Sep 24, 2011

It Might Get Loud

Publicity photo for Committed, the vocal group that won NBC's The Sing Off last year and whose new record is in stores now.  My students made a lot of noise for them when we saw them at mini-concert recently--that noise is the subject of this entry

Stereotypes are funny things (or, sometimes not).

We tend to think of them as patently false, but honestly a lot of time that's not the case.  Many times there is an elment of truth that creates the stereotype and gives it staying power.

We tend to reject negative stereotypes about our gender, ethncity, culture and so on.  But more often than not we're only too happy to welcome postive stereotypes.

Stereotypes are tricky.  What makes them so is that even when they have an elment of truth, they never apply universally to the group in question.  There are always exceptions.  And this is what makes stereotypes dangerous--they lead us to make judgements about people before we know them; they lead us to think we know a woman or a man, a black, white or Asian person, gay or straight, when we really don't.

But this blog is not about exceptions to stereotypes.  This blog is about one particular stereotype that happened to hold true on one particular morning in the auditorium of a wealthy, predominantly white high school in New Albany, Ohio.

The stereotype is this:  Black people are loud.  We talk loud, sing loud, laugh loud (occasionally accompanied by falling out of our chairs in hilarity), shout loud, pray loud.  Black folks at the dinner table, in a group coming down the street, at the movie theater, at church (thank the Lord, at least when you've got a toddler who's plenty loud himself--must be his dad's side. . .), and in this case the aforementioned auditorium.  If black folks are around, prepare yourself.  It might get loud.

Here's the story: On Friday, September 16 grades 5-8 at Columbus Adventist Academy had the unique opportunity to see a mini-concert and Q&A session by Committed a hot new vocal group that won The Sing-Off, an American Idolesque talent competiton that aired on NBC this past December.  Our school felt a special tie to the group.  Committed's members have Seventh-day Adventist roots.  They met in high school at Forest Lake Academy, the same school I graduated from, and all attended Oakwood University, the Adventist church's Historically Black college in North America.  Several of my colleagues have personal connections to the group as well, so while we didn't know them personally, we felt a personal connection.  That sense of connection may have actually had as much to do with what happened that morning as anything else.

A somewhat blurry photo that I took of Committed performing at the McCoy Community Arts Center in New Albany, OH

Committed had done a full concert the night before in downtown Columbus, but had put aside a little time before their next gig to meet with students at the McCoy Community Arts Center on the campus of New Albany High School (just around the corner from where we live, incidentally).   The auditorium was at capacity and we felt lucky to be one of the schools able to get a seat for this special event.  We arrived just before the program began, and I noted almost unconsciously that we were the only predominantly black school in attendance; a fact that surprised me given that Committed are black.

Here's Committed performing on NBC's The Sing-Off

Though we were small, we defnitely made ourselves known.  My kids were enthused, grooving joyfully to each tune by the group, and cheering enthusiastically at the end of each number.  When Committed called on us to cheer, we cheered. When they asked for an "Oh Yeah!" we gave one back with vigor!  The rest of the audience was quite sedate by comparison, clapping politely after each number and sitting virtually stock still through the group's rhythmic virtuosity.  CAA alone, and a trio of my girls in particular, stood out in their loud approval of Committed's outstanding show.  There were a few a moments when I wondered if I should tell them to tone it down a little--after all, when in Rome, do as the Romans right?  But to tell the truth, I didn't have an issue with anything they were doing.  They weren't being rude or disruptive.  They weren't shouting out song lyrics,  they weren't standing up, blocking the view of others, just swaying in their seats.  They cheered when it was time to cheer and were quiet when it was time to be quiet.  The only "wrong" thing they were doing was doing what the rest of the audience was doing--only a lot more enthusiastically.  And a lot louder.

(Full disclosure: when they name-checked Orlando and Forest Lake Academy I gave a lone whoop myself, and when they gave a shout-out to us their Adventist brothers and sisters at CAA at the end, we all went a little crazy for about 20 seconds)

In truth, I was kind of glad my kids were showing some enthusiasm.  As a performer myself I know what it is to try to rouse a "dead" audience.  It's no fun performing for an audience that seems to be made of stone.  And as I watched the members of Committed trying pump up the audience and not getting much of a response (except from us), I felt bad for them and I was actually grateful someone was making some noise.  I felt that it wasn't the ebullient CAA kids that were "wrong", but everyone else.

But not everyone agreed.  As the students filed out at the end of the program one of the high-schoolers called out "Go back to your own school." One of the trio of especially energetic girls reported that she'd received nasty stares and had been told by another student to "shut the f*** up."

When we got back to school, we talked about what happened at the program during our weekly "Tribal Council" (I'm doing a Survivor theme in my class this year).  We weighed the appropriateness of our actions, talked about when is the time to fit in, and when is the time to stand out.  We talked about race and about stereotypes.  Most of my students declared themselves black, loud and proud.  But I pointed out that not every black person is loud (indeed, when I polled the other two teachers with us on the trip, one felt like me that the students weren't out of line, and the other felt that they'd over done it--"but then, I'm not a loud person myself" she explained. And she is not.  Though she is black).   I reminded the students to consider the line between being enthusiastic and being obnoxious.  We pondered that as Christians, we need to consider those around us and not just our own preferences.   But on the whole, I remained convinced that we had been considerate--of the performers, who I hope appreciated our support, even if that bothered some people around us.

I'm still not a 100% sure, but at least for now, I'm okay with how my students behaved.  And I'm 100% certain that I'm proud of how they responded when people acted ugly towards them.   Rather than fulfilling another much less pleasant stereotype--cursing back, jumping over a chair and going after the one who insulted them--they let it go.  When they might have gotten loud, and felt justified in doing so, they ignored the insults and went merrily on their way. When things might have gotten nasty, their actions spoke louder than their voices.

Sep 17, 2011

Run Together

Erwin Capilitan and I at the finish line of the Emerald City Half Marathon in Dublin, Ohio, on Sunday, September 4, 2011.   There is a great official photo of us high-fiving one another as we cross the finish line, which would have been perfect for this blog, but at $30 for the digital copy, I decided to pass.

For most of my races, the rule has been train together, run alone. 

In the earliest days, one of the great attractions to running while I learned to love the run itself, was the fellowship of Vince, Monica, Tin Tin, and sometimes JohnMo.  But when it came time to run our first 10K, Vince was far ahead, and I was on my own.

I shared a tight bond of friendship with the FourRunners--a bond forged on the road, on early morning runs around the short loop and the long one--but when it came time to challenge Suicide Cliff or do the Thanksgiving morning Turkey Trot, we spread out and made the journey alone.

Ken Pierson and I trained for months together, and got to know each other much better on those arduous training runs for the San Francisco Marathon.  But when it came time to churn out those 26.2 miles Ken started in one wave, and I started in another.  I went through that crucible of pain alone, and only saw Ken at the finish line.

And more recently, Erwin Capilitan and I continued the same pattern at the Panerathon last August and the Buckeye Classic 10K too--train together, run alone.

My first glimpse of a different way to run came with the Disney Princess Half Marathon that I ran with my cousin Yvette and her friend Carrie Oetman.  For the first time I completed an entire race running in step with others.  It was a nice feeling.  Of course, we hadn't trained together, and I essentially dialed back my own pace considerably to match theirs, but I found I enjoyed the camraderie of running the race together.  I began to realize that perhaps I'd missed out on something in my solitary running endeavors of the past.  My runs had always been a bit self-centered with a notable competitive streak. In some cases I'd been physically outmatched by my training partner, at other times, I was the stronger runner.  In the former situation, I'd been unable to keep pace in the actual run, and in the latter, I'd been unwilling. My unspoken attitude was, don't let me hold you back, but I won't be waiting around for you either.  But after the Disney run, I decided to try a different approach.  I determined that in my next race, I'd run with my partner the whole way through.

So Erwin and I trained through the summer for the Emerald City Half-Marathon scheduled for Sunday, September 4, 2011 in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, Ohio.  Our training was spotty; both of us traveled quite a bit, and missed a good many of our runs especially the crucial long runs.  Three weeks out from race day, we had done one serious long run--seven miles a few weeks prior--and the most recent run had been a mere four miles.  That Sunday morning we completed 8 miles.  The following weekend, we ran seperately as I was out of town, and I did six miles while Erwin banged out a remarkable 12 miles.  The weekend prior to the race, we ran 12 miles together at Blacklick Park and at that point we were ready as were ever going to be.

The Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend dawned cool and rainy.  There had been thunderstorms throughout the night, and the possiblity of more threatened to postpone the start time.  But the storm cells skirted Dublin and we began our race on time at 7:00 A.M. beneath glowering clouds spitting rain.

It turned out to be the perfect day for a run.  The rain stayed at bay, but the partial cloud cover throughout the morning kept things cool and comfortable.  Erwin and I started out on our goal pace of 11 minutes a mile (a goal that had been modified a number of times; our inconsistent training made our original goal of finishing in under two hours unrealistic).  We dropped below it briefly around mile two or three and then something strange started happening.  We started increasing our pace.  I kept warning Erwin that we'd need to slow it down or we'd run out of steam at the end, but for some reason, as each mile passed we only kept running faster.   Throughout the race we'd been using a system of running for ten or so minutes, walking for one minute, then running again for another ten.  With this system, we'd been just behind the 2:20 pace group--almost catching them on the runs and then falling farther behind when we walked.  But around the seventh mile, we caught up with the pace group, passed them and never saw them again, even when we walked.

I felt really good throughout the run, and though I think the run was harder on Erwin, he gave no hint of it during the race.  He did some strong work that morning, and it felt really good to be able to encourage him to keep giving it his all.  The encouragement went both ways too--a big part of the reason the race was easier for me was his companionship.  Having someone to talk to, trade jokes with, helped the miles fly by.  In many ways, this 13.1 miles felt like one of the shortest races I've run.

By the time we entered the home stretch, we were well ahead of our projected pace and had destroyed our previous times.  In the final half mile, I faced the old temptation once again.  A pair of runners--an older man and a younger woman--a father and daughter perhaps---that we'd been trading leads with for much of the race caught up with us.  We'd passed them quite some time ago, and as our pace continued to increase, I was pretty sure that we wouldn't see them again.  But apparently, they'd been holding back for a big push at the end.  They cruised past us, not looking like they were trying too hard, yet eating up the distance anyway.  The old competitive streak arose--I knew if we burned it out, we could catch them and pass them for sure.  "You want to pick it up," I asked Erwin nonchalantly, not revealing my real motivations for a final big push.  "No, it's okay.  You can go ahead," Erwin replied, gracious as always.  "No," I replied, determined, as I watched the pair of runners shrink in the distance, "We ran the race together, we'll finish together."

And so we did.  2 hours and 16 minutes, a pace of under ten and a half minutes per mile.  We had run the distance faster than we ever had before, and we had done it together.

I think there is a place for running alone, competing against yourself, and pushing yourself to your personal best.  I'm sure there will be future races were I once again do that.  But I have also found that there is great joy and remarkable success in challenging and encouraging a friend, pushing one another to the best we can do together.  Shoot, these days I'm beginning to think I might even consider running another marathon--as long as I'm not doing it alone!

"Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.  For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.  But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up."
--Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Sep 11, 2011


And if there ever is gonna be healing
There has to be remembering
--Sinead O'Connor