Suckers, Monsters, Coaches, and Teachers

Warren St. John’s 2009 book Outcasts United tells the story of a soccer team in Georgia made up of refugees from war zones all over the world (Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan) who come together to form a team — literally and figuratively. I’m reading it with my American Literature students for the Quest Unit.

In Chapter Four (“Alone Down South”), we learn about the coach’s first foray in leadership.

Luna Mufleh coached the only way she knew how — by following the example set for her by Coach Brown. [Brown was a tough-as-nails soccer coach Mufleh had played for at the American Community School in her native Jordan. -esp] She was more demanding than any of the girls or their parents expected — she made her players run for thirty-five minutes and do sets of sit-ups, push-ups, and leg lifts before each practice. And she refused to coddle them. Luma explained to her girls that they would be responsible for their actions and for meeting their obligations to the team. Players who couldn’t make practice were expected to call Luma themselves; there woiuld be no passing off the excuse-making to Mom or Dad. Likewise, if a player had problems with the way Luma ran the team — complaints about playing time, favoritism, or the like — she would be expected to raise those concerns directly with the coach.

[...] Luma’s rule-making wasn’t entirely about establishing her authority over the team — though that was part of it. She also believed that the team would benefit once individual players started to take responsibility for themselves. Luma herself had been coddled by her parents in an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, and believed that she had paid for these comforts by sacrificing her self-reliance and independence. If Luma was going to coach, she was going to do so with this basic lesson as a backdrop, whether her players’ parents understood it right away or not. Time would tell whether her approach produced results.

[...] When confronted by unhappy parents, Luma displayed a confidence incongruous with her status as a newcomer, an attitude that put off some parents and intrigued others. Once when Luma ordered her players to practice barefoot to get a better feel for the soccer ball, a team mother objected on the grounds that her daughter might injure her toes.

“This is how I run my practice,” Luma told her. “If she’s not going to do it, she’s not going to play.”

During Luma’s first season as coach, her team lost every game. But over time, her methods began to pay off. Dedicated players returned, and those who didn’t buy in left. The players worked hard and improved. They stopped questioning Luma’s methods and began to absorb and intuit them. In her third season, Luma’s twelve-and-under girls’ team went undefeated and won their year-end tournament.

This passage speaks to me deeply. As a teacher, I am caught in a trap between leniency for the sake of compassion and strict demands for the sake of long-term improvement. My students are dealing with a panorama of difficult problems — anxiety, sexual assault, depression, divorce, self-harm, loss of loved ones to suicide and drug overdose, pervasive subconscious racism, college debt, overloaded schedules, and the myriad pressures of late stage capitalism. I want them to be prepared for the fights ahead, but I recognize also that many of them are engaged in grueling battles now.

I often think of it this way: Do I want to be a sucker, or a monster? In other words: Will I risk showing too much leniency and compassion, allowing some students to take advantage of my kindness? Or will I risk being too demanding and tyrannical, causing pain and suffering to students who already have too much of both in their lives?

They key element for me is the lack of choice for the kids. In Luma’s case, the kids choose to play soccer with her. She gets to have total control over the process, because it’s an entirely voluntary affair. What might have happened if too few students wanted to be on the team? Or if every parent demanded her resignation after the first season?

We teachers don’t have this same set of boundaries. My students have to take my 11th grade English class. Obviously I have to set rules and expectations, and no good teacher will choose 100% Sucker Status, because we know there must be expectations for learning. But I do everything in my power to avoid sending kids out of the room. I know that the kids who act out most have the fewest people showing them compassion. I know that they’re waiting for adults to complete the script, to send them (once again) the message that they are disposable.

Even in the elective classes I teach, students sign up because they need an English credit. I know they’re usually not crazy about writing, or expecting a career in letters. I could be more harsh in the Interdisciplinary Poetics class focused on hip-hop, but so many of those students have struggled in other classes. I have a rare opportunity to nod and wink more (and whack their knuckles less) and thereby (hopefully) infect them with a deeper love of learning. Showing no mercy could very easily burn bridges and send them back into the spiral of To Hell With School.

(Side note: As I write these words, I am showing my Creative Writing II students the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction. I just noticed two students were staring at cell phones. Inspired by this very piece I am writing, I said “Put the phones away. Watch the movie.” One student said: “This movie’s boring.” I said: “Too bad. You signed up for the class. This movie is part of the class. Watch the movie.” The inextricable ingredient of cell-phone-addiction is another piece of this puzzle for which I shall not indulge at the present moment.)

This dilemma is made more complicated by my anarchist proclivities. I want to live my life as much as possible through voluntary association, which is nearly impossible in our context of compulsory secondary education. The most satisfying choices I’ve ever made in my life are the ones with the least pressure attached — at New College, for example, where I found a deep love for authentic education even though (in fact, because) there were no grades involved. So when my students choose not to pay attention, I often think: “Well, that’s their choice. I’m not the kid’s mom.” It’s especially tough when I want them to pay attention to me. What gives me the right to insist that I matter more than the activity on their cell phone screen? Shouldn’t I be able to find non-coercive ways to lead young people into the light?

Of course it’s a balancing act. We have to find ways to be compassionate and loving, without killing our students with kindness. We have to demand excellence and set high expectations, without robbing our students of fun or free time. I think the worst teachers are the ones who pick a position and never examine in, regardless of which extreme they fall into.

But it’s tough. I feel like young people are so very fragile these days, so distracted and overstretched and pressurized and overloaded and filled with worry and pain and desperation. I want to help them in the long term, but I can’t ignore the suffering they’re going through here and now. And I don’t have the option to say “If you don’t like how I teach, you can leave.”

Random Thoughts from a Much Better Thursday

  • Very little has changed in the material reality of my life. Trump is still an atrocious empty suit; I still have mountains of papers to grade; many students are still paralyzed by fragility or lack of confidence. Yet I feel much much better today.
  • Mac Barnett is awesome.
  • Thanks again to friends and family that were willing to help or just put up with me as I dealt yesterday with my occasional swing into depressive terrain. As promised, the pendulum has swung back into the manic.
  • It can be healthy for me to have these occasional episodes, because it gives me a glimpse into the lives of people who suffer from actual depression. It’s not a choice, it’s not a moral failure, it’s not a light switch. Things change, but sometimes they don’t change much or very quickly. At those times we’ve got to be careful that we don’t say or do things that will make the person feel even worse.
  • Granola bars are tasty.
  • I’m tired of being chastised and gaslit by Trump apologists. I work really hard to be open-minded, compassionate, and intellectually honest. People who try to convince me that I’m not — well, haters gonna hate.
  • I’m working on Part Two of my Resisting Oversimplification thing. Maybe I’ll put in some work on it this weekend.
  • Soon I’ll get to do a thing I’ve wanted to do for a while. Yay!
  • I still don’t know if that horrible rumor is true or not and I still have no way to find out. That still sucks.
  • Some students write some really awesome stuff.
  • Today a student asked to read Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity, my favorite book about writing ever. This was the first time a student ever asked to borrow the book, so I’m very happy. I hope they like it.
  • There’s nothing like a slightly-too-small pair of pants to remind you that you should do more sit-ups and eat less stuffed-crust pizza.
  • It’s tough to teach a text you really love. If students don’t love it (or don’t love it enough) then you might take it personally. And it’s not personal.
  • A student just asked to see my copy of The New Jim Crow after I mentioned it in class. There is no better way for a school day to end. We’re done here.

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:

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.

Remembering Antonio

My friend and coworker Antonio Turrubiartes died on Sunday after fighting cancer for many months. He was an academic, a watch-repair specialist, an ESL teacher, and — most recently — the receptionist at our school’s front office.

I bowled with Antonio. If Bowling Alone is a sign of community dissolution, then my time with Antonio on the lanes is a good example of something more than friendship. Like Walter and Donny to The Dude, I got to know this man on the planks. We shot the breeze, discussed current events, and cracked jokes. I met his lovely wife Kathy and got to hang out with his sons outside of school.

Recently I started making a half-hearted attempt to learn Spanish. A native speaker, Antonio used every opportunity to help me — he spit immersive questions at me and waited for a proper rejoinder. He corrected my sentences in a way that no website or textbook can. He was always friendly and positive.

One of my favorite things about Antonio was making a joke that took a moment to sink in, and then watching his face erupt in laughter when he realized what I was getting at. He had a sharp wit that not everyone got to see. I’m lucky for that reason among others.

I taught his son Manny for a few semesters. He has his father’s joyful smile and positive attitude. It’s always interesting to befriend multiple generations of the same family, and it was great to add this layer to my friendship with Antonio. Manny is creative and fun to be around. (I’ve met, but never worked with, his other son Tony. I can tell he shares his father’s best qualities.)

Antonio had an operation this spring, which supposedly removed all the bad stuff. He came back to school for the final days of the semester and I was delighted to hear his voice on the intercom once more. Then, all of a sudden, last week we got an email explaining that his condition had declined rapidly and he was in hospice. He wasn’t accepting visitors, but cards were appreciated.

I was at a coffee shop on State Street when I got the news. I closed my laptop and raced to Room of One’s Own to buy a card. Nothing seemed right; what kind of card is appropriate for that moment? Nothing is right or appropriate about a moment like that. The universe lied to me, dammit. He was beating the disease that took my father when I was in high school. Then it all went wrong.

I spent an hour in the public library, crying into a handkerchief and trying to find words to balance my pain and sadness with the warmth and gratitude I wanted Antonio to feel in this insane moment. Nothing I wrote felt adequate, but it would have to do. I sent it off and I knew that would be the last thing I would ever say to him.

Well, the last thing he’ll hear. For a while. In her essay “Women Like Us”, the Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat says: “Death is a path we take to meet on the other side.” I’m not a religious person, but I really want to believe there’s some kind of afterlife. I want to see my father again. I want to see my college buddy Evan. I want to talk to my Wikipedia friend Awadewit some more. I want to bowl again with Antonio.

You can’t work at a school for 13 years without saying goodbye to lots of people. People retire, students graduate, and things fall apart. Usually when tragedy strikes, it’s someone I don’t know very well. There’s a bond of collegiality and human connectivity of course, but there’s a distance too. You contribute to the memorial fund and sign the card and life goes on.

It’s different when you know the person well. Now I know who ought to be in that chair. I can tell that the voice on the intercom is different, and it’s wrong. I’m sure the new receptionist is — or will be — a lovely person, but it won’t be Antonio’s smile greeting me en español when I check my mail in the morning.

On the flip side, one of the greatest joys of working in a school is watching a person’s impact ripple out among the young people. This week I got to see hundreds of students declare their fondness for Antonio and their condolences for his family. He lives in their lives, and exists within his family.

He lives in me.

Goodbye, Antonio.

(If you can, please donate to his memorial fund. Thank you.)