Thursday, June 4, 2020

More Than a Protest Sign

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) suggested a way for white people to support protestors after the murder of George Floyd was to stand in front of local police precincts with a sign that says: End White Silence.

We probably should do that here where I live, but the silence around white supremacy and systemic racism is thick in our community. I don’t even think people would understand the message.

I can imagine someone yelling something, anything so they could declare, “I did it. I’m white and I make noise all the time.”

White posterboard with 'end white silence' painted in large black letters. One of the protestor's hands is visible as well as a tie dyed shirt.

The SURJ advice didn’t seem quite right for me or my immediate neighborhood, but I made the sign anyway and took it on a 30 minute journey to the city where there was a peaceful vigil for victims of police brutality. I hadn’t even figured out where to stand when a black man approached me and asked:

“What does that mean? White silence? What would it mean to end it?”

I’ve thought through this question extensively and was immediately able to offer an explanation with about four examples. This, you should know, is unusual for me. I’m a writer. My brain to mouth connection is really weak. Ask me “what do you do for fun?” and I’m likely to sputter until you give up and walk away.

But on this day, I explained that sign easily because white silence has been my life.

White silence prevented the little community church where I used to give so much of my time from issuing a statement condemning 45s racist “go back” tweet last summer. Other churches made statements, but we don’t talk about those things here. The pastors are sure to give extra time for silent prayers. Those are our favorite kind.

White silence made me too uncomfortable to push back when a fellow volunteer announced she didn’t want to hang a flyer in the Tarentum Family Dollar store even if they do have a bulletin board because “we don’t want those people coming to our event.”

“I think we want everyone to come, Heather,” I said. But I knew by ‘those people’ she meant black people. We can’t make each other feel uncomfortable though and I used to tell myself that if I pushed too hard, I wouldn’t like what was said next about ‘those people.’ Better to let them keep it in. Better if they’re silent.

White silence allows the MAGA hats and flags and signs to pepper our suburbs and rural areas along with “support the police” and thin blue line flags. No one pushes back, even when it’s a confederate flag flying. We don’t ask what it means to the person displaying it or what it is they like about the current occupant of the White House.

White silence is advertised on our township web site in a series of high definition videos touting our police force (we have a lot of 'em) and our safety (did we mention we have so many police?).

Our white silence ensures the kids in our community will grow up just the way we did. We can't change what we don't acknowledge, and that is obviously the point.

What would it mean to end white silence? Lots of uncomfortable social interaction. Deep conversations. Self-examination. But at the end of it, we'd emerge from our fear. We could fight against injustice. We could make America great for the first time.

I brought the sign home and kept it. Perhaps someday I will have the courage to take it to the township building. That would definitely start a conversation.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

More Than Fictional Characters

*This post won’t spoil my book, but you should read it first just in case. ;)*

I went to a mediocre public school in an extremely rural part of southwestern Pennsylvania. A couple of years ago, my graduating class met in the bowling alley of a casino for our 20th reunion. 

I didn’t go. 

High school is a nightmare. Really. It’s my recurring nightmare. I can’t find my classes. I can’t work the combination lock. And my personal favorite, there’s a math class (always a math class) that I suddenly realize I’ve not been attending for months. It’s too late to drop the class. I can’t make up what I’ve missed. It’s just failure. Complete, utter, disastrous failure. 

High school was not enjoyable for me as a student. You can read all about it in the second part of ‘More Than a Bad Teacher.’ (That’s the part where multiple reviewers really started getting into the book.) Pep rallies, classes in temporary trailers, Danny... he was a real guy that tortured me during lunch. Ashleigh is mostly me when I was a teen. 

But in the first part of the book, the story is told from the mom’s perspective. And the mom is what one reviewer called ‘abrasive.’ Andy isn’t me, but she interacts with a world I experienced as a substitute paraprofessional at the local school district. This mediocre public school is in the exurbs, an hour and a half north of my alma mater, and the similarities are striking. 

Demographics, middling academics, weird emphasis on sports that hover somewhere between unsuccessful and embarrassing. 

High school football players celebrating in a hugging huddle.

I subbed in all of the buildings, but it was the middle school that gave me stories. And it was in middle school as an adult that I began to wonder why many of the teachers were so miserable. 

So I started writing ‘More Than a Bad Teacher’ as a hypothetical exploration of one teacher’s indifference. Teachers in my southwestern PA district are paid quite well, so that was off the table from the beginning. The middle school building has regular issues with mold, the gym had a bucket to catch a constant drip from the leaking roof, there were no staff bathrooms, and the teachers’ lounge was an empty classroom devoid of any color or personal touches. It was outfitted with a microwave, table and chairs, and a copy machine because no human should ever just relax for a bit. The infrastructure could make a person miserable, so that gets Andy down a little. 

Her home life isn’t going well. That takes a toll. But Andy is at the point where she dehumanizes her students. She thinks they’re all little dummies. They try to talk to her and she reacts by heaving a huge sigh. Andy ignores IEPs. 

And as I wrote her life, I could imagine that Andy was desperately bored. She wasn’t engaged with the course material and her students certainly weren’t. Her authority was constantly undermined by a consultant the district hired to boost state standardized test scores. She wasn’t a bad teacher, not really. It’s just that she wasn’t supported. She needed something more than take home pay to have workplace satisfaction.

ID Badge for Substitute Paraprofessional at a School

Andy gets a jolt before the third part of the story that forces her to examine her situation. By the end of the story, she’s made great gains. The turnaround may be pollyannaish, but she’s not abrasive anymore and you can imagine her life continuing to improve. That’s what I like to think happens to her. 

But I’m still waiting for our real life public school to get that kind of jolt. We sit with a C+ grade on Niche. Niche and Great Schools aren’t perfect measures of school quality, but the grades in my area do correspond to the reputations of each district. Our teachers are paid as well as those in nearby A+ schools. It’s time to look at what resources other than teacher pay are being provided. 

I was not a teacher. But even as a substitute teacher’s aide, I felt crushed by going to work everyday having to hope the teacher’s bathroom stall was empty and that a pack of sixth graders didn’t come in to practice their makeup. And I wonder if great schools find a way to encourage and reward more creativity in the classroom. They surely attract first rate teachers, but they must also provide training and support and appreciation. And maybe a leak-free roof and mold abatement for good measure. 

There’s something wrong with our schools. It’s time for a broader conversation about what can be done to make it right. 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

More Than Worry

In this time of social distance and stay home orders I’m actually getting out more. Not physically of course, but events that used to be too far from home are now accessible right here where I am. So I’ve gone from reading books about social justice and scrolling the Internet for a clue to fight fracking to Zoom meetups and online webinars.

Covid-19 Alert at an Allegheny County Park.
It's usually easy to stay 20 or more feet away from other people
at this Allegheny County Park.

Tuesday night, I took in a presentation that followed the life of plastic from the extraction of fossil fuels to disposal. An expert detailed the chemicals that seep into our water, soil, air, and bodies at every point in the process. 

Climate destruction, they said, is inextricably linked to poverty, racism, and militarization. 

It was not the first time I’ve been exposed to this information. In a couple of years, an oil and gas company will begin fracking operations just a mile and a quarter from my home. I thought I might prepare myself with knowledge and help my community mitigate the harms of the industry, so I read and reached out to several area organizations. I learned about radioactive materials and methane leaks and poor infant outcomes near frack wells. 

The more I learn, the more upset I become. 

So I finished this most recent presentation and rejoined my family where they’d been binging The Last Airbender. 

“I need a cup of tea,” I said. “I also need to eat my feelings.”

“Don’t worry,” they said.

And I realized I’m not worried. Worry is something I do when I feel like I have a chance. Worry wakes me up at night wondering if I’ve left a burner lit on the stove and makes me trudge downstairs to check. Worry motivates me. Worry has been my friend. 

This feeling I get when I watch The Story of Plastic or read an article about the Beaver County cracker needing 1,000 fracked wells every 2-3 years to feed it is not worry. It’s a thing I don’t have words to describe. It’s dread and rage and disappointment. It’s powerful and it begs me to give up. The deck is stacked, it says. Just enjoy what life you can until the petrochemical companies take that life away. 

I live in a place where the people care about jobs. Noise and traffic matter a little. Asthma, low birth weight, and cancer clusters do not concern them. Maybe they think it won’t happen to them. Maybe they think they’ll sell their mineral rights and finally have enough money for a new F150 or to take a cruise. 

Whatever it is they think, it’s the fracking industry that has the power. It promises to take care of us and threatens to destroy Pennsylvania’s economy if it’s even modestly regulated. It claims to have made our heating costs lower. It claims to have stopped wars in the Middle East. It takes credit for jobs that aren’t remotely related to the industry.

Oily ooze near the walking trail at Deer Lakes Park
I live near a park. They're fracking under the lakes at this park.
And now an oily ooze comes up out of the ground.
The county puts pine chips over the ooze.
It does not go away.

I’m represented by politicians in both parties that cannot see a future without fracking. “Jobs,” they say. “Energy independence.”

But if it’s energy independence we’re after, why frack highly populated areas to manufacture plastic? 

The answer is not logical. Not from a public health perspective or in the interest of common good. It does not move America toward sustainability. Our government and corporate interests and even our neighbors are blasting us toward climate catastrophe, all the while doing everything possible to drown out science and common sense. 

“Jobs,” they say. “Energy independence.”

It’s more than worry I feel now. It could be determination. It could be disgust. It’s complicated and tough to manage. But no political party is going to save us. It’s down to people like me. And I think that together we have a chance. 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

More Than Enough

It must have been the church rummage sale that made me realize what’s eventually going to happen to all my stuff. My old church has an annual “Spring Fling” rummage sale that earns a couple thousand dollars and helps church folk declutter. 

For years, I looked forward to the sale. I put stuff aside in the winter. I waited for the day when the church would open a storage building so I could take my old crap by the carload and send it to elsewhere. 

I relied on that rummage sale and Goodwill for decades to ease my slightly squeamish feelings about making room for more stuff. The house holds a finite amount of possessions and as people that won’t utilize a storage unit and insist on parking cars in the garage, sometimes (read: before gift giving holidays) some things have to go. And of course, someone really wants our cast offs. They pay for the privilege!

I made it all the way to the 2010s feeling passably okay about this system. Get rid of old stuff (help the needy). Get new stuff (enjoy several days of entertainment from my own cleverness).

A shelf in my dining room full of stuff that’s 
not sparkin’ joy.

And then I helped clean up after the rummage sale. It was difficult to believe anyone bought anything because so much stuff was still there. Not just crappy stuff other people donated. No, my stuff was still there too. We worked diligently, the people of God, to pile these things near the door to be picked up by Goodwill. 

No one buys much of that stuff at Goodwill. Reporting from NPR puts it at 30%, meaning 70% is trash that got moved around a lot.

Eventually, it ends up in a landfill. 

I realized that post rummage sale day that I was putting a variety of intermediate steps between my stuff and its final resting place. But I wasn’t extending its useful life or helping someone less fortunate. I was only assuaging my own guilt by sending things on a complicated journey with the same destination as the neighborhood garbage truck. 

Life changed when I looked around and thought about a bulldozer pushing my earthly possessions into a heap. I visualized it frequently as my awareness grew. All the knickknacks, the plastic junks picked up from Dollar Stores and Five Below, even useful things like kitchen utensils and shoes and books. All of it is just killing time with me before it encounters that trash heap. 

I’ve become much more intentional about consumption as a result. In the pre-Covid days when walking through the aisles at Target was still an acceptable pastime, I didn’t. I stopped looking at the things. I stopped buying the things and when it becomes necessary to replace something that’s broken, I take time to figure out whether our need is true or if I’m just looking for a moment’s relief in the consumerism. 

Before Christmas, I sent a letter to all the people that usually give gifts. I explained that we have everything we could need or want and that the only way to keep stuff out of the landfill is by not buying it. If you read my post about Mother’s Day, you’ll see that this tracks. I destroy holidays. Everyone listened though and we brought in very little in new material possessions while still celebrating family with food and togetherness and homemade holiday puns. 

An example of a fine Christmas pun.
Would anyone buy this from a Goodwill store?

Since we’re not buying new stuff, I’m not getting rid of things the way I used to. The plan is to have a big “moving” sale before we leave this house. The tchotchkes will have several chances to be enjoyed by someone else before they make their way to the dump. But I’m not going to get rid of useless things to make room for new useless things. And I’m not going to use shopping as entertainment. I already have more than enough.