TOADTalk: Dr. Spinney on the Power of Place, Women, and Community

“All that we can see in this place reflects history on a grand, cosmic, and humbling scale.”
Each week, an All-School Assembly launches with the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) sharing something of interest—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. Recently, our TOAD was Russell Spinney. Dr. Spinney teaches history, advises tenth-graders in the Los Padres dorm, coaches boys’ soccer and Iyengar yoga, is an advisor to TASS and NewsDecoder, is a member of the Diversity Council, and recently helped start the Mycology Club. His TOADTalk is below.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome. For those of you who do not know me, I am Dr. Russell Spinney. I am still getting to know this place and this community. I love books, which some of you still have to return, and I love to garden and will send out an email about an event on cultivating edible mushrooms later today.

But for now, I want to do two things. First, I want to ground ourselves in this beautiful place, the Ojai Valley, and I want to introduce the idea of a palimpsest as a way to read it. It comes from ancient Greek, from palin which means “again” and psestos, which means “rubbed smooth;” it became common in usage much later in mid-17th century Europe in textual studies for a manuscript from which a text had been scraped or washed to make room for a new text, something reused or altered, but still bearing visible traces of its earlier forms. This idea of a palimpsest, I would suggest, is useful in thinking about this place and how our School connects to it.

All that we can see in this place reflects history on a grand, cosmic, and humbling scale. Our very presence here is rooted in Africa from which all of humanity originates. The first people here were once among the most diverse in North America with some of the highest population densities north of Mexico, hundreds of nations and sub-groups, languages and dialects, over a hundred officially recognized nations today, and some still not officially recognized. I want to acknowledge those people we know as the Chumash, who have lived here and still live here in the Ojai Valley, and I want to come back in the end to what that means for us here in this place and what we can do with that acknowledgment, knowing they are still here and they have revitalization goals in terms of the land, water, language, and culture. How can we become their allies and where might that lead?

Then there are the layers of Spanish and U.S. colonial settlement that can be seen in the way the land looks today, in the cultivated fields and pastures, the plants and tree species, like the horses of Central Asian origin, the citrus fruits cultivated and spread with the flowering of Islamic civilization across the old world, across Africa, Europe, to the Americas—all signs of globalization, an age of creeping ecological homogeneity, the Homogenocene, of human impact, the Anthropocene in all its grandeur, torment, destruction, erasure, and persistence; it is a testament to the deep, dynamic patterns of diversity that permeate this place, and many of the threads of our history that we must, must weave into our school and the communities we serve and can serve. So I urge us to get to know the land and its people in what we do.

You may also recall in my TOADTalk last year when I reflected on the changes that one cannot necessarily see so easily below the surface: about 1989, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and unification of Germany that I experienced that following summer, followed by the events of 1991, and the Rodney King beating. Little did I know what I was talking about, what was simmering beneath the surface back then in the early 1990s here and around the world, and little did I perceive what this current pandemic would reveal: The loss of life due to the spread of this virus, at its peak, like a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 event happening every day, economic shutdown, the loss of work, learning, and the oppression on full display, the hatred, the lies, and beneath that, the fear and the pain—as James Baldwin once observed. And at the same time, the pandemic has set off the most rapid international efforts in history to develop multiple vaccines involving years of work and collaboration and sharing among scientists, doctors, corporations, governments, and nations, and the depth of activism out there, long growing in the struggle for social justice that continues to ripple through this land, this School, and the world. It is interesting if not illuminating how changes happen, both intentionally and unintentionally, both gradual and rapid, and how these polar opposites and countervailing forces are so closely intertwined in who we are and who we can become.

But secondly, I want to celebrate Women’s History Month and Future by way of introducing you to my mom and the story of an inspiring person, a pioneering woman of color, an indigenous person, an immigrant, a professional working mother, and a person of music, science, faith, and community. So for a moment, think about someone who is important to who you are and want to be as a person, and more specifically, think about a woman or women in your own lives, maybe it is your mother or mothers, a sister, your twin, an aunt, a family friend, a teacher, or an inspiring pioneer in politics, business, the sciences, athletics, the arts, or activism. Think about just one of the many young women here at Thacher who lead every day in different ways and styles, like the seniors who graduated last year, the current seniors, the juniors I teach now, who set the bar higher for the sophomores I see rising, and those ninth-graders looking to all of us for inspiration and models in how to engage the challenges we all face. Think about that person. Think about all of those people. Honor them today, this month, this year, and beyond.

For me, it is the story of my mother, Dr. Carmen Estacion Spinney—she turns 80 this year. I believe this short rendition of her story offers some lessons for us today and so this one is for her. Take a look at this picture. Everything is sort of packed there into that photo. She comes from the Visayan-speaking peoples of the southern Philippines, an indigenous people, a matriarchal people, as I often point out, a different way of being led by women, a remnant of the matriarchal cultures that were once more widely present and still present across many of the islands of Southeast Asia and much of the world. Her sisters, my aunts, and their daughters, my cousins, are all amazing, highly educated leaders in their respective fields.

She is also an immigrant. When the U.S. opened its doors to non-European parts of the world to immigrate to the U.S., particularly in need of doctors and nurses in the midst of the Vietnam War, her papa urged her to take advantage of the opportunity to leave her home and her family, and make her own way out into the world. She moved to New York City and worked there in the emergency rooms of nearly every hospital in Manhattan from Mount Sinai and Beth Israel on the Lower East Side where I was born, to Bellevue and Harlem. She was the first female chief resident at Beth Israel. She made $1200 a year as a doctor (that’s $100 a month!), and so helped organize the first residents’ strike that led to better pay that still benefits doctors in resident there to this day.

But then I was born. I like to think that her choice in her partner reflects my mother’s openness to the world, that sense of hope and progress at a time when the ban on interracial marriage had just recently been struck down in many parts of the US in 1965 in the Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia. My birth got them to thinking that maybe life in the city was not the place to raise a family and so they moved to central Pennsylvania.

And to understand this part of the story you have to know how my mother transformed herself into a country doctor in a way that does not really exist anymore as far as I know: She wore a long white doctor’s coat and carried a little black leather bag with her stethoscope and other things a doctor might need. She made house calls that brought us into the homes of dozens of people: farmers and their families, the Amish patriarchs, the few Filipino and Black families in the area, and the houses of the old factory workers and coal miners, really the last of a dying world; she would show us the files of those men anonymously and explain to us the pathology of emphysema and black lung at an early age. There were lessons there about the agro-industrial economy that thrived up the western Susquehanna River valley and many other river valleys in this country—lessons that have stuck with me when thinking about the land, our economy, our politics, our health and well being to this day.

In general, people were kind and welcoming where we grew up. But my sister and I knew, we were made to feel that we were not from there. My mother remembers some people did not want to be taken care of by a female doctor and a female doctor of color at that. We learned on the bus rides home that we were brown and worse. When one boy, the second-grade school teacher’s son, called us the worst racist name one can think of, my mother called that teacher immediately and put an end to that. And one day, sometime in the 1980s, when a patient, a man, stood in the middle of our parking lot at the doctor’s office that was part of our house, gesticulating and screaming toward the office that my mother should go back to where she came from, that was the one time I saw another white man, my own father, come out and stand up to that man and ask him if he were a Native American, and if not, as was the case, then he too should go back to where he came from, and that was the end of that—at least we thought back then.

My parents were forced to stand together in resistance to the bigotry they faced, in a way, showing us how actively we need to live in the world if we choose the path that celebrates our diversity. I vividly remember her telling us that knowing the place we were growing up in, we had to keep an open mind, we had to be well rounded for all the things that might come our way, and we had to think with an independent, critical mind—things I want to pass on to my students and my children.

But that brings up my last point about family and community. She worked almost round the clock every day, seven days a week in the communities she served, and still made time for us. She sent money home every year to help her parents, she helped nieces and nephews go to school in the Philippines, she helped my sister and me get our education and be able to travel and see the world while she worked at home, never taking a real vacation. At her peak, she saw between five and six thousand different patients every year, some driving over an hour or more from the remote valleys in those mountains to see her. She prides herself on her ability to diagnose; she famously would not let the hospital board president interrupt her when she had something to say, and she was the first female president of her county medical society, recognized a few years ago by the State Assembly for her service to the people and communities of Northcentral Pennsylvania. The little hospital where we grew up is still there in large part because of her efforts to keep it there—so thinking about communities we serve, how to serve them, and how to help them grow are things I also want us to think about.

In closing today, think of the women in our lives and what they do each and every day for us in ways that often go unrecognized. What would history look like if we bring their stories more into the center? What can the future look like? What if we men practiced more humility, stopped trying to explain everything, took the time to see the violence, disrespect, and other challenges that women still face, and to equally honor what women offer, to pay them equally for the same work, to recognize that they often do way more work than men? I know I have work to do in these areas, to listen more, to learn, and to bring more directly into our curriculum and across our curricula with my colleagues.

I also think about the women here in this community: To my female colleagues and the work they do that deserves our recognition, our respect, and support—there is more to be done here too. To the young women, but especially [seniors] Joy, Chisom, Alexa, and Molly for challenging me to do better, to develop our US and World History curricula. I have a long way to go, but I go there because of you. I am deeply grateful for you and there is more yet to do. To the young men gathered here and listening in, the image of my father standing up to racism and supporting his wife and partner in her own career—I offer you as other models for being men.

As we are discovering in our studies of history this year, there is more to our roots, more to those threads that make us who we are that challenge us to reimagine the ideals of the self-reliant man and city upon the hill like an isolated ivory tower. There is much that has been airbrushed and whitewashed from our history, reflecting those destructive patterns in this land: the indigenous as if dead and gone, the red, black, brown, and yellow, all of humanity’s hundreds, thousands of beautiful hues, all shapes and sizes, a spectrum of gender, faiths, beliefs, different learning styles, ways of being and leading, and those idiosyncrasies that make us who we are—all complex, all present, all yearning to be recognized, all offering different ways to lead in the pluralism that is packed into the idea of what it means to be a full human being and person—to have that chance in this world to bring our whole selves to this place, to grow, and flourish, and be prepared to engage the world, to find meaningful purpose, and then more to think about it in terms of how we can serve the communities that are connected to all of us and the power we have to do more through this place and beyond this place in honor, fairness, kindness, and truth.
Thank you.

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