My Dad’s Gift

kjMy parents would argue, and when I asked my dad once why he and mom wouldn’t just  split up and get it over with, his answer was that when he was young, his father left him.   That was so awful for him, he made himself a promise to never do that to his own kids, if he had children some day.  So he was going to keep that promise, the vow,- that was one thing he was going to be sure to keep.

It’s the time of year again,  gatherings with family and friends come in successive weeks.   My dad would sit quietly for many of our gatherings in his later years, and observe like someone going to an art gallery and admiring the greatest works of all time.  The noise of being all together was a great symphony, and he would take it in until his conclusion to each gathering, his solo in the performance, when he would issue his ritual decree,  “family is where it’s at”.

We have played our part to keep the gatherings going, to live out the sacred text passed to us.  Our coming together again allows for the chance that the wobble in each of us can be corrected by the gathering of all of us.   However much we may agree or disagree, at each marker to have the people you love continue with you on your voyage is affirmation of your love, and a microcosm of assurance that peace and joy are possible, and in those moments, tangible.  Thanks Dad.  Thanks, noisy, busy, beautiful friends and family, and Kristin, my partner in these many gatherings, and all that is between.

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When a Student Dies

I think left to my own devices, and in some other profession, I am an introvert, but I believe that in order for people to learn from one another communication is required.  It is to this end that I write.

Teachers also deal in privacy, the sacred trust that the student-teacher relationship relies upon – the cathedral that is built for learning to occur, it is full of stained glass windows that easily shatter if the student feels at all betrayed.  It is to this end that often I, we, do not write.

But I’ve thought about this too many times, and time and identities are far enough removed that there will be nothing divulged here.   I hope that a person who needs this will find it, because it has happened again.  My own personal sadness is a thing, but the mirror that is held up at any instance like this, that I believe most people go through naturally, is, “did I do alright by this person?”.  So, if you are that teacher, or a person in a similar situation, I hope this is worth something to you.

Besides being advocates, teachers are antagonists.  At Monte Vista, high centered above the door is an oyster with a pearl.  The seed is the agitating grain of sand, the metaphor is not lost on me.  As a teacher, I have pushed students to do-over, to try again, to apologize, to keep their hands off, and to say “please”.  It is the role of the teacher, and, even more broadly to society, teachers are idealistically the devil’s advocate, the non-compliant, the critical thinkers, the subversive, the agent of change.  How can a teacher feel good about this relationship, especially when most days, you have at least one student begging you not to ask them what it is your job to ask of them?

In the age of leveraging the student-teacher relationship by the state for the purpose of raising the accursed test score, even as the state and publishers script interaction, don’t be that tool, instead, still love them.  Love is the curricula, love is the test.  For some students, tests are wildly inappropriate.  There are students I’ve taught who watched their father nearly kill their mother, or succeeded in killing someone else with them present, or, for a couple of students, were nearly killed themselves by, or with the aid of a parent.  I’ve worked with special needs students, who would sleep, or cry, or have a psychotic break during the test or other stressful situation.  Many of these situations are not unusual for teachers, but the question I am left with is: was I enough of an advocate?

The other questions, outside of the content of curricula, is the question: did I teach them enough about how to weather the storm?  Did I teach them the joie de vivre?  Did I help them connect to the community?

When I see a student years after I’ve had them in my class, if they seek to talk to me, if they can look me in the eye, I believe that I did alright by them.  I know that they know, the thing I asked of them was not for me.  Sometimes my teaching has been a selfish thing, but when I get it right, it’s for them.  The student that will be buried this week, they came back a few years ago, and we laughed.  With some students I do very well, with others, I know I could have been better, or I wasn’t “the thing” for them. As a teacher, I let go, knowing as is said, that you can’t be all things to all people. But, I hope I did alright.

 

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re: Connection to Wonder

I just read an interesting article with a very evocative title:  “As the World Lost Its Sense of Wonder and Majesty, So did Jurassic Park”.  The article goes on to ponder that thread , but left me on a trek of my own, to articulate my own rumination of wonder.

Our bodies lose sensitivity.  I picked up a piece of metal, hot from hours in the sun, and although I registered the pain, I did not flinch, nor cease the work I had engaged in, knowing the pain would subside as I worked.  I remembered watching my Uncle with admiration at his labor in the sun, handling some piece of metal that I could not poke at for the pain it caused me, and how he didn’t belittle my pain, and protected me with warning, and care.  Then, I thought the becoming of a man was the perseverance of pain, and aspired to such.  I realize now the thing I admired was the care he could afford to show, whatever his own situation, which he did time and time again.

In the reliquary of science, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  I have wondered if to some extent phylogeny predicts ontogeny; that the whole imitates the individual, that we as a society lose sensitivity with age.  This is probably only true if we poison the stream:  if we expose the source of our societal refreshment, our children, to the unfiltered toxins we as adults consume daily, then the source of the spring becomes contaminated too.  We regularly lock our doors but leave the powerful worldwide windows of screens wide open for the strangers of the world to enter into the senses of our children: unmonitored, unfiltered media can carry cynical and violent messages which affect them.

I think of Macbeth, “There was a time when I would have been terrified by a shriek in the night, and the hair on my skin would have stood up when I heard a ghost story. But now I’ve had my fill of real horrors. Horrible things are so familiar that they can’t startle me.”  The ebbing of humanity with each tide of rationalization that excuses us from a loss of care is broadcast on networks in groupthink, to quell the shock of  deeper atrocity and crimes against humanity that are simulcast with the more graphic images, the more visceral audio.  The drill must go further, and more shockingly down to find the threshold which affects the receding nerve.  This approach is something to be wary of.

My father retained a sense of wonder and respect throughout his life.  A doctorate in Geology helped him in this regard, I think.  He would pause on road trips to read to us the tomes of the land whose spines were legible to him in strata, books he would read to us along the way.  The wonder of the world never escaped his grasp, even as stratigraphic tomography did.

Working with children as a teacher, vicariously re-discovering the thrill of realization has been my own connection to wonder.  Parents who are aware of their own child’s interpretation of the world, as I have sometimes been with mine, are allowed passage back into those cathedral spaces.  The value of being an advocate to those people who are fresh into the world, who see the dead-ends in some of our misdirections, and still courageously move forward seeking new solutions, is that you can become that again.  I get to take those people to the places of discovery, and they take me back to the place of wonder I love.

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday Robert Lopez

Almost three years ago now, my class was visited by my friend, Robert Lopez.  He came and talked to my students about his work with USAID.  He was on his way to Ethiopia after having been in Afghanistan, Egypt (at the start of the tumult of the Arab Spring), and various other spots that require the work of USAID.

He was on his way to be in charge of a 450 million dollar budget to assist Ethiopians. He told me “Do you remember those commercials we would see in the 80’s of children in Ethiopia starving?  The program I am going to- its a big part of the reason we don’t see those commercials anymore.  We keep that from happening.”

Thanks Robert Lopez.   Thanks for keeping “that” from happening.  And all the other “that”s which might have happened.  The world and I are truly better off because of that event (a long, long time ago) that brought you here.

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A Better Plan

hopeNew Mexico has focused resources and years in large amount on systems of accountability in education. When we began this pursuit, the research showed that the closest correlation to test scores was socio-economics.  Hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade later, we have relentlessly proven what we already knew, that test scores most closely correlate to socio-economic status.  It makes sense that poverty and trauma preoccupy people to the exclusion of learning, and instead of improving education by holding educators accountable for this, we have driven out educators, as well as many other New Mexicans.  Instead of attracting highly qualified educators to the profession, the original stated goal of this process, we are one of the least attractive states for educators, which has the added effect of driving away business or other positive influences on our economy, creating more poverty and trauma that deepens with each cycle, because with each generation it becomes a self perpetuating, more ingrained part of the culture.  If we had spent equal amounts on child nutrition, the education of families, and early childhood education, the need to hold someone accountable for the educational outcomes of those causes would have been greatly diminished.  We would have been on the other side of the feedback loop, the likes of Amazon would not so easily dismiss our state as a viable place to do business.

Jeff Apodaca’s plan to jumpstart the state by using a percentage of the 23 billion dollars we have is the only plan I’ve heard of bold enough to intervene in the death spiral New Mexico is in.  I have not heard from any other candidate for governor anything that will change our course, only timid proposals which will cement our identity as the state of the poor, abused, highest in crime, and 50th in everything else.  I like the guy who keeps talking about hope, who has articulated a clear plan.  I urge you to research the platforms of each of the gubernatorial candidates, whichever way you vote.  Here is Jeff’s.  

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Thanks to New Mexico Music Educators

 

nmmeaI went to an event, Saturday, the 14th of January, which was the gathering of excellent musical students from around the state, all-state music. More than a thousand students bussed in, provided room and board, and instructed by world-class conductors from all over the country, in a few days to a triumphant culmination in a concert at Popejoy. I feel like the next time I see a music educator, I will reach into my back pocket and hand them whatever cash is there, and my credit cards, the keys to my car, my house, and then perhaps a wookie-life debt, or whatever my equivalent offering could be.

The great hope and potential of a student can get lost in the maze that young people must navigate. Yet here rises these peaks of excellence, enough inspiration for the next three thousand valleys, if they can just hang on to the memory of that, remember the soaring heights they are capable of. My daughter was part of the group of musicians that played “The Pines of Rome”.  No words here will suffice.

There is no endeavor that articulates better the contours of the soul, the panorama of the intangible complexities, which defy data. Music educators have long suffered the indignity of the trappings of accountability; the continuing fumbling at quantitative analysis of the qualitative, simply because music educators know that they give something so valuable it is immeasurable. There is available in our state this community, a connection to something bigger than themselves, discipline and focus, and the quality of life found in a passion for excellence. This well, in our (often) desert, is filled by the life work of music educators.

However indescribable the connection, the intrinsic value of music is not without evidence. The Guardian reported in October that a British school turned around test scores, not by focusing more on math and language, but by adding six hours of music per week. Music has powerful and visible effects on the brain for the old and young. Our music educators have always intrinsically known this, their actions have always supported this, and they have well articulated this truth with more power than words, if we would only listen. I fear my own expression of gratitude will never be enough, but it is what I have to offer, you wonderful, amazing people that comprise the New Mexico Music Educators Association: thank you.

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Stave 2: The First of Three Spirits

(Continued from: A Carol to Sing)

brainpokeThe warning bells rang.  There were the campaign promises of a spider to a fly; a billionaire to a laborer, and truths leaked, but they were dismissed.  The spirit entered the room. “Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked the wanton character of our country, the squeezing, wrenching, (grabbing), scraping, clutching, covetous, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning, destroyer and usurper; the old sinner.

“I am.”

“Who, and what are you?”

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.  I have come for your welfare.”

“I will not give you any welfare.  You are nothing but a beggar!  Go back!  I am done with my giving.  I will tax you instead!”

The ghost face-palmed himself and then flicked the old sinner on the nose.

“Ow, that hurt!” whined the old sinner.

“You misunderstand what your welfare is.  I will explain it, instead, as your salvation.  Ignore me at your own peril, dismiss me, and in that breath you will blow out the candle of hope that was lit for you.”

The glimmer of good that was left in the soul that the old sinner now represented warmed him long enough to keep from damning himself forever with a sarcastic tweet.  And also the spirit threw the old sinner’s phone out the window when it saw what the old sinner was contemplating.

“Hey!  That’s a two story fall!  Give it back!”, whined the old sinner again.

The ghost looked up, “Do we really want to save this guy?”.  The ghost paused, nodding, and looked down humbly, “Okay, if you think there can be redemption,” acknowledged the ghost, as responding to some celestial voice.  The spirit looked up, glanced at the old sinner and rolled its eyes, then gathered itself and grabbed the old sinner by the … ear, and walked him through the wall.

The old sinner whined and shouted “Covfefe!” as the spirit transported them.

“This is your past, the past of the body you now occupy, and you should learn about it”.  The spirit had taken them to straight to the National Archives, and pointed to The Constitution.  “These are the principles you daily defy, but are what you vowed to defend”.

“What is that, The Constitution?  Ha!  You thought I wouldn’t know it!  I do not defy it, stupid spirit sent to save me!  You don’t even know anything.  I am just liberating different parts of it.  What do you think I defy, stupid, self-righteous spirit?”

The spirit yanked the old sinner’s earlobe down so hard, it stretch the tissue in it,  and then the spirit transported both of them again, to an all but empty classroom.

“The school is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.”

The old sinner said, “Stop with the symbolism, do you really think I get your ‘literary allusion’ and your ‘metaphor’?” air-quoted the old sinner as he mocked the spirit,  “Just cut to the chase.”

“Okay, okay.  You don’t really give me a lot to work with here, but, here it is:  Public Education.  You have all but deserted something that is the cradle of democracy.  The government is often the sole advocate of those who would someday be powerful and in turn share their power, -you have neglected the child.”  The old sinner stood blankly.  The spirit face-palmed itself again, and spoke as it rubbed its forehead, “Which is a symbol for all children, and the future of democracy.  Do I really need to spoon feed you all of this?”

“I prefer silver spoons, spirit, I was never this child, I was always rich, and I have no sympathy for this wretch!”, boasted the old sinner.

The spirit reached through his skull and poked his brain directly, this time, “THINK!”  demanded the spirit.

“Ow!”  said the old sinner, again.

“You will die.  The world you leave your children and grandchildren will become more desperate, and even their privilege will evaporate.  Feasted and entitled, your descendants will not be the clever inventors of solutions to problems they are kept from.  The walls they surround themselves with will conceal the want until it runs over them like a flood.  Your legacy will be washed from the Earth.”

The poke from the spirit’s finger seemed to have jabbed away some of the deposits on his old brain, and the sinner was more receptive, or at least fearful enough to want to avoid that pain again.

“Oh,” the old sinner said.

The realization or the appearance of realization were not enough to keep the spirit from poking the old sinner in the brain, as he punctuated each of these words with a poke as he said loudly in the face of him: “‘An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.'”  The ghost put down his finger, and backed up as he could see he had about given the old sinner a cerebral aneurysm.  “Thomas Jefferson said that, a primary author of  The Constitution!  The money you siphon away from a knowing public weakens the democracy, and centralizes power to populations that will fail the interest of democracy!”

“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”  whined the old sinner.  The spirit, grateful for having finished his time with the all-but-hopeless miser, pulled once again on the miserable old man’s earlobe, a distraction from the pain in his frontal lobe, and transported him back to his bed, unescorted.  The old sinner cowered under the covers dreading the coming of the next promised spirits, and rubbed his forehead.

Next, Stave 3: The Second of Three Spirits, which will come when it moves me…

 

 

 

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