Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Month of Love and Black People

I was invited to speak with 5-8th graders today for Black History Month (@ IS 73 in Brownsville, shout outs to Bucktown who were also there, and VP Nadia Lopez for the invite). The request was for us to discuss adversities we've dealt with, story(ies) of our success, and the importance of education.

It is always interesting to me when I meet people who have been requested to speak to children who are completely uncomfortable doing so. Only because it is my life. I have been speaking in public since I have memory. So standing in front of audiences of 2-1,000, television, or on a park bench, is all the same to me.

But I have a special ability with classrooms of young people. Here's how the 50 minutes went.

I started by saying, "It's February the month to celebrate love and..."
A youngster finished my sentence, "Black people."
We all chucked. "Yeah, Love and Black people."

I chose to share with them 3 defining adversities:

1) My father is locked up
2) My first boyfriend died when he was 17 of cancer, and his funeral (which I attended) was on my sweet 16th
3) I went to school 2,000+ mi from home when I was 13 and survived by getting a hustle (braiding hair)

Sharing those things, oh and that I have tattoos that remind me of all I've overcome, always loosens the kids up. The woman who was "partnered" with me thought she was just going to go in the room and talk. I explained that though we were brought there as success stories, the fact that they'd made it to the 8th grade was a success story, and that I'm sure they've accomplished other amazing things that would deem them a success. So, instead of spending nearly an hour hearing us talk, we'd get to know each other a bit and then have some fun.

We all shared our name, our 'hood, and something about ourselves that you wouldn't guess by looking at us. That was fun and it helped me remember each of them: Natasha loves "Everybody Hates Chris", Troy loves to laugh, Jonathan loves to draw, and Abigail likes reggae... We spoke about what marketing is briefly so they could get a sense of what the two of us do. And then, we had a conversation about what makes someone successful. We came up with: drive, persistance, focus, kindness, a plan, and your crew.

Then I told them we could get to the fun part. We talked about paper airplanes and how we measure their success - distance of flight. I asked how many of them had made a paper airplane before. All but one hand went up. So then we talked about what will help a paper airplane fly the farthest. They said, the point and the wings. We gave them two instructions: 7 minutes to make the best airplanes they could with two pieces of blank paper (which I provided), and to write their names on their planes. My partner and I participated too.

I made Alex our time checker, and would ask him periodically for a "time check". He enjoyed having that responsibility. They spoke amongst themselve about what they thought would make theirs go farthest. They asked one another for help. They started over. They tested them out. And when they had one minute remaining, I reminded them to write their names on them and start lining up at the front of the class. We decided that if any hit the back wall, we'd take it to the hallway and judge there.

I asked them before starting to fly one by one, what else they did to attempt "success." They'd asked folks they felt were experts. They noticed that how you throw made a difference too. They questioned whether or not the weight would make a difference. (I asked, "Well, if you all got the exact same paper, how could one be heavier than another?") And they noticed that some planes were long and narrow while others were short and wide.

They each took turns. We laughed at some of our pitiful attempts. One landed no further than the length of the thrower; it took a nose dive. Another landed on top of the light fixture, never to come down. And two planes hit the back wall: Jonathan and Alex - who had crafted theirs quickly, tested while others watched and saw their planes were impressive, and been helping others with their planes. I told them we had to break that tie by going into the hallway, but that they had to be quiet. Just as we were going out, the Principal of the school walks in. The youth started telling her (in whispers because we were heading out) what we were doing, and I was sure to inform her that it was all a test of what makes someone or something successful. There was an audience in the hallway and Jonathan and Alex loved it.

Alex went first. His plane was long and narrow. It glided through the air, landing gently approximately 12 feet away. We all looked at Jonathan, some of us as nervous as an Olympic track start. He practiced his throwing stroke twice and let go. His wide, short plane glided as nicely as Alex's but stopped just short of the other plane. He took the defeat well, smiling, saying, "I knew I released it a little too early."

We took photos in the hallway, and quietly ushered them back inside the room. We reminded them that we determined the measure of success first - in this instance, distance. We reminded them what they naturally did in their attempts to be successful - ask an expert, attempt more than once, and practice. We reminded them that there are many subject areas they hit by participating: art, science, math/logic. I thanked them for their attention and participation and asked each to sign my sad plane. (I had written "Love" and "Respect" on it. So when it didn't go far I said: Well, at least it flew with Love and Respect!)

I saw something today that I didn't expect.

A) I'm a damn good educator.
B) I learned just as much as they did about flying paper airplanes. And ultimately, they taught me way more about the craft, and were therefore my educators.

It reminded me of the Fastgirls. It reminded me that I have to keep my eyes on what measures of success I have for myself. It reminded me that with drive, persistance, focus, kindness, a plan, and my crew, I can soar as far as my mind can imagine. And if for some reason, I "throw short," I can start again and ask for support from experts.

Thank you all for your love, your willingness to go beyond where you've gone before, and being on this journey with me.