a burro learns to breathe

shea martin
Identity, Education and Power
6 min readNov 11, 2019


image by Mark Mayers

I was born a burro — big-boned and strong enough to carry the weight of my world. Once deemed indispensable by explorers and travelers, the burro is known for its tirelessness and strength in the journey.

The women in my family have always been burros, always served. Mama helped the homeless. Grandmama served church folks on Sunday and the rest of the folks on the other six days at a diner.

And everybody and their mama agree — my mama and her mama were the best at it. So good in fact, that I imagine if you traced my blood back across the sullen cotton fields of Virginia, across the unforgiving waves of the Atlantic, you would find my ancestors on the coast of Africa; strong and mighty women who only gave and took crap from no one; known for the weight they carried without regret, complaint, or rest.

While grandma chose the pews and mama chose the shelter, I chose the classroom. And my work — my kids, their families, my colleagues, our community — is my life.

You see, burro is in my blood. I am built to balance the burdens of the world on my back while requiring almost nothing from no one.

So when I fell last month, I lost more than just my balance.

The restaurant bore my identity in its name — The Painted Burro; its ambiance matched the beauty in the name — rustic and bright and practical with enough queso in the fundido to make my lactose-intolerant body quiver with equal parts fear and joy. The night’s conversation started jovially over margaritas and laughs but slowly turned to my impossible schedule and trauma I experienced within an unhealthy school community. My wife, adamant that something be removed from my load, pled for my livelihood over chips and salsa. Our friends as her choir, the deaconess of my soul fought me for my time and health before our food arrived.

In between bites of my torta and sips of my margarita, I explained to my dates what they didn’t understand.

“They need me,” I said. “My students and work come first. It is hard, but it is necessary. The most important stuff is always hard, but doable. I don’t have time to rest. I am — — CRACK”

My sentence was splintered by the crumbling of the handcrafted chair beneath me. As my body hung in mid-air, I willed her to make a liar out of gravity as she always had, but the floor demanded my presence, demanded my weight be scattered for all to see.

I was born a burro — big-boned and strong enough to carry the weight of my world. Until I wasn’t.

On the floor, I sat in disbelief, collecting the pieces of the chair in order to repair its damage, to take care of its brokenness; my hands apologizing with tenderness for the burden of my body.

When my eyes found the courage to look up, a wrinkled cocoa-buttered face smiled, handed me her chair, and walked away; in her face, I saw heaven and everything I love about black womanhood in one — strong in posture, kind in spirit, and generous in love. Her presence lifted me into her seat, but in it, I had never felt heavier.

I coerced the last word of my sentence from my throat, “Okay. I am okay.”

I think I learned the art of okay many years before I could even write my name. My mama and grandmama had taught me how to be okay even when okay was not possible. When the money didn’t come, we learned to be okay. When grandmama died, mama taught me to be okay and when mama died, I taught myself.

I have learned that okay is often all I can hope to be in my blackness, queerness, and womanness. Because burros, like black bodies and black souls and black minds, are made to withstand even the heaviest of burdens. Carrying these burdens and being okay is what makes us the most magical of all.

“I am okay and I have never been so happy to have so much cushion than just now,” I joked with my table and rubbed my backside. I smiled and assured them I was okay because I had too much to carry through the week ahead to be anything less than.

Hours into being okay, my back burst open in pain and my soul wailed out in exhaustion. She wailed on the way to the hospital, through testing, and wailed herself through the next day of medically induced sleep.

I can still hear her wailing when I breathe,

when I sit,

and when I stand.

My soul, the burro wails — lost and broken.

For what happens when a burro is no longer able to carry its burden? Of what use is it to the world? Is it still majestic in its weakness?

And what happens when a black woman, an educator, a leader is no longer able to carry their burdens? Of what use are they to their community? Are they still magical in their brokenness?

I have always defined myself by the load that I carry, by how well I carry it, by the amount I am able to carry and still exist and thrive. I have always taken pride in a wide load because it shows my strength and tenacity.

That’s what folks like me have been trained to do — black folx, educators, women. We have been taught that our worth is determined by the load we carry. We have learned that the weight of the world is not greater than our strength. We are proud.

They say pride cometh before a fall, but what happens once you rise again?

For now, my fall has rendered me with no other choice but to learn how to roam wild, how to order my own steps in this work, how to breathe without permission, how to simply be without burden.

Can I be honest? I am afraid of forgetting to rest once I rise. In my work, I am relentlessly preaching self-care to my students and colleagues. I lead a community focused on self-care for educators working toward liberation. I help my students through panic attacks when the burdens of their existence, homework, and responsibilities are just too much to bear. I tell my people to take care because they deserve to experience all of their love and worth for themselves; I tell them to drink water, to breathe, to sleep, to eat, to love themselves more than they love this work. I tell them I need them. That I love them. That they are more than what they carry. That their beautiful existence is enough.

And this — this undying support of others is my calling, but it is not my habit. As a burro, I am notoriously bad at drinking water, breathing, sleeping, eating, and loving myself more than I love this work. So when I fell last month, I lost more than just my balance. I lost my definition of what it means to be.

A month has passed and my big-boned body has stitched itself back to normalcy — strong, mighty, and ready. My soul, however, is still catching her breath from her break/down. Slowly, I am learning to breathe and call it liberation.

In my rest, I am searching for myself in the absence of responsibility and worth to others. I am slowly learning what it means to be a burro without a burden to bear and perhaps this unloading requires the most strength, love, and care of all.