Sunday, August 23, 2009

Summer Lessons from Belize and Marc Lamont Hill

So I got to travel a bunch this summer, more than any other time in my adult life. The usual grind of championship swim meets was book ended by a missionary trip to Belize and a much-needed vacation to Cozumel. Both of these experiences left a lasting impression on me that make me very thankful that I took the time away from my usual summer routine.

I got invited to Belize under the auspices of teaching swimming to a population where swim instruction is a luxury. I know what the statistics are as far as poor minority youth drowning in the US, and it just made sense that if I could in any way affect that in Belize, then I needed to go. Needlesss to say, the swim portion of my week went really well. With each day, more and more kids showed up, often with parents, to learn how to swim and participate in the activities we planned. The more profound part of my time, however, was spent working in Holy Cross Anglican School and learning about the impoverished San Mateo area of the island.

Holy Cross is situated very close to the prime beachfront real estate of San Pedro, yet socially it seemed to be worlds away. While the beachfront was full of vacationing scuba divers, and fishermen, the neighborhood just outside of the doors of Holy Cross featured one-room "houses" many of which didn't have electricity or running water. The infrastructure of this neighborhood consisted of loosely held together planks that were far from sturdy and would deposit you into the swamp if you happened to make a misstep. Yet, despite these conditions, the children demonstrated the type of spirit that one expects to find in children who want for nothing. I found myself doing more observing than "teaching" because I wanted to understand how the children developed such aspirations in the face of poverty that often chokes away the ability to dream. I learned that for these students, the school was a way out. I learned that for the families of San Mateo, there was appreciation of those who came simply looking to help and not to judge. The trip confirmed to me that it is okay to have a "missionary" mindset as long as the MISSION is the focus and not the displacement of local cultural norms because they are viewed from a deficit perspective. In this case, the mission was to help build and prepare a school to open in the fall that would continue to allow children to dream and have access to opportunities that one day might allow them to return as adults and keep their neighborhood from being co-opted by outside interests.

In addition to the quality time with my wife, Cozumel afforded me the opportunity to do some "leisure" reading for the first time in years. It may seem strange that my leisure book was Marc Lamont Hill's Beats, Rhymes and Classroom Life: Hip Hop Pedagogy and the Politics of Identity, but the two days I spent reading this book were as enjoyable as the Mrs. reading one of her Sandra Brown romance novels. I read slowly by nature and the process is even slower when I start an academic text, but given my background as a teacher, and a lover of hip hop, I anxiously tore into this one, and Professor Hill did not disappoint.

Many scholars who study the utility of hip hop as it pertains to educating youth tend to focus on one aspect of the culture such as the linguistics or the sociological ramifications, but Dr. Hill's course, which focused on hip hop songs as texts to be analyzed allowed for the engagement of all aspects of hip hop culture. The course, which he co-taught in a Philly HS hit home not simply because I grew up there, but instead of the fact that through their analysis and discussion, the class dealt with the complexities of being part of a hip hop generation. There is misogyny and love, consumerism and social conscience, and often these contradictions lie within the same artist. How does a hip hop head who grew up on KRS and Rakim receive Soulja Boy and Plies? The same question can be asked in reverse. So for me, the beauty of Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life is that despite the goals that he had for analyzing classic "texts" such as Summertime by the Fresh Prince and Fuck tha Police by NWA, the students had different views. However, because of the exposure, they were able to engage in important identity exploration. The use of the student's own voices adds a distinct autheniticity to Hill's reporting of the study.

Ultimately, my work in Belize and leisure reading in Cozumel taught me that I cannot begin to use the education and training I have received until I am first able to listen and then be willing to share at a level comparable to those with whom I am working. It is these pre-requisites that set the table for transformational learning to take place.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hooray Marriage! 7 Years in the Books

So today, Aug 10, is my anniversary, and I'm sitting in a hotel at a swim meet for the 2nd time in seven years. This alone is reason to celebrate my wife, who I haven't seen in 9 days and counting. More importantly it speaks to the tough work of marriage. Today marks seven years and it has gone by in a flash. The Mrs. and I were one of the first in our circle to get married and sadly we have seen marriages crumble that began after ours. So on this day, I felt moved to share some lessons I've learned that have helped me and also pass along some advice for those who one day hope to "join the club".

1. DON'T LET THE SNOWBALL GROW. The biggest blowups that I've lived through have been more about the small issues that were left unresolved than the straw that broke the camel's back. No matter how much you dread having that convo about money or how you messed up, have the talk, and make sure to own your culpability, because if you supress it, it will come up again, most likely in a situation where it has little relevance. Even if you need to take a time out to process before you can chat calmly (like I do), make it known that you will be having a discussion later.

2. NEVER TAKE SPENDING QT FOR GRANTED. In the hustle and bustle of trying to "make it" in our professions, it's easy to lose track of just being able to check in. This gets even more complicated when kids come into the equation because even when you're in the same house, the demands of a child(ren) take up attention that used to be reserved for husband and wife. The Mrs. and I used to have date night WEEKLY, which was a simple dinner and movie. Now we're lucky if date night is QUARTERLY, so it means that we have to be purposeful in planning when we hang. So even though I've seen my wife in TWO out of the last TWENTY-ONE days, I've got a week ALONE with the Mrs. coming up in a Mexican resort that I'm SO looking forward to.

3. CHOOSE YOUR COUNSEL WISELY. Some marital issues don't need to be kicked around the friend network for their input. It only makes things worse. ESPECIALLY, when the friends have little on the resume as far as relationship experience. Your road dog who's still doing Happy Hour and First Friday's religiously and thinks marriage is for chumps is NOT gonna have good insight into how you finesse attention issues with your wife who's juggling motherhood and a career. The same is true for your girlfriend when you're trying to deal with your man who feels less than whole because he all of a sudden makes less $$$ thn you. I've found these things are better bounced off marriage OGs or parents. My parents are divorced, but Id still run my deepest marriage insecurities past them before 98% of my friends. And as a sidenote to this point recognize that because your issues will change the longer you're married, the nature of your relationships with single friends will change. The friendships don't HAVE to end, but they will change.

NOTE TO THE SINGLE FOLK. Though it gets put out there often that marriage is the way to go, I'm here to tell you it's not for everybody. Some people TRULY enjoy the freedom of single life and ability to chase as many partners as they want. Some people don't want to be tied to someone for the rest of time as you pledge when get hitched. When I was trying to pledge Kappa, the old heads would always say "Pledging begins when you cross". That is true for fraternity life and the same sentiment can be applied to marriage. However, it is a beautiful thing to find someone who wants to love you, build with you and support you through anything. These are the rewards of marriage that make the struggles worthwhile. Even on the way to Seattle I was describing the many professional hats the Mrs. wears (economist, filmmaker, writer, mother) and he responded "So you married up!" I comfortably replied "No doubt". I recognized that in 2002 when I stood at the altar, and I'm constantly reminded of it seven years later. So shout out to the Thorntons and others who share my anniversay date. If you're married, work like hell to hold it together. If you're single and looking: Don't settle. If you're single and loving that freedom: Play on...But play fair!