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I’ve been trying to write about my dad for a while but haven’t been able. I know how close you have to allow yourself to get to the past to conjure up the heart to write, and the ask of my heart was just too big. Years ago I learned that in order to survive, my heart would have to neatly pack the plethora of feelings for my dad deep inside and not call upon them.
My dad died last year. I got a text telling me so. Initially, I couldn’t conjure up anything beyond shock; not sadness, love nor even the remorse of a lost relationship. My feelings remained latent for such a long period after, I became a little scared that I might be a sociopath. This feeling was accentuated by the fact that there appeared to be near silence from my friends, only a handful reached out. After ten years at my school, only two colleagues dropped sad face emojis on my Facebook. Another friend had a stepfather who had died within the same week and she wrote a beautiful eulogy for him, describing what an incredible influence he had been in her life. Many, including myself, sent condolences. It was then that I realized that people only want to send condolences for happy relationships, not failed, as if my apathy toward my father made people uncomfortable. I suppose that’s right as it made me uncomfortable as well. All and all, it was a pretty difficult time. I have sat with the thought that I might be a sociopath for a year and then realized that the apathy I felt toward my dad’s death was real and I that had already mourned the loss years ago. His physical death was only the last step of the process.
It was my dad’s habit to connect with me in between his marriages, knowing that I was always fully interested in a relationship. Once, during my years in high school, my dad and his fourth wife had broken up. He called my aunt and uncle and asked if he could fly me to Texas to live with him. I was so torn. I was finally in a stable setting with a family that really loved me and cared for me and I was doing well in school. For some reason he demanded that a decision be made within 24 hours. My aunt and uncle described how much they loved me and how much I meant to their family and I broke their hearts by telling them I wanted to leave and go live with my dad. When we called him back the next day to let him know, he had already changed his mind. I suspect he had sobered up. I remember how he had died to me that day. These were the tears that were absent from his funeral. Because this was the loss of only his fourth marriage, he repeated the same pattern for the others to come, but by then I had hardened my heart and lost complete interest.
The episode at his funeral was like a really bad sitcom. It was crystal clear that I am the product of two addicts as all I really wanted to do was take a shitload of drugs and/or drink. I deferred, for the most part, but my heart was feeling pretty raw and exposed. The boundary between the dimensions felt incredibly thin that day and could feel my dad’s presence.
My dad’s new family was kind and warm but they are Pentecostals and believe that my dad had just moved onto a large mansion in the sky. His wife, bless her heart because she is such a sweet lady, shared that she had a vision of my dad sitting at a long banquet table in a mansion with her first husband. It took me a minute to realize what she had said to me and then I started laughing. I didn’t mean to, it was just so strange. I also thought, if her first husband is there then it’s likely that my dad’s second and fifth, Mel and Donna are also there. That also made me laugh.
The service was confusing. My dad adopted a son a few years back, the grandson of his sixth wife. Their marriage was short lived but long enough to adopt this kid when his mother got sent to prison. I’d heard about him but was perplexed when his name showed up on the list of children. Jerry, Kelli, Jason and Anthony. I turned to Jason and joked, “Who’s Anthony?” He was Dad’s evidence to show that he didn’t run away from things- this preteen grandson of his sixth wife whom he knew for three years, Anthony from Pennsylvania.
Someone got up and talked about my dad driving up into the sky on his red Harley. The red Harley was from his youth, they added, “When Al ran with bikers.” Jason and I caught each others eye and I knew we were thinking the same thing, Dad never ran with bikers, nor had he ever owned a Harley. Another person got up and talked about what a Godly man my dad was and how they were praying for his children who had yet to know Jesus. Fuck this, I thought, how is this service about me? Plus, for all intents and purposes, I’m a church going Methodist you motherfuckers. In the pew, his wife shared with me how he was lucky he was to have finally found someone who “knew how to do marriage” with my mother, his first wife, sitting on my other side. And all I could think about was the pit in my stomach as I tried to locate the bar in the church. There was none.
It had always been clear that Dad was unhappy with his life and was always running from something. After the service I realized that he was running from himself, the person he had become. He moved to this new community to recreate himself where he was a hero and was lucky to have escaped the clenches of his shitty family. He was a pious, red Harley driving, attentive father of Anthony who knew how to keep a family together. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I was exhausted as we left the church and headed to the airport. I noticed that Phoenix is tan orange, like all of Phoenix- the ground, the mountains and the houses. Miles and miles of tan orange.
My hope is that now I can put his death behind me and write. I want to write about how much I used to love my dad.
Religion in our household was an interesting endeavor. My mother was raised strictly Catholic in a small Montana town where as my father’s family was energetically American Pentecostal. My mother’s parents were devout even though the church would not recognize their union because my grandmother had divorced and remarried. When living with mom, my Catholic upbringing was pretty standard, church, Catholic classes for communion and Mass. It’s true, one does learn most current curse words and information about sex in Catholic school. Years later a practicing friend told me how high school Catholic girls did not consider anal sex to be considered intercourse- a loophole in the whole virginity thing. Interesting logic, I thought.
Pentecostal, for those of you not well versed in religion, is throwing your hands up in the air evangelism that might involve long flowing ribbons strewn from said hands of the worship dancers; a type of dance team for Jesus. Speaking in tongues is always a possibility as well. Also, Pentecostals are end times fluent. They can tell you all the shit that supposed to happen at the end of the world and they usually think it’s coming soon. And yes, a conservative agenda to overturn Roe v. Wade is their #1 goal.
When I was about 12 I visited my aunt and uncle, my dad’s younger brother. Although my uncle was totally insane, I liked visiting because my closest cousin was in the family. Her stories of growing up put my own to the test, no less fucked up. We might have taken the Joy Bus, I’m pretty sure we did, to church one Sunday. There was a lot of singing and dancing and swaying of raised hands but the most exciting part of the service was when they had an alter call for anyone who wanted to experience a full immersion baptism. I remember my uncle prodding me a little with a nudge, as the people streamed up the aisles toward the immersion pool. I looked kind of fun so of course I stepped up. I remember when I came home Pentecostal, my mom was furious and kept saying, “I’m gonna kill that man,” referring to my uncle. She suggested I splash extra holy water on myself when we attended church next.
In high school I lived with a different, very religious aunt and uncle. My aunt is my father’s little sister. She was 31 and had two kids of her own when she took me in. She and my uncle were good people but very religious. We were church on Sunday and Wednesday night people. I was so thankful for a home and they were very good to me so I complied as much as I could. They were hippy Pentecostal. This means focus on Jesus, loving one another and probably a bit of pot smoking. It also meant no TV or secular music in the house. I would continue to smuggle my mixed tapes and albums into my room. My aunt knew they were usually from my brother so she looked the other way as long as she didn’t hear it. When I sang at the Pop’s Concert I chose a religious song. Because of my extended stay through high school, I became fluent in Christian-ese and hyperaware of a Just Prayer flow and cadence.
I have strong feelings about all of these experiences but only wanted to report the narrative rather than analyze it. I may share another time.
Although he was married seven times, he only fathered children with my mother. With one of his last wives, he did adopt a young kid. It was her grandson whom they decided to adopt when the mother was incarcerated. None of us have ever met the kid. I believe he was trying to redeem himself for being such a bad father to us three when he decided to adopt. After divorcing this wife, my dad committed to child support set up a life insurance policy for this kid. Good for him.
At my Dad’s funeral last year the pastor announced, “… and he leaves behind four children, Jerry, Kelli, Jason and Anthony.” Jason quickly gave me a sideways glance and mouthed, “who’s Anthony?” We both chuckled.
In 2008 at my former place of employment, my friend Pat was in charge of training us new hires in our electronic grading/communications system. He mentioned that the system would only be around for another year. I remember his confusion when I answered, “These systems come and go like my Dad’s wives.”
In 1962 Mom and Dad married. In 1973 they divorced.
In 1973 Dad married Mel; In 1977 they divorced.
In 1978 Dad married Vicki; In 1981 they divorced.
In 1982 Dad married Jackie. In 1986 they divorced.
In 1990 Dad married Donna. In 2002 they divorced.
In 2002 Dad married Marty. In 2008 they divorced.
In 2010 Dad married Carol. They were married when he died in 2018.
Some of these I’ve written about. Some I haven’t. Some I barely knew. Most liked to party and drink, a few liked to drive fast cars, some I loved and one I hated. Two that held a special place in my heart died young. A few knew Jesus but others, not so much. He landed well, his last wife was a gem.
Until I reached high school, I would spend part of my summers with Dad and whichever wife he was married to at the time. From first grade to fifth, this would have been Mel the crazy wife who loved fast cars and art and who would eventually die of a heroin overdose and from fifth grade to eighth, Vicki, the incorrigible skank who hated the sight of me. By the end of his life my dad would take seven wives. Someone once commented, “at least he believed in the idea of marriage.” But, my dad and his wives and his fear of being alone are a different story.
I have written about Vicki before. She was a bit of a Monet, from a distance a pretty petite outline with long blond hair, but up close the blurred lines give way to the detail that seethed through her prematurely aging skin soaked in contempt and bitterness. She was a succubus clinging to the remnants of her dwindling youth. Vicki was unhappy and spiteful and hated the fact that I was young, optimistic and my dad appeared to genuinely like me. When I first met her I couldn’t figure out why she was so cold and distant besides the cruel stepmother thing, but soon recognized her briny jealousy.
Vicki had a daughter very much like herself. Her name was Tina and was five years younger than me. During my summer visits I was the default babysitter and would spend large amounts of time with Tina while Dad and Vicki were at work. I would take her to the park, to the store to buy candy and generally tend to her. Although Tina was still young and unscathed by the hazards that had claimed Vicki, it was clear by the ways she wielded the powers given to her that she was Vicki’s protégé and was certain to turn out just like her mother. She was doted upon, spoiled and encouraged to narc on any of my small 7th grade infractions.
Because Vicki thought that my dad showed a skewed affection toward his own kids, a moratorium was placed on our interactions. To avoid Vicki’s wrath, Dad’s interactions with me became very limited and carefully monitored. He stopped hugging me, avoided talking with me and made sure to stop telling stupid jokes to reduce the laughter between us that would certainly set Vicki off. He walked around Vicki on eggshells trying to keep peace. Tina still jumped on my dad when he got home from work and receive big hugs, those things I had given up. She loved the attention and had picked up Vicki’s habit of smiling at me during these moments. I knew it gave both of them pleasure and I was determined to not let my pain show. I swallowed the lump in my throat and willed myself to grow a thicker skin. I began to see my dad for the weak, limited man that he was.
The next summer Vicki would employ these same tactics toward my younger brother when he and I both came to live with them in Texas. Because of a perceived bias that my dad showed, Vicki put clear criteria on the discipline (beatings) that Dad gave Jason to ensure that it was sufficient and not prejudiced with affection. I remember her yelling down the hallway, “that’s not enough, he needs more!” My dad always would break down and comply.
The plan was to spend the summer in Eugene with Dad before returning to Mom’s in Portland for the start of school. Dad would stop at home during his lunch break so that I could spend a few unguarded minutes with him where I would make his favorite mustard and bologna sandwich on white bread. He would laugh and tell me stupid jokes as if everything was completely normal like, “do you know why the “V” of birds flying south is never quite symmetrical? Because there are always more birds on one side of the V.” Dad’s playful, goofy sense of humor was one of his defining characteristics and I was so desperate for his acknowledgement of my existence that I was quick to forgive him for his limitations and accept the hugs and affection he showed during these brief moments. Of course Tina was present and these interactions were always reported back to Vicki.
Soon Vicki put an end to the lunchtime rituals and demanded that Dad stop coming home for lunch to see me. Again, my heart was broken but I was determined to not let Vicki see any sign of victory. I forced the boulder down my dry throat and it scraped the meaty walls and tore open my insides. I could taste blood as the tears welled up in my eyes. Vicki threatened to send me home early to Portland if Dad continued to come home to see me. As instructed, Dad stopped coming by during lunch and continued to limit his interactions with me. I couldn’t tell if it bothered him because he maintained a jovial veneer with Vicki and Tina.
About two weeks later, Tina and I were playing in the driveway and Dad surprisingly stopped home for lunch. He jumped out of his truck like normal father fashion, picked me up in his arms and gave me a bear hug. Like the many times that would follow, I immediately forgave his infractions and accepted the warmth shown to me. It became a habit in between wives that Dad would woo me back into his good graces. My mom also claims that he initiated their own reconciliation on occasion, usually when breaking up with a wife but also while married when times got tough. I can see it for what it is now, but in the moment, I kept thinking this will change and I will get my dad back. I made Dad a sandwich and enjoyed a half hour of joke telling.
Tina was quick to milk the opportunity for all that it was worth. After my dad returned to work, she showed her cards and demanded a trip to the park and a stop for candy on the way home. The negotiations seemed fair although I was wary that she might not have the capacity to keep her end of the bargain to not tell her mother that Dad had stopped by for lunch. There was a clear power shift that afternoon and Tina demanded my attention and obedience. I kept thinking, oh how I wish these were different circumstances, as I’d love to push her face in the dirt and hold her down. She was tiny and venomous like her mother.
That evening after the parents had come home, I was in the back yard playing with the dog, Shlitz. Tina came outside and began to taunt me with threats. “I think I’m going to tell Mom that your dad came home today,” she said through squinty eye and a slow grin.
“No you won’t,” I answered, studying how the light bounced off of her icy blue eyes. “You know she’ll send me home and I won’t be able to take you places anymore.”
“I don’t care, my mom will take me,” she volleyed back.
I tried negotiating with Tina to not tell her mother and reminded her of the fun time we had at the park earlier. I began to see that it wasn’t a trip to the park or candy that interested Tina but rather she was motivated by the same thing that motivated her mother, the manipulation of power. Later in life, I’m sure she would learn to wield the power in her sexuality in the same ways that Vicki did, but for now she was just in training. She was enjoying watching me squirm and stared at me like a greedy amateur drunk on her spoils. Tina turned toward the back door and said, “no, I’m gonna tell.”
It was clear that she was testing the boundaries of her power and so far I had been playing really nice. She was completely unaware of my rage and my strength, I had never shown it, and the injustice of my situation was fueled by the hottest burning rocket fuel in my gut. I could feel the fire coming up my esophagus and grabbed the only thing that separated me and Tina, a toy shopping cart that she had been playing with earlier that day. I snapped and shoved the front of the cart into Tina’s stomach and pinned her to the side of the house. She let out a quick yelp before I pushed it harder to stop her cries. I had pushed all of the air from her lungs and could see that the position of the cart was not allowing her diaphragm to expand and take in more air. I knew that I could kill her and just sat with the decision for a minute while she slowly turned blue. I recall having enough sense to do a quick total sum analysis and knew that the end result would not be good for me if I killed Tina. Oh, but I wanted to. It was as if I had dumped all of my pain onto the shopping cart and was presenting it to her. I jabbed the cart harder hoping to break a rib or two. Tina’s eyes filled with fear and I could see the carbon dioxide poisoning causing her eyes to quickly shake. I knew I had to make a decision fast. I got one more quick jab in before I released Tina.
Tina fell to the ground and began gasping as the snot expelled from her lungs and covered her face. I proceeded to the front door to go pack my bag as Vicki and Dad rushed out the back to assist Tina. I was certain that nothing coming would be as bad as I felt already. I was ready to leave.
I think there’s a story here, I just need to develop it a bit.
I escaped from a home when I was 13. It was a “holding” place for juveniles. I was picked up when a friend was involved in an incident with a crazy boyfriend and a gun. It was an incident of my circumstances. The cops brought us in to call our parents. My friend’s parents came in to pick her up but mine weren’t around. I was moved to a juvenile home in Portland, Waverly, until a relative was found.
Steve Beven/The Oregonian
The home was nice enough. I may have even ended up in a nice foster home, but my trust was waning and I kept open the possibility of other plans. I stayed for a few days, enough time to make a friend. In our dramatic 14 year old fashion, we decided to escape. Funny, we were from the same neighborhood (of course we were). The place had a bunch of staff always roaming around. We decided the best way to be able to leave unnoticed was at night.
When the night assistant put the baby to sleep, my friend and I slipped through the back door and quickly scaled over the tall fence. I nearly jumped over the 5 foot barrier, but had to stop to help my friend that got snagged up. We got ourselves free and ran down the street toward the bus line. We jumped on the next Division line bus toward home. Why I ran back to this disaster area, I can’t figure out except to say that it was the last place I knew my family.
It didn’t take me long to figure out how ill equipped I was and I knew my couch hopping and squatting was getting both over welcomed and unsafe. After leaving my home a month earlier, I returned to an empty apartment. Mom was living downtown and Jason had been handed off to a family he did not know. I broke in the sliding back door and barricaded it shut once I got inside.
Although it wasn’t unusual to see the cops cruising through the apartment complex, I noticed the frequency of their visits had increased. I tried to stay out of their site just in case they were looking for me, and ventured out very little during the day. It’s not that I was so afraid of changing my circumstances, I just didn’t want it to be through the cops. I was so afraid that not only could my mother not take me, but also that my father wouldn’t want me.
After about a week of squatting, I was heading back to the vacant apartment through the common courtyard between apartment buildings. Just as I turned stepped around the corner the cop car appeared. I’m sure I evoked suspicion as I instinctively bobbed back into the shaded courtyard. My first instinct was to run with the confidence that they wouldn’t catch me. I turned and ran, through the courtyard to the edge of the building kitty corner the basketball court sized grass. I was fast and escaped their line of vision through the next courtyard and through the fence.
I waited until dark to sneak back to my apartment. The cops glided by in their car later with a car flashlight sweeping through the complex, not an uncommon event, but worthy of noting.
I called my grandmother the next day. I believe she was aware that I had been missing. She connected me to my dad and I was on a plane the next day to live in Houston with Dad and Vicki.
I’ve always found it quite difficult, being a freak and living in the real world. Freak is a bit harsh more like dark strange. I was never a goth, but mostly wear black all of the time. I laugh the hardest dark humor, adore Edward Gorey, choose Vonnegut on a day off and consider a doll’s head with glowing eyes, the la touché finale. Other freaks understand, but living in the real world is much harder. And being a teacher, even more so, they’re all so level headed. Except for the art teachers.
But during this time of year I get my fix. The eyes remain illuminated and the Cranes get their airtime on my Sonos. Here’s to the Season of the Witch.
I went home today. Engulfed in a water cold cloud. Track season.
The busy street within earshot delivers high-energy crashing waves from the abundant rain. With my back to the large window, it sounds like the Oregon coast, brought to a small city. Like the sleep sound machine I bought when I left home.
A warm ray breaks through the cover and falls on my back. Yesterday I asked students to reconsider their preconceptions of heat- to only think in terms of energy, motion of particles. The molecules of air on my back begin to vibrate with greater energy and I benefit from the friction of their collisions. But, like home, the moment is temporary because there is much more raining to be done.
In homage to the darkness and rain, I cover myself in a warm blanket and raise the ceremonial cup of hot liquid to my lips. Eyes closed, losing myself in the constant rhythm.
The barriers that keep underrepresented students from succeeding in school and moving toward college are real. We use the term “underrepresented” in education as a way of accounting for the many groups of students who go on to college in fewer numbers. In science, underrepresented specifically means students of color, girls and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. As a student, I was underrepresented and have used my voice tirelessly to speak for this group. The barriers are real and I am thankful to be in a position to work toward removing them.
Barriers that continue to keep our underrepresented students from pursuing college are many. Money, of course, is a main one, but there are so many hidden barriers that people often don’t consider. Maintaining the drive and focus against the stacked odds and not having access to institutional knowledge (knowing how to maneuver through the logistics to get from high school to college) are other barriers that disenfranchise our underrepresented students.
I started high school as a new student from out of state. I lived with my aunt and uncle and their family because my parents were incapable of caring for my siblings and I. My parents were busy focusing on either their own addictions and/or recovery. My younger ten-year old brother was also at an aunt and uncle’s place in Montana while my older eighteen-year old brother had already dropped out of high school before his sophomore year was complete and had been living on his own since.
My high school was the seventh school I had attended. Because of the constant moving from state to state, between divorced parents and family members, my educational experience was very fragmented. Those who had the benefit of remaining in one system have never had to put together the pieces in the way that I did. Even though I remained in one school for my high school experience, my foundation was still shaky. I will say that although there were barriers to me succeeding in college, I still had a lot going for me. I was smart, I had a loving home during high school and I very much wanted a life different than that I was most familiar; a life of addiction and dysfunction. I had enough good elements in my life to plod through and make college a viable option, but there are many kids who do not. I think, “there but by the grace of God,” and this motivates me.
We lived in Florence, Oregon, a struggling mill town on the coast that suffered extreme economic hardships during the years I lived there. My uncle worked at the mill and lost his job when the mill shut down during my junior year of high school. Rather than leave the town immediately to find work elsewhere, someone, for the first time in my life, put my well being first and decided to stay in the town until I finished high school. My uncle took any odd job he could find, including spending entire days in the thick coastal forests foraging for Chanterelle mushrooms to sell to buyers who represented the high-end restaurants and markets from the cities. The pay off was small and the work incredibly hard but he put in a backbreaking work daily to provide for his struggling family. We relied, as much as we could on being self sufficient- gardening, canning and hunting/fishing, but I do recall receiving free processed cheese product and other staples from some source. The funny thing was, because we had a home and always had three meals a day, this level of poverty was still eons richer than I had been at other times in my life.
We all contributed as much as we could. I always had an after school job that paid for all of my personal provisions including all of my clothes, school expenses, personal expenses (make up, tampons, hair cuts, long distance phone calls to my mom or brothers…), sport expenses, prom/homecoming, summer program expenses, after school college classes, car insurance, gas, and trying to save whatever was left over for college. I made my own prom dress (and wedding dress) and learned to be the skilled thrift shopper that I am this day. Understanding the sacrifice that my family was making for me, I tried to not be an additional expense. I was a cheerleader my sophomore year of high school, but quit because the cost associated with the camps and uniforms was prohibitively high. We had to make choices. I worked at slew of places, sometimes working at two jobs at a time and in between jobs, babysat regularly. Most days after school and practice, I worked. Needing to work throughout high school, to contribute to the family is another hardship unique to our underrepresented students. It is hard and tiring and maintaining focus is difficult. I can see how it is easy to give up.
So what kept me focused? First of all, I recognized I didn’t have a lot of options. I had no family to fall back on, no safety net. From an early time, I knew I was it. School was my sanctuary (besides a handful of teachers who nearly broke my spirit). I knew that an education would move me through this place that I was stuck. That’s not to say that school was always a picnic, I struggled. I struggled with the gaps in my schooling, I struggled with being the new girl nearly every school year, and I struggled with keeping a distance between my life at school and my life at home. The drugs and alcohol that were a part of life at home and the lack of parental influence affected me. I recognize that I had two viable options to move through this place, I could escape through the hard work or I could escape through a life of drugs and alcohol. My path zigzagged back and forth through these two options.
Things that kept me focused in school were the classes and teachers that kept me interested. I took every choir class and every science class my high school offered. My favorite class, and probably the one that made me decide to be a scientist, was a Med Tech class I took my sophomore year with Ms. Bailey. I recall we spent a large amount of time analyzing our own urine and blood (back in the days before body fluids was an issue). Learning how to get past the embarrassment of bringing a cup of your own pee to class every day, as a sophomore in high school, is a feat. We boiled the urine to separate the liquids from the solids and for days endured the smell of urea in the air as you rounded the science wing hallway. We applied all of the same tests the lab does when you pee in a cup for your doctor. It was a lesson in humility, humanity and humor. It was also incredibly fascinating. The stuff I was learning was about me and it was applicable to life.
Buzzwords in education today swirl around our head: flipped classrooms, blended learning, voice and choice, small communities…. all good ideas, but nothing works if the students aren’t interested in the first place. We have to start with something that connects with the students. Usually it’s a teacher who knows how to deliver. In science, I believe it’s about getting up and doing science. Students connect with what they are doing. Students love lab experiences. In my classroom, lab is about putting on good music and mingling with purpose. Students roam the classroom connecting with each other, connecting with the lab ware and piecing together an understanding. Students need to be up, moving, talking, and getting into the thick of it. As a science teacher I balk when someone describes how using more technology in my classroom will increase student performance. Anything that moves my students out of the lab and puts them in front of a screen is in the wrong direction. That’s not to say that technology doesn’t have a place in my classroom, but I will choose lab time over screen time any day. In science, all educational buzzwords pale to doing science. Connecting students to a positive lab experience is beneficial to all of our students. No student is at a disadvantage in doing science, all students are equal. Connecting to students’ curiosity keeps them focused and coming back for more.
Besides doing science in science classes, I think there is much that a school can do to promote student interest and equity. As I stated above, I took all of the choir and science classes that our school offered, if they had more I would have taken them. We need to promote student choice and voice across our curriculum. Allowing students to access ANY course they want, as long as it falls within their requirements for graduation is a must. Sometimes a course might be a reach, due to a student’s prior experience. Taking an honors chemistry course coming from a regularly-laned biology course for example, might be a reach for some students, but the idea that they have the right to try, is crucial to student choice and voice. Safety nets should be put in place so that students can move in and out of lanes easily. Mixed level classes (regular/honors) promote student choice and equity. With choice comes responsibility. Students should know that there is a commitment and responsibility on their part if they choose to “jump” lanes. Students have to own this commitment and schools need to hold students accountable for their choices. Student’s responsibilities include seeking out assistance if they are struggling (this does not mean getting a tutor, this means seeking out the teacher for help), keeping up with the additional work associated with making a lane change and being self reflective enough to know if the lane change is working or not. Letting students take the courses that they want, breadth and depth, is an important way to promote student interest and equity. We should not be putting up barriers to student choice and voice, we should empower them with responsible decision making.
Lastly, if we are striving for equity for all of our students, it is imperative that all students have access to institutional knowledge to help with the jump from high school to college. We call students who are the first in their family to go to college, first generation students. I am a first generation student. My mother actually dropped out of high school because she was pregnant and she and my dad married before her graduation date. I was fortunate to move through a system that many fewer institutional barriers when I first entered college in 1985. Today’s system is much thicker institutional knowledge and bureaucracy. Negotiating the financial requirements of FAFSA, independent scholarship sources, the common application and the minimum requirements challenges even the experienced. Knowing how these pieces fit together requires explanation and guidance. Our schools need to make sure that all of our students have access to this institutional knowledge. Many schools offer guidance or advisory programs that walk students through this information but they must understand that some students will not have the support system at home with which to have guiding conversations and make important decisions. The guidance needs to come from the school. On this point, we will never reach equity, because the institutional knowledge provided from a parent who has been to college will always be greater than what a student can get from school, but at least schools can strive to close this gap.
I am privileged to be able to work do the work that benefits underrepresented students like myself. Breaking barriers or at least making them less is my classroom and in my school is my goal. I want science to be flooded with the voices of underrepresented women, students of color and students from low socioeconomic status. Science needs these voices because their silence only widens the gap and contributes to their disenfranchisement. Science needs these voices to speak to why our recent water debacle occurred in Flint MI and not Palo Alto CA and to speak to how the recent defunding of the EPA will result in a wider gap and the silencing of more voices. Science needs these voices.
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