Sunday, October 14, 2012

Good Kid, Bad Kid: When a Class Just Isn’t Working

Dark Nights of the Soul

This Sunday morning finds Miss O’ with a swollen right eye, the result of a wee-hours mosquito raid, which also caused her to awaken to itching hands and arms and forehead. The only real cure for itching like this—and it’s only this year that Miss O’ has become truly allergic to these bites—is heat. An ol’ mountain woman in Floyd County, Virginia, told me to apply heat to an itch, “as hot as you can stand it for as long as you can stand it.” I set the kettle on the stove, pour the boiling water into a mug, and press the side of the mug to the affected area as directed. It hurts like fuck. And then no more itch. The eye, however, is another matter. No itch, only massive swelling, so an ice pack for that. In other words, I’ve been awake since around 4:00 AM, and of course, I start thinking.

Oddly enough, I wasn’t thinking about politics (and as Miss O’ feels she must hold the entire political process in her body during the entire election season and beyond, this was a brief respite), but rather, “bad classes.” Wee hours wakefulness will call up only misery, regret, and torments of failures past. I generally find my mind turning cruelly to memories of the classes that didn’t work, during those 15 years I taught public high school. Four specific classes come to mind, one each from my 1st, 12th, 4th, and 15th years. And there are a few others, but those are the big ones. And I think about what I might have done differently. (I suspect few of the students from those classes, or really most of my classes, have ever given me a thought—so this isn’t about ego.) This morning I wondered, “What makes a bad class?”

I’ll spare you the entire process of my thinking, which occurred over cups of coffee and talking aloud to myself in the rocker in my kitchen, looking out the glass door as the sky lightened into heavy grey. Each class, when called to mind, features two students per class, one girl and one boy: They are an alliance, usually not even friends, and a quiet decision is made between the two of them, from Day 1, that this Miss O’ woman is the very devil and we must destroy her.

How to explain this? My voice, my hair, my expectations, my eccentric humor? I never really knew. All I know is that I can see her cold eyes looking at me (any of the girls), and his eyes defiantly turned away (any of the boys), even as they sigh, speak out, “Why do we have to do this?” or otherwise destroy any positive energy in the class. No amount of talking to them, or asking, “What’s up?” did any good. And they won, you see, because to this day I awake in the wee hours and still I see them. I’ve written about many incidents in this blog, and I think I may have recalled this example, too: When my Grandma O’Hara died, my mom called me at around 2:30 AM from Iowa to tell me, and I got up and called around to make flight arrangements, went in to teach school, handed out work for the next two days, and  during third period, when Girl of That Year bitched about whatever this was, I said, quietly, “Look, my grandmother died this morning, and I am leaving for her funeral this afternoon.”

She looked at me even more coldly than before. “What are you even doing here?” she sneered.

“My job,” I said. And it was all I could do not to burst into tears, but I’d be goddamned if she was going to see them.


Years ago, when I was still teaching, my brother Jeff O’ and I were walking through the local mall shopping for Christmas, when I heard Jeff say, “Oh, no…” and there was dread in his voice. I looked around.

“What?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t look, but coming this way…oh, man…,” and I looked ahead, I looked left and right, but I couldn’t see anything.

“What are you talking about?” I asked when, just as Jeff was about to pull me into a store, from the center of a large group of gangsta-style teenage boys, out stepped a large, young black man in full gear, whose face went from “I will cut you” to a broad toothy smile.

“Miss O’HAH! How you doin’?” he called, and his arms took me into a bear hug.

“Jamal, sweetie, how are you?” I said.

“Doin’ alright, doin’ alright,” he said, and he introduced me to the group, and I introduced my brother, and we said, “Merry Christmas” and off they went.

I wish I had a picture of my brother’s face, but I don’t, so I’ll try to replicate it.

(This same thing happened a few years later, after I’d moved to New York, and Jeff and I were once again Christmas shopping, this time at Target, and yet another large young fellow walked over to me and hugged me as he whooped, “Miss O!” (My embarrassment was that I remembered him but not his name, because in the process of moving, my brain had felt the need to wipe out the last two years of my life in Virginia in order to make room for a mess of new information, such as surviving the subways. I had to admit this to him. “D’Andre!” he said, and I finished his last name with him, and bless his heart, I got that whole swathe of my life back.) This time Jeff laughed, “You can’t go anywhere, can you?”)

But this is about Jeff’s initial fear: His initial, gut reaction to seeing a large group of teen boys coming at him, wearing the latest cool-thug styles, brought to mind for him, I imagine, memories of being bullied, the terror of what such kids might do. To the eye of a seasoned high school teacher like me, they were just kids. And this is where my mind went: Jeff and I had totally different worldviews because of our different experiences. He came from a place of fear, and I came from a place of understanding, because I’d changed into a position of teacher from the former position of student.

Politically, I think, this has huge implications. (Message to the Bored-by-Politics crowd: Everything is political. Every single little thing: The clothes you wear—who made them and under what conditions, and how were they delivered to you, under what trade agreements? The food you eat—where was it grown and is it genetically modified and what are the laws governing its growth; was it subsidized by the government? The air you breathe—who is monitoring how clean it is? The person you love—are you legally allowed to be with that person?) So my question is this: Do politicians see their constituencies as masses to be shunned and controlled (poor Jeffy’s first response to the teens), or as humans to be known (Miss O’s response to the same people)?

Ask yourself how you react to such encounters: Do you
A) flinch and become self-protective at the sight of large groups of "the other"; or do you
B) not really notice people as being "the other" and move on through your life?
(Take a moment to answer honestly.)

I’d be willing to lay money (and according to one political ticket, the desire to make money is the most important virtue an American can have), that if your reaction was like Jeff’s, you are a conservative, and if your response was like Miss O’s, you are a liberal. It really is, too, the difference between a reaction (instant, emotional), and a response (present, thoughtful). Yes, I am aware of how fucking superior I sound.

Whenever I move about the world, I cannot help but compare the latest politicos and celebs to the kids I taught in high school. People don’t change much after 8th grade, unless they listen, live, travel, grow, experience, and become, and even then it’s not in essentials that they change. One student of mine changed from lifelong (raised) conservative to a liberal by studying medicine at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, seeing firsthand how devastating Republican policies really are—but he was inherently liberal-minded all along, or he wouldn’t have been open to a conversion. I told him my relief was that he’d come by his conversion honestly, and not as the result of reading a Noam Chomsky tract.

An Imaginative Exercise

Who are you and what formed your opinions? What do you know and why do you know it? How do you act on what you know? I always think back to the classes I taught and all the kids in them. Looking at the two campaigns of our presidential season (and there are othersbut I'm not doing the Greens and Libertarians today), the debates thus far, and other media trolling, here’s what Miss O’ imagines our candidates would have been like as students. A given: They are all intelligent and capable.

Barack Obama: He’s the introverted and thoughtful kid, one I’d have to work to draw out, but he’d be delightful to have in class when he was on. He’d read every book, participate in every discussion, if only by listening. I’d try to get him to say more, but he’d only smile. You’d know he knew more, was aware of more, than he ever let on, because he’d demonstrate it every time he wrote an essay or did a speech presentation. Group work would frustrate him, but he’d work to get everybody to do his or her part. Barry Obama would be nice to have in class.

Willard Mitt Romney: To control the class would be his goal. He’d start off pleasantly enough, but the first time he got an assignment he didn’t want to do, he’d start to argue with everything that came out of my mouth, talk out of turn, get his friends to help him bully weaker kids into siding against me, and generally ruin the learning environment for the rest of the class. But he’d smile while he did it. Still, his moods would swing. His story would always change. He’d start off disagreeing with someone’s idea about a book and end up agreeing and saying he’d always felt that way, only to say something else again on the test. And if his grades weren’t A’s, he’d have his dad try to get me fired. Mitt Romney could make any given day in class a living hell. Or not. Depending.

Joseph Biden: Loud, boisterous, and full of jokes, he would drive me nuts except that he’d be a really sweet kid, a genuinely good guy, and way smart. I’d love to have him in on a book talk, which he’d be great on if he read the book, which I suspect he may not have done all the time, but he’d fake it better than most. (Also, his grammar is impeccable: During the debate, he said, “Our Allies and we agreed…” and Miss O’ shed a tear of gratitude.) Joe Biden would be exasperating, but ultimately fun and energizing, to have in class.

Paul Ryan: First he’d try brown-nosing, which he’d quickly realize wouldn’t work with Miss O’. So he’d turn into the aggressive kid who, when I passed back papers and he didn't get one back, would say (in that determinedly "pleasant" little voice of his), "Where is mine?" to which Miss O' would say, "I don't have one for you," to which Paul would say, "Well, I did it—you must have lost it," to which Miss O' would say, "I didn't lose your paper, Paul; you didn’t turn one in," to which Paul would say, "You lost my paper, but I'd be willing to do it again, or maybe I'll have to get my mom to call the principal, because obviously you don't know how to teach." Paul Ryan would make every day in class a living hell, and be glad.


So what do we do with the kids who make a teacher's life and a class's life a misery year after year? Not a goddamned thing. It's the price of living in a democracy. I honor that, even as I keep working to teach, learn, and make it better. And I sure as fuck will exercise my right to complain. And drink.

Sizing Up the Crowd

I size people up pretty quickly, but I also leave room for doubt. As an example, one person I loathed was Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority of gay-bashers and woman-haters. I met the late Reverend Jerry Falwell once, in 1989, and it was a real test to see how his physical (and not just TV) presence made me feel. The event was a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game at Liberty University, which college Rev. Falwell founded and ran. After the game, the office secretary who’d gotten us tickets led us back to the locker room. (She was old friends with two of the players, and had brought me and our friend Patty with her. As it turns out, Falwell had been Patty’s pastor when he was just starting out, “but he was destined for big things, you knew it,” she said. Uh huh.) Much taller than I had imagined, Rev. Falwell greeted my (stunning) hostess by, repellently, looking her up and down (did he just lick his chops?), holding her hand in both of his for a long time, and moving closer; next, he smiled benignly at Patty as he shook her hand from a distance, pretending to listen as she reminded him of their relationship. When the reverend got to me, he took my offered hand and dropped it quickly, looked away sharply, and moved to the next person, saying nothing. As he demonstrated, he didn’t rise to power through stupidity: He knew, you see, so give him points for self-knowledge: However politely I smiled, he saw that I had his number, and that his number was 666. 

Miss O’ has always had that effect on liars and hypocrites.

The Next Debate: A Modest Proposal

I am so sick of the lying. I’m not talking about exaggeration or stretching the truth, which is an annoying part of the political game. I’m talking about flat-out lies, which at least two candidates from a certain right-wing party are tremendously comfortable in telling. More is at stake in the debates this time around than at any time I can remember, and I think we as a nation need to rethink our approach to them, in this age of the Internet and speed-polls. Here's my idea as to how a national debate might work: You have fact checkers sitting alongside a panel of 4 or 5 Martha Raddatz-style journalists, artists, and scientists who ask the questions. (No clergy: Separation of church and state. Don’t like it? Move to Tehran.) As a candidate answers, the fact checkers start typing. The panelists call out any lies (statements clearly refuted by reputable sources, such as videotapes, for those of you who don't remember what actual "lies" are) found by the checkers. Each verified lie will warrant a red flag. After three red flags, the debate is called for the other candidate. The loser, then, is placed in the middle of the Bronx. Or backwoods Mississippi.

Too much is at stake to let these lies stand, but the Media, which has clearly anointed the Romney-Ryan ticket (What big sordid stories they’ll have for us, Grandma!), likes the lies, which are working on the electorate. As Bill Maher said recently, shouldn’t there be some kind of penalty for being wrong? I would add: dangerously wrong? Nope. Liars are winners! Truth tellers are boring. Do we want working government, or do we want obstruction, stupidity, and scandal? Just ask Fox News.

Here’s a story/book review from Daily Kos, a left-wing community action board on the web, which gets at the fundamental difference between the two political parties right now. (Note: It’s so sad to me that “left-wing” is now code for “fact-based”; facts should never have to be attached to an ideology—that current reality alone would make me reject the Republican party. Don't believe me? Rep. Todd Akin (Rep, MO), the rape-pregnancy denier sits on the House Science Committee. So does an MD, Rep Paul Broun (Rep, GA) who says that evolution is a lie from the pit of hell. Science Committee? Check. Seriously, no shame? None? There's Rep. Roger Rivard (Rep, WI), who declares that "some girls rape easy" by way of understanding premarital sex. And Rep. Charlie Fuqua (Rep, AK), who advocates the death penalty "in rare" instances for children. Do I need to talk about the Republican reps who say that slavery was a blessing to Africans? Do I? It's not like it's an isolated incident. It's rampant. And you are STILL a Republican?)

Daily Kos: SUN OCT 14, 2012 AT 04:30 AM PDT

Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, looks at how the 1% aren't just destroying the middle class, they are planting (and tending, and harvesting) the seeds of their own end.
...what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.
The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But... virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.

“C’mon, Miss O’, I AM SO SICK OF POLITICS!!!!!”

As Facebook readers know, Miss O’ has been utterly overtaken by American politics this election season. It makes her deeply unattractive, not that she gives two shits what anyone else thinks. Possibly one shit, on alternate Saturdays. But that’s it. One cannot help noticing that the only people who cry out on Facebook, “I am sick of politics!” are Conservatives (their next discernible act on the Facebook Home Page being to score a "like" for Mitt Romney), and Miss O’, who is as Liberal as they come, knows that while we grow exhausted, liberals do not tire of politics: We actually want an effective government of the people, by the people, and one that works for the people. Conservatives, it seems, just wish that everybody would shut up, be thankful for what they have, never ask for more (even as they themselves complain that the poor are taking, taking, taking their stuff by trying to eat, damn the poor!), and push the nation to move to a theocracy governed by one rich emperor who will do all of the deciding forever and ever, thus freeing their conservative minds from all responsibility. Whew!

Until that happy day for you in the United States of New Arabia, Conservative Person, Miss O’ has this to say: Politics boring you? Uninterested, uninformed, annoyed by the whole thing? Then don’t fucking vote, and more to the point, as Vice President Joe Biden said so pointedly and aptly to Congressman and candidate Paul Ryan, when explaining how the Democrats would like to, for example, finally pass a Jobs Bill and other important legislation to help the middle class: Do us all a favor, for yourselves as much as for the rest of us: Get out of the way

But, of course, that's not democracy. Every kid in America has a right to be in the class. Even as we are sure he's ruining it for the rest of us.

P.S. I'm a liberal, but the Democrats drive me insane. To be clear, I don't agree with all their ideas. I argue with them, write letters. (In other words, I apply rhetorical HEAT to the political itch, as hot as I can stand it for as long I as I can stand it.) But we have the same values. Thank you, Joe Biden, for kicking serious vice presidential debate ass on Thursday night. You make me proud of the side on which I stand.

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