Trigger Warning: This Post is About Trigger Warnings and I Think You are ALL Full of Shit

Writing

I have PTSD. I was diagnosed when I was thirteen after putting away the man who sexually, physically, and verbally abused me from the ages of 2-13. It is a complex, challenging condition that I spend a lot of time working to combat and control so I can be a functional human being. I had it in high school, I also had it in college as a history major at an elite institution. I will never not have it, my therapist says too much damage was done for me to ever not have nightmares, which is to say my entire existence on this planet will involve never sleeping like a normal person. My triggers are so numerous and severe that to avoid them all would require that I never leave the house. Here is a brief, non-comprehensive list of things that trigger trauma associated memories and panic attacks

  • Budweiser
  • Ammonia
  • Hamburger Helper
  • Fly swatters
  • Rubber bands (specifically being hit with them)
  • Being approached from behind
  • Having a white male “square up” to me
  • Home Depot
  • Raisins
  • Depictions of incest, rape
  • Depictions of violence
  • Most crime dramas
  • Depictions of methampehamine
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Crowds
  • Phone calls
  • Christmas trees (Christmas in general is rough, Thanksgiving ain’t much better)

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point here, each and every single one of those has a specific association to trauma for me. Now, imagine for a second that I decided that the best way for me to deal with the trauma is to avoid it. HOW THE HELL WOULD I LEAVE THE HOUSE?

How did I study history? Or literature? Or anything, really? It’s almost like avoiding triggers doesn’t actually liberate you from trauma at all!

Or maybe they do for people that have a specific trigger or instance of trauma, I don’t know but it’s not my experience that this approach helps.

But my bigger issue with trigger warnings is conceptual. When it comes to the treatment of a severe mental health problem, where does the responsibility lie? I’d argue that the only people who should be telling me how to treat my PTSD are me and my doctor, but most certainly not university professors who don’t have training or classmates who don’t have the disorder themselves. Although I’m very public about my struggles, I also still think that my compatriots who chose to deal privately have the right to do so and we should respect that. So when a university administrator or classmate demands the removal of a reading, or even a content warning (for adults… did you guys actually follow content warnings as kids, I know I didn’t, and I took great pleasure in subverting the man in that way), on my behalf, it feels a little patronizing and, well intended, but particularly destructive if it means that it changes what conversations we are having.

I really want to believe this is well-intended, and I think for most it is. I think most professors are just trying to do what’s best by their students and that students are trying to deal with these issues. But we’ve made it such that saying, “hey, I don’t think this is the best way to do this” is now somehow a form of oppression and it isn’t. I was a poor student at Stanford with PTSD and I don’t believe trigger warnings are the best way to liberate me, and other people do. And that’s fine. You can disagree with me because this is America, and you have free speech, but the point here is that this issue isn’t one sided. Reasonable people can disagree about this.

 

But some of this doesn’t feel well intended and it’s because of the way people describe what happens when they are “triggered” by books like Antigone. They say it “makes them uncomfortable.” Now, I’ve had a lot of panic attacks and flashbacks and uncomfortable is not how I would describe the experience. I would describe it as debilitating, painful and challenging, but it also didn’t stop me from reading things for class because I recognize as someone who has spent most of my existence on the planet feeling “uncomfortable” (hungry, sick, tired, poor), that sometimes I’m going to feel uncomfortable. And sometimes I’m going to learn things from that discomfort. It just strikes me as an insane level of entitlement to assume that you’ll NEVER BE UNCOMFORTABLE during your educational experience. Are we sure that’s the goal, here? Because my goal is to get more services for the poor and to force the rich to deal with the challenges that face the poor. I actually don’t give a shit whether or not people at elite institutions are uncomfortable when encountering challenging readings. I hope the folks with PTSD get treatment to make real triggers manageable and I will fight and have fought for that treatment, but I don’t understand why I’m supposed to care about the discomfort of a bunch of kids who are supposed to be learning and who live in a contained, safe space to do that while the rest of the people their age are trying to survive poverty and war.  But what really bothers me is that these words, “makes me uncomfortable” are the same words that were used to silence me as an undergraduate.

“Heather, don’t talk about your childhood, it makes me uncomfortable.”

“We can’t use the term low income because it makes people uncomfortable.”

“We shouldn’t talk about rape/incest/poverty/racism/sexism because it makes people uncomfortable.”

The reality at most elite campuses is that the children are extremely unlikely to have PTSD. How do I know? Because Stanford doesn’t even have a PTSD specialist on staff, but they have 13 eating disorder specialists. PTSD wasn’t covered in my health insurance when I was an undergrad. And when I was an undergrad, openly discussing my PTSD, most of my classmates told me that I shouldn’t talk about it because of how it made them feel. They described It as awkward, uncomfortable, and like experiencing the pain of cognitive dissonance. They were not telling me not to talk because it was triggering THEIR PTSD. They were telling me not to talk because they didn’t want to deal with real life. So my concern is that we have very privileged college students setting the agenda of what we talk about and what we read about. A “hey, this has rape, its ok if you need to step out” was common educational practice before trigger warnings, and if that’s all that was happening from the movement to include trigger warnings, I’d be on board. But that’s not just what has happened, it has actually shaped syllabuses around the country and my feeling is that the minute books get banned, you become a fascist.

Since most of human history has involved rape, murder, genocide, and war, most literature and history would need a trigger warning. Can you study history and avoid trauma? Should the only people studying history be those without trauma? Should we be making that choice for other people? Who determines that? Who has the power to dictate what we read? Why do college students have that much control over the syllabuses of professors? Should they? It strikes me as a profound level of entitlement and privilege to assume that its ok to demand the right to shape the syllabuses of professors. My working class, PTSD having ass would never have assumed I had that right, so I’m trying to figure out how oppressed these college kids are if on the one hand they wanted nothing to do with my attempts to advocate for more mental health services for the poor, and on the other they are demanding (and succeeding in these demands) that professors exclude readings based on the personal preferences of the students in the classroom.

Since I taught real history, obviously my students encountered content that was challenging and probably deeply reminiscent of real oppression for most of them, on a regular basis. My students with anxiety and PTSD had never had such a sympathetic home. I created a space where we could address these feelings in a safe, academic environment that was full of love. When we talked about the victims of Japanese sexual violence, I, of course said to my students,

“This video will be difficult for some, and by that I mean at least 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted before the age of 18, which means this will be personal to several people, myself included, in the room. If you need to walk out, that’s ok. I ask the rest of you to respect this conversation.”

But this has been common educational practice for some time, so what UChicago and other university professors who are worried about the trigger warning situation is something else. It would be different if the trigger warning discussion hadn’t resulted in texts being removed or in the media being banned from public protests. Those are the tools of fascists. And here’s what I’ve learned about fascism, no matter how sympathetic the fascist is to my group of people, people like me do not survive fascist regimes.

Because we “make people uncomfortable.”

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The Beautiful People that We’ve Ruined

Writing

It has taken months for me to figure out how to write this post. At first I ran away from it, avoiding it, burying it, rejecting it. Then I spent a long time trying to find a way to wrap it in a pretty bow and make it nice. It was always there in the background haunting everything I did. Eventually I couldn’t hide anymore and I decided that I just had to be honest and raw. That’s something I’ve lost in the last few years as I have adjusted to this new environment. I used to scare people like a monster with my mouth and the things that came out of it. So I learned to codeswitch and say it with a smile. But it wasn’t enough, my edgy-ness, my having-lived-life-ness was unprofessional and it was no longer socially acceptable for me to say what I thought. I began to see myself as something that I had to hide and when I couldn’t hide it, I hid from everyone.

So here it is. As honest as I can say it.

When I was a child I would walk through my house and get hit and ask why and the sociopath I pretended to be my father would tell me it was just for gp, general purpose. I got accustomed to it, it was actually one of the less terrible pieces of my existence. Being hit, I could deal with that. I could deal with the insults causally said to me in the house, slut, fat, bitch, whore. The best part of my years were my trips to my grandmother’s house where at least we’d have enough to eat, and instead of the beatings I just got called fat. These were the easiest parts of my existence, so when people ask me why I was successful in school, I don’t know how to tell them that school, with all its ridiculousness, with the lack of books and the food and the never fitting in, was the thing I fantasized about, because at school, I was undeniable.

My mom used to hide my test scores from my siblings to spare them the comparisons. I was the family scapegoat. When I asked her why she was so hard on me in particular she said it was because I could handle it and because she didn’t want me making the same mistakes. This is why my mother never felt the compulsion to tell me that there was anything I did well, she was afraid that if I knew my power that I would be an uncontrollable nightmare. When the sociopath went to jail I was 14, the beatings and the names didn’t stop, though the attempted rapes did and for that I felt blessed. I took the blows and the words from my sister and my grandmother because I knew that it was the only way for them to express their anguish. I’ve had people tell me that they were cruel to me because I was only one who could take it, a lot. That’s why by the time college rolled around, I could survive any critique. And I could also survive that treatment from the people who called me their girlfriend. I survived it by making myself numb, so numb, in fact, that I don’t really remember my childhood and now don’t even know when I dislocate my jaw or hip.

I was weird for a Stanford student in many ways, but the one that seemed to interest people the most was that I was not an outcast in high school. I wasn’t universally loved, either. When I was 14 a group of girls decided that they were frustrated with my popularity and confidence and they shouted whore at me in the hallways and wrote me letters in which they told me how terrible I was. They threatened to beat me up shortly after I had finally escaped someone that had been beating me for the fun of it. I wish I could tell you that the adults intervened but in my neighborhood the only real adults were the more competent kids. So as my now former friends attempted to dethrone me, the black girls at my high school came to my defense and said “if you touch her, then you deal with us.” I was surprised to say the least. I was used to using that line to defend people, just 2 weeks before the mean girl shenanigans started I had a guy beat up for sexually assaulting one of the girls that now threatened me. For six months, this torment continued but it ended up just back-firing and making me more powerful, mostly because they were never able to get me to admit that they had hurt me. Instead I sent their letters back written with comments in impeccable satire. By sophomore year, I was undisputedly running things, and I was doing it from my home because my health forced me into independent study.

People at Stanford didn’t seem to have an explanation for my experience in high school. I never had the heart to explain everything to them and I don’t think they would have heard it if I did. My first boyfriend in college spent one night calling me a whore and telling me it was because I was the kind of girl who dated the kind of guys who beat him up. But I was not that girl, I had more power than any of the men at my school did. I had no way of translating that to anyone and it made people uncomfortable and so, once again, the people around me tore me down to make themselves feel better, and I let them because I was used to being the sacrifice. By the time I reached Stanford, I had no self-esteem. Unlike my peers, I had never had a point in my childhood where I was simply safe and loved. When I was an infant, my mother’s husband held a gun to my head and threatened to kill us all if my mom left him. No one was even at my birth except my teenaged mother and there are almost no pictures of me from my childhood because my grandmother was angry with me for being born. I never developed a basis of worth or a belief in myself. To this day, I only think of myself as having the right to exist if I am doing something for someone else, which is why it has been so hard for me to be ill. My fiancé has faced the uphill battle of teaching a stubborn, brilliant, and profoundly wounded creature to believe that she is a human.

My junior and senior year of college I dated a very confident and happy young man who was the picture of California’s finest. Behind closed doors, he hated it when I upstaged him. When we took classes together, I would spend the evenings afterwards trying to make him feel better about the fact that I was the stronger academic. In the logic class, I solved all of the proofs and he stole my solutions and was happy when a slight mistake in transcription of sentences, not the proofs-mistakes that I was making because my headaches were so severe-would cause him to get a higher grade. I met him after returning from China, an experience that had been painful for me. The people on the trip with me often made me feel excluded, the girls fed on my bodily insecurities and the most banal statements about my childhood disturbed them. I was drinking, heavily, 4 nights out of the week and waking up with tears streaming down my face. I was hurt by the first boy who understood where I came from and called me beautiful even as he fucked other girls to prove to me he could. When I got back from China, my little brother got his girlfriend pregnant while still a senior, and my 13 year old sister was raped. I hid these facts from everyone and so I found a boy who would take joy in my doing so and who hated me when I was most myself. My life only continued to spiral out of control as time went on, and by the time I returned from my first summer in Germany, where I acted as my boyfriend’s house wife, my one positive female role model was dying and I knew that was not going to be able to finish my honors thesis. Instead of understanding that this happened because I was human, I took on all of the culture, exacerbated by all of the abuse, that said that if you didn’t do something it was because you didn’t work hard enough. “No excuses”, I learned, only applied to poor children. For me there is no safety-net, there is no gap year, no rehab and no help getting jobs. It made me constantly aware that despite all I had done, I was always one bad day away from hunger. My failure to write this thesis conveniently made my very insecure and very privileged boyfriend feel much better and he continued to feed the fuel by calling me lazy and picking on my weight with his friends the summer after I graduated in Germany. Of course, he got a lot of help from me when it came time for him to write his honor’s thesis.

Do you see the pattern yet? Do you see how I’ve been torn down by so many people who hated my fire? So many people and so many times, that people made sure I had no idea what I was capable of so that they could feel better about what they weren’t. But this isn’t just a personal story, because I am a woman in a world that does that. When men are sold something it is in order to make them feel and be great, and when women are sold something it is to cover up their inadequacies. Advertising is fundamentally an abusive boyfriend no matter what your background is. I feel the sting of irony as an exceptionally talented historian, who pointed out that Disneyland was bullshit at 4, succumbing to this. On the outside, I was the snarky bitch who smoked cigars while wearing a trench coat and short skirt and told people exactly who they were. On the inside, I was a profoundly damaged little girl who had no self worth. And I wish I could tell you that the turning point happened after breaking up with that boyfriend, and in some ways it did, and in the more surprising ways it didn’t.

When I broke up with him, I promised myself that I would never let anyone do that again and for a while the only way I knew how to prevent that was to become cold and untouchable, so I started letting the image of me as a sassy cat lady build. I put into place what I needed to be in the right relationship, but I hadn’t yet found the way to build a life that would allow me to be my best self. I entered Stanford’s Teacher Education Program (STEP) and suddenly found myself in a program that had a fundamentally core belief that required them to make me feel like shit about myself, because you see in education ideology, people who have an easy time performing do so because they are more confident and take away from the learning of others. It is why as a little girl, I had trained myself to count to ten before answering questions. It was why as a little girl, teachers would relish in my failure, and wouldn’t accommodate me when I was sick. It was why as a little girl, I would get perfect scores and be told it wasn’t enough. Very few teachers were supportive and kind to me in school, which is why my behavior was often atrocious.

STEP got on me early. They would refuse to call on me. Take me aside and tell me that I was hurting the other students. Call me domineering when my adult classmates handed over group assignments to me to finish for everyone. Refuse to give me any credit for any group assignments. Relish and then refuse to help me when I struggled. Pick on me and tell me I would never be good enough. My classmates would come to hate me and tell our supervisors that I was making it hard for them to do their best. They would report when I was sick and take pleasure in tearing my assignments apart. The few who stood up for me would find themselves shut-down. I became a complete nervous shadow of myself, and at precisely the same moment, my body hit its limit. STEP was merciless. It was everything that I was promised would stop when I entered Stanford and when I was an undergrad, Stanford lived up to that. Most professors seemed to love having me in the classroom and encouraged me to be successful. And I wish now, that I had been more open about my childhood and that I had had more support because if I had, I might not be as ill as I am now. Unlike my friends, I had no direction and no networks to figure out what to do with my Stanford degree. I have always been able in the classroom to hide my insecurity with my intelligence, so I never let on that I was confused. I could be ignored because I was white and helping me wouldn’t result in the same kind of public relations coup. I went into STEP because even though I desperately wanted to write and do research, I was dealing with too much and didn’t know that I was good enough to get a PhD. I thought that my failure to write my honors thesis meant that I was incapable because I unable to get past the 3 deaths that happened in the fall of my senior year, while also being forced to run the first-generation low income community group, First Gen Low Income Partnership. But I had no support, no community, no help because I was poor white trash. The only people I ever knew that had college degrees were teachers and everyone kept telling me that I needed to continue my activism for poor students. My boyfriend at the time encouraged me to teach because he was the “better” fit for PhDs. So I went into education.

Education is a female dominated field, and I thought because it was going to be a bunch of people who cared about children that we were all going to be super nice to each other. Which made the shock of reality even more difficult for me. This time it wasn’t one professor, it was a program. It wasn’t one group of girls, it was nearly everyone except those that had to work closest to me. I was ignored, ridiculed and then made to sit in meetings where I was told to apologize for the honor because I was making people feel bad with my presence and words. They took a very badly wounded soul and pushed me into the ground. I guess that’s how I ended up in work environments that replicated the pattern. That’s why I had to leave the classroom prematurely.

My body paid the price for this. It took the damage, quite literally. It took the damage when I was beaten and when I fought as a little girl. It took the damage as I struggled through Stanford, fighting the whole damn way for everything I got. It took the damage when I taught four classes, vomiting in between each one and then sat in class vomiting in secret every half an hour, because I was too afraid to let anyone know that I was sick. It took the damage when a very scared little boy injured me. It took the damage all year, as I struggled to climb up the stairs and into my classroom. It took the damage when I pulled a 14 hour day to prove that I was teaching the kids because some of the women on staff felt the need to tell my supervisor that I was bad at my job because I showed them up. It has taken the damage, being the only consistent protection I’ve ever had.

It has taken it everyday that I’ve hated it for not being thin enough. It has taken it everyday that I joked about how grateful I was to be smart because I was not beautiful. It took it when a boy told me to lose weight because I “could” look better. It took it when a boy told me his friends thought I wasn’t thin enough. It took it when I didn’t stand up for myself when a boy fucked another girl because I thought it was what I deserved. It took it every night I drank so that I could endure the social interactions with my peers who thought appropriate party chatter included bigotry. It took it when I rushed to class after my weekly toradol injection so that I didn’t have to deal with any emails from my supervisors at STEP about how I couldn’t possibly be sick because I could come to class and perform. It took it when I went to work limping only to have to spend vital work time responding to constant emails demanding to know why I wasn’t failing the students like everyone else on campus. It took it every single fucking time.

And what bothers me most, is that my story is not isolated. It is trapped in context. My story is the story of a gifted woman being torn down so as to not offend men. My story is the story of a kind, gentle soul being made rough by women who were scared to find out what her existence meant for them. My story is the story of a passionate, caring individual being isolated because the color of her skin didn’t fit into the narrative. My story is the story of a beautiful, womanly young girl hiding her body because she wanted to be taken seriously.

And I wonder how many gifted, kind, passionate, beautiful people we’ve ruined because we were scared of their power.

I’m Calling Bullshit on Your Elitism

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This has been a difficult blog post to start and write. I’ve hesitated. Stopped. Started. Spent afternoons thinking about it. Debated whether it should be done at all and then realized I no longer had a choice. Because this post is about the most important lesson I learned at Stanford. And that is the lesson I hope you get from me. But it is a lesson born from pain.

I didn’t talk to people in my freshman dorm. In fact, at Stanford I was pretty anti-social. So much so, that the party-throwing class president, earned a reputation for being a recluse. This is what happens when you are uncomfortable in an environment. I remember the conversation that happened when I was deciding to apply to Stanford, my English teacher told me about how people at Stanford were different. They cleaned up after themselves. They were kind and compassionate. They were smart and well-educated. They cared about others. I heard this my whole life, this message that the people at the top were better, and that if I wanted to be “good” I would have to join them. I was told that their success was because they were better, smarter, more moral. I was told that I could be one of them too.

It is easy to believe this if you are the kid that got out. Doesn’t that validate it? But I was troubled by the bodies left behind. I was troubled by the fact that I knew that I had been one bad decision away from being stuck in North Highlands. I wasn’t an angel. I was a punk kid with an attitude who went home to a party house. I didn’t do what I was told. I wasn’t sexually naïve, I had not gotten pregnant because I had a lenient mom who believed in birth control. I knew, always that I was one step away. I could feel it. The stakes were so high. We’d talk about our friends as they, one by one, got pregnant, got on hard drugs, dropped out; we’d talk about them as if they’d been given a death sentence, and that’s because a lot of them had.

I couldn’t stop seeing their faces at Stanford. The kids I’d known as I went through my stages of “getting out.” At my best and worst, they had my back. They were beautiful. They were brilliant. They were talented. I’d see them in the faces of my classmates, some of whom were profoundly and uniquely brilliant, none of whom were any more brilliant than I was, and very few of whom were more brilliant than several of the kids I left behind. I am a researcher; I cannot lie in the face of evidence. I’d cry at night, seeing those faces.

My classmates treated me like a walking poster child. They wanted to know what “it was like.” They wanted me to confirm their vision of a meritocracy. They wanted me to tell them that I got there because our system was fair and that they deserved to be there too. They accused my friends and family of being stupid and immoral. They said we were poor because of drug use, alcohol, teen sex, willful ignorance; basically all the individually bad choices. They told me my men were sexist. They told me my family and community was ignorant and didn’t value education. They wanted me to nod my head, and eventually I decided that spending my Saturday night fighting was a good way to be very tired on Monday morning. So I stopped going out. I started drinking heavily in college. I did it because it was the only way to socially cope. I did it because it was the only way for me to get battle scars that I didn’t feel. Little by little, I was broken down, and I am only now regaining my strength.

I watched as they had abortions, snorted coke, went to class high, sexually, physically and mentally abused each other. I watched as my girlfriends’ boyfriends told them to lose weight, stop talking, and stop working. I listened and challenged and then gave up as I tried to have discussions about philosophy and history and my classmates couldn’t keep up. I came to understand the thing that changed my life.

I learned that my suspicions were true. That the system was stacked and that there was no reason why they had earned their position besides the fact that the game was rigged. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t us. It was a system so unjust that even after beating them at their own game, for the first time in my life I can afford proper health care, healthy food, and a safe neighborhood, while many of my Stanford friends complained about that same food, neighborhood and healthcare. They complained about how they couldn’t afford the lifestyle their parent’s could when I was the first person to get a lifestyle most of my community could only dream of. Their worst was my best, even though by every standard I had matched or bested them.

The lesson that I learned at Stanford was that they were no better. If they are no better then they have no justification for why the system is what it is. And if they have no justification, then they have no legitimacy. And as any historian will tell you, if they have no legitimacy-no right to power- they will fall. Maybe not tomorrow, but they will fall. The war has already been won. I hope they are ready to finally join the human spirit and contribute to a human history that is not about war but is about giving EVERYONE their unique humanity. And if they aren’t? Too bad, they don’t have a choice anymore. Even if you got rid of me, I promise I will send more your way. Teaching is an intentional act. That’s why I never feel bad when they tell me teaching is beneath me, because it takes an incredibly small mind to fail to see their own downfall. I hope they keep worshiping at the altar of shiny things, the more distracted they are the easier my job is.

I just smiled at parties when they sang Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness. They can’t hear what they don’t understand and they can’t see what they refuse to see. I don’t do this for them. I don’t care what they think. I don’t care if they approve. I don’t care how they feel. What I know is that every day the kids prove me right. If you think I am radical, imagine what I would have been like with a teacher like me. We’ve already won. That was the most important lesson of all.

Activism: Git ‘Er Done

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I am going to do what I always do in these conversations and state my credentials from the get-go. I am going to do this because I am white. And because I am white, and grew up extremely poor in an urban area where I attended some of the worst urban schools in the state of California in a community that is one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation and am living with a Mexican American man I grew up with who told his dad that he had no interest in learning Spanish because “he didn’t want to be one of those Mexican kids who can’t read English” and who is half white but knows he gets stopped by cops all the time because he is Mexican, I am intensely aware of how this whole speech and my mere presence in the activist community comes off, and came off while I while an undergrad, to the very communities that I work with. So demographically, when you ask me to be extra specific, I identify as working class, first. That’s the closest I can get to being honest. I do this because, when I entered Stanford I spoke a non-standard version of American English, and maintained the kind of wit that can only be learned on the playground and lot of people thought I was being a crazy asshole. And I also do this, because I have the white privilege of not having to identify as my racial background. And because as a straight white woman I don’t have to identify as my sexual orientation either. But the fact of the matter is that the reality of my childhood more closely resembles that of poor folks who grow up in urban areas than it does the white peers I most closely resemble physically. On paper, people often assume I am black. This is because they are racist.

I am also an activist in urban education. I went to STEP for graduate school after being one of the founding members of FLIP and being heavily involved in activism for the low-income community while I was an undergrad. I was not well liked. Mostly because I am obnoxious, but also because I didn’t look like what we think activists should like, and I didn’t talk like one either.

As I said, I spoke a non-standard form of English. In fact, unless I am in a professional setting I still speak a non-standard form of English. This is important because when I came to Stanford my words were not typically well-received and I heard a lot of arguments by education reformers about how we need to train kids to “speak properly.” Now, I will tell you, that we do in fact need to train kids to speak in a way that allows them to be taken seriously by the elites who determine whether or not they get to escape the ghetto. I do this because I am an incredibly practical individual and I want kids to have the same opportunities my privileged friends do. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. I think the dialect of English that I happen to speak is beautiful. All of my friends who went to college back home (a tiny number, that as evidenced by my relationship with my significant other, cling to each other) are incredibly adept with the English language. That’s because the dialect I happen to speak, is all about quick thinking, metaphor and poetry. As a history teacher, I want my kids to have those skills, I just also want them to have the other skills too, because unfortunately I don’t currently have the power to decide which skills we value in society and I want my kids to be valued. I train kids to code-switch because I think their language is beautiful and because I think it is necessary for them to have choices in the world. Choice is the ultimate privilege. And I want them to have it. What I am saying is that it is fine to want to impart the skills that give people power onto others, but its not ok to pretend like those skills are inherently better or more beautiful than what they already have. You will never know until you can have love for both. I am glad I can sit in the classroom and debate the merits of Rousseau but I am also glad that I can handle myself on the playground. You have to love people and see the beauty in who they are, not who you want them to be. You can love people for what they are or hate them for what they are not, those are your options when you live/work in a community. And trust me when I say to you that you aren’t going to get anything done without love.

Even as I know my neighborhood well, I don’t presume to know everything about growing up poor in America. What happened in my neighborhood in North Highlands has commonalities with East Palo Alto, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but it isn’t East Palo Alto. So when I went to work in East Palo Alto, I didn’t pretend to know everything about East Palo Alto. At first I just shut up and listened. I also did as much research as I could about the community and asked a lot of questions. This is the most important advice I can give as an activist, you have to listen and be willing to learn. Look, Stanford kids are really smart. We are smart and hardworking and these are admirable and good traits, but they don’t make us omnipotent. They don’t even make us better people. We aren’t Gods, we are just human beings with a slightly faster processor and a whole lot of training. You don’t know everything about the community you are walking into, you can’t assume anything about people unless you can read minds, and even then that doesn’t mean you can fully understand everything about an individual’s thoughts. Listen, and be grateful that someone is giving you the opportunity to do so.

As I stated above, I am aware that I receive a number of white privileges, and now I am also extremely well educated. I knew when I was a kid that I had white privilege. You’d have to be blind to not figure that out when every time a cop is around one of your non-white friends gets hassled. Also, I studied history. And if studying history taught me anything it was that white people have privilege. I wish this weren’t true. I wish I could give back all the ways I benefit from my privilege and share them such that everyone benefited. I spend my days trying to find ways to do this for my students. But I have it, and wishing it would go away isn’t going to make it go away, the only thing that will make it go away is if white people start accepting and finding ways to tear down the structures that make it so. Am I pissed off that we have to wait for people who have the power to wake up and realize this and be ashamed of it and fight to distribute it more equitably? Yes. But, I am a practical woman and this is the reality of the situation. And there is also this, at Stanford people from my class background are in the minority. Most of my classmates are better off than my wildest imaginations could possibly create as a child. And we live on campus together and they are my peers and my friends. We have to live in this society together, I want them to be part of the solution. So I want them to acknowledge their white privilege at the same time that they choose to do something about it, and I want to help them by acknowledging my privilege and being incredibly patient while they figure it out, so long as they are trying to figure it out.

As I have said, I am a practical woman. In the words of Deng Xiaoping “I don’t care if it’s a black cat or a white cat, I just care if it’s a cat that catches mice.” He was referring specifically to whether or someone was Communist enough to serve the country because during the Cultural Revolution the conversation became a bunch of college kids shouting “I am more radical than you” instead of sitting around and saying “hey, we have all this power and privilege and there are people suffering, what can we do about that?” His leadership in China was marred with blood, but I am using this quote because he is right. I don’t care who gets things done, I just care that they are taken care of. I don’t much care who progresses human rights, I just want them to progress. My family, friends, and students don’t have time to wait around for the perfect “savior” to come along. Studying history has taught me that they rarely do. MLK had many affairs, he has a record that suggests that he was less than progressive towards the woman in his life. For me, that doesn’t change the power or importance of his message. The same goes for my personal favorite, Malcolm X, because even though I don’t agree with all the things he said or all of his methods, he was often right about very important issues. I have my own tremendous blind spots. In the 1950s Stanford sent one of the largest contingents of participants in Freedom Summer. This is a legacy we should all be proud of, but we should also remember the reasons for Freedom Summer. Black Civil Rights workers had been fighting and dying for a long time in Mississippi by the time that Stanford students traveled down there. The plan was to bring privileged white children to work down in Mississippi so that when one of them was murdered or beaten people would actually care. That this is what needed to happen for the American populace to care about the plight of black people in America is horribly racist, and profoundly disturbing. But do you know what else was horribly racist and profoundly disturbing? Mississippi in the 1950s. We live in a society that is still racist, classist, sexist and heteronormative. It’s hard enough struggling against those things without the infighting that occurs when we start making sure the ranks of activists has the right composition and purity. I will say this again, the people I love most in the world don’t have time for that. We need to stop asking ourselves if people who want to help are good enough to do so and start asking the only question that matters: what is the most efficient way to make things better? Because we have a job to do, and where I come from that’s the only thing that matters.

This was originally posted by the lovely people over at Stanford’s progressive blog Static. The link can be found here: http://stnfrdstatic.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/on-responsible-activism/#more-2906

How I Got to Stanford and What that Means for Education

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When you grow up poor you face an entire social structure that has the same force as gravity. It is there to drag you down until you reach the center of the earth and know your place. I get asked a lot how I managed to escape gravity, and the honest answer is that I am still doing everything I can to process and figure that out. But the fact of the matter is that it requires a very special kind of intelligence to come from where I came from and to go where I did. I’d like to rewind and tell you the story of me as a little girl.

My mom has some really fabulous, I knew Heather was a weirdo from an early age stories. I am going to tell you my top three. The first involves me as a toddler. When we were little we lived at my grandma’s house, despite my mom’s best efforts to get out in her own right. That house had a staircase. Every day, my mom, just 19 and 20 at the time, would wake up bleary eyed and find me sitting with my hands at the table waiting patiently for my oatmeal. She couldn’t figure out how I managed to make it down the stairs, so one day she woke up early and waited until I woke up. I was still in a crib at the time. She watched as I stacked the pillows in my crib, hopped the “fence” of my crib through a force of engineering and physical strength and climbed down the stairs and up the big chairs in the kitchen where I would wait in silence until she came down the stairs. All through school anytime she offered to help with my school projects I would tell her to go away because I didn’t want to have to relinquish creative control.  My mom is really into crafts. So what I am saying here is that I was fiercely independent, already had a tendency to see obstacles as mere engineering problems, and was already used to being successful at carrying out my missions enough to trust my own intelligence better than I trusted my mother’s, who besides being working class and kind of messed up at the time, was a member of MENSA.

The second story takes us a few years later. They made the mistake of taking me to Disneyland. My mom wasn’t happy about it because she knew what would happen and I spent most of the time hanging out with her and refusing to go on rides and talking about my observations. At one point, my mom turns to me and says: “Heather,  look there is Mickey Mouse, don’t you want to go say hi?” and I just looked at her like she was an idiot and said, “that’s not Mickey Mouse, that’s just some guy in a suit.” I was four. So I was already the kind of kid who looked around and saw things for what they really were and called it out and asked real questions and refused to be lied to. This is a related but also short story. My grandma thought it was a good idea to take me to the circus. My mom had warned her, I was 6 at this point so she knew what was going to go down. We got there, walked past the tiger cage and I immediately had a complete nervous breakdown. We lasted 15 minutes because I was enraged about that tiger being in such a small cage. I kept asking my mom; “why are the tigers in such small cages, they shouldn’t be in cages, they should be free. They are big!” Epic tantrum ensued. So I also already had an incredibly strong sense of justice and was prepared to stop a whole family outing in order to get my answers about what is happening. To this day it’s a bad idea to take me to a zoo or Marine World.

The third story happened when I was about 7. My mom had a visitation agreement with my dad. I am not going to mince words, my dad died last year from a drug OD. He was a heavy meth addict and highly abusive to my mother and to us. Anyway, my mom dropped us off and about a half an hour later got a phone call from me. Hi Mommy, I am coming home, you need to come get me. Everyone is asleep here and there are bottles everywhere. It’s yucky. No, Amber is not coming. That’s ok, I will wait for you. No, now. K. I see you soon. When she got there I was sitting on the curb, with my little bag reading a chapter book. So by the time I was 7, I could look around and know that what surrounded me was messed up and that I needed to get out. I had the presence of mind to find a way out and I had enough intelligence to figure out what was going on. That’s an impressive level of meta-cognition for an adult, much less a seven year old. Did I mention that I started reading entirely of my own accord at 3?

So what is my point in all this? The problem is that our schools weren’t designed for kids like me. If you think with all of that that I just sailed through school, you’d be wrong. Academically I always did fine but most of my teachers thought I was a real pain in the butt. Some of them actively hated me, trying, even in elementary school, to embarrass me and find things I couldn’t do. By the time I got to junior high I was a nightmare in the classroom. Defiant, angry, lacking in all respect for authority. As an 8th grader I told my science teacher that if I were trying to take over her class I would have already done it, when she pulled me out of class to yell at me. I was starting to drink and smoke, having grown up in a house where both were plentifully available. I was absent all the time either because of my headaches, my home life, or because I simply decided I didn’t have it in me that day to attend. I started having sex at an early and dangerous age. So if you looked at me, you were looking at an incredibly high risk kid that you would have predicted would have multiple kids by now and would be stripping. I was frequently bored in school, but curious enough that I still read when I was home, and my mom made sure I read. This is one of the things that saved me. At 11 I was reading 1984 and having discussions about it with my mom, who as I have already mentioned is painfully brilliant. I would read my science books cover to cover, using that in class to torture the aforementioned teacher. She didn’t expect anyone to read the textbook. By junior high I was reading about 3 novels a week, in addition to doing my school work and getting in trouble in some of my classes. I hated school but I loved learning with a maddening ferocity.

Our schools aren’t currently designed for kids like me, especially not in the poor areas. If my mom had had money, I probably would have been in a magnet gifted program, but that wasn’t an option for us. With zero tolerance policies and the general attitudes towards poor kids that I keep encountering, my intelligence was seen as more of a nuisance than something that should be praised. When I was a freshman, my college counselor told me there was no reason for people “like me” to go to college. I had the highest test scores in the school by a huge margin. I watched, as time and time again, kids who were brilliant got treated in the same way, and I see it now on my interviews. I’ve been told that I am “too brilliant” to be a teacher. That’s ignoring the fact that I became a teacher precisely because I remembered the thing that saved me at the end of the day. It wasn’t a good school, that wasn’t an option. It wasn’t a testing regime, I rebelled every time they tried to implement those and still messed up the averages. It wasn’t technology, I had little interest in something I didn’t have access to at home and didn’t seem any more interesting to me than Orwell, Camus, Hurston, or my science books. At the end of the day, it was the few teachers I had who recognized my intelligence and differentiated to me, or at least emotionally supported me. It was those teachers who fought for me in the parent teacher conferences, and sent the message that I wasn’t made for this life. It was the teachers who spent the weeks before college applications were due and used their free time to talk out my essays and encouraged me to be painfully honest. It was the teachers, I saw, some of whom never formally taught me, that continued to throw books at me and have conversations with me at lunch. It was the last school I went to, that wanted nothing more than to set me free and loose. I went to Stanford and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t bored and most of my professors (except the few classist and sexist ones) loved what I brought to the table, because it was exactly what Stanford wants from its students. It was exactly what was required to reach that level.

We are so obsessed in education with maintaining order and the polite, easy kids that we forget about the kids like me, and that might be why so few charters working in the poor areas get their kids to the top tier. I wouldn’t have lasted a day in a place where I had to follow strict and arbitrary rules or get counseled out. Not that I couldn’t and shouldn’t have been tamed, but a much more effective way to do that was to have an honest conversation, like some of my teachers did, about how my continued good behavior would get me out. Because I did eventually “calm down” and “play the game” enough to stay out of trouble, but that was because of that conversation. I saw this in STEP too. Folks who shall remain nameless told me I shouldn’t be a teacher because of the way my brain works. They worried a lot about my ability to reach all kids despite my excellent track record with the SPED kids; they forgot that I had been translating my whole life. There were a few people who saw what I was and took me under their wing, fighting for me every step of the way. And for that, I am as always eternally grateful. But most of all, I grateful for the consciousness that I was born with and the people along the way that not only encouraged it but threw more wood into the fire. I hope to return the favor. And maybe if I am really lucky and work really hard, I will light some fires too. Because some of my kids come in with that already stomped out. But the wood is there. Be the match.

On Why You Can Never Really “Get Out”

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I’m one of the few and the proud from my neighborhood to accomplish the feat of “getting out.” If you are poor and went to Stanford, I don’t need to explain what that means, but it has a particular meaning. Getting out means leaving the neighborhood and escaping poverty. It means that you assimilate into the middle or upper class and it’s a very American dream. The fact that I went to Stanford matters. I know it matters because I know how I was treated before I went to Stanford. Everything from the way clerks in stores to the way my doctors treat me are impacted by my having gone to Stanford. My intelligence didn’t change, but it’s the ultimate “get out of jail free” card with everyone with authority and power. I know that the only reason I can write and be heard is because of the school I went to. I know that my healthcare is better when I go to the doctors in my Stanford gear. I watched several family members die because of substandard health care. When my cousin killed himself the summer before I entered Stanford, the therapist at Stanford told me that it was expected given his demographic information, as if demographics made it easier to mourn the death of someone I cared about, as if his life was worth less. Because I have two Stanford degrees, I can promise you that if I died tomorrow people would make a huge deal out of it. No one would have cared outside the individuals who loved me when I was 15.

I am grateful I went to Stanford but I encountered so much bigotry there, directed at me, directed at my friends, directed at my family. Directed at the people who backed me no matter whom I was or where I was. People who sacrificed so I could do the thing they knew they couldn’t. People whose love was imperfect but incredibly real. I was never angry with my parents for what they couldn’t give me. I knew that if they had the choice they would have given me everything, but my parents didn’t have the choice. My success was built on a community that to this day is incredibly grateful to have been part of building something. This knowledge is never that far from my mind or from my heart, it propels me in ways I don’t even notice.

My childhood was hard, but I’ve known the kind of love that is forged in blood and sweat and hard labor. I know that kind of love that makes you say with the utmost sincerity that you would die for someone. I would. There are people in my life that I love enough to take a bullet for, so taking the heat at Stanford felt like a completely fair burden. How else could I possibly repay the love I have known?

I got out. The proof is in this blog. The proof is in the way I now eat salads with weird cheeses which are delicious but which were completely foreign to me when I got to Stanford. The proof is in the number of languages I speak and the places I’ve traveled to. I can’t deny that reality. But, part of me can’t or won’t leave, and maybe that’s because the place where I still feel the most love is the place where I experienced the deepest pain. Or maybe it’s because I still owe a huge debt. To my big sister who sacrificed for me in ways I will never be able to pay her back for. To my mom, who gave me the best of herself at the sacrificial alter. To my little brother and sister who taught me how insignificant my life was in the face of the love of a child. You never leave. You just carry that part of you everywhere. Balancing the two is hard and a testament to how divided our country is, but I am both. I was born both. I lived as both no matter where I was. Someday I will die as both. I can no sooner let go of that piece of me than I can give back my years at Stanford. I can only move forward, as a complex and a deeply loved and loving human being.