2018: The Year that Was

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Holding sunshine over the clouds in Ecuador

*Wipes off dust.*   Tap, tap, tap, is this thing on?

It’s been exactly 498 days since I have written in this blog of mine.  It’s been a rollercoaster of a year and a half, with super high highs and deep low lows.  I’m happy to say I’ve recently been able to get off and catch my breath, which is good because I was starting to get super nauseous.

I can go into at another time, but 2017 was especially tough for me.  It was the year that wasn’t. It was not fun. It was not a year of growth. It was not good. It just… wasn’t.  

For example, in the fall of 2017, a friend asked me how things were going at school.  Without even thinking. I replied, “I’m in the sunken place,” cueing a Get Out reference.  I gasped and slapped my hands over my mouth at my response, but that’s how I honestly felt at that time while teaching at OPRF.  My voice was silenced by racial equity leadership, and I was made to feel like I was no longer welcome to teach there by administration.  Even with new additions to the school, it was clear that I was not going to be allowed to do racial equity work at OPRF, and I started to spiral.  It’s hard to feel like you don’t belong in a place that used to be your home. And so I struggled with mental health, and even with therapy and changes in medication, it felt like I was sinking.  And then 2018 came along, thank goodness.

2017 definitely taught me patience and pain, but thank u, next.

So onto the goodness of 2018.  There were three major life events that have really taken the bitterness out of the sadness of the year before (I’ll put more amazing events in the pictures).   I’m starting to transition from simply surviving to genuinely thriving, and for this, I am more grateful than I am able to express in the English language.

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Reading at ancient Zapotec ruins.

Transformative Life Event #1: I Went on T.V.

Rewind to the summer of 2015.  I had gotten back from New Zealand on my Fulbright, overflowing with ideas on how to eliminate racial predicatibilities in student academic achievement.  Academy Award nominated film director Steve James and I were having a beer and burger, talking about the possibility of filming in my classroom that upcoming year.  In my nervousness, I talked way too much about growing up in New Richmond, and my hardships of being a teacher of color in the building. Steve assured me that he was just going to film a couple of weeks, and that for a few teachers maybe a quarter or even a semester.  But he made it really clear that he wouldn’t be in my classroom all that much.

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Steve James getting ready to film my brothers and I playing basketball, while sound techniction Zak Piper mics them (this scene didn’t make the documentary.  Thanks goodness because Danny dunks right over the top of me).

I chuckle at that now, as I ended up working with three out of the four film crews, and they filmed weekly the entire year, sometimes several times in one week.  It became normal for my class and me to have a film crew in the room, and I could soon quickly and expertly get in and out of the wires of microphones between classes. Steve James and the rest of the film crew, especially Janea, Kevin, Rebecca, and Zak got me through that year.  They were my constant cheerleaders–super excited about everything happening in my classroom and caring about all of the kids as much as I did. In a school where autonomy rules, it was so nice to get constant feedback and connection from people who actually seemed to care about me and the work I did in the classroom.  

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Speaking at a panel in LA

The whole time, however, I had a fear that I was going to look bad on television.  I assumed I’d have some sort of super villain soundtrack when I came the screen. I would lose sleep over it sometimes, wondering if parents would still want their children to be in my class.  But the feeling faded when after the wild and exciting year of filming, two and a half years passed with barely a mention of the film. It felt like it never happened, and I went on with my usual routine of placing scratch and sniff stickers on the tops of quizzes.

And yet, when it became known that the documentary series, now called America to Me, would premiere at the 2018 Sundance film festival, I knew I had to be there.  It seemed impossible that I would be able to even attend one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, much less be in it.  Even if I was Cruella, I was going to be there for this once in a lifetime experience.  

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I made it to Sundance even in the snow!

It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  No teacher (at least not any that I’ve met) has gone into the profession thinking, “you know what? I want to be famous.”  It’s just not what we’re here for. We rarely get accolades for the work that we do. And yet, all of the sudden, I’m arriving at an airport with a driver holding a plaque with my name on it.  I got driven around from point A to point B. I was in photoshoots and red carpets. I had my name on lists for parties. I did not know what world I was in. It certainly wasn’t mine.

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Pic or it didn’t happen!

And I wasn’t the Wicked Witch of the West.  People hugged me after the screening and asked to take their picture with me. I got more business cards than I had room for in my purse.  A woman told me that it’s her job to open schools, and she’d love to open my school. I was felt dizzy and overwhelmed. (Also, should I open a school? Lol!). 

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My first official photo shoot! I did not get the memo that we weren’t supposed to smile.

And yet, it was pretty quiet again until it premiered on the Starz network six months later, but by then, I was in a new place where I didn’t know anyone.  But the love found me anyway.

You know, there is a deleted scene in the series that was one of my favorites.  I was in despair as I didn’t win the Golden Apple teaching award, and I tell the camera in broken words that I thought it showed that I wasn’t a very good teacher.  From behind the camera, Steve James says, “You know that’s ridiculous. You’re an amazing teacher.” And I suddenly burst into how I never feel good enough, and that even though I seem composed and put together, I actually have giant growing pit stains to match the panic I feel inside.  It was the most honest capture of how I felt as a teacher.

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Ke’Shawn and me at Vanity Fair screening in LA.

What I love about the support as a result of America to Me is that I’m slowly starting to see myself the way that others have.  I’m starting to feel confident of who I am and who I could be. I think the film helped me see myself from a new perspective, and I think of all the teachers who don’t get to have film crews come and show them the joy and power they bring to their school districts.  I wish I could give this to all of my equity warriors who are fighting the good fight, often alone and until burn out starts knocking at the front door. And this brings me to my next formative event:

Transformative Life Event #2: I Took a Leave of Absence from Teaching

If you would have asked me two years ago if I’d be living in California, getting paid to read and write and grow, I would have blown a curl out of my face and rolled my eyes.  And yet, here I am, in a beautiful apartment in Palo Alto on a fully funded scholarship to get my PhD in Race, Inequality, and Education at Stanford University. It honestly doesn’t feel real.  

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Stanford Admit weekend.  I asked for a sign, and that rainbow behind us came out.

I applied well before the documentary was even close to coming out (I’m still wrestling with the insecurity that comes with needing to express that I didn’t get in because of the documentary). I was burned out and desperate to take a leave of absence so I could evaluate my choices.  I didn’t want to quit teaching, as it’s in my soul, but I needed a break. My good friend and colleague Jazmen, a beautiful friend with more gumption than most, was applying to Phd programs.  At first, I applied because I admired her and romanticized going to school as way to get out of my current poor working conditions.  But as I applied, I realized I really did want to go back to school. There was WOVEN, my racial equity professional development programs for teachers to think of, I could study it for real and roll it out so that it could be adopted on a wider scale.  I could create lots of resources and conduct research that could help all of our kids. And so, I spent the whole summer relearning math for the GRE. I hadn’t taken a math class in 14 years, and I had to watch pretty much every single Kahn academy course.  I couldn’t afford GRE classes, but I splurged on a couple of books and worked my way through them. My friend Paul Noble encouraged me with suggestions for essays, and I ultimately dreamed big–my top schools were Harvard and Stanford.

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My best friend surprised me with this box of goodies after my acceptance!

I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go to the EdLd route, where I’d go to school for three years and get a doctorate in educational leadership, allowing me to put my money where my mouth is by becoming the leadership I’ve never really had.  I could be a principal or run a nonprofit with this degree. Or, I could follow in my father’s footsteps and get a Phd. This five year route would allow me to publish research that could influence education as a whole, and I could become a consultant or a professor.   I couldn’t decide which route to take, so I just decided to let the fates decide. If I got into Harvard, I’d become a principal or some sort of educational leader. If I got into Stanford, I’d become a professor or start my own educational consulting firm. If I got into neither, I’d work for a Chicago nonprofit.  Long story short–I got into Stanford, and I didn’t get into Harvard, so I’m going to try to change education with my research and writing! Eeeee.

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Spending time with the children in Salinas, Ecuador

I found out that my whole life changed on Sunday, February 11th, two days after a terrible blizzard hit Chicago.  And there I was, slowly sliding my car down the slippery streets to meet Jazmen to do some work.  Even a blizzard couldn’t stop the planning and grading needed to keep up in an educator’s world. I rolled into what would be a parking spot if it wasn’t covered with so much snow, got stuck, and hoped the universe would prevent my poorly parked car from getting hit or ticketed. I let it be and ice skated my way to the coffee shop thinking I’d get Jazmen to help me dig it out later. I was happy to see Jazmen and to curl my hands around the coffee shop mug to try to warm them. I left my hat, coat, and scarf on as it was too cold to get rid of them just yet.  

A half an hour later, I was working away, and I noticed my phone ringing.  I had one of those trial caller ID specials, so my screen flashed “Ramón Martinez.”  I knew that name, but I couldn’t immediately place where in my blur of trying to continue work.  And then it hit me. THE Ramón Martinez. As in one of the two professors I’d listed as who I’d like to be my advisor at Stanford University.  I suddenly couldn’t breathe when I saw that voicemail chime.

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My first Stanford football game

I handed my phone to Jazmen, asking her in a high pitched squeak if she could listen to the voicemail for me.  She did, and as she did so, her expression changed from confusion to joy. And I melted. I broke out into a huge sweat, suddenly trying to whip off my hat and scarf to help myself breathe.  I started exclaiming that I couldn’t breathe while Jazmen grabbed my hand to try to steady me while she continued listening to the message. We started getting looks from our coffee shop neighbors as she had to fan me to prevent me from fainting while I made strange moaning sounds.

“You have to return this phone call, Jess,” Jazmen said with a glow all over her face.  After Jazmen calmed me down as much as she could, I half put on my coat and walked back out in a daze to my snowed in car, sitting inside with my visible breath making rapid waves in front of me.  Dr. Ramón Martinez would be the first of many to welcome me to my new life.

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Jazmen and I eating mini pies at Waitress the Musical

And with that, I left the year of darkness and walked quite literally and metaphorically into the sunshine.  I have to say that I really love the program so far, and it’s been super awesome spending my days reading and finding new spots in the library to type out papers.  I’m growing so much, and I’m finding myself again. I’ve smiled more in these last four months than I did all of 2017. And man, I am excited to see what this new adventure will bring.  

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Pink treats in San Fransisco with my friend Pat.

Transformative Life Event #3: I Met the Most Kind People

I’m not proud of this, but I got behind on my email this fall.  Like really behind.  Like hundreds of emails behind.  Like people would send the most kind emails about my work in America to Me, and I just would not respond.  I told myself that I just did not have enough time to thoughtfully respond, what with the transition to the California sun and filling my backpack with school books instead of grading.  It was quite the transition, but it should not have been too hard to reply to ridiculously kind emails.

I think I wasn’t ready to hear them.  

Sometimes I think to myself–if this documentary had come out while I was still teaching, would I still be in room 313 right now, screaming Happy Whatever Day of The Week It Is and finding ways to disrupt the status quo?  Would I have left for grad school? It has brought me pain thinking about how much I needed to hear these kind words last year, when I would drive to school in the morning and sit in the parking lot, car still running, and give myself pep talks to compel myself to go into school.  C’mon Jess.  You can do it.  Your kids need you. This feeling will pass.  Get out of the car.

I also felt like a letdown, that I wasn’t teaching.  I had left teaching, a very selfless profession where we as teachers are rarely the focus, to becoming a grad student again, a very selfish profession where everything is quite literally about self learning and improvement.  One element that helped was that I told a friend that I felt terrible leaving, to which she replied, “does one really ever leave teaching?  Like is that even possible?”  And that part is true. I am an educator through and through, even if I don’t have an 8th period class to look forward to.  Another element that really helped was when my plane got delayed out of San Francisco in late October.

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My “graduation party.”

I was heading to Madison, WI to speak at my undergraduate alma mater about America to Me and ways to achieve equity in higher education.  I had taken the last flight out of San Francisco at 11:15 p.m. with a 5:06 a.m. arrival time because I didn’t want to miss the pre service teacher course I was a teaching assistant for.  I had 6 a.m. Van Galder bus from the airport for a three and a half hour ride to Madison, which would give me a couple of hours to sleep, shower, and get ready for my early afternoon panel.

As I waited in line to board for my first ever red eye flight, makeupless and hair in a particular style of wild, a man approached me.  He asked if I happened to be in the T.V. show America to Me.  I’m sure my eyes bulged because I’ve had so few of these moments, seeing as I only left the Stanford bubble six times that quarter and only been recognized once at a Stanford football game (surprisingly, the three times I’ve been to Oakland, I’ve been recognized on the street.  I even got recognized at a Childish Gambino concert at the Oracle, so thanks Oakland for watching!).

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Peering into the salt flats of Ecuador

As soon as Tiso and I started talking, they announced that the plane was delayed due to a mechanical failure, so we got to talking for a long while, my shyness running away after just 10 minutes. He was kind about how his wife and he watched the show.  He heading to Madison as well, coming back from a work trip in China, and even though he was obviously tired from the long journey, he had jovial eyes and great questions and stories of home. He told me that his wife was going to the event at UW-Madison and hoped to meet me there, and that she’d be thrilled to know who he had met at the airport.

They couldn’t save the plane in time, so they had to get another one out of a hangar and go through the process of booting it up.  We’d be over two hours late. I’d miss my bus by at least an hour, and the next one would get me in time for the panel… but with not enough time to shower and look presentable for said panel.  I looked in my cell phone mirror at my Medusa hair and blindingly shiny forehead. Oh no, this would just not do.

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Enjoying the salt flats in Utah on my long drive from Chicago to San Fransisco with my mom.

Tiso saw the panic growing in my eyes.  He whipped out his phone. “Hey. I have plenty of miles.  Let me get you my same flight to Madison. It leaves at 7:45, and we’ll get there in a half an hour.  You’ll be to your hotel before you’d even had gotten there by bus.” I was swayed by his kindness, but refused.  I thought that maybe by some miracle we could make up some time in the air. “It’s really no problem,” he urged, “Let me do it right now, so you don’t have to worry any more.”  I still refused. The truth was, I had no way to repay him. I didn’t have the money to pay him back, and I really didn’t want to put out a total stranger.

So we parted ways on the plane, and I wished him good luck while he settled in to his first class seat, and I found my way to mine in economy.   When I woke up a few hours later, disoriented and dry, I looked first at my watch–we were landing at 7 a.m. I did the calculations and worried for Tiso. By the time we’d taxi and get to the gate at O’Hare’s massive airport, it would be at least 7:15.  How would he get to an entirely different terminal in time when we’d arrive at the same time that boarding began?

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Beautiful friends on one of my last nights in Chicago

I kept thinking of this as I deplaned 20 minutes later, and I was shocked when I saw Tiso and a woman with a Global Services name badge waiting for me as I walked into the airport.  I couldn’t even get out a question, before he said, “C’mon! We gotta go.” I didn’t question; I just followed them while the woman keyed out of a nearby door, down some steps next to the plane we just departed from, and into a waiting van.  After loading our bags into the back, the van whirled down the termac, weaving around planes for about 10 minutes before arriving at our plane. You heard it right. We literally got driven right to the plane two terminals down. I was flabbergasted as we casually walked up the steps and right up to the woman taking tickets.  It was pretty much the exact opposite to That Time I Didn’t Turn Right. “But, I don’t have a ticket,” I stammered as we walked up to the ticket taking lady.

“Shhh.  Just give her your name,” Tiso whispered as we walked up.  The woman typed in my name, and said that I haven’t checked in yet, but I should be fine.  We walked onto the plane, and I could not express how grateful I was feeling to Tiso. He texted his wife, surprising her saying that he had a celebrity with him and asked if she could give her a ride from the airport.  She replied “IS IT JESSICA STOVALL???” in all caps. I’m not making this up.

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My last night in Chicago with my best friend Natalie.

A blink and a half later, we’re in the Madison airport, and Amanda, Tiso’s lovely wife, is scooping me up in a hug.  I can’t believe the beautiful, cup-runneth-over kindness of these total strangers. They took me to my hotel, and I had enough time to nap, shower, and look somewhat presentable before my presentation, and even though Tiso had been traveling for over 24 hours, and he can’t sleep on planes, he was there next to his wife for the screening and panel.  This is goodness right here.

And this experience gave me the little kick in the butt I needed.  I realized that even though I could ignore all of the kindness through emails and offerings, it did not mean that kindess did not exist.  I need to face and acknowledge all of the goodness, because I really do need it after these last two especially dark years. Heck, I probably even deserve it.  So, little by little, I’ve been replying to emails, and I hope to get to them all over time. But in general, these little (and big!) acts of kindness have been awakening me to myself over this last quarter.  And for that, I am grateful beyond words.

PS: I noticed on my ticket home that Tiso attempted to try to get me in my first ever first class seat.  I didn’t work as apparently half the plane tried to upgrade that flight, but even still, the thought means so much.

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My saviors and instant family: Tiso and Amanda

In general, I am most grateful for the people in my life. I’m kind of happy my friend group shrank the last few years in Chicago, because the ones I have left are the real, true gems of friends.  I am most grateful for my real O.G.s who vocally had my back no matter what, especially Paul, Jax, Nancy, Liz, Leah, Natalie, Megan, and Rashada. I’m grateful for my new beautiful group of friends in Palo Alto, who make me laugh every day.  I couldn’t have asked for a better adopted California family. I’m grateful for my own family who have been rocks in all of this turmoil and joy. All of you readers and friends and those that have supported me through America to Me really made 2018 the year that was.  2018 was transformative. It was lifegiving.  It was affirming.

It just… was.

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Sharing laughs with my good friend and fellow twin track coach Rashada

* * *

Phew.  I’ve done it.  I’ve finally written a blog. And it was really, really long (I’m sorry! I had to catch you up on 448 days!).  I’m speaking this out into the universe so that it happens— I want to write in here more regularly. But you tell me, what sort of content would you like to see on this blog in 2019?  Stanford? Teaching ideas? Ideas about equity? Stories of my life? PhD life? My research? Reflections on the documentary? Lesson plans? You tell me.

And for all of us, I hope that 2019 brings us joy and sunshine with a little bit of magic. Gosh knows we deserve it.  Let’s make 2019 a year that is.

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7 thoughts on “2018: The Year that Was

  1. Kia ora Jess. I was just talking about you yesterday to the owner of Pumpkin Moon. His daughter went on the trip to Aotearoa. He didn’t know you had left. Our loss, I said.
    Thrilled that it is working well for you there. Kia kaha. Happy New Year from your Kiwi friends in OP.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your reality. I am a teacher and I am having a year that isn’t. It isn’t go how I thought it should. It isn’t going how I think it should. My passion isn’t where it should be. My administration thinks my dedication isn’t where it truly is. I am currently on break and all I have done is stress about work, write lesson plans, and stress about what else I can do. I am having a crisis of faith in myself.

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  3. Thank you Jess. I am glad you have this opportunity to grow and recharge.
    I can relate to your story about reading dreaded old emails and instead finding that they awake a new energy in you. The same happened to me (a teacher) as I spent five weeks this past summer working my way through 600 emails from the previous six years, including many links to articles, TED Talks, etc. I found I was brought back to an earlier excitement about the possibilities in this work.
    Still thankful for our experience with the New Zealand exchange project, and of course now with your generosity in the America to Me series.

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  4. Most times, taking a break from it all gives perspective, and it certainly seems like you have it. Congrats on your accomplishments. I loved watching ATM, and you are absolutely a fabulous teacher. I am teaching in a similar environment (after taking some time off), and I am learning more and more about race everyday. Though sometimes disheartening to digest the disparities, overall there is a deep human connection that all of us yearn for, despite where we come from. You certainly taught me that through your television testimony. Nice work. I would love to read more about your research.

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  5. Jessica
    You were the best part of watching what has happened at my high school
    I graduated in 1973. Wish I Cou have had a great teacher like you when I was at oprf. I had some great teachers but not any as caring and involved with your students as you were
    I’m glad they filmed your class as much as they did. It’s too bad you weren’t able to do what you wanted to do at oprf to help the students that needed help. To me it really looked like many of the teachers really weren’t interested in helping those students that needed help
    Congrats on your career after oprf

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