The Didactic Interview: Sofia Ali-Khan

To confront the existential horror of President Trump, I’m joined by my longtime activist friend Sofia Ali-Khan. We discuss our lives as progressive rabble-rousers, educators, and Americans. We sort through the problems we face and some concrete steps for action. Let’s get to work, everybody!

Links to things we discussed:

Here’s the song at the end, “Simply Are” by Arto Lindsay:

10 Things Every American Should Do When a New President is Elected

1. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Know what it says about the rights of every human being on the planet. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other humans.

2. Read the United States Constitution. Know what it says about the rights of every American citizen. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other Americans.

3. Build community. Wherever governments or other forces try to violate the rights of people, they have less success when people know each other. Meet your neighbors if you don’t already know them. Reach out to friends and family and reinforce networks of support.

4. Pick a specific movement for good and work with other people. I have been a member of Amnesty International for over 20 years, because I believe in its mission to protect the UDHR. Perhaps you’d like to work specifically to help children, or protect the rights of LGBTQ individuals, or stand up for religious freedom, or defend freedom of the press, or preserve the environment. Whatever issue is most important to you, be active and involved.

5. Stay focused on what people say and do. Avoid demonization and oversimplification. JaySmooth from the website IllDoctrine.com once made a very important video called How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist. If you’ve never seen it, please take three minutes and watch it right now.

6. Learn how to be angry for a long time. As I wrote in my book MindWipe:

It’s absolutely essential for people (especially young people) who fight the power to learn how to be angry for a long time. Otherwise the rage and fury will clot your blood and clog your pores. No one will protect you from the exhaustion and emotional toll these struggles will take; you must protect yourself. And in my experience, bitterness and bile are supreme enemies against which you must be vigilant. Nothing will make you burn out more quickly than succumbing to the belief that there’s no point.

The chapter “How to Be Angry for a Long Time” is on the Medium website. Please have a look.

7. Take care of yourself. Eat well, drink water, breathe deeply, and exercise. Watch funny movies and play fun games. Garden, take walks, or do whatever makes you feel good. Resist the temptation to escape into clouds of oblivion or bottles of despair.

8. Made good art. As Neil Gaiman said: “Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.” Read the comic from Zen Pencils.

9. Find a book about history and read it. I recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or perhaps East Timor: Genocide in Paradise by Matthew Jardine. Learn about those people and organizations who have resisted violence and oppression in other places and times.

10. Educate others. If you are unhappy with the result of an election, you must know and/or believe things that other people do know know or understand. Use this opportunity to share important facts and perspectives with which others may be unaware. Stay focused on specific things that people can investigate for themselves. Find common ground where possible and challenge everyone to be their best selves.

On the Prospect of a President Trump

It’s 9:46 PM Central Time and the New York Times just called Ohio for Trump. Things do not look good.

If you voted for Trump because you’re angry about how the economy isn’t helping millions of Americans, I’m with you. We can work together.

If you voted for Trump because you hate the corrupt political machine, I’m with you. We can work together.

If you voted for Trump because you’re fed up with people not recognizing the anger and rage in your community, I’m with you. We can work together.

Let’s find some common ground and fight for a better world.

If you voted for Trump because you hate people whose skin is different, or who speak a different language, or worship a different god, then you can go to hell. I want nothing to do with you. You are everything that is wrong with our country. Please pay close attention to how that hatred causes pain and suffering in the years to come, and change your ways.

Your hatred is never going to make your life better. It will only feed the egos of demagogues and monsters who seek to keep you separated from those with whom you have so much in common.

Everyone makes mistakes. We must learn from them. If you voted for Trump for the right reasons, please pay attention to how little your life actually improves under a Trump presidency.

And for everyone who did not vote Trump — keep your heads up. The people on East Timor never gave up. Harriet Tubman never gave up. Harvey Milk never gave up. They all faced much more terrible conditions than we face. A luta continua, fight the power, keep on keeping on.

Resistance is fertile.

Blueberries, Batman, and Special Education

A former student of mine is now working on an education degree, and asked me to respond to some questions about students with disabilities and special education. With typical egoism, I thought perhaps my response would be of interest to others, so here it is. (A PDF version is also available.)

“Special education” classification is a tool. Like any tool, it is not inherently positive or negative — the moral value comes from how it’s used. (Some tools, like land mines, are almost never positive, while others, like breath mints, are almost never negative.)

I put special education in quote marks because it is, in some ways, an arbitrary distinction based on highly subjective factors. To wit: Its definition from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” If we removed the last three words here, no parent in the world would refuse the same for their own child. Every person is unique, and every child has unique needs. Unfortunately, the incredible demands on our school systems require less individual attention than students really need. Therefore not all children can receive “specially designed instruction [...] to meet [their] unique needs”. (Imagine if doctors had to help patients 30 at a time, the way teachers have to help students.)

As a result, our society believes that the best way to maximize the potential of our limited resources is to provide special attention (smaller classes, more one-on-one time, different facilities) for those students with disabilities. This makes sense, although — again — I wish to insist that such adjustments to the “standard” educational structure, in an ideal world, would be considered for every student in the building.

With regard to physical disabilities, there is little to discuss. Obviously a student who is unable to walk should have an altered physical education curriculum. Cognitive disabilities are more tricky. In part this is due to the labyrinthian nature of the human brain. Only in the last 50 years have we begun to scratch the surface of understanding this infinite organism inside our heads. Consequently, educational policy has constantly reinvented itself to match our understanding of developmental research.

The biggest challenge I see is the schism between short-term and long-term assistance for the disabled child. Leaving aside for the moment the question of diagnosis (to which I shall return, fear you not), we have to understand that what’s helpful for a student in the short term is often diametrically opposed to that student’s best interests in the long term. This is a paradox at the very heart of compulsory education itself: The kid is tired, the kid wants to sleep. But we have to force them into school so they’ll have more opportunities in life, get better jobs, and not be so exhausted later in life. (This presents unique challenges for those educators among us who are anarchists, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

The implementation of special ed classifications and modifications compound this schism profoundly. Let’s take a (relatively) simple case like anxiety. (I have no idea where that problem lies on the chart of disability classification, but we’re seeing it all over the place these days, so it’s a common example to interrogate.) When a student suffers from anxiety, the impulse for a compassionate educator is to excuse them from situations where that anxiety is aggravated — speaking in front of the class, for example. On the other hand, a long-term focus must recognize that the student must at some point overcome this anxiety, and find ways to fight through it, to avoid being defined and limited by it forever.

A callous, insensitive teacher will say: “I don’t care about your anxiety. You need to get over it. Everyone has to give a speech, and if you don’t, you get an F.” But an equally harmful educator on the other end of the continuum will say: “Your anxiety makes it impossible to do the speech. You get an A even if you don’t speak in front of the class.” This second teacher is enabling a total evasion of the problem, and ordering the student to surrender to anxiety. Therefore a balance must be struck.

I cannot recommend enough an episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia called “How To Become Batman” (23 January 2015). The show explores the remarkable case of Daniel Kish, a blind man who taught himself as a child to “echolocate” (like a bat) in order to make sense of the world around him. He became so skilled at this practice that he can now ride a bike. Even more remarkably, brain scientists have discovered that echolocation allows blind people to form neural structures similar to those created by the eyes in people who can see. (This leads the hosts to literally climb on a rooftop in order to shout: “You might not need eyes to see!”) It’s a remarkable program, and I really do urge you to listen right now. (I also just found his TED Talk.)

Kish’s biggest point, which he stresses at every opportunity, is that his biggest obstacle in life has not been the blindness itself, but the limitations people place on him because of it. He explains that most blind children begin echolocating at a young age, but teachers and adults immediately order them to stop. They worry about social stigma and the kid’s self-esteem.

This goes into another dimension when it comes to safety. Parents obviously want to protect their children from harm, but Kish says parents of blind children need to trust their kids more to explore and learn for themselves where the boundaries of safety and harm reside. The podcast features Kish’s mother, who explains that she let him roam around by himself, even though it was dangerous. Being a child is inherently dangerous anyway, she explains. This independence and self-reliance has obviously served Kish well throughout his life. Now he teaches other blind children how to echolocate and move around on their own.

This is not to say that we should remove all restrictions and supports for children with disabilities. But Kish’s story is a powerful reminder about how urgent it is for all adults — and especially educators — to check ourselves. Our desire to help children in the short-term can easily hamper their ability to become strong and self-sufficient in the long term. I’ve seen plenty of students diagnosed with ADHD use their diagnosis as a crutch to enable unhealthy behavior. I’ve seen plenty of parents and counselors assume that kids cannot perform a task because of a disability classification. This is unkind and dangerous.

Ideally, a new paradigm of mental health and cognitive classification would recognize the perils of “deficit” thinking against some imaginary ideal/normal brain. Instead we could recognize that every person has some varying levels of difficulty when it comes to, say, paying attention. (It’s hard for all of us, especially in our postmodern hyper-accelerated culture.) This could help reduce stigma while also recognizing that such difficulties are not inevitable limitations, but obstacles that can be overcome — or at least ameliorated.

That’s a radical and far-off notion, however, so I’ll return to the here and now, and (as I begin my third page of this long-winded diatribe) touch on some things I haven’t mentioned yet.

Yes, I think all children can benefit from disability testing. But I hasten to add that any such testing (and construction of “special education” accommodation/curriculum) must put the student at the center of the process. So often I see young people in IEP meetings as distant observers, only tangentially involved in the process. I always speak directly to the student, but in most cases I’m the only one.

I did my undergraduate study at New College of Florida, which features no grades and an intensely student-centered pedagogical philosophy. (The motto of New College is: “In the final analysis, the student is responsible for his or her own education.”) Spending four years in this rigorous environment of academic freedom and intellectual responsibility made me into the erudite and indefatigable scholar that I am today. Ten years of standard schooling had mostly trained me to regurgitate answers on tests and then forget the information immediately afterward.

I wish I had some specific ideas of how to make “special education” more student-centered, but I can say for sure that all students must become familiar with the concept of metacognition at an early age, and return to it on a regular basis throughout their schooling. They must start figuring out (much earlier than I did) what they need to get from school, and go after it. Our models of education rely heavily on passive students and rote “learning”, for many reasons. Transforming this mindset will benefit not only those students with disabilities, but all other students as well.

I must close with an emphasis on resources. Everybody talks about “how important education is” and “how valuable teachers are”, but our public policies and budget decisions as a society reflect a very different view. Helping kids individually takes time and money. (Again, consider the chaos that would result from a doctor having to help patients 30 at a time.) Most initiatives aimed at helping students are not accompanied by money for more staff or resources. (Jamie Vollmer’s 2010 book Schools Cannot Do It Alone explores this phenomenon in great depth. He is also the author of “The Blueberry Story”, which is a quick but essential read for anyone interested in education.)

Go to any public school in the United States and talk with the special education teachers about how busy they are. In most cases they are twice as exhausted as the regular teachers — who are plenty exhausted themselves, believe you me. (As I’ve said elsewhere: We call it special education because the teachers are special.)

We like to think of teachers as being capable of magic, so it doesn’t matter if they have 10 kids or 20 or 30. (Well-funded press releases from education-reform organizations like The Gates Foundation declare with great volume the irrelevance of class size. Meanwhile, the private Lakeside School — which Bill Gates loved so much — brags on its website about an average class size of 17 students.)

If we’re serious about helping kids with disabilities, we must pay for that help. It’s not cheap, and doing it right requires great effort from all of us — especially the students. But each of us would want the best, most individualized care for our own children, with conscious emphasis on approaches that will best help kids in the long term. Therefore anything less is an affront to our shared humanity.

Deer, Me

There I am, driving in to Sun Prairie this morning on Highway N like I do every day. Public Enemy is on full, Terminator X pounding through my system. I’m getting psyched for the day ahead as I pass the BP station, ready to wake some heads and rattle some cages.

Then BAM something hits my car — OH MY GOD I hit a deer — and there’s a black piece of something stuck to the door, dragging alongside the car and flipping up to hit the window. I’m freaking out and I kill the radio. My hands are shaking and I almost drop my bagel. I take crazy rapid breaths, trying to calm down as I pull over. I put the bagel in the dish beside me and hit the emergency lights.

It was a deer oh god I hit a deer! How could I hit a deer? I’m always so careful. People who hit deers aren’t paying attention but I hit a deer so I guess I wasn’t paying attention oh god that poor animal why did my industrial machine have to kill it? Is my car totally broken now? What the hell just happened?

I get out of the car and realize that a strip of plastic from the bumper is jammed in the the wheel well. I yank it out and drop it in front of the car. I expect blood and deer body parts, but there’s nothing. The bumper gap has exposed a plastic tank, and it’s dripping onto the pavement. I put my hand under — which I immediately realize is stupid, since it could be really hot or corrosive or something — and sniff the liquid. It doesn’t smell of anything.

A guy who lives in the house across the street comes over and assures me that it happens all the time. I ask if I should call the police and he says “Sheriff’s Department.” I ask if I can use his cell phone because I don’t own one. He dials and talks to someone. I look at my car. There’s no deer parts around, and the splotches look more like mud than anything. I look at my hands, which are filthy. I take the strip of broken bumper plastic to the trunk and put it inside. The towel I expect to find is missing. I look back at the road and there’s the deer corpse in the middle of it. Cars are slowly moving around it.

“They’re sending someone,” the homeowner says, hanging up his cell phone. I thank him and try to laugh.

“Whenever I hear about people hitting a deer,” I say, talking really fast, “I always think Oh they weren’t paying attention. What’s wrong with people? But you don’t realize how fast it can happen until it happens to you.”

He nods and says he needs to start packing up his truck for work. We’re a bit of a contrast — here I am in my suit with my pink shirt and pink tie (I totally forget about the LGBTQ-solidarity rainbow flag lapel pin, which surely adds an interesting element into the dynamic), and there he goes with his jeans and Packers jacket, ready to move stuff into his truck as his kids wait for the bus. I worry that I’m coming off like some effete intellectual (which I am), and I think about the perceived class difference and the probable actual class difference and my brain’s just racing.

Two people pull over and a woman asks if I’m alright. I say yes and she drives off. A second guy in a Notre Dame cap nods and stands near me, tapping his cell phone. I tell him he doesn’t have to wait because I’m fine and the car seems okay and the other dude called the sheriff. He just nods and I think Okay that’s weird. Then I look at his white SUV and I realize one of the headlights is gone.

“Oh wait,” I say, “did you hit it too?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I was going the other way and I guess it bounced off of me and hit you.”  He does that thing Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics Chapter Two:

The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car. If one car hits another, the driver of the vehicle being struck is much more likely to say “Hey! He HIT me!” than “He hit my car” or “His car hit my car”, for that matter.

Oh, so I didn’t hit the deer. I mean, I did, but only because it ricocheted off the other guy’s car. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention. Wait, really? Weren’t you just talking about how stupid it is to jump to conclusions like that?

These are the conversations that go on in my head all day every day.

“It could be worse,” the Notre Dame cap guy says. “At least it’s not raining.” He gestures to the sky. “We can enjoy this sunrise.”

“Yeah,” I say. I pull out my iPod and take a photo of the sunrise, which I often do anyway. Oh man he probably thinks I’m some weird arty geek (which I am) but he doesn’t realize I often take photos of the sunrise when I get to school. My brain continues racing. I get some napkins out of the glove box and wipe some of the dirt off my hands. I get out the manual and find a diagram of the engine area. The leaky plastic tank is for windshield washer fluid. Whew.

We wait. I practice being here now and count my breaths. Notre Dame Cap Guy points out that someone is pulling the deer corpse off the road into the ditch. We wave thanks.

The teacher who teaches next door to me pulls over. As soon as I see that it’s her I laugh and approach her car. “I’m fine,” I say as she rolls down the passenger window. “Everything’s fine. We hit a deer.” She asks if I need a ride and I say no. “Thanks, though. I should be in soon.” She nods and heads off.

We wait some more. Eventually a cop car pulls up and an officer approaches us. I think about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and how different I might feel in this moment if I were a black man. The officer takes down our info — I’m visibly delighted to see that I have an up-to-date insurance card in my wallet — and goes back to his cruiser. A minute later he comes back with a report number scribbled on his business card. We thank him.

“So you’re both okay?” he asks. We nod.

He pauses. “Do either of you want the deer?” he asks. We say no, but I wonder if maybe one of the hunter kids at school would like the meat. Oh well. We pack up and drive off.

I feel really bad for the deer. I hear the line from My Cousin Vinny, in Marisa Tomei’s thick New York accent. “Imagine you’re a deer.” The only thing that animal did wrong was frolic through the prairie at the wrong time. Our industrial automotive fixation killed it, as it kills thousands of other animals every day. One of those hideous, acceptable tragedies that probably could be avoided if we transformed our entire society.

Oh well. It could have been worse.