I was not even two months old when my father left my mother and me in Ohio, where they were graduate students, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the March on Washington and listen to Martin Luther King Jr. give his famous speech. When I tell this story to my students at Highline College, some of them get a wondrous look on their faces; King and that speech are so iconic that they can seem unreal to generations born long after me. Did that day really happen? Did ordinary people really get the news that an important event was planned (no Internet! no Twitter!) and travel for hours to attend? Did white men like my father really care enough to leave a wife and newborn child to drive to a city where he wasn’t sure he had a place to sleep to support the civil rights movement? Yes, he did, and yes, they did, and yes, it happened.
The meaning of this story has changed for me over the years, but lately it’s been reminding me that showing up – emotionally, intellectually and physically – may be the most important thing I do as a teacher and a human being.
In my 22 years as an English instructor at Highline, I have had many opportunities to “show up”:
• Talking with other instructors about our changing student body – more students of color, more immigrants and refugees, more Running Start and international students — and how we can best serve all of our students.
• Learning from events offered on campus, like our yearly Martin Luther King Jr. and Unity through Diversity weeks and the Safe Zones trainings that help us support LGBTQ students.
• Listening closely to students, like the veteran who told me he drinks through Veterans Day every year because it reminds him of the people he lost, and the young woman who cried in my office recently because her boyfriend and his family are undocumented, and she is fearful of what might happen to them.
There have also been times that I felt too tired and overwhelmed to show up – even too absorbed in my own concerns, if I’m honest with myself. Sometimes I have retreated emotionally for a while, doing my daily work but not with my full heart, because I needed to sort through feelings or do my own writing or just find the energy to recommit. My students and colleagues have always called me back, their own commitment reminding me that this is not something I do alone.
Some students may not realize that the Martin Luther King Jr. we revere today was considered a very controversial figure when he was alive. Showing up at the March on Washington was a risky act. It meant taking a stand in public, literally putting your body on the line. This was much riskier for African Americans and other people of color than for a white man like my father, but there was risk for him nonetheless. In a climate of racialized fear and violence, a person speaking out about civil rights might be subject to anything from a cold shoulder to verbal or physical attack. Yet there was a benefit, too, beyond the larger political goal, of showing up for each other: finding community and joining a chorus of voices singing, “We shall live in peace one day.”
What I like most about Highline is that it has a whole lot of staff and faculty who show up every day because we believe we are stronger together than apart, smarter when we put our heads together than when we think alone, and more loving when we listen with all the empathy we can muster to each other’s stories.
My colleagues and students, my father, who drove to Washington, and my mother, who stayed home and cared for me that day, inspire me to keep bringing my whole self to this community.
Allison Green has a Bachelor of Arts from The Evergreen State College and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and literature from Emerson College. She has taught writing at Highline College for 22 years and is the author of two books: “Half-Moon Scar,” a novel, and “The Ghosts Who Travel With Me,” a memoir. She currently works with Highline’s Learning and Teaching Center to help faculty and staff become more culturally responsive.