African Americans

Celebrating the Wisdom of Teens—Really!

I’m ridiculously amazed at how much my son has grown in the past few weeks while I’ve been conducting what I think of as my “compassionate observation experiment.” 

My intention during this time was to focus on replacing instruction from me about what he should do and be with compassionate observation of who he is already, where it seems he wants to go, and how it works best for him to get there.

It’s an experiment that builds on the belief that he is already good and wise at the core of his being (even as a teenager!) and therefore, that he knows more about what’s best for him than I do.  (For my college-aged readers, I want you to know especially that I believe this about you too.)

Side note: This is the idea that academic and life coaching is based on too and that’s why I love it so much.  It opens a whole realm of untapped wisdom that we often overlook.  

This belief in the inherent wisdom of individuals contrasts with dominant views about teenagers that emphasize their poor judgement, lack of knowledge and experience, and resulting need for lots of adult instruction and control over their lives.

There’s some truth to this more deficit-based perspective as well, of course.  Teens do, in fact, have undeveloped brains with some significant disconnections between the logical, rational part of the brain and the parts that determine their emotions and actions.  They often do need adults to “connect the dots.” 

Still, teens (mine included) tend to get PLENTY of instruction and control from parents and teachers and counselors etc.  In this experiment, I wanted to tip the scales a bit in the other direction. 

What Do You See? What Do You See?

As you know if you read my post last week, I’ve been observing my younger son closely—taking a break from giving him instructions about how he should live his life. (Yes, I still tell him to put his dishes in the dishwasher!)  I must say it’s been a really fun experiment! 

I don’t know how all the energy stuff works in the world, and though I think there’s some truth in it, I also think there are some serious gaps/errors in the whole Law of Attraction/The Secret idea—you know, the “what you think about is what you get” concept. 

But at the same time, I’ve certainly found that my own experiments with changing my focus and my stories about life, focusing on what’s good, using my imagination in positive ways to envision what I hope for, often have a hugely positive impact in my actual, physical life.

This is one of those times. 

During the past week, it’s as if I opened a door to growth for my son, just by backing off and observing him with a spirit of compassion and curiosity.

It may be coincidence (the only way to know will be to keep trying new experiments to see if a pattern appears), but without my prodding in the past week he’s moved out towards: 1) doing something he loves in the arts AND, 2) conquering the ever-illusive concepts of geometry in his own way.  These were goals his dad and I had for him, but our rules and plans about how he should reach them had thus far had little effect.

In addition, I’ve noticed that he’s responding to his dad and me in more mature ways in relation to the responsibilities and expectations we have for him, expressing his own desires and preferences in ways that leave room for us to work out a plan that feels good to all of us. 

For example, on Sunday I wanted him to go put his clothes in the dryer at a time when he didn’t want to do it.  I said I didn’t want to go to bed without feeling sure that it was going to happen.  Rather than getting defensive or yelling something to the effect of “I’m fifteen.  Why can’t you just trust me!  I’ll get it done!”  He said, “If I don’t do it, no screens for me tomorrow.”  I said, “Okay, that works.”  And when I woke up in the morning the clothes were done.  Win. Win.

I also learned that he doesn’t just like music, or rap, he likes “lyrical rap” specifically.  This is a new term for me.  And it’s given me a hint about how I might be able to help him move in a direction he’s interested in. 

It struck me that I’ve been practicing this kind of curious and compassionate observation, not only with him, but with myself—and with similar positive results.  (Maybe next I’ll try it with my husband!) 

What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

Last year, when I was working as a college professor in a teacher education department, I told my students (some of you were there!) about some little-known pioneers in the field that I had uncovered through my historical research.  As usual, I could barely keep from crying when I said out loud the names of the four African American women­—Annay Alger, Mamie Lindsey, Nettie Steward, Annie Young—who were Philadelphia’s first Black kindergarten teachers (and as far as current scholarship tells us, also the first Black kindergarten teachers in the United States.)

What’s in a name?  Why did it feel absolutely essential to me that my students hear these names out loud?  That I speak them out loud?  Why did doing so bring up such powerful emotions?

I’m still figuring this out, but something in me knows that there are ways that names matter. 

There are ways that speaking a name—and speaking it correctly—matters. 

As I ponder this question of the importance of names, I think of a movie I saw—I’m not even sure what it was—in which a character shouted, “Say my name!”  I think of the cover of a book on my shelf that I haven’t even read yet;  it’s about the experiences of Black men and the title is “Speak my name!”  I think of a video I watched on Facebook recently in which multiple people shared the story of having their names consistently mispronounced—or worse, changed to “something easier” because they were viewed as being difficult to pronounce. 

I think about the fact that all my students know the name “George Washington,” but none know the names of the people I study who are mostly either women or African Americans, or both, and children.

One reason that my students know George Washington and not those I study is because he was famous and held a position that only a few have held over many decades. There is, after all, just one president at a time and thousands of teachers—but that not the only reason they know George Washington’s name and not the names of these four women. 

It’s about respect.  It’s about who is deemed important enough to make knowing their name important, and of course that is not disconnected from who has access to positions of power and influence.

As women and African Americans, these four women I mentioned had no shot at being president when Washington was elected.

Among a number of other roles, I am a historian and often I have felt ashamed of my tendency to spend time doing historical research.  It seems so impractical, so insignificant.  Compared to changing the world by reforming laws and societies in practical ways, what do I have to offer?  

Well, one thing I can do is uncover some names—and the stories of the lives they represent.

Historians of the past few decades have done a lot of work uncovering hidden stories, stories of those deemed unimportant…

·      stories of brown-skinned people in a culture that valued “whiteness,”

·      stories of women in a culture that has viewed the female sex as incapable of significant thought or leadership,

·      stories of children, whose activities and perspectives are consistently deemed trivial and insignificant in comparison to the activities of adults. 

This is work that I am proud to continue.

Because of my work I can say these names out loud—Annay Alger, Mamie Lindsey, Nettie Steward, Annie Young, America's first Black kindergarten teachers.  I am so proud of these women, these pioneers of early education.

I can honor the lives and work of four women who, because of their race and their gender and perhaps also because of their vocation working with young children, were deemed “not worth remembering.” 

I can’t quite explain it fully yet, but somehow it matters. 

I encourage you to say their names— Annay Alger, Mamie Lindsey, Nettie Steward, Annie Young.

Then say your own name and claim your story as you do.

Here’s to thriving for equity,

Deb