Call Me By My Name

This is part prose, part essay, part reflection.

Scene One: I walk around with a last name full of syllables. It uncomfortably sits in peoples mouth’s like something sharp. My name isn’t palatable, doesn’t slide on the tongue like something silky and exotic. It sticks and pokes–I can see it on their faces when they hesitantly spit it out. “Martin?…Moore?…O..Ok…um?” In my haste, I run to catch my name before it falls discarded to the floor.

“It’s Okonkwo. My name is Okonkwo. Present! No, it’s fine. You can sound it out, try it with me! O-kon-kwo.”

I have been Okinawa. Okonokwo. Okeydoke, when they thought they were being funny. I am still, after nearly 32 years, amazed when people say my name properly without my help.

Scene Two: High School, 11th grade English–full of people two sets of school days away from legalized adulthood. She walks to the front of the room, olive-toned and slight. She says, “my name is Ms. Tashjian. For this class, you may refer to me as Ms. T if it is easier for you to remember. Never one back down from a language related challenge, I pronounce it in the mirror, determined to get it correct. I will not be like the others. I will not take the easy way out. Tash. Jee. Ahn. Tashjian. I got this. Simultaneously as I push my tongue to a new plane, one of saffron and turmeric, I slip that little nugget away for later. I can make my name taste better by presenting it as an appetizer, not an entree. I can make it–me–palatable.

Scene Three: Non J JCC employee can pray in Hebrew. Black girl sounds good pronouncing the ch in Pinchas and lechem and the zh in Yitzhak. No, you won’t be Pinny and Yitzy. We still stumble over Okonkwo, though.

Scene Four: At work, I pull out the appetizer trick before the school year even starts–give them a taste. Stephanie Okonkwo becomes Ms. O, and before my eyes I watch the tension leave shoulders when they realize that the jawbreaker of a name has softened into something that they can manipulate with their tongue. We feel the air change–the same shift that causes Ikenna to become I.K. on a game show, Ifeoluwa to go by Luvvie and why Firoozeh wanted to become Julie in Funny In Farsi. It feels nice–I even adopt a cheesy little chant: “go for O!” when they call me on the radio. It is funny–until it isn’t. Until kids make African jokes–something that still stings even though my relationship with my diasporic-ness is complicated at best. Until people ask what the O stands for, and wrinkle their nose when I tell them–“yeah, I’ma stick to O”. Why did I give them an easy way out? Until I notice the ease with which people say the things that they want…to say. I resolve to make people say it next school year. Call me by my name in all of it’s different, jollof and egusi glory.

Scene Five: Camp begins, and I notice offhandedly that Olamide is listed as an intern. I hear everyone refer to her as “Ola-ME-day“. Then, completely by accident, I call her name one day with a task attached:

“O-LA-mih-day, can you bring me the water bottles to label please?” 

Belatedly, I recognize my mistake:

“Oh, I am sorry, did I say your name incorrectly? Please tell me if I am.”

” “No”, she says, “You actually said it right. It’s just easier for people here to call me Ola-ME-day, so I just go with it.”

“What does your family call you at home, though?’

O-LA-mih-day.”

“Oh, ok.”

Sis hasn’t learned yet to make them get it right, that your name is your identifier, your identity, your birthright, your legacy. Olamide means “my wealth has arrived.” Ola-ME-day means “my comfort is more important.” Sis needs to stand her ground. Sis is me. I am sis.

Scene Five, also:  Bre**** came to private school. She goes by Bre now. It’s easier.

My name
Something intricately strung together like the beads on mgbaji
Not here for your comfort
Taste and see that the world is good.

Pulpit.

-for all of the teachers who need a reminder of their magic.

I’ve never been called to preach from a pulpit

But I’ve stood by the board in a public school classroom,

So that’s kind of the same thing.

I haven’t studied doxologies and translations

Eyes moving between Aramaic, Hebrew, and English

But I have pulled late nights

Pupils straining at screens,

Coffee stains on IEPS that look like Greek to me

How can I be tasked with teaching you Shakespeare when you are comprehending at a grade level 3?

It’s strange to me how you don’t think this holy.

How stopping an altercation isn’t being Jesus’ hands and feet.

See, maybe I haven’t been asked to preach at a pastor’s conference

But the bell ringing is ministry.

I may not shepherd a flock

But I learned the lyrics to their favorite song

And I’ve got the beat on lock.

Now that I know the flow

I can change the familiar words to a concept they don’t know

Now I’ve got little black girls into STEM and English

Because I changed up Old Town Road

I’ve never been called to preach from the pulpit

But I have created effective data from two loaves and five fish

So thats kind of the same thing.

I have stood in staff lounges that looked like Gethsemane

Wept like Jesus because I felt like the expectations were secretly plotting my downfall.

I have hung for little people who act like they don’t appreciate it all.

I have been asked to secure the future and I often feel like running from that call.

So how you can sit here and say that this ain’t gospel takes an insurmountable level of gall.

Have you met your Maker in a meeting?

Have you felt like giving up?

Have you taken a look at your creation and

Wondered if they understood your kind of love?

See, I have never gone to seminary

But I have gone to home visits and sat in meetings with Juvenile Services,

So that’s kind of the same thing.

Both require an anointing that isn’t always understood.

Don’t hate us, if you ain’t us.

If you haven’t sat with bated breath hoping for the chance to hear “well done, my good and faithful”

If you haven’t had to touch the hem of His garment DAILY to keep from breaking in some seasons.

Then you won’t understand why we dance like David.

There are people who scoff at the notion that teachers

Operate as both disciple and leader

Use breaks and such to dare say that we are mundane.

Refuse our divinity when we do the same work as their chosen leader on any given Sunday

To them I say,

I may not have been called to preach from a pulpit.

But my life’s work is my ministry

And that is kind of the same thing.

Just Do It.

Hello beautiful people!

One of my favorite songs right now is “Holy”, by Jamila Woods. The entire song is an anthem to self-love, but the hook in particular is a MOOD:

“I’m not lonely…I’m alone/and I’m holy…by my own” Beautiful, isn’t it?

(Churchy disclaimer: Yes, I know Jesus is the holy one. It’s a metaphor. Keep up, chile.)

Anyway, while I was on my vacation last week, I was scrolling through my phone while I waited for my friend to wake up so we could carpe the diem and such, and I came across this picture:

Wait, let me backtrack.

People are really fascinated by the fact that I enjoy traveling by myself. People equate vacation with having a friend group present, and I get that… But when I list the places that I’ve been on my own, people look at me like I’m the newest exhibit in the zoo. “Why?”, They ask. “Why would you want to go to all these locations by yourself? Aren’t you scared? Isn’t that boring?” My answer is always no, and when they ask for my rationale, I talk about the Outcry Tour.

If you are unaware of what Outcry Tour is/was, it was a series of concerts put on by the creme de la creme of Contemporary Christian artists. I remember seeing this flyer 4 years ago and having what can only be described as a mini explosion of excitement. I love Christian rap; Trip Lee, Lecrae, Tedashii and the like is what cured me of my need for trap back in the day because I could have the same beats and grittiness without hearing about someone’s house being shot up. Best of both worlds! In addition, Lauren Daigle’s music had just started coming on the radio, I sang along to most of these other artists in church on a weekly basis, and I was ready.

A group of friends and I started a group chat around ticket purchasing. We vowed to wait until we all were ready so that we could sit together. Days passed, and then weeks did too as we waited for everybody to get their money together. Eventually, we saw a post put up by the producers of the Outcry Tour saying that all tickets were sold out… We hadn’t managed to get seats because we were still waiting on people. It may sound silly, it may just be a concert, but I remember being really sad at the last opportunity, especially because I had what I needed to go. The day of the concert rolled around, and I tried to stay off of social media as friends who had gotten tickets individually or in pairs posted snippets of videos and photos from their seats. I decided at that point that if there was something that I wanted to do, I was going to do it and if others want to join in, they could do so on their own time. No longer would I let waiting for people stop me from my dreams.

Fast forward to the year that I turned 30–I decided that I wanted to do something big for a milestone birthday. Normally, I am satisfied with getting a few friends together for brunch or an activity, but this particular year… I wanted to travel. I set my sights on Jamaica and decided that I would go right after school let out in June since I would be working a summer job by the time my actual birthday rolled around in mid July. There were several people who said:

“Ooh, I want to come!”

“Whaaaat, no invite?”

“What’s your flight number/where are you staying? Can I join?”

“I’m buying a ticket next week!!”

And each time, I passed the info along and waited to see the result. Do you know what the result was?

Me. In Jamaica. Alone. And I discovered that I LOVED every bit of the solitude.

Since then, I’ve intentionally sought out places to travel on my own. If people come with me, that is great too–traveling alone can present some logistical headaches that are made easier by having others around–but the difference is that I’m not waiting.

This isn’t just about the planes and the trips for me, though. It’s about the idea of being enough. Of enjoying my own company. Of following my passions without waiting for the permission of other people. In a world where a lot of my friends are married/in relationships, I have to be intentional about beating back those thoughts of “am I not good enough for somebody?” Traveling solo, exploring the world on my own reminds me of my resilience and my enough-ness.

That doesn’t mean that people aren’t welcome to come with though. One of my close friends came to New Orleans with me last week

and we had a blast. We explored the city, ate ridiculous amounts of good Southern cooking and played endless Uno tournaments. What it does mean, though, is that both on trips and in life, I plan to remember the words of Jamila Woods:

My cup is full up, what I got is enough
Nobody completes me, don’t mess with my love…”

Contentment in this season until God unveils the next. Amen.

-StephTheScribe

Making A List, Checking It Twice…

Good morning, beautiful people!!

Earlier this week, while on vacation, I rolled over and grabbed my phone to find that the young lady that I used to mentor had sent me a DM. We started to chat, and the conversation turned to her significant other, which she was creating some distance from for a handful of reasons but has chosen to reconcile with. I informed her that it was hard for me to give her unbiased answers to the questions she was asking–I don’t care for him because of the ways he has treated her in the past and I probably won’t like him until I see an intentional change in his character. Basically, don’t ask me no questions, and I won’t tell you no lies, as the old folk used to say.

But anywho. My parting advice to this young lady before I got started with my vacation plans for the day was “sit down and make a list”.

A few years ago, someone that I know told me that she had an actual list written down with qualities of the person that she wanted to be with. Within that list, she’d checked off non-negotiables as well as things that she would really love him to have but could go without. Inspired, I made a list that night that is on my phone to this day. Her list had led her to marriage–mine has not, but it serves as an excellent litmus test when meeting new people. When you’ve taken the time to write down that you want to spend your life with someone who has stable employment, it’s a lot harder to reason with yourself when you fall head over heels in l…ove (😂) with someone who plays guitar like an angel but busks on the boardwalk downtown. You took the time to write it down, so it must be important. The Bible talks about writing a vision down on tablets so that it someone can take it and run with it. (Habakkuk 2:2-3)

Having the list also provides a editable definition of who we think we want. With the last person I dated, he checked off most of what I had written down–he loved God, used his talents for the kingdom, loved his family, was an active and present father (note: I’m not specifically seeking men with kids, but as the child of a father who to this day is absent more than anything else, I refuse to be with someone who isn’t taking care of their kids. I don’t understand how deadbeat dads have girlfriends.). And on and on—but he was also non-communicative. He wasn’t consistent. He didn’t pursue hard conversations, particularly about us. And he let his preconceived notions of “what women need” direct his behavior instead of checking with me. So now, I have new things to add.

As you can see, the conversation ended with me having an epiphany of my own. 2019 has been a difficult year for friends, over here. Almost every month, I’ve found myself rocked by issues and conflicts and ends that I could not have forecasted at this point last year…ranging from people that I didn’t chalk up to being good friends who thought they had more meaning to people that I thought would be around forever who won’t be. But as I sat and messaged my former mentee back and forth, the idea began to take shape that if we make lists for significant others, why not friends? For me, right now, my students and my friends ARE my greatest ministry. I don’t have a husbae or even a husbae in training (at least not that I know of—feel free to surprise me, Lord!) How I am in the classroom and the kind of person that I am with my friends is what determines what else I get to steward. These relationships are currently what define me, what refine me, and what teach me standards, patience, and new ways to love. This is of heavenly importance, so it is crucial that I have a list for them as well so that I know when someone fits the bill. This is the current iteration, and there’s nothing to say that this won’t change:

This list is born of good times, heartache, lessons, successes and trials. I’m excited to keep adding and removing and trusting the process. I’d encourage you to make a list for any area that you are casting vision and see what blooms! Share these lists if you like!!

-StephTheScribe

Poem: No Ordinary Worship

Hey beautiful people!

My new favorite worship song is “No Ordinary Worship” by Kelontae Gavin. This song got me thinking about the most dynamic form of worship: the lives we live. This poem was inspired by my life and by this song. Hope you enjoy!!

———————————————

My life is no ordinary worship.

It did not come sauntering in on the backs of

Dusty hymnals

Tried, true and marching toward glory

In doilies and sensible heels—no.

My life doesn’t always worship dutifully

On bowed knees beside my bed at night.

It doesn’t always remember to make Him first.

It tries to remember to be grateful for the hallelujah anyhow but sometimes it stutters

Tongue bitten and forced grace

Sometimes, my life’s worship is anything but ordinary.

My life’s worship doesn’t look like my grandmothers

Stately and dignified

With pantyhose, seams across the toes and a hat, always a hat

Lest the Lord see the Clairol Beeline Honey.

It doesn’t look like praying for the people who told me exactly where my 3/5ths of a person could sit

Though I wish my worship were that smooth, sometimes.

My life’s worship doesn’t look like my mother’s.

Childlike faith in the form of almost maddening contentment

Desire wrapped in fear presented with open arms.

It doesn’t look like serving the people who refuse to give me my just due with something like enthusiasm

Though I wish my worship were that open, sometimes.

This life of mine isn’t ordinary worship,

But it is testimony nonetheless

Testament to the power of a praying grandmother

And a resourceful mother too,

This worship is plan Bs that could survive the great flood

This worship is the cry of the sheep that strayed from the pack

The prodigal son

The one brought back

This worship is

Tattooed and pierced

Joyful and angry

Content and wanting.

This worship is asking why on the first day of college

And the answer becoming apparent 7 years and ; months later in the form of a BA blessing with my name on it.

My grandmothers sacrifice on it.

My mother’s tears on it.

This worship is depressed Eastern shore evenings

3 am with Oreos and BET After Dark

Wondering why I even bothered.

This worship is on Fulton just as much as it’s in Woodbourne

Worship enough for 5 year old boys and 13 year old girls

It is eminent on stages and forgotten behind scenes

This worship is so much deeper than it seems.

This worship is exhortation and corny jokes

Hugs and tears on shoulders.

It is “how did you even know” and “that kept me going today”…

This worship is love.

See, I keep meaning to type worship but my heart types a four letter word that my mind understood as a synonym for worship all along.

My life looks nothing like hers

And since my life IS my worship,

My song bops different.

It snaps on the 1 and 3 always

Still learning to stand proudly in the unordinary.

In the everyday

In the mundane and the special.

This life is no ordinary worship, y’all.

And that is ok by me.

A “Bad B” Stream of Consciousness (31 Lines For Turning 31): POEM

1. Love them. Period. Plain and simple. 

2. Except for when it’s complicated. 

3. Love them through their stupid mistakes. 

4. But not if they keep making them. 

5. That’s a decision. 

6. A conscious incision into highly sensitive heart space. 

7. It is not fair and you are better. 

8. Insist upon your worth in action and pocket value. 

9. You keep on clearance rackin’ your sanity and now you can’t afford the operating costs. 

10. Your psyche is free to the highest bidder. 

11. Perfect peace passed like communion to the lies of pious n***as. 

12. Please, add tax. 

13. Scan all this. It can’t be copied. That’s fax. 

14. Hard conversations clear your mind like sativa. 

15. Saying how they hurt you wins you no fans but my God, the way it frees you. 

16. Insist upon not laying awake wondering how the vocal sleep. 

17. Never be ashamed about playing for keeps. 

18. Comfort is key. Heels are cute but I am sexiest when not twisting an ankle. 

19. Get healthy. But don’t attach pants sizes to your worth because you were always the prize. 

20. Worry most about facing the truth in your own eyes. People’s acceptance is a fickle thing. 

21. Don’t be a slave to fear like she is. Green hair and nose rings are little things that mean you went for it. 

22. Love the ones that loved you first. 

23. In Yoruba, they say that a river flows far but never forgets its source. 

24. Never regret it. Replace “it” with that decision you sweated. 

25. Never abandon a goal ‘til you get it. 

26. When the chacha slide asks how low can you go, go low. 

27. You won’t always be this flexible. 

28. Purdue professions that stretch you. You will perish when you become complacent. 

29. You can never relinquish holy once you’ve had the chance to taste it. 

30.  was good to you. Bad to you. Highs and lows, a taste of what’s to come. 

You are pure magic, baby. Here’s to 31. 

When It’s Finished

Hello beautiful people!

First off, can we shout a hooray plus a hallelujah to the fact that school is OV-AH?! Towards the end, I think I made it very clear whenever students groaned about the remaining time that I was just as excited as they were. (Side note: I think that students think that we are devastated to see them go. To kids everywhere, we get a little sad to see you go, but NO ONE is gnashing their teeth. Except maybe your parents. Your turn now…suckaaaaaa!)

Seriously though, this week was one of many endings. On Tuesday, the 8th graders showed up to Morgan State resplendent in their white for their evening farewell ceremony. I’d joked that I would be the one in the back of the room doing a praise dance, Image result for praise dancer but remarkably, I didn’t shed a tear. I really am proud of these girls and know they will go far. On Thursday, we had our awards ceremony and my Crew represented well: out of 11 girls, one received an attendance award, 2 girls were on honor roll, one girl is on principal’s honor roll, one received an award for Collaboration and one received a Mindset award. Thankfully, we bid them goodbye at 1pm, cleaned the room and tackled the updates on their files.

This brings us to Friday–for our staff retreat, we had a day of debriefing, planning, and learning at Art With A Heart‘s beautiful new office space. During one part of the day, we had to make word art on these little canvases that will eventually be combined into a mural in our school. The mural was the end result of us having to pare down a list of core values from its original state of probably 50, down to ten, five, and finally three. My three words that survived were Integrity, Belonging, and Joy. As we finished our murals and got ready for lunch, someone noted that my principal was still dutifully painting. Her response was “that’s ok. It will be beautiful when it’s done.” I immediately noted that that was an incredibly succinct way of summing up our approach as a school, but the more I think of it, isn’t that life?

Image result for beauty when finished quotes When Damia said that, I immediately grabbed my phone to write it down, because even in the moment, I realized that that quote was profound in it’s simplicity. It speaks of faith, belief, and a desire to do work because the end result will be something greater than it was to start with. While prepping to write a blog post surrounding her statement, I came across the above quote. Buckminster Fuller was a teacher and an architect, even though he only went to school for the former. He enjoyed lecturing to large groups in the classroom, particularly young ones. He was a poet, an inventor, and a philosopher, and he bucked (har har!) a lot of the traditions of his time and simply decided to make his mark differently. His website says that he believed that “Humans have a destiny to serve as “local problem solvers”, converting their experience to the highest advantage of others.”

Image result for buckminster fuller “Bucky’ here, also created the term “Spaceship Earth”, which meant that all of mankind needed to work together ‘like the crew of a ship’ in order to advance humanity as a whole. Expeditionary Learning’s (the system my school follows) motto is “crew not passengers”, because students are expected to take a large role in their own learning. Coincidence? I think not.

In the classroom, everything WILL NOT be pretty–and if we get caught up on that fact, we waste valuable time that could be spent teaching. Like my friend and colleague Amanda (you should read her blog here) said before, “this sh*t is urgent”. Matter of fact, if we are honest, if we put down the Pinterest boards, trainings, pep, pomp, and circumstance, teaching can honestly be eons of bull interspersed with magic moments, not the other way around. From the legislators who have never taught but make policies that affect educators, to teachers in other states (and probably this one too) who have to Uber and tend bar and waitress in addition to teaching in order to pay their bills. From kids who are overly exposed and underly (yes, I made that up) mature, to their parents who seem to care more about whether they look good than whether they ARE good. From schools that push ’em through, back to the legislation that makes it infinitely difficult to do anything but, regardless of whether they need it. From the “soft bigotry of low expectations” to the haughtiness of those that forget that grace and high standards walk this race together. And on and on and on.

Image result for teacher respect 1950 today comic

Still and even still, take a look at what Bucky said; when I am working on a problem, I never stop to think about beauty:

When I am up late racking my brain for another way to meet a kid’s accommodations;

When a parent is yelling at me for 57 minutes at 8pm because a teacher that is NOT ME didn’t let her child bring home makeup work,

When I sit through the 4th PD this month on what feels like the same thing,

When my incorrigible Crew member or student has given me their most perfectly practiced eye roll as I remind them that technically, the work was due already;

When I am JUST trying to get this group to June with no casualties as my patience is fraying;

But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know that it is wrong.” Beauty takes a multitude of forms. It could be 6 out of 11 of my Crew kids receiving school wide recognition. But it isn’t always that flashy, right? It could be a passing grade on that assignment that I had to nag about. It could be the teachers in another state’s school district who got the government to grant 11% increases (not enough, but still) because they got up and walked OUT of their classrooms wearing red—because they were tired of bringing home $34,730 a year in spite of their advanced degrees. It could honestly being committed to taking a mental health day–or walking away from the field entirely because as much as we believe in other people, our own mental health is most important.

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Little black girls–magical, imperfect, and most likely sick of my shh–tuff (lol)  cheering for each other as I call out awards, in a world that tells them that little black girls are catty at best and violent, overtly sexual, and statistics at worst. That’s beauty.

My partner in crime this year, on the last day of our officially working together as she moves on–taking a moment during our lunch hour to watch a coworker’s daughter show her super (shoeper?) lace-tying skills. That’s beauty.

A girl at the crossroads of SO MUCH taking time to squeeze the woman who has poured out her LIFE for her for the past three years at our school…can you imagine the love and tears and bitter sweetness in that embrace? That’s beauty.

A woman who has been a literal superhero to the City of Baltimore–healing, acknowledging, organizing, representing–speaking and pouring into a young girl who wants to heal her city just as much. That’s beauty.

A class of 42 newly minted ninth graders turning to look at the village that got them there. That’s beauty.

I don’t always know fully what “finished” is. On more grounded days, I have a vision so crazy that it takes my breath away. On others, I’m just trying to make it to finished without bill collectors on my tail and with some semblance of my sanity intact. I also don’t know what YOU are working towards; what blood, sweat and literal TEARS, you have invested in your purpose. I don’t know how many years are behind you, how many ahead. I don’t know if this is your barren season or if your fields are ripe for harvest. But I do know this: like my principal said, it WILL be beautiful when it’s done. Take heart, ok?

Image result for if you aren't happy it's not the end

Amen.

 

Love always,

Stephanie