Saturday, July 17, 2010


I never have been very good at math.

My Enneagram sign (2-the Helper) says that makes sense - that I am more an ideas person than a numbers person. I'm more a person person. So when my employers tell me I'll have 17 13 or 14 year olds in my summer program for the next two weeks, it means little. Not until I see their files, then especially, not until I see their faces, will I have anything in my mind to work with.

I tried to send them some of that empty space this morning. I did Tonglen for my students-to-be (and myself!), 24 hours before the whole shebang begins. To these strangers, who to me now are what Pema Chodron calls the "neutrals" - I don't know them yet, have no expectations, they are just open slates to me. This is a pretty good state to be in, and I won't be in it again with these kids. I won't be in it with myself for two weeks, as teaching this program takes me to the edge of myself; full on energy, full on teaching skills, full on time use.

Earlier this week, Birdfarm sent me three books on teaching - the first of which I am almost done with, and which was the one she'd brought up the most when we were talking about, surprisingly, not teaching at all! We were talking about power relationships, and in particular, about one of the shoots we did this last weekend in Seattle for a Miksang Level II program I was teaching. I was describing how different the two groups gathered in one park were - white, middle-class folk in a dog park and black and Latino folk gathered at a hepped-up car show. The different groups responded quite distinctly to being photographed (our topic was "People and Other Sentient Beings") - the white middle classers scoffed a bit, posed, looked awkward; the black and Latino folks smiled, went about their business, didn't seem to care much or used it as a chance to connect, rather than disconnect.

She recommended Other People's Children by Lisa Delpit, which I certainly ordered and carried at Rainbow Bookstore for years and never ever actually looked at, seeing as how I wasn't teaching, much less teaching African-American kids. It's a great book on integration and segregation at far more nuanced levels than just "merging" kids of different races and classes - beyond the physical mixed classroom, there are power struggles at stake between, in particular, white teachers and black kids all the time.

Mainly, Birdfarm was talking about how uncomfortable "white people" (meaning, us, white, middle class Americans) are with their power, and how we purposefully or subconsciously push away our power, try to hide it, act passively, in order to disavow it. Only we still have it, and especially those with less power in the room know it for sure. When we take our power and own it, use it for the benefit of others, it's ok, and others can respect it. Usually. Unless we are secretly not benefitting others.

It's pretty complicated, obviously, but damned important going into teaching a, likely, mixed classroom of class and race variety in the next two weeks. What those figures don't tell me is how power will play out, and even the races of the kids can't tell me that. Only interaction can tell me that, and only if I listen.

Yet another reason why math doesn't particularly appeal to me.

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