Monday, January 27, 2014

three reasons to go on with this Monday

So how thrilled am I about the Grammys? They are not a thing I usually care about, but any show which builds to the Daft Punk robots and gay weddings is going to propel me through Monday at least a little.

The question "What's more awesome than robots?" WAS rhetorical, until Pharrell showed up.

Also: you don't have to care about Girls anymore. This is such a remarkable instance of liberation that I will say the following:

Lena Dunham, maybe it wasn't you I disliked so much as the system of economic disparity through which your show is able to exist at all. I am sure that, had you made an effort to write about a world  in which the cupcakes come from a bodega and are eaten furtively, at one's desk or cash register, people would have attacked you with equal fervor. And also, good for you for having both a physical body and a body of work, and being able to generate any conversations at all about the latter. 

On the one hand, she's rich and white and educated, but on the other hand, she's a woman and she's talking about her life, and not how to give a better hand job or make a boy like you, so: shut up. And (the character she created and plays, but who is not actually) she dates boys and then has the audacity to screw things up with them, just because, instead of devoting her life to making it up to them that she has all this extraneous tissue messing up the "lines" of her body. Yet when she's attacked, she just keeps making her goddamn show, instead of doing cocaine or losing weight and twerking with Robyn Thick or whatever, so clearly she'd better shut her big, un-cheekboned lady-face.

Except not really. Because for real, Lena Dunham, keep saying whatever damn thing you want, just, like, sitting there in your awesome body that is an actual body I might encounter in life (and yet allow to occupy space without comment because you are talking -- even if you're talking about an experience I have no interest in). 

And finally, paying attention to kids helps them do better!

The company that seems to be behind this endeavor to tutor kids out of poverty is run by the same people who I worked for when I was doing Americorps, back in Boston after I left graduate school. And I believe this is the way to do things with kids who can't do school -- if one can find a way to get college graduates with compassion and work ethics and a grasp of words and numbers to spend a year working intensively with at-risk teenagers instead of, like, backpacking or doing stupid internships in Williamsburg.

My own program is an effort to build on that initial program in Boston, one that makes a couple of unfortunate missteps -- although, to be fair, its in its first year, in an environment with several competing agendas. If you believe that socialization and dance lessons are equally as important as mastering basic academic skills, you are unlikely to instill those skills in kids who would much prefer the first two options. Also: perhaps a "choice-based" program that relies on children to choose, for example, to learn to read, is asking too much of your average eleven year old.

This program, though -- in Chicago? Not much choice here. Get with the program, or deal with unsavory consequences. Not the way I was raised or taught -- the public schools where I grew up handled kids with my profile with a sort of benign neglect. But one can afford that when one's students are lugging The Second Sex and histories of women in science to school, when their idea of rebellion is to obnoxiously spout libertarian talking points at their "socialist" peers in AP English. My ability to motivate myself stemmed from a fear of being hungry and homeless that only really works if not having an education really will lead to hunger and homelessness -- which requires the absence of the safety nets that now mean one can have a cell phone, but not a job. (Note: I'm not saying we should get rid of those nets. It's not fun to be seven and scared of one's future employment prospects, and I don't think kids should go hungry, no matter what. I am saying that fear and shame were effective motivations for me as a child; without them, it's reasonable that we need a different kind of pressure to get kids to learn).

My frame of reference for why I think this kind of program will be more successful than mine currently is is actually the time I spent in treatment for my eating disorder. Uncool people who I thought didn't know anything, who made me do what they wanted and failed to overlook a single deviation from The Plan. People who flat out did not care if I disagreed or found their ideas and instructions unappealing, who were not interested in being sensitive to my vantage point. This inflexibility was extremely useful in breaking down a disease that has proved as intractable in my life as illiteracy has in my kids'. 

There's an obvious misstep here in which I seem to be equating my DSM-IV worthy psychiatric diagnosis with the environment in which my kids grow up, and the attitudes they have. It depends on what you want out of life, I guess. The privilege I experience is real, but so is the fact that none of the jobs and opportunities I have had would have been possible for me without the academic ability/SAT score/GPA/work history that I had. Being white helped, but a person who couldn't read, couldn't have done any of the jobs that have enabled me to have the life I have. So fighting racism is one thing -- and there is a disturbing conflation of white people's desire to not deal with the ongoing racism that exists with the reality that, racism notwithstanding, it doesn't help anyone to read at a fourth grade level. We need to resist the temptation of saying that because I prefer helping kids learn to dealing with racism and privilege, there's no longer any need to resist racism. 

But we also need to be able to admit that there is a difference between freedom and license, and letting kids do what they want, or bending over backwards to accommodate their preferences when they are eleven years old and their preference is to not learn, is not actually empowering them. After struggling for the past four months to negotiate this as the bizarre conglomeration that I am (daughter of an Appalachian redneck and a first generation American; white as the paper my non-profit checks are printed on, but essentially uncomprehending of "New York white people values"), it is a relief to see people with the power to actually change the coarse of efforts like mine saying: actually, for our program to meet its goals, these kids need to sit down, shut up, and learn. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

eff that noise, #3

3. "I feel bad because":

I am so fat.
I don't care about x,y,z.
I want x.
I don't want to x.
I failed to y.
I can't seem to z.
I am so fat.
My eyebrows.
And also: fat.
I should [x].
and then should [y].
But instead I just seem to [z].

I feel bad because:

if I had [x/y/z] then this person might not have [x/y/z]'d.
if I had been less angry!
if I had asked for less!
if I had done more!
if I had looked better!
if I weren't so goddamn fat!

I feel bad because:

I'm too old to [x].
I'm too young to [x].
I'm too fucking fat to [x].
I'm white.
I'm educated.
I'm privileged.
I'm not educated enough, make too little, owe too much, can't afford Uggs but could afford college (kind of), won't buy the right phone, don't think anyone else needs the right phone, either. Don't know enough about music, literature, what's in the New York Times. Don't understand Twitter, don't understand googledocs, don't understand Google+, don't understand OK Cupid.

But -- in some small, lethargic, not-even-remotely-ready-for-Monday-morning part of my inner world -- I also feel solid, and healthy, and good.

Because I am alive, my sometimes-close-to-unmanageable drive to self-destruct notwithstanding.

Because fully eighty five percent of the things I tell myself I should do are arbitrary, and the other fifteen percent are optional.

Because "too fat" is not actually a thing.

Because I'm not going down that easily, not this week.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

interlude: what do I want to write about?

One element that journalism and nursing share is the fabulous potential of the right question, asked at an opportune time -- the one that elicits the confession or the quote on the one hand, and the realization that the patient is, say, in the early stages of Digoxin toxicity (visual changes!) on the other.

My friend, Sam, is a journalist, and is often tasked with getting information from people who don't spend their free time elucidating their feelings on all the things for their own entertainment. After reading yesterday's blog, in which I referenced how I stopped writing in an effort to do more "useful" and "service-oriented" things with my life -- or (in a witty and unfortunate turn of events) to go on lots of job interviews in which I try to convince people to let me do these useful things -- he asked: what do you want to write?

And I thought about it all day, in between my cartoonish efforts to shove my cartoon boulder, called toddler-in a-stroller-with-groceries, through the snow, and to coordinate the two job interviews I was offered, suddenly. (We've moved on from simply hurling my resume and "thoughtful cover letters" into an abyss, to making increasingly contrived excuses for That Guy who liked us so much but now just won't call, even though he said he would and I know his phone is working, I've called it and hung up already today, twice. Since lunch.)

Because I'm not really a writer, I don't know what these things are that I'd like to write -- essays or stories or poems or what. But I want to write about the following:

1. My grandfather -- the things he loved (drinking tea and wandering, clipping poems and stories from obscure publications for me, thick glossy magazines and cats and small children) and the things I loved about him: his voice, like socked feet on a carpet, padding from one word to the next; his capacity for paying attention long after everyone else had lost interest in tomorrow's quiz on state capitals and the seventeen pound cat that's not done being pet yet; and, then, for awhile, nothing at all.

I'd like to write how that happens -- that someone can sit so squarely in the center of your life and then mean nothing, the way a cramp eventually, disconcertingly, gives way to numbness; how it feels simultanously like loss and like every breath you could not take if he were here and can take now. How you remember someone correctly when the memories you have are also memories of a small, weak, pathetic manifestation of you, someone you wouldn't want your friends now to meet.

2. My kids. All the kids: the one who watched his cousin bleed out on the street in Cambodia and then shut down, terrifyingly and without a single word, during his high-stakes assessment. The one who threatened to kill himself, eight years old and apocalyptic over some after-school counselor's slight, and how small he looked strapped into the ambulance with his silent grandma poised ominously off to the side. The one who came out, gloriously and with a series of ill-conceived artistic images on his Facebook page -- since taken down -- but only after a protracted break-up with the Jehovah's witnesses who'd visited him regularly as a fifteen year old in South Boston, itself the result of an entire year spent analyzing Madonna's oeuvre in every single five-paragraph essay assigned.

3. Bodies. Not so much mine, which maybe isn't fair, and definitely keeps me from writing a lot of the time. That is, the fact that my real interest in women's bodies and the things language does to them stems from my own experiences, living in a body that, it would seem, somehow belongs to everyone -- this makes me reluctant to write, unsure if I'm the only one preoccupied with and resentful of questions like: should I feed it, and how much? Should it breastfeed, and for how long? If someone does this or this to it, and under these circumstances, was it raped?

What is my responsibility towards it -- this body that actually, it would seem, is not mine? If I "consent" to sex in an effort to avoid face-punching and get the hell out of this almost-stranger's car, did I protect myself, or fail to do so?

Because I think, anything you can do to avoid getting the shit beat out of you; why risk it? But being female, one also must understand, it would seem, that that's not fully your call -- you can't just go along with sex to avoid getting hurt, and then say you didn't want it.

Whereas, you know, if my body were a wallet, one could, conceivably, hand it over and then call the cops. A predicament, one about which I have a lot of writing I'd like to do.

I literally could do this for the rest of the day -- not because I'm an especially prolific person, but because this is my head, all the time: these thoughts and the other thoughts and not-yet thoughts, pacing, indistinct from one another, under the surface of all the shit that needs to get done and interests me some, but less. And also because collectively, our desire to be heard outweighs our desire to listen -- one is easy and the other takes a certain level of restraint, a kind of imagination that is less immediately gratifying than the kind involved in talking.

So there's no real way to end this besides: thanks for asking, Sam. Thanks for listening, reader.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

but also, all of this!

Reasons to get up this morning, the Tuesday edition:

1. It is totally possible we will have a snow day -- and only slightly possible that, like last time snow started in the late-morning hours, my child's caregivers will collectively decide,"eff this noise" leave a single voice message on my cell phone at 2 pm letting me know that they are closing at 4, not call daddy, and then follow up at quarter to five, wondering if "[I am] on the way to pick up McCartney". (I was not.)

By "we", of course, I mean New York City Public Schools and their associated after-school programs, since if Facebook is to be believed, everyone in the entire world besides myself not only has a snow day but may never have to report to work again. (So can I have their jobs?)

2. Facebook is not to be believed. About anything. Ever.

3. Should my nursing job search continue to avail me nothing, there is always the New York City Teaching Fellows, as there was in 2008, 2011, and 2012. Although it's getting increasingly harder to avoid their questions as to why I have not accepted their offers to join: do I just need somewhere to be for four hours on a Saturday, every other year?

(One does not simply blame one's husband for one's career choices whilst interviewing for jobs.)

For real, though. While it may only ever be a salve to the battered terrain of my self-perception as I continue to not find nursing work, the fact that I clearly am meant to be a teacher and that any number of nursing professors/colleagues/interviewers for said Teaching Fellows program have said that to me, in so many words, is reassuring, in its way. Like if Dancing with the Stars was cast, not with celebrities in the acting field, but novelists. "What can you do, Wally Lamb can't meringue? His novels are six hundred pages each!"

(I am not Wally Lamb.) But I would have been a really awesome teacher.

3. Writing. See my next blog entry, eff not writing, because -- while I'm sure they all meant well, those friendly adults who instilled in me that the drive to say things and do things and create things is a gateway to pride and the swift fall that follows --  WWJD if writing made it possible to continue breathing, if writing allowed J the headspace to occupying J's remaining hours with more outward-directed acts of service and worship? I suspect that J would WHAO.

I don't know why putting words after one another, however inelegant then arrangement or self-involved the topic, allows me to still the manic push to attack myself and those around me on the daily, and with special fervor on workday mornings. But it does, and thank God for that.

4. "God -as-I-understand-God". Which is to say, a God who does not create wonderful things like love and art and science and then jump on anyone weak enough to celebrate those things instead of attempting some weirdly reified act of worship in which one attempts to separate God from the only aspects of Himself we can actually see (to wit, the cosmos and the love and the W.H. Auden?)

I mean, really. Among the best feelings I am having this morning -- counter to the already- throbbing onslaught of job-related irritants (career advice: don't wait until a week before you leave to give notice, do so via an email with no apology, over the weekend, and then ask for a meeting to discuss "what this means for [the company]", because never. you. mind. my friend.) -- is the freedom engendered by the fact, whatever I do believe, I don't believe in a God who has a problem with gay families. Lots of other people do; let them. It's not that I'm a shitty Christian because I can't accept this God; in my perception of the universe, there is no such God, so my failure to believe in Him is natural rather than sinful.

And I can't even handle how good it feels to not be pounding my head against that specific wall.

5. Freaking babies, man. Let me tell you, after a week of rage-y, nasty, entitled eleven-year-olds (because, the occasion glimpses of Christ that one sees in even the most wretched among us notwithstanding, there are no other kind, and anyone who says otherwise is most likely trying to solicit funding from you), it is a blessing, in the corny but absolutely truthful sense of the word, to spend three consecutive days with my often rage-y, but also joyful, soft-skinned, and infinitely more cuddly toddler. Not only does the kid enjoy much more wholesome pursuits than twerking and insulting me to my face; he is still of a size where, when he does forget himself, I can pick him up, put him into his crib, and click links on Jezebel until he becomes something like "docile" and I become something like "able to go on". Would that middle schools everywhere gave us this option.

Happy Tuesday, everyone. What's getting you out of bed this morning?

Monday, January 20, 2014

eff that noise #2

2. "Corporate worship". Since adulthood, I've had a few religious experiences in the life-affirming, private, come-to-Jesus sense. They've taken place in different kinds of locations, but rarely in churches or "church communities".  Half the time I was reading something -- usually, not the Bible. And I've been in a lot of churches, and I've found exactly one that actually worked for me (presumptuous as that may sound) in the sense that I gained something from going to it besides additional agitas, which, the objective reality of God be damned, I assure you, and He, that I do not need.

It wasn't even the "gay issue" -- though that was happily a non-issue here, because at this excellent church, the gay members worked out their feels about Leviticus and Roman with their own fear and trembling, and those of us married to the more convenient gender either left the whole issue alone, or actively fought for social justice for gay people, depending on our understanding of/investment in that issue. It never came up in church, though, or even around church, mostly because the congregants were largely a group of friends from the same college in rural Texas who were too polite to fuck up brunch. Also, about sixty percent of the time it was the gay congregants leading worship, since any breeder over twenty-four had at least one kid to wrangle around the elementary school cafeteria where we met.

It was awesome. We had bagels for communion, and when we'd been blessed, we hung around and ate the rest of the bagels. The first time I was there, on the edge of my seat, ready to bounce, I was intercepted by their leader and his boyfriend and their mutual insistence that I take a bagel before I go.

I haven't found this kind of "community of faith" anywhere else, but I miss it badly, and occasionally it is what is driving me to try to find another church (this one folded a few years ago). To be honest, though, a lot of the rest of the time, I'm looking because I feel like I should be going to church, like God wants that from me. And even though my confusion about God has often been painful and detrimental to more "worldly" indicators of my well-being, including the health of my marriage and my recovery from bulimia, I still feel like you don't get to tell God: I need some me time. I need some time to think things through.

I don't know why this is so difficult for me, why I seem uniquely unable to get with the program, whatever the program actually is. Everyone else I know seems to align their beliefs with their practice with enviable ease, the way someone other than me might eat breakfast or get dressed for a party. Most of my friends and family are either committed atheist or agnostics, noncommittal or nominal Christians or Jews whose spiritual walk is crippled more by a lack of interest than anything else, or actual Christians who I don't know well enough to talk about God with, much, or whose spiritual practice is less than accommodating to my current circumstances.

But I'm some other thing, a thing in which you can apparently believe that God is real, and yet be unable to reconcile yourself to what He wants from you. What would one call that thing? An apostate?

See, on the one hand, I know that God isn't supposed to fit around the other stuff you do. On the other hand, for me, that Sunday stuff involves volunteering at a hospital for profoundly disabled children, one of whom calls me on the phone when I don't make it (God, thankfully, does not do this), and raising my own profoundly demanding child, who spends upwards of fifty hours a week in childcare and who does not wish to spend his free mommy time having other grown ups tell him about Jesus, and seeing my husband, whose own "that noise" encompasses pretty much all organized religion, largely, I think -- though he won't say this outright, because he is also from the South -- because most of the Christians he has known kind of acted like dicks. (Quote me, fine, but don't cite him; my mother-in-law reads this blog).

If we're using know in the conventional sense of intellectual conviction, I don't know much about Jesus, up to and including whether He walked the earth or is some kind of metaphor that just really, really works for me personally. But I do know that, if Jesus is angry at me for being a mother to my son on in the few hours I get with him each week, for not launching another exhausting, quixotic campaign to get my husband to do something he doesn't want to do, for dipping into my pitiful reserves of effs-to-give for the benefit of shaken babies rather than Him, then there's some cognitive dissonance there, severe enough that belief in God may no longer be an option.

At the risk of totally failing this God -- because I absolutely don't intend to be clever or flippant here -- to swap out time with the concrete people I love for time with strangers, collectively loving Him, I am just going to need a more glaring sign than He's given thus far. Something along the lines of a burning bush, or, at the very least, a church that doesn't leave me feeling like I'm at a middle school dance -- stupid, and awkward, and wishing they had diet soda at the snack table.

Until then, I'm going to have to fall back on the seemingly reasonable conclusion that God, being omnipotent and omnipresent, can find me on the peds unit, with my family, at my job, at my school. As to the particular brand of church-speak that insists that I've let Him down if I can't get it together to leave my husband at home and drag my two year old to a church where I will either receive a blessing or provoke a full-blown anxiety attack regarding mortality/the "literal truth" of the Bible/ other people's gay lifestyles, well, fuck that fucking noise.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

eff that noise, #1

See below; anyone who wants to take on the questionable mission of caring about this, or any subsequent bits of eff-worthy noise, have at it. I'm done.

1. "Batwings", "muffin top", "problem areas", "FUPA", and any other "clever" little weapons of body shame masquerading as efforts to relate to "the female experience". Lookit, I almost killed myself with an eating disorder -- a different, less sanitized version of "screwed up over my body" than the one I was conscripted for originally -- and I would choose that over the powerless feeling of living in a body that's a punchline.The majority of my high school, college, and young adult years were absorbed in an effort to ensure everyone understood that I will simply destroy this body rather than live in it while someone else holds it up for critique and ridicule. This area is a problem? Yeah, I got that -- that's why I've fed it nothing but gum and vodka today. 

I did not loosen my death grip on that (unfortunate, unproductive) manifestation of control in order to be talked down to, just because some conveniently invisible arbiter of "truth" regarding my physical being feels that I'd do more for "him" if my upper arms were a little more toned, or that I've earned ridicule by having a butt that does not give "him" an erection when I am walking down the street/passing him in the bar/otherwise engaged in living my life. (Note to publishers and advertisers: there are no actual "hes" in my life weighing in on either my arms or my butt, because I don't associate with with people who presume to have an opinion on parts of my body. These "he's" you speak of are evidently either imaginary or are, wisely, keeping a low profile, afraid of either my flapping, geriatric flesh, my man-hating feminism, or both.)

Moreover, heterosexual men may use these words (which, eff that noise, hard and in the ear), but mostly they are not the ones producing or consuming the cultural and economic products whose existence depends on these words and the associated shame. And, in fact, other than FUPA -- which is fun to say, if one doesn't get sidelined by the way it thrusts the speaker in a position of deciding whether another human being's body is or is not disgusting and contemptible -- I don't hear men say these words that much at all. I don't hear women say them much, either. We all just have to hear them, and read them, because someone keeps putting them in cartoons and in SELF and on talk shows and ads that pop up online, the linguistic equivalent of Lief Garrett in Tiger Beat.

An easy dragon to slay, this one. I'm unilaterally rejecting the word "batwings", the concept of batwings, and the larger paradigm within which we excuse ourselves for appropriating the bodies of others as ours to evaluate by using silly, cutesy, or anthropomorphic words to do so.

My arms are arms, not a hobby or a joke. They look the way they goddamn look, and no amount of wink-wink-nudgery is going to convince me that shaming me into "fixing" them is anything other than an ineffectual attempt of bullying. Ineffectual, because being female is not an Achille's heel, and the belief that it gives anyone power over me -- to make me feel bad or waste my time or change my body -- is just so much incoherent noise. Eff it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

youth, development

So: progress reports dropped, and our staff were collectively shocked, both by the crappiness of kids' progress reports and by the total indifference to said crappiness, and we've got the kids on a kind of academic lockdown. And what. fresh. hells. are these?

The thing about working with large groups of middle school students is that, after awhile, they just become this mass of hopelessness. How many times can you possibly say the same thing to the same child and get the same response -- which is to say, none, unless you count "running in the other direction" or "blatantly ignoring" as responses? Or, alternately, some sort of muttered mean girl joke under their breath, to their friends, behind their eyes?

(The plural pronoun above is intentional; should it happen that, on one glorious day, I speak to a child and he or she responds like a human individual and not some kind of genetic object correlative for my anxiety disorder, well, I'll be writing a different sort of blog entry. That is, provided I can find my way to the computer keyboard through the shimmering aftereffects of the entire bottle of Champagne that I will drink, from a paper bag, on the way home. It's a long commute.)

I don't know, these days, how to respond to this population of middle school kids. I've got a serious case of culture shock, when I thought I was immune. Why can't the kids just hate themselves, quietly, and allow that hate to render every surpassing grade and piece of negative feedback an existential crisis, rather than hate me, loudly, every time they don't get exactly what they want? Who is telling these children that I am the enemy because I want them to learn to read instead of posting rumors about who sucked the dik (sic) of whom on Facebook? Why can't they be more like I was? 


It'd be great if my impassioned internal monologues could take a more circuitous route back to the glaring specter of my own privilege. Middle class white girls have the luxury of devaluing themselves, maybe, because their privileges affords them a kind of value and safety even when they personally are (feel) worthless. I get that there is probably a need to resist self-criticism when you are enmeshed in a system that systematically devalues you before you've even really entered into it, and that I don't really know a damn thing about that.

And of course, regardless of whose fault this is, the privilege that I experienced is intertwined with the reality that I read better at seven years old than my most advanced sixth grader. In one sense, I could afford to be self-reflective and self-critical -- no one with any real power was calling me stupid.

But once, I thought of those differences as smaller than the things I had to offer our kids. I thought I could tell them what saved me: if your life isn't what you want, if you don't like the way you feel, you have options. Instead of demanding an iPhone or a blow job or laying on the floor and screaming (which: why?) or jumping another child or posting something on Facebook about her vagina, you can: learn what a quark is, memorize Edna St. Vincent Millay, write a novel featuring you, in the circumstances you want, doing the things you'd be doing if everyone would get off your back.

You can get out of the place you are. You can do that right now, because the world is full of things and places other than this one, and you can access those things at any time, once you take them in and make them yours. A unique freedom of the public school system, in Brooklyn as in Chester County, is that it's a relatively passive learning experience. Shitty for actual learning, maybe, but excellent for daydreaming.

And you can do it permanently, too: if you can pry open your desperate little mind-fingers and release this shitty moment, you'll have a hand free to reach for a moment you like better. And the amazing thing is that that response to your malaise actually benefits you, instead of just shoving all your anger and frustration onto someone else, who may or may not have anything to do with why you are actually angry.

I really believe(d) that what makes these kids run out of class and scream and swear is not actually my refusal to let them text one another during homework time or wander the halls aimlessly or threaten one another in the bathroom, but a larger frustration that just happens to make every single act of redirection into the last straw. Once upon I time, I believed that these stupid things they cling to like baubles, these petty grievances and imaginary slights and rubbernecking with respect to the social misfortunes of one another, were not actually more interesting to them than the possibility of becoming a doctor or the amazing feeling of really getting algebra or the mind-blowing nature of the world: its expansiveness and diversity and intricacy and unknowableness, the almost infinite things to think about that aren't this thing and aren't this place. I believed that really, these kids are amazing and they just need to be directed to that reality and away from the various lame and petty things that distract them from it.

This week, though, I just think: these kids. Either they just suck, and I'm a chump for trying to get them to see anything beyond this asinine "reality" show of irrelevant drama and tantrums and trivia -- or, worse, the things that I think are inherently valuable and life-affirming (imagination, reading, language, mastery, learning -- the things that saved my life), are, in fact, just a self-deluded, self-important way of saying that my (white, newly middle class) middle school experience was better than theirs is.

Is it racist to be a white person trying to change black kids? To say: actually, learning to read is a better way to spend one's time than twerking? Pushing through Algebra I is a bigger accomplishment than owning an iPhone?

I'm not conflating these things with white kids, but with myself: I think those things are true. I suspect eleven year olds of all races might disagree -- but I actually have very little experience with white kids, compared to the experiences I have with people insinuating I am racist for pushing "my" culture onto urban youth. What I know is: I say yes, x is better than y, and a bunch of kids and "stakeholders" and HuffPo articles insinuate (or, you know, come out and say) that my saying that is some kind of cultural imperialism.

I feel like it is more racist to say that these particular kids' bad behavior is a "cultural phenomenon" rather than the total developmental and disciplinary crisis that I perceive it as -- to say that sitting still, reading, not buying your sixth grader an iPhone, not judging people by the stuff they have, are somehow "white" or "middle class" values. I'm not the one writing articles justifying why a child living in poverty has a iPhone or sneakers that cost more than my wedding dress as something other than poor judgment. But I know those articles are written, and that I'm not in the best position to say: well, that's bullshit.

And I worry that, because the rationale I offer these kids for why they can't have a day off from homework to watch the basketball game is informed by own experience, in a society that normalizes it at the expense of other peoples' experience, I am somehow in the wrong for saying: this is unacceptable; do it this way.

When it comes down to it, though, what I have to offer is this: regardless of the systems that privilege me and don't privilege my students, we do all live in the same world. For essentially apolitical reasons, I have this found world really challenging -- I don't know anyone who believes their life is easy, even when they can concede that their lives have been privileged -- and I survived it. And the things that got me through are the things that got me through, and my life is better now, and it would not be if I hadn't done the work of learning to read and write and finish what I start and shut up and deal, however ungracefully I do it.

So, yeah, I believe kids need to learn those things, however pink-faced and old and square and privileged the medium through which they learn. Because YOLO and Facebook and cliches never saved any lives that I know of. But being able to think and imagine and pursue a goal and exercise self-restraint - to imagine something different and then seek out the tools to make that different thing actual -- those skills saved mine.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

I got better!

So, Christmas happened, and my friend Wes's excellent blog on solstice happened, and I now am both redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and also headed away from my personal darkest day of the year and into 2014, a year in which I may or may not find a nursing job but definitely will continue to provide my two-hundred-plus eleven year olds with all the literacy, math, and empty threats at my disposal. (Make no mistake: I absolutely will be calling everyone's parents just as soon as we can get through two and a half hours with no death threats, fistfights, or bloodied lips/eyesbrows/gums -- and before you judge, I invite you, gentle reader, to consider that fully 33.3% of our incidents occur as a result of children walking into doors with their heads).

As a result of the awe-inspiring personal growth 2013 managed to bring about and (as it turns out!) only appeared to completely unravel last month, I was able to limit my 2014 resolutions to just two:

1. I will actually recover from my eating disorder and all its ugly sequelae, including my tendency to characterize every single bad thing I feel as the result of my fatness, because that is asinine.

2. I will actually enjoy what I have and allow those things to make me happy.

With that in mind, attend the list below -- in no particular order, five excellent little interjections in an otherwise continuous veil of freezing-ass cold and approaching returns to the office:

1. Downton Abbey Christmas Special! If you live in England, you certainly have already seen this gorgeous exercise in having Paul Giamatti play Shirley Maclaine's curmudgeonly son, Lady Mary looking beautiful and boring everyone, and Edith being even more awesome than she was evil and jelly in the first season. The best part of this special, of course, is that since the only way to have seen it already would have been to illegally download it, we haven't actually seen it yet and can all anticipate it in vivid, nuanced detail while we wait for Season 4 to air on PBS.

2. BABY PANDAS! I was just focusing on the joy-inducing powers of baby pandas, as per my mom after my latest job interview. But as it turns out, the net total of baby pandas on the planet is actually increasing!  I live in the hope that 2014 is the year I get to go to China and see the baby pandas, among other things (such as grown-ass pandas -- also awesome!, the Great Wall, and all the tofu). But in the meantime here are fourteen panda babies cuddling in a crib OH MY GOD! 

3. Easter! Okay, so, we're obviously nowhere near Easter. But that dearth of effs I had to give about Advent 2013 has lent itself to so many effs already in preparation for Lent and Easter 2014. Easter's the closest thing mainstream Christians have to a real holiday, in my opinion: while Christmas has been effectively stripped of its less marketable implications and demands, Easter doesn't really lend itself to a secular version once you're over the age of nine. 

And I love Easter,  because what it does lend itself to is all the ritual and pageantry and silence that didn't really figure into my childhood experience of church. My childhood Holy Weeks focused heavily on my personal sin and how shitty it was I couldn't get it together so Jesus wouldn't have had to die. Except that He always already had to die (for everyone else's sins) but even more so because I had been reading VC Andrews in the car on the way to church. 

I don't want to go so far as to say I don't believe in a personal God now; but I do believe that a Being that exists outside of time and space may be looking at things with too wide a lens to want to spend our time together making sure I'm sorry enough for my sins. The idea that Christ's death and resurrection means something other than, and larger than, my personal get out of jail free card, has made all of the things that lead up to Easter for me now -- the liturgies and readings and fasts and foot washing -- a chance to participate in something well outside my everyday life, as opposed to a formal opportunity to reflect on my specific moral failings and the cosmic significance thereof. 

4.  The awesome Walk Out the Knockout Run in which I will be participating this Saturday.  So, running is probably the best thing I did for myself in 2013. Nothing I do -- not therapy or talking to my friends or writing or anything else -- is as reliable a way of beating back my crazy. And, lo and behold, here's an event that combines my love of Helping Others with moving my body from one place to the next. If you're in or around New York, you should come. The entry fee is optional and it is 2.4 miles, people. I'm thinking of dragging my toddler. (If you register, though, you may inadvertently also sign up for their youth soccer league, so... be ready for that?)

5. Children of Promise. This is actually an agency I volunteered with through New York Cares about this time last year -- I had to stop when I started working for CAMBA again. But they. are. amazing. Basically, they do after school programs like mine, but exclusively for children who have a parent in prison. They also do mentoring and therapy and allow you to sponsor a child to go visit their incarcerated parent. This is possibly one of the most amazing things happening in our city, and it's like fifteen minutes from my house! Think of that next time you're like, "What's HAPPENING to Bed-Stuy? Why did I just pay $2.75 for sixteen ounces of coffee?

As you may have guessed, I sometimes have a hard time being positive. In part, I think, this is because it is so much easier to find common ground among negative things. As ably as I shift from zero to misery over what others may call "minor inconveniences", the things that hold my interest and also make me happy tend to be, like, youth services for incarcerated kids (but also pandas)! Not always the most universal points of connection. 

However -- and if I were less obsessively attached to the idea of "symmetrical" versus "non-symmetrical" numbers, I'd make this excellent interjection number six -- bar none, the best thing about the first week of 2014 is how I've decided, for the time being, that the way I am and the things I like are absolutely fine. 

So (although I am sure this will totally last, because I am totally capable of accomplishing my goals) I'd encourage you to soak up these efforts at accentuating the positive now, before they go the way of all twelve of my 2013 resolutions (they won't!!!) If adorable urban kids, endorphin rushes, and freaking PANDAs can't forestall your post-holiday letdown -- well, a less optimistic blogger might say there's no hope for you.