Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Teacher Bashing for Idiots

It’s been ten years since I drove to the school where I taught and handed in my resignation letter. I spent sixteen and a half years in the classroom of a school system forty miles and two counties away. It was an indescribable joy not to return that last fall, only the fourth autumn since 1965 when I hadn’t started a new school year as either a student or teacher.

For the first several months I had recurring dreams that I showed up for school weeks late. Students had been coming to my room and waiting all that time. The principal was mad. I would wake up to the relief that, no, I didn’t have to do that anymore.

Funny that in those dreams, somebody was always mad at me or I was behind schedule with something.

Why did I leave teaching? Aside from personally feeling that I didn’t fit the profession, I was tired of the top-down way schools are often managed. In my school system, big changes were ushered in from above, changes that would dictate what happened in the classroom. While you’d think that the farmers, insurance agents, and lawyers on the school board would ask the teachers, “How might this work in your classroom?” we got edicts instead: “Make this work in your classroom.” I gather from others in the profession that it’s much that way in other school systems.

I’d like to think it’s different in Noblesville schools. From a parent’s perspective I’ve been very happy with the schools my children have attended here. But the angry tone of the state-wide and national debates on education suggests that many are dissatisfied. And teachers are easy targets.

I friend of mine who teaches in Noblesville Schools has a reputation among students, parents, and fellow teachers as the best of the best. He comes in early, leaves late, and inspires kids during the hours inbetween. He confided over coffee one morning recently that when he goes for breakfast with his father’s retired cronies, they criticize and attack teachers as lazy, union troublemakers. To know how good he is, how hard he works – and that he takes that kind of abuse from men who haven’t been in a classroom since the Kennedy administration – well, it hurts your heart how stupid and opinionated some people can be, both at once.

We Americans have a contradictory relationship with teachers and education that is best expressed by the advice I got from my father. 1) Education is of the utmost importance, and 2) Don’t become a teacher – there’s no respect and little pay.

Though at very important times I didn’t take either piece of that advice, I know now both are true. And what a shame that is. We pay a terrible price in this country for giving lip service to the first part of that advice and perpetuating the second. Our apathy sometimes makes the first part a joke and the second part a reality.

How can this nation expect to have good schools if we refuse to give teachers the pay and respect they deserve? Why we gladly pay our home run hitters and field goal kickers millions while bickering over every tenth of a percent raise we give teachers is a mystery almost too embarrassing to contemplate. It’s not a compliment to our culture, but in its own tiny way, says something revealing about what we really value.

One of the problems for teachers is that nearly every adult has spent more than a decade in the classroom as a student. We think we know what teaching is all about because we each watched it for so long. But what we all know deep inside, but don’t always give teachers credit for, is that watching and doing are two very different things. Being a bad teacher is easy – and we all knew a few. But being a good teacher is very, very hard – and most teachers I’ve known were good. And those good ones usually changed our lives in some way. Withholding appropriate pay and respect from a large number of good teachers because of a small number of bad ones is a near-criminal mistake.

And a look at what opportunistic political forces have done to teachers in this country in the aftermath of the economic collapse triggered on Wall Street truly terrifies me for the soul of our country. Rich, overpaid, well-placed bankers drove our economy to the brink. We bailed them out with billions in taxpayer dollars. You’d think we’d be focused on Wall Street reform, reregulation, and criminal charges, but no. In the years since, conservative forces have obstructed regulation of Wall Street, while instead launching a nation-wide, state-by-state campaign attacking the pay and benefits of teachers (not to mention firefighters and policemen). How underpaid and unappreciated teachers got to be the focus of political attack at a time like this is bemusing. Reminds me a little of a magician waving his hand with a broad flourish in front of your face to distract you from what he’s doing with the other hand behind his back.

It’s odd that I ever become a teacher, considering I hated school as a little kid. To this day the theme song to the Lassie TV series puts a knot in my stomach. Lassie ran on Sunday nights, and Sunday night was right before Monday morning – and school. The sadness of that melody perfectly matched how I felt about school as a kid. But though I was a slow learner, hard working teachers helped me learn to love education.

There’s a feeling of guilt about having left the teaching profession, as if I’m a cowardly soldier who fled the front lines, leaving my comrades to face battle alone. There are so many great teachers in the school system I left. Maybe another twinge of regret comes from feeling I didn’t have what it takes to stick it out in that sometimes beleaguered, yet admirable profession.

But at the very least I can stand up for them when I hear the foolish and uneducated use them as scapegoats for state budget overruns, lazy parenting, and those who say they value education but somehow think they’ll get there by blindly bashing those who provide it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stuck In Indiana

In the past few years I’ve encountered a number of people in their 20s or 30s who feel stuck in Indiana.

They’ve lived in California or New York or a place that spoke to a personal interest – maybe a live-music Mecca like Austin or Nashville, or a culinary hot spot like New Orleans or San Francisco. They may work in a high tech industry and now feel isolated from Silicon Valley, or their hobbies revolve around water or hiking, but now they live far from the mountains or the beach.

Most of these folks came home to Indiana at a moment of life transition to be near family or to start a family. They took a job here, maybe got married or had a child - got dug in, and now they lament that Indiana isn’t really a hotbed of anything. The exciting environment they once enjoyed elsewhere feels out of reach.

I’ll admit to getting a little defensive when these folks go on about how fabulous life is somewhere else. Because it’s never just an appreciation of somewhere else, but also a criticism of here – my home.

Maybe I’m defensive because I too came home to Indiana from far away in my 20s and found my home state wanting. I felt stuck. But I got married, had children, and built a life for myself. When someone in the same situation finds it unbearable, maybe deep down inside it feels like an indictment of the choice I made.

But at the same time, I’m sympathetic with their frustration.

Last month I spent a few days in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a beautiful place in the mountains (which we don’t have here), named by the New York Times as one of the 10 best American cities for quality restaurants (Indianapolis didn’t make the list), has more micro-breweries per capita than any other city in the U.S. (my town has just one), and is a lefty-liberal town filled with beautiful architecture (while we’ve got some nice architecture, it’s pretty red around here). Since returning home I’ve told about a dozen people that I could quite happily move to Asheville.

But I have to remind myself what I say to those 20 & 30-somethings: “If everybody who wants a more diverse and dynamic community moves somewhere else, this place – your hometown, is guaranteed to be less diverse and dynamic. We’ll never have mountains or the ocean a half hour drive away, but it’s at least conceivable we could have everything else.

But how much of your life are you willing to spend waiting for it, nurturing it, promoting it, when you could just move to one of those inspiring places and have it on day one?

And I don’t mean to make this a political thing, but it’s a glaring reality that most of the artistically & socially dynamic city’s around the country are “lefty-liberal” places (my term) – places where the artsy and left-of-center folks have clustered to share their interest with like-minded people, often nurtured by a nearby university.

Think Bloomington.

So if you’re feeling stuck among too many people who don’t share your world-view, you’re not alone. The residents of most compelling places are frustrated with what they’re surrounded by. A liberal friend considered moving to Athens, Georgia because it was such a cool place, never mind it’s smack dab in the heart of a very conservative state with a less than stellar civil rights history. Everyone raves about Austin, but it’s in the gun-toting/death-penalty capital of America – Texas. And Wisconsin’s former governor referred to the popular college town of Madison as, “30 square miles surrounded by reality.” Even in Asheville last month, they were lamenting their state’s recent passage of an anti-gay marriage referendum. Store fronts, sidewalk graffiti, and telephone pole placards wept with outrage.

Most dynamic communities in America amount to acreage surrounded by “reality.” In other words, they’re places that the residents make compelling by doing and supporting what others find unreasonable or unnecessary. They have the best farmers markets, the best restaurants, the best festivals, the best live music and art venues, the most livable, pedestrian-friendly communities. Yet, for some reason, creating it and supporting it at home doesn’t occur to lots of Hoosiers.

It’s here though, in bits and pieces. But if you don’t support it, what good is it? And if you don’t support it, how can it flourish?

I have a variety of friends who I seek to spend my time with because they seek out the compelling. A week ago I went to see Joseph Arthur – a nationally successful alternative rock musician, at Radio Radio in Fountain Square. That group of people go off to see great small shows like this all the time, shows that often don’t sell out because most Hoosiers don’t see going out to live music as a regular part of their lives (most instead attend big arena shows on rare occasions when their favorite band from high school or college comes through town). I went with the same group to the mid-west Brew Fest in February where we tasted beers from microbreweries from around the state.

Another group of friends are foodies who seek out independent restaurants and food producers doing interesting things. And they find it here in central Indiana. You may have to do a little driving, but it’s here.

Another friend started an outdoor climbing, hiking, and canoeing outfitters store to nurture like-minded folks. And yet another friend has established a growing group of women who see childrearing, healthcare, and female empowerment a little differently than the norm. With self-deprecating humor they insist they are not, “dirty hippies.”

All of these folks are creating their own unique world, expending energy, following their passion, drawing the world they want closer to them.

Sure, it’s a very American thing to just pull up roots and go replant yourself somewhere else. But I think there’s also something to be said for embracing where you are, blowing on the embers of what you like about it, and trying to make it grow.

So you 20 & 30-somethings who are feeling stuck in Indiana, I understand, and I don’t really blame you if you leave, but think long and hard before you start packing. It’s possible that the assumption that what you want isn’t here is the main reason you can’t find it.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Two Parents & Two Children

The second trip to the neurologist was at the end of a journey that started with anguished visits to our family doctor, trips to a psychologist, John Rosemond parenting lectures, and reading just about every book about parenting on the shelves in Noblesville’s library. Why, after years of persistent discipline, why couldn’t we control our son’s impulsive behavior? And why did he bite his lip nervously for days until it bled? When we trained that away, why did he begin twirling his hair between a finger and thumb until there was a bald spot? When we trained that away, why did the next odd thing begin?

When the neurologist told us our son had Tourette Syndrome, I was stunned.

Driving home with that sullen boy in the back seat, tears ran down my cheeks as I thought of the times I’d angrily disciplined a child who often, apparently couldn’t control his behavior. The diagnosis explained a lot – like why punishment worked with our other two kids, but too often not with this one.

When we asked what the future held, the doctor casually said, “Well, sometimes it just disappears when they’re teenagers.” That sounded like the cheapest consolation lie I’d ever heard.

That was more than a dozen years ago. Last Monday I drove to a Japanese grocery/restaurant in Castleton with that boy. He is 23 how, just graduated from college with a degree in Japanese. Cal is six foot-two, handsome, well-spoken, well-read, and has a freakishly broad taste in music. That day he was seeking the ingredients to make authentic ramen noodles as good as those he came to love while studying in Japan last year.

In that oddball grocery, a place filled with shrimp-flavored chips, fish sausage, quail eggs and frozen squid, I got a text from a friend, Alison, asking if I was coming to the cookout she and her husband were having that evening. She hoped I’d bring my son by to meet her son.

I first met Alison and her husband Christian in a bar last winter. After a long talk about hybrid ethnic music acts like Balkan Beat Box, we talked about our kids and realized we both had a child with Tourette’s; theirs - 10 years old, and mine - all grown up. Alison asked if I'd bring my son over sometime. Perhaps present a roll model? Proof of what was possible?

As Cal and I sat down to eel sushi and noodles in a little diner corner of the grocery, I asked if he’d like to stop by Alison and Christian’s house later. He offered a quick, “Sure.” On the ride home we talked about Cal’s sometimes difficult childhood and tried to imagine what Alison’s son was experiencing. I recalled that most of Cal’s elementary teachers probably hated him by the end of the school year. He remembered the stuttering, the nervous ticks, and the impulsive behavior that so often got him into trouble.

A few hours later we grab a large bottle of Belgian Ale from the fridge and go to Alison’s house. We find her in the kitchen making humus, preparing for her cookout. Her little boy, Seth appears and listens quietly to our chitchat as I open the beer and pour three glasses. He has a bright and eager face, like he knows something he needs desperately to share. Cal towers over us all with a tanned face and his happy, confident manner. His hands are in his pockets and a small backpack is slung over his shoulder.

The neurologist had been right. During his teens the Tourette’s simply evaporated.

Seth reaches out to Cal holding a small Star Wars figure and asks with an urgent, almost breathless challenge, “Do you know who this is?” Cal smiles and quickly answers, “Mace Windu.” He takes the light saber-wielding figure and examines it. In moments they disappear to Seth’s room to see his other toys.

Though an adult now, Cal will know the name of every toy and can sit cross-legged on the floor and play with them quite happily. It is his way. And in this century-old house in Old Town he is at home. He grew up in places like this. He understands Seth’s life more than a little.

Alison loads the food processor with garbanzo beans and roasted red peppers and we begin to unload about our boys. I am reminiscing about desperate, worrisome matters from the past, but this woman in her early 30s is right in the thick of it. She runs her fingers back through her dark hair and speaks with the firm resolve of a mother who’s cried her tears, done her homework, and intends to find the best path. She reminds me of Cal’s mother, and me a little, all those years ago. I lean back against the stove, sip my beer and respond with the names of drugs he took, the side affects, discipline techniques, positive vs. negative reinforcement – and details of life with a child who, try as he may, just wasn’t entirely like other children.

In the living room, Cal and Seth have set up an old-school video gaming system and are killing bad guys. A 10 year old and a 23 year old, having a brief play date.

Alison and I are dipping pita bread and carrots into the fresh humus, sharing stories of the nurturing successes with our children and struggles with those who don’t or won’t understand. I recall a middle school counselor who said that Cal’s mother and I needed to, “stop coddling our child and teach him the meaning of consequences.” Good thing for him it isn’t socially unacceptable to choke a school administrator.

An elegant, vine-like tattoo winds down Alison’s right shoulder and a swan is tattooed on the other. She is a “hand-talker,” gesturing broadly as she speaks, as if drawing a map in the air of the emotional and tactical places she and Christian and Seth have been on their journey. It is clear how much she loves her son.

I suppose raising any child requires the drawing of a one-of-a-kind map – a sometimes make-it-up-as-you-go map. Plotting the route for a child with Tourette’s is harder, fraught with special heartaches and frustrations. There is the fear of drawing a failed map, regrets over the wrong roads taken to dead-ends or dark places, and a desperate hope of eventually getting to an acceptable destination.

I tell Alison, “As a child Cal got so used to disappointing and irritating people, but it always amazed me that he didn’t withdraw. Instead he kept coming back and trying to connect.”

Alison smiles broadly and nods, “Seth is the exact same way.”

The visit was too short. Alison had a cookout to host and Cal and I had a family dinner to get to. I really have no idea if Cal or Seth got a thing out of it, but I know I did.

When you work so hard to understand and provide what your child needs, it breaks your heart when the world you send them into is thoughtless or impatient and needlessly hurtful. And when you’re a struggling parent there is a feeling that no one understands, that your child’s problems reflect a failing in you, a weakness in your parenting.

Those worries are in the past for me. It all turned out just fine. Still, there’s something healing in being reminded of that, and knowing that you have something to share with a parent and a child who have much of the journey still ahead of them.