This Morning

This morning I am thinking about my wife.

Today is her birthday.

I have presents for her, and I have a card, and I have my excited “Happy Birthday!” all ready to go. I’m going to take her out to dinner tonight, and I’m going to buy her something delicious for dessert, and I’m not going to tell the waitstaff that it’s her birthday because she hates when the waiters sing the song to her. Even if she gets a free dessert.

But I can’t possibly say all the things I want to say about her. I don’t have the time, and I don’t have the words: even me, even with all the words that I’ve written over the years, I still don’t have enough words to say how perfect she is. I want to use all the cliches, because (as good cliches do) they all fit: she is my everything. She is my queen, my angel, and my goddess. She is my better half, and my partner in crime. She completes me. She carries my heart.

None of that is enough.

But that doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter what I call her, what goes in the blank of “She is my ____________.”

That matters is the three words before the blank.

She is mine. And I am hers, but today I am thinking about the fact that she is mine.

There is nothing and nobody that I am happier to say that about, on this entire Earth, in this whole universe, in all of time forwards and backwards from this moment, this day that is her day. She is mine.

Happy birthday, my love.

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This Morning

This morning, I want to be half as fascinated by anything as my dogs are by the smell of old shit.

And this morning, I’m wondering: why can’t I be?

When we go on walks (For those who don’t know, I have two dogs, Roxie and Samwise. Here’s a video of them going out in the snow.) my dogs will often stop to investigate interesting sniffs. Roxie prefers checking out holes, looking for small critters who will be her friends; Samwise is looking for markings from other dogs so he can understand them better and have meaningful dialogue. So it’s mostly  Sam who stands over old feces and sniffs it carefully, meticulously; I suspect he either has a very sensitive nose (even for a dog), which allows him to discover more interesting bits of smell than Roxie can, or a very sensitive mind, one that allows him to think more interesting thoughts about the smells he detects, and so he must take longer to think those thoughts through.

Now I don’t have an acute sense of smell; I don’t have any particularly acute senses, actually. I used to have remarkable hearing, but I’m 44 now, and it’s fading a bit. But I do have a very sensitive mind, and it allows me to think more interesting thoughts. Certainly more interesting than Roxie. (That’s okay, she is sweeter and more exuberant and funnier than I’ll ever be.) So while I don’t care much for the smell of old dog crap — or even new dog crap — or any crap, really — the things I do care for, I can take time with, time to think through my more interesting thoughts. I just have to let myself have them: have to pay attention to what is in front of me, and let my mind take it where it will, think whatever I can think.

I wonder where my mind will take me.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about pride. Where pride comes from, what makes it valuable and what makes it problematic. My central thought is this:

The price of pride is pain.

Christianity says that pride is a sin; I don’t agree, though I certainly recognize that pride can lead to sin —  arrogant dismissal of others’ value, nationalism, racial divides and conflicts, a hundred other ways that pride “goeth before a fall,” as they say. I also see where pride is strength: pride in my accomplishments, as a writer, as a teacher, as a human being, is often what keeps me going in the face of continued struggle and defeat. Pride lifts up the downtrodden and helps  them to fight back against oppression, often in the face of overwhelming odds. There is value in pride. It also may be that pride is essentially inevitable, that in a culture that constantly appraises the value of everything as good or bad, better or worse than everything else, there is no way a rational person could not see which of their traits are on the approved list, and feel a bump, or a jump, in their worth.

But like everything else that has value, pride has a cost. I think that pride has to be earned. I say it is pain, but I include painstaking effort in that; anyone who has fought hard for a skill or an ability or to overcome a prodigious obstacle knows that pain is not only limited to sharp injuries. There’s a great scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout and Jem are trying to find anything in their father Atticus Finch to be proud of, and then they find that he is a crack shot with a rifle; when they ask their neighbor Miss Maudie why Atticus never bragged or showed off his ability, she says that Atticus knows better than to take pride in something that is a gift from God. His ability, the steady eye and steady hand that lets him hit everything he aims at, was not earned: it was inborn. (There’s an argument to be made that practice and training made him better, but this is both a simplification and a speculation on Maudie’s part. The point remains.) I am an American, but I did not work for that: it was an accident of my birth. I take no pride in accidents. I do take pride in the actions I have taken, the burdens I have carried, for the sake of my society, and which have made that society better; I vote, I pay taxes, I participate in the cultural and political conversations, and probably most importantly, I teach. I think that those who serve, both in civil society and in the military and public safety, have earned and deserve their pride in themselves and the country they helped to build and maintain. They (we, if I may be bold) have paid for it in effort and sacrifice, and often (they, not me) in suffering and loss.

I want to say that those who do not earn their pride before they hold it, flaunt it, and press eagerly forward to show it, chins out and hands balled into fists, will pay for their pride in suffering afterwards: that the fall will come, that they will be humbled and humiliated. But of course that doesn’t always happen. The universe is not just. There is an easy way that people with unearned pride can avoid the pain themselves, and that is simply to move the suffering off of themselves and onto others, and thus you have the Ku Klux Klan, and domestic abuse, and bullies. And Donald Trump.

But for those who are not that, who are not victimizers and warmongers, the point I want to make is that pride must be earned.

And the price of pride is pain.

This Morning

This morning, honestly, I’m thinking about how much I have to teach my students still, and how little time I have to do it. I’m thinking about whether or not literature can be parceled  into discrete packets called “reading assignments,” and whether there is any point to assigning reading homework to people who don’t read. I’m thinking about whether it’s better to comment extensively on essay drafts, or to hand them right back and just say, “Make it better.” Independence or guidance?

On the one hand I have the pedagogical establishment in this country, which wants me to differentiate and scaffold and make all learning student-centered, preferably student-generated project-based collaborative group multimedia discovery projects. I honestly have no idea how to do this, but I suspect it is both transient and unsustainable: that too much effort would go into planning and organizing the perfect project units, and in pre-teaching protocols for students to follow in generating their own discovery learning projects, and in trying to make the groups work fairly, particularly with low-interest students; and within five years, pedagogists will have discovered a new element that should be added — though nothing will ever be taken away. The new element will not make this more practical.

And on the other hand I have Eugen Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery Herrigel was a German philosophy professor who studied traditional Japanese archery in Japan, and his book is credited with helping to popularize Zen in the west. His archery master has the perfect system: he shows the students how to do the thing — how to draw the bow, aim, and fire at a target (Also, most importantly, how to breathe) — and then he has the students do it, and he points  out their mistakes. Then he does it again. And again. That’s it: modeling and expert critique. There is no explicit  instruction at all.

There is precisely one reason why I have to rush, why I have to assign reading packets rather than whole novels, or better yet, just read whole novels with my students and discuss them as we go, and it is time. The determination that one class lasts for fifty minutes, that one week is five classes, that one semester is eighteen weeks, that one year is two semesters, that an education is thirteen years. We are in a hurry, all the time, forever, particularly with our children. That’s what ruins everything.

If I could teach anything, I would teach this world to take its time.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about thinking.

This morning I am thinking about the brain like it’s a computer. (Which means that this morning, I’m right. Also that I got the idea from the author Myke Cole. On Twitter.) The brain can do almost limitless work, but it isn’t actually limitless: there are a finite number of thoughts that I can think in my lifetime. It’s a large number, an imponderably staggering number — but still finite. When I give my brain a chance, it can think of some excellent creations. But too much of the time, I decide that my brain is tired, and that it could use some downtime.

I don’t think my brain actually gets tired. I’m sure it runs out of resources, runs low on fuel and energy; but usually, I suspect that the issue is that I am tired of my brain, and I want it to stop. I want to shut it off. I try to sleep, and sometimes I fall asleep with no trouble, the brain flipping into Sleep mode with the press of a button, the closing of my eyes; but sometimes, it keeps going, trying to finish a particular thought-cycle; it is worst when that cycle gets stuck in a loop. Around my anxieties, usually. But just the fact that my brain can keep going even when my body and soul are entirely exhausted tells me: my brain doesn’t get tired. It’s a machine. It runs for as long as I keep it plugged in — and though I don’t remember my dreams, I have them, which means it keeps running even when I shut it down.

This morning I suspect that my brain is most insistent in those thought-cycles when I have not spent enough time paying attention to useful thoughts: when I have spent too much time wallowing in trash thoughts.

A computer is a powerful machine, but it is only as efficient and effective as its inputs: GIGO is the word, Garbage In, Garbage Out. (I learned that at summer camp when I was ten. I took a programming class. My summer camp was cool.) And my problem is that when I decide that my brain is tired, I input garbage so that the thoughts will become — less troubling, maybe? Less effective, certainly, in that the thoughts have less effect on me. I’m tired of thinking. I want to relax, and somehow, that has taken on the definition of “thinking about garbage.” So I watch TV, I play idiotic video games, I scroll through social media. Purposeless, but enjoyable. It feels relaxing.

But this morning, I think these inputs are viruses. They put their own information into my brain-puter, (Compubrain? Combrainter? This is all bad. You know what I’m realizing this morning? “Computer” is an ugly word. “Brain” isn’t any better.) and then more often than not, my own thoughts, my own programs and content, get shunted aside in favor of the viral inputs. I get caught up in video games — “Just one more! Just one more!” — and I find myself wasting hours, staying up later and later, turning to the video games during the day even when I’m not tired of thinking. The same with the social media, which is simply an eternal scrawl, requiring an active decision to stop zombie-plodding through it, and while I’m taking in images and words, I’m not going to stop easily. Even if — especially if — they’re bad images and words, uninteresting ones, because then I keep seeking good posts, good information among the mounds and pools of shlock. The movies and TV are even more insidious, as they worm into my thought-files and corrupt them with their own information, so that my brain gets stuck making references to movies and TV, repeating lines and scenes and images and other bits of viral data. Then even my ideas replicate the viruses’ ideas: and that, I suspect, is why Hollywood has become so very good at remaking remakes and sequelling sequels.

 

This morning I’d like to say that I am going to stop watching TV and movies, and stop looking at social media, and stop playing video games. But I don’t want to lie. I’m not going to stop. Not only are they important to me — as downtime, which whether my brain needs it or not, the rest of me does, and I associate it with those things; though I may try some new kinds of downtime, like easy reading or writing, or listening to music while I drink wine, or something like that — but they are a part of my career, as social media is the best way to advertise as a self-published author, and also a part of my society, which is steeped in pop culture, and I want to stay connected and relevant. But I want to do some simple things that will mitigate the effects of these viral inputs, this malware. First, I will build firewalls: I will set limits as to when and how much I take in. Second, I will dedicate more time to using my computing cycles more productively; yesterday I spent my walk with my dogs thinking about things; last night I read; this morning I am writing. (I’m going to do it again tomorrow morning.)

I slept very well last night. I also took a splendid nap yesterday. So I’m thinking now that when I’m tired off thinking, I should sleep: and when I am not tired, I should keep thinking productively. My brain will keep running anyway; I’d rather it thought about truth and beauty, than about Candy Crush and reality shows.

This Morning

This morning I realized that giving up doesn’t hurt any less than fighting.

This morning I realized that I’ve been giving up.

This morning I realized that the world is a mouth, and we are all being chewed into a thin paste so we can be swallowed: some of us are soft and plump, full of juice and flavor, and we burst easily and quickly; and some of us are hard as nuts, would crack the tooth of the world if it bit down too hard and so it grinds at us and grinds at us and grinds at us and grrrrrrrrrrriiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnddsssssss at us until we, too, are reduced to little more than dry powder: and then down the hatch we go.

This morning I realized that the world-mouth metaphor is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t go anywhere useful; like I could get into meat, and have some of us be tender and chewy and some of us be tough as gristle — but if in the end we all get chewed and all get swallowed, what’s the point? Do I say that we have to enjoy our time in the mouth, getting chewed up, getting destroyed? It would be fun to try to talk about flavors mixing, and maybe those tough nuts can bathe in the juice of the soft plump fruits — but that’s either too gross, or too intimate. Bathing in someone else’s juices is either sex or murder, and neither is empowering. Or actually maybe both are empowering.

This morning I realized that not every thought, not every idea, needs to be pursued — but the ones that go somewhere need to be nurtured and loved, and even the ones that don’t work out should be sat with for a little while, because they may then get added to one of the better ones.

This morning I realized that I haven’t been writing, and I’ve missed it. I’ve missed me.

This morning I realized that fucking Candy Crush repeats fucking levels, and that my dream of living out the meme I saw and conquering every level and thus beating the game is a stupid one; that I should spend that time writing instead. That even if I can’t find it in me to continue working on my enormous book project, and I can’t craft a single clear idea into one crystalline pillar of perfection before I even start writing a blog, I SHOULD WRITE ANYWAY. And I should post my thoughts.

This morning I realized that I probably haven’t lost my audience, at least not completely, but I’ve let them down– I’ve let you down. And I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have given up. I shouldn’t have laid down.

This morning I realized that I can write short things that are worth writing, and therefore worth reading.

This morning, I came back to myself.

This morning, I stood up. I fought. I wrote.

This morning I decided to do it again tomorrow morning.

Expectations

[With deep gratitude to Judy Brady for her incredible essay, “I Want a Wife,” which was the model for this piece. You can read it here.]

Expectations

I am a part – a cog – in that machinery called education. I am a Teacher. And I am quite fond of some of the individuals whom I teach.

A friend of mine has just earned his Master’s in Education – online of course – and has immediately stepped from his third year as an elementary P.E. teacher into an administrative job with a large suburban high school. The school is respected, well-funded, and effective; so as you would expect, my friend is looking to improve the staff with some new teachers in order to earn his new administrative paycheck. He’s searching for brand new teachers, of course, some of those with fresh energy and inspirational idealism. He has asked me to help him in his search for a brand new teacher, and I am always happy to oblige.

So what are the expected qualifications of this brand new teacher?

The teacher will be required to teach the classes. The teacher will be expected to manage a classroom full of 35 students, students grouped according to their birthday and where they happen to live around the beginning of the school year, students who represent 35 different levels of ability and interest in any given subject. When around 10% of these students will move out of the class partway through the year, and be replaced by a similar number of new students arriving in the middle of units, the teacher will be expected to bring these newcomers up to speed and familiarize them with the new material and the new learning environment. The teacher must do this gently, of course, because new students are under quite a lot of stress. The teacher will be expected to handle between five and eight classes of 35 students apiece, every day (five classes would be if the new teacher is part-time, a decision that will be made at the start of the new school year, or within the first six weeks of instruction); though next year, my friend told me, the school will be moving to an A/B block system: four classes one day and the other four the next day, with all eight on a shifting schedule every ninth class day, the day when the school will occasionally have special schedules for pep assemblies and school-wide activities such as the science fair. The teacher will be required to design something science- or STEM-related for the science fair. And the project will need to correlate to the teacher’s own subject. And also the project must draw new students to the school, so the school can compete with those charter schools. The teacher will also be expected to participate in the pep assemblies, preferably in some sort of costume provided by the teacher and related to the school mascot, the Phalanx. But that’s next year: this year the school has an eight-period day, so the teacher will be obligated to prepare for every class, every school day. Some of the classes will be identical courses, but the student makeup in each case will be radically different, and the teacher will be expected to find a way to keep all of the identical courses on the same pace despite the need to differentiate instruction. The teacher will be expected to reteach subject matter to any classes that didn’t master it, and to give extra enrichment activities to the more advanced students who did achieve mastery. The teacher is expected to make the extra work, both the remedial practice and the advanced enrichment, particularly engaging and rewarding for the students, who will not wish to take on extra assignments on top of the required work. There are three minutes between classes, shortened to ensure maximum instructional time; the teacher will need to avail themselves of that time to give students assistance if they fall behind the rigorous pace. The teacher will, of course, be expected to teach bell to bell. Before the beginning of each class, the teacher will be expected to be standing outside their classroom, with a pleasant but formal demeanor, and to personally greet every student as they come into the classroom. The teacher will of course have to make sure they don’t drink too much fluid, as they won’t have a chance to go to the bathroom until lunch at the earliest. Fortunately, lunch is only four hours after school starts. Unless the new teacher is given an early morning class before the regular start time. The teacher will also be expected to spend the lunch period supervising a public area to make sure students are not littering nor using inappropriate language or touching; the teacher can use the between-class intervals for attending to personal needs.

The teacher will be expected to know the content. The teacher will be required to answer all questions correctly and completely, while also encouraging students to do further research on their own, and to offer the students an organized and vetted list of appropriate resources the students could use to find their own information. The teacher will be expected to stay current with the newest developments in the subject, to attend professional development trainings in their free time, to learn the latest methods and strategies, which the teacher will be expected to incorporate into their lesson plans. All lesson plans must be filed with the administration at the beginning of each quarter, and any last-minute modifications must be approved by administration at least one week before they are implemented. The teacher will be mandated to be open to suggestions from administrators, and to be eager to benefit from administrators’ cutting-edge pedagogical training. The teacher is expected to know how their subject matter connects to other areas of instruction and other subjects, and be able to coordinate thematically with other classes. The teacher will be required to control the pace of instruction to match that of other subjects so that no student falls behind and has to suffer through overwork in order to catch up.

In terms of the students’ work, the teacher will be expected to assess baseline abilities, to place students along a continuum, and to develop individual learning plans for each student so that they can receive optimum instruction for their ability level. The teacher will be obligated to provide easily-read charts and graphs of all student progress, both in aggregate for conferencing with administration and for each individual student for parent conferences. Where appropriate, the teacher will be required to coordinate student learning plans with the Exceptional Student Services department; all ESS clients’ learning plans must adhere to all applicable laws and policies, and must receive approval from the ESS department and the parents of the ESS students. The teacher will be expected to issue surveys and to conduct ice-breaking, team-building, trust-fostering, and getting-to-know-you activities, so that the teacher can assess the students’ interests, their cultural backgrounds and biases, their maturity level, and their relative mastery of the curriculum so that the teacher can find  materials that the students will find engaging, but which will neither be offensive nor beyond their current developmental stage or ability level. Once all of the students are assessed and plotted, the teacher will be able to start differentiating instruction in earnest, in order to personalize each student’s learning for maximum improvement, ensuring at all times that all instruction is drawn from the district-approved curriculum and adheres to research-based best practices.

Most importantly, the teacher will be expected to communicate with parents, both about grades and about interesting and important upcoming events. The teacher will need to plan interesting and important upcoming events so that parents can be informed about them. The communication should be professional, such as (but not limited to) a desktop-published newsletter or a website that offers updates through social media interaction. The teacher should note that district computers are not to be used for social media access. The teacher will be expected to encourage parent participation: invite them into the classroom, to help supervise the class (Though of course the parent volunteer cannot provide the instruction, not being a licensed teacher; the teacher will be obligated to make sure the parent volunteers have security clearance, have their fingerprints and background checked by the FBI and ensure the parent volunteers have had a TB test and proof of a recent MMR innoculation); the teacher will be asked to recognize that having a few extra adults to help supervise activities can be very beneficial for students, even high school students, as well as a great help to the teacher. The teacher will be expected to plan class activities which the parents as well as the students will find interesting and educational. The teacher will be required to provide the parent volunteers with an outline, an observation rubric, and a teacher script so they can follow along with the teacher through the lesson, and help observe and chart the students’ responses, especially that of their own child, so the parents can be involved in their child’s ongoing assessment. The parents probably won’t know all of the students in their child’s class, but the teacher will be able to make a printout of the seating chart with student ID photos with only seven or eight steps through the online attendance database. The teacher will be mandated to ensure that the volunteers aren’t given too much information about the students, and to collect the seating charts at the end of the day, so as not to violate confidentiality. The teacher will be expected to make valuable use of the parent volunteers.

The teacher will be expected to prepare students for their futures, to ready them for college, or for the workforce – though of course the school prefers that all students attend college, as that is one of the administration’s own evaluation criteria. The teacher will also, therefore, be expected to make sure students graduate, even if that means simplifying the material and curving their grades; that way they can also participate in sports and extracurricular activities, which are important because they inspire students to work harder in school. Those activities do tend to take time away from school work; but the parents prefer that teachers not assign too much homework anyway, as that causes the students stress. This means that the teacher will be required to arrange to give the student-athletes all of their work during the regular class period, so that academic progress can be maintained without impinging on extracurricular studies; this is a splendid opportunity for the teacher to differentiate instruction. The teacher will also be expected to adjust grades as necessary to maintain athletic eligibility for our top performers.

The teacher will be obligated to sacrifice, voluntarily, for the children. The school has limited resources, and everything must be focused, unalterably, on the children. The teacher will be asked to give up money, time, healthcare, benefits, retirement, tenure, and all aspects of an individual and satisfying future, for the children. The teacher will be required to agree that they did not get into this to get rich, that they teach because they want to make a difference. The teacher will be paid commensurately with their willingness to sacrifice for the children, though regardless of level of sacrifice, the compensation will not be enough. The teacher is expected to have expected this.

In the unlikely event, which has recently grown significantly more likely, of a school shooting, the teacher will be expected to carry a firearm (Firearm, a state-approved method of securing the firearm until needed, and sufficient training in its use to be provided by the teacher) and to end the threat to the children. The teacher will be required to be aware that the school shooter is likely to be one of their current or former students, and the teacher must not hesitate to pull the trigger and put the shooter down. Though of course, the teacher will be obligated to not do anything to put innocent lives in greater danger. If the teacher is troubled by this turn of events, the teacher should consider whether the teacher could have done more to prevent the crisis before it reached this danger point. Perhaps the teacher should have paid more attention, and done more to build trust. And also reported any suspicions they might have of students to the administration, so the school can follow up with law enforcement. If only the teacher had paid more attention. And if the teacher is unwilling or unable to use a firearm to defend the students, the teacher will be expected to shield the children with their own body, and die. For the children.

This is what is expected of this brand new teacher. The question is: who the hell would want the job?