On Parenting

What's Left Behind

This reminded me a lot of the tools my grandfather left behind. It also had me thinking about how how important it is to document our days. Soon, they will be gone, and the moments we leave behind will either die with us, or carry on without us. In the hearts and minds of those we leave behind.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Parenting

Entertained to Death

In Disconnected: How to Reconnect our Digitally Distracted Kids, Thomas Kersting states that, “More kids than ever before, are struggling to communicate, socialize, or cope effectively with real-life matters because they are not living in the real world” (pg 9). Kersting goes on to say that the solution to this growing epidemic is less time spent on and with technology. No more than two hours a day, he pleads, no technology in the bedroom or at the dinner table, he argues, and only limited, if any, time should be allowed while at school because the average American teen spends more than 63 hours per week, “immersed in electronic media, not including school-related technology” (pg 18). The statistic is staggering, but its implication is terrifying. Young teens (and many adults) have forgotten what it means to think, to build sincere relationships, and to prove that they are something much more than mindless machines. The have forgotten what it means to be human, to think and feel and live. They’ve forgotten what it means to be alive.

Kersting and others have clearly articulated the legitimate need for less technology in the home and classroom.  They have proven that kids, teens, and adults need to put away their devices and spend quality time with each other, truly experiencing the world.

The question we need to ask now is,  what about those moments when the devices are on. When they and we are binge watching HBO shows, listening to our favorite songs, or flipping through our favorite feeds, what then?  As Derrick Jensen, author of Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution argues, “It is the {movies, videos, Instagram posts} that we {watch} for amusement or purely for pleasure that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us” (via). And he’s absolutely right. How we entertain ourselves is just as important, if not more so, than how often.

“Technology by itself, Jim Collins argues in his New York Times bestseller Good to Great, “is never a primary, root cause of either greatness or decline”, it simply is. Unchecked and free to roam, however, it has become a predator of our minds and lives. It has consumed us. And for that, we are responsible. Just like John Hammond was for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

HAMMOND’S HUMILITY

“The world's just changed so radically and we're all trying to catch up.” Alan Grant says while sitting at a table, surrounded by other doctors. He and the other scientists have just discovered life’s new reality, that dinosaurs exist, and he is struggling to make sense of it all. “I don't want to jump to any conclusions,” he continues, slowly, deliberately, “but look: Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by sixty-five million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”

John Hammond, the mastermind behind Jurassic Park, can’t believe the skepticism, “You're meant to come down here and defend me,” he says, “and the only one I've got on my side is the blood-sucking lawyer!”

Hours later, the dinosaurs will be loosed, lives will be lost, and John Hammond will have come to realize the full weight of his “lack of humility before nature” (via) and abandon the island.

I remember the first time I watched Jurassic Park. I was ten and visiting my grandparents for the weekend. They had already seen the movie and felt it absolutely necessary that before anything else, before we went fishing, caught up on life, or even ate dinner, we had to watch the movie. So we did, and I can remember nothing else from that weekend visit.

The movie was terrifying and more real than anything I had ever seen, and when my parents bought the VHS a few months later, I watched it again and again and again because the dinosaurs looked so real, the music was epic, and the storyline riveting. From start to finish, I was hooked. If my English teacher had asked to me fill out a plot map of the story, including major and minor characters, I could have done it instantly. But if I was required to write a short essay on what it meant, I would have tilted my head, much like the Dilophosaurus does when Newman tries to entice him into a game of fetch. “What does it mean?” I would have asked, “I don’t have a clue - it’s just a really good movie!”

And it was. But it was also a warning.

Technology is the way of the future-- always has been, and always will be. Technology has transformed and improved our world in fantastical ways, but “If we are to remain globally competitive in today’s world,” Tony Wagner writes in Creating Innovators, “we need to produce more than just a few entrepreneurs and innovators. We need to develop the creative and enterprising capacities of all our students” (4). In other words, our children, our students, and we ourselves need to gain control of technology, not be controlled by it. We need to embrace it, holistically, because it is the way of the future, but also separate ourselves from it. In many ways, technology has become necessary to sustain life, but it is not life. Nor is it the source of life. But for many, that is exactly what is has become.

For an educator, this is a terrifying contradiction to bare. On the one hand, in order to remain globally competitive, schools and educators must embrace technology and aggressively implement it into the classroom so their students (and school) can achieve global relevance and local prominence. On the other hand, Dr. Ian Malcolm’s warning, “You’re scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

In hopes of providing students the greatest opportunity for future success, we (educators, parents, and humanity at large) have lost control of our own technological creation. We believed we could create and control our simple devices, but rather quickly and right beneath our noses, we have lost control. We have failed. “Technology and all of these devices have made their way into our lives at such a lightning-fast pace” Kersting writes, that “we simply didn’t see it coming” (pg 59). Now, it runs free and rampant, for hours upon hours each day, with little to no supervision. Even when we know that it shouldn’t because, let’s face it, no adult or parent or teacher wants to admit that we’ve have succumbed to peer pressure and allowed our kids more than we thought we should, but we all have. And now, people are dying. Emotionally, relationally, psychologically, even physically. All because we still believe in the illusion of our own control.

Just like John Hammond.

“With this place,” Hammond says while the ice cream melts and dinosaurs roam the park. “I wanted to give {the world} something that wasn't an illusion. Something that was real. Something they could see, and touch. An aim not devoid of merit.”

John Hammond’s heart, like parents and teachers, was in the right place when he set out to change the world, so too was his mind. But in his quest for achievement and innovation, in his pursuit of godliness, he became blind. Blind to the living and breathing dangers of his creation, and blind to the truth that just because he created the dinosaurs, that did not mean he controlled them.

“When we have control—” Hammond begins to argue.

“You never had control!” Dr. Sattler shouts, “That's the illusion!” and then, “Now, I was overwhelmed by the power of this place, but I made a mistake, too. I didn't have enough respect for that power. And it's out now. The only thing that matters now,” she continues, “are the people we love. Alan, Lex and Tim… John, they're out there where people are dying.”

And she’s absolutely right.

In our current time, we do not fear dinosaurs, but we are still in danger of the perception of control. Perhaps even more so because the danger that lurks now doesn’t roar in the wilderness or ripple the surface of a puddle, warning of its approach. Instead, it rests quietly on our coffee tables, sits comfortably in our pockets, and innocently promises a better, more connected and simplified life. So we trust it, us it, and increasingly come to depend on it. For work, knowledge, social interaction, entertainment, or whatever, we allow our own creation to dictate or moods, our ideas, and our lives; we allow it to consume us, just like the ancient dinosaurs of Hammond’s creation.

Getting rid of our electronics or limiting them to just a few hours a day won’t protect us or our children from these real and present dangers because the problem we have created and the solution it requires is much more complex than simply hiding our head in the sand. It was our minds that created this problem, so too must it be that our minds get us out it.

OUR RESPONSIBILITY

The fictional dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were created out of a wild abandonment for discovery. Hammond was playing God, but with the limitations of mankind’s perspective. The introduction and evolution of technology has a similar genesis and storyline. In hopes of making the world a better place, we’ve pushed the envelope of what could be, advanced our technology and our lives into what was once considered only fantasy fiction, and placed upon our shoulders and minds the role and duties of god. All with a limited perspective of what could and can happen.

Fortunately for us, technology is a bit different than roaming dinosaurs and our minds more capable than electric fences. We have the power to contain and even control technology, but in order to do so, we need to step back from the valley, disconnect ourselves from the awe and wonder of what we’ve created, and think. “The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets,” Kersting writes, “the less patient we will become with more complex, more meaningful information. . . . we will “lose the ability to analyze things with any depth and nuance” (pg 4). In short, we will lose the ability to prove we not mere machines, but humans, filled with passion and fear and hope and love. We lose the ability to prove that we are indeed alive.


FOR AMUSEMENT’S SAKE:

“Look around at all the empty seats,” I said, two days after the Douglas High School shooting, “Now imagine that instead of those students being out for basketball, they were never coming back again because someone shot up our school.” My students looked around the room. “What if the sub you have today in history class," I continued, “wasn’t temporary but permanent. Because instead of taking a personal day, Mr. Boyle gave his life so that others could live.” They looked back at me, at each other, in complete silence. Nobody moved, checked their phones, or worked on late homework. The ceiling lights hummed.

“I never quite know how to handle these types of moments,” I said, struggling to find words of comfort or explanation, “I just know we need to address it, talk about it, and make it personal.” So we did, spending the next twenty minutes discussing school shootings, why they happen, how to prevent them, and what their prevalence might be saying about our society at large. We didn’t solve the problem, we merely addressed it. Then we wrote letters to the students at Douglas High School.

During lunch, I read them. All of them. Then I threw a few of them away. Partly because they were a bit shallow, but mostly because they could easily come across as insensitive, even those written with the purest of intentions. One letter in particular stood out the most. It was from a junior who was a starter on the boys basketball team and an overall good student and great kid. For his letter, he quoted his favorite song “God’s Plan” by Drake. I don’t remember which lyrics he specifically chose, but it doesn’t really matter because none of them work. Not even a little.

“Why would he write this,” I remember thinking, “How is this even remotely comforting or appropriate?” The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that he didn’t know what he was writing because he didn’t understand the song. Not fully, anyway. Just like John Hammond didn’t fully understand the ecosystem of Jurassic Park.

After discovering the splendid grandeur of  the park, the visitors are taken to the laboratory. Rather quickly, the terrifying reality of the park begins to set in “You have plants in this building that are poisonous,” Dr. Sattler says to Hammond, “you picked them because they look good”, not because they were best for the dinosaurs.

In many ways, that is what this student was doing. He knew the song was popular, that it said overtly positive things like, “God’s plan” and that it was a song that dealt with pain and struggles -  “And still, bad things. It’s a lot of bad things.” So he wrote them down, believing and hoping the lyrics could help, even though he didn’t fully understand what he was saying nor the true meaning behind the lyrics he was invoking. His heart was in the right place, but his mind was not. Much like John Hammond.

For me, this moment exemplifies one of the more dangerous ways we have lost control of technology’s power.  With little to no consideration, we pick and choose, like and post, quote and mimic based on little more than what looks or sounds good, unconsciously allowing another’s moral compass to dictate and guide our own.

Especially our children.

“Younger people, particularly teens,” writes Michelle C. Pautz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, “are much more likely to be impacted {by movies} than older adults because they are still developing and shaping their world-views” and are therefore “more likely to absorb all sorts of influences, including influences from film.” An influence that “may be quite substantial” because, without thinking, they mimic what they see and hear.

As children, this is cute. As adults, it’s terrifying. At such a young age, if the brain is allowed or encouraged to mimic and repeat what is seen and heard without considering why, if young learners are not taught, guided, and reminded, over and over again, to take captive the thoughts that enter their brains, to analyze and critique their implied value, and to measure that value against what they know to be good and right and true, then they will lose that which is most precious to them: their ability to think and reason and make unique decisions. They will lose their humanity.

According to the Washington Post, “Teens are spending more than one-third of their days using media such as online video or music — nearly nine hours on average . . . For tweens, those between the ages of 8 and 12, the average is nearly six hours per day.”

That is terrifying. And not just because it seems to be an exorbitant amount of time wasted, but because of the transformative impact that 6-9 hours is having on their minds, actions, and lives. As Steve Turner states, “It is the {movies, videos, Instragram posts} that we {watch} for amusement or purely for pleasure that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us” (via).

In response, many schools and parents are banning phones or setting heavy restrictions on time allowed. This although noble and held with great intentions is sufficiently incomplete because it does not fully address the problem. Not talking about the influences of technology or analyzing and dissecting the messages and impacts of social media does not solve the problem. It magnifies it.

We as educators and parents - more than ever - cannot hide from the power and influence of technology. Nor can we believe that simply restricting its use or throwing it away will completely save those we love from it’s unintended consequences. We need to be spending the time and energy teaching our children (and ourselves) how to regain control of the technology we’ve created. “Our devices have become such a part of who we are,” Thomas Kersting writes, “ that we may be losing sight of who we are.”

Regaining control of the content our technology produces allows us to regain control of who we are, what we are, and who we want to be. It provides us an opportunity to prove that we are not mindless and aimless and satisfied with mere entertained. Taking control of our devices means taking control of our lives. It means proving we’re alive, not mindless machines.

PROVE WE’RE ALIVE:

“The block walls featured just two decorations,” Nick Heil, editor for Outside Magazine writes, “an American flag and a sign, cribbed from Fight Club, that read,

Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don’t you have other things to do? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you’re alive.

When considering the effect technology has had on our lives, the same could be applied. Eerily so. But because we cannot eliminate it entirely from our lives (if we wish to stay relevant, anyway), then we must learn to control it. And in order to do that, we must first gain control of ourselves, our thoughts, our minds.

When in middle school, I was into punk and hardcore music - a far cry from my mother’s taste, soft contemporary Christian music. One day, after months of attempted tolerance, she asked me to bring my music down to the living room so she could read the lyrics. “These aren’t even complete sentences,” I remember her saying. The CD’s were soon stashed under her bed and out of sight. She didn’t want my mind “rotting” from listening to such junk.

Looking back, I believe my mother’s intentions were in the right place, that she was concerned for her youngest boy and wanted to care for his mind. So she did the best she knew how. Or at least, she did something other than passively allowing me to sit and listen to something she thought was suspect.

“Indifference and neglect often does more damage than outright dislike” Dumbledore states in Order of the Phoenix, and my mother was not indifferent. She was, however, lazy - at least in this moment. Taking my CDs and removing the bad influence from my room was easy action because it was immediate. It didn’t require a discussion and took very little time, but the outcome with clear: I no longer had access to the influential music. But what lesson did I learn? What skills did I gain? And what were the unintended consequences of such her actions?

The simple answer is that I learned to keep my music and my thoughts to myself. The more complicated answer is that my mother lost an opportunity to learn something about her son, to teach him the more valuable lesson of what it means to be curious, and why it is more important to wrestle with the meaning of something rather than toss it out just because we don’t like the way it looks or sounds. By throwing out the music, she lost the chance of teaching her son what it means to be a man of discernment and what it means to be alive. She lost the chance to talk about urinals.

i-8Le397-h2ZTgLM1iMegw%2FMarcel_Duchamp.jpg

When Urinals Speak:

At the beginning of every year, I show my students this photograph and ask, “What is this?”

It doesn’t take long for someone, most often a boy, to shout out, “A urinal!”

When I ask them, “What does it mean,” the room typically goes silent.

“All art,” according to Gene Roddenberry, the writer of the hit TV series Star Trek, “is an attempt to answer the question, 'What is it all about?'" Which means every time a child or teen or adult opens Instagram or Youtube; whenever they watch a movie or HBO show; whenever they listen to music, they are absorbing answers to someone else’s world view. And if they are doing so with indifference and neglect, they are relinquishing control of their thoughts, actions, and lives and living according to someone else’s set of rules. And they don’t even know it.

According to legend, on April 9, 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted this piece to the “‘unjuried Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York—which claimed that they would accept any work of art, so long as the artist paid the application fee.” He titled it, Fountain. My students challenge its validity, “How is this art!” they often exclaim, which is exactly where they need to be! But all too often often, their question ends there, perhaps with a scoff and a laugh, neglecting the very purpose and joy of art: to answer life’s most essential questions.

“How is this art?” my students challenge, after staring at the used and useless urinal.

“Because it answers the essential question,” I tell them, “but the more important question,” I say, “is this: what is his answer?” As you can imagine, the discussion that follows is full of toilet humor, and they love it. So do I, because we’re learning and laughing, because we’re analyzing and critiquing, and because we’re doing it together, refining each other’s answers, and considering another’s perspective. We’re discovering what it means to think, to regain control, just as the gods of education intended.

Then, after they’ve bought in, we watch a trailer from the original Star Trek TV series and one from the newer blockbuster hit movie. I ask them, "What do you think these films are about?" and they say things like, "good vs evil," "don’t be afraid to fail," or "the struggle of living for others vs living for self,” all of which are great and good answers. Then I show them Roddenberry’s quote, that he created Star Trek as “an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms" (via), and my students are stunned. “He meant all that,” they say.

“Yes,” I respond, “he meant all that.”

For the rest of the year, the prompt, “What is it all about?” is the essential question that every student must answer for every piece of work. And by the end of the first quarter, I don’t even have to ask it. They do it themselves. Which is exactly where I want them to be, because it’s exactly where they need to be. No longer indifferent; their minds no longer neglected.

Instead of taking away my CDs, my mother could have asked, “How is this art?”, “What does it mean?”, or “Why do you like it?”, allowing for an opportunity to not only teach me how to think, but to learn a little something about me, as well as herself. Instead of widening the gap between us, she could have entered my world, understood my angst, built a small connection of trust, and opened the door for more and deeper future conversations.

Instead, she widened the gap of understanding and lost an opportunity to teach her son how to think about the world, and perhaps learn a little about how he already did.

We’re not going to get rid of cell phones and computers. Shutting them down, although helpful and an exercise worth pursuing at times, will not only aggravate the problem, it will strengthen the illusion of control. Instead, we, the adults, need to embrace the music, movies, and social media outlets because they are the museum of our time, of our children’s time, and if want to help them, teach them, and to love them, we must learn to love what they love. If we do, not only will we begin understand our children and students, we will begin to understand ourselves. We will begin to understand humanity and the purpose for living.

Just as the gods of education intended.

What Museums Say:

Like Roddenberry, Neil Postman believed museums were an answer to the fundamental question, “What does it mean to be human?” He also believed they had no choice but to provide an incomplete answer. “Every museum,” he argued, “gives only a partial answer. Each one makes an assertion about the nature of humanity - sometimes supporting and enriching one another’s claims but just as often contradicting one another” (pg 163).

The role of the observer, then, was not to merely walk the halls of any museum, absorbing the various displays of humanity’s answers, and then continue on, that would be careless, indifferent, and downright foolish. Yet, that is exactly what is happening today with our modern expressions and assertions of what it means to be human.

Social media is our modern world's Museum. It is an instrument of survival and sanity where mankind has a chance to tell their story and to share of their struggles and hopes and fears and dreams. It shares what we know, what we don’t, where we’re going, and where we’ve been, both good and bad, because it is the story of humanity. It is this generation’s outlet, their search for purpose, and their attempt at answers.

Why is it not part of our curriculum?

Our students, to paraphrase Postman, have continuous and instant access to all forms of artistic expression, be it music, film, design, literature, or photography. “As a consequence,” Postman argues, “their receptivity to popular forms is well developed and appropriate. But their capacity to respond with educated imaginations . . . is severely limited” (pg. 167). They are aware of and fully capable of navigating the terrain of social media but are equally incapable of understanding what it means. Instead of analyzing, thinking, and purposefully choosing for themselves, they mindlessly follow, clogging our modern museums with superficial and unoriginal answers to life’s most essential question.

“What does it mean to be alive?” You tell me.

In his New York Times Bestseller, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner writes, The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today” (pg 142). One must be able to think, to sift through the ideas and opinions of those around them, gathering bits and pieces of information, and then create a new and unique thought, solution, or expression. They must think, not merely swipe through images or gather information. And we as teachers and parents must be the ones to teach them how to think about that information, even if it isn’t always met with grand applause.

Consider this, an email from a former student.

Hey Miller,

Over the past few months I’ve come across a few songs, passages, movies, and even university classes that reminded me of you. They possess some quality that you appreciate... like those enigmatic storylines that you always desire to surround yourself with - whether through literature or self-created. This is just a note to say that I think of you often and, although some of my peers had well..mixed feelings toward your method of teaching an AP class, you have fostered in me a love of poetry and story and a desire to study both beyond the surface level. It’s quite a gift and it brings me daily joy. I doubt it will leave me and I hope you know how you’ve impacted my love of the these arts.

As a teacher, a father, a human, this email means more to me than any test score ever could because this is “life-long learning” and what Adam Grant calls “being original.”

“Being original doesn’t require being first,” Adam Grant writes in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant, “It just means being different and better.” But in order to be different and better, one must know from what they want to be different and better. They must know how to think, how to create, and how to step out and away from the crowd. They must continually prove they are alive.

“Can you imagine,” Neil Postman writes, “‘museums’ as a specific subject in high school or college?” Or of a class or project that asks students to create a museum that depicts their worldview? A museum that employs a full range of expressions (visual art, music, technology, film, etc.) that collectively provides partial answers to the world’s most essential questions?

Can you imagine what our students and children would learn, what we would learn, and the relationships we could build?

Why Stories Matter:

Several years ago, before I was a teacher, my wife and I ran a group home for “troubled teens” from in and around the Philadelphia area. Six teenage boys lived in our home, all of whom brought their own unique struggles, but one kid in particular was a problem. His name was J.C., and he was scary. He was a fighter, had been in and out of the system for years, and was not a fan of authority. Especially white authority. So from the start, he and I clashed. He would curse in my face, refuse to follow rules or expectations, and constantly begged me to fight. I didn’t of course, because it was against the rules. But also, he would have kicked my ass.

So when my grandmother came to visit, I was terrified. Highly religious and extremely conservative, my grandmother stood just above five feet tall, said words like, “my lanta,” and laughed like child. She was precious and sweet, and I knew J.C. would eat her up. And he did.

About two days into her stay, me and most of the boys were outside raking and cleaning up the backyard. J.C. was inside. So was my grandmother. As time went by, I became more and more nervous, so I went to check on how things were going and found my grandmother sitting at the table with J.C.. He was reading her his raps and she was holding his hand, crying. They wrote letters for months after she left and he went on to prison. Because my grandmother loved what he loved, and he loved her for it.

My grandmother hated any music that wasn’t worship music. But even more than she hated, she loved. And she loved J.C. and his personal journey and story.

A few days later, before heading back home, they took this picture:

Boys with Grandma

Instead of her personal preference, my grandmother chose J.C.. She chose his music, his experiences, and all his differences over herself. In exchange, he trusted her, he embraced her and accepted her, and he let her into his world and life through months of letters that they exchanged back and forth. They built a bond that acknowledged the difference but chose, instead, to focus on their similarities. That they both struggled, that they loved family and life, and that, try as they might, it did not work out exactly as they had hoped, but neither was willing to give up.

All because she chose to sit and listen to his raps.

From that day forward, I learned from my grandmother and started investing in J.C., his life, his interests, and his person. Not because I wanted compliance, but because my grandmother was right: he was more important than my personal preferences or pride.

Parents and teachers must do the same.

We must never shy away from controversy. Whether it be confrontational discussions, problematic perspectives, or difficult world events, we must be willing to wrestle with the content, openly and honestly, without dogmatic criticism or pious perspectives. Whatever the kids are listening to or watching, if they’re engaged, it must quickly became part of our class and living room discussion, if only because it’s what they love. And if we want to know them, if we truly want to have a voice or make any difference in their lives, we must choose them over our own personal taste.

Over the years, I’ve attempted various ways of implementing this idea into my class. There was Art Starts, where every class began with a relevant piece that the students had to analyze, dissect, and interpret before the class began. There was Music Video Friday which, as you can probably guess, had us watching and wrestling with various music videos. But the best moments, the ones that seemed to matter most with my students were the ones that were organic. Like the day after Childish Gambino dropped “This is America”, and we spent the day poring over it, wrestling with the images, the lyrics, and the question, “What is it all about?” Or the class when, while teaching at a Christian school, we wrestled with Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” because it was making international headway and all my students were talking about and listening to it. Several teachers were shocked, even outright angry, that we would cover such material in class, but the students loved it, I loved it, and we all learned a great deal that day. About the world, about each other, and about ourselves. “What better, safer place is there than a classroom?” I told my questioning boss. Because it’s true. If one’s classroom is not safe enough to discuss such controversial issues openly and honestly, if students are unable to bring in their material, their influences and talk freely and openly about them, then I would argue that that teacher and their classroom are the problem, not the content. Just ask my grandmother. Or my fellow student, Rylie, who, in an end-of-the-year-letter, wrote,

"I learned not to judge people and to consider everyone's perspective because no one is completely right, it's all how you see the situation. You made us discuss deep topics & because of that Jesilyn and I are closer than we've ever been."

At a more recent staff meeting, as a team-building exercise, we watched Second Hand Lovers, dissected its content, asked probing questions, and attempted to answer Roddenberry’s essential question. I was nervous how the film and activity would be received, but as often happens, a room full of great teachers blew the activity out of the water, picking apart the details, asking insightful questions, and listening to one another’s potential answers. “I had my thoughts on the film pretty early on,” one teacher told me later in the day, “but then I started really listening to those at my table. Their interpretations were radically different than mine and it forced me to think outside myself and consider their position, their perspective. We didn’t agree,” he said, “but by the end, I understood a bit more about where it was they were coming from. Which was the point of it all, I think.”

Yes it was.

Tell me again why a museum of stories are not part of our curriculum and monthly staff meetings?

Where to Start : Some Personal Favorites:

What I love most about this list is that many of them have come from my students. “Thought you’d like this,” or, “Thought of you,” messages that randomly pop up in my messenger, Instagram, or email are some of the highlights of my teaching career, and I hope they never stop.

In no particular order:

  • 2+2=5 Another beginning of the year video that can help set the stage of why we learn. But also, why the imaginary guns? “Because they’re killing the imagination,” a student once said. Brilliant.

  • Second Hand Lovers by Oren Lavie “Why does she smile?” I ask, after the third or fourth watch. The discussion that follows is pure gold. Love this one.

  • We are Witnesses : Documentaries of crime, punishment, and humanity Chimamanda Adichie says that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but incomplete. These short documentaries share both sides of our stories.

  • I Promise by Radiohead. Wait till the end. Then, after a round or two of watching and analyzing, check out what Thom Yorke had to say about it.

  • Caroline: A tough watch, but when compared to Patrick Lencioni’s  Fundamental Attribution Error, it becomes a powerful example. "The Fundamental Attribution Error” Lencioni explains, “is the tendency of human beings to attribute the negative or frustrating behaviors of {others} to their intentions and personalities, while attributing {our} own negative or frustrating behaviors to environmental factors” (via).

  • Happiest Person in the World: Love this video. Students do too. And the lessons they glean from it are immeasurable.

  • Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes: I’ll say no more.

  • Poilus: Love this film about infantry soldiers in the French army who are waiting to leave for the battlefield. I love that humans have been replaced with rabbits.

  • Double King: one of the greatest short films . . . ever.

  • Bus 44: This one is a bit tough and should only be watched with a warning. The discussions that follow can be pretty amazing, though, especially when the question is asked, “Why does he smile?” Like Secondhand Lovers, there are multiple viable answers, which only adds to some powerful and rich discussions.

WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?

I don’t know. Neither does my staff, my students, nor anyone in my family, but that’s what makes it fun, unremarkably unique, and deeply beneficial. Because when we gain the skills and experiences to use technology in purposeful ways, to express and evaluate who we are, to analyze and critique what we are, and consciously wrestle with ideas and truths of what we want to be. Suddenly technology no longer has control over our lives. It enriches it.

Just as the gods of technology intended.


On Movies in the Classroom: Some Extra Thoughts

In schools, movies have gained a bad reputation. Ask any student or parent why teachers watch movies and they will answer with one if not more of the following:

  • It is what teachers do the week before Christmas and/or summer break

  • It is how English teachers end a book unit (think Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Crucible)

  • It is how teachers teach history

Ask my father, and he would tell you movies have no place in the classroom - ever - because in his experience, raising up four kids through the public school system, they were abused and misused, “Kids watch too much T.V. already,” he would say, “Why do you have to do it at school?” To him, movies in the classroom was a waste of time. And he wasn’t wrong, then.

Now he is.

Movies and short films should never be deleted from a teacher’s syllabus and classroom repertoire. Nor should they be relegated to mere prompts. Rather, in many cases, and often, they should be the content, just as long as we follow some basic guidelines.

Connect Museums

All great artists steal from other artists. Invoking images or ideas of prior works allows them to not only enhance and clarify their purpose, it allows them to connect with others from around the world and throughout time. It allows them to be part of something bigger and greater than their own thoughts. Teaching students to look for these nods to other artists is not only high-level thinking, its a reminder that there is something bigger than them, that their struggles and wants and needs are universal, and that there is indeed a deep and real purpose to art and movies and social media. They are not here to merely entertain the world, but to explain it.

Do this as teachers. Don’t merely watch a movie based on the book you already read (they will probably do this on their own anyway). Instead, create your own Film Meets Literature unit where students are required to take a piece of literature and connect the themes, ideas, motifs, tools, tricks - whatever - and relate them to other mediums of possible inspiration.

Here are a few of my favorites from the past few years:

Lord of the Flies with The Village

Frankenstein with Jurassic Park

The Great Gatsby with The Notebook

Ender’s Game with The Power of One

Counting Coup with Free Solo

Catcher in the Rye with Into the Wild

My Papa's Waltz by Theodore Roethke with Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s, “Someday Never Comes” . . . a tear jerker. For students and teachers alike.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  Chapters to my book

What Mr. Rogers' Quiet Neighborhood Can Teach Us About Our Loud and Busy Lives

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Fred Rogers began the episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood just like he’d done a hundred times before, “by putting on his cardigan and buttoning it up.” Only this time, according to Hedda Sharapan, a producer and actor who was often involved with the show, something wasn’t right. “He had started at the wrong buttonhole; he was one button off.” The crew expected Fred to start over. Instead, He gave Sharapan a look and kept on, ad libbing an explanation to his children audience just “how easy it is to make mistakes” and then spent the extra time showing them how to correct it (pg, 193).

Any other show would have snubbed the first take and instantly recorded a second. Not so with Mr. Rogers. He understood that mistakes were a huge part of life, that they were essential to life, and that his young audience needed understand that. So embraced the silly mistake and used it as a teachable moment, because he cared deeply about children, and because he knew exactly what they needed most.

After years of training, researching and observing young children in the classroom and in life, and after studying and listening to them and their stories and thoughts, Rogers become a master teacher who cared deeply for the holistic development of children. They became his chief concern. More than money, more than fame, more than job security, Fred Rogers cared about his children audience.

Which is why, in contrast to his competition, Mr. Rogers’ show was slow, even crawling at times, because he knew that was what his young audience needed.

“Rogers’s embrace of reality also included breaking one of the established rules of television, a prohibition against footage that is essentially empty. While Sesame Street used fast pacing and quick-cut technique to excite and engage their viewers and keep them glued to the screen, Fred Rogers deliberately headed in the opposite direction, creating his own quiet, slow-paced, thoughtful world, which led to real learning in his view” (pg, 194).

Fred Rogers believed children were entertained enough. That instead of another fast-paced tv show that kept children distracted, what they needed was time.

“He really was interested in the child as a developing person” Maxwell King wrote in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, which is why Rogers feared constant entertainment; it would engage his audience but weaken their minds. And if they had a weak mind, they would not fully grasp who they were, what they were, and how they thought.

“Our job in life,” Rogers believed, “is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is - that each of us has something that no one else has - or ever will have - something inside which is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness, and to provide ways of developing its expression (pg 237).

For Mr. Roger, in order for children to discover their uniqueness, they needed silence, time, and space. Silence so that they could hear themselves think, time to consider those thoughts, then space to work them out, to fail, and then to try again. They need opportunities to be human, and they needed adults to model humanity for them, to teach them, and to encourage them that life can be hard but that we can always work to correct it. Even when it’s something as simply as a missing a buttonhole.

“One of the major goals of education,” Mr. Rogers believed, “must be to help students discover a greater awareness of their own unique selves, in order to increase their feelings of personal worth, responsibility, and freedom” (pg 328).

In contrast, classrooms, living rooms, and car rides that fill the silence with gimmicks, screens, and distractions leave little room for such self-reflection and no time for imagination.

“Fred Rogers lived out the conundrum of modern life: embracing technology and using it in imaginative ways to benefit children, while rejecting the dehumanizing aspects of complex technological advancement” (pg 80).

For our children’s sake, for our future’s sake, embrace the silence, fight for the quiet, and allow time and space for children to think, make mistakes, and try again. It’s what Mr. Rogers would do. And he was the master of a pretty amazing neighborhood.

But so can we.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  Parenting : Living

Lost in the woods for 18 hours : How a six-year old survived.

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At six years of age, Cody Sheehy found himself by losing himself.

Cody and his sister were playing their familiar game “explorer” when Cody got lost. But instead of sitting and waiting for his mother or search party to find him, he started walking. For over eighteen hours. Covering 14-20 miles. At the age of six.

Thirty-two years later, Cody believes that was the turning point of his life.

“‘Over the course of your life, you push through a lot of physical barriers,’” he says. “‘As you grow older, your first coach helps you break through barriers, and maybe in the military you learn to push through barriers or maybe in your first hard job. As a little kid, I had this opportunity to be tested and learn that there really aren’t any barriers. I think a lot of people figure that out. They just might not figure it out at six’” (via).

My favorite part about the article, however, was the discussion of guilt and responsibility.

“Marcie (Cody’s mother) never blamed herself for being a bad mom” the article reads, “which, let’s face it, would be the first accusation to pop up in online comments if this story happened today.” And it’s true. Cody’s mom, however, “never felt guilty for letting Cody and his sister play on the other side of the meadow from where she and a friend sat around the fire. “It’s just normal,” she says now. ‘Kids go off and play.’”

And I love that.

Jason Kottke does too, but with a little extra twist. He writes:

It’s a great story and a sharp rebuke of today’s helicopter parenting, not letting kids do their own thing, etc. I wonder about something though. We would think a lot differently about this tale if he hadn’t survived. If it had been a couple of degrees colder or if those coyotes had been a big hungrier or if he’d have turned a different way on that road, he might have died. Sheehy’s story is an example of survivorship bias. We hear of his adventure and how it transformed his life only because he survived, but it’s possible that nine out of ten kids in similar situations don’t survive…and we hear those tales only briefly and locally, not as features in national magazines (via).

No matter how this story turns out, someone will grab it and use it to feed their fears, or their desires. “See,” we say, “This is why I’m right and you’re wrong.” When, in reality, we’re both right, and both wrong. Depending on the vantage point. Or the outcome.

But Cody’s experience also teaches us a bit about the weight of responsibility and how it can change us.

“In my entire childhood,” he states, “I never felt it was anyone else’s fault. I felt responsible.” And because he felt responsible, because it was his mistake, it was also his responsibility to rectify the problem. So he did. Instead of waiting around or focusing on who did what wrong, he took action and ownership. He started walking.

Perhaps that is why he survived.


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  : On Parenting : Without Fear: What Adults Can Learn From Young Explorers

For my daughters

"Soul Suckers"
by Amos Lee

Did you believe it,
when they told you they discovered you?
And that everything is free,
as long as you do what they tell you to.
You think it's true?

But nothing could be farther from the truth,
my love.

Did you even listen,
When they told you to change your name?
And that nobody wants honesty when looking at a perfect frame
play the game.

Nothing could be further from the truth,
my love..
And nothing is more powerful that beauty in a wicked world.
Play it girl,
play it girl,
play it girl.

Does it make you feel good,
when they tell you what you want to hear?
And after they suck all your soul,
well that's when they'll disappear.
Disappear.
They disappear forever..

Like a prince in your little fairy tale.
And you will find,
one day you put you soul on sale..

Nothing could be further from the truth,
my love..
And nothing is more powerful than beauty in a wicked world.

For more on . . .

Raising Girls : Brave, Courageous, Adventurous : Only the Wild Ones," by Dispatch : Unchained Melody : Elvis' Last Great Moment

Caroline : a short film about love, misunderstood.

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A few years ago, my wife and oldest son left me and my two youngest at the time home for 265 hours. I had a stable job, was on vacation from school, and help from various friends. My wife was coming home soon.

When she finally did make it back, I was sitting on the balcony of our 7th floor apartment, trying to process the time. Here’s a piece of what I wrote:

If you know {a single parent}, show ‘em some love. Make them dinner, wash their dishes, or babysit their kids. At the very least, by their coffee because I promise, they drink more than you. A beer wouldn’t hurt either:)

If you are one, you’re my hero. (via).

This film has all the same feels. Only worse.

This film is terrifyingly brilliant. I literally feel the heat, the fear, and the panic in the little car, and I cannot help but ache for everyone involved.

The mother loves her kids, no doubt. But she’s stuck. No babysitter, no grace from work, and three little kids who need their mother to work, pay the bills, and rush them to the bathroom.

The spectators want to care for the kids. Because they’re good and decent people. Yet, they don’t see the whole and perfect picture.

The child loves her mother.

And everything is absolutely not okay.

Ugh.

How many situations like the above could be avoided if we all acknowledged the single parents around us and gave them an extra helping hand? How many children would be saved in the process?

If you know a single parent, show them some love. Make them dinner, wash their dishes, or babysit their kids. At the very least, by their coffee because I promise, they drink more than you. A beer wouldn’t hurt either:)

If you are one, you’re my hero. Sincerely.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Short FilmsOn Parenting : Single Parents

The film Caroline is produced by ELO films, a “co-writer / director duo Celine Held & Logan George. Their work as a team has premiered in competition at Cannes Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and at South by Southwest. They were named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s ’25 New Faces of Independent Film’ of 2017” (via).

You can see more of their work here.

Without Fear: What Adults Can Learn From Young Explorers

Image by @storyanthology

Image by @storyanthology

“Almost nothing was known about how children even explored the world,” Roger Hart explains in interview with Alix Spiegel, “and then I came across a book on baboons. And I realized that we knew more about baboons' everyday behavior than we did about children's behavior outside of school.”

So, in the 1970’s, Roger Hart set out to learn more about children’s behavior by filming them in their natural habitats and away from their parents. “There were 86 children between 3 and 12 years of age,” Hart explains, “and I worked with all of them, all of the waking hours for two and a half years, I was with them. They were my life, these kids,” and they took him everywhere.

He mapped their exploration, adding descriptions such as, “frequent paths, not used by adults.”

“They had more than the run of the town,” he explained, “Some of them would go to the lake, which would be on the edge of town, and the lake, you'd think, would be a place that would be out of bounds” because the parents weren’t motivated by fear. There was no talk of abductions, stranger danger, nothing. So the kids wondered and played all over town.

Not so today.

“{S}everal years ago, Roger went back to the exact same town to document the children of the children that he had originally tracked in the '70s, and when he asked the new generation of kids to show him where they played alone, what he found floored him . . . The huge circle of freedom on the maps had grown tiny.”

Even though the town was exactly the same physically and demographically, even though “the town is not more dangerous than it was before” and that there is “literally no more crime today than there was 40 years ago” parents are operating according to fear, and kids are staying closer to home.

The modern life, according to Ralph Adolphs, a professor at Caltech who spent decades studying fear in the human brain “is constantly triggering our fear in all kinds of ways that our natural world didn't.”

News reports that depict violent scenes and soundbites of murders, of men and women describing atrocious moments of violence and fear, and the many other images and ideas of horror throughout the world constantly surrounds us. “And Adolphs argues that because of our wiring, we are just not set up to ignore it,” which distorts our experience of the world and activates “our fear when we don't need it.”

We’ve become overly fearful and extremely protective, even as adults, with our maps of exploration growing smaller and smaller. Geographically, and intellectually.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” Mark Twain writes, “and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Luckily, the youngest of us have not learned to be fearful or bigoted yet. May we all learn a lesson from these young explorers and their adventurous spirit.

Kids do not want to be contained.
They are built for adventure.

You can watch more young explorer videos here or listen to the full podcast from above, here.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Short FilmsOn Parenting : Favorite Podcasts

Let's go rock climbing!

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Zion has been begging me to take her rock climbing because "she's the best rock climber in the family," and she isn't lying. Most of it has to do with her being fearless, but she's also just really good at it. So today, after weeks and weeks of her begging and pleading, I took her to the gym, fit her into a miniature harness, and sent her up the wall. She was so pumped, so excited, and so eager to show off her skills. 

Then she failed. 

About half way up, she got stuck, then tired, then scared. "I want to come down," she said, and was slowly lowered down. She was so disappointed.

Eden was next and she made it slightly higher. Then she too wanted to come down. 

Now I had two girls who had failed. But both wanted to try again so we gave high-fives, gave a few climbing pointers, then sent them back up. And this time, both of them made it all the way to the top! Eden even started to cry she was so happy and proud. After I hugged them and kissed them and told them how proud I was of overcoming their fears and working so hard, I started thinking about school and assessments and those all consuming and toxic grades I'd entered earlier in the day.

Suddenly, I wished I could take my students rock climbing because, What if schooling was like rock climbing? What if instead of grades for what was accomplish and known, students got second chances, third chances, and forth and fifth chances? What if instead of teaching by standing at the top of the mountain, pulling and cajoling and threatening students up the steep and daunting cliffs, we stood behind them, sending out words of encouragement and guidance ("now grab the green hold with your left hand . . . good!") and assured them that if they fell, we'd be there to catch them?

I know almost every teacher or parent has heard something like this before and have all come to the same conclusion: it sounds great but it's impossible. What teacher has the time or the effort to allow kids to fail and try, fail and try, fail and try? And quite honestly, what kid wants to try this hard on a subject they hate? The answer to both those questions is, "not many." 

But I also know the system is broken and needs fixing. That students have stopped trying on assignments they think are too difficult because, "{they're} gonna fail anyway, so why try?" and that many of them have given up hope of ever succeeding in school. "It's just not for me," they say.

And they may be right. School, as they have traditionally understood it, may not be for them. But learning is. And that is the cardinal sin of education, students are terrified to try and learn because, as Carol Dweck calls it, they have a "fixed mindset." 

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People in a fixed mindset "believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits" (via). And years of schooling, of grades, telling them over and over that they're not smart, that they won't get it has cemented the idea that talent alone creates success. And some kids have it, while others don't. 

People in a growth mindset, however, "believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point" (via). They care more about the effort, the hard work, and the process, not the product. 

Schools and grades, by and large, support a fixed mindset; rock walls don't. They encourage the process more than the product, and they teach service.

The main reason why I was able to take my kids climbing today was because one of my students is a certified belayer, and he offered to take my kids. 

More times than not, kids in schools today are told that they need to be there so they can go to college so they can get a good job so they can live a decent life. School is all about serving they self. There's even a banner in my school that reads, "Do it for you," which might be the worst reason for attending school I've ever heard.

What if, instead, students went to school to not only learn their gifts and talents, but to learn how to serve and give back? What if kids and students were given ample opportunities to serve others, not just themselves?

It sounds daunting, if not insurmountable. It sounds like rock climbing. 

And that excites the hell out of me.

On Discipline : Beyond Consequences

The students knew “G” was going to lose it eventually because they knew him, and because he’d been brewing ever since the first week of school. But I didn’t. I was new to the district and didn’t know “G” from Adam. So when he yelled, “Man, Fuck this shit!” and slammed his book shut, I was a more than a bit stunned. When I told him to sit back down, he refused, saying, “This is bullshit!” and walked out the door.

We were in the throws of reading “The Crucible” and just about to read one of my favorite scenes, so instead of following “G” out the door, I smiled and I asked them to continue on. “G” could wait.

A few minutes later, the bell rang and I went to the principal’s office and asked for “G” to not be suspended or get detention. Instead, I asked that he be allowed to spend the next week eating lunch with me.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because of my father,” I responded.

Growing up, I often heard stories of how biblical shepherds handled sheep that constantly strayed – they would break the sheep’s legs.

Then, because the sheep could no longer walk, the shepherd would carry it on his shoulders until it healed. During this time, a bond of trust would form between the shepherd and the sheep. Once healed, the sheep would no longer leave the shepherd.

So, when my mother told me not to borrow her bike and I did anyway, she tried to break my legs.  

My bike was fine, but hers was better, and the road to my friend’s house was long. So long in fact that it took thirty minutes for her to catch up in the car. It took her less than three minutes to bolt from the car, stuff her bike into the undersized trunk, yell, “WALK HOME!” and whip the car around and through the oncoming traffic.

By the time I made it back to the house, the cool of the evening was beginning to settle in and I had some pretty fantastic excuses worked out.

I walked through the front door, parched, and ready to wash myself of blame and trouble. She too was ready, “Go to your room,” she said, “Wait for your dad to come home.” When she didn’t glance up from her floured tabletop and rolled out dough, I knew I was in trouble.

The hours between then and my dad’s pickup bouncing over the curb were forever. The hour it took for my father to slowly open the door and sit on my bed was even longer. The talk, however, was less than a minute: “No TV, no friends, no phone, for two weeks.”

“TWO WEEKS!” I yelled.

“Yes, two weeks,” my dad said, even though it was summer, beautiful summer, when kids should be out with their friends, riding bikes, fishing in small ponds, building forts, and getting into simple mischief.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Not only was I confined to the acre and a half of my parents’ property, I was to memorize Bible verses, read books on the Lord’s second coming, and “think about what I’d done.”

Taking the bike was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” because it was just one of a hundred times I was disrespectful, disobedient, and selfish, and I needed to learn my lesson. I needed to have my legs broken.

As a child, my mother didn’t yell and scream when I misbehaved, but she did place the responsibility for punishing a disobedient and defiant young boy upon his father. She had a hand in creating the consequence, but he was the one who enforced it, who sat with me in my anger and tears. He was the one who talked me through it, who listened to my weak negations, and who patiently, with tears in his own eyes, refused to budge or relent but affirmed that I would indeed be grounded for two weeks.

He was also the one who took me fishing.

About a week into my grounding, I was sitting in the backyard, reading, when my father came home from work and asked if I wanted to go to the river for the next week. I still had to read and memorize, but I could do it from the camper, after running bank lines and trotlines and swimming in the great currents of the northern Mississippi River. “Of course!” I yelled.

“Great,” he said, “then pack up your stuff. We’ll head out early tomorrow morning.”

I slammed my book shut and ran inside the house; my dad grabbed the tackle box and lifted me to his shoulders, just like a good shepherd should.

The next morning, we left early.

The five-hour drive to the campground was spent hearing the same old stories of when my dad was a kid on the river. How he and his friend caught a huge snapping turtle with only a net, how he spent a summer shingling the roof of his parent’s cabin, and about the time he and his friend built a bonfire so massive that it caught the attention of a barge passing by. He told me about the propane tank.

It was he and his friend’s first night away from the cabin and they were a bit scared of the dark, even though neither one would admitted it, so they threw log after log upon the roaring flames. When they found the tank buried beneath a pile of driftwood, they threw that on too. Then quickly forgot all about it.

Minutes later, it exploded, sending sparks and wood and teenage boys flying in all directions. No one was hurt and Dad chuckled as he told it, just like he’d done the dozen or so times before, which made me laugh and smile too because I loved that story.

Then, we were there. As we crested the bluff, my dad stopped, “Oh no.”

“What?” I asked.

“It’s flooded.”

The river must have just recently receded back to its normal levels because the road was covered with a layer of deep, sloppy, river mud. “Well,” my dad said, slowly pulling forward, “if it doesn’t rain the rest of the time we’re here, we should be okay.

With each nightly downpour, our fear that we’d never make it out grew, and with each passing day, my dad prepared to get us out of the mess and safely home by shoveling as much mud off the road as possible then haul and spread gravel from a nearby gravel pit over the road, all without a shovel. 

And never once did I doubt that he could, that he would, and that we wouldn’t make it home safe.

But then, a prison work crew showed up to fix all the picnic tables. When they paused for a quick lunch break, my dad asked one of them if he wanted some of our fish. The man looked at my dad and said, “You better as’ the boss firs’.”

“I did,” my dad replied, holding up the plate of freshly grilled catfish, “he said it’s okay.” The man looked around, at his other inmates, the river, then back to the plate, “Well,” he said, “You got any salt?”

Over the next thirty minutes or so, the dozen or so inmates finished off all the fish we’d caught the previous four days. I watched from the camper, hidden behind my book, but reading nothing. One man, with his mouth full, shook his head, “Shit. Dis is better ‘en my chicken,” and I knew he was telling the truth because my dad grew up on the Mississippi river, fishing, working, and learning from his parents, and he knew how to grill catfish.

Before leaving, the crew grated the road for us, laid down new gravel, and lined the old picnic tabletops under our camper and van. When it rained hard on our last night by the river, my dad slept soundly. In the morning, instead of clearing the road or heading home, we went fishing and my dad told stories of when he was a young and imperfect son.

My dad didn’t have to break my legs for me to learn how to trust him. Nor did he have to yell and scream and rain down punishments for me to respect him. He just needed time with me, to take an interest in me, and to show me that he just because my behavior was inappropriate it didn’t mean I wasn’t wanted, or loved.

Instead of creating consequences, he created memories. And in the following years, whenever I would get into trouble or found myself stuck, it was my father I went to, who I met for coffee or called on the phone while wandering the dark streets, searching for answers. Because he was the one who took me fishing.

So when “G” said, “Fuck this shit!” in front of the entire class, when he jumped up from his chair and started walking out of the room yelling, “this is bullshit!” I didn’t walk him to the office or write him up or chase him down the hall, yelling and screaming and threatening detention, suspension, or failure of the class. Instead, I let him go and thought about fishing with my father. When the bell rang, I went to principal because, like me, “G” didn’t need to have his legs broken. Nor did he need me to carry him. He just needed someone who’d be willing to sit with him, in the muck and the mire, and hear his story.

“I want “G” to spend the next week with me, during lunch,” I said, “Is that possible?” She was a bit skeptical.

“Please. Don’t write him up, just let me spend time with him.” And because I’m fortunate to have supportive bosses, she said okay.

The next day, with a ham and cheese sandwich and a few freshly cut vegetables scattered on my desk, I waited for “G” to show, but he never did. When I saw him in the hallway, I asked him about it, told him he wasn’t in trouble, but that I just wanted to talk and hang out with him for a bit. He said he’d come tomorrow.

When he showed up, I asked him how he’s doing. “Not good,” he said. Then, he told me about his family.

“My dad came in my room and asked where Mom is” he says, lounging in the cold desk, arms crossed, “and I didn’t know if I should tell him or not. Next thing you know, we’re sitting in the car for three hours. I call my mom and she says she’s at the movies but there aren’t any cars in the parking lot because there isn’t any movie showing. My dad starts crying and my little brother starts crying and I’m thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ Mom didn’t get home till 3am.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, knowing where this was going. He looks up.

“Hearing your parents argue is the worst. Having your ten-year old brother cry in your arms isn’t what anyone wants.”

He fights back tears. Because he’s tough.

“Mom’s crying, Dad leaves, and nobody knows where he went. Three days pass and no sign of my dad nowhere. Until the Fourth of July.”

The bell rings and “G” gets ready to go to class. “Thanks,” I say, “Thanks for sharing.” He nods gently and heads to class.

The next day, and for the four days after, he comes back.

He tells me how his parents almost got back together, but then, on a trip to the beach, they got into another big fight and he, his little brother, and his mom had to walk home in the rain. He talks about how she eventually moved out and how difficult it was because she still lived in town, with another woman.  

He tells me that was when he finally broke down and cried because the next morning, when he woke up, he found his dad passed out on the couch, “No one should have to experience this,” he says.

“G” used to be a “good kid,” a star athlete, and a decent student. Now, he doesn’t understand why he is so angry all the time, why he can’t control his temper.

“I used to be that kid thinking life would be so easy. But that just makes it harder.”

We sit in silence for a minute.

“I just want to beak down and cry,” he says “but it’s too late to be crying over something that I can’t fix. Life isn’t easy, and it never gonna be.”

“I’m sorry,” I say again, thinking of my dad and the river and wondering if and how I could lift “G” to my shoulders, because so much of his life seems bent on breaking his legs.

The bell rings, and I still don’t know what to do.

Later that day, another teacher writes “G” up and doesn’t want him in their class because he’s disrespectful and curses and needs to be taught a lesson.

He asks if he could spend his detention with me.

A week later, when he needs help with credit recovery for science class, he comes in during lunch and we work through the material together – neither of us having a clue what is being asked but finding, and sometimes guessing, the answers together.

Later in the quarter, he writes a poem about how the Fourth of July used to be the best time of year, until Mom and Dad argue, a little brother cries, and a family falls apart, and I find myself trying to fight back tears, to be tough like “G”.

Then he writes a powerful short story about his parent’s, his mother, and the day he found out she was leaving her family – her “G” - for a woman she met at work. He writes an essay on the power of music and another on anger and how it fuels his life but ruins his days, and I smile.

“G” hasn’t stopped cursing in class, but he is trying, he is showing up almost every day, and he is working on what he can – even if it might be “bullshit”, and that makes me smile. Because that means he’s healing.

I know I’m not “G”’s father or his shepherd, but I am his teacher. And when we had lunch together, when he told me about his life and the things that matter most, I listened. When he asked me if I could relate, I told him about my failures as a son, a father, a teacher, and a husband. I told him he wasn’t alone, in his failure or his pain.

I wasn’t able to take “G” fishing or carry him on my shoulders, but I do think I was still able to help him heal, if only a little,  because whenever I walk home from work and a car honks and honks and honks, I know it’s “G”, driving with his girl, just wanting to say hi.

And sometimes, it’s the best part of the day.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Education  :  On Parenting

Because they call me Dad : A Fireside Sunday

     Photo by  @storyanthology

     Photo by @storyanthology

I could have taken a nap. I could have read a few more pages of In Cold Blood or got busy with any of the other millions of things I can get busy doing. I could have spent a large chunk of the day writing. But I didn't. Because my wife thought we should make a fire.

And as often happens, she was right. 

Snow fell from the trees and landed in our laps and dinner and our kids laughed those long and deep laughs that warm the soul. 

We sat together as a family.

Elias spit raspberries. 

I can't help but constantly feel guilty for not writing more often, for not "pursuing the craft" because I know full well, if this is ever going to happen, it won't just fall in my lap (I already said enough about that).

But then we have a day like today and I'm reminded there isn't room. Nor do I want any. Because Eden "loves the mornings" and Zion asks if she can cuddle and help make breakfast. And I get to be there. 

Because they call me Dad.

And because my wife asked me to build a fire.

So we did.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Open Thoughts  :  On Parenting