(Poetic) Justice

In honor of February, here’s a piece of original poetry I wrote one year ago to the month:

Sometimes, my words come out sour.
Sometimes, my actions do a pretty crappy job of speaking louder,
And if there’s a higher power, I hope she’s listening,
Overloaded by finger-codes, and now the road’s missing.

‘Cause every note I sing is body & soul,
But you’d better keep your coat on, ’cause that track’s too cold.

And is there anybody out there? Yeah, that’s me.
That back-of-the-class clown is a frontman’s dream.
Be on your gluteus maxim-moodius,
True to your school but never studious.
Wasted potential gone by the wayside,
Potential–making my hair go on the gray-side.

And if it all falls out, that’s incredible.
‘Cause in the end, what happens to me ain’t all that criminal.

Cynical–but only because I’m grinding,
Back at home the folks from high school are whining and dining
On some money they never earned, their parents never concerned,
What good is an education if your teachers never learned?

I’ve seen it first hand, there’s no mistaking,
Defense is pretty good at bending, but my heart’s breaking.
If love’s so underrated, why do we aim so low?
The rain is temporary, it makes the flowers grow.

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The Ultimate Measure of a Man

Manhood. A word that walks in tandem with bravery, fortitude, potency, and courage. A word that towers over cowardice, combats weakness, and extinguishes fear.

Dr. Martin Luther King identified it as, “not where one stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.” In a moment of challenge and controversy, I (along with my equally manly roommates) chose to brave tonight’s elements–temps as low as -35F with the wind chill–to see Ana DuVernay’s film, Selma. Named for the town in Alabama from which Dr. King and thousands of others marched to Montgomery in 1965, the film offers viewers one of the rawest inside looks at the Civil Rights Movement as it related to American politics in any dramatic film to date. Throw in a couple cameos by Oprah and Common, and I was more than happy to risk frost bite for it.

One thing I noticed the movie got right is the idea that the methods of protest during the Civil Rights Movement were completed calculated and devised from within. All too often, I feel the events of the Movement are taught to children as a series of random and disjointed, yet impactful events, in an effort to discredit Black American leadership as actually being smart enough to orchestrate it all.

For example, we’ve all heard the story of Rosa Parks, the “tired, old seamstress” whose feet hurt too much for her to give up her seat to a white bus passenger, thus sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was taught this story in a largely white school in suburban New Jersey, as were my students of color on the west side of Chicago. It took me until my sophomore year of college to learn that this “tired, old seamstress” was already a notable civil rights activist who had been arrested once before her now famous encounter on the bus in 1956, and was later quoted saying, “the only thing I was tired of was giving in.” That’s right, America. Rosa Parks was a badass. So why is her legacy boiled down to a tired, old, would-be-compliant citizen were it not for her aching feet?

The  answer to the Rosa Parks question can be found in the second element I feel the movie got right. Selma depicts a legitimate sense of fear among the American government that led to its desire to reduce the Civil Rights Movement to a series of noble, but borderline coincidental acts led by the eternally peaceful Dr. King. I knew of the FBI’s efforts to tear down Dr. King, but didn’t realize the amount of pressure the man applied to the face of then President Lyndon B. Johnson, who despite all efforts to deflect him at times, had the utmost respect for Dr. King (there was even a line in the movie where LBJ mentioned how he had been unable to “convince” King to serve on his cabinet in any formal capacity).

Dr. King knew the importance of the right to vote among black citizens, and the role it could play in ending segregation and inequality. Grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and voting vouchers were all illegal barriers implemented by white politicians put in office by a white electorate, even though more than half of Selma’s population was people of color. White law enforcement officials could then arbitrarily prosecute and brutalize black citizens, who would not stand a chance in trial against a white judge, white attorneys, and an all-white jury. Selma became the site for the onset of the Voting Rights Act, a stage hand-selected by Dr. King with the help of President Johnson because only 2% of its 20,000 black citizens were able to register to vote. On limited resources, the Civil Rights Movement surmounted all outside efforts to ruin it because it was organized, unified, strategically calculated, and above all: just.

Though all these aspects of the Movement that the movie got right were refreshing to see on the big screen, the most glaring truth was also the most horrifying one: America still is what it was 50 years ago. Peaceful protesters seated in traffic with their hands up; officers using fear tactics and tear gas to incite violence and break up crowds; and worst of all, a broken legal system that only affords justice to some. For a seemingly historic film, Selma sure does a great job pitting America face-to-face with similar images, dialogue, and reactions that appeared following the decisions made only a few weeks ago in Ferguson and New York, two years ago in Florida, and so on.

We remain in trying times of challenge and controversy, and to stay comfortable and convenient is to perpetuate injustice. When I stepped outside this evening, all I had to brave was the wind. So many people I care about, and some I haven’t met yet, continue to brave so much more than weather each time they step outside. Much can be learned from Selma, but it is by no means a history lesson. It is a toolkit; a blueprint for social movements that WORK. Will it take more than 140 characters or a hashtag to create change in our time? Absolutely, but it’s certainly a start.

So what else will it take?

Educate yourself. Use your time and talents to educate others. Do not fear racism by pretending that it no longer exists, and do not excuse yourself from the role you play in allowing it to exist. Speak out against injustice anywhere, as it is a threat to justice everywhere. In the end, that is how man will be measured.

“You Never Know How Many You’ll Get”

Today, I felt inspired while watching college basketball. Not in the way you’re probably thinking, though. Sure, it’s exhilarating to watch a point guard break some poor defender’s ankles; it’s a thrill to see a power forward throw down a monster jam. But when you’re a short, stocky, white, Italian-American son of two teachers from suburban New Jersey, there are limits to just how inspiring the physical aspects of the game can be.

What really caught my attention was something a player–a veteran transfer student named Jelan Kendrick–had said to his younger teammates: “Do good for people at every stage of your life,” he said, “you never know how many you’ll get.” Jelan Kendrick was a starter for UNLV, by way of Memphis, Ole Miss, and some community college in Mississippi. As the only senior on his team this year, I’m sure this young man hadn’t expected his collegiate career to span across four schools, three states and two time zones. But it did. And Jelan, who could just as well have felt resentment or entitlement toward an experience that took half a decade to fit his needs, instead felt a responsibility to those who could very well be paving the way to his next opportunity. A mature and insightful statement from a soon-to-be college grad, sure, but there’s a deeply rooted reason why this struck a chord with me.

People who knew me as a kid would probably tell you I struggled with adjusting to change. I’m here to tell you that is a generous understatement. For purposes of perspective, here are three quick examples from my childhood that show the ridiculous level of familiarity I demanded from the world around me: As a toddler, I threw a fit if my mother wore her glasses, or left the shower without blow-drying her hair. When my dad decided to go clean-shaven for the first time in years, I accused him of not being “my real father,” because he no longer had a beard. In 6th grade when we moved across the street (I mean this literally–I had a clear view of my first childhood home from my second one), I screamed and cried and refused to leave until my grandfather bribed me with free lunch and cold, hard cash. Freud would’ve had a field day on me.

People who know me now would probably tell you I’m the most culturally ambitious member of my immediate family. Since graduating high school, I’ve lived in three different states and two major American cities. I attended the University of Miami, where I acquired a taste for jazz, lived in a house with a pool in the backyard, and sang live on stage with Billy Joel. My college experience culminated with my earning honors in student teaching at Booker T. Washington Senior High School in Miami’s most underserved community. Upon graduating, I accepted a job with Teach For America that brought me to Chicago, where I taught Special Education at an all-boys high school on the West Side. In two years I started a male vocal group, shifted mindsets around students with diverse learning needs, chaired my department, and earned a master’s degree. This year, I coach brilliant young teachers in schools across the city around classroom culture, behavior management, and the development of strong relationships with students and families. The perspective I’ve gained in just three short years out of college has been staggering, and I’m only getting started (For those of you who feel like you’re reading my resume–and I don’t blame you–keep reading, I’m about to bring it all together).

Today, one might say that the boy who used to cry when his mother had wet hair is dead. One could argue that today, I even embrace change. I embrace it so much that I squander it. It’s rare that I actually stop and smell the roses long enough to enjoy my own human progress, totally negating Jelan’s wise words. I hadn’t expected my post-high school career to span this far, this quickly. But it has. And instead of feeling a sense of pride or entitlement toward an experience that’s taken more than half a decade and has me far from settled, I feel a renewed responsibility to those people who could very well be paving the way to my next opportunity–after all, you never know how many you’ll get.

In 2015, I’m resolving to switch my focus from reaching blindly for my next step, to trusting that the good I do for people will lead me wherever I am needed anyway.

Thank you, Mr. Kendrick, and so many others, for holding me accountable.