By Steven Martinez
We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!
Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.
“Follow your traditions. Your traditions are the traditions of your grandparents.”
This was a concejo stated from a Native Alaskan Elder on the last day of his chief’s funeral ceremony. He told me this 23 years ago, noting my youth, and that of his own community, after reflecting on their lack of participation in traditional song & dance. In these two statements, which were to make a lasting impact in my life, he identified who my elders were and how I should relate to them.
I now carry this simple, yet incredibly valuable, concejo from my youth into my adult life. Consequently, I view the elders of my family with great esteem, and although I cannot take my 102 year-old Mama Sele to all corners of my life, I tend to make other upright human beings my elders after weighing their example and words with careful thought and reverence. In light of this cherished memory, I now share a moment in my life when a lady who attended my ALP Shared Learning Session, who was both stranger and sister to me, became my elder.
It was the last morning of the Assessment for Learning conference and breakfast was coming to a culmination too quickly. It was a breakfast characterized by camaraderie and restful fatigue that follows a retreat or similarly satisfying experiences, so when the MC said, “Last call for this morning’s Shared Learning Session” I shoved the last spoon of oatmeal into my mouth and efficiently bussed my side of the table with my still-steaming Earl Grey tea latched onto my pinky.
The session I chose to attend had just begun. I discreetly slipped into a seat at the rear table which had handouts waiting for me. The session was titled, Revising the School Profile: How Can We Design an Equity Centered Process and Product? The session facilitators were describing their protocol for revising their school profile; they decided to reseat the eight attendees to an intimate circumference of one round table, putting my counterparts face to face with me and each other. This was a move which, in retrospect, mimicked the duality of my ALP Conference experience; the luxury of the hotel setting gravitating me to a restful countenance, yet inevitable contact, if not immersion with intellectuals who forced me to bring both my A-game of wits and emotion to the present situation.
Reading James Madison High School’s profile was the first task with a set of reflection questions. I inwardly rejoiced at the presenters’ practice of building in quiet reading and thinking time. So, I embarked in what I have been classically conditioned to do through various public education school improvement committees and reports and protocols; I looked for what could be improved.
When asked, “Who wants to share?” I was precisely the third participant to comment, in my opinion, violating the disposition of my elder Karol Wojtyla who used to say, “What you have to tell me is more important than what I have to tell you.”
I didn’t catch the name of the woman who spoke after me, but she could’ve passed for my sister from another mother but… a sister… and that is not what made her my elder. She hailed from the same region of the country as myself and worked with the same demographics of whom I work with; nonetheless, none of these details enthroned her as my elder. She may have been born prior to me, if so, not by much, but that didn’t make her my elder, either.
“First of all, I want to recognize the amazing work you have done.” she began with. “You have a lot to be proud of.” She went on to comment on the robust AP offerings Madison had to offer as well as the emotionally safe space the school had created for students. The vibe of what she had to say was different from my spiel. It was congratulatory. It was recognizing the assets that the representatives of Madison High School were bringing to the room. It was showing gratitude in an otherwise thankless profession. It was medicinal to me.
This sister gave me access to appreciate the heart of the presenters. Although I have presented at conferences and been in those shoes myself, had it not been for my sister's unlocking I would be stuck in a world of numbers, quantification, and the anxiety-inducing cycle the education system could sometimes entrap us in where there is a constant need to do better. I was liberated, and although I have not talked to this sister since then, she became my elder.
She recognized the labor of love the presenters had poured into their schools and reassured them that it was good. She taught me, at that moment, and became my elder. She brought out the assets in these human beings who were leaving themselves totally vulnerable to a group of strangers. Why would these presenters leave themselves vulnerable to a room of strangers from different backgrounds and from different parts of the country? Why trust that our words would be more beneficial than damaging to that which they worked so hard for? At that moment my sister, the stranger, revealed to me the presenters’ courage and love for their work. There was no other explanation of why they would be doing what they were doing. She became my elder. I want to make her asset based discourse and humanizing words my tradition.
About the Storyteller
Master Teacher, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy & Instruction Department, Tucson Unified School District
Parents from Mexico, born in Chicago, and growing up in Tucson, Steven Martinez is a son of God from Aztlan. Steven is a student of life which helps him work on a team of educators trying to set up sustainable systems of culturally relevant mathematics classrooms in Tucson, Arizona. Steven is married with five children and enjoys outdoor adventures to recharge his battery.