Surprise Gift Gathering at NPE Chicago 2015


In high school (yes, well over three decades ago), I was, for two years in a row, elected as “Spirit Leader” as part of Student Council. I teased that it was like a cheerleader without the skirt. 😉 I took the role very seriously and sought to highlight, encourage, and cheer not just the bigger teams (football and basketball) but ANY group—debate team, band, the cheerleaders themselves, the yearbook committee, the teachers, the janitors, the bus drivers, and so on. It is a gift or knack I had and still have.

As a two-year old newbie activist, I find my role as Creative Director in the BadAss Teachers Association, much like that role was so many years ago. I am NOT a teacher (close but, no cigar). I do NOT have children in public school. But I have, since a very tender age, always been an outlier promoter for public schools.  I vie to support and urge on the ones who are leading in this fight for so much. And to corral those in who need the groups or would be great contributors.

Talk and plans began for #NPEChicago back before snow started to even fly in Ohio. It was thrilling to hear who was going to seat what panels. I set a personal goal. I wanted to help, to urge those on, who may have needed to attend the conference on a frayed shoestring budget. (I did not know scholarships would be given). I talked several into attending who worried about finances and assured them I would cover their food costs. My goal was to save 25 people the cost of meal tickets, the time to hunt budget meals down, and the energy it might take to “go and eat.” I planned and cooked up a spread, thinking people would have the gift of processing and visiting while eating also, but alas, it was a total failure. No microwaves in THE Drake. This then was the sharpest LEARNING CURVE for me in Chicago.

When you spend the hours upon hours that we in BATs, in leadership especially, spend together, even though it is virtual, you do truly get to know folks. All that needs added to complete the love and respect, is a hug and that solidifies all the rest of it.  I simply could not wait to actually meet some in person whom I had not met yet and to meet up again with those I had met in DC last year. I am not even a hugger, but my numerous hugs were ‘all packed’ as compact as one could possibly manage. One over-zealous, anticipated hug, right as I arrived in Chicago, was accidentally bestowed upon a visitor (a literal stranger to me and not at all associated with BATs or NPE) right in front of the Drake. And so the surprises began.


Tanaisa Brown, ALWAYS catches me off guard with her gift of activism, as though it comes so natural to her. She got us cheering ourselves on, and I quite BELIEVE that some others in that hotel did surely hear the noise swell and wonder what it all was about. Energy begets energy always and she and the Newark Students are electric.

Newark students

Brother Jitu Brown gifted me with two things so far (it will take me a long time to process all I heard and felt over the weekend, so I am knowing there is more on its way.) First he helped me to heal somewhat in the despair I felt when Jesus Chuy Garcia did not win. Brother Jitu without directly saying as much, set my flighty feet back solidly on the ground again and reminded me this is a marathon not a sprint. When he mentioned the TEN YEARS leading into the historical run-off race, I was steadied by his steadfastness.  He stabilized me with his long standing history in activism. He lifted my eyes off of the drudgery of the work that often goes towards discouragement and disappointment of the losses, and not even onto the prize as some would say, but to the IN-THE-MEANWHILE-ACTIONS. He said to celebrate the little victories. He said to celebrate every single one of them. And that came right to mind and literally guided me, at a time when I was feeling so exhausted with the battle, a mere two days after returning home from Chicago.

It was now morning of the first day of the conference…and seriously I could easily have packed up my trays and containers of semi-frozen food, and my now more reasonably packed load of hugs and headed back to Ohio to fight the good education fight. Having heard those two, I was FILLED honestly, and my warrior batteries were recharged. But that was just the beginning. (I am supposing I will need whole other outlet/processing writing times to cover the gifts I came away with from the panels for I already see I am well at 800 words.)

So in the middle of the conference, and truly quite unexpectedly we were all treated to LAUGHTER. I have followed and read  Dr. Yong Zhao’s pieces here and there but I mistakenly always heard them in a very serious manner. I love how he keeps his intelligent input into all of this REAL; but I never knew or heard how cleverly funny he can also be. Aside from all of his well-made points, he reminded me that retaining our humor in the midst of this ‘war’ is crucial. Laughing counteracts the extreme stress of all of this, engages the audience in a soul-touching manner, and gives others the ability to lock in and pass on the message in a very ‘people-friendly’ mode. I am often so humbled in the presence of so many truly badass speakers, activists and writers that I do sometimes question the value of my parts in leadership. I tease that I am the weakest link in the leadership circle of BATs….but that if I hold on as absolute tightly as I can, then we are good. I do have the gift of comedic relief (sometimes very intentional and sometimes I just fall into it…..like the Oklahoma-hug-I-gave-to-a-stranger-story which had many of us doubling over with laugther.) As grave and grueling as all of this fighting all is, giggles do build gumption somehow.

The conference crescendoed. Now for me the climax was finally here. I figured Karen Lewis was somewhere in the hotel and I found the fact that I was in the same building as her, to cause me a bit of something that reminded me of my mom describing how she swooned as a pregnant teen when she learned Johnny Mathis was in the same building as her. I thought she was silly. I RARELY ever feel this many sensations for the chance to just catch a glimpse of another person. I thought myself very silly for the fact that my pulse was in my ears when there right in front of my very eyes was (well, in my mind) ‘Madame Mayor’. I felt sad… I was thinking I so should have brought her a bouquet of lillies-of-the-valley or single gardenia….my mom’s favorites. My mom died from brain cancer, and she would have so loved Karen Lewis. Diane and Karen tossing affirmations of admirations back and forth was something I will never, ever forget. I kept experiencing gratitude for both of them, in a way that I had to almost gulp the feelings back down. What they have given will never be able to be given back to them. They give so sacrificially and genuinely. I KNOW what it was for my mom to go anywhere during chemo and radiation. The effort to dress, to be around lights and noise, to listen and funnel out background noise, to make the words come as she wanted them to come, and so much more would sometimes be a price of days in bed for a two hour event. That compromised immune thing is no slight thing, a teeny tiny cold for us was near death pnuemonia for my mom. If Karen would have only sat in that chair without saying nary a word…I would have gone away feeling inspired. But, she spoke. She had no cue cards. She had no platform planned. She had sheer unconditional love for all of us, for this cause. My mind was racing thinking what could I write her, or give to her, a small token, a gift, some symbol of gratitude, but nothing came to mind.

THEN, surprise of all surprises of the best surprises. Karen expressed gratitude to BATs for we “swarmed” one time on Twitter when she had some nasty, gnarlies rise up against her. I remember that day very vividly. There was no holding us back when we caught drift of the situation. SHE VOICED GRATITUDE TO US. I think I could have nearly fainted as my 17- year old mom said she did when she was walking the halls of the navy hospital, laboring with me, and bammed right into her teen idol Johnny Mathis. (I always thought that the silliest of stories.) But my face felt flushed, a lump was in my throat, and my heart was just pounding. And then, Karen said it. She asked for something. We strained to be attentive to her now weakening voice. And she said she would like a BAT SHIRT. Before I even knew what had come over me….out of my mouth shouted in the midst of that 500 plus audience—-“I’d take mine off my back and give it to you!” It was like a giant thought bubble that bursted and had full stadium volume. I was floored that that came out of me like that. And I did consciously think, ‘Thank God I do NOT have it on right now, or I likely would be being kicked out of the Drake for being in my bra only.’ Within seconds really, the woman sitting next to me elbowed me. Someone had tweeted the comment out.
Now I felt compelled to follow through. I dug in my nearby suitcase, and pulled out the balled up worn shirt.

I only have ever bought TWO BATs shirts (I was given a DC one which I love and wear always)  I had bought an Ohio BATs one and found myself giving it away in DC to a BAT from Hawaii. She and I had developed quite the bond and she had come bearing all kinds of gifts in an island hospitality manner. I wanted to give her something back. Something that meant a lot to me, something that would be a sacrifice to relinquish. I decided on my Ohio BATs shirt, but I had worn it at the JULY RALLY. I placed it in a plastic bag and gave the shirt and my love speech to Mireille. In the middle of this ceremony of sorts, I suddenly felt childish and foolish that I was giving something that needed laundered as opposed to sending her a new one; but, I simultaneously felt strongly that I did not want her to have just any Ohio BATs shirt but MY OHIO BATs shirt. Much to my surprise she teared up and was so blessed by that gift…I kept stuttering and apologizing saying I should have just mailed her a new one, and to my total surprise she took that smelly, sweaty shirt from the bag and rubbed it against her cheek affectionately. I was shocked. But, she understood the gesture.

Now, at this conference, I knew there was no way in hell that MY unlaundered BAT shirt (the second one I have ever owned) could come in contact with Karen… she could not hold it up to her even….I needed a bag…..people who know me saw it in my eyes, what I was planning to do. They tried to dissuade me… “we will send her one, Kelly. We will buy her a new one.”  But I felt compelled that she have MINE. It was a drummer boy’s style present. It was the best thing I had at the time. It was symbolic of so much, but mostly of the largest expresssion of love I could offer.  It was a humble gift for  a beautiful woman with a pure ruby-gemmed heart. I celebrate her life.

my shirt


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