Sitting in the middle

Being ‘natural’ was never on my priorities list. The first person I met who truly believes in being himself, my Dad, is practically homeless, alone, and bound by emotional scar tissue so thick that it would take a whole other lifetime to force blood back into it. “Just be yourself,” was understandably suspect for a very long time. But it’s 11:30 pm and I just left the park after placing the second of my caskets, my arms wrapped around the tree I placed it in, crying and whispering thank you into the wet bark. The dimples and bark bits are still pressed into my forehead. The howl of my natural life, hungry to thrive, is all around me these days, and it is good and perplexing and refusing to be ignored anymore.

I think we mistake the idea of living a natural life for a lot of things, or at least I did—a life that is excessive, disregards others, is selfish, irresponsible, unrealistic. It was very easy to do. Fear and famine sent me crawling into the arms of some rigid taskmasters early on. The demands of organized religion broke me apart, commanded compartmentalization, so that even those who sought to love the whole me could only find a handful of pieces. And my awareness of how differently I was wired made me believe that I should be grateful for any bit of excavation here and there. I learned a term recently which is bubbling through my consciousness: lateral racism, or intra-group hatred. The article, written by a Native American elder, quoted a line he had read on the subject. “We could not fight the oppressor, so we fought each other.”  While this post is not about racism, I resonate strongly with this idea.  I couldn’t name the things that locked me up inside, kept me small for so long. I’m still not a hundred percent sure I can name them accurately, so in lieu of fighting nameless shadows, I cast suspicions on anyone whose life was too large, had too much fire.

However, I had believed many of these issues in the neighborhood of religion to be over with, in the past. Not so. I was sitting on the couch with a friend earlier this week, enjoying a glass of wine as we stumbled into a conversation on religion. I paused shocked as I heard myself say, “And the measure of love in the Church is how many things you can force people to do that they don’t want to do.” Give up a “sin”—points for you. Get a non-Christian to give up all their “sins” and cross the line—triple 7’s jackpot o’ points. While the thought itself was not new, the iteration of it was. Years worth of weight from trading love for compliance landed squarely in my chest, and it struck me that I had taken that same attitude into my teaching for many, many years. “If you do what I want, whether it’s because you think it’s best or you’re trying to game the system, I will love you.”

Those of you who know me well will say, ‘that’s not you,’ or, ‘you’ve always been very loving to all of your students.’ There are two rivers in me that run parallel my friends, but it took me a while to realize them and that they do not touch. In one river, I love my students deeply for their humanity, they are the people I always wanted to be; funny, filterless creativity, fiercely kind. In the other river, their lack of obedience chafed me dry, and for many years I found reasons to feel sorry for them for not wanting the right thing. Sadly, that looks like love to fellow grown ups, but it does not feel like love to kids.

Now, I’m not advocating anarchy. I realize that children must be made to eat broccoli even if they don’t want to, and adults must be made to live peacefully in the world with others even if they don’t want to. But at what point are these orders and laws necessary, and at what point do they steal our souls? What is the line between nurturing guidance and egomaniacal kidnapping? And do we as order givers really understand the toll theses things are taking on us? Are teenagers really incapable of judging what is right and healthful for their souls and what externally imposed definitions they should run from? I stood with my seventh period class just last week, facing great resistance to a lesson with little understanding as to why, and I thought, “I am so tired of making people do what they don’t want to do.” Being with students that are seekers is ridiculous fun, the joy of every teachers day, but trying to turn them into seekers seems increasingly to miss the point.

And as adults are we equally incapable of judgment, or are we just blinded to the fact that there are other options? There are squares, but there are also circles, and if we bring the two close enough, and provide the right mood music, maybe they will even make baby ovals. Maybe there is a place where the forced life and the thing that twirls, stomps, and sings from the soul can live together. That’s what I was hoping as I placed casket two in the tree tonight: may there be a way for the natural and the unnatural to merge, find balance, find new life, find peace. I sat in my last meeting of the week on Friday afternoon, unusually drained for such an uneventful week. As I struggled to put together sentences and find any desire or engagement in the conversation, a huge orange butterfly drifted onto a bush outside my window. The other person in the room with me was not impressed, and in fact her face said I might be slightly challenged to break off mid-sentence to notice it, but something in me was laid flat by the juxtaposition between the place I was and the place I wanted to reach.

Why schools?

I didn’t have room for it yesterday, but this morning I woke up sad.  None of the usual Friday feeling, but rather images of panicked students and law enforcement running through my brain.  Even though I’ve long since stopped following the details of these occurrences, the refrain in my head plays all the way to work.  Oregon.  More death.  It’s happened again.

As a teacher, each incidence of school violence is not only national, but personal.  “It could have been me.  It could have been my students.”  After a while, you either accept it as an occupational hazard and push the black blob of fear down, or you don’t/can’t/won’t, and figure out what to do from there.

However, what is not so matter-of-fact for me this morning is a question I’ve been holding for years now.  A question I haven’t asked for fear of exposing my ignorance on politics and other grown-up things.  A question I haven’t asked for fear of smart people contradicting the truth that I know.

The question I have is this: why schools?

Why aren’t the majority of these shootings at malls, movie theaters, churches, parks, or any other spaces with lots of innocent people?  There has to be at least one or two places that are easier to get guns and other homemade weaponry into than schools.  Maybe the familiarity or habit of school makes it the safe and easy choice, especially for those who are mentally unbalanced?  But that doesn’t ring true either.  I have many students who spend almost as much time at Starbucks or the park as they do at school.  Maybe it’s media coverage?  But would a school shooting really get more coverage than any other type of shooting?  I watched horrified as the coverage of the church shooting in Charleston continued to wash through the media in waves.  Maybe I just don’t understand the mind of someone desperate enough to walk into a place, any place, and start shooting.

I’ve been round and round with this question in my mind to no avail, so the lack of public discussion about it still floors me.  I think we’re right as a nation to be talking about gun control and the treatment of mental illness when these thefts of life occur, and I don’t want to downplay those in the slightest.  However, I think we are wrong not to ask about the setting of these grisly stories.  For me, the setting says only one thing: people go to schools to hurt because they are hurt at schools.

Their voices are denied or ignored, by teachers and fellow students, when they do not fit the dominant paradigm.  Narcotics, both legal and illegal, can not heal the experience of being invisible, unheard.  The pressure builds and drastic steps are taken, drastic steps that could have been avoided.  Yes, this hurt may be in them already when they come to school, but when they come to a place that is rumored to hold hope, ideas, and answers, and find only conform, conform, conform, they are let down in a way that burns.

This grieves me more deeply than I can find adequate words for because I have also seen children’s lives saved or discovered at school.  Teachers lay down hundreds of thousands of hours each year in love, sweat, and tears to meet the needs of those given to them.  So how do you even begin to do that math?  One life saved is a total victory.  One life lost is a total defeat.  Where does it leave us?  Well, where we are now I suppose–not talking about it, swimming in stasis, inertia, intention with little integrated action.  Forced as educators to ignore the obvious pain of some in order to keep the ship moving.  Forced as parents to choose public education because anything else is ridiculously out of the price range of most.

I don’t have answers, but I do have the ability to invite students to dissent within the classroom, to laugh at and point out the obvious ironies of the system we are in, to smile into the eyes of each child who walks through the door, and to start our day with, “Okay my beloveds, let’s get to our warm up.”  Until more people will entertain the question of ‘why schools?’, it will have to be enough.  Teachers, parents, students…let’s stop sitting on the question.  ‘Why’ has the power to sprout and take root in unexpected ways.