Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Imagine...let it be

Brenda is a fourth-grader at my elementary school in South Carolina. Her father and mother moved here from Mexico, and Brenda speaks Spanish at home and English at school. Fluent in both languages, she is a quiet, thoughtful child with contemplative eyes and attentive ears. Like most other fourth-graders, Brenda laughs when a friend tickles her. She cries if she falls and scrapes her knee. And she has stories to tell if you will listen. She is also a scholar and a saint in the wonderful ways a 10-year-old can be scholarly and saintly. She reads anything about everything at every opportunity and volunteers her early mornings to read to struggling first-graders.

I took a few minutes to ask Brenda about her hopes and dreams.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked.

"I want to be a doctor," she answered.

When I talk with students, I often use the "5 Whys" strategy to get a better understanding of what they are thinking and feeling. For each answer a student gives, I ask why until I have five answers to the initial question.


"Because I think it would be a good job."


"Because I like to study and I want to help people."


"Because I want to help babies grow and experience more in the United States."


"Because I want them to live."

Brenda does not want power, prestige or position. She wants to help It is as simple and as complex as that.

Her answer helped me think about “Imagine a World Without Hate”™ a video the Anti-Defamation League created to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

As John Lennon's song “Imagine” plays in the background, people read, browse and watch news with such imagined headlines as:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 84, Champions Immigration Reform

Anne Frank Wins Nobel Prize for her 12th Novel

Harvey Milk Expands LGBT Equality Globally

Daniel Pearl, 49, Journalist, wins Pulitzer for "Uncovering Al-Qaeda"

James Byrd, Jr., 63, Jasper, TX Resident Saves Young Girl From Burning Building

This video asks a simple question: "What could these people have continued to do for the world if bigotry, hate and extremism hadn't cut their lives so short?"

It's a great question.

But the question for me, as a teacher and a writer, is not so much: "What could have been?" It is: "What can be?"

What can be for Brenda? I hope she takes up the work these people started and carries it forward with her life. She wants to become a doctor so she can help people live. With that spirit, she will help these martyrs live, too.

It is my job as a teacher and a writer not only to help students imagine a world without hate, but also to help them find the tools and the heart to build it. That is how I can build a world without hate.

Imagine...and let it be.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Women and the Civil Rights Movement

I read and discussed the book "Women and the Civil Rights Movement: 1954-1965" by Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon in a Civil Rights class while I was working on my Master of Arts in Teaching degree at Converse College. The women in this book show me that if I use my life to serve the lives of others, especially the lives of the poor, then I will become a seed in a fallow ground that is bringing life to those who believe that all people, regardless of color, nationality, socio-economic status, sex, ability, or sexual orientation, are human beings and of inestimable worth. They remind me of the women whose beautiful feet and strong hearts marched in the Women's March on Washington and around the world (or were in solidarity with them) this past weekend and who are the seeds of movements of civil rights, human rights and community building today. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, who was one of the seeds that grew into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Septima Poinsette Clark, who was one of the seeds which created the Citizenship Schools upon which the Civil Rights Movement was built, Modjeska Simkins, who was one of the seeds that grew into the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, who was one of the seeds that grew into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Ella Baker, who was one of the seeds that grew into the SNCC, are people who planted themselves in places of white supremacy, despair, and hate and gave their lives in seemingly small ways to bring faith, hope, and love to the poor people around them. To use biblical language, they were like the tiny mustard seed that grows into the trees so tall they have room many birds. Look what they did! Look what the women women and their allies who marched this weekend are doing!

I think we live in a “celebrity culture” today, a culture that looks for a charismatic leader to help us know what to think and know what to do in all of the areas of our lives. I think this is dangerous, so I especially appreciate the thoughts on “group-centered leadership” in the chapter by Carol Mueller titled “Ella Baker and the Origins of ‘Participatory Democracy.’” Baker has become one of my heroes because she worked toward the idea that the Civil Rights Movement was about people struggling together in a democratic society to make American society a more human place for all people (and democratic work is indeed a struggle) rather than about Mosaic type leaders leading an oppressed people to a promised land. I found these words by Baker to be profound –

The inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader centered group pattern of organization, was refreshing indeed to those of the older group who bear the scars of battle, the frustrations and the disillusionment that come when the prophetic leader turns out to have heavy feet of clay.

Saturday, January 21, 2017


I am one million with my feet on the ground.

I am one million with my fist in the air.

I am one million with my voice on the wind.

I am one million words for freedom.

I am one million.

I am one.

In my country.

My feet are the feet of the people.

My fist is the fists of the people.

My voice is the song of the people.

My words are the words of the people.

The poor people in my country.

I am the tear on the hungry child's cheek.

I am the callous on the old farmer's hand.

I am the wrinkle around the worried mother's eye.

I am the blister on the campesino's foot.

I am the yearning in the peoples hearts.

And yet...

I am the cloth that wipes away the tear.

I am the hand that joins the work.

I am the word that brings courage.

I am the feet that walk beside the poor.

I am the heart of the people.

In my country.

I am the freedom song.

I am the fist.

I am the feet.

I am.

I am their feet.

I am their fist.

I am their voice.

I am their song.

I am their words.

I am them, and they are me.

In my country.

- Trevor Scott Barton, Ordinary Time, 2017

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


Kyle Schwartz is a third grade teacher at a public school in Denver, CO.  She loves to teach poetry to her students, and her life itself is a poem for them because of the ways she cares for them.  Last year she wanted to get to know them on the first days of school so she gave each of them a yellow Sticky Noteand asked them to complete the sentence I wish my teacher knew…” The answers that came back to her were sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, and always honest. 

Schwartz shared their responses on Twitter with #iwishmyteacherknew and the Internet was filled with wonder at the simplicity and complexity of their words. Her project helped us remember that our children are more than grades, more than reading levels, and more than numbers on standardized tests.  They are human beings with feet not of iron but of clay, with hearts not of stone but of flesh, and with minds not of computer chips but of hope and imagination. They are not gang bangers to be arrested, illegal aliens to be deported, problems to be solved, diseases to be cured, or trash to be thrown away. They are human beings.

I loved her project and decided to follow in her footsteps.  So at the beginning of this school year I gave my 4th graders a sheet of copy paper with #iwishmyteacherknew across the top and said, “Write and draw something about yourselves that you want me to know about you.”  And my students showed me their humanity.

Here are some of their responseand my comments to them:

I wish my teacher knew that he is the best teacher.
Ha ha. I hope you feel the same way about me on day one hundred eighty of school as on day one!

“I wish my teacher knew that I have to do chores from the time I get home until I go to bed.”
Nice try pal. You still have to do your math homework and read for twenty minutes each day.

“I wish my teacher knew that my Dad he is in jail and he got in jail when I haved 3 years and now I have not seen him in 7 years.”
Sweet child, as a part of your drawing you made a poster of MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech. How can I help keep your dreams alive while you’re carrying this sadness inside of you? I’ll try my best!

“I wish my teacher knew that I can’t have a fish because a cat gets in the house and eats the fish! That happened when I lived at my old house.  So because of that I can’t have a fish!
You have such an honest voice. Remember when you were sleepy yesterday and I asked you if you went to bed early enough and you answered me that your Mom is sick and you have to wake up through the night to take care of her?  Thanks for being real.

It’s all about being real.

I wonder…

What if I as a teacher finish the statement “I wish my students knew…”?

Let me try.

“I wish my students knew that my favorite Latin phrase is “esse quam videri,” which means “to be, rather than to seem.” To be is more important than to appear to be, the essence is more important than the video, the voice is more important than the auto tune, and you are more important than anyone’s opinion of you. I see youI believe in you. I care about you.

What about you?

If you use Twitter, would you do a favor for me? Mention me @teachandwrite and use #iwishmystudentsknew and finish the sentence “I wish my students knew…” Maybe you are a teacher with students in your classroom. Maybe you are a Mom who sends your children to school each day to be students. Maybe you are a Grandpa who listens to the stories of your grandchildren/students when they get home from school. Maybe you are someone who hopes to say something to our studentswho wake up each morning and go courageously to school to learn to make a better world for themselves and for all of us. 

What would you like to say to them? How would you like to be a poem for them?
I’d like to know.

I think they’d like to know, too. 


Other People's Shoes

Idra Novey is one of my favorite writers. She is a teacher in the Bard Prison Initiative. She is a poet and a translator. Her debut novel, “Ways to Disappear,” is about a 60-something Brazilian author named Beatriz Yagoda who climbs a tree and mysteriously disappears. Yogoda’s young American translator, Emma Nuefeld, comes to Brazil from Pittsburgh and tries to find her. This theme of trying to translate the words of another person, of trying to understand another person, of trying to put yourself into the shoes of another person, is imbued in the work Novey does and in the translations, poems and stories she writes. As Dostoyevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world,” and this kind of work and writing is that kind of beauty.
I have been thinking about what it means for me to try to put myself into the shoes of other people, too. When I see someone who is different from me – a transgender person, a Muslim person, a politically conservative person or an “any kind of different” person – I am tempted to look at that person through eyes of fear. I either fight against or flee from that person. But what if I look at that person through eyes of empathy? What if I put myself in that person’s shoes and walk around? What might happen if I do that?
I carried that question into a story I am writing about a boy during the Cuban Revolution. “What do you do?” you might ask him. “I’m a farmer,” he would answer. But if you asked him, “Who are you?” then he would answer, “I'm a boxer.” He has a gift. He can see through people’s eyes and feel through their hearts when he holds their hands. 

In this passage, he is with his mom after a boxing match:

He reached out his hand, battered and bruised from the fight, and found his mother’s hand to hold. He tried to bend his fingers around hers, but they were too stiff and sore to move. She turned her hand around and opened it so he could rest his palm on hers.
He took a slow, deep breath through his mouth into his tired lungs. He couldn’t breathe in through his nose. His opponent had broken it in the second round with a left hook and it was stuffed with packing gauze. “Oh well,” he thought, “I’m just a farm kid and a boxer. My face doesn’t matter. Only my heart and my hands do.” He breathed out through his swollen, cracked lips and sighed.
Something happened then that had never happened to him before and that would change his life forever afterwards. As he held his Mother’s hand there in the simple room beside the boxing ring, his eyes became her eyes, his ears her ears, and his heart her heart.
He saw the world as she saw it, heard the world as she heard it, and felt the world as she felt it when she was his age, when she was a girl of 10.
She held her Papa’s hand and they walked together by a large window of a hotel restaurant on the main street of the town. Her Papa stepped off of the sidewalk, took his threadbare, tattered hat into his hand, held it to his chest, and bowed his head in silence as the owner of a large sugar plantation passed by and opened the door to the hotel.
The powerful man sat down with his wife and daughter at a table by the glass window looking out onto the street. The girl appeared to be Maria’s age. She was wearing the most beautiful dress Maria had ever seen. She held a silver fork in her right hand, and on the fork was a piece of steak cooked to perfection by the finest chef in the town.
That morning, Maria had eaten a single corn tortilla and a spoonful of refried beans. That would be the same thing she would eat that evening, for her family was in the time between the harvest of the previous year and the harvest of the present year, and her already poor family was now desperately poor and hungry.
For a moment, the girl’s eyes behind the glass met her eyes, but the girl quickly looked away. Maria felt the pain of her hunger. It was deep and aching in her empty stomach and moved out as weakness into her arms and legs, moved out as despair into her mind and heart. A lump formed in her throat.
She closed her eyes and a tear rolled down her cheek and onto the dust and dirt of the sidewalk.
Tomás, her son holding her hand, felt that pain of her hunger, felt the emptiness so deeply in his own stomach and heart that a tear formed in his own eye and rolled down his cheek and onto the dust and dirt of the floor of their dark, quiet room.
He knew then so clearly why his Mother worked the fields in bare feet, why she wore the same dress day after day and year after year. He knew why she took so little of the food she prepared for them. She did these things because she never wanted him to be hungry as she had been hungry then.
In that moment he realized how much his Mother loved him and how much he loved her.
He realized his Mother was beautiful.

What kind of beauty could we see, what kind of beauty could we create, if we looked at the world with empathy, if we walked around in each other’s shoes, if we held one another’s hands?
Let’s try.

Monday, December 26, 2016

My Heart Is An Immigrant

"It's a hard time to be human. We know too much and too little." - Ellen Bass, The World Has Need Of You
My heart is an immigrant.
It loves its home.
Snow like a blanket in winter,
flowers on the mountain in spring,
salt in the sea in summer,
leaves on the trees in fall,
are life for my heart.
Its memories are here.
Its family is here.
Its home is here.
Yet one too many guns have been pointed at it at checkpoints in the street.
One too many clouds have disappointed it by banking up on the horizon but not bringing rain.
One too many childrens coughs have broken it when there was no medicine to give.
So my heart is tired,
and tempest-tost.
It loves its home,
But it is time for it to go.
It pulls on its brown, tattered coat,
its black, holey shoes,
and its red, wool scarf.
With tears in its eyes
it says, "Goodbye," to its home.
It picks up its battered suitcase,
the one with tape around its ends,
lest it break open and spill out
my fathers favorite shirt,
a love letter,
and a picture of my children,
all I have in the world,
onto the ground.
It takes its first step toward a new world.
Now it sits silently
back to back
knee to knee
with poor women
and little children
who also have immigrant hearts.
It is deep in the hull of a ship
tossing in a storm on the sea.
It is high on the roof of a train 
winding down a long, steep hill.
It is walking barefoot on a dusty road.
With each step it whispers, "Thank you."
With each mile it longs to hear, "I care."
With each thousandth mile it hopes for kindness.
My heart,
an immigrant
- Trevor Scott Barton, Ordinary Time, 2016

Small Things

"These tomatoes are like your Grandpa," said the old woman with weathered skin, earthy eyes, and raspy voice. "Small in stature, big in heart." He was small in stature. I used to sit in the wooden slat backed swing under the ancient oak tree between his house and the garden and watch him work his way down a row of tomatoes. When he reached the far end of the row I thought to myself, "He looks so small and vulnerable against the South Carolina clay and the cloudless sky." But then as he worked his way back up the next row he grew bigger and bigger until he was standing beside me, the smell of two cycle tractor oil on his clothes, sweat dripping off of his nose, a gallon bucket filled with red ripe tomatoes in his hands, and a big bright smile filled with wonder and love on his face. He was big in heart.

It is because of my Grandpa that I search for wonder in small things.

One early spring day, I had this conversation with my Grandpa over the telephone. He called me.

- Hello?

- Hey Trev. How you doin'? Listen, a friend of mine called and wants to give us some extra tomato plants that he doesn't have room for in his garden. So I told him we would take them.

- Oh yeah? That's kind. How many is he gonna give us?

You need to know that the week before this phone call my Grandpa and I had planted 500 tomato plants in the garden. We were already going to have enough fruit to put a tomato on every plate of every person in Greenville County. But I figured a few more plants would be okay. Boy, was my figuring off.

- 250.

- 250? Did you just say 200 plus 50 extra tomato plants?

- Yep! There is kindness in the world.

I could see his grin through the phone line.

- Kindness in the world?! Well let me tell you, if we plant 250 more tomato plants in the garden, there's gonna be more than kindness in the world. There's gonna be tomatoes! And 'lots and 'lots of them!

- Yep.

- Listen, if we plant 750 tomato plants and each one produced 40 pounds of tomatoes as they're supposed to do, we'll have 30,000 pounds of tomatoes. That's 15 tons of tomatoes! What are we gonna do with that many tomatoes?!

We often began our conversations with the word 'listen.' It was our word. When I spoke to him, my words were the most important words in the world. And when he spoke to me, his words were the most important words in the world. We never spoke past each other, only with each other.We never formulated what we were going to say next when the other was speaking. We listened to each other. Really listened, as listening should be done.

- Well, we're gonna have to buy 'lots of Bunny Bread and 'lots of Duke Mayonnaise because we're gonna have to eat 'lots of tomato sandwiches.

I could see the twinkle of his sky blue eyes through the phone line, too.

Late in the spring, when all 750 tomato plants were planted, and the garden took on a light shade of green because of all of the green tomatoes growing on the vines, and it gave out a soft glow in certain corners because some of those green tomatoes were ripening to red, my Grandpa and I walked down and up the rows to check our handiwork.

- Hey, you know it's the Lord's handiwork, don't you? All we have to give is our work. We didn't make the soil, and we didn't make the rain, and we didn't make the sunlight. So don't forget, okay? This is the Lord's handiwork.

For my Grandpa, working in the garden was an act of prayer. I can still see him kneeling in the dirt, his back bent, his face and hands close to the tomatoes, his breath on the plants, and his sweat on the ground. His work was prayer. His prayer was work. Prayer seems like such a small thing in our world. Yet Gustavo Gutierrez, the liberation theologian, reminds us that prayer is the first act in our life with God, that listening to God and to the world is the first thing we do, and that our work in the world that God wants us to do is the second act. My Grandpa didn't know of Gustavo Gutierrez and hadn't studied liberation theology, but as a farmer he understood God with the understanding of the poor, that we live in the hope that as we give our feet, our hands, and our hearts to our work and to the world, God will create something good out of it, even when the work and the world are mean and hard.

You do your handiwork - plow the ground, plant the seeds in containers and put them in a greenhouse, place the 750 plants into the soil, irrigate the garden, stake the plants, protect the plants from insects and disease, hoe the weeds, tend the fruit - and remember you are a co-worker with God.

Our handiwork is the Lord's handiwork, and the Lord's handiwork is our handiwork. This is what he wanted to teach me.

Early in summer, when more and more tomatoes were changing from shades of green to shades of red, we set out first thing one morning to check on the ripening fruit. When you are a farmer, there is a thankfulness deep inside of you when the growing is almost done and the harvesting is about to begin. You yourself are in the crop, and the crop is in you.

I came across a tomato that was developing a dark, soft spot on it's skin. This tomato was much smaller than the other tomatoes on the vine. It was at the bottom of the vine and very nearly touched the ground.

- I'm gonna pick this one and throw it out. It has the blight on it.

- No, don't pick it. Listen, I want to teach you something about the world. Follow me.

I followed him. We walked out of the garden and into the work shed at the back of the yard. That place was a place of wonder to me. Inside of it were mason jars filled with nuts, bolts, screws and nails. There were all sorts and varieties of tools hanging on the walls. And at the center of it all were the things I will always remember him by - Duck Tape, baling wire, WD 40 and aloe. Not only could these things fix the stalled engine of a tractor, a sputtering faucet in a sink, or a dangling clothes line on a pole, but they could also create a basketball rim (he wove one out of baling wire and hung it above the door of the shed for me), assuage arthritic knees (he used to spray WD 40 on his knees in the early morning to help him get around), and cure the common cold (he would drop a mixture of aloe and water into my nose to sooth my scratchy throat). If you are looking for a miracle, find a farmer with those things and you will find one.

- Hey, that tomato is small, broken and at the bottom. But you know what? It could grow into something beautiful if we care for it. Who knows, it might become the best tomato we've ever grown. So let's be the ones who don't throw it out. Let's be the ones who take it in. Let's be the ones who care.

He carefully cut out a square and two rectangles from some old plastic pieces he stored in the corner of the building. He bound them together with some Duck Tape. He sprayed the edges with WD 40. We made our way back to the garden and to the small, broken lowly tomato.

He tenderly held the tomato in his calloused hands and ever so gently spread aloe over the blighted part.

He skillfully attached the hand made shelter around the tomato with baling wire.

- This will protect it from the heat of the sun and keep it off of the ground. This will give it a chance.

I learned something about the world that day. The small, the broken and the lowly have intrinsic worth and beauty and great potential to make the world a more human place for all of us. We can throw them away. Or we can care for them. And that kind of care could mend a broken world.

For the tomato.

For the small things.