Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Power To Create Reality

Last week, Tom Drummond, one of my earliest teaching mentors, the man who introduced me to the technology of speaking with children, dropped by the school. He was particularly interested in our green house and our new "farming" program. After about an hour, we parted. As we did, he said, "You're doing great work. I'm glad you're in the world." We were standing on the wooden walkway that overlooks our playground. I said, "Thank you. And I want you to know that none of this would be here without you. Everything here is a result of how you taught me to speak with children."

We tend to think of reality as a set of facts that exist outside of ourselves, things that are true in equal measure for everyone, and in one way it is, but we also create reality for ourselves, day-after-day, by the way we behave, believe, and especially in the way we speak. When we speak informatively with young children, from a place of warmth and connection, striving to avoid commands and minimizing our questions, we create a certain reality not just for those kids, but for ourselves and those around us. When I look at our playground, our green house, our classroom, I see them as visible echoes and amplifications of the technology to which Tom introduced me two decades ago.

After Tom left, I went back to puttering around on the farm, then before leaving went indoors to wash the dirt from under my fingernails. Being a Friday afternoon, the building was empty except for a pair of contractors who we had hired for a project. As I passed by the room in which they were working, one of them called out to me, "Hey, do you work here?"

"I'm the teacher of the preschool."

"Good. You're the guy I need to talk to." As he approached me, I could tell he was agitated. He was moving quickly. I imagine his heart rate was elevated. "Do you know the guy in the dress? The transgender person or whatever?"

All morning long one of our neighborhood's street people, one of Pastor Gay's men, had been hanging around the place, mostly just lounging on the lawn and smoking butts in the designated area. He was wearing a kind of a skirt, more like a small blanket tied around his waist, but I figured that's who the contractor meant. I said, "I think I know who you're talking about."

"Well, he just tried to come in the building and when I told him I couldn't let him in, he threatened me."

"Oh no. Thanks for not letting him in."

"I just wanted to warn you. He seems like he's about to go off."

"Is he still here?

"Yeah, he's just waiting right outside the front door. He says there's supposed to be a meeting here, but I was told not to let anyone in who doesn't have a key."

"Well, there are a lot of 12-step meetings in this building. Maybe he just got the time wrong. Listen, I know him. I should talk to him."

"He seems pretty irrational. We'll come with you."

When I opened the front door, I found at least a dozen people there, all familiar faces, people who regularly attend 12-step meetings at the Fremont Baptist Church in which our school is housed. Amongst them was a very large person in little black dress, fishnet stalkings, and four-inch heels -- one of the regulars.

Someone said, "Oh, thank god you're here. There was no key in the key box and we have our meeting now."

I replied, turning to the contractors in their black t-shirts who were standing over my shoulders protectively, "Oh, I know these people. It's okay if they come in."

Later, after the group had settled in, I stood on the sidewalk with the contractors who still seemed agitated. I said, "You did the right thing not letting them in."

"Yeah, well that big guy in the dress, or woman, or . . . Well they're big and they were mad. I thought I was going to get punched." He went into more details, obviously needing to get his emotions out, to explain himself, maybe to justify his fear. As he did, I was conscious of his struggle with finding the proper pronouns. My daughter Josephine came home from her first year of college with a lot to say about gender and the use of pronouns. She has friends who are on a campaign against the use of "male" words used to refer to mixed-gender groups: like when we say "you guys" or use "he" as a generic pronoun. They have trained themselves to use "they" and "them" as non-gender based terms because, as Josephine points out, gender is fluid. I support this effort to create a new reality through the use of language even as the grammarian in me recoils.

As the contractor, whose name I don't know, began to wind down a bit, he shared that he lived in a suburban community a goodly commute from the Seattle city limits. "When I come into the city, I'm always on my guard, you know? It seems like there's always someone ready for a fight. I've even had to pull a gun on a guy."

This isn't the first time someone has earnestly told me about the gun they "had to pull" on someone, and it has almost always been a white man from the suburbs. "I have to tell you," a real estate agent friend from Kirkland once told me, "Some of the places I go in the city -- I'm sure glad I had my gun." Another friend who lives in Woodenville can't stop talking about the "dangers" of the city on those rare occasions that he is willing to come visit. This is a black leather wearing Harley rider, a man who affects the stance of a tough guy (although he's genuinely very sweet), yet he talks as if there is a hoodlum around every corner. Every time I see him, he advises me to get a gun like the one he sometimes carries because you never know when you might "need it."

I've lived in cities most of my adult life, I love living in cities, the more urban the better, and I have never once been in a situation in which I felt I needed a gun, yet over the years dozens of people, mostly white men from the suburbs, but not always, have spoken about "pulling guns" or otherwise having to violently defend themselves in the city. It's clear to me that the city presents a different reality for them than it does for me, and I can't help but wonder if much of the difference comes from the stories we tell ourselves and others, the language we use, to describe our experiences.

The media seems to get higher ratings from portraying urban dystopias. And researchers tell us that the more television a person watches, the more dangerous they (not "he or she") believes the world to be. If you don't live and work in a city, the words reporters and scriptwriters choose for creating their TV realities, I supposed, start to form an actual reality about cities that is distinct from that experienced by those of us who live here. That language of violence and menace becomes part of how some people think and speak about the city, which, in turn, results in a higher likelihood of perceiving threats, engaging in conflict, and even having to resort to "pulling a gun," a reality that is as alien to me as my reality is to them.

Some time ago, I wrote here about an experiment in some Swedish schools to eliminate the use of gender-specific pronouns. I tended to doubt the concept, even as I was curious to see the results. Now my own daughter has come home with the same ideas. These seemingly small tweaks to how we speak are attempts to create a new reality about gender through the conscious use of language. The goal is for it to become something we just all do without having to think about it: the way most of us don't think about our use of gender-specific pronouns. Every social change that has ever happened in our world has only really come about once we've fully adopted the new language that goes with it.

Today, we hear loud complaints about political correctness. It's hard to find oneself living a different reality than those around you. Perhaps for most of your life it didn't matter because most people shared your reality, but then as more and more of us attempt to speak a new reality into existence, you see your old, comfortable reality changing as well. I know from experience that it at first seems ridiculous, then irritating, then even frightening because this new reality will replace your old one.

Every day, the words we choose to speak create the reality in which we live. If we talk of cities as menacing, then they become so. If we talk of cities as thriving, exciting, uniquely human communities, that is what they become. If we speak the language of gender fluidity, then we create the reality of gender fluidity. If we speak to children as if they are fully formed human beings, then we create a reality in which children are free to live as fully formed human beings.

We build reality word by word. We all have the power to create it. Indeed, the reality in which we live is already a creation of our words. If we want a different reality it may well be as simple and as difficult as consciously speaking it into existence. It might take a very long time, but if we keep doing it, we will one day no longer have to even think about it and we will have created a better world.

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!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: