Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Christmas Question

  I was brought up, as I have often said, by religious fanatics.  This is another way of saying they were superstitious about a great many things.  Rock music.  Fantasy and horror novels.  Television.  Movies.  Dancing.  Vulgar/Emphatic language.  Alcohol.  They didn't so much think indulgence in these things would bring "bad luck" so much as that they'd mess up your life karmicly.  If you went to the movie theatre, your life would take a downturn.  Stuff would stop working out.  You wouldn't be blessed with success.  Okay, I guess that means they did think indulgence in these things would bring bad luck.
  They didn't like us having anything to do with Halloween.  They didn't like the religious connections of Halloween to Samhein and other stuff like that which they knew little about, but disliked and were deeply, unexaminedly superstitious about.  They only discussed it with their ears wide shut.  They were concerned and wanted to distance themselves and take a firm stand against the pagan/druidic roots of Halloween.  They didn't like us to even SAY Halloween.  They were upset by anything that happened at school that would make us have to take part in Halloween.  One time in art class our teacher had us make construction paper masks on Halloween.  Of course I got black and made a Darth Vader mask.  I then wore it at recess.  My parents had sent me to school sans Halloween costume "to be a good example to nonChristians", and they got wind later that I, at age 11, had done this and they were all wigged out by it.  Mad at me.  Feeling tricked and betrayed.  Scared that I'd done something unlucky/worldly/not Christian.  More upset than some people get when they break a mirror, spill some salt, have a black cat cross their path and walk under a ladder, all in the same hour, on Friday the 13th.
  Over time my parents got more and more relig...superstitious.  About Christmas too.  We'd never had any Christmas decorations, nor a tree or anything like that, but over time they kept cutting back on what we were allowed to do in December too.  There was even a year or two there where they made us refuse any Christmas candy or presents from others.  Mostly they made up for this by taking us out and buying us presents on Boxing Day or for New Years.  But we were NOT to call them "Christmas presents."  If someone asked "What did you get for Christmas?" we were to say "We don't celebrate Christmas" to superstitiously distance ourselves and be a good example, and then we could say "But on Boxing Day they got me..."
  Because, just like with Halloween, they were superstitious and concerned and wanting to distance themselves and take a firm stand against the pagan roots of Christmas. The tree, the gift-giving, the winter solstice.  All the stuff that would have confused anyone in the bible (apart from the guy who wrote that observant Jews were NOT to go into the forest and cut down a tree, decorate it with silver and gold and sparkly things, set it up and worship it.  Because God hated that.)  I knew many other Plymouth Brethren families with a similar Christian prohibition against Christmas.  Some Plymouth Brethren kids laughingly said they'd got things for "Snow Day."  Because they weren't supposed to say "Christmas." It was beyond stupid.
  Today I went to my folks' house, where the TV was on, playing movies, and their Christmas tree was lit.  Thing is, it wasn't hypocrisy; it wasn't them "giving in."  It was them growing up.  Developing spiritually.  Demonstrating an understanding of what actually matters.  Showing a better relationship with joy and yearly opportunities to share and celebrate.  'Cause when others are enjoying themselves in something that isn't actually hurting them in any significant way that's your business, and you want to superstitiously distance yourself, state your concern and warn people about it, you really need to STFU and GTFO.
  So you can imagine how I feel when various people get all concerned and superstitious about the Christian roots of Christmas, don't want their kids to be subjected to Christmas songs that are about angels (though dancing snowmen and flying reindeer are JUST fine) and who don't want anyone to even SAY the word Christmas.  I really wish they'd STFU and GTFO.  In no meaningful way is there any real "war against Christmas."  Not in my area, anyway.  It's a mythic thing spoken of, an urban legend, as far as we in the country know.  It's not real to us.  Not any more real than the idea that Christmas started out 100% Christian, with no input drawn from pagans and other religious stuff revolving around winter solstice.  But I know there're idiots, on both sides, being all weird about something that can mean whatever you want it to mean.  It can mean something or it can mean nothing.
  If Christmas is only a Christian thing, then no one else should have it, probably.  Christian kids should get Christmas Day off and other kids should go to school.  If Christmas is only a Christian thing.
  That would be dumb, obviously.  If it is for everyone (which we're trying like hell to make sure it is), then everyone should be able to enjoy it without anyone getting embarrassed or superstitious about where it came from (pagan, then Christian, and then commercialized roots).
  This is one of those things I find so stupidly reactionary and vacuously unthought-out that I could barely bring myself to even weigh in on it.  It's December 25th.  Do whatever.  Or do nothing.  And leave me alone.  If I don't want to go to a church, don't bother to tell me what you think of that.  And if I sing a song with Lil' Christ in it, don't bother to tell me what you think of that either.  Because I don't want to hear it.  I'm busy living my own life.  Don't start (or make up) a war on or against something and want me to jump in.
  At what we unabashedly called our high school's "Christmas Assembly," I sang "Oh Holy Night" (anti-slavery verse and all) and John "Imagine There's No Heaven" Lennon's great song "This Is Christmas/War Is Over". There was a reason for those choices.  I loved singing both of them.  I got lighters waved and huge applause for both, equally.  There was no contradiction.  People got into both.  No one even commented on me singing a Christian Christmas song.  No one commented on me singing John Lennon.
  Like most things, Christmas isn't only one of two possible things that you have to decide between.  It is many things.  And it's what you make it.  You can make it what you want it to be.  If you want to make it a special thing you don't want anyone outside your religion from having a right to partake in, go ahead.  If you want to make it an evil, creepy, source of creep, go ahead.  And have a big hot cup of (unChristmas) STFU while you're at it.


Thursday, 15 December 2011

What Kinds of Kids Fail High School Courses More Regularly Than Others?

I wrote this at school, after fretting over the fact that, every time a kid fails, we act like that's never happened before, it's very confusing and must be explained.  Actually it's a reality of the job, and I think we should know more, generally, about it.  I don't think the habit of looking at every kid as a unique little snowflake is always helpful.  Sometimes profiling means you have more tools to bring to understanding stuff.  Here's what I wrote (it starts out more dry and academic than I usually am on here):

Any number of factors far beyond a school’s sphere of influence (and sometimes even its knowledge) have undeniably huge effects on student success.  A sobering question is “What, if anything, could we do about any of this?”
 Since the divorce rate skyrocketed in the 50s and 60s, extensive research has been carried out exploring links between parental splits and juvenile crime.  It is very seldom that one sees a student who is in trouble with the law, but experiencing no problems in the classroom.  When it comes to explaining why certain kids end up getting into trouble with the law, the parents and the home are most often pointed to.
A study by Kolvin et. al in 1988 concluded that parental splits were just as significant a factor in juvenile crime as family income, lack of parental supervision, IQ, overly large families, or hyperactivity and related disorders.  The fact that all of these factors have been routinely used to explain why teenagers end up committing crime suggests that it would be only sensible to expect to see them having an effect on success in school as well.
When there is a divorce or separation going on (and in each class, there always are), many kids find their entire lives turned upside down and dumped onto the floor, and this is usually seen in their classroom performance as well.  Serious illness in the family may have a similar effect, though often to a lesser degree. It is telling that several studies (among them Amato and Keith 1991; Wadsworth 1970) indicate that the death of a parent has a significantly less disruptive and lasting negative effect on a family and its members than a parental separation does.
  Kids dealing with illnesses or injuries of their own, from emotional and psychological problems such as depression or eating disorders, right up through epilepsy, surgeries and cancers, predictably find that school becomes (of necessity) less and less a main focus. 
  Studies such as one by Hirschi (1969) indicate three factors which protect children from falling through the cracks and becoming juvenile delinquents:

·        identification with parents (as fellow human beings),
·        intimacy of communication with parents (two-way),
·      supervision by parents. (structure, routine, boundaries and protocols)

  It is interesting to see that the risk of social and legal rule-breaking is provably increased by kids not having a personal connection to, open lines of communication with, and supervision by the authority figures in their homes.  I would suggest that in a classroom, teachers are as much parent figures as they are anything else, especially in the psyches of the kids.
  Problems can be predicted with kids who aren’t identifying with their teachers and administrators (not seeing them as people, not accepting them as having competence or authority over kids, not sympathizing with their struggles and not feeling that they are being, nor are even capable of being, helpful or supportive in any significant way).
  Equally if kids do not communicate freely with their teachers, avoiding any kind of meaningful dialogue, this cuts off any number of avenues for help and makes educating them almost impossible.  Kids can use anything, including purposely topic-changing small-talk, wild stories, profanity, surly silence, belligerence, humour (and simply leaving the room or the school) to avoid any meaningful two-way communication about their success ever happening.
  Also at risk are kids who are either not supervised in their classrooms, or who remove themselves from being supervised by being truant or leaving the classroom at every opportunity.  Just as some students use extracurricular activities (or in-school duties related to sports or other events) to learn new skills under the friendly, looser and more personal supervision of teachers, others use them to avoid time spent in the classroom being supervised as they learn.
What is seen in the classroom when kids are “at risk” of failing?

Uninvestedness: Kids Who Don’t Hope or Care
After the first ten formative years of education, most kids have learned that adults seem to care about (to them foreign) things like savings accounts, income tax, parking, mortgages, elections, pension funds and education.  Kids often have trouble identifying with anyone who is going to be talking for any length of time about these topics, let alone taking any interest themselves, though it could be argued that these things will (one day, at least) be of great importance to most of them. 
Many of our students have learned that when it comes to these things, if they know nothing about them and never try to make changes to them or not, as far as they’re concerned “nothing happens either way,” so it “doesn’t matter.”  If they think people should vote liberal in Lanark County, a conservative will still win anyway, every time. They’ve seen it happen their whole lives.  And they’re too young to vote. So caring about things in which they don’t feel they have any say seems pointless.  Getting emotionally invested in any of it seems risky, wasteful and foolish.
  The depth of their understanding as to how they’re doing financially, socially and educationally goes no deeper, often, than a passionately felt “She loves me!” or “She hates me!”  Their reality can be colourful and brutal, painted with the broadest of strokes.  It isn’t, to their minds, that they spent all their money and then tried to make a cell phone payment and so a lady is phoning from the bank, or that they gossiped about a friend and so are now getting the cold shoulder, or that they didn’t do any school work and so are now failing a course.  That cause and effect relationship simply doesn’t seem real to many of them.  To many, it’s simply “She hates me.” 
As childish as this sounds, kids who fail courses quite often honestly believe that they have “been failed” because the teacher “hated” them. They are quick to point out students whom they feel to be lazier and less intelligent than themselves who did better in a course, as evidence that “she loves him, so of course he did better than me!”  (And things like that have actually been known to happen.) Kids have a strong belief that the world isn’t fair and can see dramas and conspiracies everywhere.  They also sense the importance of healthy communication and personal connections.  They know that identifying with people determines whether we can work with them.
Some parents have (sometimes in a practice handed down through several generations) just as little investment as their kids in the idea that school is necessary and good, and worth doing right and for real.  Some parental figures, if quizzed, would not be able to tell you which courses their child is taking this semester.  In some extreme cases parents wouldn’t actually know what grade their child is in (or what previous grade their child is still making up courses from.) I had one parent come in to demand why I was assigning exactly the same novels to her son again this year in English as I’d assigned him the previous one.  She hadn’t remembered that he was taking the same course again because he’d failed it the year before. At the end of the term he hadn't attended school for two months, nor was he living in the same town as his mom.
For parents who see school as a formality, and as something to give lip service to, but which doesn’t actually matter in any real way, phone calls from teachers are just about teachers shaming parents for their child’s lack of success.  For some of them, their kids are doing poorly because clearly, we “hate” them.  There is some truth to this as, if no personal connection has ever formed between teacher and student, and there is no communication, and the student will not work within the structures of the classroom, success is doubtful.
  Actually wanting to pass and simply being made to feel ashamed of having failed are not the same things at all.  The effect of not investing emotionally in getting school credits is pretty predictable, of course.  If your passing of courses and graduating high school is merely someone else’s hope (rather than your own), you are free to say “I don’t care” whenever you are urged to do work you don’t want to do.  In fact, “I don’t care” becomes a magic, good-for-all-eventualities shield against troublesome authority figures.  Because it works.  Stumps them every time.  If you really don’t care, no one can really help you at all until you do.

Disengaged Kids
A number of studies indicate that despite everything we put into teaching them, kids mostly teach each other.  We are not part of their inner circle, and so we are often just talking heads to them.  It is commonplace to see students daily paying no attention whatsoever to teachers and administrators who are earnestly talking away (including what PA announcements and written instructions are saying).  We've all seen that.  Still, we assume that if any kid is working, they must be doing what the teacher asked, or what is written on the sheet.  Not so.  What happens is that after having not listened, if they later feel they need to know anything, the first student who thinks s/he’s got it figured out often guides the work of anyone who gets in any way curious about it all.  Fortunately for students, so many handouts, sheets, essays and assignments are so uneducatingly identical one to the other throughout the school experience that, with a quick glance at a sheet, they can develop some kind of wild guess as to what they maybe should do, and do that, after perhaps conferring with whoever is sitting nearby, working confidently away.  Any teacher who routinely assigns work which isn't routine, and which has little "assignment easter eggs/powerups/hidden levels" built into it, will quickly see how on auto-pilot kids are, and how much they are relying on each other's guesses rather than teacherly instruction.  Students generally prefer asking each other what we meant, rather than simply asking us, standing beside their desk at time of asking.  They certainly do not trust that every single thing we tell them is very important and which they should listen to, actually is important and that they should listen to it.  And they are right in not so assuming. We really do repeat ourselves, filled as we are, generally, of the correct conviction that we're not being heeded.
  A kid who is ostracized or reluctant to engage with others is cut off from this network of peer support.  Students who feel no connections to any students or teachers may simply not ask anyone anything, even if they need to know something in order to succeed.  Even if they didn’t listen or weren’t there when instructions were given.  These students may give up on assignments at this point, or may hand in what are (diplomatically speaking) brave, wild guesses at what they are supposed to be demonstrating mastery of.
To complicate things, some kids have irregular phone service at their house, or no land line.  Some kids have no computers at home, or no printing and/or internet. Some don’t know how to use any of these things properly.  This means even if they do schoolwork at home and have a home computer, they often can’t/don’t know how to print it or transfer the data to school for further work on it, teacher or student help, or handing it in for marks.  All of this further cuts them off from being able to connect to the school, the other kids, and teachers.

A Problem Identifying with Formality
To many kids, people who are dressed “business casual” (or even more formally than that) or who use even slightly formal language, tones of voice or jargon, and who avoid conflict with odd platitudes and placating "I" phrases are simply not people they know.  To these kids, people dressed this way and acting like this are about as real-world as Mickey Mouse.  Many kids literally cannot identify with people painted with a veneer of formality, paper-thin courtesy and a shellacking of professionalism.  They cannot view them as real human beings in quite the way they themselves are real human beings.  They can't see through the candy shell, but are fairly certain it's not a person under there.
Undeniably, when it comes to people who work with addicts, gang members, teen moms and victims of any stripe, the first thing that needs to be thrown out is formality.  At adult high schools, all teachers are called by their first names.  Therapists do not have their patients call them “Dr.” At Alcoholics Anonymous, nobody gets called “Ms.”or "Sir."
So a strong negative response to middle-class formality and professionalism is understandable: these business casual folks who don’t swear are not anything like anyone in the families many of our "at-risk" kids come from, nor even like any friends of their family.  These authority figures are, to them, dressed like landlords, lawyers, police, Jehovah’s Witnesses and politicians.  Like the evil, digital Agent Smith from The Matrix.  Formal language is a foreign language to many of the kids having the most trouble with school.  They understandably cannot identify with administrators who spend the day coming onto the P.A. as disembodies voices, saying things such as:

Your attention please: This is an important reminder for all senior students that the third floor is out of bounds during period 1A at this time until further notice for all students not having Trent University bursary application surveys proctored on flip days this week.  And a reminder as well to all students to not go up the “down” staircase at any time, particularly during lunch B or during Flex periods. As well, could the members of this year's ZOOM Student Advocacy Team report to the cafetorium now for briefing and reorienting. Thank you. TGIF.

 They equally cannot identify with teachers who say things like:

Listen up, guys!  This is essential to your future!   You need to buy into your own success and have an Action Plan for achieving it!  
Alright folks: get out your Personal Passports for Guaranteed Success (that’s your PPGSs) and turn to the "SHOOT! Action Registry" section.  (It’s the section colour-coded periwinkle.  Right after the sunflower "Ideas! Idea! Ideas! CURVE is your friend!" section on maximizing your own potential and formulating strategies for success…)
Paul, don’t tell me you lost your Passport to Success again?!  How will you succeed now? 
Okay, just go get another one from the pile.  In the lavender “Totally Essential Resources You Need to Help You Succeed!” bin, yes.  TERYNTHYS.  That’s right.  Lavender.  Beside the taupe one.  The big pile of papers, yes.

 Many of our students didn’t learn talk like that in their homes.  It sounds foreign to them because it is.  It sounds like elves from Mirkwood, or Star Trek Klingons speaking their own, wholly made up tongues.  Because this is made up language.  It is, generally, a failed attempt at communication.  It isn’t remotely from the culture these kids are from.  They're too busy thinking "WTF?!" to hear and decipher a word.  In their heads, people who speak it aren’t real people being real.  They feel that people who talk like this (and who never swear, though they often look angry) are fake and are probably lying or selling something.  (and they're not far wrong)  They cannot identify with the people spouting this arcane argot, so they are mostly going to simply pretend these people aren’t there at all and hope they go away.  Failing that, they can mock them for seeming so foreign to what is the culture 'round here.  They feel there is something simple, honest and virtuous in what some would consider slang or vulgarity.  A warm, appreciative laugh of recognition and identification rings out whenever a bit of it creeps into any conversation they hadn’t until that point been accepting as genuine.  Suddenly they identify.

Unaccustomed to Structure or Boundaries
What is the effect of kids not having much parental supervision?  These kids may sleep on as many as three different beds/couches in three different towns, all in the same week, every week.  The word "home" doesn't mean much to them.  They may have personal belongings, including school work, in all of these various places, and also in a number of motor vehicles and in their locker.  (of course some fix this by never taking school work with them when they leave the building.)  This lack of a home base can result in a simple “Where is your novel, Sarah?” being answered quite honestly with:

Novel?  Oh that one?  I dunno…I’m still mad because the principal said I did stuff I totally didn’t.  I hate him, but he hates me anyway, so that’s okay.  He better watch out.  Anyway, my dad’s stupid girlfriend picked me up from bingo last night and I might have left it in her car, but she dropped me off at Judy (that’s my foster mom)’s house and it could be there, but then I had a fight with her doucebag son Jacob so I had to crash at my boyfriend’s step-mom’s place (her name’s Destiny) instead, so it could be there too.  Bitch stole my lighter.  Or Jess might have it.  I’m not talking to her anymore.  Such a skank.  Took my weed and thirty dollars.  I’ll see if I can get Jane (that’s my real mom) to drive me around and look for it, but she’s not in town again until next weekend, if she gets her license back, I mean.  I’m having a super tough week, so don’t bother me or I’ll just totally lose it, okay?  I SO have PMS right now... Just go ahead and teach your class or whatever and I’ll text Mark (he’s my worker) to maybe go get it or something.  That book is so boring and pointless anyway.  I can't read it.  Oh, and plus I’m going to be away tomorrow for court. Can I go the bathroom?  I need a drink.  Also Stacy needs her smokes.

There are no boundaries.  Persons, places and things blur together and slip and slide over into and back out of each other all week long, with no specific time and place for anything.  These kids may have been raised with no regular meal times, no regular bed times, or in fact, bath or laundry days.  Things like tattoos, smoking, piercings, drug and alcohol use, promiscuity (and kneejerk reflex, physically combative responses to any perceived affront to their dignity or mood) may unfold throughout their formative years, completely unsupervised (or even observed) by any parent figure, starting at a shockingly low age.
  It is also possible that they are imitating their parent figures when showing immature or immoderate approaches to these. However the adults around them act is their “normal.”  If the adults around them demonstrate no capacity for delaying gratification, no understanding of boundaries, and little personal restraint in most areas of their lives, kids grow up with that being normal.  If failure and apathy are a child’s culture, it’s no wonder that colourful, peppy, acronym-infested brochures about maximizing one’s potential for excellence tend to fall on deaf floors.
These “absent parent” kids are often badly nourished, and their sleep habits and indulgences in junk foods, cigarettes, alcohol, pot and energy drinks/“coffee milkshake” beverages aren’t helping their brains develop nor function.  For many, a strong admixture of stimulants and depressants (often along with a great deal of aspirin and other pharmacy stuff) has been the formula for getting through their day for longer than they can remember.
To expect these kids to show up to school and then to five different classes at specific, not-on-the-hour times (many kids cannot read the hands of the school’s clocks) without being late, and having brought different expected materials to each, having worked on various assignments “at home” is simply beyond some of them.  Schools with "flip" timetables, in which students are not in the same class at the same time from day to day, are perhaps not really considering this.
Others have literally never had to remain within any environment in which someone else had the right to decide where they sat, whether or not they were allowed to talk or swear or eat, or what they were allowed to do with their cell phones.  Some of them have been allowed to smoke at the dinner table for some time.  For some, pajama bottoms, yoga pants or sweats can be worn 24/7 without being washed or removed for a week. To them, teachers who let them sit in the back of the room zoning out and playing games on their phones are acting normal, while teachers who encroach upon their accustomed liberty in these areas “hate them” and are clearly bad people with emotional problems and control issues.  The fact that there are so many teachers with emotional problems and control issues does not help this impression.  The experience seems no doubt like they have been sold into indentured servitude.

It’s Not Just About Class
Although a glance into the “resource room” of any school will reveal how direct the correlation between “kids in jeopardy” and kids from lower income, broken homes really is, that’s not the whole story.  Sometimes kids from fairly affluent homes have many of the same problems getting through high school as their less moneyed counterparts.
First, it should be obvious that some kids with a surprising amount of disposable income can still display trouble in the three aforementioned areas.  Kids from rich homes can equally be accustomed to being left unsupervised, with no regular times for eating, sleeping, homework, laundry, changing clothes and all the rest.
They can also get very emotionally cut off from their parents and end up living with closed lines of communication.   Some kids communicate mostly digitally.  They can, often, equally fail to identify with their parents as with students and teachers at school.  Sometimes having affluent, influential, highly educated and successful parents is daunting and can cause children to despair of ever being that kind of person. Parental success is a lot to live up to, and can be its own burden.
  Conversely, children of "successful" people may learn only the use of the money, the influence and the power, without having been around to see how it was earned or how it is maintained.  They may come into a school feeling undeniably entitled to success simply because they are themselves.  Also, children of affluent families may be unwilling or unable to connect to students and teachers who are clearly from a lower financial bracket.  Hard to take a teacher seriously when your car is nicer.

No matter the reason, it is a serious problem when any child is not even slightly invested in success (as defined by a teacher or school population with which they may not identify or communicate with in any genuine way) and is also completely disengaged from most of what goes on in their classes each day.  More sobering, there is no guarantee that any strategy is simply going to “fix” this situation for all affected students.  At the root of the thing, if you can get the student to accept you as part of his or her life, part of his or her culture and story, that you are a genuine human being and you mean what you say and are competent and capable of communicating and genuinely helping (and willing to boot), then you may well make a difference.  Or not.  And you have to be prepared for both eventualities.
It would be nice to feel that we have all the control, and enough ideas to save the day pretty much every time or know the reason why, to be able to insightfully and eloquently outline the reasons for "lack of success" on forms, to be able to ensure it doesn't recur.  The grim reality is that this is and always has been a two-way thing.  Until a student chooses to identify with you, to communicate with you and "work with" your boundaries and structure and supervision, you can’t succeed with them on any level.  And you won't have much of a clue what went on, let alone what went wrong.  You'll just know that the lines of communication, the personal connection, the identifying with each other and working together instead of being at loggerheads, simply never happened.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

These People Like Glee, For Goodness Sake...

  I've mentioned before on here my experience at the first staff meeting of the year, held before the school year started: administration was announcing a stripped-down, "kids just walk in and go to their classes" kind of first day, with a "welcome back" assembly to be held later in the week once we were all settled in.
  This was met with relief by many of us, but an outcry went up from a few.  "What about when we get the school mascot in, and do the school cheer, and really, really just welcome everyone back to our school, and just really make everyone feel how we're US, and we're the best school in our region and everything?" They spoke wistfully of colour-coded schools with uniforms and school songs and marching bands and cheerleaders and other things. 
  These are, too, the same people who squawked when our school's Latin motto was being looked at, in terms of "is 'Enter To Learn, Go Forth To Serve' kind of old-fashioned?  Do we still think that word "serve" has the same context and meaning for us that it might have once had?  Is this something a few of us might be into, but it's not saying anything that is reaching any of the kids it is supposed to be talking about?"
  I didn't judge them, but I looked at them with new eyes and realized they felt as different from me as if they had come from a different planet.  You see, the majority of teachers seem to be individualists.  Every year, zippy, snappily-dressed, smiles-set-to-stunned people from who knows where show up to a hastily-called special meeting we don't want to attend, and these freaks announce "exciting new initiatives that we're very excited to be a part of this year, moving forward."  We see them once and never again.  We don't even know how long they hold their oddly-worded job titles. They promise the sky, and hand out fistfuls of colourful, glossily printed things that will most likely never be mentioned again.  Because we go into our rooms, we do what seems best to us in there, and we resent being bothered by people who don't know what we do in there, not even getting our names, but showing up and telling us what "we're" all going to be doing.
  We don't WANT to "team teach" or "standardize the whole department" for the most part, if it means interrupting or ceasing doing stuff we're trying that seems to be working.  Many of us don't like time away from our classes to attend meetings, leaving our classes in the hands of fill-in strangers who can't do what we've been doing, so at best babysit their way through a placeholder day, and at worst, re-instill the idea that adults don't know kids, don't know what they're doing, and just get angry and demand things kids aren't going to give them, and then threaten things which likely aren't going to happen, and it they do, who gives a fuck?  Rapport is the coin of the realm in a classroom and its sometimes hard won, and it always takes time and can always be cheapened.
  Many of us are as I describe.  But a few of our teachers are different.  They love being on as many committees as possible. They don't think school committees (laughably called "teams" lately, like we're all going to actually wear shorts and not be sitting in chairs the whole friggin time) are most often attention-getting, ego-stroking, claiming-things-and-having-zero-effect, getting out of classrooms filled with teens to sit in rooms with adults kinda things.  Many of us do feel toward them as I have just described.   But some people love teams, committees, groups, collectives, initiatives and coalitions.  As many as possible.  Until they're goggle-eyed with stress and need heavily colour-coded schedules as badges of how sought-after their time truly is.  When you need a union rep, they're on that.  Any "you get a job title and a whole lot of duties and time-committment, but no extra money and probably no real benefit will be seen, nor will what you're doing still be around in three years time" kind of position, and they're first in line.
  They like church.  They like Girl Guides, Scouts, Rotary Clubs, Legion, Civitan, Monarchist Clubs and town council.  It makes their eyes light up.  I really don't get them at all.  They're not bad people.  Sometimes they're almost a quarter as effective and important and influential as they are letting on.  And that's certainly not nothing.  But I don't get them.  They don't seem like part of my species.  They think if one person singing or dancing is cool, twenty or fifty people singing or dancing is magic!  Not to me.  I think the more people involved, the less impressive.  If one singer can bring a tear to my eye, I'm deeply impressed.  A massive choir?  Never going to bring anything to me eye.  These people like Glee, for goodness sake.  So, where I'd like one voice singing "Don't Stop Believing," they'd actually prefer a choir doing it.  Why?  I do not get that... The Beatles singing "The Long and Winding Road" or "Here Comes The Sun" has a quiet, understated soul that is amazing.  A school choir of people who can certainly sing, being conducted lockstep into an acapella, robotic, watery, plastic version?  Not my idea of fun.  Musicals, to me, have no soul.  To me they are cheesy.  Like Cheez Whiz is cheesy.  Fakey.  Insincere.  Painful.
  I think these mysteriously collectivist beings define their own identities very much in terms of what role they play in what groups of humans.  I guess I don't do that very much.  If I listened to what groups tell me, I'd have to accept, for no very good reason (besides "for the good of the group") that I am gay, a Satanist, a religious fanatic, clinically depressed, evil, cruel, lazy, perverse and any number of other things I must conclude I simply really am not.  I've been told I am any number of things my whole life, by any number of people, in groups and individually.  I have had to learn to accept that they don't know who I am, and then I have to just go about doing what I'm doing as a free agent.  I have noticed that the better, deeper, more passionate and more astute my choices are, the more stupid and bad things they can be misattributed to.
  I am a chronic lone wolf.  Many teachers are like this.  One lesson that is dying slowly and hard is that I can just go do what I want, and I don't need to argue with people before doing it, and I often don't need to get permission, and I don't need to announce why I'm not doing what has been done before, or by others, or might generally be expected.  I can just go ahead and do my thing.  Better that way.  Avoids conflict.  Spends the time in possibly succeeding rather than in talking to others about trying to succeed in ways they don't like/understand/approve of.
  Every time I say "Now, I know you're used to..." or "Now, instead of..." or "Now, usually...", I'm kinda drawing attention to a potential fight we could have, or inviting comments as to "Well, what's wrong with the old way?" or "Why take the extra trouble for no reason?" or "Do you think you're better than..?"  I might sound terribly arrogant also.  I have actually worked with people who assumed that if I didn't do pretty much exactly what they were doing, the way they were doing it, that I clearly disrespected them and didn't think what they were doing, and how they were doing it, was any good.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Fact is, I'm not paying much attention to what they're doing or how they're doing it, unless I for some reason want to steal and retool some bits of it. 
  But I have offended people by adapting the current way of doing stuff to something a bit more me.  They have felt that I was arrogant or disrespectful.  That really upset me.  I have had to explain to many people over the years that I'm a lot like that kid who feels a whole lot better once she's drawn the logo of her favorite band on the front of her binder.  Now it feels like mine.  So, when I work, I like to make things up and try them out and learn and innovate.  In fact, that's the only thing that makes my job something I'm into. Inventing.  Experimenting.  Adds suspense.  Means I am often wondering "Now why did this thing work so well?  I don't get it..." while others are wondering "Why does this thing never work?  Kids sure are stupid and horrible."
  This has been called "re-inventing the wheel" in the past, usually in the context of "I don't see why we(you) need to be..."  Thing is, it's about growth to me. It's about having a class that is changing each year, and maybe adjusting and being flexible enough to show the mark of whatever kids are being run through my little system, for good or bad.  Some classes are more red-necky than others.  Different things fly with different groups.  Increasingly, I teach very differently depending on who my audience is.  It's like if you play music in various different venues.  It's like being The Blues Brothers and singing "Stand By Your Man" and "Rawhide" because you're in a bar with both kinds of music (country and western!). 
  So I'm an individualist.  Every time something says "Alright everyone..." they've lost me.  When they say "You know what would be so fun?  Let's all..." they've once again lost me. My whole family's a bit like that.  I remember growing up and every time there was a one-size-fits-all, or "go on, try it.  I guarantee you'll like it because how can anyone not like it?" thing, whoever was offering this turned out to have no clue about me at all.  How could I not like football?  How could I not like coffee?  How could I not like ArmageddonPearl HarborTransformers?  The Tragically Hip?  I could alright.  I could not like the shit out of anything anyone tossed at me.  Because someone was tossing it at me and assuming I was enough like everyone else that I'd like it?  Maybe a bit.  But it certainly couldn't be explained wholly by that.
  Was I weird?  Yeah.  Liked things many others didn't.  Didn't like things many others did.  But I'm not that weird.  Every single thing I like (and I like so many, many things, many of them nerdy or dark) is liked by an awful lot of others, and not just weird people on the Internet.  How can I like Babylon 5?  How can I like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore?  How can I like Pink Floyd?  Are those even questions?
  I don't like packages, I guess.  I want to pick and choose.  I have paid extra so as to avoid getting fries with that.  I don't understand why I should compromise when I'm signing up for something I could just as easily have nothing to do with.  When it comes to cable TV, I want the package that gives me only the few premium channels and none of the others.  No such package exists.  To me, it looks like a scam to make you have to pay maximum rate to get any two good channels.  Not into that.  I don't like the radio.  I'm not willing to listen to the talking, and the songs I don't like.  I don't like network TV.  I'm not willing to have to watch things at a certain time, and have to spend an hour doing it instead of forty minutes, just because someone wants to try to sell me life insurance, toilet paper and lady razors.  
  I don't like church.  I'm not willing to try on that one-size-fits-us-all thing.  I will meet up with Christians and discuss stuff and talk about the bible and write stuff and worship or the like with a great deal of contentment.  But I don't join things.  I don't like being a member.  Membership has its fees, responsibilities and obligations.  If you're an individualist, you really start to notice just how many compromises are made to maintain groups and status and peace within them, how much of who people are and how they live their lives are molded by the groups they find themselves in.
  When you meet people, they try to slot you into an identity based on what groups you're part of.  Protestant or Catholic?  Modern or traditional worship?  The "married with small children" group?  The gay group?  The hockey fan group?  They Star Trek nerd group?  The stoners?  The jocks?  The preps?  It's like high school all over again.  Like any good little angst-ridden goth/emo/scene kid, I gotta be me, and if you think you know me by identifying some group you think I fit into, go ahead and see how well that works.
  If you want to actually know me of course, you'll have to be willing to hang out with me.  And I'm not willing to hang out in groups.  I won't be at your church.  I'm not going to the Rotary Club meeting and paying membership dues.  You'd have to actually go out for coffee/a beer with me.  And if you're not willing to do that?  Don't worry about it.  But don't judge me and don't tell others who you think I am.  Because you don't know me.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Why Would Anyone Want To Kill Someone Like Jesus?

Because He basically kept standing up in church and in the middle of town (they didn't have TV or YouTube or newspapers) and saying this kind of thing (paraphrased into modern cultural references so people might feel it more deeply):

  Beware of the kind of Christians which love to go around wearing pointedly modest clothing, and love being recognized in public and sitting in the front rows in church and standing up and speaking at various events: which make long prayers for show and preach and post inspiring things on Facebook with pictures of the sun bursting through the clouds. These shall receive greater condemnation.
  When they tell you to do something that is from the bible, do that, but don't act anything like them, because they say one thing and then don't actually do it once they've said how important it is to agree that it is important. They paint unattainable images of supposedly ideal Christian life, though they themselves are making no real effort to live that way. Everything they do is to be seen as Christian by others: they dress in carefully understated business casual outfits (khaki and golf or rugby shirts) so as to seem affluent but classy. They love to sit in the seats of power and influence at church and at Christian gatherings. They like to be called "pastor," "reverend," "Father," "Sister" or "Brother."
  Do not let anyone call you by these titles, for one is pastor and reverend, and that is Christ, and you are all brothers and sisters. And don't call anyone on earth "Father Geoff" because you have a Father in heaven already, and neither be called pastors, for you already have a shepherd, and that is Christ.
  Do not be like the Christians who post things they are supposedly praying on Facebook or Twitter, showing off their contrite spirits and prayerful eloquence to a global audience.  They have their audience and God's not in it.  Do not be like the Christians who announce in person and on YouTube, their websites and the very t-shirts they wear that they support various charities.  They have gotten the recognition they seek from the group of people they have reached with their posters, bumperstickers and brochures.  And God's not part of that group.  If you make a donation to a charity, let not your Visa card know what your PayPal account is doing.
  And don't pray long, wordy prayers, superstitiously repeating the same supposedly magic phrases over and over again, hoping God will give you what you want if you throw enough words, repeated enough times, at Him.  Pray privately in your room where no one can see, and be brief and to the point. 
  But woe unto you, Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals, Charismatics, Mennonites, Plymouth Brethren, Quakers and Emergents! You are all play-acting. You are locking the doors of Heaven, and are neither going in yourselves, nor allowing anyone else to go in, inviting them instead to vow to remember to commit to think about remembering to rededicate their lives to remembering to consider going in and then watching a PowerPoint slideshow and singing a song about it without having ever done it.
  Woe unto you, Catholics and Protestants, play-actors! For you travel to the other side of the planet to make one Christian convert, and when he is made, you make him twice as much the child of hell as you are yourselves.
   Woe unto you, blind pastors, which say "We place no real emphasis, and waste little time talking about our church building, because churches are made of people and not bricks, but let's talk for two hours about the money we've spent, the money we've raised and the further money we want to collect and spend on multimedia extravaganzas to pull in more converts, while people are sitting at home thinking of killing themselves or wondering how they're going to raise a baby, or if they're gay or not!"
   You fools and clueless: what's more important? The church as a corporation with money which is wholly invested in marketing itself, or the church as a group of people, many of whom need you not being afraid to "get real" with them?
   Woe unto you, Catholics and Protestants, empty infomercials for church living! You raise charity money but have omitted the weightier matters of Christianity: fair judgment, mercy, forgiveness, grace and faith. You think forgiveness is nothing more than a promise not to bother someone about a given shortcoming until the next time they annoy you!
   You blind people in important positions of church oversight, which gag at the idea of swallowing a mosquito, and swallow a moose whole.  Woe unto you, Baptists and Free Methodists, you piles of garishly coloured Jesus junk mail cluttering the doors of the nation! For you make clean the outside of the cup and the undersides of the plates, but inside they are full of moneygrabbing avarice, pride, trite self importance and insincere personal indulgence.  You blind church-goer, cleanse first that which is inside the cup and on the plate, that the outside of them may be clean also.
   Woe unto you, Vineyard people, Harvest House and River of Life Ministries, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed burial crypts, which indeed appear beautiful outside, but are within full of dead men's bones, stench and rot.
   You also outwardly appear to be good churchgoing people to your neighbors, but within you are full of fakeness, insanity, rage, jealousy, competitive piety, deceit, self-delusion and corruption.
   Woe unto you, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, you actors in B movies! because you quote C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton and say "If we had been around when they were alive, we would not have gone on YouTube and made shrill, shrieking videos decrying ALL IN CAPS how they DENY THE TRUTH OF THE TRINITY!!! or ARE NOT CLEAR ON ETERNAL SONSHIP!!! DONT LISSEN TO HIM OR YULL END UP IN A LOST ETERNITY!!!  We would certainly not have stood up on our pulpits and at the dinner table and warned people not to read the past equivalents of The Shack or Blue Like Jazz because we were claiming, without reading them, that they were full of lies about God."
  Consider: You are the children of them which defamed and censored, called "commies" and sanctioned anyone who wasn't blindly supportive of the churches and their leaders and traditions, and of conserving your own error and of Republican politicians in general.  Go ahead and fill the blood-stained jackboots of your fathers. Conserve their legacy and the tradition of doing things their way in the name of being right, no matter the cost to others.
  You serpents, you generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of hell? In light of this, look: I send unto you malcontents, objectors, authors, poets, songwriters, social workers and therapists. I send unto you earnest teenage girls who were molested by their pastors who then told them not to read Harry Potter. They are people and they have stories to tell. I send unto you bitter choirboys who were molested by their priests, who then told them not to play Call of Duty. They are people and they have stories to tell. I send unto you angry gay Christians who are ostracized and alienated by married church members who have committed adultery and paid prostitutes for blowjobs in the back of their SUVs and then "spoke out" against gay marriage because they felt it demeaned the institution of marriage. God has sent homosexuality upon your culture, as said the scriptures, and gay Christians are people and they have stories to tell, if they are not shoved into a dusty shoebox in the back of a closet in a church basement.
   You have brothers and sisters with you.  And some of them you will kill the careers of; and some of them you will publicly humiliate and defame in your churches and homes, and hound and badger and vilify on the Internet: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from
Mahondas Ghandi to Martin Luther King.

(That's why people wanted him killed.  Because he sounded like that to them, a whole lot of the time.)

Friday, 11 November 2011


  When I worked at Nortel, I had just come from working for government agencies with the developmentally handicapped.  I had already got a snootfull of euphemisms and indirect talk.  Now, my own heritage is that I come from unPC, blunt, socially awkward stock, people who don't know how to say things gently.  That being said, I resented what was being done to language (and, by proxy, thinking) in those kinds of jobs.
  All of my managers were women.  And the sorts of women who got positions of power were women who cared more how things looked or seemed than how they were.  It was important to them that they seemed successful and in control at all times.  This meant that noticing any problem or inconsistency was a way to get unpopular fast.  Even if you were drawing attention to it only by starting to fix it.  Well I have a bit of a knack for seeing just those things.  It's built into my basic design.  It certainly can be useful, especially to people in groups, where things can get missed so easily, but that stuff's seldom welcomed.
  In these jobs, I'd say something like "This has been going on.  It is a problem. I think we should fix it."  Right away, the women (they were not only always women, they were always of a very specific type) would get pained expressions on their faces liked I'd sworn or farted or something, and they'd say things like "Well, I'm sure you feel that there's an issue, but..." and then they'd make it go away, with language.  It wouldn't be a fact anymore. It would become merely something I felt, because I was whacky, and that they in turn felt they weren't going to discuss, and in fact felt resentful about having any attention drawn to. And I realized "My language is being corrected.  These ladies with very little education, or a bit of training in accounting or management or business administration are correcting my language.  And I just got a degree in English Literature.  The word "problem" isn't allowed.  They want me to say 'issue' and they don't want me leaping on 'issues' to point them out and fix them.  They want them to disappear without being fixed, because each one makes them feel less successful.  There aren't any problems.  There aren't even any issues.  If I speak of any, or try to fix any, they will have concerns, and nobody wants concerns."
  Also, you didn't say things like "embarrassing, bad, wrong, mistake, screwup, ineffective, broken, damaged, layoffs, disappointing, unworkable," or "silly." No, all of those words, those intellectual and emotional labels, those judgments or reactions, had to simply be replaced with the term "negative."  (If you were talking about plural nouns, they could be called "negatives.")  In fact, if you were really on your game, you'd say something more like "not the most positive."  So, you wouldn't say "Bob got laid off.  That sucks."  You'd say "Bob was surplussed.  That's not the most positive, I guess."  It was about abstraction.  I was simply not made for that.  I was all about using language to accurately convey problematic stuff so we could look at improving it. I wasn't ready for a place where, if one person said something that wasn't true, and another person said something true, but unwelcome (because it didn't help the Success Story we were all required to be telling) nothing would be said at all, ever about the untrue statement, so long as it was "positive."  Immediately, however, the unwelcome, off-point commenter would be reprimanded with a "That's actually pretty negative." I realized I was part of a big game of Let's Pretend.  That stuff actually scares me.  When you're dealing with people's lives and time and money, there is no room for anything but dealing in reality and truth.
  If I as an individual screwed up, I'd get a talking to alright, with a bunch of "feelings" talk tossed in, all of which always made me feel worse rather than better.  It often didn't matter what had happened, we were to take extremely seriously people's impression of what happened, with whatever had actually happened being completely irrelevant, and there was no focus on fixing anything, only on deciding whose feelings were to be focused on and dwelling in those feelings.  Invariably, the person with the upset feelings.  The more abstracted, vague, uprooted from facts, and euphemistic the talk got, the more I felt uncomfortable with it.  And frequently, I got in trouble for seeing problems, mentioning them, and then having them happen.  It was like they thought if I'd simply not thought about them, they wouldn't have happened.  Nortel was run on blind optimism.  (well, all optimism is blind, just like all pessimism is.  I tried to explain that to a girl recently but she killed herself before we could pick that conversation back up again.)
  I work in schools now.  The corporate crap-talk is catching up to me here too.  Increasingly, the people with any power in education are not educators or even behaviourists, but rather management, marketing, accounting, planning and public relations people.  Principals become less educators and more those other things.  The principals become less and less concerned with (and competent to discuss) what sorts of things are teaching kids stuff, and what sorts of things actually prove kids have learned stuff, and become more and more concerned only with whether parents and the community are all clearly getting the message that our school is providing world class educational opportunities in a variety of flexible learning environments for the broad cross-section of society represented in all of our diverse learners, each with their own attributes, aptitudes and attitudes, which we, as a school, value, foster, model, facilitate, scaffold and nurture daily with design-down, forward-focussed, centre-motivated, upwardly-aspiring, rollout methodology, pedagogy and ideation.  Policy and decision-making are driven by what can be claimed (and neat acronyms made), not what needs to actually be workable, actually achieved.
  Teachers have to sit through interminable meetings in which Mission Statements and new Vision Initiatives are unrolled, ramped up, rolled out, tabled, implemented, launched and spoken to.  (I'm surprised, given the passion which which they are often presented, that they are not simply ejaculated.)  Normally we are pulled in to admire these rhetorical, semantic trainwrecks when we've got report cards waiting for us to complete.  I've seen this stuff before, too.  All of this shit comes from the contrived corporate crapfactories that are seeking government bailouts because they are such houses of cards.  Why are economies and corporations alike foundering so much lately?  Because of what is at the heart and the foundation of them.  You can't build a kingdom on optimism and greed.  (if it's a church you're thinking of, rather than a corporation or other empire, instead of greed for sales, think greed for converts.  Instead of greed for as many facilities and buildings, think the same thing, but in terms of church buildings.  Instead of greed for as many new employees as possible, to meet the need of how much work they're getting, think greed for new members, and committees, initiatives, projects and missions. The blind need to simply be doing big things, not to achieve great good, but to be the big people who are doing the big things.)
  My principals have performed well to varying degrees whenever I've fallen afoul of the usual "one or two parents in every year's worth of kids" who is going to come in and raise as much shit in the school as they can if their completely helpless, surly, coddled juvenile delinquent isn't being given solid passing grades and being made to feel special despite how many classes they've skipped, assignments they've not attempted, and teachers they've called fags and then told to fuck off.  Many administrators just start with "You've got a parent pissed off?  Why'd you do that?  I don't really care what they did, or what the kid did or didn't do, nor even what you did or didn't do, nor indeed what happened here, but the fact is, they're pissed off.  I certainly do not have the time to get into the details with you.  They accused you of all sorts of things.  How are you going to do your job here and not get accused of these things?  We can't have this sort of thing as a school.  We have to make sure that parents are all getting the right message.  And by "we" I mean you.  Fix this for me and make sure it doesn't happen again."  Often it's more of the "The facts don't matter. What you said doesn't matter. What happened?  Irrelevant.  This is about what impression Mrs. Surly says she took away from the conversation I made you have with her, once she'd had a couple of days to think about it and rewrite most of it."
  Some are a bit better.  But each one has increasingly felt the pull to be more of a marketing agency for the school, with "the customer is always right" approach to parents who are very angry that in high school, suddenly real failure starts to become possible in certain classrooms, of which mine is a proud example.  I do not believe success means anything if it was impossible to fail.  I don't believe you can teach kids to take risks if you make sure there aren't any.  I don't believe that the less the kids do, the more the teacher should do.
  The language gets farther and farther from talking about anything that's actually happening or not happening.  The people who write policy for our school board, who show up with glossy pamphlets and booklets and even glossier patter and smiles get farther and farther removed from being recognizable as knowing anything about how to handle a classroom.
  The other day I thought to myself "I am going to imagine that, for some reason, some day, a specific administrator who I'm imagining, for some reason had to come in and teach my classes.  The ones she normally interrupts continually, using phone, intercom and knocking on my door when I'm teaching.  I sat in a staff meeting and just imagined that she had to make them treat her with respect.  That she had to make them leave each other alone.  That she had to make them believe she knew what she was talking about, knew what was going on, knew what she was doing.  That once she'd taken attendance to her own satisfaction, she'd have to actually get them to understand and do things and that she'd have to deal with one half to a third of them trying like hell not to do them and claiming ignorance of and surly disinterest in those things."
  Well I simply couldn't imagine her being able to even start doing my job.  The very thought was amusing.  I can't imagine she was ever able to do my job.  Because she clearly can't deal with more than one kid at a time on the best of days.  That's why she has the job she does.  She can't make twenty kids shut and listen to her with any seriousness. She just wouldn't be able to do the job she constantly interrupts my doing.  Couldn't.  Not even without her interrupting by classroom phone and in person, as often as three times in one hour, to pester herself with questions or information about kids who aren't there, haven't been there and aren't going to be there, who haven't done work, aren't doing work and aren't going to do work, but for some reason need me to stop doing my job in that room right now, all to provide information to all and sundry regarding what they haven't done and what they will, in future, also be choosing not to do, and which I will then have recorded in great detail their not doing and not having been there to do, but must then justify how I failed to engage and promote their success through student-centred pedagogy while working in an administration-centered school board.
  Because you don't get kids to do things they don't feel like doing because you're a good manager of people, a good administrator, a good scheduler. You get them to do those things because you build a relationship with them based upon being convincingly genuine as a human being they can relate to.
  This week two people I cared about died.  Also, there was a Remembrance Day Assembly today.  (Outside of Canada, Remembrance Day is called things like Veteran's Day or ANZAC Day.)  So one person died of old age, and the other committed suicide, though no one's really told me about it. (The "remembered" soldiers from the wars, of course, were killed and died.)  But do you want to see a partial list of words which were never used in any of the talking and electronic communications regarding all of this death?  Here it is: death, dead, killed, died, grave, suicide, funeral, loss, sad, alone, miss, never.  How do you even have a conversation about those things without mentioning those words?  Well, you say things like:
-gone to be with her Lord, now she's finally in the Loving Arms of her Dear Savior, on the Other Side
-these men paid the highest price, making the ultimate sacrifice
-she succumbed after a long, brave struggle with depression
-passed away, passed on, is no longer with us
-the celebration of life/visitation will be on Sunday
   I asked a class "Why did we read those men's names?"  The answer was "Because they passed away."  I have to tell you: death is tough to deal with emotionally. For me.  This week.  And for me, when we're not allowed to say what happened, it is that much harder.  At high school Remembrance Day Assemblies, kids have to be forcibly made to go sit in the chairs, because the favourite place of many of them is to stand at the back of the room, leaning on something, wearing their hats, watching the more compliant kids sitting in chairs watching a young soldier put up happily posed pictures of various whacky shenanigans by other soldiers when he was stationed in Afghanistan, without really mentioning the fact that Remembrance Day is anything to do with death in any form. Death was not mentioned.  Call of Duty was.  And some of the kids texted what was happening to other people who weren't in the room.  Telecommunications is a technology used to put as many buffers between us and real-life experience as we can. Kids watching kids watch a soldier putting up pictures of other soldiers playing military shooting games on XBOX360 in which they play idealized soldier characters who get shot and "go hide in bushes and their life comes back" to quote the inarguably highly-trained, intelligent, charming young man who spoke to us.  He at least said "It doesn't work like that."  But he was so charming and funny and "Aw shuck!" that no one got a sense of loss or risk or death or anything unpleasant for a moment.
  A girl in my class scoffed afterward that "this other girl" didn't even know what a poppy means.  I asked her what it meant.  She said it was a peace symbol.  It was an anti-war thing. When I told her it meant blood, death and a way of easing the pain of the wounded and dying, it flew so counter to her expectations, to the message she'd been getting, that she couldn't really believe me.  Couldn't believe the simple facts.  Poppies mean peace.  They represent there being no war.
  It is my birthday this weekend.  I don't know if I'll see any friends or relatives.  I have two funerals to go to, neither of which is really being called a funeral, and I don't want to go to both.  In fact, I don't feel able to handle both.  At all.  I might cry or something.  I think I'll skip the "old lady who stopped writing to me once I really wasn't coming back to church again" one.  It will be a big party with people being Christian at each other, and people who are shunning me for life asking me how I'm doing. I don't think I could keep from punching Christians there.
  The other is the girl I was hoping to hang out with last weekend but who is dead.  No doubt there will be many Christians acting punchworthy at her "celebration of life."  Fact is, she's dead.  No one celebrated her life until she ended it.
  I found out from a Facebook status saying "Katie I will always love you."  I knew that this wouldn't be the status if things were ok. If things were ok, the status would be more mundane, or only kinda roughly affectionate.  I sort of knew right then.
  When I checked her Facebook page and people had posted "too many" pictures of her at different ages, I had to "just know" but not really know.  I've been stuck like that all week.  I have chatted with the bereaved, dealing boyfriend about it, on Facebook, though he's a couple of blocks away.  None of it was really directly about her.  It was about "arrangements."  It was about "dealing."  It was about feeling numb, which is to say being in shock.  There were pretty much no facts of any kind in the mix.  No real mention of her.  I have no idea what happened.  And no voices. No faces.  He LOLed occasionally.  This is all a little too surreal for me.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011


  When I first met Katie a couple of years ago, she was a cute, perky little thing working at the pet store.  She had a big smile and she spoke warmly to everyone, eyes quickly moving from person's eyes to person's eyes.  She was immediately recognizable as one of those people who light up a room.  I saw a jar on the store counter which said she was raising money to go to Guatemala to help build stuff.  The word "missions" was on it, so I knew it was church-based.
  "What a typical cheery church girl!" I thought.  "I can never relate to those people.  Too sunshiney and out of touch with stuff they think is too dark.  One day she will likely get disillusioned with all of it when she gets a taste of the real world.  The one over here, where you have to live in the grey mundane bureaucratically-bounded tedium, rather than the one where you get to be a magic white person who helps brown people.  Then we'll talk."
  As I went to the pet store for cat food every few months over the next year or so, I saw the jar gone, and her gone too.  "Katie in Guatemala?" I asked, and was told that she was.
  She came back eventually.  We both knew Dave, who'd been her manager at the coffee shop which had been her second job.  I couldn't quite tell how old she was.  Too young for me to date, though, I was sure.  Maybe 20?
  But then one time I went to the pet store and she looked different. She was wearing a lot of black. No makeup.  A wool hat over her hair.  She was a bit more sober-faced.  "Church Girl is finally going through that process of getting disillusioned with church stuff and being a bit wild," I suspected.  I tried to talk to her about her trip and she said she was "giving all that a rest for a while."  It was clear that she was doing some heavy thinking.  It looked like it could have been a deep, meaningful conversation, but she kept saying "I...can't think right now."  She was clearly overcome with her introspection.  Was trying to make sense of many things.
  Months after that, and maybe two years after first seeing her working there, I went in to buy cat food and she was standing outside smoking.  She had a new facial piercing (a "Monroe") and a wrist tattoo which said  "This too shall pass."  
  "Church girl gone all the way rebel" I thought.  We chatted.  It was lively and sparkling and mostly about music and she wanted to talk more.  I mentioned I'd written my second book and she wanted a copy.  I said I'd leave her one.  I went back a few days later and did that.
  We talked a bit on Facebook, though she didn't "do Facebook" much, and she was full of questions about my book.  She mentioned that she had trouble with depression.  She asked if it would be weird to hang out.  I said it would be fine.  She'd told me that she had a boyfriend, so that made things simple, though as my friend Mark says, nothing a man and a woman do together is ever completely innocent.
  I met her at the coffee shop which was her second job, and bought an organic soda, as I don't drink coffee.  Her boss was a Christian who was connected by church and marriage to every Christian person I knew locally.  She shared her experience of local churches, and seemed to see everything I saw.  She said church was something she tried, but it didn't work for her.  "They decided I was unsaveable" she joked.  Turned out she was actually 24, having just had her birthday.  Still too young to date, but not so embarrassing for a high school teacher in his forties to be seen having coffee with.
  She'd asked if I wanted to sit inside or out front in the sun.  I knew she liked the sun, so I said outside was better.  She sat down on the grass instead of at the little tables, so I creakily sat on the grass with her and she showed me some things she was learning on guitar, and smoked and played me songs on her phone that she wanted to learn, and she had me play and sing on her guitar.  Her boyfriend showed up from work (he had too many jobs) and seemed cool with us hanging out, eager to meet another person trying to come to terms with having Christian beliefs and upbringing, but problems with church Christianity.
  We adjourned to the pub around the corner, where Katie knew everyone, and we sat on the back patio and she smoked cigarettes and we drank beers and talked and talked as the sun set.  We laughed a lot.
  The next weekend she offered to meet me "for coffee" at the coffee shop just down from where I live.  We sat outside as everyone in town walked by.  Between the two of us, we knew everyone.  She had a coffee and I had an organic soda.
  Then we walked down to a park.  In the autumn sun we sat on a picnic table and talked about our plans to get in better shape.  She claimed to be able to do ten pushups.  Not bad for a girl.  I wasn't sure how many I had left in me, but we got down in the leaves and she did ten and I did twenty without much trouble, and we got up, her with a big orange maple leaf stuck to one boob.  (She had great boobs.)
  We walked around the area, and through the park and down the big hill behind the arena, and then we came upon the pile of snow behind the arena from the Zamboni grooming the ice.  She decided we had to hit a big tree with snowballs.  We threw snowballs at it for a while until we were hitting it well, and then came back to where her bike was.  We climbed out onto a concrete abutment by the waterfalls and talked about our apartments and rent and neighbors and stuff.  It got cold and the sun had set, so we agreed we'd hang out the next weekend too.
  "My place or yours?" she wanted to know.  Mine is messy, so I said hers would be better.  "Mine's messy too!" she protested, but agreed to clean it.  "You bring a pizza and we'll watch Suckerpunch."  She really wanted me to see it, though I was unenthusiastic.  She said she liked movies about people in emotional distress, dealing with their problems.
  The next weekend, after the usual Facebook messages saying "Do you still want to hang out?  You know shit and are wicked smart and know about depression and everything.  Are you sick of me yet?" I went to her place.  She'd bought Suckerpunch so we could watch it.
  The doorbell was broken so I went up and knocked.  No answer.  I decided she might be late getting home from work, and didn't see her red bicycle, so I decided to walk around the block and see if she'd get home during that time.  I was halfway around when she leaned out of her window and said "How does someone miss the whole building?!"  It turned out she'd had her washing machine on and hadn't heard the door.
  I came in, met her pet bird and we watched Suckerpunch.  I was perhaps a little MST3K, and a little jokey about it, but she didn't seem to mind.  Then she put on Equilibrium with the sound low and we talked.  She hadn't read George Orwell's 1984, nor seen V For Vendetta, so I told her about those and Gattaca and other movies of that type.  She seemed interested.  Then we got a bit deep.  She sketched out her situation, which was that all summer long she'd play guitar and hang with her boyfriend and work two jobs, and bicycle, but she'd be haunted by the feeling that she was wasting her life, that she needed to get an education, get an important job, probably in the third world, making a difference.  What was the point of anything?  There had to be one, and she thought there wasn't.  God was supposed to provide one and He wasn't real.  In wintertime, when the sun left us, all this would really catch up with her.  "I almost died last year," she told me.  
  I told her she was being a bad mum to herself, shoving herself in a direction she wasn't too clear about, telling her that what she was doing wasn't good enough.  I tried to talk to her (as I'd been for weeks) about black and white thinking, about all or nothing approaches not being the best ones. I talked about how accepting "what is" can be kind of essential before changing it and moving on to making other things be.  I talked about finding small "points" rather than one large one, about how she clearly felt that to be happy, one had to pretend, because all the real stuff was really awful.  I talked about how pessimism is just as blind as optimism.  I likened both of them to kids given a box filled with red and green Easter eggs, with one kid scrambling for a handful of green ones to prove Easter eggs are really green, and discarding the red ones because they didn't help make that point, while the other kid was doing the opposite.  I explained that our tendency to think only bad things were real wasn't accurate.  She seemed to like that.  She always listened with rapt attention, knees drawn up to her chest, big eyes, following my face and gestures. She always claimed that what I said made sense and sounded good, but that she wasn't sure she could quite look at things that way.  I was presenting the idea that she needed to give herself some middle ground, some room to breathe, some peace.
  Her boyfriend came home, and quite unjealously plopped himself between us where we'd been sitting on the couch while the sun set.  We chatted and talked more as Equilibrium finished.  He talked about church stuff and his favourite bands, and how he and Katie had been working together in Guatemala and the Christian folk had wanted them to not be alone together.  He talked about music and his church experiences.  He talked about trying to get along with Christian parents while being sexually active.  We talked about how Christians over-emphasize the biblical image of us being sheep, focussing upon herd movement, following the flock, and pastors (shepherds).  Not as much mention of the soldiering, race-running, wrestling, "tree-planted-immovable-unshakeable-by-the-water" imagery as of the sheep stuff.
    She said  "But it says 'the Lord is my shepherd', right?  So you're supposed to be sheep, according to that."
  I said, "No, it's just a description.  Because people are sheep.  Often foolishly so.  It's not something we have to try for.  It is reality, mostly.  And David wrote that, presumably, when he actually was a shepherd. Picture him sitting at 4:20 on a hillside looking at all his sheep, smoking a joint.  He says to himself 'So, I'm like....(inhale) a shepherd, right?  And the Lord...(exhale) is like MY shepherd... (cough) Yeah.  That's so trippy.'  So not an instruction.  An observation."  We had a great time and I went home, with that feeling like I wasn't the only one, for once, who wanted the talking to continue. I walked home in the chilly autumn darkness.
  The next week I wondered what she'd made of our "getting deep."  I wondered what she was thinking about it.  I sent her a Facebook message and "gave her time" when she didn't answer immediately.  The next Sunday (two days ago) I went to the pet store to see how things were.  She wasn't working.  So I left her a phone message.
  Then today, I checked Facebook and saw her wall was now a tribute to her.  Because she's dead.
  No one's saying what happened, but I think I know.  I remember hearing a lot of sirens Sunday evening now.  Just after the sun set.  Not long after I'd phoned.
  My blood feels hot and fizzy.  I feel like I can't breathe.  I feel like I got stabbed.  I feel like I felt those other times, like when I heard Doug had put a revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger while talking on the phone to Michael, like when I heard Danny had hung himself from a rafter in his dad's barn, like when I heard Brian had overdosed, like when I heard that Paul the bartender had fallen in the bathroom and broken his neck, like when I heard that Rose had died in a car accident, like when I heard Bruce had put a shotgun to his chest and pulled the trigger, like when I heard Brett had stabbed his sister Dawn so many times in the belly in their parents' kitchen and now she was dead and he was in prison.
  "When I talk to girls," I'd told her, sitting on the grass in the sun, holding her guitar, "Things go spectacularly wrong.  First that one I just told you about, and look... now I decide to 'talk to the Christian girl who works in the pet store,' and look what happened there!"  She laughed.
  Look what happened.  It's dark outside, and terribly, horribly silent.