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Category Archives: Interviews and Conversations

School Managers Versus Visionaries – A Teacher’s Perspective

Two things that helped me get centered as a teacher-person this week. One was hearing a CBC radio piece about fidget toys–those little spinners kids are bringing into classrooms all over. On the one hand, the sellers were claiming they helped students focus and de-stress, even could mitigate the effects of hyperactivity, ADHD, even autism. But there wasn’t any science yet on that, it was noted. Most teachers disapproved of the gadgets, and were confiscating them right and left. One interviews said she thought they were “kind of ridiculous.” A school psychologist said, basically, that all items brought into the classroom for the purpose of supporting student learning ought to be part of a carefully crafted and documented plan created by the team of education professionals. That struck me as ridiculous, that a kid couldn’t even bring a cool little toy to class because was unauthorized. It spoke to me of a culture of micromanagement, especially promoted by those with a agenda crafted away from classrooms, away from daily contact with individual human personalities. Like teachers and others are in some kind of tug-of war for the students’ attention so all of their other interests must be snuffed, especially if they take the form of something that can’t be easily turned into a gradable essay, science activity, or math assessment.

Maybe I react so to that management frame of mind because I’m not really able to get my head around it, have always had difficulty with the “management” part in some ways. Not that students are out of control in my classroom, but they are definitely out of my control, and mostly in their own. I don’t “run a tight ship” in that sense, though I think that there’s a pretty good culture aboard, and a sense that we all need to make this group thing work while each individual makes their own choices. Despite the fact that a few students have chosen not to respond positively to being trusted, I want to continue to extend that trust. In planning lessons, I assume that, like me, every student will find some part at least of what we are covering fascinating. If not, if something else, such as a spinning toy, is more engaging, surely I shouldn’t be annoyed and offended. Surely I should show sympathy with his or her fascination and delight, and give space (and guidance if necessary) while he or she figures out the appropriate place of such an object in the flow of the lesson. I might make an effort to discern the student’s real purpose in using it; I might try to co-opt it to replace something I had planned, or I might ask myself, is there any way I can teach in a more interesting way?

The second thing was a conversation with a mom who has a few of her older kids in our school for the first time, seeing how it goes, so she can juggle the home education of her younger ones and some health problems too. I ran into her at the grocery store, and she shared how tough it as for her son and daughter to “catch up” after a trip, and in the midst of extracurricular activities. I asked her how the school experience as going so far, and she shared that one of the unpleasant surprises was the typical “schoolishness” of it all, despite the fact that we served homeschoolers, and the fact that the principal and several staff had homeschooled their own children. All the stress, rush, and testing and all. Why did it have to be that way, she asked? Why couldn’t people just pool their money and create a school that did things differently?

That’s what schools are, though, I admitted. The more established they get, the more standardized, the less flexible and integrated with the rest of life. This push and pull between freedom and accountability is especially pronounced when homeschoolers and public schools get together. We get money for each enrolled child, and they get classes, and a resource library, and certain consumable materials (non-religious only).  We have to log progress (as measured in various ways, currently pretty flexible at our school), and train them to do their part of the paperwork for the auditor, so we get to stay open. They get to graduate their kids, but the kids have to make the grade, and we decide what that is. Schools will always tend that way, I told her. But you’re the boss, the person ultimately responsible, and you don’t have to buy the whole package. Even graduation (I was tempted to lower my voice) was not the be-all for every family, whether college-bound or not.

She and her spouse are very pro-active and purpose-driven parents, and their kids are lovely human beings. Not all our parents are taking it as such a privilege and opportunity to manage their children’s education in partnership with us. Some are using our school as a shelter, where there’s a high percentage of conservative Christian families, and nice, small classes. Some just need a break from the kids a few days a week. Others sign up because there aren’t classes every day, and so on “home” days, they have a free babysitter, or can have the kid work on building houses for the family firm or milking the cows on the farm. Every time that sort of thing comes up, usually in the form of our concern that these students aren’t keeping up in academics, I’m torn. Such job experience and training n in practical skills are valuable and hard to come by for young people. We do give school credit when possible, but the balance is tough, and who’s to say that getting a C or above in Geometry or American Government is up there with keeping the milk flowing into the tank for daily pickup, or learning house framing or interior finishing?

Often I feel it’s us that are out of touch, that schools are trying to keep up with a culture that has no understanding of the skills that it really takes to survive and prosper long term on this planet. We have no vision, our leaders no will of their own. It’s all about being “college & career ready,” and that’s not a vision, any more than I have to dress warm today because it’s cold outside, or I have to strip and hose down the prisoner because he’s next in line and I’m on a schedule.

People good at organizing schools are management types who want a smoothly running machine that has good photo ops. They are not prone to sustaining the purity of a beautiful vision. The visionaries are either inside classrooms, and, if not frustrated, might be allowed professional freedom to flesh out that vision. Or they connect with multi-billionaires who have the bucks to bypass the political process, and want a project and a legacy, and, of course, in the end, skilled workers for its market share in the global economy.

 

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In which the teacher wonders whether she will be able to fit in at her new school

More on the job search; new development: I got a full time position. Nice to know a month before starting–lots of time to plan, but maybe too much time to brood. Now there’s just a week, and I’m still feeling unsure.

I had hoped to be called by my district–the one I live in and which gave me the job I finished in June–about a middle school science or high school biology job. I thought I had a pretty good shot at it, with experience, good references, a few connections. But the weeks went by after my application was in, and no calls, no emails, and then “position filled” on the jobs website, same as last year. Also hoped to be able to bike to work, was poised to buy the bike, set up the storage rack inside the garage, now to be vacated by college age child. But no response to the applications I put in.

Six nearby districts had no relevant postings at all. The seventh had a maybe–a posting for high school math and science at an alternative school I’d never heard of, serving homeschooled students. I read the requirements, and I was a one hundred percent match, and more. So I applied, and got a call the next week, had my interview set up for that Friday. I should have been pumped– full time, alternative, fully qualified. The forty minute commute was regrettable, but we had been looking around for properties, and could easily settle closer if things worked out in that district.

But it was in that very religiously conservative town that I’ve written of before, the one I’ve never been interested in living in, never felt I fit in culturally. Even when I was more religious I was never conservative enough in the right ways, felt too edgy, likely to offend or be judged. On paper I looked like a good fit, but deep down I wondered if I would fit in. The school served homeschool families exclusively in a parent partnership model, which meant I needed to bridge those worlds and be super flexible about the different ways families approached education, which working within the public education professional paradigm.

I didn’t prepare much–just refreshed my mind with notes I’d taken for previous interviews, and wrote down my questions for them. My goal was to find out if this job would keep me on track for working with some of the “tougher” kids in the system, preferably back in the city, and maybe even in the school I worked in last year, after it had its new, larger building and needed more science teachers. I interviewed with the principal, who also teaches part time, and a teacher leader who was serving as a kind of assistant principal.

The school uses part of a building shared by a church and several other Christian ministries, including health services (free pregnancy tests) and a clothing distribution center. The principal and teacher were sharing a joke when I walked in the outer door, warmly asked me to wait a few minutes, then I was invited into the office. They asked me to tell about myself, nodded with appreciation at the places in my narrative that indicated a fit to the position. Asked me what was the worst lesson I ever taught. I said I couldn’t think of a specific one, but in general I mostly regretted times when I talked too much and listened too little, or where I was not relaxed enough to be myself and teach in my natural way. The teacher asked me whether I had used a particular curriculum as a homeschooler. I was prepared for this, having resolved not to let on that I had raised my children in Christianity, feeling that this information had no legitimate place in a public school teacher interview. I said I had used various things, and a literature rich approach. She pressed, which approach was that? I confessed that I had used Sonlight Curriculum. Ah, they both sighed in satisfaction–that was a good one. So the cat was partially out of the bag.

I asked them what they felt were the strengths of their school, and the challenges. Strengths were the tight knit team and close community of the student body, challenges included dealing with strong willed parents. Tied to that, I asked them if in the course of teaching some aspects of biology to children of conservative Christians, there sometimes arose conflicts over certain scientific ideas such as evolution. Because although I was brought up a believer, I only became familiar with creationism later, I said. I was interested in others’ viewpoints, indeed had sought out creationist books at a homeschool book fair to see what the most educated creationists had to say. Yes, sometimes, the principal said, there were sometimes parents who objected, but he would be there to help deal with that, and besides, he said, you don’t have to teach everything. This got my attention, as it implied that it might be best to sidestep such conflicts by cutting out science content. For example, he continued, once he worked at a school where the librarian wanted to have Harry Potter books in the library, and he had said to her that he had nothing against having books like that, but why did she have to have them?

By this I understood that, at the very least, this was a principal of the Golden Retriever personality type, a peacemaker who doesn’t stand up for principles where that brings interpersonal conflict. That’s a red flag for me, as I enjoy bringing up and discussing controversial issues in order to learn and teach, and do try to adhere to principles of truth even when that brings on some heat. Not that peace making isn’t an important principle also, and it could be a great thing to work with an administrator who prioritizes mutual good feeling. It all makes me wonder about the balance between teaching from who I am, which includes teaching about evolution, sex ed, whatever, because these are important science, and the need to respect local community values and parental authority over children’s education. That last was big for me as a homeschooling parent–I didn’t appreciate a paternalistic attitude in school personnel, as I viewed them as having only delegated authority and only over a certain aspects of children’s lives. But I do have values to inculcate as a teacher, too, and that includes a respect for reason, logic, and empirical evidence.

I got a call from the principal as I was pulling into the fabric store on the way home. He offered me the job, said he had already spoken to my references, and would be please to hear my answer that Monday, if that worked for me. I thanked him and said I would give it careful thought. I accepted the job on Monday, not having been able to give the final word to my red flags, glad to have a full time opportunity, and knowing I would benefit from the need to learn the curricula for all six courses I would be teaching. Six is a lot, but only Mondays and Wednesdays and heavily supported by home assignments supervised by parents.

My other source of discontent is that I don’t really feel that homeschool kids need the kind of support I want to give. The have supportive families, are economically stable enough to be homeschooled, and are mostly independent, self- motivated learners. I really wanted to get back into serving the tough kids, the kids who didn’t fit, the kids who had something that needed to be discovered and busted out in a special supportive setting, who were the ones mostly driving the best efforts of education leaders and making schools a more authentic place of learning and growth. I missed my school from last year.

There is one way in which I could see these homeschool students, the ones from the religiously conservative families, needing, at least in my mind, what I had to give. I could maybe get some of them them hooked on biology/ecology, more knowledgeable about the natural/created world, help them understand the value of rational scientific thinking about it and see it as a powerful aid to growth and developing purpose rather than a tool of the enemy. I grew up on the hymn “This is My Father’s World,” my earthly father reinforced the Bible’s teaching on stewardship, and I enjoyed and still enjoy reading the Psalms for the way they celebrate the beauty and power of the creation. Later my conservative Christian teachers emphasized, in reaction to New Age religion, that we are to worship the Creator rather than creation, which I had though was a no-brainer, but whatever. The only people with whom I shared the values of living lightly, recycling, cutting down on energy use and preserving biodiversity, besides my father, one Regent College professor, and several friends who I was able to influence, were decidedly non-religious. Inter-Varsity Press, NavPress and Multnomah Press books on how to live the Christian life, think critically and biblically about the issues, were light on stewardship. I was aware that liberal Christians were more into environmental conservation, but they were not very helpful in the struggle with personal morality and purity of thought life.

I’m planning my biology and environmental science classes now, and intend to do what I can to support critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and the development of an environmental ethic rooted in a value for sustainability. In other words, let’s understand natural systems, lets’ understand how humans depend on and affect them, and let’s not promote the destruction of human society. Valuing all other life forms will have to stem from long term self interest with a primal drive rooted in our selfish genes. There is no conservative without conservation, no religion without human society, no traditional values without sustainable traditions. There is no intelligent design of humans in God’s image if those humans don’t know how to design intelligently.

 

 

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Mother-daughter travel

Mother and Daughter have just returned from a pleasant walk to get supper at McDonald’s (chicken wrap for Mom and fries to share) and immediately after that, Tim Horton’s (Caesar salad for vegetarian Daughter, who discovered that Tim’s Caesars include bacon). Mother suggested Daughter record a video or audio of the counter guy, who would call each customer forward with a “I can help who’s next, b’y.” Daughter received her order from an island matron who handed over her salad with a “Here you are, my darlin’.”

It was clear on the walk back to the B&B, the chilly north Atlantic wind and cloud banks having  finally receded after several days of blow. Now it is night, and Mother and Daughter recline against the pillows on their respective beds in the B&B. It’s last night in Newfoundland, time to access wifi for the first time in several days. Daughter is catching up on Youtube videos, Mother is writing a blog post. Daughter’s quiet, breathy laughter drifts across the room to Mother.

Mother: “S, it’s okay to laugh out loud, you know.”

Daughter: “Don’t tell me how to laugh.”

Mother (lightheartedly): “I’m not, but I’m going to now.”

Daughter: “You just sucked all the happiness out of the room.”

Mother (laughing) “S, you’re good for me.”

Daughter: “I’m good for everyone.”

Not a hard word, hardly, between my daughter and I, on this whole trip. I am so proud of her, that she has turned out such a quality person. Every one of my family members was blessed by her quiet, kind presence. Just the fact that she could be out of what many young people consider “civilization” and could actually enjoy herself, is impressive. Mom & Dad, who live so far away from us and have only seen these four of ours every few years, will be talking of the sweet moments with her that they enjoyed. Lunches in and out with Mom, walks along the trail and through the village, the dip in the frigid water that my eighty year old father and she took  in the cove, reading all together by the wood stove, exploring gift shops, museum, dock and beach.

It would not have been as good without her, that’s sure. I feel like I’ve come bearing gifts.

 

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Ontario Part II

My daughter and I have been away from home just over two weeks now. She’s a wonderful traveling companion, and a credit to her people, as they say. Just came from my parents’ little house in Crow’s Head near Twillingate on the north side of Newfoundland, where we spent a few days. Before that we stayed with my youngest sister and bro-in-law in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before that my other younger sister in Montreal. We’re taking a small breather at a B&B in Gander, NL before flying out to Winnipeg early tomorrow morning.

My brother and sister-in-law said goodbye to us in Kingston, Ontario, seeing us off by train for the almost three hour ride to Montreal. Just enough time for a good visit it was. Heather gave us a driving tour around town and took us out to lunch, all the while making my eighteen-year-old daughter feel thoroughly at ease and appreciated. Heather is tall and beautiful at fifty, and has that personality we in our family refer to as “mercy,” where her motivation for all she does is rooted in a desire to make others feel cared for. Every little touch to make us feel at home in their place was there–soft towels, toiletries obviously for using, half a dozen soft pillows each, both quiet time and companionship, attentive and interesting conversation, genuine words of affirmation.

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My brother is also a good host, but in a different way, his own way. He kept us active–took us out to see his goats and chickens, with eggs in incubation, and to the pond to look for water snakes. No snakes, but we did come upon thousands of tiny toads, so many that we had to walk farther away from the water’s edge to avoid stepping on them. So tiny and perfect, hopping like small crickets toward the water in waves as we passed.IMG_5610 (1)

We went with him on a hike at Dunder Rock with his dog Jack, hoping to see a corn snake, a large one having bee seen by several others in the area. Matt shook his head to see others’  dogs off leash, which would effectively prevent such a sighting. Most owners never even realize what their dogs are bothering or killing up ahead, he said, just want them to be free and happy. But they kill snakes, among other things.

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We stood and felt the height and cool breezes, watched resident turkey vultures and took some photos. After working up a sweat on the way down we eased down a rocky bank into the lake, delicious cool water but not too cold. Then back home for another array of salads and whole grain bread and cheese. We talked a little about teaching, but only slantwise and reverently, of the attachment one feels with students, the fulfillment of helping them understand, appreciate and care for this wonderful world.

On Canada Day Matt took us into Seeley’s Bay, the local village, where we caught, or rather joined by mistake, the tail end of the parade, walked around town, Matt recognized by various locals young and old and exhibiting his characteristic plain charm. In the ice cream and souvenir store he plunked down beside the owner for a chat, and soon came around to the question of whether she needed more stock of his handmade bat houses. His summer work includes humanely extricating bat colonies from attics and outbuildings and providing new quarters. Mostly these are small boxes of barn boards, erected on poles or building exteriors, but last year he built the miniature house, a bat mansion, mentioned in a recent post. We checked stand found some evidence of bat visitation–the crumbly droppings made of insect exoskeletons excreted by local brown bats.

The last evening we played Blokus, which brought out the playful teasing that Heather and Matt enjoy, him being always competitive, which tends to make everyone else, even Heather, want to gang up on him. Later Heather and I talked about that competitiveness, where it came from and its positive and negative sides. Came up again when talking to my brother-in-law on our visit to Halifax too. Matt loves to win when there’s a game on, and excel when it’s time to get to work. As well as being a well-loved teacher (Heather tells of numerous parents and students who take biology just to be in his class, and students who hate science coming out wanting to pursue it in college), he’s skilled in construction, woodworking, gardening, riding, athletics, art, and music. He’s pretty much self-taught. Indeed, Heather and I agreed, he doesn’t like to be taught or acknowledge others to be more expert than himself unless absolutely necessary. This is a quality that shows itself in various members of my family. Yes, this is really about me. So much easier to be bothered by my flaws when they are reflected by others. So this family tour is not only a way to reconnect, but to understand and improve myself. My daughter gives lots of good insight there, too, and has a fresh perspective that’s enough removed from the generational hangups to enable me to be more open.

Heather drive us to the rain station on her way to her vet clinic the next morning for the ride to Montreal.

 

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Be a teacher and change lives: the only reason worth doing it, including summers off

Mainly I’m a volunteer, supported by tech dollars. So many teachers are, is my guess, especially in science and technology, where getting a better paying job is pretty easy. It would be an interesting study, to see how teachers’ families make it, and how many family members are really supported these days on teachers’ pay. I brought home less than $900 last month–thought there must be some mistake, until I realized I had to take two sick days. Good medical insurance, though, for the whole family, for a few hundred dollars less, too.

Still, I love my job, and am thankful that my husband had parents who both made a huge impact as teachers, and so his heart is in this endeavor too, despite the long hours beyond the four and a half per day in my contract. As if a half an hour before and a half after could be enough for any sort of decent planning, even if I wasn’t in my first year on the job.

My husband’s dad grew up in a logging town, learned everything mechanical, worked as a machinist until he was injured, then got a teaching credential. He had the tough kids in the shop and on the football field, and related to them, being a dyslexic, having moved out of home at sixteen, encouraged to do so by his dad, who had a new, young wife only a few years older than the stepson. Was insecure around the other teachers, got teased even as an adult at not being able to spell words correctly on the blackboard. He had a temper too, but a soft heart for the boys he taught, and he taught them well. Died early, probably from shop fumes plus a botched esophagus operation, and decades later his widow still hears from students whose lives he helped set on a firm foundation, both as a teacher and as a man with an open door policy toward his sons’ friends at home.

My husband’s mother went back to school and then work at Head Start, on her husband’s insistence, in case anything happened to him and he couldn’t work. Proved to be a good move, as a few years later he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and it was a long haul through which his wife cared for him, and had that other space in which to succeed and have a change of scene, as well as be in community. She came to be an administrator, not the usual kind, but a person known for always believing that the caregivers in the child development centers did their best work when believed in and supported rather than checked up on and scolded.

I’m putting away that thought that it takes more now than caring for kids and an interest in helping them learn, more than a desire to make a living sharing what you know while learning more than you could possibly guess about yourself, the subject, the clients, the community, the meaning of existence, more than all that to choose teaching as a profession. Now it’s also about finding something that will pay the bills, keeping up with the rate of inflation, procreation, and non working vacation. And the strain of being so many new things to those kids, doing the impossible or letting it go a little every day.

There seems to be a growing correlation between the growth of a populace poorly educated, easily swayed voters and that failure to fund and design education, and otherwise inspire and support new generations of teachers. Serves us right, I guess, though I don’t know if I’m ready to turn the show over to either the mob, the moneyed, or the intellectual elite just yet.

I’m reading Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed–a nice, slick library copy, and got so fired up I ordered my own copy, all the way from Georgia to my local independednt bookstore, who hadn’t had a copy in the store in the thirty years it has existed.

I feel it–tha tacit go ahead from my fellow workers at the school to make a difference in any way I can, and there’s this articulation in Friere of what I’m hoping to do in some or other semblance. Yes, even as a science teacher. I’ve only read the preface and a few paragraphs of the introduction, and already I have enough burning inside to start working on communicating that choice all these young people have to be a Subject working to transform this world, rather than a victim. First awareness, then criticism, then action. I guess there will have to be a continual influx of hope and idealism, too, cause when life gets ’em down, there’s the why not just smoke some weed and make out some more in the car with the dark windows method, feelin’ good for this moment seems like a good compromise to stressing out or acting out. Been shut down a few times already for getting on my high horse about the evils of weed. My humbler approach will me a mere appeal to come to class mentally alert at least, for the advantage conferred on efforts to learn enough to graduate.

Yesterday we were chatting in my last period class–a remarkable atmosphere there, with some truly cool and very positive people whose attitudes spread to almost everybody when there’s a group project or discussion or tough assignment to do, even though it’s my largest class at eighteen when full. Anyway, the point was to fill in the newer students on the story of how there had been a new science teacher before me who had had to leave…

“Not ‘had‘ to leave, chose to leave,” said one, that hurt still showing.

“It was hard on everyone,” I said, “and I came in new, and the students were like, ‘Oh you, you’re just the new teacher–whatever..’ with this sour attitude.”

“They were sulking, and wouldn’t give you a chance,” said the same student who had spoken before. She hasn’t any patience for anyone’s bad attitude, doesn’t yet see that a lack of empathy can be a problem, too. Though she’s always had my back, for some reason of her own. “Did you know when we found out your name, we FaceBooked you?”

“Yeah, the principal mentioned it. You didn’t Google me, too, did you? What comes up there might have been keeping me from getting a job at all.” Collective gab for the smart phones, eyes lit up in anticipation. “It’s not what you think…” Not a conviction or former career as a stripper or anything,really. But they were hooked.

“There’s a whole article here!” said Mister positive, and he quoted the title.

“Yeah, that’s me.” He starts reading.

“This is awesome!” They perceived the ant-establishment stance, were feeling the support I was trying to give in that letter to the editor, that opposition to the way “socioeconomically disadvantaged” students are forced through loopholes that only cut them down and make them less likely to succeed. And I was starting to think, what was I thinking, mentioning that? Asked them to keep it quiet, at least until I get a permanent job, and the word was, “Sure thing,” so I’m hoping. Still, that search result hasn’t barred me any way from this position sticking up for kids who got diverted here from the mainstream, so be it as it may, whether forgotten or not.

 

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Preserving and nurturing the idealism of youth, and not just for the future

What would you say if your daughter told you about a conversation with three friends about where they would eat out, where she was explaining why she wasn’t getting a burger because of how much water got wasted in the production of beef, and they all turned to her and took turns saying that she was taking things too seriously because no one person could have any effect on big problems like that?

Would you just shake your head and be sympathetic, be a listening ear, make some sort of cooing sound, or extremely thoughtful spiritual direction type questions designed to facilitate your daughter’s values clarification process?

Maybe you would act appalled and reactive, tell your daughter how wrong, how destructive, how ideals-crushing her friends were, encourage her to say such and such next time, although you would not have been able to do so at the tender age of seventeen, but now, by golly!

Would you be ashamed of your daughter’s friends, nice Christian girls who ought to know better, who must have heard the starfish story, more than once, probably—the one that ends with the boy throwing one more starfish back into the ocean with, “It may not make much a difference, but to this starfish, it makes all the difference”?

Maybe you would say they’re probably right. Maybe you’d share how frustrated you were by how long it takes to change anyone’s views enough so they change their habits accordingly, how long it took your dad to get you into the habit of turning off the lights behind you, closing the doors when the furnace was running, putting on a coat instead of turning up the heat, and now how hard it was to get your own kids to make similar efforts, to recycle, to stop buying useless things loaded with packaging? How frustrating to have to deal with the wasteful average American habits the spouse inherited from the in-laws, so that you felt like your efforts were cancelled out? How you sometimes despaired of being able to see the tide turn in time to save lives, prevent droughts and wars and catastrophe?

But I know you. You are an idealist, deep down. Never violate your conscience, you’d say, if you can see a clear path. Right actions have a power that surpasses statistics, odds, and the group think of prevailing stupidity and denial. That stance has only the appearance of benign neutrality, and history always bears that out. Not that you like to use the expression, but it’s a binary decision, and a no brainer on which side of the fence to come down. I’m proud of you, you’d say–you will make the difference.

 

 

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Not quite

I can be very critical of certain views and practices in which I nevertheless see immense value. In hindsight I often realize I have come across as disapproving and judgmental, when I am taking issue with that five to ten percent I see as problematic. I think it’s because that which is closest to the truth needs to be most carefully probed, to identify, if one can, the few imperfections there may be, the ways in which something is not quite truth or reality but only a reflection. It is a bad habit to neglect to accentuate the positive, though–I really do need to work on that, especially when it comes to the people, practices and traditions I value. Sometimes I give the wrong impression to those both inside and outside my way of thinking.

For example, I am apt to be hard on religion and religious people, especially of my own tradition, because I want their authentic beauty and worth to be distinguishable from unexamined traditions, superstitions, oversimplifications, sentimentalism, and idiosyncratic, personality-based preferred styles of expression that attach themselves to religion. I challenge especially those who have “inherited” their religion. I stand as a skeptic, sound like a skeptic, a critic, a scoffer, but inside I feel drawn to the center of the idea and long to find an authentic, unaffected, unselfconscious expression of my own, and draw nearer the divine, become more like what I am meant to be all in that fire dance of love. Which, I realize, is not achieved by hypercritical analysis. Or if it was, I wouldn’t know for sure because that too would be part of my unselfconscious expression. At which I could cry, woe is me, or Eureka!

I was listening to some folks talk about supernatural or paranormal experiences a while back, accounts which I considered credible enough, though not necessarily empirically verifiable. Reminded me of other accounts I have heard of kids speaking of past lives, sightings of and communications with bodiless spirits and so on. I think things like these are most reliably communicated one to another, not through book agents to ghost writers to publishers and then news networks and viral tweets. Even if some of the stories told this way are true, who can tell that it wasn’t all just for money or fame or entertainment, those three great idols of our age? But while I listen, it’s like I’m standing behind myself and a little off to the side, observing, and the observer says, hmm, Toes–you are usually so skeptical, yet you’re accepting these paranormal possibilities pretty much at face value, or at least not feeling concerned about whether they are true in the usual sense of the world. Seemingly more credulous in the realm of the incredible. And more so outside my culture as well, believing that the trances of the ancient Togolese woman in that village were a sign of demonic bondage, but those on the televangelist channel were faked to increase viewership or donations.

One woman described a conflict with a Native woman who accused her of stealing her name. She sketched an outline of ceremonial and supernatural occurrences that followed as part of the process to claim the right to the name. No reason to doubt her–her manner showed her to be reluctant to bare it all in case someone discounted what she had experienced.

The other woman described the way she had been given a kind of dream-like view into what she believed were the past lives of others, and also her own. She saw this as a door by which she could enter and assist folks in healing and understanding themselves and their relationships. And while I’m open to that possibility, still seems like there’s a real possibility of going astray, to just follow and believe everything that comes along in the realm of what I’d call the subconscious, including where it intersects with the spirit world. Some disembodied spirits, I believe, like some embodied ones, deceive others for their own ends. There are lies and deceptions in the realm of the supernatural, and why wouldn’t there be?

And truth matters, right? I mean, it’s not enough to say, well, if people want to believe something and it comforts them, so be it, and let’s just hope for the best that the purveyors of those comforting fictions won’t be exposed , bringing hurtful disillusionment. At least not before they sign up for automatic credit card payments. Illusion, comforting illusion, say those atheists who kindly tolerate the faith of the faithful, is a kind of pragmatism for those who can’t face the godless universe. Speaking of things like Heaven is Real and such like. Though just because the little boy’s accounts have been denounced as fakes doesn’t mean we should automatically believe they are fake, because the denouncers also increased viewership and got a line on a series of well-paying journal articles.

And another thing: why would supernatural or uncanny or apparently miraculous (not for profit) events be exempt from shades of quality or worth, any more than the empirically verifiable or commonly accepted “facts” that surround us? That car has four wheels. That creature visible only to the eyes of the medium wears a blue robe. By which shall I order my life and which mine for deep truth? Why not take paranormal experiences with a grain of salt as well as normal ones, rather than having an all or none response? My tradition teaches that we ought to test the spirits–they don’t all tell the truth. the ones that don’t aren’t necessarily evil,  they may be misguided or mistaken, or just nothing special.

It’s about trying to separate false from true, while realizing one can’t often do so decisively. And it sure doesn’t help people really looking for the truth( so they can apply it, rather than sell it) to discover the people they trusted glossed over contradictions and gray areas, not even intimating they were doing so “for all practical purposes,” like we do in science.

On the other hand, it does turn out to be very useful to believe “I before E except after C” until one is capable of grasping the amendment, “except in words like “eight” and “neighbor.” I suppose it’s the same in theology and other more abstract areas of knowledge and belief.

And then there’s the belief that truth is relative–something against which evangelical Christians and especially fundamentalists of every stripe continually warn their flocks. Personally, I know it’s one hundred percent true that some truths are pretty close to one hundred percent true, but not very many, and some are true depending on the circumstances, the people and personalities involved, and the way other truths must be balanced. So, Omar, I guess you were right after all, though I would have liked to have seen you declare that you believed something, besides Don’t step on anyone’s philosophical toes. Even those in the back rooms of the most conservative seminaries, not to forget conservative political think tanks, admit this much to each other, in whispers: what the masses don’t know could hurt their faith in the priesthood.

And there are back rooms. Where the guys in charge (occasionally it’s women, such as in feminist back rooms, but usually not) say, we can’t tell them all that, even if it is true–it will conflict with this; there are nuances, and they might get confused and disillusioned, and not cooperate. It’s expedient that they believe the basic package, and anyway, they want to believe it–it makes them feel better, and they like things simple.

Amazing how people will believe the package even though contradictions are out in plain sight. Like the one about the Bible being 100% true and authoritative, yet most of it we wouldn’t think of using as a lifestyle guide. Wives, submit to your husbands. Stone your children if they are disobedient. Then there’s “bear your own burdens” and “Bear one another’s burdens.” Contradiction? Nuances. My southern Baptist theology professor at least had the integrity to say the Bible is “authoritative in what it teaches and affirms.” And to encourage students willing to grapple with the text. Maybe that’s why he ended up at a school north of the border–simple faith wasn’t good enough for him.

At the funeral the preacher (well-schooled in that simple faith tradition, by all appearances) who never really knew the deceased or much of the family because they were not church goers, scraped together the not-likely-to-be contradicted story of how this ailing woman essentially, in her last days, saw the light, repented, gave her life to Christ. And how kind and wonderful she was, always a smile and encouragement for everyone, which made it seem that her kindness was a result of this conversion, when really it was her essential character all along, despite all the wine bottles showing in the slide show of her life prior to that moment. What a comfort that she is not in hell after all, don’t we agree? Then he says it: “Friends, if anyone here has not yet given their life to the Lord, in your heart I invite you to say that prayer…” Seventy-nine percent of the congregation shifts in their seats, thinking, you self-satisfied, condescending simpleton, don’t call me ‘friend’,” thirty-five cough or sigh that this guy is embarrassing them in front of their liberal friends, and five smile with satisfaction that the gospel is being preached to all these heathen, because when would they get a chance to hear it otherwise? So the believers can wash their hands of that blood. Friends?The gospel has been preached!

Even in my younger days, when we weren’t yet in the era of deconstructible truth—it may have happened faster in your neighborhood than in mine—I never responded to that kind of message, and couldn’t believe anyone would (except on televangelist broadcasts, and I only ever saw those by mistake). Shows how naive I am. I know now that there were, and still are, souls going around hungry to believe something, especially if it sounds different enough from what they grew up with, even if it comes out of a screen or from a stranger at a funeral or a rally, and especially if there’s a starter kit for sale and a network of trained outreach workers with 1-800 numbers. No need for corroborating evidence, apologetics, rational discourse, just try it out. And I’m trying not to judge, because as a biology person, I know it takes all kinds, “all” being the ones that are around right now, to make a world.

 

 

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