Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Revolutionary Force The World Needs

Psychologist Carl Jung wrote, "Where love rules there is not will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking." This, I think, is an important thing upon which modern educators in general, and early childhood educators in particular, could stand to meditate.

I strive to place love at the center of my practice, as I know is true of most of my colleagues. We genuinely love the children we teach and they love us. I've witnessed this to be widely true wherever I've visited. It's perhaps our greatest reward (because it sure isn't financial). When it goes as it should, we spend our days loving and being loved, swimming in it, breathing it. Our job is to keep them safe and to otherwise simply be there, loving them and helping them as they figure out how to connect with, to love, more people. This is the foundation of not just all learning, but all living in the fullest sense of the word.

When I look at our habitual idea of schooling, I see a lot of loving individual teachers working in a system in which love has been pushed to the side, and where power therefore predominates. From our earliest years, we are judged by our educational system, one that pretends to know what is normal and to then enforce it. The French philosopher Michel Foucault sees this as an exercise in power, a form he calls "normalization," in which our souls are imprisoned by expectations and standards and this has characterized our schools right up to our current era of high stakes standardized testing which has come to dominate the educational experience for most of our children.

It's a system of power that appears largely designed to create "normal" children rather educated ones, where those that cannot bend to the will of the system are labelled, then subjected to increasingly overt forms of power, right up to the use of force, which is ultimately a failure of power. They must either "learn" how to behave or find themselves rejected. It's a power, however, that isn't derived so much from the threat of force as from the capacity to label: this one is "normal" and that one is "abnormal," and it can only exists as a poor replacement for the love that should stand at the center, but has been pushed aside.

I watched a baby on my flight home from visiting our daughter in New York over a long weekend, and what I saw was a free human. Sure, he was 100 percent dependent upon the adult humans in his life, yet because love clearly stood at the center of his relationships with those important adults, this dependency didn't translate into them exerting power over him. Instead of "behaving," he shouted when he felt the urge, grabbed whatever was within reach, bounced furiously, cried from his belly, and everyone around him considered this to be "normal." You do to. This is just what babies do. By the same token, when his two-year-old brother whined or cried or kicked the seats in front of him, people around me shook their heads and pursed their lips, as if to say, "This mother needs to gain control over her child," to exert power over him. That is to say, this slightly older human cannot be allowed to be free.

Thankfully, this mother on this six hour flight did not replace her love with power, but I couldn't help but reflect that it was, sadly, only a matter of time.

Of course, we are all subject to Foucault's normalized power. We allow society to exert its power over us. We don't shout and cry on airplanes, even when we may often feel like it. And when one of us does "lose it," the rest tend to agree that he ought to be removed from the plane. Although if we think beyond our own comfort and the arbitrary confines of "normal," I expect we can all see how love would be a more appropriate response to that troubled individual than an exercise in power.

I know there are some teachers who have become creatures of the system. I came across them in my own schooling: those who allow their will to power to dominate, who see success in terms of well-behaved, properly drilled students, turning out passing grades and high enough test scores, normal kids prepared for normal lives. Thankfully, most teachers have not lost touch with love and who, despite the demands of the our habitual schools to normalize children, set their love between the children and those demands, putting love first, especially for those who would whine and cry and kick the seats in front of them. These teachers are my heroes.

Our schools are not unique in having replaced power with love. Indeed, it has become the main focus of most of our institutions and professions to label what is normal and what is not, then to work to make as many of us normal as possible, to exert power over not just how we behave, but ultimately who we are.

It upsets me when I think that these free humans that we teach will all to soon find themselves increasingly subject to this normalized power, the systematic hammering down and smoothing out, the judgements and labels. Ah, but we have love on our side. It is perhaps the only revolutionary force in that it is the only thing that can supplant power. When we celebrate heroes, it is always because they have loved where others would control. It is always because they have chosen to empower rather than exercise power. I am inspired by thinking about all of us preschool teachers out there in the world in our church basements and living rooms, our classrooms and playgrounds, fighting the power by simply loving. They think we are weak, but we are strong. We are the revolutionary force the world needs and we will win when we love.

(Note: There was a problem in posting yesterday's post and many of you clicked through to a "page does not exist" message. I've fixed that. You can find it here.)

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Monday, August 20, 2018

A Misuse Of Imagination

When I first started teaching, I spent a lot of time worrying, not about anything in particular, or rather, about everything in particular. It's in the nature of inexperience to be nervous, so when I look back on the things over which I fretted I can be gentle with myself, but I can also see that my concerns reduced me as a teacher. For instance, I was infected with the common disease of catastrophic thinking, which lead me to spend far too much time and energy fixing phony hazards. But it wasn't just that, my brain was constantly abuzz with nonsense, like my young man's concerns about dancing about and singing silly songs in front of a room full of young women who were certain to think me a fool, or over what color shirt to wear for the first day of school, or if I'd prepared the right balance of large and fine motor activities. You name it, I stewed over it.

My brain can still get overwhelmed with stupid crap, of course, but not so much once the kids have arrived at school. Indeed, I'm now a seasoned teacher, having done this for years, having spent time with all sorts of kids and their parents in all sorts of situations. I know I can handle it. I may fret in the moments before the school doors open, but my mind is generally quite calm once there are children on the premises. There are still ups and downs, challenges, and even emergencies, but I've found that I'm at my best when I'm simply in the moment, reacting, rather than worrying.

A while back, I mentioned that I'd taken inspiration from conversations between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. 

Several times in the videos the Dalai Lama mentions the spiritual importance of maintaining a calm mind, a basic tenet of Buddhism. I know this is true from the long view of my experience as a teacher, but I'm only now striving to apply it to the rest of life, even when it's natural to be uncertain. As Mark Twain wrote, "Those of you inclined to worry have the largest selection in history." I reckon one could trace that sentiment back through Shakespeare, Plato, and Abraham. There is always something to worry about and it's in the nature of worry to consume every spare part of our consciousness. It's well and good to admonish a modern human to "have a calm mind," but quite another thing to do it.

For the past decade or so, I've taken part in the Feast of the Winter Solstice, an event hosted by our very own Fremont Arts Council. We are responsible for the infamous Summer Solstice Parade and a variety of other "pagan holiday" events throughout the year, but this is the one I've always enjoyed the most. Maybe it's the great metaphorical event I’ve written about: we have survived the longest night and now celebrate the return of the sun. Maybe it's the familiarity of old friends. Maybe it's the art. Maybe its the food and drink. Whatever the case, I always find myself as fully aware as I've ever been. Conversation is easy, dancing just happens, every greeting is an embrace. Our worries are all behind us.

"Worry is a misuse of imagination," as my friend Lars said to me at the feast (a quote that comes originally from the author Dan Zadra), and it's true. It's the fabrication of dystopias, horrible fantasy worlds that come to replace the real world, which is now, which is, as every great philosopher agrees, the only certainty. When the first child crosses my threshold she brings with her the reality of this moment and I owe it to her, to you, and to myself, to be fully aware and awake. It's a space in which worry doesn't exist. And that, for me, is what it means to have a calm mind.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

"Big Fat Baby"

Yesterday, a group of us so much enjoyed the 1812 Ovfarture that we listened to it twice. We had been dancing properly, to Abba and the theme songs from Paw Patrol and Batman. I'd watched a pair of four-year-olds, girls who had only just met, performing a mirror of one another: they looked into one another's eyes and copied one another's moves so precisely that it was impossible to tell which one of them was "leading." A third girl, a younger one, then joined them and it was like a little miracle. We had been truly enjoying our dancing, earnestly, but one thing lead to another and, before you know it, we were listening to the classical piece instrumented mostly by loud, juicy farts, courtesy of the students of the Jerome Horowitz Elementary School.

The girls laughed, of course they did. I laughed. It's a funny song and part of the reason it's funny, perhaps the entirety of the reason it's funny, is that it's off-color. Someone is going to be offended. It's a pushing of the boundaries, so we giggle in part at the thrill of going up to the edge. To truly live, I think, one must regularly go up to those boundaries, all of them, and at least have a little look.

A few years ago, the children wrote their own song, not prompted by me in any way. It began when one of the kids began to chant, "Big fat baby, walkin' down the road . . . Big fat baby, walkin' down the road." Before long his friends were doing it. Each time they said it, it cracked them up, genuinely at first, and then ritualistically, like an attempt to return to the original moment. It was mostly funny because of the image of a baby walking down the road, but also because they all, at some level, knew that calling someone "fat" isn't acceptable.

Then one day, a different kid added a second line:

Big fat baby, walking down the road
Big fat baby, hopping like a toad.

Which lead quickly to the punchline:

Big fat baby, walking down the road
Big fat baby, hopping like a toad.
Big fat baby, about to explode.
BOOM! Big fat baby everywhere!

I was there with them as they pieced it together, four or five of them, standing around the sand pit, shovels in hand, building upon one another, correcting one another, creating a chorus that one of them suggested we try to sell to Casper Babypants. It was wildly funny. We sang it for months. It was highly inappropriate and that made it even funnier.

There is a temptation to tut-tut or to seize on these moments in order to make a point about violence or body shaming or manners. This, of course, ruins it.

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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Building "The Danger Climber

I said, "I'm going to make something very dangerous." I was talking to a boy and girl, old friends who are together with a couple dozen other children for the last of our two week summer sessions. Two weeks is the right amount of time for "summer camp," but not really enough time to do anything more than superficial community building, so I sometimes try to jump start things a bit by initiating a "project," one of the cornerstones of building any sort of community. I placed one end of a plank of wood atop a stepping stool, saying, "This is so dangerous. Kids can't do it. Only adults can."

I've been the girl's teacher for three years. We know one another quite well. She took it as it was intended, as a kind of challenge. She disagreed with me, "I can do it." She used the plank as a ramp, balancing along it to the top of the stool. She said, "See? I can do it."

The boy, who I usually only see during summer sessions, watched his friend, then started to give it a try himself, but after two steps jumped off saying, "It is super dangerous."

The girl did it again, proclaiming it not dangerous at all. Once more her friend attempted it, but again abandoned the project. He pointed out the part that worried him, indicating the end of the plank atop the stool, "This part might slip off. That's why it's so dangerous."

The girl traipsed along the angled plank once more, gaining confidence, disagreeing, "It's not dangerous at all!" Jumping from the stool, she said, "I'm going to make it even more dangerous," which she did by positioning a 2X4 descending from the opposite side of the stool. As she made her way up the original plank, then, more carefully, down the narrower one, her friend said, "I'm going to make it more stable." He positioned a plastic crate under the opposite end of the plank. Not entirely satisfied, he pulled an old car tire from a pile and began to roll it up the hill. His friend, seeing this, decided she would get a tire as well. As he rolled his, she carried hers, saying, "Look how strong I am." Pausing to look at her, he replied, "Look how smart I am," before continuing to roll the tire uphill.

Soon they had piled the tires in a way they declared "more stable." As the girl tried things out, the boy then began adding obstacles of various kinds to the course, declaring that you lose points if you knock this or that one off. They added another plank and more "rules" to their construction and the project was fully on as I backed away, my work done. It wasn't long before they were joined by others who wanted to play with and on what they were calling "The Danger Climber," a community building project for the morning.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

No Parent Has Ever Prevented Her Child From Doing Something She Really Wants To Do

Some years ago, we took a family summer vacation to a resort in Oregon. Mom and Dad went too, as did my siblings and their kids. Since our daughter Josephine, then only a few months from starting high school, was significantly older than the nieces and nephews, we let her choose a friend to come along with us. I'll call her Megan.

Before agreeing to allow Megan to travel with us, her father, who also had an older daughter, phoned me to learn the details and to not so subtly make sure I intended to keep the girls on a tight enough leash for his taste. "I was that age," he said, chuckling, "I remember what kinds of things kids that age want to do. Believe me, I got into just about everything." He warned me about booze, boys, and sneaking out after the adults had gone to sleep.

I assured him I'd keep her safe, but hung up with a slight sense of dread, not at all confident I could, or even wanted to, spend my week defending the girls against "those kinds of things." In fact, I'd sold the trip to Josephine based upon my own childhood memories of my brother and me freely riding our bikes around the resort, going to this swimming pool then that one, stopping here and there for a set of tennis, and hanging out at the "Teen Barn" shooting baskets, playing pinball, and monkeying around with the kids we found there. (Megan's dad had been particularly concerned about the Teen Barn.) The whole point of going on this vacation was that freedom of movement and association, at least it had been for me as a kid, and I wanted that for my own daughter.

As it turned out, there really wasn't any sort of nefarious teen scene on the resort premises and the girls spent their days sun bathing in bikinis that perhaps showed a little more than I would have liked, reading books, and drinking sodas by the main swimming pool. They mostly wanted to be with the family in the evenings as we got together for dinner and board games.

It was a trip full of good clean fun, but Megan's father had really got me thinking on more nefarious topics. It's not that I expected that my child would never drink or become sexual or do any of those other things he'd warned me about. No, what was on my mind was the idea that she might be sneaky about it. It conjured for me all the lies I'd told my own parents, not just as a teenager, but throughout my childhood, falsehoods behind which to hide as I did the things I really wanted to do, but which were forbidden by mom and dad. Lies that made those risky behaviors even more risky, and the consequences much worse when things didn't go the way I'd planned.

I had identified with Megan's father's self-description as a kid who had himself gotten into "those kinds of things," reflecting on the fact that my own parents' prohibitions had done very little by way of preventing me from doing the things I really wanted to do. No, what they had succeeded in doing was to push my desires underground, creating a cycle of secrecy that was only broken when things went wrong, followed by punishment, then more secrecy again, this time enhanced by the lessons I'd learned by being busted the first time.

This is when I began to recognize a great truth about parenting: No parent has ever prevented her child from doing something she really wants to do. Indeed, we can stop them today and tomorrow, but if they really want to do it, they will, be it balancing across the top of that wall, climbing up the slide the wrong direction, or losing their virginity. The more heavy-handed our vigilance, the more crafty their deceit. 

What we can do, however, is listen. What we can do is share our own experience, our concerns, our fears, honestly, without hyperbole. What we can do is be there to catch them when they fall, something that is impossible when secrecy is the norm because we will not there when they fall. Forbidden fruit will always be tasted. Always. I never expected my child to tell me everything, and I know she didn't, but I told her that my default position is to want to say "yes" to her and that the more lead time she gave me, the more time for reflection and discussion, the more likely it was that I would be able to get there. We had many uncomfortable conversations over the years on all kinds of topics. I listened and tried my best to be honest in my answers. I told her when I thought she has a bad idea and why, but when she persisted, I fought the urge to forbid and instead had a frank discussion about how to mitigate the risks I saw ahead of her. Often she went ahead with plans about which I had second thoughts, but sometimes she decided to wait until she was ready.

More often than not, my fears were not realized, and I like to think that is at least in part due to the fact that those conversations required for me to get to "yes" helped give her the tools to make more mature decisions. Of course, I know she also had regrets. We all do. Mistakes are part of how we learn about the nature of life among the people. But there is nothing worse than a secret regret, one that must be kept bottled up because it resulted from a taste of forbidden fruit.

No one has ever prevented her child from doing something she really wants to do, a truth that Megan's father and I shared over the phone that day even though neither of us knew it at the time. This isn't to say that we must allow them to do whatever they want whenever they want, but rather to acknowledge that our job is not to forbid them their desires, but rather to help prepare them for the day, and it will come sooner than we want, to explore life on their own terms.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Summer Will End Soon Enough

Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well. ~George R.R. Martin

When I remember my own childhood it is always summer: barefoot, usually with neighborhood kids, and nobody telling us what to do except on Sundays when we still had to get dressed up for church. We swung in the rope hammock that dad had hung between two trees or we would be down in a roadside ditch racing leaves in streams of stormwater or crowding into a hideout scaring one another by repeating stories that older children had told us. We would leave our houses in the morning, fill them with adventures, with nothing at all, sleep, then do it all again in an endless parade of days.

School was a long ago thing, a distant future thing, a non-existent thing. What was real were these days, one after another, one blurring into another, days of running through lawn sprinklers, racing bicycles, daring ourselves, un-boring ourselves. If you ran across someone's lawn at full speed, you barely felt the pain of the thorny blackberries that invaded the grass, but if you sauntered, you felt it. The same went for going barefoot on the hot pavement. As we got older and older we roamed farther and farther. The days were long, the summer was long, and we did what we wanted outside in the sun.

If there is a natural habitat for children, it's summertime. We are not made for being always busy, with necessary things to do according to a clocks, things we have imposed upon us, time as a commodity that must be measured and used, never wasted. Looking back, I now see what a precious thing a childhood summer is. We only get a dozen or so real summers, if we're lucky, if we don't have adults who are convinced that we must "improve" ourselves or be productive or keep in practice. They're gone soon enough, those days that exist throughout the rest of our lives as mere memories of blessed idleness and freedom. They are gone too soon to allow misguided adults to rob us of them with schedules and goals. We are made for contemplating motes, playing stories, frightening ourselves, digging in the dirt, and living in forts.

Indeed summer is the natural habitat for all humans, whatever our age, not just children, and we spend our lives trying to return to it. Live it while it's here. Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.

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Monday, August 13, 2018

Proving Yet Again That Success Is Mostly Meaningless

They had a plan, these two girls, to build a castle just for themselves.

In quiet conversation, alternating between heads together and shoulder-to-shoulder, they worked out their details, laying out a foundation that they measured not once, but twice, then three times, like all good builders do; measuring it with their bodies, standing in there together to make sure they both had room to do the royal things they would be doing.

Our collection of cardboard blocks is really an amalgamation of three different sets, each made on slightly different scales. In other words, if all four walls are going to be of an equal height, you must identify, then build with only the blocks that go together. The girls did not know this when they started, but they did by the time they were finished, negotiating trades with other builders to get enough "big reds" for their purposes.

They were quite proud when they thought to add a door to their castle, stopping in their play to say, "Look at our door, Teacher Tom," proud of their foresight.

All along, this was going to be a castle with a roof, but when they got to that point, they found the "big reds" inadequate for their purposes. "We need longies."

There are only eight of the longest blocks and they are typically quite popular among our builders. Patiently then, the girls collected, talked, waited, and pounced. The first four blocks fit nicely between the opposite walls, but when it came to roofing the area above the door, they were momentarily stumped as there was no place to rest the ends of the remaining four "longies" if they were to be placed parallel to the others.

"Maybe this part doesn't need a roof."

"We could pretend there's a roof."

"We could make the roof out of paper."

Then there was an explosive "I know!" the cry of Eureka! that every teacher lives to hear.

And now they were done. "Teacher Tom, look at the castle we made."

It had been a focused 30 minutes of teamwork, of calculation, of opportunism, of cooperation, of manipulation, of hard logic, and creativity. They had planned together and corrected their plans. They had done all the things that humans do together and here before them was their castle.

It was only then, however, that they discovered it wasn't quite large enough for two, at least not with walls so easily knocked over. They tried, of course, to carefully, carefully, carefully fit their two bodies inside this place they had measured while standing, and at one point did, while remaining very still, both more or less fit inside.

Just as carefully they crawled back out and stood looking, both proud and disappointed, at their too-small castle. 

"Let's do something else."


And together they kicked it down, proving yet again that success is mostly meaningless: it is the process, the failures, the challenges, the teamwork, and the effort, that give meaning to what humans do.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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