You want optimism and hope without talk and action? Look someplace else today. Read another one of my posts. I have written many that are optimistic and hopeful, or simply informative. Today is a day for sounding the alarm. I've been thinking about how we set up some of our youth for failure.
Next term I will be teaching Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. It is her first novel and concerns a young girl who becomes convinced that if only her eyes were blue she would be pretty and her miserable parents would no longer fight. If only she could be what she understands society demands little girls to be, her world would be a better place.
Hers is a sort of magical thinking, but we are all wired for magical thinking, for trust in what is not rational or reasonable. Most of it we leave behind. For example, we outgrow our toddler belief that if we cover our eyes, no one can see us. Pecola Breedlove, the little girl of the Morrison's novel, will not survive long enough to grow out of her faith in her personal ability to change her world just by becoming pretty.
We expect our children to be this or that, and all of them try, they try so hard when they are little. They try to be what we collectively ask of them—how to look, talk, think. We ask them to be optimistic and kind and assertive and quiet and pretty. The demands come from parents and friends, through media and the person down the street, through words and hands and the glances of strangers. We aren't even aware of all the things we demand.
We ask them to keep trying, to be quick, to pass tests, to smile, to be polite. Is this really so much to ask?
In high school all I'm asking is that they read more and write assignments, think about ideas and develop skills—is that so hard? But my voice isn't the best or the loudest and it comes into their lives late and only briefly. They are already teenagers in my class and all of society has been telling them what matters their entire lives. Whether it's race, religion, language, sexual orientation, gender, they are told: Be this, not that! I know many of my students feel this pressure to conform to a narrow vision of success, whether they can articulate this expectation or not.
Americans first took note of the impact of culture on self image when the court case, Brown v. Board of Education, presented results of the experiments conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clarke in the 30s and 40s. Even little children understand what is supposed to be "pretty" and what is condemned as "bad."
It isn't what most people meant to tell them, certainly not what the people who loved them meant to teach. But they got the message, even so.
A perennial research paper topic among my students concerns how the media impacts feelings of self-worth, especially for girls. The look girls pursue—that pretty, white, manicured Look—is costly and, like poor, black Pecola Breedlove, many cannot achieve it at all. My students are made to feel like failures in a society that constantly judges them on superficialities. Individually we would never condemn a child for such trivialities, but collectively we deliver the message, even so.
This is additionally cruel once money enters the scene. We are a society that too often judges others based on money. The poor are blasted for not having ambition or a work ethic or whatever, for not working their way up. But hard times have come to most of the world, and many people I know work very hard indeed for little money. Hard work and talent and ambition and vision do not ensure riches for everyone.
My use of the photos at the top of yesterday's post led to considerable anger from readers on Facebook who accused me of promoting hatred and intolerance and "lack of compassion". If that is the impression I gave other readers, I regret it. It was not my intention. (Fewer people will read this post without an image of beautiful blondes at the top—wanna bet I'm wrong? You'll lose.*) That photo reminded me of the expensive trucks I talked about in my post—all the trappings of wealth and privilege smacking most of my students in the face. I've watched too many students work ridiculous hours in order to afford a truck, or cry because they could not afford the fashion. They are only trying to do what society tells them in so many ways that they should be doing, They are told they would do it too, if they were worth anything at all. I wish my students recognized that these are false idols, that they represent only superficial nonsense, unrealistic and meaningless goals they should ignore.
But then I think: How well did I understand the meaning of the universe when I was seventeen?
Something is wrong about what we teach children about value. Somehow it's gotten tied up with money, with dollars instead of sense.
I should not watch the commentators on one network spreading their bile about lazy good-for-nothings. But I try to hear all the voices talking into my world.
Is it fair to point to the most entitled segments of society and suggest that they back off criticizing the less fortunate? I think so. The poor do not have the power to correct these abuses—and I do think our emphasis on money as a marker of the value of people is abusive.
Our society is out of balance and tipped in favor of certain demographics—wealth is right there at the top of the entitlement list. We are a democracy, and everyone is supposed to be allowed to participate as equal players. I'd like to see us give that goal of a level playing field more than lip service.
I see too much hardship and too much despair in my school. I see too many students who are completely disfunctional in my classes and when I learn about the rest of their lives outside school, I can't help thinking: Well, no wonder! In their shoes, I would hide under the bed and suck on dust bunnies.
They didn't choose their families. They didn't choose their own suffering. No one person set out to ruin their lives, but a whole society has failed them. And not all of them have had the fortune or the mentor to help them rise. Plenty of research shows that certain events—not all of them pleasant—and certain kinds of mentoring—not all of it pleasant—can shove a child on the path of success. (After digging their way out of terrible situations, and because of what they have been taught about the individual, some successful adults assume they are unique and special, and that those who fail to follow their example are lazy good-for-nothings. Their success is commendable, but is it just to assume that another who fails is a lost soul? I wouldn't call that fair. There is that element of serendipity at work.)
Not always unconsciously, society tells its children: "You should work harder. You should do this or that. Quit whining and make something of yourself. Oh! And by the way, what you are supposed to make of yourself must look exactly like what we say it should look like."
I am told that I should be more positive, that I should look into my heart and change the way I feel on a personal level. (I think that's what I'm doing all the time.) I have been warned by others that talking about troubles such as poverty or sexism or racism simply perpetuates the problems.
Silence is not always golden. Like the child who covers her face, I am still visible even if I cannot see.
Do we think the Civil Rights Act and rights for women and all the rest came about because people sat silently looking only inward to their own hearts? It certainly isn't a bad place to start, but injustice doesn't go away as a result of not talking about it. Hush and they won't see us, is that the idea? That suggestion is naive or the result of entitlement or plain foolishness, I'd say.
Forget sitting peacefully and silent while waiting for the world to turn itself right side up. Forget that!
Nothing changes unless we start by talking.
I say that the first thing we should talk about is fairness in the ability to feed, cloth, house, and care for our families. I say we should search for the values and challenges we all share. I say we should talk about what mutual respect looks like and how it feels to be without it. I say we start demanding fairness. I say we change the world for the better.
I say we do something.
There are plenty of people who have ideas about how to make the world better not just for themselves but for everyone. It's time we took our hands from in front of our eyes and did something to make the world better.
I'll paraphrase Sojourner Truth and suggest, "Now they is askin' to do it, [those in power] better let 'em."
______________________________ *In fact, they would have lost if anyone had taken my bet. Yesterday's post is different from today's mostly because of the images I chose. Two blond actors (whom I was clear that I meant no disrespect toward) have gathered almost 200 hits. The boy and scientist above, less than forty. My message is redrafted, and hopefully more clear. But on my Facebook link people commented about not liking the actors and which one looked nicer. Others accused me of name-calling and angry words. It's true I got pretty heated after being told my message was "judgmental and angry and greatly lacking compassion, understanding or balance" and later that it was "angry and mean." But other comments on Facebook defended wealth and how hard some people had worked to achieve it—basically, how dare I criticize anyone's wealth. Well, I'm sorry if I wasn't more clear. I've tried do better above. It would be nice if people read my words with an open mind without reading their own personal issues into them.
Is it mean of me to say that I think it's sad that this post will never have the readership of the one I wrote yesterday, and because of the very reason yesterday's post is flawed. I started with those two beautiful women and with money, and most readers just couldn't get past $ and beauty.
I could explain until I'm blue in the face what I meant and rewrite every word, but I suspect it would make no difference. People make up their mind about what they think I said and take personally comments that I was directing at society as a whole. Nothing I write will make a bit of difference. It's a well documented effect of speaking an opinion about a controversial issue. I understand this, too, because I have done it myself. I have brought my preconceptions to the table and spouted rhetoric unfairly because I was paying less attention to what I was reading than to what I was thinking in my own head. Then again, sometimes people just honestly disagree. That's fair too. We should be able to disagree without attacking one another. And though I have been guilty of that too, please know that I beat myself up for it.
WARNING: I am a class warrior.
There are Beamers and Mercedes across the street this weekend. Fifteen people in houses that rent for over $300 a night. They are, I am told, all women with blond hair and a recognizable look. You know the Look: botox, Nordstrom, MAC, cruel shoes. And the hair, of course. The expensive hair that costs hundreds each month to maintain. Yeah. That look. [And no offense intended to the actors I picture here.]
This is none of my business, of course, but it feeds my fury. Money and the expectations of money mess with my students and they are my business. A decade ago we used to have a line of trucks parked each day at my school—each one worth more than my yearly salary and driven by a teenager whose parents deducted a new vehicle every other year, wrote it off as a business expense, and then passed it along to a son or daughter when they bought the next one.
I pointed out to our Vice Principal at the time that those trucks were a tough act to keep up with if your own parents worked in those businesses instead of owning them. I credit him for taking that to heart.
My students desperately struggled to keep up with those trucks. And a few other cocky students went all smug about how they worked part time to pay for their own insurance, without once considering that some of their peers had to work to help pay the rent.
Economic times have changed and we don't have that lineup of trucks anymore. Gas is too expensive, and business is down, even here in paradise.
I still have students who must work to help keep their families afloat. That much has not changed. But neither has the assumption from some that being well off makes some people better than others. Forbes finds that the general opinion of the Millennials is that they have no work ethic. I hear this a lot from faculty too. But if it's true, it might be a rational response to a changed reality. A self-professed member of Generation X said that his was the last generation that might believe in the "American Dream" of hard work leading to success. "It's not true anymore for the Millennials," he said. Research might back this view. Opportunities are not what they once were, not even for talented people willing to work hard.
In my community this is obvious and always has been. We have business owners and those who work in the businesses. There are no in-betweens here, no companies to start at the bottom of and work up, no great manufacturing or industrial opportunities. My students see no such models in their own life or the lives of their community. Ours is a tourist economy: restaurants, hotels, motels, small retail stores.
It's always been challenge to convince local teenagers that the world awaits them. They do not see any evidence to support that kind of optimism.
But now this problem may be true for an entire generation. The "Millennials" are having a harder time having faith in their future compared to previous generations. The middle class is shrinking. The rich are richer, and they are not sharing. They don't want the minimum wage to buy what it did when I was a girl, and they don't contribute proportionately to charities. No amount of hard work is going to guarantee them a thing, some argue, while others say it's too easy to give up without a fight.
Teenagers are looking for their place in the world. About to enter adulthood, they are figuring it all out. Sometimes they catch messages about what they are supposed to look like, own, say, and even do that their parents never intended for them to adopt.
Every few days a new set of expensive cars—usually four or five of them—crowd my street. The man who owns the rental house complains about the property taxes he pays "for nothing." The last batch of his renters broke a window latch and otherwise "trashed" the place before they left. Most of those people are pleasant enough, but sometimes they are loud and drunk, sometimes they walk into our yard, their untethered dogs chase our cat, their beach fires are left unattended. They mean no harm, but as a full-time neighbor of that mostly-legal rental house, I can say it isn't fun for us. That's only one reason I don't feel sorry for the owner: he's making a bucket load of money running a profitable business in what is supposed to be a residential community.
More important, I do think this careless behavior of his renters says something about a popular American belief that richer somehow means morally better. Having money promises nothing about honor, ethics, a strong work ethic, or compassion. Or even about whether people genuinely value those qualities at all. Studies suggest that success merely breeds a sense of entitlement and arrogance, not compassion or a realistic view of their own situation or accomplishments.
We each need hope to get by, taking our personal advantages for granted gets us nowhere as a nation. And hope itself is hard to find when nothing in the lives all around promises a thing.
I was covering a class for one of the math teachers and helping a student with a story problem. It was fairly straight forward: If Joe Shmo earns x dollars making each girl doll and y dollars making each boy doll, how many of each would he have to make in order to earn $504? Graph the slope.
The problem was easy enough, but in my head I am thinking: how much does it cost Joe to make each of those dolls? How long does it take him to make each kind? Which is more marketable? And because this is not rote work, but requires creativity, which doll does Joe prefer to make? Real life is messier than story problems convey. We are motivated to achieve less by money as our personal investment in thought and passion enter into the equation.
Teaching is a creative act, and I am about to beat myself up again for doing it wrong.
My failing: Sometimes I don't figure out what I should be doing until it's too late to do it.
My students need to watch these videos about logic. Sometimes I agree with their thesis and other times I do not, but their reasoning is often random and illogical.
They do not see that.
Some cannot let go of their own prejudices long enough to view the complete picture. (They would object to my use of the word "prejudice.") Some present evidence that clearly supports one view of an issue and still persist in embracing another. Some assume that a + b = qsharp. Some find an idea unacceptable because of A, but fail to notice that the alternative they promote is also unacceptable because of A…
They do not understand logic. :-(
They will defend their logical fallacies with passion and considerable resentment. They do not understand how to construct a logical argument.
Next year, if I am teaching this class, I will better prepare myself and require students to read and watch some of these resources online. I will study them carefully in order not to fall prey to my own opinions, prejudices, and illogic.
I talked about the Honors class to one of the Sophomore English classes yesterday. A student wanted to know if college admissions were more impressed by a C in Honors or an A+ in regular English?
That's the wrong question. Do you see the flaw? If your education in merely a matter of checking off boxes, you will fail to gain the prize, which is not an A+ (which I never give to anyone), but is an education.
A student could, like the man in a recent grade-faking scandal, create a terrific transcript of excellent grades through graduate school, and even score the $70k starting-pay job. It probably seemed logical to him to sleep in and fake his grades by hacking his professors' computers, but he'd be wrong about that. A perfect transcript is not a substitute for knowing how to actually do the job. That cheating student lost that prime job, got some jail time, and is working as a part time busboy these days, which is the only legitimate job he's learned to do.
Do I take the harder classes, do the work as best I can, and learn a lot in order to prepare for my future; or take the easier course and prepare for a struggle the rest of my life? Chart the slope.
I love story problems.
I don't check my phone. I check my blog counter. I am looking for readers and for confirmation… affirmation… admiration?
My blogger numbers grow. I have three counters tracking readers of my page. The most conservative counter, added some time after I started blogging, shows about fifty thousand visitors, but it counts only unique visits. The official Blogger counter shows close to 100,000 hits to my blog, counting back to my beginning, but this counter also graphs visits from before my first post. There is a third counter that mostly agrees with the first one. So, you know, I don't really know how many people are reading.
I wanted readers, and I have readers.
I put up a poem the other day, "Avoid the Suicides," and within a few hours over a hundred people had looked at that poem page. Others may have clicked on my blog site and found the poem at the top or by scrolling down over the next days.
Maybe they didn't all read my poem. Maybe most of those visitors moved on immediately after seeing it was a poem. But a few read it. In hours I probably had more readers, actual readers, than I gather in a print publication. I'm judging by my own habits, because I do not often read a literary journal cover to cover. I can count on my fingers the poetry books I have read cover to cover. I graze. I nibble and come back tomorrow for another meal. I skim until I find the one that slaps me between the eyes. I reread that one. I come back tomorrow and read it again. I give up sometimes. I assume others do this. Or perhaps I am unique in my bad reading habits. Maybe.
During a post-MFA residency visit I went to dinner with one of my former faculty advisors. He commented, "Who actually even reads those literary journals people submit to?"
I immediately thought, "No one."
And then, of course, I was depressed for weeks.
At the NCTE Regional this past weekend, one session I attended concerned publication. One person asked about keeping a blog. Was there a point? Did it go anywhere? No one on the panel had a blog, but one panelist said that blogs had led to books, right? After the session ended, I caught the woman who had asked the question, and told her I have a blog and I find it useful as an outlet, a discipline, as a place to write and to practice writing. I told her that I had pulled several pieces from my blog and submitted to and been accepted by print journals.
There is also this: I have found many more readers and received much more feedback from my blog than I have from all my print publications put together.
There is a prestige element at play here. If I were a really good writer and a more devoted submitter, I would have even more publications, and I would publish in journals with larger readerships. But I have actually been published in journals with wide readerships and even then... When CALYX published a story that also won a literary award, for example, I was told to expect offers to come rolling in. Eventually I received one and it led no where.
If I were a better writer, or a different sort of writer, perhaps my publications would have led to a serious request for a manuscript. Such things happen. W.P. Kinsella's short story about a baseball player attracted the attention of an agent who asked if he had a novel. Bill lied, and said, yes. And they he wrote the novel that became the film, Field of Dreams. But that's Kinsella.
Where am I in my writing life? Too busy with other things to manage what Stafford did. I write every day, but I must venture forth, there is no stillness in my late waiting for poems to find me.
Last night I stayed late in the Library, as I have fairly regularly since my brother suggested we keep the school library open back in the 90s. Many students need a quiet place to work, many don't have access to a printer, or need to check on on how to complete assignment. Last night, I scored an exam and an essay, helped a student with her portfolio, and wrote a letter of recommendation that a student needs to submit today, and I worked on the Bucket List and Portfolio that I assign because I write what my students write. It was a productive evening, though I still have ten long essays to score.
One of the students sharing the Library last night (before the splendid band concert that followed) told me how much she appreciated that I wrote the assignment she was writing. "It just seems—" she hesitated, "more fair." She said a relative had told her that she needed to take my class because it would prepare her for college and that I had been his favorite teacher. "I thought you should know that," she said.
I could wait my whole life and never hear a better compliment.
Wednesday Gray rainwater lay on the grass in the late afternoon. The carp lay on the bottom, resting, while dusk took shape in the form of the first stirrings of his hunger, and the trees, shorter and heavier, breathed heavily upward. Into this sodden, nourishing afternoon I emerged, partway toward a paycheck, halfway toward the weekend, carrying the last mail and holding above still puddles the books of noble ideas. Through the fervent branches, carried by momentary breezes of local origin, the palpable Sublime flickered as motes on broad leaves, while the Higher Good and the Greater Good contended as sap on the bark of the maples, and even I was enabled to witness the truly Existential where it loitered famously in the shadows as if waiting for the moon. All this I saw in the late afternoon in the company of no one.
And of course I went back to work the next morning. Like you, like anyone, like the rumored angels of high office, like the demon foremen, the bedeviled janitors, like you, I returned to my job—but now there was a match-head in my thoughts. In its light, the morning increasingly flamed through the window and, lit by nothing but mind-light, I saw that the horizon was an idea of the eye, gilded from within, and the sun the fiery consolation of our nighttimes, coming far. Within this expectant air, which had waited the night indoors, carried by—who knows?—the rhythmic jarring of brain tissue by footsteps, by colors visible to closed eyes, by a music in my head, knowledge gathered that could not last the day, love and error were shaken as if by the eye of a storm, and it would not be until quitting that such a man might drop his arms, that he had held up all day since the dew.
I think you have to hear Marvin Bell's poem about his wife to fully love him. But this poem might be enough to start the affair. Robert Peake on "Wednesday"
Avoid the Suicides
I learned when I was young: avoid the suicides. Stop my ears with honey-wax and watch them from afar. Avoid those dark and dangerous boys in loose and faded jeans, their cool habits, those who stare but will not greet my eyes, with lashes long enough to fan the air.
I heard about insanity when I was young and decided not to stay, only wander by. The music played along my neck and I was lured, compelled to promise more than I could give, but in the end I would not kiss the hand of death. I turn away instead, walk another path.
I am lucky to be alive, they say, and I know those who've gone away. Someone stepped beside, laced fingers into mine, to guide me along the cliff.
Though true I am sometimes lost in thickets, alone in weeds, long rocky shores flick waves across my feet, it's true: selfish but alive, I am still traveling.