Why school demographics make me break down in tears.

Right now I am trying, desperately trying, to finalize bullet points for a short presentation I’m giving Thursday on stress and the education system.  Instead of nicely polishing my documents and printing the flyers I’m handing out, I’m sitting here in tears.  Again.  This is not the first time this project has made me sort of lose it.  Thankfully I have waterproof mascara for the day of, because I’m pretty sure I’ll be losing it halfway through the presentation.

Here’s why.  First, you need to know about the ACE study done by Kaiser Permanente.  They were looking for a way to accurately predict the onset of certain chronic conditions that were high-cost to maintain, like diabetes, heart disease, and some kinds of mental illnesses.  They did a survey that covered every aspect of people’s lives.  Work, diet, family life, childhood, education, etc, etc, etc.  What they found was a direct correlation between what they termed “Adverse Childhood Experiences” and people’s health later in life.  Your mother was a drug addict?  Here, have a nice depression and eating disorder!  Your dad beat your mom in front of you?  Would you like a spicy heart disease and obesity with that?  It seemed counter-intuitive, so they conducted more studies to see why there would be a connection like that.  It led to major breakthroughs in how stress affects brain chemistry.  While occasional stress may actually heighten brain function, boost immunity, and help people survive the upsets of life, long-term stress is like a poison that there is no antidote for.  It changes the way the brain functions, killing short-term memory, deadening emotions, and hampering immune function.  This is especially dangerous for young people whose brains are still developing.  Brain scans of a child who experienced abuse at home compared to that of a child raised in a stable environment are just chilling.

So when you look at chronic stress and the educational environment, there are a lot of things to consider.  One is that teachers are more likely to feel forced to have “interventions” (disciplinary action) for students who seem distracted, whose grades are falling, or who are in the system because they have a personal educational plan or there has been law enforcement involvement with their family.  Those students, perhaps ironically, are the ones who are least likely to benefit from disciplinary action.  Why?  Their amygdala is swollen, they have too much adrenaline and cortisol in their system, they are afraid of authority figures and they feel defeated by life.  Rather than stopping negative behaviors, making those students feel on edge is likely to just cause more.  Schools who replace disciplinary interventions with the “compassionate” alternative of simply asking why a student is looking at their phone or not completing work and if they are experiencing any kind of stress find they have far better outcomes.  Of course they would!  If the school environment becomes a combative or stress filled one because of constant discipline or failure or some kind of combination of the two, the student is more likely to fight or freeze than to actually become engaged.

The problem is that teachers are looking at the issue from the perspective of someone who isn’t under constant stress and thinking of how they would respond, not their students.

The school district I will end up working for, in all likelihood, has 75% Hispanic students and 85% of all students receiving free lunches, which means that 85% of the students are in poverty and 75% of students may come from a home where English is not the primary language.  Many of those students have parents who are in back-breaking work situations.  You have 12 year old kids who raise their younger siblings while their parents work.  Kids who have family who have been deported and they’ll never see again.  Kids whose parents are using or selling drugs.  Kids who find school to be incredibly stressful because they are still unable to understand all of what is going on.

When you look at how the schools are doing with meeting learning targets, the outlook is dismal.

Of course it is.

People like to say things like, “the United States gives everyone an opportunity to make something of themselves.”

Mmhm.  But think of what a student can make of themselves if they had a traumatic stress disorder by the time they were 3, if their language development was nipped in the bud and they have been behind the class from day 1, being pushed and pushed by a teacher desperate to make them succeed to save their own job.  Traumatized at home, traumatized at school, doomed for failure from the time of their birth.

Right now these issues are gaining awareness, but they are far from being addressed.

And I’m going to give a short talk on it for the final in my Critical Race Theory class, because I’m a sap. I’m a sap who’ll break down in tears.

We like to say we’re past all of this, that latinos and blacks and everybodies are all equal in our society, while we walk around blissfully unaware of the privileges some people have just because they were born into stable homes.

But in all reality?  We’re all cursed.  You know that ACE study, that was trying to figure out how insurance companies could save more money?  Most of the participants were white men in their 40s and 50s.

It’s a big boat, folks.  We need to start acting like we’re in it together.

The ruins of the garden

My garden is in ruins.  The soil here is poorer than I expected.  Next year it’ll be truckloads of manure and wood chips, trying to get a little less sandy of a texture in the soil, better water retention and better quality.  Right now everything is dying, between the heat and how quickly the soil dries.  Not that the garden ever produced as much as I’d hoped, anyway.  We only got a few pounds of tomatoes off of most of the plants, It was a serious disappointment.  Part of me is bitter.  I put in all of that work for what?  Some spaghetti squash and green beans (the only things that seemed to produce with any kind of fervency.)  I feel cheated.  Cheated!

I look at the ruins of the garden, my little kingdom, dying off bit by bit like the Roman Empire.

I grumble and curse.

Then I remember that I have learned so much.  I’ve learned about gardening in the Steppe, which is so very different from gardening in the Midwest.  I’ve learned about what kinds of things I can expect to flourish here (beans, squash, corn, hardy tomatoes) and what I can expect to wither and die at the first sign of summer heat (peas and lettuce will never do well here, spinach has a short but boisterous growing season).  I have learned to water in the early hours of the morning.  I’ve learned to bury my compost to keep the neighbor dogs out of it.  I’ve learned that the stakes and tomato cages that worked in the Midwest WILL warp and give way here.  I’ve learned that I can start my seeds indoors even earlier than I expected, and that when I plant I need to cover EVERYTHING EXCESSIVELY will bird netting.  EXCESSIVELY.  My melons produced nada, nothing, zip.  But it is because the birds stole the shoots and I had to replant 12 weeks after the original seeds had germinated- those 12 weeks stole my chance at fruit.  Next year I will not let that happen.  I’ll keep my tomatoes indoor longer and force germinate them to start out with, and I will stake those puppies in hand knotted hammocks nailed to two-by-fours.  They will NOT have half their fruit rotting from being on the hot soil.  I’ll plant a lot more eggplant so I see a better chance at getting some fruit off them.  I’ll fall in love with more varieties of beans.

The garden next year will be bigger.  Bigger.  A better chance of enough of it surviving my learning curve, a better chance at produce.

Yesterday I was talking to a classmate who confessed to feeling like she’d started out this school year behind.  “I’m failing at everything!” She was gritting her teeth in exasperation.

“You need to give yourself permission to fail,” I said, commiserating.  “Accept where you are now so you can move on from it.  Accept, and keep fighting.  Don’t despise yourself and give up.”  Our teacher, eavesdropping rather obviously, had a knowing smile.

Ah, yes.  Yes.  I realized just seconds later that I was speaking to myself, too.

I need to accept where my garden is right now, accept the lessons it has taught me, and move on.  I need to plan for success and accept the failures and just keep going.

Because that is life.  Bitterness that life has cheated us is just thinly disguised rejection of the true gifts it has to offer.

Having God say, “Hells to the No,” is an answer to prayer, too.

And brown, withering corn produces the wisdom to plant it lower in the ground next year, where the water will pool better around the roots.

Scrawny, underproductive melon vines produce the knowledge to plant them where they have room to spread.

It all matters, even the failures.

Sometimes, especially the failures.

Sometimes the biggest learning comes in the ruins.

Your feet aren’t the same size as mine.

So I’ve been thinking lately about the whole idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.  It all started during a more or less innocent conversation.  I was talking about canning and gardening and how I always seem to overshoot things, and my mom made a comment about how she remembers those days.  I almost immediately wanted to say, “I’m not you!”

I’m glad I bit my tongue, because on further reflection I can see how from her point of view, we are the same.

But then, I’m not.

We’ve traveled some of the same old dirt roads.  I’ve relived many of her experiences.  If life were walking mountain trails it would be safe to say that she and I have seen the same panoramic views.  But we haven’t walked all of the trails the same, and I couldn’t ever walk a mile in her shoes (or she in mine) because our feet just aren’t quite the same size.

This is true of so many people.  We like to take our experiences and all the knowledge we’ve gained from them and just thrust all of that onto others, forgetting that our experiences are a product of who we are, and the knowledge they give us is personal. Are there some experiences that are universal?  Sure.  It’s always good advice, for instance, to tell people to lay down hoes and shovels blade side down or hang them up.  (Step on the blade and get smacked in the face just once, and you’ll realize that this is a universally crappy experience.)  I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t benefit from being reminded to always look over your shoulder before putting a car in reverse, or always cover the coals before bed when camping.  Sure, those are mistakes that no one, regardless of their perspective, would want to make.  The potential danger is just too great.  It doesn’t matter whose shoes you are wearing, you want to avoid potential damage.

But then there are the more vague adages, and the more personal experiences. Someone may say, “never get married young, trust me, you aren’t ready.”  Then someone else says, “have your kids in your twenties, you’ll enjoy them more that way.”

Whose advice do you take?

One man says, “leaving the homosexual lifestyle helped me avoid so much pain,” and a woman turns to him and says, “it wasn’t until I accepted my sexuality that I experienced true love and devotion.”

Their shoes couldn’t fit more differently.

And my mom makes a harmless comment to me, full of love and nostalgia and regret, and I have to accept the fact that whatever pain in  life she wants to help me avoid, it’s my pain to feel, and we may find it fits us very differently.  Like that last purple sun dress on the sale rack that we both try on and size each other up in, we may find that even though we are so alarmingly similar, it fits one of us better than the other, and we both know it.

You can’t just walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and understand their life.  You have to take all of the context into account:  who they are, how they feel, how they’ve interpreted their experiences, what they want from the future, what lessons life has given them so far and what they’ve learned from it, and if they are even remotely like you.

You can’t just borrow their shoes.  You have to walk in the essence and understanding of who they are.

You can’t shove your biases into their loafers and then say, “see, I can really rock a mile in these suckers.”

Your feet aren’t even the same size.

The only person capable of walking a mile in their body in their shoes is they themselves, excepting God.  (And we all know the trouble that comes from thinking that we can be God.)

So let’s leave all this business of shoes behind, and change the conversation.  Don’t retort, as I was so sorely tempted to, that nobody knows your life.  Say, “this is my life.  Now show me yours.”


Musings on Determination

So a few very short weeks ago, my daughter decided on the spur of the moment that she really needed a frog.  She found an old aquarium in the shed, got it cleaned up, and announced that she was saving up money.  I looked at her allowance jar, which was crammed full of crumpled dollar bills, and told her that she already had enough money.  Aquatic frogs are $2, food for them is $2 more, and she had money to spare.  Mission accomplished.

While we were at the store, she happened to spot a chameleon.  A new obsession was formed before we were even back out in the car.  Princess says, “MOM.  I want a chameleon.  Bad.”

I turn to her father, thinking, “what do I say?”  He is clearly looking at me and thinking the same.  I say, “well, maybe if you saved up money we could buy a terrarium for your birthday…?”  My husband nods, and I think, “Oh thank God we dodged a bullet.”  It had taken her a few months to put back fifty cents here and fifty cents there and finally have enough money to want to buy anything.  How long would it take before she wanted to buy a few candy bars, or a new book, and decided that saving up the money for a chameleon was just too much work?

But, no.  Princess was googling things like “what does a chameleon eat?” and “what does a chameleon live in?” and pretty soon “how to raise mealworms” and “good plants for a chameleon” and she was drawing up diagrams and randomly announcing things like “WE WILL NEED TO BUY MORE PLANTS” and “FLOWERS ARE OKAY”.  And one day a couple of different terrariums were in my Amazon shopping cart and she was announcing, “I’ll need the one that costs more than one hundred dollars I think.”

So I sat down and explained to her that even cutting her grandpa’s roses for five dollars every week, she would just barely make enough money to buy the chameleon, and there were limits to what her dad and I could afford to spend.  If she wanted that terrarium, she would need to make a little more money.  She said, “I want my Chameleon for the fourth of July.”

Oh, sweetheart.  Oh, you darling naive girl.  I explained to her that such a thing meant making a whole lot of money in just a few weeks.  “Mom, have you ever needed to make a whole lot of money in just a few weeks?”

Oh, sure, I used to make and sell jewelry.  Once I wrote a book.

Princess very matter-of-factly replies that she doesn’t want to write a book, but I should see if any of my friends need new jewelry.  “I’m good at making jewelry.”

This is true, she’s good at making jewelry.

So Princess started asking who needed jewelry, and in a few days she had $30 dollars.  Then she had $100.  I told my husband we should start thinking about how we were coming up with our share of the money.  “If she wants it before her birthday she needs to figure out how to pay for it.”

God help us, I thought, she’s only eight.  But I guess we all need to learn hard lessons somehow.

Never mind.  By the end of two weeks she had enough orders to buy the Super-Mega-Terrarium-Of-Awesome-Proportions, we were just waiting for checks to come in.  Then she threw a curveball, and spent a third of her money on making Super Expensive Necklaces for her grandmothers.  Oh, Princess.  It wasn’t a big deal, she said, she could still make more money.

And she did.

I tell you that whole story to tell you something else:  no one told her that she was just eight.  She didn’t realize eight-year-old girls don’t buy themselves $50 dollar lizards that come needing $100 terrariums and another $100 in accouterments.   She set a goal for herself, and heaven provide for anyone that didn’t buck up and get in line.  (Including her mother, who had to take her to the bead store every morning and do the finishing on freak-ton of necklaces and address twenty envelopes and make payment arrangements and keep the books.  All of this as Priority One on Princess’s daily “to-do” lists, above even breakfast.*)  She set her goal, and then she looked at the world around her and tried to figure out what she had available so she could meet it.

She didn’t look at the world around her before setting her goal.

She didn’t ask anyone’s opinion of if her goal even made sense.

See, I realize there are times I did things backwards.  I asked people if my goals made sense, then I looked at the world around me, and I decided I needed different goals.  I didn’t ask myself how much my goals mattered and then mangle reality to my will.

I’ve decided that I’m going to hold off on explaining to Princess that she’s still a little kid and sometimes she can’t make the world give her what she wants.  May that be true, sometimes?  I suppose it must, eventually,  it is when she wants to sneak out of bed and get chocolate ice cream, or when she wants to force her brother to wear a princess outfit so she can be Iron Man for once.  I mean, it’s true as often as it needs to be.  But about the other stuff, the stuff that has to do with her dreams, does it need to be true?  I’m guessing if I don’t kill her optimism it will be less often than I think, even if it’s more often than she wants.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t want to break her.

I need to figure out how it is that she does it.



*There are limits.  I did eat breakfast first.

mistakes can be wonderful

You know how people say, “you have to walk before you can run”?  Before you walk, you have to fall on your butt.  A lot.  This is something that I’ve written about before, but usually in the context of art.  Before you paint the Sistine Chapel, you’re going to have to paint a lot of duds.  Yet, art isn’t the only place where that rule applies.  It applies in life as a whole.  Sometimes in order to learn how to be a good parent you have to realize the areas where you’ve been a bad one.  Sometimes to learn how to be a good employee you have to make mistakes and learn why and how not to make them again in the future.  To learn how to study well you have to, at times, fail at studying.  It’s a process, a long and complicated process we get started in from birth.  Trial and error, trial and error.  How do babies learn how to talk?  How to get what they need?  How to get from A to B?  How to get food into their mouths?  How to get a reaction from Mom and Dad?  Trial and error, trial and error.  Trying everything until they find the one thing that works.  Trying what they know and making mistakes, making mistakes, growing and perfecting.

We have to make mistakes.  We have to give ourselves permission to make mistakes, and we have to give others the right and choice to do the same.  One of the things that has always bothered me the most about living with other Christians is the fact that you inevitably have that one person who thinks they know how to keep everyone else from messing up their lives.  Talking to that person can sometimes start to sound like instant replay.  “Why did Jane do that?  That was such a mistake.  Oh, Bill, you really shouldn’t do that.  That would be bad.  And what was she thinking?  Why would he do that?  If only someone would listen to me.”

Well, they shouldn’t.  God created them to be a self-directed person, and you’re trying to steal their direction.  You’re trying to steal their choices.  Even if their choice is wrong, clearly wrong, spelled out in the Bible wrong, their choice is their gift from their creator.  And they need to make it.  If they never make their own choice, their own mistakes, how will they learn to listen to their conscience?  If they try to avoid mistakes by listening to others all they are learning is to trust your voice more than the one God put inside of them.

“But what if they keep sinning until the day they die?”

That question tells me several things.  First:  It tells me you don’t trust other people, which is sad.  Other people are God’s creation and he made them to do good works.  You need to trust that his creation is good, because he said that it was good and he doesn’t lie.  Second, it tells me that you don’t trust God.  You don’t trust that the things he made are good and you don’t trust that he is powerful and capable of ministering to those who seek his ways.  If someone is seeking to follow him and make right choices, then he will be there for them.  Third, it tells me that you may be confused about your role.  It isn’t your role to convict other people in their sins.  Yes, if you see someone reaching for a hot burner, warn them.  But unless they are a toddler don’t pull their hand away.  It’s their hand, and they have the right to burn it.  If you warn them and they get burnt they will receive conviction that you told the truth.  (Trust me.)

Even when it’s not sin, respect the fact that people can and must and will make mistakes.  They will marry the “wrong” person, they will have kids too young, they will go to the wrong school, they will accept the wrong job offer, they will dye their hair an awful color, they will wear clothes that embarrass them, they will flirt badly, they will watch horrible television, they will eat food that is awful for them, they will read bad books and tawdry magazines, they’ll invest in the wrong places, they’ll forget to save for retirement, they’ll party instead of studying, they’ll waste time on Facebook, and they’ll pay too much for cable television.  They’ll make any manner of mistakes.

Because it’s an expression of their humanity.  An expression of their journey to figure out how to live their lives.  A journey that God breathed into them and created them for.  A journey that in all of it’s ups and downs and mistakes was designed for his honor, because every time we recognize our own frailty we come closer to trusting in him and searching for his voice and call.

So make your mistakes, and I’ll make mine.  We’ll change and grow.  And if you have a friend who is about to make a grave mistake, by all means, say, “hey!  That’s a hot stove there,” and then back away.  Because maybe part of their story is being burnt, or maybe it isn’t.  But you’ll never know unless you let them live their story, and stay their friend long enough to hear it told.

Bloggy Potpourri

So today is my birthday.  Today is also the start of my first full week sans classes until January, which means my brain is actually functional in terms of personal thoughts instead of just school, kids, dinner, school like it seems to be during classes.  I have so many things I want to write about and can’t seem to keep a thought straight, so I’m just going to put it all out there, potpourri style.
* * *

I’ve changed my major.  I’m going to be entering into a teaching certification program next fall, where I’ll be studying English, Literature, and Language Arts with a focus on High School/Secondary education.  I’m going to… teach.  It’s a long way away from social work in some ways and only a short hop in others.  I had this realization that without language we really have nothing.  Without language people can’t grow, can’t succeed, can’t understand.  So I want to give people language.  That’s all I want to do.
* * *

On TV shows people always seem to see turning 30 as some sort of tragic event that has to be denied.  I’m turning 30.  My first reaction?  Thank God.  I’ve learned a lot.  I earned another year under my belt.
* * *

Newtown.  It’s this immense tragedy that I don’t have words for.  People react in anger, they react in demands, they react in grief.  People also react in love, and I think that gets overlooked.  So many people shared words and prayers, tried to find ways to send support.  I saw far more of that then I saw people talking about guns or prayer in school or God’s judgment on an unholy nation.  The love is so strong, the grief so sincere, the prayers so honest.  If you remember anything from this tragedy, remember that.  Please.

* * *

I want to write a poem.
* * *

I’m going to get back on the horse with regards to Ravens.  Really.  I’ve already started writing it again, and I made a promise to myself not to just abandon it.  One of my personal goals for the next year of my life is to be more intentional with the goals I set for myself and plan ahead for how I’m going to meet them.  I’ve always been good at that in SOME areas of my life, but other areas have really suffered, and blogging always seems like the first to go.  That’s a real tragedy because blogging has given me some really incredible gifts, and I don’t want to take that for granted.
* * *

Wreck It Ralph was a great movie.  I want to see it again.
* * *

Not so sure about the Hobbit.  I haven’t seen it yet.  I’ve seen mixed reviews though, and that book was my first love.  You know how sometimes you see a crush all grown up and you hate it, and want to forget that they got chubby and their hair was different and they’d suddenly become an obscene jerk?  I don’t want that to happen to the Hobbit.  No, no, no…

* * *

I could compare you to a winter’s night/

you are colder and far more treacherous.

(No, not YOU.)

If you want the whole poem, buy this book.

* * *

Oh, I, uh, wrote a book.

* * *

I’m currently editing and expanding Honest Conversations and plan to re-release it later this month, a sort of Christmas Present to myself.  It’s like moving back home, or like…  I don’t know, eating apple pie.  Comforting, but also a little strange.  Like chatting with an old friend but knowing that there are all of these years in between you, even if their voice still sounds the same.  I would say like falling back in love, except it’s not that sentimental.  It just is.

* * *

How is it that EVERY TIME I make cookies I’m wearing a black t-shirt and flour myself?  Every.  Single.  Time.

* * *

Sex and bacon.  (God wants us to be happy, folks.  He really, really does.)

* * *

God also wants us to learn self-control.  Those two things always seem to go hand and hand.

* * *

We’ll call it a day.  I miss you all.  I promise to write at least once a month.

“Well, I’ll never make THAT mistake again!”

I’ve said that line a lot.  Like the time I forgot to check the latch on my back door, and while I was folding laundry I heard a knock- my neighbor coming to tell me that my 20 month old son was wandering around the back yard alone.  My heart stopped beating while I checked every inch of his body to be sure he was okay (a process he found hilarious) and then as soon as I could calm myself down I laughingly said to my neighbor “I can’t believe I would do that.  There’s no excuse.  But at least that’s one mistake I’ll never make again.”

A mother herself, she nodded knowingly.  And she replied, “That’s the good thing about mistakes.  You learn from them.”

Like the time I wanted to add cinnamon to a recipe, and seeing red powder I didn’t really even look at the label.  Imagine my surprise when my spice cake had cayenne pepper as the primary flavor!  Or the time I put bread under the broiler and then went into the other room to fetch something without setting a timer.  Someone came to the door and I forgot about the bread until I smelled it charring.  Or there’s the time I put pizza back in a warm oven for my husband, and we both forgot about it until the next time I needed to bake something.  I started the oven preheating, smelled something strange…  Well, I’ll never do THAT again!

There are more serious times- like the time I was twelve and at a new school where I had few friends.  A gaggle of girls started talking badly about my mormon friend, how weird her clothes were and how annoying it was when she started getting “preachy”, how odd it was that she had such a huge family (she was on the lower middle end of seven kids from eighteen to four), and on, and on.  Desperate to be accepted I joined in the conversation, just to turn around and see my only true friend crying in the doorway.

Lesson learned.  I will NEVER again say something I don’t believe only to gain acceptance or approval.  Our words all carry power and a price.  But out of all of the bad I’ve done, to meals and to people, some good has come out of it.  Because all of these mistakes I’ve turned into something positive.  An opportunity to learn and grow and mold myself.  As much pain as some mistakes may cause, like the pain I caused to my friend Faith, if we are willing to admit our shortsightedness, if we are willing to be humbled and broken and to ask for the world (or our own mouths) to forgive us, we can grow.  We can learn.  We can be better.

As bad as a mistake can be, we can always choose to never make it again.