“the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.”
As the media machine ramps up outrage for every small wind that blows from Trump’s mouth, I’ve found myself growing increasingly zen about it all.
Yeah, there’s a slight possibility that Trump may win. So what?
Here’s why I’m OK with the possibility and why you won’t hear me whine about moving to Canada:
It means that many Americans voted for him. Remember that whole thing, voting?We still live in a representative democracy, meaning that we elect our public representatives. We can then thank all those young idealists that either failed to vote or voted for a 3rd party candidate. Maybe they’ll get an inkling of how politics works from that experience.
Trump is surfacing the toxins of our society. If many Americans are truly angry racist xenophobic zealots, then it’s probably about time we saw one another for what we really are.
If Trump doesn’t destroy our democratic republic, then he will make it stronger. We’re supposed to have a system that balances power. Like a chaos monkey, Trump will test this system through impulsive, bull-headed, shortsighted and selfish decisions. If our system then fails, then that means we need to build a better one. If it doesn’t fail, then it will adapt and react to his incursions like an immune system fighting off a viral invader. And so our political system shall evolve and continue.
Today, when the next headline crosses your radar manufactured to make your conscientious, caring, and progressive self get upset, calm yourself by considering that Trump may well be the Chaos Monkey of the gods. We shall overcome.
Goodbye to 2015, a year which seems, Janus-like, to present opposing faces as I look back on it.
Navel gazing advisory: the following is entirely personal and most likely of no great interest to you, dear reader, so consider yourself duly warned and advised. I write this, selfishly, for my own exorcism, and share it here because that’s what this blog is, for better or for worse—a selfish undertaking, with some obscure, vague hopes of selflessness imputed somewhere in the offing. A mundane and transparent and unscientific bloodletting, with some already lost dream of connection underlying the catharsis.
Took me some time to process, but I’ve finally recognized a psychological barrier greatly weighing me down at the close of this year. Two thousand fifteen. Overall, the year has been quite good. Quite excellent. But something occurred at the outset of this school year (September, for you non-public-school folks) that entirely sapped my mojo. I’ve avoided talking about it, or even fully grappling emotionally and mentally with it, because it never has had full closure. So now this, disclosure.
I was offered a position, in a very untimely manner, to a district-level role that would have not only significantly bumped up my salary*, but provided me an opportunity to utilize the skills and knowledge I’ve gained in my experience in education thus far, and see how I can share and apply them across hundreds of different schools. I was quite excited about the new role, but it unfortunately was offered at an extremely inopportune time—i.e. 2 weeks before the start of the new school year. I did everything I could to make it happen, including arranging as many interviews, phone and in person, that I could, attending hiring fairs, sending out emails to everyone within my professional network, sending out email blasts to listservs, emailing professors at graduate programs, and so on. And the really frustrating thing is that I had the full support of many others in my efforts.
Essentially, in order for me to take the position, I had to arrange for my own replacement. While there is much talk of teacher shortages, especially in special education, here in NYC it did not apply at the time that I was looking. Those few I was able to interview were either too unskilled, lacking proper certification, or were entirely incompetent (i.e. didn’t have the skills to email properly or even arrange for an interview), for the type of school and role we were seeking. I wasn’t merely looking for a warm body—this is a great position and school to work at.
I will abstain from detailing the interviews that did occur. I can regale you with them over crumpets and tea some time one-on-one, if you’re interested.
So once the school year commenced, and it was clear there was no amazing teacher waiting somewhere hidden in the wings, I washed my hands of the matter and got back to my work—or so I thought. Internally, I was sorely chafed, and it has been a rough transition, emotionally speaking, for me to get my head screwed back on straight. I’m not exactly someone attuned to my emotions — it took me 4 months to get to this current point of awareness, to the point of being able to talk somewhat honestly about it. With unnecessary rhetorical flourishes, of course. Partially, I think, because the position has still been (hypothetically) there for me, in the case I was able to find a replacement, so a part of me kept looking and hoping.
This has been damaging to my motivation and well-being.
So as I look back at 2015, even though the year up until that point had been quite fantastic, really—a busy and productive close to the prior school year (obtained my School Building Leader license), a wonderful and invigorating trip to Ireland and Scotland, and an energizing bit of additional work to close out the summer with an online curriculum company and a geeky study of NYC education history with a nonprofit—I was left with this very negative feeling in the dusty corners of my being. And that’s ridiculous! Absolutely ridiculous, and petty, and insufferable. Which is probably why I’ve refused to fully look upon it, in all its puny, grotesque, childish glory.
This has made me recognize a damaging hubris of my character. I apparently feel this compelling need to justify my existence via a feeling of progress which is gained through the recognition of others. How superficial! But that’s how I am. And so I shut down when this opportunity didn’t pan out the way I hoped it would. I stopped writing articles. I turned down (or simply ignored) opportunities outside of my current school work. And I’ve been just a wee bit depressed, really. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s probably other elements involved, like existential notes of loneliness and getting older, but this may be the underlying factor that really squeezed me behind the gills.
So, taking a deep breath, looking at it honestly, and putting a fork in it. And forcing myself to open my eyes to just how incredibly fortunate and lucky I am to have what I have. To live in an apartment next to two beautiful parks here in upper Manhattan. To work in a great school with a professional and hardworking staff and wonderful students and families. To share this existence with my beautiful, hardworking, loving wife, who has been undergoing her own trials and tribulations to finish out an incredibly difficult nursing program (only one semester left!!!). And to come home every day to four vibrant birds (we took on two additional parakeets), who fill our apartment with endless chatter and color and life. To be in good health. To be part of two very different, yet complementary, families, both my wife’s, and my own.
That’s why there is shame involved here, to even be putting this out there. Shame in looking at this and articulating this out loud. Because there’s absolutely no good reason to be feeling this way. But there it is.
2016 stands untrammeled before us. Let’s do this right, people. Let’s do this honestly, and embracingly, and joyously. Happy new year.
*An aside on salary: (why do I feel the need to justify this? Why can’t we talk honestly about the importance of salary? This is NYC! Perhaps because I recognize that no matter how much I might pretend to be dancing around that thin red line, I can see all around us so many more in much more dire straights? Yes. That’s probably it.)
As a public school student, I recall dreading the first day back after the summer vacation long before that fateful day arrived. Its shadow loomed large and ever increasingly ominous over the last few weeks, tainting my prolonged nocturnal fiction book reading marathons. The sight of back-to-school sales were enough to make my stomach recoil. I imagine that this is how soldiers preparing to storm a certain beach in Normandy would have felt, readying themselves to plunge into an uncertain future that contained at the most death, and at the least, certain horror — though I suppose mixed in there is that unique elated excitement born from the headlong rush into a danger that you know will change you irrevocably.
As a public school teacher, the feeling as the first day of school draws nigh is disturbingly similar. It’s different, of course, because now I am an adult, and I am the teacher, and I am much more in control of certain variables of myself and my situation than I was as a hormonally charged and overly sensitive adolescent desperately scrounging for social and emotional currency. So there’s a bit more of a positive edge to this adrenaline coursed pulsing of nausea that edges and nips at my stomach as I think ahead to that swiftly approaching D-Day, but otherwise it feels more or less the same. It’s not exactly something I relish, as you can probably tell.
It seems to me that there is something odd about some of the traditions and rituals that we cling to in our society. One of them being this prolonged summer vacation between different grades (another being our adherence to daylight savings time). Most of us are aware that disadvantaged students lose a significant portion of their academic gains in learning over the summer. The students that I have been working with, whom are not only disadvantaged socio-economically speaking, but furthermore cognitively speaking, lose nearly all of their learning if they are not practicing their acquired skills during the summer. Which was pretty far back (2-4 grade levels behind) to begin with.
This has been the first summer since I began teaching that I’ve fully enjoyed, as the last two I’ve spent most of taking trainings, exams and classes. And therefore I can state that having extended vacations — during which I am still getting paid — is a very nice thing indeed. But I can also say that I think it’s just a tad overlong. Since coming back from my honeymoon, I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of things: waking up early, staying on top of my Twitter and news feeds, responding to emails, putting together to-do lists and checking off items. But it’s really bloody hard when you’ve just completely gone off the whole map of what it means to be in a structured schedule and environment.
I’m not whining. I’m bringing this up to make the point that I don’t think having prolonged summer breaks is good for either students nor adults. Both students and adults may say that we enjoy 2-3 month long summer breaks on principle, but the fact is that even students — except for those sent away to posh summer camps — begin to flounder in the over abundance of free time and get just a little bit, well, bored. Or perhaps just a bit directionless. We all need to have some kind of structure in our lives to help keep us developing and healthy. During the long summer, that structure, unless maintained by strict parenting (on the part of students) or self-discipline (on the part of teachers), tends to fall to the wayside. And much that had been built during the school year is therefore left to fester.
I would much prefer to have more plentiful but shorter vacations, as Kathleen Porter-Magee suggests in this Room for Debate post from a while back. Something on the scale of 2 weeks, as opposed to 2 months. Just long enough to really enjoy it and ease up the pace and tension, but not so long that I’ve forgotten what it means to work entirely. But more importantly, this would much reduce the severity of that adrenaline inducing sense of nausea that the first day of school brings after an overlong summer vacation.
Part of the reason for the fear and nervousness that accompanies the first day of school is not only that summer is ending — it is because you know that you are about to be plunged head-first into a long and seemingly never-ending tunnel of frenzied efforts to stay on top of a pile of emotionally and cognitively and physically demanding tasks during 70 hour work-weeks that never stops piling up in front of you, with only the occasional 3-day weekend or stray “winter recess” or “spring break” to keep you functionally sane and from developing scurvy. If we had more vacations in lieu of a long summer break, these could help keep both the students and adults capable of functioning in a somewhat rational and civilized manner and from developing strange growths in their necks and holes in their stomach linings.
Sigh. Well, yes, I’ve rather been enjoying this summer. Lots of beer (and subsequent belly distending, which I attempt to counterbalance with running) and wine, hanging out with beautiful and wonderful friends and family, savoring fresh pineapple, papaya and coconut. Learning how to cook again. Reveling in my new marriage and amazing catch of a wife. I’ve even been reading fiction books! That have nothing to do with education! Just for the fun of it! (Can you tell that I feel vaguely guilty?)
And as that first day draws ever nearer, I attempt to fight back the eddying fear of the unknown by beginning to prepare in whatever way I can. But here’s the thing, folks. In the world of public education, you can never be fully prepared. So you are just left with that nauseous, sinking, fluttery feeling every morning until suddenly you wake up several weeks after the school year has hit you, and you’ve become fully immersed in your professional self once again . . .
Had a bad day and couldn’t fully breathe due to the tension, so I went for a walk after work–still dressed in my formal attire–out into the park near my apartment, passing by the inevitable gaggle of teenage boys standing huddled together in the trees near the entryway, going up the stairs and passing the stray couple dry humping on a rock and smoking pot, and finally immersed myself deep in the park with no one else around. Interesting how few people, other than the scattered runners and dog walkers and bird watchers, are really willing to walk deep up into it. Not that I’m complaining. I sat up at the top overlooking the Hudson River and a thought came to me that finally calmed me and let me breathe again. I was thinking about the sort of paradox that the further away we can pull our vision from humanity–such as by looking down at the planet from outer space or simply walking solitary out into nature, out into the woods, up on top of a mountain–the more interconnected we recognize ourselves with others; whereas the more densely we embed ourselves in human culture, such as in megalopolises or in nightlife or what have you, the more disconnected and isolated we can often feel from other people.
Maybe this was the thought that finally centered me and prompted me to return home because it articulated my sense of loneliness in the midst of my life in this here giant city while reminding me of the bigger picture. It allowed me to cast aside the self-importance that lies at the other side of stress and remind myself of the beautiful insignificance of being a part of something much greater than myself.
Sometimes I feel like this profession is driving me crazy. Just about 80% of the other educators I meet I find either plumb crazy or I just simply can’t relate to them. The very few I can relate to are still pretty darn weird. Now, I ain’t exactly making any claims to normalcy myself. I have what could politely be called eclectic tastes. I drink weird herbal liqueurs and hate watching anything but depressing movies and listen to Norwegian electric guitar jazz or Senegalese mbalax. But I have worked with a pretty diverse amount of people in my time on this here earth, and once I got through my bitter misanthropic phase after college, I’ve mostly gotten along pretty well with the folks I’ve worked with. And I get along with most of the people I work with now, too. But I secretly find them all just frankly weird. I mean this in the sense that I just don’t find much of their actions nor dialogue intelligible.
I’m still confused about whether that’s because teachers in general are crazy or if it’s because public education is crazy and it drives people crazy. But it must be the latter, because now I think I’m goin crazy. I mean, how could you not? There’s so many conflicting values and directives and ideas being thrown at me that I never know which way is up. And I try to do what I do best, which is to examine the system as a whole and then enter into the fray with a structured vision which I then seek to implement. But then it’s like the rug gets pulled out from under me just when I think I’m achieving something.
Eventually, I’ve begun to understand why so many of the teachers I’ve met are such hot messes. They’ve become focused narrowly upon that point on which they know they can achieve something positive, and they lash out at anything that might threaten that unstable piece of manna. They cradle it like a flame from the wind. Because the fact is that the world outside of the classroom–even within the school itself–does not generally have the best interests of the teacher nor students therein in mind. And even when they do–the fact is that some things get very gray when they enter into the realm of classroom reality. People want to go on and on about “students first.” And no one would disagree, of course. But most of these folks have not actually stepped foot into the reality of a classroom in a high poverty district. Try it, folks. Please. See if you can take the abuse that many teachers undergo for an entire working day. Then step back and see if you can keep talking about accountability and high expectations from such a pristine moral vantage.
Schoolwork is messy, in the same manner that work in the ICU unit of a hospital is messy. At least in the NYC public school system in the South Bronx it is. Does it have to be? No. But in the meantime those of us who are crazy–or who are destined to become crazy–are the ones out on the front lines trying to dredge out a garden in the midst of a hailstorm on the precipice of a cliff. Welcome to reality. It can drive you mad.