This Morning

This morning I’m thinking about crime and punishment. Sin and redemption, maybe.

Our school got vandalized this past weekend. The new mural, which my wife’s art students have been working on for months, was severely damaged: they spraypainted racist and sexist words, large phalluses, and extremely stupid pro-drug comments all over it. We don’t know who did it, but whoever it was clearly targeted the mural specifically, as nothing else was damaged (A couple of small tags in the parking lot are the only other marks left behind).

I have no idea why someone would do that. You’re pissed off? Sure, that’s fine; do something about it, confront people, post on the internet that you’re mad, write a letter, hell, stand outside with a sign and say “YOU SUCK!” There are a thousand ways to express your anger, most of them very satisfying. What the hell do you get from something like this? Is it funny to be cruel to innocent people? My presumption is that the anger of those who did it was directed either at the school or at humanity and the world in general; so why go after the artwork being created by people you don’t hate? And if you do hate them, why go after that?

If we do catch who did it — and it was reported to the police as a hate crime, as indeed it was — then their punishment probably won’t be enough, because it probably won’t fix the problem: someone who thinks this is the way to go about expressing your anger is only going to continue targeting the wrong victims in the wrong ways. I don’t know how you fix that.

I know how you fix the mural, though. I know because the students and staff at the school did that yesterday, as soon as the vandalism was discovered. The people who had been leading the mural project were seniors, so they weren’t at the school as they graduated this weekend; two of them did come by, intending to work on the mural, which was unfinished; when they saw what had been done to it, it crushed them. It was the rest of the school, out of affection for those young artists — and for my wife, who was helping out with the mural mainly in an advisory role, though she did also put several difficult hours of work into it — who took it upon themselves to try to clean off the spraypaint, and then to re-paint the original design so as to cover up what could not be removed.

It’s not fixed. It’s not finished; there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. The alumni who were leading it are not sure yet if they want to try to finish the piece, because clearly, it is vulnerable and it is a target, and there’s very little stopping the vandals from coming back and doing it all again. If our artists decided to take the risk, and put whatever spirit they have left into finishing this mural, only to have it defaced a second time? It would be devastating.

That would be a hate crime. That would be vandalism, in the sense of meaningless destruction. And there wouldn’t be enough punishment for people who would do that.

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This Last Morning

This morning I’m thinking about endings, about finales.

Oh right, I hear some TV show ended last night, didn’t it? Sure hope that lived up to everyone’s expectations.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about this morning.

This morning I turned off my alarm clock for what may be the last time for the next two and a half months. That is a lovely thought.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about this morning.

This morning I am thinking about my friends who are leaving my school. Because today is their last day of teaching.

My friend Veronica, who came to Tucson and to this school from out of state, and was thrown right into the deep end, teaching high school students who have, many of them, gone to the same charter school for five, ten, or even twelve or more years (We had a graduate last year who went to pre-school with this charter, so, fourteen years in one school. It’s like Little House on the Prairie or something.), and who were used to their friends and their teachers, and who DON’T LIKE CHANGE. Then a year later, and for no valid reason, she was switched entirely to middle school students — who are, of course, demons. Turns out, Veronica is a splendid demon wrangler, and she spent the next two years lashing them into submission, mostly with her height, which is remarkable; her voice, which can be both piercing and booming as she wishes; and her humor, which is far more biting than her students knew.

But I knew, and that’s what I’ll miss: her humor. The evil little chuckle, the manic smile, the way she says “YEAH!” when I make some joke about making students suffer. I’ll miss the dedication and effort she put into helping children, too.

My friend Kellie had a similar experience with coming from out of state to teach high school and then ending up with middle school, except Kellie’s was even faster: she never even got to teach high school. And it’s an absolute crime, because she is exactly what a high school teacher should be: she has deep knowledge of and love for her subject; she’s cool and relaxed; she can relate to teenagers and speak to them like human beings. The school found a great science teacher — and then they threw her into the demon pit of middle school, where she suffered all year, without support, without any consideration for her needs or wishes. Since she had taught before, she knew exactly what she was missing, and she is leaving this school to go where she belongs: to a high school.

I’m going to miss her humor, her style, her passion for science, and her companionship. It’s been great to have her on my end of the hall, and it’s going to be far less interesting next year without her.

Adriana, my fellow English teacher, came in specifically to teach middle school, because clearly she’s insane. But what’s really insane is this: she taught them. She taught the hell out of them. She took students who were absolute hellions, and she not only controlled them, not only taught them to follow her rules and expectations — she taught them English. Whoever ends up teaching those kids when they get to high school is going to have a far easier time, with far more capable students; and it will be because of Adriana. I am personally grateful to her because her willingness to teach those tiny hyperactive, hypersonic imps meant that I didn’t have to do it: she spent three years jumping on grenades for me, and I can’t thank her enough.

I’m going to miss having her in the department, having her in meetings, hearing her infectious laugh, and knowing that the students were being mashed into some kind of shape by her incredible efforts. She’s been an inspiration to me, and I’m grateful for it.

The last one is both the hardest and the easiest to deal with: because it’s my wife, Toni DeBiasi. She’s been in the classroom next to me for the last three years, which has made them the best and most enjoyable three years of my two decades in teaching. She’s been utterly incredible: she came in with not much experience teaching, certainly nothing like multiple classes for an entire year, and she mastered it, entirely and completely. She’s so smart, and so capable, that she has been able to build a successful fine art program, in a STEM school, while also becoming a vital emotional and mental support for her students, who love her almost as much as I do. She came in to an empty room, almost — except it wasn’t, it was chock full of crap — because the previous teacher took out all of her teaching materials and lesson plans, and left Toni with a small, cramped room filled with shelves, filled with old paint and old paper, old clay and ceramics, old tools and materials that she had no idea what to do with. It took months to clean it all out, even while she was trying desperately to come up with material to teach her five classes, covering every ability level from elementary to college. May I also note, since I saw it first hand (Though I’m sure that the other three did the same in their own lives), that she managed to help me keep our household together and running, if not smoothly, at least consistently.

I’ll miss her at school, but at least I have the consolation of coming home to her every day.

 

I want this post to be more about recognition than making a point, but there is a very clear point here: all four of these women are excellent teachers, and all four of them are leaving the school within three years of being hired. That’s an issue. All four of them taught middle school, and for three of them, that’s the main reason they’re leaving (Veronica can’t stand the Tucson climate, which is also fully understandable.); that and the near-complete abandonment of them all by the institution. This is a problem that needs to be dealt with, or it will only get worse. Though all of them have gotten support from fellow teachers, friends, and loved ones, still, the school has not been able to give them what they need, and so the school has lost them — but the loss will be felt most keenly by the students. And by me and the rest of the faculty, of course, because these four women are lively and fun and intelligent and splendid to be around, and we’ll miss their spirit.

I will also note that three of the four are leaving teaching, two — Adriana and my wife, Toni — leaving forever. This is, again, a problem that needs to be dealt with, and it is a problem for this entire country. Twenty years ago, nearly, I wrote an essay about being a teacher, and in it I pointed out that the lack of structure and support, and the lack of respect and interest from students, was the main reason (along with money, of course) that 40% of teachers left the profession in the first two to five years. That has not gotten better: if the trend at my school is any indication, it’s gotten worse.  We need to fix it before we lose everything.

But any fix will be too late to save this loss.

Thank you all for your friendship, and for your wonderful gift of teaching. I appreciate you all, and I will miss you all in the hallway.  May the best of your past be the worst of your future, and may the road ever rise up to meet your feet.

This Morning

This morning I am happy. My senior students graduated yesterday; I was the MC for the ceremony, which meant I was nervous and uncomfortable all day leading up to it — because regardless of how much time I spend in front of a classroom full of students, it doesn’t take away my stage fright or my introversion. And also, a classroom full of students is quite different from a gymnasium filled with probably 500 people, including parents and grandparents and all of my fellow teachers and my administrators and my wife. Much more nerve-wracking.

But it went well, my speech was well-received, I made my former students cry. Here, for the sake of those who did hear it and want to remember, is my speech; it won’t mean a whole lot to people who don’t know these kids, but these kids aren’t the only ones who suit these words, so feel free to substitute your own children or students for the ones I was talking to and about.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family, students, teachers, administrators – and, of course, graduates.

Welcome to the Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2019!

(to the grads) I bet some of you thought you wouldn’t make it here today. But you did it. All of you: you did it.

You had help – parents, siblings, relatives; teachers, and friends – and all your online friends, YouTube, Khan Academy, Quizlet, Yahoo answers, Wikipedia, Sparknotes, Slader, 123HelpMe.com.

But the point is: you did the real work. You spent the late nights, and the all-nights; the early mornings, the lunchtimes and the passing periods, cramming and studying and reviewing and furiously finishing assignments. You’ve gone through thousands of sheets of paper, hundreds of pencils and pens, gallons of energy drinks, an average of fourteen Hydroflasks each, and a literal ton of hot Cheetos. You sweated through the tests, the essays, the labs, the presentations. You fought through the despair, and stress, anxiety and depression, fear and anger and sadness and happiness – because honestly, nothing makes it harder to sit down to a test than when you’re having a really good day.

You did all of that. All of it. Make no mistake: if anyone tries to minimize this accomplishment, to tell you that this was easy, that it is not impressive – don’t listen. This is impressive. You are impressive. You made it. High school – all school – is rough. And you’ve made it.

And I only have one thing to say to you: don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

Seriously – and I say it with love – get out. Go away and don’t come back. We’re all as tired of you as you are of us, and we’re all going to breathe a huge sigh of relief when you all have left. This is one of the most – let’s say “challenging” – classes I think this school has ever seen.

Want to know why?

You’re one of the smartest classes this school has ever seen.

You’re so smart, all of you, that it has been impossible to keep up with you. Impossible to consistently challenge you. Impossible to control you. Speaking from my experience, trying to run a discussion with all of you was insane: too many of you had things to say, and if you didn’t get to say them to the class, you would say them to each other, all at once. It was chaos.

You all burn so brightly that you draw all the air from the room – and because this school, these rooms, are so small, there wasn’t that much air to begin with. I honestly think that’s why you fought so much with each other: too many lions in too small a cage. It was a daily struggle to be on top, to stand out, to show how good you are individually, among all these other amazing people.

So. Now’s your chance.

You’ve been held in this small space, like a flower in a too-small pot, for too. Long. Now – you are free. Free to grow as tall and as grand and as glorious as you can. You will overshadow this place. You will tower over us, spread far beyond us.

I cannot wait to see what you all become.

So get out.

There was a keynote speaker, of course, a NASA scientist and actor who happens to be related to one of our newest alumni. I thought he did a great job with his speech — but I couldn’t help noticing that he leaned pretty heavily on clichés. He was actually quite up front about it: part of his theme was using Google (or technology in general) to find what you need, which was fine since he was talking to a STEM school; but the Commencement Speeches he Googled were apparently pretty generic. It was good and useful advice, but — generic.

So I thought I would write some of my own advice. Here, then, is something like what I would say if I were to be the keynote speaker at a graduation. This is what I would tell a group of students who were about to leave high school and embark on the adult part of their lives — also known as “the good part.”

 

Speeches like this are always full of clichés. Now, I don’t dislike clichés; I think most of them are true, and have genuinely useful things to say. Clever sayings don’t become clichés if they aren’t true, and truth isn’t talked about unless it is cleverly worded; so pay attention to clichés. At the same time, though, be aware of when the overuse of clichés clouds the message: because it’s a rarely known biological fact that people’s ears go deaf while that person is rolling their eyes. Think of them like memes: they are great, they make you laugh and make you think; then you get tired of them; then they’re dead. Clichés are like your favorite food: you can fall back on them when you have nothing new that sounds good; but you can also get tired of even your very favorite food, and that is a sad day.

I think one of the best things we can do is examine clichés, and reimagine them. Deconstruct them. Critique them. Because then we’re actually thinking about things we normally just swallow whole, without any consideration’ and that is no way to live, nor any good way to eat. You’ve got to chew your food: and your clichés, as well.

Ready? Here we go.

“All you need is love.” One of my favorite songs, and one of my favorite cliches. Also true — kinda. It’s not true that love is ALL you need; but it is true that love is one of the most important things you can have.

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The first piece of advice I want to give you is this: find love. True love, if you can; genuine and lasting love, at the least. I did, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not shaken to my core by gratitude and happiness because of it. And though I think I am extraordinarily lucky in love, I am entirely sure that all of you can find love, too. Make it a priority: make time for it, time for the looking and then time for the love once you find it. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, if that’s not what you’re after; it can certainly be love for family, for a parent, for a sibling, for a child; it can definitely be love for your best friend, or for a beloved pet — although, as much as I love my pets, I would recommend finding a human person to love. Because human persons talk back to you, and because pet persons die too soon. But it doesn’t have to be a spouse-type person, and it doesn’t have to be only one person. But in all the years I have spent with my wife, nothing has mattered to me as much as going home to her, as having her support and her companionship, as loving her and being loved by her. Don’t settle for something less than that: keep looking until you find it, because a half-measure of happiness will keep you from the full measure, and it isn’t worth it. If you think you’ve found it, and then you turn out to be wrong, don’t stay: divorce that person, leave that person, kill that person and stuff them in a sack.

Okay, don’t do that last one. But definitely leave the relationship and look for something better. Don’t give up on love. Not ever. And if you lose love, unless the memories of that love are enough for you, go out and find more love, find new love. Always. Life is better with love than without: and I truly believe everyone can find someone to love.

Next: “Never give up on your dreams. Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

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Okay, once again, there’s truth to this. You should have some kind of ambition in life, and it is better if it is grand; but if it is grand, it will also be, for the vast majority of us, unachievable. Which means you will have two options: give up, or keep working for something you may never accomplish. (Whatever you do, don’t look at the affirmational quotations for this one. As someone who has tried for twenty years to be a published author, and who is still a high school teacher, it both amuses and disturbs me to hear celebrities who caught their lucky break telling people to never give up. Sure, if I had been handed my dreams when I was 17, I’d believe that anyone could accomplish anything they wanted to do — if I was arrogant enough to think that luck came to me because of my talent. I’m not bitter.)

Personally, I would recommend not giving up. Not because of this landing among the stars nonsense; that’s neither true nor meaningful — I mean, if my “moon shot” is to be a published author, what does it mean to land among the stars? I can certainly imagine a second-level success — say, I sell some pleasing number of books which I self-publish, or I get to a pleasing number of followers on this blog, both of which are secondary goals I’m working towards and would be happy to achieve — but how does that fit the metaphor? The moon is infinitesimal compared to the stars, which are infinitely farther away; so what does that mean? Nothing, that’s what. But that’s okay: the point is really that working towards your dreams is a good thing to do regardless of whether or not you achieve the original dream. I really prefer this quote to the cliché, because I think this captures my experience and a lot of other people’s, as well. (Makes sense that it came from an actress whose best-known role came when she was 36.)

“As long as you keep going, you’ll keep getting better. And as you get better, you gain more confidence. That alone is success.” –Tamara Taylor

That’s why I say it is worthwhile to have a grand ambition, even if it is one you will never achieve.

But that takes me, in a roundabout way, to what may be the most important advice I have to give you; though it is also probably the most vague. It is this: there are two kinds of people in this world, and two kinds of experiences.

(There are a bunch of these memes…

 

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But this one’s my favorite:)

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Here are my two kinds: One is the kind of person, and the kind of experience, that limits your future choices, your freedom, your ability to control your life; the other is the kind that expands those choices, that freedom, that ability to make up your own mind and to control your own life. Look always for the second kind of person, the second kind of experience. There will be many choices you will make in life, and many of them will limit your future freedom: and those are the choices you have to be most careful of. You have to make them at the right time, and for the right reason. Choices like what to study in college — after you decide whether or not to go to college. Like what job to take. Where to live. When, and if, you will marry; when, and if, you will have children. These are the defining choices in life, and if you are not yet ready to be defined, don’t make them.

More importantly, don’t EVER let someone else make those choices for you. Don’t let someone pick you for marriage unless you pick them, too. Don’t let someone pick your time to have children, or with whom. Don’t let anyone push you into a career path, and don’t push yourself into one unless you want that career to define you. Until you are ready to make that choice, and lose the freedom to choose again later. (Though here’s a secret, and another cliché I won’t deconstruct: it is never too late to change your mind. Though it does get harder as time passes and you get more settled in your place in the world.)

Let me say one more thing about work: this one?

Image result for do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life

Complete bullshit. (You can tell by the background. What the hell kind of job does this image represent? Forest ranger? Have fun chasing poachers and meth cooks all over those mountains, in between rescuing dumbass dayhikers who thought they could just take a jaunt through those woods without equipment because they were in the Brownies. Also have fun getting furloughed when the government shuts down the next time.) Jobs are work. There is always work, or else nobody pays you for it; and the aspects that are work are not going to be fun. Jobs are always difficult, even if you love them, because you can’t possibly love every aspect of them (unless you’re on a whooooooole lotta drugs, and that has its own drawbacks.). I love some things about teaching, I really do — but I HATE the paperwork, and the grades, and indifferent students and overbearing parents, and a few other things as well. I love writing — but I HATE promoting myself. Even if I achieve my dreams of being a professional published author, I will need to write to very strict deadlines, and I will have to worry about my next book being a failure and sending me into the oblivion of Used-To-Be’s. I will have to travel, and speak publically, and participate in conventions and panel discussions and incessant insipid interviews, and I’ll have to be positive ALL THE TIME. I will hate that.

Honestly, I think the best way to view a job is to refuse to let it define you, unless you choose to define yourself that way. Back to the idea of limiting or expanding your freedom: if somebody wants to tell you that you are a teacher, and therefore you can’t be, say, a stripper on the weekends, don’t listen to them; you can be a stripper who teaches during the week. If you don’t care what you do for money because your passion is elsewhere, is in your avocation or your craft or your art or your family, then good: somebody asks what you do, you tell them that you make kayaks in your garage. They don’t need to know — they probably don’t really care — that you deliver pizzas for money; the kayak-building is FAR more interesting and important. So the point is, define yourself by your passion, not by your job; don’t expect your job to BE your passion, though it is certainly nice when they coincide. As much as I hate parts of teaching, I love, so much, that I get to spend all day every day with words, with literature, with reading and writing.

 

There are some other, smaller pieces of advice I would like to give, but they don’t come from clichés and they don’t have their own memes (Advice from a writer and a teacher: stick with a theme only as long as it makes sense; when it’s not working any more, drop it.). One is to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. Saving things for a later day is too often saving them for never; freedom to choose in life hits an early peak and then steadily decreases — until the very end, when you gain the freedom that comes with loss. That is, once you have a house and pets and a family and a career you want to keep, it becomes much harder to travel the world — until you lose all of those things. So if you have the chance to travel, do it.

Another is to pay attention: look around you. Take your time: you actually have quite a lot of it, and it will feel like more if you pay attention. I recommend walking, often, with your eyes and ears open to your surroundings.

Another is to read, and to keep learning. Doesn’t matter what you read, doesn’t matter what you learn; if you read the conspiracy theory websites that show how the Rothschilds are behind the measles outbreak, at least you’ll learn how crazy people are — and if you believe what you read, then the rest of us can learn to avoid talking to you, which is really for the best.

An important habit related to both of those is to always question. Question yourself, question your world, question your assumptions. You have to be careful not to take this to the point of permanent uncertainty and anxiety, but that has more to do with knowing when to trust the answers you get or the answers you make, and to move on to a different question; you can always come back to this question later. (Example: should I have written this blog? Is this too long? Is it a terrible topic, that everyone will find boring? Do I seem too arrogant, giving everyone advice? Well, I’ve written this much, and I don’t have a better idea, so — here it is. If I lose readers because of it, so be it. I’ll write something short and pleasant tomorrow. Also, I’ll hopefully get some feedback on this, which will help me know if it was the right thing to do. Also, please comment and Like content you enjoy, always. One of the best things to happen to me in the last few months was when someone read my book and sent me a comment telling me how much they liked it. I’m still floating from that one.)

Actually, that’s a real piece of advice: speak up. Do it in writing, do it anonymously if you are uncomfortable with direct conversation and confrontation; I certainly do, and I do almost all of my talking through a computer keyboard. I even write letters to my students when I want to chew them out, and you know what? INCREDIBLY effective. Feels much more formal and serious when I tell them in a letter that I’m sick of their bad behavior. Highly recommend it. But: speak. Up. Always. Positive and negative. When you are grateful that someone did something nice, say it — not just “Thank you,” but “I appreciate the way you gave me that/helped out with that/did that nice thing.” Tell your loved ones not only that you love them, but also what you love about them. As often as you think of it, say it. When someone angers you or upsets you, say something. When someone makes you uncomfortable, say something. Don’t suffer in silence: say it. Always. The worst case scenario is that you’ll be a pathetic whiny sniveler, and this way, the rest of us will know that and avoid you: so then everyone wins.

Well, except you.

But that’s what you get for being a whiny sniveler.

Last thing, and it’s not cheerful, but it’s true, and it’s important: people love telling younger people that life gets harder, that high school is nothing compared to college, and that college is nothing compared to the real world. I heard that all through school — “When you get to high school, it’s going to be MUCH harder . . . When you get to college, that’s when school/professors/assignments/grades get REALLY hard . . . When you get out into “the real world,” you’ll see how much better you had it while you were still a student!” — and I’m sure you’ve heard it too.

Well, here’s your last truth from me: it’s all bullshit.

Every stage of life is hard. And every stage of life has rewards that make it bearable. College is harder than high school academically; but the freedom you gain, the agency and control over your own life, makes it worthwhile. Also, you get to meet much better people. That same combined difficulty and reward comes with moving out of school and into the world of jobs and such — whether you make that transition after high school or after college doesn’t matter, it’s always the same — you gain more responsibilities, but also more power. The power gives you more freedom and more agency — you earn your own money and you can spend it how you want, for instance — but the responsibilities reduce that freedom, as well.

It’s always like that. When you are older you will probably have more financial security, but your health will probably be worse, and you’ll be aware of your dwindling years to enjoy your life. When you are young, you have all the time in the world — and too much of it has to be spent struggling.

I’m not saying this to depress you, just to let you know: it doesn’t get worse. In most ways, it gets better, because even though there are troubles to weigh down your joys, there is something else that happens as you go through life: you get stronger. Whatever does not kill you, right? It’s true: you get stronger every single day you are alive. It doesn’t make the troubles you face less — but it means you have an easier time handling them. And as long as you keep your eyes open, and take the time to recognize what you have, your happinesses will seem greater. I am happier now than I have been at any time in my past. Last year I would have said the same thing. Ten years ago I would have said the same thing. (Not nine years ago, though. That was a shitty year. But you can’t avoid those, so don’t worry about them. Try to get through them, that’s the best you can do.)

I’m going to end this with my attempt to make my own cliché — but because I thought of it, I actually find it much too annoying to just say; so I’m going to say it with memes. (Another piece of writer’s and teacher’s advice: know your audience.)

They tell us to never give up — but sometimes, giving up means you can walk away, and go find something better to try. So the best way to look at this is:

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or

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Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about work.

Not just my work, which, frankly, I wish I wasn’t thinking about; there is only one day left of regular classes, followed by three days of finals — except I’ve already given all of my finals, so that’s three days of nothing — and then the school year is over. My students stopped thinking about school weeks ago if not earlier; I wish I could follow their example. Ah, well, I’m sure after this coming week I will stop waking up at 4am and thinking about school.

Until the next school year starts, that is.

This morning, though I am also thinking about work in general: why we do it, why we consider it a person’s defining characteristic, and why we hallow it. And why my students have such a love-hate relationship with it.

So why do we work? To some extent, of course, work is necessary for survival; life is a struggle, with too much life vying for not enough resources; there’s not another way that life works on this particular planet, that is just, as they say, how it be. When we were primates in trees, and actual predators and prey, we had to work to get food and to avoid becoming food. When we became  hunter-gatherers, it was the same; and we added work required to build a society, starting with a family or a pack and building up to a tribe, a clan, and then, with the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry, a village and a town and a country. Now there’s all that added work to prepare the area for habitation, and then to protect it from those who are still working in the predator-prey field. And, basically, we still do that: we work to survive, and we work to maintain and protect what we have.

The question is, what we have, and what the threat to it is, and whether it really needs this much work to keep it.

We work for more than mere survival. We work to get more than the minimum: we work for personal gain. I don’t just want enough food to keep from starving, I want enough food to be satisfied, to be fat and happy; and I want the right kinds of food. Not just all the squirrels I can catch: I want donuts. And Cheez-Its. And good coffee. And also, I don’t want to eat squirrels. But now  we enter into the realm of abundance: because frankly, if there are limited resources and we are competing for them, and there are people working to survive while I am working merely for Cheez-Its and good coffee, then the survival workers are likely to win, because they want it more and they will work harder. Of course, there are people working to survive in this world while I work for Cheez-Its (And I feel like an absolute heel saying that, but it’s true, so thank you for reading the work of a heel), but we have localized abundance, and localized limited resources; and we have lots of people working hard to make sure that the people with limited resources can’t take my Cheez-Its.

So now we have working for survival, and working for personal gain and abundance. (We also have people working to protect my abundance, but they generally do that work for the same reason I do mine: they just have a different job. Inasmuch as they work to promote and preserve a culture, I’ll get to them in a sec.) I’m struggling to find a way that my working for Cheez-Its is positive, in the face of the fact that people are starving and working for food. I mean, I can’t fix the famine in Yemen, not even if I give up Cheez-Its (I’m not trying to be flip here, but if I changed to something less shallow than Cheez-Its as my example, it wouldn’t change the fact that I am working for abundance while Yemenis starve to death.); but in the grand scheme of things, there can’t be a moral good in working for abundance in a world with people who lack what they need to survive.

But there are still other reasons why we work. Take the one I just left alone: working to protect and promote a culture. People who do that often work without a tangible reward, which means they aren’t working for survival nor for personal gain. Why do they do it, then?

Take the attempts to reshape the national culture. Fundamentalist Christians are trying to re-brand America as a Christian nation. But we are not a Christian nation, not explicitly nor implicitly, not historically nor ideally; so this means, essentially, that Christians are trying to take the nation we have and turn it into their nation. Why? What would they gain from it?  Clearly not survival and not abundance; there is no money in protesting abortion. (There’s plenty in being a politician or a PAC that promotes abortion restrictions, but I’m not talking about them; I’m talking about the people who march with signs, and yell at people outside Planned Parenthood, and write opinion letters and online arguments about abortion and gay marriage.) Do they work to gain a place in Heaven? No, that’s guaranteed to them based on their own good life and good faith. The salvation of other American souls? That also is based on Americans accepting the Christian faith, and unless you think banning abortion and gay marriage will make people see the light of God in church every Sunday, then the attempts to achieve those political goals doesn’t make sense for their faith.

“Because it’s the right thing to do” seems to be the answer that makes the most sense (Unless we accept the notion that socially conservative movements are aimed at the eventual goal of subjugation of the masses for the elevation of conservative Christians. Then it’s more taking of something that isn’t theirs: power. And there’s a different idea of why we work.). Not that I think banning abortion and gay marriage are the right thing to do, but lots and lots of religious people, particularly devout Christians, do think so, and they’re the ones putting in the work to take these institutions (Is that the word for pregnant women in the aggregate? Marriage is an institution; is pregnancy? Motherhood? Womanhood?) under their control. So here’s another reason why we do work: not for survival, and not for personal gain: for morality. And maybe for control, for power.

Working for power doesn’t make sense. Power is, essentially, the ability to gain something without having to work for it. If I have power over my slaves, say, then I can order them to make me a cup of coffee, and I get the coffee without having to make it myself; presumably I also force my slaves to do work that will bring in enough money to buy the coffee. I’m buying myself a life of leisure, a work-free existence. So if I have to work to gain that power, so that I can use the power to stop working, then it’s a wash. The only thing that makes it make any sense is if I can gain power disproportionate to the work I put in, so I work less hard to keep my slaves subjugated than my slaves work to keep me in coffee and Cheez-its. It would make sense if I put in work at the outset in order to stop working after I gain the power I seek; but that requires a kind of power that remains even when I stop working to maintain it, and there aren’t a lot of powers like that. Most power leaves as soon as you stop working to keep it.

So then the people who work for power aren’t looking only for power: they want to wield that power to some other purpose. It makes  sense if this comes back to morality. People who work to gain power over others, so they can force those others to act the way the powerful one wants them to act, because the powerful one thinks that’s the right thing to do: okay. That’s just working for morality at one remove. You could also work for power in order to use that power to gain greater abundance and personal wealth; though at some point the abundance becomes more than you could ever need — Bill Gates, the Waltons, especially Warren Buffett (who is 88 years old), will never be able to spend all of their money. That becomes a circle: work for power, to gain wealth, to gain more power, to — ? Presumably work for moral goals, as the Koch brothers have, as Sheldon Adelson and George Soros do.

Have I missed anything? Is there any other reason we work? Oh, wait, of course: we work for the benefit of other people. I work so I can give my wife food, so I can buy chewtoys for my dogs, so I can afford a house with a fenced yard for my tortoise to live in. (I give my wife more than food, and I do also give food to my pets. Just so we’re clear.) On some level I do these things for selfish reasons, for survival or my own luxury, because I like when my wife takes care of me and when my dogs treat me like a wonderful person — often immediately after I feed them; but I also do work for other people who do not benefit me directly. (I know that many people who fight to end abortion feel they are doing the same thing. Allow me to disagree. I do not think that anyone arguing against gay marriage is sincerely doing that for the sake of other people: it is a moral conviction they hold, and nothing more.)

And here’s where we come to my students. I work hard for them. Not for my survival; believe me when I say I could do a tenth of the work that I currently do and keep my current position, and therefore keep my salary; actually, if I arranged it well, and focused my minimal efforts on prepping my students for tests, I could potentially make more than I do now, because my school has merit pay for test scores, which I consistently ignore in favor of working hard to teach my students. I don’t work hard for personal gain: I don’t get anything tangible from students except the occasional gift of coffee or baked goods. I got a $25 gift card for Starbucks yesterday, but I make $25 an hour or so, and I’ve spend far more than an hour on the student who gave me the gift. (Please know, especially if it’s you who gave me the card reading this, that your gift was much appreciated: far more than my salary.) It’s the same problem as working for power: if I work so I can get gifts that save me work, it’s a wash. In my case, considering the amount of work and the value of my gifts, it’s worse than a wash, it’s a waste.

To some extent I work hard as a teacher for a moral purpose: I believe that education is valuable, and that literature and reading and writing are both valuable and wonderful, and I want to promote those ideas; my efforts contribute to that, I think. But not enough: because for all of my effort and all of my passion, my students do not generally become readers. Maybe they gain some respect for literature and for reading and writing, but they aren’t converted to my beliefs. The other reason I work hard is for their benefit: my students often don’t read well, and rarely write well; I think their lives — not my life, and not necessarily the country or the world as a whole — would be better if they could read and write more clearly, more purposefully, more powerfully. So I try to help them. For their sakes.

The biggest hurdle I face in that effort is, naturally, my students themselves (Also the educational establishment, which would really prefer it if I taught to the test and the skills and standards they have determined to be more important than literature; but that’s their moral purpose for work, not mine, and I haven’t been converted to their views. So, no.). Because the only way my students improve is if they work.

And why would my students want to work?

Not for survival; I hate to think that any of them would be denied food or water or shelter because they didn’t do well in school. I’m sure it happens sometimes, but I would turn that parent in for abuse and neglect, not praise them for motivating their child to learn. Not for luxury or personal gain, not exactly; some of them get money or presents with good grades, but that’s rare at the high school level, and only has influence around grade time: when it’s September and they feel like sleeping in, the awareness that they’ll get paid for every A come January does not get them out of bed to study for that test. The same for the overarching motivation we try to use on them in this country: work hard in school, then go to college (Where you’ll work harder, and buy yourself a mountain of debt which means you’ll have to work EVEN HARDER when you’re out of school) so that you can get a high-paying job. THEN you can work for abundance and personal gain.

You know what? That’s too much work, for not enough reward. The reward is much too distant, and too fraught; because  we all have stories about people who work hard and are miserable, and we share those stories with students. Students see their parents working too hard to earn money, and they are capable of recognizing that their parents may love the work they do, but that doesn’t make it worth the hard effort they put into it. I myself am not a good example to become a teacher: they all know how hard I work for them, and how little reward I get for it. Why would they work hard now, to work harder in college, to work harder as a teacher?

Even my students aren’t that dumb.

Maybe we should rethink this system.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about paying attention.

I had a student tell me the other day that he thinks he has ADHD. He based this self-diagnosis on the fact that those with ADHD have great difficulty in setting deadlines for themselves, that they get distracted too easily and too severely, and they also suffer anxiety when forced to do a task they find difficult or unpleasant. They have trouble focusing, in other words, and this is no surprise.

Butt I was surprised when this young man told me he thought he had ADHD; because I’ve taught him for four years, and I’ve taught and known a number of people with ADHD over the years — and no. No, he does not have ADHD. He’s just a lazy teenager with bad priorities.

I say that with no judgment: I was a lazy teenager with bad priorities, and I was far worse about it than this young man — who is graduating with a high GPA, who has been accepted to multiple colleges, and who has won scholarships based on his academic achievements. The problem with his focus and his ability to accomplish tasks in a timely manner is actually that he’s so smart that he can do an excellent job on his work with very little effort or time; he can blow through an essay in a couple of hours and write something better than what any of his peers can do. He’s known this, certainly for all of high school, probably for all of his life, and so he lets himself do exactly that: he puts off homework and assignments until it reaches the point where he has just enough time to do them, and then he does them.

Then, of course, the issue grew complicated. First it became a point of pride, as it always does, because everything in our culture is competitive. Someone in the class says “Did you do the project?” And someone who works very hard in school responds, “Yeah, I spent all weekend on it. Almost killed me.” And then the smart one says, “Huh. I threw something together at the last minute. Took me about an hour.” Then the projects come back with grades, and the smart one has the same grade as the hard worker, or even a better one, and the hard worker expresses some sort of envy. “Man, I wish I could do that. You’re so lucky.” So our smart one does this as often as possible, in order to win that praise, even if it’s only from himself, looking down at his test grade and thinking, “I didn’t even study for that. Damn, I’m smart.”

The eventual result is that this smart young man can’t bring himself to put real work into anything, because he likes the accolades he gets when he does minimal work that still turns out well; and he loves the freedom that he gains by working this way, by taking perhaps one-fifth as much time to complete his work, which leaves him four-fifths of his time to play video games or watch YouTube. And life is grand: until, of course, the inevitable happens, and the work gets difficult enough that he can’t finish it in one-fifth the time. Things don’t go as well then, and his grades start to slide, and the accolades dry up — and then he starts looking for excuses. Then he develops ADHD. (The really funny part of this, by the way, is the H, the Hyperactivity: this dude can barely bring himself to get out of bed in the morning, and he slouches and trudges his way through his entire school day. I’ve never seen a less hyperactive student.)

It can certainly come about in other ways: a student who is not as bright, not as capable, but who  is charming and well-liked, and so gets out of assignments because the teacher likes them, or who gets other people to do work for them; they too never develop the ability to do hard work for an extended period of time — and they too decide that they have ADHD. Or simply someone who was never pushed to complete tasks, who is in an environment that is not very concerned with school, and is therefore allowed to spend study time playing instead; they never learn to focus and pay attention, and eventually, lo and behold, ADHD.

If you genuinely have ADHD, or you have seen someone with ADHD, you know it. It’s called a disorder, which I don’t agree with, because the only problem with it is it doesn’t conform to the type of behavior we generally prefer in our children and in our students (Which still adheres to the old Puritan ideal of “seen but not heard”); but when people have it, it is unmistakable. The fact that people are using this very genuine condition as an excuse for just not wanting to work very hard is, frankly, disgusting. I don’t really have a suggestion or advice here, other than — well, shut up and do your work, you lazy punks.

This Morning

This morning I do not have time to think. Sorry: I have seniors who are graduating in two days, and I need to grade their work. I spent part of last night arguing when I should have been grading, and so this morning, I need to spend time grading which I would rather spend writing.

This is a good substitute, though: since I started my gun posts with a discussion of what needs to be done to fix school shootings — but I never got to a practical answer — here is a reasonable and practical answer that actually has very little to do with guns, from a teacher in Colorado. Please do read it.

I’ll try to write again tomorrow.

I am a TEACHER in COLORADO and Here is Why Guns are NOT the Problem or the Solution.

This Morning

This morning I’m thinking about the Constitution. About the Second Amendment.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

I have thought about this particular sentence quite a lot over the years. I’ve shifted my position on this several times, generally in the same direction; not because the side I’ve shifted towards is entirely right (Though it is the right-wing position, the conservative position, that doesn’t make it the right-minded position), but because I came into this debate with a pretty extreme view.

See, I was raised to hate firearms. Violence of all types, certainly, but firearms in particular. My mother, a nurse and a pacifist and the kindest person I have ever known, never even let me have a BB gun, no matter how many times I watched “A Christmas Story.” There was one occasion when I was about 8 or so when our family went over to visit friends for dinner; my mom and dad liked this couple quite a lot: he was a computer guy who worked with my dad, and she was a ceramic artist. They all got along great — until Ben, the husband, showed my brother Marvin and I his pistol. I have a clear recollection of the gun — a revolver — being entirely unloaded, the cylinder open with no shells in it; I remember him letting us hold it. And I remember my mother coming in the room and finding us there holding a gun.

We never saw them again. Not only didn’t go over to their house, but we never saw the Kirchners again. I think my mom saw Mrs. Kirchner at some point, because we had a number of mugs that she made; but we never saw Ben after that.

So I’ve never been in a fight, and I’ve never gone hunting, and I’ve never killed an animal larger than a mouse, and I’ve never fired nor even held a gun past that one time when I was eight. I remember being in an online debate when I started taking this topic on, and my opponent accused me (as online debaters — read “assholes,” including myself when I debated online — are wont to do) of being a hoplophobe, someone who is irrationally afraid of firearms (Please note that this is just a politically charged insult recently coined, like “snowflake” or “soyboy” or that kind of bullshit.). And my response, which stunned the asshole who threw the word at me, was, “Yes. Yes, I am.” I did add the clarifications that I was afraid of people wielding firearms, not of the weapons themselves, and that this fear was not in fact irrational.

The response was basically that I should get a gun and learn to defend myself like a man.

This is a bullshit argument.

But it’s not actually the argument behind the Second Amendment.

Let’s be clear: the Second Amendment has been misinterpreted (in my opinion) by the courts, and even more by the general populace. It does not define the right to self-defense: there is no need to define and protect the natural right to self-defense, because self-defense is never a crime. But I don’t believe there is a guarantee in the Second Amendment that an individual has a right to, needs to, or even should, have a gun for self-defense.

The Second Amendment is also not in any way a defense of hunting or target shooting or collecting firearms to display in your home. None of those are rights. They’re amusements, hobbies; you have no right to a hobby. “But Dusty, what about people who hunt for food?” Well actually, you don’t have a right to food, either. People should have food, and it makes sense for us as a country to ensure that people have food and the ability to get food; but we do it because it makes sense, not because it’s a right. If it stops being sensible to provide food — let’s say we all voluntarily go into the Matrix, and survive on pink goo pumped directly into our gastrointestinal systems — then the provision of food will stop, without any violation of rights.

Let me explain a bit before I go too far into the weeds. The Second Amendment states that the people — not a person — have the right to keep and bear arms, in order to defend the security of a free State. The implication is that the main threats to a free State are external: I think that’s the “security” line. If it was primarily about the defense of a free people from the state, then it would say something more like “to ensure the integrity and continuation of a free State.” But I don’t mean to be one of those people who parse every word of the law in order to determine what the point is: I don’t actually idolize the Founding Fathers, and don’t think that their intentions should be the deciding consideration when trying to interpret the Constitution. I think we should look at what the document is really supposed to do, not necessarily what the men who wrote it wanted it to do.

The Constitution is intended to create and preserve a nation based on the rule of law, and not the whims of men. Laws need to be interpreted and executed by people, so our opinions have some importance; but the defining, essential purpose of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers was to escape and prevent the tyranny of powerful men.

You know how you escape the tyranny of powerful men? You spread power out as much as humanly possible. You create separate but equal branches of government, with checks and balances. You ensure that, as much as possible, the people who run that government are beholden to the masses, through the power of the ballot. (It’s probably a good idea to ensure that the people who are in charge of the actual laws are not quite so beholden to the people, but rather to the law itself — but that’s a different topic.) And because physical force is a source of power, you spread out the physical force as widely as possible: you don’t allow it to concentrate in the hand of a few, or even, if you can manage it, in the hands of many: you put it in the hands of all. That’s what the Second Amendment does, and what it does is right to do: the wider the dispersal of power, the less likely power is to be abused.

I do think the Second Amendment is intended partly to ensure that the people stay free and are able to defend that freedom against a rising tyranny in their own government. But it’s not that specific: it’s intended to create resistance to any gathering of power. The Ku Klux Klan have less power when the Black Panthers have rifles: it’s really as simple as that.

That means that we need to have the right to own firearms, as firearms are the most powerful individual force-multiplier we people can own. Tanks would be better, and an entire air force or navy owned by each individual WAY better; but that’s not feasible.  Anyone can own a gun, and a person with a gun is more deadly than one without. That’s why the Amendment defends the right to keep and bear arms. That does also imply that we should have the right to defend ourselves from personal harm using firearms. It makes sense: the point of maintaining a free State is so we free individuals can have a place to live; therefore the purpose of defending a free state also encompasses defending a free individual. Also, not to get too silly, but you can’t defend the state if you get killed by an intruder in your home.

But here’s the thing: there’s nothing in the Amendment, neither the wording nor the logic, that implies that we should not require background checks on every single purchase of a firearm. And a national gun registry of every owned or manufactured firearm. And red flag laws that allow the removal of firearms from dangerous individuals. And mandatory firearms training and testing, just like we have for motor vehicles. And limits on types of firearms (To some extent — there should be a limit on the limits so that the limits do not become a de facto ban), and on magazine capacity, and on everything else that we see fit to regulate. See, the goal here is to ensure that power is spread out: not that power has to be granted and defended for every halfwit who can pull a damn trigger. Not that the power has to allow one sovereign citizen to take on the military, or even the police, and win. The arguments against regulation are all predicated on the (rather paranoid) idea that the main purpose of the Amendment is to limit the ability of the federal government to control people, and that’s just not the case. Anyone who is a threat to us needs to be controlled, primarily by the limiting of power in the hands of those who are a threat. Note that: if we fear the rising power of the Federal government, then clearly the answer given by the Constitution is to limit that power, not to rise up against it. The worst case scenario is that the people will need to overthrow their own government, but the Amendment isn’t the plan for that; the Amendment is part of the plan for preventing that.

Our ability to own firearms is one thing that helps keep the government from the most simple and brutal sort of tyranny (And it really does do that, and I think I’ll have to talk about that at greater length on another day; the topic is too complex for a single post); but to keep us from turning our power on each other (And to keep the citizens from turning their power on the government for corrupt reasons, too; let’s not forget that. Let’s not imagine that most revolutions are idealistic and freedom-loving.), well — that’s why it says “Well-regulated.” Right there in the front of the Amendment. Even before the “keep and bear arms” part.

 

I think this will have to be continued.