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The sympathy of not really belonging

I am part of a small team within our small staff, just three people, working on getting to know the Common Core math standards, focusing on 6th grade and up. We call it our Math PLC, Professional Learning Community, and meet most weeks, with a few gaps for other things that come up and general staff meetings. I am sort of leader, being the high school math teacher, so I bring guiding documents and suggest options for how we proceed, but we really all work together and I respect and depend on each person for their perspective, experience, and skills. For example, I am ideas and vision oriented but also wanting to analyze a lot of information before making decisions, another member is relationship oriented, super encouraging and also hilarious, and a third member is action oriented and good at laying out the pieces visually so we can organize the parts and move forward.

So far we’ve chosen what we’re calling Priority Standards, being the ones we guarantee to teach and assess with an aim to get all student to meet these standards. These are about a third of the ones laid out in the big CCSS documentation, but it’s recognized that it’s impossible thoroughly teach and track progress in every standard every year. Also and since the standards are broad and overlap from year to year and even across each other, as long as we align the strands up through the different level and catch the stages where certain ones are emphasized, in the big picture we try to cover them all. It’s also true that only certain things can be captured in standards language or be assessed in any standardized way; this does not mean they are the most important or can comprise a full curriculum.

This last meeting was completely different. We didn’t really do anything about math standards, but we made a deeper connection that felt pretty profound. We just talked. About one eprson’s relationship with her grandpa, about spirituality and religion, and about feeling, all three of us in different ways appreciative of but also disconnected and critical of the culture of our local community. I was like, one person said, My two team members had always lived here, but said the place sometimes drove them nuts and they’d never really feel they fit in. Yet at the same time, they knew it was imporant to stick around and be a part of the community, especially as teachers.

I’ve written before about how I don’t feel I fit into the community, doubt sometimes even whether I can even make an impact because I’m so at odds with the dominant culture, even though on the surface I seem like I have a lot of similar background. From a rural dairy area, raised in the Church, large family, homeschooled my kids. But that’s where the similarity ends. I feel like they both said they do so often, like I’m always having to bite my tongue.

There are two sides (at least) to this tongue biting–one being the effort to avoid unnecessary argument, alienation, or openness to misinterpretation when views are worlds apart, or at least toning it down so as to have a chance to slowly influence as well as show respect. The other is the restraint of criticism of the community and culture, and certainly individuals, to those on the fringes or outside, and avoiding a holier-than-them attitude.

None of us put out any specifics about what that culture was that grated, but we all knew. And about the rich and valuable parts too. No need to say, but it was special to feel more connected to one another in that moment, and it was an important team building session.

Personality-wise, the three of us are very different–it’s kind of magical that we can still feel so in sympathy as a team that has come together, as well as individuals who in some way are outsiders. Brings home in a greater way what community means.

 

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Tenderly

I feel so privileged to be a teacher. This going through cancer in the family has made me feel that even more deeply. Yes, I wish I could quit and spend more time with my husband and children, have more quiet for my soul, more time to write and work in the garden. Especially since my husband is starting to get me better and wants to take more part in what he calls my special spirituality. Which is less about going up front to ask for prayer, and more about taking deep breaths as the sun rises, stopping at thickets full of chickadees, and growing seedlings. He said he’ll let me teach him how to start the different types of seeds in pots tomorrow. I loved being a house mom/wife. But what I do at work is very, very special in terms of what is possible, what might happen, how I and my colleagues might affect some young people. We get to find ways to communicate that they matter, that there’s hope, that if they want to, they can. All in the guise of teaching math and science.

One of my favorite times, as I have said before, is the twice-a-week morning homework help drop-in, two and a quarter hours long. More students are coming now, for the math, yes, but that is definitely not the whole deal. There’s something going on I can’t put my finger on, a dynamic that connects from person to person as one gets a problem, another gets stuck, someone jokingly teases another, another one brings up something unrelated to the math, but important to life.

One girl might, just might, be starting to see her self-defeating attitude for what it is. Another might, just might, believe that even though Geometry continues to be extremely difficult for her, all the extra work she puts in is making her mind stronger and more capable. Another might, just might, believe that there’s hope for a young farmer and a good life that builds up the soil, meets new market demands, and is sustainable, and that the most important quality about a man is not the power of his truck. That one is still a longer shot, but today I saw a certain openness in his eyes.

I think I might need to shift the tables around, though, There’s this one section where everyone sits together, and a few newer attendees sit apart and alone. I need to get a new zone going, a branch of the community. The two new girls will learn to ask for help, I hope, not just wait shyly until I come over to see how it’s going. I want them to connect with each other –both are still on the edge of that, for different reasons.

As I consider what the role of teachers is in preventing violence such as the recent Florida school shooting, I think that part of it, for sure, is to simply be kind–deeply kind, not just professionally courteous and friendly, but to communicate the “I see you” that can help heal those ragged edges. I think of two of our students–both obese, academically passive, socially awkward, and obsessed with guns. They are lucky–we are lucky, and who who knows who else will be lucky–that at our school, they will not fall between the cracks and end up bent out of shape by the system–not if we can help it. My lead teacher is a real inspiration there–as problems seem unsolvable, she just ups the commitment, ups the connection, ups the support, sometimes making up for what a dysfunctional family doesn’t even know is missing in terms of parenting.

I think about how nice it would be to have fewer preps and work closer to home, but today our whole staff came in to my room an hour and a half after quitting time just to say they were all rooting for me and my husband, that we’d be in their prayers, and to let them know if there was anything I needed. Gave me a card full of sweet words and several hefty grocery store gift cards so I could buy the special foods my husband can eat. I’m at the right place, that’s for sure.

 

 
 

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The long way, home, or not, I don’t know

I’ve been spouting off a lot about evolution by natural selection, and interpreting everything I can through that lens–social behavior, religion, crime, politics, everything. Sounds a bit fanatical to be always on about it, but I’m going to try to explain why, because I’m not done. But I want it to be known that even if I become satisfied that evolution does explain everything, including what Dawkins called the God Delusion, I still plan to try to build a bridge back to faith. It will have to be using completely different materials, though. Faith itself will also mean something different. And it will be a rough road. What’s hard is that I can’t, and don’t want, to take anyone with me. I know this blog is just a curiosity, a hobby, and any of my traditionally faithful friends and family won’t even be reading it, let alone be led astray. If they knew my path, they would pity me and lovingly pray for me. Like I did for my young professor at the graduate unseminary, when he admitted that the more he studied the Hebrew Scriptures and understood how the process of interpretation, canonization, and Bible politics works, the less faith he had in its divinity and so-called infallibility. He seemed melancholy, so I tried to comfort him–comfort him!–with some pablum of an assurance that I was sure he’d figure it out, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit! He must have begun to feel very lonely at that evangelical school, as he came and went on his motorcycle. Wanting to teach and be honest, but knowing what he had begun to know, and being around so many who he just couldn’t be honest with, for so many reasons. Such as getting asked to move on, after the leaders’ prayer meeting in which God led the admin on who was called to the school’s ministry and who not. Such as, in case he undermined that faith that, even though he was losing it, still seemed precious, in a fragile way, in others. Not to be challenged before its time. And a humble man wouldn’t assume he was in the right, enlightened and needing to disillusion everyone else, anyway.

My niece graduated from, and now works at, another Christian college, which is now trying to strike an impossible balance between loving and accepting all people while asking them not to engage in relations outside of heterosexual marriage. It’s tough to hold together a school like that. Half of your critics say you’re too liberal, and the other half, too conservative, she said. How can you even be honest with yourself? They’d got over some conservative hurdles–my niece said that they affirmed that gifted and called women should be teaching and preaching along with (gifted and called) men. I told her, that’s very liberal, because it’s reinterpreting Scripture, going against specific apostolic instructions because they don’t feel true today, and so you can’t then say that gay marriage is unbiblical in the next breath (which this college does). You have to be honest and admit that you are evolving due to adaptation to the current environment. Women are not expected to sign an agreement to cover their heads while at the school, men keep their hair short, and Americans cut out the part about obeying the King centuries ago. So why draw the line here? Was it really about Scriptures, or something else? Maybe just part of the gene pool, that part that has driven the population explosion so far and doesn’t yet acknowledge the population tipping point, that can’t abide a non-reproductive kind of love.

Today in our semi-weekly math study hall, someone brought up Elton John, his music being the focus, t first. Someone hadn’t heard of him. The first student was aghast. I pitched in the he was Sir Elton John, even. From another part of the room came a quiet, “I hate him. He’s gay.”

“Whoa, I said, you hate him, just like that?”

“Yup.” Another student, though also raised a conservative Christian, also took issue, saying you shouldn’t be so quick to judge, should give people a little room. The hater said a few other things, but because he his speech is impeded by a birth condition, I couldn’t understand it all.

“That’s a bit harsh. Maybe you should learn a bit more before you hate people,” I said. I asked, “Do you think he’s talented?”

“No. he can’t be.” He was looking scornful and shaking his head.

“Well, I guess that’s not the conversation we need to have right now,” I said, and went back to helping him with how to use the Distance Formula to prove lines congruent. People were quiet. I think that student’s openness showed something up in its rawness, partly by being so in contrast with his amiable nature, in a way that wouldn’t have happened if it had been uttered by someone already known to be redneck, and proud of it.

So some of the sweetest people are homophobes, that’s for sure, just due to their imprinting. Because this guy is incredibly sweet, funny, loved by all. And tough. The one who, when we were talking about aches and pains, said, briefly, ” I don’t even think about pain–I just suck it up.” I hadn’t even been aware, hadn’t thought, about all the pain he experiences daily, especially with the physio he has to have just to keep his muscles flexible and his spasticity under control.

I wouldn’t even start to try to persuade him. If at some point a real issue develops, say with a new gay student, that will be really difficult for us here, maybe. But maybe not–friendship and proximity has a way of melting hard hearts, doesn’t it?

 

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This issue’s featured family is currently unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Sometimes I feel that a bit more space in our little house is the answer. To that end I truck things off to storage and good will, pare down my possessions, try to convince my spouse and kids to let go of a few more items from the dozens of boxes there, condense, find creative storage solutions. I actually enjoy the sense of movement, of change and renewal, as well as the physical work and creativity of designing and creating solutions for a small space, in contrast to the cultural pressure to upgrade. I want to be content, want to embrace simplicity, want to prove that what we have is enough. Do you know we get three “neighborhood magazines” now—three, all spawned within a year of one another, featuring happy local families in their apparently showpiece houses with their apparently showpiece lifestyles. More than half of the “featured families”—far more than half—are in real estate or financial planning, attested by the same faces showing up on the ads in the later pages. When I posted a comment to the neighborhood website calling the first rag I received “silly” and mentioned the real estate connection, I was reprimanded from various quarters for my lack of community spirit, since after all the publisher actually lived nearby and was doing this project “out of pocket.” The publisher, mildly affronted, said my family could be featured as well, though I shuddered at the thought of what a production that would be. Everyone dressing up, acting just so, posing for a family style fun activity that we all typically do together (pillow fight taken, bike rides too–maybe a family chore day, half watching a football game and half working on laptops, or going to a swim meet?). So I withdrew from attacking that particular veneer with my coarse grade sandpaper. The next three featured families were in other professions–one was even a public school teacher–who could think any advertising revenue could come from that? Then I saw his financial planner spouse featured a few pages on…

Still, there is a real community here. It’s not primarily about social media posts,  nor advertising revenue. And I can’t say I feel I’ve contributed much to it, other than chatting a bit with folks walking their dogs, helping neighbors with recycling day, trying to get some ride sharing going, and an attempt at a women’s tea years ago. And generating some private enjoyment for folks that agree with my “antisocial” views but are too diplomatic to air them publicly.

Back to the house, though, and I’m hoping that the topic has some relevance for others out there: There’s still a mismatch between the space, and the stuff we want to fit in it. We don’t want to let go of our specialty tools and supplies, our books, games, clothes for all seasons, bulk food storage, clippings and photos and artwork eventually to be organized and put on display. I bring up the open discussion of whether we should add on, trade up, rent a little office/project space. I want, I want, I don’t want to want more. But anyway the savings aren’t there yet, college expenses are coming up, our jobs aren’t secure, and the kind of place we want has never shown up in the right area at the right price, especially considering the 6% real estate fee. And after all, half of our kids will be launched to other domains in the next two years. There will be a bedroom for each of the rest then, and we’ll get the garage back for storage and projects. The discipline of waiting, of contentment, of letting go. Embracing what positive changes really are within my sphere of influence.

Maybe it’s help with the housework I need. I know it was a huge relief in the past, changed my demeanor, took such a burden off. At about what I’d earn per hour as a substitute teacher, I see it as a good trade. On cleaning days I’d come home and just bask in the beauty of a clean, orderly home, and a surge of creative energy–the kind that results in a lot of the messes, in fact–would wash over my soul. I’d put on some Bach, start some muffins, take out my sewing stuff and sew away until it was time to feed the kids, or go shopping, or organize the bills.

Now the main reason the house feels too small is that the tube is on in the heart of the house every weekend for at least half of the day. No civil cure for that now, though years of resistance kept it at bay. I can keep my frustration at bay with exercise, productive work, and leaving for chunks of each networks dominated day. Right now I can hear the muffled sounds of the three hour pre-game show over the music pumping our of my ear buds as I write. I was going to go to church, see if I could lure some of the family out since some old homeschool friends’ are the string quartet for the service. The pastor is a football fan, which elevates him in my eyes as a guy willing to forgo for higher goals. Though occasionally a parishioner will share an update from a smart phone. But it’s half time already, I’m still here writing, and my husband is rallying the kids to clean up from breakfast.

As for the positively trite ending that I still am tempted to make, I can only say that there must be more required of me than to form my days out of complaints about my perceived constraints. I know from looking back on my life that I too often live timidly, in reaction rather in proactivity, and deceive myself into believing that I am trapped by the choices of others, that my life would be better if only I either rebelled completely and rejected all efforts to make me compromise (which out of patient tolerance and loyalty I do not do), or convinced those others to adopt all my values and plans (an impossible task). I look for higher values by which to live my life, as a free agent without divine powers, and the courage and confidence to live, in the words of a guy whose books I’m too proud to read, my best life now.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2014 in Personal Growth

 

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