Seven Ways I Was Schooled This Week

soms-signI learned a few things – or at least reminded of some things I should already have known – this past week. Here’s my account of those lessons. Maybe some of you will get some sense of feeling like you’re not alone in your struggles with schools, and society, and being unique and special, and boxes.

I should also point out that my wife, Leah, got to #6 and #7 LONG before I did, and for that I love her madly.

1. A school is an institutional system, and like any other institutional system, it is designed to maintain and preserve its own equilibrium above all other considerations. Don’t get me wrong – there are people at my son’s school who have gone to great lengths – in some cases above and beyond the call – to help my son, as an individual, thrive and feel safe. I also believe that practically every employee at the school would take a bullet for my kid (and any other kid) if some asshat were to walk in will ill intent and a deadly weapon. And I admire them for that. But in the far more common day-to-day aspects of educating, a school will do whatever it can to maintain a standardized box into which every kid must fit, because they’re convinced that’s the only way that order can be maintained, and also the only way that they think they can do the most good for the most children with the limited time and resources the school has.

2. In the mind of an educator, there can only be one story. There are no “sides”. There is only what the teacher says happened, and any attempt to look more deeply into that amounts to an outright accusation that the teacher is lying. It is very difficult to try to bring any context into a situation under these conditions. You can say that you believe the teacher is honestly giving an account of what happened from her perspective, but that you also believe your child has given an honest account of what happened from HIS perspective, even if the accounts differ in some important details. But to a teacher, that’s an accusation. Because in order to keep the system’s status quo in place, in order to keep things within the box, a child can’t have a perspective, at least not one that has any weight. There is only the teacher’s perspective. Anything else amounts to total chaos.

2.a. Due Process? Ha! Yeah, right. Your property – property in possession of your child that is being used as part of his Individual Education Plan (IEP) – can be confiscated and kept by the school for an extended period based solely on a teacher’s suspicion that the property is being used at an inappropriate time. And because the teacher’s authority MUST be kept sacred under all circumstances, no extenuating circumstances will be considered, and no argument that the weight of the consequence might be too burdensome given the circumstances will be considered.

3. Educators will tend to have each other’s backs and defend each other’s actions without question. I don’t know what color the line is for the public education system, but just like the Thin Blue Line philosophy that Law Enforcement has, when faced with pushback from outside the club, teachers and administrators will present a united front and also act personally offended that any mere civilian would question or critique the system. As part of this phenomenon, the people who you’ve been previously able to count on as allies in the struggle to help your child cope and thrive will suddenly start giving curt, one-sentence responses to emails and sit in meetings silently looking down at their laps, as if they’ve been warned to toe the line.

4. There must be some sort of college class for people getting degrees in education that teaches potential teachers and administrators how to act and speak in a way that kinda makes it seem like parents/advocates are being listened to and taken seriously, while at the same time conveying a subtext of “How dare you question us?” that invokes Jack Nicholson’s indignant rant as Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men. Because seriously. How else can you explain their knack for acting like they’re listening and absorbing your concerns while also making it pretty clear they think you’re basically just trying to get your kid special treatment and wasting their time?

5. Our society is set up to make all of the above things seem perfectly reasonable, perfectly acceptable. The school is technically not doing anything wrong by spending its energy to maintain its institutional system. Yes, I’ve colored everything above with my own bias, but taking my frustration and bias out of it, the school is merely following policies and procedures that are intended to be as fair and balanced as possible. Keeping the system functioning in a well-ordered way, maximizing limited resources to benefit the broadest spectrum of students and preparing them for eventual life in The Real World is the point. Preservation of the status quo in that system is essential – or, if change is proven to be necessary, it must happen slowly, incrementally, and in an orderly fashion. From the system’s perspective, working to keep kids inside the box is not a bug, it’s a feature. When you have hundreds of children to deal with, you can only treat them as individuals with specific and unique contexts up to a point. Student with special needs who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs), will be helped as much as they practically can, but overall even kids with special needs have to live and function in The Real World and they need to be taught to fit in and go along.The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. I get it. I accept it, sort of.

6. BUT WAIT! NO, I ACTUALLY DON’T ACCEPT IT! Even if that’s the reality of what the education system has to do – even if that’s the only way the system can responsibly function, even if that’s the system’s Big-Picture job, It isn’t MY job! My job is to do everything I can to enable my child to flourish AS HIMSELF, with his own personality, his uniqueness, and his individuality intact. Yes, there has to be a balance of some kind between individuality and functioning within a society – I get that. As much as a part of me may want to, I can’t say, “Screw the world, my kid is the most special of all special humans and everybody is just gonna have to accept that!” As a parent I need to teach him to respect other humans and negotiate a balance between his needs and theirs, his uniqueness and theirs. And I think to some extent I’ve maybe been confused about where I, myself, should strike that balance. How much should I be telling my child to buck up, grow up, fit in, and get along, versus my desire to encourage him to embrace who he is, not be ashamed of his particular challenges, and proudly exist outside any boxes that he doesn’t want to climb into? Well, I think maybe that’s the biggest lesson of the week …

7. The world and its institutions and systems are set up to put us into a box. Eventually, they will get what they want, because we all end up in a box eventually. But until that final box-putting that we can’t avoid, the world doesn’t get to put me, or my loved ones, or my friends, into boxes. Not without a fight. Not without my strong, informed, attentive resistance. In other words, my biggest lesson of the week is, the school already has the full force of its established institutional system working on its behalf. THEY DON’T NEED ME TO JUMP IN ON THEIR SIDE. They don’t need me to empathize with how tough it is for them, they don’t need my unquestioning cooperation, and they sure as hell don’t need me giving my passive permission to put my kid into their box. Instead, MY KID NEEDS ME TO GO ALL-IN ON HIS SIDE. My child needs an advocate. And no, I don’t need to vilify or demonize the school or its staff or my son’s teachers, because yes, they pretty much ARE just doing what the system requires of them. But that’s the point – they have their system and their policies and their self-assured confidence in the time-tested rightness of their mission. My child, on the other hand, has only his parents. He has my wife, and he has me. And although he has a few allies among the school staff who have gone out of their way to support and encourage him, their influence and ability to act on his behalf will always be curtailed by the policies and procedures of the system. So in the end, the only people that my child has who can be completely and unswervingly on his side in this rigged game are my wife and I. And therefore I need to be that person for my kid, without reservation.

Lessons learned.

True Grit?

Angela Lee DuckworthLeah chose this video last night for our family tv-time and while we watched it, I must say, I wanted to rail against it big-time, a feeling that increased as the talk went on. As I pondered it afterward though, I realized I wasn’t pissed off because I thought Dr. Duckworth is wrong, but because I’m forced to admit that – at least in terms of how success is measure in mainstream education and society – she is right.

The thing that she calls “grit” (I’m not fond of that word, honestly, but whatever) is something that I lack in abundance – at least in terms of the success rubric being covered in this talk. So this is a particularly touchy subject for me.

I’ve grown up telling myself that the ease with which I tend to give up on things is mostly a product of two big childhood factors: One, how easy school was for me in general, to the point that I was rarely challenged to try very hard and thus never learned how – and Two, how difficult my home life was, where I was taught to equate “grit” with violence and bitter rage, to the point that I tried to excise any hint of “toughness” from my personality so that I would not grow up to be the violent hair-trigger ball of anger that was my father. Somewhere along the line, those two factors added up to me having lots of trouble mustering the kinds of stick-to-it behaviors that mainstream society puts under the umbrella of “work ethic”. That is apparently what Dr. Duckworth is calling “grit”.

Since I’ve grown up and encountered various types of therapies, I’ve learned to adjust my thinking and cope with this stuff a bit.  And I’m still working on it, because I realize it is incorrect to assume that every time things get really tough or challenging or tense that my only two choices are to lash out violently or totally turtle up and make myself as small as possible. I don’t need to take the concept of fight-or-flight to its dramatic extremes and then always choose flight.

Anyhow, here’s the video that got me musing all this stuff today. What do you think? Is “grit” the right answer to the question of success in school and in life? Is the prevailing rubric of “success” even the right question in the first place?


Direct link to this video on TED channel

Tales from an Elementary School Hallway

school hallwayFor the past few days,  I’ve been keeping a certain distance from emotionally engaging with what happened last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary. Clearly, I’ve been plenty engaged with – and really pissed off about – various trending reactions to the tragedy, which you can easily see in my social media and blog history if you haven’t already. But as for the thing itself, I’ve buried it for the most part. I’ve hugged my kids a few extra times, but that’s about it.

This morning, though, I went to our local elementary school to help out with WildLion’s holiday party. The announcement sign outside the school currently reads “Our hearts and prayers are with Sandy Hook Elementary and the families in Newton, Connecticut”.

Now I’ll admit that the first thing my ample imagination did after reading that was to envision myself grabbing Mike Huckabee and all the other “God was absent because we’ve kicked him out of public school” asshats and shoving their faces into that sign and then punching them in their square white male Evangelical jaws. I don’t admit that proudly, but it is honest.

That immature hormonal rage lasted until the moment I crossed the threshold of the building.  Then, instantly, it shattered.

I went into the office and signed in as a parent volunteer, said “hi” to Lynne and Diane, the office managers, like I always have, with a smile on my face but a massive surge of – I dunno, vetigo, I guess – welling up inside my chest.

From the office I entered the main hallway of the school and headed toward WildLion’s second-grade classroom. It’s a relatively new building, well-maintained, with ample lighting and lots of things like kids’ art and spirit banners and stripes of school colors (royal blue and yellow) all over the walls. There is plenty of activity – kids with passes going to restrooms or to other classrooms, teachers and teaching assistants and school administrators & counselors walking around. From the open-doored classrooms, the sounds of children learning and teachers teaching and … life.

And that was the moment when my emotional failsafes all broke and my imagination kicked down the door of my fear and sadness and knocked the mask of the “angry progressive white male father” right off me, exposing the scared little boy fully capable of envisioning this bright idyllic middle-class scene full of learning and life becoming a hellscape of screams, gunshots, and chaos.

So much for keeping my emotional distance.

I cried. And I felt like throwing up. I actually had to divert into the nearest restroom. I’m not really sure an adult visitor is supposed to go into the boy’s restroom, but I did because otherwise I’m crying in the middle of an elementary school hallway. Thankfully, no kids were in there. (Which I think kinda proves that God is in fact very present in that particular public school).

So yeah, I cried it out in the boy’s bathroom. Then, after few minutes I pulled it together, left the restroom, and went to help my kid and his friends have a holiday party.

The rest of the morning went “normally” for the most part. Except for one thing that I felt I just had to do – I took WildLion’s teacher aside for a moment and told her that I am thankful for her. That I am grateful that she is spending her life teaching, caring for, and protecting my kid and all the other kids she devotes herself to every school day.

And when I left the party, I went up to Cartographer’s 5th-grade classroom, dropped off the teacher’s gift Leah had made and told his teacher the same thing. Then I saw Cartographer’s counselor in the hall and thanked her, too. And as I signed myself out in the office, I thanked Lynne and Diane and the assistant-principal who happened to be standing there.

And as I walked out past the sign I’d read earlier, I guess I felt a little better. Because yes, I *do* still wish I could shove Mike Huckabee and his ilk through that sign. But I can’t, and even if I could it’d be stupid, immature, and pointless (not to mention lowering myself to senseless violence). But what I CAN do is appreciate, support, and help the people who are educating and caring for our kids.

Meta Navel Gazing: Why I Post My Whiny Bits


My efforts to start blogging again have contained a lot of navel-gazing – Hell, I’ve even got a whole category called “Navel Gazing” because I know myself well enough to realize that if I keep up with the writing there’s going to be more than a fair share of it involving my whiny postmodern introspective TMI stuff in the mix.

So, in an effort to rationalize my proclivities, I figured I’d try to suss out why I do it. So here’s a post where my navel explains itself. It’s like META navel gazing!

The easy and obvious reason is that I want the attention, that I want you to feel for me. I suppose there’s some truth in that, if I’m honest. But then again, if you’re honest about whatever things you share with others in your life, that’s likely to be true about you, too. Which is part of the thing I’m leading up to.

See, I’m hoping that the bigger reason that I do this is that I’m human, and I want to be MORE human, and I want to think that there are other humans out there who might get some ray of hope (ironically), or at least connection – out of reading my whiny bits.

I actually tend to enjoy it when others share their messiness and insecurities, especially in well-written prose. If I didn’t like reading it, I doubt I’d have any tendency to write it. When all else is stripped away, it’s all about stories – about connecting to the messy beauty of humanity through the sharing of our stories. It’s about being reminded that I’m not – that none of us are – as alone or as fucked up as we feel when our armor and security blankets are set aside.

So, if I keep writing, I’m very likely to keep writing about my shit. The thing I hope to do, though, is to get better at writing it so that it comes across as slightly more elegant in its messy honesty and thus becomes more accessible. That comes with practice, trial-and-error, and taking cues from those who are already doing a bang-up job of it.

One of the Smart People I like to read regularly is J.R. Daniel Kirk, a professor at Fuller Seminary who’s blog, Storied Theology, takes a good long look at Story and Narrative in all their messiness as the essential means of our connecting with one another and with the Divine. Recently, he wrote a post called Story Telling & Crisis, and the bit I’ve quoted below is spot on, in my thinking:

We realize that our own stories are not stories of confidence and glory but rather of fumbling and shame and wounds all mixed up with moments of hope and beauty. But somehow we encounter other people and assume that their lives are the public moments of being put-together and beautiful that we happen to encounter–creating a content for the label “normal” that applies to no actual person that we have ever known with any depth.

Reframing normal. That’s what storytelling is about. It provides the rich, comforting revelation that my crap is, in fact, normal, and that there are fellow travelers through the mire. And, hope for moments of rest and peace and beauty.

via Story Telling & Crisis | Daniel Kirk

So that’s my hope. That through these acts of navel-gazery I’ll be jumping into the mire and helping other humans in the subversive act of reframing normal. And instead of waiting until I think I’m fairly good at it, I’m just going to open my overcoat and you can watch – or choose not to – while I practice getting better at talking about it.

Maybe you can think about doing it, too. I’d love to see what’s under your overcoat, and I don’t need it to be Photoshopped or censored or anything that will obscure the honest you from being visible. We are beautiful in our ugliness. We are godlike in our humanness. We are elegant in our messiness. And we are are wonderfully flawed and normal in our realness.

I’m showing you my navel. My paunchy, more-flabby-than-I-want-it-to-be real human navel. Now you show me yours.