What I Really Wanted

If you are a non-child bearing or rearing adult, your Saturday morning is probably spent sleeping in, making coffee, and checking your social media.  Mine is now spent fighting evil, trash sneezing monsters that are polluting the ocean and killing all the fish, with the help of the characters from Paw Patrol, whose names I actually know.  About five minutes into this week’s battle, which consisted of Paxton throwing karate moves and me throwing bark at the play structure, I paused for a water break–our rules of engagement being slightly different than that of the current day military.

“Paxton, can I ask how this bad guy turned bad?  I mean, did he always sneeze trash at people for fun?”

“No, he used to be a good guy, but then a bad guy tricked him and said he’d give him candy if he sneezed trash on people.  Now, he’s been doing it for so long that he just does it for fun.”

“Wow….I kinda feel bad for him now.  Sounds like he had a rough childhood without anyone to teach him or take care of him.”

Sigh.  “Are you going to say we should forgive him now and not kill him?  That’s what my mom always says that you have to forgive everyone.  That’s the rule.”

And I paused.  The adult in me, the habits from years of being an authority figure, and the ghost of a Pentecostal upbringing, all urged me to agree with his mom.  But I couldn’t, so I didn’t.  I went on to tell him that, although he has a great mom, I disagree with her on this one.  And that even though it usually makes us feel better to forgive, there is nothing that says you have to, and in fact, you might have very good reasons for not forgiving (especially if you are a four year old getting bullied at preschool, with a new baby brother that dethrones you from being the only child).  “Besides,” I ended with, “it’s not real forgiveness if someone makes you do it.”  We then went on to brutally slay the evil, trash sneezing monster together.  Side note: it made for some very delicious evil monster sushi, so we did use what we killed 😉

As I cleaned my house this afternoon, letting my mind wander with scrubbing and vacuuming, it hit me.  That moment was and is a huge part of what I really wanted with teaching (especially in my latter years), what I rarely feel I reached, with the exception of social moments with students.  It’s part of why I grew increasingly frustrated.  Where the curriculum, both created and forced on us, looked at a subject from one angle, or with one application in mind, I wanted to teach in 360 degrees, full of paradox, application, and mess–aka how we actually learn outside of the school environment.  Common Core promised some of this, and I approached it independently in my own classroom and with colleagues over the years, but it never flowered.  I lacked skill and energy, and the system was only adaptable to a certain point.  Especially here in Silicon Valley, it was difficult to create learners because grades were more status, yours and/or your parents, and a future big paycheck.

This of course simplifies the issues in play, but I’m writing a personal blog post here, not a treatise on the problems in public education.  So what would this look like?  Good question since I’ve never gotten very close to it.  If I taught in 360, I’d be able to tell a student, “I will be wrong about so many things while we’re together, because no one knows you like you do, but I am going to ask you to trust me anyways.  Trust me and challenge me when you think I’m full of it.”  Ownership.  Acknowledgement of shared humanity.  I’d have more than a year or two in which to develop that environment.  Maybe not a full ten or twelve like I’ve heard of in some Waldorf schools, but we’d be stuck with each other until we could work our shit out.

I’d be able to OPENLY bring into question ALL the unquestionables: the authority of parents-church-government-medicine, social constructs like success and gender, physical realities like time, and the list goes on.  I’d be able to do this without having an apocalyptic parental/administrative response.  And if there was a kerfluffle with parents, I’d have few enough students that I could sit down with a parent for an hour and talk it through without that hour costing me three of my weekend.  I’d have few enough students that if someone wanted to skip studying one thing, I could send them off to read and learn as they please, and actually check back in with them.

And what about the planned curriculum?  Let me take one example from my English teacher life: the plot line.  All students, almost every year, learn and revisit the parts of a plot.  The hope is that each time you revisit the knowledge, it is deepened in some way.  In theory, this is great, but the plot line can only get so fucking deep before a kid’s eye rolls and moans are 110% justified.  Now here’s the thing, I think knowledge of the plot line is tremendously valuable, but for totally different reasons: changing your personal story mid-course, predicting and avoiding mistakes in history, being able to step back from the stories that come to you each day and see the greater human significance, also to see the individual players and who is gaining/losing in the midst of each story.  Why are there multiple versions of the same story?  What do we say to the stories that have been lost, either by accident or by force?  Why are we so easily controlled by advertising?  How does the brain function in storing and making meaning of stories?  I may be fucking insane, but I think answers to most of these questions, and way far juicier ones, are resident in the simple, boring plot line.  What if we could look at all of it?

And the truth is, we can’t.  Not in the system we have now.  Probably not even completely in the best of alternative schools.  But that’s what I really wanted.  I wanted them to not have to wait till college for messy learning.  I felt my shoulders drop and my exhale sound when I straight up told a four year old that his mom could be awesome, but still be wrong, and that there could be other ways to look at it.  Forgiveness could be a virtue, but not a law, and it could still be okay to want to kill a monster, even one with a tragic backstory.

There are no solutions in this understanding, but there is relief in being able to articulate, at least a little better, what was missing.