Author: Bekah McNeel

Learning to live with my kids getting in trouble.


The ongoing work of rooting out perfectionism in my life and habits—and replacing it with Gospel truth—was going really well. I was finding my joy in the work, not the praise for the work. I was finding it easier to shrug and say, “That could have gone better.” I wasn’t freaking out whenever I had to talk to someone from my past about why we are making decisions so out of line with the way “we were raised.” I was more comfortable thinking, “not everyone is going to like you, agree with you, or even respect you.”

So. Much. Rooting!

And then school started.

A new school. A school where my children would trade free-spirited attire for uniforms. Trade Montessori exploration for dual-language rigor. Trading a school where our socioeconomic lifestyle is the norm, to a school that is intentionally diverse in that regard.

First were the fears: will they think my children are spoiled? Entitled? Undisciplined? Will my kids feel “weird” because they look different than most of their peers? Will they react poorly to the Spanish immersion?

And if they do…will they be seen as “bad kids?”

The first week did a lot to assuage my fears. Things seemed to be going swimmingly. Then came the bad reports. I won’t go into the details of our week of discipline issues and struggles to get to the bottom of what appears to be an adjustment from Montessori, coupled with a bright, strong-willed kid’s spirit.

The important part is that it took our family into the next phase of perfection detox. Or rather, it threw us into the deep end of that phase and held our heads under for a week.

I regret to report that on day one, the bad report caught me off guard. instead of listening to my kid and talking about it rationally, I let my own shame (“they must not discipline their kids”) run the show.

I knew it, I thought, we should have been harder on them. We should have been more authoritarian, because now they will have no respect for authority. They are going to be labeled a bad kids. One of them going to go to jail.

(I’ve been reporting on the school-to-prison pipeline, which will make a neurotic mess out of anyone.)

I took that shame—which is not based in fact, we totally discipline our kids—and tried to appease my own psyche by cramming 5 years of deferred harshness into one ride home from school.

I pushed until I got the tears I thought were appropriate. I roared. I growled. I latched on like a hungry animal and did not let up until my poor sobbing child was just “sorry.”

And friends, let me tell you, to add to my guilt: out of those deepest sobs, my kid was able to say, “Mommy that voice that you are using is making my brain freak out and I can’t think.”

My small child, the one I feel it necessary to eat alive, is telling me that I’ve activated their amygdala and am now working against myself.

This might be among my bottom ten parenting moments. No, bottom five. Easily bottom five.

It’s not that kids never need the hip check or attitude adjustment. And it’s not that those things can’t involve tears and tough love. It’s that the entire interaction was based on my fear, my embarrassment, and the unresolved issues I have that I’m not “doing it right” when it comes to parenting.

The fear that I’m not spanking when I should.

The fear that I’m letting my kids have too many choices, and letting them ask “why?”

The fear that I should not be reasoning with them.

Notice I’m not even mentioning my husband, who has just as much to do with our parenting choices as I do. He’s an amazing parent, and I take joy in how present and accountable he is. Dads are critical to identity formation and human development. But in the world of parenting shame and regret, I, like many moms, bear it alone.

Dads aren’t socially accountable for the scars, the baggage, the neurosis caused by their interactions with their kids. Dads have been allowed to, if they want, just be themselves, however destructive that may be, and it will be buffered and balanced by Mom. Mom, in the model of the 80’s and 90’s, is the expert parent, the one who has to get it right.

The converse, in this model, is true as well. A competent dad can’t make up for a failing mom, and if your kids are “bad,” you, Mom, aren’t getting it right.

But I reject that. And so I began the work of replacement.

As bad as that first day was, with 5-year-old Bekah snarling at her children, the next few days were a slow climb to “better.” Not great. But better.

Day two: The basics. My view of my children will inform their views of themselves, and they need to see that my love is not contingent on their ability to follow directions.

Not just my love, but my delight in them. The Bible says that God sings over us. He delights in us because we are his…even though we elicit other emotions (anger, sadness, etc), the delight is deeper, it comes from a more permanent place. My kids need to know that I don’t begrudge their place in my heart. I relish it.

While a stern word is merited sometimes, they should never feel like my kindness toward them is something to be given or taken away based on their behavior. Even if my affection is the thing they want most, and taking it away would be the best motivator to make them behave, it’s not on the table. Hugs are not gold stars. Hugs are air.

So I had to decide: is having lunch with my daughter a reward, or an expression of love? Is snuggling with my son before bed his privilege, or my delight?

Day three: Putting it into practice. My children should never expect criticism from me. They should expect love and acceptance. In that context correction stands out, catches their attention, and helps them make better choices.

This is also the day I called in the reserves. I reached out to friends who have experience with small children, their own and those they teach. I asked them how they would address the issue, and what I should be thinking about as I prepare for each new report.

Shame isolates us. I think it isolates moms in an especially cruel way.

So many women have been defined by motherhood, with the fruit of their labor being the performance of their kids. In that economy it’s hard to fight perfectionistic parenting. Which draws us deeper into trying to prove how awesome our kids are…which just exacerbates the anxiety of the other parents. I don’t blame social media either. This can happen in the pick up line, on play dates, at birthday parties, at church. This happens wherever kids, like prize goats at the fair, are being lined up for ribbons, real or imagined.

In order to reach out to friends, I had to remember that my identity doesn’t come from having “awesome kids.” It comes from being a loved child of God. And he loves me no matter how my kids behave. Better yet, he loves THEM no matter how they behave.

My kids know this. If you ask them who loves them, even right after they get in trouble, they will say Mom, Dad, and Jesus (in random orders). Then they will go on to add grandparents, aunts and uncles, caregivers, and their teachers.

Day four: Advocating for celebration. I looked for ways to build on my kids’ views of themselves as “loved” so doing good things and blessing their teachers with cooperation might fit with their imaginations of themselves. If they are kind, brave, curious, creative people…then they can do the things that match.

Day five: By day five, we had turned a corner. We were joyful, talking constantly about how we could show love and respect, and what are the benefits of focusing in class. We were practicing self-control at home, but in ways that were not punitive or high stakes.

Our journey is just beginning. We have many years of school, of bad news, bad reports, bad grades, lost games, lost uniforms, lost homework. But even if these are daily occurrences for the next 13 years, it will not change our love for our kids.

I also anticipate lots of “bad reports”, precisely because our kids know that they are loved and accepted and celebrated. I never doubted my parents love, but somewhere along the line I picked up an approval addiction, and believed the lie that I had to perform to be accepted. So much of my own good behavior is based on my addiction to approval, and my need of external confirmation to justify my existence. Good grades. Good daughter. Good friend. Good worker. Good wife. Good mom. And good becomes best, and best becomes perfect, and suddenly, anything short of perfect is worthless.

If my kids’ identities are more secure, they will probably experiment and push more. They will not hide their failures. Which means I will have to learn to deal with them. I will have to grow up all over again, this time with two sets of impressionable eyes watching me.

My children and the Children of the Dream.

My journey toward understanding and believing in integrated schools is well-documented. I’ve reported, opined, and emoted publicly. But until now, my personal relationship to integration has been theoretical. 

When we signed up our kids for Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, a socioeconomically integrated school in our home district, I was excited…and nervous.

One of the ways white, middle class people keep each other from pursuing equity in meaningful ways is to throw up our children as shields. “I’m not sacrificing my kids on the alter of…(name your social justice priority).” 

And thus, our kids are the primary means of passing on and locking up our wealth, so any hoarding we want to do can be done in the name of their well being. 

Even though I know that’s a false idol, the little voice— saying that I was sacrificing my kids—whispered occasionally at night. Told me lies that my kids faced increasing competition. That the world was too dangerous to take chances. That they’d never get into the school of their dreams unless…

Thankfully, I had Rucker C. Johnson to shake me out of my opportunity-hoarding eddy of competition, and remind me that other children exist. Other children who, if I believe what I say I believe, are partially mine

[A note on class and race as they will be used in this blog post: legally, we’ve done everything we can to make them synonymous. They are not, but the overlap is exactly what you’d expect after years of concerted effort. The exceptions do exist, but most schools that are isolated by race tend to be isolated by class as well. So when I read about racial integration, in San Antonio, I take that to mean socioeconomic integration that will yield some degree of racial integration.]

Johnson’s book, Children of the Dream was on my summer reading list the moment I heard him speak on the lasting benefits of integration efforts in the 1960s-80s. Those efforts, he explained, were even more effective when accompanied by school finance reform to make sure that schools where resourced equitably, and didn’t just look like the houses in their neighborhoods. Even more interesting, he adds the benefit of Head Start to the mix to show that early childhood education for low income children also enhances the effects of racial integration and school finance reform. In other words, things that work, work even better together. 

I wore out my highlighter in the first two chapters. At a certain point it stopped mattering, because if you are highlighting every sentence, you might as well just stop. It’s beautifully written, which is unusual for an academic/data book. He also calls out Joe Biden and some other arguments that arose afresh this summer. I hope that, during the democratic debates, Johnson yelled “buy my book!” at his television.

The research, which is meticulously controlled to find out where student gains actually come from, is compelling. Education is incredibly complex—with family, neighborhood, and the unlimited varieties of children’s personalities—all in play. So correlation and causation are notoriously easy to muddle. 

Johnson goes to great lengths to do otherwise. 

The fact that he does so told me a couple of things: 1) he knew this would come under intense scrutiny, and 2) he really wanted to know. 

Let’s start with number two. If I really want to know what—short of massive societal overhaul— will really help children of color experience opportunity in the same way white children do, it’s going to take some deep analysis. Privilege is complicated, because it is essentially the study of everything (except possibly math, physics, and chemistry). It is psychology, sociology, law, economics, history, literature, rhetoric, architecture, city planning, and on and on. So if you just want to make a righteously angry point, you can just throw a dart and see where it lands, call that the source of all ills and probably be, in part, correct.

If you want to find useful information with actual application potential…you have to be meticulous. 

Johnson and his data-loving associates also, however, must have known that all of this would come under intense scrutiny, in part because of philanthropic funding, liberal bias, etc. But mostly because people just like dismissing integration, Head Start, and school finance reform. They are solutions that cost us something, so we’d really like them not to work, and to keep our money and our segregated, comfy schools.

Johnson’s meticulous research doesn’t so much tell us what we didn’t know, as much as it keeps us from denying what we do know. 

If we didn’t know the importance of money (both direct funds and the effects of wealth carried in by the children themselves) in schools, we wouldn’t pay so much for “meh” houses or drive clear across town for a charter school that subscribes to the “tuition free private school” model. We wouldn’t enlist teams of professionals to get our mediocre students to elite private schools and colleges. 

If I were designing a perfect world, these things wouldn’t matter. A school with 90 percent of kids on free and reduced lunch would feel and score the same as a school with 10 percent. I do believe it is possible to, as SAISD’s Mohammed Choudhury says, “do high poverty schools well.” 

It’s really tempting to just focus on this part. And to make faux arguments about people preferring to be in places with other people like them. I call this a faux argument because no one disagrees with that. Of course no one likes to be in a social situation of any kind where they feel culturally and physically isolated. 

But 1) people are generally willing to be the “only one” if that means being safe, secure, and properly educated. White wealthy people just don’t get that because we’ve NEVER encountered that dilemma. And 2) if integration is done properly, nobody is “the only one.” I truly think that when it comes to low income students or students of color, wealthy white people imagine schools where 10, even 25, percent of the students are not like themselves. Try 40, 50, 60, and 70 percent of a student body being non-white or non-middle class. No one in those ratios needs to feel like “the only one.” That is also an incredibly ambitious ratio for many schools regarding both class and race. 

But even if the perfect, economically equitable world existed (it so does not), even if we lived in a post-racial world (WE DON’T. WE SO DON’T) we still need kids who are comfortable with people who are not like them in as many ways as possible. We need them to see each other full of strength and weakness, full of dignity and humility. We aren’t just preparing workers, we are preparing citizens. If the past three years has taught us nothing, it is that fear of the economic/racial/religious/sexual other and ignorance of their lived experience leads to all sorts of terrible decisions, pain, and suffering. If we get post-all that, we’ll still need to stay limber, because there are more ways to sort ourselves. We’ll find them.

But since that’s all totally theoretical, we can just stick with: we don’t even have a modicum of equity, so we need to get serious about this.

Johnson documents how white people maintain their preferred demographic ratios. He lays out examples that show how easy it is to evade policy, and how easy it is to keep your social capital once the system is in your favor. 

Best example: If the federal government demands integration, your district can secede.

Less well documented: In Texas, any wealthy school district mad about Robin Hood —a law that require property wealthy districts to send a portion of their local revenue to the state, ostensibly to be sent back our to property poor districts— will find the ear of a sympathetic lawmaker to help them get that money back through some other mechanism, grant program, or allotment.

This is possible within “integrated” systems as well, by the way. You can have balanced campus numbers and segregated classrooms. You can have teachers who do not actually believe in the potential of every student, and act accordingly. You can have PTAs that insist on meeting 2-3pm on weekdays.

Every policy, every practice has to fall into line for this to work.

I believe, and Johnson affirms this in writing, that while assertive policy is needed, so is the work of hearts and minds. Because hearts and minds are what move the people who move the policy. As we see in attempt after attempt at integration, even the most effective policies don’t last without the support of those who will need their hearts and minds to be changed.

“Desegregation is a law, but its realization is achieved through a spirit of belief in the potential of all children,” he writes. 

One thing, as Johnson points out, that does seem to win hearts and minds: experience. People with lived experience of integrated schooling are some of its most powerful champions. Johnson mentions a movement to recapture integration in Charlotte, through the work of an multiracial task force.

I’m hoping that my kids become those champions.

This week, we took our first action steps as we dropped off our two white, middle class children at a school specifically designed to be socioeconomically integrated, in a district, neighborhood, and city where that implies they will be the racial minority. By…a lot.

They are among only a few white children in their classes—prek and kinder—and their teachers and school leaders are Latinx. They’ll be learning Spanish from native speakers all around them.

Now, I need to add that I’m lucky in other ways too. My integrated choice is an A-rated, well-resourced, creatively led campus where each of my kids have a teacher who fits them perfectly. I don’t know what else I could want. But beyond those fundamental wins, I love that non-white people will be their leaders and peers. That they will see the advantages and disadvantages of their own home, because they see the similar and dissimilar advantages and struggles of their classmates.

But that’s enough about my kids. 

It must be summer.

Thoughts on disaster.


It was the time of year when the cicadas ran their tymbals around the clock, giving the familiar shade of our live oak trees a more exotic feel. Something both sleepy and full of dramatic potential, like the opening scene of an independent film. 

And that is how each day felt to me. It was my third summer of covering the tragedies that befall immigrants in blistering hot Texas summers. My third summer of the Trump administration. My third summer of one beat—education— slowing down while the other—immigration— gushed forth.

I received a text message from a writer who had given me a story about an asylum-seeker his church was caring for.

The story had struck a chord with our audience at Christianity Today. The asylum-seeking woman, had fled gang violence and trafficking with her children, relying on Scripture she had memorized to battle her trauma. 

The text message said this: “She got her order of deportation…it feels so tragic.”

We went on to text about the threatened raids, and whether, if they happened, it was likely that she would be swept up in them. 

Yes, it was likely. 

The bitter irony, of course, is that even if you spark compassion in the hearts of thousands of Americans, that can’t save you from the web they wove over decades of political jockeying.

The cicadas kept buzzing, but there’s something about the way our tear ducts work that blunts the sounds in our ears. I couldn’t hear much anymore. 


On another evening this summer, earlier, when the cicadas were only singing in the heat of the day, a group of elected leaders visited the detention centers. As I was reading their accounts, sitting on the steps of my children’s playroom, my daughter looked up from her book.

“What are you reading, mommy?” she asked.

“About the places where they are keeping the children who come to our country,” I answered. 

Her five-year-old eyes squinted. “Where are they keeping them?”

I try to explain a detention center. 

“Mom…do the kids have dark skin?” 

“They do. How did you know?”

“That’s who they took away the first time, remember?” 

In 2018, we had gone to Montgomery to the Memorial to Peace and Justice and she learned that dark skin and light skin have always had consequences. 

When we came home from that trip, the wave of family separations broke. She remembers Mommy going to learn about the kids who had been separated. Who were being reunited just down the street from her playroom. She saw the pictures I took. 

They all had dark skin. 

She’s figuring out America. 

“But you know,” I said, “The leaders and helpers who went to check on them? Lots of them have dark skin too.” 

Her eyebrows raised, “Read me the story.” 

She wants to know about the steps forward along the never-ending road.

It’s difficult to share these things with her and to help her understand that she shares no risk, and thus should lend her hands and voice. When she hears about kids being separated, she wonders if la migra will come for her. I remember asking my own mom, after witnessing a KKK rally, if they would come for me. 

She had to explain that I was safe. And why. 

I have to explain to my blue-eyed citizen that she is safe. And why. 

Why aren’t all children safe?

Of course, because this is America, it’s only a matter of moments before we remember that all children are not safe. Then again, as a Walmart in El Paso reminds us, some are less safe than others. You’d have to be crazy not to feel nervous out in public, at church, dropping your kids off at school, in the days after a mass shooting. But my acute nervousness only highlights the chronic nervousness of other moms wondering if not if their child will be accidentally caught up in white supremacist violence, but the target of it. 

There is a difference between acute and chronic dangers, just like there is a difference between acute and chronic illness and pain.  

And in El Paso, in Charleston, in Poway in so many places now they are one, merging into a raging cataract, a waterfall we are going over in a barrel made of centuries old parchment. 


The week before that particular cicada-heavy afternoon, my family spent the weekend in Dinosaur Valley State Park. We waded in the ankle-deep water along the limestone shelves of the Paluxy River, looking for the famed Acrocanthosaurus tracks that gave the park its name. There are times, the guidebook warned, that the water is too deep to see the tracks. But now, at the height of summer, the blistering Texas heat had evaporated enough of the flow that we found them easily.

Of course, the fact that we were seeing them for the first time did not mean that they had not been there all along. 

They had been there for millennia. 

That’s how reporting on immigration feels. It feels like when the waters of our concerns—school schedules, legislative agendas, and quarterly reports—when they slow down for the summer vacation, we suddenly see immigrants. We shout in horror at their mistreatment. We bother to attend a protest, donate to a legal aid organization, try to leave a voicemail on Sen. Ted Cruz’s eternally full answering machine. 

But then the rains of hurricane season send a few storms spiraling across Texas. School starts up and people don’t have time to comb the Paluxy anymore, and we forget that the Acrocanthosaurus tracks are still there. 

It was John Garland who said to me, in 2018, when I was covering family separations, “This is not a crisis. This is a long term disaster.” 

Soon the cicadas will calm down and cool off and they won’t need to run their tymbals. But if summer is when we become concerned with immigration, I hope they never stop. 

Summer reading list: The book that (further) sold me on reparations.

Because the ed beat slows down a little in the summer, I have to keep myself busy doing other things. Most recently that’s meant covering immigration. But I also like to use to summer to read really enriching things that my brain totally cannot handle during the school year. 

First up, one that I’ve been anxious to get to, mostly because I felt like until I did, I was just walking around making a fool of myself.

Like most people, and nearly all white people, I’ve carried around some what-I-thought-were-truths about housing segregation in the US. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law has disabused me of some of those beliefs.

Housing is part of the education beat, because housing segregation leads to school segregation. In a city as sprawling as San Antonio, there are plenty of opportunities for those with means to escape the discomfort of being poverty-adjacent. However, when those who still have a lingering tinge of poverty move in next door to middle class families in the aging inner loop of the city, the trend continues northward. We call this de facto segregation. People are legally able to go to the same schools/live in the same places, but they choose not (i.e. white flight) to or are barred from doing so by economics (not laws).

Myth-I-believed #1: Changes in the law are the end of the story

White flight is not the whole story on how segregation works. That’s how it has worked in my life time. But everything about my lifestyle will tell you: what happened before I was born changed everything. 

I’ve never been salaried over the national average. If things keep going well this year I just miiiiight reach it. Combined with my husband’s salary, we do well. But our lifestyle way outstrips our income because of what we’ve inherited. Not just the actually inheritances, but the networks of people willing to give us a break on rent, the families who paid for college and continue to help out with camps for kids, vacations, etc. We were born into land wealth which translated into excellent dental and medical care, private schools, and summer jobs that were more about long term career goals or edifying experiences than they were about helping out with family income. We can afford maintenance on ourselves, our house, and our cars so that we do not have huge emergency costs from deferred maintenance. 

All of that is because our families have been landowners for generations. Or, as my husband put it, wryly remarking on how the deck is stacked in our favor: “The smartest thing you can do financially is to be rich.”  

Before I go on, I realize that not every white person benefits from generational wealth. Tragedy, crashing markets, changing work forces, and various forms of usury have taken their toll. However, we were never legally prohibited from advancing into middle class houses and schools. If you’re white, money is money. If you were a person of color in the 20th century, your money wasn’t always accepted currency.

I was once interviewing a city councilwoman from Austin, where they are fighting to preserve family homes of black residents on the uber-gentrified East Side. Without historical designations, many are not preserved from rezoning or demolition, and the market is now priced above entry for most young working class people. 

Councilwoman Ora Houston was born on the front end of the baby boom, just a smidge older than my own Boomer parents. She owns her home, and is trying to help others secure the same. When we were talking she said, “I’m just trying to do for my kids what your great-grandparents did for you.” 

Her parents and grandparents were not allowed to do that. They did not have access to the loans, neighborhoods, zoning protections, and housing stock that would create value over generations. 

In the two generations of buyers between government efforts to help white people own homes after the Great Depression and the Fair Housing Act (1968) you have my great-grandparents and grandparents accumulating wealth, and Ora Houston’s parents and grandparents being denied the same opportunity. 

If prosperity were a race, which capitalism has ensured that it is, my white family is two laps ahead of Ora Houston’s. We were two laps in when they fired the starting gun for her. 

Which is why housing is about more than the legal freedom to move where you want to move. It’s about the fact that we live in two different housing markets—one in which prices of our assets have inflated our prosperity, and the other where you get less for your money than ever before.  

So it’s sort of insulting when people who got a two lap head start (at least…I married into a few more bonus laps) look at the people who just started the race and say, “Why can’t you just catch up?” 

Myth-I-Believed #2 That de facto segregation is more damning than de jure segregation

I thought the fact that we had no legal excuse to divide the world into ghettos and enclaves—and yet continued— was a moral indictment. I thought that’s where we were as a society, just trying to make our final strides toward justice by winning hearts and minds. 

Rothstein, however, points out that in order to make racial disparities better on any meaningful scale, it is the de jure segregation that matters. 

That’s what the book is about. It wasn’t a bunch of racist people individually excluding black people between 1932 and 1968…it was a series of racist laws. As those discriminated against by the law, black people should be entitled to legal restitution. 

This is also a good time to point out that decrying de facto segregation is more to appease my white conscience, while confronting de jure segregation can get some stuff done. 

Not to worry, there’s plenty of cathartic self-flagellating to be done in de jure segregation. After all, who was making these laws? 

The 14th Amendment made, essentially, segregation Constitutionally untenable. It would take some time to get from segregation being mandatory to it being permissible to it being illegal. We have not quite figured out how to proactively encourage integration, but that’s the next step, and it probably involves reparations—incentives, subsidies, grants, scholarships, etc.

So the existence, however specific or local or de jure segregation is key to making good. However for justice to be complete, the will to make amends must touch the heart of de facto segregation—there’s going to have to be enforcement, which means that property owners, police forces, judges, and elected officials are going to determine the lived experience of those who would receive their legal due. For instance…Ruby Bridges got to go to school, but I’d hardly call her experience a laudable example of justice.

Myth-I-Believed-about-segregation #3 That progressives support integration 

Sometimes, as a guilty pleasure, I read the exchanges between historian Kevin Kruse and provocateur Dinesh D’Souza. One such exchange pointed out that Southern Democrats were the party of segregation, Jim Crow, etc. It was, as Kruse pointed out, a shallow, intellectually dishonest pot shot at current Democrats. 

Then, of course busing came up at the Democratic debate. 

You can be “progressive” and still uphold racist systems. You can be in favor of abortion, LGBTQIA rights, and environmental regulations and still not give a lick about brown people at all, in fact. You can even be for “the little guy” and limit that definition to just “the little white guy.” 

Right now, the deep blue cities are priced out of range for working class people. People who financially support Planned Parenthood and the ACLU won’t put their kids in schools where too many of the kids are poor. 

The examples Rothstein uses in the book aren’t all conservative strongholds like Birmingham, Atlanta, and Dallas. They are in the Bay Area and the Northeast. 

From Reconstruction to the Great Recession, the politicians trying to take care of the most people were often convinced—not saying how difficult it was to convince them—to trade the freedom of black people to live and go to school where they wanted to, for things that benefitted poor and working class white people. When they could rally support to give something to black people (i.e. public education, subsidized housing), it had to come with the promise to in no way increase white exposure to those black people. 

Integration—and any support for reparations that might lead to integration—is the ultimate test of hypocrisy. It asks not whether we believe that people of color deserve to vote, own property, or move freely throughout society—but whether we believe that they should be able to do so to the same degree that white people are, and whether we are willing to bridge the gap our laws created. 

Adventures in Literacy: Why your kid’s teacher needs professional development.

photo by Robin Jerstad for Folo Media.

I’m about 30 years late to the phonics wars, but apparently there’s still plenty to discuss. In my last post on literacy and curriculum, I was having brain-melt over the lack of phonics instruction in schools. 

Balanced literacy, critics told me (or I read), was just phonics-less whole language and everything is terrible. 

Meanwhile, my daughter’s emergency summer reading adventure is off and running with “sneaky e” and “two vowels go out walking” and all that good stuff. 

This has turned our house into a delightful scavenger hunt for long vowel sounds, and my daughter will explain to you that some letters (vowels) are exciting rule breakers and others (consonants) are “boring.” (Not what I thought she’d take from that lesson.) And like every parent whose child is thriving, I assumed I’ve found the literacy panacea. 

Not so fast, says Debbie Diller, an educator and author who specializes in literacy, “She’s one of the lucky ones.” 


Diller was in town offering professional development for elementary school teachers through Pre-K 4 SA. Part of the mandate of our city’s pre-k program is that it offer professional development for the entire pre-k-3rd grade pipeline to make sure that kids get to third grade with a strong foundation. 

Pre-K 4 SA brings in literacy experts like Diller to offer the kind of continued learning opportunities teachers might not have access to through their districts. Diller’s June 19 workshop was for K-3rd grade teachers.

“Professional development is key to teaching,” said Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray. Teachers don’t just need great preparation programs, they need continued support.

In fact, Diller and Baray both pointed out, the lack of professional development is part of what fueled the phonics wars.  

The tendency is to take an approach, or a curriculum, pass it to the teachers and let them implement to the best of their ability. “We do it on the cheap, so teachers don’t get the full understanding,” she explained.

Unfortunately, with things like reading, Baray said, no one curriculum is going to train teachers on the skills they need to use it most effectively and understanding the complexities of literacy development is critical. 

“We keep trying to make teaching something you can do right out of the box,” Baray said, “That’s just not the case.”

So then we have phonics flash cards or word—walls without the whole suite of tools, and none of it seems to be working as it should. 

In the case of balanced literacy, Diller explained, teachers have to be able to do many things at once—including phonics instruction. (She did join the chorus who agreed that forsaking phonics altogether is educational malpractice, but didn’t say how common it was to see phonics-less teaching.) But it doesn’t stop there, she said, “Phonics is a piece of reading. It’s not the entire puzzle.”

Teaching kids to read is a dialogue, and balanced literacy, as Diller teaches it, includes a lot of togetherness for teacher and student. They read and write together so that the teacher can constantly triage the progress of both decoding and comprehending language. 

“If we pay attention to children and know what we’re looking for, they’ll show us what to do next,” she explained. 

My daughter was “lucky,” she explained, because the decoding of language was what she needed to take her developed oral language and get it onto the page. Her grasp of language comes easily, and phonics helps her access it in a new way, which excites her.

Other students, like Diller’s own daughter, don’t absorb phonics out of context. All the flashcards and rhymes in the world don’t help them turn code in to comprehension. They need simultaneous immersion in texts that engage them, Diller explained. She didn’t abandon flash cards, she integrated them into a broader literacy program for her daughter. 

Teachers, Diller explained, have to be able to assess what is tripping up young readers, with comprehension being the ultimate goal.

It’s worth noting that Diller does not see a difference in income, gender, or anything else when it comes to learning to read. While vocabulary and oral language is typically more developed for higher income kids, Diller said, those children can still struggle to make the transition to writing and reading.

It does hold true, however, that interventions are key, and wealthier kids do have access to more options in that regard. 

However, as one of the people who assists in those interventions, Diller maintains that “we’ve come a long way” in delivering and tracking the needed support inside classrooms. 

Unfortunately, we’ve also dropped off on professional development, Diller said. In the late 1990s support for teachers’ continued learning was at a high. Now, she said, many teachers have to go find their own opportunities. Those that do, however, benefit greatly, and so do their students.

Diller was impressed with the teachers who attended the Pre-K 4 SA workshop. They were eager to learn and improve their craft, she said, and that bodes well for the kids in their classes.

Meet The Gathering Place, one of San Antonio’s newest and busiest charter schools.

One of San Antonio’s newest charter schools will hit the ground running this fall with a professional development opportunity in partnership with the DoSeum. The Gathering Place, which was approved by the State Board of Education on June 14, will lead a cohort of teachers from across the city in a project-based learning collaborative designed to help teachers make the most of the popular pedagogical style.

Project-based learning encourages students to pick a problem or issue in the world and delve deeply into its history, research, and mechanics in pursuit of a possible solution or greater understanding. Along the way students engage all of the core academic subjects in ways that are immediately relevant to their project. The hands-on learning method is designed to connect classroom learning with real world problems, solutions, and experiences is core to the mission of both the DoSeum and the new school. 

“We do really believe that this is how school should be,” said The Gathering Place co-founder Ryan York, “There’s no more separation between school and the real world.”

York and co-founder Joanna Klekowicz designed their school to promote equity through arts and project based learning, in part to move away from predominantly Eurocentric curricula with little connection to the real lives of minority children. By opening up students’ real world as a lab for exploration and expression, The Gathering Place hopes to celebrate what the students bring to their learning environment, not just what it gives back to them.

Of course, like many curricula and pedagogies, a lot can go wrong with project-based learning. It isn’t as simple as letting students pick a project and seeing what happens next. Teachers have to stay on top of standards (the TEKS), to ensure that kids are getting all of the content they should be getting. If it doesn’t come up naturally in the project, skilled teachers need to be able to work it in. 

To that end, the partnership with the DoSeum is designed to give teachers both theory and practice using project-based learning.

The 20-person cohort will meet monthly from September to May to work on their own projects, and reflect on how they are using it in their classrooms. Participants will be paid a $600 stipend for time and materials, something York and Klekowicz know to be a key component to supporting project-based learnings. To do it well can be a heavy lift for teachers.

“So many times you pay for it out of your own pocket,” York said. 

The Gathering Place received a $5,000 grant from Educate 210 to offer the stipends, and some of the money will come from their operating budget. 

While they host the collaborative, York and Klekowicz will also be going through the fast and furious year of setting up their school. New charters have one year after their approval to find a facility, hire staff, and commence operations. But rather than serving as a distraction, The Gathering Place founders see this kind of community professional development as essential to their work. 

York and Klekowicz believe in the original vision of charter schools as incubators for curricula and pedagogies that ISDs might be able to use at scale if developed properly.  

“That was a beautiful intention in 1995, and yet the sort of narrative has shifted into this sort of good guy/bad guy narrative,” York said. 

Both charter networks and ISDs bear the responsibility for that narrative. Some charter networks have begun to develop a competitive mindset, refusing to share their “secret sauce” and measuring success in terms of new campuses. Meanwhile, ISDs losing students to those charters characterize all non-ISD schools as existential threats. Even when charters and ISDs get along *better*, such as in “third-way” scenarios like San Antonio ISD, the goal is less about scaling good ideas developed in individual schools and more about increasing the autonomy of each campus. There is at least one local exception: KIPP and SAISD did collaborate on college advising, something KIPP does exceptionally well. 

 On the whole though, charter schools simply are not the laboratories they were promised to be, and actors on both sides see them as an attempt to supplant traditional ISDs. The Gathering Place hopes to change that, “not just being available for collaboration, but taking an active role in extending an olive brach,” York said.

Educators from both ISDs and charters interested in being part of that effort can apply to the collaborative through June 21 on the PBL Collaborative website. Applicants from the south and east side of the city are encouraged to apply. 

“The children still cannot read.” How I became convinced that curriculum is an equity issue.

photo by Robin Jerstad for Folo Media.

At the 2019 Education Writers Association National Conferece, Freeman Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County said that taking down Confederate monuments, and renaming dorms is “great.” He said it in such a way though that implied a “but” was coming. 

And it did. 

Symbolic gestures are “great” he explained, but they are aren’t the solution to inequity, “because the children still cannot read.”

The problem for Hrabowski, and many others, is that education stories tend to drift in one direction or the other. On one side: test scores, school finance, teaching and learning, ed tech, charter school policies, etc. On the other: segregation, achievement gaps, and discipline reform. 

One group of stories might be about an award-winning pre-k curriculum, the group would cover literacy gaps. But it’s relatively rare for a reported story to make the connection between curriculum and inequality, except in the most obvious cases.

So the group of writers attracted to Hrabowski’s panel about colleges confronting their racist pasts might have been different from the group that was attracted to the panel on curriculum. I did go to both, by chance, and as one of the journalists firmly in the “systemic inequity” corner of the beat, I am now sold on the fact that curriculum belongs there. 

Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, sold me on it. Content is an equity issue, she argued, because of gaps not just in the skills (like leadership and problem-solving) of educated and uneducated people, but in the body of things that they know. The content. So we do a disservice to high school graduates when they graduate without the content knowledge expected of educated people—having never heard of Geoffrey Chaucer, Niels Bohr, or Malcom X. 

“To say that content doesn’t matter is frankly professional malpractice,” Santelises said. 

It’s also critical that the content be affirming of the learners, she pointed out. Meaning, black and brown students need to learn black and brown historical and literary genius. They need the solid foundation of knowing that they come from generations of builders, innovators, leaders, and thinkers in every academic realm. White kids have been getting that for as long as public school has existed. 

Without good curriculum that foundation isn’t level. 

It reminded me of the Mexican-American Studies curriculum debacle here in Texas, when the lack of Mexican-American visibility in approved curriculum became too glaring to ignore. But then, the text book being proposed to the State Board of Education was inaccurate and demeaning.

It was a classic “WTF, Texas?” moment, but really, the fact that Mexican-American studies content had been previously left up to individual districts, schools, and teachers is not entirely different than the rest of what kids learn at school. 

Teachers typically feel it’s their professional duty to develop their own curriculum, University of Southern California researcher Morgan Polikoff said, “I’m not sure most teachers have the skill to do that.”

We know that a good teacher makes a huge difference in a child’s learning experience, and yet, we are going to widen the gap between those teachers by allowing curriculum development one of the skill sets they have to have—on top of instruction, emotional intelligence, classroom management, and cultural competency—when we have access to proven curricula developed by learning and content experts to whom our children will never have access except through the books those experts wrote and have made available for purchase to our schools.

The thing is, Santelises said, great teachers are great at the art and science of teaching. Direction, trouble shooting, differentiating. There’s plenty of need for rockstars, but they don’t have to be composers too. We need to reduce the variables, not increase them.

“I just do not think we are at a place in the country where we can just turn everybody lose,” Santelises said.

I’ve recalled stories about scandals that broke because a teacher essentially pulled her content from an online source, and some enterprising kid found it and distributed it. Or a teacher decided to create his own homework assignment on the pros and cons of slavery. 

Clearly, leaving curriculum creation in the hands of teachers is great for the news cycle, and not so great for quality control. 

In theory, quality control is the job of assessment. Kids take a test, we know if their teacher delivered. Obviously a single snapshot of a kid’s test taking ability and content recall is not nearly as accurate as we’d like it to be, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be part of a diagnostic system, which would be part of an accountability system. 

To which states are like, “nah, we’ll just build our whole education system around this test.”

That’s what Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) are for: setting benchmarks of what kids need to know at each depot on the way to “the test.”  The TEKS are not curriculum. They are a check list of what you need to know, not the map of how to get there. The skill that eclipses all of this, is, of course, test taking. 

in Texas, the TEKS are set by an elected board of politicians (the State Board of Education) who have every reason to be content-controversy averse. Except when they aren’t (see Mexican-American Studies debacle).

Moving beyond teaching kids how to take a test, it’s still so much easier to just focus on critical thinking, group collaboration, and other skills that, while absolutely necessary to thrive in 21st Century professional America, don’t necessarily set you apart from other candidates in an interview. 

“We have a mania about teaching skills because we are uneasy about agreeing on content,” said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Leaning heavily on skills (critical thinking, collaboration, etc) relieves the mental and social labor of trying to address the racial gaps in the content, or to mediate between those who want global literature vs. those who want Western cannon. 

There are fights worth fighting, and we’re avoiding them. The result, Lerner went onto lament, is that poor students will always be academically underfed if all they are getting at school is the “thin gruel of skills-based instruction.”

Because those overwhelmingly-white middle class kids? They’re getting content. They’re going to summer camp with the oceanographers and the Egyptologists. Some of them live with architects and nutritionists and other content experts.  

You know what else they are getting? Phonics. 

For a while now, stories have been sneaking into the media about how abandoning phonics curricula has been tanking literacy levels for our kids. 

In it’s place we have “balanced literacy,” the latest iteration of “whole language” where kids recognize a series of words by sight and use that base to add to their visual vocabulary based on books that they are excited about and motivated to decode. 

When I first heard about balanced literacy I was all about it. Excited kids? Yes! Following their passions? Yes! 

Except it’s not working. Turns out that the English language is far more vast than the black squiggles and sounds associated with them. Those black squiggles and associated sounds are subject to a rather technical decoding process, which has been studied and mapped. Best practices have been discovered, and they are pretty precise. So, boring as it may sound, memorizing the various sounds made by “ough” and “ie” is actually learning to read. 

I don’t know if the resistance to phonics has to do with the zeitgeist behind originality, or if it has to do with how difficult it is to get kids to engage in the drudgery of memorization. However, what I do know is that if there’s not a phonics curriculum, then phonics goes on the extracurricular schedule right between piano lessons, swim team, and ballet. 

You know how I know? Because the phonics tutor just left my house. Instead of piano lessons this summer, my kindergartener is taking phonics lessons. 

This is not a rich school/poor school phenomenon. Wealthy schools have bought into whole language and balanced literacy just as much as everyone else. But disadvantaging every student equally—in addition to being a crappy thing to do—won’t get you equity. Because parents. The inequity becomes a household-by-household issue. 

Wealthy parents panic when their kid can’t read, hire a tutor, find a program, or buy an at-home phonics program and they pay whatever it takes to get that kid reading. Often those services are not affordable for working families. A reading kid is going to excel where non-reading kids struggle, so the literacy gap feeds all the other gaps that we’ve gotten so used to seeing. It masks the fact that there’s a curricular deficit, because it seems totally normal to us for poor kids to lag behind.

So when Hrabowski observed that low income, black children are not reading at the appropriate levels, he was getting to the heart of the socioeconomic inequity fueling our American education system. 

And it’s a curriculum issue. I’ll be damned.

What we talk about when we talk about safety and discipline.

Some restorative justice tools.

When I first started reporting on school discipline, I thought there was near consensus on the need to move toward restorative practices. Just like there’s near consensus that you shouldn’t scream at your kids. 

Restorative practices seek to move kids toward the behavior you want, with less emphasis on the behaviors being left behind. At the basic level, through positive reinforcement like the popular positive behavior intervention systems (PBIS) which catches and rewards kids for modeling good behavior and making good choices. At the deeper, more transformative level, such as restorative “circles” where kids share their motivations and wounds and anxieties, you’re giving them the tools to choose that behavior for themselves. You’re helping them cultivate a peaceful existence through self-awareness and executive function. 

Sounded good to me.

It only took one reported story to see that not everyone agreed, and then in March 2018 San Antonio ISD trustee Ed Garza confirmed it from the dais when he said that the district’s teachers were very much divided on the issue of whether zero-tolerance (immediate expulsion, suspension, etc) policies should be the norm.

Listening to the panel of school discipline reform experts at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar, I began to understand more about why we can’t seem to find consensus. When schools switch to restorative practices, they are keeping kids in the classroom who are disruptive. 

This change is “undoing 25 years (of thinking) that the way of doing discipline is to throw kids out of your classroom,” said researcher Abigail Gray of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

There’s a lot of fear among teachers that if kids get a whiff of weakness, they will run rampant. This is evident in situations where restraint and seclusion are used as well, especially on students who receive special education services, said Denise Marshall at the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates speaking in a later panel. Ultimately, much traditional classroom discipline is about maintaining control, Marshall said, it becomes about “I’m not going to let Johnny control my classroom.”

Some, 3rd grade teacher Ashley McCall said, aren’t convinced that teaching includes teaching behavior. Rather than take the time to help students learn constructive habits, some teachers refer students to the office, “because the most convenient and comfortable thing was to send you elsewhere,” McCall said. 

When a school adopts a restorative discipline model, such as Lamar Elementary or the Advanced Learning Academy in San Antonio ISD, the biggest threat is lack of buy-in. For this reason, the panelists agreed, top down mandates don’t usually take. They last as long as the principal is forcing the issue, and are out with the next wave. 

Michael Mulgrew has heard some complaints. As president of the United Federation of Teachers he’s monitored school discipline initiatives that run the gamut.

“We have the ‘suspend everyone’ folks in our society,” he said, “And we have the ‘suspend no one.’” Communication is always key, he went on to say, because someone will always be disappointed. 

For every parent furious that their kid was suspended for “nothing” there’s a parent who is irate that a kid is being allowed to remain in their child’s classroom. For every teacher who prioritizes tough love, there’s one who prioritizes trauma-informed care.

If teachers and parents can be persuaded on the merits of restorative practices, their buy-in increases the likelihood that a program will be 1) practiced with fidelity, and 2) long term.

It’s the spirit that counts though, not the exact implementation. Once a campus has decided to embrace the philosophy and goals of restorative discipline, Baltimore principal Rhonda Richetta said, each campus might do something a little bit differently. “Your tools can change as the people who are using them change,” she explained. 

Getting teacher buy-in, however, seems easy when compared to getting parent buy-in. Because parents tend to move the conversation from “classroom management” to “school safety.” (Not that teachers don’t raise that concern. But parents are the school safety army.)

Back when the near-universal practice was to kick kids out, a lot of times the justification was that the students were “dangerous.” 

So now, absent effective communication, parents wonder why “dangerous” kids are being left in the classroom. They feel their own kids are in harm’s way.

Now this I know a thing or two about. Because Facebook.

At various times and for various reasons over the past seven years, I’ve been added to the private Facebook groups of PTAs and other parent groups for various schools. Across the city, public and charter. 

While I have access to these groups, I take note of the way people talk when they feel like they are in a semi-public space, guarded from the public eye but also speaking to unvetted members of the public. The great urbanist Jane Jacobs warned against semi-public physical spaces, for safety reasons. They are private enough to go unnoticed by police, but public enough that they cannot be secured. Inner courtyards, back alleys, pocket parks hidden from the street. I think the warning carries over to the digital space. 

When they know their views would be immediately shamed or fact checked in a more open forum, bullies often show themselves in closed or private parent groups. At the same time, those bullies still feel they have to sell their point of view to the group, because they don’t know who among them shares their opinion. 

So it’s the perfect place for angry parents to tell third-hand stories in an attempt to justify really vile words in the name of “concern.” 

One thing I’ve noticed— particularly in schools where maximum inclusion (having students who receive some special education services in a general education classroom) is part of the restorative, social emotional learning environment— students being a “distraction” rarely stirs up the kind of support that would get a principal’s attention. However, a student “throwing a chair” seems to be the dog whistle for the whole anti-inclusion crowd. Once the student has made the classroom “unsafe,” the student is fair game. 

I have seen some breathtaking stuff from full grown adults, y’all. Moms ganging up on students, calling names, racial stereotypes, you name it. 

I don’t know why “throwing a chair” is such a common complaint, but it comes up a lot, and moves the conversation about discipline into a conversation about school safety. Where protecting our kids is worth any cost. 

 But what we know is that excluding that student (through suspension or expulsion) puts them on a likely path to far more dangerous behaviors, at school and in society. At the very least, it puts them on a path toward limited options for themselves. That student loses the protection afforded by an on-track academic career. 

If that child is black, brown, or receiving special education services, data show that we are not as concerned about protecting these kids as we are concerned with protecting other children from them. As McCall said, “The reality is that protecting all kids does not yet mean protecting all kids.”

Like any smart person with a messy closet, SAISD is getting help from organizers.

SA Rise helped with a Lanier High School voting march in November 2018.

San Antonio ISD may have just found the cure to what ails it. The district announced a partnership with SA Rise to lead efforts in restorative justice and diverse cultural curriculum, especially in celebration of immigrant communities. These issues have been near the core of SA Rise’s efforts for most of its two year organizing cycle, and the partnership could lend some steam as they pursue bigger and bigger action steps.

For organizers, these kind of formal, public partnerships provide accountability, SA Rise lead organizer Mayra Juárez-Denis said. SA Rise can now offer input from the inside, and hold SAISD to their commitment to listen. 

The district has much to gain in exchange for the table setting it has given to SA Rise. As noted in a previous blog post, the district’s biggest liability is a lack of meaningful parent/teacher/community engagement, something in which SA Rise excels. Multi-cultural curriculum, immigration, and restorative justice are both controversial in some circles, and Juárez-Denis’s extensive organizing experience will be helpful.

“The work form the bottom up is going to be slow, but it’s going to be really good because it’s going to come from the teachers themselves, and from the parents themselves,” Juárez-Denis said. 

Restorative justice initiatives have been piloted around the district. Positive behavior intervention systems and “circles” can be found on several campuses, but the district has yet to adopt a toothy, substantial policy on the matter. 

In the past, trustees have indicated that there is no consensus among teachers on the issue—which could be said of the national teaching force as well. Some teachers feel like being required to keep disruptive students in their classrooms inhibits learning. I’ll be blogging more on this in coming weeks.

Finding ways to incorporate students’ cultures into classroom curriculum is less controversial among teachers, but could rile some politically conservative community members. This is unlikely. More likely would be a top-down botching of something teachers hold near and dear. Fortunately bottom-up is the way SA Rise works.

In the pláticas exploring the issues with teachers, Juárez-Denis said that many came with wounds from their own school days. “Back then if you wanted to succeed you had to get rid of what (was perceived as) Mexican,” they told her. 

SA Rise is working with the district to organize professional development for teachers to create inclusive, culturally engaging classrooms. Immigrant parents will also play a vital role, as SA Rise will be offering tips and trainings to help parents advocate for their kids within the public school system—something that might be highly uncommon in their countries of origin. As SAISD strives to increase the number of dual-language programs in the district, Spanish-speaking parents have a natural opportunity to take on leadership roles, not in spite of a language barrier, but because of a language asset. Progress: Twain Dual Language Academy will have a Spanish-dominant PTA president next school year.

Organizing methods could hold value beyond these immediate issues as the district engages in reforms which, when not properly shared with the community, have proven inflammatory. At the heart of organizing, Juárez-Denis explained, is pragmatism—in this case, getting real resources to real kids. 

Working with her mostly-millennial staff, Juárez-Denis said, she’s well aware of the generational tendency to to be ideologically motivated. (A recent episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast explored this generational quirk.) While passion is an asset, devotion to principles over people is self-defeating, Juárez-Denis said. Whether or not you agree, you have to sit down ready to find a solution, she said, if educators don’t approach that in earnest, “in the end the families are the ones who are hurt.”

Those trained by SA Rise will be more likely to advocate than to protest, she explained, “these teachers are understanding how to negotiate with the people in power.”

Those who have watched both the San Antonio Alliance and the SAISD administration erode whatever good faith once existed between them (and with it compromise the longevity of much of their best work), are likely curious about how this new relationship is going to go down. I am as well, but I refuse to be preemptively cynical. Let’s just watch and see.

A messy little memorial for Rachel Held Evans

It had been that kind of morning. The kind that heard me mutter, “I hate everything.” The kind that (telepathically) heard me shout, “I want to run away.” The kind that saw no warmth in my eyes as I stared at my children. No tenderness in my touch when my husband approached me.

It was the kind of trapped, desperate, itchy morning that I now know will pass, but dread anyway.

The kind of morning we used to not be able to admit that we have as Christian moms.

As I do on many of these mornings—though they are far fewer now that my two-year postpartum rager has abated somewhat—I waited until our small crowd was tumbling out the door, tasked my husband with “loading everyone up” and gave myself two minutes alone in the silent house.  I brushed my teeth. I peed. My phone buzzed, and in that weird compulsive way that I do, I answered the text and then gave a glance at Twitter.

Rachel Held Evans. “RIP RHE” posts abounded in my progressive Christian Twitter-sphere.

This is an odd thing to feel, I know, but my first thought was, “Oh. That’s why this morning has been so off.”

I’m no mystic, but I’ve become more of one lately. More attuned to the pushes and pulls of the spiritual realm.

I’d been following Evans’s health updates, so I knew things were grim. But, like everyone, I was surprised. Like everyone, I felt like I’d been sucker punched. And probably like many, the million little cracks through which brokenness creeps suddenly burst apart, and the shards collected in a box. A box to organize them, to summarize them, to overshadow them. A box labeled “loss.”

Evans’s popularity and power blossomed from the sheer number of people who wrestled with Christianity in the same way she did. If I were unique in my appreciation for her, the way I identified with her, no one would know who she is.

But in 2012, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that there was a rising tide of discontent with patriarchies, hegemonies, celebrities, and alliances within the evangelical church. I couldn’t tell what I was losing, but without any experience outside my small-tent denomination, I suspected that it was my faith. I knew I still loved and trusted Jesus, but I was so done with the church—its people and its culture—that I was facing the very real possibility that I would find some kind of itinerant agnosticism on the other side of the church doors.

Quite frankly, that’s what I had been told, and what the institutional church is still telling people. That progressivism is just a slippery slope to total rejection of the faith, a la Derek Webb. And while, sure, plenty of people probably pass through one to get to the other, there’s a heretical extreme on the other end as well, a sort of capitalist/nationalist/syncretism that has infected the church. So slippery slopes for everyone.

I may have even been on one while I was in the midst of my spectacular exit from my church, the loss of a career, and a miscarriage to boot. A friend sent me a blog post from a women, two years older than me, who seemed to be having some similar thoughts. Rachel Held Evans.

And far from ushering me out, Evans caught me by the collar, and said, “Hold on. You’re not alone, and your people are still here. Right here.”

It was like I had stormed out of the church building, and was sobbing my eyes out on the steps, trying to work up the courage to step out into the street. Her voice was like that big sister, older friend, who sits down next to you, offers you a flask or a cigarette or joint (depending on where you live), and commiserates.

Sometimes, as we know, protest is a form of love. Prophetic voice is a form of obedience. Not every nuance is going to be “right” but neither is every doctrinaire expression of Christ’s kingly office.

Like that drink-offering big sister, Evans told me not to worry about being rejected by the Country Clubbers. She told me about another party going on, one where we’d be far more likely to find Jesus. It was Evans and her women of valor who encouraged me to do more than just talk about the poor and marginalized in terms of a yearly mercy ministry project, but to actually keep company with them, to submit to their needs, and tell stories of their dignity.

She was that voice for so, so, so many people. That’s what her ministry and her power was. So when those who typically write about the institution of the church marveled (or complained) that this non-ordained, de-churched, unsanctioned woman was prophesying against the compromised church—those of us who had endured bottomless condescension from the ordained, churched, and sanctioned, only loved her more. Her freedom was more attractive than the hand wringing and pearl clutching of the those-who-must-be-right.

I didn’t follow the in’s and out’s of Evans’ personal faith journey, or dissect each of her theological views. I just knew that a lot of her Tweets, posts, and articles made me say, “exactly!” She carried her faith so freely.

And how you carry your faith has huge implications for the amount of pressure it places on your day to day life.

Evans was part of a larger trend as well. One that no amount of ordained preaching was going to fuel. Plenty of pastors rail against perfectionism while fostering it in their churches. Plenty ofIMG_6902 women say the words “gospel  freedom” in Bible studies, only to perpetuate a culture of performance and people pleasing. Teachers who mentioned grace, only because it was theologically necessary in their pursuit of being right.

But a groundswell of exhausted, disillusioned women made it real.

What was breaking my heart as a young woman in 2012, would come back to crush me in 2016, after I had my second child. The struggles brought on by postpartum anxiety surfaced an anger still deep in my bones from past hurts.

I found comfort not just in Evans, but in her other women of valor. Women who had walked away from the trappings of perfectionist, protectionist, rejectionist faith. Women who made it possible for me to have mornings like May 4th, and not feel like I had to hide.