In my first career, I normalized whiteness in a generation of young readers.
I grew up talking about race and class and equity at my dinner table, with my first gen activist parents. I taught a culturally sustaining curriculum to a diverse student body for two decades. But in my first career, I normalized whiteness for a generation of young readers.
I am a retired middle school English teacher. White. Jewish. I leave a legacy of beautiful students whom I’ve been honored to teach. But once upon a time, as it were, I wrote books for young readers. All through the 80s and 90s, I pumped out YA and middle grade genre fiction. I started out editing teen romances. I went on to write my own--series books produced under tight deadlines where I sometimes had to smack out the whole thing in two weeks.I was a factory. I sat down at my IBM Selectric typewriter and wrote 35,000 words and didn’t look back. Didn’t reread. Didn’t edit. (To my former students, close your ears, my darlings.) I sometimes told people I was a typist.
I taught myself to write later, when I was a teacher, digging into literature with my students. It’s a great way to learn to write. I didn’t find my true voice until I stopped writing to pay the rent.
But my commercial books sold. A few were bestsellers. Maybe I told a decent story. I certainly undervalued what I took away from those years: The ability to write on spec. To a word count. To keep a plot moving. To get a character down in a few pen strokes. (Honey, I mean this literally. I wrote my first YA novel on a yellow legal pad.) When you think about most writing for skool--the deadlines, the targeted goals, the pressure to deliver a certain kind of anticipated product, perhaps my first career prepared me well. (And perhaps we should be teaching writing differently. But that’s for another rant.)
Those were the days when series fiction for young adults was becoming big business. An industry. With its own section in the bookstores. And I worked for the titans--marketing visionaries who knew how to deliver a frothy, irresistible confection.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the normalized whiteness in all those kids books from the last couple of decades of the twentieth century. (Ah… she finally got to the thesis. After a whole page. Well, former students, there are all kinds of ways to write. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.)
When I was a young editor, just starting out, I remember discussing the lack of diversity in these books with a boss. Where were the Black kids? “They don’t read,” my boss told me. “There’s no market for that.” Sit with that. I’ll put a couple of line breaks in here.
Eventually, my boss did put a Black model on the cover of one of our signature romance lines. And hired... a white writer to write the Black protagonist. (Left out entirely--as it usually was at the time--was any discussion of kids who were brown, Asian, or anything besides Black or white. But the binary discussion of race in those days is another topic.) It fell to me, a white editor, to edit the book. I proceeded to remove certain tropes so astonishingly racist that I just sat at my desk shaking my head. She didn’t mean to offend, the author. She did her best to write an appealing, authentic heroine. But she’d drunk these tropes with her baby formula.
I think I called my then-husband, and read him some of the parts I removed. But I didn’t discuss this with anyone else. I was part of the factory.
And what about my books?
I was a red diaper baby, whose grandparents came to this country looking for a refuge from hate, and whose parents were willing to fight for their ideals. But I also spent the first forty years of my life--until I became an educator--in a world that was mostly white. With whiteness as the default. My publishing colleagues and editors, for example, were white. Every single one of them.
It has taken me years of reading, discussion and reflection to understand that my critical conscience growing up involved a vein of othering: Yeah, I see color; and it requires an extra step to shed some knee-jerk preconceptions. Moreover, my white, progressive sense of exceptionalism remains with me; there’s always more to understand and uncover.
Back to those books from the 80s and 90s. I usually keep my career writing kids fiction in a deeply recessed mental file. Out of sight, out of mind. I never felt comfortable owning those hastily cracked out, commercial reads that were my bread and butter. That part of my life is long over, and my identity as an educator is strong. Let those sleeping dogs yellow and fade. But a social media post from a long-ago colleague, and a letter from a middle-aged fan who’d tracked me down, got me thinking about that part of my life, again. I took the box of books I'd written down from the high shelf where they'd been sitting, untouched, for decades. Thirty-something teen and middle grade novels, written under nine different names and pseudonyms.
I began with one that a reviewer had singled out for its “diverse supporting cast and authentic dialogue.” Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I’d feared.
But it was. Okay, yeah. I had some “diverse” secondary characters. Like... the occasional “pretty black girl” (not capitalized in the late twentieth century), the “dark-skinned dreamboat” with the obvious Latinx name, the “Korean” roommate--100% American, with immigrant parents. Please kill me. Most of my books' characters and all the protagonists were white. By default. There wasn’t--surprise, surprise--a single time that I described any of my white characters by race. Less obvious, but perhaps equally problematic, were the characters who were BIPOC in name, only. I kept myself amused, during my writer-for-hire years, by naming my characters, in a slightly modulated fashion, after people I knew. So upon rereading, I could tell that the girl on page 26 of Book Three of the series I wrote in 1988 is Black, because I borrowed her name from two of my Black elementary school classmates. But there is no way a reader could tell this. White as far as the eye could see. Gender norms? Don’t start me.
And can we talk about how I erased my own identity from these books? Not a single protagonist is Jewish. They’ve got last names like Miller and Powell. And I’ll be gosh-darned if one of them doesn’t have a father who is a reverend. Um, really?
Those Miller and Powell girls came from the suburbs, of course. From a land of tan and white stations wagons, football games and proms, none of which were personally familiar to this native New Yorker. The Miller and Powell kids had two-parent families, sat down to dinner together, were able-bodied and aggressively heteronormative. That was the market. Or so it was said. (I drank a half bottle of rioja as I dipped into that box of books, and talked aloud to myself as I read. But on a bright note, if you think we haven’t made any progress in the last decade or two, check out some of your old books. You’ll see we are making strides.)
In sixth grade, I was exiled to the school hallway because I refused to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance, my protest against U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. I thought of myself as a rebel. As an advocate for change. But my books normalized a white, suburban shibboleth that was synonymous with series fiction for young readers.
And this, Matilda, is what anyone of any race or group in this country over the age of twenty-five or so, grew up with. Default whiteness. In our books. Our movies. Our TV shows. Christian hegemony. Genderization. Every other identity erased.
Yes, I also found two book proposals dear to my heart that featured characters from different backgrounds, and that I hadn't sold. They were relegated to my dead letter file.
An old professional bio that describes my shifting professional life, from commercial fiction writer to content creator in the brand new world of digital media to--finally--educator, describes teaching as “the most deeply meaningful and fulfilling experience of my career.” No doubt a big part of that was working at a job that aligned better with my image of myself, a job that allowed me to tend to my students’ identities while tending to my own. But what to do about that box of books?
For me, there’s only one option. Put them back up in the closet. Young readers finally have all sorts of choices that paint a richer, more authentic picture of who we are, and who we want to be. We white, lifelong progressives of a certain age like to think we weren’t part of the problem. Because of what I once did for a living, I have a written record that I was.
But there’s a larger question at stake. Let's move from series fiction to major league literature. What do we do with all those substantial works from our past that also normalize whiteness--and that baptized us (listen to the Jewish gal--it’s built into our language, folks) as readers and thinkers, the ones teachers taught because the sentences sing, the ones that are our common hearth, our classics, our canon?
(Yes, my lovely former students. I have moved on to another topic. You thought my teen romances were the subject, but they were actually the set-up. That story structure chart? The graphic organizers? The checklists? Useful only to a point.)
After inventorying my books, I did another inventory of my curriculum for the last twenty years. Whew. A good list of reads for my oh so varied students. Beautiful books by authors of so many backgrounds. (I corked the rest of the rioja.) And there was my classroom lending library--a labor of love and obsession of which I was always annoyingly proud and was full of windows and mirrors, book choices where any member of my class could find a reflection of themselves, or an opening into someone else’s world.
This didn’t negate the box of teen fiction, but could I forgive myself, just a little? I’d learned. I’d gotten better. The students I’d taught had read diverse works of literature.
They’d also read classics.
To Kill a Mockingbird for example, which I taught for a number years in the early 2010s. With its white protagonists, its white savior of a hero, and its Black characters that need saving, many teachers have now axed it from the syllabus. In the years before educators began discussing the book’s issues at conferences and in online forums, I asked my students to delve into the ways that Harper Lee was a product of her time; I invited them to examine the book’s communities--and author--with a reflective eye. A social map of Maycomb was one assignment. TKAM was on my syllabus--paired intentionally with Richard Wright’s Black Boy--because it’s a gorgeous piece of literature, unusual in structure, magnificent in language, with complex young characters and an important message about stepping into each other’s shoes. And isn’t it worth considering why it was radical in its time, became a perennial, but now shows its racial fault lines? Isn’t that part of examining history, examining ourselves, and understanding where we have come from and where we need to go?
I leave these questions open for discussion. If I were still in the classroom, would I keep the classics on my syllabus? Which ones? Ones that contain offensive tropes? That eliminate BIPOCS? What about the ones that "just" normalize whiteness? I do believe that those who don’t analyze history are doomed to repeat it. During my final years in the classroom, I said, let's read the classics with intention. As beautifully crafted pieces of literature and primary sources of white supremacy. Flowers and thorns. Along with a freshly blooming canon. And ask who’s on the pages. Who’s not. Whose eyes we’re looking through. Parse the context.
But that box of teen romances made me confront how deeply entrenched the subliminal message in those books—my books--was. With their unconscious erasure. Their twisted history. Their systemic racism. And those were books that had “a diverse supporting cast.” How many generations will it take to banish those messages? Can we vanquish them while still reading them, watching them, metabolizing them? My own books made me consider, for a moment, the notion of a curriculum without any of the old canon at all. (Frankly, I think The Scarlet Letter has a compelling plot, but that it’s a terribly written book. After rereading it as an adult, I’m happy never to read it again.) I’m fighting with myself, right now, about the role of our Old Faithfuls in our classrooms.
What do we read in school and how do we read it? How do we not just expand the canon, but refocus it? How do we go from where we are to where we need to be? Fellow teachers, inquiring minds want to know. Former students, it would be especially meaningful for me if you would weigh in.
I want to open up the discussion, here.
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2020, be gone! Disease, othering, civil unrest—uncivil in the extreme—ill will between neighbors... Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.
My pandemic burden: unemployment, just when I thought I was going to be embarking on an awesome, late life Act IV of my career. I feel suddenly old, my sense of purpose and identity and passion all tied up in work that I’m no longer doing. My city is bruised, edgy like it used to be when I was young. Yesterday, I walked by two men fighting bitterly over an especially large cache of empties, each claiming rights to their picking turf. It broke my heart.
But. The merry-go-round that was making me dizzy and exhausted and stressed has ground to a halt, and I’m not unhappy about that. Nowhere to go. No one to answer to. Didn’t I dream this? Nor am I unhappy about pairing down. If I never buy anything but groceries again, my life will be just fine. Social anxiety? Gone. With my social life, but oh, well.
My pandemic life is a dystopic be-careful-what-you-wish-for. Changing from foul to fantastic and back again, like a traffic light.
I feel for my friends working overtime in front of a screen, and for my former colleagues teaching their students under dysfunctional conditions while simultaneously managing their own kids’ pandemic schooling. I also envy them their jobs, their focus, their success in making the unworkable work—and, well, just their success, period. I want to work again. But not at a breakneck pace. Been there, done that.
Every day, I’m grateful for the roof over my head, the food in my belly, the health of my loved ones... and the pandemic lull I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy. I want this annus horribilis to be over for all of us, but the pressure to perform is off, and I like how it feels. I'm scared of the return to full-throttle life, post-pandemic.
Image: Picasso "Femme Couchée Lisant"
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Here in the Epicenter, I could bitch. And I could cry. And I do. But there’s something else going on, and I want to name it.
Back in March (long ago, in another galaxy), I got called out by an editor for using the phrase ‘silver linings’ when discussing what we might learn from our virtual schooling experiment. “You can’t say that when people are dying,” she messaged me.
Really? I kinda think a crisis like this is when those silver linings are most important.
Here are some of mine:
I love hearing birds and wind and a dog barking over on the next block, without the NYC traffic, the horns, the choppers overhead, the many voices, the street drills, the building construction. The soundtrack is peaceful (okay, absent the ambulance sirens). With the windows wide open and my eyes closed, there’s a peculiar kind of tranquility that I’ve never heard in six decades in my beloved home town.
In a funny way, I’m in better touch with my family, though I miss their offline faces keenly. We talk every day. I feel their support, and know they feel mine. In the middle of a pandemic, there’s something unconditional about it.
My apartment is comfortable and full of light, and perhaps I’m inventing this, but I could swear that just a few months ago, I was looking at my bookshelves and fantasizing out loud to the boyfriend about some catastrophe where I was stuck inside rereading all those greatest hits. And if that’s not enough, there are the abundant digital stacks at the New York Public Library that I’m getting acquainted with. (Yeah, there’s the little inconvenience of not being able to concentrate on anything but the deluge of bleak medical and political news, but hey, we’re in for awhile, and I feel the reading bug coming back.)
I haven’t bought anything in seven weeks, except groceries and some quality booze. And man does this feel good.
I’ve barely looked in the mirror, either. Released! Age does this to a gal, but social distancing frosts that cake nicely.
And then... there are the hours of unconstructed, unhurried time. It’s possible that I’ve dreamed of this every day of my adult life. My deteriorated cooking skills are returning. I’m writing this and that in my notebook--not with any goal or imperative, but just because. I slalomed my way through the crowds in Central Park on this lovely Saturday, keeping my distance, until I found my own slab of rock in a copse of trees, where I could take off my mask and do... nothing. Lining? Let’s call it a whole, shiny silver cloud.
What are your silver linings?
photo credit: Karen Blumberg
This awning of blossoming cherry trees in Central Park is a few blocks from my apartment. We don’t have back yards or hiking trails here in the Epicenter, but the park is stunning at this time of year. There are carpets of tiny blue and white flowers edging mossy rocks, trees hung with huge magenta blooms, like tropical fruit, buttery yellow daffodils, tulips--tiny orange ones with petals gathered tightly, generous purple-black globes, ruffled ones, striped ones. There are waterfalls and lakes and winding dirt paths. There are wooded areas and brightly colored birds.
There are also lots of people.
This has kept me away, during the pandemic. There are plenty of grassy fields where it’s easy to have space. But if you want to take a long walk (I do), there are also lots of fences, where access to clearings is impossible, and unavoidable stretches of road or path, shared with others. And every time I’ve tried to circle the park, during the Time of Distancing, some of those others have gotten too close. The ones with the most entitlement are the runners without masks; there are lots of them, huffing and puffing and sometimes spitting on the ground. Some of the cyclists are maskless, too. These are the folks who need masks the most. They’re breathing hard; their breath travels farthest. Yeah, it sucks to exercise in a mask. It also sucks to kill your neighbors.
Today, it was pouring. So, I figured maybe it was a good time to try to get in a cherry tree viewing, before the blossoms were gone. Maybe the rain would keep folks inside. It did. And the park was glorious. There were people with their dogs, a few other walkers, and some runners and cyclists--but not many. Guess which group was largely unmasked?
I wasn’t rude. I said please. And besides, it’s mandated in New York State now, dude. Your exercise is not more important than our health. “Fuck you, bitch?” Really??
To you, I say, “Go back to whatever state you came from, where you can join the Open America people, and get a haircut and eat a burger in a restaurant and run without a mask.” Because you’re not one of us. We may be in bad shape here, right now, but we’re doing our best to take care of each other. To thank our essential workers adequately. To demand protection for them. To stay the fuck away from each other physically, and to reach out virtually. To ask, what can I do? What do you need? How are you doing? Maskless man, you probably also order delivery every night, and give a non-pandemic tip to the guy who is risking his life to bring you those Thai fried wings. That’s not who we are, in New York. Andrew Cuomo says we’re New York tough. We are. But we’re also New York caring. Get with the plan, or get lost.
Dear Outer Cape friends (and the rest of yooz who live where city folk have country homes),
I’m a New Yorker, who has spent part of every summer in Wellfleet since 1965, and lived there for an all too brief year in the early 90s. It’s my favorite spot on the planet (and I’ve traveled far and wide). When I’m sad or anxious and need to picture my happy place, I’m swimming across Slough Pond. I’m a teacher, so a house of my own in your lovely town has always been out of my range; I’m a perpetual renter. But Wellfleet is as close as it gets to a home away from home, for me.
I’ve been following the charge by full-time residents that non-resident homeowners stay away during this pandemic. I've been following the angry comments on social media. And I understand. NYers escaping to their second homes are spreading the virus. Buying up precious food and supplies. And soon, taking hospital beds and ventilators from locals who have nowhere else to go. I get it. But. Hear me out.
I need to backtrack for a second. New York City is like a giant a cruise ship. We live on top of one another, and we can’t get away from each other. Buying groceries or descending to the communal laundry room requires pushing elevator buttons or working door handles touched by many. It’s abnormally quiet, here, without honking horns or the cacophony of voices that normally drifts up to our windows. But the silence is constantly punctured by ambulance sirens. We're indoors, in small apartments with no outdoor space. (A fire escape puts you in the one percent, these days.) We're allowed to go out for a little air and exercise, but the parks are often too crowded to practice safe social distancing. Those asshats on fancy bikes in spandex shorts who race up and down the back route from Wellfleet to Truro in August? Their exercise is more important than staying six feet away from you in Central Park. And our essential workers--the supermarket clerks and handymen and other heros--are riding public transportation to work. We’re infecting each other. We’re getting sick. And there are long lines outside every hospital to get into the ER. Once inside, there are no beds or life-saving equipment left. Our doctors and nurses have no protective gear. I’m scared to dea--well, maybe that’s not the best turn of phrase to use, right now.
So, I can also understand why second home owners are leaving town. I might do the same, in their pretty shoes.
What about making some new rules that work for everyone?
Full-timers and summer people working together (social distancing style) to keep everyone fed, sheltered and healthy, might even help shake off some of the town-gown tension that simmers beneath the surface of those gorgeous summer days.
And yes, I know this is simplistic. And idealistic. Downright dumb. Irresponsible. And it wouldn't work. (Even in Wellfleet, where I’ve watched the community model how to take care of its own.) I know any movement spreads the disease. And in the real world, we all need to stay the fuck home.
So. Maybe I wouldn’t decamp to my second house, after all. Maybe I’d be an upstander and stay put. Close the bridges, if you must. But please understand that we're terrified, and do it without rancor.
Stay well, friends in my little Paradise. I hope we’ll see each other this summer, if it’s safe enough to cross the bridge.
Fellow educators, what are your thoughts?
photo credit: Maia Liebeskind
March 18th, 2020 (week two, here in NYC)
A week ago (which of course feels like a month ago), I interviewed an American tech integrator at a K-12 international school in China, where they have been teaching virtually for more than six weeks. As I listened to her experiences and suggestions, I was struck by how her school’s experiment amplifies the most critical issues in education today: equity, teacher agency, student voice, parent involvement, social-emotional wellbeing, accountability and authentic assessment. I started writing up our conversation, one part how-to, one part editorial, a weird piece for a weird time. (Rough draft linked here, if you care to read it.)
But a peculiar thing happened as I was writing. Passionate educator though I am, I started to feel that perhaps it isn't critical, in the larger scheme of things, to teach online for the next few months. I teach because I fully believe in the power of education to build community, grow thoughtful, active citizens, and promote solutions to the profound issues of our time. I love my work. But if we close our schools down entirely during these difficult months—offline and on—for the greater good, or because online options aren’t working for everyone, it will be alright. Students will learn, as will we, from Italians singing on their balconies. From a parent helping an elderly neighbor. From the ways, both positive and negative, that we respond to this crisis. Some of the learning will be heartbreaking. Some of it will be a light coming through a crack.
And then again... maybe the connections we are facilitating, and the tiny semblance of normalcy are our contribution during this time. Maybe they're consequential. I keep vacillating.
Are you teaching online? Please weigh in.
photo credit: Stephen Speranza for The New York Times
I am grateful to live so close to Central Park. I don’t know what time Steven Speranza took this photo, showing the park empty because of the crisis, but I am not alone in seeking a little respite there, these days. In fact, every time I've been there this week, the place has been packed. Walking and riding my bike while social distancing has been an exercise (so to speak) in weaving and dodging.
To the spandex ball-sack cyclist who gave me the finger for suggesting he was a little too close, slow the fuck down. It won’t kill you to brake a little, if it helps maintain a neighborly distance. We don’t need to see the Manhattan spike driven by a bunch of dudes on fancy bikes. (And yes, the spandex offenders I’ve encountered have been exclusively male, and there have been lots of them.)
To the woman yelling into her phone about the virus as she cycled, keeping pace with me no matter how hard I tried to get ahead of her or drop behind, please be considerate; we’re in the park to try to get a little breather—literally—from this thing.
To the scooter ride whom I cut off accidentally, I'm so sorry.
To the Parks Department, thank you for maintaining our green spaces. Always, but especially now.
I'm headed to SXSWEdu in Austin, next week. And I’m nervous that I’ll feel like an interloper at a banquet for the education industrial complex. I’ve been the lucky teacher who has always had the lead role in the design of my classroom—the curriculum, materials, pedagogy, methods, relationships, values, norms, and expectations. In recent years, however, it’s felt more and more like a radical act, to be the master of my own domain. In an era where the phrase “education reform” has been co-opted by market-forces—testing companies, data collectors, producers of packaged curricula, programs and materials—it feels like everybody who has ever gone to school wants to instruct teachers on their instruction. Some mean well. Some are in it for the money. Some both.
I’ve got a different idea. And maybe it sounds simplistic or idealistic. Compensate teachers like other professionals, like dentists and insurance agents and scientists. Choose the best, brightest and most creative for this critically important job. Pay for it with budgets now used to support top-down, administration-heavy systems, budgets now used to pay for the huge costs associated with standardized testing, budgets now used to purchase packaged, scripted curricula and programs selected by those outside the classroom. Create lots of time and space for national networks of teachers to share best practices, observations, lessons and materials. Put teacher voices first, in every discussion of education reform. Treat us like the professionals and experts we are.
It’s this revolutionary idea that makes me wary about attending South by Southwest’s education conference, where entrepreneurship rules. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been getting messages from attendees who want to meet up and chat about their company’s scalable learning program, or digital solution. SXSWEdu’s homepage says that it “cultivates and empowers a community of engaged stakeholders to advance teaching and learning.” Them’s a lot of buzzwords. And the phrase ‘engaged stakeholders’ tastes like it came out of a neoliberal cookbook. Fewer than 16% of the attendees are actually K-12 teachers, and of those, the majority are locals, with easy access to conference fun, and eligible for the continuing education credits—necessary to maintain certification—that the conference proffers.
On the other hand, the website also states that “SXSWEdu extends SXSW’s support for the art of engagement to include society’s true rock stars: educators!” Allow me to poke gentle fun of SXSW's italics and exclamation point, as if this statement is a huge, big-hearted, enlightened surprise. I certainly think it’s the truth. And I’m delighted to have SXSWEdu acknowledge it. I hope I’ll have meaningful conversations about education, and edifying take-aways. I’ve been curious about this conference for a long time. Every year, I attend the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and occasionally the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Program (AWP), both well within my teacher-writer wheelhouse. Maybe this conference, where I feel like the outsider, will bring fresh ideas and perspectives.
Conference attendees, please talk to me about how you support teacher agency. And student agency. About equitable and culturally relevant reading and writing classrooms. About authentic writing instruction. About creating joy in teaching and learning. About growing great teachers. Ask me about my scalable learning program, where scale means knowing the individual approach that each kid needs. Ask me about the digital solutions I’ve crafted with basic, free apps, to foster a reading and writing community that centers student voices. Tell me how you support engaged, happy students and teachers. Listen to the 15.84% of attendees who are the experts. I’m going to come with an open mind. And my best rock star attitude.
[image = Jeb Feldman’s UnSmoke, a former schoolhouse in Braddock, PA that he converted to an art space and home.]
Thank you for reading. By the way, the Weebly 'like' button doesn't show who has clicked. If you care to identify yourself, please leave a quick comment. Thx.
Teachers, do you write? Why or why not?
I've been blogging since 2010. When I've got writer's block in every other way (frequent), this low stakes riffing to think has been a constant. Over the digital years, I've had a half dozen or so blogs including a travel blog and a reading blog, both on Blogger, and an all-purpose blog on tumblr where I wrote about education, social equity and anything else that sparked me. I also posted some of my published print work on my website. My shit is all over the internet. I'll be using this space for the occasional blog post, now.