‘Oh, my, God Becky, look at her butt…’: on judging & mansplaining & other such nonsense

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Student: Are you married? You look like a married person. You got kids? I can see you with like two kids, and you’re the mom making the healthy snacks.
Me: That is depressing. Next thing I know you are going to tell me I look like I have a minivan.
Student: Yes! You do- you’re a soccer mom for sure!
Me:
Student: But that’s not depressing though. You know what’d be depressing is like if you go home and you got cats, and you walk in and they’re like meow meow.

Let’s just get to it: I look a certain kind of way. Although, rest assured “Soccer Mom” is not, and has never been, the intended effect, I can see how I might present that way, especially to my young, female students of color – a demographic for whom I have both an immeasurable appreciation for, and an equally substantial gratitude for having been able to work along side of in a variety of capacities for more than two decades.

Here’s the basics. I am white. I am middle-aged. I am not a flashy human (save for my shoes, which if you have been following my current life trajectory, you might realize have been reprioritized for a minute #hipreplacement). I am not and have never been particularly trendy, whatever that means. I chalk that tendency up to several things: 1) not having unlimited funding to constantly ‘keep up’ with whatever or whomever; 2) being a big, tall, strong kid through the anorexic-heroin chic-body dysmorphic late 70s, 80s, and 90s; 3) a chosen profession where if you have crazy/flashy, or even just a distinctive accessory, you become “that one teacher who always wears that…” (I have never wanted to be trapped by a passing fancy.)

But really, I am just sort of subtle in my aesthetic choices. A former colleague once told me that he saw it as an cool juxtaposition of being a strong woman who took no shit and occupied many traditionally male spaces (social studies teacher and coach) and understood that how I dressed ran counter to expectations in a way that gave both aspects of who I am more gravitas. My grandma (my grandma for chrissakes) once lamented that I was “so conservative” as I was considering buying some new item of some sort on a trip we took to Europe. One of my long-time BFFs and confidantes has described my style (and me) thusly:

Anne Taylor Hippie? Your countenance, demeanor, appearance is classy Californian casual with some sassy blonde thrown in. No one knows you’re a secret hippie Deadhead from Petaluma. It’s as if you’ve come out from your past unscathed… no one would know about your travails, your missteps over the years. You look perfectly pristine and princess-y. You are the least obvious looking Patti Smith I know. You have the intellect, knowledge, and stories of a rock star, but you are chill as fuck to the unknowing masses.

(I like that last part the best, obviously.)

An interesting (euphemism alert) consequence of the reality that we are all more than the sum of the clothes on our backs + the work that we do + the places from which we hail is that I have been categorically chastised and condescended to in professional settings based on an assumption that I am less equipped to do the work I do because of how I look on two very specific occasions. That this happened most recently on Wednesday of last week at my new job, was disappointing, but also clarifying in some important ways for me (in addition to the comments that were posted on my FB page in response to the opening anecdote of this post) that underscore the power of how we look, the words we use, and the ways we understand the interactions that arise from it all.

The first incident occurred in my first year at Berkeley High School on the occasion of me receiving what is likely to this day the worst professional evaluation I have ever received. The evaluator, a VP at the time with definite eyes on a principalship he would never get at BHS, was a sharp dressed, well-educated Latino, who felt that he was vastly more equipped to work with young people of color than anyone, and certainly more than I could ever be – a generic white woman, most recently teaching at a nearby district with a distinctively different demographic, and before that Asia… he actually would later say to me, “How could a person used to dealing with those kinds of students understand the students I was working with at BHS?” [There is SO much to unpack in that statement.]

The thing about this particular evaluation is that when I read it, it seemed completely dissociated from what had been happening in the classroom. I was not even sure how to engage in a conversation around it because I had no understanding of what was being discussed in the evaluation. The immediate result of this was that on subsequent evaluations there would be an additional person in the room. We settled on our school counselor. This would prove to be an even bigger problem because his inability to see actual areas of strength and need for improvement would be further obstructed by the presence of an additional white woman.

The second evaluation was (in my mind) an even stronger class. For whatever reason, that day, those sophomores decided to be active, interested, curious, engaged, cooperative… I mean, frankly, it was bizarre. At the conclusion of the class, the three adults in the room left seemingly on the same page. At the debrief I was shocked. I sat and listened to his assessment and literally had no words. The second set of eyes that had been in the room was also there for the debrief (we had decided via union reps that I would not meet with this VP alone after the previous experience) and where I was stunned to silence she became enraged in spite of her best efforts to remain completely calm. I ended up leaving while the two of them stayed because I had to teach, but I remember distinctly hearing her say, “I cannot believe we were in the same classroom based on what you have written here.”

Long story slightly less long, the struggle for this VP to see that I could possibly bring anything not just of value, but that would not be toxic to my students continued. He said, “You do not understand children of color. You do not connect with them, particularly the young women.” No one I worked with could understand where this was coming from, and the student population that I worked most closely with would certainly contradict this assessment. Eventually, I would end up contacting a lawyer and be assigned a different evaluator.

I never really understood what the issue had been, but it really did seem like the way I presented myself – from how I looked, to how I talked, to how I worked with students – prevented this man from seeing what I was actually doing at the school. While my pseudo-bougieness has become somewhat of a calling card (emphasis on pseudo) I assure you I am in on the joke.

So much about how we look can be deceiving… No?

Last Tuesday, several days into PD for the upcoming school year, a Black Latino teacher I am working with (who ironically also worked for the aforementioned VP at the school he would eventually move to in order to secure a principalship) had an eruption in a team planing meeting. At the time, I felt like I understood the reaction – we were all tired and working to do something collaboratively that the majority of us were unclear about in terms of structure, cadence, and objective. That evening he emailed me saying he thought we should check in the next morning before PD. I said sure, I could make that happen and arrived that morning expecting him to say something along the lines of, “Hey, sorry for the outburst, just wanted to let you know where I was coming from…”

That was not what was awaiting me.

I showed up and we sat down and there began his soliloquy.

Unlike Omarosa, I was not prepared to tape it (though I see that as a mistake now as I try to make sense of it all) and so these are just some of the highlights absent the extremely verbose and rambling context built around his ‘I statements’ (sidebar: this man had just proclaimed the day before that he prided himself on timely and blunt feedback – there was not a single element of bluntness here.) The nutshell version of him talking at me for more than 30 minutes was that he does not like how I am. He circularly addressed how who he is does not allow for people like me, from the ways I conduct myself with others, to how I utilize time, among many other things. Suffice it to say, it was not the apology I thought I would be getting.

“I am at a point in my life where I have to address the things that trigger me. You took a phone call yesterday – I mean I took a call too, but you did not step outside!” (Nor did he, btw.)

“I feel I need to explain to you…” (I did not walk out at this point, but I must be honest, I am sort of done with men explaining things to me – shout out to Solnit and my entire life experience.)

“I am here to work and I want it to be a positive experience for me…” (What in the heck does he think other people are hoping for?)

“I have not always had good experiences working with others and being acknowledged for who I am at previous schools…” (I cannot even.)

“I want to respect your experiences as an educator, but…” (I have more than three times the number of years in the classroom as this man despite his being 5 years older than me, something that had come up earlier, which I think bothers him.)

I leave this as the last one (though it certainly was not the end of his presentation) because it was what really stayed with me. The idea that somehow my experience was less than. This man does not know a thing about me – who I am, what I have done, the work I have participated in, the students I have worked with, the way my classroom operates, but he felt he could speak to all of it.

This was troubling to me as I sat there conscious of my whiteness, which by definition is a privilege, and his being a man of color – no easy task in the world these days. How could I respond without simply negating his perspective (a known consequence of white privilege) but also speak to the clearly misogynistic diatribe I felt was being put on me? I considered all the ways he seemed to be trying to mitigate his speech and thought of a dear colleague from last year who had told me he never gets mad because he cannot – because being a black man removes that option for him in white spaces. I wondered what my new colleague’s actual point was (I am afraid I never got it, in spite of my efforts to do so) before it was lost in an overabundance of explanation and qualification about how who I am is less than simply because of who I am. Would it have been easier to understand if he had just said whatever it was that he meant even if it mean his getting angry?

Ultimately, I could not figure out why he felt so entitled that he could come at me and tell me how it all was. And then it hit me: all of these assumptions he was making were coming from his perception of me, which at this point could really only be based on how I present on the outside. I was stunned. His look is so hugely intentional and cultivated, I wonder if he really thinks that his look is him, in totality. I cannot imagine that is true, or that he believes it is.

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When I eventually had the chance to speak, I told him what I had heard him say, offering him a chance to clarify or correct my understanding – he did neither. I apologized for taking the phone call the previous day and said that while I would never intend to trigger him, I understood that had been the impact of my behavior. Here he began to explain how his experience led him to conclude something (I’m not sure what, I couldn’t keep up with the circles at this point) and I politely interjected and said:

I am not comfortable with your insistence on explaining things to me. I hear you say you want to respect my experience as a teacher- “but”. However, because you feel compelled to explain to me how things are it is clear the “but” is more significant than the respect. Perhaps I can share with you that men explaining things to me is one of my triggers. We are both new teachers here, ostensibly hired for a lot of the same reasons, so let’s agree that we are both bringing a lot to the table, including positive intent.

He said nothing.

I said “I hope you have a super productive and good day!” and walked away. If only walking away from preconceived notions was as easy.

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

You almost had a job in tech…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh, yeah. It is awful…

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

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

It was certainly a departure from public education.

At what cost greatness?

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

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

I work in education.

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

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

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

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

“I…”
“I am a…”
“I work in…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I work in education.

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

Basketball, Officiating, Sports Analysis, and the Journo Block on Twitter 👊

Let’s get a few things out of the way:

I hail from a basketball family. My grandfather was an all-state player in Minnesota who would have played college ball had he not enlisted to serve in WWII (imagine a 6’4″ guy assigned to a sub – but that is a story for another time.) My dad grew up playing hockey (logically: Minnesota) but when he moved to LA his sophomore year, he picked up basketball. He was an all-city player in LA and led his Granada Hills High School team to a really impressive section title over Roosevelt HS, 71-68. He was just that good of an athlete – able to switch sports without missing a beat. He got a full ride to Whitman College where I imagine he would have had a pretty solid career had the late 60s, Vietnam, and other extra-curricular interests not led to the University suggesting he might be better suited elsewhere. Pretty much all of my early memories of alone time with my dad involve watching basketball – either watching him play in his men’s league, or watching the NCAA or the NBA on a crap little television. It was one of the languages we spoke early on – and how I was able to watch the Warriors win their championship way back when – and be conscious of the magnitude of the moment – then and now.

So, of course, growing up, I decided I wanted to be a gymnast.

I should have done a little more observational research because it was clearly not in my tall family future. But I was committed – until the bars could no longer be adjusted enough to accommodate my quickly growing frame. (Starting 7th grade at 5’2″ things seemed plausible. Started 9th grade at 5’9″ so something had to give.)

Basketball it would be.

It was a good choice and basketball would be something that would inform much of my life for the next three decades.

I learned a lot from playing basketball, and while not the most natural talent, I was one of the hardest workers you could find. My coach would still attest to this (shout out to Petaluma High’s Doug Johnson who knew I was the perfect size to be a college guard, but I was convinced at 5’10” I would always be a forward, because teenagers know everything right?) and along with my work ethic was a seriousness with which I approached the game. Everyday I wanted to learn everything there was to learn in order to be better the next day. I was a work horse, there is no other way to describe it. I was (am) still pretty strong for my size and I rebounded like crazy – bumping uglies as Coach Izzo would say, and clearly fouled. A lot. I’ll just say I got very familiar with all of the officials in our league. But they too taught me a ton.

One of my high school English teachers was a Pac-10 ref at the time. We thought this was pretty cool (not as cool as he did, btw, but still.) Mr. R would talk about his side gig all the time and throughout my high school career he was definitely moving up the ranks in big time college officiating. This was when I started learning about how the ref game worked, there was a lot of give and take in order to move up the food chain and this guy was playing it perfectly. We will return to Mr. R presently.

I opted to run track in college – in hindsight not the right choice – but whatever. I stayed connected to basketball in a variety of ways: playing in rec leagues, coaching youth leagues, NCAA pools (I still recall the first time I picked the Final Four – 1990, UNLV, Duke, Arkansas, Georgia Tech – it impressed the heck out of my neighbors, too bad I didn’t get in on a pool that year.)

When I eventually decided to go into education I knew I would coach. I was the Varsity Assistant my first year at Balboa HS in SF where we won the section along with the boys, under their famous Jet Offense (yeah, it was cherry picking: Winters Patterson to Marquette Alexander for the title) Twice is Nice for Balboa was the headline. And it was here that I began to get a better understanding of the nuances of the game, and in particular officiating.

As I progressed through the ranks working up to what would be a 15 year varsity coaching career – girls in the season and boys in the summer (the boy’s coaches that I worked with would coach my girls and I would take their boys in the off-season leagues so that we did not break player contact rules, and I always appreciated that those coaches trusted me enough to do that – not many women get a chance to coach men (HUGE shout out to Becky Hammon and my perennial favorite Coach Pop.) With my growing experience, knowledge and love for the game, my biggest learning curve came when I began officiating. To be fair I was only officiating fall and summer ball, but my goodness – it changed everything. I have always been a pretty savvy conversationalist with officials and definitely was not above trying to charm them from the sidelines. It mostly worked, though I certainly earned some choice techs along the way. However, the summer I started working as an offical was a watershed moment.

My biggest takeaway was that perfection was not achievable, so consistency had to be the goal. I also became painfully aware of how officials can absolutely change a game – not necessarily through “bad” or “unfair” calls, but by inserting themselves too much into the game, by changing the pace of the game to something akin to pain for all involved, or simply by making the game about them.

I say all of this as a very long-winded way to say when a local sports journalist, who I am not sure has ever played or coached or officiated a game (if that matters), blocks me on Twitter (oh! The Horror!) because I make a snarky comment about the officiating assignment for a Warriors game (IT WAS SCOTT FOSTER FOR GOODNESS SAKES!) and suggests that I am some tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist, I take serious issue with this.

Scott Foster and Tony Brothers are not good officials and I am defintiely not alone in this opinion. The two of them put far too much of their own ‘flavor’ (for lack of a better term) on a game. To be fair, they are consistent in their inconsistency, but they regularly make games unwatchable for me. And to be clear, I am not talking only about games that my favorite teams play in. I watch all the NBA games that are on tv. I watched all the NCAA games too – and any women’s games that the networks bothered to televise. I would never rarely say a ref cost a team (especially at the pro level) a game. Mr. R did not perform well on the largest stage I ever watched him officiate. Did he cost the Terrapins the game? Unlikely, although as they lost to Duke and I love Garry Williams and the Terps to the moon and back while simultaneously loathing the Blue Devils and their Grayson Allen culture, I would like to say this. But I do not say it because I know the game and I know better. However, I can still say Mr. R sucked that night.

And I can still say Scott Foster sucks on the regular. On Sunday Scott Foster was trending (why Brothers was not after the #TunnelTech is a mystery). Here is a quick peek at fans from across the country commenting on Mr. Foster.

 

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When I did a Twitter search I came across Tim Kawakami’s morning announcement of who would officiate game 4 of the Warriors-Spurs series. I retweeted his post with a comment: “Oh, this explains it. Had I had seen this I would not have rushed home to watch this game and stayed out to enjoy the weather” or something equally inane, and admittedly, not my most clever. (I later deleted it because I am not in the habit of trying offend, even the most sensitive on Twitter, although in hindsight that was dumb of me.) His response was swift.

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Now, I cannot say if Kawakami blocks people for breathing. But I can say I am well aware that these officials did not cost the Warriors the game (#AfternoonKlay). And I am still glad that I subscribe to The Athletic (Kawakami’s new gig) because I have been dying to see Ethan Sherwood Strauss‘ name back in the bylines and I rely on Marcus Thompson for good reporting. I am enjoying Anthony Slater quite a bit too.

What I can say is this: block whoever you want on Twitter – lord knows there’s enough heinous behavior out there to warrant it, And hey! Block me if it pleases you. But do not get it twisted and try to suggest that I am block worthy because I don’t know what I am talking about, or I am some conspiracy theorist. I love talking about basketball with my friends, my colleagues, my former teammates, and my former players – hell, with anyone, really,  who likes to talk about it. And we are allowed to be silly, sad, serious, contentious, outrageous, or whatever we want. I’d expect a journalist to know this.

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.

 

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.

 

 

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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