Passing for Middle Class

After  my last post, a friend sent me a link to this piece on the Huffington Post, in which a woman so eloquently explains some of the reason why poor people make “bad” choices and how hard it is to pass for middle class.  I can say from my own experience that the mentality that Linda Tirado writes about in that article is precisely what plagues so many families that live on the edge of homelessness.  The biggest barrier for many of them, aside from the lack of money, was the fact that they were perceived of as poor.

Oh, come on, you might say.  “Lindsey, they were homeless!  What else were they supposed to be perceived as?”

I can remember one time where a guest of ours was on the phone talking to a collection agency.  With the snap of a finger the way she was sitting in her chair changed.  Her voice became silky-smooth and her diction even changed.  She sounded perfectly middle class.  She thanked the collection officer profusely for his patience and understanding while she worked out her “momentary problems” and promised to get back in touch.  After she hung up the phone, her boyfriend asked her how it went and she said, “We’re never paying that f&^%ing moron.”

But, for just long enough to get the collection agency off her back, she’d passed for middle class.  I’d talk more to her later about why exactly she didn’t work harder to look and talk the way middle class people did if she clearly understood how it worked.  She’d laugh it off and say that it wouldn’t make a difference in the long run.  “I can pretend to get what I need,” she said, “but I don’t want that to be who I am.”

I write about that story because it’s something that niggles in the back of my mind.  It’s one thing for me to walk and talk middle class while being poor, because my family is middle class and poverty for me is a transitional period.  We weren’t always this poor, and we won’t always be.  We’re recession-poor.  For other people, who were born poor and feel that they will die for, passing for middle class feels more like a betrayal.  It is, to put it simply, pretending to be something that society continually tells you that you are not.

I had a weird moment the other day. I was closing the gate behind me after driving into my drive.  Instead of wearing the ripped jeans, battered sneakers, and badly stained t-shirts that I normally wear around the house, I was wearing my work slacks, my hair was pinned up, my makeup was on and my school ID badge was pinned to my tie.  My neighbor was out working on his car.  Normally I get a “nice day” or “what’s going on?” from him, but in that moment he said, “g’day, ma’am”, and I had to blush.  He blushed too, and said, “you’re like professional, it’s a reflex.”

Right, because I deserve deference in the moment I pass for middle class, instead of just being the girl next door who shares gardening advice and whose kids constantly kick their ball into his yard.  I felt more respected by him when he was joking about my nice melons.

Respect for the middle class is so deeply engraved into the way that people in poverty think.  It’s a respect for the persona, the clothes, the air of competency which you never feel you can pull off when you’re changing your own oil or struggling to just, you know, get through another bitter day.

And the backhand of the respect for the middle class, of course, is the fact that when you are in poverty you feel beholden, like a burden, less than.  Like a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs you “ma’am” the world and then hope to go unnoticed, because the thought of another patent-leather loafer kicking you in the face is never far away.  You feel loyalty to everyone else who runs in your pack and you feel as if you are betraying everything, even your own morals, by being anything else.

Desire to make it is always bitterly paired with resentment, and this clinging need to want to remain exactly as you are and still be loved.

Poor people lack integrity?

Often times, I’ll look back on my day  of work and feel like I’m just so insanely lucky to have my job.  But sometimes, just sometimes, I have more of a “WTF?!?!” feeling about my job.  Today is a “WTF, JOB” day, but only because of one writer.  She had a sort of rambling-incoherent essay about integrity and society which she had worked really hard to make more organized.  We tip-toed through it talking about the places where she didn’t have enough evidence to stake her claims and how she could have more of a central focus.  Inasmuch as that is concerned, she wasn’t so different from any other student.

No, what turned my stomach was in her conclusion, where she was talking about how society seems to reward bad behavior, and she threw in an aside about how lazy people are rewarded with food stamps and WIC.  Her teacher had written, in the margin, “lazy children and babies?”, a sentiment which I reflexively backed.  The student responded that she wasn’t really sure why her teacher had made that comment, and then flipped the paper over to show me a bit of a rant that said teacher had made about the working poor, which asked rather bluntly, “if a single mom works two part time jobs and still needs WIC & food stamps, how many jobs should she get?”

So the student and I talked briefly about the plight of the working poor, and I told her that if she wanted to make the argument that society rewards bad behavior she’d have to get another example, “if not because you understand what I’m saying, because your teacher clearly doesn’t think your argument is sound.”

I asked her if she thought that bankers who sold toxic mortgages being rewarded with cushy early retirement deals while the government bailed out their companies was a good example of what she meant.


I explained again.  “Do you think that they acted without integrity and were rewarded?”

The student blinked slowly.  “I don’t know.  What are you even talking about?  That’s not like, you know, a real thing that happened.”

I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears.  “Yes, yes it is.  Please google ‘toxic mortgage’ and read the news articles that come up.  It happened a few years ago but we still feel the effects of it today.  You’re younger than me, but you were old enough to be paying attention to the news during the recession…”

“It wasn’t, like, a real recession.”

“My family moved from Indiana to Yakima because there were no jobs.  Like, no jobs.  There was a place that was hiring twenty people and three thousand people applied.  If that isn’t a real recession, I don’t know what is.”

“But it was like not the bankers fault,” the girl said, “if it really was…”

“Please, just look it up,” I said, thinking that it sure as hell wasn’t the fault of babies on WIC.

But it left me feeling incredibly unsettled, this reflexive hatred towards poor people.  Only slightly less unsettling was the defensive trust of the rich.  Yet, what stuck with me was the instinctive way that she equated being poor with having no integrity, without flinching, assuming without having anything to base her argument on that anyone reading it would agree.  As if the final nail in the coffin when arguing that today’s society has lost its moral compass would be the fact that we feed babies and children whose parents cannot get by.

I don’t know, perhaps this is another sign of my own biases getting in the way of my better judgment, as I almost instantly wanted to tap out of the consultation and take up smoking just to burn off the stress.  Yet I cannot, even now, nine hours later, easily shake the sourness in my stomach and get on with life.  How is it that there is an entire population of our country that equate poverty with sin just as simply as I equate the sky with the color blue?  Yet, there is evidence that the sky is blue every day.

What, exactly, is the evidence that poor people are bad?

Where does that message even come from?

I would think that if you were going to write a essay about the duplicitous nature of our society, the better argument would be the fact that our government is more prone to cut food stamps than they are to cut subsidies to corporations, and that human life holds less sacredness than capitalism.

Yet, from the look in that girl’s eyes, I’m the one who isn’t really in touch with reality.


Honestly, I’m not sure that reality is something I want to get my hands on these days.

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.

Societal oppression, dish soap, and knives.

The last few weeks I’ve been working on an essay project that has to do with societal oppression and the Bible.  (I’ll post the full text at some point.)  Of course throughout the whole thing I find myself ruminating about the families in poverty I work with.  Couple this with ongoing political debates about the Affordable Care Act, and I’ve felt like an emotional cocktail for the last month.  Of course, emotional cocktail means blog post eventually, because why feel and think about all of this stuff if not to lay it at your ever-patient feet?

The first thing I was thinking about was dish soap.  For the average family, dish soap is something you use to wash dishes.  You know you’re poor when you realize it also cleans floors, can be used as a body wash in a pinch (but not your privates- that stings), as a laundry detergent, to clean floors, and to bathe puppies.  Oh, yes.  When I was working at the shelter, we used to have families that didn’t like the Tide detergent we provided for free (for use in a High Efficiency front loading washer) and would use dish soap instead.  The first time I had to mop several gallons of soapy water off the floor because the seal started to leak I thought it was mildly amusing.  The fifth time, I was spitting angry and already knew to wipe the seal down with baking soda first, then with canola oil, then to run canola oil and baking soda through the dispenser to kill the suds.

The dish soap would leak out from the shower, too.

Dish soap is only the first thing which people in extreme poverty have special knowledge about.  The other is knives.  Not hunting knives.  Kitchen knives.  Did you know that if you don’t have kitchen scissors, steak knives work well on cardboard and tearing open freezer bags?  They do.  And a thin fillet knife is just the thing for opening a can of beans if you don’t have a can opener.  I, personally, wouldn’t have realized that a can opener is a luxury.  But yet I cannot tell you how many times I was supervising lunch prep and someone went at a can with a fillet knife before I even knew what had happened.  It didn’t occur to them that we would have a can opener, they didn’t even know what one looked like.

The normal person is blissfully unaware that there are everyday habits we engage in as members of the middle class that people in poverty do not know because they’ve never had the opportunity to engage with them.  Our clothes washers need fussy soap.  We have kitchen utensils which only have one purpose.  Some people have ten, fifteen things in their kitchen that can only be used for one thingIf you have to pick pennies out of your couch to scrape together the money to ride the bus to work, you do not own single-use utensils unless someone else bought them for you.  Garlic crusher?  Fuh.  No.  Juicer?  What the…? No.  Cappuccino machine?  It is to laugh.

It’s interesting to me when people disparage the poor, saying things like they aren’t smart enough to be rich.  Sorry, buddy, you ain’t smart enough to be poor.  The people who stayed at the shelter had MAD skills.  They memorized bus schedules, they knew who gave what away on what day and what thrift stores dependably had what kind of stuff.  “Don’t go to Salvation Army for kids clothes, they never have any.  This store drops prices towards the end of the month.  Go there in the evening, sometimes you catch that store right when they are throwing out the day old bread and it’s still good for a while…”  And on, and on.  Repositories of knowledge that people with cash in their pockets simply don’t ever need.

And the middle class has it’s own rules.  Knowing what is good debt and what is bad.  Knowing what the hell a Roth IRA is and why you would want one.  Knowing where to get secondhand clothes with good labels and what stores discount what clothes in what season.  Learning those skills can be the hardest part of transitioning to a new class.  The quiet judgment of the women who wonder why you got your kids clothes there.  The panic the first time someone asks you to bring a cold plate for brunch.  (Why does the plate have to be cold?  What do you put on it?  If you go into Kroger and ask for a cold plate will they know what it is?)  There are a million things that people take for granted as a part of their lives, as common knowledge, simply because it’s what they grew up with.  And asking?  Asking is the worst kind of shame because it tells the world that you don’t really belong.  If you belonged, you would know.

They say that there is always someone richer.  You tell someone who makes $60,000 that they aren’t too bad off and they’ll point to the person who makes $100,000.  Tell that person they are doing really well and they’ll point to the person who makes $200,000.  Tell that person they are really quite fortunate and they’ll point to the millionaire, who points to the multi-millionaire, who points to Bill Gates, who I’m sure is jealous of someone.

When you’ve got a family of five and you feel lucky to break $30,000, everyone is rich.

When you’re homeless, anyone with a roof of their own is a lucky bastard.

We all have things we take for granted that we shouldn’t.

But the thing that bothers me the most right now?  Last week I washed a few loads of laundry in dish soap and baking soda, because I had made buying my kids warm clothes for winter a priority.  And in the midst of all the political arguments, I kept wanting to tell people I just couldn’t listen to them because they didn’t know about dish soap and knives.

What they picture as poor doesn’t reflect the effort and knowledge and work that goes into being poor.  Food stamps will keep you fed, if you’re smart about how you use them, but they won’t keep you from scrubbing your rump with dish soap when you run out of body wash.

It won’t keep you from opening the can of beans with a knife.

It won’t keep you from shaking out the couch cushions for the money to ride the bus.

It won’t let you take a single thing for granted, like the majority of this country does every day.

Why don’t the poor just get jobs?

No matter what you are debating, when it comes to talking about socioeconomic status, inevitably there will be that one voice of someone saying,

“Well, isn’t it their fault they are poor?”

There are so many different perspectives that can answer that question, and for some reason today I feel like laying out some of them.

  1. Poverty plays a role in society; as long as society functions off of the same rules that govern it, poverty will continue.  This is the most straightforward, and perhaps the most harrowing answer to that question.  The honest truth is that there are a whole lot of jobs out there that require part time, seasonal, or unpredictably changing work hours.  Those jobs have to be filled by someone, and the likelihood that they would be filled by someone independently wealthy who simply happens to like picking strawberries, assembling children’s toys, flipping burgers or making farm equipment is really low.  So there are a number of systems in place to reinforce those jobs getting filled by people who honestly have no other choice, because society depends on them being there.  Our educational system self-selects for people who can get ahead and can’t, quietly reinforcing that.  Our legal system sets up safeguards to prevent some people getting on in society.  (Insuring there will always be work-release workers on those factory floors.)  There are tacit rules to each class that cannot be broken or communicated, insuring that someone born poor is fated to stay that way (with little exceptions, usually brokered by someone being willing to cross class lines, like a schoolteacher), and so on.  You can hardly blame the poor for filling the role in society which society has proscribed for them.  But, I have to admit, it certainly does make a fun pastime on Facebook and can boost your self-esteem, so if you really want to blame the poor there’s nothing stopping you other than the truth.
  2. The educational system selects some kids for failure.  It sucks, but it’s true.  Teacher’s expectations of children pay a huge role in how successful those children are, and it starts on day one.  There are so many different classroom behaviors that tacitly reinforce certain rules and expectations, and while a teacher may believe they are giving a child what that child needs what they may really be doing is reinforcing a standard that grooms that child to be good for nothing other than the service sector or failure.  Studies have shown that when a teacher is told that a child is poor performing, or is expected to perform poorly, that child inevitably does badly.  When a teacher is told a child is high performing that child performs well.  This principle is true regardless of the child’s history of performance, and is based solely off of the teacher’s opinion.  So what happens when a teacher knows a child comes from an impoverished family and the parents are illiterate?  The system selects the child for the same fate.  “Oh,” the counter-cry inevitably comes, “so I might feel bad for little kids, but once you are an adult…”  Yes, sure.  And I know many semi-illiterate adults who are in college trying to get ahead.  They’ll have to go to school for several more years than the kids who were selected for success, and they still have to deal with instructors low expectations because of that fact.  I’m all for addressing personal responsibility, but personal responsibility doesn’t absolve society of it’s obligations when society is actively damaging people.
  3. It can take several years to get out of poverty, and sometimes families are borderline for an entire generation.  Of course we all are familiar with the talking point that government aid should be capped, limited, and offered for only a short period of time.  But if a family could be borderline impoverished for the lifetime of the parent in order to provide for the opportunities of the child- and even then it may take the child a few years to be considered solidly middle class.  The idea that all a family needs is one parent working two jobs for a little while is unreasonable.  After all, cars break down.  People get chronic illnesses.  There are legal problems.  Houses burn down.  Families are forced to move.  The economic instability of the poor goes far deeper than just the amount of money coming in.  There is a culture there, how the money gets used, how poor communities work together, how emergencies are handled- and breaking out of poverty is addressing the entire culture.  The idea that help is only needed for a short amount of time is looking at the problem from an upper class point of view.  As in, “if I need money to get by, I can work more for a little while.”  That is disingenuous.  To address poverty, as someone impoverished what all would have to change for them to have a new economic status.  Trust me, it will blow your mind, because you have never had to think of everything that factors into the class you are in.  Why should you?  Yet, it is way more than what six months of benefits can provide.

Poverty is a fact in our society.  It is part of how our economy functions, and while some individuals may give the appearance of having chosen it, the fact that poverty exists is not due to the choice of any individual person.

For the Love of God, Be Kind.

I don’t even know where to start.  Today has been such a strange, emotional day.  Five things happened more or less simultaneously, each of them affecting me in curious ways.  I watched the latest episode of Breaking Bad with my husband, we went out shopping and had lunch (a treat we rarely indulge in), we helped a random stranger take home some furniture from the Salvation Army, I read a snarky news piece on the latest Miss America, and I felt knocked over by the news of another mass shooting.

All of these things within a few hours, and all of them heavily emotional for very different reasons.

To start out with, I love my husband.  I’ve always cared about him, and wanted him to be successful and happy for a variety of reasons,   But it’s been a while since I’ve felt like this is a guy I can spend a pleasant afternoon beside.  No, I should rephrase that, the fact that I enjoy spending time with him has been creeping up on me, and for whatever reason today it stood out.  This is someone who I enjoy spending time with.  A year ago I was uncertain I would ever say those words again, and even less certain that they would ever be thought about me in return.  The realization that we are behaving like friends is so bittersweet, because a very small and mean part of me wants to throttle my husband and remind him of all the damage between us.  Yet, that part of me is squashed under the warm fuzziness of not having to think about such rage on a daily basis.

Ironically I owe the fact that realization in part to Breaking Bad, a show which most certainly does not center around Good Old-Fashioned Family Values.  Yet watching the show together, debating it, surprising each other with well-thought out arguments and philosophical meanderings about the writer’s motivations has really helped us to remember what made us friends in the first place.  We can talk about things:  both the things that matter to us, and the things that interest us.  It’s the fighting about things that gets us into trouble, that distracts us from the talking.  If we can remember to talk to each other: not communicate about our wants and needs ad nauseum but just to TALK to each other, we might be okay.

Never downplay the importance of entertainment.  It gives us all something to talk about with joy and excitement in our hearts.  That really isn’t a bad thing.

But back to today.  We really need something to use as a stand for our daughter’s big terrarium.  It’s too big to sit on the piano, so to upgrade the Lizard’s habitat we need something that is, well, huge.  We’ll have to rearrange everything.  We went to the Salvation Army on the hope that we may find something used to re-purpose but it was to no avail.  Oh well, we contented ourselves with stacks of used books for 50 cents a pop, and I got a new pair of pants and a new pair of boots.  It was pleasant.

While in the checkout lane we were behind a kind of hard-core grandma, who was buying a lot of stuff.  She seemed agitated.  I asked her if she was alright and she lit up and asked excitedly if we happened to have a truck.  “Why do you ask?”  She’d just bought a coffee table  but couldn’t get anyone to agree to help her home with it.  “It’s not far,” she said, “I’ll buy your things if you could help me out.”  We decided to help her out but refused her money.  It was an interesting ride.  She was so passionate about antiques and she had so much knowledge she was so eager to share, even showing us around her apartment and talking about the statues and paintings there.  She was so full of piss and vinegar and just on fire about everything, it was so fascinating.  As we were leaving, she thanked us for helping an old woman out.  I told her age happens to everyone, we’ve all got to be kind.  She laughed and said, “oh, sweetie, age ain’t gonna happen to you for a while.”

Maybe so, but it helps to remember our shared humanity.

Then, the shooting.  It seemed bizarre and surreal that with all of the news I’m exposed to on a daily basis, it took so long for that to trickle through.  People don’t even sound shocked and horrified, anymore, just resigned.  “Another shooting, only 12 dead.”

Only 12 dead.

ONLY 12.

It makes me sick to my stomach to realize the collective apathy that is beginning to set in, as if we live in a world where people are bound to be killed en masse, and any time where it doesn’t break the 20s it’s not too bad.  What is wrong with us?  Just a few days ago, a black man in the south was shot for “advancing on” police after having been in an accident and trying to get help, not all the details have emerged but initially it seems the man had done nothing wrong.  Then, there’s another shooting in NY where police injured bystanders while trying to shoot a man who appeared to have a mental illness, instead of subduing him by other means.

What a cold world it seems we live in these days.

My daughter has been up in arms about it, too.  She tells me that if we want to live in a nicer world, we have to be nicer people.  I don’t think it could possibly be easier than that.  I know in my own marriage, the key to having a nice marriage has been being willing to be nice.  No one wants to be nice to someone who is mean to them, and being mean to someone who is being mean is just asking for more of the same.  The show Breaking Bad is all about the same concept, violence breeds violence and greed breeds greed, the answer is never pushing for more- freedom only comes from letting go of vice and the secrets.  It seems at every turn that the protagonist may have his chance for the Hero’s Journey but he chooses vice instead, clings to it like a suit of armor, despite the fact that it is killing him.  You see the same thing with the people on the news.  Fingers point, the blame game is played, anger is spouted off as if it were cathartic, the right thing to do, a solution.  It doesn’t matter where you come down philosophically or politically, someone hates you for it and you hate someone else.  Real, tenable solutions are the farthest thing from everyone’s minds.  It’s as if we as a society have given up, and now we’re just looking for someone to blame for it.  It’s the gun lobby!  It’s the anti-gun lobby!  It’s law enforcement overreach!  It’s bleeding heart people!  It’s you!  No, it’s you!  Who even cares, it sure as heck isn’t me!  I’m the good guy!

Let’s talk about Miss America.  A lovely American woman of Indian heritage won this year’s pageant and the immediate news isn’t about her dedication to STEM studies (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or about her degrees or her platform of cultural competency, it is ironically about the fact that many people are lambasting her for being an “Al Qaeda Plant” or Muslim.  Perhaps people need a cultural competency class, because most Indians are Hindu and even if she were a Muslim, that doesn’t mean she has nothing to offer as a spokesperson for women’s issues or a cultural icon.

It’s interesting that every generation seems to have it’s bogey man, communists or Nazis or the Irish or the Jews or the Witches or the Catholics or the Anabaptists or the Native Americans or the, you know, whoever.  We always have to have the bad guy in the back of our minds to blame, you know, just in case.  I think it’s a reflection of the magical thinking that humans are so infamous for.  We believe that certain rituals protect us- be it incantations, or wearing our lucky socks, or knocking on wood.  We also need to be afraid, I think.  We need to work to overcome the bad things in the world because it makes us feel worthwhile.  So we LIKE pointing fingers because it means we’re moving forward.  But that’s magical thinking, at the end of the day we aren’t safer.  So why do we look for the bogey man?  Because if overcoming evil is as etched into our psyches as searching for meaning, as I believe it certainly is, if we don’t look for the bad guy out there we have to look for the bad guy inside.

But just like in Breaking Bad, if we never go dark we never have to worry about that guy out there.  We bring the outer evil on us because of the evil inside, just like in my marriage.  Ken was never my enemy, even when he was.  Even at the worst, my greatest enemy was the things I believed about myself.  We lose a lot of beauty from our lives when we close ourselves in to our own worlds.

Like my first instinct, to tell the lady at Salvation Army that I was too damn busy for her.

But I wasn’t, that was just my perception, and once I opened myself up to the possibility of helping I realized that I was helping myself, I was making myself less alone.

If you want to live in a nice world, you need to be a nice person.

You don’t need to get rid of all guns or all Muslims or all newscasters, you need to be nice.

Just, be nice.

Everything else flows from that.

It flows from your heart.

It flows from what you choose to cultivate there.

Be kind.

Call me Candidate Warrior.

So I had my orientation to the teacher preparation program yesterday.  I’d spent the last month in a bit of a fugue, wondering if I was making the right choice.  The program is rigorous, and because it’s designed for people who work part time already it’s mostly evenings and weekends.  I’ve had my heart in my throat over the fact that I’ll be seeing less of the kids, and knowing I’ll have days to myself to work on writing and my own things has been no comfort.  Yesterday morning I joked to The Husband that maybe I should drop out and just keep working in my job as a tutor until I’m really sure about what I want to do.  He answered with an eye roll.

Yeah, I can be worthy of eye rolling.

So last night I walked into the teacher prep orientation and looked at all the faces of my peers shining with anticipation and I wondered if that was really what I wanted.  Was it?  At one point we had to share about what inspired us to become teachers.  “My eighth grade teacher always looked out for us,” one girl said.  “I really love being with kids,” said another one.  “I really enjoy math,” said another.   There I was, pointedly staying silent.  I wasn’t here because someone inspired me to want to take care of kids.  I was here because working as a tutor had shown me that people come into college with only a conversational grasp of language, and it dumbfounds me.  I want to be in a position to lobby for better standards for how language is taught and evaluated.  I want to start a national conversation about the role that language plays in poverty and economic success.  Maybe I don’t belong in a classroom.  This is not for me.  Everyone else here is so passionate about taking care of kids and here I am, just so angry that our system is broken.  Then we had to write a short statement about our goals and share it with a small group.  There were people sharing about creating a loving and safe environment and other ones about modeling good behavior, and then me with my screed about Bridges Out Of Poverty and how what home a child is born into shouldn’t be the major determining factor in what kind of language they are able to use as an adult; the language of negotiation is reserved for the upper classes and poor kids grow up only knowing the language of survival and intimacy, and we are failing them, and I want to see if it’s possible to tweak the programs we HAVE to teach to involve opportunities for kids to master the kind of language they need to better their position in society.

So I was chewing on my lip as we moved into the final portion of the orientation, where we talked about the rubrics and standards for temperament, character and behavior.  I’m so glad I hadn’t walked out before then, because suddenly everything changed.  As we discussed the framework for the education department’s philosophy we were handed a chart.  It’s one of those Venn diagrams, and the middle facet, the one that all of the other areas of professionalism overlapped in, was dedication to social justice.  One of my peers asked why that was there and I felt this sudden warmth in my heart, because I knew.  Because it was why I was so angry, why I changed my major in the first place.  And the instructor said words I’d said earlier that evening, even though he couldn’t have known it, he said, “what home a child is born into shouldn’t determine what opportunities they have in life.  Our role as teachers has to be making sure that everyone has the same chance, the same education, and the same ability to benefit society.”

I nearly screamed “AMEN.”

Then we talked about what kind of person you need to be to survive a career in education.  Sure, patience and compassion and consistency, which had been so exhaustively discussed, were on the list.  But it went beyond that.  Are your responses appropriate to the situation at hand?  Are you dedicated to self-reflection and self-improvement?  Do you seek out professional support and collaboration and realize you are incapable of individual success without others?  Do you seek out diverse opinions and examine all situations with multiple viewpoints in mind?

Suddenly the cry in my soul, asking what had I done and why, started to subside.  I found myself saying, “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”

He said that we need to be ready to fight.  “Teachers are held to the highest standard in society. We have to fight every day to exceed expectations and face every criticism with a smile and open heart. We guard the future.”  When your students see you in the grocery store, they are watching.  Their parents know if you’re in a neighborhood bar and how much you drink.  What you eat, what you wear, what you do, all of those things will be under a microscope.  In the world of social media you have to be careful of how and why you have a bad day, because people are watching.  It’s not for everyone, he said, so don’t be embarrassed if you want to change your major.  But it’s about what we’re fighting for, he said.  If we want a better society we have to be that better person for the kids who are entrusted into our care, and our first and most constant thought has to be why we choose to do what we do.

Yes, yes, yes.

We have to ask ourselves, he said, if we are strong enough.  “Are you strong enough?”

I was taking notes (of course), so I wrote in the margins, “perhaps I forgot to mention, I am a warrior.”

I am a warrior.  I can do this.  I can become a teacher.  I can become politically active.  I can write a doctorate thesis on uses of language in the home and television and on and on and on.  I can do this.  I WILL do this.  Because I’m not Teacher Candidate Lindsey.  No, I’m Teacher Candidate Warrior, and I have a mission.  Do I know why I care so much?  Why I’m crying as I’m writing this?  Why I threw psychology under the bus like last year’s fashion even though it was a lifelong passion?

Yesterday morning I may have said that I was confused, but I’m not now.

This profession ISN’T for everyone.  It’s for the people who have the strength, drive, and passion to never forget why we do what we do.  And we don’t do it because we’re softhearted and naive and rosy-eyed and just want to spend the day with kids (although there is that, too), it’s because we’re freaking warriors.  We have to be, because society doesn’t value education.

So we have to fight, and fight, and fight- in a world that thinks we don’t deserve to be paid, that we are failing as literary rates fall, that pans the profession on the evening news without a second thought, where kids come into the class more concerned with their kill rate on video games than reading a decent book, and where half of them are more distracted by thoughts of getting through the day than ever giving a second thought to their future.

A future that teachers have to fight for.

Because it’s not our fault that kids are failing.  It’s our society as a whole that has failed.

But teachers take responsibility for it anyway, don’t they?

We’re warriors, and that’s what warriors do.  They take up the sword and fight on.

Oh, freedom.

Today all over the USA people will be celebrating their freedom, as well they should.  I would like to say “I hate to mar such happy festivities with anything solemn”, but that would be lying.  So, that being said, try to remember as you exercise your own freedom that God is the Author of all things free.  He first gave Adam freedom in the garden, He gave the Israelites freedom from slavery, He gave my own ancestors freedom from martyrdom here in this great country, and He gave all mankind freedom to turn from sin and seek salvation.

Yet, too often we honor that gift with condemnation for our fellow man and hard heartedness.  We continue to believe that it is our duty to police our society’s sins and limit the freedoms of those we believe do wrong.  We continue to heap condemnation on the heads of the gay, the poor, and those who hold belief systems we believe contradict our own.  I have a very hard time enjoying this holiday, because I see the premises on which the Declaration of Independence was written trampled in the name of God, while at the same time people claim the Declaration itself was inspired by the Spirit.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Obviously certain limits must be made- if one person’s pursuit of happiness means raping my daughter I am happy to see his rights abolished.  But what about the rights of the children of the poor?  Are we truly justified in cursing them to destitution because of their parents wrongs?  And by not allowing gay people to make house and home together with the protection of marriage, whose rights are we protecting?  I am as angry about these things today as I was the day I first wrote this blog.  No, wait, that isn’t truthful.  I’m angrier today, because I continue to see people for whom I have no end of love and respect continue to justify the most cynical of condemnations with the Bible, using words meant to convict their own hearts to curse the broken hearts of others.

It is shameful, and sadly, that is what I will find tainting the color of the fireworks in the sky tonight.

I’ll leave you with these words:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and  pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.  (1 Timothy 2:1-6)

If you cannot hold the hands of the poor or the gay or the forgotten or the single mothers or the drug addicts, so be it.

But pray for them, and pray for your own heart to follow God’s in the way that you view them.  Pray that they can feel the same spirit of celebration that you feel, of thankfulness and gratitude, of love for Creator and Nation.  Pray with all the sincerity that you use when you pray in your own regard.


Gleanings for the poor.

The ancient Israelites had a welfare system which God himself implemented:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.   Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.   I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 23:21)

In Leviticus 25 God also commands a year of Jubilee, where people are to return to their clans of origin, debts are forgiven and the imprisoned are to be set free.  One has to wonder why God made those commands.  What was His plan, His intention?

Let that simmer for a minute while we talk about something else.  In contemporary American churches there is a line of reasoning that goes like this:  some poor people are hard pressed and definitely deserving of charity, but other poor people choose to be poor and depend on the government, they “game” the system so that they are able to live quite comfortably without having to make much effort, and they ought to be cut off.  The idea is that there are some poor out there who would change their circumstances with the right support, and we need to cut off the undeserving poor so that we can help the poor who are able to be helped.  Oh, isn’t that thought tempting?  It has an allure, a taste which is so sweet when it leaves one’s lips.  But don’t fall for it- God himself made no division between the poor whom did or didn’t deserve to be helped.  In fact, God said something which seems to contradict that idea:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.   (Deuteronomy 15:11)

God doesn’t say, “be openhanded with the poor because in that way they will become middle class and productive to our society, but don’t bother with those who don’t show potential.”  God says, “there are always going to be poor”, and then commands the Israelites to be generous.  That makes me wonder if the generosity is not ever supposed to be about eliminating poverty, but about something else.  Perhaps the reason the generosity is commanded is not just for the benefit of the reciever, but for the benefit of the giver as well.  There are practical reasons to reduce the burdens of poverty:  reduction in crime, better standard of living for everyone, raising the bottom for the betterment of all society.  But, there’s something else there too:

 Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.  (Proverbs 28:27)

Maybe the reason generosity to the poor is commanded is not just about God’s love for the poor, but also about His love for the rich.  The Bible does say some very negative things about laziness, and curses for sluggards.  The poor who are poor by nature of their own choices have brought their own curses down on their heads.  They live out their punishment every day, there is no reason to bring further condemnation into the arena by judging them ourselves or withholing our aid because we feel they are undeserving. We should give freely and leave their punishment to their own hand, and their judgment to God.  You see, by giving we change ourselves.  We become more like Jesus, who died for the sins of an undeserving world.  The Bible is full of talk of the decietfulness of wealth and cautions against the love of money.  We should not love our money more than we love our fellow man.  We should be generous for the sake of generosity, but also understanding that through generosity with our money we purchase something that we could never buy through spending on ourselves.  Jesus understood this when he told the Parable of the dishonest manager, and cautioned that what is seen as shrewd in the eyes of man is detestable in God’s sight, and said:

“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”  (Luke 16:9)

Often, I hear people decry the government instituting a welfare program because “it’s the job of the Church.”  That brings us into another argument about the Church and State and the contradiction of claiming that the government was instuted by God but somehow cannot do the Lord’s work, but that is a distraction.  All I really want to say is that we need to decide what matters as a society.  Why can’t we pay our taxes and bless them as they go, to honor God, and not begrudge the poor of our society the gleanings of capitalism?

Free Advice Friday: how to win respect even if you lose the argument.

I missed writing Free Advice Fridays almost more than writing my huge rhetorical blurgs about the church. Today we’re going to discuss a skill that takes a long time to cultivate: arguing well. No one wants to relate to someone who is a jerk in an argument. Even more than that, no one wants to listen to someone who doesn’t debate well, so if you want your views to be heard and respected it is absolutely imperative that you know how to debate without taking the offense.

So, here’s some free advice:

  1. Don’t call in the forces. This means you should say, “I believe this” or “I think that”, not “everybody knows.” If you are, for instance, debating politics and say “everybody knows that the Democratic party bribes poor people into voting for them through increasing welfare programs”, and the person you’re arguing with either doesn’t know that or disagrees, they will resent you for it. Or, even worse, you could be totally wrong and then not only lose points for yourself but the “everybody” you’re calling in for backup. But wait, there’s more! What if you say “any Christian would agree”, and the person you are talking to turns out to be a Christian who disagrees? Either you’re wrong, or they’ll think you don’t believe they are a Christian. So don’t speak for more than yourself unless you’ve got cold hard data at your fingertips to show you are right. And if you have that data, relay the data and let it speak for itself. You speak for yourself, plain and simple.
  2. Ask a lot of questions. If someone says something you disagree with, don’t say, “well dude you’re wrong.” Ask, “why do you believe that?” You may find that you learn something you didn’t know. Or, if you still disagree, you may find that you better know how to defend and explain your position.
  3. Listen, carefully, and repeat things back. So the person you’re talking to says, “you need to understand that people in poverty don’t have the options you do. There are a lot of hidden costs to being poor.” Repeat it back, say, “so there are costs to poverty that you think I don’t know about?” Give them time to clarify. Otherwise, you run the risk of misunderstanding what is being said. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen two people debating where one is missing huge parts of the point that the other is trying to make. A lot of times this is due to zealousness in wanting to defend their own point. But, here’s the rub; if you are so busy trying to make your own point that you don’t take the time to understand the other person’s argument, even if you win the argument in your own mind you lose it in theirs.
  4. Don’t use talking points. You know what someone thinks of when you give a talking point that has been bandied around all over the place? They think you can’t think for yourself, they think you just repeat what other people said, and they think, “for the love of all things cool and shiny I’ve HEARD THIS BEFORE and I didn’t agree with it THEN.” You may agree with what you’ve heard, you may think it’s a good point. GOOD! So instead of repeating it verbatim, explain it. For example: “By giving poor people handouts you encourage them to stay in poverty.” Compare that to: “I wonder if people in poverty would be able to come up with better solutions for themselves if they didn’t have government handouts allowing them to continue in the same patterns.” (Note: This is just an example. I believe poverty is WAY more complicated than that, and predates government handouts by a couple of thousand years.)
  5. Be nice. No one will respect you if you insult them, or their views, or subject you’re debating. Use polite language, and use tact and forethought with how you word things. There’s a big difference between saying, “you’re an idiot”, or “that is illogical” or “have you considered things from this other point of view?” One way of speaking is unecessarily confrontational. The other invites a positive response- and a positive response can set the tone of the debate in your favor.

Even if you don’t win the argument, you will go down as someone who welcomes debate and does so with respect. If people respect you, it’s more likely that they’ll seek you out for discussion in the future. And who knows- the more you go around an issue with someone, the more likely it is that they’ll come to respect not only you but your point of view.

So, on this lovely Friday, don’t fear arguments. Just remember that your words are only one part of what people listen to: your attitude and tone also convey a loud message. If you want to win in life you need to win more than just the debate, you need to win respect.