Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/

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The Lone Crusaders of “Valhalla Rising” and “The Book of Eli”: Preternatural Archetypes and Iconic Rebels

This won’t be a review of these two films evaluating their merits and detractions.  More so, this blogpost is an investigative pondering, a thinking out loud about the power of movies serving as introspective lenses into ourselves.  After seeing “Valhalla Rising” a few days ago, it has not left my bones or cognitive preoccupation.  The brooding landscape, the haunting music, the brutal yet beguiling treatment of proverbial conflicts (man versus man, man versus society), the aesthetic achievement of a  movie not ending with a conventionally bow tied happy ending, have moved me.  I am responding to a movement in my marrow, an archetypal and iconic familiarity implanted by my father, now resurrected.

To give context, In “Valhalla Rising,” the clairvoyant Norseman protagonist, One Eye, is introduced as a captive exploited for the gladiator-style sport of combating and bludgeoning fellow captives.  One Eye is temporarily compliant with his slavery and defers to his captor’s bloodlust for combat.  He is then sold by his captor to another who hopes to use him to stave off the Christian Crusaders who have begun the onslaught of whomever they deem infidels.   However, One Eye brutally takes back his freedom, and resumes his quest, accompanied now by the boy (called The Boy) who provided food while in captivity and will provide his voice, as One Eye is mute.   Ironically, they encounter a group of Crusaders embarking for Jerusalem and join them.  Then when the ship is trapped by obscuring mist and stilled currents, some crew interpret the presence of The Boy as an omen of their demise.  Others are resolved in perceiving both One Eye and The Boy as a means to a supernatural confirmation of their quest, with One Eye providing messianic-like security.  The men then land upon a taiga, and begin to realize that they are nowhere near the Holy Land of Jerusalem for which their chartered their course and agendas.  They encounter aboriginals, as well as the fraying interior of the deepest and dilemma-ridden aspects of themselves, leading to revelatory unfolding.

Stories about lone crusaders and the conflicts they encounter fascinate me.  The preservation of self despite the infliction or indifference of others, the indestructible resolve to uphold and defend what is believed even at cost to self, are compelling narratives.  One Eye is embedded within an interwoven tapestry of two conflicts—man against man, and man against society.   One Eye does not willfully engage or pursue conflicts with others, or deliberately position himself to take a side for his own advantage.  In his quietude he remains resolute to keep moving, resilient in accepting and fulfilling his premonitions.  Beholding to what seems to be a calling to something greater, he combats through the shadows and valleys of others’ intentions, expectations, and manipulations.  This instinctive perseverance and acceptance of his fate are what confounds some characters and convicts others.

One Eye’s obligatory devotion to fulfilling his premonitions and the path they lay reminds me of my father.  My father was a man who availed his limbs and logic to providing me the best life possible (on earth and heaven).   Specifically, my father upheld the belief that it was his responsibility to instill within me religious practices and spiritual teachers to inform my life going forward.  The most indelible impression he makes upon me are what he taught me about my origin.  He had a way of explaining that we are translation of a divine intention.  Dad taught me about God and Christ, and many Biblical figures to serve me in life as guideposts for my living.  His favorite king was David, a man chosen by God to build and defend His kingdom knowing in his walk of earthen life he would both travail from and prevail against his personal foibles and fallibility.  Jesus impressed him because of His determination despite any and all obstacles to do His Father’s work.  Perhaps the parallel between One Eye and my father’s teachings lay in the fact that regardless of what the eye/s can see, there is a life purposefully divined and driven beyond physical unyieldingness, and to resolve to see and live life beyond circumstance strengthens one’s ability to do so sedulously and steadfastly.

Since seeing “Valhalla Rising,” I have also begun to reflect upon how I was also moved by the movie “The Book of Eli”.  The latter is also a movie that moves my marrow me because of its theme of sight beyond circumstance.  As like One Eye, Eli is diminished in his sight (he is completely blind).  However, Eli’s blindness does not mentally, spiritually or physically deter him.  Instead, his ordaining to deliver the last Bible propels Eli.  The sight garnered by conviction emboldens both characters to resist surrendering to physical limitation or societal intimidation; in Eli’s case, Carnegie’s hunting and assaulting of him to acquire the physical Bible in his care.  Throughout the movie, Eli invokes and demonstrates his Biblically-informed and infused sight to traverse an apocalyptic wasteland, the degeneration of others, and the attempted exploits of demagogue Carnegie to exploit and kill him exclusively for gain.  Unfortunately, Carnegie’s greed and thirst for power literally shrink his sight to only register what is physical.  The Bible Eli carries is written in Braille, which Carnegie cannot read and therefore exploit to wield his power.  The Bible that Eli transports is actually committed to memory: he succeeds bringing it to a repository and printing press housed in Alcatraz before succumbing to his injuries.

My fascination with both protagonists is that the fragile meets the fierce.  Despite what seems to be limits in the flesh, the execution of their beliefs is what avails them strength, courage and wisdom to continue pursuing their higher calling.  Each protagonist prevails against his own carnal limitation.  Despite the exploitation of others—attempted and executed—each remains undeterred to accomplish a goal greater than the obstacles that materialize and plague them.  They remind me of my father, whose spiritual sight helped him to prevail against affliction.  He taught me that we were born ordained to do special work on earth even before assuming earthly vessels, and celestially supported by the hierarchy of Heaven to complete it.    Who we are metaphorically, mystically, molecularly, and metabolically overshadows and overpowers  any obstacle we will experience in our walk on earth (perhaps this is also why movies like ”Contact” resound in me too . . .I’ll save that for another day).  This teaching he embedded in me informs and instructs me some 15 years after his passing.  Ironically, he died just nine days after my Baptism, and though for me premature, I have never believed this to be an accident as a surrender and restful return.

His job done on earth, as it is in Heaven.

Movies as Mirrors: Reflecting on “For Colored Girls”

This blog describes the impact of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem on my identity as a woman of color and a writer, compared to the impact of attending Tyler Perry’s movie adaptation with my husband. 

In the late eighties, one book changed my life.  Ms. Kupperman-Guinals, our drama teacher and teacher extraordinaire, pulled me to the side after class and gave me a copy of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf to read.  Already a self-proclaimed poet, I was writing poems as mirrors of my days–the hardship of being a teenager, the beauty of nature, using big words to say small things, lamenting the crushes I had, and short stories about falling in love with Prince.  When I look back on the reading of that book, it has become a pivotal event in my life.  I know now was given a tool and mirror into so much deeper.

For Colored Girls was the first play I read written as both poem and play–a choreopoem.  In content and structure, it gave me inspiration as a fledging writer to see what can be done with a narrative about being a woman of color, with a unique frame within which to explore and share that phenomenon.  Told from multiple vantage points personified in colors, it bore witness of who we are (and I am) on paper.  Stories of trials, tribulations, triumphs, excavations and epiphanies all woven in a metaphoric tapestry of a rainbow.  A rainbow of womanhood.  Reading the play, I felt like I was seen.  Known.  Believed.   More than a statistic or stereotype.

For Colored Girls has become for me a tool and mentor text for using writing as confession, revelation, empowerment, sharing.  I thank Ms. Kupperman-Guinals for giving me this torch to see myself and the world I could create.  It later fueled for me the inspiration to write an undergraduate honors thesis on the works of Ntozake Shange (“The Negotiation of Silence in the Female Characters in Ntozake Shange’s Texts”), as well as an original play (titled “Episodes of Womanhood/Mahogany Women’s Movements/A Blackened Woman’s Voice from a Different World”).  Years later, in 1992, while writing my thesis, I would have the honor of meeting the original torchbearer herself at Crossroads Theatre who inscribed my copy of  The Love Space Demands with saying “Thank you for being who you are.”

Ms. Shange and Ms. Kupperman-Guinals gave gifts that keep on giving.

So when Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” came out, I was excitedly reserved.  Would the movie he produced captivate me the same way as did the author?  Would I feel the same epiphany and inspiration in being a woman of color again, or would they be muted by the sacrilegious interjection of Madea in womanface?  For me, “For Colored Girls” is one of those works that “should” stay as a text.  Something different, even disappointing, can happen when the vivifying of a text is done onscreen.  Some things get lost in translation, which is what I felt with both “The Watchmen” and especially “Beloved.”  Beloved emerging out of the water and speaking in first person impact the reader in a way that the delivery of an image cannot fully capture.

Bad colds and conflicting dates kept me from seeing the movie with sister friends who wanted to make a dinner and a movie event from seeing the movie.  We knew we would have much to talk about.  Ironically, my husband, a movie buff, volunteered to go.  Fingers crossed . . . we attended.  Afterward, we spent an afternoon walking around the movie theatre parking lot debriefing.

Kerwin recounted that the movie upset him, leaving him to wonder if Tyler Perry hated men.  He felt objectified and shrunk to one dimension.  He disclosed that based upon the characterization of men of color in the movie, a man could only be  a selfish “down low” HIV-positive husband who intentionally infects his wife, a traumatized alcoholic war veteran who abuses his wife and throws his offspring out the window, a slick-tongued rapist, a two-timing non-committal gigolo, or a john.  Or absent.  The married good cop was just a flash in a pan.  To him, there were no layers, textures, complexity explored.  Just stereotypes delivered.  Again.  And when I told him there were no male characters in the original choreopoem, he was befuddled by why they were included by Perry in the movie.

I wished my husband experienced what I did in reading the play over two decades ago.  I genuinely wanted him to know what it felt like for me to see your complexion and complexity captured and given back to you as a gift, as I did with both my teacher and favorite author.  Instead, he saw himself shrunken, caricatured.  Again.  This time, by his own.

Since seeing the movie together, my husband’s sentiments leave in me a feeling of responsibility for using words and images so others can see themselves.  How can the poetry I write serve the goal of relaying my thoughts and ideas yet provide breathing room and a space for others to see and experience themselves?  Relative to the two of us, how do I serve as a mirror of his truthful reflections?  And, relative to us all, how can we live so that we serve as mentor text and mirror to our best and most possible selves?

“I am Just a Maker of an Unfinished Map”

“I am just a maker of an unfinished map.”–Michelle Valois

Anxiety has been friend and enemy these past few days. Enemy in that so many things are happening at once–two angsts being working in schools and writing poetry–there’s the constant feeling of not completing things, or not completing them well. Friend in that this frenetic energy is indicative of moving, of directing self away from self, embarking on something bigger than self, and generating product larger than self.

Working with teachers has been beautifully rewarding and hard. They are under much fire (and in the fire) as per recent media events. Microscopic investigations, parasitic criticisms and surgical threats of budget cuts make teaching feel like one is trailing through a mind field. I try to walk with them through creating PDs that support them in their classrooms, being a listening ear (careful to not use their ear as a platform for my ideas, but mine as a mirror to explore their own). With former students, I try to always be a resource available to collaborate on their trials and travails so that they know they always have resources available. With colleagues who are also consultants and educators I try to be a conduit for their ideas, a supporter of their missions, an ally in their visions, a soldier expanding territories. This is why anxiety weighs on me–am I enough? Am I growing enough to meet their needs and challenges when called on for help or advice? This is a stem of the anxiety–to be “complete” and “enough” in actuating possibilities in others.

For decades I have written poems, even a full play modeling the choreopoem genre (“For Colored Girls”), as well as drafted an outline and the first half of a novel. Even have performed in several poetry venues. I have been off the radar for some time  (okay, years, and that may be for exploration in a future blog), writing on the margin inside the closet. Recently I have been devoting long hours to creating a full manuscript/draft. And have begun contemplating doing poetry readings again. What this “means,” the exposure and growing outward, is what makes the anxiety occur. Writing brings attention to the content and theme of your being, and the use of language and form you use to deliver it. You’re naked on paper each time you disclose, divulge, intimate, tell. Pretty scary, because what you share can leave an indelible imprint, transform you, unfold and even foil the purpose of your own masks. But I know this struggle and the anxiety it causes me to be a beautiful purpose for creating and living.

What to do?

I came across the quote above in a recent tweet. It resonates in a way I can’t yet fully explain, but hits the bullseye in capturing my stance and feeling. It is the doing, the devotion and investment in moving forward that completes the work. And you only know what the work is, what that need is to be addressed, by working and addressing them. And it is only then you can see the territory you have expanded, that would not be possible had you not begun at all to chart the map of threading intention into action.

“A Blog is a Journey, not a Destination”


Louis, a high school buddy and FB friend, wrote that statement as a reflection of his own blogging experience. I read it early this morning, during my I-can’t-sleep-tonight stirrings (a lot on my mind), and it has relentlessly stuck ever since. The use of writing as a paving of a road, traveling it as you lay it brick by brick, resonates. Maybe because it feels like a promise I can keep, if I just commit to granting myself permission to travel.

I am writing a book of poetry, my first, and it has been a hard sail. And sale. In the beginning, the words and their assembly flowed and down into the computer. Like water down plate. These poems I had written over the span of two decades, so they were familiar, but then the writing starting getting harder. Some of these topics mirror back hard reflections. Some of these topics require me to learn more than I know. Some of these topics are unapologetic in demanding a fearlessness in writin that I am just developing. It’s feeling now like I am taking a fork to a mountain. I’m still standing, scraping. But committing to staying in the moment, relentless, is hard too.

Just weeks before, a great colleague, Mary, gave me homework–to start a Twitter account and to start blogging. Ugh. That was hard. Staring into blank space, reading the great things others wrote and wondering if I could measure up, stepping out into cyberspace and into who knows whose minds, unchartered territories I was reluctant to sail.  But then I started writing, writing about things I believe in and hold true to me. About topics I feel passionate about. Education and writing. Mary shared with me her process and rationale, and in her honesty I felt possibility. That the writing is doable. Writing helps you unfold page by page that which you are trying to understand.

And so, coming back to Louis’s reflection, I am writing, often, as much as possible, to get in and under what I think. Explore it relentlessly. To not wait holding breath until masterpiece is present, but to build and build and bring and bring it to fruition myself.  Two published writers I admire, Carla and Miles, encourage me to keep going. That my words are necessary, that they have something to say and share, and their breath in the world makes a difference in the world.  So, the integration of these four people and their wisdom in risk-taking give me inspiration-to reach in and pull spirit out.

So, I reach again for my fork, hold it up to the mountain, and take pride in the chisel and scraps that fall. They show me where I started, and that I am on a journey to get THERE. Writing as a journey into the destination of . . .

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