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.

 

 

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On body dysmorphia, misogyny, body-shaming, the Silicon Valley, and being pretty: Or, why I practice yoga.

I finally got back in the yoga studio yesterday. Oddly, I did not want to go. This is very unusual for me – I am pretty dedicated to my practice and I know without qualification that no matter how I am feeling, I always feel better after I go to yoga. Still, I did not want to go.

I had not been practicing for several weeks. There are lots of reasons – there always are. For one, I got really sick in the first week of June. Like really sick. I imagine if you live in the Bay Area you got some variety of this sickness or know someone who did because it was insidious and vicious. After days of a sore throat that prevented swallowing anything, talking much at all, and sleeping soundly – all amplified by the fact that I was in the final week of instruction at school dealing with surly teenagers and oh yeah, also packing up for a major job transition – the sick morphed into some sort of monstrous hacking chest cough. “At least it was productive.”

The Pantone array of my phlegm rainbow.

And then some.

This lasted from 7 June through 17 June. I realize that this is not actually an eternity, but whatever.  In this same time I conducted final projects for around 100 students, graded said projects, deleted untold numbers of unauthorized selfies on my phone, tried to be an adult and be mad at my students for participating in the very-rapey senior streak that happens at BHS but still endorse my one student who dressed up as a giant dick as a protest statement, packed up my classroom wherein I downsized 20+ years of my “teacher life” into fewer than 10 boxes, said goodbye to some people I will really miss, was mature enough also to say goodbye to some people I will not miss at all, watched every minute of the NBA finals (okay, except for 28 minutes of Game 4, which I am certain contributed to the longevity of my illness), got my hair done and attempted to get headshots for my new job (not wildly successful), packed my bags and went to the wilds of North Idaho to visit my parents with my boyfriend.

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NBD.

While en route to Idaho I read Roxane Gay‘s new memoir, Hunger. It is an important read for a lot of reasons, but I found it especially significant as I was spiraling into my 1980s-programmed body dysmorphic mind as a consequence of the 80s (obviously) but also from being sick and a little depressed, overly tired and not being able to do the things I have convinced myself I must do in order to feel a certain way – which no matter how much I wish was not connected to how I look, is completely connected to how I (think I) look.

This is not a new problem, nor is it a particularly unique problem. One of my favorite (now former) coworkers and I have an ongoing “joke” when we get teased by our young  female students of color for having “no cakes” [a term I had to actually research via Urban Dictionary after my girls were first discussing my said lack of cakes in class while I was writing on the board] telling them that we grew up in the 80s, so no cakes is a win for us. Sometimes I have gone so far as to say – out loud – that one of my adolescent goals, in spite of Sir Mix-A-Lot, was to be a stick insect. I know this is not exactly true (in my personal chronology only) because I co-opted the expression from Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones  many years after high school, which only goes to show that my body issues are not bound by any decade. Interestingly, this year I inadvertently served as a nutrition guide for several of the young women in my class as we often found ourselves discussing how we felt hungry – or not – and how our food was influencing our energy levels in various capacities (many of them are incredible dancers… and wondered why they felt like shit after a breakfast of Hot Cheetos.) Also of note, these students are some of the most honest and authentic people I know about body reality – as well they embrace reality literally and figuratively. One of them was the one dressed as a giant dick in the streak. They get things I never even thought of at their age. They somehow escaped the neuroses that I continue to adhere to in spite of many supposedly healthier, confidence-inspiring, and therapied years later.

So, feeling shitty, literally and figuratively, and then reading Gay’s book gave me pause. In particular the articulate way she wrote about how/why women are viewed and valued in society and how maintenance of said ‘value’ is inherently dangerous spoke to me. I thought about how almost always the best compliment a person can think to give a woman is that she “looks like she has lost weight!” or that she “looks so tiny!” I thought about all those coveted compliments, and their intentional double entendre. They punctuate the times in my life I was certain I looked best. When I returned from living in the ashram in India and had stopped having my period because I had lost so much weight, I felt so proud of how everyone loved how I looked (except for A – she said I looked sick. She was probably right.) Still, I think about how my clothes fit then and I get pissed off with myself now.

At this point I decided to stop at Yoke’s north of Sandpoint to buy a bunch of fashion magazines and then go back to the parentals house and drink a ton of wine. Seems legit. I did not go to yoga. And I continued my self-care by rewarding every hike with cold beer. I was on vacation after all. And I told my boyfriend, who truly and sincerely does not have a single issue with how I look (not to be confused with having not a single issue with me, btw) that if he posted any photos of me I had better look thin. Repeatedly.

Typing that really highlights how completely annoying that must have been.

On my return to the city, I knew I would be going back to yoga. But for the first time that I can really remember, I felt uncomfortable about it – like not in shape enough to be allowed to take care of myself or something. I have heard about this phenomenon – even seen it in action, remember this peach? I know rationally it is totally fucking stupid. But there it was taking up space in my brain. And, just to be clear, I have a totally healthy build, there is nothing wrong with me. I am 5’10” and weigh between 150 and 155 pounds (I can push it to 160 easily and have been down to 140 and some change in my adult life – see the India reference above) but I really am just, you know, fine.

Plus my yoga studio is downstairs from my house, so seriously, not to cop a phrase, but just do it already.

Before I went downstairs for yoga, I caught up on some breaking news out of the Silicon Valley. For those of you who do not follow this kind of stuff, the gist of it is that it seems like finally some of the rapey, bro culture in the tech/venture capital world is getting called out with some actual consequence. This is due on large part to the investigative work of people like Sarah Lacy at Pando.com and it would be worth reading her stories about Uber (she warned us all about them years ago) and Binary Capital (the story of whose behavior inspired this worthy purchase.) I read the latest article (Binary related) and left a comment on the post expressing my surprise that people seemed to be taking umbrage with the photos in the story and not the actually rapey/gropey/assault covered in the story.

Clearly it was time to return to yoga.

As soon as I sat on my mat, I felt better. I always do and I know this. It felt safe, and positive, and welcoming. LIKE.IT.ALWAYS.DOES. I was so glad to be back in class.

When I got home I saw that someone had responded to my comment and tried to (re)explain her counterargument to me – a position I had totally understood, just disagreed with. She kept coming at me doing that thing people do who believe that if they say something over and over and over again they will get people to agree with them. This is not an effective approach with me. When she would not stop I went to her Facebook page to see who she was. She describes herself thusly: Wellness Professional. Practice Financing. Personal Health. Relationships . I am not even sure I understand what that means as a single declarative sentence. She also has an unbelievable number of public photos (odd considering this was her beef about the original post in question) of which I could have poached any. Here is one that gives you an idea.

Sally Albright: What’s she look like?
Marie: Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.

As soon as I saw her, I had an immediate reaction that maybe I should rethink my behavior in the comments because of how she looked. I am completely serious. It was this weird thing like, no matter that she could not spell (true statement) or that she was being totally patriarchally-bound (also true) and generally snotty (💯 my opinion) she suddenly mattered more, or was someone I would want to be allied with because she was hot (this seems rather objective – although this too can be misleading).

Acknowledging this reaction, I was so pissed at myself for wasting all the good intentions of a yoga class (which, for what it’s worth, was amazing, re-centering, welcoming, challenging, and generally perfect while I was there) to come up against this. I closed Facebook and turned on Law & Order SVU (as an aside with added context in this post, when I saw Roxane Gay speak last spring she talked about how she watches this show incessantly so I have accepted that this addiction of mine is okay.) Sitting there watching an episode I have probably seen ten times, the power of social media compelled me and I found myself (again) scrolling through my feed where I came across two articles (shout out to Colette for both posts). One I will only screenshot because it deserves no hits, and one I will link because it should be widely read.

The first article is by a random white guy (not a doctor) telling people they are psycho if they do not have kids. He claims to have three. I feel confident he did not birth one of them. The second is about the privilege of prettiness by Janet Mock who should need no introduction, but if she does you can go here.

These two articles present diametrically opposed ideological bookends to my earlier train(s) of thought. To be fair, random-not-a-doctor-dude was not only calling out women, (but really, who has the babies after all and what valuation is placed on those women who do/not) and let’s not forget how women’s bodies are dissected in terms of how they change (or should change) around pregnancy and childbirth (this was also “coincidentally” covered extensively in the fashion magazines I purchased to enhance my dysmorphic slide while in the wilds of Idaho. )

Janet Mock talks eloquently and effectively about the privileges that looks bequeath upon those who manage to meet the societal mark of having looks. Her take is especially valuable and addresses intersectionality with great clarity.

I sat and reread Ms. Mock’s article. I thought about Ms. Gay’s book. I revisited Ms. Lacy’s story of the women founders in Silicon Valley being groped and demeaned all the while maintaining necessary (literally prescribed, it turns out) appearances in order to get entry to the club (though not necessarily a seat at the table).  While it is not directly tied to the chitta vritti I’m currently battling, it all explains perfectly why we – I – would be so caught up in appearances, why I might freak out if I feel “fat” because I missed a yoga class, why I might rethink my “place” in taking a stand against a pretty girl (would I have felt different if she had not been traditionally attractive?)

Our appearance is often the primary currency with which we – women – are able to trade: it is a core element of my societal value.

While I was in Idaho I was talking a with a friend – a sister, really, because I have known her since she was in utero – who is now 28 (I think that puts her in a different generation than me). We were talking about how we have capitalized on people’s prejudices at various times (specifically we were speaking of fake-woke-feminists vs. blatant sexists) and it got us talking about bodies and image. She said, “Yeah, you know? I have decided that if my body works and does the things I want it to do, then I look just fine.”  I hope she really, really means this. I don’t know if I am there yet, but as they say: #goals.

I do not look the way I think I look. I know this when I see photos and I am surprised positively or negatively by the image looking back at me. This is my issue. But my concern about my value to this society – my actual self-worth – is not some internal psychosis. It is real, and it has been put on me, though it has become my cross to bear.

And this is why I went to yoga again today.

And why I will go tomorrow.

Is that truly getting at the heart of this matter?

You be the judge.

 

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.

Sei sup mmmmmmmmm: ripple in still water.

I wanted to write tonight. I took care of all the things I needed to take care of today and I was all ready to give myself time to sit and write. But I couldn’t. I mean, obviously I could have in a literal fingers-to-keys kind of way, but not in a metaphorical making-meaning(ful)-meaning kind of way.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

I wanted to write about this video I took from JM’s car in Paris this summer.

I wanted to write about something satisfying. Like about taking a group of high school seniors to listen to a conversation with US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on a Friday night and having them come out of the talk and say, “He is all about the Social Contract, isn’t he?”

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But, no.

I suppose if I were a writer, I would say I had writer’s block. But I am not really a writer, am I? Only in so far as one with an Instagram is a photographer, or one who goes to church is a Christian (I wanted to write about the Pope too, because I cannot get enough of the Pontiff.) Instead, I sat. I considered meditating, but I didn’t want to make the cat move, and I sort of suck at meditation anyhow.

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken,
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air.

I turned 45 this week. I sat with that for a while. 45. Forty five. Cuarenta y cinco. Sei sup mm. Fifty minus five.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

Maybe that is why I can’t think of anything good to write. Maybe by the time you get to be this age, you are supposed to have a whole bunch of real things to write about, and here I sit with my immaculate home and my two cats and some loud Eighties music in my unbearably hip neighborhood, and no typical accomplishments like husbands and divorces and kids and shit to write about.

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain,
That was not made by the hands of men.

I was born in 1970. Do you know how long it takes to scroll to that year when you are filling out your birthdate on-line? You have to pick your finger up off the touch pad at least twice. That shit is crazy. Nixon was the president and my Grandma M tried cocaine. That would have been something to see.

In 1970 things were pretty fucked up.

I came of age in the 1980s. Do you know how accidentally iconic the Eighties have become? What I know recall about the Eighties could feather your hair. I still love the music, hipsters still love the fashion. We are all still paying for the politics.

In the 1980s things were pretty fucked up.

I got some education in the 1990s: formal and otherwise. Do you think everyone assumes the time they opened their minds is the more relevant than that of others? I don’t know, but a lot of shit happened in the nineties. And then at the end of 1999 the world didn’t end and I think a lot of people thought that was pretty fucked up

I had my mid-life crisis in the mid-90s. Which makes sense because I never really thought I would live very long (which is kind of dumb of me because the women in my family tend to live a very long time.) For whatever reason my mid-life dramz kicked off at 34. It took me about four years to sort that shit out.

Mid-life crises are pretty fucked up.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

On the weekend leading up to my birthday I met someone who is in her mid-30s and appears to be on track to have a midlife crisis just like mine. (Apparently it’s not just movies and politicians from the decade that never go away.) I told her I had to sail away to China to deal with it. She did not get the musical reference, but I am fairly certain she is on board with the rest of it. I predict she breaks up with her boyfriend before the end of this year (not due to my counsel, mind you – I am not a meddler, just a sharer.)

Maybe the reason this birthday isn’t sitting so well with me is that I don’t have anything to be in crisis about because I already got all destructive and ridiculously reckless ten years ago and so it feels empty of purpose. I emerged from my midlife crisis down one Wal-Mart-shopping boyfriend and one suburban tract house, but as my kids would say: I am not about that life.

Life in with the suburbs was pretty fucked up.

You, who choose to lead, must follow
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.

This week was my fifth repatriated birthday. The birthday itself was not particularly eventful, but at this point in one’s life, that seems like a win. A dear friend I have known since the 8th grade said to me, “I hope you feel how much you are loved.” Yes, L, I did. And here I am, in a great city, with great hair, a few new wrinkles, amazing friends, no involuntary responsibilities, and I am alive.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

So, happy birthday to me: good hair, good shoes, wrinkles, and a potty mouth, but crisis free. That’s livin’: L-I-V-I-N.

That seems like a lot to write about.

I’ll get back to writing in no time, I am sure.

Death & Taxes. Or as some folks call it, Valentine’s Day.

“…but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Valentine’s Day fell on a Saturday this year. I am not really wrapped up in Valentine’s Day. Of course, if I say this out loud people seem to think it means I am some sort of bitter singleton, so let me just clarify: single – Yes; bitter – No.

True story,

On this Valentine’s Day (smack in the middle of a four-day weekend – oh yes, you heard that right, a four-day weekend) I decided to take care of some business. After all I was going to revisit my youth seeing Tainted Love with some friends in the evening, so no time like the present. I got my house cleaned up, had a lovely cup of coffee and decided to finish my income taxes.

Ah, the joy.

Funny thing is, I used to really enjoy doing my taxes. Back when the songs Tainted Love sing were actually in the pop music rotation, my taxes were simple, and I always got a nice fat check back from the government. It was nice. But, no more. My taxes have not gotten a lot more complicated, and I certainly have not seen a personal income that rivals even half of my neighbors, but… no more fat check.

What gives?

As I worked my way through the forms, (alright, alright, as I entered the information into TurboTax) I got to thinking, why is it that I pay more than 25% of my income to the government? I am a public school teacher for goodness sakes. What is up with that? I have a pretty small carbon footprint, I am conscientious. I am not wasteful. I do not rely on many public services. As I punched in the numbers I tried to think about it, what was different from the days of “fun” taxes to now?

And then it hit me.

I enjoyed the tax season when I was in my twenties. I was earning money, but not too much. I was not supposed to be making much. Nor was I supposed to be married and procreating and buying large-scale items like cars and houses. Back then, when I was in my twenties, nobody raised their eyebrows (at best) or gave me the pity shrug (much worse) when they heard I was single. I was supposed to be single, and society and the government agreed on this.

Now, in my forties, I am still earning money (not too much, but really, enough), I am still not married, still not procreating, still not buying cars and houses. Basically, still single. However, now, in my forties, it seems it is not just society who thinks this is some sort of unnatural aberration, but the government has decided that I deserve to be punished as well.

It is time for these singleton focused inquisitions to be cool. It is not as if I am dead, people. I am just, single. As if well-meaning pity (is there such a thing?) and general social mockery as evidenced by cat lady and spinster jokes – or this, my personal favorite:

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… wasn’t enough, the government is in on this lifestyle condemnation as well. [ps: Charlie and his fiancé broke up. I wonder if everyone is asking why?]

Yeah, you heard me right, I am being punished for my lifestyle choices. Seriously. Think about it, just because I am not towing the societal line, I pay more taxes. I have no write-offs for dependents, for a mortgage, for my children’s college education to ensure they will be future presidents. It is not right.

I do not want a mortgage. I do not want children. However, I do want a functional society. And I do think paying taxes is sort of like the price one pays to live in a functional society. But as a public school teacher, who frankly gives way more at the “office” than one probably should, I feel like this system is pretty out of whack.

I mean, really, I spend a ridiculous amount of time explaining why I am single to just about everyone I know (and I don’t actually have a good answer that is not a Ron-ism (“A lot of these people have complexities I don’t desire”) and now the government has to get in on the mockery?

That is fucked up.

If all that is certain is death and taxes, even on Valentine’s Day, I’m okay with that as I have paid my taxes and as single as I am, I’m not dead yet.

For what it is worth, for the first time in nearly 10 years, it turns out I do not have to pay extra taxes this year (if TurboTax can be trusted). It appears that what I “gave at the office” (as well as that hefty 25% of my yearly gross) might be enough to soothe the savage tax man.

Now, if only there was something I could do to calm all the people who are so concerned about my singleton status. I mean, really, do we look bitter?

Slow your roll lovebirds.

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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.

This is ridiculous: A resume.

I have been a high school teacher for coming up on 20 years. In that time I have worked with students ranging in age from eighth to twelfth grades. And what have I done?

I have taught World History, World Geography, US History, European History, American Government, Comparative Government, Economics, World Literature, American Literature, Language and Composition, General English, Creative Writing, Identity and Society, even a little P.E. here and there. I have developed and supervised student internship programs and study skills classes. I have taught courses in the IB program(me), AP courses, A Levels, remediation courses, test prep courses, language acquisition courses, and done private instruction. I have even done some adult education. I have been an athletic coach (basketball and track & field), and academic coach (forensics, speech & debate, Academic Olympics, Mock Trial.) I have planned, organized and supervised field trips, out of state trips, over night trips, and activities for my students. I have developed and implemented curriculum in several subjects. I have been a department chairperson. I have served on site councils,  in boosters clubs, and on teacher mentoring committees. I have never had issues around classroom management, or discipline regardless of the location or demographics of where I have worked. I have supervised student teachers, I have trained teachers in curriculum and methodology. I have piloted programs integrating technology into secondary schools. I have presented papers at professional conferences. I am certified in TESOL/TOEFL and taught over seas for nearly six years. I have an MS in Cultural Geography. I have had my work published, I have been featured on television as an innovative educator. I have given radio interviews about integrating controversial current events in the classroom. I have written hundreds of letters of recommendation. I have traveled the world, largely on my own. I am culturally aware and literate. I can communicate with all kinds of people, really well. I can write. I am well-read. I am incredibly efficient. I have an insane work ethic and I absolutely get shit done.

As far as what else, I suppose you could ask my former students. there are like 2,000 of them out there. They might have some things to add.

So why are there no jobs out there in any field outside of the classroom that I am “qualified” (at least on paper) for? I love teaching, but I would like to do something new. Something a little unusual. Maybe something unpredictable. Something where I can actually earn a salary that is commensurate to my experience, abilities, and work ethic, or at the very least have the chance to negotiate a salary based on these ideas. It is ridiculous to think that teachers cannot do this.

Help me find the perfect job. I am ready.

Seriously. All suggestions welcome.

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