- Nicole (Johnson) Williams
20. We're Moving to Massachusetts!!.. Here's how it happened.
Updated: Sep 25, 2021
Where do you begin when you've been gone so long and so much has transpired? I guess I'll just start with an update and see where it goes from here.
It feels as if I've been running for my life for quite some time. I've been functioning in a world that's been designed to keep me small in all arenas. And I've been playing my role. Unseen, unheard, unappreciated, unworthy, unprotected, unconscious, and perpetually unable to catch up, keep up, or excel. Black women are constantly being praised for "doing it all" or some innate power to be "Superwoman", as if we're supposed to be. Recently, I decided to stop claiming these conditions that society has shackled me to. Who says? How come? What happens when I center myself, ground myself, quiet myself enough to clearly see my purpose, then give myself permission to run unbridled, and with tenacity toward that purpose? What happens when I define myself FOR myself?
So this is what happened:
I had my son, very intentionally, in the summer of 2017 (a Gemini baby, like the first). During that process, I asked the Universe to show me who I Am, and things began to shift. I chose to deliver him naturally... ✨ magical ✨. He was sustained primarily from my own bosom for the first year of his life... ✨ magical ✨. Prior to that, I had been teaching dance at Motor City
Dance Factory and substitute teaching for Southfield Public Schools. Because school was out for the summer, and our only source of income was the studio, I went back to teaching dance two days after delivering this little human [not magical... tragic]. In that time, I also decided not to continue as a substitute teacher. I was exhausted and, frankly, I didn't want to. So... it was tight and the tightening continued steadily over time until one year later when I found myself online looking for a desk job. I was completely capable of continuing to make it happen on food stamps, Medicaid, and section 8, but I could only see myself going so far with such limited resources. Where were my children going to get a good and complete education? How in the world would I ever save enough for a house? When I got the house, how was I going to afford either the high mortgage rates in the suburbs, or tuition for my kids in private school if we moved to the city? I saw more for myself and my tribe. So after a brief search, I walked into an administrative assistant position working in the summer camp division of a boarding school.
From there, I transitioned into a full-time position working as the assistant to the Dean of Students during the school year.
Steady and reliable income... check.
Amazing mentors that never knew I needed... check, check.
The work in the office was stressful. Life at home was stressful. It got very terrible. I found pockets of joy that sustained me and kept me afloat, but it was survival at best. Then, in the summer and fall of 2020, through a series of most unfortunate events, I became a divorced mother of two, still living in government housing, working an administrative assistant job by day, a teaching job by night, and squeezing in any time to dream, learn, and grow between potty training and pre-teening.
Let's pause here. THIS SHIT WAS NOT MAGICAL. IT WAS STRESSFUL... and... necessary, I suppose. But stressful, nonetheless.
Coming back to work in-person last fall while my kids were still remote learning meant that I needed to move on campus to ensure their safety..✨magic✨. I spent a lot of time in nature... in prayer. I was able to close my eyes, breathe deep, and be gently cradled by my surroundings and my loved ones. By mid-year, I knew my boss (who had by that time become my family as well as an incredible mirror of my own capability, passion for true education, complete care for kids, and transformative leadership) would not be returning for another school year. I began to brace myself for that transition. In that space, I began to receive subtle signs that I too may be unsafe in this environment should I stay, but leaving this "good job" unwarranted with no prospects was not even a thought I could entertain. Plus, there was something about education that felt necessary to me, so snagging an HR job at Quicken or somewhere like that seemed like a step in the wrong direction.
The seeds that my direct supervisors at both of my jobs (visionary, intentional, compassionate, and powerful women of color) planted in me began to sprout at that time.
"You are worthy, you are capable, you are SMART, you are necessary!" They repeated these sentiments in many ways and in all of our interactions over time until I began to believe them myself. Believe in myself. In January of 2021, I decided to apply to Eastern Michigan University's M.A. in Educational Leadership - K-12 Administration program. I was terrified. My undergraduate grades were.... less than impressive. I spent a large part of my undergraduate experience homeless or living in a homeless shelter, selling blood plasma for diapers, pawning anything the shop would take, skipping class to sit in line (once again) to fight for my government issued assistance, frequenting the county health department or ER with a small screaming infant, being arrested on traffic violations because of my financial disparities TWICE ... you name it. Finishing that Ballet History paper at the end of the day... just wasn't happening. (I was also a road trippin Red, and wouldn't think twice about packing that baby in the car to get to a Zeta Rho picnic or Motor City Step Show, but that has more to do with my being a 20-something-year-old, Black college student fully immersed in the culture, than my lack of help, mentorships, and resources). Fast Forward to March 2021, I made it into the program! Affirmed... something's stirring ✨magic ✨.
A month after my admittance to the masters program, on April 20, 2021, the nation watched as a jury found Dereck Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd in cold blood on the street in Minnesota the summer prior. This was the first conviction of a white officer in Minnesota for the murder of a black person. As a Black person in America, my feelings were complex. As a Black person working and living in a predominately white, affluent educational community, they were even moreso. So when the community decided not to mention the trial in any way, let alone to set aside space for students, faculty, and staff who would be effected on the other side of this determination... I knew that this place simply was not capable of cultivating the type of environment necessary to ignite change.
Academic excellence and rigor will get you into an Ivy, but what about social responsibility?
If the white people I live, work, and create in community with can't even stomach the thought of confronting the systemic racism that runs deep through the very veins of this country (white fragility and privilege), I cannot continue to share my light and impact in that space. I went to bed that night with the dreadful realization that I (Black, single mom, working class - two paychecks away from complete ruin at any given time) was not and had never been safe here. And the chances of being seen, heard, or valued in this place were slim. Put a pin in that, and remember, there are no other prospects at this time, so I'm not even thinking of leaving.
THE NEXT DAY, I get a text from my boss. It was a screenshot of a Facebook post that read:
"Please spread the word about NHM's dance program to any candidates who might be looking for a dance teaching position. Ballet chops a must!"
✨ ✨ ✨ MAGIC ✨✨✨
I took a deep breath, brushed up my CV, and applied for the job. As I hit "send" on that email, I entered a Keep-Your-Head-Down-and-Work-Like-Hell season. Things started moving fast.
On May 5, 2021, I began my first class of graduate school: Educational Leadership in a Pluralistic Society. The class was based heavily on Critical Race Theory and the exploration of the intersections of oppression that inhibit our ability to learn, build, and grow specifically in the American educational system, and how that inability affects us all in every facet of life. The class was amazing!!! As soon as I stepped into the virtual classroom, I felt home. As I read through the course material, I began to see myself and all of my beliefs and practices in the work. There was language for and proof behind all of the truths that inform my own work. Everything that I believe about the idea of success determined by our proximity to whiteness; Black people owning and finding affirmation in our own stories; the indispensability of us, as a nation, understanding those truths to be the very fibers of American history, and moving forward with that understanding instead of continuously aspiring to this idea of the white American Dream as #goals.... I had found it! It did exist! The work that I had dedicated my life to as an arts educator: validated. Finally I was heard, I was seen, I was necessary, I was vital, I was doing the work, I was affirmed, I was smart, I was more than enough. I had finally found a lane where I could THRIVE! I finally had a redo, an opportunity to prove academically, after a lifetime of identifying as just an "okay student" due in large part to my surrounding circumstances and not my ability to understand and apply the concepts. This I knew. This I understood. This was right.
Just a little under a month after the Chauvin trial, on May, 19, 2021, I was offered the position of Dance Instructor and Dorm Head at Northfield Mount Hermon School!! On May 21, 2021, I met with HR and put in my formal notice. On May 25, 2021, it was confirmed that we would have to vacate our apartment on campus in the next 3 weeks. Cue mad dash to pack everything we own into a 7 foot POD (our couch is 8 ft btw), secure housing for the next 2 months in Detroit, ship half our things to Massachusetts, pack the other half of our summer things to keep with us in the city, find some people to help pack, move and keep me sane, continue with my graduate work, close down the office, plan for graduation, care for my children, deal with my own developed severe anxiety surrounding my first move outside of the state of Michigan and alllllllllllll that it entails, not to mention dealing with and healing from my own personal trauma.... Whew chile!
Skip forward again, I decided that, instead of moving off campus just to continue to work there through the summer wasn't in my best interest. Besides, I was EXHAUSTED. The thought of continuing to work 8-5 at the school then 6-9 at the studio 3 out of 5 days of the week, then teaching all day Saturday, and rehearsals all day Sunday... I took a look down that road and wanted to pass out on the spot. So, in the interest of wellness, I walked away completely from my job on June 11, 2021, my son's 4th birthday.
Now, there's a possibility that I may have failed my first class of grad school 😢. That is disappointing. But in all reality, I'm still in the rat race. Advanced degrees aren't set up for people like me. Just like undergraduate degrees weren't set up for people like me either. I remember my mother telling me that she had to quit her "good job" and we lived for an entire year off of credit cards when she was finishing her masters degree. It was impossible
to "do it all" and still commit the time and mental stamina it took to do well in her program. Something had to give. I'm hopeful that the new schedule that comes with the new gig will allow me to be great, because this is tiring and doesn't speak accurately to my ability to do the work, and ultimately make a difference in the world. A mother's ability to care for her children during a global pandemic or any other difficult life circumstance shouldn't discount her from reaching the same academic heights as her classmates. Maybe they planned their time better. Maybe they chose not to have children until they finished their academic endeavors. Maybe their children don't need as many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as mine do. Maybe a lot of things... the bottom line is, I've decided that I won't let my circumstances take the wind out of my sails this time. I did not do as well as I had anticipated, but that has more to do with intersectionality than it does my intellect and ability to impact change.
Now here we are. On the eve of America's Independence Day. I hear fireworks outside. My oldest is spending the night with friends. My youngest is tucked in the bed of what he likes to call our "summer home". Half of our belongings are on the East Coast, half are here. I've dropped my second class for the summer, with hopes that I'll be able to catch my stride once I get on the other side of this very lengthy and involved move. I've decided to use my time to properly close out this chapter and prepare for the next, instead of running from one place to another, never allowing time to take control of my own narrative. In this time, I prepare.
So, I'm currently spending my days reading, writing, and researching. Preparing myself to be the change. I finally have the platform to do my part and to do it well with clarity and intention. Education is social activism. And while some march and some organize, I empower Black voices, giving them the tools necessary to speak their truths and to tell their stories. I am coming to this predominantly white community sharing history, pedagogy, and insights that will help round out our national view of America so that we might be able to move forward from this energetic fork in the road in a new direction, building on a new foundation that is indeed my ancestors wildest dreams.
I'm so grateful to be alive in this time. I'm so grateful for the light I can see so clearly on the other end of the tunnel. I'm so grateful to have found worth and necessity in my work. I'm so grateful to have access to resources for my children that have never been (and probably would never be) available to us. I'm so grateful for the gift of time. Being the mom who "does it all" leaves little time for intentionality, consistency, and groundedness in the home or anywhere else. As much as it pains me to leave my studio family, I understand that the studio life is not conducive to the type of care that's needed for my household or for my dreams.
I'm grateful for the time.
I'm grateful for the new community that is ready to welcome us with open arms AND with a healthy collection of summer reading that needs to be completely before our school-wide faculty orientation in mid-August. The list includes books such as:
A Most Beautiful Thing (Arshay Cooper)
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson)
The Undocumented Americans (Karla Cornejo Villavicencio)
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 (Ibram C. Kendi)
Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain (Zaretta Hammond)
Emotionally Connected Classroom: Wellness and the Learning Experience (Bill Adair)
From this reading list alone, I think this is a good move. So if you're in the city and want to kick it before we leave, we'll be here til the end of the month! After that, catch us on holidays and school breaks ✌🏽.