Friday, August 29, 2014

Stop It, Teachers

It's that time of year. Teachers go back to work, kids go back to school, and people who have no idea what they're talking about start bitterly complaining about the possibility that somewhere out there, there could be a teacher working under passable employment conditions. Which is a bad thing, because we have collectively decided that for teachers to have a decent, reliable job is not good for children. This is so widely accepted that teachers don't dare to express any self-interest at all. I love you all, but have you been brainwashed? Do you have Stockholm Syndrome? Because it kind of seems like you agree with those who believe you have no right to financial stability, a supportive work environment, or any desire to a happy life outside of work.

You run around, writing things like this. You make excellent points. You assure us everything you do is for the good of the children, and every word you say it true. However, while you do that, you're defending yourselves against hysterical accusations that you shouldn't have to dignify with an answer. The more you assure us that everything you do is for the children, the more you play into the implication that it somehow benefits kids for their teachers to have crappy jobs. You tacitly agree that putting any energy into your own needs is in opposition to the best interest of all children, everywhere. 

"The teachers have a union. What do the kids have???" ask hand-wringing c-list celebrities. True, kids are vulnerable. But frankly, their interests are being overrepresented here, although it's happening in a deeply disingenuous way. In a way that, ironically, isn't doing them any favors. They're going to grow up and enter the job market. Some of them will become teachers. What do we want to see waiting for them when they get there?

This year, Whoopi Goldberg, a Hollywood actress turned person-who-talks-out-of-her-ass-for-a-living, is the vehicle for the argument that tenure protects "bad teachers", but it could have been anyone. She claims to be a thinker, but she's merely repeating what millions of others have already voiced. You want to talk about someone with no accountability? There's no reason for Goldberg to put herself out by researching or even employing her critical thinking skills. She has a larger audience than any teacher, but there will be no consequences if it's revealed she has no idea what she's talking about. She has zero incentive to be responsible. Worst case scenario, she loses her job, spends an evening crying into her solid gold pillow. She does a little soul searching. She asks herself if she'd rather find a new project (so she can be fulfilled - she doesn't have to worry about supporting herself), or if it would be better to drop out and live out her days in luxurious retirement. If there's a teacher out there whose biggest concern is that you might get your feelings hurt, call me! I'd love to know your secret. 

Oh, to return to the golden days of childhood, when Whoopi starred in major motion pictures, playing fictional characters who made you believe Whoopi herself was intelligent, interesting and likable. You're a little black woman in a big, silver box. You breathed new life into the nun's choir. You let go of the fact that the woman you were madly in love with couldn't love you back, and sat right by Mary Louise Parker's side while she died of AIDS. I want to love you. I really do. 

After receiving some backlash that will not have the slightest negative effect on her life, Whoopi issued this very condescending rebuttal: 

Oh, your children and grandchildren went to school, or are currently attending! Than naturally, you know what you're talking about. Not everyone cay say that. Oh, wait. Yes they can. Literally every American can say they, their children, their grandchildren or someone they know has attended school, because we're all offered a free, comprehensive education. Whoopi Goldberg has indeed established herself as someone who has the bare minimum knowledge in this area. 

In the end, she mentions she's the child of a teacher. Like me, and Matt Damon. So why is Matt Damon so much more (forgive me) schooled in this issue than she is?

I can't get enough of Matt Damon being intelligent, sane and thoughtful. Why hasn't he been offered a spot on The View? Because while Goldberg clarifies that she was only talking about bad teachers, Damon exposes why that's such a manipulative point for her, or anyone, to make. So does Yuhuru Williams. 

Opponents of tenure however have used the “bad teacher” argument as a thinly veiled effort to attack teacher unions, claiming that they represent the interests of underperforming teachers over students. In reality, when empowered by state law to do so, teacher unions are often the loudest voices in favor of critical reforms that benefit students. By advocating for small class sizes, increased opportunities for professional development, safe and secure instructional spaces, and much needed resources for student instruction, teacher unions are generally the first and strongest advocates for interventions on issues such as poverty and the inadequate distribution of resources that most contribute to low-performing schools.

What's a bad teacher? There is no definition. It seems a bad teacher is someone who has offended a child or parent in some way. Over the course of a 30 or 40 year career, will even one teacher be able to escape this accusation? Currently, there is no way of measuring teacher performance that doesn't penalize the hardest working teachers - the ones who work with the highest need students. If you're so worried about holding teachers accountable, maybe you should be working on finding a way to do so.

But teachers. Teachers, teachers, teachers. You work hard every day. Your career required you to make a considerable investment of money and time to even get through the front door. You're professionals, and most of you hold yourselves to a high standard. Would you mind spending 13 years educating my children? The average person would laugh in my face, but a teacher doesn't blink. "Sure!" they say.

Do they do it for the money? The status? The summers off? Because they secretly love seeing children falling on the playground? The answer isn't my concern. I don't ask my children's pediatrician to do an amazing job overseeing my kids' health, and also prove she's worthy of doing so. Is it really, really important for her to do a good job? Does she owe it to me, and to my kids? Yes. But I'm not going to focus on that. "Somebody, think of the children!" has been done to death. It's important for professionals who cater to our physical, psychological and intellectual health to be well-meaning and competent. Duh. It goes without saying. I've already said too much, and in doing so done exactly what I'm lambasting teachers for doing.

Again, though, I say teachers! You aren't helping when you make sure to emphasize that every decent working condition you fight for is for the children, and that those children are you students, not the ones you have at home. Mentioning your own kids' needs is forboden. In the context of fighting for your working conditions, you never do it. Look, I'm not downplaying how important you are to your students. My kids will remember you all their lives. But those kids many of you have at home, the ones who are legally yours? You love them more. Admit it, and know that's the way it should be. It benefits them for you to be financially stable. They need houses, healthcare, college funds, enriching experiences and satisfied parents who aren't constantly worried about their livelihood, and unlike my kids, they're completely dependent on you to provide it all. No matter how much you love them and they love you, I'm virtually certain my kids won't be at your death bed. Yours will.

You defend yourselves against accusations of having some interest in your own job security and financial situation without ever stopping to say, "Well, yeah. I have what should be a firmly middle-class job, and I care about securing a middle-class lifestyle for my family."

I'm the child of a public school teacher, the product of dozens of them, and now the parent of two children in public school. So basically, I'm Whoopi Goldberg, a person with average knowledge. Unlike her, I have an original point to make. One that, disturbingly, I never hear. The Emperor is naked. The kids are very important, but no more important than their teachers. Fortunately, teachers and students do not have conflicting needs. But when does a person's well-being stop mattering? At the age of 18? Upon the birth of their first child? Or do you stop mattering the second you have a teaching certificate in your hand?

While you repeatedly assure us it's all about the kids, you play into the idea that you don't and shouldn't matter. You also seem to aggravate the stunning entitlement already displayed by the general public - we are further convinced you owe it to us to give us your lives. You don't. You provide a service, we compensate you for it. The fact that you put heart and passion into it is just so much velvet. It shows, it has a positive influence on all of us, but it can't be measured, and you don't have to suffer to prove it. No one is held to our collective puritanical morality the way you are, but have you stopped to ask yourself if you really believe in it? You didn't take a vow of poverty (well, that's debatable, but you shouldn't have had to). Nowhere in your job description does it say you must live an ascetic lifestyle at all times, and your students do not benefit from you volunteering for one.

They're kids for a short time. All too soon, they grow up. They get jobs. Some of them become teachers. Can you really tell me those students don't have a special place in your heart? When you sell yourself out, you sell them out. Period. No matter what they do, the conditions of one standard, run-of-the-mill middle class career influences all the others. Don't sell them out. Give them the chance to grow up and have a stable future. You do this already, of course, by teaching then every day. Yet here I am, audacious enough to ask that you do more. It's too much to ask. It's not fair. You didn't sign up for it. It's not your job. I'm asking anyway.

I'm sorry if this sounds dramatic, but the future of the American middle-class lies in your hands. Renouncing your own needs won't save it. Speaking up for yourself may not either, but it could help. When I started writing this, I was full of my usual righteous indignation. But now, I want to beg you. Please, please please. Think of the children. Consider their future. Metaphorically put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help them. I know you want them to advocate for themselves, to believe they're worthy of being fairly compensated for the work they do. So model it. Please. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It's Not About You

Recently, I read the book You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, by Heather Sellers. It's the story of her struggle with prosopagnosia (face blindness), which she didn't realize existed until her late 30s. As she started reading about it, she realized quickly she had it. But as she tentatively brought it up to friends, family, and medical professionals, they roundly rejected it. Their justifications for this varied, but seemed to come down to three arguments.

"You couldn't possibly have face blindness. I can recognize faces just fine."

"You can't have face blindness, because sometimes you recognize me."

or occasionally,

"You don't have face blindness, because sometimes I have trouble with faces, too."

Logic, my friend. Learn to love it.

For some reason, people are reluctant to believe that others can have disorders that don't make any sense to them. Not understanding something is generally a sign that one isn't an expert on it, but many seem to consider it an asset when it comes to interpreting the behavior of others. They're suspicious and critical, and suddenly experts on things they know nothing about. This happens with bipolar disorder, high-functioning autism, ADD/ADHD, addiction, eating disorders, PTSD, sometimes even illnesses as severe as schizophrenia. That's only a partial list. Seller's ex-husband, for example, had a definition of schizophrenia that he had made up out of whole cloth, based primarily on the philosophy that those who suffer from schizophrenia are really just being difficult, and could stop it if they weren't such selfish jerks. Also, old people don't have it, because they're too tired to keep it up.

Then there are those who make a bit of noise about mental illnesses and learning disabilities being legitimate, but conclude, "it's not an excuse." What they are really saying is, "Just because you have a disorder doesn't give you any right to exhibit symptoms of that disorder." Hey, I understand you have a cold, okay? I get it. But there's no excuse for all that sneezing.

Disorders are often inconsistent. Some by definition, and many others because, well, they just are, okay? Someone with anxiety might have a good day, week or month before being seized by panic attacks again. Bipolar disorder is inconsistent by definition, so the fact that your co-worker seems in control of herself most of the time is no proof that she can master her mood swings all the time.  Maybe she's working hard all the time to keep it under control - you don't know. People with ADD/ADHD can pay attention to some things some of the time, but it might not happen when you (or they) want it to.

"Sometimes I can't remember people's names. Sometimes I have a hard time paying attention. Sometimes I feel sad. Sometimes I'm nervous. Therefore you don't have a disorder."

There also tends to be a certain circular logic to these things. Basically, it often boils down to something along the lines of "You don't have face blindness. You just made that up as an excuse for the way you don't recognize people!"

Do just a little probing, and this kind if argument will crumble. But rarely is it questioned too closely, because it's a commonly accepted attitude.

Perhaps you find it easy to eat enough calories to sustain your body. That guy over there with a restrictive eating disorder does not. Conversely, perhaps you are able to refrain from overeating. Your friend, the compulsive overeater, isn't. Can you get out of bed every morning, focus at school or work, regulate your moods well enough, and drink moderately without alcohol controlling you? Goody for you! You're lucky. That is not true for everyone else. Thank your fairy godmother. Say "there but for the grace of God go I," and get over yourself. 

People who suffer from these disorders aren't immune to arrogance and ignorance, either. They'll decide being bipolar makes them an expert on bipolar disorder, and say something like, "well, I'm bipolar, and I don't go on massive spending sprees!" Again, goody for you. Anecdotally, I've noticed those who are smug about how well they're handling their challenges often aren't doing as well as they think they are, but that's another story.

No matter how many similarities you have, the differences between you and other people are many and massive. I promise. You have absolutely no insight into why they are the way they are. None of us have an identical journey. Perhaps their illness manifests itself differently than yours does, or it's more severe, or they can't afford treatment, or they haven't had as many experiences to counter it as you have. The possibilities are endless, and you'll probably never come close to understanding them.

Do you have to put up with disrespect or abuse? Nope. You get to take care of yourself. Addicts and alcoholics in particular cause problems for people in their lives. It may be too much to accept. But when you're deciding you can't have your drunken friend call your house crying at 3AM even one more time, own your decision. Regretfully admit to yourself that the person you care about has a problem you cannot solve for them, and the risk/benefit ratio is no longer worth it to you. If you're so inclined, you can even tell them you'll be there to support them if they ever decide to seek help.

Ah, but Erin, could the inability to understand where others are coming from could be considered an issue sufferers have little to no control over, too? You certainly aren't showing a lot of compassion for it. True. It might be my blind spot, but all I can see is narcissism. You resent other people's problems, therefore they don't exist. I'll keep trying to figure out a way to accommodate this particular psychological problem while not indulging it, but I haven't found it yet.

Other people's learning disabilities and psychological problems are almost always harder on them than they are on you. The fact is, they're rarely asking for much from you. It might be as simple as you not taking offense if they walk right by you in the grocery store. Is that so hard? Because if it is, you might have a problem of your own. That kind of hypersensitivity could be indicative of a number of things. If you figure out what it is and how we can help you navigate it, please let me know how I can help.

Me, I know your face. Heather Sellers? Profoundly face blind. It's as simple as that.

Friday, August 15, 2014

In Which I Conclude Your Discomfort is Your Hang-Up, Man, Not Mine's our problem if you feel I'm making an unnecessary fuss about my racial identity. 
-Adrian Piper

As someone who has always had a complicated relationship with my own racial identity, DNA testing complicated it further, sort of. Or maybe not, as I am used to being in racial limbo. It's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for white people, who in turn make it uncomfortable for me. Many white people really, really hate it when you look white to them, but claim you aren't.

I'm half middle-eastern, on my dad's side. Technically white, but often not considered so, and a highly disliked ethnicity in my country. However, I'm  very  fair skinned, and Assyrian, not Arab. Catholic on both sides (by heritage, not upbringing or belief), not Muslim. Culturally white and middle class (this is primarily due to specific dynamics in my dad's upbringing, and his mother's before his, which severed any cultural continuity I might have had with my Assyrian heritage), but I'm not entirely comfortable with that, either.

When my college roommate told racist jokes, and implied I was a PC thug for not laughing? It bugged me. Was this because I didn't identify as white, or because I was raised to believe that racist jokes aren't okay, even when it's just us white people? Probably a little from column A, a little from column B.

It's not that I'm not racist. I am. I suspected as much, and the Implicit Association Test confirmed it. Perhaps I'm trying to dilute my own responsibility when I say almost everyone is racist, because we're fed racist messages from early childhood. If you say you're not racist, I'll be expecting you to make a solid case for yourself. If you say "I'm not racist, but....," you're almost certainly more racist than the average person. Here I am, this is what I know about myself, and denying it isn't going to change it. If someone accuses me of racism, my job is to consider whether what they're saying has merit instead of getting defensive. That might be easier said than done, but no one ever said grappling with centuries of systematic, complicated oppression would be easy.

I'm not saying I'm not white to be difficult, but it's often received that way. And I'll tell you one thing - the implication that I'm being difficult, confrontational, or otherwise making an unnecessary fuss comes almost exclusively from white people. People of other races have always asked me what I am on a regular basis, and have almost always accepted my answer, complicated, inconsistent and uncertain as it is.

I can't say I'm totally baffled by this. A part of it is that a white person - perhaps one who hasn't thought things through enough to say what they really mean - wanting to say, hey, you have as much white privilege as I do. No one has ever said it outright, but I've always sensed that's what's bothering them. They aren't far off - I have almost as much white privilege as they do, and, in my opinion, a few advantages they don't. I don't wish for blonde hair or blue eyes, and I certainly don't wish I didn't have to think about my racial identity, what it is and how it fits into the world I live in. Due to my appearance, culture and socio-economic background, I'm not being held back because of my race. I am well aware.

For example, imagine one night I forget to turn my headlights on, and I'm pulled over. I immediately start rummaging around for my license and registration, until the officer comes to my window and tells me to put my hands on the steering wheel. I do it, of course, but it's because I'm a white woman that I'm shocked. I'm so mired in white entitlement, I almost wonder if the cop is making a point, and if he is....well done. Point taken. Obviously, I needed it. I'm not scared, because a traffic ticket is my worst case scenario, and even that probably won't happen. I'll be on my way in five minutes, with or without a ticket (for the record, it was without).

Experiences like this are what white people want to cite when I say I'm not white (which I rarely do anymore, because the reaction I sometimes get pisses me off, and I'm tired of it), but they don't because they tend to be the type who haven't really considered that they have these kinds of experiences on a daily basis. But there's also a deeper, even less articulated feeling - the feeling of rejection. If I say I'm not white, I'm condemning them somehow, saying I don't want to be a part of their tribe.

A few years ago, my book club read Sarah's Key, the story of a girl who survived a concentration camp, but came away with a stain on her heart, mind and soul so gut-wrenching that living with it was virtually impossible. After we discussed the book, we watched the movie.

As one character told another about a dark family secret that could only cause him misery, I shouted, "My God, don't tell him!"

My friend Julia turned to me and groaned, "Why do white people always have to understand everything?"

It was a lighthearted, rhetorical question. I laughed, and went back to watching the movie. But it stuck in my mind. Why do white people always have to understand everything? Huh. Isn't it natural to want to understand where you came from, what shaped you, and how you got here? Although I was uncomfortable, I reluctantly concluded that the real question was, "Why don't black people want to understand everything?" 

If you're tempted to stop reading here, give me a few more paragraphs. I'm going somewhere with this. I understand it's a truly inaccurate and sweeping generalization, but one that still led me to conclude that if African Americans people aren't crazy about digging into the past, it's because it's just too painful.

It was just a theory. I never expected to gain any firsthand knowledge of it. Although I was familiar with the fact that many white Americans were part black, I didn't associate it with myself. I'm descended from recent immigrants on almost all sides. My family hasn't been in America since slavery.

But of course, the United States isn't the only country that was part of the slave trade. Where did my Portuguese great-grandmother come from? British Guyana. How did my people get to British Guyana? It's still possible some of them came from Portugal. But a DNA test my mom took told us that the only thing was could confirm for sure was that sometime in the past 200 years, we had come from Ghana or Sierra Leone. If you were a black person in British Guyana in the 1800s, and you could pass for white, what did you do? Tell people you were Portuguese.

After that, my book club read The Book of Night Women. It was about an enslaved woman in Jamaica, and told of an attempted slave rape within the first three pages. I knew in that moment that was why I was born, and I knew it worked to my benefit. Because of some disgusting slave holder, my however-many-great-grandmother had a daughter who had a daughter who could pass as Portuguese. Perhaps she married a man who really was Portuguese, and had a daughter who could honestly say she was Portuguese, and she had a daughter who could honestly believe it, eventually bringing us here, to an unfathomable, American woman in a barely comprehensible world, who stumbled upon the truth in a way none of them could have ever wrapped their heads around. All because some rapist lent (no, gave) us his pale skin, and it's worked to our advantage every day since.

I closed the book and didn't pick it up again. I'd always known slavery was wrong - of course I had. The injustice had always enraged me. But suddenly, I wasn't angry anymore. Just tremendously sad. Desire to understand? Obliterated.

I told a few friends about it, but mostly kept it to myself. There was no cultural continuity, and I know full well I haven't lived the African American experience. Who cared? How would I bring it up? "Hi, my name is Erin, and you wouldn't know it to look at me, but I'm 1/16th black. Or maybe 1/32. 1/64, at least!" Furthermore, I still encountered defensiveness from some of the people I did tell. White people, exclusively. White people want me to be white. I've known that for a long, long time, and this wasn't any different. I've always internalized this on some level, and believed it was my problem. But maybe it's not. Maybe it's our problem. Maybe it's your problem.

At an unrelated training, I saw a video of Adrian Piper's Cornered. It's no longer available on YouTube, but I've linked to the PDF. Adrian Piper looked....very much like me, only a little more obviously black. A coincidence - I look this way because I'm middle-eastern. She addressed every reason a white person might not "come out of the closet" and tell people they're black, and managed to shred every one of them without making any kind of argument at all. She was deadpan, all sarcasm, dry wit and and unspoken accusations that manage to make themselves perfectly clear. My kind of girl. But she didn't tell me what to do. When it was over, all I could think was "What the hell am I supposed to do with that?"

Months later, I think I finally figured it out. This. This is what I'm going to do with that. Like a significant number of white Americans, I'm a little bit black. You may not care. But if you say you don't care, but it really kind of bugs you that I would feel the need to tell you? You have some work to do. It's not my problem anymore. I'm giving it back. It's all yours.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I'm sorry

A boy of 19 or 20 approached me in the Target parking lot. He was tallish, with strawberry blond hair, and very, very sheepish.

"Excuse me, I hate begging, but my parents and I were evicted yesterday. We slept in our car last night, but I'm trying to get some money together because my mom has a job interview tomorrow, and we want to get her a motel room for the night."

My city has some pretty draconian panhandling laws, and for the first few years I lived here, I never saw any panhandlers at all. Of course, this didn't mean there weren't poor and homeless people. They just weren't allowed to tell you about it. But lately, I see panhandlers from time to time. Even the brazen kind, with signs that tell you exactly what they're doing. I can only assume that the need is greater. There are just too many to control now, and a law forbidding it is pointless.

My heart was aching for the boy, until he motioned toward a car containing an absolutely ravishing woman only a few years older than himself. That's your mom? It's not that I didn't give him money - I did. It's just that he was already humiliated enough, and I hardened toward him in the middle of his very sad story.

As I walked away, I looked toward the car with the beautiful woman in it again. In the car next to her? Yeah, that was his mom.

I don't know what happened to you and your family, and this was a while ago, so I hope you've gotten back on your feet by now. It's awful enough not to have enough money to cover your basic necessities, awful enough not to even have a place to live. It's not your fault. It's a small thing, my sympathy for you evaporating just a little bit over the course of a very short conversation. But you were having a hard enough time as it was, and if I made it even the slightest bit harder for you, I am so, so sorry.

I hope both your past and your future were easier than the day we met. I hope that was the very worst day of your life.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Are Atheists Real?

Science is speculating that Atheists don't really exist, because, among other reasons, most people are carrying on an invisible monologue with some sort of unseen observer. While I would identify as Agnostic (but I'll be honest - I reluctantly lean toward Atheism), I can say it's true for me.

I'm not being cute when I say I have often looked up at the sky and thanked...someone or something for not making me religious. Although it seems to be commonly accepted that religion helps with hard times, when I observe religious people it seems to be doing them more harm than good. They have to deal with feeling betrayed in addition to whatever trauma they're facing. I'm grateful to be free of that.

But just because I'm talking to an invisible observer all the time doesn't mean I think that observer is really there. Some people seem to feel some sort of presence, but I feel like I'm talking to a brick wall. A brick wall that isn't really there.