My beloved professor passed away last July. August DeBerdt was born February 19, 1934.So in honor of his birthday,
better late than never, I wanted to share some of what I learned from him.
I attended Berry College in 1994. A small liberal arts college in the foothills of Georgia. It was difficult for me as a first generation college student. I was exited to learn. But I was scared to death.
I wanted to hide my head from the horrors of the world. But I was also impossibly curious. I wanted to be a writer. So, rather against my will, I was driven to know what was true and what was important in life, and I was not prepared for how my emotional protections would have to be shattered for me to face reality without running from it.
Some of my professors were cynical and snide. I knew nothing about the life of a professor then; of how hard it is to get a job (usually hundreds of miles from your family). I’m sure some of my professors felt oppressed by their great intellects being wasted on the backwaters of Georgia. But I had to experience their malaise personally. As an honors student in a small town high school, I was not prepared for the arrogance and negativity of some of my professors. They rolled their eyes at my faith. They sighed at my naivete. One of my professors even told me straight up that my writing was terrible and that I should just give up and not even try to be a writer. I was heartbroken. I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to become.
German Class was an oasis of calm for me. I had taken German classes mostly because I clepped into high level classes and could easily get a 2nd major in German. I was so glad I did. De Berdt was simply a joy. He was never dismissive of his students. He did not treat us like disciples to be molded in his ideology. He did not treat us as idiots to be ridiculed. He did not treat us as an insult to his intelligence or a waste of his time. He was curious and he wanted us to be curious. He did not shield us from the bloody evils of history, but he taught us difficult information with hope and love. From him I learned that it was possible for a person to honestly face the sorrow and terror of the human condition, discussing it openly and calmly, while holding hope and joy in one’s heart at the same time. (It took me quite a while longer to believe that it was possible for ME to be able to do that myself!)
He had no illusions about our abilities. He knew we were not going to produce perfect work. He just met us where we were, cared about us, and guided us from there. He loved the literature he taught, and he did everything he could to make us interested in the deep mysteries of life, and how German literature could help us plumb those depths.
He did things his own way. His accent was rather odd. But he was unselfconscious as a cat. Every now and then, despite living in America for decades, he would invent a pronounciation for an English word. My favorite was “before you judge a man, you must first walk a mile in his moCASSins.” He wore his silver hair in a long ponytail and often wore shorts with socks and sandals. He loved to cook, and to invite us to his house for German dinners, including his authentic Black Forest Cherry cake which he insisted must be made with real Kirschwasser. I loved to visit his house, and I loved his slightly half-baked art; weird wooden sculptures and puzzles made with his lathe, as well as slightly wobbly sketches of sites of interest around Berry College, and oil paintings in a shaky rococo style, full of odd-looking angels. He was a doer. He worked in his garden and biked his neighborhood. He spoke French and Walloon as well, and taught himself Spanish after retirement, so he could work with adult ESL students at the Rome library.
He knew something about how to live. I wanted to learn how.
I knew that back in Belgium he was a priest, and that it did not go very well for him. I suspected that he had lived through all the crises of faith that I was going through, and more. I didn’t learn until much later, when I read his book, about the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse by the priests in his order.
I would have left church too, under those circumstances. He left the church, but he did not abandon his beliefs.
The word “belief” comes from the German word “beliebt”. Beliebt means beloved.
Believed. Means. Beloved.
In its original meaning, believing had nothing to do with proven facts, as it is thought to mean these days. We might say sentences like “he still believes in Santa Claus” or “she doesn’t believe in Global Warming.” There are a zillion potential facts that you have to choose yes or no. You keep them or throw them out. You choose which bits of information to “believe”, and which to dismiss as propaganda or fake news.
In its original sense, belief had little to do with “facts,” and much to do with love. What you believe in is what you love, what moves you to positive action. Belief has nothing to do with what ideas you claim as “fact”. Belief has nothing to do with providing proofs, covering your bases legally, or winning arguments. What you believe in, whether you are aware of it or not, are the directions you send your time, money, and energy. Your beliefs are what you spend your life doing. This I learned from my professor.
DeBerdt could not “believe” in the version of “god” imagined by the priests who managed to twist their lust for control into some idea of “just punishment”. He saw through their idol, and the idols of others who SAY and THINK they worship God, but are deluded into worshiping their idols of God. SAYING and THINKING are not the same as BELIEVING.
DeBerdt’s higher power helps people to discover their gifts and use them to help others, and does not shame them into submission to whatever authority asserted itself. His God was one of love and generativity, not fear and control. His God was the God that Goethe wrote poetry about. A God who understood that we were created of nature, not to think of ourselves as better than nature but to unlearn the world’s dirty definitions and relearn what God meant for us to be all along. DeBerdt’s God wanted us to live a joyful life; a life of love and service. He loved his wife without bounds, caring tirelessly for her during her many years of illness, in which she got frailer and grouchier. He loved his students and did everything he could to help us. He lived his beliefs.
Dr. DeBerdt truly faced the great evils of humanity, clear-eyed and with a wry, morbid sense of humor. At the same time, he believed in the worth of fragile things. He believed in education. He believed in the beauty of life itself. He believed in the worth of human beings and of nature. He believed in love, and in the positive actions that love causes. He lived his beliefs.
Here is his favorite short Goethe poem that he had us memorize. The translation is mine.
Rest in peace, my beloved teacher.
|Über allen Gipfeln|
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde
balde Ruhest du auch.
Over all the hilltops
lies the quiet,
In all the treetops
Hardly a breath;
The birds hush in the woods
soon you too shall rest
You live in your tower
And earn your keep
While we toil beneath you
Waiting for sleep
We knew you in old times
When teeth were still white
You told us to work for
An end to the night
You left us to slave here
You left us behind
You left us no warning
You left us so blind
You said you would help us
You said that you cared
You throw us a bone some
And laugh when we’re scared
We miss you we see you
Up there all shining
We love you we need you
You have us all pining
You said you would feed us
You said that you cared
Please throw us a bone now
Don’t laugh when we’re scared
You told us to fear them
Wherever they hide
to trust only Tower
And doubt our own eyes
One day I went wandering
Away from the tower
I saw from a distance
A good kind of flower
I chose it and kept it
I loved it that hour
It is ours and will keep us
We needed no tower
We planted its seeds and
our flowers did grow
Gratitude bloomed for us
And actions did flow
We sowed the beauty
We sowed the love
We sowed the realness
And down came the dove
The dove stays with us now
From the tower he’s flown
May you old tower crumble
May you die alone
You said we must fear them
That only you cared
But them is just us now
And we aren’t so scared.
We gave you our power
We toiled and were awed
We gave you our heart’s blood
But you were not God.
You lived in your tower
While we earned your keep
We’re working for us now
No longer asleep.
Once in a Lifetime
By Shalay for Russ
are we comfortably numb
singing the practical song?
are you Tom Sawyer?
or a brick in the wall?
Am I a spirit in the material world,
Or am I a material girl?
We were moving in stereo
Then they blinded me with science,
and I ran
Now one of our submarines is missing.
There is radio silence on the airwaves.
You might think I am crazy
This is not a road to nowhere.
Take me to the river,
Switch off the mind and let the heart decide
Water is flowing underground
Once in a lifetime
When in the realm of too-sentient things
I hollered and flapped and broke both my wings
I wailed and screamed and beat my breast
The wind blew by
I screamed to the wind that there was too much to do
The wind agreed,
that he was busy too.
“Well, how can I rest, while I’m running this race?
I never get ahead, a slave to serotonin, confined by time and space,
You wouldn’t know! You just swirl around, as free as you please.”
And then the wind made an amused little breeze.
“Me? Where I want? HA! Don’t make me laugh.
I go where I must, loosing wheat from its chaff
Where temperatures drop
there are storms to make
where water levels rise
there are storms to slake
If only I could choose, and go where I will,
I’d spend much more time just being still.”
“How do you choose which task to do first,
which work is good and which work is cursed?”
“Sometimes I destroy. It’s not mine to choose.
I don’t control what people will lose.
Like water goes down, by gravity coerced
Circumstances hound me, extracting my force.”
I considered for a moment
how I’m kin to to wind
and asked, calmer then,
“So how do I choose the tasks that I should
with my twisty mind spinning
How to be bad or be good
My systems at war
Over where my energy should go
Wind, tell me, how do I know?
Give me your wisdom please!”
And the wind swirled his cloak
And said “Follow me.”
So I rode on his coattails
Floating wild and free.
Through hurricanes and blizzards and wildfires we rode
Over and over, the wind destroyed.
“Why?” I asked him. “ WHY?”
Sadly he said “ I can do no other than what I do.”
I screamed and I screamed “I am jealous of you!
I hate all my choices! My mistakes are my shame!
You do your business and never get blamed!”
I sobbed and I whined of my responsibility.
The wind sighed, and let me be.
“All you can do
is keep with the flow of truth
Truth is not a soft teacher. She never shields.
She shows you blood as well as green fields.
You have to see the beautiful in the brutal
Or else you will never be at rest.
The wind blows the way it knows
The humans act as they learned best.
You have to learn to accept the flow.
You can never become a shaman
until you learn to stop blaming.
I am 44 and have had my diagnosis for three years. For most of my life I thought I was just nothing but a mess. Now that I know more about ADD and ADHD, I have other ideas.
I have been teaching for 20 years. In that time I have gotten to know many, many kids and adults with ADHD or ADD.
I love them all.
Everyone’s brain is wired differently. The term ADHD is used as a catch-all for many different behaviors, the most common being “inability to focus on the thing you are supposed to be focusing on at the time you are supposed to focus on it”.
It isn’t a disease. It’s a neurological difference that causes us to be maladapted to the culture we live in.
But the culture we live in is maladaptive to continuing healthy life on earth.
We are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
ADD life for me goes something like this:
“I don’t know which cereal to buy, because this one is organic, but this one is locally sourced but not organic. Will my kid eat the organic one or does it taste weird? I need to stay in my budget, so I guess I need to choose the GMO Monsanto cereal because it is so much cheaper. But it has so much sugar!. But the Monsanto one also has palm oil which is burning the Amazon rain forest. And now my kid is singing loudly trying to get my attention, and there are people behind me as I am blocking the cereal aisle agggh”
Every decision, all the time.
These are not problems that humans should have. The multitude of choices, many of them laden with ethical implications, is dizzying. First world problems, right? Now add “guilt” to the pile of things making the decisions harder. Human executive function isn’t meant to have to deal with this many variables.
Here is what I know about people with ADD. They think” too much” or they feel “too much”. It isn’t really too much, y’all, it’s just more than the normals. I am either zoomed all the way out, thinking of every single ethical implication of my cereal, or zoomed in, focused on nothing in the world but my kid singing, while other people around me get angrier and angrier about my failure to just pay the right amount of attention to what I am doing and get out of the way, even though the chemical insecticides are ruining farmland and the rain forest is burning and ouch my budget and the psychological well being and physical health of my child all are hanging on my head and they just don’t seem to care.
Do all these angry people really know what the right thing to do is all the time? HOW THE HELL DO THEY KNOW???
The answer is, they don’t. Most people who demonstrate lack of patience (who aren’t triggered by some larger life circumstance) suffer from the illusion that their narrow illusion is the true reality, and that life would be easy if everyone would either get in their narrow reality with them, or just disappear from earth. They don’t see the millions of other factors that we see.
This illusion is not their fault. It is the way that they perceive reality. It is how they stay sane in a culture of fakeness. It is how they continue to function.
The normals do not see, as we do, that actual reality is a huge luminous whole that humans, with our tiny faulty senses, understand like 1% of. That every person walks around filled with notions of truth that are in fact just oversimplifications that we unconsciously cobble together to keep ourselves from losing our minds.
Human minds simply cannot grasp the complexity of a single human being with its billions of cells, nerves, and mitochondria, much less the complexity of a whole classroom, town, or country; so people develop oversimplified beliefs. Those with ADD have problems with the zoom function; how exactly do I do this oversimplifying? Do I examine things on a microscope level or a telescope level? I wanna do both at the same time.
The only way I proceed forward is to not only strive to correct my negative thought patterns, but to consciously cultivate new, positive, SIMPLE thought patterns to live into. This has helped my thoughts and my actions to become clearer, and helped me to prune away information that isn’t needed at that moment.
The ADHD/ ADD students I have taught are often the most empathetic, bright, and creative kids. Their misbehaviors are caused by stress, not malice or deception. They are often bullied and misunderstood. They have a difficult time understanding why they are supposed to pay attention to the tiny meaningless details and ignore the big interesting picture. They need to do and be, and the structure of school squashes their spirit with all its sitting down and shutting up. It is time to see these kids as the beautiful gifts they are, instead of as a drag on class business as usual. As a teacher I work hard to provide opportunity for all the neurotypes in my classroom, and I wish all teachers had the resources and circumstances to do the same.
Nonneurotypical kids such as those with ADD or Autism add so much insight to the experience of those who never looked at life a different way. I have an autistic kid in my middle school class who, when asked who his favorite person was, without a trace of embarrassment or hesitation, said “my mom.”
The other kids looked around, expecting the usual barrage of ridicule for such unusual middle school behavior, but none came. The kids learned “hey wait, it is ok to still love your family even though people ridicule it.”
BLESS THE NONNEUROTYPICALS!!
Our parent who art everywhere
Hallowed be thy name
Thy love-order come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our basic needs
and forgive us our mistakes
As we forgive those who make mistakes against us
Lead us not into selfish delusions
But deliver us from choosing evil
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory
As a language teacher, I know about communicating. I also know how often people think they have communicated, but they really haven’t.
I love to play the game of Telephone with my students. We start a whispered sentence in German, and by the time it gets all the way around the circle, it is usually completely garbled and hilarious. Or we play a similar game, except with sketches that get passed around. It shows them how fragile communication really is.
“Purple monkey dishwasher” is my husband’s name for the phenomenon in which you explain something to your students, they nod and look like they understood, but then when it is time to take the test or write the essay, the words that they regurgitate back about the topic looks very little like what you said. Is it because they are stupid? No. Is it because I’m a terrible teacher? No.
Its just that communication didn’t really happen.
I have an inner ear disorder and have suffered with hearing loss for decades. I finally gathered the courage (and the funds) to go to Sam’s Club to be tested and possibly get a hearing aid.
Y’all, it was terrifying. The testing lady was awesome. There was the normal set of soft beeps and hand raising. cool, cool.
Then there was a Word Part.
The Awesome Testing Lady said; “the recording will say 25 words with a pause after each, and just repeat each word as you hear it. Let’s start with your bad ear.”
“fish. pile. turn. duck. twin. sit. donkey. nine…” “Hey, self” I thought triumphantly to myself, “this is EASY! Maybe my hearing isn’t as bad as I thought it was!”
Then, Awesome Testing Lady smiled lovingly at me, and said “Now let’s try the same words with your good ear.”
“fill. mile. dirt. muck. swim. hit. donkey. mine…:
My brain got hold of some of the sounds, AND JUST RANDOMLY AND CONFIDENTLY MADE SOME CRAP UP!!!
At least I got the donkey right.
I began to think about the deeper implications of this.
Our main unconscious desire is to maintain calm and some sort of handling of the current situation. Stasis.
SO MY DEAR, TRUSTED, BELOVED BRAIN, WHEN FACED WITH INCOMPLETE INFORMATION, WILL MAKE RANDOMLY MAKE CRAP UP WITHOUT LETTING ME KNOW IT WAS A COMPLETE GUESS!!!
I remarked on this to the Awesome Testing Lady, who had seen the phenomenon many times before, and remarked that it is sort of like the missing sounds are potholes in a road. With mild hearing loss, your brain uses context to sort of pave over the potholes so the road of understanding is drivable. As hearing further degrades, or if there is no context, the brain has a much harder time filling the potholes, and understanding becomes much bumpier.
And then, y’all, it happened again.
The other day I went to have my eyes checked. (Yes, I am old and falling apart, hush , my son already told me)
The paper eyechart was super-easy; nice big clear letters, no strain, and my brain was comfy and secure and happy.
Then the Eye Testing Lady busted out the electronics.
I had my face in this torture-device thing, and I was trying to read impossibly tiny digital letters.
I knew they were letters from the same alphabet that I had known since I learned the damn song when I was three.
Eyecharts are always letters.
But. My brain insisted that it was seeing all kinds of other things; numbers, Greek letters, Roman Numerals and even freaking Norse Runes.
My eyes couldn’t give my brain enough information to see the microscopic letters.
So my brain was giving its best shot at making some sort of meaning from what little it could see.
So what do I take away from this? That I can’t trust my senses at all? That I’m living in a constant state of unreality?
No. I can’t live like that.
But what I did learn was some humility. Maybe what I think I know for sure is really just a case of incomplete information, and my brain is paving over a lot of potholes to keep me from losing the road.
How many of my students are dealing with these sorts of sensory information gaps? How many of my students are also dealing with context gaps, so their brain doesn’t even have many guesses to make? How many adults are dealing with similar pothole-filled roads in their minds?
Bottom line is, I can’t assume that something I said or wrote was understood perfectly by those who heard or read me. Also I can’t assume that my understanding of someone else is really what they meant to say or write.
And since I personally cannot proceed through life with hopelessness, the only course of action in my teaching and in my life must be patience. To speak more slowly, listen more carefully, check for comprehension, rephrase, politely ask them to restate it in their own words, etc.
Communication is connection, and we must make meaning together, because if we don’t, our minds are often just making up their own version of what the other person meant.
She’s not homeless today.
She has a one-room place and a landlord who notices if she uses more water.
She’s on her usual corner
Encouraging her cornermates with kind words
chiding them lovingly about not doing their part to pick up their trash.
Today is a few weeks after the cop ticketed her
For “aggressive panhandling” as she leaned on her walker at the corner
and told her she should just go and die.
Today her place seems big and empty and hers
It’s months since she opened her home to her corner-mates
Four women and a cat in one room
Months since they angrily moved out
When she asked them to stop stealing from her
Today her place seems big and empty and hers
Because she has almost finished giving away her beloved’s things to church
A year since he passed
A year and a month since they told him he had to be hooked to machines to live
A year and a month since he said unhook me
Many years inside the month she spent watching him die
Wondering how she would pay for his body to leave this world
A year since she found a lab that would take his body for science
Today is a few years after she fractured her spine
But said “nah, I can’t afford treatment” for three weeks
A few years since the day she woke up and her legs didn’t work
And she landed in the hospital with a spine made of steel
and medical bills bigger than life
Today this woman of steel
Talks to me, a random summering teacher, at the coffeeshop,
About what souls are
full of resilence and tenderheartedness
Today is years after she made beautiful pottery in Kimmswick
But never could get the red pottery to come out right
Because red glaze is expensive
And takes a perfect amount of heating and cooling
To not crack
My son loves math. I’m gonna straight up brag, not even humblebrag. He’s gifted in math, way above grade level. Super bright.
3rd grade standardized math tests were yesterday.
He didn’t finish the test.
He got caught up perfectionizing on one problem he couldn’t figure out the answer to. He felt so stressed that he shut down and gave up.
If my son, who loves math and is gifted in math, and who is a privileged white boy, bombed this test, imagine how many other kids are not showing their true potential, for a myriad of different reasons.
Brains are not standardized. Teaching cannot be standardized, humans cannot be standardized. Why do we think that standardized tests are a good measurement of much of anything other than :
A. being privileged (like my gifted little white boy)
B. being able to take tests well
So my privileged gifted white boy bombed.
That tells me that it’s mostly about being able to take tests well.
Life is not a sprint. It is not a series of stressful tasks to be white-knuckled through. It is a marathon, where we have to learn to find joy and hope in our daily grind, whatever that may be.
Learning should be taking place every day, as a natural part of curious human life. Testing happens randomly; you don’t know when life is gonna throw you a curveball. It isn’t something you can cram for. We need to be cultivating resilience instead of creating fake stressful events to teach our kids how to be stressed.
I have so many bright students who get good grades and get caught up in the competition game. Many kids by 8th grade end up not caring about what they are learning, just whether they got a 100 instead of a 99. Or that they did better than whoever they are competing against. Of course competition is not bad in and of itself, but if it becomes the primary goal, rather than actually changing one’s mind and engaging with problem solving, then the primary skills learned are:
A. Competition; they get their brains stimulated by beating others, not by cooperating to solve real-world problems
B. The mindset of white- knuckling it through life. Jumping hoops to get to rewards; the next sugary snack, the next drink, the next day off, the next like on facebook, the next video game, or quick wealth and early retirement. Testing culture teaches kids how to be stressed and seek escape. We need to be teaching them that difficult things like living, learning, and relationships are their own rewards, to be lived FOR, not to be white-knuckled through or escaped.
The question should not be “what are we teaching?”.
It should be “What are kids actually learning about how to live?”
When I was about 10 years old, a well-dressed white lady walked into my dad’s corpse-scented taxidermy shop reverently holding the body of a hummingbird that had smashed itself into her picture window.
“How much will it cost me to have it preserved? Poor little beautiful creature!” she said.
“Hmm….” said my father, looking at her sympathetically. “I’m not sure about the materials… what do you think you would be able to afford?”
“Well, no more than three hundred.” said the woman thoughtfully.
My father reached for the tiny bird and gazed at it carefully. “I think I should be able to keep it under $300. Come pick it up in two weeks.”
The woman left the shop happy.
It took my father a few hours and $10 worth of materials to taxiderm the beautiful little bird exactly as she wanted it.
When she came to pick it up, she was overjoyed with its beauty and his talent, and happily paid $299. He had worked hard to keep it under $300. Me and my brothers laughed about this for years.
Now you might be thinking my father was a scam artist. Well, I guess he kind of was, but he was still an artist. It was because he understood the way people work. He knew how easily the rules changed. He knew that the correct price=what the person is willing to pay. Different social groups have VERY different ideas about what is valuable and what is not, and there is no fixed, inherent worth in any purchasable object. Value, whether emotional or monetary, or both tangled together, is all extremely subjective. I learned this very young.
The shop had 3 rooms; the taxidermy shop, the bait shop, and the gas station. My job was to run the register for the gas station. I sold lots of beer, soda, candy, chips, and cigarettes. Many folks could only afford a few dollars worth of gas at a time because they had to budget for cigarettes too. People often scrounged up coins from under their car seats. So many folks living paycheck to paycheck, living on cigarettes. Regardless of how they got there, this was their undisputable reality.
One day a desperate-looking white man came in to the bait shop with a gun to sell. He had an unexpected bill to pay. My dad bought the gun. It wasn’t like he needed another gun; there were already dozens, and he only needed one or two to hunt with. This happened over and over, with many different desperate men, and the guns piled up. Each time, the desperate man was able to pay that bill and didn’t have to tell his wife they were overdrawn. Daddy bought him a month’s worth of dignity. Sometimes, months or years later, someone would come in wanting to buy that type of gun, willing to pay a pretty penny, and my dad happened to have that exact weapon on hand. Selling at a fair price. The price being whatever the buyer was willing and able to pay.
One day an old black man came in from cotton mill, his white fuzzy hair resembling the cotton fuzz covering his uniform. He came to buy worms so he could go fishing. But when it came time to get out his wallet, he realized it was empty; he didn’t have any money because it was the end of the month, could he have credit? My father gave him the worms, and had the man sign as he carefully recorded his debt on a yellowing receipt book. Daddy did this over and over. People working shit jobs that didn’t cover the bills, folks out of work, alcoholics who already spent their check, folks whose disability check didn’t quite last til the end of the month, people who heard that The Picnic Basket gave credit so they came to exploit it, people who wanted to take their mama fishing for mother’s day but they were waiting on their paycheck.
Some people paid their debts faithfully. Some forgot. Some died without paying. Some never intended on paying. Daddy knew that’s how would go down. He never said this, but I think he didn’t really care about the couple bucks, and he went through the rigamarole of the “official records” for their benefit more than his. He knew they had their worms and their dignity and their chance to do the one thing that relaxed them from their shitty jobs. To do something they loved with their tiny scraps of free time. Fishing was practical enough to not feel prohibitively frivolous, yet it could be done out of sheer love.
I learned early that if two people have always been in different socioeconomic classes, they do not understand how things are valued differently in other classes. The man covered with fuzz from cotton mill would find the $299 hummingbird utterly ridiculous. The hummingbird woman, as charming and sensitive and animal-loving as she could afford to be, would likely find the cotton-mill man’s inability to manage his finances enough to pay for worms disgusting and pathetic, and would likely go on a tirade about how my dad shouldn’t give charity because people need to learn to work for what they got. Even though this man likely worked way harder than she ever had and had expenses she could not imagine.
My dad knew about not having money. When he was 10 or so, his parents were able to to move from the grinding poverty of sharecropping to working the night shift at the cotton mill. They were then able to afford cigarettes, so they took up smoking like most other mill workers did, to get through the shifts. He noted how expensive these were, and calculated much he could save if he didn’t buy them , and vowed to never smoke.
He started work at Kroger when he was 14 years old, and worked his way up to manager. He worked there for 25 years and saved enough money to buy the store when I was 9. (my mom was really good at being frugal too), giving my two brothers jobs that could support their families. My father was an actual example of the fabled Bootstrap Man. He made something out of whatever he had. He seemed extraverted, a great businessman, but what he really loved was to be quiet in the woods or on the lake. In his early 50s he and my brothers had saved enough money from the store to buy a nice chunk of land, with a lake, and houses for all three households.
He died less than two years later, y’all.
Daddy taught me about value. Value is incredibly variable. If something is scarce, it becomes more valued. Once people have something, they tend value it less. This made sense, back when we were in the wild, foraging for things delicious and useful. But with the advent of money, delicious and useful are only two of the factors; then came in paying for status symbols, paying to flee punishment, paying for beauty, paying to attract love or attention, paying for excitement, and, in my dad’s case, paying for peace and escape. Value is in the eye of the valuer. Gratitude for what one already has may be the most elusive valuable thing of all.
My father knew all about money and value, but he was not a material-loving guy. My dad didn’t seem to want anything, except to take care of his family, and to get out in nature sometimes. When my father died, he left hardly any personal belongings beyond a few clothes, a few guns, and his truck, which smelled like tobacco spit and dried-up worms. And a purple fluorite tetrahedron and a buckeye he carried in his pocket, along with his daily black-labeled chapstick and Afrin nose spray. I took the buckeye and the fluorite and I treasure them. Where did these items come from? Why did he value them so? I will never know. My father was not a talker, least of all about emotions. All I can do is value these objects because he did, and remember the wordless things he taught me.
Ever wonder why people often stop making sense when they are arguing?
It’s because of the fight-or-flight response system. Our bodies perceive a threat to our beliefs the same as it perceives a physical threat, such as a hungry tiger. Once our bodies perceive threat, then control of the body is taken over by the limbic system.
The limbic system has to simplify. It has to shut down all non-necessary processes, like digestion, logical thinking, empathy, etc in order to pour all the energy into fighting or flighting. The brain uses up TONS of energy. So the limbic system has to disable most functions of the brain in order to deal with the threat. None of this is conscious.
So if you are in fight/flight mode, the part of your brain responsible for logic is being deprived of energy needed to function. In a heated argument, words basically become just rocks to throw.
Research on trauma has shown that humans actually have two more options when threatened, including freeze and fawn. We hear more about the active options of fight and flight than we do about the passive options of freeze and fawn. Humans have all four options available to their limbic system, but an individual’s genetic makeup seems to cause a person to default to one option more often than to the others.
“Freeze” is pretty obvious to explain. Instead of taking action, or running, the person’s instinct is to hide or play dead like a possum. This tends to be my personal default limbic reaction; if I am upset, I am paralyzed by choice and I fail to act. The irritating thing about me is that this in turn forces those around me to act instead, since I am frozen. This is the hardest thing for me to conquer in the classroom. Due to my damaged hearing and prioperception due to my inner ear disorder, I am easily triggered by sound and sudden movement in class: I become confused, frozen, increasingly unable to think straight, as the blood in my brain leaves my prefrontal cortex. It is hard for me to “have eyes in the back of my head” and deal out swift, humane consequences. I tend to freeze up and ignore too many behaviors. I must practice lots of prayer and mindfulness to help me be more resilient, to keep myself from getting triggered in class, thus becoming way less effective as a teacher.
“Fawn” is when you give your personal strength and loyalty to someone stronger in hopes of gaining protection. When you have a caring, responsible leader, it is a very useful response. But when you have bullies or tyrants, “fawn” is the fuel for Stockholm Syndrome. When threatened physically or emotionally, a “fawner” tries to gain safety by sucking up to the source of threat in hopes of being spared physical, social, emotional pain. Make no mistake; emotional pain is just as real as physical pain; they have lots of scans that show that it causes our brains to react way as they do when in physical pain. For thousands of years, being ejected from the social group and thus its protection often has meant literal death.
So “fawn” is useful when forming healthy groups, if led by someone humane and mature. But “fawn” is also the fuel of tribalism based in fear and a twisted sense of belonging. In order to please whatever they believe to be in power (whether it is an attractive person or an Ideology or a mangled vision of God) the fawners will try show their loyalty by throwing others under the bus. Middle school cliques often aren’t life or death, but it really does feel like it to their brains. Fawners give up their personal power and sense of integrity in hopes of being accepted by the group and gaining safety. The insecure power-mongers then feed on the adoration and energy of the toadies and demand more adoration, often making up juicy details about The Ideology or telling lies about others to keep their followers hanging on. The “fawn” response to emotional insecurity is the fuel of many a mean-girl clique.
A triggered student may feel like the teacher is the enemy. Or, the student may see the teacher as benign, but feel compelled to act out in class or be rude to the teacher to earn the approval of the kids in power. There are so many social dynamics at work that an insecure kid feels buffeted.
I think that the emotional trauma suffered in school can follow people throughout their lives, causing some to remain unhealthily stuck in adolescent-like patterns. I think that “fawn” is often responsible for fearful people joining unhealthy groups in hopes of gaining protection. The holocaust could not have happened without “fawn.” Some people have more resilience skills than others, spend less time in fight/flight/freeze/fawn, and can more easily find mutually beneficial groups, rather than cliques that feed on the limbic-fueled energy exchange between bullies and fawners that results in battles of inclusion and exclusion. I want to help kids feel emotionally safer, so they are not getting triggered so often. Daily I struggle with the question “how do I as a teacher do a better job of helping kids develop resilience skills?”
Children naturally compete for resources like food and attention. They are programmed by nature to do so.
If they have enough and they feel safe and loved, many children naturally and good-naturedly share what they have with others.
Children are naturally openly curious about those different from them, and may look shocked and surprised or ask embarrassing questions.
Children often do not naturally make judgments about whether a person is more or less valuable than themselves. This is learned behavior.
Human beings have many natural tendencies and learned behaviors that can be nurtured or squashed.
SO WHY DO SO MANY TEACHERS SQUASH COOPERATION AND NURTURE COMPETITION IN SCHOOLS??
It often happens accidentally. We have 30 kids who all want attention, so they compete for it. Whether positive, negative, praise, pity, from teacher, from peers, most kids want attention. Of course they do. This is how humans learn and thrive and survive. You try to give equal amounts of attention, but some demand more, thus leaving less teacher energy for the rest.
Logistics are also a factor. If you have 30 kids in a class you have to come up with organized, standardized routines, just to operationalize the day. A factorylike jaillike setting which puts kids only with kids of their own exact age group, a setting that rewards sitting-down-and-shutting-up skills above all others is not healthy for cultivating an appreciation of differences.
Also, classist ideas about education being the ticket to a “good job” causes all kinds of stress.
My heart breaks every time I hear a teacher say “you’d better study, or you’ll end up flipping burgers.”
What’s wrong with flipping burgers? I mean, obviously most folks want a better paying job. But what if that kid’s parent works at McDonalds? Cooking food is good honest work. Why shame it? Why not say “hey, let’s learn this so you can keep growing your brain!” or something, anything to motivate them other than fear or shame.
Not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer. Any civilization needs people to pick food, remove trash, wipe butts at the nursing homes and daycares, and all kinds of other dirty jobs. Why do we shame and scorn the people who do the hardest, dirtiest work, instead of being grateful?
It breaks my heart to hear 2nd graders talking about “good kids” and “bad kids”. It’s already clearly known by then which kids are “bad.” “Bad” often just means the kid has a hard time sitting still and shutting up. But from the time that kid is little, everyone around him is treating him like he is bad. So as he grows up, he either learns to conform better, or he grows into his “badness” and becomes even more wary of adults. Even adults who have excellent intentions, if they make him feel awful about himself, they feel like the enemy.
Many students with good grades are good at learning. Many other students with good grades are actually not learning much except how to jump the hoops and game the system.
Many students who seem respectful in front of teacher are actually respectful. Many others are just good at bullying others when teacher isn’t looking, showing their status by stepping on the necks of weaker kids, while pretending to be respectful when teacher is looking. They wait for policing, and the second policing lets up, they are active. These students love to try to get other kids in trouble, and they relish watching adults get mad, and they relish seeing other kids get punished. The level of sneakiness is astounding. Instead of learning respect, they are learning how to justify bullying and how to cover up their injustices.
Due to all these factors, it is a lot harder to foster cooperation in a class than competition.
Competition is more exciting. Especially for the kids who spend much of their free time addictedly competing on video games and social media.
Teachers need training in how to be a leader who teaches students to value difference and work together, as an alternative to constantly competing against each other.
Do I believe that all competition is bad?
NO! Of course not! Kids need to press their abilities against others.
We just shouldn’t value competition so highly that it causes us to justify or even encourage feelings of superiority.
Some countries don’t even try to teach reading in the first few years of school; they just teach kids how to treat each other, and how to exist peacefully and cooperatively in a group.
How different would it be in the US if we valued human lives more than we value competition and “progress”? What if more people actually valued hard work more than gaming the system to get ahead of someone?
I hate small talk.
Not all small talk. Just the small talk that’s mostly about ego competition, one-upping each other, attempting to cling to tribal groups and figure out who to exclude. I find it meaningless and exhausting.
But who am I to decide what is meaningful and meaningless?
Many things that I find meaningful are completely useless to many other people. Why does my opinion matter than someone else’s?
So if personally value only things I currently deem to be “deep and meaningful, ” and thus devalue watercooler gossip and other stuff normal people do, then that officially makes me an a**hole, going around thinking I am better than people. Being judgy, like I don’t want to be.
I try to remind myself that value, in terms of ideas or communication, doesn’t work like money. It doesn’t run out. I can just keep valuing some interactions more without devaluing others. Can’t I?
I can respect people’s choices without wanting to make them myself. We can all find joy in different things without judging each other, right?
But then I SHOULD pass judgment on people’s behavior that is hurting others. I am a creature who is very sensitive to volume and tone. How do I tell when people trading insults in a humorous tone are actually having fun, or if they are just having a crass power battle couched in jocularity? How do I know that their register isn’t just different from mine? Do I wait til they start hitting each other?
Do I try to isolate myself from folks who interact primarily by judging and ridiculing, trying to slot people in their proper power order?
Do I just lighten up?
As a teacher, how much am I supposed to intervene? When kids are trading annoying but innocuous barbs, jockeying like little alpha and beta dogs, when does “let them work it out themselves” end and my responsibility to squash their interaction begin?
I love teaching. I love kids. But I hate spending most of my waking hours telling people constantly what they cannot do. I want to help them develop some sort of inner voice that they can trust. But they can’t get there until they are in a place where they aren’t constantly defending their social position.
Some kids are are so used to their behavior being restricted that they don’t want to do what they are told, even if it benefits them. Even though they simultaneously (subconsciously) crave direction and normalcy.
The social scene for many kids involves trying to get others in trouble, for amusement purposes. They love to see the adults get mad; it’s funny. And it is also funny to throw their enemies and frenemies under the bus. It’s like prey escaping from predators.
I have students who spend much of their time reenacting their traumas, interacting in the only ways they know how. Kids who will hug you one minute and cuss you out the next, with no warning.
I don’t know how to navigate all this. I shut down and it takes all the energy I have to keep from bursting into tears at my ineffectiveness.
Me and my ADD brain have always had a hard time deciding which details were relevant and which ones weren’t. I lack pruning skills. I carry all this irrelevant information I might need some day, like I carry 10 books in my backpack at once, in case I need one and I don’t know which one. Other people can tell which information is socially relevant.
Choosing is so hard.
I hate choosing. I hate judging.
Why can’t I hold it all in my head and value it all the same, through the golden light of love? Why can’t I somehow know what to do in a situation with 500 variables, only 300 of which I can see?
Why can’t I stop overanalyzing small talk?
Friday, 8. March, 2019
As I was trying to leave to go to work today, my nose began to gush blood.
I stood in the kitchen with a roll of paper towels, watching my life force drip into the sink.
I stared at the erythrocytes bright red with oxygenation.
I wondered about my white blood cells. Were they thrashing around trying to find some enemy to defeat, still living and moving in the red gush? How long until they realized they were no longer part of the organism and gave up?
Were my platelets trying to coagulate, even though there was no reason to do so?
How long does my blood live without me?
I tasted the metal in my throat, looked at the red gathering in all the creases of my hands, frozen by the thought that I am composed of billions of molecules working together somehow.
Blood is a beautiful color.
Spiegel, blutrot (Blood Red Mirror ) by Gerhard Richter
Today’s journal prompt was about the ways in which we are smarter than animals, and the ways in which they are smarter than us.
Here are some results from my 7th and 8th graders:
WAYS HUMANS ARE SMARTER:
WAYS ANIMALS ARE SMARTER:
“Animals don’t judge each other.”
“My dog knows what I’m saying when I ask him to take a walk. But I don’t know what he is saying when he is barking. Maybe we just don’t understand their language.”
“One thing that is better about animals than humans is disagreements; humans fight and get mad at random pointless stuff and come up with stupid things like racism and sexism, animals don’t.”
Out of the mouths of my awkward angels.