Monday, February 29, 2016

Contemplating Giants

Years ago, our family took a vacation to Palm Springs with a group of other families, all of whom had children about the same age. We were in a big resort with a number of swimming pools and tennis courts, we had bikes and scooters, and everyone brought a few board games. The idea was that the adults would rotate keeping an eye on the kids, creating lots of room for everyone else to enjoy more adult recreations. I played a round of golf, but my main "me time" motivation was to hike in the desert. I love few things more than awaking in the dark in order to get a cup of coffee and bit of breakfast in me in time to hit the desert in the cool morning, just as the sun begins to peek over the mountains. One morning I awoke extra early and drove over to the Joshua Tree National Park.

I'm not going to try to describe this special place to you, but hiking among the Seuss-ian trees and unlikely rock formations opened me up to the universe, calming and exciting me in equal measure, taking my thoughts away from the petty concerns of day-to-day life. When I returned to our group, I persuaded our entire group that they must return with me on the following day. The children were not exactly thrilled with this idea, especially my own daughter Josephine, then about six-years-old, who simply could not understand why she should be expected to leave her Spring Break paradise for "a desert." As we drove through the park looking for a place for our group picnic, she griped, "What's so great about this place?" Then sarcastically, "Oh look, there's a tree. And another tree. And a rock. And a rock . . ."

People often praise me for my patience, but this was one of those times when I was approaching the end of it. The kids piled out of the cars shouting, complaining, and fighting, our late-ish start meaning we'd arrived as the heat was mounting. No one was anywhere near reveling in the mystical wonder of it all. We found a patch of shade with picnic tables and while the others began to set things up, I took my girl by the hand, a little testy, and said, "Let's go for a walk." We followed a barely there trail around the corner of the abrupt rock formation against which they'd built the parking lot and suddenly we were alone in this magnificent place. 

We walked in silence for a few hundred yards. Tension ebbed away as we became two people, both now alone with the person with whom we had spent most of our waking hours during the past six years. When Josephine finally spoke, she asked as if continuing a conversation, "Do you ever think that maybe we're just tiny specks?"

I said I had thought about that.

"Maybe there are giants and we're so small they can't even see us."

I told her about the "Bowl of Soup" theory: the idea that our entire universe is just an atom at the bottom of a bowl of soup in another, larger, universe.

"Maybe the giants will eat us." She wasn't bothered by this idea. In fact, she smiled as she said it, the way one does at a bright idea.

I said that our whole universe might be born, live, and die long before the giant even came close to getting to the bottom of his bowl, let alone getting it into his mouth.

She thought about this and nodded. We walked some more in silence. We had been following the base of the rock formation along a track that was leading us back around toward our friends. I've always enjoyed what I call, "scrambling," which is to sort of clamber up and down rocks. I jumped on top a boulder, bounded to a larger one, then stair stepped down the other side. Josephine had never been a climber, but she followed me and we scrambled our way back to our friends.

My formal study of philosophy is limited: most of what I know of it comes from what I've gleaned through secondary sources like novels and biographies. This does not mean that my philosophy is not profoundly meaningful to my own life: it is, just as yours is to you, and just as our children's is to them. Don't doubt that children have a philosophical life just because they're little. Indeed, most early learning is of the philosophical sort: we have experiences and we try to make sense of them, attempting to fit them together in a reasonable and systemic way, to create and test theories about the big questions.

When my brother-in-law died when Josephine was two, she asked, "What happens when people die?"

I told her that some people believe in heaven, then sketched it out a little for her.

She said, "Uncle Chris is in heaven drinking coffee, playing his guitar and playing basketball . . . And getting it ready for us."

A couple years later she announced from her car seat over my right shoulder, "I don't believe in heaven any more."

I said that some people don't.

"I think you come back alive as your favorite animal. I'm going to be a bunny, because that's my favorite animal."

It's tempting to answer children's philosophical questions with certainty, to let them know it's all taken care of, when that's by no means the case. We have the same open questions we've always had about the nature of existence, of reality, of logic, of values and morality, of war and peace and life and death. Oh sure, some of us have it figured out, and I don't mean that sarcastically. I know many people who are quite certain about their own philosophies, and I don't for a moment doubt them, even when I think they're wrong. One could even argue that all of us are, at any given moment, certain about our philosophies. They may not be satisfying philosophies, ones that are wrecking our lives even, but it hardly seems that we can behave in any way that does not jibe one-hundred percent with our core beliefs. That they may not jibe with our purported or aspired to beliefs is another matter. Changing one's most deeply held beliefs, ones we've been forming since before emerging from the womb, is often a gargantuan task, one that is only possible in the context of philosophical investigation. 

The children of Woodland Park spend their days playing, and it's important that our playground be a world in which we are all free to engage in philosophical investigation. This is why we have long, hand-raising discussions on the subjects like the Easter Bunny or the Sugar Fairy. This is why we talk about the dead things we find or the animals we accidentally kill, which is the occasional fate of the worms in our compost or lady bugs in the garden. This is why we spend so much time talking about our rules, our agreements about how we as individuals will live together. This is why we wonder aloud about unanswerable questions, like "What is play?" 

I know that many of the readers here are folks who have very firmly held religious, political, and social beliefs. Those are our beliefs, ones we hold based upon our own philosophical investigations. But no matter what I believe, one thing I cannot do is tell you what to believe. I can share my own beliefs with you. I may be able to make you behave the way I want you to behave, but I'll never get another person to believe what I want them to believe, even if that person is a child. Our beliefs only arise from our own, uniquely conducted philosophical investigations. 

I want the children who come to Woodland Park to know they have the scope and space to engage on their own and with each other in these philosophical investigations, to explore the meaning of existence without the fear of being wrong, or the judgement of others, to take a hike amongst the Joshua trees and wonder about giants in the universe:

Studying philosophy cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris. I've watched kids evolve to be more rational, skeptical and open-minded, and I've seen them interact in more fair-minded and collaborative ways. As one 10-year-old said, "I've started to actually solve arguments and problems with philosophy. And it works better than violence or anything else."

When Josephine and I got back to our friends, they joined us in our scrambles. As we re-rounded the corner, putting the rock formation between us and the rest of the world, the children began to discuss the Bowl of Soup theory.

"If there were giants, we would see them."

"Maybe they're so big that we fit between their atoms."

"If they eat us, we would get digested, then pooped out."

"Maybe that's where these rocks came from."

"Maybe we're inside of poop right now!"

It was a raucous, free-form conversation that bounced from the sublime to the ridiculous the way all the good conversations do.

People tend to assume that adults, by virtue of our longer time on the planet, have an inside track on this sort of wisdom, but I'm here to tell you that this simply isn't true. I've found that we are all, always, equals when it comes to our philosophical investigations. In fact, one of the greatest truths of all was made clear to me in my own three-year-old's musings.

We were in the car and she was griping about something.

I lazily replied, "You know, Josephine, nothing is perfect."

She rode in silence for sometime before saying, as much to herself as to me, "Nothing is perfect . . . except everything." It doesn't get deeper than that.

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Friday, February 26, 2016

Exactly What A Teacher Ought To Be Doing

"Teacher Tom, I need a box."

"What kind of box?"

"This is my firing pad and I need a base for my firing pad." We have been dismantling machines all week, then repurposing the parts for our own creations using glue guns. His "firing pad" employed the shell of a DVD player upon which he'd mounted bits from a vacuum cleaner along with a couple wine corks he had found on the ground.

I thought I might have a box that would work for his purposes in the storage room and hustled inside for it.

When I returned, before I'd even handed over the box, I was waylaid by a group of girls who needed duct tape.

"What do you need duct tape for?"

There was a crack in the side of a plastic bucket they were using. When I offered help them find a bucket that wasn't cracked, they insisted that it had to be this one because it "matched." They all wanted to be using the same red buckets. After delivering the box to the workbench, I went back inside for duct tape.

Upon my return, another boy asked me for another box to use as a base for his firing pad. "But a smaller one."

This is how my day had gone, frankly. It seemed as if I'd been sent into that damned store room dozens of times already, fetching everything from fabric and string to drinking straws and "sparkle sparkles," all at the behest of kids. I was feeling a bit irritated, not at the children, of course, and not really even at myself, but rather at my "third teacher," and her inability to make all those supplies more readily accessible. I love her, but she's far from perfect.

Our supply of cardboard boxes is currently at an ebb, so this mission required some rummaging around. As I searched, I ground my teeth at the fact that this was what I was doing with my day rather than, you know, actually teaching. In my internal grumbling, I asked myself why the kids couldn't just stick with using the huge supply of materials I'd already provided and that's when it hit me: I was, in fact, doing exactly what a teacher ought to be doing in a truly child-lead environment. They were out there, fully engaged in their self-directed projects, and when they came across an idea or obstacle I'd not anticipated (and in all honesty, most are of that variety), they were using their knowledge of the storage room supplies to ask me, the teacher, the one with the keys, the one tall enough to reach the top shelves, to help them.

After retrieving an acceptable box, one I'd made available by moving its contents to a different container, I heard a couple kids chanting, "We need more water, we need more water, we need more water," the way they do when the cistern over which our cast iron pump sits is dry. An adult needs to go outside the playground gate to turn on the hose that refills it, so I headed that way, not plodding as much as I sometimes do, understanding in this moment that this is what I get paid to do at our play-based school: supporting the kids as they pursue their self-directed projects.

A group of children had earlier gone around to the greenhouse where they had been removing strawberry plants (we have a newly discovered severe strawberry allergy in our 2's class) and transplanting kale in their place. A clutch of them were standing at the gate, wanting to come back in. "We need watering cans!"

"Okay," I said, "but first I have to refill the cistern."

"Don't worry, Teacher Tom, we'll get them ourselves. We know where they are," and off they race, down the hill, fully engaged in their project, and all they had needed me for this time was opening the gate.

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Our Third Teacher In All Her Glory

When people ask me what "kind" of school we are, I have different answers depending on my mood or the circumstances. For instance, if a journalist wants to know, I'll say we're a progressive, play-based cooperative school, which is true. When a friend asks, however, I'll answer that we're a crunchy-granola, commie hippie school in the Center of the Universe, which is, I think, equally true.

At the heart of the answer, however, is that we're a school that makes it up as we go along, picking and choosing from a variety of pedagogies and curricula. We've been inspired by Waldorf (Steiner), Montessori, democratic free schools, outdoor schools, and just about everything else out there that is fundamentally about child-centered, child-lead education. And, of course, we've harvested a bounty from the Reggio Emilia model.

There is a lot to admire about Reggio, but the thing that I probably reflect upon every day is the metaphor of the three-legged stool of parent-teacher-environment. We're a cooperative school, so the parent leg, the "first teacher," is quite sturdy at Woodland Park. And as the lead teacher, the "second teacher," I like to think that I'm starting to get the hang of my role. And then there is the "third teacher": the environment.

I tend to define our "environment" as much broader than our actual facilities (like playground and classroom) to include such things as the operational the philosophical underpinnings of our school as well as the wider community in which we reside.

I'm not joking when I write that we are located in the Center of the Universe, the Seattle neighborhood of Fremont, a place where the odd and artistic are celebrated. I've written several times about our Summer Solstice Parade, our population of street people, and the art and industry that make our third teacher unlike any other. This is where we've chosen to raise our children. She is our third teacher.

Yesterday, our 3's class spent our entire day rambling about the neighborhood, some 20 of us with our adult chaperones, checking out the familiar art, ducking down the alleyways, and discovering things we'd never seen before. We peeked through the cracks of the plywood gate that still covers the building that last year was engulfed in a 5-alarm fire. We found several of the artifacts from the now-defuncted History House that have been distributed throughout the neighborhood, including the fiberglass orca whale. 

We found very quickly that the orca has not been attached to it's cradle. Together we were able to rock it like a large teeter totter.

We stopped along the ship canal, in the shadow of the topiary dinosaurs, for a snack, spotting, oddly, a NYPD police boat and a large working boat that was tall enough to cause the opening of the blue and orange Fremont drawbridge that was preceded by the fog horn sound that punctuates our school days. 

We posed at the bronze communist-era Lenin statue that stands only a couple blocks from the school and skirted the local modern capitalist-era Google and Adobe campuses. We discovered that someone has added a tiny chair on a pulley to the Tree Chairs, which we took turns making dance in the branches. 

The smell of the chocolate factory made us hungry and we contemplated swarming their retail store which, as many of the kids know, offers unlimited free samples, but then decided it would be rude to bring a whole school in there without at least first taking the official tour. We found an art car decorated with plastic daisies and toy soldiers hidden in the alley between the row of restaurants located in former residential houses and the strip of light industrial facilities. We finished off with a quick visit to The Troll who lives on our block under the Aurora Bridge.

I had anticipated that the ramble would consume perhaps an hour or so of our day, yet by the time we got back to the schoolyard parents had already arrived to pick up their kids. We saw and did a lot, yet there is so much more to do and see. And it's all right there at our doorstep, our third teacher in all her glory.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Trucks As Plentiful As They Need To Be

We either make ourselves happy or we make ourselves miserable. The amount of effort is the same. ~Carlos Castenada

I do not want what I haven't got. ~Sinead O'Connor

We like to think of young children as living in the moment. Indeed, I've written a number of posts here in which I assert that this is why I most love working with them: they are a constant reminder that Now is the only thing that exists. And they are much, much better at it than are adults with our wizened brains that spend too much time dwelling in the dream worlds of the past and future. This is not to denigrate the warm fuzziness of nostalgia nor the hot excitement of anticipation. And only a fool doesn't learn from the past and plan the future, but you can't live there for long and avoid the twin plagues of regret and worry, the seeds of all misery. 

Now is the dwelling place of happiness. I think that's what we see when we watch children play and wish to be like them. We've all sat in awe of a child immersed in an art or sensory or dramatic play project.  If it's concentration we're witnessing then it's of the deepest and broadest variety, one that makes a universe from painting on paper or the process of repeatedly letting flax seed drain from between our fingers. These are moments around which religions and philosophies are spun. It's called bliss or nirvana or heaven or love.

Now is also the dwelling place of the other people, not just the speculative ones that may or may not exist in the past or future. As teachers and parents we spend much of our time, and even more of our energy, helping children learn appropriate ways to settle disputes, treat friends, and participate in a group, be it a family, classroom or larger community. We're at our best in this when we ourselves are able to enter into the universe of these actual, albeit smaller, people, to fully engage in the flax seed draining from between the fingers of Now. It's not always pleasant, it's an emotional place sometimes, and it's often hard to remember that feelings only exist for right now, not as eternal amplifications of our own emotional history.  It's through the ability to become fully present that we are able to see that their feelings are not our feelings, that their conflict is not our conflict, that their friendship is not our friendship: that is the reality of Now. We are not there to fix things, but rather to help them find their own course through their emotions and conflicts and back toward the blissfulness that is the heart of Now.

We have a few large, sturdy wooden vehicles: only four train cars and two busses, making them, on some days, a scarce resource, invitations to conflict over "turns." They're fun for pushing and riding: on this day we were riding in circles on a raised track made of large blocks. As others moped over having to wait for their turn I spied one guy playing with one of the two strange apparatuses that we store on the same shelves as the vehicles: they're lengths of wood hinged together in four sections, items of unknown purpose or origin.

I said, "You're playing with that thing."

He answered, "It's my truck."

While the rest of Now was rife with unsatisfied desires, disappointment, and conflict, he had, in the midst of it, satisfied himself from within. I left him then, stepping back to watch from a distance. As he manipulated this thing that looked nothing like a vehicle, I wanted to be where he was, a universe in which trucks were exactly as plentiful as they needed to be. He made gentle motor sounds with his lips as he guided it from one end of the rug to the other. Once there, he inadvertently set up shop for a time right in the path of the vehicles going around and around.

"Hey! Get out of our way!"

He didn't hear it, although it had been unnecessarily shouted.


"He won't get out of our way!"

He continued to make those soft motor noises, while carefully watching his truck go through its machinations.  Finally, one boy leaned right down into his face and said, "You better move or I'll be mad at you!"

His bliss was broken then. He looked at the children lined up on their vehicles waiting for him to make way.

I probably should have stayed out of it still, but I said to the boy who had threatened his anger, "I think it works better to ask people politely."

He relaxed his eyebrows, "Will you move, please?"

There was a long moment as this question hung. Finally the boy with the imaginary truck responded by scooting backwards a bit.

As the children filed past, each of them said, "Thank you," as a kind of toll.

Somehow in this process the boy wound up in sole possession of one of the coveted "real" vehicles, although he had never asked for it, and had, in fact, only laid a hand on it to move it out of the way as well. He sat back with it in his lap, not possessing it, but merely being with it. I'm certain that had another child asked for it, he would have handed it over as easily as it came to him.

And that's how we all achieved nirvana, a place where trucks are exactly as plentiful as they need to be.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wasting Away Again In Margaritaville

Last week, we had week away from school for what's called Mid-Winter Break. It falls between the winter holiday and spring breaks. I believe it is, if not unique to our area, at least a special feature of school calendars in the Pacific Northwest. It used to be a yearly luxury, a chance in the midst of our long dreary season for families with the wherewithal to get away to the sun or snow without the crowds, but lately the public schools have switched to alternating annually between a full week off and a four-day weekend. I reckon that means it's on its way out, which would be too bad.

I enjoyed a "staycation," but many of the school's families took advantage. During circle time, B shared with us that she had gone to California with her family, far enough south apparently that there had been sunshine and beach time. She told us in great detail about her hotel.

Later, when I showed up in the kitchen to catch a little conversation with my friends over snack, I found B there.

"Would you like a margarita?"


She carried a paper cup to the water dispenser and filled it for me. Kids do this sort of thing all the time, although they're usually serving me pretend coffee and tea. She was careful, not wanting to spill a drop from the half-full cup as she brought it back. She sat it down on the edge of the table, out of my reach.

"What's your favorite number, Teacher Tom?"

I had worn primarily 4 and 7 during my sporting days so picked one randomly, "Four."

She then took the tongs and one-by-one counted out four cherry tomatoes, "One, two, three, four," dropping each one into the water. Now I understood why she'd not filled the cup with water, which I figured must be standing-in for the booze: she had figured out she needed to leave room for the rest of the ingredients. This was obviously not her first margarita.

She added radish slices, one-by-one, counting, "One, two, three, four." Then she took one more tomato, bit in in half, and squeezed a few drops of juice into my drink. She slid it across the table saying, "Here's your margarita, Teacher Tom. I hope you like it."

I'm not normally a fan of drinking in the middle of the day, but yesterday I made an exception, sipping it, thanking her.

She asked, "Do you feel like you're on vacation?"

"Yes, actually, I do."

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Before It's Too Late

Ninety percent of life is showing up. ~Woody Allen
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. ~Goethe
Experience is the name we give our mistakes. ~Oscar Wilde

My birthday was on Saturday. I'm now 54 years old. It's not one of your regular milestone birthdays, but still, it's a long time, over half a century. I've lived in historic times. I should by now know most of what I'm ever going to know about life. I've still got my health. I love my work. This should be my time, baby!

Here's one thing I know: Goethe was right, there is magic in boldness. If 90 percent of life is just showing up, then I'd say another 9 percent is boldness.

Of course boldness must be formed from something; otherwise it's just brashness or, worse, its even more embarrassing cousin, braggadocio. I've found you do need at least a little genuine, deep-down confidence to pull off boldness, and that can only come from experience or out-of-this-world innate talent. Since I never discovered my world class innate talent, I've been left to rely on experience. 

I'd say that 90 percent of boldness comes from that confidence. And 90 percent of that confidence comes from experience.

And experience is the name we give our mistakes.

So, you know, show up and make some mistakes before it's too late.

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Friday, February 19, 2016

Politically Correct

Before becoming a blogger, I spent decades writing for the printed page. The thing I like better about blogging is that when you make a mistake, be it a typo or a factual error, it's usually an easy matter to jump back into the post and fix it. Yesterday, however, I made a mistake I don't know how to completely erase. I originally published the post with the word "transgendered" in the title when it should have been "transgender."

As always happens when I screw up, kind readers immediately pointed out the grammatical error, and some warned me that there are those who find that particular term insulting. I immediately made the corrections in both the title and the body of the text, but whenever the post was shared on Facebook, and it was shared many times, the old title, with the original sin, kept showing up. I explained to one friend that the only way I could "change" it completely would be to delete the post and re-publish it as a new post, but then I would lose all the comments and break all the links from people who had already shared it. She suggested that I add a note to the post explaining my error with an apology. This was a good idea, I think, because my mistake is a common enough one and my own flub provided an opportunity to draw attention to it so that others could avoid repeating it.

Of course, that correction brought reactions from other readers, also kind, bemoaning "political correctness."

We hear a lot about political correctness these days, with one of our major presidential candidates who even seems to be running for office based largely upon his opposition to it. And listen, I get it, it can be annoying to be corrected, especially in public or when you're in a flow and trying to make a larger point (I'm thinking of those amateur grammarians who interrupt to "fix" your mistakes over cocktail party conversation: "I think you mean may I, not can I.") But, there are some things that must be called out, like the use of racial slurs, the repetition of stereotypes, or the espousal of hateful or insulting demagoguery of any kind.

When people complain about "political correctness," what they are usually complaining about is that they don't like being criticized for saying things that they don't find insulting, but that others do. Some even attempt to evoke their First Amendment rights to say whatever they want. What they forget is that the backlash they receive, the "political correctness," is just the rest of us exercising our own right to free speech: that's how the famous "free marketplace of ideas" is supposed to work. The theory is that it's from the bare knuckled brawl of open discourse that political truth emerges, and political correctness is part of how that truth has always looked.

I understand that this leaves some folks feeling as if they must always walk on eggshells, fearful that they will say something unintentionally insulting. That's where kindness comes in. It made me feel awful yesterday to have my mistake pointed out to me, but since it was done in kindness, in the spirit of helpfulness, in the name of education, I was able to hear it that way. And because these things are always changing, it can leave even the most progressive among us uncertain. Uncertainty can be uncomfortable, but it's simply a sign that there are still things left for us to learn.

As far as I'm concerned, anyone can say anything they want, I don't want to censor you, but, at the same time, I also won't let your slurs and stereotypes and insults stand without comment. If it feels like an innocent mistake, one made from ignorance, I'll try to take you aside, to do it kindly the way readers did for me yesterday, to help replace your uncertainty with truth and knowledge. If it seems like you're trying to hurt my fellow citizens, I probably won't be so kind because now I'm not educating you, I'm role modeling for others how to stand up for truth.

Yes I do want to be "politically correct." Thank you for helping me with that.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Living As A Transgender Person Is Hard Enough

From the time she was two, our friend's "daughter" insisted on being called "Joseph." She wanted her hair styled short and would only wear "boy's" clothes. Of course, we at first thought it was just a cute phase, an homage perhaps to the older brother she loved, but she never "grew out of it." Now as a young adult he is a handsome young man attending college.

Even as recently as 1996, when Joseph was born, our societal awareness of transgenderism was limited. Yes, we were aware of the "sex change operation," there having been a few high profile cases. I'm thinking specifically of Dr. Renee Richards, who controversially played professional women's tennis after her reassignment surgery, a quest that lead to a landmark New York Supreme Court decision in 1977 establishing transexual rights in that state. We have come a long way in a short amount of time.

If I didn't know Joseph (he's chosen a different adult name for himself), I don't know where I would be on this issue, although I'd like to think I'd still stand with humanity. It astonishes me that even as a two-year-old he knew he was a boy, despite what everyone around him insisted. Equally astonishing, I think, are his parents who I'm sure anguished in private, but who were always supportive and accepting of their youngest son. In turn the schools Joseph attended supported and accepted him as well, seeking to make life easier for him, not harder. Today, by all accounts including those of my own daughter, he is a popular kid, "cool," living the sort of active teenaged life one would hope for any kid.

Yet there are those who fear him. Last week South Dakota became the first state to pass anti-transgender legislation, in defiance of federal law, forbidding children from using bathrooms, locker rooms and other facilities that correspond with their gender identity. Let's be clear, there as not been an issue with transgender people using the facilities of their choice: this is about adult people and their own perverted imaginations, becoming so frightened by the twisted pictures forming in their heads that they feel they must, proactively, rob already vulnerable children of basic civil rights. And if you don't think that this isn't just a first step in a campaign to deny transgender people even more of their basic rights, you underestimate the irrational fear that underlies this sort of bigotry.

If the governor signs the bill, and it's unclear whether or not he will, South Dakota will become the first state to codify this type discrimination into state law, but there are a host of other states where similar measures are making their way through the legislative process including here in Washington. The primary argument being used to promote these discriminatory bills is the sound-bite slogan, "No men in women's bathrooms," an assertion that without strict sex-segregation men will be free to sexually assault young girls in public restrooms. This is not something that is happening, mind you, even in a world in which trans people are already using the restrooms of their choice. No, in the real world, such as the public schools Joseph attended for thirteen years, places where children are free to use the bathroom in which they feel the most comfortable without undergoing a "genital check," men do not assault young girls in bathrooms any more than they assault them anywhere else.

In fact, this is the real problem: the twisted minds of the people who promote these laws because of their own fevered imaginations, such as the scary one housed in the skull of minister of the lord, former governor of Arkansas, and Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee who recently said:

"Now, I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE. I'm pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, 'Coach, I think I'd rather shower with the girls today.'"

These are the words of a man with predatory crimes on his mind claiming that the only reason he didn't assault teenaged girls were the stick figures on the shower room doors. It's men like this we should be fearing, not children using the bathroom. I share the goal of doing what we can to make the world safer for women and young girls, but this is not what these discriminatory measures are about. How about, instead, we teach our boys to not be like Mike Huckabee?

Living as a transgender person in America is hard enough. These kids are already at heightened risk for depression, suicide, and other self-destructive behavior. We should be seeking to make things easier for these children, not harder.

(Note: I originally used the term "transgendered" in this post and in the title instead of the proper term "transgender." Not only was my use grammatically incorrect, but some consider it an insult. I am no longer ignorant. Sadly, since I originally saved the post with the mistake in the title, the error will continue to show up when shared on Facebook and other places, even though I've changed it here. I'm sorry for anyone who was/is hurt by this. I have learned something today.)

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Here's An Assignment For Tonight

I've shared this letter from the novelist Kurt Vonnegut before, and think it's worth sharing again. It was in response to a letter a student wrote to him, an assignment, inviting him to visit New York's Xavier High School. Apparently, they wrote to several authors, but he was the only one to respond. It's so perfect I wanted to share it . . .

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:
I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.
Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Together we're a genius. ~Six Feet Under

When I was a sophomore in college, five of us friends from the freshman dorms decided to live together in a two bedroom apartment. Not only that, but we had a food plan. Once a week, on Sunday at midnight, we would go together to the supermarket, chip in $20 each, and buy the week's groceries. This included the ingredients for "house dinners." These dinners were to take place Monday through Thursday evenings and were to be cooked by us, for us, on a rotating basis, and had to include at least one serving from each of the food groups, plus dessert. Furthermore, we determined that we were only going to be permitted to prepare a "cheat meal" (frozen pizza, pasta and jarred sauce, etc.) once a term, which meant that we all arrived at the start of the year with our families' best recipes at the ready. 

This Seahawks colored nail polish was a "sharing item" brought by one of the kids prior to the final game of the season. The team notoriously motivates itself by trying to "make the doubters wrong."

When we told others about our plan, they mocked us. Our parents doubted we would pull it off. No one thought the food plan would last more than a few weeks, but damn it, we stuck with the program for a full school year, none of us ever missing a shopping trip, a meal, or a turn in the rotation for cooking or cleaning. We were both proud and defiant, especially as the year progressed and our tormenters' predictions of disaster failed to materialize. We often delighted in recalling each and every dinner we had eaten together, many of which had nicknames like, "Rhino Burger Night," and "Deep Dish Dog Food," boasting of our triumphs and ridiculing our failures. And in our reflective moments we grudgingly thanked the naysayers, acknowledging that it was their doubt that had unified us.

Much to my chagrin, "show-and-tell" continues to not just exist, but thrive in our 4-5's class. I am not a fan of show-and-tell, but I am a fan of child-lead activities and this is clearly one of those. In the beginning, when they first hatched their plans for show-and-tell during a circle time discussion early in the year, I told them I thought it was a bad idea, that they would be bored, that they wouldn't want to politely listen to their friends talk about their toys, but I was unpersuasive, and so we have show-and-tell daily. It's evolved, of course. It only took the kids a few weeks to realize that they really didn't have the collective capacity to accommodate dozens of show-and-tell items every day, so they came up with a plan for limiting themselves to just one per week (we're a cooperative, so "only on your parent's work day"), but still, there will be 4-6 items to be presented every day.

I do what I can to make it work, of course, to honor their intentions. For instance, in the interest of keeping it short and sweet, I don't usually ask a lot of questions, instead encouraging the child to name the item, say what she wants us to know, then ask, "Is it a sharing item or is it too special?" A "sharing item," as opposed to a mere show-and-tell item, is one that will be made available for everyone to play with. Most often, the children decide it's a sharing item, so I ask, "Where will you put it so we can find it?" and most chose to put it in the loft, sometimes with caveats like, "And it has to stay in the loft" or "Don't break it" or "I also want to share it when we go outside."

At least once a week, I make a show of my doubts about show-and-tell, repeating my concerns that they will become bored or behave impolitely. It has become a sort of call-and-response ritual in which the children then insist that they won't become bored and will continue to be polite and then proceed to attentively sit and listen to their friends much in the way we sophomore boys doggedly stuck to our house meal regime in defiance of the doubters and even when we might have wanted to be doing something else.

By now, I've become invested in the continued success of show-and-tell, although I don't let them know it even as I seek to support them. Of course, they get bored at times. When a child starts showing the signs of boredom during show-and-tell (goofing off and squirreling around) I've found that all I have to say to help him refocus is, "Oh, you're getting bored. I though that might happen." And, of course, they aren't always polite. When a child makes a disparaging remark about a classmate's item, I just say, "That's rude, I thought that might happen," and the disparaged classmate is showered with compliments from the rest of the class -- "I like it!" "I think it's cool!" "That's awesome!" -- It's so intense that the original critic almost always takes it back and joins the chorus.

As a teacher and parent who has how spent decades in cooperative schools, I've had a lot of experience in community dynamics. There is nothing that pulls us together, children or adults, more effectively than outsiders saying, "You can't." Doubters can grind down an individual -- it tragically happens all the time -- but when we're in it together, man, we humans succeed not just despite your doubt, but because of it. Together we are indeed a genius.

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