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Reading Wonder

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Ian Maclearan

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 8.45.07 AMI just finished reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, assigned for a SPED class. In my opinion, the above quote encapsulates the spirit of the book as a whole, about the struggle for kindness in the most petty and mercurial of settings: middle school. The protagonist Auggie suffers from a rare, genetic deformity that leaves his face mangled, and Wonder charts his first year at Beecher Prep following years of homeschooling.

The events of Auggie’s school year are described by several child narrators, including Via, Auggie’s sister, sympathetic classmates Summer and Jack, Justin, Via’s boyfriend, Miranda, Via’s friend, Auggie’s bully, Julian, and Auggie himself. Each narrator grapples honestly with the ramifications of Auggie’s physical differences, from the need to suppress visceral, uncompassionate responses to his appearance, to the resentments created by Auggie’s special status. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Auggie’s special circumstances are explored; no attachment to political correctness dilutes the very real and present challenge of being in the world with an unusual-looking face. There are insights to be gleaned from each character:

Auggie…

possesses forthrightness, courage, and charm. Having been home schooled due to frequent surgeries, middle school presents Auggie with a new, formidable  world in which to immerse himself. He excels academically but is predictably subjected to a high quantity of teasing from his peers.

For example, Auggie is at the center of a game called “the plague.” As the rules go, any student who touches Auggie catches it. So Auggie watches as his peers make conspicuous efforts to avoid him. His charm stems from the detached, matter-of-fact resignation he exhibits toward his deformity, and toward the gaping and staring and knee-jerk immaturity that his appearance inspires.

In the opening pages, titled “Ordinary,” Auggie makes plain the severity of his physical differences — “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” — and makes an equally compelling case for his commonness — “I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.” I wonder how many children who are marked by visible, defining differences, either physical or behavioral, feel this way, feel regularly misjudged and misread on the basis of what is obvious about their appearance or demeanor, when for them, their differences are simply something to get past.

This disparity between what a person feels on the inside — ordinary hopes, fears, desires, aversions — and projects on the outside — extraordinary physical or behavioral qualities — is a heavy burden. It demands a heightened level of thoughtfulness and empathy from the outside world, and sometimes the world refuses to give it. Circle back to the need for kindness, the mindset that everyone is fighting a battle, that our eyes deceive us, that a second, third, fourth closer look reveals the shared humanity, the ordinariness, of every human being.

Jack…

is Auggie’s best friend. But even for Jack, it takes time to develop the maturity and compassion that Auggie’s differences demand. For example, Jack admits to the reader that he was initially averse to the principal’s request to meet Auggie prior to the start of school. Then, on Halloween, Auggie overhears Jack talking disparagingly to several boys about his obligatory friendship with him. This incident drives Auggie over the edge, emotionally — a shock, when he thought Jack saw the real person underneath the face. Auggie responds by giving Jack the cold shoulder, a shift that bewilders and flusters his friend. Jack asks their mutual friend Summer Dawson for an explanation and she drops him a hint.

Just before Jack and Auggie are assigned to be partners for a science-fair project, Jack puts two and two together. Auggie caught him in a moment of pettiness, smallness, projecting the attitude toward Auggie that he was supposed to have, according to Julian and the popular crowd. This look at himself, reflected through Auggie’s eyes, kills him. Back to science class. Julian tries to get Jack to switch partners, inciting, “You don’t have to be friends with that freak if you don’t want to be,” and impulsively, Jack punches Julian in the mouth. Underlying the punch seems to be Jack’s frustration with himself for trying to be someone he is not. It’s an overcompensating statement that says, “I am definitely not Julian, not a bully.” Needless to say, this action softens Auggie’s resentment toward Jack, and the two boys resume their friendship.

I like the character Jack because he represents a response to physical difference that is at once sincere, good, human, and imperfect. He has moments of selfishness, as evidenced above, but his feelings toward Auggie are sincere and strong. His friendship with Auggie is an honest depiction of a relationship with a person who is different — sometimes it involves hurt feelings, sometimes loyal friends make mistakes, sometimes the differences get in the way. Jack reassures the reader that he/she can also overcome the small, pettier impulses that strike (well beyond middle school, if we’re honest with ourselves), and that authentically embracing others’ differences is possible even for judgmental, selfish, not-always-so-nice folks.

Via…

is another ally of Auggie’s, fiercely loyal but without a resentment-free relationship to Auggie. As Auggie’s sister, just a few years older, Via has born witness to his unusual struggles more than anyone, to the point that her own identity is partially defined by her brother’s special needs. When kids stare, point, or register disgust on their faces, Via feels it by extension. When the janitor at Via’s elementary school calls the home-schooled Auggie by name, it’s an invitation for Via to resettle into the familiar role of Auggie’s sister. Or when she can’t play so as not to disturb her brother after surgery. Or when she sees mom hovering nervously outside Auggie’s bedroom door, and wonders, for her mother’s sake, how many times she’s done that, and then, if it’s ever been her bedroom door. Or when she lies about taking the subway and gets away with it, because mom is distracted.

Via’s is a lifetime of choices, moments, that link her to her brother, which is both a source of great affection and angst. In “A Tour of the Galaxy,” Via writes that “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.” Later she recalls a four-week visit to her “Grans” during one of Auggie’s surgeries. For the first time, she experienced normalcy — no Auggie, no one pointing or staring in public. Before she left, Grans let her in on a very taboo secret: she was Grans’s favorite, even more than Auggie. Knowing this meant the world to her, given the galaxy at home.

As much as Via’s self-concept is shaped by forces beyond her control, she demonstrates a strong and consistent ability to step outside of herself, to regard her brother’s problems and her parents’ reactions with a high level of empathy and objectivity. For example, she follows up the comment about Auggie being the sun in their familial galaxy with the admission that her “worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through…” In “August Through the Peephole,” Via wonders what her brother sees when he looks in the mirror — his face, or the person behind the face? She professes to feeling profoundly sad when Auggie cuts off his Padawan braid, associated with his lifelong obsession with Star Wars. This signal of a desire to conform, of heightened self-consciousness, also signals Auggie’s loss of innocence, perhaps, a lagging insulation from the cold, hard perceptions of others, kicking in Via’s protective instincts and her profound sense of empathy.

What does Via teach us? That sibling relationships are complex, enduring, and deep. And the existence of special needs further complicates things. And we shouldn’t forget the sister, the brother of the kid with special needs. Theirs is a ongoing world of “wonder” (and worry): who am I in relationship to this person? To his problems? What would life be like if…? What can mom and dad deal with today?

Summer…

More than any other character, Summer embodies the spirit of kindness invoked by Ian Maclearan. In “Weird Kids,” Summer admits to befriending August on the first day of school because she felt sorry for him. But what starts as a kind gesture — sitting next to Auggie at lunch — quickly develops into something more mutual. “I keep sitting down with him because he is fun,” Summer writes. When an insecure Auggie accuses Summer of befriending him because the principal, Mr. Tushman, requested it, Summer gets the chance to set the record straight directly to Auggie: She just plain likes his company, and “he was such a good sport about himself.” Summer is curious, open, non-judgmental, and in the end, she benefits from Auggie’s friendship.

Julian…

is, in many ways, the opposite of Summer. Julian is anxious kid, and decidedly unempathetic. He’s a jerk to Auggie for the majority of the school year; to the point that he gets called into the principal’s office for bullying. But Julian gets the last word — his chapters close out the book — perhaps this is the author’s way of asserting that his and Auggie’s stories are deeply intertwined.

On the one hand, Julian has special needs of his own, albeit psychological and behavioral, making it easy to write him off before putting his behavior in context. Julian has nightmares and anxiety issues, and Auggie’s face exacerbates them. In the chapter, “First Look,” about Julian’s first time meeting Auggie, Julian says about the moment he first saw Auggie’s face, “I think I said that word [dude] a thousand times to myself.”

However, Julian’s anxiety about Auggie is separate from his outsized, mean-spirited response to that anxiety, which includes trying to turn all kids in the grade against Auggie, creating “the plague” game, and posting taunting notes in Auggie’s locker. Julian’s tactics don’t work in the end. While he ends up switching schools, Auggie becomes a class favorite after a school camping trip, and wins a big award at the end of the school year. Julian is left to feel embarrassed by his lack of kindness.

Like Auggie, Julian has a chapter called “Ordinary,” in which he defensively claims that despite being mean, he’s just an ordinary kid responding to an anxiety-producing situation in an ordinary way. Julian’s mom encourages him to justify his mean behavior — she’s a member of Beecher Prep’s board of trustees who engages in her own acts of meanness, such as photoshopping Auggie’s photo in the class picture and expressing outrage at Mr. Tushman, the principal, for allowing a “special needs” child in a non-inclusion school. Julian mimicks his mom’s tendency to translate anxiety into anger.

It’s not until Julian spends some time in Paris with his grandmother over the summer that he breaks down and admits that he was in the wrong, that he was afraid of Auggie, that his fear drove him to do unfair, immoral things. His grandmother, who lived through the Holocaust, tells him a moving story about being hidden by a crippled classmate that she had previously mocked. Her admission of similar guilt allows Julian to fess up, and motivates him to change. He writes a letter of apology to Auggie and Auggie responds generously.

So what do we learn from Julian? That angry, intolerant kids are fighting their own battles, ones they don’t know how to handle. That it’s a choice to let one’s fear of someone else’s differences translate into anger and bullying, it’s not something to be justified. That parents set the tone for their kids…and sometimes, grandparents need to intervene!

Wonder

So…Wonder. The title of this book seems so appropriate to the reality of living with special needs — from the wonder of how one individual’s circumstances, differences set in motion an altered reality for so many other people (think Julian switching schools to Via’s identity being defined by her brother), the wonder of the ordinary and the extraordinary being embodied in one person, the wonder of the human body, its strange complexity magnified by having certain limitations, the wonder of how families and individuals push through challenges and overcome tremendous obstacles.

As teachers we are trained to use people-first language, as in, “students with disabilities” versus “disabled students,” as a sign of respect for the humanity of the children in question. But I think the best way to dignify the experience of students with special needs is through storytelling. And Wonder, with its kaleidoscope effect of multiple narrators exploring all sides of Auggie’s story, keeps the reader questioning, and marveling, at the richness and the struggle of an utterly special, utterly ordinary life, fully lived.

The Teacher Wars + Applesauce

Brian Angell Summer's Almost Over CC BY-NC-SA 2.0Initially, I decided to get my teaching certificate because I wanted to do something more for my “day job” than make coffee at Starbucks. The responses to what I had always considered a rather noble profession were unexpected — ranging from, “But what you really want to do is theatre, right? Teaching always makes me think of little gray-haired old ladies,” to “You want to work with teenagers? You’re brave” to “Remember, kids can sense fear” to “Ginge, stop this teaching business.”

It didn’t take long for me to realize that many people had either a love/hate, or at least ambivalent view of teachers. From the outside, wanting to become a teacher signified a desire to do something inherently meaningful, but it came with baggage, a “those that can’t do, teach” mentality, hence the comment about little gray-haired old ladies. Once I became a teacher, I soon recognized and appreciated the divide between public opinion about education reform and the sound of teacher lounge chatter that spoke to the most practical, on-the-ground, or, to use a more militaristic term, “in the trenches” needs toward reform. The divide was striking.

So my curiosity was definitely piqued when I heard about Dana Goldstein’s new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. Although in the large scheme of things, I have taught in supportive and peaceful school settings, like all teachers, in every interview or teaching demo or formal lesson plan I’ve ever completed, I’ve had to account for specific learning objectives, accommodations for students with learning differences, and some form of assessment, because it apparently takes a bulwark of best practices to bridge the gaping achievement gaps between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Goldstein articulates the contradictory expectations of teachers in the introduction:

“For two hundred years, the American public has asked teachers to close troubling gaps… Yet every new era of education reform has been characterized by a political and media war on the existing teachers upon whom we rely to do this difficult work.”

It’s very hard work with the potential to be very rewarding, and quite frankly, I think the best teachers are the ones that simply enjoy teaching the most, that have the easiest, most natural relationships with their students, often on the basis of charisma. For the rest of us hard-working, ordinary teachers with solid “research-based methods” to draw upon, Goldstein suggests that the most progressive initiatives

“focus less on how to rank and fire teachers and more on how to make day-to-day teaching an attractive, challenging job…We must quiet the teacher wars and support ordinary teachers in improving their skills, what economist Jonah Rockoff, who studies teacher quality, calls ‘moving the big middle’ of the profession.”

The history of education reform, according to Goldstein, does just the opposite — it’s filled with various constituencies hashing out the same issues, over and over. She likens the reoccurring debates over merit pay, teacher tenure, and veteran teachers versus talented newbies from elite colleges to a “Whac-A-Mole game at the amusement park.”

In chapter one, entitled “Missionary Teachers,” Goldstein outlines the series of events that led to the feminization of the profession, including the proliferation of the “motherteacher” idea: According to the Victorian values of the time, female teachers were better equipped to instill strong moral character in their students, alongside academic rigor.

The story begins in the early 1800s with Catharine Beecher, the daughter of a Calvinist preacher who refused to undergo the dramatic religious conversion process at age fourteen. At age twenty-one, her fiancé died in a shipwreck and a sorrowful Catharine sorted through his letters, which contained similar tensions between religious faith and a passion for scholarly pursuits. Inspired by her late fiancé, Beecher wrote to her father that “The heart must have something to rest upon, and if it is not God, it will be the world.” Thus began her career in education.

She used her father’s connections to establish the Hartford Female Seminary, which provided far greater academic rigor than the norm to female students. This attracted considerable public attention, launching Beecher’s career on the national lecture circuit, during which she suggested a myriad of reasons why women should be the nation’s teacher corps. Such reasons included the large quantities of unmarried women who could put their lives to good use as “missionary teachers” on the Western frontier, and the assertion that women were better equipped than men to care for children, due to their virtue.

Goldstein points out that “after rebelling against the harsh Calvinism of their parents, the tightly knit first generation of American education reformers tended to see schools as secular churches.” This applies to the other key player at the beginning stages of the teaching profession, Horace Mann — he too, rejected Calvinism and instead, used his position in the senate of Massachusetts to require compulsory elementary education for all children in the state. In addition, Mann opened teacher training academies called “normal schools” that used remarkably similar methods as ones today, in which apprentice teachers were observed, then coached by veteran teachers.

Mann, like Beecher, promoted the idea of the “motherteacher,” capitalizing on Victorian values to perpetuate the idea that “American public schools should focus more on developing children’s character than on increasing their academic knowledge,” a task best left to female teachers. This set the American school system apart from those of Western Europe, which focused more strictly on academic rigor. By 1890, only one-third of the nation’s teachers were men.

For me, the “motherteacher” concept conjures a glossy, nostalgic image of a classroom — a neatly organized desk topped with a shiny apple, a squeaky clean blackboard, and lots of color on the walls. I say nostalgic because this has never been my experience, and I have a feeling I’m not alone in the organized chaos of sharing classrooms, running across parking lots, wheeling projectors down hallways, teaching leotard-clad students in computer labs…

Out of nostalgia for the idea, however bygone it may actually be, here is a recipe for…applesauce. How’s that for a segue way? Lately I’ve had the privilege of helping my sister-in-law with the home schooling of her five kids one day a week. We made applesauce with a food mill, no frills except a little cinnamon and brown sugar, and it was deliciously tart. Here is another version, that I’ll call “desert applesauce” that’s got a little more sweetness added, including several pads of butter…

Desert Applesauce
From Apple Cookbook by Olwen Woodier

Tools

Vegetable peeler
Chef’s Knife
Cutting Board
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Saucepan
Food processor or potato masher

Ingredients

10 medium, tart apples (don’t use Red Delicious or summer harvested apples)
3 tablespoons apple juice or cider
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

  • Peel, core, and quarter the apples. Place them in a large saucepan with the apple juice.
  • Cover the pot and simmer for approximately 30 minutes, until the apples are tender. Either purée in a blender or food processor, or if you’re lazy like me, mash the apples with a potato masher.
  • Stir the brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and ginger into the warm apple purée.

More to come about the history of education reform, post 1890 — in the meantime, ENJOY!

Andrew Seaman Applesauce CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Musicals, Movies, and Mark Twain: Laughing in the Darkness

Zero_Mostel_-_FiddlerWhen I posed the question to my musical theatre history class, “What do the 1960s make you think of?” I got “hippies, Civil Rights Movement, and WEED.” Okay… fair enough… Now, how to connect that general point of reference to Broadway circa 1964, with its blabbering yentes, shtetls, fathers and daughters arguing about arranged marriages, large bearded men waving their arms, humming “ya dadada”? Enter the documentary, Laughing in the Darkness, which does a pretty great job of it, in fact — managing to trace the sing-songy rhythms and big acting style of Tevye the milkman back to his more sober, historical roots.

I thought I’d share some of the film’s insights here, having recently re-watched it for school. (I discovered it a few years ago at “Chicago’s year-round film festival,” The Music Box Theatre, an independent movie house with an ongoing rotation of indie or foreign films, and more recently, its own production and distribution wing). In addition to tracing Fiddler’s back story, the movie details the winding creative process that characterizes the creation of most musicals – for example, building upon more serious artistic material with a greater bandwidth for complexity, and then, depending on your opinion of musicals, either condensing that material into impressively succinct, musical phrases or watering it down completely.

I’m pretty sure that most skeptics would gain respect for this most middle-school-friendly of performance art forms if they realized how much research and artistic collaboration were distilled into the final, big and flashy product. If the product isn’t always sophisticated, the necessary process of collaboration is. Even the silliest, most superficial-seeming song and dance shows have a sort of hidden, layered intelligence that gets masked by the fact that they look and sound like a musical, the dumb blonde of the dramatic arts. Take a classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical like Oklahoma – do you associate it with a psychologically complex ballet in which the protagonist dreams that one of her suitors rapes her, or do you associate it with ten-year-olds dressed as farmers, bopping to “chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…”? Fiddler on the Roof may be less exuberant, but it too belongs to that oft-produced, often poorly produced category of musicals whose catchy songs and universal themes could easily be mistaken as trite.

Sholem AleichemBut the rambling interior monologue of the character, Tevye, the rhythms of his speech, the ticker tape of his religious and personal doubts, his penetrating but wise-cracking, resigned perspective on his family’s increasingly marginalized existence, all of these elements are pulled directly from the historically based short stories of the first widely read Yiddish author, merchant by day, writer by night, Solomon Rabinowitz. Under the pen name, Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for “peace be with you”), Rabinowitz wrote about the character, Tevye for over 20 years. He was based on an actual village dairyman of the same name, who, just like the character, had several independent-minded daughters and a penchant for chatting up his neighbors.

Like Tevye, Rabinowitz grew up in an insular, rural, Yiddish speaking village (a shtetl) inside the Russian Pale, which was a sectioned-off area for Jewish residents, designated by the Czar. Also like Tevye, mass acts of violence (pogroms) against the Jewish population forced Rabinowitz to migrate, and eventually he found his way to America. By the time he reached the U.S. around 1916, he was considered a world famous Yiddish storyteller, hailed by the Jewish immigrant population in New York as the Jewish “Mark Twain.” Despite being a 47-year-old Russian immigrant who wrote strictly in Yiddish, his stories captured something essential about the American spirit – the tension between old and new, the challenge of preserving one’s heritage within a changing culture, the generation gap between old and young, each progressive in their own way.

Fanny briceThe New York City that Solomon Rabinowitz, aka Sholem Aleichem walked into resembled the song from Spamalot, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Yes, the turn of the 20th century was the gestation period for what eventually became the American musical, spearheaded by Jewish writers and actors: Florenz Ziegfeld, Israel Baline Irving Berlin, Fania Borach Fanny Brice, to name a few.  On some level, a Jewish “sound” – Jewish humor, patterns of speech — were woven into the fabric of the earliest show tunes, from Irving Berlin drawing on the melodies of his rabbi/cantor father to Fanny Brice’s comical Jewish impersonations. Same with Fiddler, about 50 years later, in which lyricist Sheldon Harnick tweaked a lot of Rabinowitz’s original language — for example, “If I were a Rothschild” into “If I were a rich man…”

Sholem_Aleichem_funeralIt turns out that Rabinowitz wasn’t so successful in the states — his foray into playwriting was a huge disappointment and he ended up returning to Western Europe, selling the rights to his stories and travelling from shtetl to shtetl, reciting his works for an adoring following, everyday villagers like those he grew up with. He ended his life in a state of poverty, near-homelessness, and chronic disease, continuing to write, despite the difficulty of holding a pen. World War I forced him back to the states, this time for good. When he died in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral, drawing unprecedented attention to the influence and power of the Jewish American community.

Mark_Twain_by_AF_BradleyThe phrase, “laughing in the darkness” refers to the author’s belief that even the most terrible, unspeakable of circumstances contain humor – not as a form of escape, but as an alternate way of appreciating the irony and injustice of a situation. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote, “Life is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.” The comparison to Mark Twain is apt – as Twain did with American literature, Rabinowitz’s stories, and later, Fiddler on the Roof, use a sense of humor to satirize the injustices and hypocrisy that men are capable of, capture the distinctive, everyday speech of Jewish characters, and create a widespread, popular work based on Jewish culture.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when Fiddler opened. It seems that even in that hairy, free-loving, hippie-driven heyday, America was still coping with Mark Twain-esque, Solomon Rabinowitz-esque questions: how much change can we accept as progressive without losing ourselves? What happens when children exercise the freedom that their parents have given them? Is it possible to laugh through the darkness?

Fiddler_on_the_roof_poster(Food for thought, for the next time you sit through through “Tradition!” “To Life!” or “The Bottle Dance”… I’m sure it will happen soon enough…)

[Photo credits: “Zero Mostel,” Wikipedia Commons, “Sholem Aleichem,” Wikipedia Commons, “Fanny Brice,” License, ky_olsen, CC BY 2.0, “Sholem Aleichem Funeral,” Wikimedia Commons, “Mark Twain by AF Bradley,” Wikimedia Commons]

Going Bananas in Chiberia

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.27.46 PMIn case you have a touch and go relationship with the national news (or perhaps you are lucky enough to live in southern France) allow me to state the obvious: January in Chicago, or “Chiberia,” as Twitter calls it, has been frigid! CPS snow days, I have found, are a prime opportunity for taking stock — as in, looking back and reflecting — although making stock works too. If I remember correctly, I spent “Snowmaggedon” (the 2011 storm that amassed 20+ feet of snow in Chicago) standing over a pot of onions for an onion tart, stinking up my studio apartment with layers of pastry, mustard, onions, and baked eggs. Flash forward two years, minus about a month: early Jan 2013 involved its own version of hibernation — the kind that follows oral surgery — and many painstaking, unsightly bites of homemade bread pudding. (Not sure if the Vicodin played into this, but  sadly, I have had no desire for bread pudding since. In downtown San Francisco, P and I discovered a trendy bread pudding shop where they scoop the pudding into paper cups like ice cream. A cute idea, a creamy confection, somehow it reminded me of the dentist. Oh well.) This year, after 24 hours of intermittent weather related e-mails and duplicate forwards — “Clarification,” “CPS Announces,” “Update,” “Urgent,” “FWD: Urgent” — I found myself hunkered down again, unequivocally off-duty, and after a day’s worth of querying and following up and related freelance rigamarole, turning on the stove.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.34.00 PMPerhaps it was the cold, more likely it was the pile of increasingly brown bananas in my fruit bowl, but I decided that we needed a little tropical flavor in the house. So I decided to go a little bananas. I was trying to keep banana bread at bay, in favor of something more spontaneous, a little looser and less predictable, something that will inspire me next week when I’m having the same issue with these doggone, overripe bananas. Here are the results:

Vanilla Ice Cream with Caramelized Bananas and Almond Crumble

Adapted from Bon Appetit Desserts

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.40.57 PMThe Bon Appetit version is a baked phyllo dough package (excuse me, the recipe reads “purses”) filled with caramelized bananas and hazelnut crumble and served with a white chocolate sauce. As much as I love the many layers of that idea, a deconstructed version sounded better, and slightly less crazy, on a random snow day. The caramelization action over high heat made me wistful for Bananas Foster, brunch and dinner joint that used to sit the corner of Granville and Broadway, with a friendly, lively, Southern vibe and an excellent rendition of its namesake.

Ingredients

  • Brown sugar
  • Unsalted butter
  • Flour
  • Nuts (your choice)
  • Salt
  • Granulated sugar
  • Fresh lime juice
  • Bananas
  • Optional: hazelnut liqueur or amaretto

Crumble it Up

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.48.41 PMPreheat an oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with foil or a silicone mat and spray it with baking spray. In a saucepan, melt 1 cup of brown sugar with 1 stick of butter (1/2 cup) until the butter has melted. Take the saucepan off the heat and mix in 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, 1 cup of almonds or whatever nuts you have on hand, and a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture on the greased baking sheet and bake until dry and golden, 20-30 minutes. Set the timer for 15 minutes and give it a little toss to make sure everything is browning evenly.

And Caramelize

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.53.36 PMSlice 6 bananas and juice several limes until you have 1/4 cup lime juice — most likely, 2 large limes or 4 small limes. Microwave the limes for 10 seconds to get as much as juice as possible. Place 6 tablespoons of butter (3/4 stick) in a sauté pan, along with 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup lime juice. Keep the heat on low until the butter melts. At this point, increase the heat to high and stir the mixture until it browns around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the bananas (and if using, 2 tablespoons of the liqueur, I did not) and stir until the sauce thickly coats them. Transfer to a large bowl.

Add Some Dairy

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 2.05.53 PMSpoon the caramelized bananas and nut crumble over vanilla ice cream or Greek yogurt. Almost looks like Chiberia.

As I write this, it’s Thursday — school is back in session, it’s warming up, and since we happen to be reading the scene in Guys and Dolls where Sky Masterson whisks Sarah Brown to Havana, Cuba, we’re doing our best to keep the tropics vibe alive, hey mambo… So how about an even lazier approach:

Banana & Chocolate Chip Panini

Adapted from Stonewall Kitchen Favorites

Ingredients

  • Banana
  • Chocolate chips or nutella
  • Spreadable butter
  • Bread

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 2.09.39 PMThinly slice a banana. Microwave 1/4 to 1/2 cup chocolate chips until they are partly melted (even easier, spread on the nutella.) Butter one side of four slices of bread. Flip the bread to the unbuttered side. Place the banana slices on two slices of bread and spoon the semi-melted chocolate chips over the top. Top with the other two slices of bread, butter side up. Grill on a panini press or sauté pan until gooey.

[Photos: “Josephine Baker,” megpi’s photostream, under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Chiberia 5,” Kathleen Virginia’s photostream, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Bananas Wrapped in Phyllo with Chocolate Sauce,” Food Thinkers’ photostream, under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Crumble Closeup,” ☃’s photostream, CC BY-NC 2.0, “Bananas Foster,” ginnerobot’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0, “Vanilla ice cream,” Sofie Dittmann’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Nutella & Banana Panini,” Andurinha’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Empathy As Change & We Are Not Trayvon Martin

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I recently heard Bill Clinton being interviewed on BBC News about his philanthropic work in Africa. When asked whether his poor, Alabama upbringing allows him to empathize with people there, he said that he is proud of his humanitarian work because it comes from a place of empathy, not necessarily of mutual experience.

It was so refreshing to hear someone elevate pure empathy as a foundation for social change. Often, it seems that leading social change requires a certain degree of “street cred”  in the form of a shared connection to the population or situation being served. I recently attended a non-profit gathering, during which several organizations shared their story. They attributed their success to effectively spreading a narrative. The story usually went something like this: I had cancer and I started a mentoring program for kids with cancer; I am Muslim and I started a theatre company to address issues facing Muslim Americans.

This is a beautiful thing.

But what if your struggles/experience/story don’t mirror those of the population you serve? Can you be a credible leader of change? Let’s hope so. It’s much harder to be complacent when experiencing other people’s pain vicariously, through imagination and compassion, rather than through personal experience, is a sufficient call to action. 

This is what I love about http://wearenottrayvonmartin.com.

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What an enlightened, beautiful, and courageous public forum for the pain we ALL feel, as in, all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and combination thereof, regarding Trayvon Martin’s death and the racial tensions that surround it.

I think the flood of responses shows how many everyday people of racial or socioeconomic privilege are affected by issues of race, but they don’t typically express their feelings. Why is this? Perhaps they feel uncomfortable or tentative about claiming any part of race-related struggles as their own, for fear of seeming insensitive to their own privilege.

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white female. I probably get more welcoming looks in a hoodie than I do in preppy clothes. Like most people, my upbringing, education, and day-to-day adult life defies and embodies stereotypes. I have lived with, been longtime friends with, attended school and church with, been neighbors with, been colleagues with, and supervised by “people of color.” My grandfather’s memorial service disproved the trope that 11:00 on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, for someone born long before the civil rights movement in Saint Louis, Missouri.

Growing up in Saint Louis, attending a private high school located in a very manicured, affluent, white suburb, I encountered excellent teachers, some cringe-worthy wealth, some outdated traditions, and some of the most open-minded, well-traveled, and socially conscious people I know. I attended undergrad in another affluent, manicured, and predominantly white neighborhood, but my peers were Egyptian, Indian/Muslim, Nigerian, Chinese, Sikh, Hindu, and Israeli.

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Living in Chicago, segregation is normalized. Racial inequality is one of many talking points in the news, built into segments between inefficient lawmakers or expensive city parking. Riding the el pretty well lays out the situation.

I do not have to make peace with, or normalize the possibility that my skin color might invite violence, legal trouble, or certain forms of harrassment. It would be easy to say that I live in a different world, but the truth is, it is very obvious to me that our society is racially tinged and driven by appearances and stereotypes.

Depending on who I am with, what I am wearing, or what neighborhood I am in, people don’t look at me at all, or they look at me with curiosity, or they look at me with mild hostility. It doesn’t compromise my safety or tangibly impact me in a negative way. But the predictability of such reactions is a subtle, demoralizing reminder that “we” — the heterogenous mix of people that make up a city like Chicago, any city in urban America — go about our business in a state of quiet alienation and mistrust.

As the racial minority in my classroom, I have a glimpse of what it feels like to be judged on small attributes of my appearance, demeanor, or language. For example, pronouncing names correctly on the first day of school can bridge the unspoken racial difference. I am careful to offer unwarranted assistance with say, a reading assignment so that the help is not interpreted racially — otherwise, such “help” might cause a struggling student to shut down. I may consider myself enlightened, I may have diverse experiences, but I am also, unavoidably, a white authority figure. As such, it takes a little more time, a little more effort, and a little more care to build trust.

The polarized reactions to George Zimmerman’s trial, the racially charged criticism of President Obama, the various perspectives on Paula Deen’s racial slurs  — all are public, sobering reminders that race divides us. Apparently, whites, blacks, and all shades in between feel mutually misunderstood, or in the words of Ralph Ellison, “invisible… simply because people refuse to see [them].”

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To get beyond this state of mutual misunderstanding, we need to legitimize empathy and compassion as catalysts of social change, independent of shared experience. They may be abstractions, but they have concrete power.

Check out this story about Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman protestor to die in the civil rights movement. She acted on the belief that civil rights were “everybody’s fight.” For years, the purity of her motives was questioned. The family was finally vindicated when last May, Liuzzo was awarded the Ford Freedom Humanitarian Award, an honor shared by none other than Nelson Mandela.

I have to believe that the prestige of this award, and the magnitude of Liuzzo’s courage, reflects her ability to translate empathy into action, boldly, despite her status as a privileged outsider. For those of us who are not Trayvon, we are still hit hard by his loss, and we can still be part of the solution.

[Photos: Picture called “L’empreinte Digitale Oubliée” from Twistiti’s Flickr Photostream, “Rain on Hand Prints” from jcoterhals’ photostream, “Bean in Black and White” from james_clear’s photostream, “Raised Hand” by feverblue’s photo stream]

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