“We are not in this fight to win. We are in this fight to struggle.” -Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings
Have you ever heard the phrase “opening Pandora’s box,” and immediately thought of something disastrous? Maybe you are sitting around the family table around the holidays and THAT family member opens his mouth to say THAT word that would open up….Pandora’s box. Or perhaps your significant other closes the door to a room you both are in, sits down and says ‘we need to talk,’ and you feel Pandora’s box opening. Or, maybe you are about to open up the schoolhouse and get word that you are getting 50 transfer students from THAT school, in THAT part of town into your school. Into your classroom. Into your life and you feel yourself climbing inside of Pandora’s box.
What if I told you that we have been misusing the essence of that expression all along?
What if Pandora’s box is always meant to be open(ed)?
Where Change Really Begins
I do not have any tattoos, but if I did, I would have tatted across my stomach, Tupac Shakur-style, the Frederick Douglass quote -“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Now, that phrase runs a bit longer than “THUG LIFE,” but I hope you get the point. Douglass words are so central to my understanding of bringing about a just educational environment for students of color that I think we should hold the essence of the phrase as close to our hearts as possible —“if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” All too often, however, that phrase runs skin deep.
Oftentimes I ask myself — am I still ‘about that equity life?’ or am I just saying I am about that life? What we say and what we commit to reveals who we really are. Too many times, I fall into the we/me trap when discussing how to help students: focusing on what ‘we’ need to do as a school community rather than centering the conversation around ‘me’ and the changes I specifically need to make. I refuse to open the Pandora’s box on me, choosing instead to open it up for other people and call it feedback, when it really should be called deflection. Do you struggle with this?
Change really starts when I trace the line of inequity back to what I have done to support it, promote it and accept it. Change begins when I can move into and through the contents of the Pandora’s box of me — what business philosopher Peter Koestenbaum refers to as the four fears: the fear of becoming a fool, of being abandoned, of being assaulted and of being insane.
Each fear deals with our perception of what will happen to us if we take the time to work on ourselves and make public decisions that reflect that change. Each fear is an interpretation of reaction from our peers and colleagues as we decide to make our thoughts and our actions integrated. When we are afraid of becoming a fool, we are afraid to be thought of as being wrong. Of being perceived as radical or scary. The fear of being abandoned is about being isolated. Might this be a foundational fear that stalks us as we strive to become anti-racists? The fear of being assaulted can be about the physical threats that we perceive will come as we stand for educational justice, but I have found that the psychological and emotional violence that can happen when are really about true progress can be just as lasting and cut just as deep. The final fear is about being perceived as a kook — and summarily being dismissed as incompetent. Becoming an outcast. Do any of these fears hit home for you?
The Point of the Box was Never Fear
So, what does this all mean in the schoolhouse? In the central office? And beyond?
First, it means that we must redefine progress. If we define progress as something achieved by others for the benefit of children that we care about, then progress will always be elusive. And if it is ever found, it will not be because you have been a major author of it; we cannot locate change outside of ourselves. Progress must first be personal. Then it must be public. The final part of progress is collaboration. Additionally, progress is limited if it is about a static ideal. Progress has to be process oriented.
One of iconic UCLA Men’s Basketball coach John Wooden’s most famous maxims is “don’t look at the scoreboard.” He would coach his teams to implement, with ruthless precision, the game plan set before them. When they did that, the scoreboard took care of itself. This is how we must define progress in the pursuit of educational justice; we must always have a goal of equity and achievement, but we must be more focused on the processes that hinder and help us towards this end. And how WE are implicated in those processes. We have to open and live in Pandora’s box.
Secondly, we must redefine what ‘good’ is. If our definition of good when it pertains to students of color is that they are ‘under control, compliant and respectful of authority,’ then I am not sure how different our language is than those of the enslavers who first brought Africans to our shores 400 years ago. Good has to mean more about what a teacher has taken the preparation time to plan and implement as well as the support they must receive rather than what black and brown students are or are not doing. When we keep the spotlight on the behavior of the children rather than the behavior of the adults, we are at risk of creating an educational identity for black and brown students that exists wholly in our own minds. This is how bias forms and where there is bias, there is always the potential for harm. There is not a PBIS, trauma-informed or mindfulness strategy that is better than actually stopping the trauma to minoritized students brought on by racist practices. Don’t show me your meditation room unless you also show me your anti-racist professional development room too. Are you willing to open that box?
Lastly, we must relocate hope. When is the last time you fully read the myth of Pandora’s box? Take a moment to read it here. The point of the box was never about the dangers and evils that were released first, when Pandora opened it. When we continue this equity journey, we place hope at the end of the race, to that time when we have eliminated all of the evils of inequity. Consequently, the sight of inequity continues to sting us, snare us and sap us of the energy we need to continue going through our own personal change. By habit, or by training, we reflexively close the box and submit to telling others what we should be doing ourselves. We cede the ground of change to others in the pursuit of personal comfort and in doing so allow inequity to roam free in the world. But the point of the box was never about the fears.
It was about what was left in the box. Hope was in the box. Hope is not the first or fifth item released from the box — it is what we get AS we struggle through the solutions to these issues. It is at the end of our commitment to changing ourselves that we actually find hope. And when it is released, it has the power to heal all of the ills that were activated when we first began the scary process of becoming better people. Hope is in the struggle to change. If we locate it in the struggle, it can never leave us; because getting to struggle is the point. When we cease to struggle, we will not have the end of the racialized achievement gap or even true educational equity, because as Angela Davis puts it — “freedom is a constant struggle.”
We must constantly open and go through the box.
In the end, we cannot bring about an equitable education without locating the change within us. It is OUR liberty that is at the bottom of the box; after all other fears have been faced:
“When liberty goes out of a place, it is not the
first to go, nor the second or third to go,
It waits for all the rest to go — it is the last.” -Walt Whitman
Therefore, let this school year be about creating inspirational bulletin boards. About going through the blood borne pathogens training. About smiling at back to school night. About orderly rows. And clean floors. And peaceful lunches. And teaching all children well.
But let it also be about holding on to the only hope that is redemptive — the hope that is uncovered in the personal struggle to truly be an anti-racist educator.