Second-Grade Lessons in Being Awake to Privilege

Liz Slamkowski ('12)

May 15, 2019
Liz Slamkowski (’12)

After graduating from Gonzaga, Liz Slamkowski signed up for a two-year experience with the Alliance for Catholic Education, to teach at St. Thomas More school in Washington, D.C. After teaching in Santiago, Chile, for three years, she returned to Spokane where she supports high school students in Christian Service at Gonzaga Preparatory School. Here is the presentation she offered to Class of 2019 graduates who are embarking on their own journeys of service.

 

I couldn’t believe it… In pencil on the black windowsill, the words “Miss Slam is having sex” were written. I did a double and then triple take. “Sex?!” Well this is the first I’m hearing about this. (Why am I always the last to know about things in this classroom?!) I furrowed my brow and suspiciously looked around and then frantically circulated our classroom all the while thinking, “But… they’re… second… graders.” “Ms. Slam is having sex.” was written on student desks, the closet door, books in our classroom library, a nametag, and, (gasp) how dare they, on the poster that said “Our Goals: 1. College 2. Heaven.” I knew whose handwriting it was… After all, I probably had graded hundreds of Amaya’s papers. But… why… and the worst part was they didn’t even realize that between planning, grading, online classes, worrying about and maintaining contact with family and friends, cooking or cleaning up after community dinners, trying to exercise, and show myself a little self love there was literally no time for anything else. My life was dedicated to them. This is a 2nd grade scandal! An outrage! I festered at how disrespectful and disturbing those words were to see in our classroom. I thought to myself, “When they get back from P.E. there will be hell to pay!”

In my first two years of “service”, I was constantly reminded of the only clear words I know that God has ever put on my heart and in my mind.. “Elizabeth, you’re missing the point,” God says “Oh, OK God.” I would respond mid-eyeroll. Doesn’t God know how hard this is for me? God’s gentle nudge and response persisted, “Elizabeth, darling, you’re missing the point.” Oh… Maybe I am…

Teaching 2nd grade at St. Thomas More had been an adventure. My two years teaching in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. were full of new experiences. Tears were shed, projectile vomit was spewed, chairs were thrown, physical fights broke out on multiple occasions, CPS was called, hurtful words were screamed or said without thinking, feelings were hurt, curse words were graffitied, someone always acted up during Mass, lines were busted, horrendous lessons of mine were observed, heartbreaking stories were shared about my students’ past or present lives, I made millions of teaching mistakes, and I sometimes daydreamed of walking away and never looking back.

It took until my second year as a part of the Alliance for Catholic Education, ACE, to figure out the perfect symbolic representation for God’s words and sentiment to me. I knew I was “missing the point” but couldn’t find the perfect explanation for how or why or what to do with that information. On our 6th snow day of the school year my ACE community members, I should probably say my ACE family, and I watched the 1999 classic sci-fi movie, The Matrix. The film is not important in this context, [but, watch it… and through a social justice lens. (It’ll blow your minds!)] But what is important are these particular lines in a conversation between Morpheus, the mentor, offering Neo, the pupil, two options. Morpheus says:

“This is your last chance.  After this, there is no going back. You take the blue pill and the story ends.  You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember that all I am offering is the truth.  Nothing more.”

I felt a few stray tears of clarity fall. “Oh, OK, God. I see you.”  The red pill and the blue pill, to this day, mean everything to me… to my ACE community as well. The blue pill is enticing to young Neo… Enticing to me. To wake up and believe whatever I want. To live in ignorant bliss... to live asleep... Sounds convenient. The red pill disarms and threatens my very comfortable way of life. Choosing the red pill disrupts my privileged existence.

You see, I had been secretly trying to channel that inner-Hillary Swank Freedom Writers vibe, despite my best effort not to and even unbeknownst to me at times. You know that vibe… the heroine… the savior. There are so many who try not to have or feel that savior complex, while deep down subtly secretly harboring those very feelings within. We, as humans, get to decide what or who we pay attention to. If you’re privileged enough, and I am, you have the option to ignore the truth. Almost my whole life, I had accepted the blue pill, or being asleep. Being woken up is a choice for some of us; for others it’s reality. Living the ignorant life allowed me to accept stereotypes and even reinforce them in my storytelling about my experience at St. Thomas More. Living the unaware life lead me to believe that I was the one suffering, when I had the option to walk away that whole time. Woe is me… This is hard… These kids are disrespectful… These kids aren’t what I expect them to be…

Awareness is a difficult choice to make. I cringe that I even get to say that. Waking up, taking the red pill, being aware and alert to those that live their lives on the margins helped me realize the world doesn't work the same way for others as it does for me. But, God, I wish it did. If the world worked for others the way it worked for me, all kids would have INCREDIBLE parents that loved and supported them, who show up to every competition, event, and play because they wanted to and their jobs allowed for that flexibility. If the world worked for my students the way it worked for me, they’d be fed life-giving, fresh local food because that would be an option, get to read books with characters that look like them, watch movies and shows with communities that represent their own, and if the world worked for my students the way it worked for me they would get sung a home-made up lullaby every night about how loved and special they are because my mom didn’t have to work nights, so she could be home to do that. If the world worked for my kids the way it worked for me they would feel safe and protected when seeing a police car and wouldn’t live in a segregated part of town.

When I say I chose the red pill, or awareness, or to wake up, I don’t mean it all happened at once. I slowly woke up and am slowly still waking up. I woke up to an awareness of myself, of how my actions and words reinforced stereotypes and closed myself off to growth. That awakening, like I said, is still happening…

I became aware of the privileged lens through which I chose to see things. That privileged lens distorted, scoffed, and dismissed my students, my colleagues, my neighbors, and my friends. I had to reinterpret behavior that I found unfamiliar, alarming, disrespectful, and sometimes foreign. I stopped trying to fit my community into what I wanted them to be and started listening.

Sierra threw up every single day after lunch. I felt sorry that she didn’t feel well and frankly, I felt sorry for myself for having to clean it up every day. What my red pill self felt sorry for was the fact that our school was and is still located in a food desert, that fresh produce was expensive, and if anyone from our school’s neighborhood wanted to go to a supermarket they had to go to Maryland. When Michelle missed days of school because she had a cold and it took hours and hours of waiting in the Emergency Room to be treated, I felt sorry that she missed school. But my red pill self felt that Michelle’s kind, hard-working, dedicated mother deserved better. She deserved to have a pediatrician that she could trust to take care of her two babies. I had to reinterpret Makai’s chair throwing and aggressive behavior because as scary as it was for our classroom community, how could we expect any less when there is a crisis in our society. The “norm” we tell and model for young boys is that to prove yourself, you must do so by showing strength and aggression.

And I had to reinterpret what “Miss Slam is having sex” really meant. Amaya wrote those words all over the room, but seriously, all over the room. But she did it for a reason. I had let her down. She was disappointed by her teacher and tried to express that frustration in a really unconventional way. She didn’t feel loved or supported by me, her 2nd grade teacher. We had had a few rough weeks of behavior problems that had wore her and I down. Our relationship suffered. If I had to loosely translate what second grade Amaya meant literally, I think she would’ve written something very different all over the room. I think she would’ve written, “Hey, Miss Slam, I need you to be on my side, in my corner. Root for me.” Amaya needed to feel cherished, loved. Don’t we all...

Amaya and Krishaun and Michelle, and Gerald, and Joelle, and Latori, and Katy, and Deidre, and Whit, and Larry Jones, and the whole St. Thomas More community gave me a purpose, provided me with a loving and safe environment that encouraged me to grow, and pulled me out of the ignorant bliss only someone as privileged as me could be living. All along, they were gently offering me the red pill. And maybe that’s what the upcoming year or years of service are for all of you. There will be new experiences, people, communities, countries, and languages all that will surprise you, scare you, excite you, and confuse you. As they say, lean into that discomfort. The red pill comes to us in various forms in our lives, in big life discernments and in miniscule day-to-day decisions, in what we pay attention to, in how we interact with our roommates, colleagues, and those we accompany, and in who we choose to surround ourselves with.  

So… thank you. We have over thirty-five college grads in this room who have already said yes to one of life’s red pills. Whether you’re headed into a UCCE Program, Peace Corps, Alumni Service Corps, Amigos de Jesus, Americorps, Teach for America, City Year, or another program you’ve already accepted awareness, at some level, into your lives. You said yes to a red pill life offered you. Thank you. To the families that are in the room, thank you for raising this young person to open up their eyes to the joys and the pains that the red pills of the world throw our way.

My St. Thomas More colleague, friend, and sort of long distance mentor Gerald Smith wrote to me the other day about what to say to you all before you embark on this journey. It’s something I wish I’d heard: he said, “The experiences of those they serve are vital. When working with youth (or any marginalized community) especially those of color one should understand that young brown and black children come with unique experiences that guide and mold them and if one takes the time to learn and appreciate this uniqueness you have a better opportunity to build partnerships and relationships with them.” He went on to say that listening leads to empathy, that love is important but patience is more.

Waking up, or accepting the red pill, means nothing unless it is acted on. So… Observe, ask, learn, research, joke, listen,  build relationships, and form yourself into more than just someone who accepts opportunities to wake up. Become the one who offers red pills. Who facilitates discussions that draw others to the truth. Offer insights into the realities of marginalized groups. Speak up against those institutions or individuals who exclude, belittle, or tempt us to believe in the myth of meritocracy. Work for justice. And so… here we are… It’s just you and me.

“This is your last chance.  After this, there is no going back. You take the blue pill and the story ends.  You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember that all I am offering is the truth.  Nothing more.”

 

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