Sat on the chaise lounge and watched the bumblebees work over the raspberry blossoms in a sea of green. After three days of warm, sunny weather I felt confident in my decision to put away all winter coats, turn off the pilot light to the gas fireplace insert and switch off the main furnace. I’d seeded another round of four inch pots in lettuces, peas, onions,herbs, and a few flowers, and sowed beans and chard in the new garden plot off the patio, reclaimed from another corner of lawn. The air was turning cool, with rain expected–perfect for the seeds, though the tomatoes would slow down a bit. Almost time to put a bird net over the cherry trees, and the gangly limbs of the apple trees definitely needed some training and support–they were loaded with baby fruit.
I was thinking about the ways in which some of my students, maybe even a decent body, had been brought to understand something of the laws of nature–the ones that we humans ought to stop trying to ignore–such as there being finite resources on Earth that needed to be continuously recycled, that evolution is a constant and inevitable process, whatever religion says, and that there are fascinating miracles to explore at every turn, as well as inexorable forces we must reckon with, organism among organisms as we are, perched on this spinning rock blasted with radiation more powerful than thousands of nuclear bombs.
I have a mental space full of faces, ever expanding as I go through these years of teaching. Names may fade, but I will never un-know these young people, the 35-odd students I taught last year, the around eighty this year, counting middle, high and third graders. For once I get to teach at the same school–another novelty I look forward to. Ninth graders I’ll see in Physics and Algebra 1 next year, this year’s group will move on to the next math and show up for physics, too. Could be teaching some of the younger ones, though mostly high school. All the same colleagues with the addition of a new teacher–I hope I like her, bet I will.
Dan O’Neill, writer I sublet my summer office space from gave me his book, The Firecracker Boys, to give to my father, and since he’s all the way across the continent, I’m reading it before I send it there along with my son when he goes to college. It tells the story of how the Atomic Energy Commission started a group that was eager to test “peacetime uses” of nuclear power, and their first project was to be blasting a new harbor into the coast of Alaska. Their ignorance about the systems of the Earth and the disastrous effects that would result from their plan is astounding, and even though I know how the story ends, with the killing of the project and all similar ones due to the newly birthed environmental movement that arose there, I feel sick just thinking about how it might have been.
In environmental science we discussed why humans can have, want to have, even, such an outsized effect on the Earth’s systems, and yet do not seem essential to any of them in comparison to other organisms, such as, say, ants or eelgrass. The students were in agreement that if all humans suddenly vaporized, nothing would fall apart. We also explored the question of why humans, of all organisms, deliberately flout ecological principles, and what effect that might have, long term, on our species, on society. And, could there be a way to reconcile our ambitions to discover, build, and create, with the limitations that scientists are discovering that we must live within? Not to overly credit scientists–it took them hundreds of years, two steps forward, one step back (or vice versa) to catch up to some of that instinctive body-knowledge, that innate genetic wisdom, of our pre-historic ancestors.
The Fall–when and how did it happen? Was it the dawn of agriculture, or just agricultural commerce? Did it derive from the spread of the expression of new genes of cognition and self awareness? Was it accelerated by symbolic language and institutionalized ancient religions? Or was all that, really, progress?
Nowadays, just like the real estate bubble, we are talking again, in education circles, economics, science and technology, as if trends, what is happening, are the same as vision. “It’s a global economy–it’s an information age, so let’s get with it.” As I asked a mom I confide in periodically about my doubts about the value of schools systems, “Who’s driving this train and why should I get on–just because it’s going somewhere?”
My younger daughter shared with me how stressed she was about school–with the drive to maintain good grades, the pace, the hours, the lack of joy, the social pressure. By all appearances, she’s a successful student, but here she was in tears, wondering what the purpose of it all was. Her teachers were part of the problem, just because they had bought in. Their success wrapped up in rigor and performance-based assessment, not impact, enlightenment, and empowerment. I thought about the pressure I put on my Monday/Wednesday high school students, how as the test approached, I accelerated the pace of content exposure, started giving them testing tips and practice (while advising them, as the testing websites claimed, that success did not come from “test practice” or extra study.
Friday classes were different, with only “delight-directed” activities (such as we could manage), no grades, no homework. That too appears to be about to be corrupted by the managers of the system, with a drive toward more “accountability” and record keeping. Hearing this fact at the staff meeting, I expressed my displeasure, tried to voice how dear are the values, to many homeschool families, of freedom and flexibility, as they are to teachers and students. Yes, it would drive away some families, it was acknowledged, this change, but it was what the state needed for financial accountability. Yes, families should drop out–they should save themselves, I thought. Funny how this whole parent partnership started to rope back in some of those opted out families with our flexible.part time program, and now that they’re hooked on the funding and free curriculum, we change the rules.
I sanctioned some respite for my daughter, called in and excused some skipped classes without giving clear reasons to the voice mail recorder, ignored the alarming-sounding letters citing the Becca Bill and mentioning court. She explained why she was skipping–the others were doing standardized testing she didn’t have to do and there was a sub; she’d already done the work and they weren’t learning anything new; they were playing soccer instead of having a lesson; she wanted to spend a few hours on her ceramics project. The ceramics studio, and its teacher, being the sanctuary so many students needed, a kind, blind eye turned and no questions asked. Refreshing subversion.
School is definitely part of the problem. We only need school because we’re a modern industrial society on a crash course with our destiny of ecological disaster, and it takes a lot of rigor to learn all the techniques that have got us into this mess, let alone the ones that maybe could get us out without sacrificing any modern luxuries–the ones we need at the end of our twelve hour labors. The future is coming. Let’s get there first.
Or, we could learn contextually everything we really need to know, like a cub from momma lion–how to get food and water, defend oneself without unnecessary energy expenditure or excessive harm to anyone else’s system, key social norms and boundaries (with the option of challenging them), how to play a musical instrument, and never to poop in the water hole.