My National TRiO Day Speech (Sacramento, CA)
First, it starts with a nutrition gap, which becomes a literacy gap, which spirals into a housing gap, and soon thereafter, an incarceration gap…and so forth. Now consider how much harder it might be if English is not your first language, no one in your family has gone to college, and you don’t have enough money to visit campuses, let alone pay tuition. I’m just wondering if we’re making a hollow promise to prepare students to be “college ready” if too many young people are denied a college education because of cost? Students need to be not only academically capable of doing college work, but also financially capable of attending college.Instead of counteracting the inequalities they inherit, colleges and universities magnify them through outdated robber-baron policies.
Higher education in the United States is highly stratified, showering the most resources on the most-advantaged students. Our system of college admissions exacerbates inequalities.
Colleges pride themselves on defending race-based affirmative-action programs, but their policies tend to benefit the most economically advantaged students of color (I’m looking dead at you, Stanford).
Most colleges do little to provide affirmative action for low-income students, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Less than one-third of the American population hold bachelors degrees—the rationale for using public money to support a fairly small group at the top is that we all benefit when more students are educated. The corollary is that we should focus aid on those students who would not attend and complete college but for public aid—a notion we’ve lost sight of when we subsidize those who would attend anyway. But the bigger danger is the fact that the trend toward corporate, for-profit education is frequently seen as the progressive alternative to the current education system.
“On The Gift of Critical Thinking”
Students I worked with at Stanford University and urban Richmond are equally brilliant in many ways. But their sense of agency profoundly differs. Students at Stanford were open to embracing their futures, because they were taught to expect the best for their lives as commodities to society at large. However, my students in Richmond do not have the same arsenal of expectation, for a variety of reasons also related to self-worth. In many cases, no one hates them more than their own reflections.
Non-academic manifestations of economic hierarchies elude us, we blame students as an executioner would his victim—without critically asking “why” or “how did we get here?” And I have suspected for a long time, that self-worth organically fertilizes where it may grow. What’s more, my mentees at Stanford enhance their lives by drawing from their critical thinking skills. Paradoxically, my current students in Richmond are perpetually taught to apply their creativity as a tool for survival rather than imagination. “Imagination” for the purpose of this reflection is defined as transforming life despite material privilege. And as such, it stands to reason that in a certain kind of patronizing way, we enhance their lives in Richmond the same way we enhance our own lives as educators, by fomenting codependency until critical thinking is connected to a pejorative caste system.
How many of us believe that the role of critical thinking at Stanford University is based on the preservation and promotion of the highest self-sufficiency and the pursuit of the good life? Now, what about Richmond? What changed? In conclusion, I believe that a student’s brilliance has very little to do with their level of knowledge, but more to do with where that type of thinking will lead them. And that sense of worth and entitlement, starts and ends—with the rest of us.
~by A. Daneshzadeh, 2012
NOTE: According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, an estimated 25
million children live their days devoid of biological fathers. I felt
impelled to write this piece last night, when my own father, who has been
absent from my life for over 15 years, suddenly thought it wise to show up
out-the-blue on my doorstep. It was in a word….a shock. To be transparent,
I threatened to “cave his face in” if he didn’t extricate himself
immediately, but nonetheless, as part of the healing…a blog about
vulnerability….and my self-diagnosed BATMAN COMPLEX.
The following reflection is the personification of the far-reaching affect
last night and all the days prior to a 15+-year hiatus between a father and
son will and has had on my development as a human being.
On Vulnerability: the biggest hater?
If vulnerability were a subliminal dog-whistle-esque stimulant, it would
sound like the ocean at night; not one casual observer there to rescue you,
not one hero but your own will and courage to swim through the tidal waves.
If vulnerability were a Rorschach meta-cognitive exam, it would look like
leaps (but honestly, it usually looks like a splattered butterfly, whatever,
LEAPS: the distance traveled between who I thought I was and who I am honest to say I would like to become.
I’ve spent my entire life pushing people away with the bullheadedness of a
Frank Gore stiff arm. I looked up the definition of “vulnerable” in
dictionary.com and this is what I found: “capable of being physically or
emotionally wounded, open to attack or damage.” I hate feeling vulnerable, I think it’s one of the most awful feelings to have. Worse would be would be heartbreak, another emotion I’ve always tried to avoid at all
costs. The only way I felt apt to conquering vulnerability has been to numb
myself, a technique I’ve used for years now. That, in addition to not
wearing my emotions on my sleeve, helps to insulate me. But placebos are
placebos…no amount of paint would cover the stain of his absence. But that didn’t keep me from trying. And no accomplishment would incite his return to my life. And the beginning of my self-torment: Batman Complex.
Sometimes in life, we’re saturated with emotions left neglected and don’t
know it. In youth we learn of their existence; in age, we understand them.
This is a testament to the universal truth that what we learn as children is
the foundation of who we are as adults. If childhood is a picture, then age
is a lens, slowly bringing it into focus. We spend the entirety of our
youths taking in everything we can, until our thoughts and ideas become so
cluttered that childhood inevitably becomes a photograph out of focus- full
of colors and pixels, but impossible to make sense of.
For most of my life, my derelict father had been a mystery to me. As a
child, I resorted to fabricating my own perceptions of him based off
negative generalities I made to ease the issue (of having to be my own
de-facto “man”) to rest. The result was a deeply-rooted sense of resentment, anger and distrust of those who’ve said they love me. I found myself open to, yet thoughtfully critical of all ideas, particularly any positive ideas of my own identity as a flourishing young man. Nevertheless, I sought
knowledge in every aspect of my life, for which I am eternally grateful. My
friends and circle of confidantes have contributed to a sublime
understanding of my own youth.
Growing up with my mother’s skewed perception of reality was like comparing my imagination of a movie to that of a movie director’s (hers). Since my father’s leaving reinforced my anxieties about missed opportunities to make him “proud” (or maybe he wouldn’t have vamped) and consequently in my life making myself “proud” (or maybe I wouldn’t be bouncing at the first sign of heavy cupcakin’)…I overloaded myself with activities, motivated by the crippling fear that I would miss something if I didn’t do EVERYTHING humanly possible all at once.
I’ve spent so much time in my life worrying about losing time- that
ironically- I ended up being too stressed to truly enjoy the time I was
frenetically and desperately trying to savor. I was vaguely aware that I was
getting myself into a vicious cycle. Rather than being in a constant rush to
check items off my mental “bucket list” and the tall maelstrom of obligation pancakes, I’ve been taking more time to enjoy life as it comes, one day at a time.
There’s a balance to be struck, and yes, I got mad affection for activity
and feeling utilized in talent and spirit but…it’s never been more
important to settle those qualms within myself than right now, in this
transition period, when I am leaving my known world of San Mateo and
Stanford behind and onwards to: doctorate programs, better hip hop LP’s, better produce in the market, fellowships helping 1st generation low-income students realize their intellectual firepower, duets with Brother Ali, CampLo and Slug, a tour of the Haribo Gummy Bear factory, collaborations with
Michelle Elam (“brain crush numero uno”), Carol Suarez-Orozco and Pedro
Noguera, trips to Africa and Mediterranean bazaars to practice haggling with
fellow cuddies, new relationships and beyond.
The dirty truth is, we men, often have holes in our souls the size and shape
of our fathers. However, it’s never too late to recapture our identities,
rather than live out the role that our fathers should have been holding
auditions for, long ago.
“You can’t polish a turd.”
I’m crestfallen today and have been for quite some time. Let’s start from the beginning in chronological order of erosion.
First—genesis. Our babies are born simply because they can be. And at the center of the epidemic, at its fucking heart, is pumping human expectation or more precisely, the absence of expectation into these kids. Why? Because there’s no political capital to be gained from them. It’s literally killing me to wake up every day to a world where I must pacify myself before I pacify those responsible for inequality. Our babies don’t live in the future sense….not because their parents have lost ambition, but because even ambition itself, is a learned skill.
Day after day, the small promises that knit families together are frayed and unraveled: meals aren’t prepared; weekend trips to the supermarket never manage to find the right weekend; school clothes aren’t there in time for another school year, and the academic year itself is lost to sucking up to College Board, impetuously draconian state standards and the ACT exam.
Over time, it has become clearer to me that our children, their smiles, their unqualified love will never be enough to bring them what they need….because poor kids don’t vote. It breaks my heart that love is something to be spoken of in corny ass Keyshia Cole songs, but love is rarely demonstrated for them out in the open.
By adolescence, our children understand that no one survives by carrying long-term expectations into any relationship, by giving of themselves, by remaining 49er/Alex Smith fans, by risking anything valuable for the sake of that relationship. To my pawtnas who argue that the urban school systems of this nation are underfunded, or understaffed, or poorly managed—and in cities like EPA, Oakland, Harlem, Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, at least, there is one equal and opposing truth: the schools cannot save this mess. It haunts me nightly.
The debate over tax bases and class size, efficacy and alternative curricula matters only for that finite portion of children ready and able to learn, to set genuine goals, to adapt their lives to the external standards of culture (and Jed York’s lack of talent and Michele Rhee’s lack of credible data). For these children, the key is a functional family and their place in that family. For them, some semblance of victory was assured before they ever walked into my classrooms.
And what remains for the teacher? You think I should teach again?! I’d rather not fail them a second time. What training, what lesson plan, what act of educational artistry that I could pull out of my Mesopotamian butt will be sufficient to the reality? In EPA—just blocks from Stanford University—as in every other beleaguered city system, the administrators and bureaucrats have for decades wrapped the failure in the latest educational trends, programs and jargon, as if changes in approach or technique could ever matter. Back to basics, alternative schools, privatization, magnet schools, teaching the whole child—all of it is offered up as slogans in place of meaningful endeavor— as if Tiger Woods wouldn’t have cheated had his wife simply handcuffed him to the bed with his 9 iron.
Images of my former students haunt me to this day. I can picture Maria, Jerrod, Brian, Lupe, Sione, DeAndre, and droves of others working on the graphing calculators I taught them to use (to a theme of Warren G’s “regulators” instrumental) while their creativity and intelligence were almost willfully extracted, in a room of once amazingly engaged students to what became a corpse’s silence….by rote-drills and copied information for the STAR and CAHSEE exams. What is left at the end of my maelstrom is a school system playing with test scores in the same way that US News must seek the support of the rich who perpetuate its frivolous rankings.
Finally, here’s a story of a former student of mine named Azalia. If I had asked Azalia whether Egypt or England are countries or continents, then she has no interest and no clue. But if I had asked how the Pharoah’s architects managed to get the crypt inside the finished tomb, or how the ancients got the rocks to stand at Stonehenge, and invariably, she’d give me a working hypothesis followed by an endearingly caustic, ”c’mon Mr. D….step your game up, couzo.” I could never accuse students like Azalia of being “hollow”. Just don’t ask her for anything in writing, or expect her effort to sustain itself for longer than fifteen minutes or show itself in any review quiz a few days later. To see these students come alive, to sense the eagerness buried inside them, is to understand just how far the elemental human urge to learn has been subverted, how something so natural to childhood has been brutally limited to a handful of raw lessons suitable to keep my students from roasting each other like a VH1 special.
My slow grinding as a teacher has since ended like an empty tootsie roll. The school system has taken its shots, tallied its misses and closed its files on me and these students. But I’m not delusional, and human children don’t simply disappear and neither does the problem. As a wise man, my grandfather Baba Amir, told me before I boarded the plane for the United States: “go as far as you can see, and when you get there Arash, you’ll see farther.”
I’m now reduced to questioning…how much farther must our children fall before we all hear (and react to) the thud?
With Love, truly,
To the Stink Eye from the balcony,
meet the world I see: it’s trifling and frost bitten
our generation’s youth wander around like lost kittens
dodging stray mind hemorrhages and lies living
in the social venn-diagram of Bullet-Ins
fatal attractions, placed to pull you in.
You ever feel blind to Mother Obligation while nurturing
so many sapling baby distractions?
There’s only one truth but we’re chasing after fractions
and fiction,at warp speed with no cause or mission
that’s why, most live a life of contradiction
and words like love have lost their definition.
Looking back down my life’s treasury,
I didn’t know, I stumbled upon this road
now that I’m on it, if I’m honest
there are times I’m not sure that I want it.
But while you blame God for pussyfooting his cloudy bedroom,
pulling all-nighters waiting for the sun to rise
casting rays of liberation,
for all you know, it’s still the only life you’ve chosen.
“The Shape of Blame” (Coffee Shop Prophets XI)
Huddled in the gloomy little cracks that memories inhabit
Iraqi F-16 missiles still look like Fireflies sans the tragic
They pass away the day I deactivate my whoa-is-me scars
Each one gets buried in the back yard with my pop’s incorrigible flaws
In tiny little graves marked only by my mother’s blistering blunders
Remembering beauty marks that weren’t really there, she stumbles
To remain for me, what I really don’t need
But a cold YooHoo and pill wrapped with a fine joke
Shariah nightmares, the beaten scares, the thrown lamps as timeless as shrapnel tears
Birthmarks don’t wound they bloom without injuries to your soul
Kindly watch your step
The silence isn’t finished being whole
Blemishes of defeat lay in the basement to stay safe
Today’s mistakes are in a lighted trophy case.
I’ve wasted so much time forgetting that it is my response—as an educator— to the needs and tragedy that rains over the lives of my students, that makes all the difference one way or another, in their acquisition of basic skills, the development of critical thought, and the continued practice of being good people. “Fuck this bullshit, Mr. D, who needs logarithms?! I’m saying though, dude…I wish I could go back to the time when I was smart,” Jarod ( a young man I taught back at Aragon High School) says, staring at another unit exam D- grade in my Trig class. To be perfectly blunt, as an educator, I failed Jarod…and many like him.
But on the real tip, I want to say I wished the same thing as Jarod, that I wish we could do a time-freeze and kick myself back Marty McFly style to those days when neon fanny packs weren’t an accessory during Bay to Breakers, enjoying the insight bequeathed by NWA albums and In Living Color had to receive parental approval first, and someone was trying to teach you letter sounds, or sight word recognition, and how to put it all together.
“C’mon J-Money, you got this man, there is no going back…all I see is progress for you,” I do say to Jarod…and then I add one of those automated and vapid responses to fear found in the teenager of our species, “there is only going forward, and we can go forward. That time you miss is also in the future, and we can find the way there again.” Didn’t you hate it when adults dismissed you strategically like this?! Again, I failed.
I wonder if he knew it, yet.
Or maybe just this: “I wish I could go back to the time when I was smart,” is so completely not what I meant when I affirmed my belief in the theory of progressing Jarod’s aptitude during my Public Allies and TFA selection interviews but nevertheless, I managed to ignore the larger (and underlying) issue at hand. The issue was that once you’ve established a student’s trust –just as I did with Jarod who dared to reveal his rattled confidence—then you’re in this game called education for life, and in it for students not named Arash. Students that eventually burn you T.I. and Young Joc CD’s as thank you gifts for keeping them eligible to play hoops their senior year, students who will steal your favorite magic markers, students whose resolve reminds you how inspiring a Friday night at Stanford hospital can be—with a student accidentally shot while walking his sister home from school. You fail, when you forget that failure to acknowledge their progress, and distance traveled isn’t a realistic option.
What we think, or what we know, or what we believe, is in the end, of little consequence (unless you believe that The San Francisco 49ers are the greatest franchise in all of sports…then you’ve joined the only cause to fly a banner on your family van antenna, opa beeyotches!). No but sincerely, the only thing of consequence is what we do and with whom. Counter-intuitively, I’ve been reluctant to tell some really special folks in my life how much I appreciate them, or expose my battle with PTSD since the War, because I thought those moments of “deliberate weakness” would debase their faith in me as an independent mentor/a man/teacher…whatever. I’m sure now that someday the children in schools will study the history of the men who made war as we study an absurdity like the show Basketball Wives (I nominate the diva New York as an interpreter for them). Anyway, the students would be shocked at our lack of discourse and mind numbing levels of machismo, just as today we’re shocked with cannibalism and Rick Ross’s gainful employment or Florida voter tallies. Justice is what love looks like in public, and quite frankly, my grandfather is the reason why I’ve ever believed that I had enough love to do anything for anyone in the United States. “You know, Arash….all you have in your arsenal is all anyone has, a body and a voice…but an opportunity, that’s where you decide to wield power for those without opportunity,” Grandpa Amir told me. My life has been one opportunity after another….whether it’s deserved or not. To this end I ask, when do we decide that a fight is ours? I’ve always felt like I’ve simply gone into work forgetting why I’m there, no matter how much ammo I wore, there was always something critically missing, and it wasn’t my drawers. Often, it was my faith in myself.
The point to this epically long diatribe is that, everyone ( I don’t care how lucrative your job is and how well endowed you think you are), in some small sacred sanctuary of the self, is lacking confidence in something and is utterly nuts. I don’t believe that I’ve done anything more than act like a teacher, much less impart wisdom, so do I really deserve the responsibility and power that it holds? If my students knew that survival wouldn’t extend to them—that many of them would be locked up, pregnant, shot, or even deceased—would surviving have been enough for them? The irony here, is that I think surviving would have been more than enough. So why had I felt undeserving and guilty about being alive in the States for all those years? The bottom line: we’re all nuts to a degree but the real signs someone ain’t right:
Walks without moving their arms.
Engages in passionate discourse about World of Warcraft at happy hour.
Often quotes from Gigli and Twilight Saga.
Is impressed with Ashton Kutcher (on any level).
Enjoys eating at Arby’s.
…unless this is you, I suggest you play to your strengths and do your best to help others along the way. What could be more rewarding in this life?
To be cont’d…
Where my house once stood, subsequently replaced by a nine-foot hole after an F-16 missile landed months after I departed for the U.S.
“Conscience is a man’s compass”
Vincent van Gogh
Have you ever felt like you could hear your ancestors when you opened your mouth? Like those long and gone, compelled your instinct. People say that we shouldn’t trip about feeling inadequate in life, but rather embrace the fact that we are powerful beyond measure. Our personal relationships take tolls on those whom we dare to share our most unshaven, hungover, disheveled, and rhythmless states of disarray (i.e. post-new year’s eve shenanigans).
Some of the enlightenment I can claim to have regarding our place as bipedal Crown Royal vacuums (homo-sapiens) on this earth has come from two men: Carl “you know he hot boxed through his dissertation” Sagan and Amir Rustam “my beret smells like liberation and Zoroastrian pistachio” Mofagham (my grandpa). My favorite of Sagan’s books, “Pale Blue Dot,” contains a very interesting idea that I’ll try to summarize here….but please—hater nation— no backsees if I’ve completely missed the boat.
From billions of miles away, the Earth looks like a dot. The bitter struggles and the quests for power seem trivial. And yet our entire world—every person we know or knew and loved or hated—has been confined to this dot. My grandpa would often remind me courtesy of his uber-expensive calling card from Tehran, that all the joy, all the pain, all the lessons I’ve learned since leaving the war in Iran, all has been on the surface of a single rock hurtling through space thereby reminding me that any pain I’ve ever felt is merely an experience primed to connect me to others. So back to Sagan, who believes that the earth is a rock perilously vulnerable not only to chance collisions with asteroids, but to the vices of our species, like greed and vanity (and perhaps season three of Jersey Shore)—three integral ingredients for war (and sloppy seconds). In education, I’ve felt responsibility to myself and to the planet to bond with students, to overcome my desire to turn a blind eye to the students who didn’t care enough to help themselves; and to realize that, in the cosmic scheme of things, the temporary illusion of being someone’s mentor or authority is not worth the time and hard work expunged to gain it, if you are only here to serve yourself. My grandfather told me, before I left Tehran airport to immigrate to the United States, that “no matter how obscure, and frighteningly vast America may seem, there’s no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save you from adversity if you take your privilege for granted.” In other words, be your own hero and by doing so, others will follow. That’s deep on some other damn it feels good to be king, shit. And so with that, ladies and gentlemen, my survivor’s guilt –for having survived the war (and Season Five of The Wire) –was borne.
Today I woke up to a world— just like many days before— in which capital has triumphed completely, labor has been marginalized and monied interests have purchased enough political infrastructure to prevent reform in the lives of my students from Oakland, East Palo Alto and those with whom I will collaborate in the future in NYC and Harlem.If it isn’t abundantly clear, I miss teaching. I miss serving those students that wont simply be cherry-picked by a perpetuating machine of educational confirmation bias found in “US NEWS AND WHATEVER THE EFF” report.
This world in which our students must have to confront, and in a smattering of cases, violate unjust laws to fight for ethnic studies. This world in which our students of color are exclusively perceived as athletic commodities, or as labor commodities in the prison/industrial complex (see:13th Amendment which enforces “slave labor while in incarceration” even for the sick and physically prostrate). They are anything but valued as intellectual commodities that bring unique dynamicism and perspective to the community. This world, in which rules and values of the free market and maximized profit have been mistaken for a social framework, a world where institutions themselves are paramount and every day my students are human beings that matter far less and less.
The result: students blame themselves. They internalize modest expectations placed upon them, when they encounter academic difficulties—simultaneously taking the pressure off the school system to do right by them. People aren’t indispensable, they take time. But there’s value and as educators….ya’ll don’t judge talent, ya’ll promote talent.
Like the saying goes: “The world going one way, people another.”
Perhaps I’m just trippin’. Perhaps East Palo Alto, Oakland, and Harlem are just more screwed up than some other places…but I doubt it. If that were the case, then these stories would only have meaning for the people there rather than resonate with the educators whom I’ve tagged on this post. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know….on my favorite journal….that we need ya’ll—that you matter to the lives of disappearing children within the landscape of survival—and I love you. On my pride, I do.
The only question is just how many young people we will lose while the public settles for failed systems of reform. But it’ll be a helluva longer wait, without hope.