Why I Stopped Drinking

One summer, several years ago, I wrapped up an evening of art openings in my boyfriend’s neighbor’s loft, listening to beautiful Spanish poems recited.  Everyone at this gathering was an artist of some sort, and conversation flowed around South American travel adventures, and paintings, and poets.  I listened to their conversation begin to pool and cycle.  I got irritated and thought: I want to go home.  This is getting boring.  They were drinking a lot of cheap Cabernet, and I was not. 

This was early in the history of my alcohol absention.  For years, I gave up chocolate for Lent, but alcohol eventually became the greater pleasure, and thus I added it to my list of forbidden indulgences.

I think the first year I gave up alcohol was also the year I went on a first date and seriously disappointed the man by ordering a Sprite at Gillhouly’s.  It’s Lent, I explained.  I don’t drink during Lent.  First dates are much harder without a drink.

Sobriety isn’t the greatest virtue.  I’ve known plenty of cold, nasty sober people.  I even find some virtue in drunkenness.  Sharing the experience of losing sobriety, and the progressive scrambling and blurring of the world, can be sacramental.  There are safer ways to get out of your head (meditation, exercise), but drinking is awfully fun. 

I think there is a time and a place for drinking and even for drunkenness.  I love wine and whiskey, and I love the casual, romantically self-destructive community of bars.  I’ve been lucky enough to maintain a relationship with alcohol that I enjoy.  I think it’s as safe and healthy as most of my relationships.

Giving up alcohol for a short time (Lent is 40 days plus Sundays) ensured that I spent some of each year resting my liver and reassuring my addict DNA that I can live without it.  It forces me to remember that I go to parties and bars to be with people, not to drink.  That when I say, “I need a drink,”  I actually need to breathe and relax.  Sometimes I need a nap, a meal, a hot bath, a massage.

Not drinking makes Lent about sobriety.  It is about honest confrontation: you are going to die.  You are not perfect.  And the response, the reason that you can face this is that your tradition and experience tells you it is okay to die and it is okay to not be perfect.  To die and to be imperfect, in fact, is a critical part of the human experience. 

Most religions encourage confronting this reality– Jews particularly on Yom Kippur, and Buddhists during every meditation.  Christians have Lent, which is way longer than the Days of Awe, and usuall y milder than a stringent meditation schedule.

So, I might give up alcohol again.  It’s only 10 AM, Ash Wednesday.  No one’s offered me a drink yet.

Playing God

I’m fond of the concept of “playing God”  as presented in The Cider House Rules.  It’s a novel with a good old-fashioned modernist directive: someone is going to play God, someone is going to wield terrifying power like a gun or a doctor’s kit, and maybe, since you’re a reasonable person, that person ought to be you.  (Thank you, John Irving.)

I joke about “playing God” as a teacher, which is one way of dealing with the knowledge that mutters in the background every day… I will say something that someone will remember forever, but what will it be?  Will it be some stupid off-the-cuff sarcastic remark?  Will it be, “You’re a good writer”?  Will it be, “I don’t have time for you to get your act together”?  Or something nastier?  There’s no way to know.  You talk almost all day, almost every day.  And you’re only a dumb human being, distracted and annoyed sometimes like anyone else.

You have to have confidence in your decisions and your instincts, although there is often no one to offer you confirmation, or even serve as a witness.  I feel lucky to work at a school where my colleagues frequently collaborate and commiserate, rather than competing or backbiting over test scores.  I probably have a lot more support from my fellow teacher than most educators enjoy.  You say, “Oh, that kid is driving me crazy,” or ask how the kid acts in another class or if the kid can read or do math or if the kid has something crazy going on at home.  And then you should have a better grasp on what is the kid’s craziness and what is your own craziness.  Maybe you’re just having a bad day.

I have a student teacher this semester, which is teaching me mostly about myself, and how I have a hard time holding any gray area of control.  Either I can use the iron fist to regain control for her, delivering the Royal Bitch speech about how the class was unfocused, or I can walk out of the room and read a novel across the hall and let her fend for herself.  The gray area is where I need to be sometimes: listening, encouraging, insisting.  I hate that area.  I’m nothing like God at all in that area.  In accordance with a popular story of human origin, I am eager to resemble God. 

I came in to work this morning with an unusual degree of self-doubt.  I’ve been watching my student teacher building her confidence, and it reminds me how deliberately constructed my own confidence is.  Today the student teacher is gone, and I’m back to doing things myself.  Can I still do it?  Can I do what I’ve been telling her to do all these weeks? 

When I began teaching here four years ago, I thought I could do a good job.  I thought, I’m an educated person, and a smart person, and passionate about the kids.  I can do this.  These were reasons to try, but hardly guarantees of success.  

I don’t even know how to define success here.  Grades are artificial, attention can be faked, knowledge can be short-term and meaningless.  They suck at tests– ask them half the questions right afterward, and they’ll show more understanding.  And when the kids learn and grow, it doesn’t mean it’s because of something I’ve done anything right.  Abraham Lincoln learned real good, and he didn’t have a teacher in his log cabin.  And children mature naturally, whether or not anyone pushed them to.

I am most encouraged by moments when my students treat me with respect.  That is something I trust.  It means we have an environment where people can learn, might want to learn, and might want to change and grow, regardless of the quality of my lessons, or the stupid things I might occasionally say. 

The day turned out well.  We had some strange moments of comfort when the kids realized their “real” teacher was back, if only for a day.  There were fewer arguments than usual.  My quick, vehement yanks on the discipline leash were generally acquiesced to.  (The highest level of this is requesting apologies for misbehavior.  I requested a couple, and I received them.)  Maybe, God or human, they missed me after all.

The Balance of Power

Today I was asked to sub for a Shakespeare class.  The kids were supposed to watch “10 Things I Hate About You,” which meant I could sit and do whatever the hell I wanted while they were entertained.  That’s a good way to earn twenty bucks. 

I was happily checking my email and reading “Catcher in the Rye” so I won’t have to lie so baldly when my students are reading it next quarter when the damn movie ended.  Just ended.  Apparently they had already watched most of it  the previous day.

I looked at my watch and there were 20 minutes left in class.  I’m not trying to set up a 20 motif here, this is actually the amount of time.  Way too much time to say, ah, just hang out a minute, and class is almost over.  At least, for me, in my compulsive workhorse mode.  The minute those kids saw I was their sub, they moaned, “Oh no!” and the seniors said, “I thought I’d never have to see you again!” in the half-agonized, secretly pleased way of adolescents.

So I stood up and got them to spit back the plot of “10 Things,” and then explained about how “The Taming of the Shrew” was sexist, and what a shrew is, and why taming a woman is offensive.  All this in between, and sort of half over, their side conversations and yelling at each other and staring into space apathy.  I could win about 1o seconds of auditory real estate in this room.  If one of my words was “race” or “sex,” I had a better shot.

I got them to vote on whether the play should still be performed.  It came out 50/50.  I got the smartest kid in class to tell everyone that race is addressed in Shakespeare, in “Othello,” and he mentioned that they refer to Othello as a moor, and and as “uncircumcised.”  Apparently that made an impression on him. 

But they never really shut up completely, and as I moved the discussion to race, and another kid declared that Abraham Lincoln had slaves, someone else said, “Why are we talking about slaves?  What does that have to do with Shakespeare?”  And for the hundredth time, I asked, “How did Lincoln have slaves?  He lived in a free state.”  “He just did.  Those other white people didn’t care.”

Right before the bell rang, I stood up in front of the door.  Most of them were used to this trick.  I said, “I’m just going to add one thing.  But not until everyone’s quiet.”  This took a minute.  I wrapped up with something about considering the culture of the author, and how we should accept them or deal with offensive parts of their work, and how they would look at this more in their college English classes, while they thought about what they were about to have for lunch, and then I let the floodgates open. 

“You the only one I ever heard talk about slavery and Shakespeare,” one of the sophomores said.

As I walked upstairs, I was annoyed and worn out.  A kid on the stairs had her cell phone out.  I held my hand out to confiscate it.  She refused to give it to me. 

I encouraged her to do this the easy way and not get into deeper trouble, and she said, “I’ll do what I want,” all snotty.  This kid was on track to be valedictorian of her class, and I’ve been worried about her getting careless and rude. 

So I asked her to step into the chemistry lab.  “This isn’t like you.  This isn’t who you are,” I began. 

“You don’t know who I am,” she said.

Well, fair enough.  “I know you have made lots of smart choices in the past, and I’ve noticed that your choices lately are not smart.”  This seemed worth a try.

She looked at me, infuriated, and I thought, Well, whatever.

Then she gave me her phone and stormed off.

I Used To Feel So Uninspired

Barack Obama makes me feel like a natural woman.  Especially this morning.

I’ve been preaching for years that education funding should not be locally funded.  If our goal in education is to equalize opportunity, it makes no sense to let poor kids in poor areas go to poorly funded schools and rich kids in rich areas go to lavishly funded schools.  (I say this, ruefully, as a child of one of the richest counties in America.  People there were willing and able to tax themselves like crazy to give me a great education.)  This additional federal funding is one more step toward equalizing some shocking gaps.  If it comes with additional federal oversight, I have faith that  it could be worth the annoyance.

And adding funding to Pell Grants?  I can’t imagine a better investment in our country.  Of course we should fund the college education of people with drive and skills but no money!  My fear about educational inequality is that some kid somewhere is born with the brains and creativity to cure cancer, and instead of going to med school, the kid is changing my oil at Jiffy Lube.  (Yes, very honorable work, but inappropriate.) 

Equal opportunity is not about compassion, or fairness, or any touchy-feely stuff like that.  It’s about cultivating the knowledge and talent we have in our country.  We’ve got to build up what we have.  (And incidentally, I don’t think anyone’s going to reject that cancer cure if the lead researcher was an illegal immigrant’s kid.) 

People from all over the world still come to the U.S. seeking education.  The fluidity and creativity cultivated by our educational system are unrivaled.  (To those people who felt stifled by their American education, I have to say: at least you weren’t born in Europe.  Or Asia.  Or Africa.)  The government here doesn’t control your major or your track in high school, and your studies here aren’t all about memorization and obeying authority.  That’s our weakness, but it’s also an incredible strength. 

Americans are a wildly creative bunch.  We might lag in math and science right-and-wrong tests, but we invent things like nobody’s business, gobble up and regurgitate everyone else’s languages, and mix cultures without killing each other a whole lot of the time.  Also, we’re good dancers.  That’s just my opinion.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/education/28educ.html?_r=1&hp

Finally, merely because I have been brainwashed to think in threes: does Obama’s election really change anything?  Could having a black president really influence ideas of race in a meaningful way?  If I hadn’t seen these researchers’ theories in action myself, I would think they were silly.  Here’s what they found: the black-white achievement gap disappeared in two sets of tests that was administered before and after Obama’s election.  I know.  It sounds nutty.   Again, touchy-feely, self-esteem worksheet crap.  Still, on my final exams, I always have students (all of mine are African-American) write something positive about themselves before they start the questions.  How silly.  Or maybe not.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/education/23gap.html