White + Feminist = #whitefeminism?

First things first, admissions. I have been both troubled and confused by the idea of white feminism for sometime. Not necessarily semantically in its discrete parts, but conceptually as the compound descriptor. My troubling confusion certainly could be tied to the fact that as a CIS gender, straight, white (confirmed by 23 & Me who are now selling my genetic data), mostly middle class (for what that is worth anymore), woman, who considers herself a feminist, I simply have not been able to see White Feminism as the thing that it is, obliviously wishing that all feminism is good feminism because Feminism.

That obliviousness is embarrassing and uncomfortable to admit. I would rather explain how I actually am aware… but it is becoming clear to me that my Spidey Sense for this sort of thing is really weak.

Admission #2: a big point of discovery around this concept, its meaning, power, marketing, and danger, has come from Instagram. Let’s unpack that, shall we?

I enjoy Instagram quite a bit, and as I moved beyond my friends and family circle, some of the first accounts I began to follow were yogis. Except Instagram yogis are very specific: they are incredibly fit (bordering on dangerously thin in many cases), seemingly of unlimited wealth for travel and attire, and they are all white. Beyond being all white, they really all look almost exactly the same; sinewy, extraordinarily low-body fat, long hair with “beachy waves”, and a lot of Pure Vida mantras, malas, and #inspo. It became pretty clear that these are not actually “yoga” accounts in terms of the actual practice of yoga (don’t misunderstand, they are legend in their ascent to asana) and the ideas behind it, these were more… “lifestyle” accounts, akin to Stuff White People Like. There is a complete overuse of words/expressions like BADASS! GODDESS! LOVE WHAT YOU DO! HAVE IT ALL! SELF-LOVE!

Ugh.

I also started to follow some celebrity accounts (yes, Beyonce) and some activists I like and as it goes in these environs, I would see occasional reposts from friends and others, which would lead me somewhere, and then somewhere else. Of course I have a hefty number of basketball accounts on there, a lot of Oakland Athletics stuff, a good amount of Grateful Dead related things, and OH MY GOD I AM SO WHITE.

After a while, I started unfollowing a lot of the “yoga” accounts (I mean really, they are all the same) and other accounts that didn’t really fall under any category except for the Instagram-derived “Influencer” title (gag.) I started paying more attention to the accounts that promoted ideas and platforms that I have become more and more vested in as we suffer daily under the current shitshow in Washington. Shaun King, Everytown, W. Kamau Bell, the Obamas (obvs), Deray McKesson… I use Twitter for most of my political trolling and news, but I have enjoyed seeing some of these same accounts on Instagram. [As a side note, Ros Gold-Onwude is like the perfect storm of so much of what I love: smart, funny, agent of fashion, athlete, sports commentator, all around awesome.]

Anyhow, fast forward to July 22, 2018. I am sitting in my parents kitchen and I see on Twitter that a young, black woman has been murdered at the MacArthur Bart Station. I say to my mom, “Another young black woman has been killed.” She is in a place where this sort of news is often too much for her. For me, I am compelled to read the details. As a teacher – very recently in the East Bay – these young people are my students. I must know, every time I see these stories… “Is it one of mine?” I also am a daily Bart rider during the school year and this happened in my backyard.

Nia Wilson.

She was, and now is forever, 18. Beautiful. Emergent. A child.

Nia_Wilson.036136402_2048865798517797_149137112946442240_n

The regularity with which these sorts of crimes are occurring in this country is staggering and disgusting. (On July 8 I received and email from the principal at my new school, letting the community know about the July 6 murder of one of their young alumni, Milan Ardoin, and her mother, Valinda Scott, in their home in Antioch, this got little to no news coverage, and I definitely did not see a lot of Insta/Twitter action and I was looking.)

In Nia’s case, there was a lot of action on Instagram – in certain circles. I was watching because I do. Eventually I landed on this post from Rachel Cargle (who you should definitely follow.) I was not a follower (at that time) so I am not sure how I got there, but it struck me. I got to thinking, “Hmmm, I wonder if YogaGirl ™ had commented? Nope. (In fairness she has now.) I looked through some of the other “woke” white people I could think of. Not much to see. Then I started looking at who the people were commenting on Rachel’s post. This is particularly interesting because she framed it the prompt as “your favorite” white feminist, which already indicates you are tagging people who you like/look up to/follow/support. This inherently, to me, means if you tagged someone you are saying, “Hey, I like you and I think you have a lot of influence and power and I think you should consider directing it this way.” This does not seem divisive, exclusive, mean-spirited, or bullying to me. But maybe that is just the teacher in me, always trying to lead people to take their own actions…

What eventually transpired from this post was an epic Instagram comment saga the likes of which I have never seen – and was compelled to read (and it was HOURS of reading, seriously.) What emerged most prominently was that the woman behind an account I had followed for a time (but unfollowed because her use of social issues for personal kudos had started to make me really uncomfortable) began to literally lose her shit. Like, completely. I am a little bit afraid to mention this account by name because I am actually quite fearful of her and what I have seen her to do people who disagree with her under her “I take no shit” banner. However, for the sake of clarity I have to say her name, but know that it is with hesitation: Alison Brettschneider. Her 50+ hour tirade of “defending” herself (although initially the comments suggested it wasn’t actually her commenting but an assistant, though semantics were inconsistent enough to lead me to believe she was John Barron-ing us) was the window into what #whitefeminism actually is and the irrefutable damage it inflicts that I needed to see in order to really get a handle on the concept. (If you are interested you can begin the Herculean hike through the comments on Rachel’s post and her subsequent posts – one of which was explicitly providing a space for BIPOC women to share their feelings and Alison reported as hate speech and was temporarily removed by Instagram.)

Screen Shot 2018-07-27 at 10.30.27 AM

Hate speech?

As I read (for nearly three days!) the ongoing posting around this and saw how Brettschneider used tactics like name dropping, tokenizing, doxxing, name calling, and dehumanizing those in disagreement with her while rarely addressing the actual topic at hand (Nia Wilson) I was aghast. Horrified.

And

it

just

kept

on

going.

I thought out loud – this is what it must feel like to be a BIPOC woman every god dammed day.

This is #whitefeminism #whiteexceptionalism, #whitesaviourism, #whitetears, and all the rest. There is no way around it, it is #whitesupremacy.

I had to sit with that for quite some time.

Behind all that generic lifestyle shit overlaid with inspirational quotes and good lighting is the machine of oppression at work. Even if you think it is pretty, that is what is happening.

Am I a #whitefeminist? I desperately want to say no. I do know enough to keep my mouth shut in spaces that are created to give voice to those who have to work for that space rather than rely on the assumption it will be granted. I think I know how to be an ally, but I know that it takes a lot of work and requires hearing a lot of shit no one really wants to hear about the realities we are living in and how different they are for BIPOC people – women most significantly.

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert posted about Nia (I think as a result of Rachel’s post, tbh) and included this in her caption:

I have a friend who has worked for years as photographer for several major New York City newspapers. Long ago, he told me something horribly disturbing. He said that —when it comes to stories about murder —there is a clear racial hierarchy about which stories get put on the front page of the newspaper, and which stories don’t get told at all.  If a white child is murdered, that’s front page news.

If a black child is murdered, that’s not news — unless it’s a REALLY dramatic story. If a white man is murdered, that’s news. If a black man is murdered, that’s not news.
If a white woman is murdered — ABSOLUTELY, that is news.

But when a black woman is murdered? That is the lowest degree of importance, in terms of news. So many times over the years, my friend has taken photos at the murder scenes of black women, only to be EXPLICITLY told by his editors: “This is not news. Nobody cares.”

Long before there was a social movement called #BlackLivesMatter, my friend learned firsthand on the job that Black Lives Do NOT Matter. And that NO life matters less than the life of a black woman.

Racism is so deeply embedded in our culture that we marinate in it at every level.

I eventually had to walk away from these posts because it was becoming way too heavy – and I can walk away from it. Imagine not having that privilege. I have been watching to see which of my friends follow Alison’s account. I think she is dangerous and mean – in spite of good work she does; these are not mutually exclusive concepts. As Rachel points out on her Instagram: Nice does not equal not racist.

Now, there is work to do, in measurable ways as I prepare for my 24th, or is it 25th? year of teaching, and take care of those around me, as well as in ways that are harder to see/measure/regard.

It is a lot.

And it is not optional.

Some really informative and interesting people to follow in addition to Rachel around this topic include:
Layla Saad and Handwritten Revolution and so many more… start looking.
Advertisements

I teach, therefore I am employed in education. Again.

You almost had a job in tech…

Just over a year ago, I took a pretty big chance and walked away from the stability and reliability that a permanent teaching position offers. The pay was/is crap, but the benefits and calendar are reliable, although the day-to-day is always unpredictable (most of us who go into teaching and stay there are a bit addicted to that if you ask me.) Like a growing number of people in San Francisco and the surrounding area, I was getting tired of being poor (relatively) and with two decades of professional experience I realistically thought I was armed with a skill set that would make me valuable in a host of different jobs/careers/opportunities (what are people calling them now?) I looked (accurately, I thought) at the emerging professional pathways (that sounds like something people around here would call them) and considered how my skills matched up:

  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Cultural literacy
  • Leadership experience
  • Creative thinker
  • Organized
  • Detail oriented and goal oriented
  • Excellent time management skills
  • Commitment to excellence
  • Well read
  • Trivia master
  • Some other skills that are hard to explain if you are not down with Bloom’s Taxonomy, but let’s just say I reside at steps 5 and 6 
  • I can recall a movie reference for nearly every life experience that arises
  • Ridiculous memory for sports data (and for most things in general)
  • What-the-fuck-I-have-worked-with-kids-and-their-families-and-public-sector-bureacracy-for-decades-don’t-try-to-tell-me-what-it-means-to-have-a-growth-mindset-and-an-ability-to-pivot-and-assume-positive-intent-the-fact-that-I-am-still-standing-and-working-underscores-those-abilities-to-a-degree-you-cannot-possibly-understand

Seriously, when I read job descriptions I was interested in, I feel like I would be a quality candidate for the majority of them. Apparently this does not always translate. And, it turns out, people don’t really like other people to change – they really like to keep everyone in the compartment that makes sense to them.

“But you’re a teacher…”
“You don’t really have the specific experience we are looking for…”
“Don’t you teach?”
“I’m curious why someone at your point in their career is looking to pivot…”
“This is not really the same as teaching, I mean I know it has the same name, instructional designer, designing instruction, but it is not really designing instruction per say…”
“Is there a reason you do not want to teach anymore?”

The fact is, as my neighbor succinctly expressed, I was looking for a job in tech – but I was not being honest about why. So, why was I? Well, philosophically I am pretty convinced that the problems we are seeing across the “tech industry” have a lot to do with the diminishing role of humanities education, or at least the innate interest and ability to think abstractly. This is not surprising to  people who enjoy thinking, and the general consensus is that “while software developers are skilled engineering solutions, their focus is not asking what problems need to be solved, or asking what the consequences are of solving a problem in a particular way,” and this is having logical consequences that suck [too many examples to note, but Uber, Facebook, Cambridge Analytics, and the general disgustingness of the scene make the point effectively.]

I also firmly believe that we are in a position to do amazing things by merging our technological capabilities with our humanity. In education, agriculture, economic growth and sustainability, the potential is really amazing. Not withstanding, people are beginning to realize that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically about their human context—something humanities graduates happen to be well-trained to do. Call it the revenge of the film, history, and philosophy nerds. I felt hopeful about all of this. And empowered (as somewhat of a film, history, and philosophy nerd.)

Also, I liked the idea of what outsiders hear about working in tech: lots of money, unlimited vacation if you get your work done, lots of money, free gym membership, free gourmet meals, beer bashes, perks, lots of money… Just think for a moment how those kinds of benefits look to a teacher who works 70-hour weeks during the school year, pays for everything they need in their personal and professional lives, and is generally too tired to bother making a single meal all day long. I got emotional considering it. It all seemed so lively, dynamic, and inspiring to be working with people who were super into the work they were doing and brought their best everyday.

Uh, yeah. It is awful…

At a dinner party recently when the Warriors decided to turn it around and actually win the Houston series, I was telling two of my friends (who work in tech) as we stood in their stunningly remodeled home, “God, you know, it was really bad – the whole start-up vibe, it was just… bad. I had no idea.” They both looked at me, only surprised by my surprise. I was unsure who would respond – one definitely does not work at a start up but the other has been bouncing around more than he would like amidst the culture. He spoke, “Uh, yeah. It is awful.” My confusion prompted a more elaborate explanation. “Yeah, they don’t care. About anything. They don’t have to. He didn’t even get paid by his last company – it was ridiculous.” I still don’t understand how this fly-by-night charlatan-esque behavior is okay, but I hold on to my naïveté where I can.

This truth was something I guess I had to arrive at in my own damn time, but it is the truth, no matter how you look at it. The ethos (and ethics) of the start-up culture are a concentrated milieu of the extremes of our American entrepreneurial spirit: ingenuous, aspirational, fantastic – for sure. But cutthroat, greed centered, myopic, and socially Darwinist to Lord of the Flies levels.

It was certainly a departure from public education.

At what cost greatness?

road_full

For me, the cost of my decision was relatively lightweight: the unpredicted outcome that can come with taking a risk, a temporary float in the River of Failure (which is better than some of the other destinations imagined above… but the ego says: ouch.) I left a sure thing that I was unsure I could sustain for the promise of shiny new things. But I did not pay attention to how close the Gate of Ideals is to the Tower of Weak Morals and the sewage pipe of Fakery. One only hopes I climbed out of the River of Failure headed to True Knowledge and not the Hotel Know It All, the Right System Railway station, or other parts unknown in Oblivion or The System.

This past year I saw first hand what it looks like when good intentions are superseded by gross profits and – more importantly – I realized that what I do for a living is not something anyone can just do (contrary to popular belief!) Professional licensure (in any field I would suggest) is important and does make a difference… I would no sooner want a child to work with an unlicensed teacher as I would want to visit an unlicensed doctor or lawyer. I also saw what it looks like when promises made are not kept and the subsequent impact on morale among those to whom the promises were made. I saw how the resilience of these innovators had less to do with resilience and much more to do with insulation from consequence. I saw that fancy semantics (oh-the-grammar-is-so-bad-when-y’all-are-trying-to-be-clever-by-renaming-the-wheel) and slick slide decks do not lead to quality professional products – those outcomes are achieved by professional quality people.

I work in education.

Someone once said that the way we answer the question, “What do you do?” says more about us than most inquiries. An obviously open-ended question, I think most of us would assume (in the US version of Western Culture anyhow) that it is trying to get at how you make money.

“What do you do?”
“I enjoy – ”
“No, but what do you do?”
“Oh, for work…”
“Yes, obviously, what do you do?”

What do you do means, simultaneously, how do you make money, how much money do you make, and how respectable are you. That is one loaded question.

The answers, when you are done being cheeky, generally have a limited range.

“I…”
“I am a…”
“I work in…”

Try those out with a variety of jobs. See how the semantics change and the meaning is altered.

“I teach.” Okay, that works. But “I tech?” “I doctor?” “I engineer?”

“I am a teacher.” More latitude here (although the implications of identity through profession underscore much of the weirdness I am trying to get at here), “I am a doctor,” “I am an engineer,” I am tech?” Scary.

I like, “I work in education,” because I do a whole lot more than just teach (which is a whole lot more than most people do in a lifetime but that is a polemic for another place) and it eliminates the very annoying and widely accepted idea in my field that what I do to earn income is me in my entirety. It is worth noting that most of the jobs in which people who perform them are typically described as being them are the jobs that elicit the most extreme positive and negative reactions – police, firefighters, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians).

I wanted a chance to attach myself to a professional descriptor that suggested power, savvy, ingenuity, wealth, and social currency. I thought working in the start-up culture would bring that, and in some ways it may have. But it also brought with it a sense of being disposable, disingenuous, and necessarily superficial – don’t get attached to ideas they say, always be ready to let go and move on to the next thing. I lost the good parts that come with being a teacher: being respected by people (even if it is only out of habit and not actual), and having a job that did not take two paragraphs to explain. For the record, an EdTech company and an Education + Technology are the same thing no matter how much you want the extra letters to carry extra weight and in both – as in society – the teachers (even if you insist on calling them educators), remain second class personnel: under paid, under appreciated, and under valued. In spite of the fact that in many ways teachers are the most prepared for the dynamic, think on your feet, constantly pivot, nature of the start-up world, their skills are still mistaken as useless, archaic – even quaint – by the private sector.

I was promised too much when I took the chance to jump into what I thought was the tech world. I see that now, and I should have been aware of this. Had I talked to my peers immersed in the start-up industry they would have alerted me to this. I also, as I am prone to do when I have my sights set on something, did not acknowledge the myriad red flags: the immediate reversal of promises; the professional practices I knew were questionable after two decades of experience; a place that normalized inappropriate behavior; the allowances given for having a “fail forward” attitude that really just allows bad practice to perpetuate and grow. I still fully believe in the benefits of technology, and beyond that, the potential for merging it with education. Beyond believing in it, I am committed to it in a variety of ways. But one thing I can say with confidence now is that the successful merger of the two will need to be led by true visionary educators who have willing technologists in tow. It will not be the other way around.

I work in education.

And you need me along with my professional peers, to affect positive change in our field… and probably yours.

The Change Chronicles: Part 4

Let me start by saying I have had some very good news from the Zone of Employment Transition recently. It is always a little weird to be re-envisioning one’s gainful future, but all things considered I am not really worried about any of it – which is really uncharacteristic for a Virgo/Dog getting deeper into middle age everyday who chose to be a teacher in a city that values youth only slightly less than it values obscene wealth.

But the thing is I know I can get a job. I am good at what I do and there is always a need for people who do what I do – they even need those of us who will never carry a gun. [This is probably not the time to remind every single human who can read that we do not expect any other service professionals to be armed as they carry out their duties – and also worth noting that their duties pale in comparison to those of teachers… you know the ones who are supposed to do, well, everything apparently.]

DW6pzPHVMAA-QDk

Anyhow, in spite of the positive news coming my way and the solid odds that I will be gainfully employed before my current contract even terminates, I found myself being a little Goldilocks-y yesterday, like nothing quite fit. I was thinking about how I made this really intentional change last year to do something different and in so doing seemingly changed my career trajectory.

Or did I? [Unsure.]

Did I need to? [To be determined.]

I certainly had some clear ideas about the kind of changes I wanted to see in my career. I thought I was being really conscious about it all – but maybe I was just buying into the prevailing narrative that surrounds us about what makes a person successful –> mo’ money(?) I have no idea if making more money is going to make me happier – although I like the possibility of that outcome. Here’s what I know is true, you can only be as conscious of any situation as the circumstances allow. And it is no secret that the job I took was not the job I applied for. So, why the hemming and hawing about returning to a situation that is more similar than different to my former professional incarnation?

“You almost had a job in tech…” Said my very insightful neighbor who is the best roommate I never had.

“Yeah, I think that is it, you know? I thought maybe I would be going that way…”

“Why would you want to do that?” She asked, gently, but sincerely.

And she is so right. What I saw and experienced on the tech side of edtech (which I have a whole lot of opinions about as a concept after this year…) was not anything I thought it might be. In fact, when I think about it, even the things that I had looked forward to in the tech world turned out to be sort of sad, hollow efforts to seem cool. I was often reminded of those kids you know from school who are always trying so hard to be all that, and really they just end up being so painfully extra.

The tech culture felt empty. Soulless, even. And this is not for a lack of amenities or money or confidence. I just could not find the authenticity in it that I had become accustomed to from two decades of working in a profession where authenticity is one of the only things that can’t be scratched from ever-diminishing school budgets. Ironically, the tech sector, especially start ups, cannot afford authenticity – they don’t have the time to be invested in people, committed, loyal. They need to be flexible, they have to pivot, they have to have no reservations about walking out on people they promised to build something with; it is the nature of the beast.

This is not some effort to lambaste the tech industry (not that it would be undeserved) and it is certainly not a critique of my current company – it is just the simple acknowledgment that all the flash in the world cannot replace the realness that I have found in every classroom I’ve ever worked in.

So when I find myself considering a return to a more traditional teaching environment (at least in terms of priorities and workload) maybe I don’t need to worry about turning into Mr. Hand (right away anyhow).

I was worried that I was passing my expiration date, or losing my (required) ability roll with the crazy of working in a high school. But I think, if I am being really honest, I was tired. Really, really tired. And I was feeling like the remedy to my fatigue would be working less and getting paid more. I thought a more tech centered job would offer that. I was not thinking about what would be missing.

I am still regularly disheartened with the salaries I see people earning in tech (and no one is telling them they need to carry guns). Further, I am unconvinced they are making the impact on the world that people may credit them with. But, if you are lucky enough to build a career that you are really good at, even if you are horribly underpaid, maybe staying the course is not such a bad decision. As my sage little buddy next door said to me, “if you don’t want to be a grumpy old teacher, don’t be a grumpy old teacher.” Exactly. Whatever I end up doing next year will be so different than anything I’ve done before even if it looks similar from the outside because I am not the same person.

56726962efff0e98c17ceafa2207a703--daily-quotes-best-quotes

Tomorrow I am going to see if my barista can spell Heraclitus.

Stay tuned.

 

The Change Chronicles: Part 2

Bill of Goods: as a phrase, has two meanings. The less common is a delivery of goods, a consignment. The more common definition is something that is knowingly presented in a false way, usually with the intent to deceive or gain something by the trickery. The vast majority of the time it is used with the verb sell. Occasionally one will see the phrase with the verb buy.

Change is weird. It shouldn’t be because it is basically the only certainty I have come across in my life. Although, still thinking about last week’s MSDHS massacre – or as I like to call it, Massacre Rubio – incidentally, the 18th school shooting we’ve had this calendar year, it seems somethings never change. Much more on this later….

I am unclear why some people embrace change so easily and some balk at the idea of it. I am also unclear where I actually fall on that spectrum – sometimes I feel like I am cool with all the changes and other times… not so much. The only recognizable pattern I can see is that it comes down to who determines the change is going to occur. I guess it is just like the rest of life – a control issue. I am in the midst of some pretty big changes these days and as I reflect on them and think about whether or not I am finding them thrilling or depressing or terrifying, I keep going back to a turn of phrase that was laid upon me by one of my agents of change on February 9:

You probably feel like you were sold a false bill of goods, huh?

The (unintentional?) mic drop gave me pause then (actually, it rendered me speechless, which was both a benevolent miracle and a total surprise) and now as I am looking at the definition and seeing that false bill of goods is actually a redundancy.

So, that is annoying.

I have been saying (repeatedly) that I intentionally embraced a huge change last year by leaving the public sector and taking a position in a private school, and not even a traditional school but a company that is trying to sell “school”. In some ways that is as bad as it might sound, but in some other ways, it is really inspiring. In this day and age of design thinking the belief is that the way to revolutionize something is take a quasi-nihilist approach and take nothing from the past. To rely on cliches one might say chucking the baby out with the bathwater, but in the interest of avoiding a reliance on two cliches in one post I will go with quasi-nihilist. A focus on solutions rather than problems is something that the public sector is really missing – even if it was not really the fault of those within, it is hard to be expected to do everything for nothing after all – and I was thrilled to think that I was working with people who were focused on facing the problems I have been witnessing for years in American education. We need a fresh take on what we want from education and this seemed like an ideal merger – ideas and experience and energy.

What became clear not long after I began my new adventure (and it has been an adventure in all the best and worst ways) is that I had only pulled a geographical, I wasn’t in some magical place – because magical places are not where shit gets done. The truth is the necessary work to effect change in systems as entrenched as education cannot be treated in the same way we see in other areas. While an extremely dynamic approach to applying solutions will certainly lead to a lot of new strategies, this kind of fluidity has unusual consequences in a classroom – and I am not talking to the kind of classroom most people like to imagine when they think about schools (cue Pink Floyd), I mean in any learning environment. Still, I’m willing to bet the majority of kids in America feel like they have been sold a bill of goods regarding their education: do well in school, get a good job as a result, win at life. Clearly that equation has devolved to disingenuous and beyond.

I am deeply and unrelentingly committed to working towards education reform and creating environments where students are inspired to learn and try and do, rather than recall and release, but I have a much clearer understanding of the kind of strategies that might require. I have my current job to thank for that.

And at the end of the day, it is not about the place, or the computer platform, or the strategic plan. It is about people. And relationships. And really believing that education still can transform lives in meaningful ways. It may happen where I have been recently, or not. And I know change will come to education eventually, regardless of the role I play – but I hope I get to have my say. Although, it will definitely not be where I am right now.

This may or may not be because I was sold a false bill of goods. I am still working out what that means. But it will be because I had to learn that I don’t fit in everywhere even if I think I can, and that sometimes when someone awkwardly turns a phrase like “I bet you feel like you have been sold a false bill of goods, huh?” they see that your ideas and expectations are not what they can support – and possibly (hopefully?) acknowledging their contribution to the ill-fitting circumstances – and all of it is okay. Especially because as a naturally inclined change resistant human, in some ways it is more than okay, it is necessary.

And if it’s not actually all about me, a lot of it is, because the person I am has ideas and solutions to offer and although delicacy might not be on the menu, I am going to continue to unrelentingly try to be the change I want to see and be encouraged by the changes that I come up against at the hands of my agents of change.

 

The Change Chronicles: Part 1

It is Sunday and I spent the morning reading. The morning began bright and sunny and became cold and dark. In some ways, so too this post.

The first article I read this morning was about how Teller (the quiet, or rather silent half of Penn & Teller) approached teaching when he taught Latin at Lawrence High School in New Jersey before going on to, well, frankly as our society would have it, much greater tings. I enjoyed the article for a variety of reasons – some of which will come up in a later version of The Change Chronicles dealing with whether or not one remains a teacher…

The primary take away from the article for many, I assume, is that for education to be successful it must be performative – entertaining! – and that the “first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject.” Although in myriad ways I disagree with this take, I continued reading. I am glad I did, it was an engaging and thought-provoking article. My second favorite line was the reference to Alfred North Whitehead‘s premise that learning occurs in three stages: romance, precision, generalization. This articulation of what I like to believe has been the way I teach, made me feel validated and inspired. Yes! Impress them with the potential, the drama, the pathos-laden aspects of the subject. Then wow them with specifics – oh, how those superlatives, extremes, and data points resonate with the developing human brain! Finally, demonstrate how the knowledge of a specific allows for the understanding of all those things beyond one’s immediate ken.

Way back when I was trained to teach we called this activating and/or creating schema: what prior information is in that head of yours – ours – that we can connect to in order to makes sense out of this unknown situation/material/question? I love thinking about things like this and it always takes me back to one of my favorite articles that I have been using in my classroom – at every grade level – for a decade, The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. I do not explicitly teach science, although it’s unavoidable the social sciences, but this article forms a basis for how I teach… the part where kids, and really everyone in the world these days, must get comfortable with the not knowing. Which Teller poetically gets to in his recollection of teaching, and is my favorite line in the article, and most significant takeaway from the piece:

When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education.

Sadly, I fear the aspect of the article that will be the one people hold fast to is the emphasis on the teacher to engender love of the subject in the student. This depresses me for various reasons, but my fundamental problem with it is that it is not love of the subject that matters – it is the love of learning – figuring things out, seeing connections, and understanding nuance and context that matters more.

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

After more than 20 years of sharing history, literature, civics, geography, and economic theory in more classrooms than I can count, it is not a love of the specific subject I have ever sought from my students (though, admittedly a tremendous added bonus) but it has been the possibility of showing kids that thinking about things – any things, though perhaps especially the things they do not see as valuable (after all they will pursue that which holds value to them on their own), gives them power. I am not so audacious to use that age old expression of teaching someone how to think (thank you DFW for indelibly imprinting the silliness of that expression) but certainly have aspired to show kids how cool it is to be able to think, and to direct that thinking, and then – like having your own super power – to make meaning from it.

I sat with the disappointment of the lead to the Atlantic piece for a bit, and was then came across this  article, reviewing Sara Zaske’s book Achtung Baby. Because I have a very good friend raising two amazing daughters in Germany, and I know a fair number of American parents, I read on. I laughed at the anecdotes and even without children of my own thought this might be a great read. At the end, I sat and said aloud (apparently to my cats): Huh. Growing up in Germany sounds like being raised Northern California in the 1970s.

Contemporary German parents give their children a great deal of freedom—to do dangerous stuff; to go places alone; to make their own mistakes, most of which involve nudity, fire, or both. This freedom makes those kids better, happier, and ultimately less prone to turn into miserable sociopaths. “The biggest lesson I learned in Germany,” she writes, “is that my children are not really mine. They belong first and foremost to themselves. I already knew this intellectually, but when I saw parents in Germany put this value into practice, I saw how differently I was acting.”

Granted, I am (now) acutely aware of the fuckery of the 70s (and even more so the 80s), one thing I have noticed about the kids who grew up the way I did in the 70s – broken homes, bad television, inappropriate exposure to adult themes, an absence of hand sanitizer, limited parental surveillance, bouncing in the back of pick-ups, and all the rest: we are largely functional, healthy (robust even), adults. Yeah, some of us have weird (okay, completely messed up) attitudes about relationships, politics, and economics… our general attitude seems alright: Just 4 percent [of us] reported a “great deal of unhappiness” with their lives as they approached middle age. I think this comes from the reality that we are the last Americans to have the old-time childhood. It was coherent, hands-on, dirty, and fun.

So true.

I thought about how the way American kids are being raised now with all of these tangible fears – fear of dirt, of bugs, of foods, of people, of independence, of doing – and then thought about how it manifests in my profession, where kids have become absolutely terrified. They are so afraid to fail at anything that they are afraid to try anything: afraid that a wrong answer might lead to a bad grade, which of course means they are, and will always be, a failure at life. Which is super strange considering these are the same kids who are getting rewards and trophies for all the things, are feted with celebrations – formal graduations from preschool on up, and are told that any of their failings are because they have bad coaches, bad teachers, or because they are not appreciated for who they are. Being perfect has become more important than ever for a group of people who are more afraid than ever to try to be their best selves.

What a freaking conundrum.

Full disclosure – I was not a kid (adult?) who enjoyed being new at things or not knowing how to do things. I was not comfortable in my own space of the unknown. What was different for me is that I was surrounded by people, a veritable – literal – village who constantly reminded me I was so much more than my personal successes and failures. People who were not afraid I would wilt if they told me I did something wrong (some in fact seemed to take great pleasure in reminding me of my screw ups as a way to show me my growth – I am looking right at you Coach Johnson.) People who showed me that they were still going to be there if I made choices they disagreed with or knew (how did they always know?) were going to end badly. People who made me sit in the discomfort. It was (is!) a life’s work to get comfortable with the ambiguous, the unknown… The Change.

Because it is always there. Lurking.

I am grateful Amy has her girls in Germany. I am grateful I grew up with dirty hands – no TV – super weird parents. I am grateful I did not fall in love with subjects because of teachers, or teachers because of subjects (the agenda of another in either case) but that I can explicitly remember the moments I learned things that would forever change my life (that respecting the opinions of others did not mean I had to agree, Mr. Cefalu, ca. 1977; that boasting would rarely lead to actuality and often to embarrassment, Mr Fore, ca. 1980; that algebra was possible and awesome even if I got it wrong the first time and regardless of a hideous 8th grade math teacher, Terry, ca. 1981-4; that I didn’t need to know how to play basketball to try out for the team – that was sort of the point of joining the team, mom, ca. 1984; that knowing what mattered to me was more important than what mattered to my friends, Coach J, ca. 1984-8; that my choice to teach was not going to make my life easy, but it would make it something special, Dr. Bloom, ca. 1994; that there was beauty, reality, and meaning in the patterns we see around us, Dr. Starrs, ca. 2000). All these people have seen me flounder and fail repeatedly, while showing me those were the precise spaces in which I would learn and grow the most.

Then this news item came across my screen somehow. A couple of weeks ago, a 16 year old boy, seemingly with all the advantages in the world, took his own life as a response to the pressures he felt.

 

 

In the letters he left behind he speaks to his school experience specifically. Directly stating that his parents put no pressure on him and that his coaches were amazing, still this young man felt neither of those things were enough in the face of the academic pressures and mean/bad teachers he had to face. I sat with this one for a while. Lots of it made little sense to me – but then suicide rarely does and that hardly renders it a nonissue. There are aspects of these letters that make me want to roll my eyes or say, “snap out of it!” which is wholly inappropriate considering the context. This student did not feel inspired by teachers, he felt afraid. He did not feel challenged by hard material, he felt un-taught. He did not think that the support he received from parents, coaches, and friends would be enough to buoy what must have been academic shortcomings (in his mind). I love that he still included a reminder to be kind.

A principal from a neighboring school responded to the news of the suicide (I hear that CDMHS was silent on the matter for 10 days) and his entire response bears repeating, but I will call out this excerpt:

A very intuitive parent gave an analogy recently that hit home: “Our kids are not teacups; they are meant to be bumped around from time to time.”

It is during these bumpy times that we can applaud a “C”, applaud a student going to the military or junior college, properly support failure with introspection not blame, take an 89.5% as a B+ in stride, or applaud a student in one of our CTE pathways. My British father would always quip, “it is the sum of our experiences that should always outweigh the sum of our bank accounts.”

We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don’t live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world…it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.

These three articles from my Sunday morning are deeply connected in my mind; all speaking to the lack of clarity over who holds responsibility for our successes and failures, our adventures and discoveries, our disappointments and inspirations… as children/students/parents/people. This year I found myself repeating – on a loop that seemed infinite – in parent teacher conferences that the students needed to have some faith – trust that they could take the uncomfortable intellectual risks that are necessary for learning, for growth, for everything in the great beyond, and if it didn’t work out, so be it. We go from there. It is obviously a joint effort, perhaps more than that because it might really take much more than a village to get this all right, for the kids – and for us.

 

 

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.