Friday, May 29, 2015

Those Who Are Not Normal

I've always had conversations with my dogs; real conversations with me saying things and the dogs responding, in words that come out of my own mouth, usually calling me on my crap. And when there's no dog around, I'll talk to the other voices in my head, sometimes aloud.

I'm not the only one, of course, who talks to himself. I live downtown in a city with one of the largest street populations in the nation, many of whom are there because of what we call mental illness, and it typically takes no more than a few minutes to run across someone who his in full-on dialog with manifestations that are invisible to the rest of us. Often they're just muttering, not so dissimilar to the way I do it, but they really draw attention to themselves when they're exchanging heated words with one of the other folks who live inside their heads. 

There's a woman who was hanging around the blocks surrounding our apartment last month, often in outraged dialog, apparently ticking someone off. One morning she awoke me, screaming, "You aren't real! I'm real! You're not real!" It was a declaration that I suppose most of us would view as a hopeful glimpse of sanity, but even while acknowledging the non-existence of her tormentor, she continued to rant and rage, saying some of the most vile things one person could say to another.

I have a friend who has been recently diagnosed with bi-poloar disorder, what we used to call manic depression, a mental condition in which she experiences a roller coaster of high highs and low lows. When I expressed surprise, she explained that I'd really only seen her when she was on one of her highs, full of life and creativity, and that those long stretches during which she disappeared, those were the lows, day-after-day when she really couldn't leave the house. 

Just as we all have had the experience of conversing with the voice in our heads, we've also cycled through highs and lows: it's just a matter of degree. We have come to understand that autism is a condition of degrees, one that we talk about as manifesting along a "spectrum." Maybe it's time we acknowledged that everything that makes us human manifests along a spectrum and we can all be placed along all of them.

Our culture tends to pathologize these things, labeling them as "illness" and the way we treat illness is with medicine and psychiatry, the tools of the allopathic doctor. My friend is happy that her diagnosis lead to medications, which have helped her feel "normal," even as she sometimes regrets that she's trading away the exhilaration of her highs to avoid the lows. I've read that this is common among people who have medicalized themselves in the name of normalcy, which explains why so many of them have such a difficult time maintaining their regimen, often "forgetting" their pills or skipping their appointments, because even if it's not normal, there was still something in there the loss of which warrants regret. 

Many indigenous cultures don't view these kinds of differences as medical problems at all, instead seeing those at the extremities of human spectrums as sacred beings, as messengers from the other side. It sounds a little "woo woo" to our sensibilities, I know, but it's a difference in perspective worth considering. When we label it "mental illness," the goal is to make the patients "normal," which we can sometimes do if the afflicted party has access to quality medical care and the kinds of networks of support most often associated with the middle class lifestyle. We don't typically hope to "cure" these illnesses, but rather to control them, leaving individuals always on the watch for a return of their disease. But, of course, many of these "not normal" people don't have access to quality medical care or networks of support, often due to their being "not normal." These people we marginalize, driving them away from us, into the streets, into institutions. 

How different things would be were we to treat these people spiritually rather than medically. Instead of medicating them, we would listen to them, even learn from them. Instead of pushing them to the fringes of society, we would draw them to the center. What if we removed the stigma of disease and replace it with loving acceptance? Doesn't that make more sense? I expect we would find that the "dangers" we so often associate with mental illness would disappear, revealing themselves as manifestations of our narrow definition of "normal." And I expect we would find that there are depths of wisdom in people who see the world, and perhaps even the other world, so much more clearly than we do.

If nothing else, I think we would learn that normal is overrated. 

I've been a member of cooperative preschools for a long time. The core of what we do is create community because without community nothing else has any meaning. One of the hallmarks of a strong community is how quickly newcomers are drawn into the center which is something we strive to do. I know from experience that there is great power in doing this, opening ourselves up to our core and letting others in, especially those who are not normal.

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

It Had Always Been Torn To Shreds

It's been over three years now since our family unloaded most of our stuff, including our large house on its large plot of land. We didn't do it all at once, as one might imagine. It took us nearly a year, with countless trips to the dump, donations to Goodwill, and Craig's List sales, just to get our stuff down to a light enough load that we would even consider moving. And then there was still a year after the move where we continued to sort through our storage locker, the largest unit they had, going down three locker sizes over the course of the next 12 months. There are still a few pieces of furniture in there that really ought to be sent along to more useful lives, but the motivation isn't there since we're now down to the least expensive space they rent.

It wasn't always easy, especially as some of the stuff of which we rid ourselves had been with us a long time, decades in many cases, even since childhood. I literally said, "Goodbye," to some of the things, but as melancholy as the process sometimes left me, there is nothing like the feeling of lightness, of freedom, that comes from getting rid of stuff.

I've been thinking about stuff lately. We have a new dog, a puppy, a sweet girl that was named Stella by my three-year-old friend Brogan. If I thought I'd grown less attached to stuff over the past few years, Stella has let me see that I'm still unhealthily attached to it, as she's finished tearing a hole in our living room rug that was started years ago by a former pet, shredded a pillow, and gnawed holes in the seat cushions of two dining chairs.

Last night, I said to my wife, a joke backed by despair, "She's destroying the last few sticks of things we own!"

I'm reminded of something from Stephen and Ondrea Levine's book, Who Dies?

You see this goblet? For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, "Of course." When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious. Every moment is just what it is, and nothing need be otherwise.

For the better part of three years, I've been trying to move in the direction of this kind of enlightenment, one of which I sometimes remind myself with the short-hand of "easy come, easy go," but the advent of Stella has shown me that stuff still has a hold on me. Perhaps it doesn't own me to the degree it once did, but I still experienced a small heartbreak when I came home to find the floor covered in the stuffing that once plumped our pillow, even if I intellectually knew it had always been torn to shreds.

For the past several years, I've been reading a book to the children by John Muth, entitled Zen Shorts. One of the fables features a bear who awakes to find a raccoon burglar in his home. Instead of reacting with fear or anger, the bear is sad that he owns nothing of value for the raccoon to take with him, so he gives him the old, tattered robe off his back. I may never get there, but it's a goal toward which my soul yearns.

I've scolded Stella when I've caught her destroying one of our possessions, just as we might scold children who are ripping pages from a book or using a marker to draw on the car seat. We want them to understand the value of things, of stuff, how it costs money, how it is scarce, how it is precious and must be preserved. We habitually attempt to teach them that dubious lesson about stuff, while ignoring the far greater one they are attempting to teach us. 

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pretty And Handsome

I said, "Today, I'm going to be pretty."

Claire teased me, "You can't be pretty, Teacher Tom. You're a boy."

"I'm not a boy, I'm a man," I said with mock defiance, "and if I want to be pretty I can be pretty." 

She thought about that for a moment, then said, "Men are not pretty, men are handsome."

Cecelia said, "She's right, Teacher Tom, boys are handsome and girls are pretty."

"But I don't want to be handsome, I want to be pretty."

They shook their heads, looking at one another. Cecelia shrugged as if to say, That's just the way it is.

Claire said, sweetly, "Handsome is just pretty for boys. You are handsome, Teacher Tom."

"I am?"

"All the boys are handsome," she replied, making a sweeping gesture toward the playground.

I asked, "And are all the girls pretty?"

"Yes, we're all pretty."

I was thinking that this was a generous perspective, when she added, "See? Abigail's wearing a sparkly skirt. That's pretty."

Cecelia said, "I'm wearing a headscarf."

Claire nodded, "That's pretty. And Frances has hearts on her shirt. All the girls are pretty and all the boys are handsome."

Having straightened me out, the girls went on their way. I thought about what they had told me, asserting that pretty isn't an innate quality, but rather something you put on and take off; something you choose on a day by day basis. Every girl who wants to be pretty is pretty. Not bad, even if they weren't allowing for boys to be pretty.

Calvin had been listening to our conversation. I turned to him and said, "Claire said we're all handsome. I think that means I'm as handsome as your dad."

Without missing a beat, he replied, "You haven't seen him in his suit."

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Worst Way To Get Someone To Do What You Want

Yesterday, a bike ride took me to what are locally referred to as "the Ballard Locks" (officially called the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks) a century old facility built and run by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Boating season is in full swing here in the great Northwest which makes it a busy time at the locks as pleasure boats swell the usual commercial traffic going to and from our fresh water lakes and the Puget Sound.

I'm not the only cyclist who uses the lock bridgeways to cross from Magnolia to Ballard and there are signs asking, "Please walk bikes," a reasonable request given that the locks are often crowded with tourists watching the water elevators at work. Still, it alway irks me slightly when I see, below what appears to be a polite, common sense request, a small note that violators may be fined $75. I don't know, maybe the threat of a fine is the only thing that works on some cyclists, but in all my years of crossing the locks I've never seen anyone fail to dismount. And maybe I'm only speaking for myself, but the polite request is enough. I don't need the threat; in fact, the threat makes me want to disobey.

As I got to the locks themselves, boats were filling up the small lock, queuing up along the sides, tethering their vessels as required. I noted that there were no signs visible, at least from where I stood, telling them to do any of this. Maybe they had received radio instructions or maybe the threatening signs were posted somewhere down by the waterline, but it looked a lot like straight-forward cooperation from the various boat captains and crews. 

There were men along the edges, corps of engineers employees, helping the boaters secure themselves. I passed a pair of them as they awaited a vessel to get to where they stood and overheard part of their conversation:

"It's not my job to tell people how to drive their boats. You ever tried to tell people how to drive their boats? It pisses them off."

If you tell a child, "Don't eat those cookies," most will steal one from the plate the moment your back is turned, while those who resist will just obsess over the thought of eating one. If you ask me to walk my bike, I'll do it gladly, but threaten me and I might not. Tell someone how to drive their boat and it pisses them off. Children don't want to disappoint, I don't want to inconvenience the tourists, and boaters don't want to damage their boats or the boats of others, yet we are born to rebel when commanded, often even when it goes against our own best interests or values.

On the flip side, we are also born to cooperate and given the chance we dismount, we queue up, and we save that cookie for later.

In other words, one of the worst ways to get someone to do what you want is to tell them to do it. 

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Monday, May 25, 2015

"But She Has All The Balls"

Charlotte has appeared on these pages before. She's one of the kids who had been coming to Woodland Park since before she was born, arriving in our classroom first with her mom to drop off and pick up her older brother, then as a member of our Pre-3, 3-5's, and 5's classes. If I've ever known a student, it would be Charlotte, and among the many things I know is that she is not conflict averse: she will stand up for herself, and for righteousness in general, like few people I've ever known, whatever their age.

To say she knows her way around the place is an understatement, and as we began making our classroom rules early in the school year, she helped us put together a short, but very workable list, including the vital ones of "No hitting," "No kicking," "No biting," and "No taking things from other people." We would, of course, add to this list in the coming days and weeks, but could in theory run our community quite well with these dozen or so rules we had created to get started.

The following day, we played with our catapults. The kids fell on them with abandon. It was rather wild at first, although I was proud of how well these kids -- most of whom were just getting to know one another -- figured out how to share the 5 machines without any input from me. 

Naturally, they quickly fell into targeting one another with the ping pong balls. I was trying to stay out of the way, observing, and helping to retrieve balls that had gotten under furniture, waiting all the while for a signal from the kids that we needed to consider a new rule: "No shooting other people with a catapult." It wasn't a problem yet, but I simply assumed that it would become one before too long and we'd soon have to figure out something else to "target," such as the alphabet blocks I had handy for the purpose. This moment never came, at least not that day.

At one point, a group of four boys had allied themselves as a team, "the boy team," leaving Charlotte all alone as "the girl team." Charlotte had her back against some shelves, in possession of one catapult, while the boys were arrayed with their catapults in an arc aimed toward her. The boys boasted to me about their potential fire power, talking about "doubles" and "triples." A couple balls were launched Charlotte's way, which she ducked, then grabbed before they bounced back to the boys. I checked in with her, and while she didn't seem particularly happy, she also didn't seem upset. There was a determined look on her face. I asked, "Do you like this game?" She made it clear she didn't need me, so I went back to hunting for lost balls.

Moments later, however, I heard her object loudly, "Hey, no taking things!"

I said, "Did someone take something? We all agreed to a rule: no taking things from other people." I pointed at where the list of rules hung on the wall and all eyes followed my finger.

That's when a boy complained, "But she has all the balls!" 

That's when I noticed that Charlotte indeed had a large collection of balls between her knees. Reluctantly abiding by our community rule, the boys gave back the one ball they'd taken from her, this girl who'd figured out a way to even those apparently insurmountable odds. I couldn't help observing, "So you guys have all the catapults, and she has all the balls." 

While Charlotte sat upon her stash, the boys, still in their semi-circle, were dumbstruck, feeling, I suppose how one feels every time one has been checkmated. Maybe I should have kiboshed the boy-girl divide earlier. Perhaps I should have been more assertive in getting to the "No shooting each other" rule. I could have handled it all differently, but at the same time, I really couldn't help but be proud of "the girl team." She had used her knowledge of the rules and her experience as a younger sister to masterfully work things around to a kind of victory that must have been satisfying to her. It was to me.

The stand-off lasted for several minutes, with the boys idly flipping their empty catapults while Charlotte proudly stood her ground. A couple of the boys started hunting under furniture for balls, but without luck.

Finally, Archie crossed over to Charlotte and asked as politely as possible, "Could I please have one ball?"

With that Charlotte sat up and pushed the whole pile of balls toward the boys. Game over.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Name Calling

Have you ever seen one of those prepubescent beauty pageant girls? You know, the ones whose moms dress them up like adult women, bouffant their hair, and give them make-up to make it look like they have 18-year-old heads on 5-year-old bodies? We're appalled. It's both grotesque and sad. We pity the little girl and scorn the mother, blaming her for sexualizing her innocent child.

We don't, of course, accuse the girl herself of being "sexy." We all know that she's been taught to go through some motions that are otherwise meaningless to her. A girl that age is incapable of being sexy, but she is capable of imitating a set of behaviors she's been taught are aspects of being female, at least within her sub-culture.

Young children do a lot of things without an inkling of the adult connotations of their behaviors. When my daughter was a 4-year-old preschooler she was part of a gang of 4-5 girls who spent their days playing together, sometimes to the exclusion of other girls, fairly typical age-appropriate behavior. At about this time a couple of the moms from our school were reading a book entitled Reviving Ophelia, a fantastic, insightful book by all accounts about the toxicity of our media culture to adolescent girls, an aspect of which was the whole "mean girls" phenomenon. These moms decided that my daughter, my 4-year-old daughter, was a "mean girl," discussed it among the other parents and even went so far as to take their concerns to the teacher, all of this without speaking with me. This is likely a good thing for them because I'd have shown them what mean is really all about.

Reasonable people know that words like sexy or mean are not appropriate words to use to describe children. Frankly, it's the worst kind of vicious, back-biting name-calling. So why do so many feel it's okay to describe young boys as aggressive? A 2-year-old boy who hits a friend knows no more about what he is doing than those sad little beauty queens. A 4-year-old who experiments with his power by shouting fiercely at a playmate is no more an "aggressive boy" than my daughter was a "mean girl" simply because she experimented with the powerful feelings that come from excluding others. The same goes for the word violent. A young boy may engage in behavior that adults perceive as violent or aggressive, but he no more knows what he is doing than the little girls who parade across stages in bikinis. At some level, they have been taught that these behaviors are aspects of being a male in our culture. You personally may reject these behaviors (in fact, most of us do), just as you may reject the ritualized sexual behavior of adult beauty queens, but believe me, the kids are just trying things out and they have no idea, or a very twisted idea, of what it means.

Labeling young boys as aggressive or violent is in itself a kind of aggressive, perhaps even violent, behavior. Try this mental experiment: what do you think it would do to a little girl's future if she was repeatedly labeled sexy? Only a cruel or perverted adult would do that. Yet this is what happens to our little boys with the words aggressive and violent. Words matter.

Our job as important adults in children's lives is to teach them what their behaviors mean, not to label them. And we don't do that by treating them as we would aggressive, violent adults, but rather by engaging in rational conversation, by honestly discussing our own opinions and values, by helping them come to an understanding of how their behaviors might be perceived by others, by pointing out the difference between cartoons and real life. You know, just as we would with our girls when they experiment with sex appeal or exclusion.

Please stop using the words aggressive and violent to describe young children. You are wrong and you are doing damage. And please point it out when others do it. They are wrong and they are doing damage.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Serving Wall Street

If you want the kids' test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get kids actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test. ~Adam Savage (Mythbusters)

Over the past year or so, as the deeply flawed federal Common Core State Standards curriculum has been forced upon the children in our state, some public school teachers, mostly middle and high school teachers, have told me that they don't think the standards themselves are so bad, or at least that they are an improvement on what came before them. When I ask about the high stakes standardized testing, they are, of course, appalled, but suggest that if we could separate the standards from the tests, they could get behind Common Core.

Here's the problem: the standards and the testing cannot be separated. One of the most evil aspects of Common Core is that nothing about it can be changed. Even if teachers find intellectually incorrect or pedagogically unsound aspects, and the elementary school standards are rife with them (including the soul crushing expectation that all kindergarteners must learn to read), they can't be changed. The corporate-aligned creators did no field testing, failed to build in any sort of feedback process, consulted no elementary school teachers, and created no mechanism for altering any aspect of Common Core however horrible, including the mandate of high stakes standardized testing. Common Core is all or nothing.

I'm convinced that this wasn't a mistake or hubris, but rather a conscious decision. You see, the goal has never been as much about better educated children as much as it has been about, as Bill Gates has repeatedly said, "to unleash powerful market forces" upon our youngest citizens. Now, there may be individuals who genuinely believe that the Common Core curriculum is in the best interest of children, and Gates may be one of them, but let there be no doubt that Wall Street looks at this as a way to get their skeletal hands on the money we set aside for educating children. And that's exactly what Bill Gates is talking about when he lauds powerful market forces, which is a businessman's way to say "greed."

What Gates and the rest of his business cohort are after are schools that can be treated like standardized electrical outlets (Gates' own metaphor) so that they can develop products that plug right in. Field testing, feedback, flexibility, and change threaten the standardization of those electrical outlets, which, of course, threatens profits. Therefore, businesspeople need a nationwide curriculum that is written in stone, which is what they have.

Here is what Gates had to say back in 2009, before most of us had even heard of Common Core, and before he cleaned up his language in response to our pushback:

Notice how, among his BS about how Common Core is a "state lead" effort and more talk of the "unleashing" of greed, he refers to a "large, uniform base of customers" instead of, you know, children or students. This is the key to their entire approach and teachers, with their knowledge and objections and opinions, can only muck that up, so they cut us out altogether. Even if you think the standards themselves are okay, you can't have them without the regime of high stakes testing because the "curriculum and tests must be aligned to the standards."

And that brings me to my use of the word "curriculum" to describe Common Core. I've been pointedly calling it a curriculum for some time now and each time I do, there are those who insist that I misunderstand, that the Common Core are "just a set of standards," and that it's up to teachers and schools to develop a curriculum for meeting those standards. Really?

I call it a curriculum, despite what its supporters claim, because by any rational measure, that's what it is. The simplest definition of a curriculum is "the subjects that comprise the course of study at a school." That's exactly what Common Core does, albeit by a more passive aggressive manner than most. The Department of Education has a pool of money that it only gives to states that have adopted the Common Core. To keep the money flowing, the states are required to prove, via standardized tests, that they are meeting arbitrary and unrealistic math and literacy thresholds. Teachers are punished or rewarded based on a widely discredited calculation, schools are shuttered and replaced by privately run charters, and federal funding is restricted or withheld if schools or school districts attempt to deviate. Therefore, math and literacy test preparation has increasingly become the primary subject that comprises the course of study in many of our nation's schools. That is a curriculum.

And things like band, shop, art, physical education, and the humanities, subjects that can't be measured by standardized testing, are increasingly pushed to the fringes and even out of many schools entirely. We must "get kids actually learning stuff" again, because a curriculum of test prep serves no one but Wall Street.

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