A college professor responds: This American Life #562, #563

The recent two-part This American Life program “The Problem We All Live With” generated a lot of buzz. More than being buzzworthy, though, the investigation offered a real solution to education in America, however difficult it has been and may be to employ. It’s so hard for journalism to not offer a thesis statement in order to appear balanced. But this program did more than peel back a few rotting floorboards on schools, which is oftentimes what education reports tend to do. It offered listeners a well-tested theory, a theory that seems so basic that it’s laughable:

Integration is the most powerful way to bridge the achievement gap between underresourced and well-resourced schools. Period.

It’s much easier, one reporter noted, to dream up fixes for failing schools than it is to try to dismantle the systemic racism and classicism that rendered certain schools a failure.

I can get behind this. Even though I’ve spent less than 10% of my entire student life in public school. I believe in integration not just as an ideal but as a cornerstone of effective education.

N.Y. school - Italians  (LOC)

I teach at a private university with roughly 40% students of color. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to teach this mix of students. We build circles of trust in classes, in residence halls, in intramural sports, in clubs and the hope is that those circles enlarge to spheres much greater than our little campus. Prior to this gig, I taught at a diverse, urban community college. Most–not some–of my students spoke English as a second language. I taught English composition which was a delight since so many students could empathize with one another in the struggle to master another language. My classes came ready-made integrated. College is obviously elective, unlike public schools grades K-12 in which teachers must educate every child. Still, I agree with the findings of TAL: integration is the clutch in the manual car driving us toward educational reform.

[African American school children entering the Mary E. Branch School at S. Main Street and Griffin Boulevard, Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia] (LOC)

But as TAL’s reporting demonstrated, integration is the hard-fought battle, often trying to sell school integration without attaching it to the stigma of busing and without tokenizing students. Ayeeee. Hand me that magic wand….

The reason I believe so much in the power of integration goes well beyond my time in the classroom, however. I identified especially with TAL’s coverage of parents expecting so much of schools that they “hand-picked” them. Parenting in America has swung so far to extreme protectiveness that schools seem to get stuck in a holding pattern of incubation rather than true education. Are parents in 2015 truly excited about the heightened challenges of their kids’ classes or about the independence their children are gaining through projects and extra-curriculars? It does not appear that way, from the little I’ve gauged. Parents do their kids’ entire projects for them. They “coach” by teaching their kids the position for which they want their kid to specialize. Rather than have their child experience the chagrin of sloppy penmanship or the pride of a job completed by hand–the pervasive attitude for parents seems to be akin to the LA Police Department: serve and protect.

Schools have become like restaurants rated on Yelp.com. Friendly service and immaculate facilities will earn high marks. High expectations of students and varied social dynamics are not always comfortable for patrons. Maybe the place down the road will be better–I hear they have even have a Groupon.

Universities are regarded as country clubs that exist to furnish four-star accommodations and luxury amenities. My students will rate me on the ease with which I grade assignments, the accessibility of my lectures, the availability of me in my free time. It is not enough to teach; teachers must aim to please.

Which is why I think TAL’s program sounds the battle hymn for every teacher. We are helping to prepare a generation of students who will need to be problem solvers–solutionaries, if you will. These students will need to experience integration, which may (gasp) entail discomfort. These students will need to learn how to resolve conflicts and stand up for their beliefs. They may even need to learn to innovate using a limited budget, versus waiting for their parents to find something suitable on Pinterest to copy.

It’s never our goal to fail: our kids, our schools, our communities. But there’s an awful lot to learn through failure, largely so that we don’t make the same mistakes–systemic and microscopic alike–again.

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Confessions of a non-Korean mama

I have so many dear friends expecting babies this year. Come October, I’m expecting a veritable traffic jam of storks in the sky.

It’s reminding me of the joy of bringing our own little dumplings home. Our first experience in doing so is forever illuminated for me…

January 2008

As we are leaving the hospital with our dumpling, our pastor and his wife from the Korean church call Loverpants. They say they are on their way over to our house. There is no asking and there is no refusing. I mean, my belly has just been on the butcher block and I am having volcanic eruptions of hot hormone lava and we have a new family member that we just met, but no bigs!

mom goes home
Going home from the hospital

Our pastor and his wife meet us at home. They march through the apartment toward the kitchen where they dutifully stock our refrigerator with noodle dishes and potatoes and bread and seaweed soup P.S. GOOD FOR BREASTMILK. And then pastor offers a prayer in Korean and his wife looks askance at me trying to breastfeed.

The following week, the pastor and his wife are back for a second go-round. This time, with friends! And more seaweed soup. Ahjoomah General’s warning: Contents may make breasts explode with ample milk supply. After several hymns and prayers in Korean, all of which may have been pleas to the Almighty to make our next child an heir, the church elders begin to leave. But not before several of the ahjoomahs (Korean elder women) compress my abdomen, exclaiming “Aygoh!” I believed at one time that Aygoh! meant “Hot dog! She’s still a postnatal fatty!” in Korean.

But after reading a thing or two about samchilil, I know why they are squeezing me. Samchilil, which means 21 days, is the Korean practice of letting a woman who has just given birth to rest. Doesn’t that sound amazing? If mama rests then she will regain strength and be able to take care of those around her. But my impression is that it is a fear-based rest. The postnatal mama is resting to avoid her bones going soft and all of her teeth falling out. True fear. The mother is to stay indoors, drink miyuk-kuk (seaweed soup), avoid cold (even drinking an iced beverage), and sometimes she even wears a girdle. Not kidding, players, an honest-to-goodness girdle. Hence why the ahjoomahs are squeezing the place where a baby used to be. Aygoh!

Exit: Team Ahjoomah, stage left.

daddy time

Irritated and exhausted, I walk to the kitchen to see the spoils of the meals on wheels. I open the refrigerator and there it is: the familiar pots and pans, the kimchee and the burnt rice. The potluck ministry had come to love on me today.

I’m told no matter the denomination, it’s the same scene at any Korean-American church. The potluck is the thing. I’ll never be able to consume the topographic mounds of rice that my church sisters manage to wolf down, but I always enjoy it. Is there really no such thing as a free lunch? Have I paid for my meal ticket through every awkward encounter at K-church? Perhaps. But I’ve never been asked to contribute to the potluck. For the most part, I’ve been a taker. For me, this is God’s grace come to life in a silver pot. We’ve done nothing to deserve it and done everything wrong to be denied it, but He lavishes it on us like a smiling Korean ahjoomah whose delight derives entirely on its acceptance.

a family portrait
ur first time at church as a famiLee

The Korean church loved me through my twenties. The ahjoomahs loved me in a way that I found peculiar, in ways that I never would have chosen to be loved. But there’s no menu at a buffet. Only a bounty of the interesting and colorful, the flavorful, sweet, sour, and spicy.

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What I unlearned about the word #interracial

I was doing some research last week and scanned Twitter to see what articles might appear under the hashtag “interracial.” Oh my lands. I am not old enough to see what I cannot now unsee. A whole stream of fetish links and images came waterfalling, and it made me so so sad. I understand that interracial marriage was once outlawed in this country. I understand that some people would still like that to be the case. But is this why the word is now in the domain of the fetishists? Because it was once a taboo relationship, it’s now relegated to X-rated content, exclusively?

Or was I too quick to accept this as a single story?


If, at any point in the late 80s or early 90s, you came home after school and switched on the TV, chances are you became acquainted with this guy:


Remember Britannica Boy? His report dilemma? How he got a B+ on his eventual report because of too much information–“overkill”? Didn’t we all just go racing to call that 1-800 number to own ourselves the greatest encyclopedia in the world? Imagine the comprehensive reports about plankton and Cherokee tribes and Papua New Guinea we could write!

I still remember a time when this was how we researched. We sought out texts, dusty old books and periodicals in archives. We skimmed microfiche, and by “we,” I most certainly include myself because tedious, arcane forms of research were my jam, man.

I am not such a reactionary that I believe old school research was just inherently better than what Google nets us, but it certainly felt to me like it was more of an investment: of time, of brain power, of a desire to really be satisfied about The Whole Story.


I’ve lost some of that. I’ve lost the Britannica Boy in me, and I suspect I’m not alone. I’m too quick to accept the single story, despite the fact that every year, I invite Chimamanda Adichie into my advanced reporting class via Ted Talk and am cautioned once again against accepting the single story. It’s the difference between knocking on someone’s door versus searching for someone. It’s the difference between accepting “Ah, nobody’s home” and going to the next door to see if the neighbors know anything. I’m a lazy researcher and what does that say about me?

I thought about the single stories that could be written about me if no one was doing comprehensive research. If someone just observed me or knew me in a certain context, they could easily observe:

1. She is a mess–look at how all her library books are overdue.
2. She is so selfish–look at how she parked like she was the only car in the lot.
3. She has ADHD — her ability to concentrate on one task is nil to none.
4. She is a health nut–look at her lunch, so healthy!

I am guilty of writing these kinds of character profiles of others in my head. I relegate people to the Minivan Mafia, to the ranks of the Holier than Thou, to the Den of Sinners. Who benefits from these single stories. Not the characters in them and least of all the author. So why do we write them and why do we accept them?

My desire is to keep knocking on doors and keep writing the story. It’s what I would want for myself, for my family, and the child of the 80s in me knows it can earn me at least a B+ on the report, right?

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