Sunday, April 19, 2009

On "The Class (Entre les Murs)"

So - you've got this white teacher, right? And he's teaching at an urban school with a diverse population of students. A lot of these students come from poverty and rough backgrounds, a number of them immigrants. He's teaching Language Arts, so they end up doing a self-portrait about themselves. Things are learned.

We've most definitely heard this story before, right? We've seen this movie - "Freedom Writers," "Dangerous Minds" (they're always Language Arts teachers, no?). White savior comes in and - in their first year of teaching - they "save" all these kids of color who aren't capable of saving themselves. We've seen it.

But what we have not seen is "The Class." It's set up so much like these other films, but it's so very different. The first "why"? Probably because it's not an American film. It's French. When Mr. Marin (the teacher in the film) teaches Language Arts, it's called "French." And when François Bégaudeau (the actor and writer and once-teacher) wrote this screenplay, he had no intention of following the b.s. American formula - and in so doing he created something so incredibly original simply because it was real.

This is not a movie for good-feelings. It won't uplift you in the end. There are no answered questions or pat morality tales. The movie ends as murky and frustrating and awkward as it begins - and that is its brilliance. Because - in that - it perfectly mirrors the actual teaching profession.

The movie starts on the first day of school with Mr. Marin (in his fourth year of teaching) and ends on the last day. There is not a single scene played out outside the walls of the school (hence the French name, "Entre les Murs," which means, "Between the Walls"). It's semi-documentary style let's us see exactly what the students and teachers see: a class full of kids from a variety of backgrounds, sometimes learning, often challenging. We get hints of what's going on in their lives, but we do not have the luxury of trite peeks into their home-lives, we are left only with hints - just as in real life.

And the teacher? We see him in staff meetings, as the teachers bicker with each other over how to "punish" the kids effectively. We watch one teacher melt down in frustration in the staff break room. We see Mr. Marin leave late at night, fatigued and worn-down. And then we see the next day of class. Even for Mr. Marin, there is no home-life, no romantic interest down the hall. Nothing to show us his outside world that the students wouldn't know about.

And that's the beauty. It perfectly captures the classroom experience. This strange world where people who don't know each other outside of a very artificial setting share their lives with looks, and shouts, and closing down. People who would never connect in the outside world, who don't understand each other's cultures or perspectives. Sometimes, beautiful things happen. Sometimes, tragedy. Both sides learn from each other (arguably, more so the teacher from the students in these types of situations than the other way around). Nobody leaves fully satisfied.

Mr. Marin screws up. A lot. But he also has strong moments. He cares, but he doesn't understand (even four years in - just like most teachers). He stereotypes his students. He picks on some of them (perhaps unknowingly - perhaps not). He tries his damnedest to do his job under ridiculous circumstances. And the kids? The same. They try. They question. They don't understand, either.

Finally, a film about teaching that doesn't try to glorify. That brings up all the questions and gives no answers. There is no "saving" kids. Teachers come from a different world and judge without understanding - and it frustrates everybody involved. There is so much opposition (from the top on down), that it's amazing that anything positive happens. It only makes sense that a movie like this could only have been written by - and acted by - a former teacher. And I don't know the background behind the actors that play the students - but they are absolutely brilliant. It seemed so real, even though I knew it wasn't a documentary, I often questioned that fact.

This movie is painful on a lot of levels. It brings up issues of class, and race, and sexism without carefully tying off any loose ends. It's raw. And that rawness is what makes it so worth seeing. You want to get a real glimpse into the world of public-school teaching in America? Watch this French film.

And that's the only problem with the movie. That people who do not know any better will watch this and take it as just that: a French film. Allowing the fact of its origin to keep them from understanding its absolute truth to an American education system. I can already imagine all those Freedom-Fry lovin' patriots dismissing the veracity of this film because - Americans wouldn't do that. Trying to think that the system and mentality is different (when it is - at least from what I saw in this film - exactly the same).

And then they'll go back to watching "Dangerous Minds" and think about teaching Language Arts.

When they should be taking this lesson - think twice about teaching. You're probably not going to be good at it. Because, in this system, so few people are.*

* I'll be following up on that statement in a post about "the Myth of Good Teaching" soon.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Revolutionaries and Politicians

I was just reading myself some Racialicious, and there was an article that referenced people's disappointment in Obama's lack of obvious measures to help African-Americans. Now, this is nothing new, but it again made me think on something I've been meaning to write about for a long time (but just never seemed to get to).

This is the difference between revolutionaries and politicians.

In brief, a revolutionary is somebody who - through passionate, radical action - sparks drastic change. Most often, we associate revolutionaries with war, of course (because they are generally catalysts for revolution, hence the word). But revolutionaries aren't always fighters. They can be present in times of martial peace. Because, to me - revolutionaries are folks who spark change through non-political means. Revolutionaries can be people like the American Civil Rights leaders of the 60s, who sparked change through non-compliance with racist laws. They can be folks who spark grassroots movements to change systems that governing bodies can't or won't change.

Politicians, on the other hand, work through government. These are literal politicians who run for elected office, but they can also be lobbyists and other folks who drive their desires through the hoops and bureaucracy that is the government machine. These people also bring about change, but more subtly. They work through compromise and diplomacy, and an attempt to establish a middle ground.

Both sides can bring about just change. Both sides can bring about destruction and injustice. They just have different mentalities and methods in doing so.

And the big problem people already disappointed by Obama have is that they mistook him for a revolutionary. His charisma and speaking ability conveyed passion to his listeners, and they mistook their own inspired passion as that of revolution. His historic rise to the White House was a symbol of change that people mistook for a step towards revolution. These folks got caught up in the wave and thought they had voted a revolutionary into the White House. And now - as they start to realize that sweeping reforms are not forthcoming, they are disappointed.

But the key here is that they voted Obama into office. Revolutionaries do not get voted in (until after their side of the revolution has prevailed, at least). Revolutionaries put themselves into power. Through acts of war or a passionate motivation of the people. Obama got the vote.

And, to do so, he had to be a politician. He didn't stomp and call out all the ills of this country. He didn't condemn its sick history. He didn't demand justice. He ran the middle ground. He noted this country's past, then said how great it had become. He called out his predecessor's mistakes, but never said he'd pull our armies out of foreign lands. He made use of his mixed heritage to say how white folks and black folks and everyone else walk the same road, more or less. He compromised. Because that's what you do, as a politician. That's how you get elected. That's how you bring about slow and steady change within our governmental system, and within the parameters of the law (just or otherwise).

And he's not going to stop being a politician now that he's in. He's part of the machine - there's no override switch once you're in. And so you will NOT see Obama suddenly call attention to race and disparities in this country - because a politician can't do that and survive.

Although, neither can a revolutionary.

The photo above is of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He served that role for less than a year before he was murdered (with Belgian and US CIA complicity). His newly-independent country fell into chaos at around the same time (more or less as he got himself elected), and it has probably been one of the most war-torn, historically, nations in all the world since.

And the question is: how did that happen? Because it's widely accepted that Lumumba was an amazing man. Passionate, brilliant, and - most importantly for a revolutionary - charismatic. His fire and determination fueled his country's fight for independence from Belgian -and helped them prevail. He sparked drastic change. His vision for the future inspired other African nations to fight for their own independence and to try to work together to rebuild.

And yet - as his government tried to settle in, he already had his army mutinying, and multiple rivals tearing the people apart. The UN swept in, the CIA chose their best interests, and Lumumba was murdered. And the country hasn't seen real hope since.

And that's the problem with revolutionaries - they are not about compromise. And so, as they are inspiring people to their cause, they also end up burning bridges. They are also about passion and big ideas - and government has no time for big ideas when all the little things need taking care of. Revolutionaries are two-to-three steps ahead of reality, and they often pay for that. Because revolutionaries do not make good politicians. Once the drastic change has come, most revolutionaries are unable to settle into the nitty-gritty daily grind of simply running things.

And so? Both are necessary. We need the revolutionaries to challenge the status quo and kick people into tearing down accepted injustices. But we need the politicians to calm things down and keep people fed and employed. To keep the water running and the utilities covered. We need revolutionaries to think big and outside of the box. And we need the politicians to work within the box to steadily enlarge it.

It's hard to accept, sometimes. Because politicians often seem to end up so soulless in their roles of compromisers. Constantly pandering to their public and trying to keep the most powerful interests happy. We love the revolutionaries because they're so inspiring and make such a good story. So many of them end up dying at the height of their glory - making it easy to turn them into heroes. But, to put it in more day-to-day terms: it's the politicians that keep the family fed and the electricity running.

I often find myself wondering which side I tend towards. I definitely lean to the revolutionary in terms of my "big ideas" and demand for "justice." It's so easy for me to see all that's wrong with society and condemn it. And in doing so, I often jump right past realistic modes of change. However, I also find myself playing the slow-and-steady middle ground quite often. I try not to attack my opponents, try to slowly bring them over to my side. But I have no patience for the steady grind and day-to-day management of "the little things."

So which way do I turn? What will be my legacy when I look back on my small fight for change in the world? Am I going to be the bread-winner and take care of the kids' daily needs, or am I going to dream big and risk them going hungry (with the possibility of making it big and bringing back that huge paycheck)? The revolutionaries earn our acclaim (or hatred) while the politicians earn our contempt (or disappointment). Who do I want to be?

Obama? Or Lumumba? Or is there a somewhere-in-between?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


This month is going to be a LONG one. I have so many different aspects of my life coming to a head RIGHT NOW, and it's kind of kicking my ass. All things I - more or less - voluntarily signed on for; but some bad timing for the overall effect. And let me say on the front end that I know none of you give a sh-- about any of this, but I need to just drop it somewhere, so I can relax for a second.

First of all - my job is stressful. It takes a TON of energy to do right. Add to that one of our staff members being out for the last month, so we've had a sub in since, and everything is just THAT much harder for everyone else when a sub is in the building. A number of areas where the rest of us have to add just a bit more to our workload.

Add to that the fact that the budget situation has caused drastic changes to come down on our organization. People are losing jobs. Programs are being restructured. We're about to do some new hires at key positions in the organization.

And - yesterday - while the whole organizational staff came together to hear the full news, I saw that the hiring committees were 100% white. Not a drop of color. In an organization that serves around 50% kids of color. A relationship-based organization that's all about connecting to our kids and families. And I'm not going to say that white folks can't do that, but it's not so welcoming or comforting for the kids when only 13% of the entire staff have color (and 0% at the decision-maker level). So I got myself onto that hiring committee. I had to. Because I refuse to just let that happen and not have some say on that. And I've scheduled a meeting with the top to bluntly discuss this.

But that's not all I'm doing. At the end of the month is the Asian youth conference I'm running programs for. So that means I am desperately working to finalize facilitators, finish my workshop designs (three of them that I'm directly in charge of), schedule training times for the 20-plus facilitators. I'm reserving rooms. Trying to find donations for raffle prizes. Preparing an opening and closing, working with student volunteers to help out. Meeting with the management team every week. Writing things up. Re-writing. Re-scheduling. Contacting schools and staff and trying to get kids.

At the same time, we're starting to ramp up for the summer art camp I work for. So I'm trying to recruit new staff for that (specifically, folks of color - again to represent the kids - because that has never really happened unless I've pushed it). Trying to get kids signed up. Working with admin to design the training plan, re-vamp things that didn't work. Lock in things that did. All "voluntary," of course. All of this "voluntary."

But wait - my brother is getting married at the beginning of May. I'm the best man. My mother is organizing a Chinese tea ceremony that I am hosting. We're planning that out (because that's what I do - plan and facilitate things). On top of that, I'm getting his bachelor activities together (and we refuse to do the "traditional" go fly somewhere and get drunk and forget it all - so I've had to put real effort into that). I'm writing and recording a song to serve as my "best man speech" at the wedding (which I intend to memorize and perform, of course).

Not to mention some personal things falling out in my life right now.

And I haven't even done my taxes yet.

So I'm a bit tired. I have so much I want to do beyond this - creative endeavors, writing, recording, etc. But I just don't have the time or energy. And I've never experienced that before - literally not having the time to do the things I want/need to do for myself. It's kind of crazy.

And, in the end - I've brought it all upon myself. Every last bit (with the exception of taxes) is 100% voluntary. Nobody's forcing me to do it. It's not getting me paid (my job is, of course, but I could half-ass it if my pride would allow it). I took it on - I want to do all of it. So I don't really have the right to complain (and - on a general level - I'm not).

But - damn. I'm tired. My problem is that I think too highly of myself. I think I know too much. I think that - if I don't do some of these things, nobody will. And it's kind of true. No person of color was going to be on that hiring committee. Nobody at the camp is recruiting folks of color. But who's to say that I'm doing a very good job of it?

Beyond that, though - I took on the conference planning because I wanted to do it. I wanted to create something (the workshops) for kids that I never got as a kid. I thought I could do it better. I wanted my brother's stuff do go right (plus, I'm the best man), so I'm going all out - he's my freaking brother, right?

But my overlarge eyes are getting me into trouble right now. I just read a research article that said that exerting self-control in one situation makes it much less likely that you will be able to exert self-restraint in another situation that closely follows (no matter whether they are related at all). So wearing myself out on everything else makes it less likely that I'll make the best decisions in other matters. Being tactful and diplomatic with the conference management team and the facilitators and donors I'm working with makes it much less likely that I will do the same at my other job. Or with other folks in my life.

And - it's absolutely true. Maybe it's good, in some way. Maybe I wouldn't have been as likely to just schedule a meeting with the top to give them a piece of my mind. Maybe I would have let other things go without speaking up.

All that said - this is going to be a LONG month. And I'm looking forward to the end of it. But very interested in seeing how it all pans out.

I may write a little bit less, as a result, but I'm sure I'll have a lot of interesting insights and some new perspective on a lot when it's all over. Stick around, and I'll share a little with the rest of you (or not, if you'd rather I just shut up about my "real" life).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Big Trouble In Little China: Then and Now

When I was 6 years old, I went to see a movie with my family: Big Trouble in Little China. This was a big deal for me on multiple levels - first, because my family hardly ever went to see movies in the theatre; and second, because this proved to be my newest favorite movie EVER!!!

And it kind of still is.

As a 6 year-old (and later years, when I kept watching over and over to the point of obsession*), the movie offered me all the exciting action I could ask for. There were cool martial arts stunts, explosions, guns, magic and an exciting adventure. There were monsters and gods. And there were a TON of Chinese main characters! Badguys, sure, but also the goodguys - and ALL of them were total badasses. Lightning (pictured above - one of the "Three Storms," who were god-like villains) was probably the coolest character ever created, and he didn't even speak English!**

Of course, Kurt Russell was the focal protagonist, but he was one of only three white people in the entire film. And - better yet - he was totally out of his element and needed massive help and support (or, really, leadership) from the Chinese guys all around him. Equally focal to the story was his best friend, Wang, who was all kinds of awesome. As a kid, when I was playing with my best friend (a white kid), he would be "Jack" (Kurt Russell's character), and I would be "Wang" - and I definitely thought I had gotten the better end of that exchange.***

I watched that movie so much that I can almost recite the whole thing word-for-word, even now. And I've found myself wondering - why that movie? There have been so many martial-arts-type movies since my childhood - why was that one so special to me?

And so I now turn my adult eye and mind to the film, and I think I get it. Because, considering it came out in 1986, that movie was revolutionary in its depiction of minorities. The Chinese people weren't the weirdos and extras in the movie. Instead, Jack - the muscle-bound white "hero" - is the stranger. He constantly "talks the talk" while being exposed for his cluelessness. He's totally out of his element, and it's the Chinese characters who have to bring him along for the day to be saved. Some of the plot-line is drawn from ancient Chinese mythology, and it is treated with relative respect. Again, Jack's questioning of the "myths" is depicted to show him as the unbelieving barbarian - while the Chinese folks who know their truth go about taking care of business.

Even better - the one strong white character in the movie? A woman (played by Kim Cattrall of Sex in the City fame). She's familiar with Chinatown and its subculture. She's strong. She mocks Jack's ridiculous attempts to hit on her. Granted, she ends up getting captured and "saved," but she takes a leading role in her own rescue (while Jack botches it up numerous times).

And then let's go to the one interracial romance - between a Chinese guy and a white woman. And the guy is hardly exotified in this one.

Shall we continue? Outside of the one Chinese guy who ends up with the white woman, every single other Chinese guy in the movie is a complete and total badass - and the dork even gets his badass moment. There are no dorky Chinese nerds running around. All the stereotypes depicted in so many movies before and since - absent.

And - yeah, yeah, yeah - there's a lot of martial arts, but still . . . "Forbidden Kingdom" is a mockery. "Big Trouble in Little China" says - those Chinese dudes can more than hold their own.

And, of course, I'm not trying to make this out to be the perfect movie - it's still a ridiculous action-adventure at the end of the day. The few Chinese women in the movie aren't exactly shining beacons of strength. But - for when it was made - it's kind of amazing. Hell - even compared to present-day movies, it still holds its own.

A movie about a ridiculous, macho white trucker. But a ridiculous, macho white trucker who just so happens to like to hang out in Chinatown after making his deliveries, playing fan-tan (a Chinese gambling game) with his Chinese buddies, and whose best friend happens to be a Chinese guy. In fact, they are such good friends that - without a thought - this macho white trucker gets himself involved in a deadly adventure to help his friend get back his girl.

You think that concept didn't grab a hold of me? You think - even as a 6 year-old - I didn't notice how his Chinese friend imparts wisdom and fights like a badass while trying to keep the confused white guy from getting himself killed? You think I didn't soak in all the various cool Chinese heroes (and even cooler villains) filling the screen at all times, even if I was too young to really digest it all on a conscious level?

Because there were no other movies like it. Not before. Arguably - not after. A big, crazy American action-adventure movie where the Asian guys completely stole the show and were meant to. And this was a movie starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter! A movie that just sunk its claws into my 6 year-old heart and never let go - even 23 years later.

Of course, it bombed in the theaters. Kurt Russell even noted going into it that it was going to struggle, "This is a difficult picture to sell because . . . It's a mixture of the real history of Chinatown in San Francisco blended with Chinese legend and lore . . . There are only a handful of non-Asian actors in the cast".****

But it has lived on. Even prevailed to become a huge cult classic. Kind of like a minority who doesn't let him/herself be silenced - if you stand up for yourself long enough, somebody's going to take notice.

So I suggest that all of you go check out the film. See if you can combine the joy of your six-year-old self with that of your conscious adult mind and rejoice that a movie with all this goodness was made two decades ago. And then ask yourself why so few like it have been made since . . .

* I remember watching the entire film all scrambled on tv when the pay-per-view channels were somewhat discernible at random times throughout a showing.

** He was the only Storm with no speaking lines, and - judging from Thunder's thick accent - it had to be because he didn't speak English at all . . .

*** When I was alone, I was "Lightning."

**** This particular quote ripped from Wikipedia (I swear I do real research on my own time . . .)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

No Longer Brown?

When I was in Hawaii a couple weeks back, I realized something: I'm not brown, anymore.

In fact, I haven't been brown for the last 10-plus years.

But I used to be.

See - I grew up in California (SF Bay Area). Through most of my years there, I wore shorts and a t-shirt (even when the weather should have prevented me from doing so). I was on a swim team in the summer. I was exposed to the sun on a very regular basis. And, as a result, I was brown.

And when I say "brown," I mean brown. Brown-skinned. Not tan or darker-than-pale. Brown like folks that refer to themselves as brown look.

Then I moved out of California (to Michigan, first; eventually to Portland), and my brown days came to an end. I remember my shock the first time I got flat sunburnt when I came back to California one summer. Since I had never been pale enough to burn as a kid, I didn't ever think about sunscreen. So when my pale-ass came out of a Michigan winter to hang out at the beach in California, I went up like a torch. And it absolutely shocked me.

I remember thinking, "but I don't sunburn." It took me forever to realize the obvious: that being bundled up and out of sunlight for many months had caused me to turn pale. And pale skin is not equipped to handle large quantities of sunlight naturally.

Now I've become used to it. I wear sunscreen during the summer or am very conscious about my exposure. In Hawaii, I was doubly-conscious. I do get tan during the summer now, but in Hawaii, I realized how far from brown I end up these days, even in the summer. And it was an interesting thought.

Because, in many ways, I am much more consciously brown, in terms of political orientation, identity, and lifestyle now than I was as a child. It's been more or less a perfect inverse correlation - as my skin-tone got lighter, my mentality got darker.

Seems strange, at first, but it makes perfect sense when given a bit of analysis: as a kid, when I was actually brown-skinned, I lived in a place where other people like me were (relatively) common. I didn't stand out so much. My friends spanned a number of shades, my mix wasn't particularly shocking - I didn't really have to worry about it to a large degree (obviously, I never fully fit in, either, but it wasn't so blatant in the Bay).

So - as I began to spend time (and formative, conscious-raising years) in climes and regions where the overall skin-tone was pale, I found myself standing out more. I was very regularly "the only one" that looked like me. I didn't know people with common experiences of identity. People's understanding of race and "otherness" was a little less sophisticated. And so, as the sunlight left me, so did my ability to just "let things go" and feel comfortable.

I became more and more dependent upon the media to find people that represented me (and we know how that all ended up) as real-life representations ceased to exist. I became more and more conscious of my real place in the world.

And so here I stand: no longer any darker than "tan" in skin-tone, but "brown" in mentality. Maybe it's some weird yin-yang balance thing for mixed folks like me: the white and the non-white side must be in balance, somehow. So my skin must be paler if my mind is going to get darker, or else my whole life-force will get too out of whack.

It's not completely crazy: because I was at my most unbalanced (mentally) during those first few years of transition; the years when my skin-tone lost its pigmentation, but I wasn't conscious enough to fully understand what was happening to me (and around me). As a kid - when my skin was darker - I was relatively happy and what-not with some folks like me around, while still taking little issue with the general white world around me. Now, I am relatively happy and what-not with my mind darker - but more focused - and my skin lighter.

Maybe I'm on to something here. Maybe if I moved to Hawaii, I would have to lose a little bit of my political edge to compensate for my darkening skin. Maybe if I moved to the Arctic, I would have to become militant to handle permanently-pale skin. Who knows?

You readers will have to tell me - do I chill out a little bit on the rage during the summer months? Are there other instances of skin-mind color-balancing for the other mixed folks out there?

And what would ever happen if I were to artificially tan?! Now there's a thought-experiment for the ages . . .

* No, I don't actually think it works like that, by the way.