Patriotism and Bravado, “You’re Fired”

I’ve never been a bigger fan of the NFL than I was last Sunday. Moral courage is a rare and precious commodity, but I saw it in droves, and I’ve never been so impressed with so many athletes all at once.

Physical courage, by comparison, is an easy feat because the rewards are tremendous, both to one’s psyche and for one’s standing in the community. Physical courage is, in simplest terms, a gamble, and though I praise those who possess it, it is a fairly common trait in humanity.

By contrast, moral courage, the willingness to do the right thing when the world has gone wrong, is a selfless sacrifice, and therefore quite rare. No visions of ticker tape parades or bursts of applause can shore up a flagging will. Those who stand against the community, its leaders, its laws, its rituals, or its ideas, will find themselves ostracized, attacked, and vilified. And they will suffer alone.

At first.

But others take note. Perhaps they’d been thinking along the same lines but lacked the will to act. Perhaps it hadn’t occurred to them to think about things in that way, but they see it now. Where one stood yesterday (or knelt), two stand tomorrow.

The example of moral courage has tremendous power. In the long lens of history, those with moral courage (who always, by the way possess physical courage as well), become the true heroes of history.

And they scare the hell out of those in power.

Ask yourself, what, really, is this ritual? A song, an emotion we are expected to feel, a physical act we are expected to mold ourselves to? Take a step back from it, from its ubiquity, from its unexamined and exalted status. Change the object (from a flag to a box of cheerios), change the form (from a hand over your heart to a thumb on your chin), and you might see it for the oddity it really is. It’s a cult ritual with the exultation of America as the mandate. We are expected to associate a piece of cloth (which is merely a symbol) with our very lives, in an entirely mindless, unthinking way.

A refusal of that ritual, on the scale of things, is so minor (compared to say…beating your fiancée, or participating in dog fighting rings, or grabbing women by the pussy). It is so minor that the furious response of some in our society, like our less than esteemed leader, should be telling. The mark of every charlatan is the suggestion that anyone with doubts should leave. A fraud who can remove or silence the naysayers, can secure their position and ensure their profit. By contrast, anyone who is confident in their ideas, who feels the solidity of a logical foundation under their feet, will see dissent as an opportunity to make their case, to sway the minds of others.

But our society is not built on a solid foundation. There are a great many falsehoods writhing under the flesh of this patchwork Frankenstein’s monster that passes for American history. And, like anything monstrous, there is tremendous pressure to look away, to deny. Our nation was born in theft and bloodshed, and those crimes mark us still. They mark our nation with the immoral and illogical philosophy of supremacy, and they mark our nation with a cowardly fear of confronting our past honestly—of confronting our crimes.

The flag is nothing more than a curtain which the powerful desperately hope they can convince us to never pull back.

 

Son of a Pitch

Okay, so third edit here. The structure of the book makes the normal query problematic, so I’m bringing the structure in to see if that helps.

I’m participating in a pitch party. If you have an interest in participating (or are just wondering what the heck that is), check out this link.

 

Title: On Leave From Perdition

Genre: Literary Historical Fiction

Word Count: 95,000

Jim Aurbach traded ambition and academia for mediocrity and joy. He may well have died fat and old, after decades of happy marriage, if his draft number hadn’t come up.

Instead, he returns from Vietnam a drug addict and an emotional wreck.

The novel moves in both directions from his return. Travelling backwards through his tour, it peels away the coping mechanisms he developed in the war, to arrive at the core of what destroyed his identity. Moving forwards from his arrival home, his problems pile up, and he increasingly breaks down.

In Vietnam, it’s a mystery in reverse. Knowing Jim’s the criminal, the reader has to follow the clues back to the crime to find out what could destroy the mind of a man who used to be calm, witty, and kind.

At home in Los Angeles, Jim falls deeper into addiction. As his mind increasingly slips from his control, his vulgar outbursts cost him his job, and are slowly costing him his wife and daughter.

He knows where the razor’s edge lies: keeping the things he did in Vietnam a secret is destroying his sanity, but if he lets those stories out, they will destroy everything else.

ON LEAVE FROM PERDITION, a 96,000 word literary historical novel, captures the confluence of the anti-war movement in America, the criminality of the US Occupation of Vietnam, the open rebellion of US soldiers at the end of the war, and the impact of that maelstrom on the human mind. The novel combines the gritty reality of Full Metal Jacket with the soldier’s postwar angst from A Hard and Heavy Thing as well as both the emotional depth and non-linear artistry of The God of Small Things.

 

 

First 250 Words

Zero days left.

Freedom Bird.

Whatever got a soldier out of ‘Nam had the word Freedom emblazoned on it, and whether he had a seat on Air Singapore or grabbed the tail feathers of an albatross, the flight was supposed to bring him back to the world, back to life, liberty, happiness, and all that.

One more false promise.

Travis Air Base, minutes ahead, is our gateway back to the world, but instead of the sensation of freedom, it feels like I’m drowning. The world is closing around my throat, and the looming silence terrifies me; I’m about to spend the rest of my life behind a wall painted with the words, “If you weren’t there, you won’t understand.”

My forward momentum strains against the belt, the wing flaps bend to increase the lift as the engines slow, and the plane pulls backwards as if it too is reluctant to land. The ground approaches, and I find myself wondering if I should have stayed in Vietnam.

The squeal of the rubber hitting the tarmac strikes my ears and I take in a startled breath. My arms search for something to grasp.

Elm looks over at me and asks, “You okay?”

My fury, as if tied down by an aged and cracking rubber band, explodes at Elm’s gentle touch. “You don’t even have a fucking phone? How the fuck am I going to get ahold of you?”

Leaning toward me, as if his response calls for secrecy, he says, “Jim, I have your number. You have my Aunt Janelle’s number. We be able to talk.”

******

Thank you for reading and responding. I intend to reciprocate for everyone who leaves feedback, so please leave a link to your blog. Good luck in the contest!

Thoughts on the Fairness of Punishment: Not everyone dodges bullets.

What is the goal of punishment? Even the most honest and legitimate answer–to prevent wrongdoing–can be quite problematic. Think about our society’s response to the death of child left in a hot car. Too stupid to be permitted! Right? We can’t allow that kind of thing to happen. Right? But, what does taking a parent who’s just lost a child and throwing them in jail, actually accomplish? Do we think the parent otherwise wouldn’t have remorse? Do we think that more children would be left in hot cars if we didn’t throw people in jail for it? When we stop to think about what punishment in these kinds of cases accomplishes, we have to recognize the answer as one we don’t like: not much.

In stepping back, we often have to recognize that we’re punishing some people for the combination of poor choices, tough times, and bad luck. Poverty prompts exhaustion, and tired people who see no end in sight get stressed and distracted. A thousand times a day someone makes the same mistake. There were six people in the car. Whose job was it to get the baby out of the car seat? 999 times, the mistake is caught in the moment it’s being made. Someone looks over and sees her there, sleeping peacefully.  If that one in a thousand happens to be in August in Arizona, a mistake becomes a tragedy.

This is not to minimize the tragedy, or take away from the horror we should all feel, but it is to get us to think carefully about how quickly we throw stones.

If we search our past, we can often find times where we lucked out. Family and close friends have heard me say “If I were a cat, I’d be down to two lives.”

I’ve fallen asleep on a motorcycle and crashed into a cement divider at 45 miles an hour.

I’ve hydroplaned on a steep road, flipping the truck once end over end before it rolled sideways, reportedly five or six times. I don’t remember any of it because it knocked me unconscious for thirty-six hours, and I needed eighteen staples up the side of my head.

I’ve dangled upside down from the fifth story of a hotel balcony, barely catching the window sill with the tip of my shoe to pull myself back up.

The list goes on. Some were my fault. Some were not. But the potentially worst moment of my life was one that never happened at all.

One of the novels I’ve written has me feeling like I’ve conspired against my protagonist, putting him in precisely those circumstances where an otherwise good man would do something awful, ensuring he gets hit by the figurative bullet that ruins his life.

It got me thinking about my worst decisions, and one in particular which I never had to suffer for. Pure luck is all that allowed me to continue being with my family. Pure luck allowed me to continue with my career. Pure luck kept me out of jail, and allowed me to avoid a debt of sorrow I could never repay. It’s a gamble I was an absolute fool to have taken.

In my mid twenties I taught at a continuation school in Southern California, a school for students who, for whatever reason, were not on track to graduate from the regular high school. Though technically the purpose of a continuation school is to help students get back on track, budgeting reflected a different purpose. It was undisguised punishment. Their suffering was a message to those who remained at the high school: shape up, or that’ll be you.

The lunches were brought over in a truck after the comprehensive high school was served, and they were always cold on arrival. Passing periods were three minutes long, and most teachers pretended that it was time enough for students to make use of the restrooms. Extra-curricular activities were non-existent.

A few of the kids asked me to supervise the basketball courts at lunch. Without me, they couldn’t play because the courts were beyond the fence, in the parking lot. Instead of just supervising, I changed clothes and played. I looked forward to it everyday, and resented anything that called me away, probably more than the kids did.

My second year there, a student approached me about coaching. His uncle was involved in a non-traditional league. The teams could be official high school teams, but didn’t have to be.

He caught me at the right time. I was engaged, but not yet married. I had no children of my own yet. I had the time, I loved the sport, and I saw the need.

For three years I coached the team with no budget to speak of. Our first two years the kids played with white t-shirts and numbers marked with sharpies. Our practices were in a public park, so we regularly didn’t have it to ourselves, and often had to contend with the weather.

Worst of all, we had no buses. Occasionally the kids could get a friend or family member to pitch in with rides. Occasionally I could borrow a van or an SUV. But it always felt like we were holding the team together with duct tape and hope.

One Friday evening hope let us down. No one else showed up with a car. All I had that night was my 1999 Honda Civic, and ten basketball players desperately excited for our only tournament. (A friend of mine was one of the organizers; he knew our situation, and waived the $200 entry fee.) Ten basketball players without a single parent, friend, cousin, or neighbor willing to give up their Friday night to let these kids play. Ten basketball players and my Honda Civic.

No. That was my first response. No way. We can’t fit eleven people in a Honda Civic!

The begged. They pleaded. It’s double loss elimination! We have two games tonight. If we don’t go, we’re out. This is our only tournament!

I was supposed to be the adult. I was supposed to be the responsible one. But these were precisely my circumstances, the ones I would have written myself into if I wanted to make twenty-seven year old me do something really stupid.

Eleven basketball players in a Honda Civic. We laid the back seats down, which allowed us the trunk space. Three squeezed in there. Four lined up on the top of the folded down seats. Three piled on each other’s laps in the passenger seat. I sat in the driver’s seat, the only one wearing a seatbelt for a forty minute drive on the freeway.

If a cop even caught a glimpse of us, we’d get pulled over, and I’d lose my job. If we got into an accident, multiple kids could die.

It could have gone so badly wrong.

But I dodged that bullet.

We didn’t get pulled over. We didn’t get into an accident. We got to the tournament. The team went one-and-one that night, and got to play the next day. The kids knew I’d put my career on the line for them, and they loved me all the more for it.

But it was the stupidest thing I’d ever done, and I’ve never been punished for it.

If any kids on my team had died that night, my life as I knew it would have ended. Whether they sent me to jail or not, whether they revoked my teaching credential or not, I’d never be the same. I would never have forgiven myself, and may never have recovered.

When I think about the awful things that happen out there, the mistakes people make that lead to tragedy, before I cast judgement, I try to remind myself to stop and recognize that it could easily have been me.

The Context of Police Violence In America

This debate flares with a sickening regularity, as if somewhere some awful clock ticks down. It’s been thirty hours: time for another black man to be shot by the cops.

Each new death is a link in the chain stretching back centuries, and tying us down to our bitter past, exactly that past which is missing from almost every media outlet when they discuss these events. They act like law enforcement hasn’t been doing violence against black people in America since the inception of policing. Anyone unfamiliar with where the police got their start in this nation should read up. They’re in for a shock.

I most commonly get sucked into this debate on Facebook. Social media today can be wonderful, if we let it. Too many people unfriend each other over disagreements, creating echo chambers, and giving themselves a false impression of where people stand on an issue. If we keep the debate open, however, we can gain an insight into where the other side is coming from. I’ve been engaged in a lengthy, sometimes acrimonious, debate with a high school friend of mine, who became a cop about a decade ago. At one point in the debate he expressed the following, “Racism is very real in every facet of life around us. To believe the narrative that it is rampant in law enforcement is a fallacy created by this leftist media.” As a non-white police officer, it’s particularly distressing to me that he believes this.

Mainstream media is a big business, conducted by big business, for big business. It is an inherently conservative institution, whose primary goal is to preserve the status quo, i.e. the place where they make their money–they’ll sacrifice anything at the altar of profit, except of course the profit system. (And cops are first and foremost, defenders of that system.) Only the presence of rabidly right wing outlets like Fox News and Clear Channel Radio give the impression that the rest of the media is liberal. The problem, as Stephen Colbert so brilliantly pointed out, is that “reality has a well known liberal bias.” My friend might deny that racism is rampant in police departments, even in the same breath that he’s admitting it’s rampant everywhere else, but the facts prove otherwise.

The media isn’t creating these stories, they’re just finally reporting them. The statistics on police violence are no different today than they have been for decades, what is different is our ability to document that violence. Gone are the days when the media could simply ignore reports of abuse. Gone are even the days of Rodney King, with video cameras unwieldy enough that virtually no one had one handy. With the combination of cameras in everyone’s purse or pocket, and the ability to instantly upload video for others to view, download, and keep, it is now impossible for the media and the police to keep things under wraps.

The media today tries to walk a fine line. They don’t want to be caught ignoring critical events, which would make them appear either complicit or callous, so they issue reports. This has created, for some, the false impression that the media is trying to stir up anti-police sentiment by simply reporting on police violence. It’s reminiscent of how many people blamed the media for anti-war sentiment in the Vietnam era, rather than the actual crimes we were committing in Vietnam.

But their reporting, at best, stems from a racist bias that sees blacks as other, inferior, irrational, and violent. At worst, this reporting is a calculated attempt to preserve those prejudices within America.

Bold claim, I know, but look at the evidence.

Step back and look at how the media presents these stories, and you’ll see that it serves to reinforces the narrative the police are giving. Their coverage prompts variations on the same response almost every single time:

Terrence Crutcher: Why didn’t he just follow orders?

Eric Garner: Why did he resist arrest?

Freddie Gray: The cop ordered him to come over, why didn’t he?

Michael Brown (no video of shooting): Why didn’t he just get out of the road like the officer asked him to?

Walter Scott: Why did he run?

With absolutely no context, the media leads viewers to specific answers, and brilliantly lets them think they came to their own conclusion. They are giving people the idea that these victims of police brutality brought it on themselves, because without context the only logical conclusion is that something was very wrong with these people: they were stoned out of their mind, they were guilty criminals trying to get away, they were just plain crazy. They were dangerous.

The ignorant viewer then doubles up on the misconception when they see Black communities respond with fury. Furgeson, New York, Baltimore, Charlotte, Baton Rouge, and on and on down the line. Without context, the viewer thinks these communities blame racism for everything, when it’s just a question of obeying the law (read: obeying the cops).

Now let me (finally) get to my point. Unless you’re black, or have spent time in black community, or have read a lot of literature by blacks in America, or take the time to track down and research the stuff on your own, you don’t know how often their day to day life is made miserable by interaction with cops. It’s not just petty harassment, as infuriating and humiliating as that can be, its financial ruin that police rain down on poor communities. Jaywalking tickets, loitering fines, parking violations, moving violations, tickets for faulty vehicle equipment,  housing violations, and the list goes on. In Furgeson, cops held competitions to see who could issue the most citations in a single stop! And if someone happens to be black and poor, then the fines triple when he or she can’t pay them, and come with an arrest warrant.

People are not dogs.

Most dogs, sadly, will take beating after beating, and still look on the abuser with affection and obedience.

Thought some people have breaking points, most people have a boiling point, and when enough is enough, they refuse, and they resist. Knowing what they choose to resist is knowing context.

If you have context, you understand the sickness of a cop telling Freddie Gray “Get over here,” simply because Gray dared to look at him. You also understand Gray’s fear and why he would run. Doesn’t the treatment he received justify his decision to run? And yet there are people who think his running justified the abuse!  Get this straight; he looked at a police officer, and then ran. Hadn’t done anything wrong, but he was afraid of the police, he panicked and he ran. For that, he gets tortured to death? And, holy hell, they get away with it?

But a cop claiming fear can dump a clip into 12 year old Tamir Rice, or four plain clothes cops can fire 41 bullets at unarmed Amadou Diallo who reached for his wallet when he thought he was being robbed. Police fear of blacks is used regularly to justify firing their guns, but a black man’s fear of the police apparently doesn’t justify his running away. He wasn’t fleeing the scene of a crime, he was fleeing a group of men intent on committing one. Baltimore PD proved his fear was justified. And look at what they had the gall to put inside one of their vans.

baltimore4n-3-web

Think about that image for a moment. It’s a brazen admission that they consider themselves judge, jury, and executioner.

Or take the much more telling case of Eric Garner. At the time NYPD’s attempted arrest lead to his death, he was out on bail for the same charge the officers were trying to cite him with–selling loose cigarettes. The media showed him resisting, being put into a choke-hold, and collapsing–again without context.

But Context is everything. If this man was selling cigarettes, as he had in the past, he was a man desperate to put food on the table for his family, in a society where millions struggle to find work. Give him a legal option to do do the same, and tell me he wouldn’t have chosen it. Show me the living wage jobs he walked by so that he could put himself at risk of police abuse by selling cigarettes on a street corner. Show me the well-funded school system that gave him a great education he chose to squander. Show me the society that made sure he and his kids had access to decent food, and housing, and health care. Shit, any one of those, and he’s not on that street corner that day. But we live in a system that traps people in that context, where they are expected to just quietly suffer and die, and any resistance is painted as insanity.

Context is everything. Eric Garner died, accused of selling $.50 cigarettes in the city of New York, the recent epicenter of the biggest heist in world history. Goldman Sachs masterminded the theft of hundreds of billions of dollars in 2008, tanked the global economy, and then parlayed that into a 16 trillion dollar giveaway for the banking elite. Dozens of laws were broken in the process, and tens of millions of lives were ruined when people lost their homes, and their businesses, and their life savings. I didn’t see a cop wrestling Lloyd Blankfein or Hank Paulson to the ground in a choke-hold. In fact, not one of the perpetrators saw the inside of a court room, a pair of handcuffs, or even had to experience an uncomfortable encounter with a police officer.

Context is everything. When the cops kill an unarmed black man, woman, or child and the courts (where prosecutors work with a clear conflict of interest) refuse to convict, it equates to declaring open season on anyone in their community who won’t suffer silently. And because people are not dogs, they rebel.

And this is just the tip of the context iceberg.

.

 

 

 

Hey, Top Ten…I’ll take it :)

blue_masterCame across this contest asking for the first 10,000 words of a novel back in February. They took submissions for the first half of the year and the results are in. Sixth place from well over a hundred submissions. I’ll happily take it.

The advice from the Ink and Insights competition , the Woodbury Writers Group, and my two fabulous critique partners have helped tremendously since I entered. I wish I could go back in time and submit what I have now!

We’ll see about next year.

The overhaul/rewrite is nearly done, (though I’m still sharing with critique groups and partners) and I’m going to start querying for it again in a couple of weeks. Wish me luck 🙂

For anyone interested, here’s the first chapter of On Leave From Perdition.

 

Zero

 

Zero days left.

Freedom Bird. Didn’t matter what you rode, you could have a seat on Air Singapore, or grab the tail feathers of a goddamned albatross, but whatever got you the fuck out of ‘Nam had the word Freedom emblazoned on it. That’s a big promise.

Travis Air Base looms, minutes ahead, but freedom is precisely what I don’t feel. The plane’s sudden decent triggers nausea, but it starts in my head and moves to my gut. The relief I expected this flight to bring isn’t here.

Though about to return to the life I never wanted to leave, I’m in a panic because a vice is closing around my throat, and the looming silence terrifies me. I could talk to Elm about anything. Almost. He’d been through the shit with me, and was probably the smartest man I’d ever met. Not book smart, the guy had dropped out of elementary school, but people smart. He created a bubble of sanity to keep our unit whole in the midst of that mind-fuck meat grinder, and until the moment the plane began to descend, I thought it might have worked.

The ground approaches. My forward momentum strains against the belt, the wing flaps bend to increase the lift as the engines slow, and the plane seems to pull backwards as if it too is reluctant to land.

I should have stayed in Vietnam.

The sound of the rubber hitting the tarmac strikes my ears and I take in a startled breath. My arms search for something to grasp.

Elm looks over at me and asks, “You okay?”

My fury, as if tied down by an aged and cracking rubber band, explodes at Elm’s gentle touch. “You don’t even have a fucking phone? What the hell. How the fuck am I going to get ahold of you?”

He stares at me for about three seconds in silence, then characteristically shrugs his shoulders. Leaning toward me across the fuselage as if his response calls for secrecy, he says, “Jim, I have yo’ num’er, and you have my Aunt Janelle’s num’er. We’ be able to talk.”

Good god; the idea is absurd. Like he’s going to travel thirty miles to make a long distance call having no idea whether I’m going to be there or not? And like I’m going to call and ask them to fetch him from thirty miles away?

Being able to get ahold of him in an emergency isn’t good enough. For the last ten months his gravity kept me grounded, and I don’t see how I’m going to cope without him. But why tell him what he already knows? It’s not his burden to bear. He can’t change being poor and black in Louisiana because I need him to have a phone.

A minute later I’m out of the plane, in the dry air, blinking back the sunlight and reaching for the railing on the rolling staircase. I look to the bottom and my gut drops like I’ve crested the peak on a rollercoaster. There’s a crowd of new recruits fresh out of boot camp ready to board the plane as we empty it. Holy shit. I’m struggling to breathe and white knuckling the railing so I don’t domino the guys lined down the steps ahead of me.

Just because I’m leaving it, doesn’t mean the war is over. It’s November 8th, 1971, and the mad gaping maw sits there ready to consume the next group, gathered here at the foot of the stairs.

And they’re clapping. Why the fuck are they clapping? The sound is a hand trying to wake me, but I wake from reality to memory, one I’d forgotten, or maybe suppressed. We did the exact same thing last year. We clapped for the guys emptying out ahead of us in exactly the same way.

The memory slaps me with its clarity, and I understand it for the first time. One crazy soldier with bulging eyes had screamed at us. First he grunted “you dumb motherfuckers,” but when the whistling and cheering started, he snapped, and started to yell. “You fucking corpses think this shit is something to clap over?” The guy had a voice. It fanned out the applause like a rush of wind on a cluster of candles.

He shouted as if waiting for a response, but we stood there dumbfounded. I opposed the war in my own vague, semi-ignorant, inactive way, and then my draft card came up. But after boot camp I’d been sucked into believing what we were doing was necessary, and it was going to require the best I had to offer to pull my share of the duty. I completed my mental rebellion against the man’s words; I called up the sound of our drill sergeant reminding us we were part of “the best army God ever saw fit to put on this earth,” and I was just beginning to wonder why this man thought we shouldn’t be clapping, when deep in our crowd of greens someone yelled, “Fuck you.”

The private cussed at him and it hit a switch; the angry vet’s eyes retreated back into his skull, and he even became aware of the dangling spit, using the back of his sleeve to wipe it. Then he smiled like the reaper, with all the certainty and tragedy of death.

Another soldier behind him spoke, this one’s voice merely weary compared to the other’s fury, and he gave me the impression his comment escaped unbidden, as surprising to him as it was to the few of us who heard it. He quietly said, “They’re better than you.”

The scene slams back into my consciousness, scattering the reality around me. They were better than us. My feet move without conscious connection and my eyes take in the image of the uniform of the man in front of me, but my brain is seeing memories. Alan, as I load him into the body bag, putting the boots, with his feet still in them, at the bottom, by what was left of his legs. Joseph carrying a dying child and covered in blood. Beneath all of it, I see her eyes staring up at me, burning through me like smoldering coals.

Shouting pulls me from these depths. Someone is shouting. It’s the guy in front of me, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. When I look at him, I notice my hand. My knuckles are wrapped in a wad of his shirt. I release it and apologize. He turns away, as if what I did wasn’t crazy, and he wanted to return to his own reverie.

Three hundred and sixty-five days showed me why those soldiers didn’t appreciate our clapping. Nausea and revulsion over our mission comes to a sudden boil at the sound of applause. I finally understand how the word revolution can mean both to come back to where you began, and to be completely changed.

Here I am back at the start, but nothing will ever be the same.

I move through the next few minutes like a ghost, only becoming solid when Elm reaches his hand out. I extend my own. It’s a gesture filled with strangeness, implying we’re acquaintances instead of good friends. It’s unbearable. I pull him in for a hug, and say, “Take care, Elm.”

He lets go and quietly replies, “An’ you, Jim.”

Elm’s departure removes my last tether. For months the thought of returning home to lose my wife and daughter sent me into a panic only the opium suppressed, but now I feel a void in the gaps between my nerve endings and the entire world. Behind me, the pulse of my life ebbs into the distance. In front of me, I’m watching the tragedy of a life that already happened to someone else.

I see how Jim settled the strap from the duffle bag into a comfortable spot on his shoulder, and turned away from the space where Elm stood. He pulled the brim of his hat down, as if it would help with the sun, and walked over to the bus marked, “Los Angeles.”

For nine hours his head rests against the window in silence, and he exits the bus once to use a gas station restroom, at his bladder’s command. Otherwise, he was still, oblivious to the pain in his joints and the rumble in his belly. The bus drew him, mile by mile, toward the tragedy awaiting him at home, and mile by mile, Jim drew further away.


 

Mid-Life Crisis

The term is pejorative. The images that swirl around it drip with foolishness. Expensive convertibles. Extra-marital affairs. Strange food and exercise fads. Sudden career changes.

The obvious universal underpinning for the kaleidoscope of behaviors is mortality. Whether we’d word it like Thoreau, wanting to “live close to the bone…and not when we came to die, discover that we had not lived,” or feel it like Hesse’s Siddhartha, wondering after twenty years if any of what he did mattered, we realize that we “just get so many trips round the sun,” and we’re not sure we’ve been spending them right.

My eleven year old son is fond of asking me what super power I would like to have. I usually hem and haw because there are so many cool ones, but imagine being able to experience all the roads that fan out ahead of us.

Who hasn’t wondered about the lives they didn’t lead? I love to act (and sometimes made use of that in my classroom), but I didn’t chase the stage. I love to sing (and sometimes made use of that in my classroom), but I didn’t start a band. I love speaking to crowds (and often made use of that in my classroom), but American politics sickened me. I love to argue (and tried not to make use of that in my classroom), but I didn’t go to law school.

And I loved to write. A professor in college called me into his office in the middle of the semester, as I was taking his creative writing course. Professor Riley. I can still hear his voice. “I know it’s a dangerous thing to say, but you could really make a living at this.”

But I chose to teach. Unlike Hess’s Siddhartha, I was tired of poverty, tired of living off of top ramen, tired of relying too heavily on the grace of my friends. I knew I could teach and draw a paycheck, so I did.

To my surprise, I loved it, though only most days. And it was entirely possible I would have continued to teach for the rest of my working life.

But something happened.

It’s hard not to feel that this mid-life crisis (and so far my daughter has been the only one with the temerity to call it that to my face), was fated.

For a period of roughly three months, in the winter of 2012-2013, I was bitter, something that felt quite new. I was bitter with a set of classes that for the first time in years included a one that pissed me off almost every day. I was bitter with an administration hell bent on ruining the school. I was bitter with a union leadership that was preparing to commit hari-kari in front of the looming Common Core fiasco.

At this lowest emotional point in my teaching career, my wife asked, “What do you think about moving to Minnesota?”

“F*** it, let’s go.” My exact words.

Ironically, things improved with the spring. That god awful third period turned a corner, allowing me to see the shine from both the kids in that room, and the other classes that had been wonderful all along. See the biggest problem with that one class that ruins your whole day, is that it ruins your whole day. And the union seemed to wake up from its self imposed stupor. The school remained in the hands of the worst administrator I’d ever met, but two out of three ain’t bad.

I’d already committed though. My wife’s company offered her a deal that made it clear how much they valued her, and she was excited about the prospects of greater upward mobility.

Again, fate. I’ve considered myself a feminist for decades (any honest Marxist has to be), and I happened to get into a conversation at lunch about how much progress women had made in the work place. A friend of mine scoffed, saying “Name me a man who’s sacrificed his career to follow his wife’s?” I almost said, “Me,” but I hadn’t told them yet.

All those years ago, in 1994, when we’d graduated from college, she stayed in California with me rather than head back to Colorado with her family, and all I had at the time was a low wage teaching job at a private school.

When I explained to that same lunch crowd, that I was leaving, and why, I couldn’t help but include how my wife’s company had made her an offer that was too good to refuse. The same woman who had asked about men sacrificing their careers for their wives said, “Oh my god, you wouldn’t have to teach anymore. You could write!”

Of course, I’d already been thinking about it.

The Teacher Nightmare

3:07 am. I wake from a teacher nightmare. They found my brilliant lesson plan uninteresting. I had to make an example out of one kid to get the others to even pretend to pay attention. All my hard work dashed on the shores of rude children.

The nightmare was mild comparatively. I’ve had entire classrooms simply get up and leave. I’ve taught class while desperately hoping no one would notice I wasn’t wearing any clothes–non-teachers would be surprised at how many teachers have had that nightmare.

It’s been over a year since I left the classroom, but my brain may have been permanently wired to stress about lesson plans and behavior management.

Now I’m awake, and my dog senses it.

It’s 3:07am, and there’s something in the yard. Whimper, whimper, whiiiinnee.

“Lie down Charlie.”

I hear him shuffle reluctantly to his bed.

Whimper, whimper. Seconds later? Minutes later? I don’t know. Can’t see the clock without sitting up. Can’t sit up without risking waking the wife. Still really dark though.

Whiiiinnnne.

Don’t get me wrong. The dog’s not scared. He just desperately wants to get at whatever is in the yard, and he’s smart enough to know that he gets in less trouble for whining than barking.

“Charlie! Lie down!” I whisper shout. My wife rolls over.

Charlie goes to his bed, and stops whining, but can’t stay still. Moments later he’s up and pacing.

Rinse, repeat, for the better part of an hour. I finally fall asleep despite Charlie’s restlessness, but the cat apparently hears his pacing and starts scratching at my daughter’s door.

Screw it.

See, here’s the beauty of being out of the classroom: I get up even though I’ve only had four and half hours of sleep. I’m sure there are lots of jobs where going to work like that would be brutal, hell even, but teaching? Disaster. It’s a lot harder to keep your cool when you’re barely staying vertical.

And keeping your cool is paramount. As important as knowledge of your subject is, and planning, prep work, grading, and all the other labor, the most important trait in the classroom teacher is patience.

Endless steel cables of patience.

Let me try to provide some insight about the difference between teachers and everyone else:

A story hit the news some years ago, about a Florida grade school teacher who duct taped a kindergartener to the wall.

All non-teachers first responses amount to, That’s awful. What a horrible person!

While teachers do get to that thought, eventually, it’s never first. The first thought for a teacher is, Oh my god, what must that child have done! Understand, none of us are condoning duct-taping a child to a wall…

…but we’ve all wanted to.

When a child seemed hell bent on making sure none of his peers learned anything, I would seriously have considered chucking him clear out of the schools grounds, had a catapult been part of the approved discipline matrix.

See, teachers understand that this woman knowingly made that her last act as a public school employee. Teachers wonder what a child must have done to snap her patience so desperately that duct taping a kindergartener to a wall, struck her as the best available option.

I taught for 21 years, and I was fond of saying that 9 days out of 10 I love my job…on the tenth day I want to kill someone. Now that I’ve been out for a year it’s easy to think fondly of the classroom. Good days seem glorious, and bad days make for funny stories.

But my subconscious disagrees. After a year, the classroom is still where my nightmares take me.

If you want to find out the level of respect a child is accorded in a school, find the nearest bathroom.

A couple of months into her sixth grade year my daughter began to complain of regular headaches. Since dehydration is the most frequent cause of headaches my first question was whether she was drinking enough water. She began to cry, frustration bursting like I had lanced a boil. Her school only had four minute passing periods, and she was already struggling with getting to her locker frequently enough to make use of her limited backpack space. Since none of her teachers permitted her to use the bathroom during class, and she worked in the cafeteria at lunch, she had to hold it from 8:40 am until 3:00pm. She could sometimes go at the end of P.E., but that was second period, and only helped a little. So she had stopped drinking water during the school day. We told her she should drink water and go at lunch, even if she was a little late to the cafeteria, but she begged her mother and me not to talk to her teachers or the administration.

As a teacher I often wondered, silently and aloud, why we treat children the way we do. Not me, and not usually the colleagues I befriended, but certainly the system as a whole, and a number of individual teachers. Some even supported it enthusiastically. When you think about it, we are quite cruel to children, quite often. It’s in the school structure, it’s in the scheduling, it’s in the attitudes, it’s in the culture.

If you want to find out the level of respect a child is accorded in a school, find the nearest bathroom. The first sign will be that the nearest bathroom is locked. Upon construction a school must have a minimum number of bathrooms to provide reasonable access for the population of students. They legally must have these bathrooms. Since this is both easy to check and costly to fix, schools generally comply. Inspections during a school day, however, are rare and scheduled, so most days as many as half the bathrooms are locked. Students notice and comment on the fact that during school inspections all the bathrooms are suddenly unlocked.

The administration blame the students for the closures. Occasionally they’ll say the kids didn’t clean up after themselves. More frequently they’ll paint the whole student body with a criminal veneer and say they had to lock it up because it was tagged or someone was smoking (not usually tobacco—marijuana’s actually easier for kids to get). The injustice of this is obvious; the kids see it right away. They didn’t all tag the bathroom. They didn’t all smoke weed in it. Collective punishment is inherently unfair.

If the bathroom happens to be open, however, you will see even more clearly. They regularly lack soap, paper towels, and even toilet paper. (I’ve actually seen children bring rolls of toilet paper in their backpacks.) Most of the bathrooms have had the mirrors removed. Sometimes schools remove the doors from the stalls. The high school I attended in the late 1980’s, Santiago HS in Garden Grove CA, went so far as to remove the stalls. There was literally a line of four toilets at the back end of the bathroom, visible from the moment one came around the wall at the entrance. One painfully desperate afternoon, in the middle of sixth period (the teacher allowed us one “emergency” bathroom pass a semester), I went. I sat at the farthest stall (as if it made any difference), and tried to hurry, but someone came in. I can still picture Dana’s face as he backed out of the room, embarrassed for us both (a huge Samoan, starting quarterback, but a gentle giant). I apologized “I’m sorry man, I had to.” He replied, “It’s ok; I know the feeling.” He never said anything to me about it, and apparently never mentioned it to anyone else, since I never had to hear about it from anyone. What kinds of indignities do we expect children to suffer through?

Finally, look at the bathroom use policies. The vast majority of teachers operate on the assumption that the students can and should do their business outside of their class time, and that if they ask during class, they are being irresponsible or worse. Teachers, more often than not, assume that students either don’t really need to go, or prefer to go during class so they can get out of coursework.

Everyone recognizes that crowded bathrooms are way more unpleasant than empty ones and no school actually adds bathroom time to passing periods, they merely pretend that it can be done. I have always made it my policy to let children use the bathroom. On an individual basis, I might temporarily deny a child who’d misused his/her time out of my classroom, but otherwise there were only two restrictions I ever placed. I only allowed one student at a time (almost every student accepted this as reasonable), and I never allowed them to interrupt anyone other than me (no restroom passes if we had a guest, or if their peers were presenting).

Why do we expect them to put up with such awful and unreasonable restrictions on their bodily functions? If a child has to urinate so badly that he cannot sit still, then how could he possible pay attention to my lecture or focus on his assignment? It’s awfully convenient for educators to say things like, “he should have gone earlier,” or “he just wants to get out of class,” especially when they know the limitations placed on the students, but we all know that people can go from the realization that they need to go, to distracted even desperate discomfort in fifteen to twenty minutes, particularly if you just ate or drank (but teachers still ask “Why didn’t you go at lunch?”). So, what actually causes a teacher to resent a child’s need to urinate?

A couple of months into my third year teaching I remember confronting a class angrily when a bothersome pattern had developed. I felt they were taking advantage of me, and I took it personally that they wanted to leave my class. It seemed like during the course of the class half the students would use the bathroom, and it was like a steady train, exchanging the student coming back for the next one leaving. When I lashed out at them, most looked sheepishly down at their desk. It was a continuation school, and they were used to people assuming they were bad students who were up to no good, but I liked them (for the most part), and (for the most part) they like me. I had let my frustration build, rather than communicating it right away, and when the damn burst they were caught off guard. They didn’t realize they were offending me. One girl finally spoke up: “You’re the only one who lets us go.” My anger melted in sympathy. They only had three minute passing periods, and out of nine teachers, I was the only one who didn’t think that was enough time. When I spoke to teachers about it they shook their head at me. I was new. New to the job and even newer to the school. One teacher told me she had a bathroom in her class and none of them would use it. They would ask to go, but when she pointed at the door, they said “never mind.” That initially struck me as a legitimate argument. I asked one of her students later and she explained that everyone in the class can hear you go if you use that one. What person in their right mind asks a teenager to choose between embarrassment and pain? I remember suffering in the cold wind for multiple months when a girl in my 9th grade class told me my jacket made me look like a dork. It was the only one I had. I don’t even remember who the girl was.

Why do we treat children like this? Why do we heap so much abuse on them? When the irrational is ubiquitous, it simply means you haven’t discovered the logic. The logic here is one of control. Teachers may find their individual rationalization of it, but systemically it serves a purpose. This experience runs a huge chunk of the spectrum, from the schools of the very poor, where I’ve always taught, to my daughter’s middle school in an upper middle class neighborhood of doctors and lawyers. For thirteen years we teach children that other people will tell them when they can and cannot use the restroom, other people will control their biological functions, other people will intentionally impose discomfort and even pain. This normalizes the idea that for eight hours a day, five days a week, they physically belong to someone else, right down to the control of their bodily functions. It makes an expectation out of the otherwise unthinkable. For those that run this society, the psychological training for would be workers is far more important than any skillset the schools will provide them with.

Schools are Not Failing; They are Doing Exactly What They are Meant to.

Teaching often reminds me of the story of the two men who come upon a river. As they are about to cross the bridge, they spot a child, flailing desperately as she is carried by the current. Just at the point when they have succeeded in getting her out and seeing to her safety, another child comes tumbling toward them. Upon fishing the second child out, along comes a third. As one of the men wades into the river again he realizes he’s alone. Seeing his friend racing up river bank he shouts “What are you doing?!”

“I’m going to stop the jerk that’s throwing kids in the river.”

Only the river is thirteen years of public education, and I get them 175 at a time. Some of them come to me already beautiful, shined up and smooth. I often think of what education could be if I could take a dozen of them and explore the universe for a year…but this river does more to prevent them from reaching that point. It’s rarely a dozen in an entire year.

Probably a third of my students come to me broken—their curiosity atrophied or even gone. A few of them are even shattered; they can’t function in a classroom and won’t allow anyone else to either. The worst thing about teaching is that everyone loses. The damage to human potential is incalculable. It’s not moving backwards. Without meaning it to be praise, I think I can reasonably say that almost all of my students were better off at the end of a year in my class than they were at the beginning, but when I think of what could have been done for each of them, that’s what hurts. The gap is tremendous.

You have to ask the question, who benefits from this? California, as the richest state in the richest country in the world, chooses to pile 35 children into my room, five times daily, forcing the first order of the day to be order. Who is better off when the masses of people leave school having been taught before and above everything else to obey and to defer to authority?

As a nation we take the most amazing thing I’ve ever encountered–the capacity and desire of a human mind to grasp, make use of, and expand on a concept–and crush it out of most of our people. This does not benefit society as a whole, and it does not have to happen. There is a very narrow group of people who benefit from this structure.

Schools are not failing. They are doing exactly what they are designed to do: they reproduce the status quo. Corporate America needs masses of people who will put up with dull, low wage work, and our school system excels at training people to put up with dull, low wage work.

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Schools however do not consist of cogs and gears, but people, and people are notorious for having ideas of their own. In 21 years of teaching I’ve never met a teacher who willfully and willingly produces automatons for the Walmarts of the world. I’ve met many who unwittingly do so, but most teachers on some level want to expand the horizons of their students. Most find a way to do so without sounding too rebellious.

They talk about preparing kids for college because that neatly fits into the acceptable conversation, even though there aren’t enough college openings for the number of students we’re claiming to prepare. This allows a teacher to help expand the intellect of their students without drawing the attention of the thought police.

It is permitted, however, because it plays right back into the mythology of the system. Our educational system does what Huxley wrote about in Brave New World. It generates Alphas, Betas, Gammas, and Deltas, albeit less obviously and more painfully. Telling millions of children that they should go to college, they just need to work hard enough, creates the sense of personal failure for not having made it, and lets the system that warehouses them in underfunded schools off the hook. When people believe that they brought their suffering on themselves, they don’t fight it. At the end of the day, that is the entire purpose of America’s educational system: getting people to not fight back.

In the 1990s an educational movement was gaining steam. Rethinking Schools. It was small, but brilliant, and growing. I encountered this resource in my third year of teaching and held out high hopes for where things might be going. Corporate America got worried. This wasn’t the first time the schools were deviating from the plan, but someone needed to put a stop to it.

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What if too many teachers start using the classroom against the system? What if critical pedagogy (teaching kids to think for themselves) starts to hold sway? What if teachers begin to write their own curriculums designed to nurture and restore that natural human curiosity that makes for brilliant minds, but rebellious workers?

Enter high stakes standardized tests.

And Common Core.

You doubt me? Follow the money. Let’s stop letting them throw children in the river.

What does it mean to teach?

In my third year of teaching one of my students, Jorge Cruz, drew something amazing for me (while serving a detention I assigned him). With just a pencil, on an oddly shaped piece of poster paper, he detailed a brilliant close up of the face of an Aztec Warrior. There are so many amazing things in this piece. The face is at once uncomfortably close, like a camera just off the tip of someone’s nose, and still distant with dark, pupil-less eyes, that stare past you no matter where you stand. It is a face both incredibly bold and proud, but deeply sad, that seems to peer into the certain tragedy of his people’s past, and their uncertain future. I felt instantly overwhelmed by the power of his art, art he created quietly as he waited out the clock in penitence for an offence I can’t even remember.

Perhaps it’s not true that he made it for me, but when I expressed how deeply impressed I was with it he shrugged and said, “Keep it,” as if it was some spare change that had fallen out of his pocket and would not be missed.

This piece of art hangs in my house today (my wife had it neatly framed), nearly two decades later, and, in a way I hadn’t anticipated, it informs my teaching. It keeps me grounded, if you will. Jorge was the most talented artist that has ever graced my classroom, at least that I know of. Now, I’m an English teacher, so that assessment may not mean much, since I don’t see much of their art and it’s not my bailiwick, but when Jorge stopped showing up to school, I didn’t think much of it. I taught at a continuation school at the time, and students frequently decided they were done playing school. He did poorly in my class, but it never seemed to impact his ego. He held himself with plenty of esteem, and the amount of effort it would have taken him to do well, I imagine, he had deemed not worth the payoff. He was probably right. Anyway, I was honestly less worried about Jorge than many of the others because he had a talent that I was sure would serve him well.

He stopped by to see me again three years later. I fully expected him to be running his own studio with people paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars for his work. Multiple visitors to my home had asked if he was selling anything, but sadly, I didn’t know how to find him.

The first thing out of my mouth, after greeting him, was “how’s your art going?”

He shrugged. “I don’t really draw anymore.”

My stunned silence brought an explanation. A couple of things I knew from before. He was the oldest of four, and the family was very poor. Furniture in their house was mostly pilfered milk crates. To make sure that his younger brothers and sister could focus on school, he decided to help his father bring in more money by keeping his dad’s truck–a commercial vehicle smaller than the UHauls my family moved with when I was a kid–in near constant motion. Between the two of them they drove the truck twenty-four hours a day, six days a week. Some days they managed two round trips from the port of Long Beach or LA Harbor to Oakland and back. One drove while the other slept. They often ate in the truck while driving.

He finished the story by saying he just didn’t feel like drawing anymore. I couldn’t have been more devastated than he was, but I sure felt like it. His studied indifference left me unsure what to say, and the conversation was not a comfortable one. He knew that I knew what he had given up.

How many Jorges are out there? How much brilliance never finds a space? This century’s greatest scientist will never get an education because she’s been born in the slums of New Delhi. This century’s greatest poet will live like an artist’s unopened pot of paint in the favelas of Sao Paulo. This century’s greatest writer will die of cholera in Bangledesh, never having picked up a pen.

The squandering of humanity goes on.

But deep, under the muck this society steeps us in, lies a better world, and Jorge’s art, hanging on my wall all these years, reminds me that what we could be is worth working for. It’s informed what I do in the classroom, as well as much of what I do out of it.