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.]

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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.

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

Stay tuned.

 

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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.

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.