Fear is Our Biggest Impediment

For many of us, fear is our biggest impediment!

Fear grips us, cripples us, and enslaves us!being different

 

We are afraid of the dark
We are afraid of heights
We are afraid of adventure
We are afraid of the unknown

We are afraid of criticism
We are afraid of failure
We are afraid of trying
We are afraid of dreaming

We are afraid of loneliness
We are afraid of attention
We are afraid of loving
We are afraid of affection

We are afraid of being talked about
We are afraid of not being talked to
We are afraid of being ignored
We are afraid of not being priority

We are afraid of dependence
We are afraid of begging
We are afraid of giving
We are afraid sharing

We are afraid of disappointment
We are afraid of embarrassment
We are afraid of getting hurt
We are afraid of pain

We are afraid of helpers
We are afraid of solicitation
We are afraid of donations
We are afraid of alms

But, let us not be afraid of reaching out
Asking for worthy help
Love regardless

Let us embrace loneliness
Live endlessly
Life with all its uncertainties

Let us give unconditionally
Against all odds,

Let us break the encumbrance of fear!

2014 in a Wrap

In the Middle of Everywhere!

Have you ever felt stuck in the Middle of Everywhere?

In the Middle of Everywhere

In the Middle of Everywhere

Imagine for a minute that you are stuck in “space”. Let’s call that space, a basement. There is limited natural light, it is really cold in the Winter, floods with melting snow when Spring comes, hot in the Summer. For most part of the year, you cannot tell day or night, except by the hourly talk of your alarm clock or when your TV announces the news. Since you are in constant fear of missing your daybreak due to lack of sunlight, you have to keep some kind of artificial light on 24-hours. You decide, the lead light will be the cheapest.

Though, none of the solutions seems to work because you still feel stuck in a basement. You are losing yourself. You are losing your creativity, your energy, your imagination and your umph! Every idea you come up with, seems to evaporate right before you put it on paper. You really don’t know where you are headed. You go to bed everyday, with a promise to wake up and accomplish at least one goal per day. Yet, the energy dwindles from you half way into your goal of the day!

Stuck in the basement, you are losing your sense of direction. You are losing your confidence. You are losing your trust in miracles. You begin feeling that  life has given up on you, and connived against your flourishing and success. Yet, you cannot get back any time, minute or second that has gone by you.

The basement is swallowing your pride, as much as it is enhancing your bitterness. The basement is stimulating your delusion and destabilization more than your boosting your determination. The basement is where dreams no longer come true, where dreams die, dreams become confused, and entangled in mourning, regret, bouts of sadness and soul searching.

You want to get out of the basement. You vow to get out of the basement. You give yourself a timeframe to quit the basement. Yet you no longer seem to know how the paths to tread. Or perhaps you know, but the basement has eaten up your courage to get out. The only time you step out of the basement is for a cup of tea upstairs, or go for a run outside or to the bus stop. Or perhaps you are embarrassed to show your face to the world that has held you up, expecting a lot of you and from you. You would rather shut your face away from the world that expects high performance from you.

You are in the middle of everywhere, yet you are alone and lonely. You do not wanna be alone, yet alone is when you feel the most relaxed and humanized. What else is there to live for? The basement reminds you of all the responsibilities you have incurred in life. The knowledge you have and continue to amass, which needs to be put to use for yourself and those in your life. The basement reminds you to show it appreciation for shielding you from the wrath of the world, and give back to the world. The basement is where it all unfolds-folds-unfolds again. Yet, you cannot fold yourself up forever.

There is no noise in the basement, except for the occasional rotation of the extra fan, turned on when it is really cold, or the TV or clock at the top of the hour. The basement offers a huge place to breath ideas, recapture them before they disappear from your imagination, escaping your little fingers. Put them on paper, transport them into virtual reality, into other people’s spaces.

In the Middle of Everywhere is where your creativity should come back to life. Move out of the basement, hit the streets and never look back into the basement. You will be a giant, again, In the Middle of Everywhere….Everywhere but the basement!

Kids are Cultural “Whores”: Wait, can you say the “W” with Kids…?

It is amazing how quickly kids switch cultural identify. Well, if like me, you believe that “language is culture”, that’s what I am talking about. Last summer we returned to the US, after three-and-a-half years globetrotting. We left the US immediately following my child’s first birthday, for a much deserved break and scholarly experience around the world.
About last Fall, I noticed my child’s accent changing, become less  “Ugandan” and more “American”. My friends did not help me feel better; they said it would be gone by December. I felt a ‘teeny weeny sadness’, at the thought that my son would no longer “be a Ugandan” with ‘the brand’ accent gone. Alas! I have not been good at making the accent stay! I did not realize how tough it is to teach a child another language in another country with a predominant language. Especially with my multi-national child: African [by ancestry] and American [by birth and ancestry].
Power to parents who succeed at nurturing multi-lingual/multi-national children. Sadly, not many of us Africans are good at keeping children fluent in our first languages, especially when born or raised abroad, but even when born and resident in our own countries to same nationals or foreigners. We get into the stupid “western culture superiority” complex, and deny our children a chance to become fluent in our Africans languages, arguably because ‘they will not develop’ or ‘compete in the globalized world’. Forgetting that we were born and raised speaking our mother tongue, or of parents who spoke our mother tongue.
Yet, many like me, become surprised that our children are ‘losing our culture’ or are becoming culturally distant and lost! I am always shocked when talking to my child, that recollection of our time spent in Uganda are not forthcoming! At times, he cannot even remember part of my family, the playmates he had, we had bathrooms or a kitchen, or that we ate food similar to what we have here in America. The worst, but without blame, he does not remember that we lived in South Africa (before Uganda) during the last couple of years abroad.
So, I decided to give him a “Lesson about South Africa” while we were at our local library recently. I pulled out a book, “South Africa by Pat Ryan”, which talked about how “Africans lived happily” [of course there is an element of romanticization typical of a western writers about Africa]. Then white folks came to South Africa and began fighting with the blacks, took their land, culminating in a system of “Apartheid”, where whites lived, worked, played segregated from blacks.  Black people became poorer than whites, lived in terrible housing, and could not shop in the same places as whites. I showed him the grass thatched huts where black people lived, and still live in the countryside; he thought they were “Weird”.  [btw, thanks to this young man, my love for the word “weird” no more!]; I showed him clothing of f the black people made with beads, which was strange, as well as the men racing on Ostriches. That made him laugh so hard! Well, at least he laughed; which means he learned something, right?
We discussed the book after reading, and I asked him what he had learned from the book. He told me that “brown” [not “black”] people were poor, while white people were rich. “Why did he swooped “black” with “brown”?” I asked him. He said, “Black is like darkness, when you cannot see properly or like the black shoes. But the people in the book were not black; they were brown.” I asked him, whether he knew of any black people, and he said, “I am black.”[ If you know my son, he is not “black like darkness”.] Surprising to me, since he has thought of himself as white, until our conversation not to long ago, about “black-and-white” in America’s racial conception.
Kids are smart ‘cultural whores’; telling it as it is, using their wit to make sense of nonsensical labels. To him identity is defined by color not the labeled per race. He sees brown, chocolate, and pink, He has protested before when I said his playmate “C”, classmates “M” and “S” are white, because “they do not look as white as paper,” he said. For now, he has accepted that label, since the conversation with mom following a class reading about Martin Luther King Jr.
Anyway, happy to inspire a young generation of thinkers, readers and critics. We hope that the reality of his eyes is followed by the reality of race relations when he comes of age. I hope he does not become a victim of racial profiling and racial injustice blatantly metted out against black folks in America, particularly our young black males. I think I am doing all I can to keep him openminded, culturally international in thoughts, ideas and experiences, and innocent to the brutality of life. Yes, I do agree to myself sometimes that “Ignorance is Bliss”!
Still, as a parent of a young black male growing up in America, particularly suburbia America, I worry very often whether this country will allow him to live and grow up without the preconceived injustices? Will he still be that “cute boy” at 12, 13, 14, free to skate around the neighborhood without anybody calling the police on him? Or would he be a sense of uncomfortable curiosity, that even the neighborhood dogs bark uncontrollable at him, just like they do with me. Would he still comfortably ware his jacket or sweatshirt hood over his head? Or walk in the neighborhood without an encounter from nasty neighbors. I believe this is the beginning of a lifelong education about the American culture, that he so innocently takes on as part of him, but that one day, he will fully recognize that it labels him [in fact labeled him since childhood], as a person to be feared, dreaded and be monitored all the time! Perhaps then, he won’t have as much luxury to ‘whore up’ this American culture, and would have to find another geographical and culture to experience and become a part of….?

Different shades of Special Needs

“There is no one student who is similar to the other. And no one student behaves the same everyday,” so she said to me.

I cannot agree more! Picture being in any classroom of Students with Special Needs. Whatever special need you can think of: Autistic Support, Post-Hospitalization, Life Skills, Early Intervention or Multiple Disability Support. Or so you may believe! Turns out, that is not always the case.

Even when a class is categorically labelled as “Autistic Support”, the students come in “Different Shades of Special Needs”. Each with own disability, no uniformity, and with varying needs that a class teacher who has not one, but possibly eight or ten students is expected to ably manage every single day. Moreover, there is no guarantee that any one of the children will display consistent behavior and attitude on every other day, or throughout a  single day. Happy in the morning, sad by mid-morning, and erratic, violence and explosive in the afternoon. Happy one minute, crying the next, then bouts of laughter!

I, for one, had no clue what “Austin support” entailed before I ventured into a classroom of elementary autistic support students. I imagined that they are similar to students with Multiple Disabilities, till I found out about a special category called – Multiple Disability Support (MDS). Still, I wanted to experience dealing with and teaching autistic children. My fears and initial reservations were not in vain! Challenging, scary, traumatizing and soul searching, are among the many thoughts that come to my mind reflecting on my experience in two separate classrooms of K-4th grade students with autism.

No! The kids did not throw stones at their teachers, although they were capable of hurting with the same zeal as they were loving in the same instant. Like any other humans, they hurt the people they love and care for! They pinched, scratched and punched their teachers, then smiled and asked for special favors with barefaced shame. They screamed, cried and ignored authority, but expecting the teachers’ attention and kind heart to give in to their demands.

In one classroom, I experienced different shades of autistic children. One boy scratched me (and other teachers) several times with his blackened nails. Yet, he obeyed when told to sit down on the ‘calming chair’, until he was asked to stand. When he was asked to eat, or when the TV showed scenes he did not like, he yelled. He became distraught, restless and cried repeatedly when he saw school buses pulling up in the parking lot an hour before official close of school. To calm him down, we told him to put to put on his jacket and prepare to go home, or just ignored him.

Then this kid with a beautiful smile, picked up his mess whenever he was told, and agreed to sit down but after persistent reminders and supervision.  Yet, every after lunch, he became erratic, rolled himself on the floor, took off his pants and underwear, put his hand in his pants, threw books off the shelves, ripped the classroom apart, spewed out plenty of obscenity and stormed out of the classroom, running and screaming down the hallways. A minute later, he was a calm lovely boy, apologized for his nastiness, and said he wanted to see mommy! Another kid, generally calm and obedient, responded to instructions quickly, did great one-on-one class activities, and excelled in his academics. Except when he was not engaged in classwork, and every after lunch, he was unsettled.

The room teachers did a great job managing their classrooms and responding to the needs of their students, especially in comparison to:  a) my prior experience in other special needs classrooms; and b) with the insurmountable challenges they had to deal with. Only two teachers, one permanent and her Associate – for eight autistic students! Yet, they used various activities and techniques to engage their students in learning as much as possible, as a group and one-on-one at individualized level. They taught their students to work for special privileges, counseled them when they were acting up, and rewarded them for good behavior. Still, that did not deter the explosive students from going off, or the cool ones from staying calm.

I wonder if after the experiences, thus far, my expectations of transformative teaching are dwindling following my in-class observations and interaction with the teachers and students?

I know for sure that each student is different from another, and from each time of the day. For many kids, adjusting their program to half-day and returning home in the early afternoon, might be helpful for both the kids and the teachers. After all, many are restless after lunch and hard to keep interested or attentive within the same classroom environment, even when teacher substitutes rigorous academics with age-appropriate infotainment, TV programs, internet videos, iPad and hands-on learning. For some kids, their medication seems to wane down by lunchtime, making them more agitated and uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon.

Beside the dire need for human resource enhancement for classrooms with autistic children, introducing half-day programs for some kids might be. They could return home after lunch to their parents, breaking the monotony of staying for a longtime in one physical, human and learning space. With additional human resource, the teachers would afford to split roles, and take the kids with capacity to participate in mainstream classroom special activities.

Or more exercise and stretch routines should be added into the classroom schedule, to reduce the length of disposable time. Plus, a little one-on-one massage might also do the magic. Though, it is a heavy task engaging students one-on-one, given all the work required of the teachers in a day to fill out daily paperwork on each students, plan the next day, clean up, cater to students with extra-special care needs, and prepare student for pick-up or drop-off at the end of the day. Sustaining transformative learning is a challenge without parental cooperation and participation of parents in reinforcing the skills learned and taught at school.

Special Ed Teachers Have Special Needs Too!

How does a teacher manage a student with special needs?
How does a teacher stabilize student with emotional and behavioral needs?
How does a teacher nurture a centered-focus for a student with attention difficulties?
How does a teacher manage a classroom of student with behavior, reading, physical, attention and life challenges?

I bet you will say all that is covered in the Teacher Training curriculum for Special Education. After all, teacher training seeks to produce a whole person, who can manage a classroom environment with all its multifaceted complicatedness. There are smart and dull students, calm and restless, slow and fast, participatory and inactive, distracted and attentive, young and not so young. Not to forget that twenty-first century classrooms are multinational, multiabilties, multi-sexual, multi-origin and multi-races, multi-everything. Everything goes, everything is expected, and everything is planned for.

Moreover, today more than ever before, the topic of Special Needs Education for Students with Disabilities has been mainstreamed into the classroom environment. Gone are the days when children who acted and looked “different” were hospitalized or restrained in mental asylums, deemed dangerous on a ‘regular’ school campus. While it is still true that in many parts of the world, schooling opportunities for students with special needs, separately or as part of the ‘regular’ school environment barely exist.

Here in the United States, special academies are set up to cater for students with special needs, staffed with  teachers trained in Special Ed. Even the seemingly most challenging behavioral students now have a place in the main school education system. If not at designated academy, special classrooms exist within the regular school complex for the education of students with autistic needs, life skills, emotional and behavioral needs, post-hospitalization, as well as early intervention. The focus is not always on academic excellence, in programs such as post-hospitalization, but could range for therapy to behavioral transformation and emotional stabilization. As a parent, I applaud and cherish the availability of such opportunities for students who would otherwise be excluded from the pipeline of ‘a ‘regular’ schooling system. High accolades for those selfless souls called Special Ed teachers and their associates, who have agreed to partake on the insurmountable task of ‘baby-sitting’ big kids.

Though, one wonders who takes cares of the special needs of Teachers for Special Needs students? Who provides personal support to Special Education Teachers? Does the curriculum include a “how-to” training on protecting oneself as a teacher for special needs students, if attacked [repeatedly] by own special needs students? My experience in a couple of elementary, intermediate and high school special needs classrooms exposes the complexities, challenges and dangerous everyday work environment a teacher for special needs students.

I am not trained in “Special Education”, and only recently began experiencing “teaching in an American K-12 environment”. My experience is in teaching at US colleges and universities. As I have said before, never had I ever imagined willingly stepping into a classroom environment for young learners. All this changed since I had my own “young learner”, and the rest is history. I decided to experience the classroom environment to gain practical experience, exposure and understanding of what goes on in the children’s classroom, how they learn, how they interact with the learning tools, with their teachers and peers and respond to teaching and learning aides exposed to them. Particularly because I did not attend elementary education in the United States, it made sense to me to learn how my son is learning in order to better assist him with his school projects and home assignments. Beside, I am from a family or teachers, and a devoted teacher, myself!

My experience thus far, has got me scared, and in some incidences traumatized for the teachers in K-12 classrooms, especially those dealing with special needs students. I have wondered several times, at what point do students decide it is ok to beat up, scratch, curse, swear, talk back violently at their teachers! Engaging in behaviors not identified with the everyday home environment, or so I think? How can children throw tantrums that are so violent and compromise the safety of their fellow classmates, most especially for the teachers? How do these students becomes so selfish not to imagine that their erratic, aggressive and unsocial attitudes, characters and behaviors are not acceptable in public and toward any adult?

Of course, I have also taught myself OR learned, not to take what I see or experience from such students personal. I have been disrespected by 8-15 year-old students, while working one-on-one with them on their classroom assignment and during private coaching homework. Some have rudely told me off [and I obeyed] to get out of their face. “Why are you standing here looking over me? Go find someone else to help,” a 15 year old academy student ordered me. I have been scratched, beat and cursed by young learners for the crime of insisting on getting them to sit down, focus on their classwork, pick up after themselves or undertake their assignments.

While we as parents can [sometimes] raise our voices toward our children and spank them, this experience has vividly taught me, that is not a luxury available to a Special Ed/Needs Teacher. S/he has to suck up to being beat, kicked, screamed at and violated by young learners, utilizing only officially sanctioned soft interventions to calm the erratic students, however ineffective. Or as I have learned from Special Ed teachers, wear gloves, leather jackets or long sleeved shirts to protect yourself from bodily scratches from your students, and face mask to keep yourself safe of germs when your students deliberately cough in your face.

It is an absolutely traumatizing experience, feeling trapped amidst a group of 10 eight to 15 year-old students, where the ‘wise’ decision a teacher can make is, walk around on eggshells with such trepidation that s/he could get beat up anytime by her/his students, who are protected by claims of ‘partial’ or ‘full-insanity’. Sadly, as parents, we are not doing much to support the teachers efforts of educating and nurturing their children into better students. Instead, we pile all our failures at parenting our children onto the teachers, sending them to school when we have failed to control them, then subsequently accuse teachers of not doing a great job educating and catering to the special needs of their children! We blame all bad habits that our children develop on the school environment and teachers’ negligence, even when our home environment is very explosive with negative influences on our children.

Perhaps planners, programmers, managers and administrators of education programs for special needs students need to prioritize the special needs of teachers as equally important as those of the students they are enjoined to teach. Special needs teachers need as much emotional, psychological, physical, classroom and social support to ensure they stay excel in their classroom. It is mind boggling to expect two teachers, moreover female, to manage a classroom of  eight autistic/post-hospitalization/emotional behavioral students, some emotionally charged and hyper-active behavior,  running out of the classrooms and screaming in the hallways! Or expect a teacher to remain aloof to beatings, scratchings everyday, as a reaction from a student getting mad  because s/he did not get it his way!

Special Ed teachers, especially ones dealing with emotional/behavioral needs students should be provided reinforcement in terms of security or classroom environments or permission to apply techniques to protect their lives, as well as the lives of other students in the classrooms when dealing with those students who turn violent. Moreover, special ed teachers should be provided with the human resource proportional to the needs of their classrooms to help.

Know the One You’re With

Taking a break from my predominant running theme about “Education”, I chose to blog about relationships. Recent events have prompted me to write about why it is important to Know the One You’re With. Whether it is a sibling, child, spouse, lover, family or social network.

Plenty of us are guilty of passing judgment on others without fully knowing them. We think we can know a person merely through observing or interacting with their character, actions, interests, beliefs or experiences. If one is burbly, funny and entertaining, that person would be most likely considered happy and an extrovert, as opposed to a person with a calm demeanor. That, we did with one renown actor and comedian, till his mind boggling death revealed the cosmeticized pain and suffering he lived with from a childhood of unhappy family relations and feelings of neglect. The same is said of funny man “Nutty Professor”, who makes the world laugh, yet an introverted and gloomy around his closest family, as we learned through his divorce from ex-wife N. Mitchell.

Or perhaps we should not blame others for what they think they know about us based on our outward projections? Then again, should we really care what others think about us? Or perhaps we should expect that each on around us concerns her/himself more with getting to know those around them. I strongly believe in the value of “knowing everyone through their spoken truths”, in our quest for honest and humane relationships with those most close to us. Perhaps to spare us the resultant shock and denial that our neighbor, who grew up as an altar boy, volunteered at all community events, graduate from high school with straight  ‘As’, is the notorious village serial killer! Or the much-beloved school principal, who met and greeted kids as they entered the schoolyard every morning, was convicted of murdering his entire family of six, including his seven-month old baby and mother’s in-law! What about the shock after knowing that the dull girl from the corner shack, who never said a word in public or answered a question in class, always kept to himself, went on to win the nobel prize in literature! After all, we never expected anything profound to come from her; she was not among the popular girls, and no boy in her class wanted to date her! Right?

I say all this from personal observations, as much as from experiences. That we might not really know even those closest to us, including within our families. Perhaps we have never bothered to ask to hear their story from them; we have confidence in what we see and hear about them. We profile them according to our interpretations of their most glaring behavior, all the while ignoring the value of their own truths and subtle personality traits in making the whole person. Suddenly, we are shocked when they make life choices that do not auger with our understanding of them! Or they excel, ‘unexpectedly’!

One such person I know closely. He was the quintessential calm and quite child in his family. Nobody in his family thought he uttered a word out of his mouth, or that he could sustain a conversation! Around the family table he was the perfect listener to ever conversation, while his lips remained sealed! As a child, he was even scared of his own shadow, often bursted into screaming frenzies whenever a power outage occurred at their home at brought pitch-darkness! Incidentally, his schoolmates said he was a very entertaining and active person. At school, he and his best friend would adorn their ‘signature’ rubber-boots, stage ‘impromptu’ performances for other students, break it down to Marvin Gaye renditions, in exchange for money or something to eat.

Still at home, he was the quite kid that everyone granted his quiet amidst the noise. Until that shocking time when he fell sick with malaria, and started ‘mouthing off loud’. Initially, his family got excited about his parroting, assuming he was in recovery mood. Then his words became more rapid, signaling hallucination. Found out, when they rushed him to hospital that his fever was closing in to cerebral.

Fast forward, he goes off to college, but suddenly drops out and joined the military! His family were shell-shocked, that their quiet, timid child, scared of his own shadow was daring the hard knock military bootcamp, charged with that dreaded AK-47, spending cold nights in trenches waiting for the enemy, chasing after rebel fighters, and shooting known enemies of the state! The details of his military engagement are still scanty, but let’s just say, he was also part of the internal military intelligence!

The major details we found out about his life and interests are what he shared with us from his mouth. He proved to us that it is not enough to profile a person based on our observations and hear-say. We deserve to give each ‘horse’ a chance to tell its own his-/her-story, in order to have an informed opinion about and know him/her  truly well.

Many people put on a facade of strength, when in fact they have so many vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Growing up, I passed plenty of judgement on my mother for the decisions she made that I did not consider very sound and protective of her children, or even loving of herself. Later in life, through conversations with her where I heard her story from her mouth, I understood the choices she made. Now as a parent, I understand much more the decisions parent make, and the meaning of happiness to different people. Happiness is very relative! To a female parent, happiness might be for her child growing up close to the father, in the same geographical space with father or in the same home with the father. None of these are about her instant and personal gratification, which we have very much come to associate with happiness. Yet observers who have never walked the walk or are on the outside-looking-in might question why anyone would sacrifice happiness for the ‘harsh” uncertain conditions?

I reiterate that it is of paramount importance to know the person you are with!  We need to give people the benefit of doubt, allowing them to tell us their story from their mouths, and listening openly with no pre-judgement. Short of that, we are pandering half-truths about others, and perhaps missing a chance to develop honest relationships with people we are with by judging them based on our own conceptions of who we think they are.

Teaching Children about Columbus Day in an era of Contested Knowledge and Truth Formation

This past Monday, October 13, 2014, was Columbus Day, when America remembers Christopher Columbus. So, my first grader and I engaged in a learning session about why every second Monday of October is a [Columbus Day] public holiday, when government business and public schools in the fifty states take a day off. I told him that on October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed in a boat across the Atlantic from Europe, to find out about the Americas. According to official pronouncements, Columbus’ voyage instigated European settlement in the Americas. I showed him the world map on my computer, and together, we located the Americas – North and South. I asked him to point to North America, the United States and Pennsylvania where we live, which he ably located with much success and delight. I also showed him the European continent and Italy, where Columbus originated, and the big Atlantic Ocean that he crossed to come to America. I explained to him that after Columbus, many more Europeans followed to settle in America.

Yet at the back of my mind, I knew this story of Columbus Day is circulated with varying degrees of truths, controversy and contestation. So, how does one teach children about Columbus Day in an era of contested knowledge and truth formation?

Here are some versions of the “Christopher Columbus Discovery story”. The mainstream hails Columbus for ‘discovering the new world’ also known as the Americas, including North America and the United States of America where we reside. This version credits the arrival of Columbus to the official beginning of European colonialism and exploration of the America. As well as paving way for European exploitation of the Americas, the extermination of pre-existing indigenous populations commonly referred to as “Native America”, disenfranchisement of their property and land, and pushing many into reservations.

Some contest the use of ‘discovering’, arguably because it wrongly assumes there were no people living in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. Another view emphasizes that Columbus was not the first European explorer to arrive in the America; many more had come before him, but possibly never settled permanently or actively sought to colonize the Americas.

Yet, the most under-asserted version of the ‘discovery story’ profiles the arrival of Africans and black people before Christopher Columbus set foot in the Americas. Black people from present-day Africa sailed across the Atlantic as far back as 445 BC, and during the 19th century (1292 BC), engaging in trade, contributing greatly mathematical scholarship, writing, the calendar, shaping the political and religious systems, and the architectural structures of the Americas by importing their pyramid technology from Egypt. Indeed Columbus’ own writing cited by renowned American historian and linguist, Leo Weiner of Harvard University, acknowledged the pre-existence of the ‘black-skinned peoples’ in the Americas, arriving in boats in the South East to trade in gold-tipped spears. The story about the existence of black-skinned peoples in the Americas prior to Columbus seeks to refute the prevailing privileged knowledge that black presence in the Americas started with the Atlantic Slave Trade post-Columbus.

But this is all a mouthful for my First Grader! While I seek to ‘emancipate’ his learning, knowledge formation and creation, I strive to make it as simple and appropriate for his developmental stage. Here I am assuming I really know his developmental stage, although sometimes he speaks and acts way much wiser than I can fathom!

For our learning about Columbus Day, I told him how Christopher Columbus’ settlement in the Americas opened up mass migrations from Europe into the Americas, and later from other parts around the globe. Thousands of years after Columbus, I, like many Africans migrated to live in America, changing the peoples of America. United States now has people from all over the world, including Uganda, my country of origin.

While learning about Columbus Day, I showed my first grader google images of Native Americans, and asked him if he had ever seen such people – the most prominent images featured people with piercings and sticks through their mouth, nose and ear, wearing different kind of colorful clothing and some half-naked. He said he had never seen any such people! And yes! This from a child who spent the last three years and a half living around Africa [goes to tell, not all Africans are the stereotypical “Masaai, Karamojong or San” popular on many postcards and TV documentaries popular in the United States!] I explained that the reason he does not see such Americans very often is because when Christopher Columbus arrived in America, they were pushed into reservations and forced to change their clothing, culture, language and look. They were forced to speak English and other Europeans languages, dress and behave like Europeans.

I also showed my First Grader pictures of ‘The New Americans” dressed in business suits, swimsuits, shorts, jeans, t-shirts and baseball hats, and asked him if he had seen that kind of America? Yes to all, except to  my surprise, not the ones dressed in business suits, not even at his school! Then he said that he had seen Captain America before, one of images on the page we googled. His focus diverted to Captain America, and he inquired more about why Columbus not Captain America saved America? I had to tell him Captain America is a fictional character, developed to allow kids and adult dream big, wild, and to entertain. We spent sometime on CA and other fictional characters.

Then he asked me why Columbus did not walk from Europe or take a plane? I told him that one cannot walk across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, and planes were not invented then. Beside, Europe is too far and would take many days to walk. We recalled our return journey from Uganda to America that took several days, stopping over in Scotland, then England, until we finally crossed to Atlanta by plane.

Talking about Scotland, we saw a picture of Scots wearing Scottish skirts, then he asked me why men wear skirts? I explained that just like women wear pants, men can wear skirts. I showed him pictures of men wear mandresses, shuka/sheets, long skirts, jeans and shorts.

“Do men dance ballet? That’s weird!” he asked upon seeing a picture of male ballet dancer. “Yes bebe, men can things women do, just like women can do things men do.” I told him there is no dance that men can dance that women cannot dance. Similarly men and women drive cars, cook, and fly a plane. Then he recalled, “In my Karate class, there are girls and boys. We all do the same things!”

Mission accomplished! Lesson learned in a very relatable style! 😀💪🙌 At the end of it all, I was proud that we had achieved the goal of the lesson: “To diversify my First Grader’s classroom learning, beyond the usual subjects of English, Maths, Science, by including current affairs, history and important national events. We learned about the world and the different peoples, different cultures, and different activities that exist. I stimulated his curiosity to seek new knowledge, and emancipated his brain to see things differently, create meaning and relate the learning to his own experiences. I let him wander off to different topics, then bring back the conversation to why school was on holiday on a Monday, which according to him is a school day.

As a global citizen, it is very important to me that my son learns beyond the little ‘country world’ in which he rotates. Most importantly, as a very open-mind person, dedicated to “love for humanity first”, I want my son to know the different peoples and experience that shape our world, controversial or not, real or make-believe. I want to allow him better prepare for a world beyond his childhood experiences and imagination. Whenever he brings me knowledge I had not introduced to him yet, like the time he asked whether, “A child can have two fathers but no mother?” as Adam [his classmates] told him, I bounce the question back to him. “What do you think?”Then we handle it according to his responses.

While I am pretty much open and tolerant, I am also conscious of the world we live in. I do not want to shape his mind with hard facts about things I do not believe or care for. I will neither knight Christopher Columbus as a “savior” nor malign him as a terrible man. I will openly explore his question whether a child can have a two fathers or two mothers, similar to how we speak about living with a single parent. And yes, he is allowed to continue thinking of mommy as chocolate, others as dark chocolate, and himself as white!

In Defense of the “Word Value of Time”: From a Soccer Mom

Big BenFotorMy friend Simon Kaheru (http://skaheru.wordpress.com) recently blogged about “the real value of time vs. the word value of time” following his business trip to Amsterdam in The Netherlands. In Amsterdam, Simon fell in love with the abundance of “the real value of time”, where business meetings start on scheduled time, phone calls happen on time, and trains also run on schedule. A two-minutes train delay would be announced by the rail station attendant! He contrasted that with “the word value of time”, typical within Ugandan society, which largely swears by “Ugandan Time”. He argues that appointments are verbally agree to, with never the intention of honoring them because time is relative, no apologies for tardiness, as one is “better later than never”, is the popular saying!

I feel for all the sentiments Simon expressed! Though my comment to Simon was, come to America….with plenty of versions of Uganda, especially with public transportation..which is now creeping into some people’s time management skills!

I have had my share of fights with “Ugandan time”: tardiness makes me mad; time keeping makes my heart jump with happiness! I strongly believe that anyone who fails to show up per schedule appointment shows a lack of respect for their party. It is simply rude! I have walked away from meetings venues, when the other party did not show up on time. I once left my sister in the bank without notifying her, after waiting over two hours for my mother to show up to open a family bank account. I refused to return when they called me back.

I get enervated being the first to show up for meetings, or parties or other events, waiting around for thirty-minutes, one hour, three hours, five hours before more people show up and the event to ultimately start. Which is why I loathe formal events, particularly (no offense) organized by peoples of Ugandans, Africans, Blacks or colored! I remember one time while visiting my sister in Atlanta with my ex, she invited us to attend a  dinner party with her at a Ugandan friend’s house. The dinner was scheduled to start at eight O’clock in the evening, but by eight, we were still at her house, an hour’s drive to destination. Ten, still at my sister’s house, as she kept picking out what to wear. She assured us that that the party had not began, so at eleven o’clock we set off. True to her word, we arrived past midnight, right about when the party had just started!

Poor time management is beyond “Ugandan time”, it is ‘conveniently’ embedded in several African countries as “African time”, among Blacks people in America as “Black People’s Time” and people of color as “Colored People’s Time” or CPT.  Yes, it has even invaded our public service system here in America, where services in some public offices start sluggishly, and buses and trains in many big cities never run on time, including in the fast-and-furious “Big Apple”. Yet, we do not always get a courtesy apology or  “announcement of a delay”!

On my part, I must confess that, “the real value of time” keeper was me, some six years ago, a luxury I do not seem capable of affording since becoming a soccer mother. No! I am not going to blame it on my son, but it has a lot to do with him and the society in which I live, into which I am sometimes co-opted.

So, how did I cross to “the word value of time” people? While I not permanent there, I find myself cornered in by friends or my household. Those who know me will tell you that I pretty much run my son’s life on schedule. Dinner is served at six o’clock, then comes bathroom time with reading and brushing, child off to bed at seven o’clock, latest seven-thirty after sharing a bedtime. I would like him to have as much sleep as possible!

Not anymore! My time management skills have changed since I had my child. All his birthday parties have started later than my scheduled time, with guests showing up earlier than the hostess! Until child turned one year, I arrived late at literally every scheduled appointment because he would start popping just as we were getting ready to head out of the house. He had constipation, which meant another fifteen to thirty minutes of helping him push! From the one who always left for the airport two-and-a-half hours in advance, to avoid any mishap, I missed my first flight in life on a trip to South Africa in 2009 with my then fifteen month old child. We got to the airport check-in desk shortly after the baggage desk had closed because I was packing till the last minute; six suitcases, only one of which was mine!

Lately, Simon’s detestation for “the word value of time” comes glaring at me surreal, as I go about my “soccer mom” lifestyle. Child is now six and in first grade with more activities. Going to bed at seven in the evening is increasingly a luxury, with the changing school and after-school demands. I have enrolled him in both Karate class with a three days per week commitment, and in Cub Scout five days a month. Plus, now he has homework to return to school every morning and other class projects. And he still wants to have a snack, when he comes home from school, before he sits down to do his homework, with spare playtime before dinner is served. With our new routine, after-school is: snack in the car, Karate class, dinner in the car, daily homework to be submitted the next day, dinner, bathroom time, bedtime story and goodnight!:(
Amidst all of this, adhering to my sworn commitment to “the real value of time” is a luxury I seem incapable of affording, anymore. I wish I could! Now, I plan on leaving the house not at the hour but between time periods – between 6:00p and 6:30p, leaving a margin of error so that I do not go crazy over myself. A couple of times when I am running late, I have had to call up people I am meeting to apologize and ask for extra time or reschedule. Sometimes even when it seems we are doing great with time, with a projected extra fifteen minutes before our usual time to catch the school bus, we find ourselves running out of the house three minutes to the bus arrival. Thankfully, my son loves running, helping me warm up for my morning run. Sometimes we miss the bus, like happened today, and I have to keep breathing in, to avoid berating child or mourning about missing the bus.

With all the activities lined up each week, I worry that child will get overwhelmed and won’t get enough sleep in the night. Perhaps my consolation is, yes! I still make it on time to most official appointments, to our doctor’s appointments before time, child has not been late to school, and I am getting just about the entire “to-do” list accomplished. Still I think “the real value of time”, as “standard time” for social and business etiquette was created by a man, clueless about “The Surreal Life of a Soccer Mom”.

Not Everyone is Sophie, John, Jane or Matt: Diversity Consciousness in the Classroom

Recently, I was at an teacher training workshop, where the speaker for a session on “Qualities of a Good Substitute Teacher” mentioned the importance of identifying and connecting one-on-one with pupils in the classroom. In explaining why a teacher should know her students by name, she mentioned Sophie, John, Jane or Matt, as the four names off-the-cuffs in her classroom example. 

For me, that triggered something about the ingrained assumptions teachers might make about their students profile. Many of the assumptions reveal conceptions and misconceptions derived from one’s ‘comfort zone’ and surroundings. My assumption is the speaker comes from an ‘environment’ where most children are either Sophie, John, Jane or Matt. Or perhaps her education background was filled with students that fit such profile. That in a way creates an “illusive comfort” that knowing the profile of one’s classroom correlates with being in touch with the needs and special circumstances of each student. Yet, in a classroom environment, each child needs to be acknowledged and catered for/ included to their comfort.

How does a diversity conscious teacher make the classroom experience all inclusive for each one of these children? I asked myself the same question during a visit to the area elementary school. Of the two classrooms I observed: 1) First Grade class had one black kid, a young girl called Hannah; all the other kids were visibly white. 2) A Third Grade all-white classroom. Both classrooms had white teachers, as was the School Principal, and all the school staff I came in contact with.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with an all-white school, if that is the general population around the school district. My concern is whether and how children of other colors in the same school are included in a predominantly-white classroom. Particularly given the potential influence of the preschool experiences and home environment on shaping knowledge formation, knowledge generation, teaching aides and one’s comfort with the teaching and learning environment. In many places, the classroom environment has evolved beyond, S, J, J or M, the typical ‘blonde and blue-eyed’ and Judeo-Christian, thanks to desegregation and immigration of the Abequa, Biko, Horacios, Happy, Ijeomas, Lakisha, Özil and Muhammad into the same classroom. Our classrooms today represent children of varied backgrounds as immigrants, children of immigrants, first generation or generations of American-born or native to this country. They bring varied experiences from their homes, communities and experiences, all of which need to be represented for an enriched classroom experience.

Going back to Hannah, the only black girl in the First Grade classroom I visited. She seemed comfortable with her classroom and classmates, but had another story not visibly captured in the teaching aides and classroom environment I observed. While checking on her writing assignment, she read to me her story about her best friend, “I like playing with my best friend Usnuah!” To me, there was a different story with friendships not represented by SJJM. I wondered if her teachers take time to learn about Hannah’s friends, family and neighbors! Or whether she is offered a chance to share her ‘unique’ family and community background in a predominantly white classroom!

That is not to suggest that all white kids have the same family experience, although their differences [while paramount] are not as visible to the eye as Hannah. Moreover, when we got to engage with “disabilities”,  five students with varied developmental disabilities were ‘paraded’ in front of our seminar room, so we could ask questions for ‘our learning pleasure”. Perhaps the intentions were innocent, but the scenario reminded me of times when black people were caricatures of white audiences as, ‘strange’ study subjects, ‘caged entertainers’ [Sarah Baartman aka Venus Hottentot], the “Human Zoo” [most recently replicated in Norway], entrainment at lynching picnics popular in the South. And up until now, through international aid campaigns and hollywood movies that depict “the black victim” awaiting a ‘white savior”. Interestingly as well, our diversity trainer did not find anything controversial with showing a clip from the movie “Blind Side” to make her point about ‘developmental disability.

Which brings me to another topic covered about English Language Learners (ELLs), the now politically correct replacement of “English as a Second Learning”. The change was pre-empted after realizing that while ESL focused predominantly on immigrants and immigrant children, ELL recognized that some US-born children come from households where English is not the first. The basic assumption, as stated during the seminar was that [first-generation/immigrants] children “have difficulty learning not just English but the entire school curriculum.”

Granted there is truth to it, but with misguided assumptions that: 1) Simply because one does not speak English, they therefore, do not understand anything nor have sound knowledge to contribute to their classroom experience. 2) English Language Speakers are conversant with the English Language and do not need enhancement classes, which as a writing coach is not true.

I work with full-blooded American school children, those whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great great grandparents and beyond were born in America. Yet, it is appalling that they cannot spell a simple word like “Pail” in Third Grade! I have found out that their school did not teach ‘phonics’, which I believe is great language learning tool. Nor are they offered English Language ‘Enhancement Classes’ at the Charter School they attend. Yet with ‘diversity’ more focused on ‘cultural’ and ‘developmental’ differences, such cases are fall out of the cracks of ‘special needs education’.

A diversity conscious teacher should ably pay attention to the non-verbal cues from their students, cater to their different needs, reach out and appeal to them, to make each one of her/his students feel included. Perhaps it starts with diversity training, which recognizes the changing needs of a classroom beyond the ’traditional’ diversities of “black or white” in America. There are multiple layers of diversity including physical or mental abilities, race, sex, geographical origin, family background, household and cultural ancestry. Today, classrooms composition includes children of immigrants, first generation Americans or migrant workers, Native American children, Muslim children,  inner-city kids.
Continued and refresher teacher training seminars would be helpful, as well as exposure to varied scenarios that stimulate “diversity awareness” and ultimately “diversity consciousness”. I thought for a minute, during my training, “Wouldn’t it be more powerful if the trainer on “diversity” were a minority? Yes, I am aware that white women in White America are included among the ‘minority groups’, but since the session focused on ‘civil rights’ and ‘disabilities’, a ‘racial minority’ or ‘personal with a disability’ as facilitator would have made a greater visible impact.

Diversity Consciousness would enable teachers and school administrators to understand that, immigrant children and children of immigrant parents might not actively engage in classroom discussions due to deferring cultural learnings about social interaction and authority. Immigrants from countries where authority is hierarchical might not engage as much with their children’s classroom teacher(s) ‘out of respect’ for the teacher or fear of challenging what in their upbringing is an ‘authority figure’ and ‘expert’ in their child[ren] education. I learned from working with Japanese graduate students as a Writing Tutor that it is not in their habit to actively participate in classroom discussions because it is considered rude to challenge ‘seniority’ in Japanese culture. One of my students settled for a lower class grade, even when he knew his response on a classroom test was correct because he did not want to challenge his professor that his response resonated with the experience of his home country. Diversity Consciousness needs starts with the school administration, selection of teacher or substitute teacher trainers, program administrators, school teaching staff and all organs in the school system in daily contact with our children.

Help Your Children Dream

I strongly believe in the power of dreams. They shape lives, build relations, mentor professions, restore hope and courage. They could be the keys to our personal and professional trajectories and success!

Just about every morning, my son wakes up with a dream. Either he is building a machine that will stop snow falling in winter, or he had Ninja powers or he was laughing with his cousins. Lately, he has had plenty of dreams about mommy getting married, to her [ex]boyfriend, who lives in another country. The first time, that dream made him sad and cry, because it meant, “mommy would leave him and go live with her boyfriend”. Since I told him, “I can never leave you, because I live for you, and you and I will go live with my PM when I get married,” he is now happy to dream more about mommy getting married. In fact he wants to dream about mommy getting married, as much as about mommy getting long hair! Never mind that “the dreamed for” does not exactly have marriage in her dreams or foresight. She has another dream, colored “green”. Yes! And it is part of that dream I would like to talk about.

Recently, I was coaching a fifth grader, and we were talking about traveling. I asked if she had been to her father’s country, Nigeria? She said no, and told me that she would never travel to Nigeria because there is Ebola. In fact, her father wanted to go to Nigeria, but she begged him not to go. I asked if she would go to other Africans countries, to which she responded with a vehement “No!” There are many diseases and people are poor! I asked her if my son and I looked poor, or her father. She said, No!

Yeah! That is the story about Africa, as told in America. I told her that Ebola is not everywhere in Nigeria, or every Nigerian would be dead. I told her my son and I took planes to come back to America, and while in “Africa”, we ate food everyday and did not catch or bring back any diseases. Then she told me that she would never got to place on a plane or boat or train. She will only go to places where she can drive or walk. She is not taking a plane, a boat or a train because she is afraid to die. Then I told her that one can die in their sleep or in the house or on the road. She said, “at least she would die peacefully”. I asked her, “how about in a car road accident,?” Well, she did not exactly have a response to that, but still no traveling, not to Africa and not by plane, boat or train. Life jackets do not work, planes fall in big oceans. Excuse after excuse!

I wondered, how a child of an immigrant from Nigeria could be devoid of a dream to travel and see the world? Didn’t “Tiger Mom” tell us that Nigerians are among the “Triple Package” aka  the “eight highly successful cultures”, thanks to their superiority complex! True, Tiger mom (with hubby co-author) mentioned something to do with “insecurities”, but in the sense of feeling inadequate or underaccomplished, instigating the strive to become and accomplish more. Not to shun traveling the world or getting on a plane!

I worried about this American 10-year old fifth grader, not having a dream beyond her fears. I wondered what may have shaped her fears? After all, her mom, many generations American has also traveled the world, including to Africa studying and learning about the world. Why would her daughter not wish to follow her mom’s footsteps, even if it were to board the plane to the world of California that is “without the African diseases”? Where is her curiosity about the world of her father, beyond the images and tale-tales from her news sources? Why can’t she compare herself to her parents who have been around the world?

Very often we are told that in order to be happy, we should not to compare ourselves to others. That is so cliché!  Plenty of my accomplishments are a result of comparing myself to others I have interacted with or got to know about. Watching, reading or learning about their accomplishments gives me the boost to keep going. Stories of folks who dropped out of formal schooling and built empires and lived large. Stories of people struggling worse off than myself, yet still afford a reason to smile, remind me to keep positive. Stories of my grandparents who never went to school but had the dream of educating their children. My paternal grandfather was not very wealthy, and could not afford to educate all his four children. So, him and his three older children agreed to send my father, the last born to school, with the hope that he would look after this family upon competition of his education, and got a good job. My maternal grandfather educated over 15 children while serving the church [unpaid] as a clergy, in pursuit of a dream that his children would never have to lack anything in life. They would afford to buy themselves clothes that he was never able to afford them.

In Africa where I was born, dreams are what childhood is made of! We are not afraid to dream! As a child, we often heard people dreaming about “going to Makerere”, the main university in the country and epitome as success. It was once the “Harvard of Africa”, so you can understand why many dreams focused and stopped at Makerere. Coming from a family that afford us a livelihood and decent education, not frequent flyer miles, I would say my dreams were not too far from Makerere either. Then as a little girl I went to Nairobi, Kenya with my mom, to shop for my first-born sister who was going off to secondary school. That was a big deal, where rich Ugandans resided, including my uncle and his family. Perhaps that shaped my love for adventure and travel, I cannot say so with certainty.

But I travelled the world, including within my own country. The more people I met and interacted with, the more my dreams widened. I thought of opportunities beyond my background, and seized them at a tender age. Nothing unique to me, but it is the characteristic of the African spirit. Little children dream of an education, they dream of becoming pilots, teachers, doctors, lawyers. Yes! Including dreams of meeting the US President and themselves becoming the US Presidents. Yet, we also know of the “American Dream” of getting rich and living large. Or as 50 cents said, “Get Rich or Die Trying”. Plus the Black struggle in America was sustained by the dream of freedom. Slaves, not allowed to exist as humans, to vote or to read and write, often found ways of ‘stealing’ the resources to learn to read and write and one day free themselves. Frederick Douglas, a slave, self-taught himself to read and write and publish, and went on to have a very illustrious and influential career. Political prisoners on Robben Island with Mandela during Apartheid South Africa told stories of ‘stealing’ empty brown cement bags and creating own writing tools that they used to write out their political strategies, which they tossed to each other over the cubicles in which they were detained. They also wrote letters and poems to their families and loved ones outside prisons. They had a dream to stay alive and sane by any means, and achieved it.

So, what stifles little minds like the one I encountered here in America, the land of “Big Dreams”, from dreaming? We as parents have a huge job of helping our children dream. Help our children live their dreams beyond the fears pandered by sources around them. Undo their [un]truths, to avoid them getting suffocated. Let them live a world of adventure, or risks, or searching and imagining. The world were impossible is nothing. Were careers and personal relationships are built on dreams beyond our wildest imagination. After all, dreams can come true. Haven’t they?