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.

Mob Mentality

Last weekend’s local teenage mob and police action was the subject of some discussion at my school.  A few of the kids were there, and everybody wanted to know what went down.  So we had this awkward conversation before we could return to the glorious banality of Week 20 vocabulary….

Them:  There was just a big crowd of us, and there wasn’t anyone fighting, we were just hanging out, so why did they have to use pepper spray?

Me:  What were all those people doing down there?  Were people about to fight?  Did it look like they might?

Them: Well, yeah.

Me: And didn’t some people fight later, in the parking lot?

Them: Well, yeah.

They need to know to pay attention to situations that become dangerous and get the hell away.  A lot of them already know this, which is why they’re sitting in a college prep school, rather than locked up.

But my first thought when I saw the story was, where on earth do you want them to go?  Basic discipline mistake: tell a kid not to do something, but don’t give any suggestion for what the kid should do instead.  That is not discipline.  Discipline includes teaching.  There is no suggestion for these kids.  We will handle them with curfews and banishments.  What they are learning is that they are not worth teaching.  We grown-ups already know how to act right, and we don’t care if you kids ever learn.

Well, everyone complains, their parents should know where they are and set curfews.  What parent would forbid a teenager to go to the Plaza?  My parents didn’t.  And I had a curfew, but it wasn’t nine o’clock.  Then people complain, parents should be with them and teach them to act right.  Ah, of course.  No teenager would ever do anything to displease or embarass a parent!

We keep limiting the geography and activities for teenagers, and then wondering why they’re all wandering, congregating, bored, and unruly in the few places left open to them.  Banning them from entertainment districts.  From movies.  The trouble is, if you keep them away until they turn 18 or 21,  they will have no idea how to eat in a restaurant or have a drink in a bar or see a movie.  They’re probably going to act like rabid squirrels whatever age we choose to integrate them into adult nightttime activities.  We’ll just have to work with them and sometimes we’ll have to put up with a little noise and obnoxiousness.

They have to be able to move around the city and explore. They have to get away from their parents and try some things out.  They have to learn to spend time in pubic being social.  They have to find and experiment with romantic relationships.  They need the whole city working with them to help them grow up.

They need smiles and politeness to show appreciation for good civic behavior.  And, as necessary: dirty looks, shushing in movies, demanding a tip, kicking them out, calling the cops.  Absolutely you will be confronted by the cops if you’re acting crazy, or looking like you might get crazy.  You probably won’t like what happens.  Lesson learned: don’t mess with cops.  Carrot and stick are teaching tools.  But not banishment.

I also wanted to tell my students, the strangling force of urban crime doesn’t disappear when you turn 21.  I often avoid going out Friday and Saturday in good weather.  There are too many people out drinking who lack basic drinking skills and etiquette.  Sometimes people get shot.  Even adult freedom is limited– by balancing benefits and risks.  They need to practice finding that balance before they are handed full adult freedoms.  The truth is, we will pay for their education into adulthood, one way or another.

Link to news story:

For Peace and Freedom

In 1935, a couple of retired police officers decided to throw a party.  A sort of giant, expensive party that no one could afford.  I can hardly imagine people with less reason for optimism than retired police officers in 1935.  I can’t believe that retired police officers in 1935 were doing anything but drinking heavily. This winter, the monster winter of 2009-10, and our continuing economic malaise, has kicked us in the stomach pretty good, I think, but in 1935 they had more than double our unemployment.  Comprehensive unemployment benefits had just been born.  A lot of us are now looking at footage from the Great Depression now for some feeling of comfort or camaraderie.  It does help, some.  They had Hoovervilles, we have tentvilles.  We both have breadlines.  Their lines were longer.

I was watching footage of the Depression in Ric Burns’ “American Experience” documentary about the history of New York City.  I recommend it.  I’m interested in New York, of course, and there is lots of history that makes more sense when you draw that city into the discussion.  Even more often than I had realized, New York led the way in dealing with urban problems and political movements.  You are going to have to put up with a gratuitous use of the phrase, “In the years to come” and “In the decades to come,” as if prepositions were on sale that year, or the narrator’s pay was related to consistency of sentence structure.  Mr. Burns also had the enormous misfortune of making a 15-hour documentary about New York in 1999.  Sparkling helicopter views showing the World Trade Center appear over and over again, and clearly a hingepoint in history is just over the horizon of this view.

A few years ago, I had a student who was always quiet, and generally had a sullen look on his face.  For the first month or so of class, I kind of wondered if he might punch me in the face if I said the wrong thing.  Then I read some of his writing that was tender and haunted.  He wrote about some unfortunately common family situations which troubled him.  He was built like a bull, and stared at you like an SS agent.  Underneath he was sad.  He would do stuff in class most of the time, until this particular week when he stopped.  “What’s the deal?”  I would say.  “Let’s get started.  You want to do it this way instead?”  throwing at him the small, baiting choices that can get people going.  A week later, I caught up on reading journals, and I learned his friend had been shot and killed at the bus stop.  I had read about it in the paper, without knowing I had this two-degree separation from the dead kid.  In class the next day, I quietly told my student that I was really sorry.  That it was very sad.

So they dug out this ash heap in Queens and built all these pavilions. They had cars already driving around in 1939.  Cars were not yet drudgery and traffic jams and Jiffy Lube– they were leisure and freedom.  They had an early television.  Television was not yet aesthetic assault and battery everywhere you turn.  You could see the Magna Carta.  They had a dishwasher, which was about to make everyone’s life better (except for people who insist on living in minimally renovated pre-1935 housing like stupid, stupid me).  They had a robot who smoked cigarettes.  He was seven feet tall, spoke 700 words from the record player in his belly, and I would definitely go out on a date with him if his reconstruction goes as planned.

Fiorella LaGuardia and FDR has this idea that when times are tough, you invest.  You whip up the money and pour it over your place and your people like meringue.  It looks pretty, it tastes good, and I don’t know if it makes financial sense, but I know that you can’t talk yourself out of depression or tough your way out of depression.  Depressed people can’t do anything.  (The 1939 World’s Fair did go bankrupt.)

Financial depression and emotional depression have a lot in common. There’s a feeling of scarcity.  Fear.  Lack of energy.  Getting out of depression takes time and an injections of sweetness and kindness and loveliness and inspiration.  Depression, of either type, is a loss of the future, which is why I find the World’s Fair so brave.  People had lost their future.  They went out and built a meringue dream of what it might be, with so little evidence, so little data, to suggest that the future would be anything less painful than the present.

It wasn’t.  It was Hitler and Hiroshima.  We don’t know if our future is Hitler and Hiroshima.  I don’t know if my student will lose more friends, or get lost himself.  His friend’s future was lost forever.  I lost my boyfriend this winter, and I feel like this winter will go on forever, icing me over.

I wonder why people are fighting this health insurance stuff so much.  I wish they would let our government step in for us and take care of us, even in a screwy, half-baked way.  I wish more people were dreaming big now.  What if the government could help?  What if they could do big things, like give us all electricity, or take back Europe, or go to the moon?  It wasn’t corporations who did that stuff.

It doesn’t take any guts to dream with millions of dollars burning a hole in your pocket. The little romance we feel for the Great Depression was that some people did dream, even then, and build bridges and museums and parks.  Many people were broken by it, crushed, and never recovered.  A few dreams and some big inspiring work carried the whole mess forward anyway.