Saturday, June 23, 2012

Graduation Goggles

In season 6, episode 20 of the sage TV show "How I Met Your Mother," Robin describes the phenomenon of "graduation goggles," those nostalgic rose-colored glasses you get when about to end a life situation or phase, even if you know that phase was pretty terrible. Even if high school was nothing but bullies and insecurity, right before it ends you can't help thinking that you don't want to go. Okay, it's a silly source for the name of this 'phenomenon,' but in the past few weeks I've appreciated having something to name the feeling I've been experiencing.

I've known for a long time that I was unhappy at my job. There were many reasons why, and it was hard to parse out the source of many of my frustrations. Teaching is a complicated thing because even the best and happiest teachers, those who love their jobs and can't imagine doing anything else, are stressed out and unsuccessful. Teaching is a job where you will always fail at something. You will always fail in the short-term: there will be things you wished you had done differently in any given class period to better support students. You will fail in the long-term: there will always be kids in whom you see nothing but greatness but who fail to meet the bar you've set. Kids will disappoint you in ways you never imagined possible. It is the nature of the job that it is difficult and heart-breaking and that the amount of time and love you put in will never be enough. All of these failures wear on me. And then this was compounded by challenges specific to my school. I had to (and still) wonder: is it the school that's doing me in or is it the profession as a whole? Is my school not the right fit for me or am I just not cut out to be a teacher?

Coming to the decision to leave my school was a gradual process. At first I thought I would stick it out one more year, four in total, to honor the goal of following my advisory for four years. I began with them in 9th grade and after three years together I see them as my own. I have come to love each of them deeply and unconditionally. Every time I moved closer to making the leap away from my school, my advisees have been the (sometimes literal) voice reminding me of my obligation to stay. But the challenges and stresses of my school continued to build up and break me down until they outweighed the commitment I felt to my advisees. Is that terrible? Call me a deadbeat advisor; I chose my own mental health and long-term career prospects over whatever I felt for them. There are lots of arguments as to why the kids will be fine--the school will still support them, they'll all still get into college, I can be a better support if I'm not drowning in my own poor mental health, etc. But I still feel guilty.

In the last week of school, the graduation goggles hit hard, especially as I thought of my advisees. I sat at graduation watching current 12th grade advisors choke back tears and beam with pride as they handed out good wishes and diplomas. As I remembered I am the one who gave up that opportunity to sit on that stage and send my babies into the world, I couldn't help but think, "Maybe one more year here wouldn't be that bad." Earlier in the week as I cleaned out my classroom and realized that I'll never again get to use some of my curriculum and structures in the same way, I thought, "Maybe one more year would be just what I need to get it right." As I said good bye to colleagues who have become good friends, I wondered, "What if my next school doesn't have a Maura?" The graduation goggles made me forget the reasons why this job nearly killed me. It obscured all the times when I cried in the faculty bathroom or prayed I would get in an accident on the way to school so I wouldn't have to go to work. However, being able to name the feeling helped me make more sense of it and remind me that I am leaving for good reason. It also helped me remember that I always have a moment of panic right before I dive into something new--I remember second-guessing myself as I got on the plane to New Zealand and as I moved into my apartment at Stanford, both times thinking about all the things I'd miss about whatever had come before.

Not to say that my hesitation about status quo changes is always a bad thing. I worried I'd made the wrong decision when I started the job I'm now fleeing and, well, maybe I should have listened better to that instinct. Who knows what will happen next? What I do know I know is this: my decision to leave my school is scary, but feels right. More importantly, the circumstances and decisions (mine and others') that have led me to my new role are an incredible combination of acting on my beliefs and of pure luck, so everything feels completely right about where I'm going. No doubt there will be new, unexpected challenges that make me to grumble about how kids/ policies/ administrators/ colleagues/ resources/ etc. were never like this at my last school, but I hope these will be outweighed by unexpected surprises that confirm I'm in the right place. Even through the graduation goggles, I'm eagerly awaiting what's coming next.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Check One

One point of contention for people of mixed race heritage has always been racial reporting on demographic surveys. From my own personal experience and from hearing the stories of many, many others, I know that there is always a strange, uncomfortable feeling that wells up whenever I am asked to report my race. It's not that I'm opposed to collection of demographics--in fact, I feel proud and patriotic when I get to participate in the US Census every 10 years, and am appalled by the recent House of Representatives vote to eliminate the American Community Survey (write your senator to stop the madness!). Specific to racial identification, I very much want people to know how I describe that important part of my identity. But every time I start to read the race question on a form, I know that I am not the one choosing the desctiption. The boxes choose. Who knew that the words "check one" could be so traumatically defining to a young child (or always-growing adult)? Specific memories stand out from very early on about dealing with this question. It was the question on every standardized test that everyone knew the answer to except me. Asking how to fill out that section made you look as stupid as asking how to spell your name (also an issue for me in the standardized testing context). For a mixed person checking only one box means, at best, knowingly providing inaccurate or misleading information. At worst it means publicly documenting which parent you love more or which side of your family you would erase from the past. It means succumbing to the ways that others have spoken for you against your will and admitting to shameful fantasies about about wishing away a part of your very being.

I remember filling out my SAT registration and asking my sister what she marked for the race question. How could I negotiate my desire to follow-rules (you can only check ONE) with my desire to be truthful to both the survey-takers and to myself? My sister's response still drives my box-checking decisions to this day: "I still check both. Sometimes I check 'other' also. If it jams up the machine and they have to read it and enter it by hand, good. Then someone will be forced to notice what's going on." I still check as many as I want, no matter what it tells me to do. That's me, sticking it to The Man. Sadly, as an adult I've learned more about the many ways The Man sticks it back to you and know that whichever data-collector has to deal with my insolence will probably just choose one race for me based on whatever will most benefit the data-collection agency. I have seen this happen at my school when collecting data about my students and it still weighs on my conscience the many times I've not spoken up in defense of kids and their families who were just trying to explain who they are. I'd rather honor the self-identification wishes of a real human being than worry about whether some final statistics will add up to more than 100%.

Fortunately, I have seen change in my lifetime and now it is much more common to see "check all that apply." Of course there are glaring issues with the racial categories one gets to choose from, not to mention the delineation of "Hispanic" as an ethnicity but not a race, but expanding the number of boxes I can check is at least a step in the right direction. I like to think that the data collected from the 2000 US Census (the first time one could select more than one race) provided a positive, affirming demonstration of why this data is worth collecting.

What brought this all up today is a form where I saw something I'd never seen before:

This brought up a lot of questions morally, emotionally, and mathematically. I am going to list a bunch of them, in no particular order, just because it got me thinking:

  • I think that being able to select more than one race is always preferable to forcing someone to pick one race, but what number is adequate? Two doesn't seem like enough, but a limit of 15 seems like an unnecessary limit. 
  • However, five is still a limit, so is that inherently too confining/controlling? 
  • Mathematically, why five? Would a power of two make more mathematical sense? 
  • From a data analysis perspective, what are the benefits of limiting someone to five choices rather than not limiting the number of choices at all? 
  • How many people actually check five races, especially given the list of options (I only see three out of the 19 that don't fall under the APIA umbrella)? 
  • Identifying with five races means going back relatively far in one's ancestry, so at what point in the family tree does one stop identifying with a certain racial identity? 
  • What aspects of a given race (and culture) get retained for people in a way that pushes them to identify with that race/culture? 
  • At what point in a genealogy do people stop identifying as mixed race and what sociocultural factors play into that? 
  • How do positive and negative reinforcement of claiming (or not claiming) a multiracial heritage impact one's desire to do so? E.g. do I choose to identify as mixed race more because it's become fashionable in recent years (positive reinforcement) or because the negative consequences of choosing two races have been reduced? Does the tragic mulatto want to choose one race so he can be fully accepted in a loving community or because he doesn't want to be lynched? 
  • How much of the rise in mixed race births is/can be attributed to an increase in interracial couples and how much to a change in the ways we identify ourselves (and the ways that society allows us to identify ourselves)?  
Please feel free to run with any of these questions and write a doctoral thesis out of it. Just be sure to send me a copy.