The past year has been amazing. I started off the year with the intention of becoming a more transparent and open person, leaving much of my youthful ways behind. I’m ending the year with the stark reality of fatherhood, and a sense of even higher purpose. In between, I started gathering the pieces for that to happen, and the inner resolve to continue solving the puzzle.
A Recap of Some of the Events of My 2011:
In the winter, I started off the year with a big secret that only a handful of people knew, one that I couldn’t share with my closest friend, and one that would take my three months to spit out. In the interim, I bumped Justice and Kanye West (all damn year), started wearing red in solidarity with unions, and officially had my name on a book just so I could tell my now-silent haters that I’m published. [#winning] Soon after celebrating my birthday, I went to Philadelphia, PA for one of the most prominent education “un-conferences” in the nation, EduCon. I not only met teachers who I’ve known online for years, I also got a taste for facilitating an unconference meeting, getting a proper dose of inspiration for that elusive manuscript to my first book in the process. In February, while Aaron Rodgers asked Brett Favre how his new ring tastes, Tafari Stevenson-Howard and I found a DJ who played Toto’s “Africa” as our intro music to a mainly White bar in my hood. Friend and Syracuse mentor Max Patino signed me up as a feature in his speakers bureau, and Carmelo Anthony comes back to the Garden as a Knick instead of an Orangeman. All orange everything.
In the spring, I asked people to give me a break while I got engaged in various activities. While inspired by Felipe Luciano in Brooklyn, NY (thanks, Capicu Poetry), I let the thoughts of love and building with someone else immerse me. Thus, the secret I had held since post-Christmas became known to the person for whom it was intended on March 12. She accepted on top of Rockefeller Center, the largest precipice of our relationship at that point. The Celebration of Teaching and Learning featured me and my fellow Teaching 2030 folk in the largest education conference I’d ever attend. El Diario NY (the Latino newspaper du jour) featured my writing, and I read Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education in time to actually meet her in person. Almost as epic, my younger brother Ralf Balbi Jr. graduated from Syracuse University. Still nothing rhymes with orange.
In the summer, I saw another set of students graduate and grow up right in front of me. Macho Man, Gil-Scott Heron, and Osama bin Laden found their places in the afterlife by then, but I prepared for a new stage in life, too, touching down in Atlanta, Saratoga Springs, Orlando, and finally Washington DC, for an activist congregation unlike any I’ve ever seen. I dug in the crates for old school Michael Jackson and LL Cool J, finally finished Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, and saw John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown on Broadway. The summer went by so quickly, wondering whether I’d have time to have my fiancee move into my place (we did). I not only prepared myself to become a better teacher, I prepared other teachers at the Nativity Network to teach kids like me. Hurricane Carter stood tall on my television screen as we let
Hurricane Tropical Storm Irene pass by. Plus, my grandfather passed in Miami. Blurriness and uncertainty ensues. On my first day back from vacation, I sported an orange and blue rugby. Because it felt right.
In the fall, school started, and, against the grain, I went back to the basics, lesson planning for every single day and every single minute. Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch The Throne still ring in my ears, and Sir Ken Robinson inspired me via his book The Element. My new, simplified regimen and engagement in a new life has paid serious dividends in another tumultuous year for this jack of many trades. I took a break for Syracuse University’s Coming Back Together 10, one of the largest reunions for alumni of color of its kind, but came back re-energized for months that seemed to fly by us. Speaking at the Afro-Latino Forum’s Conference here in NYC, I tapped into the spirit of Arturo Schomburg, proud of my identity and my vocation alike. While some of us occupied Wall St. and the classroom, I thought about the little man who was about to occupy my apartment. During the well-attended invite-only baby shower, we revealed the name Alejandro. Favorite colors for gifts thus far? Blue and orange.
There were three major themes in my life this year, in song:
Confidence [Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Who Gon’ Stop Me?”]
When I set down to write my piece for the Save Our Schools Conference and March, I knew I had to say something people could take home. One night, I went to a poetry event in Brooklyn when I told a good friend of mine and fellow educator about the march. Then I told him what my role was and who they had me “headlining” with, and he laughed so hard, and belted, “Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, and you? That’s like, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and some kid from the Pee Wee League!” Ouch. I retorted, “At least give me Robinson Cano, goddamn!” I laughed, and I get the perspective, but it made me think about how far teachers themselves need to go before we get the same respect that college-level professors get, whether they advocate for us or not. Thus, wherever I walked, I had to assure that my voice was heard where it usually wouldn’t. I spoke loudly at times others didn’t. I’m nowhere near the tastemaker others make me to be (if I was, I’d have a huge list of names for people to talk to), but I built my own lane by making wedges where others wouldn’t.
Participation [“Civilization” by Justice]
Enhancing my professional side started in the classroom. I had to improve as a teacher, reach deep inside myself to get better for the kids in front of me. I finally learned how to adjust to the hybrid role of teacher and data / tech person at the school. Most of it came from developing connections outside of the classroom, going to meaningful professional development sessions, and using the resources I had right in front of me to have good dialogue. Being inducted into the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality helped put my foot in doors. So did raising my hand and speaking up when I didn’t think I was learning much. It also meant developing bringing different conversations to spaces where they deem their own limited discussions safe. Being a “part” matters.
Positivity [“I’m Beamin'” by Lupe Fiasco]
Throughout all of this, I maintained a positive attitude about the direction I was heading. Shivering due to the cold of the March breeze tens of stories above the NYC cement, I didn’t know whether I would pop “the question” on one side of the building or another. When I finally did, I probably never stuttered so hard in my life. However, when she said “Yes” (a second felt like a second too long), I felt like the positivity transferred to everything I did for the rest of the year. Most of it was inconsequential, though some of it hurt. I owned up to the relationships I disintegrated, and let go of the people who wouldn’t leave. Despite all the hate and disappointment I had to withstand through the entire year, that moment taught me that if I could deflect the bad weather, I’d get the chance to hold onto the luz.
Now, with a burgeoning life under my care, I have a chance to share that light with someone born out of my love. Unconditionally.
I get my energy from my inner G
I be in outer space but I got inner peace
So tell my enemies that they can’t injure me
I know that irritate, you have my sympathies
Well you should protest, yeah you should picket me
I’m on a losing strike, I’m on a winning streak
I’m out at left field, I’m speaking mentally
But that’s a better place than where the benches be
I’m feeling really good, me and my different beat
Me and my different drummer; he play the timpanis
See that’s what got me here, you hearing me
Me on my “black man in the future” shit, call me Billy Dee
See I’m just forward looking, that’s how I really see
See while you Valentines, I’m thinking Christmas trees
And that’s how this would be even at Micky D’s
Semi-colon, closed parentheses …
They said my future was dark, see me now
Just look around, I’m beaming
They used to talk, when I wasn’t around
You see me now, I’m beaming …
Jose, who’s done this for five years straight …