Is there a connection between ‘innocence’ and ‘privilege’? 

I came across this excellent piece by Shannon Gaggero about her realization that her (white, middle-class) kids experience innocence differently than children in other households may.

Put simply, maintaining children’s “innocence” is an opportunity available only to parents who are already working from a position of privilege within mainstream society, usually through a combination of sufficient financial/socio-economic standing, social “capital,” and racial identity.

Preserving my children’s innocence is an act of preserving white supremacy – A Striving Parent

Shannon describes children’s books, resources, and talking points she uses with her very young kids to help them see injustice and respond to that in appropriate ways.

*****
Several years ago, my colleague Jack and I were asked by some VBS organizers at our church to teach the “missionary story” to a group of preschool children. [If you know anything about me, you should be chuckling right now…. the last time I worked with preschoolers, I was a high schooler helping out in my small church’s VBS and wondering what I’d done to make the universe assign me such tiny humans whom I didn’t understand at all. (My lifelong habit has been to work with post-pubescent beings.)] Jack doesn’t have kids of his own yet but he’s got a pile of nieces and nephews and seems to be better at translating toddler behavior into something understandable.

Anyway, the missionary story – for those of you who might not have been raised in VBS culture –  is that moment when a VBS worker attempts to compress a complex, nuanced story of someone’s cross-cultural ministry experiences usually in a colonial or post-colonial society into a 5 to 10 minute Golden Book of missionary fervor.

[That comes across as too harsh; I loved hearing missionary stories as a kid because they were human and interesting and a little more connected to what I could envision as day to day life than Bible stories. I’m a little worried that most of the adults in the churches I’ve gone to aren’t aware of the imperialist baggage of white missionary activity among populations in Africa, India, or Asia and how that probably hindered their work for the sake of the Gospel. But that’s a topic for a different day.]

Jack and I had been asked to share a missionary story with pre-K kids for the sake of cross-cultural education. A mission we could get behind for sure. So one of us dug out of our closet a CEF story book about Mary Slessor, the legendary Scotswoman who labored in West Africa for decades and adopted many children who would have otherwise been murdered due to the local custom of treating twins as demon-possessed.

Slessor’s story in the CEF book opens with her childhood, making mention of her upbringing in poverty with a drunken and abusive father. Jack was telling the story on this first day, softening the language into something more palatable for 4 and 5 year old ears: “Her father was a very bad man. He was mean to Mary and to Mary’s mom.”

I’ve told this story myself to groups of kids at Good News Clubs (another high school / college era activity) from a variety of backgrounds. At the time, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that some of the kids listening might know far too much about domestic violence. At least I grasped the poverty angle.

But as an adult with several years of teaching experience, I knew this was a touchy moment in the story. I also knew that it might be hard to explain to 21st century white middle-class parents why their little kids were coming home talking about domestic violence. I figured the innocence of church kids would preserve us. Most people raised in similar circles (Christian, conservative, white) don’t clue in to social justice issues until they’re far older.

I’d forgotten about the kid in the room from CHC.  CHC is a local charity, one of the very best I’ve ever known, operating group homes for foster children in our area. Despite nearly shutting down when South Carolina went through a phase of refusing to place kids in group homes in a burst of idealism that hardly matched the dire need for foster care in our state, CHC weathered the storm and – as you might expect – is running at capacity. Their kids attend church with the resident houseparents, and in this case, VBS.

I’ve forgotten his name, this beautiful little boy with curly hair and a toothless smile. He was impish – small for his age, a wicked grin, always into everything, fighting every boundary. I didn’t know his story, but every instinct told me he could be a handful.

Yes. “Handful.”That’s how we describe the children who howl or bite or rage against the dysfunction and/or drug abuse and/or sexual assault and/or generational poverty and neglect which ground up their families and spit them out into a state system that tries to provide a pale resemblance of family life and normalcy. 

This boy, I’ll call him “Mark,” was listening to Jack tell Mary Slessor’s story today. And he knew. He understood. His 4-year-old body knew what it meant in real terms when Jack said, “Mary’s father was a bad man, a mean man.” So he contributed. This was a story he could grasp. “My mommy is bad. She hit my sister on the leg.”

Later, “My mommy tried to hurt me with a knife.”

I wrote about this at the time, but I bring it up again because 7 years later, I still can’t get that moment out of my mind. I was horrified to confront in that moment a glimpse of what this child had already experienced, a sin-drenched violation of maternal instinct. And I was equally terrified that the other kids would realize what he was saying and start asking questions. And that we would soon be in the middle of a preschooler crisis and then a horde of angry parents would appear at our door with pitchforks.

That, my friends, is probably as close as I can get you to a teacher’s inner monologue. Every lesson, if you’re doing it right, teeters on the edge of incredible discovery and deep learning, but that always comes at the risk of stabbing straight into one of the questions we adults cannot answer, like why mothers of 4 year olds would try to stab them. Or why the richest nation on earth has such a drug problem. Or why South Carolina can’t seem to do anything about the generational poverty that chews up its citizens. And if your lesson crosses over into those churning waters where the real learning happens, your animal brain begins to tingle with fearful anticipation of the phone calls you’re going to get from parents or school board members when they realize your discussion of Dickens robbed children of their innocence.

Friends, I ask this in all sincerity:

How can parents know whether preserving the purity and innocence of their children – whether toddler or teen – is wisdom or idolatry?  

I’ve seen this many times in my work with teens and young adults: healing the wounds of dysfunction and pain requires interaction with healthy, functional peers and adults. So if all the healthy, functional families cocoon themselves, who’s left to walk alongside the wounded?

What can this look like, if it’s done well? Is a school community capable of this? Is it a church responsibility? Can a family accomplish this kind of ‘education’ on its own, apart from church or school?

Give me stories lest I die

I’ve lost my stories, and it’s really bothering me.

I didn’t realize until I started changing jobs that I’d come to rely on the steady diet of stories I was getting out of my teaching experiences.  And now I’m starving.

Back up, I don’t want this to sound too weird. Let me explain. 

I’m no gifted storyteller. Pretty much every one of my friends is a better joke teller than I am. I like the momentary attention of telling a funny story to a circle of close friends, but when I’m honest with myself (usually that happens at night as I’m falling asleep, or in the morning as I move from hazy dreamland to uncaffienated semi-consciousness) I know that I’m a middlin’ storyteller at best. Hearing people like my North Georgia father-in-law spin a yarn about guys named Walkin Tom and Shine go on adventures in Appalachia just reminds me of how much I stand to learn about wit, hyperbole, irony, pacing, and understatement.

So I’m not talking about those stories.

When I began teaching, in 2002, I discovered a wealth of stories. Like Boris Karloff’s Grinch, my heart great three sizes that first year, expanding again and again to wrap its arms around the children in my classroom. It was achingly hard, teaching was, but it was deep and rich and satisfying in its difficulty. Some moments were very hard, they were formative, they left deep impressions that changed who I was at my very core.

I’m not talking about those stories either, though I treasure the lives that intersected ours so hard they left skid marks.

I am talking about the daily tales that emerge from a teacher’s experience. They’re scattered throughout my digital existence now; probably not even able to find them all to put them in one place. But they each started with a line like “Today in class, So-n-So said…..” or “You won’t believe what happened in 3rd period!”…. or “I thought I was going to die of laughter but I managed to hold myself together when…..”

I stored a few student gems in my Facebook "About Me" section. I'm glad this survived the umpteenth reviewing of the FB interface. I'd forgotten many of these till I took this screen shot just now...
I stored a few student gems in my Facebook “About Me” section. I’m glad this survived the umpteenth reviewing of the FB interface. I’d forgotten many of these till I took this screen shot just now…

For 7 hours a day, we lived life together, our little learning community. We ate lunch at the same tables, swapped stories, talked about shows on TV or games we were playing or books or current events.  There were arguments in class and out of class about politics or anime or sports teams. I was exposed to a million YouTube videos and memes and songs and pop culture references that I would have otherwise missed.  (Trogdor!)

It was a wealth of stories, and I drank in every one, relishing the opportunity at the end of a day or week to fall into a chair near a co-teacher to rant for a minute, or sit at a table in McGees with a pint on a late Thursday afternoon and hear Jack launch into a story with “These kids are driving me to drink!” (He was kidding. Mostly.)

When I left teaching in 2012, I felt like Abraham heading out to a foreign land not knowing where he was going, just that he was supposed to go.  It was time to leave. I knew that.  And I finally got a job with people who fit what I was looking for in a new coworker tribe: interesting, caring, witty, creative.

But I did notice, rather quickly, the spigot of stories had slowed its output to a trickle. I came home with enough material to retell some witty banter from the day and discuss a bit of interoffice, not-very-important-so-of-course-we’ve-got-to-discuss-it drama.

But that was it.

That first year at Erskine was hard, partly because I had to wean myself off the stories. I didn’t have the rich interaction with students like I’d been used to for a decade. So I had to recalibrate my sensors to detect interest in the work we were doing as an office, in the projects we discussed, in learning to think better and listen more effectively and ask better questions.  But deep down, I still knew that nothing was replacing the stories.

Four years later – aka, now – I launched out again, this time charting a course toward academic/student support within higher education. It feels good to be back in education proper again; not that I disliked marketing and creative direction – I learned a ton and liked it a lot – but I like being able to think and write about education and not feel guilty that I wasn’t hired to think and write about it on company time.

But the past month has been hard. Very hard.  My new job came wth 5 weeks of training, mostly in isolation. I appreciate the investment of time and care; I feel very prepared for what they’re asking me to do. (Thumbs up.)  But there are very few stories to be had in this job.  I met some great people during the initial week of training, and some of their stories have become threads in my view of the world.  But my daily work is quite tactical, not narrative, not strategic.  And not rich with interpersonal interaction.

Self-reflection and self-awareness take time and effort and mostly just experience. Sometimes we discover what we need during its absence, not its abundance.

I have learned that I crave the kind of work that sends me home at night tired and occasionally annoyed but always with a handful of tales worth telling.  I’m not trying to carve out a career as Garrison Keillor or a stand-up comedian. But I’ve learned that if my work doesn’t bring me close enough to people to learn something about them and begin to overlap their worlds, I begin to starve.

Good to know.

 

Worth your time to read

A few good reads to kick off your week. One should never approach Monday without a good read around.

To kick off, this piece by Kutter Callaway of Fuller Seminary really hit home with me today when I read it in a back issue of Fuller Magazine that we got at work a few months ago. (Yeah, I know, I’m behind.)  He discusses the way that chronic pain distorts our view of reality, usually attacking our sense of hope the most viciously. And how Christians dealing with chronic pain gain insight into the hope offered by the Gospel. A powerful read.

Restoring Hope: Being Weak and Becoming Well – Fuller Studio

*****
From the same issue of Fuller Magazine come two excellent pieces about Christians and hospitality. This ancient set of practices has worn very thin in our modern age, and these scholars take time to explain why Christians should pursue hospitality even more fervently now.  In fact, hospitality might create a space where Christians and Muslims can gather on common ground. 

Restoring Hospitality: A Blessing for Visitor and Host – Fuller Studio

A Moratorium on Hospitality? – Fuller Studio

*****
Time is not just money. It’s also power.  And one of the significant discrepancies between working women and working men lies in their access to uninterrupted free time to think, create, or connect.

This article by Brigid Schulte gives a name to the fragmented craziness that women experience as they try to juggle work, parenting, and marriage:  leisure confetti.  

While many working men are able to access blocks of uninterrupted time, most women — especially mothers — get their leisure time only in snatches, and even then it’s dirtied with the mental anxiety of carpool logistics, supper planning, family scheduling, budgeting, etc.

Confetti. You can’t build or create anything or even feel like a real human being if the only time you get to yourself comes in scraps.

Brigid Schulte: Why time is a feminist issue

*****
I never talk on the phone much now, and aside from my teenaged spurt of nightly phone sessions with my best friends (or calls home during my college days), I’ve never been a huge phone talker.  Texting was (and is) a god-send: concise communication that people can read when they’re ready, apart from the disruption of a ringing phone.

This Slate writer disagrees, and wonders if we’ve lost something…

The Death of the Telephone Call |Slate

*****
This next one may make some folks mad…. but that’s not my intention. In fact, I’d like to post this as much to invite critique as suggest alliance.  But I think Americans need to turn a critical (in the sense of objective / evaluation) eye on football. It’s a dangerous game – one that grinds up the bodies (and brains) of players for the violent pleasure of the masses. This bothers me.

And here, this author suggests an even more troubling link – that the US military is happy to keep Americans confusing patriotism with team loyalty, to see football as  a kind of American war.

I’m not a peacenik but it doesn’t take a 60s hippie conscience to question whether Americans can tell the difference between patriotism and nationalism, between bandwagon-riding mob behavior and common sense.

How the NFL Sells – and Unabashedly Benefits From – the Inextricable Link Between Football and War |The Cauldron (Sports Illustrated)

*****
A powerful reminder that ministry which sees the recipients as “needy” will fail to be as successful as it should be.

“Do you want to know why we love him [another missionary]? He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”

What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries? | DesiringGod

*****
I may not be in a classroom any more (an experience that I genuinely miss pretty often), but I want everyone to read this wonderful piece directed to young teachers.  It’s a great reminder of why I taught, and why I want to spend my life trying to make education better.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer suggests that we teach who we are and thus, no matter what we teach, our students judge us as “good” or not according to how we communicate who we are.

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

 

I’ll be back with some book reviews soon. Currently reading 2 or 3 that have been good reads for sure.

Not even a nutshell

Hamlet:
To me [Denmark] is a prison.

Rosencrantz:
Why then your ambition makes it one. ‘Tis too narrow
for your mind.

Hamlet:
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.

Guildenstern:
Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

**********
I haven’t been writing here in a while, you may have noticed.

And me being me, this is substance for introspection, then a shrug, then a long absence.

Two things are at work. One, I’ve been through an upheaval  with work. Until that’s settled, I don’t have much to say about the stuff that’s been eating up most of my mental space and energy for the past several months.

Two, I genuinely question whether I’ve got anything much worth saying, or at least much worth taking your time to read.

An upside of being a generalist and associative thinker is that I know a little bit about a billion things, and I love connecting ideas and people in ways that hadn’t occurred to anyone else yet.  The downside is that I have little patience to dig in and write long thought pieces about current issues or the wit to crack wise about said issues or the attention span to wrangle through some knotty problem that everyone else seems all hot about.

Honestly, I spend a lot of time inside my head managing the daily tasks that don’t make much fodder for good writing. And while that in itself may be a sign that I need to change some stuff about my life, it doesn’t really give me anything to say right now.

I’d like to think that I occasionally have thoughts that others find useful. But increasingly I find that others are already saying most of those things, and better.  I started my first blog (on Xanga … oh my) in 2005, when I’d barely cracked 30 and thought I had Things To Say.

Now that I’m older, I find that I don’t really have much to say at all, and I probably never did.

I also miss the community and interaction that I had back in the Xanga days. We were a small bunch, and my followers usually knew me in person or had become internet friends because we read and commented on each other’s blogs.  Posts were fun because they kicked up some dust (or a dust storm occasionally)…. you had to avoid the drama but at least there was some life, yannow?

But WordPress is a big town, and there’s no conversation here really.  Occasionally my FB posts of these entries spark a comment or two, but even that is rare in a world where Facebook adjusts its algorithm weekly (it seems) so that nobody ever gets a news feed worth reading.

Yeah, I’ll admit it. I miss “the old days.”  I guess I’m that old now…. #getoffmylawn

*****
I’d like to think that there’s a good discipline to writing every day, so I may yet take up the habit for the sake of my own sentence craft. I write so much less now that I’m not teaching, and one should never let writing skills get too rusty.

Clearly this is at odds with everything I wrote earlier.

So you can see my conundrum.🙂

 

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

We teach who we are.

Teaching isn’t as much about the what as it is about the who – who you are as a teacher is communicated more thoroughly than any ‘content’ in the lesson plan.

Source: Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

This is a great read. Had to share.

 

Hugo 2016 wrap-up

Here are the winners of the 2016 Hugo Awards | The Verge

Thrilled that my top picks (or #2 pick, in one case) in the major categories for the Hugo were awarded top honors yesterday. Especially thrilled that good writing came out on top, from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds and cultures.

Please go check out the year’s winners if you need some new books in your life.  In some cases, I found all the nominees in one category to be good reads – I noted that in my reviews:

Novel: The Fifth Season (review)

Novel: Uprooted (review)

Novellas

Novelettes

Short Stories

Why I mentor

As an exercise to wrap up the training this week, I’m supposed to draft my personal mission statement / elevator speech explanation of why I mentor at WGU.

I’m an educator. It’s what I do. It’s what I am.

When I was a kid, I used to pretend sometimes that I was a teacher, and play-act teaching in front of a classroom. This happened alongside pretending to be a lot of other things, like a doctor or a missionary, so I never put much stock in it. In fact, once I got it in my head that I was going to be a missionary, I pretty much stopped looking at any other options.

But now, looking back at myself, it’s no surprise that eventually the teaching profession came and found me. Literally, that’s exactly what happened.  An acquaintance in our area called us up one day and asked us to come talk with him. He was working at a tiny, new little school in the area and they were looking to start a high school. They needed teachers who would commit to at least 4 years, to put a stop to faculty turnover. And they wanted teachers who had a broad liberal arts background and a knack for education. Dennis felt that we had both, so he asked us to apply for teaching jobs. And we did.

The decade I spent teaching was the single most life-altering experience I’ve had. It changed me more than my religious conversion, more than meeting my husband and getting married, more than traveling to Europe when I was 22, more than losing both my parents by the time I turned 25.

Everything about my world changed when I became a teacher.  My M.Ed. program at Covenant drove that change even harder, challenging everything I thought I understood theologically and practically and professionally in the realm of education.

My students rocked my world.  I learned to laugh, cry, suffer, rejoice, and fear with  and for them. I grew up during that decade.  I gained a ton of confidence in myself and in my students. I loved them fiercely and unashamedly. I’m still proud of that.

Leaving the classroom was hard, but it was also right. I had to grow. I had to go away to see more of the world because the classroom had become too small. So these past four years in communications and higher education were needed and valuable. I sharpened a whole set of skills that would otherwise still be dormant. I needed to rub shoulders with new people. It was uncomfortable and scary, but it was necessary or I would never believe myself when I say now, I know that my life’s work lies in education.

For me, teaching is relational. You cannot claim to have succeeded with a student if you merely dumped information into their brains. Any computer can do that with a mere Google search.  I’ve never bought into the idea that lecturing or assigning papers equals giving students a “good education.”  Education should radically alter the learner and the teacher. Both stand side-by-side in the learning space, struggling to make meaning of this broken world.

When I say teaching is relational, I mean that education happens in the context of interpersonal interactions, both with peers and with the teacher. While it’s theoretically possible for someone to be entirely self-taught, those individuals are extremely rare. Humans crave companionship and community. We work better as a team than as individuals. Lone wolves get eaten.

So why am I a student mentor at WGU when that position radically redefines the role of a faculty member (in ways that make many uncomfortable)?

Because the learners who have the deepest needs are the learners who most benefit from personal, caring education. They benefit the most from education that happens within a relationship. 

Not all students should adopt online education as their model. It doesn’t work for everybody. I’m not sold on the idea that WGU is the right choice for an 18 year old with little life experience. By definition, competency-based education requires that the learner bring some competencies to the table. And few teens have lived broadly enough to learn from The School of Hard Knocks.

But many adults have.  The ones who started college but had to drop out, the ones who never saw themselves as smart enough to make it through a degree, the ones for whom school was a prison because the lessons put before them had little connection to the lives they lived.  For these students – often underserved and haunted by the spectres of broken dreams and failure – an education grounded in a relationship may be the only way they escape the poverty and limited opportunities delegated to those who do not walk through an employer’s door with a diploma in hand.

WGU wants to make a difference in the lives of those students, and in those for whom graduate credentials would otherwise be out of reach.  This is a mission I can put my weight behind, and the fact that WGU’s model grounds students’ learning in a mentor relationship seals the deal.

Teaching is relational. And that is why I mentor students at WGU.

 

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