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.

 

I believe in the good things coming.

I believe in the good things comin’, comin’, comin’ comin’
I believe in the good things comin’, comin’, comin’ comin’
Out of darkness lion heart pumpin’, pumpin’, pumpin’
Into white light all things runnin’, runnin’, runnin’ runnin’
Who have I been, who am I becomin’?
Come in, come in, come in
Deep breaths for a young man learnin’, learnin’, learnin’
Take a walk with the cedars hummin’,
Cityscape, pink sunset stunnin’
Every empty space is fitting’, every fire kindle burnin’

The San Francisco morning today is glorious. Truly, the kind of morning that gives a person pause and makes you wonder how a sky can really be that blue. It is cold and quiet and still (not always the case in my neighborhood) and I am warm in my tiny apartment surrounded by cats, light, music, and the smell of strong coffee. I feel rested (pretty much), and healthy (mostly), and interested in what another new year might reveal.

The New Year always brings with it the collective desire to reflect, recall, project, plan… hope, I suppose. Or at least for me it does. I love the new year like I love the start of a new school year, (and the upcoming lunar new year as well, if I need a quick opportunity to have a 2015 mulligan… and if that fails, there is always Songkran) because there is this sense of a fresh start and yadda, yadda, yadda. The funny thing is – the reality (because reality IS funny) – is that this sense of a fresh start is available anytime, right? I mean, every spiritual teaching, 12-step program, life coach, preacher, teacher, whatever… has been saying this forever (maybe Buddha didn’t, but he probably knew it.)

Still, there is something culminating and bigger about the turning of the calendar year that I know I will always choose to embrace.

This year feels very different to me. I get it on some levels… Last year on New Year’s Eve I said a forceful goodbye to the Cowboy – now #6 – and had a lot of alone time in the transition from 2013 to 2014 to consider how it was again that I found myself in such an unpleasant predicament. (Yeah, yeah, yeah… lessons not learned… I know.) But I am unclear (in an optimistic way) about what it is about 2015 that feels so different. Maybe it is, as Jung said, that “life really does begin at 40, up until then you are just doing research” and as the traditionalist that I am, I had to complete a four year program of study to work shit out. Regardless, it feels different.

In some ways I played a lot of the same mental games this year that I have long been working to overcome – fretting over not being good enough at work, body issues, looking for love in all the wrong places – how fucking banal. But I do feel like these particulars have been less significant, or at least I have been able to look more objectively at the ridiculousness, and walk away.

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In other ways this year was devastatingly different than years past. Perhaps it is related to age, perhaps it is a consequence of the life I have lived and the experiences I’ve been offered, but this year was colored with loss in ways I was not prepared for – if you ever are.

In May Stuart died. This touched me in surprising and important ways. It was also a catalyst to halting another relationship I had come to depend on in (likely) unhealthy ways. It was a transformative experience to be judged for my honest and deep feelings around this loss, and it taught me that authenticity matters more than reception, and that was immeasurably cathartic. Nothing good gets away.

This November, while at our fall student retreat in the Marin Headlands, I was talking with my team and noted that my life since returning from Hong Kong had been so uniform in its distribution of loss: I had lost someone very significant in every school year since I had come home. My first year back I said good bye to my grandmother. My second year, a person who had been a sister to me in some ways because her brother – also no longer with us but will always remain the Hunter to my Thompson, was violently taken from us in a story that still rings incompatible with the ideas I hold about my life. In my third year back, I lost a cousin in literal ways, although he had left us metaphorically years before, but whose death in its mystery and isolation cut deep. Then there was Stuart. I said to my colleagues, not lightly, that it gave me pause to think about what this school year would hold.

Less than two weeks later, over the Thanksgiving weekend, I found out a college classmate and friend had died suddenly leaving a wife and three young children behind, a long time friend from Lamma had died – home and alone, and my friend Sue, someone I considered a kindred spirit in so many ways during my Hong Kong transformation, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was stunned as I sat with all the news in my parents’ kitchen in Petaluma.

So I suppose it is not without reason that I sit quietly at this new year and wonder what will come.

Suddenly, maintaining something – anything! – simply because it is how it’s always been done, or it is safe – or, god… the most horrible adjective I heard this year to describe a life: it is sustainable – seems not just uninspired, but… terminal.

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I am ready for big changes, while knowing nothing comes easy. I am ready to let go and really see what is on offer. Because, really what other choice is there?

So what of 2014? Well, according to Facebook it was something like this:

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I guess that captures a lot of it: LIFE. LOVE. FEAR. REMEMBER. ACCEPT. FEEL. AMAZING. BETTER. SOMETIMES. WORK. SAY. SOMETHING. CHOICE. PEOPLE. YOGA. FRIENDS. STUDENTS. TEACHER. GRATEFUL. CARE. TOMORROW. PERSPECTIVE. EXPERIENCE.

According to Instagram it was something like this:

And truly, I am – to a degree – a sum of these parts. But like everyone you meet… I also am more than that.

I am more than the solitary girl taken by surprise as I found myself again on my own on the eve of 2014, and although so relieved and happy for it, deeply sad. January got into dark corners as I emptied what I hope will be the last storage space I have to deal with for a very long time, took me back as I pawed through old photos and had two new years in one month as the lunar new year fell on the 31st. The symmetry was necessary.

I am more than the girl who went home to watch her coach in his regular season finale on the home court all these years later, with one of the best friends a person could ask for by her side, reminding her all the while that everything is only what it is. February was brief, dark, busy with field trips and shitty professional evaluations, papers to grade, cats to pet.

I am more than the girl who had to bust some of her favorite students for smoking weed at our overnight retreat and only wanted to retreat herself. March, as it does, brought with it the promise of spring break… if we could just get through. There were moments I was unsure of the outcome and in my struggle I recalled the words of some of my heroes… HST, Bukowski, OkGo… This too shall pass. And it did.

I am more than the girl who took an extra spring break – first going to the Pacific Northwest and catching up with a traveling companion from Europe ’93 while melting into my second family on Fox Island, and second, heading to Indio to return to Coachella. April seemed like a reward I was unsure I deserved for something I was unsure I had done. This precariousness would manifest with a vengeance in May.

I am more than the girl who sat with the news of the death of the man who had asked her if she would “stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back?” And warned her to stay clear of pirates though he was one… and shook with grief. May showed me that there are those who will always be there for you regardless of time or distance, in the best or worst times, and there are those who will not. And when things seem worse than you can imagine, there is always another music festival to go to in order to restore your spirits: De La Soul is not dead.

I am more than the girl who got out of another school year alive, and with some noteworthy successes along the way. With June came the euphoria of another summer break. Yoga, the Petaluma fair, Oakland A’s baseball, time with mom, and gorgeous weather all served to remind me that great rewards will only ever come from concentrated effort, and that is okay.

I am more than the girl who knew at the core of her being that it was time to return to Hong Kong, to Lamma, to the family who had taught her that she was a true citizen of the world and launched her into a previously unknown realm of possibility. July found me in other roles I was unaware I would take on but was glad to be available for friends and family in deep and important ways… and ever grateful that they were there for me too. I was definitely feeling Fancy from SF to Hong Kong-o.

I am more than the girl who made the most of her last weeks before returning to school at Outside Lands and in the wild outsides of North Idaho, places I had not visited since 2010. August was healing, and familial, and musical, and fun-sicle. Unless you were a young black man. There were bikers, unicorns, beers, sunsets, earthquakes… and police shootings. I went back to school with a great manicure, without a principal, and in the wake of another young black man dead at the hands of the state.

I am more than the girl who got to add one more year to her life repertoire as the fall equinox arrived. September is a month I always love – and not just for the birthday it brings with it – but I love the segue into fall weather, the ever-optimistic return to school. In some ways it has an appeal to me in the same way January does. This September I had the chance to have lovely dinner dates; to be reminded of the beauty of Tahoe – a place I called home for nearly a decade; to witness the unprecedented demise of my much loved baseball team; to garner my 15 minutes of fame as a featured educator on television for my work integrating technology into the classroom, to see more live music, and to watch the Umbrella Revolution unfold in Hong Kong. It was a full month.

I am more than the girl who remains optimistic about love in the face of ridiculous disappointments. October was incredibly full with festivals and field trips, fleet week and sailing on the Bay, and of course the total destruction of my lovely neighborhood (again) as a response to the SF Giants winning the World Series (again.) I took 20 students to see Anita Hill speak truth to power, I saw Lena Dunham speak, met up with friends and one of my bebe cousins at HSB in the park. The month was punctuated by meeting someone seemingly transformative at TIMF. I suppose he was transformative really, though hardly in the way advertised.

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I am more than the girl who was asked, “are you the one? are you the one? and will you wait for me… to see if my life is sustainable?” November brought the hope of the holidays along with this other strange element of hope. But as one of my yoga teachers, Samrat Gupta, warned long ago: beware the euphoric highs… they will be met with equal lows. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Elections (low), field trips and class speakers (high); connecting with someone in a truly unique way (high), being devastated by news of the loss and suffering of dear friends (low); being called to speak about the Ferguson decision on the radio (high), the Ferguson decision (low). November was the penultimate teacher I would face this year… and she was tough. But December would be even more challenging.

I am more than the girl who, in some kind of symmetry – found herself rocked by the male of the species again at the end of the year, but quickly saw the insignificance of that as cancer took one of my soul sisters on the Winter Solstice. December, always frantically busy, was next level for me this year, which is not necessarily a bad thing – but it certainly is a tiring thing. Getting out of school by the skin of my teeth, saying a long goodbye to dear friends who will set sail for places unknown in the very near future, art exhibitions, concerts, parties, Vegas, family, family, family, friends, my hometown. It was so full – and my responses to this fullness were not always right, or healthy, or wise… but I daresay they taught me a thing or two.

I am more than the sum of my parts.

I am all of this along with the gifts left by those gone too soon, the legacy (and lunacy) of my extended family, the strength of my body, the unknown trajectory of my professional direction. And I am more even than the clear intentions I am taking into this new year with me:

Some people say we should not look back, only forward. I am not sure. Maybe it is the historian in me, but I think acknowledging the past is crucial for our ability to make sense and purpose of our present and future. I go forward with hope and clarity that I’ve not felt in a long time, and for that I am grateful for the rather harsh lessons that 2014 brought down upon my head somewhat like a certain silver hammer.

I am ready for you 2015.

 

This is for Stu and Sue and all the rest we lost too soon. 

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More pages more words to my story, more grace, more meaning unfoldin’
Take a drive rain park cascadia
Feel the warmth in my cold hear radiant
Two shakes and I’m feelin’ weightless
Heart aches but its actually painless
Take a vow in the Pale moonlight, moonlight, moonlight
Take a look at myself through my third eye..
Everything’s already alright, always alright, always alright…

Unapproachable…? Maybe it’s a filter, maybe it’s a scientific limitation. Maybe it’s BRF.

So, when I came back from Asia and took an emergency position at an East Bay high school, I thought I fell right back into the swing of things. Seriously. I made friends with my coworkers (at least with the ones I was drawn to) and got back into the American-style of chit chattiness that is somehow required whenever more than one adult human is in the proximity of another. I remember when I first got to Hong Kong being really surprised at the absence of said chit-chat. In shops, restaurants, any sort of service… the chit-chat was absent. I thought it was weird.

But apparently I really got on board.

This became apparent when my vertically challenged, middle-aged principle told me one of the reasons that he would not be renewing my contract was that I just didn’t seem to make a good enough effort to get along with my coworkers. [An aside: no fewer than a dozen of my non-friend-coworkers were shocked to hear this… many of whom are still very much in my social circle today.]

Huh. Well, that’s odd, I thought.

And then today in a conversation with a new colleague at my current school, he said he thought I sometimes give off an unapproachable vibe.

Weird.

I thought back on this. Unapproachable? My life seems ridiculously full of amazing people. I wonder if they find me unapproachable. I suddenly recalled a friend I worked with at Incline High School for years who said she was always surprised how stand-offish I was, why don’t you want to make friends? she had asked. At the time I answered that I thought my persona was a great filter… anyone who felt like fighting through it was worth my time.

But I didn’t really mean that . What I would have said if I had been being honest was that there are only so many people who I am actually interested in. Seriously. But one can’t say that because that is just “rude.”

If being friendly and approachable means that you have to chit-chat all the time, I am realizing that I am just way more Hong Kong than I ever knew. Life is busy and full, and my brain is even more busy and full. If I am giving you time in my brain, you can be sure that I really want you to be occupying that time and space.

And time and space in our dimension is limited. That is a fact.

A while back I wrote about Dunbar’s Number. I had been thinking about it a lot in the context of social networking and the reality that having like 1,437 friends on Facebook just could not serve anyone. Basically the premise is that, scientifically, there is a limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable relationships. And really, would you want any other kind of relationship? And rereading that blog post (it is a good one!) I still stand firmly behind all of the sentiments therein.

Today as I revisited the ideas around Dunbar, it dawned on me, as a teacher in a huge comprehensive public high school where I deal with no fewer than 100 teenagers every single day of my life, and as a truly fortunate member of a really dynamic and far-reaching family (and extended family), and a person who feels blessed every single day of my life for the fascinating tapestry of friends I have from 1972 to now, from Petaluma to Guadalajara to Hong Kong to London to NYC to Dubai to Bali to LA… there’s only so much people juice I have left to share with people in my day-to-day.

It may seem bitchy (would certainly not be the first time that has been said about me) but I’m just being real. It is easy to be kind to people you come across in your day-to-day – and in fact I think it is kind of an imperative – but I fundamentally disagree that there is some sort of requirement that being in the same time/place/profession as someone else somehow creates a requirement of friendship. Professionalism? You bet. Support? Abso-freaking-lutely. But friendship? A willingness to share precious time and often fragile feelings or sensitive opinions? Nope, that is not a free for all in my reality.

If I am rude (and I certainly have been), call me on it. If I am unprofessional (sadly, this too has happened once or twice), let me know. If I break a rule, disregard protocol, or am straight up cruel (far less likely, though I would not rule it out), get in my face.

But tell me I need to be friends with everyone? That I need to share my time and life energy with people just because?

No.

I cannot agree to that condition.

If I have a far away look on my face it is because I am probably somewhere far away – thinking of the millions of things I want/have/need to do. And that is okay. If it looks like I don’t see you – ask yourself, is she wearing her glasses? If the answer is no, then I do not see you. I am a good judge of people – and I know – often very early on – if I will be friends with people (and FYI, I am a really good friend, references on request) and if we are not friends, it is not you, it is not me, it just is.

Blame Dunbar.

Or my bitchy resting face.

Fall Semester Endeth. Finally.

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It was rather a long haul, I must admit. And when pressed for reasons why, they do not easily come to mind. For the first time in many moons I was teaching a known and familiar curriculum, my class sizes are totally manageable, my life, fairly stable. So, what then? What made this the longest-semester-EVER? It could be that I closed it out with some truly funky gross sickness. Or that the election made it all the more tense. Or perhaps it was the unfortunate placement of the winter hols (not to be misconstrued and unfortunate hols….) I am not knowing.

But I am glad it is over.

Or mostly over.

Now that the window to turn in work has really closed, and my grades are all done and entered, comes the most aggravating part of being a teacher. The begging for grade changes. And these come primarily from able-minded students who chose to coast all semester for various reasons, approaching all sorts of threat levels on the teenage drama thermometer, but rarely from the kids who really, truly, need to speak up.

It gets me thinking about grades: the medium of exchange in the world of academia, and it is a conundrum. How accurately can a grade reflect ability? Hard to say. But a grade certainly can reflect intention and adherence to protocol. And I wonder which might be the more important.

There must be a medium of exchange. Of that we all agree. Just look at UC Santa Cruz where for years they endeavored to do away with grades and offered narrative evaluations at the end of courses. (I weep for those graders). But in the end, they all had to be translated to grades anyhow if a student had designs on graduate school of any sort. So they were rendered moot. Now the professors there spend hours upon hours writing narrative evaluations AND give a grade. Awesome.

Anyhow, since there must be some benchmark, something that says, yes, this student was conscious, this student learned the ‘majority’ of the material, this student made academic gains in skill, this student improved upon their understanding of…. of what? We have grades.

The use of grades is not a new rule. It is not like last week I told my students, “Okay, we are going to give you a grade at the end of all of this so impress me!” All along, students know that the grades are what come at the end and that this will be the measure affords them choices down the road. Or not. Seemingly, if one is aware of all this, then they would make decisions accordingly. Even if they are teenagers who are categorically not renown for decision-making skills, this seems like a fairly cut and dried situation. Recently I was handed my high school transcripts, along with my original college applications (mom has been cleaning out the garages…) and I had a look.

I graduated from a very mediocre school, it seems that should be admitted. We didn’t have too many AP choices (though I took them all) and I took PE every year. I also recall being fairly disenchanted by high school towards the end (par for the course, I think.) This being said, I graduated with a 3.76 unweighted GPA and ranked #16 in my class. I entered UCSD as a sophomore by credit (partly due to AP scores and partly due to an exchange program in Guadalajara.)

What is more striking to me now is not the difference in my grades to those of my students, but the other little things. Like, in a million years I would have NEVER contacted my teachers about my grades. They were what they were. [I think my mom talked to three of my teachers in my high school career about grades… Geometry, World History and Economics…. the first for a cheating accusation – which still stands as one of the most hilariously inept suggestions ever, not because I never cheated, but in this case because of whom I was accused of cheating from (!) – the second for a D on a test that was clearly a teacher sending a message – got it – and lastly for a personality conflict (shocker) with a teacher that had compelled him to lower my academic grade rather than my “citizenship” grade.] In fact, I remember getting report cards and that was how you knew what your grades were – there was no online program where you could track the entry of every grade. The equation seemed simple: do work, get points. Don’t do work, don’t get points. The consequences were also simple. Bad grades, no sports eligibility, or something. This was not within my high school self’s ken. For me bad grades equated to, as my mom often plainly reminded me, limited choices down the road. “Huh,” she’d say. “Well, that will eliminate some of your choices in the future.” I have told you already that she was a master of PsyOps.

Now we are working with kids facing the following realities:

  • Far greater competition to get into college
  • Far less significance for having gone to college
  • Far greater uncertainty about the future
  • Far less cultural and social value on education outside of performance markers like position of status and salary

Knowing this it is shocking to me that some of my students who, with more resources and support than I can articulate, still do so little while having this strangely passive attitude about it all, like, maybe something will miraculously happen at the end and that D- will become a B or even an A. And if this does not happen then it was not their fault and it just is what it is.

Then comes the justifying. My favorite one is the whole, “Oh, I could totally get A’s I am just not into it (the more honest among them will just say they are lazy – though with a disturbing hint of pride.)” There are also the blame shifters: this is not my fault it is… my family, my job, I can’t take tests, I suck at math, I got a concussion, my — died, I got suspended, you don’t grade fair. There’s the bargainers. If you change my grade I will: never be tardy again, do all my work next semester, whatever. The latest addition to the repertoire has been the intellectual entreaty. This I find most interesting. Not just for the semantic two-step it affords, but because of the ultimate irony that it exposes.

As a high school student, grades are not a measure of intellect, it is a measure of the ability to be a student. While these two things certainly overlap and intersect at various points, the reality is that they are very different. In high school, grades are measuring the degree to which you are able to demonstrate skills that will help you develop and refine your intellectual acumen down the road. If you glean some cool information along the way that is awesome, but it is a bonus. As your high school teacher I am looking at your ability to get shit done. Can you be on time? Can you remember a writing utensil…. ever? Do you meet your responsibilities? Do you do what you say you will do? Do you take the steps necessary to allow yourself to succeed? (Assigned reading for homework does not mean you have no homework, FYI.) Do you know how to effectively and appropriately communicate with peers and teachers, and do you realize that unique approaches are required? Do you turn in the work which you clearly think you are above doing in spite of your opinion? Do you know how to find answers to your questions? Do you know what questions to ask? Can you manage all of the above 90% of the time? Okay, then, you get an A. If not, then you did not take care of your business and you do not deserve an A. Truly. It is not a mystery.

And don’t worry, it is the job of graduate school to access your intellect, so that is waiting for you down the road.

That is, assuming you made a couple of wise choices along the way, and remembered to bring a writing utensil to class, at least occasionally.

graduate school