Guard Dogs

cerberusThe two big news stories since I moved from Missouri have been: anti-Semitic lunatic shoots up the Jewish Community Center, and cops shoot teenager who is black and unarmed.  Is that where I am from?  Well, yes.  It is a place that struggles with fear in its own ways.

We will always have trouble with people in authority and how they scare themselves and other people.

Terrible things happen when people get scared.  I was scared of Kansas City’s east side, the black side of town, until I went there for work, until I knew and loved so many people who lived there.  I’m still scared when alone in unfamiliar neighborhoods that look uncared for, neighborhoods where kids aren’t out playing or there is no one to see what happens to you.

I am scared of being alone, although I like being alone.  I am scared of not having enough money.  I am scared of falling down steps.  I am scared of thinking I am being funny but people are offended or think I am weird.  I am scared of not having enough time to think.  I am afraid of looking back on my life and thinking I was a coward.

When I get scared, I watch a lot of television.  I make a plan that involves begin to list things that are wrong with other people in comparison to what is right with me.  Being a hard worker, or laid back, or smart, or ignorant, really, anything will work.  I used to work a lot with logic, having faith in the logic of the world, the logic of other people, or even in playing the odds, how likely is that to happen?  Also, I think about how to make myself so okay that I will never need anyone else and then no one can ever disappoint me again.

These strategies are actually rather effective and thus it is hard to stop.

When cops get scared, really bad things happen.  Either cops are scared, or they are stupid.  They know people hate them and want to kill them.  They have a lot of fear to manage.

When teenagers get scared, and they are scared almost all the time because you may not recall but their whole selves are construction zones where heavy shit can fall and they aren’t even the foremen, usually.  Teenagers who are black have particular and real reasons to be scared.  Especially the ones who live in neighborhoods that give them PTSD.  This is still gunshot season, until about the first frost.  Then things calm down until Christmas when people have to deal with their families, or realize they don’t have money for presents they want to give.  And then you know the people who are supposed to protect you are people who even if you want to, you have trouble trusting.

Really bad things can happen when teenagers get scared.  Not necessarily the things people think of, running away, withdrawing, but often counterphobic stuff like stealing a car or borrowing a gun or cussing out a teacher or throwing a book at her.  (Said book was nowhere near aerodynamic enough to be anything more than a gesture, don’t worry.)

I think scared people are helped by sitting in a quiet room with someone who is either not afraid, or pretending not to be.  I am very good at the latter, not to brag.  Posture is important, too, that is, sitting next to someone, side by side, is usually good.  Lots of quiet is good.

I have plenty of fear experience, both of the average type, like, I am too afraid to move to New York, which is something I still think regularly although it’s hard to have faith in now.  And the pathological type of the anxiety disorder, which is a different species.

For religious people, repetition helps.  Chanting and praying the hours and ritual helps.  Singing helps.  Letting yourself feel your feelings helps, but this is very hard.

For many fears between people, conversation about food and annoying parents or annoying children helps.  The weather is a place to begin.

I had no great interest in the movie “Big Fish,” but I remember a scene with a big black dog.  Someone had to confront this very scary dog, and when they did, the dog ran away.  This doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes bullies don’t back down.  Sometimes they beat the shit out of you.  Sometimes they kill you.   You may be better off, though, working on your happy medium of not running away, not becoming aggressive, something in between, whether it is jokes or silence or shifting your weight.

Take A Load Off Annie

Parents versus teachers: we’re sort of on the same team, and sort of not.  When we clash, it’s ugly.

I didn’t go into teaching to sabotage or attack students. In fact, it hurts like the dickens when you suggest I haven’t done a good job.  When left unsupervised, about 1/4 of my brain obsessively catalogues my shortcomings.  I know my imperfections well.

It doesn’t help that our culture has put more and more of the responsibility on teachers, less and less on students and parents.  I kind of get off on everyone thinking I’m so powerful, but let’s face it: I can’t make a parent pay attention to a kid’s grades.  I can’t make a kid work.  I’m a stubborn, insistent motherfucker of a teacher, but I have my limits.

Ninety-five percent of the parents I’ve dealt with are supportive and respectful.  Five percent ignore their child’s schoolwork and academic progress, and then, at some point, abruptly demand to know why I didn’t alert them to it.  It takes every ounce of my self-control to not say, “I have a hundred kids.  How many do you have?”

Infuriated, I start mentally listing my responsibilities (just skip to the end of this when you get bored): supervise 100 kids, monitor their academic and emotional and physical health, plan three sets of activities for the three classes I teach, five days a week, constantly revising them to fit the particular group of students, time of year, day of the week, their other courses, current events, and mood in the building, check on student work while they’re working, keep everyone engaged all hour in productive work, vary social and individual and visual and kinesthetic and oral activities, balance writing and reading, create and grade homework assignments that are meaningful practice, choose literature samples that are compelling and both connect and challenge students, choose grammar exercises and explanations that are accessible and clear, and most helpful to the particular writing problems of that group, tutor students after school, offer extra help to the weak and extra challenges to the strong, clean my classroom, monitor the halls, sign demerit cards for uniform infractions, language, and lateness, meet with the disciplinarian about serious discipline issues, tweak assignments and tests for students with IEPs, meet with my team of teachers to discuss discipline, curriculum, scheduling, and education theory, make sure everyone gets lunch and snacks, refer the suicidal, pregnant, and self-destructive to the social worker, alert student to changes in the schedule or upcoming events, encourage them to monitor their own progress and reflect on their work, encourage age-appropriate developments toward abstract thinking and reasoning, give mints to the sleepy, comfort the sick, encourage the English department and protect them as much as possible so they can do meaningful work, read widely to stay abreast of educational research and current events and literature, and write frequently and seriously so that I can be an authentic writing teacher, offering advice that reflects how people, in all their various approaches, actually write.  Also I occasionally hold poetry readings.

Here’s what I want our parents to be responsible for: know what your kid’s grade is, and let someone at school know if you want to talk to us about that grade.  Here’s what I want the students responsible for: asking for help when they need it, pointing out my mistakes, and accepting a grade based on what their work (or lack of it).

Through the wonders of the internet, parents can look at student grades any old time they want to.  Before we had that system set up, I sent paper copies of grades home every week. Still, in meetings, parents would complain that they were in the dark.  (My students are older– as I like to remind them, old enough to drive a car.  I think if you’re old enough to drive a car, you must old enough to take some responsibility for yourself.  At least the state of Missouri thinks so.)

Often, they ask me to call them when their student has grade problems.  I do not have time to consider all 100 grades every day or every week or every month, and I don’t have time to ponder if you think the grade is appropriate and need a phone call.  (Parents also, of course, receive grades mailed home eight times a year, as long as we have an up-to-date address.)

Let me say again: 95% of our parents come in for meetings and tell the kid, “You better listen to your teachers and straighten up.”  I love that.  I especially love the ones who are frustrated or depressed or anxious, which is most of them.

The problem with putting more responsibility on teachers is that it cripples students.  If you work with students in poverty, encouraging a sense of helplessness and a lack of personal responsibility is the best way to keep them poor.  It’s hard for a school that serves such a population to make any demands on parents or students.  We know how much they are struggling with the basics.  But responsibility, even a little bit, is empowering.  We flatter ourselves when we say they have to rely on us, that schools have to bear the burden alone.  We don’t, and we shouldn’t.  It’s not helpful.

Giving and Having

I woke up this morning to death.  I didn’t cheer it like those kids in DC.  My cat had killed a mouse.  I screamed, and then I laid a towel over the corpse.  My great-grandfather used to say, “It’s not the dead people you need to worry about– it’s the living.”  He was a mortician.

Osama bin Laden was not executed.  He was killed while resisting arrest.  I would have rather seen him in jail.  I wish Adolf Hitler were still in jail.  I wish he had softened up, learned the roots of his self-hatred, and started knitting yarmulkas in between painting his still lifes.

I’ve always worried more about the living than the dead.  I did take my great-grandfather’s advice to heart.  And the stories my senior English teacher told about her husband, a Vietnam vet.  She said he came back broken-hearted and mentally muddled, and I thought, maybe that’s worse than being killed.  The real reason I hate violence is because you can’t armor the mind, or the heart.  I protested the war in Iraq because of that husband.  I never met him.

I do have problems with the dead.  Since there’s a dead mouse next to my toilet, I’m going to have to start peeing in the side yard.  I don’t see any other option.  Well.  I could move.

In February, I met a woman, Mary Johnson, who used to work with Mother Teresa.  Mother Teresa, the opposite of bin Laden and Hitler, right?  Mother Teresa was not perfect.  I heard Ms Johnson read from her book, describing how she told her mentor, her hero, that she was requesting a release from her vows.  It wasn’t an easy conversation.  Mother Teresa, while inspirational in many ways, was not God.  She did not understand everything, and she did not have all the answers.  (You can preorder her book here and please do– she’s great: )

It doesn’t help anyone to make some figures angels and some demons.  Mother Teresa herself said, “We cannot conquer evil outside if we have not conquered it inside.  We cannot give what we don’t have.”  And we can only give what we do have: revenge and gloating, or reverence and awe, regardless of who has died.


Of course, nobody told this guy to shoot a Congressional representative.  Still, when I saw Palin’s graphic, I thought of every first-person shooter game with gory blood spurting graphics, and I thought of JFK.  And I know if I found crosshairs drawn over a map of my classroom, I’d consider that a violent threat, because students have actually threatened me.  It’s different to see an image like that when you know the “target” gets threatened on a regular basis.

This is part of the reason people noticed Palin’s imagery.  Then there’s the fact that she makes such a big damn deal of waving her guns around and talking about how awesome it is to shoot them.  Maybe we liberals are oversensitive, or maybe she set herself up.

Threats from students are one of the few infractions I really go to the mat for.  I’ve never been physically attacked by a student, or had my possessions messed with (that I know of).  But several times kids have threatened me.  “She’s going to be sorry.”  “Something’s gonna happen to her.”

I’ve dragged the threateners down to meetings with our disciplinarian.  I explain that some things you can’t joke about.  For example, having a bomb in your luggage at the airport.  Then, “I know you didn’t mean that you were going to do anything, but you can’t say things like that.”  True or not, now the kid has an out to make peace with me, without losing face.  We also talk about how threats mean you will be the first suspect, even if you don’t do anything wrong.  (Palin’s problem.)  Tomorrow I have a flat tire, and I immediately suspect this kid of puncturing it, rather than assuming I drove over a nail.  Wouldn’t that suck?  Kid agrees.  Apologizes to me.

I don’t think any of my students actually followed through on a threat.  I think they lost their tempers and wanted to show off.  I have taken every threat seriously, though.

Once I had  a student yell to another student, “You’re going to get a bullet in you!”  She had been picked at and picked at.  She was fun to tease because she would easily spaz out in a theatrical way.  I didn’t believe that violence was in her character– in fact, I guessed she was too distractable to follow through with any violent feelings.  She was slow to anger and quick to forget.  I told her to go to the bathroom and calm down, and I meant to have a longer talk with her later.  I never got around to it.  Maybe I shouldn’t have trusted my own judgment so much.  I’m still troubled by that incident.

People with mental illness can get violent, and they don’t necessarily need inspiration.  I’m not comfortable knowing I might have even a tiny, backhanded, accidental part in encouraging violence.  Avoiding the appearance of encouraging lunacy should not be a move to avoid responsibility.  It’s part of a mature commitment to clear and responsible speech.


Some of the most painful things that ever happened to me happened in childhood.  One day after school, I sat in the car with my mom, facing the tree in our side yard, and crying and crying and telling her I was never going back to school.  I had no friends.  My only friend, in my class, was pretending she didn’t know me, so she could hang out with more popular kids.  Much to my surprise, I did not die.  And I went back to school.  It’s not all sunshine in childhood, and if it was, adulthood would be impossible.  People need practice in working through trouble.

The New York Times has been doing a series on cyber bullying: . There’s been a lot of bullying talk lately.  The Times piece reminded me of a book I’ve been reading about anxiety.  It suggests that living with your anxiety is better than trying to train yourself out of it, or medicate it off.  Anxiety, they say, is normal.  Anxiety is pain, and pain is normal.  Better to live with it than try to kill it.  It won’t die until you do, and if you kill it, you’ll kill a vital part of yourself.  I don’t love the idea.  To accept and work with anxiety is hard.  The trouble is, it also works a lot better for me.

The discussion of bullying often presupposes that pain is a bad thing.  That kids will be irreparably damaged– a parent in the article told her daughter, who was bullying, that her victim would “be destroyed for the rest of her life.”  Really?  “Destroyed”?  “For the rest of her life”?  Humans have survived the Holocaust and the slave trade.  Surely this girl can survive some nasty comments, uncomfortable feelings, and being alone.  I’m much more worried about us telling kids that they are fragile and weak than I am worried about temporary pain.

When people are cruel to you, you can learn a lot.  You can learn that other people don’t have to define you.  You can learn that a sting of insult that feels like it will never go away… will, eventually, go away.  You can even learn to forgive.  Suffering is a great teacher.  Like a lot of your teachers, you hate her, but you can’t deny she is instructive.

It’s not that adults don’t need to step in, or kids don’t need comfort and advice and boundaries.  The ultimate goal, though, can’t be about stopping cruelty– an impossible task.  It has to be about making kids wiser and stronger.  Helping them learn who to trust, and how to be assertive.  How to persevere through hard times and built up their stamina.

When students poked at me and tried to provoke me, my first year of teaching, I had enough sense of myself to remember, “I didn’t dress to please 15-year-olds.  I like my shoes.”  I’m really not sure I could have done that without the kids who bullied me over the years.  I wish there was another way I could have learned that, but I don’t know what it would have been.


I’ve been to a lot of trainings to learn “what the students’ lives are like.”  These presenters are usually people who don’t spent 8 hours a day, every day, with students.   Instead, they are university-level experts in cultural differences and student psychology.

Sure, when you start teaching, you should learn about the students you’re working with.  But for the last five years, I’ve read my students’ journals and essays.  It’s hard to let go of the dark stories I find there, both the usual pains of growing up, and the nastier societal evils that pop up, the shakiness of poverty and the scraps of racism that stick in people’s throats.  Why would anyone think I don’t know that stuff?  I have the opposite problem: I can’t forget it.

These earnest lecturers ask us to fill out surveys (most of the time), or worse, walk around a room (as we did yesterday), to show what our upbringings were like.  This is supposed to help us accept how different our students’ lives might be.

Did my parents go to college?  Yes.  (Even some of my grandparents.)  Did we have more than 50 books?  Oh, goodness, yes.  Avalanches of books.  Did they own our home?  Yes.  Did I ever go without food?  No, only without dessert.

We held hands and walked forward and back, all the teachers and administrators, showing our answers to these questions physically.  I was doing what I was told.  My anger came later.  That was pretty personal information!  I felt awkward sharing it (did people hate me?) and awkward knowing which of my coworkers had gone without food (how awful!).

As an English teacher, I think carefully about what I ask students, how I want to direct their thought processes, and then what to ask them to share.  There are certain trains of thought I don’t want to encourage, like self-pity or shallowness.  And in the sharing, I don’t want anyone to be shamed.  It doesn’t seem like our presenters are as reflective.

It does make me burn with guilt to admit my privilege.  And then it makes me want to stop everyone and explain, “My parents divorced, though!  And I suffered!”  I did.  But did I suffer enough as a child?  Or have I paid the penance for privilege?  How many years of sacrifice as an adult make up for years of plenty as a child?  Although I know these are ridiculous questions, born from ideas I don’t even believe in, they still taunt me.

Maybe it’s oldest child overcompensating.  When you’re the oldest, you feel like you must be the one.  You must fix things.  Make things right.  As soon as I showed up here, everything my parents could not or did not do was left for me.  And I was always overwhelmed with my own incompetence.  I will never be as wise or capable as my parents.  They are way ahead of me.  The world’s evils will always be too big for me to wrap my arms around, and I take more naturally to anger and shame than humility.


One reason it’s good to have less money is that it forces you to be more patient.  A couple of weeks ago, my laptop took a turn for the worse.  Since I tripped over the cord, getting a good connection between the outlet and the computer is a tricky business.  Sometimes it requires repeated twisting and jostling, and sometimes prayer or cursing.  I’ve gotten used to that.

But then one night the incantations didn’t work– I gave the cord my special attentions, and when it was feeling just right, glowing the orange light for battery charging, I propped it on its side over night, using a heavy book and my ottoman to keep it in position.  In the morning– still dead.

I was so upset, it took me another week to realize this was probably the battery, a reasonably replaceable item.  I would not throw the laptop off a cliff, or go steal one from the Apple store.  Not yet.

What we gain in wealth, we lose in patience.  Patience is what is left after the money and anergy are gone.  Because I couldn’t afford to buy a new laptop (with real money anyway), I waited to calm down enough to figure out what was wrong.  Then I went to buy one (out of stock), and then I ordered one online (still waiting for it to arrive).   Patience, patience.

I can’t think of anything more useful to my work than patience.  Not to teaching, not to writing.  I see that people are disillusioned with President Obama.  I’m glad no one would judge my teaching by my first two years.  I had to be patient with myself, even more than with the students.  It was incredibly frustrating to know how important my job was, and know how poorly I was doing it.  So I feel for him.

I don’t understand why people associate Democrats with the deficit, rather than seeing the consequences of Bush’s tax cuts (less revenue) coupled with years and years of war (more expenditures).  Lower taxes on the wealthy don’t raise all ships.  If they did, we’d all be afloat right now.  And higher ones brought us into wonderfully prosperous times.  Do people not have the patience to follow events over time?  Looking at history takes patience.

I hope that our tough times can teach us patience, and give us the time to consider causes and effects more carefully, to think about how we got where we are, rather than just voting out of anger.  It feels good to throw a laptop off a cliff, I bet.  It probably feels good to vote out of anger, too.  But patience can take you further in the long run.  It encourages a spirit of kindness– which we all need through difficulties.