Spiritual Teaching in a Sacred Secular Classroom

All this is true, more or less.

Teachers are consigned to a certain type of purgatory.  Not hell, mind you.  It is not punishment.  Just a stage where you work through things.  While the each generation of people moves on into the adult world, only reminiscing of their school days in hazy shadows or half-remembered dreams, teachers— being the conduit of ideas for the next generation—relive their own educational experiences every time they discover some slight comparison in their own classroom.  Over and over and over.  Call it the eternal recurrence of education, I suppose.

The value to this phenomenon—if there is one—is that we have the opportunity to re-evaluate what we are taught, as opposed to letting it settle deep into our the recesses of our mind, background noise for our beliefs, forming our conscious opinions and reactions unconsciously.  Unexamined, the lessons of the past take root and help define us—for good or for ill.  Reviewing what we are taught by the experiencing of re-teaching it, or questioning its validity, places us squarely in the stream of time, hopefully a check against becoming stagnant.

But the moment it happens is like an eerie déjà vu’.  You’re bopping along, teaching your ass off one day and you know the lesson you are teaching, the material you are covering.  Except once you were the student.  Now you are the teacher.  The paradoxes this switch creates can be unnerving.

I found myself in one of these pretzels the other day.  It’s Quarter 2 in philosophy class, so it’s time to study religion. For a solid month and a half, it is an ongoing discussion of God’s existence, the ongoing battle of faith and reason, arguments and justifications of faith, and the variety of religious experiences—common and absurd—around the world. I often privately joke that those joke-ass politicians and preachers who lament the lack of God in schools should stop by my room during this time, as there is probably more talk of God in that room than almost anywhere in public schools.

But Thursday might have been the icing on the unleavened bread.  It started before the first bell of school. One of my English students sheepishly brought me a Ouija board.  His girlfriend was presenting a project on Spiritualism: she wanted to use it as a prop, but she didn’t want to endure the spiritual shade she would likely receive for toting it around school for two periods.  Could he just drop it off?  Sure.  It seems that her suspicions were right, as I got a bit of a sacred stink-eye from students and staff alike just for having it next to me.  I put it atop a bookcase in my room and thought little of it until the class arrived a few hours later.

Three hours later came philosophy. A project on Jediism.  Spiritualism project was next, but the connection to the spirit world was broken as the lunch bell rang.  A few of my students asked if they could take the Ouija board to the library and play.  I flinched.

“Just don’t tell anyone I sent you.  The last thing I need is the reputation as the Public School philosophy teacher who sent his kids to contact the devil in the library.”

My fear comes from a fairly well-founded place.  As a young child I remember frequently going to church youth camps and meetings.  The exact details are fairly sketchy, but I remember spending a fair amount of time…Sunday school, Summer Camp, Saturday seminars…in organized religious-based youth meetings.  Lots of teaching from a “Biblical World View” goes on in these places.  And perhaps what I remember most about these meetings are the warnings about the trappings of the secular world, the kind of things we should be wary of to be “In the World and not of it.”  They never approached the level of “Hell House” for shtick, but the message was clear: the secular world is full of spiritual pitfalls.  It’s bits and pieces of memory, really, but public school was often characterized as an obstacle course of temptation to lead the soul astray, so much that parents often experienced guilt for sending their students to be taught in that den of thieves–the public school classroom.  I remember hearing that Led Zeppelin snuck Satanic messages into “Stairway to Heaven”–the speaker’s prom song.  I remember hearing that science and history might try to sway you against the way the Earth was really  created.  And I definitely remember picking up somewhere that messing around with Occult material like Dungeons and Dragons and Ouija boards was basically inviting the devil into your soul, ensuring you a one-way ticket to the dark side.  And not the cool one with the Death Star.  The one with eternal fire where you have to perpetually watch crappy after-school specials with an incompetent teacher, where you can have only one salad dressing for all eternity,  where you are consigned to infinite Cleveland Browns fandom.

 

And if I’m to believe what God’s Not Dead claims, there’s nothing more godless than a philosophy teacher who challenges religious arguments as part of his curriculum.  I could hear the angry, uninformed script letters from Ralph Reed and the AFA basically writing themselves.  So after lunch, when the students returned and actually used the board in their project—admittedly with a condescending and sarcastic attitude to the Hasbro product’s mystical powers—I can’t say that it didn’t unnerve me a bit.

But the project concluded.  On to the main lesson.  One I had spent quite some time mulling over.  We were at an intersection in class where the infinity of ideas came against the finite nature of class time.  Buber may have argued that this is how we understand God, but for me it was where I tried to synthesize the ideas of nihilism and religious existentialism in the course of about 50 minutes.

“Vanity of vanities.  All is vanity.”  If there is a more succinct nihilistic sentiment, I can’t recall it.  Solomon, who the Judeo-Christian tradition claims as “the wisest man alive,  searching for meaning in the meaningless world, finds that all of human endeavor was pointless, that nature would follow its random course with or without him, and he would eventually die, his life the proverbial dust in the wind, dude.  My students felt the weight of these notions, but none of my students could place the source.

“Nobody knows where this comes from?  None of you?

Crickets.  Silence.  The ineffable void.

“Bunch of damn heathens,” I mockingly scorned them.  “Book of Ecclesiastes. Most beautiful book in the Bible.”  They were duly amazed that the Holy Book of two major world religions grappled with the nihilistic sentiment, when nihilism seems to strike at the very heart of faith.  Although I had been raised religiously, I didn’t find Ecclesiastes until I was in college, already beginning the wane of my church attendance.  It spoke to a similar creeping dread in me, spoke to me like few parts of the Bible ever have; I both revere its sentiments and question its conclusions to this day.  The creeping dread of nihilism, I often tell my students, is a problem we all face from time to time.

Image result for abraham killing isaac

We discussed why people feel this way, and how religion addresses this fear of being nothingness.  I related Kierkegaard’s epiphany—that all true connections with the divine are marked by absurdism and ineffable paradox and should be approached with laughter—by narrating the story of Abraham and then moved to the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments—spending 40 days in the mountains, the revolt of the Israelites, the smashing of the tablets and the bitter water-as as an example of the rocky mystical beginnings that blossomed into established religions.  They were rapt, like six-year-olds in Sunday School.  Many admitted they didn’t know any stories from the Bible. They were hooked on these tales I had taken for granted, the same stories I had heard over and over in my primary education.

Image result for moses smashing the tablets of the law rembrandtHere’s where the paradox begins to strike me.  If I were to go back to lessons of those youth conference days as a public school teacher who allowed a Ouija board and a faux-séance as part of a project, I would be a pariah, the very archetype of all that is most wrong in Public Schools.  I would be the epitome of the darkness they fight.  If, on the other hand, I were the Public School teacher who made the kids—many of whom had never read the Bible—read KJV OT followed by laying down some primary Sunday School stories, I might be something of a hero to the flock, the lone light shining in the darkness.  Pat Robertson might even say some nice words about me right after Harry Potter went off, right before condemning “the gays.”

Of course, neither of these is true.  Philosophy and education in my classroom are all about finding the position a student is in and giving them a nudge, ever so slightly, so that they can grow.  I certainly have my beliefs about the world, and I could never extract those beliefs from who I am even if I wanted to. But in the classroom, it is not the ego nor the agenda of the teacher that should matter.  My job is to shine some light on the path they tread.  Their job is to figure out themselves and their path in the world.  I do my work and step back.  We are there to reveal, elucidate, inspire.  We are not there to indoctrinate.

Thursday dwindled to an end. But the paradox I discovered in myself and my teaching? I can barely describe or speak of, which is probably why I tried to take a few thousand words to do so.  How bizarre that the kid from those youth conferences would grow into the teacher who both met and defied those lessons within one class period.  How absurd.  I found myself laughing as I locked the door on my sacred space for the day.

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Down the Highways of the Old Confederacy

I am not from The South.  I have lived here all of my adult life, but I have always had difficulty considering myself a Southerner.  I was reminded of it early and often when I moved to North Carolina, no matter how many times I reminded the kids on the cheese wagon that we Bostonians hated the Yankees, too.  But even as an adult who has lived three-quarters of his life below the Mason-Dixon, I often find myself an outsider in this culture.

And yet, I know it fairly well, even if I don’t get it.  I’ve traveled its back roads, climbed its mountains, sang in its churches, drank its sweet tea and ate its grits, paddled its rivers to gain an intimate knowledge.  Like many of us here, I take the same paths over and over and over again, a regression I found recently as Nic and I pointed the Prius in a southwestardly direction to see her family just across the Louisiana border in Beaumont, Texas.

For many who do not know or are not familiar with the south, the perception can be one of abject misery and backwardness, a point driven home by a Wisconsan at AP Training who lamented the strangeness of our national politics and then pointedly said, “but I guess you’re use to this, being from North Carolina.”  And as we make the travel from 85-65-10—through the “Deep South”—we pass through cities that can be laden with heavy American history.  Sherman’s march through Atlanta.  The Montgomery to Selma march.  Mississippi Burning.  Hurricane Katrina rips through New Orleans.  But for us, there are very personal memories on this path raised on this path and new memories created every trip.  There’s the impromptu high school parade at the Jonesboro exit.  Our walking tour of the Auburn campus.  The worst hotel sleep ever in Mobile. Strolling the beaches in Gulfport and Biloxi.  Walking through the French Quarter.  Chicken on the Bayou.  A speed trap that caught me in Vinton.

As we enter Texas, the speed limit raises and we enter narrow construction lanes.  We stop at a What-a-Burger somewhere between Orange and Vidor, then cruise all the way to Beaumont.  From there, it’s a week of tacos, board games, and laughter.  I know all the streets in my in-law’s hood from running over the years, and I’m starting to remember how to get to the Starbucks and the gym without having to use a GPS.  This paths are well worn indeed.

But the history of this town is obscure to me.  It’s a city of over 100,000 people, which makes it large and modern in comparison to the many towns of fewer than 10,000 that surround it.   Beaumont, it seems, has a relatively high murder rate for its size in Texas.  My in-laws’ church in the heart of the city recently participated in a successful gun buy-back where they received many weapons but–just as importantly–many threats from the people in the city.  The following Sunday, community leaders sat in a panel discussion about potential solutions to murder with the BBC filming for documentary purposes.    The preacher spoke euphemistically a few times about “the sins of our fathers.”  I’m not sure I know exactly what the sins are, but judging from the panel discussion, it seems that—like a lot of Southern cities—Beaumont probably has some racial skeletons in its closet, skeletons, that—like a lot of cities in this country, including Charlotte—still cause social problems today in the correlation of race and poverty.  This church is attempting to at least bridge that gap, to take steps to solve what is often a heated, uncomfortable issue by reducing the violence that plagues the city.

It’s hot in Texas, and I spend a lot of time inside reading when I’m there.  Perhaps serendipitously the thread of race relations wove through much of what I remember reading.  There’s this essay in one of my favorite publications about he virtues of Tarrantino’s Django Unchained.  The author compares how Germany and America use art to portray and deal with our relative racists and genocidal pasts.  He argues that unlike Django, most American films that deal with race paint the racists as unrelatable villains as opposed to everyday people, minimize the actual violence and pain caused, and look to a hopeful future, as if this is all behind us.  That night, we watch The Help on TV.

The second read was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a 2016 Man Booker award winner.  For me, it’s often refreshing to read a book without having to worry about how I would teach it.  The book satirizes the state and history of race relations in this country in a way that has me cackling.  Like most good works of satire, it is both irreverent and poingant.  I know lots of people I want to convince to read it just so we can talk about it.

If this book left me in stiches, the third reading regarding race left me with dread.  It was a brief article on my favorite left-leaning political blog, announcing that Charlottesville had voted to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park (once Lee park, but changed).  The move mirrors such efforts in other southern cities to remove symbols of the South’s confederate past, from the removal of the Battle Flag over the SC state house after the Mother Emmanuel AME Zion shooting in 2015 to the recent effort remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  The rationale seems to be that removing these symbols of the racist past are necessary for us to move forward.  I thought about Beatty’s narrator, who would likely argue that removing the statues won’t end racism any more than having a black president did.

The trend to remove these monuments has gained momentum.  But Southerners are fighting back.  The monuments in New Orleans had to be removed under the cover of night with police protection.   In all of these cases, the removal has met with charges of disrespecting Southern Heritage, memes quoting George Orwell, and the prideful opposition of southerners regardless of their state.  A slight in New Orleans or Charlotteseville is slight across Dixie, it seems. So in Charlottesville, a Southern university town that—like my beloved Chapel Hill, likely believes it is above the dirty past of the rest of the South–a  “Unite the Right” rally had been planned to protest the removal of the statue.

I cringed.  This wouldn’t end well, but I had no idea how explosive a situation it would become.

By Tuesday, we headed home, mapping a different route through Dixie, heading north to Little Rock.  Randy, who has travelled these roads all his life, ticked off the names of the small towns through which we would pass: Lumberton, Kirbyville, Jasper, San Augustine, Carthage, Marshall, and finally to Texarkana. Small town after small town where a NC tag and  a Prius surely made us seem like outsiders, but not so much that we needed to worry if we stayed under the speed limit and I kept my hair tucked under my hat.  Lucky us. How privileged.  Soon we were in Little Rock.

I had hoped through our new route through the old confederacy we would see the markers of history.  Unfortunately, time, traffic, and Little Rock’s tenuous relationship with our GPS kept us from Little Rock Central High School.  As a teacher, I inherently see education as a tool to social progress.  So, it’s odd to think of a school as a site of one of the most regressive battles of the Civil Rights Era.  Here, Governor Orville Faubus, pandering to his white supremacist base, refused to comply with the Supreme Court and integrate schools.    Eisenhour tried to talk him into changning his mind, but eventually had to bring in the National Guard to protect high school students from an angry mob of “ordinary” white people. Watching the “respectable” white people is revolting.  It seems so hopelessly out of time, and yet even in Charlotte, once a national model of integrated schools, educational disparity at the nexus of class and race persists and reform often meets a genteel, polite resistance.

 

 

Sadly, we only have time for a walk in the park, where the dogs frolic in the fountain, and lunch at Stickyz Chicken (which is lets us put our dogs on the patio, and has a great space). Instead of the high school, we go to the beautiful, renovated waterfront district, where bands can play and public art brackets public water parks where we see black and white children playing.  Every thing seems so peaceful, so newly renovated, the shadows of the past paved over in brick, shiny glass, and sculpture.

We need to get to Memphis, which is another 2 ½ hours east.  Memphis sits on the eastern bank of the Mississippi.  Named after an ancient Egyptian city, Memphis greets us with a gaudy, mirrored pyramid emblazoned with the Bass Pro Shops logo to commemorate the city’s etymological heritage.  We turn right off the interstate as soon as we get into the city, the GPS  leads us to one of the most unlikely of historical markers—The Lorraine Motel.

You’ve seen the pictures.  In 1968, Dr. King had come to Memphis to help the working class, to march with striking sanitation workers.  The night before, his speech suggested he was aware of his own impending demise.  The next morning, an assassin’s bullet pierced the Memphis sky and struck King.  Today, few citizens are venerated in American history as Dr. King.  The Wall Street Journal claims that his “I Have a Dream” speech magically ended all racism in America.  Talk about your out-of-touch costal elites.  But here, a somber reminder: the motel, which fell into disrepair in the early 80s has become the foundation for the National Civil Rights Museum, which also includes the boarding house where the bullet originated, the whole moment of King’s death captured in the eerie trajectory of a few hundred yards of city block.

I’ve been to many awe inspiring places: the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge.  But I am overwhelmed in a tone I have never known.  The nexus of so many intersecting strands.  A clash of ideals.  A true crossroads of our nation.  The courage and the fear inspired in one man’s actions brought to a mighty head in his assasination by motivations obvious, yet still myriad and dark.  Now this motel sits somewhat anachronistically in what is clearly an effort for a revitalized Memphis, with newly painted signs, down the road from a hotel honoring the history of blues—the very heart of American music, borne painfully in slave culture, once reviled by the clergy as the Devil’s Music—a few blocks from Beale Street, a few more from a gleaming NBA arena that the city has just apporoved for $1.7 million in renevations an a state-of-the-art AAA baseball stadium.

We have one more place to see in Memphis, but the GPS gets us lost again.  Around the corner from the Lorraine, we see a middle-aged African American woman, alone at a fold-out card table with signs and brouchures protesting the construction of the Civil Rights Museum. I slow down enough to see what seems on the surface a contradictory argument—that the King memorial is destroying the very people he fought for.  But as the GPS leads me through Memphis, we see the cracked streets, the shanty houses, an elementary school that has been boarded up in disuse.  The GPS, in trying to find Sun Studios, keeps trying to take me through Foote Park, which is currently surrounded by construction fence guarding the concrete rubble of what once was.  Like Charlotte, Memphis is a mid-level city trying to grow, and that means sometimes it is clearing out the “the undesirable” for the new and gleaming.  Frustarted, we decided to head to the hotel on a brand new 240, but finally find Sun, where Elvis, Cash, and many others got their start.  It’s now a museum to iconic musicians who Nicole decided, after watching Walk the Line for the first time a few weeks ago, were kind of jerks.  Regardless, it remains a testament to the fact that the American South, perhaps because of its pain and suffering, is the fertile soil in which so much of our music began to blossom.

The next day takes us through Nashville, where we briefly stop in Centennial Park, home to a full-sized replica of the Greek Parthenon, the home for Nashville’s art museum, stands across the green from a modern Southern temple–an SEC football stadium at Vanderbilt.  We have lunch and ice cream from the food trucks where a mom leaps back in front of me to ask the ice cream lady if the chocolate and peanut butter ice cream she just ordered for her kids has nuts in it.  I shake my head.  How can you choose nuts and think you won’t have live with them.

From there, we move further east, to a small town called Decatur, where family has done us the grand favor of loaning us their house for a few days.  We drive twisty roads through the mountains into what is truly the rural south.  “Towns” are few the further we get from the interstate, and soon we arrive to this small enclave (a town of around 1,500 people) punctuated by a Piggly Wiggly, three gas stations, and Italian/Mexican restaurant (which Nicole dubs “a crime against humanity”) and a few fast food joints.

The next day we explore.  The land is beautiful, surrounded by massive rivers that I long to kayak.  We stop at an isolated gas station where the clerk answers my questions about fishing and directs me to his goo ole boy buddy in the parking lot when I ask him the best place to put in and camp.  “Wherever you can find a place.” As we drive around, we begin discussing what it would be like to live out here.  Are you stuck or are you fortunate?  In many ways, the area embodies much of the virtue people extol in the south.  It’s simple, relaxed, a contrast to the fast-paced urban, modern life.  Lots of time for reading, playing music, fishing, and thinking.

We point the car home on Friday.  I convince Nicole to let me take the scenic route over the Cherehola Skyway, a winding mountain road between Tellico Gap, TN and Robbinsville, NC.  It means going rural instead of interstate, through Athens (a booming town of 15,000 with a university a third the size of the high school where I teach), then Etowah, a winding road on which we count four Rebel Flags, one on the same porch as a New England Patriots flag.

I begin to think a lot about the people who live here and the flags they fly on their porch, flags that people defend with slogans like “heritage, not hate”, flags that proliferated after it was removed from the Columbia State House, flags that will stand along the Nazi swastika in Charlottesville.  I went to a high school where the flag was a common clothing accessory way before I could digest what that meant.  On the last day of school, kids with big trucks would attach huge battle flags and race up and down the street in front of the school.  I know the people who live in the rural south who bring buckets of vegetables to my mom’s house when their garden is abundant, who kindly give me directions about where I can find a dock for my kayak, who let me out of a speeding ticket with a warning because I know a little “aw shucks” routine.  I know people who fly the flag who have done me immesurable acts of kindness. I also know people who can be hostile to the wrong kind of outsider.  I want to believe as I drive through this beautiful country that none of these people would take their flags off their porch to use them as symbols of hate in Charlottesville.  But I also know that historical symbols and monuments accrue meaning by their use.  That one owner of the flag can’t escape the meaning that others ascribe to it. That any monument serves us best as a point to reflect where we are going, not just a reminder of where we’ve been.

But that wasn’t going to happen in Charlottesville.  There was not going to be a quiet contest of ideas.  The statue was coming down by order of the city council.  As a carpet-bagging yankee, it fills me with great ambivalence.  I know lots of my southern brothers and sisters who see this as destroying a past worth preserving.  But even as a child I had a hard time understanding the desire to venerate this history.  Certainly, the flood of outsiders escalating Charlotteville proved that racism is not endemic to the South,  but we can’t deny that the South has frequently been on the wrong side of moral history.  From slavery to Jim Crow to resisting the Civil Rights movement.    There is much about the South to celebrate.  But values that make the South a wonderful place to live—generous people, genuine music, amazing natural resources—are not embodied in a flag that has become a racist totem nor in statues  to men who died protecting the Confederacy and its economic model of violent, immoral human enslavement.

We didn’t drive through Charlottesville, but it came to us in our living room as soon as we returned home.  I’m not sure I really care whether or not a statue stays or goes, but I find the argument that we should preserve history to be somewhat hollow.  All monuments fail to tell the entire story, but these celebrate the valour of a defeated army.  On the other hand, making the destruction of these monuments the focus of racial reconciliation also seems superficial.  Sure, it is a powerful symbolic victory, but does little to do the work that we need to work for a more harmonious society. But harmony has always been hard in the South.  Part of the trick of the Jim Crow South and the birth of the Klan, according to several historians, was that the wealthy landowners convince poor whites to intensly hate the poor blacks so they would never realize that their economic interests would be better realized if they worked together.  That racial animus became the series of laws and “Sundown Towns” throughout the South, an animus even exploited by Nixon’s Southern strategy.   What has stood out the most for me, however, is that while otherwise well-intentioned people from the South have pitched a battle that has allowed White Supremacists, neo-nazi assholes, and the freaking Klan to come out of the woodwork in 2017. And once again, these groups begin to convince alienated white people that their path to Southern Shangrila lies in hating People of Color while claiming it’s about “heritage, not hate”.  But if Southerners really care about preserving our history, we better look it in the face.  Because we can’t just we want to preserve heritage and act like hate wasn’t a part of it all along. And if we can’t find a way to differentiate, to celebrate the South while doing the work to repair the sins of our fathers, to really make the South an amazing place for all the people who live here, then that rebel flag and those monuments will contine to have the taint of racism that those hoodless Klansmen put on them every time they show up to defend another statue.

Almost a year ago, my beloved city erupted into nights of protests and property damage after the police shot Keith Lamont Scott.  It seems like it is Charlottesville’s turn to go down this road.  Ironically, the actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville has only emboldened cities and colleges to remove these monuments.  And with citizens, politicians, and college students alike looking to right the wrongs of the past, it feels like we will continue to travel these roads for sometime.  As we do, it helps to remember that there are two pernicious lies that arise about race and the south–whether the monuments stay or go.  The first is the favorite of the white supremacist–that the past was glorious and valorous, and we need only return to it.  The second is the refuge of what King called “the white moderate” who prefers order over justice–that the past is in the past, that all our problems have been solved, and that every thing is cool if we just leave well enough alone.  It is perhaps as deadly a lie, as it catches us off guard when conflict erupts over unresolved issues.

In another week, I will return to my job of teaching young people how to interpret visual communication, parse rhetoric, seek truth, and perhaps most importantly, be a valuable member of a harmonious community.  As our trip through the Confederacy comes to a close, I realize that progress in the South is still to be made

The Arrival of Choices

IF YOU CHOOSE TO CONTINUE READING, SPOILERS MAY LIE AHEAD.

Last night, I met up with some friends, old and new, to play some bar trivia. It’s a summer indulgence, as staying out late past my bedtime at Sir Edmund Halley’s trying to to remember the name of that Velvet Underground song usually conflicts with me being an effective teacher on Tuesday morning.  It’s a choice I choose to ignore during the school year..

In between rounds, inevitably the question from the non-teachers was “What are you doing with your summer?” which soon led to the discussion that a teacher’s extended vacation time—the exception rather than the rule here in the States—is expected in many other countries around the world.  Many workers in other countries can have this much time away from work–not just teachers. It’s a shame. I don’t know you people with “real jobs” do it—wake up every weekday to work with only a week’s vacation a year. Every day in the school year, I wake up often with the goal to keep all the plates spinning, to make all my classes go off without a hitch in addition to handling any other curveballs life throws my way. It requires enough effort sometimes that it seems like taking the time to do small things—going on a hike, seeing my friends and family, musing over the meaningless in a blog post, and yes, playing bar trivia on a Monday night—seem like luxurious options limited by the necessity of obligation.

Then the Arrival of Summer. The Arrival of Choices. Time to do all the things you put aside for ten months. Time opens up, and you find yourself waking up with no plan for the day but the nagging feeling like you should have one. It wears off after a while, often at the time where you become comfortable watching a movie you’ve already seen a hundred times, or literally making a schedule out of a dentist appoinment and a kayaking trip, or shooting hoops and trying to fire out an insightful blog post. At the outset of summer vacation, choices seem infinite; but this, too, is an illusion: summer won’t last forever, there are only so many days to do all the things you dream of in the doldrums of February, and as the guy at Great Outdoor Provision Company reminded me as I mused a map of Lake Keowee: “the summer will be over be fore you know it.”

So I hopped on a river not far from my house that afternoon. My mind began to adust to this new and temporary reality in the slow, lazy paddle. And from the depths of that floating, cold water bubbled up puzzles and thoughts I had tucked in the back files of my mind for the expedience of grading papers and completing paperwork. But spurred on by sloshing water and cold beer, there is nothing but time to mull over the sparks of inspiration I had stowed away.

arrival alien ship

One such spark came when I began to muse the film Arrival. I caught this movie in the theaters and geeked out to my students. Fortunately, it came out on DVD in time to be the last film we screened in the school year. Sometimes my non-teaching friends snort with derision that getting paid by the state to show movies is like stealing money. However, the mix of adoration, confusion, and discomfort this film provided for my students sparked such myriad and diverse reaction and conversation that it has stuck with me for the last month, only now to rise to the surface of my conscious mind. The movie, without giving too much away, is challenging for them not only because of the complex story structure, but also because it challenges the basic tenets of their worldview on two major fronts.

The first is time. For our students who are driven to succeed academically, time is often expressed as a series of linear of events, always moving forward, in which they often sacrifice immediate joy for future security and happiness. If I do ‘X’, I will achieve positive future ‘Y’ and avoid negative future ‘Z’. Philosophically, the film represents an alternate perspective of time, often referred to as a “God’s-eye” view or “four-dimensional time.” Much like in Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five, time is the fourth dimension that can be traveled in multiple directions once one has the knowledge, and our traditional designations of time—past, present, and future—are but mere points on a map. In this paradigm, saying “my actions in the present cause the future” is no more logical than saying “Boston causes New York” just because one happens to be traveling south on I-95.

This characteristic of time poses the more daunting theory, that the universe is ultimately deterministic. If time can be travelled backwards and forwards, it means that what we refer to as the future is already set. If it can be known, it must already be set in stone. And if it is not created causally, it means our choices in the present do not necessarily cause our future, that doing my homework and studying for my tests over binging a season of Game of Thrones will not guarantee my ultimate future happiness. To be fair, students often feel the gnawing of this if they look at themselves in the system of school and wonder if it really matters if they sacrifice sleep for homework again or if they take the right classes to t get into the right school. For teenagers struggling to find themselves and their identity in the miasma of high school life, the idea that their choices don’t matter and that their future is already mapped out in front of them is the last thing they want to hear.

So for some students, seeing Louise give in to this deterministic model without a fight rubs them the wrong way at their very core, striking at a belief on which they found their lives—that their choices matter and that they are free to shape their future. But seeing Louise’s “big choice” in the film as one of free will vs. determinism is fairly reductive. True, it’s one of the most fundamental struggles of introductory philosophy, but as Alan Watts once posed, that either option, that we control the universe or that it controls us, presupposes that we are separate from its workings. More problematic, getting hung up in this question inhibits us from seeing life as a richer, more beautiful experience. In Louise’s choice, she realizes that sorrow will be the ultimate outcome of her decision and yet she makes it anyway. This confounds some of my students. Why will she make a choice that ultimately ends in her own sadness? The hardline freewillers want her to choose otherwise now that she knows the future, to take hold of her own destiny and bend it to her will, so they are flummoxed when she “chooses” not to. In their teenage empathy, they feel frustrated and betrayed that she simply allows the pain at the end of her choice to take place, rather than seeing how the future is laid out and taking it by the reins and changing it. After all, the paradigm of school as an instrumental good is based on making choices we don’t like, sacrificing temporary joy to secure it more permanently and avoid more pain in the future.

I had quite a few students vent this to me. It feels like adults resigning. But I kept finding a perverse comfort in Louise’s choice: it reminds me of Lebanese Poet Kahil Gibran, who in The Prophet wrote, “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall find that in truth you are weeping for that which is your delight.” Choosing otherwise, Louise could have avoided the pain only at the expense of the intervening happiness that made that pain so poingiant.

 

This might get bleak for a bit, but stick with me. You’ll come out on the other side. Suffering is a part of life. When Buddhists propose “get rid of desire and get rid of suffering,” it works great for not worrying about having a bigger house or a newer car. But it’s horrible advice for dealing with people. If you love and care for people, they will get sick. They will suffer. Taken literally, the Buddha’s advice would be to not care for them in the first place. Unless you’re committing to a life of ascetic monasticism, you’re committing to a life of unempathetic psychopathy, shunning relationships to avoid the inevitable pain that comes with caring about people. Making a choice to avoid one type of suffering is simply bound to bring another to your door—without the appertaining Joy as comfort. At some level, as Gibran posed, the two are intertwined, and only “when you are empty” are you balanced.”

As you can guess, many find the ending of the film to be a shade over bittersweet, tending toward the bleak and fatalistic. Those who have read the original source material—Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life” have characterized it as even darker. And while Director Denis Villeneuve admits to changing some basic facts to better evoke the audience’s empathy, those critics often miss one crucial point. In the short story, Lousie does try to do things to change the final outcome, to protect the ones she loves from the future that she knows lies ahead for them. In the end, however, she admits the relative futility of this as her attempt to protect them may have pushed them to undertake more and more risky behavior. I know. It sounds like Greek Tradgedy. Oedipus gets sent away only to fulfill the prophecy. While I don’t think the universe is built with this perverse sense of humor, there’s something to the absurdity of the universe that trying to mitigate our own suffering can sometimes cause it, that X doesn’t always prevent Y, and sometimes it causes it, that sometimes studying that extra hour makes you sleepier on the day of your test. Maybe this is what Gibran means by being empty, not being surprised when things don’t work out like you planned.

The film ends alternating major and minor chords in a palindromic violin sequence that–despite befuddling my students– I find poignant with a beautiful sadness.  Perhaps this is me existing at a different point on the axis of time, able to consider this through a bit more age and experience.  Enduring the difficult times of life can often lead you looking for reasons, things you could’ve done otherwise.

Realizing that these hardships are not to be avoided, but rather endured as part of the oscillation of life’s waves, and that their difficulty is inextricably linked to our love and joy does not remove the weight of the burden–the scramble for time, the re-organization of priorities–but it does salve the wounds of the sting.  With these realizations–and the time to ponder–arrive choice, as the Stoics put it, of how we endure and recognize the common humanity in each other, how we deal with the moments beyond our control, and how we learn to appreciate beauty and express gratitude in even the most challenging of times.

 

But…What If I Don’t Have a Third-World Immigrant’s Story?

 

AP Tests ended a couple of weeks ago, and with them the inevitable entropy of released expectations. All year, my students have performed with laser-like focus on their academic goals while also shouldering the burdens of normal teenage hormones, finding the perfect prom dress, handling the expectations of their parents, and facing many of the other curveballs life can throw any of our ways. But with the passing of those hurdles, focus shifts, we loosen our metaphorical ties, and reorient our gaze to the next markers in the near future: the end of the year, summer plans, the college application process.

It’s at this point where I try my little part to shed a little candlelight into their darkness. They’re very, nervous, you see. Now that they’ve done all this work, the looming process of realizing their goal—college admission—is a daunting, haunting, path, not the reward they should see for all their hard work, but rather a mysterious process of cutthroat competition.

And their fears are not unfounded. From a very young age, they have any number of adults attempt to impress upon them the benefits of success and the dire consequences of failure: I jest often that falling short of perfection will not leave them homeless, living under and overpass, but the joke is founded in the penumbra of their anxiety, so much so that when I told my class this year that “there are unhappy people with degress and happy people without them” that I provoked a temporary full-blown existential crisis in at least one of my students.

So, I try to be open and let them ask as many questions as they can, give them the best advice I can. Some advice is practical—ask for recommendations before summer vacation; some is more spiritual—if the checking the computer causes you dread, perhaps you should step away from the computer. And they have lots of question, from the mundane to the mystical.

In the course of last week, there were two particularly articulated student frustrations that stuck most at me, two questions of which I could not dispose so easily, not because I couldn’t give an easy answer, but that they gave me a small window into the struggles of my students. 

First, on the day we discuss college recommendations, students realized that their counselors often must write recommendations for them, and at that time they also realize that their counselors likely don’t know them from Adam’s housecat. It’s not really their fault. Each counselor at our school has hundreds of students on their caseload, and often their counselors may switch on them two or three times over the course of their high school career. Even the cliché’, “maybe you should swing by with some breakfast for them” doesn’t always help: after all, a guidance counselor can only eat so many chicken biscuits, am I right?


Following that question, two classes later on college admission essay day, we read sample best essays published by the New York Times. That my students belittle their own talent (“I could never write this good” “You mean well?”) and think they are not capable of such writing is one worry. Perhaps more worrisome for them, however, is that they fear they have nothing on which to build such a great essay, that their life bears no great tragedy they have had to overcome, no mythical ocean to cross, no great struggle to stand astride as defining to who they are as a person.

This fills them with dread. If they lack these elements of their profile, they are at a competitive disadvantage to a rival who does. What can they write about?  How much they love pizza?  Surely, they will be excluded from the college of their dreams, the door of success slammed in the face, down the slippery slope under that overpass.

This seems a hardship for them, but perhaps this is a good time for a lesson in empathy, to look beyond themselves, and recognize the good fortune that many of them have. For here is truly the root of this disparity. I’ve had lots of students whose counselors know them very well, who have such stories of resilience and fortitude on which to build a personal narrative. They may not have litterally grown up under and overpass, but many have struggled with stable housing, have borne the burden of being a quasi-parent to their younger siblings, have endured the specter of actual violence, have faced the daunting climb of becoming a first-generation American. They have relationships with their counselors because they have needed them. They have their narritives forged in the crucible of conditions that we would never want for ourselves, even if it gave us a strong essay topic to stand out in college admissions.

In his 2005 commencment address to Kenyon college—which was later convereted to an essay titled “This is Water”—Amercian author David Foster Wallace identifies this type of thinking as a default setting. We see ourselves in constant competition with others, and thereby see others as an impediment to our own success, which is pretty twisted when you’re thinking, “Man, I wish my parents had floated me across the Mediterranian on a raft so I could have a good college essay.” The obsession over grades and GPA’s certainly nurtures this default setting, but nothing may solidify it at such a young age as this grand passage into seeking white collar, first-world nirvana. And while I try to calm their nerves, a small part gnaws at me. By teaching in this system, am I complicitly perpetuating this rat-race mentality or am I doing my small part to diffuse it by answering these questions in the first place?

There is, however, a deeper question that lies beneath this. I teach in a school diverse in many ways, but there is certainly a sizeable portion of students for whom want and discomfort has rarely been a part of their existence. Their parents have worked tirelessly to give them every possible advantage. Sure, taking upper-level classes may have been a challenge for them, but as they look around at their peers, they recognize that this doesn’t make them any more special, more definite than anyone else. It would be easy to mock their privelege and relative ignorance about the world that it affords. But these students, too, are perhaps as needing of our empathy as any young person. They are entering that crucial stage in their life where their actions, their choices will define them as adults. As they pass beyond public school, into the university, it will become much easier for them to innoculate themselves against the varied struggles of other human beings, easier for them to disdain the shortcomings of “the others” as being lazy or ignorant. Instead of wishing they had a great third-world immigrant story, they may self-righteously jest to their similarly priveleged friends that the guy who works the campus convenience store should learn to speak English better.

I hope they wont. But those choices are out of my control. In a few more weeks, they will be out of my charge, and my ability to influence them will diminish greatly, ready for the next cohort to enter the gauntlet of junior year. So it goes. However, something about this week of exchanges will stay with me into the summer, into the planning for next year, into thinking about how I prepare to send teenagers to the four winds as they come into my classroom as fresh, driven young faces, hoping to make their mark on the world, just like all of those who have come before them.

New Year’s Resolutions:  The Paradox of Intention

New Year’s Eve yoga. Whether people are getting a jump on a New Year’s resolution or trying to pre-detox before a night of revelry, the class teemed with wall-to-wall yogis. Nary a space for privacy or comfort, and “see if you can touch your neighbor” became less of a cliché challenge and more of a direct instruction.
Such was also true for “set your intention,” Sometimes it’s a mere feathery overture at the beginning of a class. Often, it is a buzzword in the jargon of the trending “mindfulness” movement . At times, it is rooted in the traditions of a directed word and scripted meditation: concentrate on a word and you will direct yourself toward it. But today, on the day before every Jane, Joe, and their brother decide to take on the mantle of self-improvement, “setting an intention” takes on a certain new kairos, dovetailing nicely into the more modern New Year’s Resolution.

It’s a funny pairing in the yoga class. As yoga has adapted to more modern society, it is often paired with transformation, rebirth, “being the change”—all the things that New Year’s Resolutions represent. The hope of a new you. So, when the teacher(s) exhort us to set an intention for our practice, to think about what we want for the new year, yoga seems like a catalyst to that change, to become the you who you want to be as you sweat and twist and breathe.

Older philosophies, the ones in which yoga was first born, take a slightly different path to this change. In many ways, yoga was not employed to spur a change that the individual wants, but to remind the individual of who they truly are—an extenstion of the divine. Thinking about what “the individual” you wants seems to run antithetical, even misleading to this more divine interpretation of the Self. By this more ancient idea, the struggle of becoming something is often a trap that leads us from the knoweldge of who we truly are by worrying the ego about who we are not.  Trying to change ourselves, trying to outwit life by making ourselves better, detracts from the knowedge of who we are all along.

Hence, the paradox of intention as I move into the new year. Last year, I made something of a resolution, and for the most part I was pretty good about sticking to it. Instead of rising from bed each morning and rushing into a routine or a list of tasks, I resolved to take the time to center myself—through silence, through meditation, through yoga, through scratching my dog’s belly–if even for ten minutes, before I got into the basics of rushing around for the day.  Most days, I followed through on the resolution.  Some days, it didn’t.  Most days, it bore fruit.  Some days, it was more of a struggle than others. Some days, I forced myself to do it–a ritual without meaning, the finger and not the moon–and the beautiful fruit was not always on the vine. What’s more, I look back on a resolution accomplished not necessarily feeling any different, better or worse, than I was a year ago. On the other hand, when I think of places I want to go or changes I want to make, they all require effort, moving in a particular direction, they require intention of thought as the seed to intention of action. Thus, to do something, we must have it; but even if we do, we can’t be sure of the outcome.

On the way back from Chapel Hill this week, my father-in-law and I got into a protracted conversation about much in the spiritual realm, including the nature of change and sin and karma, how the outcomes of our efforts to change are often unpredictable, the seeming futility of making ourselves and the world better through sheer effort, and the difficulty of accepting grace we don’t earn.  And as the arbitrary cultural marker to reflect on the last and plan the next trips around the sun approaches, I am drawn to these ideas over and over. On the one hand, we are who we are. On the other hand, we have aspirations of who we wish to be. Those two don’t always jibe. Intentions are slippery. I could set a goal to make more money, eat healthier, exercise more, be more politically active, further my education, learn a new language, or give my time to charity work. Or I could strive to hone character qualities: gratitutde, love, charity, patience. Any of these changes—accomplished or not—could lead my path in a new direction that at the end of 2017 I may look back and decide I need a new direction all together. I could follow an intention, achieve it, and get further from who I need to be.

 This sounds like it could just be a Homer Simpson cop-out. But that’s not what I’m getting at. I have some ideas of things I want to accomplish in 2017, but I also want to make sure that these intentions are not just the vain desires of an striving ego, but rather outward manifestations of the divinity within. New Year’s Resolutions made to satisfy questionable desires are just as likely to bring more need for change. For example, let’s say I want to exercise more and eat healthier. This could be great as I would feel better, think more clearly, have a mind and body more receptive to a balanced and happy life. On the other hand, I could pursue that same goal out of some misplaced vanity or unresolved feeling of inferiority, and I might find myself at the finish line of that resolution no better than I was when I started.

I know. I tend to overthink things, and that includes New Year’s resolutions. Maybe that should be my resolution. Don’t think. Feeeeeel. But, that is in some way a true expression of the Self that I don’t wish to compromise. So, then, here’s to a resolution or two borne of healthy soil, sound mind, and open heart, and may all thirty of my readers have a prosperous and beautiful 2017.

Dancing on the Edge of the Event Horizon

Math and Science people don’t always like us Humanities people, taking their objective scientific laws and converting them into subjective ambiguous metaphors.  But in a pre-Thanksgiving warm-up, we decided to bring the tribes together–Physics and Philosophy–to see if we could find some common ground exploring the infinite minutiae of space and time.

Black holes.  That’s what sucked me in.  Gravity consuming.  Time dialating.  There’s so much of the normal confluence of our everyday existence that they turn on its head.  A student asks Mr. Shoaf why light is lost, since it has no mass and is therefore immune to gravity.  “It bends space-time,”‘he says.  “Imagine a bowling ball falling into the sheet of space-time.  It pulls everything down.  So photons follow the curvature of space.”

Science people and their metaphors.  Poor photons.  Creatures of light, still incapable of escapable of keeping their trajectory out of the black hole.  A student of mine asks Mr. Shoaf what this means for free will.  In the philosophy class, The Physics Master is appropriately philosophical:  analyzing the multiple possibilities of the answer, hedging a committed yes or no, laying out how the proposition is both true and false, dancing on the edge of the event horizon.

It’s a beautiful place to be, skating that very line between grave and certain philosophical positions.  You’re floating through time and space, believing you’re in complete control, the possibility that you’re not begins to exert its gravitational pull, bending your universe.  You can let yourself get sucked through that hole.  Unlike real black holes, you won’t die, shredded by the unfathomable force it exerts upon you, but you will come out the other side a bit different, a bit out of step with your contemporaries.  Time has slowed for you.  The thought has changed you.  As you yield to this contemplation, the rest of the world has continued at its normal rapid pace while you have deepened experience in your still body.

Thoreau, himself an intellectual time traveller, mused this possibility in one of my favorite parables in Walden, the artist from the city of Kouroo.  He posed the idea that we can get lost in contemplation or in the pursuit of some perfection and time slows down for us.  While the world wastes away around us, we exist out of time.  On the surface, it sounds like a magic elixir for staving the ravages for mortality.  But as Thoreau discovered, such timelessness has its cost: you find yourself somewhat isolated from the community.  In a very real sense, it’s the surprise Cooper in Interstellar finds as he eventually returns to communication with his family to find they have all lived full lives, reproduced and grown old without him–the other side of the travel through the black hole of timeless pursuit.  Thoreau venerated this as non-conformity, which is great when you choose it, but it could just as easily be labeled as a crippling isolation if you’re nothing more than a photon getting tossed around by the curvature of space.

 https://youtu.be/MoLkabPK3YU

 

 

Thanksgiving break thankfully came right after this intense lesson, so as I took long walks down the greenway with my dogs, I watched the leaves fall, the seasons slowly rotate, and mused about black holes, physical and metaphorical.  Don’t go for the easy interpretation:  this is not where this blog slides into depression.  Rather, I mused on the time-warping nature of seeking a goal or idea at the exclusion of all others.  How there are endeavors in life that we commit ourselves to wholeheartedly, and then come out the other side recognizing how much the world has gone on without us as we have followed our single minded pursuits.  Sometimes, these are obligations, like when I go into a paper grading hole for three days to finish up a set of essays I need to return.  Some of these are thrust upon people, like when a loved one becomes ill out of nowhere and we are forced to re-order our lives to participate in their care.  These seem out of our choice.  But some of these are pursuits we willingly enjoy, like learning an instrument, planning a wedding or vacation, or exploring a new hobby.  At least on those, we are choosing to move in a new direction, intentionally re-ordering our life, becoming who we more want to be?  But even as I followed that line of logic down the black rabbit hole, I ran into a personal conundrum as  I found myself agreeing with David Brooks.  Even as I look at the pursuits I want to enjoy–deeper companionship with my wife, with my friends and family, improving my middling guitar skills, furthering my yoga practice, writing more, pursuing higher education–I wonder how much I’m setting sail on a new uncharted course of self-exploration and how much I’m following the sheet into the bowling ball.  In either case, I ponder the opportunity costs.  I wonder once I follow those pursuits and I come up for air on the other side, how will the universe have followed its own course as I have been pulled into my own  personal black holes.

Somewhere on my mat at my favorite Saturday morning yoga class, this all comes rushing back on me.  It’s difficult to find balance, and my upper body and lower body seem out of harmony.  But I try to stay faithful to the process, though I find my muscles quivering at times.    I step back from the gravitational pull that black holes have been exercising on my imagination.  Backwards I pull to the lip of the Event Horizon, the millisecond before dive is made.  Here, on the rim of possibility, I see I have perhaps been staring into the abyss for a bit too long.  Here on the rim, I feel the pull of possibility on one way, and the awareness of being in the world in the other.  Can one develop the strength to skate over the surface, to look  into the abyss but daintily dance on the edge?  Here on the edge is the birth of the ecstatic shivering.  I find this in my practice this morning.  I come with my will and push myself to the limit of my will: forced to yield to limitations of body, I yield, only to find a deeper place of understanding, this gentle oscillation of the will and the not-will opening new windows.  As the Tao says, know the male but hold to the female.

Soon, class is almost over.  The woman on the mat next to me utters a gentle imprecations:  “my mother muscles are shivering.”  She has pushed herself to the limit.  Our society venerates it as the athlete pushes themselves just to the edge of breaking.  Einstein talks about pursuing cosmic wonder in the name of science to the point of spiritual edification.  In our common parlance, we hear this cropping up in the exhortations to “find balance” but this seems insufficient, especially in a society that seems to put such a premium on identity based on what we achieve, so much so that we blindly dive down rabbit holes unconsciously to fulfill these needs, treating our limitations as mere suggestions that keep us from having it all.  Often this is more juggling than balancing, trying to keep all our balls in the air and not letting any of them fall, we touch them just enough to keep them afloat, working to counteract gravity at the last possible second.  But sometimes, attuning our will to the curvature of space might yield us more than a simple juggling and balancing circus act could ever do.

It’s a week later on Saturday morning as I wrap this meditation up.  The musing on black holes that captured my imagination last week seems far in my rearview mirror, though I have to admit that by throwing myself pell-mell into a week of work that included grading, lesson planning, meetings, student conferences, and talent show practice, the universe has continued its workings while I’ve tended to my little plot of existence.  But as I take one last look at this meditation, I consider the strength necessary to pull one’s conscious mind out of its pursuit and will to be aware of the universe around it.  Perhaps pursuing its will while maintaing this awareness is the greatest trick of all, exercising control while yielding to the lack of it.  Simultaneously in and out of time.  Dancing on the edge of the Event Horizon.

 

Past the Point of Nostalgia

I knew it was time to go when the posters came down.  Tipping point on a Thursday morning: the day before, stormy with sunshine, the building to myself, Thank You for Smoking on the projector.  The walls are bare.  Nothing left but Taoist blocks and boxes.

Six years in this classroom.  Nine years in this school.  Seventeen years in this career.  Another move, and it’s about time.  In any move you pass the point of nostalgia, where packing and sifting and trashing puts your fingers on items long forgotten, tucked away for rainy days that didn’t need those umbrellas:  half used reams of paper, CD’s of old computer files.  And then at some point, the nostalgia begins a slow fade.  The best memories have been packed or discarded to make room for the new.  The old and familiar becomes colorless white walls, void of meaning, primed for demolition.

If you’ve ever moved, you know the moment I mean.  Moving, like grief, has its stages.  For years, I’ve been hearing they’re tearing this building down–with its glorious windows and thriving cockroach population–and for years I’ve denied it would ever happen.  But the boxes came, and with them a six-month flurry of email instructions contradicting the previous ones.  I put off packing for another day.

But the building is up, and the date to abandon these old walls has come.  There are only these brief hours to stand–as Thoreau once said–on the brink of these two infinities.

Gone to the waste or recycled are old papers I once felt important.  Old student projects. Resources used rarely if at all.  Books that went from workshop to shelf, never to be cracked again.  Two LCD projectors and fracked, fifty-foot cables that I used to drag my classroom’s 20th century ethos into a 21st century digital technology through one dusty, misplaced internet port.

The future is new, clean, technological.  The past is faded bricks, large windows–beautiful light and vistas with horrible energy efficiency.  A two-tiered HVAC that roasts or freezes.  Tall ceilings.  Wood paneled walls.  Ceiling tiles where a yearly battle against the mold is waged.  Cockroaches and dead mice. Pat’s face.   There is no room for these beautiful inefficiencies, in the new and modern world.

As we move into new space, there is an attempt to bring continuity from the old.  Perhaps the water is the same, if just in a different container, one with newer pipes that I’m not so leery to drink from.  There are still lessons on rhetoric, discussions on dualism, viewings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  There are essays submitted in the old building that will be returned in the new, passed out and cringed over on new and shiny desks, devoid of drawings, ongoing interclass conversations and “Thug Life” etchings.  Behold the old become new.

Inevitably the last purge comes, where the wheat and the chaff, the necessary and extraneous are divided.  A roll of white bulletin board border.  On the surface?  Valuable.  But as I drag it from the recesses of my wardrobe, four adult cockroaches scurry up my arm and shoulder, angry I have disturbed their ancestral home.  I’m fuming.  I’ve lost all  nostalgia.  I want to strike a match and walk away. But I must push through the anger and revulsion. There are more decisions to make.  The cardboard guitar–a gentle exchange among friends, changing hands for over fifteen years.  It goes down with the ship, standing proud stop the bow until the bitter end.  

 And then I find the jewels, tucked away in the top left drawer of my desk.  My secret stash.  A treasure trove of cards and messages from student’s past:  Hannah’s philosophy puns, Shelby’s stick figure cartoons, a grad invitation to the Kumars, Anna’s get well soon from my bout with pneumonia, my department’s sympathy card when Dad died, a newspaper article that Nic submitted after our wedding, thanks and thanks for letters of rec.  So many moments frozen in time, snapshots of full-fledged adults, many now graduates of college or nearly there.  I see them online in their current iterations, but here our interactions, our moments of dynamic learning, sit memorialized.  It’s not the lessons you teach, it’s the people you touch, and who touch you.


Monday. Move in day.  Everything is a flurry.  Old teachers come in to wish one last good buy and marvel at the new ivory tower.  We work all day to make a new conducive environment for our current crop.  Tuesday comes, we meet once more for twenty minutes to give our students new marching orders.  Then the building clears.  One more trip to the governor’s mansion.  There’s no space for Pat in the bright new future.  We say one last glance of good-bye. The building is locked.  The east sun now rises through a hermetically sealed window in my room.  The dawn of a new day, acceptance of the present day, looking oddly askance at the infinities beyond.

1 down, 179 to go…

Monday’s got me in a weird place…an out-of-body experience.  I look at my hand, moving across the page in a foreign way.  What are you doing?  What is this strange motion you are under taking?

Oh.  Right.  Grading student essays.  I almost forgot how this felt.

After stepping off a plane two weeks ago and moving right into a three-day PD workshop, I haven’t really had time for the typical bemoaning of the end of summer.  No ritualistic last day celebrations.  No symbolic funerals for the summer sun.  Just the quick passing of one phase of life for another.

This is probably best for me.  Teachers can be downright cranky about the end of the summer, worse than the students sometimes.  At least students can claim the excuse of compulsion.  Legal or parental, they will argue, this is not their choice.  The argument from necessity.

Teachers try this trick sometimes.  We have to go back.  And sure, in contrast to a whirlwind vacation, honeymoons, or even lying on the couch binging Bob’s Burgers, rising before the ass-crack of dawn, putting on “real shoes”, and being conversant and authoritative over teenagers can seem something of a drudgery.   So, up we rise, if somewhat resignedly, to face our destiny.  Sometimes, you just gotta get up to make the doughnuts–our own argument from necessity.

These were the type of arguments that used to piss Sartre off before he became a full-blown Marxist.  Acting from “bad faith”.  Acting like you have no choice.  Making excuses so you can bemoan you life.  What a slow, sludging march the grave.  I know.  Sounds depressing.  But too many days where you get up and go to work because you have to eventually leads to a life that you meet begrudgingly, morning after morning.

But I can’t say I don’t embrace necessity at some point.  When I was twenty, I had accepted a NC Teaching Fellows (May it Rest in Peace) to school, but was still unsure that this is the path my life would take.  And somewhere in a dark night, after drinking entirely too much coffee, after reading entirely too much 17th century British Literature, I knew that my life would somehow serve in the vein of transmitting knowledge to the younger generation.

At different points in my life, I’ve fought this idea that this was my place in life.  Other friends have left the profession for more lucrative or at least less stressful occupations.  What can seem like daunting futility in trying to reach an unwilling audience can breed a special spark of soul-crushing nihilism.  Sometimes the flashy cars you’ll never drive and the jet-set life you’ll never live becomes more confrontational than you’d like.  And if you’ve put in the years, the thought of jumping ship and starting a career anew sounds like a poor financial decision on top of a daunting existential one.

So, resignation becomes a weird form of gallows humor, a sarcastic protection against the struggle.  Teachers know how many years they have to retirement on command (13, in case you’re wondering).  We can get cagey against change because the old and familiar is so…well…old and familiar.   After all, we’ve got all the lessons down, so why do more work?

For me, however, I suppose I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where teaching still fulfills my intellectual curiosity.  Sunday morning before the first day of school, I lay down in yoga class, and the last thoughts on my mind before it emptied for a bit were all the strands of thought and idea that I had for my class this year, brimming with possibility, busy  but not anxious.   That evening, I took my kayak out to paddle on the waters in a bit of solitude.  Not because it was the “last day of summer”, but I wanted some time and silence to prepare my mind for the next day.  When Monday rolled around, I woke excitedly.  (I can’t say I’ll still be doing that in November, or even next week for that matter).  And by 8:00, I thought about what I was going to get to talk about for the next four hours.  Theorizing about democracy in Philosophy.  Analyzing Speilberg in film.  Discussing rhetoric and speech in English.  God, I’m such a dork, but this sounded exciting to me at 9 in the morning.  Say what you will about this job, but it is rarely monotonous.

 

I don’t want to get preachy and say we should relish our opportunities or that our day is what we make of it or attitude makes all the difference.  Because that’s the kind of stuff that makes up cheesy affirmational yoga blogs, the kind of talk that makes people want to punch you in the grill, especially if you pull it before they’ve had their morning coffee.  But for all the crappy back to school ads, for all the late sleeping in the middle of the week that I won’t see until next summer, for all the blog posts postponed two weeks and completed only after two hours of grading essays, I’m trying to embrace the ups and downs of the struggle, in all its absurd glory.  At the least embracing this life in all its foibles is worth a good chuckle at least once a day.

Here’s to the new year, fellow teachers:  11 down, 169 to go.

 

 

Surfing the Seas of PD

It’s a bike challenge.  District-wide PD is at a school close enough to my house that I can pedal there in under 15 minutes.  But predictably, I’m still late, and I scoot in near the back corner a little sweaty to an already-begun presentation on writing revision.

Yay.

The axiom “teachers are the worst students” is proven true every year.  There’s a faux TED banner in the front lobby, but there’s one notable difference here:  TED bans tech use in the lecture hall.  Not here.  From my perch in the back, almost everyone has at least one screen going, maybe two.  We all think we’ve got lots to do, and could all justify individual work over being here.  But the book looks good.  It has good resources and ideas.  I’m going to try to be good.  Try to pay attention.  Try to learn something I can use in my classroom.

But the ladies behind me are having a riveting discussion, re-capping word-for-word a conversation someone had in church last week.  So, I’ve got the presenter through the left ear and “So I told her…” through the right.  The struggle to pay attention has begun.

The presenter is reading a children’s book about Pablo Neruda, while a friend sends me a Sporcle game.  I’m drowning.  Throw me a life jacket.  I’m trying to suppress my snarky urge, but it’s threatening to overwhelm me.  I decide that blogging this one out might be my saving grace.  If everyone else can multi-task, why can’t I?  If this is about writing revision, is blogging about it meta-learning?  I grasping for a raft anywhere I can.

9:05:  We’re into some pop-neuro-biology:  playing music, being nice to your students, lighting candles release dopamine.  Think of ways to release dopamine in your classroom.  That could get dangerous.

9:10:  First clever teaching acronym of the day.  Think about the TOE.  T is for talk.  I’ll tell you about the other toes later.  Just stick your toe in the water.

9:15:  I give into the Sporcle urge and fail.  I can only name one RedSox 3rd Baseman from the last decade.  My right ear is a PowerSchool conversation and student gossip.  So, at least it’s kind of work.  But Little Pablo has been put to bed; there’s some playing with student stereotypes and boilerplate inspiration.

9:20:  The waves of cynicism subside as I begin to see some value.  I start to get into this.  I start seeing how this can fill a need in my classroom.  My kids often fall down at revising sentences.  I mean…revising sentences often befuddles them.  I stop blogging and start using my phone to shoot these seeds of beautiful lessons to my colleagues.  This is called “back channeling”.  Instead of snarky ways to release dopamine, my brain is creating masterful syntactical mini-lessons.

9:40 Attrition has begun.  I see the first person leave with all their gear.  In my right ear, somebody’s on Prozac.  I think it’s a dog…or at least a child who goes through a bag of food every three weeks.  I don’t know.  I’ve started closing my right ear to amazing efficacy, and one of my Park homies sends an authoritative “Shh” and stank eye across the bow.  The harpies lower their cackles to a grating whisper.

9:50:  We have a quiet free write based on a passage the speaker has read.  He’s done some neat things with books.  I write about invisibility.  I’m not sure I can see where I’m going with this, but I let it roll with the current, not looking for a reason to hate this.

10:00: Break 15 minutes.  Lots of people pick up all their stuff and swim off under the cover of temporary exodus.  I walk and get sunshine.  Streams of teachers to the parking lot like rivers to the ocean.​


This school has great rain barrels and gardens.  I walk around and meet a guy who used to teach with me, now here.  Learn lots just by talking for five minutes or so.


10:20ish?:  I’m really bad at coming back from break on time.  But by the time I dive back in, it’s clear how many people have jumped ship.  Thankfully, the harpies behind my backpack  are among them.  I sit down and we’re re-arranging syntax on our pre-break freewrite.  This is a pretty good activity, and I feel like my treading water all day, resisting the urge to bail, to swim away, to hide in a well of sarcasm has been rewarded by some boon.  I start recording lesson ideas and collaborating on anti-plagiarism seminars at the same time.

I don’t want to act like I’m walking on water, but the room has become more productive.  People volunteer.  Somehow, everyone who couldn’t make it through seems to have left, and the people who have bobbed along this long have begun to see some value.  This is no small feat.  Most teachers see early year PD with a mix of dread and revulsion, and can often react with grudging contempt or outright rebellion.  Lots of times, you can’t blame them: presenters often affix new buzzwords to old strategies presenting the new and improved wheel.  And in our system, there have been epic fails–the presenter who led off to an auditorium full of English teachers with “we’re not teaching novels ’cause no one reads them” comes to mind.  

Teachers aren’t perfect in PD, either.  This cynicism–often well-placed–can make us miss some valuable tools as well. Luckily, mine didn’t capsize my boat, and I made it to safe port after all.

11:20:  He ends early.  No sense in drawing this out.  The crowd is generally satisfied.  I find some former colleagues and catch up–the only time I see some of them all year.  My buddy and I walk out, bullshitting about Ryan Lochte and how his idiocy is  likely to drown out his success in the pool.  Pedal home.  Surprise the dogs.  A good morning that included District Wide PD?  It’s a miracle.

Insert Your Outrage Here: Learning to Argue in a Digitally Fractured World

Despite my verbal diahrrea of “analysis” as I tortured myself watching the RNC Monday night, I’ve actually tried to keep this blog apolitical.  All my homies IRL know that I watch politics like a junky with a monkey.  Hell, I’ll DVR Meet the Press just so I can yell at Chuck Todd at my leisure after sunday morning Yoga class.  But this blog?  I’ve tried to stay out of the fray.  Let’s be frank: people can easily turn into self-righteous jerks when they discuss politics online, (myself included) and they also attract similar self-righteousness from those who disagree.  While maybe being politically controversial might garner a few more readers, it’s not really the vibe I’ve been looking for.

That said, it’s been really hard to keep my mouth shut with all that seems to be going on in the news.  Por ejemplo, last week I was working on a post about introducing nature in classrooms when two more police shootings went viral.  Then there was shooting of officers in Dallas and then Baton Rouge.  All of this was set in the backdrop of the most bizarre political season in my lifetime.  Suddenly, a blogpost about paddling my little kayak down a little river and those subsequent meditations seemed…well…little.

Usually, I have one of two reactions when the world of social media gets hot with rage over politics and current events.  One is to jump into the fray with both feet, posting articles I support and arguing against those I don’t, often devolving into quibbles that drag for days.  The other reaction is to completely disengage.  Take a Facebook vacation.  The last few years have seen me lean much more to the second option as a salve for my mental health.  While I still think it’s a civic duty to stay relatively informed about what is going on in the world, I’m not sure arguing on social media qualifies, and it sure as hell doesn’t help my peace of mind.

But there’s one trend I can’t ignore any longer.  I know it because every time we have a major tragedy in this country, every time a major political story breaks, I keep coming up with this observation: people respond to the events of the world in very predictable ways.  Think about it.  You know which of your friends will post the liberal spin.  You know which ones will post the conservative spin.  You know which ones will react to the emotional tragedy.  You know which ones will cry for peace.  You know which ones will say, “I don’t usually talk about this, but I’m about to speak my mind.”  And you know which ones will write long, boring blogposts acting like they’re watching it all from above, like some half-enlightened jackass who sees what others doesn’t.

But–as always I digress.  I keep seeing this pattern over and over.  I’ve had the idea for this post for a year, and it keeps coming back.  Benghazi.  The Paris Shootings.  The lack of attention on Turkey after the Paris shootings.  The entire Presidential campaign.  Black Lives Matter.  Every mass shooting in America ever.  And most recently, the police killings.  There’s always something shocking in the news, and this is not to belittle the importance of any of these events.  But what never shocks is the predictability of our online reactions.  Tragedy strikes.  Insert your outrage here.

As a result, people can come off like real assholes on the internet.  There, I said it.  The intransigence we revile in our politicians is complete child’s play next to the vituperative arguments that occur online.  In the world of the internet, we don’t have to look at people when we argue which makes us gauge reactions from others less, and in many ways technology encourages us to look at people who disagree with us as uninformed rubes worthy of scorn and contempt.  Indeed, this is not always a problem with human nature.  At times it is the nature of the internet itself.  Consider the TED talk below (one of my favorites to show my classes)  It poses that the way that many search engines and social media algorithms are created, you are more likely to get information that confirms your bias than information that contradicts it.  So, if you’ve been reading that Hillary kicks puppies every day for six weeks (or as Ben Carson just suggested, she worships Satan), you’re likely to decry an attempt to show her in a more flattering, humanitarian light as being a hoax perpetrated by the “librul media.” Or if you’ve been reading lots of “little hand” jokes about Trump, you’re less likely to believe he can handle foreign policy.

 

The result?  We end up arguing as teams.  We see winning the argument as more important the solving the problem about which we are arguing.  We increase the possibility of confirmation bias.  We become as politically divided as ever.

Never fear, fellow citizens.  I’m a professional.  This is, after all, why you’ve read this far.  Most of my days are spent teaching teenagers how to argue, and by proxy how not to argue.  Amazingly, as I pondered the weight of this problem, I realized that the tools with which I equip my students are the same tools that can help us navigate our way out of this swamp.  The list below is by no means a comprehensive tool box, but merely a starter kit to improve your online arguing experience.

 

USE QUALIFICATION

Surprisingly, this shows up on the ACT writing rubric, yet few adults know how to use this handy tool.  Qualification means you make a claim, but acknowledge the limits to it being true.  Consider the difference between the following claims:

Donald Trump is a divisive and dangerous candidate.

While Donald Trump is a divisive and dangerous candidate, many of his positions on international trade deals have merit.

The statement in bold is the qualifier.  It states that though the main thrust is a dislike of Trump, there are qualities of his agenda that are agreeable.  I borrowed this from a video posted below (it’s 23:00 minutes, but I found it both enlightening and encouraging).  In it, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, two political commentators who often butt heads, spoke in tandem after the Dallas Police shootings.  Both talked extensively of how after this period of turmoil in our nation, people of all political persuasions will need to work together to move forward.  Jones, usually liberal, talked about how he often feels cognitive dissonance over Trump: he finds him to be racist and offensive, yet Trump’s economic ideas mirror some that Jones has held his entire life, using this example to show that though we disagree on somethings, we can find common ground on others.  Qualification demands that we see the limits of our own claims and also demands that we see the validity of claims of others where they exist.

 

UNDERSTAND THE GLUT OF SOURCES

The internet has put information at our fingertips that our parents’ generation could never have imagined.  But as Eli Pariser claimed above, the internet often conforms to fit our own personal biases.  Often times, we must remember that for every article we read that fits the narrative we hold about the world, there is one that will spin it the exact opposite way.  Sadly, it becomes our responsibility to wade through the bullshit of the political class to actually find the truth.  Perhaps that has always been the case.

Consider the following video, which came out before the RNC started.  In it CNN anchor Don Lemon interviews Millwaukee Sheriff David Clarke.  In the span of a few hours, I saw friends re-post interview, either saying that Clarke owned Lemon or Lemon owned Clarke…as if who “won” this argument–as opposed to the recent deaths and how to prevent them in the future–was really the issue at hand.

My interpretation was that this is one of the most awkward interviews I have ever watched for nothing more than the fact that the two men are talking about the same thing, but are not talking to each other.  Clarke doesn’t listen to Lemon’s question.  Lemon gets defensive.  In the end, little is discussed, and various sources side up with their team to spin the interview.

It’s really easy to get stuck only on the sources we click frequently, to rely only on the interpretations we read regularly.  But we have to remember that there are other interpretations out there, and that some voices are more credible, more reasoned than others.  Some are factual.  Some are informed opinion.  Some are straight up propaganda.  Clicking and reposting or re-tweeting the first thing that catches our eye is not being an informed citizen.

EMOTIONAL CONTENT

When I teach logical fallacy in class, the one that students struggle with is “Appeal to Emotion.”

“What’s wrong with emotion?” they ask.

“Nothing,” I reply, “Unless emotion is all you have to go on.”

Emotion in politics is so powerful.  Logic may convince you of the right and wrong, but emotion gets you butt off the couch to do something.  Unless you’re on social media.  Then it just makes you stay on the couch in perpetual indignant rage.

Consider the video below.   Marcus Luttrell is the retired Navy SEAL veteran who authored the book Lone Survivor on which a subsequent Hollywood film was based.

 

By most accounts, Luttrell’s speech was the highlight of the night, which could be as much of a condemnation of everyone else’s lackluster and plagiaristic performances.  But placing veterans on the Rostrum is a shrewd political move.  Audiences respect their military service, which brings a certain gravitas to their words; patriotism, after all, is a powerful in-group emotional response.  Moreover, Luttrell ( in a part before this clip) damned the teleprompter and went off script, which provided some great “plain folks” appeal.

Granted, this is a political convention speech, so it’s main purpose is to emotionally rally the base and motivate the uncommitted to vote.  But so much of politics and the news is emotionally driven.  It’s the basis of click bait.  It’s the reason Bush the Elder used Willie Horton.  Unemotional people don’t get to the polls, but they also don’t hastily re-post things on the internet.  Why is the dictum “If it bleeds, it leads” so popular in news? Because death and blood shocks, horrifies, provokes empathy and sorrow, all of which makes us stay tuned through the next commercial break.

I would suggest that we should always be aware of our emotional reaction to the news, and how our emotions are being targeted.  My biggest critique of the Luttrell speech is his line that “the world is a dark place.”  Are there scary places in the world?  Of course.  But there are also warm-hearted, welcoming people as well.  The fear is an effective, time-honored political tool.  “The world is a scary place, and only candidate/policy X can make it safer.”  Fear, anger, and disgust have been identified as the primary emotional reactions that precede moral reasoning.  Trigger any one of these buttons and our brain begins to rationalize moral condemnation on its object.

Being aware of our emotional state is perhaps even more important when we recognize that we suppress our own emotions to fit the beliefs we’ve professed.  In the week that was…the week that had highly publicized killings of African American men followed by the killings of police officers, I struggle when I see my fellow humans find ways to rationalize the death of any of these.  In a cosmic sense, we all die some time and death is inevitable.  But people will minimize their empathetic reaction toward death based on the framework of their political belief.  We need to be conscious of how we are manipulated through emotions by politics, but we also need to be conscious of times when our politics limits our ability to experience emotions, when we see people as an “other” so much, that we forget to remember their humanity.

The problem with not understanding our emotions in our political beliefs is that they allow us to be susceptible to the worst fabrications of our political class, they allow us to continue to believe ideas that may have been proven untrue or no longer useful…just because we are defending our own personal political dogma.  When someone challenges us politically, we should engage them with the desire to learn, not out of anger.

Bertrand Russell once said

“If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do…So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on you guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.”

Indeed.  What does our outrage solve?  We often think of argument as something that inherently divides us.  Undertaken in the spirit of learning and empathy for our fellow humans–and done skillfully and honestly–it can be something that can help bring us together.