Sunday, September 19, 2010

A coat, A girl, A change of perspective.

I have this early memory that is like an important passage in a good book. Each time I go back to it, it reveals more. Different details become exposed and heightened in a way that calls out, "How was that missed before?" I was a young child in the 60's. Too young to have passionate feelings about the sexual revolution, women's lib movement, the Vietnam War, or even Woodstock. And yet, somehow, there was certainly some infiltration into my development and journey. Likewise, my youngest son was in kindergarten when the twin towers went down. My sense of loss was staggering, for him it's historical, but not quite personal and yet it has changed the climate of his generation in a multitude of ways that will forever alter their collective experience.   In addition to the generalized pain, I have the distinct, and personal memory of seeing the twin towers being planned and built. I watched the cranes, emerge atop. I recall being disheartened that the Empire State Building, in full view from the street I grew up on in Queens, would no longer be the tallest. I felt it's pain. It beckoned to me each day on my way home from school, as I played on the sidewalk, or sat on the stoop. The twin towers seemed stark, clinical almost, lacking in heart and soul. I was a bit cynical and curmudgeonly even then, or a romantic with fine appreciation for architecture. Yet when they were attacked, I felt a larger, visceral pain. My son came home from first grade unknowing, excited about friends, or a project, or the brilliant, beautiful, blue sky of that day.

The early memory I refer to is about being independent. All children want to do “it” themselves at some point. “I can do it, myself!” Turn the light off, on, off, on again because they can, and a short time earlier they could not, yet. Go potty, sleep in their own bed, pick out their own clothes. Independence is one of those stages in early childhood that is a boon and a burden, both. Sometimes those pesky little tikes just really can't quite do it yet, or doing it themselves takes approximately the equivalent of whatever the mathematic percentage of 3 years times x amount of children removed from your livelihood is. (Note to self: Efficiency expertise data would be useful here.)

Anywho... The memory. The sixties. Women's Lib movement. Childhood independence. I was a sparky little thing. Sass and attitude. Spirited and determined. I recall with great clarity a situation that occurred when I was around four years old. My father's friend, Mr. Finkle, was attempting to help me put on my coat,"Allow me." Oh the nerve, the injustice, the long, hard, history of women everywhere.....No, not really, the strong desire for a young child to be independent. Mr. Finkle was put off, but charmingly. He made a big to-do. “Oh, a feminist!” he proclaimed. “Oh, she doesn't need any help”. “A women's libber”, “You have a real live wire here and she doesn't need any help!” He snarked. I remember my father rolling his eyes in jest. I put that coat on and good! I can even remember my body and posturing. I was not going to need or take any help, damn it!

The memory is somewhat disjointed and interconnected at the same time. I felt a sense of pride in not needing help, but I was also aware a larger message or meaning was being communicated. My pride was also the bane of accepting help, it has infiltrated my being. I did not realize at the time that this was a courtesy, and also a way to treat me as a woman, not a child, perhaps one in the same?  It was also a way to demonstrate chivalry. It was not meant to scourge or condescend. It was a politeness bestowed upon me, and women, not a way to keep the girl-child down. But damn it all, I expressed with authority, as I turned abruptly, “ I can put my own coat on!” I can even remember a slight scowl and pulling away, more than likely a foot stomping.

Here I am, forty some odd years later. I am still unclear what I want to do myself versus what would feel really nice if some man-folk did it for me or with me. Would I still feel independent and worthwhile if someone helped? What are the rules here? The double standards and confusing messages few of us can decipher are in need of a little, ahem, assistance, or help. Opening a door for me feels nice, thoughtful. I generally don't wait for this to occur, though. I move around with speed and determination. Does that interfere with the rules? How will I ever learn them? Do I value them or even recognize them? Do I want help? Will it imply that I need help, that I can't do it myself? I suppose all of the above. I do need help, sometimes. I also like to help. Courtesies, kind gestures, opportunities for self and others to help, avail. I may just slow down a bit and participate, in the moment. I may wait for someone to help me put my coat on. I might even like it, damn it. I might slow down enough to feel it and accept it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Please Excuse My Dear Ad Nauseam

Dear Mrs. Teacher Lady,

Please excuse Butch, Mahalia, Watson, Marley, Dylan, Sam, All God’s (Allah's, Buddha's, Krishna's) Children Great and Small, non secular types, each and everyone for not having his/her project, homework, permission slip et al. He wasn’t able to find it in his room. She couldn’t remember where she left it. I will help her find it and probably clean his room for him. We are busy with piano lessons, video games, holidays, mental health breaks for quiet meditative reflection regarding what may or may not be important in our lives. We may have been shopping, out to dinner, at a soccer game or finding dust bunnies under a bed or two, we may have all been on our laptops, ipads, blackberries, or cell phones. We may be juggling 2 jobs, home mortgages, divorce and illness. Our lives are overwhelmed and our quality time is scarce.

Please call to set up a conference regarding the lawsuit, district office visit, state ed investigation, or family curse if you choose not to excuse my son or daughter.

Peace and warm fuzzies to you and yours.

Kisses?.....hugs?…. laughs and guffaws way out loud?

Maybe. Maybe not so much. I am a parent and a teacher. A crazed, conflicted paradox. On the defense and offense simultaneously, so let me cautiously dissect this issue from both sides, if I may.

As a teacher, this type of note tends toward outrageousness and then calms itself to ignorance and maybe hovers around disregard and back toward misguided support, on a good day... Rather than excuse the student from being responsible, why not help support the purpose. Admittedly, the purpose is not always clear. The homework may not seem prepared to motivate or engage or instill great knowledge seekers. Maybe it is a ditto, worksheet, or mindless activity. Maybe it simply appears that way out of context. As a teacher, I have room for growth and development, continued education and the ability to learn more. I am open to the idea of communication that may inspire such radical changes. I may even have the opportunity to explain why the lame-seeming assignment was issued. Honestly, at times, students, workers, and even dreamers need to learn to do stuff that just isn’t fun. Sometimes that is enough of a purpose, although that isn’t typically the aim or purpose of homework. A note that explained why the assignment was attempted but not able to be completed would be better suited. A note that hinted toward a confidential matter with intent to honor said assignment would also work, perhaps the student was not able to do the assignment because they didn't understand, this is important information to share. Blatant disregard doesn’t much build strong connections, support systems or respect for the education of our children.

As a parent, I would have loved for my children to receive homework that was motivating and stimulating. I wasn’t always able to engender those feelings when I asked for tasks to be completed but I definitely would have had fewer struggles around homework and more positive times with my children during the homework crunches before, after and at times during dinners if homework was always stimulating. Who wouldn’t want their child to come home excitedly charged to share news about something interesting? How often do we have to hear about recess, and later, nothing? The flip side, as a parent, I continue to wish that some teachers, coaches, extra curricular activity directors, instructors and persons, et al did not believe that their role in the life of my child was to instill unwavering passion and dedication for one cause. Nightly practices that stretch on past 11 at night for a play that will not garner Oscar nods, Athletic training that lasts 1 or 2 hours overtime and is carried out 7 days a week to prove dedication, assignments that are less tangible then a doctoral dissertation and almost as belaboring seem unnecessary, teetering toward abusive, and egocentrically motivated and cuts into the time needed for the very important homework, limited family time and sleep.

As a parent I was stunned to find out that my battle cries for developing responsibility and respect regarding homework were done in near isolation, merely optional on some counts. One very early occasion that had me suited up for the fight went something like this-

Me- Do you have any homework?
Child- No.
Me-Are you sure?
Child- Yes, I finished it all or It’s the weekend we don’t get homework on the weekend or some such business.

When later that same weekend attending a pool party because the homework was completed….

Family Friend- How’s school going? Any big projects due?
Child - Yeah, I have to create a diorama and do a speech on Monday about a Native American clan, I get to choose.

Child slowly walks toward friends realizing we are in public, at a friend’s party and will not likely be leaving to complete assignment, and I will probably not put on a public display or wrestle the child.

The rest of the tale ended with me deciding said child would not be working on said project that evening. Hah! That will teach said child! I called the teacher, explained the situation and asked that the consequence be given at school, where it would count. I was imagining, a poor grade, group pressure and personal admonishing of the sort 4th graders assign. I was also not going to be tossed into the unsupportive parent file. I think I ended up in the parent that puts too much pressure on child file instead. The teacher had other ideas and told said child to finish the project when said child could. Said child did said project on the bus got a passing grade that was not so painful and moved on to bigger brighter battles, victories and good times. The teacher told me, defeatedly, most of the students don’t do homework most of the time. We were sort of united, parent and teacher, knocked-down, beaten.

So was/is homework so important and necessary? Yes and no. A larger problem that arises from these parent supported notes and excuses involves respect. Respect for education. Teaching children respect for others and respect for themselves. If a teacher is giving an assignment and a student believes they don’t really have to complete the assignment, the student is offered a place of power that is not theirs to hold. They are not developmentally ready to decide that they are more important than all of the other students and the teacher. They are not in a place where they can call the shots and decide who and when to listen to and follow instructions from. They are interfering with the instruction and academic opportunities for other students by their indifference and contempt for the system.

Do your homework- systems work when members buy into them. Systems crumble when there is anarchy. I for one, am attracted to anarchy when it is done for a meaningful cause and certainly homework might be a place to start a revolution or reform at least. Simply disregarding it? That's just not right. Teach your child to advocate and make meaningful change. Empower them, don't make excuses for them.

We need to look at the system and make changes, carefully and respectfully. How do we create experiences that engage and motivate? How do we learn how to work together? How do we manage our lives when there is not enough time in a day? How do we acknowledge when to throw in the towel? As a teacher, when can we add more time for concept mastery of needed skills? More important, what do we want to teach our children about life, responsibilities, consequences and opportunities? Homework may not be THE answer but wouldn’t it make more sense to practice courtesy and respect? Can children self-advocate, review other options and assess their own progress? Let's teach them.

Isn’t life easier when you go to the supermarket, doctor’s office, airport, movies etc. and the person required to perform a service or task actually can and will? Isn’t it better yet when they are polite, enthusiastic, engaged and interested? When they can’t provide the service, wouldn’t you prefer an honest answer or alternative solution? Or maybe you like when they shrug and walk away, not even knowing what they don't know how to do. As an employer, would you want to hire someone willing to do the job well or do you like those personal challenges trying to motivate someone that is unwilling and uninterested? Life. School. It can all work. Balance. Change. Peace and kind regard.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hostile Feminist

There persists, in our culture a very real and pervasive devaluing of women. Shhhh. Don't let anyone know. If we talk about this we are hostile feminists. If we don't talk about it, we get to stay victims. Pick one. Which is more appealing? For me, the hostile feminist route has not been more appealing, but it has been more true to my fury with some of my experiences. And I have no interest in being a victim or being victimized.

I originally started writing this blog following an event that occurred at my place of work, my professional workplace. The one that is predominantly female, and in the industry of educating young children. The event was so disturbing and the immediate response to down-play and modify the intent of the particular event, opened up a wound that has been festering for a very long time. The initial workplace event let's suffice to say, involved blatant misuse of technology in the form of e-mail. The e-mail was chock full of descriptive violent acts against a woman, a colleague, an important friend. The immediate response to treat this as a joke, “jk”, “lol”, was infuriating at best. The very thought that it wasn't immediately seen for what it was-violent, sexual harassment, created a very clear sense that this branch of the workplace is not in the industry of educating it's staff or leadership. The specific event was taken more seriously at the next level and seen for what it was. Somewhat appropriate consequences followed. However, that's where it ended. Further investigations were not pursued and therefore underlying, long-standing belief systems remain unchallenged and unaddressed. So, it goes on and the culture of dominance and devaluing of women continues to be supported and perpetuated.

In some circles I am considered strong, intimidating, and forceful. In others, I am considered deeply intense, and yet others meek and socially awkward. I am all of these and more, but as a woman I am still expected to be somewhat polite and quiet. At a conference room table, I need to be calm and composed lest I appear hormonal, or evidently in need of getting you know, laid. I have a very difficult time with this because it is integrated into my experience everyday. Worse yet, it is discounted and downplayed and ignored. I am asked to “lol” at a sexually offensive comment, or violent e-mail, or surely I must be uptight and too politically correct, or a trouble-maker. I am not typically permitted a voice at the table when it is predominantly male. I am at times, challenged for wanting to have the authority to manage a situation when a male staff member is available to manage the situation. It doesn't matter that this male is not involved with the original event- there is a systemic belief that he will be able to handle a problem quickly without drama, although these actions keep the drama fueled. It does not matter that I have 6 plus years of education and he does not require more than 2 in a field unspecified. He is after all male, and isn't that more important than my education, or me and my gender?

As aforementioned, there was a festering wound. When I was 7 or 8 I had a very unfortunate experience with a male stranger while entering my apartment building. I was 30 when I finally understood the nature of a re-occurring nightmare and then became free of the nightmare. The experience itself was not fully faced until this year when the work-place event occurred. The e-mail author worked with children, as well as women. My reaction was large and possibly disproportionate, but based on my personal experience this is where I went. My own sense of not ever being “heard” around this experience was replayed when the initial response was to “not take it so seriously.” The need to stifle is disquieting. It was a matter of transference to be certain. I was unnerved. I was angered and I was outraged. The larger truth is that these are not unusual events. They are commonplace and the statistics are staggering. Some studies report an incidence of 1 out of every 4 women being sexually abused before they reach 18. What is the story of the women in your life? What is the story of the men? Victims? Perpetrators, willingly or misguided? How can this information be shared, and understood on a deeper level, acknowledged and changed?

I am fully aware that men also suffer from sexual abuse. While it occurs less frequently, it is not less disturbing or less important. It is not my intent to minimize or ignore this. It is not my personal experience. The culture of power that exists is predominantly male. This factor further promotes the unfortunate consequences of sexual abuse of males needing to be stifled even more. This also needs to be acknowledged and challenged.

My viewpoints are strong. My personal experiences and those close to me, have colored these viewpoints. How do I manage respect and tenderness toward men? One by one, not always easily and often with residual and age-old distrust. Which is similar to my sense of respect and tenderness towards women. I'm working on it. The process has been akin to cleaning out a sewer at times. Looking closely at my own choices in relationships, attempting to find closure and lay some of this to rest. Writing and responding to articles about this issue has been helpful to me but possibly problematic to others. My experience is important and I no longer want to be quietly angry, or hostily polite. I don't need to be a forceful feminist but I do need to speak to these issues and hope that they provoke thought and acceptance and change.

I have great hope in humankind. I don't hate men. Not even close. I do strongly dislike the culture of devaluing women and I wish more women were able to stand up to these problems. Assertively, in control and with respect. I will continue to speak out and stand up. I hope more men can come to understand that these issues are pervasive and detrimental and frequently everyday occurrences. I will not be quieted. I want the future to be better for my children, for sons and daughters, all.