person. People get physically hurt, of course, but it is just as accidental as the mental pain that graphic depictions in art can (and do) readily cause.

Creative expression? Ever know the feeling of pulling off the perfect play? Emotional expression? You should have been watching Bret Favre play the week his father died. Or teams dedicating a game to a teammate. Some of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.

So why do I feel this need to defend competitive sports in comparison to "art"? And why am I even writing about it on a race-focused blog?

Because the disparate opinions on "the arts" and "sports" are absolutely based on social constructions of race and class.

Who are the most famous painters in the world? Composers? Photographers? Authors?

People's personal opinions will differ, so let's adjust that question: what is the race of the most famous "artists" in the world?

Ooh . . . starting to see where I'm headed with this?

If not, here's another question: what is the race of the most famous professional athletes in the world?

I'll give you a hint - the majority of those answering the former question are very likely white. A large proportion of those answering the latter are probably African-American (or other minority races).

So I ask again - why do people have such differing opinions on "the arts" and "sports"? When people talk about the "savagery" or "violence" of a sport like football, what sub-conscious associations are going along with that? When they talk about the "beauty" and "perfection" of a master painter's work, what associations go along with that? When people consider art more "important" than sports, what social constructs are they upholding?

I work at an arts camp in the summer, and I don't know how long I've battled with the artists about having more physical activity at camp. Not just for the health of the campers, but for the messaging we give them if we denigrate physical competitions at the expense of sports. Because, for our kids of color, there are no (or very few) role models that reflect them in the art world. But there are many in the sports world. So when we tell them (flat-out or more subtly) that "art" is more important and that sports are frivolous or unimportant - what are we telling them about their role models? What are we telling them about the most successful people that look like them?

And I'm tired of it. Because, as an artist who loves sports, I see the value and importance in both. And I see how they are one and the same. And it fills me with frustration and anger when otherwise-well-meaning artists start downplaying sports when interacting with kids of color. Or when youth workers, who claim to value their kids' cultures and that they are "open-minded," do not even put in the slightest attempt to give sports respect or value in this world.

And I'll tell you - sports (football, specifically) gave me an outlet as a kid that did more for me than any art could at the time. Sports gave me confidence that art never could. And sports kept me out of trouble in a way that dabbling in art absolutely could not. It also gave me role models who worked hard and gave back to their community. My coaches were mentors and teachers. The artists I knew/heard of? They all did drugs, drank too much, womanized (or the female equivalent), and died at a young age.

So which is more valuable? These days, they have leveled out more. Now, I am as likely to immerse myself in expression through music and writing as on the playing field. And that's how it should be - equal. And important. Because, when it comes down to it - there is no difference.

Art. Sports. One and the same. And supremely important in this world.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

On Escalation and Fear

Today, I dipped a toe in the waters that my students swim in every day. And, luckily for me, I was able to quickly pull it back out.

I play football every Sunday in a competitive (but recreational) flag football league. No pads, but there is full contact outside of tackling (which is what the flags are for). The competition level is relatively high (a number of semi-pro football players, ex-college athletes, some lower-level pro), but it's a recreational league. For fun. And I usually have quite a lot of fun playing (a lot of exercise, get out a bit of aggression safely and legally, with guys I enjoy playing with).

Of course, due to the fact that it's competitive and there is contact, people get a little too serious, sometimes. Tempers flare, people run their mouths - there's an occasional (but brief) fight. Of course, it's never actually the best players that run their mouths - it's the players that aren't as good but get frustrated and compensate with their mouths.

So (yeah, I'm going to stroke my own ego a minute) I don't talk trash. I don't get into it with other players. I'm the first to call out a good play by my opponent, and apologize if I get overly-aggressive. And I'm a good player, so opponents respect my abilities. As a result, I never have problems with players on the teams we play against, even if some of my teammates end up getting into it (which always pisses me off). In fact, I generally end up being asked to play with a lot of different teams (and do so, occasionally) because of my abilities and tendency to get along with folks.

But not today.

I'll try to keep the football-speak brief, but we played a team today that had one star player. Really quick, good hands, he was tearing us up a bit. So I ended up playing up on him (when I was on defense) and getting physical (putting my hands on, bumping - all legit football technique) to limit his effectiveness. And it worked. Problem was, he wasn't so happy about it, so he started running his mouth. Complaining about me holding him (I wasn't, really - again, everything perfectly legit within real football technique; I hate cheaters and dirty players more than the ones that talk mess) and getting in my face about it.

I try to calm him down. I say that I'm just playing defense, not trying to play dirty, it's all good, so just chill the f--- out. But he's not having it. Suddenly, instead of playing his game, he's trying to cheap-shot me while telling me "it's on, now - all game long." I tell him, cool. Because, in all actuality, there's nothing sweeter as a defensive player than when you can get the best player on the team to totally lose his focus and be off his game like that (we ended up killing them, as a result).

So our offense gets the ball, and I head to the sideline. My new friend (we'll call him "Mouth") is waiting for me, and continues to run his mouth about how it's on and he's going to be all over me, etc. I'm done with being friendly about it, so I just say, "go ahead," and smile. I'm not too worried about it (it's pretty easy to spot the "all talk" guy and somebody who is going to follow through; not to mention the reason he's running his mouth is because I'm dominating him, physically).

That should be that, right?

Except one of my teammates (we'll call him "P") sidles up to me and, with his back to Mouth, says, "You want me to take care of this? I've got something in the trunk for him if you want . . ."

I look in P's eyes, and he's stone-cold serious. So I tell him, "No, we're good. We're just going to keep it on the field." P says okay, and that's that, for him.

But the Mouth heard. And he suddenly gets real quiet. For the rest of the game, he doesn't say a word to me, doesn't touch me or do anything else. He ends up pulling himself out of the game, being the only one who doesn't shake hands when it's over, and he leaves before we're off the field.

And I never thought I'd find myself in a situation like that. I got in a couple fights in high school, but they were the "slap at each other and end up rolling around on the ground" kind of fights that ended quick and led to nothing else. I never thought I'd end up (especially at my age) in a spot where that next-level kind of violence was so close by. I know some of the guys I play with mix it up a bit, but I didn't intend to be part of it.

And, luckily for all of us, I didn't want it to be bigger. But, still, as I walked out into the parking lot (alone, because I was rushing to my next game), I couldn't help but keep my eyes peeled to see if something more was going to happen.

Because the Mouth was straight scared (and with good reason). And you never know how fear is going to cause somebody to react - what kind of stupid decisions it can lead to.

And I started thinking of the kids I work with. And what if this had happened in their world? What if Mouth was somebody that lived around me? Somebody I knew I'd run into on a regular basis? What if he was so scared of the next time he ran into me (or P, more likely) that he decided he needed to do something? So he gets his homies, and next time we run into each other . . . ?

Or what if I felt the need to "take care of it" worrying about what he was going to do? What if my friends or family was telling me I couldn't just let it be? Constant pressure, constant fear, constant escalation from the little and stupid into the dead serious.

That's the world my kids live in. That's why a 16 year-old kid (who used to go to our school) was shot in the face about a month ago - by some 30 year-olds. That's why a 15 year-old kid (one I've known well for the last three years - a smart, charming, well-meaning kid) got locked up for the next 3 years on a weapons charge about a week later.

When fear and a general lack of safety are given, how are people going to react? How are kids going to react?

It's that same kind of escalation and fear that causes outsider kids to go shoot up their high schools (or colleges).

It's that same escalation and fear that leads to people blowing themselves up to kill our soldiers (or citizens).

It's that same escalation and fear that leads to our soldiers returning the favor to other countries' citizens a thousand-fold.

And I am so glad of my privilege in that I can mostly avoid the direct costs of that kind of fear and escalation. I don't walk down the street with the itchy feeling of a target painted on my back. I don't live in fear of the people around me. I don't feel the need to "prove myself" or "protect myself" - because I feel safe. And that kind of safety is something I take for granted all the time.

But, today, that little tiny taste of the other side is giving me some appreciation for that safety. It makes me appreciate the safety that let me grow up where and how I did. The safety that let me let a stupid conflict while playing a game remain just that - and not a permanent regret.

And it makes me wonder how things can change. Because, ultimately, putting people in jail doesn't do a damn thing (in the case of kids I know, it just guarantees they'll come out as criminals). Increasing the police presence and profiling doesn't help. Because none of that takes away the fear (most often, it just escalates it). And, as long as the fear remains - and the feeling of safety stays away - things are not going to get better.

So how can we take away the fear?

Give kids (and adults) alternatives. Jobs. Drastically improved education. Representation. True power. Make them believe that they don't need to be afraid all the time, that they do have some control, and the rest will take care of itself.

So easy to say . . .

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On Hiatus

February is a crazy month, teaching-wise, and just in general living here in Portland, so I'm going to be taking a short break from writing (gotta save my mental energy a bit). Sorry to my regular readers, but I'll be back at it (relatively) soon.