Monday, November 24, 2008


I’ve been working for nearly two months now at the youth program of a social services agency on the northeast side. I’m the literacy tutor, teaching predominantly Somali kids to read at an afterschool program. I like it pretty well so far, but I still don’t think I want to work with kids as my career or anything. They can be fun and all, but it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating for me.

These kids, who are “disadvantaged youth”, are pretty different from my experiences with kids in the Japanese classroom. These kids don’t try to grab my boobs*, they raise their hands rather than shouting answers, and they aren’t paralyzed and rendered dumbstruck by the presentation of two choices. In Japan, we always tried to foster a fun and interactive classroom that’s main purpose was for the students to develop positive schema associated with English so they would be more open to learning it for real in the future. This had its benefits and drawbacks, among which was little discipline. Young kids were almost encouraged to be crazy, because at least they were having fun. Even though the kids in my current program come with their own set of challenges, behavioral problems, and variety of language backgrounds, the classroom is still comparatively orderly.

I’m continually faced with how poverty fucks you over on all kinds of fronts. During our training that included a bunch of new volunteers and staff members, our supervisor talked extensively about kids living in poverty almost like they were anthropological subjects. A lot of staff and volunteers are well-versed in the subject, and a surprising number grew up on the northeast side, but it was weird to hear it presented like poor kids were so different. We even got a handout:

Laugh when disciplined: A way to save face in matriarchal poverty.

Argue loudly with teacher: Poverty is participatory, and the culture has a distrust of authority. See the system as inherently dishonest and unfair.

Inappropriate or vulgar comments: Reliance on casual register; may not know formal register.

It’s an odd juxtaposition that I’m working with these kids who have so many challenges, and while I grew up privileged, I now have no money, probably even less than the refugee families I tutor. I’m constantly confronted with all the things I can’t afford, simple things like going to a coffee shop every once in a while, anything at the store that isn’t generic, food that I didn’t personally prepare, and it’s fucking oppressive. It’s on my mind constantly. It doesn’t help that everywhere people are freaking the fuck out about the recession, and those people have infinitely more money than me. I want to get out my frustrations about this, but complaining about having no money is a pretty bourgie thing to do. I think about class, about what it means to be poor, but not enough to form a post about it. I don’t have the energy.

*Sidenote: I talked to this girl who had taught English to elementary school kids in Bolivia for a summer, and I asked her if they ever tried to grab her boobs. Her response: WHAT?!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Brief History of Democracy

I began my adult political life with a blow to my faith in our system. I had thought that even if things didn’t swing your way, at least they were just. But the 2000 election not only introduced me to modern voter suppression, it showed political officials arguing to not count votes. Why wouldn’t you want to count people’s votes? Didn’t they trust Americans? By the end, all I wanted, for the sake of democracy, was for all the votes to be counted, even if it meant Bush won. Instead, I learned that the Supreme Court can decide not to count votes, and appoint a president.

Four years later, I would vote in my first presidential election for not-Bush, who would lose. After 2004, I was angry. I was angry that I had done all I could and it hadn’t worked, that Kerry had so readily gone belly up in his concession, that congress had soundly voted against even investigating the numerous voting irregularities in Ohio. It was just like 2000, I wanted them to count the votes, no matter who wins, the game should at least be fair. I was fucking pissed.

So I went to DC for the inauguration in January to do whatever I could to shit all over their celebration. I didn’t want them to be comfortable in their victory, I wanted them to know that nearly half of America still hated their guts. The morning of the inaugural parade, my friends and I rode the metro from the suburbs with our signs (no sticks, they could be used as weapons) and our anger. Our stop was the same as the many supporters who came from out of town for the revelries, and surrounded by them, with my scruffy denim and faux fur-trimmed jacket and liberal outrage, I was a little nervous. They looked like caricatures of the way I had imagined them; the men wore cowboy hats with suits, and the women wore long, fur coats and overly inflated hair. Many of them had the vaguely inbred look of aristocracy, with their close-set eyes and weak chins. The supporters were so far from who I was, who I knew and respected, that I caught myself pondering how they didn’t even seem like people to me. They didn’t seem like real people with real lives who just happened to have different views than my own. They were something different, something utterly unsympathetic.

Once through the security checkpoint and to the bleachers reserved for the ten thousand protesters, I felt emboldened by the security in numbers. As the rally proceeded, streams of unwitting Republicans trickled through the protest grounds, probably to get a better view. Now it was their turn to be nervous as they shuffled single file through the narrow path the protesters would allow. Protesters had lined up on both sides to watch the supporters coldly as they passed, in the mildest instances, but some protestors heckled the cowering mink-and-cowboy-hats, screamed in their faces, insulted them. I didn’t agree with this practice, but at the same time I secretly wanted these people to be scared.

During the parade, we snarled and cursed at the vehicles going by, which I could only see in a flurry of signs and fists and twisted faces. We didn’t even know who was in which car, but we hated them all the same. Our breath was hot on the coldest inauguration since Reagan’s, and we chanted “Fuck Bush!” over and over again. I looked around at the protestors who were as diverse as the supporters at the parade were homogenous, and I saw everyone’s face ugly with rage. Amidst my own rage, I wondered, do we still seem like people to them? Maybe we’ve actually become this different, that we can’t even relate to each other on a human level. I had dehumanized my opponents, and I knew this was very, very dangerous.

After the parade had passed and the protestors seeped out the exits, I saw a group of people who looked like they were younger than me with huge smiles on their faces, passing out blue rubber bracelets and shouting, “Let’s elect a Democrat in 2008!” My unvoiced reaction to these people: “Shut up.” At that point 2008 was so far away, and we had the next four years to worry about. Plus, we had failed this time, how do we know that our broken democratic system could yield any better results?

Not long after that, Colin said to me, “You know who there’s talk about running in ’08? Barack Obama.” My reaction to him was the same, but voiced: “Shut up.” It seemed like such a naïve impossibility like those college Democrats crashing the inaugural protest with their ridiculous optimism. I remembered hearing Obama’s keynote address at the DNC in 2004, and he was so refreshing, so moving, that I thought in a better world, this man could lead us.

It took eight years of the country going to shit to create the conditions that allowed Barack Obama to be elected president, and I’m finally so grateful that the historical pendulum of politics swings back here for a while. I’m still such a cynic, I know Obama’s going to break my heart somehow. I think he’ll at least be a good president, but I’ll still keep my eye on him, since it’s every patriotic American’s duty to check authority. Even through my cynicism, last night I held Colin’s hand and I couldn’t stop smiling. After Obama’s victory speech, we could hear cheering in the streets and cars honking. We walked down Lyndale, and saw that a crowd had formed on all sides of the intersection outside the C.C. Club, cheering and dancing while cars drove by honking in support and calling out of their windows. All these people from diverse backgrounds were just so fucking happy, and nobody could stop smiling. If you passed a person on the street, they would shout something like, “Whoo! Obama!” and we would “Whoo” back. Colin and I skipped home.

It still seems so surreal. I never thought I could feel this way about a political figure in my lifetime. I’m proud of us, and they’re proud of us abroad too. Finally.