Archive for the ‘Learning from life’ Category

A 2007 social survey showed that fewer than half of respondents were “very satisfied” with their jobs. I could relate to those less-than-satisfied people. At the time, I was working as a lab technician. I was paid well, had great benefits, worked with cool people, had a good measure of autonomy, and wasn’t stuck behind a desk all day, but . . . something was missing.

I somehow didn’t feel that being a lab tech was something I was “supposed” to be doing with my life. Then I had a slow-mo revelation. I traveled to Scotland—and learned a lot! I traveled to Australia—and learned a lot more! I participated in a study abroad trip to Tanzania and—you guessed it—learned even more! Then I traveled through Argentina and learned so much, I returned home a changed person.

I was absolutely awestruck by how much traveling could teach me about people, about the world, about myself. Traveling opened my eyes to—and forced me to consider—other perspectives. Traveling accustomed me to asking questions of strangers. Traveling increased my confidence and self-reliance. Traveling helped me grow so much, I wanted other people to experience it for themselves.

I figured that the world could use more intercultural understanding, and that getting more of my compatriots to thoughtfully travel abroad would help accomplish that goal. I decided I wanted to encourage such learning experiences by promoting study abroad opportunities to college students. Now all I had to figure out was how to take the 90-degree career turn from point A—working as a laboratory technician—to point B—working as a study abroad advisor.

My 90-degree career change began in Iowa.

My 90-degree career change began in Iowa.

Researching the field

A quote from YahooHotjobs:

When considering a major career switch, it helps to know what people in your prospective new industry are talking about. To get filled in, all you need to do is a bit of reading.

Industry publications — that is, specialty magazines, newspapers and newsletters — can give you a great glimpse into the latest news, big debates, common buzzwords and major players involved in a particular industry.

I joined an international educator professional association, NAFSA, and signed up to attend their annual conference, which was an energizing face-to-face networking opportunity. I signed up for a listserv, SECUSS-L, and read the posts to get a sense of the important issues facing study abroad advisors. Reading through the listserv job announcements was incredibly helpful in getting a sense of the required and preferred qualifications for study abroad advisors. Commonly sought attributes included:

  • organization and time management skills
  • computer skills
  • communication and marketing skills
  • competency in more than one language
  • experience studying or living abroad
  • experience working with students and faculty
  • experience working in a study abroad office
  • master’s degree

Talking to people already employed in your field of interest / networking

Another quote from YahooHotjobs:

When it comes to switching jobs, there’s one resource that can help you more than anything else: People who actually have the job you want.

Talking to a professional who holds your dream job can provide an insider’s perspective, giving you a feel for the day-to-day tasks a job might entail. It also gives you a chance to ask questions and get some honest answers.

Because I was already active in my local international community (Friends of International Women conversation groups, International Women’s Day event planning committees, Friday Spanish conversation lunches), I already knew several people who worked in study abroad. I set up lunch meetings with three of them, told them my story, and asked them things like:

  • how they got their current job
  • what are their main responsibilities and what a typical day is like
  • what it takes to succeed in the field
  • who else I should talk to

Everyone I spoke to was hugely helpful. These meetings led to referrals for lunchtime talks with two more people in the field. From all of these meetings, I got good sense of which skills and experiences I needed to emphasize on my resume and a lead on a soon-to-be-posted job.

Job shadowing to gain experience / networking

One of the catch-22 problems in study abroad was that in order to get a job and get work experience, you needed previous study abroad work experience. I decided to essentially build my own internship. Luckily, my lab tech job supervisor was very cool about allowing me to flex my schedule to have a few blocks of daytime availability. I asked several of my study abroad contacts if they would allow me to “job shadow”: observe them at work, ask questions, and help when I could.

One contact put me in touch with the chair of a university-wide study abroad advisory committee, who gave me permission to sit in on the committee meetings. Another contact allowed me to observe an evening pre-departure orientation class she was teaching. A third contact became a real mentor to me, and helped me set up an informal internship in a study abroad office, where I could help with odd tasks, programs, and student advising (when the students gave permission). These job shadowing experiences expanded my network of contacts, gave me invaluable insight into the politics of the local study abroad field, and gave me some critical experience in the field.


I was so gung-ho about the idea of helping other people to experience the education of travel they way I had, and I was so intent on learning everything I could about the field, that I naturally projected lots of enthusiasm, which Richard Bolles (of “What Color is Your Parachute” fame) in a Yahoo! Hotjobs interview is “key” to career change success.

“Enthusiasm is the key to making a career change,” said Bolles.

“One-third of all job hunters and career changers gets so discouraged within one month that they quit,” said Bolles.

As you go through a career transition, enthusiasm can help you meet the challenges and overcome the obstacles.

When you’re networking, your enthusiasm encourages others to respond in kind. Plus, a positive attitude impresses recruiters and hiring managers.


After only about six months of working towards my new career goal, I landed a one-year, entry-level study abroad advisor appointment, filling in for someone who was on leave. My supervisor told me that the quality that set me apart from the other applicants was my obvious enthusiasm.

“You can teach someone about the job, but you can’t teach enthusiasm,” she said.

Postscript—the continuing saga

I gained a golden year of study abroad work experience, but then my appointment ended and I relocated to trail my employed spouse. In a new city with no strong networking contacts, I wasn’t able to find an international education job right away. Instead, I worked on developing skills I knew were valuable in the study abroad field.

I accepted a job as a lab monitor and instructor at a community college, to gain more experience working with students. I picked up new foreign language and culture skills by taking Arabic and Spanish language classes.

I am about to relocate again, this time to a small city without a university or community college study abroad programs. I will need to stay focused and keep working towards my goal of helping increase intercultural understanding through travel. Maybe I will help develop new study abroad programs. Maybe I will work with international students at the community college. Maybe I will work with the immigrant population à la Iowa’s “New Iowan” program. Maybe I will get involved with international agricultural exchanges. We shall see . . .

Many thanks to the awesome people who advised me during my career explorations!

Text and photograph copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw


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I’ve been spending unpaid hours the past few days preparing to teach another semester of introductory biology, and one of the lessons I learned last semester has returned to haunt me: teaching is hard. Well, GOOD teaching is hard.

Many of you would classify that observation in the “duh” category, but judging by what teachers get paid and by the bogglingly stupid aphorism “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” there are plenty of folks out there who believe teaching a sinecure with long, lazy summers. I didn’t quite grasp the challenge until it was staring me in the face—a classroom of students on the first day.

Artist's rendition of students staring me in the face on the first day of class.

Artist's rendition of students staring me in the face on the first day of class.

To my teachers, I send a heartfelt apology—I didn’t appreciate you enough. For those of you who have never taught before, I will attempt to explain why my first year of teaching was such a challenge. There is so much to deal with, I could easily write a book, but I’ve tried to compress it into a lengthy blog post instead.

For any new hire in a large institution, there are operational processes and office politics to figure out. How do I make copies? How do I reserve library materials and order laboratory supplies? Who fixes computer glitches or plumbing problems, and how quickly? How do I access student rosters and operate the electronic grades submission system? What do I do if I need time off? What are the personality quirks and pet peeves of my co-workers? Who is the best person to ask questions of? Are there people who will take advantage of me? Who are the experts on what subjects, and are there turf battles?

Learning how to operate in my institutional environment hasn’t been too hard. The tough part is the actual teaching, which involves three areas of expertise: students, subject matter, and teaching techniques.


Beyond the normal office relationships, teaching requires appropriate interpersonal relationships with hundreds of students—new ones every semester. Community colleges in particular can be more challenging because of the mix of students involved, and their variety of educational backgrounds, life experiences, and ages. To better draw these diverse students into a class and help them succeed, I need to show interest in them as individuals and help them feel comfortable. In one class I might have:

  • a newly minted high school graduate
  • a student making another attempt at higher ed after failing out of a university
  • a newlywed
  • a single parent
  • a laid-off factory worker
  • a divorced person suddenly needing a better-paying job
  • a mid-careerperson looking to get ahead
  • a retiree wanting to keep their mind sharp

Interpersonal relationships and classroom behavior

A huge portion of a community college instructor’s success lies in the ability to relate to and manage students. An instructor needs to maintain authority, yet remain approachable. The part-time faculty guidebook at my college cites traits of a successful community college instructor that I would summarize as describing a psychologically well-grounded person:

  • Emotionally stable and mature
  • Confident in resolving their own personal problems
  • Reasonably unselfish, modest, and free from excessive ego

I can see where these attributes come in handy, given the situations that arise in class. Here are some behavioral issues I’ve dealt with in the past year:

  • a student whose constant refrain in class is “this sucks”
  • a student physically cornering me after class because they want to discuss course policies they don’t like
  • a student winking at me and making suggestive statements
  • a student trying to milk assignment answers out of me, then yelling and accusing me of trying to confuse things
  • a student raising and pushing a racially charged falsehood in a mixed-race classroom
  • students discussing how much they despise certain cultural groups
  • a student who loves to dominate class time with nonsequitur monologues
  • a student who sleeps in the back of the room every class period

Student policies

The interpersonal dimension of working with students is linked to institutional policies involving students, and the nuances of the policies as they’re written and practiced. How do the privacy guarantees under FERPA affect what I can say? When am I permitted or required to drop a student from a class? What do I do with student athlete progress report requests from the athletic department? How do I handle a student who managed to enroll in my class without meeting administrative requirements? How do I handle students who want to enroll in my class after the semester has begun?

The three policy issues that were most important to me during my first semester were my course syllabus, the college academic honesty policy, and student requests to make up missed work or turn assignments in late.

Course syllabus

The item of course preparation that causes me the most heartburn is the course syllabus. This sets the foundation of expectations for the class and serves as a contract for how the class will be operated. I am not a lawyer, and I get nervous drafting a document about which my part-time faculty guide reminds me:

If a student goes to the grievance committee or the courts, the course syllabus becomes the primary piece of reference. Write it based on the assumption that you will have to defend it. We are in an era of student challenges, and you need to be prepared.

Granted, I can use other instructors’ syllabi as templates. Still, I go over my syllabus again and again, wondering where the loopholes are (the students will find them!) and how I can draft things to make my life easier.

Makeups and late work

One of the toughest issues for me to deal with is finding a just balance between syllabus policies and legitimate exceptions for students who miss class or want to turn in late assignments. Students are people too, and have lives and dramas outside the classroom. Some of them miss class because of jobs, court dates, personal illness, or sick children. Some of them simply disappear for days on end, then show up again without explanation. I have to make judgments about when and how to allow flexibility.

Academic honesty

I think every teacher starts out believing the best of students, that they would never cheat. Then reality hits. Three students’ assignments are identical, two students’ odd answers on a homework assignment are suspiciously similar, a block of essay text is too well written, a forgotten crib sheet is found after an exam. When I uncover these incidents in my classes, I must enforce the academic honesty policy and take on the role of a cheating investigator: talk to the parties involved, decide on a plan of corrective action, and file a report. This investigator role is very unpleasant, but is a critical part of those students’ education.

Learning to manage a classroom of students was my most immediate challenge in my first year. With more experience, I think student management will become easier (though surely there will always be a few “difficult” students). The other two major challenges I faced – course subject matter and teaching techniques – I believe are never-ending processes. While a good platform of subject matter and teaching techniques can be built up for a particular class, the platform must be flexible to respond to changing needs and information.

Subject matter

The first order of business in course development is figuring out what topics to cover. Sometimes, a course catalog lays out the required topics, but the instructor isn’t off the hook. It’s not that simple.

Say the catalog states that the course must cover DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis. Sure, that sounds straightforward, until I start to consider the appropriate level of detail to include. Do the students know what DNA is? What protein is? Do they know why the structure of these molecules is important? Do they know what a molecule is? What will the students need this information for? Will they be using this class as a prerequisite to another class? What are they expected to know upon entering that class? Do they just need to understand generally how gene expression influences health to be able to understand news reports or doctor’s instructions? Or do they need to understand more detail about the mechanics of the process? Should introns, exons, and micro RNA be discussed so students better understand a later unit on biotechnology?

If I’m teaching a topic, the students tend to view me as a subject expert. To feel comfortable in front of a class, I need to have a really solid understanding of the subject I’m teaching, so I can answer questions coherently. However, there will always be student questions I can’t answer. I need to be familiar enough with the subject area that I know where to look up the information or, better yet, help the students figure out where they can find the answers themselves.

An especial challenge of teaching science is inherent in the discipline. By its nature, science is a constant process of challenging theories, developing new hypotheses, and making new discoveries. The information in science texts is outdated by the time it gets published. As a science teacher, I am obligated to keep up with the flow of information to make sure what I’m teaching my students is up to date.

Teaching technique

Once I’ve figured out the topics to include in a class, I need to figure out how to transfer to my students both the information included in the course. Lacking the ability to simply download everything directly into the students’ brains, I need to make the students want to learn. I need to spark student interest in the topic and present all this “science stuff” as being fun and relevant to their lives. I need to be entertaining and put on a good, organized lecture audience-participation show. I need to help students understand why all this stuff matters and help them relate it to concepts they already understand from previous experience (which can be tough in a diverse community college class).

People process information in different ways, and students may not understand that they each have a different learning style that they can use to their own benefit. I can help by talking about how I manage to learn all the stuff I’m teaching. I can also find different methods of conveying information. I know I can’t just stand at the front of the room and talk at students and expect them to learn. For each topic I teach, I need to figure out the best combination of techniques: lecture, reading (textbook or articles), lab, worksheet, computer assignment, writing assignment (short response or essay), group discussion, modeling, acting out—anything that might work.

There’s also the challenge of teaching students with vastly different academic backgrounds and physical or cognitive abilities. Despite course prerequisites, some students might need help with basic skills like reading, math, or study techniques. Part of my responsibility as a teacher is to identify these students and point them in the direction of the college resources that can help get them up to speed. Some students need accommodation under the ADA, and I may need to provide extra time on exams, or solicit a note-taker in the class, or make my lecture outline available.

I can go through a ton of effort to find ways of getting through to my students, but I won’t know if they’ve gotten the message unless I find a way to test them on it. But how do you figure out if a student is learning? What do you ask them, and how? I know I’ve taken tests before that didn’t match the information I thought I needed to know for class. I need to clearly communicate to my students what I expect them to know, and design assessments that will determine if they know it. Student assessment is not a simple topic; it has been the subject of several prep-week meetings at my college this academic year, and volumes have been written about it. Part of the trouble is that “assessment” isn’t synonymous with “test”. There is more to assessment than deciding whether to use essay, short answer, or multiple-choice formats.

I could ramble on for pages more about the nuances of student assessment from the viewpoint of a first-year teacher, but my head is swimming from all the above STUFF I will face in the upcoming semester (and I have it easy; as a part-time, temporary instructor, I don’t have the additional obligations to serve on committees, participate in professional societies, advise student groups, etc.). I will stop here to spare you further pain.

In summary, teaching is hard. Especially for a perfectionist like me. Teaching is not a science—it is an art, and there can be no perfection in art, no matter how much I work. The joy in the job is partly that as well. For a lifelong learner, teaching provides a constant challenge to learn about geeky-cool science stuff, to learn about teaching, and to learn from my students. Let the semester begin!

Text copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

Images in composite credited to bigdodaddy, dmy, harrykeely, obyvatel, larar, jervexster, arinas74, and ontzy of sxc.hu

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Back in 2005, I realized I was getting addicted to travel. In successive years, thanks to the spouse’s conferences and a study abroad trip, I had the opportunity to travel to Scotland, Australia, and Tanzania. I learned so much during my journeys that I swear I could feel the sparkle of new brain synapses making connections in my head. I wanted to travel more, to learn more!

Since I’d managed to get to three continents in three years, I got a wild hare to try to visit another continent the following year. Happily, mi esposo wanted to go too, as long as he could investigate some exotic insects. Processing various whims and practicalities, we decided that 2006 would be the year for South America, and, specifically, Argentina. We wanted to travel cross-country by bus, without tour guides, to get as much direct experience with the country as possible. One problem—I studied the wrong language in high school (French) and spoke little Spanish beyond gracias, cerveza, and baño, and hubby didn’t speak much Spanish either.

This is the story of how I taught myself enough Spanish to get by.


Strong determination to learn the language

I’d had a previous experience that convinced me language learning was necessary for travel. Before I went to Tanzania, I learned a few dozen Swahili words. One day, we hiked up to the summit of an old volcanic crater. Our guide, Daktari, who spoke no English, indicated that we needed to descend the opposite side of the crater from which we had come up. Several people in our group were too tired to go on, unless the indicated path was the way back to the vehicle.

I pointed in the direction Daktari wanted to go. “Gari?” I asked.

Daktari shook his head, pointed in the direction we had come and said “gari.” Then he pointed in the new direction, said “maji,” and trailed his fingers down like rain.

Simply knowing the Swahili words for “car” and “water” allowed me to figure out that Daktari was leading us to see a waterfall before heading back to the car. The exhausted members of our party were able to rest awhile at the summit instead of slogging down to the falls. I decided from that moment that whenever I traveled, I would learn as much of the local language as I could.

Powerful motivators: a deadline and fear

In September, I had started kicking around the idea of traveling to Argentina, but I didn’t really commit to the idea until December, when I decided to go to Argentina the following May. I had about six months to get myself some Spanish fluency. Yikes! This short, specific deadline was a great way to keep myself on task. Also, I am a congenital worrier. I imagined myself wandering lost and distressed in some Argentine city, unable to communicate my needs. What might befall me if I wasn’t able to speak passable Spanish? Fear is a powerful motivator!

A multi-pronged approach to language study

I figured that if I was going to learn enough Spanish to be functional, I was going to have to expose myself to the language in as many ways as possible. I took advantage of every opportunity—a variety of activities that forced me to (in increasing order of difficulty):

  • Learn vocabulary
  • Write
  • Listen
  • Speak

Formal instruction

My first impulse was to take a formal class. Unfortunately, all of the introductory Spanish classes at the local community college were full and closed. Then I happened on a press release for an Iowa State Extension Spanish immersion weekend. Immersion sounded productive. I signed up.

The class used a simple textbook from Pronto Spanish. The instructors introduced us to vocabulary—politeness phrases, colors, numbers, foods, body parts, family members—and immediately challenged us to make use of it. One of my favorite parts of the class was learning the vocabulary associated with a salsa recipe and then going to a local tienda to purchase the ingredients and actually make the salsa. Having access to cable television was a bonus, too: I stuck to my weekend immersion experience by watching Telemundo in my hotel room in the evening.

The class was very successful in two respects. First, I got a sense of how much work it would take for me to be able to comfortably spit out a Spanish sentence in conversation. Second, I will never forget Spanish greetings. To this day, I have “¿Cómo Se Llama Usted?” from the ¡Viva La Música! album etched in my brain.

Vocabulary study

Obviously, to be able to speak a language, you have to know the vocabulary. I got myself a good Spanish-English dictionary and set about memorizing words. I spent every weekend and many evenings writing vocabulary words over and over again and then testing myself on those words. I also created a home-immersion experience for myself by putting up Spanish vocabulary labels all over the house.

Even the cat helped me learn Spanish.

Even the cat helped me learn Spanish. (She's a black cat sitting on a black chair.)

A “pen pal”

I was forced to practice composing Spanish sentences when I tried to reserve accommodation for our first overnight stay. I sent an email query in English; they responded in Spanish. I consulted my dictionary and 501 Spanish Verbs book and commenced a conversation about prices, bank transfers, and credit card numbers.


I checked out a series of educational telenovela videos–entitled “Destinos“–from the local library. These videos were fantastic at helping me improve my aural comprehension. The speakers enunciated clearly, and I got exposure to regional accents. Also, I got caught up in storyline—would Raquel be able to track down the mysterious connections of the Castillo family?

One-on-one accountability


Nelly also taught me to make a pisco sour.

Through an international women’s conversation group I participated in, I met a Peruvian woman named Nelly, who was improving her English in preparation for the U.S. citizenship test. We agreed to help each other with our language studies. Nelly was a firm taskmistress. She hand-wrote lists of vocabulary for me, corrected sentences she assigned me to write, and forced me to practice speaking. This sense of accountability from another person really kept me on track.

Group conversation

Every Friday I had lunch with a group of people who wanted to practice their Spanish language skills to keep them sharp. (One of the group members moved to Panama and opened a B&B.) Often there was a native speaker present to assist with learning—the group pitched in to pay for that person’s lunch. I listened to the conversation and sometimes spoke, pausing long and stuttering and often saying no sais la palabra. This was critical, real-world practice that helped me get over my fear of speaking.

The results

Before we departed, I had a dream in which I spoke Spanish. I was hanging laundry on a line when someone in a pickup truck raced across the yard and plowed my clothes into the red soil. I shouted, “mi falda es succia” and chased after the truck, shaking my fist and wishing I knew how to curse. When I awoke, I was excited—my subconscious knew Spanish! I figured our trip would go OK.

We arrived in Buenos Aires, made it to the bus station, and I was able to purchase our onward bus tickets entirely in Spanish—a conversation that involved questions about proper ID, destination, choice of seats, and method of payment. When the tickets were secure, we turned away from the counter, and my husband said, “Wow, hon.”

That was one of the proudest moments of my life.

While we had plenty of moments of incomprehension, we still managed to travel a couple thousand miles around the country by bus, reserving lodging as we went (sometimes even over the phone).

In the intervening years, my Spanish language skills have been slipping a bit. I am now resuming my effort to attain Spanish competency, as the population of the new community I will be moving to is about 25% Hispanic.

I think staying in a Panama B&B for awhile would be good practice . . .

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

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When I was in grade school back in the early1980s, an annual gym class rite was the Presidential Physical Fitness Award evaluation. I considered myself a pretty tough kid, but, year after year, an authority no less than President Ronald Reagan effectively told me that I was an out-of-shape schlump.

I had the strength part down. Sit-ups and pull-ups—check! Flexibility and the sit-and-reach—check! For speed, the shuttle run was a breeze—check! How about endurance and the mile run? Every year—FAIL! I gasped and panted and never managed to come in under the Presidentially Established Guidelines.

I sat and watched as my classmates accepted their certificates at the year-end awards ceremony. The lucky recipients traced their weighty, official-feeling certificates with their fingers. Each one was signed by Ronald Reagan—the very President whose administration had given ammunition to vegetable-averse kids and who made jellybean consumption practically patriotic! My repeated exclusion from this club taught me that I would never be able to run a mile and was therefore not fit—the President told me so!


Fitness motivation, the later years

A few decades down the road, my Presidential Physical PFFFT-ness, forgotten, I went to my doctor for a routine physical. He found that I had borderline high blood pressure and wanted to put me on drugs—for the rest of my life.

Whaaat?!?? I wasn’t even 30 years old, and I was already being recruited to pharma-ville?!? I pleaded with the doc that I would lose weight—do anything—to avoid a lifelong reliance on medication. He agreed to a trial reprieve, and asked me to come back in six months to check my progress.

As I walked out of the doctor’s office, I felt relieved to have escaped the classification of “sick person who needs meds.” But now I had a serious mission. I had to get my weight and my blood pressure down to a level my doc would find acceptable. Yowza!

Get fit? How??

I considered my options. I knew I wouldn’t be too successful by cutting back my eating—I love to eat too much. I would have to increase the exercise.

Aerobic workout videos did little beyond developing my loathing for perky people in leotards. Group fitness classes, with their rapid-fire commands, required too much thinking. The NordicTrack got boring. The pool gave me a rash. As my six-month deadline ticked nearer, I started getting desperate—I tried running.


I do not look like a runner. I would fit into what is kindly termed the “Athena division”  . When I set out for my first run, I tried not to think about what people would think when they saw me huffing down the street. I made it only a few blocks before I had to stop. My knees were distinctly unhappy. I had to make full use of the handrail to get up the long flight of stairs to my apartment.

Yet, I persisted. Day after day, I was able to run a bit farther—just to that next lamppost, then the next. My leg muscled strengthened, and my knees quit bothering me. Eventually—oh happy day—I was able to run an entire mile without stopping!

I returned to the doctor. While I hadn’t dropped as much weight as was ideal, my blood pressure was back down in the normal range. The doc was happy with my progress and encouraged me to keep up the good work. Yay!!

The motivation flags . . .

While being able to stay off medication was a powerful motivation to keep running, it wasn’t enough. I was having trouble forcing myself out the door. I needed more motivation.

A race goal, and running buddies

Perusing the City of Ames Parks and Recreation catalog for fitness possibilities, I found “Team 12.4,” a class taught by Julie Vardaman that prepared participants to run the 20-kilometer Dam to Dam race in Des Moines. I attended the information meeting for the class, and Julie outlined the recommended running experience levels for the class—which I did not quite meet. In private, I told Julie my situation and asked if she thought I could make it in the class.

“Mmmmm . . . probably not a good idea,” she responded.

Hell, if Ronald Reagan was wrong about my fitness to run one mile, why should I believe Julie about my ability to run twelve miles? I signed up for the class.

stick runnerI sweated and grit my teeth and slogged through the training runs. I was usually the last person to finish. I was constantly nursing sore muscles. Week after week, I ran farther than I ever had before in my life. Three miles. Five miles. This was unbelievable! Six miles. Eight miles. At times, I had to methodically count every step to keep myself moving. Nine miles. Eleven miles. The camaraderie of the running group helped me stay committed.

At last, the day of the race. I had moments of doubt, moments where I had to slow to a walk and could barely push my painful legs to keep moving, but I did it! I ran 20 kilometers (12.4 miles!)—me, who never earned a single Presidential Physical Fitness Award!

To this day, I continue to run, and my running career has taught me many things. Presidents can be wrong. It’s never too late to start anew. Motivation and grit are big components of success. Having the right people around you will help you go farther than you ever thought possible.

Thanks, Julie! Thanks, Team Vardo!

Text copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

Runner image by CraigPJ at scx.hu

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This is not a post about Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley. More than enough has been written about that incident. This post is an attempt to explain how I, a child of suburban white privilege, came close to understanding the subtle and insidious racism that people of color experience on a regular basis in the United States. I don’t think I would have developed this empathy if not for a visit to South Africa, which is still sorting through the aftermath of apartheid.

the thinker and his shadow

In July 2008, I spent a week in Durban, South Africa, while my spouse attended a conference. We set up housekeeping in a self-catering apartment in the Berea-Morningside area, where I could walk to shops to get provisions.

Durban has approximately the same demographic proportions as Seattle, Washington, but in photo-negative. In Seattle, 68 percent of the population is white (non-Hispanic), and 9 percent is black. In Durban, about 9 percent of the 3.5 million residents are white and about 68 percent are black. Although white folks are more numerous in the Berea-Morningside area, I still felt conspicuous in my pale skin.

Being of Midwestern stock, I am conditioned to being polite and smiley to strangers. I am especially polite and smiley to strangers when I am in a foreign country. Yet, my positive vibes were sometimes rebuffed, and I began to detect a pattern.

  • Once, I was in line in a grocery store and was the only white person in the building. The checkout clerk smiled and greeted each customer—until it was my turn at the counter. Her smile faded into a distinct chill. Why? Was she able to tell I was a foreigner? Or was she not seeing beyond the color of my skin?
  • Another incident, in a convenience store: I stepped up to the counter to pay at about the same time as, but just ahead of, a young, black man. We went through the “oh, were you first?” pantomime, and he indicated that I should go ahead. I smiled at him. The black, female clerk looked right at me, then stepped aside to serve the black man first. He looked at me, and I shrugged and motioned for him to go ahead. I was in no hurry. Maybe I missed some subtle cultural signals. Or was it the color of my skin?
  • A third example: I was walking back from the store, carrying groceries. I was crossing a street at a T-intersection where the cars had a stop sign before they got to the crosswalk. I was nearly across the street when a car screeched up past the stop sign, directly towards me, and halted with its bumper inches from my legs. I jumped aside, and the black driver glared and yelled something at me. Was this guy just a jerk? Or did he act this way because of the color of my skin?

Of course, not all black South Africans behaved in ways that made me question their motives, but, with a collection of incidents like this, I felt that there was something more than just individuals having a bad day. I detected a pattern of judgment by skin color.

When I perceived someone to be judging me by my skin color, I felt as though I was being stripped of my identity, as though I ceased to be “me” and became that person’s abstraction—a “shadow puppet” with an assigned set of motivations and attributes. One of the most difficult parts of this situation was that I could not predict whether the black South Africans I met would see me or the white-person shadow puppet.*

I reacted in different ways to this uncertainty, depending on my mood and level of fatigue:

  • In the Pollyanna approach, I would assume that everyone would see me as an individual, and I would risk being hurt by the people who saw my shadow puppet.
  • In the chip-on-the-shoulder approach, I would assume that everyone only saw me as the shadow puppet and keep my defenses up, ready for the next offense (real or imagined).
  • In the hermit approach, I would try to avoid interacting with anyone who might see my shadow puppet instead of me.

I realized that, over time, these day-to-day insults to my identity (and the strategies I used to cope with the insults) would probably build up a kind of psychic scar tissue that would affect all of my relationships with other human beings. I finally began to understand the emotional impact of minority stereotyping.

In recent readings, I have found two descriptions of stereotyping, which resonated more strongly with me because of what I learned from my experience.

Leonard Pitts eloquently described the shadow puppet of an African-American man as a criminal in a recent column.

I am your scapegoat. I am your boogeyman. Brown-skinned, kinky-haired, black man, me. . . .

I am the shape and size and sound of your fears. You know me on sight, know me before you know my name, know me before I even stick out my hand and say Hi. You know I have no feelings beyond your perception of me, no thought beyond what you impute to me, no purpose beyond your fear of me. I live in the shadow of your consciousness, do not exist outside of you.

But can you imagine if I did? Boy, can you imagine the ache and anger if I did?

In his book Always Looking Up, Michael J. Fox discussed the shadow puppet (complete with soundtrack!) of a disabled person as a heroic or tragic figure.

If society is encouraged to view you in a certain way, you come with theme music not of your choosing and perhaps not suited to your point of view. It’s something you have to overcome with each encounter and experience. (p. 144)

Putting these two shadow puppets together, here’s an exercise for you: imagine a scene in a movie. Two people are walking down the street towards each other on a dark street, one white, one black. Now, imagine how differently the scene would be set if either Girma Yifrashewa’s “My Strong Will” or a gangsta rap beat were playing in the background.

Which song do you think Chicagoland Wells Fargo mortgage lenders had going through their heads?

My experience has taught me that when I meet people of a different race or culture, I need to listen carefully, to make sure I’m hearing their songs and not mine.

* It wasn’t just black South Africans who gave me the puppet treatment. I found that when I was among white South Africans, they assumed that because I looked like them, I must think they way they do. About half of the dozen white South Africans I met felt free to let fly their low opinion of black South Africans. On a bus tour I took of Durban, the white tour guide spoke only of the white colonial history of the area and made more than one disparaging, patronizing comment about its black populace.

Text copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

Silhouette portion of image from krilm of scx.hu

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