In seventh grade I had to write a short story for English class. The teacher returned my work with the word “leisurely” circled, noting that I had used it as an adverb while it was in fact an adjective. We were both right, of course–one can walk leisurely or take a leisurely walk–and when I defended my choice she retracted her comment and we went on with our lives.
A similar incident years before, however, did not end so happily for me.
Sometime in elementary school–my fourth grade year, maybe–one of my classmates was doing what they call “bouncing off the walls.” He clearly thought his antics were hilarious, but they were annoying the hell out of me. So I said, very snootily I’m sure: “You’re hysterical. Calm down.”
Confused, he turned to the nearest teacher. “What does ‘hysterical’ mean?” And, to my utter horror, she told him, “It means you’re really funny.”
“Oh!” he said. “Thanks!” he said. And I was as indignant as I have ever been in my life.
I’d meant he was in hysterics, out of control. But of course I didn’t know at the time how to say “No, that’s a colloquial definition, but it’s not the one I’m using.” So I was silent, and confused, and angry.
I have long been familiar with at least two ways in which people (mostly men) hit on me (and other women). The first is in hopes of cultivating an acquaintanceship: a man strikes up a conversation, asks for my number, proposes a date, or takes whatever other first step he thinks might lead to a second. I understand his goal, and I know immediately that my own goal is to let him know that I am not interested–kindly if he has been kind (and often he has), by harsher means if they seem necessary or pedagogically justified. (When frightened or angry I channel the teacher inside me, who is at once more self-assured and more pragmatic than I as a private citizen will ever be.)
In a second scenario, a man does or says something in response to my presence that is designed more to impress his companions than to elicit any particular reaction from me. This is the drive-by holler or honk, the passing comment either crude or complimentary–the performance of masculinity. My only job in this case is to shut down the inevitable internal monologue (“Was I asking for it?”) and go about my business.
Incidents such as these are common, and though they usually make me uncomfortable or worse, I at least understand them, know the script, know my lines. But a third type of being-hit-on has been on the rise lately, and I don’t know what to make of it at all.
I will be walking down the sidewalk and see a man coming toward me, alone. As we pass each other, both of us with eyes averted, I will hear something: “gorgeous” or “hey sweetie” or, most ludicrously, kissy noises. It will be so low that I fear I am hallucinating and, because that would be a concerning development in an already checkered mental health history, I will look back–and he will be walking away, pace unchecked, but with his head turned to view my reaction (evidently I do not yet hallucinate).
What is the point here? It is not to make my acquaintance; indeed, if ever I were interested in the guy I would need to turn and literally chase after him–not, I think, an ideal courtship situation. Yet without an audience, it’s not much of a performance either. Is it some sort of rehearsal, like practicing lines in front of a mirror? Is it an ill-delivered compliment, a less gracious version of the self-styled gentleman’s “I’m not trying to bother you; I just want to let you know that you look beautiful in that dress”? (That one is easy: all I have to say is “Thank you.”) That’s not what it feels like, though. It feels–well, just creepy.
And I can see the creepiness being an end in itself–reminding me of my place in society and such–but I’d rather not believe that intentionally cruel misogyny is quite so ubiquitous.
Because this shit is ubiquitous. The exact pattern repeats itself over and over, sometimes more than once within the same day, and still I don’t know my part in the play. And that, more than anything else about all this, is what annoys me.
When I was little, like in elementary school…
(1) I didn’t understand how people could wear, for example, a shirt with a picture of a dog on it. Why did they choose a dog? Why not something else? The arbitrariness bothered me; I wanted the universal. Abstract patterns were fine: stripes, circles. Solid colors too. Flowers I learned to accept as honorary abstractions, though I was never entirely comfortable with them. But anything specific–a person or animal, a place or band or brand name–rankled. It was random, it closed off the rest of life, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
(2) I was in Costco one day with my best friend and her family. (The memory is vivid.) Some stranger passed by with a tiny dog sitting in her cart, and my friend–along with everyone else in the vicinity–melted. But I didn’t. I knew intellectually that the thing was cute, that most small animals and babies and such were cute, and that cuteness makes people feel certain things, but I didn’t feel those things. I never did. Somehow I was immune to cuteness.
Items (1) and (2) may be entirely unrelated, but they’re connected in my mind because both describe tendencies I no longer have. I remember them well, especially in situations that would have made my younger self uncomfortable, but they’re gone.
Some students are hanging out in my classroom during lunch. One of them accidentally drops a book on his foot and blurts “Fuck!” Immediately the conversation stops. Has the teacher heard? He steals a glance at me. Yes, I am looking straight at him. The apologies are profuse. “I’m so, SO sorry. I really didn’t mean to say that.” It’s as if he’s just insulted everyone I love.
“You’re going to have trouble in life if you don’t learn how to turn that switch off,” I say. “I know, I’m working on it” he replies. “Good, keep practicing,” I say as I go back to my grading. He looks at his friends as if he’s just won the lottery, and their discussion resumes.
The topic is some new video game–apparently a pretty stupid one. “It’s so gay,” one student observes. “Yeah, I raped everyone in like ten minutes,” says another.
No one looks at me. This time I have to interrupt them myself.
When my tirade begins, they are confused. When it ends, they are astonished. Why in the world would I make such a big deal of everyday utterances but hardly look up when someone drops an F-bomb?
And this has happened so many times.
If only we could take the utter horror, the overwhelming taboo we have attached to words like shit and fuck–words describing everyday activities that, when done right at least, hurt nobody–and reassign it to words that destroy, that really do express contempt for much of what I and others hold dear?
I didn’t swear much when I was younger. Then, for a while, I would say crap, bitch, damn, hell–but hardly ever shit, and never fuck. I didn’t have a rationale for the hierarchy; it just existed somehow. But I’ve come to appreciate the F-word more and more in recent years. So many expletives are problematic: some are misogynist (cunt, pussy) and some misandrist (dick, prick); others belittle religious beliefs (Christ, Goddamn); and still others invoke out-of-date social norms (bastard? cocksucker? who cares? I don’t). But sex and pooping–they’re not pretty, and certainly they should occur only in certain circumstances, but you’re a fucking ass if you think they’re more offensive than bigotry.
I still say plenty of things I shouldn’t: Jesus and Goddamn slip out far too frequently, for example. But I’ve resolved to clean up my language. And for me, that might mean making it shittier.
I recently found myself wondering whether certain aspects of a particular man’s behavior toward me had been appropriate. Nothing egregious had occurred, and of course things like this happen all the time, but the gender and age and power dynamics at play in this case–to say nothing of the fact that I will be working with the relevant person extensively in the near future–were enough to make me mildly uncomfortable. Not wanting to jump to conclusions, however, I mentioned the matter casually to a few friends and asked what they thought of it.
All three of the men I consulted–separately–were emphatic in their condemnation of the aforementioned man’s actions. They urged me to be careful, to call upon them or others for help in the future if necessary, to trust my instincts and acknowledge my indignation and refuse to excuse the man’s behavior.
Only one woman was among my confidants–a matter of happenstance more than habit–but her reaction was the outlier. No less sincere in her desire to help, she sought to reassure me by dismissing my concerns outright. “I think he does that with everybody,” she said, and “I’m sure he’s just not aware…” And she immediately changed the subject.
The sample size is small, I know, but the contrast was striking.
I got my master’s degree in teaching at a school devoted specifically to “urban” education. The choice made sense: education for me is above all a matter of social justice, and my program focused relentlessly on the inequities and indignities I most wanted to combat in my career. But the curriculum and pedagogy there were severely flawed. As elsewhere, “urban” was understood simply as a politically correct proxy for “poor and nonwhite,” and as elsewhere, the slippage severely undermined our discourse both ethically and intellectually. Professors’ attempts to discuss race and ethnicity were clumsy at best and horrifying at worst, while other types of marginalization–those based on sexuality, class, and geography especially–went largely unrecognized. Thoughtful analysis often devolved into mindless self-flagellation–our instructors assumed, all too correctly, that we came from relatively privileged backgrounds–and many lessons on “cultural competence” and “diverse learners” taught us more about how to use us/them rhetoric with impunity than about how to be effective teachers of children. I did learn a great deal, though perhaps not exactly what my teachers thought I was learning, and I did appreciate what I judged to be a good faith effort on the school’s part; I just didn’t quite think it “worked.”
So when I decided to enter a doctoral program after several years of teaching in a large urban (both literally and euphemistically) school district, I enrolled in a different university. Its location and history give it a great deal of urban “cred,” but it draws professors and students from a variety of settings, including suburban, rural, and private schools. This is a good thing: it gives me perspective, and it reminds me that effective instruction more than sociopolitical enlightenment is a teacher’s true lever of reform. But it also makes me overwhelmingly and unceasingly angry. Because the world of public education I worked in is entirely, staggeringly, removed from the world most of my colleagues inhabit.
I don’t get it. The exposés have been coming out for decades now: horrifying portraits of the schools that are not schools, the classes without teachers and teachers without pay, the abuse and neglect both mental and physical, the raw sewage and fire hazards and vermin and poison–all still relevant, all resonant with my own teaching experience and others’. And yet in class I can sit through a two-hour discussion of special education regulations in which everyone seems simply to assume that those regulations actually govern what happens in every school in the country–”Oh good, I’m so glad schools are required to do this now!”–and when I point out that many schools don’t do that at all, can’t or won’t no matter what the nice law says, people are stunned for a moment and then they decide that my experience was a very unfortunate aberration and absorb it comfortably into their worldview as such. Of course understanding what should be occurring is as important as understanding what is occurring, but mistaking the one for the other–that I can’t accept.
And it happens SO frequently.
Sometimes I find someone who is curious, who wants to hear more. And then, when I’m done talking, the response is inevitable: first “I can hardly believe it,” and then “Why don’t you write to a newspaper or publish a book or something?” Every time. And not only from undergraduates, but also from doctoral students, professors, even district superintendents.
Keep in mind that these are for the most part intelligent people at a respected school of education in a major city, people with “real-world” experience who have devoted or plan to devote their entire careers to education. Keep in mind too that Jonathan Kozol first published Savage Inequalities over two decades ago. This stuff should not be news.
It shouldn’t be an afterthought, either. My classmates shouldn’t be making broad statements about the education system in this country and then, anticipating an objection from me, qualify their claims by saying “well, except where you taught, of course.” Papers and presentations should not spend pages or hours touting a new reform agenda and then end with a few sentences on “implications for equity” that acknowledge that the innovation may not benefit all students equally(!).
Finally, I shouldn’t be viewed as everyone’s pet radical, because narrating simple events should not (have to) be a radical act.
I don’t understand.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is an exhaustively researched compendium of minutiae from which a compelling narrative might someday be crafted. “The coming of the book” indeed–I still await it.
People often ask just what antidepressants have done for me. Does taking psychotropic drugs make me happy? Dull my pain? Make me smarter? Cloud my mind? Do none of these things, or all of them?
Here are before-and-after snapshots.
I have always loved Christmas–the decorations, the music, the giving, all of it. But throughout my teens and even into my early twenties, the anticipation of the season was always tinged with fear: I dreaded waking up on Christmas morning in the depths of a depression. Back then my psychological state had little if anything to do with anything outside my own mind: I frequently found myself inexplicably miserable in the midst of love and triumph, while very real misfortune often left me inappropriately unmoved. And so it was that I could, and sometimes did, spend my favorite day of the year in utter despair.
A sad Christmas is as conceivable now as it was then, of course. The difference is that when it comes it will not be a surprise. If something bad happens now, it makes me sad. If something good happens now, it makes me happy. And so this year, as in each of the past several years, I went to bed on Christmas Eve knowing that the next day would be a good one.
That’s all. It’s pretty simple, actually.
I can’t get rid of the anger I feel coming to the general education policy conversation from a high-poverty urban school district.
“Oh, you ran out of time? WE RAN OUT OF PAPER.”
“Oh, your lunch break was short? WE HAD NO POTABLE WATER.”
“Oh, you value student voice? ONLY THE RIGHT KIND OF STUDENTS, THOUGH, AMIRITE?”
“Oh, your colleagues were annoying? MINE CALLED STUDENTS F*GS AND N****RS.”
“Oh, your students’ families were pushy? MINE WERE SYSTEMATICALLY DISENFRANCHISED AND DISEMPOWERED BY THE EDUCATION SYSTEM FOR WHICH I WORKED.”
I can’t stop. It’s not productive.
(Then people say, “I’m sorry you had a bad experience.” “MY STUDENTS ARE THE VICTIMS, NOT ME,” say I. “I went to private school,” say I. “DON’T LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT,” say I.)
(“Help me articulate this,” say I.)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My favorites, ranked in horribly unpoetic fashion:
4. Why is the word “yes” so brief? / It should be / the longest, / the hardest, / so that you could not decide in an instant to say it, / so that upon reflection you could stop / in the middle of saying it.
3. dropped / and falling / from such / heights / for so / long / that / maybe / I will have / enough time / to learn / flying
2. If there is something to desire, / there will be something to regret. / If there is something to regret, / there will be something to recall. / If there is something to recall, / there was nothing to regret. / If there was nothing to regret, / there was nothing to desire.
1. Basked in the sun / listened to birds / licked off raindrops / and only in flight / the leaf saw the tree / and grasped / what it had been.
I don’t usually read much poetry–especially not in the middle of the semester when I’m supposed to be reading a whole lot of other things–but this stuff was captivating.
My class on education law this semester is taught by the superintendent of a nearby school district. Today he told us about a parent who sued him some years ago when a student newspaper and yearbook refused to publish a pro-abstinence advertisement. He then showed us an editorial the parent wrote after losing the case.
The thing started out with some stuff about free speech, that being the legal issue central to the case. The argument was cogent enough; I disagreed, but I understood. Then came Truth and God and Virtue and the disintegration of morals in contemporary society. This too I followed; I objected to the sentiments, I questioned their relevance, I rejected the worldview they represented—but I remained intellectually engaged.
Then came “the sexually promiscuous homosexual lifestyle,” and my brain broke.
I don’t know what the concluding paragraphs said. I was too angry to process them. Free speech was no longer the issue for me. Even the underlying debate over sex education seemed inconsequential. Here was a person, a Bad Person with Bad Beliefs, a person steeped in Error and Untruth and perhaps even Evil—and a person whose views I did not want to hear, whose lifestyle I could not accept.
I am as much an ideologue as he is.
(And I’m not even gay! Imagine something that attacked me personally…)
I read cases in which students want to protest wars, and I celebrate their right to free speech. I read cases in which students want to display the Confederate flag, and—I support their right to free speech in an intellectual sense, but would I really mind, really feel indignant or angry or scared or disappointed, if they were oppressed just a little? I don’t know.
Some judge in one of these cases noted that the right to free speech means little if it means only that we grant crackpots a space in which they are free to be crackpots. I agree. But do I really, truly want anything more than that for those I deem crackpots?
I wish I knew.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s nothing I didn’t already know from personal experience, but I suppose that fact just confirms its relevance.
One thing I didn’t like, though: the recurring suggestion that what makes our education system really shameful is that it complicates the narrative of “American” exceptionalism. “One might expect to find these problems in other countries,” the explicit or implicit argument goes, “but to find them here–how awful!”
That framing of the subject, combined with the title, made me rather squeamish. (Are we trying to avoid being “savage”? Because that’s not a problematic concept at all…)
But hey, if that’s what it takes to shake people out of complacency, then maybe it’s justified–I don’t know.
In any case, the book as a whole is excellent.
I’m taking a class called Educational Equity and the Law this semester. At the first meeting today, the professor asked (hypothetically) which of us would have a problem with his having everyone recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every class.
I was the only one of the six students who immediately raised her hand.
One of my classmates said she wouldn’t object as long as she could stick to the pre-God version. The other four said they’d be fine with it.
I was surprised, but I’m not sure whether I should have been.
One of the very first people I met in college is also one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. His suite was just below mine in what quickly became the closest-knit entryway in the dorm. I was rather shy and very sad at that time in my life, but we shared a nostalgia for the tropics–he is from Costa Rica, I am from Hawai`i, and our school was in Connecticut–and I always felt like I could talk to him about anything. When our first New England Halloween found us both without costumes, we cobbled together a couple of ridiculous islander outfits–a plastic lei for him, a coconut bra for me (over a long-sleeved shirt, of course: it was damned cold)–and spent the night celebrating our status as outsiders.
We never grew terribly close, but he remained one of my favorite people, one who could make me smile in almost any circumstances (and back then, that was quite an accomplishment). A couple of years after graduation, he and some other Yalies were in Boston for the Harvard-Yale game, and I went to a party one of them was throwing. He was there, along with his new boyfriend; they looked incredibly happy.
Just a week or so ago, I wrote to him for the first time in a while. My husband had surprised me with tickets to Costa Rica, and I was asking for travel tips. I also congratulated him: the boyfriend I had met years ago was now his husband. They had been married in July, just after DOMA was struck down. “It’s great to be married!” he wrote–and I agreed.
I learned today that his husband was killed in a car accident last night.
Said husband was a former army officer who had served in Iraq and Kuwait. During one of his tours, he became the first active duty service member to come out as gay on national television. He was discharged, of course; DADT’s demise came several years later–thanks in part to efforts like his.
He survived war to be killed in a car crash. He waited to have a federally recognized marriage only to die a month after his wedding.
I don’t understand.
Well, less than a week ago I found out that a graduate of the school I taught at had been shot on the streets of Boston. For days his death overshadowed my Facebook news feed. His former friends and classmates–my former students–grieved mightily, and I looked on helplessly. One young man, himself now a father, noted that the local news speculated wildly about how the (African American male) victim may have been dealing drugs but never once mentioned the fact that he was the father of two baby girls. The cynical posts were the worst, because they were the best. But of course, some said. This is what happens to people like us.
Then, this morning, another former student sent me this Facebook message: “Hey! I just wanted to say thank you for everything you have done for me. I appreciate everything you have done and you inspire me so much. You were one of the very few people that continued to believe in me and pushed me to succeed. I don’t know where I would be without your support. Thank you!” It’s been over a year since I’ve taught her; recently she and I were trying desperately to find a way for her to attend an exciting faraway college that had granted her provisional admission, but it didn’t work out and now she’s going to some local school and living at home like she never wanted to do. And yet–the message.
That is what it’s like having been a teacher–a year and more after leaving the classroom. Extrapolate a bit, and maybe you’ll get an idea of what it’s like actually to be a teacher.
You cry a lot.
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
It’s possible that Verne deliberately disguised this unappealing piece of heavy-handed dogma as a novel so as to embody everything that is most odious about the dystopian future it describes–one, of course, in which utility has triumphed over beauty, science over art, machinery over humanity, and (apparently) dichotomy over complexity. If such was his intent, than he succeeded magnificently.
If not, then this is one of the most amazing exhibits of unintentional irony that I have ever seen.
I loved Jules Verne when I was a kid. I still do, in theory. Maybe he kept this “lost novel” unpublished for a reason.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
More than anything else, Nabokov writes about words. His best work balances gracefully the referential and other functions of language, so that the text is both a world in itself (with puns, ironies, bot mots, and so on) and a window to the fictional world it describes (with characters, feelings, other ironies, and the like).
That’s an oversimplification, I know, but the point is this: in reading these stories, I felt like the text was opaque. Each piece was lovely in itself, but that very loveliness obscured its “point.” The thing made a better door than window.
Once in a while a passage would resolve itself into a unit of meaning, and invariably that meaning was profoundly beautiful (hence the three stars). But then it would fade as suddenly as it had appeared, technical prowess replacing aesthetic vision as the author’s most salient characteristic. (Fans of Classical music, think of a cadenza in a Mozart concerto).
Overall, then, while I imagine that annotating this book would be a delightful exercise, reading it was something else altogether.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
You know those Magic Eye thingies that were absurdly popular for a while when I was a kid, like in the early ’90s? They looked at first like nothing more than meaningless patterns of variously colored dots, but if you looked “through” them successfully they revealed a hidden picture?
So, imagine you’re looking at one of those. You know there’s an amazing landscape scene in there somewhere, because all your friends have told you so, but all you can see are dots. Once in a while some of the dots seem to resolve themselves into something. Is that a dead tree? That would make for a rather depressing landscape. But maybe it’s a beautiful winter scene–snow-laden branches and whatnot. That would be nice. It would be even nicer if you could just SEE the damn thing, though.
This goes on for a while. You become increasingly frustrated and increasingly invested. The picture is going to be f***ing mind-blowing if you ever manage to penetrate the surface and get to it.
Then, finally, it appears. And it is horrifying. Yes, it’s a landscape. But not only are the trees dead; everything is. Even the vultures picking at the carcasses look old and tired and uninterested in their activities. All the tragedy of existence suddenly leaps out of the frame at you, and you turn away in fear and trembling. You have seen It, and It was indeed amazing, but you never want to see It again.
That’s how it is to read this book.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“For my part I do not want to make peace between my heart and my head, between my faith and my reason; I prefer that they be at war. [...] My purpose is to war on all those who submit, whether to Catholicism, or to rationalism, or to agnosticism. My aim is to make all men live a life of restless longing.”
“If annihilation must be our portion, let us act in such a way that we make it an unjust portion; let us fight against destiny, even without hope of victory; let us fight quixotically. [...] And to act in such a way as to make our annihilation unjustified, in such a way as to make our brothers and sisters, our children and their children, and the children of these children, all feel that we ought not to have died is something within the reach of all men.”
At the end, where the focus turns from “men” to “nations,” he speaks more specifically to those who have in their minds a clear idea of what it means to be Spanish, to be European, to be Catholic. But it’s hardly his fault that I am none of those things. The book is amazing.