Trying to drain my swamp, and have a cookie.

It has been a struggle to form coherent and meaningful ideas in my head these days. This is my swamp – filled with Twitter hashtags, Facebook feeds, editorials, vitriol, Trump’s transition team. Perhaps, with a president elect who communicates through disingenuous and poorly formed ideas in 140 characters or less, this will be okay – perhaps an inability to effectively communicate is part of the “new normal” I keep hearing about.

Fnding time and space to allow my thoughts to try to reassemble – to find the signal in the noise as Nate Silver has always, until the 2016 Election, been able to do, remains a challenge. I considered deleting all the “social” media, but like an accident one cannot look away from, I keep returning. I feel like I am still waiting for people to see how badly they got played – are still being played – by believing that SOCIAL media is NEWS media. I am waiting for people to see that when China warns you about bad environmental policies, Germany is leery of your understanding of human rights, and Netanyahu says be better to Muslims – to say nothing of Glenn Beck announcing that we have done our nation a terrible disservice electing the likes of Donald Trump – that we have crossed into uncharted territory. This is real. This is happening.

I want to drain my swamp.

I do not even know how to have the conversations that need to be had – the ability to have discourse is gone, one look at the comments on any given news item will make this clear. When presented with unfavorable opinions and ideas, there is always some “news” we can turn to that presents our feelings and opinions as facts. And as we have seen, they are shared and repeated over and over and over until, somehow, they become truisms.

I have likened this impossible kind of conversation to dealing with a small child:

*Toddler takes cookie from cookie jar*
“Stop. You are not allowed to have cookies before dinner.”
“You never told me I could not have cookies.”
“I did, and I am telling you again. Put the cookie down.”
“Put the cookie down, you cannot have a cookie before dinner.”
“I do not have a cookie.”
“You are holding a cookie in your hand. I see the cookie right there.”
“This is not a cookie.”
“It is a cookie, and you need to put it back.”
“My friend said this is not a cookie. It is fruit and cake.”
“You cannot eat that before dinner.”
“You never said I could not have fruit and cake, you said no cookies.”
“So you know I said ‘no cookies’.”
“It doesn’t matter, this is not a cookie.”
“You may not have that before dinner.”
“But I want it! You get cookies! You get everything!”
“I am not eating the cookie.”
“But you will! You will eat my cookie and then I will get nothing!”
“I will not eat the cookie.”
*toddler completely falls to pieces screaming about the non-cookie crushing it and rendering it non existent*
“YOU STOLE MY COOKIE!”

How do you have conversation with people who look at the exact same thing as you and see something totally different? How do you avoid being so totally patronizing – as might be appropriate with the toddler in certain instances? More importantly, now that we have made conversation impossible, and the basis for determining FACTUAL information has disappeared with the ability to always find something on the INTERNET that says what you feel is factual and what you do not believe is a LW or RW media conspiracy?

What do you do when feelings become more important that facts – or completely replace them?

I had my students read this article months ago. The premise is that “a democracy is in a post-factual state when truth and evidence are replaced by robust narratives, opportune political agendas, and impracticable political promises to maximize voter support.”

In class we talked about the impact of “fake” news long before the presidential election results made the rest of the country start getting serious about it. I asked my students if they shared political stories on social media, to which they generally said yes. I asked them is they fact checked the information. They said, no – unless it looked ‘outrageous’. On getting to the point of what in the world might be outrageous in these days, we concluded that things which brought out our negative disbelief were the only things we fact checked. [A couple of them said that they considered me their fact checker, which although mildly flattering is really pretty scary if you take that to any number of logical extensions.]

In spite of the declaration that “the global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyberattacks and the failure of global governance,” from the WEF, no one wants to talk about the cookie in their hand. They want to talk about how they feel about the cookie, or their right to the cookie, or how your criticism of the cookie is unfair/wrong/hurtful/a conspiracy against the truth.

When feelings become more important than realities facing the world [climate change, human rights, for example], we have lost the ability to communicate.

Sitting with this frustration I came across this article [yes, the author is a white male, no, that does not invalidate it], and it provided a clearly articulated (much more than 140 characters, I’m afraid) explanation of so much of what I have been witnessing in my community, my work, the world. If there is a place on the planet that embraces, condones, and validates identity politics, it is Berkeley, California. Interestingly (and many may find, counterintuitively), as many of my intimates know, I have consistently said that Berkeley is the most racist and sexist place I have worked in my entire career. I actually don’t think those labels really accurately express what I have meant. Basically my sense has been that Berkeley is one of the least tolerant places in which I have ever spent time.

This year I have been faced with an even more extreme version of all of this, a result, I would guess, of an incredibly charged political year, but also a consequence of the notion of identity politics. I have students with whom I cannot talk about a growing variety of subjects because the subjects are unsafe for them. While I am not opposed at all to the preservation of safe spaces and acknowledging that trigger warnings are real and must be respected, I find myself constantly stuck in a tough place when I ask a student to meet an academic responsibility and they do not because said responsibility is causing them anxiety/panic/stress/ideological discomfort.

The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.

I am so frustrated by this reality.

Last year on a field trip with some of my very favorite students, we ended up at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was a retrospective on Bill Graham. There was a photo of the iconic SF Mime Troupe in the exhibit. One of the players was in blackface. My students were horrified by the photo. HOW COULD THEY HAVE THIS PHOTO ON THE WALL IT IS SO RACIST OF THEM!

In my efforts to explain several things to them [1. What the SF Mime Troupe was actually about; 2. What satire is; 3. That photos of racism/ists, while uncomfortable – and by the way not at all what this was – are not in themselves racist, they are historical artifacts which document our racist history and are therefore useful tools] I realized that their sense of self was preventing them from understanding what they were looking at. And these are good kids who want to learn things and understand things. Because they were never taught the historical context of the photo, and instead have been told to focus on their personal identity at every turn of their education, their feelings were impeding them from hearing the objective details and contextual history of the photo. These feelings are not inappropriate or something to bury, but they shouldn’t preclude the ability to take in information. In my work, feelings have become so paramount that if school work or historical information gets in their way, it must be set aside.

This is where the two articles intersect. Stories have power and the moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Our identities largely give rise to our stories, and the effort to acknowledge people’s stories is real work that should not stop. The trick is remembering that they, the stories and the identities, are not mutually exclusive realities, and that their coexistence requires understanding the real facts behind all of the stories. And yes, FACTS ACTUALLY DO EXIST.

In a country as actually diverse as we are, the stories are some of the best parts – but stories are not policy. They are not data. They are not that which mandates for everyone should be built upon. [Filed under one more reason I love Joe Biden.]

The articles could come together thusly:

Because these narratives typically involve a selective use of facts and lenient dealings with matters of truth, they have given rise to symptoms of a post-factual democracy. A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. 

Until there is a place where there are some baseline realities that can be agreed upon, I remain at a loss as to where I go from here.

Maybe the only thing to be done is to insist that a cookie may be a cookie – or it may be fruit and cake – but it is my responsibility to do the work of reading the boring details of the label and the background of the naming of things, regardless of not wanting to for whatever reason I might have… triggers or facts or bursting my bubble.

And now we are here.

When I woke up the day after the presidential election in 1980 at the ripe old age of 10, and my parents told me that Ronald Reagan would be the next president of the United States, I cried. I was sure that we were all going to die. We were entrenched in nuclear proliferation and Reagan had this weird anachronistic bone to pick with the former Soviet Union.

We did not all die – though I would argue vehemently that a huge number of people did die who should not have as a result of the Reagan presidency [see the War on Drugs and denial of medical attention to HIV/AIDS patients], and to be fair, the disasters of Reagan’s trickle down economic policies and gutting of social programs are directly related to myriad contemporary social problems in the country today.

Today we are still alive – though I would argue vehemently that a tremendous number of people feel that status to be incredibly tenuous as a result of a possible Trump presidency, and somehow Reagan has become the epitome of Republican values. A man who spurred our national debt to as-of-yet unrecoverable measure, considered a conservative. I would think it strange, but for the more recent turn of events.

I feel pretty confident that I am not going to die – literally or metaphorically – as a result of a Trump presidency. Not 100% percent, but pretty sure. But this is because I am a white, middle class, straight, CIS-woman, with an education. However, I do not feel at all confident that my friends of color are safe. Or that their children are safe. Or that my LGBTQ friends are safe. Or that their children are safe. Or that my Muslim friends are safe. Or that their children are safe. Or that my working, tax-paying undocumented friends are safe. Or that their children are safe. They are all at terrible risk of brash executive action (eventually) and rogue populist rage (currently) that has been normalized, rationalized, accepted, and therefore condoned by 26% of the eligible voting population who chose to allow a man of such little character as Donald Trump access to the presidency of this country.

Although I feel pretty confident that I am not going to die – literally or metaphorically – I have already seen how this new set of circumstances will impact what it means to be a woman in this country. Having suffered more than a year of being told that I was voting with my vagina; that I was ill-informed because of my dissent; that I was acting emotionally about something that required reason; that an incomparably more competent woman will still not be chosen over a man because she won’t smile, is not personable, is not a “10”, is too pushy/ambitious/sneaky; that my experiences are not valid – and possibly not even real – because I am playing a woman card, I am certain that I am at far greater risk for assault, abuse, disrespect, and disregard.

As a woman who was sexually assaulted in college (did you know most of my friends were assaulted and some of us did not even know that it was assault at the time, we thought it was normal? Did you know that when it happened to me my friend’s boyfriend freaked out that I might sue his fraternity because it was one of his fraternity brothers? Did you know years later this SAME person contacted my on OKCupid in Hong Kong and wanted to date me, apparently unaware that he knew me? Did you know that I chose to meet up with him – with a group of friends – to see if he would remember and he greeted me by saying I had a nice ass? Did you know that right now in 2016 not one single person would believe that I was “legitimately assaulted” by him because I never said anything at the time and that I was willing to face him again?) I already know that I am facing an uphill battle trying to explain – even to “woke” men that the kind of misogyny we are facing in this country is possibly more insidious than the racism, and that is a bold statement, but the evidence is there. When a student posts on Facebook “got totally wasted tonight and decided to walk home alone in the rain and it was such a beautiful night it made everything better” and I comment #MalePrivilege, his Berkeley raised and educated friends tell me to lighten up – it’s just a walk, and when I ask them if I could do the same, they say, sure if I wanted to risk it “like he did.”

So I wonder then, what hope I can offer the young women I work with who are not only women, but black and brown.

Today we are still alive – although I am getting killed by people on social media telling me that suddenly we are “one nation” and we need to “get along” and respect the democratic process.

Really?

Where were all you people when Obama tried to do… well, the list is too long so I will just say: appoint a Supreme Court Justice, for an example. Or how about the efforts to remove Obama based on the birther movement that was largely the creation of the now president-elect.

Yeah, I will remind you: you were not insisting people get along.

Eight years of disparaging the Obama family in ways far to gross to repeat and now #notmypresident is offending you?

Really?

Two years of “lying cunt”, “lock her up”, “shoot her for treason”, and threats of “fire and pitchforks” if your candidate did not win, and now you are trying to sound out kumbaya (I won’t hold you to spelling it, it’s a bigly word.)

The elevation of Reagan to Republican hero status makes me giggle these days. A man who inspired fear and terror in my 10-year old brain, seems different to me through the lens of history as well. Less demagogue and more Wizard of Oz, Reagan has become a work of fiction that few bother to actually study. If they did they would see that he would never have supported the kind of policies Trump is suggesting, and as Reagan’s family has made clear – he would have never endorsed a man as unhinged as Donald Trump.

When I woke up the day after the presidential election in 2016, I was shell-shocked, nearly catatonic. I could not believe that an electorate – even a numerically weakened one – would have allowed for such a coup. I did not cry, but I felt heavy. And so disappointed in myself that I did not see it coming: that I did not truly acknowledge it wasn’t  Trump who created in this country what I was seeing, he just encouraged these people to show what they have been all along – a group of people fueled by fear and dogmatic adherence to concrete understandings of a nuanced world.

We were not all dead – but little bits of me started to crack when I saw people saying “voting for Trump does not make someone a racist or a misogynist, they like his policies.” The thing is, he has no policies, and allowing someone to represent us that is truly as demeaning to human beings as Donald Trump is does make you – us – complicit.

Today I am sitting with the reality that 58% of white women voters voted for Trump. This was the group – the group I am a part of – that the pollsters never saw coming. 58% of voting women in this country hate another woman (or a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body) more than they hate a man who is facing child-rape charges, upwards of 12 sexual assault accusations, and believes that you can do as you please to women because there is nothing a quality piece of ass cannot solve.

Although I am devastated, scared, and bewildered by all of this… all I can think to say is you get the democracy you deserve. A climate denier has been appointed to the EPA transition team with the intent of dismantling the agency. A Wall Street banking savior is being floated as a chief financial advisor. The architect of the unconstitutional stop and frisk may be the next secretary of homeland security. Germany is warning us about violating human rights. China is warning us about dismantling environment protocols. When Russia starts lecturing us on the protection of civil liberties, maybe people will start to understand irony.

To the 26% I say to you, we are getting what you deserve. And because we allowed it to happen, I suppose we deserve it too.

My First Yoga Retreat.

*** Author’s Note:  I began writing this post on July 1, two days after I came back from Mexico. But then I realized I had to do a few other things and here it sat. Until now. But hey, who doesn’t love a good flashback?

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As we rode towards the center (we thought) of Cancun, SP and I clearly felt confused. This in and of itself was confusing because we are both well travelled and SP is a native Mexican and so a simple bus ride into to town should not leave us nonplussed. As we rolled by an Outback Steakhouse I said, “Shoot me now.” This comment caught the attention of a young gringa in front of us who told us we “just had to go to the Montero Steak House because it was so authentic” with such earnestness I almost felt like she needed a hug (the restaurant appears to be German owned, for what it’s worth).

When we finally stepped off the city bus in the part of Cancun that everyone apparently thought we were trying to find we looked at each other and looked around, and had no idea what the heck was happening. Eventually we got a map and saw – to some degree – what had gone wrong. Simply wanting an easy night out, maybe a margarita, on our last night in Mexico after thirteen amazing days in Xcalak & Tulum, we had asked every wrong person where to go and thus stumbled into a Samuel Beckett-like evening of absurdity.

Walking along a weird avenue that backed up to gigantic mega-hotels with water on either side of us and not a bar or restaurant in sight, our confusion increased. Eventually we reached the part of the “Riviera” where we were told the bars and restaurants were. It was a full frontal assault of awful that nearly had us breaking into a full sprint to escape.

By the time we reached The Fiesta Americana we were just like, “Get us to an air-conditioned hotel bar away from this hideousness.” And so we found one and sat down.

But they had no food.

So we went to another restaurant in the hotel someone recommended. We sat down in a lovely little spot and ordered drinks. And then were told that the only meal option was a buffet.

Are you kidding me?

So off we went to another restaurant in the same hotel. It was Mexican. How bizarre. It was a totally odd place with super high ceilings and even more super loud mariachis. But they had food and a/c.

By the time we left we were ready to spend every last peso on a taxi home just to get out of Cancun and back to our airport hotel. I can’t really say if Cancun itself was so bad, but the Zona Hoteleria was vile, and our sensibilities were not ready for it after two weeks of bliss.

Which brings to light the point of this post: The Bliss. Our yoga retreat and entry into to said retreat were amazing. So amazing in fact, that the weirdest night I have ever had in Mexico (and I have had some doozies) could not even dispel the amazingness.

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I cannot remember my original motivation to do a yoga retreat – I have never done one before – but I do remember making the decision to do this retreat. And the decision brought up interesting (unfamiliar) feelings around my yoga life. If I were to describe my yoga practice I would use words like: disciplined, traditional, focused, quiet, solitary, consistent, serious, quiet. It is not that I am antisocial, although Veer did tell me long ago, I needed to work harder to be a part of the group – the kula. I didn’t know why it mattered at the time, like really and truly, I couldn’t understand why it mattered that I get socially involved with the group of Hong Kong Chinese women I practiced with. Everyday. For three to four hours.

When I say it like that it feels pretty ridiculous to think I needed someone to tell me I had to intentionally and meaningfully engage with a group of people I was in close contact with every single day.

But, I did.

And then years later as I continued to grow my practice and get to know new teachers, I was maintaining my practice in a very similar way. There were some people I got to know by virtue of frequent proximity, and I would go so far as to say I even had a few yoga friends. So to suddenly join a yoga retreat in Mexico with a group of people – who I may or may not really know – would definitely be categorized in the “out-of-character” file.

But I did.

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Before joining (I can hear S.P. right now saying: “Look at you, you joiner!”) the retreat (with my friend in and out of yoga, S.P.) we went to Xcalak to visit my former building managers. These are two of the more amazing people I have met in my life. I met them in the way that you meet the people who run your apartment building, but a little bit more than that. And then when they told me they were totally changing their lives and moving off the grid to a (rad) rural part of the Mayan Riviera they had a going away party, which I attended, and at which they said “Come visit! Really!”

Now people say this kind of thing a lot. And I often wonder if they really mean it, not like it is disingenuous, but more like the likelihood of future visits being, well, not that likely make it easier to say? I took a chance that they meant it. The type of people R & C are are not the type of people who would ever tell someone to come visit if they didn’t mean it. I know that now for sure if I did not before.

This meant we had five gorgeous days in a really special place that I am not really super interested in telling people about because: too special. There were great talks, perfect silences, friendly ducks, grumpy geese, clever chickens, snorkeling, Sargassum, stand up paddle boarding, cold beers, delicious food, and immeasurable generosity.

One week after finishing the school year, I could not have asked for more.

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Next we were off to Tulum for a week-long yoga retreat with a teacher I admire and know well and have grown to really trust. This, I imagine, is why I found my self there, at a yoga retreat.

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The retreat basically kicked off on the Summer Solstice, which is cool. (This also happens to be the date that the Indian government pushed the UN to adopt as International Yoga Day… a notion that if one does any amount of research upon will leave one quite… fraught.) But waking up on the Mayan Riviera for a Summer Solstice sunrise is pretty awesome regardless of any other circumstances…

And so here I was. With some people I knew. And some I did not. Joining.

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The retreat itself was very special, and as with my previous week, I am not super interested in spelling out all the more intimate ways that it was special, because it seems like something that feels more comfortable taking up residence in my own conscience. I am not sure how it would compare to other yoga retreats because I have never done a yoga retreat. I can assure you it was very (VERY) different from living in the ashram… as it should be.

We did yoga. We ate good food. There was a lot of time to relax or contemplate, or tan, or get spa treatments (I mentioned it was not like my ashram, right?)

It was gentle.

And the thing is, I think I need more gentle in my life. I do not default to gentle. I get after it. I work hard. I do lots (and lots and lots) of things. I push myself (and yeah, others too, sorry.) That is all fine, but gentle might be too. It gives you time to do different things.

I made a bunch of new friends. Real friends, who live in my neighborhood and have priorities in line with my own in lots of ways. I joined things. We rode bikes to ruins, we floated down crystal clear canals through ancient mangroves, we had warm white wine and rolled up Velveeta cheese. We laughed a lot. One of our group who attends yoga retreats regularly said that this retreat was totally unlike any she had done before because everyone at this retreat had come because of their connection to this particular teacher. She said it was a completely different feeling of community. Like I said, I cannot compare, but I can certainly agree.

This experience both changed my entire reality at home – in the yoga studio and around my neighborhood – and set the tone for my entire summer. My kula has grown and I am really glad. It is not always easy to develop community in a bustling urban situation, but, here we are. Better for it.

Namaste.

 

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Just another blog about another dysfunctional relationship.

I have never been in a physically abusive relationship, but I have been in some seriously fucked up interpersonal collaborations with other people. They all eventually came to an end, so I guess I did something right eventually – or if I didn’t do something right, I still got the necessary results (in spite of myself, as I like to say.) The kind of shit I generally get into falls into a sort of weird passive kind of destruction. I suspect there are a fair number of people who would say I bring it on myself, or I create the circumstances that lead to the drama, either by my consistently poor choices in men, or my tolerance of truly shitty treatment. I like to say I am an optimist. Most of my friends would say I am in denial. Either way, the point is I have a pretty solid repertoire of experiences in which I stuck around and took a lot of costly, painful, and ultimately unnecessary shit.

Lately, I have been feeling some familiar feelings along these lines. But this makes no sense because I am in a really good place right now… my life is feeling really balanced, I am doing all the things I want to be doing, I have amazing people in my life, and great adventures awaiting me. And I am totally and completely single, so, what is this niggling feeling about? Why do I constantly feel judged, criticized, pressured, put down, and taken advantage of?

Last week as I got on the train to go to work I was thinking about this precise conundrum: Why did I feel like I was in a bad relationship?

[One week ago, on the Richmond Line]

I was grading papers – as I often do because, no time. A woman sitting next to me asked, “Are you a teacher?” I looked towards her and said, “Yes.”

“It must be a tremendous amount of work,” she continued.
“Yes.”
“It is so wonderful what you do. So important.”

At this point I looked at her. Smartly dressed. Some sort of security badge attached to a lanyard (only mildly complicating her attire), and, most notably to me, she seemed to not be schlepping a metric shit ton of work back to the “office” with her. I considered this as I looked at my huge bag, which I have made a conscious New Year’s resolution to carry on my right shoulder from now on because at least I should have symmetrical lateral deltoid, trapezius, and middle back pain.

“I have the utmost respect for teachers. Honestly, so much respect,” she said as she made a move to get up and exit the train.

“Thanks,” I said.

I looked back at the papers in front of me. They were shit, frankly. After weeks of covering the topic of world exploration and completing an insanely complex simulation, my sophomores had been unable to take the time necessary to form complete sentences that could express their ideas and knowledge about what they had learned. And it had been so much work. It was still to be so much work.

The man sitting across from me said, “So you’re a teacher? Me too.”

I looked up at him. He looked nice, like we all try to, but he was tired. And not just like, ‘I could have used a couple more hours of sleep,’ tired, but wholly fatigued. Although his freshly pressed shirt and kind face belied it, I could see it behind his eyes as he looked at my heap of shit, and then his own.

“What do you teach?” He asked.
“Social studies,” I answered.
“English.” He replied.
“Ah.” I nodded.

He told me where he taught and asked me about my school. We traded some comparative details, and then he said, “It is really hard, isn’t it?”

“What, the work?” I asked.
“No, all of it.” He said.
“Yeah, I guess. Yes.” I said.
“You know there is a war on teachers,” he said. “We are at war. And we’re out there, on the front lines. But, no support.”

I looked at him.

“Think about it,” he said. “We’ve got to protect and grow the most important resource, the kids. And everyone agrees, they are so important. But they don’t give us any support. They lay down their strategies from far away – imagine someone doing that in a real war, not listening to the field general. Anyway, and there we are, taking all the hits. No flak jackets for us.”

“She liked us.” I joked about the woman who had exited the train.
“They all like us,” he said. “That doesn’t pay my rent.”

I got up to get off the train and said, “Yeah. It is a war.”

Another man standing next to me, who had been listening, said, “Well, you can always quit.”

I looked at him and got off the train.

I walked towards school and thought about the morning commute. I couldn’t decide what would be a better theme song, this one, or this one because these are the things I like to fill my head with when life seems too real. Of course, neither of those songs work because what teacher on the planet works from nine to five?

Are we at war I wondered? Is it bigger than my own dysfunctional relationship with work? I work in the most highly respected and singularly devalued (literally) profession in the world. And more and more it starts to feel like the proverbial oldest profession in the world. (Except then we would be getting paid better.)

But I worry that this will sound shrewish, or that people might misunderstand and think I hate my job and say things like the guy on the train: ‘If it is so bad why don’t you just quit?’ (Obviously those folks are unaware of the complexity of abusive relationships, but whatever.)

The thing is, I do not hate my job. In fact, most of the time, most days, there are things I absolutely, without qualification LOVE about my job. I am not sure I could find a day where there is not something, even if it is infinitesimally small, that made me think, ‘Yeah, okay, this is good.’

I also am pretty good at my job. Now here one runs the risk of sounding like a jackass, but I am a good teacher – not that you would know it from the evaluations I have received at my most recent school – but I choose to look at more holistic and empirical data from nearly 20 years and 2,000 students and their people. And I am a good enough teacher to know when I have done an excellent job, and when I have sucked. And both have happened, and both eventually make me better at what I do.

Am I in an abusive relationship with my job? The more I thought about that question the less sure I felt. I thought about the other teacher on the train. It is not *my* job… it’s education. I am in an abusive relationship with my profession.

That just might make it a war.

According to someone on the web who thinks they are an expert here are some signs you might be in an abusive relationship:

  • A sense that you have to fit into someone else’s perception of what is right or wrong in order to be loved. √ Well, this certainly speaks to the enforcement of current education policy and of course the teacher evaluation process….
  • You feel confined. √ Let’s face it, people who go into teaching are probably relatively okay with structure, but the limits placed on teachers recently regarding movement, salaries, or even day-to-day things like extra duty certainly feel confining.
  • There is always something to fix in the relationship. √ Never good enough. And everyone let’s you know this. Daily. Just read the newspaper or turn on the news.
  • Your needs are not met in one way or another. √ I know it sounds redundant, but how are we supposed to get by on these salaries? Or even if we get by, how can you feel good about the hours and hours you put in such a “respected” profession when you make pennies on the dollar to all the private sector professionals around you?
  • You’re never going to be good enough. √ Never. “Those who can’t do, teach.” “Teachers are lazy.” “Teachers are brainwashing our kids with their liberal agenda.” (I am always curious how it can be both.) We give too much work. We don’t give enough work. We do not grade fast enough, or give enough feedback, or are too critical. *Sigh*
  • You feel trapped. √ This is an issue, but not because of fear, because if you change districts or states, you lose all your retirement and years – yes, in my profession you actually can lose years of experience. That is the weirdest thing I have ever contemplated, in a professional context anyhow.
  • You find other ways to satisfy yourself to keep your mind off how unhappy you are in the situation. √ Most teachers I know struggle to find the time to do anything for themselves. Until they hit the wall then it becomes necessary to ensure this reality. I am not sure this is bad… unless it is just to avoid reality. It certainly has been.
  • When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad it’s horrible. √ Truer words have not been written about my profession.

According to Psychology Today these are the signs you are in a dysfunctional relationship:

  • Assignment of Blame √ The problems in education are systemic – even a cursory look would tell you this. Regardless of this, all the players in the game look to point the finger. Usually at the teachers.
  • Threats of exile or abandonment √ It is the pink slip way of life.
  • Dominance/Submission √ The system’s way or the highway.
  • Grudges √ Yep.
  • Ownership √ Yep.
  • Disloyalty √ Yep.
  • Winner or Loser Arguments √ When people believe it is a zero sum game, this is what happens.
  • Snapshots versus moving pictures √ Did I already mention the teacher evaluation process?

Well, that certainly looks dysfunctional. I recalled the train conversation again. We are at war. And it is not me against my school, or my administration or my kids or their parents. We are at war against a society that has intentionally devalued education (insert conspiracy theory of choice here). We are at war against a system that disparages anyone who wants anything for free, but expects teachers to provide their services thusly.

This is not a dysfunctional relationship because it is not a pas-de-deux. It is a war because the participants on both sides of the equation are legion. It is a war. We are at war by choice or circumstance.

We are at war. Without a defense budget, without support, and we are fighting an overwhelming and ironic adversary: ourselves.

“Are you interested in Education Policy?”

Most of you are well aware that I have been dealing with somewhat of a professional crisis of faith recently. I have been teaching since 1995… and that is a long time. Especially because I never really thought about being a career teacher. But then, here I am.

People ask me (often) why I got into teaching. It was not totally random, but not unlike a lot of other teachers I know, in some ways I arrived here by a process of elimination. And I am not sure that is a good thing. No one chooses teaching to get rich (which is good since you won’t.) No one chooses teaching to get famous (some do, which is a little odd, and far more likely in Asia.) No ones chooses teaching (anymore) for respect, because although it consistently rates among the most highly respected professions in public polls, teachers are actually not well respected in our current societal structure. No one chooses teaching because it is easy (and those that do, the famous “June-July-August” folks, are probably as dumb as you might think, and not only because summer break is not inclusive of the summer.)

So why do people choose to teach? I chose it because I like school. I like learning. I like seeing how other people see the world and reinterpreting how I see the world. I chose teaching because, truthfully, I like teenagers. I find them funny (in a sometimes tragic way), I find them honest (in their confusion and search for an identity and purpose), I find them to be the new frontier – for better of for worse. I also looked at teaching as a viable career because when I began teaching, the modest salaries included benefits and a pension. Today the salaries remain modest, the pensions are an afterthought, and the benefits are a substantial portion of the still modest salary. I thought teaching would give me a wonderful vantage point into a changing world. And that it would allow me to develop the interests I carried with me from forever: Travel, photography, writing, reading. I also had some teachers who showed me first hand how with a little push someone could open my eyes and my mind beyond anything I might have imagined.

It sounded, at the very least, like it might be a workable fit for an appropriately angsty 20-something who had commitment issues and dreams far bigger than a cubicle could provide.

But nothing stays the same.

Now I find everyday a bigger challenge as teaching takes a back seat to protocol, numbers, meetings, and more meetings. And more meetings. And more.

In an effort to meet the increasingly (or at least increased awareness around) diverse learning needs of an increasingly intellectually diverse student population, the majority of teaching time is now dedicated to standardizing delivery methods and structures. And yes, it is as counterintuitive in practice as it is when you read it here. So, we constantly talk about how we can improve educational results without ever talking about what we are teaching or why – only how. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.

And in spite of all the talk, the results keep spiraling downward: test scores get worse, remediation in college increases at alarming rates, student interest diminishes, content covered evaporates.

Of course, blame is distributed with reckless abandon as well: it’s the kids! It’s the teachers! It’s the public school system! It’s the parents! It’s the lack of funds! It’s the lack of materials! It’s the lack of space! It’s the competition from overseas!

But, it is usually the teachers.

Universities blame the high school teachers (and in my experience often rightly because I can say categorically I have been pressured to pass students who have ZERO business getting a passing grade because there is a general sense that it will be more damaging for them to fail than to allow them to pass and move on. There is logic there that I simply cannot grok, but someone is buying it and selling it.) High school teachers blame the middle school teachers (again, I have to say that I have been very confused to meet high school sophomores who cannot read or complete basic math… do not even get me started about reading a map, or writing a complete sentence… so I can see why this blame shift occurs.) Middle school teachers blame the elementary teachers (how are kids matriculating from grade six without the ability to read or hold a writing utensil?) And then elementary teachers blame… well, I am not sure who they blame, they are an awfully nice bunch and sadly sit at the end of the teacher blame train. Is it the fault of the parents? Can you blame parents for not emphasizing education and supporting their kids’ educational progress when they are working three jobs and still cannot pay the rent? Or maybe might be deported at any moment? Or perhaps are taking care of a large extended family? Or are homeless? Or hungry? Or do not speak the common language? I am not sure, but that feels… wrong.

The other night my cousin innocently asked me if I would be interested in Educational Policy as a new career direction.

My drink came out of my nose.

Education needs more policies like I need an attitude adjustment. In other words, yeah, new policies might help, but not until the real issues around education (and my attitude) are addressed.

Trying to develop solutions to problems whose root causes you cannot identify is not only futile and a total waste of time, it is actually damaging. Not that I am a nihilist (I really am not) but this whole American education thing needs to be rethought.

We live in a society where intellectualism is not respected, but reviled (forget the reverence of days passed). We live in a society where intelligence breeds suspicion. We live in a society that no longer values traditional education. And while the first two conditions I mentioned make me sad, the third is where this whole conversation needs to start.

Americans see little value in traditional education. It is not getting them anything that they currently value (like high paying jobs and lots and lots of stuff.) If you have a conversation with high school students about college these days, they see little point in taking five years (because it is so hard to get the requisite courses) to incur crippling debt (that will go on and on and on) without any certainty of finding a job that can shoulder their financial burden, let alone that might be fulfilling in some other way.

And maybe traditional education is the problem. If we live in a society that thinks knowing Shakespeare is pointless, why in the hell are we still pretending it matters in school? If Americans think that knowing history is useless, then I ask you, how am I supposed to demonstrate that it matters to a generation of kids who are supported by society at large in the belief that I am wasting their time? Not that I agree with this, but I am old fashioned (if not just old). If the trend now is job training, and that is what people want, why on earth do we keep pretending that a traditional liberal arts education matters?

I do believe that knowing how to think, and reason, and having the mental endurance to solve problems and make new inquiries is important. And many people may say they agree with me in theory, but I am in the minority in reality I assure you. I regularly have students and parents (and even teachers) telling me that the kids should learn what they want to learn (I don’t even know what that means…) and school should basically be an apprenticeship program.

I get this. I do not agree, but I certainly understand. It is the age old classist dilemma that an education is a privilege of the rich – those who can afford to dilettante-ishly wile away the days contemplating philosophy and existential conundrums. And as such, it offers little to the general improvement and mobility of society. Again, I disagree, but I understand the position.

I remember in the 90s (and this is still a very real issue today) there being a ton of discussion about recruiting teachers of color and improving retention in secondary education. Someone asked me why I thought we were having so much trouble acquiring and retaining teachers of color. I looked at them like they were stupid, because I really thought they were. Why? Because if I am a first generation college student facing a pretty serious loan burden, why on earth would I ever go into education when I could go into computer science or business and actually contribute to my family’s and my own well-being? In fact, were I a parent in this situation I would never encourage my child to go into education. This is why professional educators are by and large so homogeneous – we are a group of people who can actually (barely, frankly) afford to be teachers.

Seriously.

And so the problem perpetuates (leading to the bullshit sayings like ‘those who can’t do, teach’) persons of privilege who had a chance to delve into their education because they could afford it go into education and try to share the coolness of said experience, and the rift grows as the student population becomes more and more disenfranchised with ivory-tower teachers.

Of course, I am speaking from my own experience and I am not in the mood to back my empirical evidence up with data right now. Maybe another day. For now I will just say this: writing more policy to improve results in a system in which the clientele is completely disinterested in seems pretty much like a total waste of time.

So, do I want to go into ed. policy? Hell no. But I would sure like to understand the shifts that have occurred in our educational priorities… better yet, I would like the ed. policy makers to take a look at these, because then maybe they would start developing some policies that actually addressed the issues at hand.

If traditional education is out, and job training is in, then so be it. Let’s stop trying to force the old system into new standardized tests. As I said, I am not a nihilist, but I predict acknowledging this shift would bring about the same results. Let’s have a specialized, apprenticeship program for our national education policy and just let that play out. At least for a minute we would be being honest about what is going on in education in this country.

On Teacher Evaluations: Or how to potentially commit professional suicide in less than 1,500 words

You can’t oppress someone who’s not afraid anymore. 

I wrote this post just under a year ago. I did not share it because… well, I thought it mattered not to. I still felt afraid I guess. But the struggle to do what I do, and to do it well, continues to grow everyday, and becomes more and more challenging at every level. Yet, my salary, benefits, and incentives do not grow, in fact are reduced and eliminated regularly (hello 35% increase in the cost of my benefits next month!) 

Now I no longer feel afraid. I feel frustrated, and ready to do something different rather than continue to try to improve a system that doesn’t want improving, or simply has a different end game in mind. I don’t know what that will be. In fact, I have absolutely NO idea what I might ever do outside of teaching because I never really gave it any real thought because I loved teaching, and I was good at it, and so why would I have?

I still love teaching. It is just so rare to be able to actually focus on doing that with everything else that has become a priority in American (or at least Californian) education. Recently, one of my team teachers said to me, “You should teach college,” which is an insult when levied at you by another high school teacher… it is code for “You do not really seem to have it in you to deal with the kids so why don’t you go sit somewhere in an ivory tower and contemplate your belly button along with your outsized intellect.” The funniest part of my colleage saying this to me, is he was party to the criticism levied at me by the “evaluator” described below who said I try to teach too much material and would be better suited for tertiary education, and told me that it was an insult (like I needed to know this.)

I don’t know what I might do next. But my times, they are a changing’….

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I had another “professional evaluation” on Tuesday. My administrator (actually one of two administrators who have been assigned to me because apparently I need double administrating) decided he would assess my teaching during my first period sophomore World History class, on the first day of the new semester, after a three day weekend. Because, what a great time for a quality demonstration of academic pursuits and endeavors.

Seriously.

And the more I thought about this, the unscheduled evaluations and the purported purpose behind them,  the more I realized, I am just not playing this game anymore.  Through, truth be told, there are some who have said I was never all that good at this game in the first place. [I am reminded of  the reaction of my illustrious graduate advisor Paul Starrs, on my contemplations around pursuing a PhD… ‘Well, I am just not sure you would fully appreciate the structure of the social science world at that level….’] But through this entire rigamarole at my current school, where they simultaneously offered me a permanent contract AND said I required further evaluation [really? REALLY? If I am that suspect, why are you keeping me around??] it has become more and more clear that the purpose of the Professional Teacher Evaluation has absolutely nothing to do with assessing or improving pedagogy. In even suggesting this, my disinterest in improving my methods is assumed. Which only further substantiates the fact that you are simply not paying attention.

And so as I sat and looked at the evaluation I would have to sign, always with the option to write a written response/rebuttal that no one reads and means less than nothing, I decided I would do my very best Lisbeth Salander and say nothing and just sign the damn thing. Which would be better than opening my mouth, because if I did you could be sure nothing good would come of that.

What would come of that would be something like this:

You are not interested in seeing how good of a teacher I am, or helping me become a better teacher. You are interested in “catching” me. Catching me not using the precise language, strategy or technique du jour that you have prescribed across the board for a faculty of 200.

If you were interested in understanding my teaching you would interact with the material, talk to the kids, ask me questions about what I am teaching, look at the products….

In a nearly 20 year career I know that I have actually taught some kids valuable things. Academic things to be sure, but also about social currency & fluency, and how to use the academic knowledge they glean in school out there in the real world. And this has been important, especially in schools heavily populated with students most people call “at risk”… and I call interesting.

I have acknowledged my students’ life experiences, (what we used to call schema but I’m sure you have some other word for it now) and I have allowed my students the opportunity to be authentic in their learning and related experiences, not forcing them into a sentence framed cookie cutter way of experiencing and expressing everything. Through permissible authenticity the kids I have taught have been able to see how what they bring to world can be modified and customized to fit and work for success, but fundamentally remain the unique and interesting people they intrinsically are.

Sure there have been kids I did not reach and did not like me – an AP Lit student who plagiarized his entire senior project (and then convinced an administrator that it was because he was unclear on the objectives of the assignment and believed he had done what I wanted – and she bought it! ) comes to mind, but those numbers are far fewer than those who I made laugh, work hard, think, write, read, complain, and DO WORK all along the way, in an often archaic and sometimes ineffective (childish and stupid) American high school system.

But you are not interested in knowing these things. You do not want to know if I am effective – or affective. If you did you would look at the results I achieve with my students in your programs like common assessment and literacy (the top in the school if you are prone to quantitative analysis. You would look at the work my students are doing in the larger world with technology, in spite of embarrassing tech limitations. You would look at how I handle and manage my most vulnerable kids after school and outside of the classroom through any number methods.

But you don’t.

You come to see seniors in the afternoon before vacation or finals. You come to see sophomores first period on the first day of a new semester. You hassle me over minutia – you don’t like art on the walls. My calendar is not up to date enough (time passes you know?) You ask me to use different colored dry erase markers. You want to know why my white boards aren’t cleaner. And you put this in my professional evaluation, which purports to evaluate how I TEACH.

You say my class is too hard when I challenge students and lacks academic depth when I “scaffold.” You are unaware that the fluctuation in rigor actually moves kids through a super rigorous and fast-paced curriculum by building confidence and then creating opportunities to take intellectual risks. The ebb and flow challenges them and creates a safe place that builds trust and lets them explore their metacognitive abilities.

You say I must check for understanding by having every one of the 30+ students in every 58 minute class period practice individual oral expression; and in the same breath you say ‘Give them time to think!’

But really, the problem is bigger than your lack of interest in my actual ability to teach teenagers, so that just makes the whole “professional evaluation” that I am not going to read but will passively sign, even less meaningful.

The thing is, our kids need to want to learn, and we’ve created a society in which – for many reasons (incompetent schools, myopia, ignorance, ill placed priorities, an emphasis on wealth over substance, a refusal to acknowledge that the achievement gap cannot be fixed until we give historically disadvantaged or low achieving kids and their families a minute to actually think about school without worrying about a million other things like survival) the education we are selling is not being bought.

So, when I teach kids who are uninterested in a traditional education I have to find different way to show them it matters. This is not done with your sentence frames. It is done by modeling successful, tenacious behavior. This behavior manifests itself in most of the things you cannot stand about me: how I dress, how I speak my mind, how I laugh at myself and with others, how I incorporate material or methods that borrow from pre-existing interests to hook kids, how I use language to express complex ideas/speak, and how I maintain my authenticity in the face of your unyielding demands to make me leave that all behind.

And by the way, if that means they hear me use a swear word once in while… I think they’ll survive.

Ai Wei Wei @Large on Alcatraz

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Every year I take my seniors to Alcatraz Island as part of a unit of study on the prison system. Because Alcatraz is a National Park, there are some other perks, not to mention the unusual vibe that is created when a prison becomes a veritable themed park… And one of the perks is that they have revolving art installations on site. One year, there was a ton of period pieces memorializing the island’s film history (that year JJ Abrahams was also filming key scenes for his less-than memorable show “Alcatraz). Another year there was an installation by the former artist-in-residence at San Quentin, Richard Kamler, best described here. That was coupled with a restorative justice program featuring formerly incarcerated men and the world that awaited them.

Alcatraz has a history of not only being home to some of America’s most “dangerous” people, but also as a place of protest. In 1969 native groups took over Alcatraz, occupying it for 19 months.

For all these reasons, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei decided that Alcatraz would be an excellent location for his latest exhibition.

He was not wrong.

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In creating a major conceptual installation while unable to leave China, Ai created a fascinating look into “ideas of confinement and what it means to be a modern political prisoner” – something he is all too familiar with. Integrating the motifs of birds and flowers throughout, there are many layers to explore throughout the exhibit.

The concept of the ‘caged bird’ is clear and in using birds throughout the installation and emphasizing the sense of the birds being trapped within the confines of the prison, Ai integrates myriad sociocultural elements. Anyone who has spent time in China is aware of the presence of caged birds, they are everywhere, ironically, often outside as the little old men who have them bring the cages out with them, effectively walking the caged birds. The five-ton birds wing constructed of Tibetan solar cookers emphasizes this feeling of being caged to nearly excruciating levels: it is viewed from the gun gallery of the New Industries building, an entirely claustrophobic situation, and is so large, I would encourage visitors to bring the widest angle lens they can get their hands on. Further, the only method of communication that Ai has consistently had access to while in China under state control and heavy internet censorship, has been Twitter (note the eyes of the dragon). And providing a way for the political prisoners to “sing” is one of the goals of the show, as Ai says, he endeavors “to address what happens when people lose the ability to communicate freely.

Flowers complement the use of the birds (also not lost on Ai was the natural habitat of Alcatraz and its role as a bird habitat and its extensive gardens) in the exhibit. Alluding to the 100 Flowers Campaign of the late 1950s in which Mao Tse Tung  suggested a “policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.” Mao quickly changed his tack when dissent arose, and the ensuing crackdown had a direct impact on Ai’s personal history. In this exhibit, the flowers appear in the hospital (a part of the prison that is rarely open during tours) overflowing from the sinks and toilets. Pretty clear statement. Ai’s use of porcelain is intentional for its strength and fragility, as well as a statement on the plight of China’s porcelain artisans. Using the toilet is also a likely homage to Marcel Duchamp’s iconic work, Fountain.

Both the birds and flowers come full circle as you enter the dining room and see shelves of postcards, with the national bird and national flower of every country that is currently holding political prisoners (the same people depicted in Legos in the New Industries Building). The cards for each country are then addressed to all of the prisoners allowing visitors to Alcatraz to write to the individuals being held. And they are being mailed to all these individuals.

Birds and flowers. Enemies of the state and heroes of the people. Finding flight and a song and a habitat on Alcatraz… a seemingly uninhabitable place…

There are several audio elements to the exhibition also, and a short film explaining why and how Ai chose Alcatraz and the works were installed. The exhibition book is also awesome (and super inexpensive!.)

This is a once in a lifetime experience and absolutely not to be missed.

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