“The sad truth is that the saints we revere for thinking for themselves almost always end up thinking by themselves. We are disappointed to find that the self-taught are also self-centered, although a moment’s reflection should tell us that you have to be self-centered to become self-taught. (The more easily instructed are busy brushing their teeth, as pledged.) The independent-minded philosopher-saints are so sure of themselves that they often lose the discipline of any kind of peer review, formal or amateur. They end up opinionated, and alone.”
I have no idea who recommended The Cluetrain Manifesto, but it ended up on my Goodreads “want to read” list, and it arrived in my local library a few days ago. I honestly thought it was a fiction book from the title, something along the lines of The Monkey Wrench Gang, perhaps.
Turns out The Cluetrain Manifesto is a breathless paean to the Internet circa 2001, about how the internet will revolutionize business (though the version I’m reading has been updated with some sobered hedging by the authors ten years later).
The primary thesis of the authors is that markets are at heart conversations, and that businesses will either enable the freewheeling conversations empowered by the Net, or fight a losing battle for control.
I don’t want to wave away the advances that the internet has engendered, as I think it’s too easy to downplay, especially for you young whippersnappers who don’t even recall rotary phones. It really has been transformative. But from the vantage point of 2016, we can also see that the breathless prognosticating of the original Cluetrain hasn’t quite panned out. We’re seeing the once wide open, seemingly endless forests of internet anarchy, Grateful Dead-and-Phish-tape-trading freedom turn into gated communities as glossy, ad riven, and manipulative as the corporate fiefdoms of old.
So what went wrong? Why aren’t we living in an unmitigated bliss of genuine, heartfelt connection to one another across digital divides?
While markets have indeed become more about peer to peer sharing, people themselves have become more like corporations.
Ever heard the term “personal brand”? That’s right – as individuals, we now carefully cultivate and craft our online personas, targeting our messaging, delivering elevator pitches to our friends, and twisting our faces and extending our arms to capture selfies at perfectly calibrated angles.
Successful businesses today support our social posturing, while gathering our data, as defined by every click, post, and geospatial movement. Successful online personas, such as Kim Kardashian, harness the hall of mirrors to their advantage.
In this manner, we market ourselves while allowing ourselves to be marketed. The damning thing about all of this is that the internet of yore – that wild, ecstatic beast – is still right here around us but we gild ourselves into gated, controlled, glossy realms like moths to bulb.
Why? Because that’s where all the cool kids are.
Outside of the Cluetrain, I’ve been grappling with this lately in terms of my use of Facebook. I deeply appreciate how the platform enables me to interact and relate to others. I’m not always the most personable person in everyday life, and Facebook helps me to communicate different aspects of myself with people I wouldn’t otherwise.
But it’s also a gated community designed to keep me posting and clicking so it can stay in business.
This is the Faustian bargain we make. And if I assume some kind of radical stance on Facebook and delete my account or just stop using it (both of which I’m considering), well, I’ve also then got to justify why I am still actively using Google services, or Twitter, or Instagram, or …
… Or even why I am so tethered to a smartphone in the first place. Do I really need to be notified the minute I get an email? Do I really need GPS instead of a map?
Are the things I’m actually spending my time on each day adding meaning to my existence?
Would I do more of the things I really want to do if I didn’t have addictive attachments to social media? Would my relationships with people around me be more positive?
I don’t know. But I do remember the internet of the early 90s, back when I would spend summer nights chatting to random strangers on IRC. And yes, even then, we vied for social status with any nerdy signifier we could lay claim to, whether it was our handle, our ASCII graphic skills, our quick wit with a keyboard, or our creative use of asides. Even without the like buttons and the notifications, we found ways to develop and curate our online personas.
The difference is that nobody was really watching, outside of the Cheers-like regulars we came to know at our regular watering holes.
There was a freedom to it, and a loneliness.
Do I still have the wherewithal for that kind of thing? I’m not sure.
But surely in a day and age in which wildernesses both virtual and real are ever diminishing, it’s worth escaping from the everyday mall of mirrors–even if only for a blog post B&B–and exploring.
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.)
Sometimes I forget the power of language, how the very transmission of words onto a page or into another set of ears can cut or mend the very fabric of my life. When bad things have happened to me, I feel like I can trace their development to specific utterances. And by that, I don’t mean that words are necessarily magic incantations, though they certainly can be, when woven intentionally and powerfully by poets and the like. What I mean is that when I’ve said certain things, I’ve changed my own habits of mind, thus altering my behavior. This subtle shift in decision-making, initiated by the concrete translation of thought into words, alters my own awareness, either inhibiting or abetting my actions.
So I’ve re-remembered that I must be careful what I speak. Careful not in a paranoiac sense, but in the sense of a constant vigilance against speaking things against other people that I would not feel comfortable broadcasting to the whole world. This is the sort of talk that I’m usually fairly resistant to, as I’ve always disliked gossip. But perhaps the environment of a public school has lowered my immunity. Whatever the case may be, yours truly feels the need to be more guarded against speaking negative words. Because when one has uttered a negative word, it results in a subtle alteration of mind and body that spreads ripples into the world.
I want to strive to speak things that add value to life, not detract from it. I want to speak words that mends wounds, not creates them. And this does not mean that I would shy from speaking a hard truth when it is necessary–but rather that those hard truths must be delivered directly to the person that needs to hear them.
I’m not speaking against venting. I suppose there will always be a time and place for that. But venting needs to be done strategically, with brothers or sisters in arms. And it needs to be done with the ultimate goal of productive action, the ultimate goal of healing.
But mostly, it seems that the best strategy is to attempt to deflect negativity from others, while keeping personal negativity directed inward. The downward spiral of negativity is avoidable only by speaking the right words, the words that mend, the words that heal, the words that are vetted and chosen to make the world a place worth living in for another moment.
This is certainly not easy. But well worth my life.
I, like probably a healthy contingent of folks out there, am self-centered, and thus largely perceive the world through a deluded lens of self-importance. Every now and then, however, I gain a sliver of insight beyond the immediate realm of the distance between my cheek and my nose.
I like to magnify the spare, menial bits of glory that I may happen to stumble into now and again and celebrate the small triumphs of character or will. But the reality is that on the whole, I am deeply flawed, as I believe most people really are, when their externally syndicated mantle is peeled away.
There’s one simple way for me to maintain my humility: to re-focus my attention on the fact that for every extra effort that I extend, there is a woman doing the same thing — while simultaneously raising a child (or children). And because she is thus additionally employed, chances are that I will receive some kind of external recognition or compensation for my effort, while she may not.
My reflection on how my most challenging students have also been my greatest teachers.
It’s the most challenging students that you carry with you long after they’ve moved onto the next grade. That student who threw a desk at you, the one who cursed you out every day, the one who experienced schizophrenic hallucinations in the afternoon, the one who punched a hole in your wall, the one who cried and went into hysterics whenever you asked her to complete a task, that one who walked out the classroom throughout the day, the one so hungry for attention that you couldn’t get through an entire lesson, the one who ripped up every single piece of writing before he could finish, the one who used a laptop as a weapon and made sure you never left the room during your prep period again, the one who couldn’t stop talking for more than one minute . . . These are the ones that keep us up at night, the ones that often have undergone childhood experiences so unfathomable that even to speak of them out loud makes tears spring to our eyes and our voices so thick we stop ourselves from even bringing them up in conversation, even to our loved ones.
Such students drive us nuts while they are in our classrooms (and all too often, in our hallways). They are the ones rarely absent, the ones that disrupt the entire class dynamic and rivet everyone’s attention. They always demand immediate answers, they do not accept our authority unless it stands up to their own notions of justice, and they make fun of pretty much everything that crosses their radar, which usually includes students unable to stand up for themselves.
But it is these students that come back to me when I swap stories with other teachers. These are the students that teach me how to be a better teacher, and a better person. They have been teaching me what they had been put through, from their earliest days. They were sharing — in the only way they knew how to communicate it — something deep, and fundamental, and raw. And as I have grown to recognize those lessons, I have learned how to better love all of my students, and even — at the risk of sounding cheesy — how to better love humanity.
Children are constantly looking to the adults around them for guidance on how to navigate the constant bombardment of stress, anger, and anxiety, as well how to deal with conflicts with others. The sad thing is that we often are not ready to provide that guidance, whether due to competing demands on our attention, lack of professional therapeutic training, or simple lack of life and soul experience. Yes, I said ‘soul experience.’ This is that deep, dark place of grit that comes from overcoming life challenges that can not be faked and for a lack of which challenging children will call you out on within a moment in a classroom setting. If you can’t meet their challenge consistently, decisively, and with complete integrity, they will take you down into that wounded place of raw, bereft, acute despair within which they have had their formative experiences.
It takes a whole school to reach our most challenging students. It takes a staff willing to do whatever it takes to address that child’s needs, rather than abandoning them to a teacher already overwhelmed with the only slightly less immediate needs and demands of their other students. It takes a community that supports, nurtures, and cultivates emotional literacy. It takes a school that has the courage to acknowledge that for some students, the rules must be broken, and we can’t just punish our way into compliance, but rather must work carefully to cultivate warm relationships and a supportive, nurturing environment that slowly coaxes motivation from that student.
Though it’s hard to see it at the time, in the midst of all the negative conflicts and stress they put us through, we should cherish these challenging students. The students with exceptional learning needs. The students who have lived in shelters. The students abandoned first by their mothers and subsequently by a string of foster parents. The students who challenge us to love them, challenge us to care for them, challenge us to be the kind of educators that can believe in them no matter what — unconditionally — because that’s the kind of educators that they need.
The most valuable thing I may possibly possess is my attention. Everything else from each focal point flows: money, fitness, conversation, love. It therefore follows that the most pernicious power possibly wielded is inattention. Fallen along the periphery of lapsed perception lies barren decay, the detritus of abandonment. Grown all the more eventually loud and demanding in its rifted divisiveness.
Constant, unwavering vigilance is required, then, in the maintenance of integrity. To enlist an oblique reference from past popular culture, in Blair WitchProject, the moment of greatest fear lay not in the unseen scratching or indeterminate wailing in the woods, but in the closing shot of the friend in the basement corner with his back turned, posed monolithically, a presence assumedly known just a minute before but now no longer understood — for one moment abandoned and thus — in a subsequent moment of greatest peril and need — turned unreachably menacing.
In the ghettos of my soul, an unplumbed, thickened viscosity of malformed and unaddressed feelings can so easily build like malignant plaque. An accumulating pile of secondary priorities shoved into a corner of my awareness. My heart must be opened.
Our innards must be aired. Nothing good can happen unless all facets of each compiling moment are appreciated. The path, the journey that we make is hewn from the gravity of a complete and total immersion in what lies directly before us. The earth. The heated, desolate eyes of the public. Our bodies, our tongues, the sound and the light, unforsaken, believed in, cherished, compassionate,