Double Book Review: Bryson and Bryson

A Walk in the Woods

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

by Bill Bryson

 

Bill Bryson and I have nothing in common.

Mr. Bryson has four children; I have three, but they have fur and feathers and shells. He moved to England after only a year in college, and spent the next twenty years or so in Europe; I haven’t been out of the United States since I was 13, and that was only for a week. He grew up in the 1950’s, when America was ostensibly at its peak; I grew up in the 70’s when America had disco. He grew up in, and has a deep nostalgic love for, the Midwest; I’m strictly coastal, and have never even driven through Iowa, where Bryson spent his entire childhood, in the same house in Des Moines. We are both the youngest, he of three and me of two, and we come from literary traditions: his parents were both journalists, his father one of the best sportswriters (Bryson the Younger tells us, but he has a valid argument) in the history of baseball; though neither of my parents are terribly literary, my grandmother and great-grandmother were both authors, teachers, and librarians. But of course, Bryson is an award-winning and best-selling author, and I just cracked 60 followers on my blog. (I thank and adore every one of you, don’t think I don’t.)

And perhaps most importantly, Bryson is a man who would, one, walk the Appalachian Trail, or at least a lengthy segment of it, and two, write a memoir about his American Heartland youth; and I am a man who would – read about both of those things.

Bryson’s writing is beautiful. This is why I keep reading his books, despite having no real common ground with him; this was never truer than with The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, when Bryson waxes poetic for nearly 300 pages about an America I know nothing about. I mean, he was the archetype: he loved baseball, did crappy in school, and had a freaking paper route, for the love of Clark Kent. Me? I played D&D and Nintendo. Hated sports. Straight A’s until I got to high school, when my grades slipped – to mostly B’s. (I did get a few D’s and F’s, and another thing Bryson and I had in common was a whole lot of truancy in high school.) He writes wonderfully about how simple and perfect was that world, a world I didn’t know and therefore don’t long for. And honestly, even Bryson’s excellent writing didn’t make me long for it. Even though the freedom of unsupervised playtime and the Golden Age of comic books do call to me, as do the unique character of a city made up entirely of local businesses, run by local people, catering to the specific needs and wants of their neighbors, whom they know personally: the department stores, the grocery stores, the restaurants, they all sound lovely indeed. But I don’t want ’em.

The same for the Appalachian Trail, the focus of A Walk in the Woods. I had two friends who walked the whole thing one college summer, and I have always envied them their experience; no more, man. No chance. I wouldn’t even do the abbreviated hike that Bryson writes about. He talks about the exhaustion, the misery, the crappy food, the monotony of the scenery, the irritating other hikers – even a little about the murders that were committed near where he was hiking while he was there, when two female hikers were killed on the trail. Never solved, at least not by the time Bryson wrote the book. It all adds up to a great big No Thanks: even with Bryson’s excellent descriptions of the glorious vistas, the fascinating (Seriously) history of the trail and the regions it meanders through, the sense of accomplishment so palpable you can feel it coming off the page.

Actually, I thought that was the best thing about both of these books: while Bryson does talk sincerely and at length about the good things about these two experiences, he doesn’t shy away from the negative side. His mother was a crappy cook, and that experience is made much worse by the total lack of culinary adventurousness of the era. His parents didn’t worry about anything, giving him great privacy and freedom – but they also painted everything with lead, asbestos, and radiation; Bryson lived through the end of the polio era, and in a time when people, who grew up in the Depression, were frequently missing limbs. In A Walk in the Woods, as I said, he goes through every painful, plodding step, making them even more vivid through the inclusion of his out-of-shape former-alcoholic friend Katz, who walks the trail with Bryson, but slower and with even more suffering. And that’s a lot of suffering.

You hear all about the bad parts, which really does serve to make the good parts seem more genuine and more warmly appreciated. It’s easy to understand how much Bryson loved his family’s unexpected road trip to a still-new Disneyland when he also talks about the usual family vacation to visit family that nobody wants to see, not even the family themselves. It’s easy to see how happy Bryson was to go home when he finished his Appalachian Trail hike when he takes you through every terrible day before that; it’s easy to see the beautiful woods he walks through when he talks about the rain and the mud and the cold.

So even though we’re nothing alike, and Bryson writes personal non-fiction, which should make it hard for me to relate to and understand his work, I am going to keep reading it: because Bryson is a hell of a writer, and he makes me like his books even if I doubt I would like him very much. Nothing personal, Bill. But thank you for everything personal you have shared with me. You keep writing it, and I’ll keep reading it.

Tied Down at the Edge of a Cliff

We say we have to get me out of teaching. We say it often, laying in bed at night before we turn the lights off, when we usually turn to face each other, heads on pillows, and sort of put a punctuation mark on the day – sometimes an exclamation point, sometimes a question mark; but usually just a comma or a semi-colon, because the end of the day is almost never an ending, almost always a brief pause for breath before we go on with the next clause, the next day, separate from the last but still connected – always connected.

My life is a run-on sentence. And I don’t know how to stop it.

No: I know how to stop it. (And I’m going to leave this metaphor behind now, this navel-gazing grammatical pun. Jesus, Dusty. Get a life.) I could change my life quickly if I leave everything behind, including my wife and my pets, a sentence that took me several tries to actually write. I could change everything if I left everything. I do what I do so I can earn what I earn so we can live how we live: as we. But our bed, where we lay at night together, is actually the ground at the top of a cliff. Everywhere I go, I am at the top of this cliff. At night we lay together, our heads heavy on the pillows, and we look into each other’s eyes and I tell her how much I love her and she smiles at me and I love her more, and then we kiss goodnight, and roll over – and I stare off the edge of the cliff.

The cliff is the edge of my world. I don’t mean the end of life; I’m not talking about dying. I’m talking about where the place I am, the place I live, where it ends, abruptly, startlingly, dangerously. Honestly I have pretty much always stayed near that cliff’s edge, in various ways. But never too near: because I am a coward, I think. And though every night I look out into the open air beyond that cliff, to actually jump off that cliff and land somewhere entirely different – or perhaps instead of landing, take flight and sail across the sky, which is how I imagine it would feel to be a writer – I would have to leave behind everything I am now, everything that is this place where I live, this life where I live, where I sleep with my head heavy on my pillow and my eyes straining to look out farther but tired, so very tired, with the looking; but behind me (or no: before me, between me and the cliff, not to protect me but because she is even closer to the edge of that empty space that might hold a new life) is the best woman in the world, and at our feet lies the sweetest dog I’ve ever known, and nearby are a bird and a tortoise who need me, who are tied to me, who are weighing me down. And none of them – not even the bird, sadly – can fly.

Let me be clear: it is not my wife’s fault. She never asked me to get this job, never demanded a larger home, a larger paycheck, health insurance, stability, all the tethers of the modern world that tie me down at the top of the cliff, safe and immobile, able to turn my head and look out to eternity, growing and throbbing out there beyond the fall to the bottom. She doesn’t demand them of me now, never tells me when I talk of leaving teaching that I can’t do that because the family relies on my stable income and health insurance. She has never said that once. She never would. She lies with her head on her pillow, holds my hand, her fingers exploring mine as she imagines drawing my hands (as she imagines drawing everything), and says, with her eyes sad, “We have to get you out of teaching.” Now that she has tethered herself down right next to me – but closer to the edge of the cliff than I am – she says “We have to get ourselves out of this.”

Then we talk about how we can be free, mobile, able to pick and choose what we do with our lives, if we just buckle down and teach for three years and pay off all of our debts. Maybe four years. Maybe five. Tethered down right at the edge of this cliff, looking out into space, lying with our heads heavy on the pillow, holding hands.

I’ve never jumped off a cliff. I jumped off a swing into a river, once, but I landed flat on my back when I tried an ill-advised backflip; it hurt. I don’t remember if I went back on the swing again after that, but probably not; I’m a coward, and I always have been, and that’s why I’m still at the top of this cliff, near the edge but not on the edge. I’m looking out on this vista, this panorama, of wide open space, and I’m – I don’t know, shouting over the edge? Maybe whispering, blowing words like soap bubbles, glittering and evanescent as they drift pointlessly free? But I’m still here, on solid ground, holding on for dear life even though I am nowhere close to falling.

I should be falling. If I was a writer, I’d be falling; if I was falling, I’d be a writer.

Instead I am – yes, I know it. A spider. Remember the tiny ones at the end of Charlotte’s Web, how they spin out a single thread of silk and throw it up into the wind, letting the air lift and carry them away? That’s how I want to go out over the edge of the cliff; not free fall, not dropping down and just hoping that something will catch me, though I’m not sure now if that’s because I’m a coward or just because I don’t care for the thrill, never have, never liked adrenaline, never wanted to feel alive because I almost died. I hate stories that rest on that idea: that life is either risk or boredom, that everything that is lovely or pleasant or simple becomes blasé, because I feel like if I could live forever, I would just read all of the books that I won’t have time to read, and play all the video games, and walk over every inch of the Earth, and why would that get boring? I don’t believe that it would. And so I want to drift over the edge of the cliff, not plummet. So here I lay, throwing out single threads of silk, gossamer words, hoping that one of them will catch the wind and lift me free and sail me away through the sky – and my wife and our family with me.

I’m growing roots. I have been for years, though I frequently pull them out of the ground and let them wither and die. I don’t need the roots, though I don’t hate them; that’s probably why I let them grow, and maybe that’s why I haven’t gone over the cliff, because I don’t mind the slow growth, don’t mind drifting down into the earth instead of up into the sky. Maybe if there was a way to sink below the surface, grow a taproot large enough and deep enough and then pour myself down instead of drawing nutrients up, follow my own growth into the deeps, and then tunnel down through the cliff from behind its face, back behind the bones, down and down and down until I came to the bottom and then slid out from between the teeth, out with the breath of the earth back into the open air. Then I’d be in a new place, and not at the edge of a cliff looking out; then I would have changed, would have moved.

But I would have never flown. Never left the ground. Is that, could that be, what it would mean for me to be a writer? To move through the earth to new ground? Does that metaphor make sense?

Is this the thread that will lift me? Or the one that I can crawl down, like Dante down the leg of Lucifer, crawling down until suddenly he was crawling up, out of the depths of Hell to the mountain of Purgatory? But see, he was carried on that final voyage out. He was on a mission from God. All he had to do was hold on and wait.

I don’t think I can just hold on and wait. I think I need to move. I don’t know if I can fly and take my family with me – and I won’t leave them behind. There is nothing that would be better without them. I don’t even know why I say it, other than I know that most people who jump off the cliff, who make themselves suddenly into writers (or into flattened, shattered remains), go it alone. I don’t want that. I don’t think I ever have, but I know I don’t now. So the question is: do I keep throwing strands of silk into the air? Do I stitch them together into a single sail, and just wait for a wind great enough to lift me, and my wife, and our heavy heads from off of our pillows, and we can grab the bird and the dog and the tortoise in passing and carry them with us? Could there be a wind great enough to lift a sail large enough to carry us all aloft?

Or do I try to find a new way, this magic that will turn the earth beneath me malleable, let me alter the flow and the path of all things so that I grow in the wrong direction, turning the wrong into right? Honestly, I don’t even know what this metaphor means: would I write for the local scene, find local websites, write for the Tucson newspaper? Is that what it means to go down your own taproot, to go deeper into the earth, to become a writer by digging down? I don’t know. I want it to be magical, somehow, to be an alteration of the paradigm, a new path, a new alchemy that turns stone into water, just for me, so that I could swim through something that can’t be swum through – but though I can imagine that, I don’t understand it, I don’t know how I could do that, if it could be done. I don’t know if I’m creative enough to do it, if I have the wizardry to break the laws of nature. But since it took me four tries to actually type the word “wizardry,” I’m going to say the omens are bad.

Maybe I should try to climb down the cliff. Grind it out, slow and steady, keep working, keep writing, keep moving; no magic, just constant effort, every moment testing my strength to the limits, every moment hyperalert, looking for that next ledge, that next handhold.

I don’t know. I’m 42, and I haven’t started climbing yet. I might already be too tired just from lying at the top of the cliff. Lifting my head off that pillow every goddamn morning. Looking out at the expanse of sky and thinking about how wonderful it would be to sail away. Spinning my silken threads, my tenuous sails – watching them break and fall, or vanish off into the ether without me. And here I lie.

I don’t know how to fly.

Update.

Toni read this. We talked about it. And having talked to her about it, the answer is clear: we will be alchemists. We will swim through the Earth, and see where we end up.

I consider the metaphor of flight to represent getting published by a traditional brick-and-mortar company, selling books out of Barnes and Noble, the whole Best-Selling Author bit. I’d still like to fly. I’m going to keep sending up streamers of spidersilk, hoping that one will catch just the right breeze and lift me up into the sky. I would like that. For Toni, the same metaphor probably applies to suddenly hitting it big in the art world: becoming a name, being sold in galleries, getting commissions for public art, all of that. And that would be swell, too.

But that’s not the goal. Neither is the goal a safe and sure and trying descent.

No: the goal is to try something new. We plan to write and illustrate and sell graphic novels, and illustrated novels. I plan to go back to publishing a serial novel, which will be available as enriched and expanded e-books, featuring extra stories, back stories, side characters, and so on. Maybe we’ll run a book store. I will publish my novels, and she will sell her art – and we will see what we are capable of and where we can go. What new places can we discover, and explore? What exactly is down there, underneath us? Could it be even more intriguing, even more wondrous, than the sky above?

We will never jump off the cliff. And we will never leave each other behind. (Nor the pets.)

We choose – magic.

Throw Back: Free Teach — I mean Speech

(From my former blog Pleading For Sanity. Originally published on this date in 2011. Enjoy.)

 Free Teach — I mean Speech.

Though I complain about it frequently, there are some things I really enjoy about my job. One of the most enjoyable aspects, fortunately, is my colleagues: they are bright, kind, funny,. considerate, and extraordinarily dedicated — generally far more than am I. The work can be hard to handle, but my fellow teachers almost always make it easier to go on to the next class, the next day, the next school year.

But then I looked online, and I found out that I work with some pretty awful people.

At least, if you listen to my students. And if you can decipher their spelling. (Honestly, as an English teacher, I think the harshest criticism here is the critics’ own inability to spell, punctuate, and capitalize. I’m trying to keep this anonymous, but I must note that of the 35 teachers rated on this one site, eight of the names were misspelled. One person’s first and last names were misspelled — and in another instance, the name “Chris” was rendered as “Crise.” Maybe it’s petty of me, but if you’re going to boo me, at least spell my name right.)

According to the website RateMyTeacher.com, I work with someone who “looks like a petafile.” I’m assuming that’s bad. I’m sure, for the most part, that these other comments are bad. They are copy-pasted verbatim, other than where I took out names and specifics to protect the innocent.

he talks way to much and he is really controling some times and if hes wrong allways look he gives you a glare

[HE] IS A COMPLETE **** AND SHOULD BE FIRED

he is a **** man **** and needs to be fired

he is a **** but he knows what hes talking about [Blogger’s note: Hey! A compliment!]

you are by far the WORST teacher i have ever been tought by. Do you even know, NOT one SINGLE STUDENT likes you!?

satan, should leave school

very rude, not helpful, and makes it over-all pretty scary to learn.

He is by far the worst teacher I have ever encountered. He doesn’t care about his students or his class. His lessons are unplanned, unoraganized and unclear. My advice stay away

You are a mess, the [classroom] is a mess, your teaching is a mess; You put [sub-group of student population] on a golden pedastal and you forget the rest of your students. I dont give a s**t about your problems, you whine constantly-

You need to get your s**t together.

Your alright sometimes. But personally I think your a fool. And I had one of your T.A’s tell me that you would talk s**t about the students behind their back. Also stop complaining. NO ONE likes that.

very easy but you are a disorganized mess

But none of that compares to the bile that students reserve for administrators. To wit:

he grabed my a** in the hall and told me not to tell anyone and then he took a picture of me and hung it on his wall? [Blogger’s Note: Why the question mark? Was this person not sure whether it was the wall or the ceiling?]

he touched me in inappropriate places 😦 now i am scard for life… [B.N.: So you can handle “inappropriate” but “scarred” (Scared?) is beyond you.]

That Stupid B**** Kicked Me in the Gut and Called me a F****** N*****! Racisty Piece of S***!

get a life you **** stop telling little girls and boys what to do oh i forgot it makes you happy you ****

he is a creeper that takes it in the **** [B.N.: I have to wonder about that extra star.]

no one loves him, pedo, should jump in a meat grinder, stabs puppies for pleasure, reincarnation of **** [B.N.: Again, four stars? Reincarnation of what, exactly? Stan?]

useless piece of crap

he is a peice of s**t

he like to get kids in trouble for no dam reason at all and he picks on colored people cuz he thinks hes all that powerful when he is NOT!!!!!!

he is a prick and thinks he is soo badass wen hes not… no one at this skool likes him

hes a dillweed, i can give him a popularity(2)becouse i like to make fun of that tool, and i do…. [B.N.: Please note that this comment came with a popularity rating of one.]

he is the biggest tool i have ever met

Wow. We’re pretty bad. And, of course, this is only what was posted online on one site; set against what is written in notes or on desks or bathroom walls, and what I overhear in conversation, it is nothing at all. And just imagine if I could look at a student’s personal blog or MySpace page or Facebook status. I have been told directly that my fellow teachers are vile subhuman scum (Though not in those words — there’s generally a lot more “sucks” and different versions of “asshole.”) more times than I can count; I’ve read essays expounding on the general incompetence of the staff, the administration, and everything to do with the school; what must these students say when they don’t think we’re listening, when they don’t believe there’s any chance the teachers will find out?

And yet, whatever the students may say, it doesn’t really matter. I know why students say they hate me, hate my class, why they think I’m a jerk or that I’m racist or that I never taught them anything: it’s because I’m a teacher, and they are teenagers. If I taught elementary school, they’d make up a poem about me that would most likely describe me as having poopy pants, and if I taught middle school, they’d — well, honestly, I don’t think middle school children do much other than flirt awkwardly and loathe themselves; they probably barely even notice their teachers.

But otherwise, this is all stuff that teachers need to brush off. Of course students hate us: we make them do homework. We make them show up on time and sit quietly. We give them failing grades. We are the establishment, we are the Man. On a personal level, there are, quite naturally, personality conflicts, as well as personality disorders, that create bad feelings — and, of course, not all teachers are very nice. To some extent, they should hate us; and even when it is unjustified, we have to remember that these are teenagers. Children, effectively, especially in this modern era of crystallized and socially acceptable immaturity, when grown men and women are admired and even feted for their childish antics and attitudes — Kanye West, for instance, or the cast of the Jersey Shore. Kids say things they don’t mean, and they say things they don’t really understand the implications of, and they try to do it in the worst, most offensive, most shocking way possible, in order to garner attention, in order to create a response, in order to prove their rebelliousness and independence and general badassery. As a teacher, I know this, and I don’t take their criticisms very seriously. Well, I do, because I am insecure and harshly self-critical, but I can usually talk myself out of it once I’m in a better mood.

But apparently, in this country, in this free, democratic country, that magnanimity and understanding only goes one way. Students are free to criticize teachers, even to accuse teachers online of sexual misdeeds of any stripe (I did not include the very worst comments about one of my coworkers, even though I’m sure the teacher in question would not be very hurt by the utterly absurd accusations, because some things simply should not be repeated, just for the sake of making a point.), anything they wish, because they are children. But should a teacher say anything negative about students, even non-specific comments made on a personal blog, then the wrath of the almighty descends. And by “almighty,” I mean the judgmental, Puritanical, tyrannical, almighty public opinion.

Natalie Munroe was suspended in Pennsylvania for calling her students “lazy, unmotivated whiners,” among other things. Another teacher (Also in Pennsylvania) was suspended for a picture that was posted online of her and a male stripper at a bachelorette party. She wasn’t naked, she wasn’t dancing, it wasn’t at school or during work hours — it was a private bachelorette party, she was in the frame when someone took a photo of the stripper, and this photo was posted online, by someone other than the teacher, who was then suspended. A teacher in England was suspended when another teacher complained about the Facebook comment: ‘By the way, (class) 8G1 are just as bad as 8G2.’ A middle school science teacher was suspended for this:

Hussain wrote on the social-networking site that it was a “hate crime” that students anonymously left a Bible on her desk, and she told how she “was able to shame her kids” over the incident. Her Facebook page included comments from friends about “ignorant southern rednecks,” and one commenter suggested Hussain retaliate by bringing a Dale Earnhardt Jr. poster to class with a swastika drawn on the NASCAR driver’s forehead.

It’s only a guess, but: want to bet those students thought (or knew) she was a Muslim — her name is Hussain, after all — and therefore either a terrorist or Hell-bound?

And another, for this:

The suspension occurred after a Charlotte television news station did a search on the social networking site for people who identified themselves as staff members of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The unidentified teacher, who teaches at Thomasboro Elementary School, which has 94 percent of its students in the free lunch program, wrote in her Facebook page, “I am teaching in the most ghetto school in Charlotte.”

Four other teachers in the district are also being disciplined for statements and photos posted to their Facebook pages.

Citation

What bothers me about this story — actually, about all of these stories — is how we react to the teachers. We think they have done something wrong. The Charlotte story goes on to quote an online comment that said this: “The teacher probably didn’t understand the privacy settings on her Facebook account. Information you post can be either publicly viewable or something that is just seen by your friends. She probably thought what she was posting was private, but left the default settings on to let everyone see your profile,” commented BluNews. “A lot of people unknowingly do this. That said, the teacher messed up and certainly diminished her ability to teach her kids. I’m not sure if firing her is the right thing to do, but she should be disciplined. Also, I doubt this is the last time we’ll hear about something like this. School systems should set policy on issues like this and warn teachers that negative postings about their jobs could lead to disciplinary actions.” (Emphasis added) Ibid.

When the story broke over the Pennsylvania teacher’s blog, a number of people pointed it out to me; one even brought me the clipping from the Oregonian. One of them sent me a link to the story in an e-mail and added the comment, “I wonder where the First Amendment comes down on this.” That gave me pause for a moment.

But then I realized. There’s no question where the First Amendment comes down on this. A teacher has the right to say whatever the hell he or she wants to, so long as it does not defame or slander, or violate privacy rights, or cause direct harm, as would a bomb threat or the classic crowded theater shout of “Fire!” No matter what you think of a teacher who says,

“I hear the trash company is hiring.”

“I called out sick a couple of days just to avoid your son.”

“Rude, beligerent [sic], argumentative f**k.”

“Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”

“Asked too many questions and took too long to ask them. The bell means it’s time to leave!”

“Nowhere near as good as her sibling. Are you sure they’re related?”

“Shy isn’t cute in 11th grade; it’s annoying. Must learn to advocate for himself instead of having Mommy do it.”

“Too smart for her own good and refuses to play the school ‘game’ such that she’ll never live up to her true potential here.”

“Am concerned that your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.)”

[These are comments that Ms. Munroe wished were available for attaching to report cards. I should also note that she included in her blog the line, “I’m being a renegade right now, living on the edge and, um, blogging AT work. However, as I’m blogging about work stuff, I give myself a free pass of conscience.” Misuse of school resources might be part of the reason for her suspension, and I can’t really argue with that.]

no matter what you think of that person as a teacher, she has the right to say all of that and more. She is an American citizen, and she has the right to free speech. The criticisms I see, the justifications for trying to remove this woman’s right to speak her mind freely, often run along the lines of, “But what kind of teacher can she be if she thinks these terrible things about students?”

Allow me to respond to that with quotes, from students, lifted again from RateMyTeacher.com, about another teacher who posted similar general criticisms, and blogs laced with FAR more profanity than Ms. Munroe’s (But who fortunately was not suspended for it.).

He is a very kind teacher with an interesting spin on things that made English class quite enjoyable.

He doesn’t need this s**t to know he’s the **** best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.

Great teacher. Always ready to help and is very considerate in his assinments

IS FREAKING AWESOME !!!! the coolest and best teacher in the school!

You are awesome as a teacher and you get the job done even when some of the students are being abnoxious and ignoring you completely.

great teacher one of my favorites

cool guy and good teacher

Best teacher in the world! 🙂

Great teacher! He’s really interesting and he cares about reading and english. He expects his students to be mature and that’s nice because most teachers even in high school treat us like little kids.

You see, my fellow Americans, that’s the point of freedom of speech. We are complicated, multi-dimensional creatures; no one thing we say, anywhere, ever, for any reason, can be presumed to sum up one’s entire person, or even to represent a definite and unalloyed aspect of that person — we teachers complain about our students, but there are also students we love, who make our day, who make classes better. Sometimes it’s the same student. It is unfair to assume that someone is fully represented by words she uses, especially when those words are taken out of context. It is thus unfair, unreasonable, and unjust to punish that person for those words — unless there is direct harm done or a specific law broken, as with slander, breach of confidentiality, and so forth. We have, and need, the right to express our opinions, to state our true feelings, even if those feelings hurt someone’s else’s feelings, even if our true feelings are mean, or profane, or politically incorrect in any way. There is no question what our right to free speech entails; we have the right to free speech. That’s it. Here, look at the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

No law abridging the freedom of speech. In any way. Which implies that no government institution should take action against an employee for exercising the right to free speech, as that employee’s freedom of speech is thus abridged. When you take that away, you take away the foundation of democracy. What’s next — should we ban peaceful protests asking for redress of grievances? You know, like people are saying about the pro-union demonstrations in Wisconsin right now? Anyone else feel like we’re on a slippery slope here?

The freedom of speech is essential to democracy, because it is essential to society, to individuals’ sanity and to the necessary goal of educating and informing all people. We must be able to speak our minds, and to tell what we think and what we know to anyone who will listen. That should include online speech, and it should include teachers. It is a sad thing when Americans question whether or not teachers, public employees entrusted with the edification of future citizens of our democracy, have the same rights as everyone else — including, of course, those future citizens themselves. And worse than sad, it is absolutely frightening in its implications. How much are we willing to lose in order to protect our children from — what, exactly? From being insulted in a place and a way that they would most likely never have seen, had this kerfuffle never happened? From hearing what someone actually thinks about them, which might even lead to a certain amount of shame — and then to self-improvement? From the tit for their tat? Who do we think we are helping?

What are we helping them to become?

I can’t believe that kid misspelled “assignments.” That one’s going on the next vocab list.

30-Day Slump

(Alternate Title:

)

Today – Presidents’ Day – is the 30th day that President Lump has been in office. It’s the end of our free trial, our money back warranty period; now we can’t return the product any more.

So. How’s it going? Let’s check in.

I think that President Sump got elected on the back of an unlikely coalition of monied interests and angry Americans. His lack of a background in politics, which would have told us where his interests lay and where his votes have been cast, and the fact that he is a reality television star in every sense of the word (By which I mean: he purports to represent himself completely honestly, but we all know he’s edited and scripted and molded, folded, spindled, and mutilated, until he’s actually the furthest thing from reality.), have allowed various groups to color him in according to their own imagined scheme. Anti-Islamists dreamed he would eliminate radical Islam (or even better, ALL Islam); Republicans hoped he would put a stop to the Liberals taking over the country; wealthy people believed he would help make them even wealthier. They all hoped he would be a good choice, and enough (just barely enough) of them voted for him that now we get to find out what happens when people stop being polite – and start getting real.

I see Mr. Rump, then, as an experiment. It’s an experiment I wouldn’t have chosen personally, but it is one I am participating in; and I, too, had my hopes about what he would and would not be like as a President. I’m sure we’ve all seen the memes about giving him a chance, and hoping that he fails is like hoping that your pilot crashes the plane; that’s all well and good, as far as it goes. The question is: how far does it go?

That’s the point of this blog. We’ve gone 30 days. Has it been enough to see what has happened to our hopes and dreams? What do you say we give him a progress report?

The Republican establishment: The Republicans in Congress, who opposed him, waffled about him, and then supported him, had a very specific plan in mind, I think, when they decided to back Clump. And they did back him, whatever people think about Stump’s intention or capacity to oppose Washington institutions and “drain the swamp.” The standard Republican strategy is to use social wedge issues to get elected, and then completely ignore those same social issues in favor of cutting taxes and regulations as part of sweetheart deals with various industries who lobby them, and then hire them as lobbyists. (Thomas Frank’s excellent book What’s the Matter with Kansas? explains this lucidly and completely) So since they have gerrymandered a lock on the majority in Congress, what did they need Plump for? Easy: he’s a distraction. He’s the dancing clown we’re all staring at while McConnell and Ryan et al tear apart the regulatory state and the tax base.

How’s it working for them? Well, they’re tearing apart the regulatory state and the tax base, and Crump’s getting the majority of the heat. They are not forgotten, though; the curtain hiding the man in the corner of The Great and Powerful Oz’s chamber is not really covering them very well. They need Grump to allow a few more pipelines, nominate a few more paper men to head important bureaucracies. Hold a few more manic press conferences. Overall, though, they’re probably pretty satisfied. Let’s see what they do to Obamacare.

Republican voters: The vast majority of people who would identify themselves as Republicans are probably not happy with who he has become. They wanted him to champion their specific causes, and he’s not been doing much of that; he’s been championing mostly himself. But this is not news: generally speaking, candidates quickly become a disappointment to the voters who got them in there. I voted for Obama in 2008 because I wanted him to end the war, close Guantanamo, regulate Wall Street, and create an effective single-payer health care system. So I guess one out of four ain’t — fuuuuuck.

Same thing here. Two minor differences: Mr. Chump has disappointed people more quickly, I think, than most presidents do; witness the rally he felt a need to hold in Florida this past weekend, trying to stir up some excitement. 30 days and people are already drawing away, hissing in breath between their teeth. And two: most of the time, candidates who become Presidents disappoint because they moderate their stances: once they’re in and they no longer need to fire people up, they start looking to compromise with the establishment. Gump (Sorry, Forrest) hasn’t moderated at all: he’s just shown that his more extreme stances will meet resistance. I don’t know if that shows his voters that he can’t get things done, or if it shows them that the rest of the government isn’t on board the Gump-Train.

The Democratic establishment: Could not be more miserable. Lost the entire government to a Three Stooges skit. Also couldn’t be much weaker about it. I mean, Jesus: they’re already talking about approving Gorsuch for the Supreme Court? When it should have been Merrick Garland almost a year ago now, and we all know it? What kills me is they don’t want to use the filibuster against a Supreme Court nominee for fear the Republicans will change the rules and take it away. Right, because Lord knows you don’t want to lose a weapon YOU WON’T EVEN USE. That would really suck.

Hey guys: the GOP got credibility by opposing everything the Democrats did under Obama with an almost religious fervor. What you need now is an equal credibility. Peace and negotiations come later, once you discover some strength. Suck it up and do your job, okay? And don’t tell me how much it sucks: mine sucks too, and I make less than a fifth of what you make, NOT counting bribes from lobbyists.

Democratic voters: In some ways, ecstatic. I mean, heartbroken after the actual election; but then they got determined, and they have stayed that way. Since the Democrats have largely been sitting on their laurels since the Clinton who won, it’s good that they are willing to get to work. I think it’s been good for them to do it, too, to actually take to the streets, to recognize what it is to build coalitions rather than simply imposing an orthodox viewpoint and ostracizing those who don’t conform. Let’s be clear: it’s not enough to be right, you also have to get enough people to agree with you. Listen to Hamilton sometime.

Moderates: Hoo boy: you thought Republican voters were upset. Always, ALWAYS, the candidate moderates when they get into office. Compromise is the only way things ever get done in a government built on checks and balances.

But nobody told Dump that.

If anything, he’s gotten more extreme as his attempts to follow through on his campaign promises have been stymied by the courts or the Congress or the public or the media or — is there anyone still on his side? I mean, I guess the First Lady. And Bannon. So I figure moderates who voted for Slump hoping that he would be a good middle-right statesman once he got into office? Not real happy with how it’s gone.

Libertarians: Well, I mean, libertarians hate everything anyway.

People who thought he had to be better than Clinton: HAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAhaaaaaa.

Start with the accusation that Clinton is a liar. Now: alternative facts. Then go to her ties to Wall Street and to billionaire donors with shady politics. Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, (fortunately withdrawn) Labor Secretary Andrew Puzder, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Then how about that email thing? Right: I give you reading classified documents on an open air terrace at a golf resort, not to mention the Twitter Feed Heard ‘Round the World. And her apparent lack of personal charm and class?

Come on: that was shot before the election.

Frankly, I hope you people are unhappy.

People who were so angry over Bernie Sanders’s treatment that they wrote in his name or didn’t vote at all: Well, principles are important. But maybe a little less so now, hmmmm? “Voting for the lesser evil is still voting for evil.” Right: so is voting in such a way that you enable evil to win. I’m not saying that voting for Clinton wouldn’t have been evil: I mean, I don’t think it would have been, but I’m not in this group; those who are in this group may not have been able to stomach a vote for Clinton, and I get that. But when you literally throw away your vote — I don’t mean the people who voted for Stein or Johnson or another legitimate third party — you are making it more likely that either evil is going to win. Which means you’re voting for evil. And you got it.

Does it feel better to help evil when you have your back turned to it while you help?

Probably not.

Big business: 

Billionaires’ — Hold on a second — go back and watch that last one again. That video is priceless.

Right, where was I?

Billionaires’ Boy’s Club:

(By the way: did you know the last verse of that song is from the point of view of the President? Hm. Interesting.)

Speaking of presidents…

Vice President Mike Pence: Every time somebody mentions impeachment, I think his heart skips a beat. He signed onto this dog and pony show as the rational one, and that will stand him in good stead if the Mump ahead of him finally gets yanked out by the big hook. So considering how the first 30 days have gone, I assume he’s quite happy, indeed.

The Military: I assume they like how he keeps talking about increasing the military budget and buying newer, better equipment. If my job put me in harm’s way, and I could do it better with newer equipment, I’d want the same thing. Hell, if we didn’t have an unConstitutional standing army that has made us into the most war-like, invasive, intercessionist nation in history, I’d want the men and women of our military to have more money and better equipment. (Someday we will have the greatest National Guard in the world, and will offer hefty support to our allies and the UN — and nothing. Else. Think how far our military budget could go if we weren’t supporting hundreds of redundant bases around the world. But anyway.) They probably approve of his naming so many generals to his staff and cabinet. But they can’t be happy that he seems to be systematically alienating our allies and cutting off all lines of communication. I don’t believe our military wants to fight World War III, let alone start it.

The Alt-Right: I mean, Bannon, right? On the National Security Council, like Pennywise working in a daycare? And an attempted ban on Islamic immigrants? And a big ass wall?  Here y’go, fellers.

Fundamentalist Christians: So he’s not very Christian. But he’s opposing the Muslims, and he’s supporting the Israeli one-state solution. Along with all of the warmongering and hedonism, he certainly seems to be bringing about Judgment Day all the quicker.

And that’s . . . good, right? Right?

America’s Actual Enemies: If they’re crazy, then I assume they are planning to rise to the challenge, and see if they can out-loon President Grump. If they’re not crazy, surely they see how easy he will be to manipulate. Hell, any troll on Twitter can rile the guy up in 140 characters. This is, of course, lovely news for those who actually understand the importance of image politics and the cult of personality. I don’t really think that I do —  but I have no doubt that our enemies do, and they are probably doing this:

Everybody else in the world: All I can say is, I’m sorry. I don’t know if you had any hopes left in you after the election went how it did, but if you did, well — I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what my country has become.

Let me be clear: I actually still have hope. I am still hopeful that Mr. Trump (Yes, fine, sure I can use his actual name. President Donald J. Trump, okay? Bah, humbug.) will do no lasting harm to this country, and that he will satisfy a large number of people who have felt left behind by the progressive swing of the pendulum over the last few decades. That would be a good thing. In some ways, I think that’s all that can be hoped for with any president. I don’t know how much President Obama really accomplished –really — other than this: he did no harm. He didn’t hurt our international reputation, he didn’t break our government or our economy. The debt he created was already coming because of previous administrations and our Congress’s willingness to create new spending without finding ways to pay for it, and because of the financial crisis initiated by Wall Street. The wars he failed to stop, and the one he exacerbated by dealing weapons and flinging drones around like Rip Taylor chucking confetti, are all part of a quagmire that we were already in up to our tits. Jesus: do you realize that we propped up the Iranian government under the Shah, who came to power after the Allies invaded in 194-fucking-1? It goes that far back. So in the grand scheme, Obama did no harm. The problems of this country, the real ones, were not his fault, and I don’t think he made them worse, overall.

I hope I will be able to say the same for Trump. And if he makes people feel like they have a voice, like their vote counts, then that is all to the good.

And if he shows us all that what we really need to do is find a way to listen to each other so we can never, ever, EVER elect another jackass like this one — then I think his legacy will be complete.

I hope.

But that’s only good for my country, and our internal democracy. For the rest of the world? This must really be like looking down the barrel of a gun. And not because of Trump himself: but because 63 million Americans voted for him.

That’s the scary part.

Book Review: How to Ruin Everything

How to Ruin Everything

by George Watsky

 

Well, I hate to say this, because I liked this book, but it’s a lie. Watsky completely deceived me.

This didn’t show me how to ruin everything.

It did show me that George Watsky is a remarkable essayist. He is a humorist in pieces like Tusk, about smuggling a narwhal’s tusk into the U.S. from Canada (I don’t know why we’re building a wall along the Mexican border when there are over 5,000 miles of Canadian border that someone can just walk right through carrying a narwhal tusk! Sad!), and the excellent Good Hook, in which he compares a fly-fishing trip to watching a middle-aged man try to join the Mile-High club with a pneumatically pulchritudinous seatmate who is not his wife. Watsky is profoundly personal, almost uncomfortably so, when he writes about his experiences with a seizure disorder in What Year Is It? and about his father’s connection to the San Francisco Giants in Crying & Baseball. And then, in essays like Three Stories, about the run-down house where he lived with oft-appalling roommates during college, and with Concert Tickets, about tripping on mushrooms, Watsky is me.

Except he’s a better writer.

Honestly, I don’t know how to feel about this book. It’s not perfect: there were some essays I really didn’t see the point of; which may have been the point, of course, but that still left me shrugging my shoulders and souring my mouth, thinking, “Well, what now?” When the same book has these great insights and fascinating stories, why exactly am I reading about Pauly Shore? But then, Watsky is not me: my ideas of what an essay should look like or be about are not his. But the writing is so very good, and the essays that did work for me worked so astonishingly well, that the ones that didn’t work for me generally had me questioning, not what was wrong with the essay or the author, but what was wrong with me. But I’m almost certainly overthinking it.

I guess that’s how to ruin everything.

It’s a fun book, with some ice-water revelations and eye-melting poignant moments, and really splendid writing, detailed and smooth and casually lyrical. I’m going to add Watsky to my list of essayists whose work I will always check for when I hit the bookstores. Since my list includes two men who are no longer in this world (David Rakoff and David Foster Wallace), I’m happy to get a new guy into the rotation.

Batter up!

Tread All The F$%^ Over This

(To Secretary DeVos, Part II. Part I Here.)

It starts with the tests. It always starts with the tests. But really, it isn’t just the tests: it is the very concept of “accountability.” Accountability says that we need to have paperwork — data — that shows that our schools are accomplishing what they are supposed to accomplish, and that the teachers are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and not something else. Accountability is founded on the idea that we don’t trust teachers. We think — because sometimes it’s true — that teachers are in it only for the paycheck, that they don’t care at all about the students who pass anonymously through their room.

We all have that story, right? Of the teacher that taught exclusively through movies and worksheets? I’ve known several (Though honestly, I never had one when I was in public school.) at the various schools where I’ve taught: there was the health teacher whose entire curriculum was canned, who showed his students videos four days a week and then tested them on the videos on the fifth. There was the math teacher who, every single week, Xeroxed the next chapter out of his textbook and handed it to his students while he sat at his desk and read the newspaper. Yeah, I’ve known those teachers. And I think those teachers should be gently pushed out of the profession. Or maybe not that gently: because the harm they have caused to my profession is entirely out of proportion to their actual sins.

They brought the idea of accountability to the fore. From lazy bastards like that, we got the idea that there are many teachers who don’t work very hard. And in order to satisfy those who insisted that this was a serious threat to our children’s futures, lots and lots of people agreed to ensure — ACCOUNTABILITY.

And so we get testing. And it’s funny, because everybody hates testing — students hate it, parents hate it, teachers fucking loathe it: but everyone likes, or at least accepts, the idea of accountability which drives that need for testing.

I had a meeting last week. An all day meeting, with all of the English teachers in my — my company, I guess it is; it’s a group of charter schools here in Arizona, some in Tucson and some in Phoenix. It’s a private corporation that runs these schools, though they are public schools, so yeah: my company. (Which means, of course, that I and my fellows are precisely what DeVos wants teachers and schools to look like; except that we collect our money from the state, instead of from tuition or tax vouchers. Down, Voucher, down! Gooood Charter.) And in this meeting, the biggest complaint was about our current testing system. We bitched about it for hours. Literally. Killed the whole meeting agenda. Hey — English teachers, we got a lot to say. Especially about standardized testing. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a stupid testing system, no question. And the consensus was that we should get rid of the clunky thing.

But.

All of them wanted to replace it. With a different system, that would work better. One that would allow more essay tests, for instance, and that would follow our curriculum more closely. (Even though the curriculum is shitty. Know what the selling point for this curriculum was? It was made by other teachers. So it must be good. But it’s not. It’s shitty. But it’s ours, and we plan to follow it. And find a testing system that will align more closely to it. More on why the curriculum is shitty below.)

I don’t know if I was the only one who thought this, or if everybody else was just saying what they were supposed to say, but: I kept thinking — why do we even have a testing system at all? Why do we need to assess student learning? I mean, in theory we’re supposed to do it so as to make teaching more efficient: we learn what students know, and then we know what students need to learn, and then we teach that. That and, of course, accountability: because while the teachers are figuring out what the students know, the administrators and the politicians are using what the students know to determine how well the teachers are teaching.

Except that never works. Tests don’t show everything a student knows. The various members of any given class never know the same things, never need to learn the same things. In theory I’m supposed to differentiate instruction so that each student learns only and precisely what he or she needs, but of course that’s a joke: that flies in the face of public schooling, which is built around the idea of efficiency through mass instruction: I teach 100 students so that we don’t need 100 teachers. But that only works if I can teach 100 students basically the same thing. And I can’t even do that, because not all of the students care, or are interested, or see the value in it; not all of them like me and want to work with me; not all of them are present regularly, and not all of them are sober when they are present, or when they take the tests. And it’s even more skewed because they are sick, to death, of testing. I give them a test to find out what they know, and what I find out is: they know they hate tests. They stop trying about halfway through, and start guessing — if they didn’t start guessing from the outset. And there is nothing I can say that will change that. Somewhere, many years ago, a student guessed on a test and got an A, and every student who doesn’t care has been trying to replicate that feat. And not caring when it doesn’t work, because at least they didn’t put in much time or effort. And if they get a failing grade because of the test (Which is actually a bad idea, the administrator in my meeting told us: because the tests are designed to assess growth, and growth can’t be given a letter grade because letter grades show achievement, not growth [Example: I know everything my 10th graders need to know. If I take the test at the beginning of the year, I will score 100% achievement. When I take another test at the end of the year, I will show 0% growth — because I’ll score another 100%, because I already knew everything. So what’s my grade, the 0% the test says? Or an A+ based on my knowledge of the concepts?]. Which is funny, kinda, because my school administrators told me to make the test score a grade in the class, in an effort to get students to take the test more seriously. Didn’t work. Because:), they don’t really care because they’ll make up for the grade somewhere else, or else they’ll just live with a C as their final grade in English this year. Who cares? Not them.

So then you want accountability, right (Well, not you, but somebody sure does)? So how well am I teaching? Let’s say — because this actually happens a whole hell of a lot — students like my class, and they learn a lot from me; but they’re not too concerned with grades, and they hate standardized tests. So they intentionally blow it off as something of a protest, and shrug when I give them a bad grade — and then go right back to really learning, really thinking, really getting everything I’m trying to help them achieve. What’s my accountability score? Am I a rocking teacher for getting kids who don’t really care about school to pay attention and learn? Or am I a shit teacher for not getting good test scores out of them?

My answer is different from my school’s answer.

So there’s the thing, the main thing, that I am willing to see destroyed by Secretary DeVos if she manages to pull down the public education edifices in this country. If she wipes out standardized testing and the need for multiple layers of accountability, I will be ecstatic. I would like my school to know what I teach, how well I teach it, because they come and watch me teach. Frequently. Because they read my students’ papers, and see the comments I put on them. Because they talk to my students about what they learn, and their parents about what their kids have talked about this school year. On all of those measures, I’m a goddamn rock star. I would love it if DeVos pulls down the enormous wall of tests and lets people see what I can actually do. I would much, much rather be transparent, than accountable.

There’s more, too. The desire to make sure every school teaches the same thing, to ensure that every kid has the same access to the same learning, that everything bloody “aligns,” is a liberal obsession. It leads us to the Common Core, and standards-based education. Which is a goddamn joke, almost on the same scale as testing. Because here’s the thing (And it’s also a large part of the issue with standardized tests): who decides what the students need to learn? That’s the critical question about standards, and it never, never gets asked. But it has to be asked, because the ends determine the means: if I have to teach critical thinking, it’s going to mean a different class than if I have to teach grammar, which will be a different class from the one I teach to create cultural literacy.

So who decides? If it’s teachers, then you can expect to never actually get a working document: because every single person who teaches — who really teaches — a subject is going to have different ideas about the best way to do it, and the precise goals one should be aiming at when teaching that subject. Me, for instance: every English student needs to read Fahrenheit 451, and understand tone and symbolism in poetry. They have to do independent reading, and they need to write personal essays. They don’t ever need to study grammar or read any Victorian literature. There, see? I just caused every English teacher reading this to roll their eyes, and/or drop their jaws in shock. And when they come back and say every student simply MUST read Dostoevsky and the Brontes and diagram sentences, I’m going to puke black bile and India ink, just for them. No, that’s too gross. I’m just going to say No. Not in my class. Not ever.

So who decides? Easy: businesspeople decide. The ones with the money. They hire think tanks, who hire ex-teachers, who say whatever the businesspeople want to hear about what schools can do and what they should do. Because they are ex-teachers. What they hell do they care about what bullshit teachers have to put up with? They got out of the game already! Then those businesspeople bring their information to politicians and say, “This is what the business community thinks their next generation of workers should know. Don’t worry — we asked teachers, and they said all this was solid gold!” And the politicians, hungry for campaign contributions (“Did someone say gold?!?”) and eager to say they helped kids be ready for gainful employment, mandate that all schools in the district/state/country have to teach this vital information. And then maybe — maybe — some teachers sit down and talk about how they could teach that stuff. And they promptly disagree about everything, at which point the school district/state/federal government hires consultants: the ex-teachers who work for the think tanks. And they come and tell us, “It should be done this way.” And the teachers either think, because they’re like me, “All right, bro, but I’m still going to teach Fahrenheit 451 and tone and symbolism in poetry.” Or if they’re like most teachers, who were A+ students and still want to get gold stars, they think, “Okay, well I’ll try that and see if it works. I want to do what’s best for my students.” And there are the consultants, patting them on the shoulder and saying, “Trust me: this is what’s best for students.”

The first part of this process, up through the politicians, creates the Common Core. The second part, with the teachers, creates Engage NY. And the politicians love Engage NY and the Common Core because they make the businesspeople happy, and they mandate that all schools have to teach using that curriculum (or something just like it with a different name), and teach those standards (Or the same standards with a different name — like, say, the Arizona College and Career Readiness Standards, or AZCCRS.). Then they buy a testing system that aligns with those standards and that curriculum (And any liberals involved say, “Well, good, at least every student is getting exactly the same education and the same set of standards! That’s fair!”), and mandate that schools must achieve high scores or the state will impose sanctions. And then the Galileo company comes along and says “Use our test for practice, because then your students will get higher test scores on that state test!” And the administrators, who also have no idea of nor interest in what gets taught and how, buy the Galileo testing system because it’s cheap, and then they tell teachers that they have to do whatever it takes to raise student test scores on Galileo, because, they imagine, that will get students to do better on state tests (Because it aligns! IT ALL ALIGNS!), which will please the politicians, because it pleases the businesspeople. And so teachers — give up. And teach to the test. Because we can’t change the damn system, and we can’t escape it, and we might as well earn a decent paycheck, for once.

But we don’t, because the businesspeople also got the politicians to cut their taxes and cut spending, which means there’s less money for schools; and then they break teachers’ unions, and there’s nobody asking for more money for teachers, or trying to shift the focus off of testing and the Common Core.

All of that, Secretary DeVos. Kill the Common Core and all standards-based curricula, and let me decide, based on what I know and what my students want to know and need to know, what I should teach. Wipe out standardized testing, because if I want to know what my students know, I will assess their knowledge and ability in some way that makes sense: I will assign an essay, and I will read it. And you all can read them, too, if you want; (But only if Mrs. DeVos kills FERPA, the law that prevents teachers from allowing students names and grades to be public information, and which therefore keeps us from publishing student samples — even though one of the very best ways to learn is to read what other people just like you have written.. Please kill FERPA, Mrs. DeVos.) or you can ask me how they’re doing, and I’ll tell you. Because I will know. That’s actually my job, you know. And while you’re at it, lay off 2/3 of the administrators, from assistant principals to superintendents: at least 2/3 of all of the administrators that I have ever known have been even more incompetent and unqualified to run a school than — well, than you, Secretary DeVos. And that’s saying something. The other 1/3 have been outstanding: I would be happy with just those outstanding people running the school. And if you got rid of common curriculum, standards-based learning, standardized testing, and FERPA, then 2/3 of the school’s paperwork would disappear, and we wouldn’t need nearly as much middle management to handle it. Oh — and wipe out 504 plans and IEPs, would you? I have never yet had one of those things actually change the way I teach. Because if a student of mine has a learning disability or a challenge of some kind and they need extra time or extra help or a different standard of achievement, you know what I say? I don’t say, “Where’s your documentation, buster?”

I say “How can I help?”

Because I’m a teacher. Because I’m a good teacher.

So keep me, Mrs. DeVos. And if my colleagues are not good teachers, you can find out by talking to their students and parents, and watching them teach and talking to them about what they’re teaching; and then, by all means, fire them. Go out and find better teachers. Shit, if I’m wrong and I’m actually a terrible teacher, who’s been able to hide in the chaos and paper-smothered madness of modern education, then fire me, too. Find new people with new ideas and interesting subject matter. Let them make up classes — why does it always have to be math and science, history and English? Why can’t there be a class on video games? If it teaches critical thinking, analysis, problem solving, and good communication, who cares if it’s never been done before? Who cares if there isn’t a test for it? Let’s see if it works!

It certainly can’t be worse than the system we have now. Which, as long as you do it carefully and thoughtfully, feel free to break into smithereens. I’ll help.

Don’t Tread On This

I don’t want Betsy DeVos to screw up my job.

I sympathize with her, in some ways. In several ways, actually: we both have names that are easy to make fun of. But, Betsy — are we not men? (I know, it’s a stupid joke. It is. Talk to me on Hump Day, Bets.) And we both got picked to do a job for which we were (are) grossly unqualified, me as a first-year English teacher, her as the most important figure in American education. But the main difference is that my time as a first-year teacher couldn’t have screwed up Mrs. DeVos’s chosen career as a billionaire lobbyist and political donor; but her time as the Secretary of Education could certainly screw up my chosen career. In a number of ways.

The thing is, though? It’s already pretty screwed up. My job, that is. In fact, there are several aspects of teaching that I wouldn’t mind at all if Secretary DeVos bit off, chewed up, and spit to her conservative Hellhounds, Voucher and Charter. I have such mixed feelings about education, in fact, that I’ve been trying for five days now to write this blog, but I keep getting tangled up and losing track of the path to Senseville. So the solution I’ve come up with is to split my thoughts into two sections, and write two blogs instead of one: one about the aspects of education that I hope survive this administration; and one about the aspects that I would like to see get thrown to the wolves.

We’ll start with the positives first, shall we? Because really, I think this is the greater issue. I think we would be in worse trouble if this stuff were lost than we would be if the bad stuff remained. Though neither scenario is ideal, and I fear that both may be coming to a head, to a tipping point where we may all lose something precious — perhaps by clinging to something worthless. We’ll see.

All right. The first thing that I think when I consider the state of education today is, this is my life. I was educated by public schools, as were most people I know; and not to toot all of our horns or anything, but I know a lot of smart people. There are a huge number — millions — of really freaking smart people in this country that went through American public schools. It’s hard for me to see public education as doomed and failing when I know scientists, artists, lawyers — and of course, teachers, lots and lots of teachers — who all learned most of what they know from public schools, many of us all the way through college and even graduate school at public colleges and universities. I know that it’s impossible to say how much intelligence or ability comes from schooling and how much from natural ability and inclination, and how much from home environment and social milieu; but still, education can’t be all bad when it helped make all of us. And I’ll bet anyone reading this could honestly say the same thing: you know a lot of damn smart people who went to public schools.

For me personally, I have been a part of the education system from the top side for almost two decades. I have taught enough people to populate a small town. For all the things we get wrong (See next blog, hopefully tomorrow), I do a lot of things right, as do my colleagues. The main thing that I get right is that I understand what my job really is, at the heart of it: I create an opportunity for learning to happen — and it does happen, most of the time, for most of my students. And then sometimes I am able to help create unique moments: moments of clarity, moments of revelation, moments of doubt, moments of change; and it is in those moments that people become something other than what they were before. That is what we are talking about when we use the cliche “making a difference.” In the strictest sense, I make a difference for everyone I teach, because if they hadn’t been taught by me, they would have been taught by someone else, which would have had a different result; but that’s not what making a difference is about. Making a difference is about changing a person in a definable, tangible, unique way. I have done that. I’ve done it with some students through personal relationships, as a friend or a mentor or even an inspiration; I’ve done it with specific classes I’ve taught that have been particularly useful for some; I’ve done it with books I’ve helped students to understand and with concepts I have made clear and meaningful; sometimes I’ve done it with a single statement, a single idea that I put into someone’s head. I don’t know that I’ve done it a lot, because I don’t know every time that I’ve done it, and I don’t know what “a lot” would be; but I know I’ve done it. I know that it’s good.

But even without this hippy-dippy touchy-feely stuff (He said in commiseration with the at least theoretical conservative reader who hates phrases like “make a difference” and thinks teachers are all liberal brainwashers who indoctrinate innocent American children into the wonders of multicultural homolovin’ Communism — aaaaaand now those conservative readers have left the building.), there is something purely valuable in public education, something I suppose I do my part for, but which mostly happens before students get to me: the basic foundations of an educated and thinking populace. Public education ensures that our society includes mostly people with a basic grasp of literacy and numeracy; people who understand how to read a newspaper and calculate their tax burden, even if they don’t always sit down and do either of those things. They can, and so when the opportunity and motivation arises, they do, and that is critical. Because as a society, we can work to get people interested and involved; and there are times in life when events conspire to get people interested and involved — such as the last election and the circus that has followed after it — but if the people can’t take in and grasp the information, then it makes no difference how much we work to get them interested or involved: they can’t be. If you can’t read a newspaper, then you can’t take part in a modern society. (If you don’t read newspapers or other genuine news sources, then you are choosing not to take part in society, but that’s a different issue, and not one that our education system is solving. In fact, it’s probably one that education today is exacerbating. Tune in next time, when despair takes over from hope!) And if you can’t take part in society, then all the democratic ideals in the world don’t keep you from being a slave. Public education does that extremely well. There are still gaps, still people who go through schools in this country and never master the basics and so line up for a life of toil and drudgery; but we do a far, far better job of ensuring that minimum ability in our populace than most societies have, and better than any society did farther back than a few centuries or so.

(Oh yeah: me personally, I teach critical thinking more than literacy or numeracy. I do a pretty damned good job at it, too. But that, unlike literacy and numeracy, doesn’t have to come from schools. The social environment does a better job of teaching critical thinking than it does of teaching literacy.)

I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want Secretary DeVos to close public schools in such ways that thousands, or tens of thousands, or even millions of kids are left without a fundamental education. I don’t want to create a new serf class, and trap them in the dark ages of the mind. Because ignorance sets, like concrete, and then it becomes impossible to dig out; you have to chip that shit away, bit by bit, blow by blow. And even then, you still get dumbfucks who think the goddamn Earth is flat. Jesus wept. If we defund public schools, or take away any educational standards so that a small religious community might decide that their children only need to learn to read the Bible and obey the word of their ministers and the Town Elders, then we may have children who become trapped in bubbles of ignorance — bubbles made of concrete. I don’t want that.

I don’t want to lose inspiration, either. I recognize that homeschooling done right can be incredibly effective — the two smartest students I have had in seventeen years of teaching (And really, I’ve had a lot of smart students, but when it comes to the absolute top, there is no. Freaking. Contest. It’s these two guys.) were two brothers who were homeschooled entirely through what would have been eighth grade, and then entered public schools as high school freshmen. But homeschooling, because it comes in a very familiar environment, is less likely, in my opinion, to be inspiring. Our parents can stand as role models for us, but it is much easier for them to be the people we rebel against than it is for them to be an inspiration; and when they are an inspiration, it often inspires us to imitate, not to create ourselves as something new. I think outside influences are better at that. What I mean is, my father is an inspiration to me as a hard-working and deep-thinking man; my mother is an inspiration as the kindest person I have ever known. But neither could ever inspire me to be a writer, because they aren’t writers. They don’t see literature the same way I see it: my mother sees spirituality that way; my father sees that inspiration in physics. And maybe I could have been like that, too — but like most kids, I intentionally went away from what they were, and so I am an atheist who reads literature instead of physics textbooks. My inspirations were teachers, and the authors they introduced me to.

I don’t mean to overstate this, or to denigrate the idea that parents are inspiring. But I think it is important for young people to see inspiration in people other than their family, in people who are tangibly different. School is not the only place that can happen — but it’s a good place. Because school is full of people who are, first, qualified, and often possessed of profound expertise, in their subject; and second, generally decent people. Teachers are good potential inspiration. I think it’s important that we be available for that, even if everything taught in schools could be learned from YouTube.

So I don’t want Secretary DeVos to make the job so difficult, so onerous, or so belittled and undercut, that every good person leaves the profession. We’re already working to drive them out, with our political factionalism taking on schools and teachers as handy scapegoats, or turning schools into the indoctrination centers that they should never be; and DeVos could make it worse, and may want to make it worse: anyone who opposes public education opposes teachers’ unions, which essentially means they oppose teachers. No, really: I understand the arguments against unions, and they’re stupid, but that’s not the point: the point is that teachers’ unions, even if they are too powerful, even if they are too greedy (And they’re not — that’s the stupid part), work only to protect and support teachers. The desire to break teachers’ unions is a desire to break teachers, often for financial reasons, and often for political ones. I think DeVos, with her support for Voucher and Charter (“Down, Voucher! Sic ’em, Charter! Attaboy!”), has both reasons for wanting to break teachers’ unions, and therefore teachers; if she succeeds on a national scale, she will essentially break us. I’ll tell you right now, I work in a charter school in a “Right-to-work” state, and while there are a lot of good teachers at my school, few of them are the new teachers who came up without unions. (Some of them are, which is awesome.) Most of us learned our skills in an environment where a union protected and sheltered us, and that made us better teachers. I’ve worked both with union membership and without, and teaching is unquestionably better with.

I hope DeVos doesn’t kill it. I hope nobody does. I worry that the wall, and the Executive Orders, and the Russian connections, are all distractions from the real harm that could be done to public institutions like the schools and the health care system, the free press and the right to vote. For that reason, I hope that Secretary DeVos, and President Trump, are exactly as inept as they seem to be. Because when it comes to education, this teacher wants them to fail.