Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Feral Children



We all know who they are.

They're the children whose names we learn first. Sometimes it's on the first day, when they're wearing stickers to identify them. Sometimes it's not until we're on bus duty, and they've got a special tag on their backpacks because that's how we distinguish kindergartners from the rest of the school and make sure they get on the right buses or in the right cars. Sometimes we get it from a classmate of the child who pulls on our shirt to tattle: "Brian's hitting." If it's just an off day, that may not be enough to sear Brian's name into our memory bank. But if it's par for Brian's course, if we're going to be repeatedly using his name and not to praise him for what a lovely child he's being, then that's a name we'll remember for a good long time.

These are the standout children, the children who, years after I've moved on from whatever school they were at, a still remember with a shutter. They're children who, for some reason that is beyond my ability as a music teacher with 500 students to even begin to know, view every situation as an opportunity to be destructive, rebellious, aggressive, hyperactive, unsafe. They're the children who are on behavior plans within the first month of school and come into my classroom with a clipboard, hoping to earn points for acting safely, respectfully, and responsibly. For some this works. For others, it's pointless--literally, as I'm supposed to award 0, 1, or 2 points for each category, points that can be exchanged at the end of the day for a special treat from the school counselor, but some children seem incapable of helping themselves, get a steady string of zeros, and never graduate from the clipboard to "self-manager" status. These are the children I call feral.

Never to their parents, of course. Never to my principal. I use the word "feral" discretely, mostly at home, occasionally with a fellow teacher who is throwing her hands up in the air, just as furious as I am at yet another infraction, another referral, perhaps even a suspension that will be no more effective than any of the previous dozen negative consequences this child seems to prefer to all the rewards that will come with even the slightest improvement.

Feral children never get the rules. Repeating them, rephrasing them, acting them out, writing them down, teaching and reteaching ad nauseum to the point that the rest of the class is bored to tears with having to hear them yet again since they already know every one of them and know exactly who it is who's keeping them from moving on with the lesson--none of this makes a difference. We're talking Dennis the Menace, Calvin, Ramona the Pest, children who isolate themselves from the rest of the school through their problematic behavior, children who run in the halls, write on the walls, destroy school property, painfully twist other children's arms, straighten paper clips to turn them into shivs, turn xylophone mallets into bludgeons, pencils into spears, trip and shove and punch other children until they themselves are barred from riding the bus,

Today, I dealt with several of these children. Most were in kindergarten or first grade, but a few were in second grade. Third grade this year appears to be blissfully free of them, but there are fourth and even fifth graders who remain feral, going out of their way to disrupt class and make everything be about them, not because they want to, but because they can't help it.

Thankfully, most feral children eventually outgrow the worst of their behavior issues. This year there are several lovely third graders who were extremely difficult as second graders. This year's first grade class, on the other hand, is overflowing with them, in large part because the first grade classes are so huge (30-32); but also because they were extraordinarily difficult as first graders.

Those that outgrow their issues can be delightfully surprising. There's a first grade boy who, as a kindergartner, was the bane of my existence. He's clever, disarmingly cute, and understands far more English than he lets on. His misbehavior last year was centered on getting the attention of his peers and making them laugh, which he did brilliantly. This year, he started out a bit rough, but has quickly moderated his activity until now he often gives me reasons to praise him.

The thing about feral children, as pejorative as that adjective may seem, is that they are, at heart, children. They want the same things as other children: praise, approval, affection, entertainment, activity, knowledge. What sets them apart from those other children is that they lack the social graces to obtain their desires appropriately. Rather than get the teacher's attention by working hard or asking good questions, they get the principal's attention by harming their classmates or disrupting class. They get their peers' attention by clowning, turn lessons into roller coaster rides, and as for knowledge, their heads are often filled with the age-inappropriate fare they're exposed to at home. Last year's pole-dancing kindergartners probably have parents who are sex workers and drug dealers.

But not all of them do. Some just have some growing to do. And for all of them, there are moments when they surprise me with how sweet they can be.

Last week, I was doing my kindergarten-shepherding duty, walking a class out to the buses. Buses were delayed, and we were waiting by a fence for several minutes. Brian (see above), a tiny but hyper little boy, kept scooting around to the wrong side of the fence until I moved him up in the line, away from the opening he was exploiting. Then he began climbing the fence. I touched him lightly on the shoulder again and again, getting him back down on the sidewalk, until suddenly he let out a squeal: he'd spotted his mother. He gave him permission to check out with his teacher and cross the lawn to her. He ran across the grass, then stopped in his tracks and, bending over, picked a dandelion which he proudly presented her with.

This blew me away. This barely verbal powerhouse of activity had just displayed a tender side I'd never have imagined was there.

That's why I don't throw around the "feral" word very much. I realize most of the littles (as we call them at Orff trainings) who act this way are really just demonstrating how new they are to a school environment. They're in need of some civilizing. As they learn the ways of school, most of them will grow out of their wildness, and by the time they're well into second grade, almost all of them will be as manageable as the next child.

Most of them. As I said, I have several older students at Margaret Scott who still manifest quirks that can be extremely disruptive. These are the children who really seem unable to control themselves. There are far fewer of them than one would suspect from the drug companies' literature on psychoactive medications for children, but there are still enough of them to warrant greater concern. Some are on behavior plans, which gives me an opportunity to talk with them about why today wasn't a stellar day for them in music. The others will not surprise me when they, too, get behavior plans (some were on them last year).

The ones that concern me most are the fifth graders who act out in new ways that seem much more dangerous than the misbehavior of six-year-olds. I haven't seen many fifth graders on behavior plans, and I suspect the reason is that they've figured out the system and blow it off on principle. Give up clowning for a treat? Don't be ridiculous! The peer rewards of acting out in fifth grade are far more satisfying than they were in first grade. First graders want desperately to be able to play instruments, learn songs, play musical games with each other; for fifth graders, what matters most is who is being impressed. Did my buddies laugh when I made fun of that song? That matters to me much more than getting the teacher to smile, so I'll do it again, even if it means my parents get called--a consequence that may just make me even more of a bad boy in my friends' eyes.

These are the kids who will continue to be the first to have their names memorized, year after year, for as far through high school as they make it, and for all the wrong reasons. They will be the ones who most earn the title "feral," and some will carry it with them into the wild places beyond the walls of school, perhaps never to fully embrace the benefits of civilized life we, their teachers, so badly want for them. Seeing them disappear into the underworld, we will not be able to help wondering if somehow, sometime, we failed them, let them down.

The cynic in me says I have 500 children to teach, and I can't expect to reach all of them. The humanist, the part of me who cannot help loving every child I work with for any amount of time, aches at this truth, and hopes that in some small way, the hour a week they spend with me may take the edge off their wildness just enough, may plant just a seed of civilization in them so that someday they may choose truth and beauty over violence and destruction.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Blood Sport

Good God, make it stop! And why can't I tear my eyes away?

Football scares me.

I've written about this before, and I encourage you to peruse that post (as well as this one, which suggests the human tendency to turn even safety equipment into weapons if it will create an advantage in a competition is what occasioned the Flood). The elegant game of baseball aside, football really is America's sport. No other sport merges bone-crushing violence with arcane bureaucratic rule manipulation as elegantly and telegenically as American football.

These two components--violence and creative rule avoidance--are the most American of vices. The US tax code is as voluminous as it is because every Congressional addition to it, whether its purpose is to plug a loophole or streamline a provision, provokes an equal and opposite reaction from tax accountants and the capitalists who hire them to find even more convoluted ways to shelter their income from the IRS. Lest you think I only have it in for corporate amorality, remember that my biggest beef with United Methodism is the controversy-shy episcopacy that looks the other way while gay and gay-friendly ministers create work-arounds to church policies forbidding gay ordination and gay marriage ceremonies. Rather than bravely defy unjust rules, bishops and superintendents parse language to create loopholes of their own, contort themselves to squeeze through them.

As for violence, just take a look at how our Peace Nobelist President has prosecuted the Drone Wars, now escalating them to include airplanes with live pilots as he bombs ISIS. Nearly every bump he's had in the polls throughout his benighted tenure has been related in some way to aiming and launching bullets, bombs, and missiles at the terrorists who stand in the way of American interests abroad.

Football captures both these vices and puts them in a stadium, under bright lights, photographed from multiple angles by high definition cameras that can then replay every hike, pass, punt, sack, tackle, reception, fumble, victory dance, all the glory, all the disappointment, and, yes, all the injuries. We see the bones break, watch the helmets bounce off each other, feel the hush as coaches and medics gather around a fallen warrior, but also the thrill of the brilliantly executed strategy. We also glance at our watches as referees try to figure out which subclause of the football code applies to a particular situation, roll our eyes as we realize a game will be decided not by athletic prowess but by clever exploitation of the time out rule, and feel deeply satisfied by the entire pageant because nothing could be more American than this.

We love this game, love it so deeply in our bones that we send our sons out onto fields when they are barely big enough to carry all the armor required, consider it a rite of passage that, if skipped (as happened in my case; no way would my parents approve of me playing tackle football), will result in a man who is somehow less than fully American, lacking the aggression, the stamina, the tolerance for pain essential to a full citizen of our warrior nation.

For two years, I sat in the stands at Banks High School, leading the pep band, cheering the team through win upon win, but also cringing at hits, tackles, sacks, dog piles that made me wonder how the mothers of those boys felt, knowing there would be bruises, sprains, perhaps even fractures to tend to that night.

I'm going on about this because there has been an outpouring of speculation about the connection between the qualities essential to playing football successfully and the recent spate of incidents of domestic violence involving NFL players. We're finding out that some of these star athletes have been beating their girlfriends, wives, and children, and in at least one case, ratcheting the violence up to a murder/suicide. These comes on the tails of the concussion controversy, as it has become clear that the wearing of helmets has, rather than protecting players' brains, led them to engage in even more dangerous behavior, using those very helmets as battering rams. Hit one's head enough times, and long-term damage is inevitable.

I'm not willing to draw conclusions on causality here. As I wrote recently, corporal punishment is another practice that typifies citizens of the United States to a far greater extent than many other first world nations. With so much domestic violence going on all around us, it's inevitable some high-profile athletes would be part of the problem. I've seen no statistics comparing the incidence of abuse in NFL households to American households in general, so I'm refraining from making that connection.

What cannot be escaped, though, is that whether football players are any more or less abusive at home than typical Americans, on the field they are mandated to hit their opponents hard and often, to drag them to the ground and throw their full weight upon them, as no other major league athletes do. The game as it has come to be played in 2014 requires this. Players who exercise restraint on the field will very quickly find themselves benched and, ultimately, released from their contracts. One cannot expect to survive a gunfight with a pocketknife; or a game of tackle football with touch football tactics.

Most of my own football watching happens in small doses at bars where Amy and I shoot pool. We're there to play a game of precision that involves intuiting vectors. When it's Amy's turn, I frequently find myself distracted by the action on the big screen TVs as bodies come together with a crunch, struggling over possession of a misshapen ball, then retreat from each other as officials and coaches debate what just happened. There's a snap, an arm pulls back, searching for a target, and then, whether or not the ball is launched on time, bodies fly through the air, men tumble to the ground, piling on top of each other. I want to turn away, want to shield my eyes from the mayhem, but deep within me there is a hope that the pass will somehow be completed, that the receiver will pick it from the air then sprint down the field, somehow dodging all the defenders' bodies lunging at him, finally arriving in the end zone, miraculously unscathed. I say "miraculous" because few touchdowns are achieved without some casualties. So I keep watching, riveted to the action, until it is my turn to take out my own aggression on a far smaller, safer scale, hopefully sinking a ball in a pocket, perhaps another after that, until Amy again takes her turn, and my eyes are drawn back into the blood sport I simultaneously decry and celebrate.

How very American of me.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Insanity Plate

I really don't want to have a conversation with this guy.

On my way home yesterday, I found myself behind a Cadillac with a vanity plate that nearly took my breath away: "NRA YES." It was accompanied by a half dozen right-wing bumper stickers espousing the standard NRA talking points--I think one of them said "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," and there was one about the Second Amendment, one about blaming Democrats for Obamacare (ludicrous, because it was concessions to Republicans that made the damn thing so complicated, rather than a clean, efficient Medicare for all)--and I was so struck by what I was seeing that, when we came to a stop light, I snapped a picture with my phone. I did this as surreptitiously as I could for reasons I'm about to go into, and the result is that only the license plate is legible in the photo, but that in itself tells the story quite well.

That license plate and those stickers told me this is a person I do not want to get in a conversation with. The comprehensive message they conveyed made me nervous about taking that picture: what if the driver saw me doing it in his rear view mirror, and wanted to confront me about invading his privacy by photographing his publicly displayed political views? There was no confrontation, I'm relieved to report--another car came between us while we were still a mile from the interstate, and by the time I took the onramp, there was no sign of the NRA YES Caddy. 

Portland has no shortage of activists, so anytime one gets in traffic, one is likely to see a plethora of primarily left-wing sentiments expressed in simplistic terms by strips of colorful plastic adhered to the back sides of cars. I've done it myself, though not often. If I really believe in a cause, and find one that states my support non-jingoistically, I will occasionally put it on my car, but the last one I had was an Obama sticker in 2008, and it came off as soon as the election was over.

My reasoning is this: there is no room on a sticker for nuance. Stickers state opinions in a dozen words, try (and usually fail) to be pithy about it, and mostly elicit appropriately simplistic reactions: nods or scowls. I rarely see one that amuses me, see many that cause me to roll my eyes, and from time to time, I see stickers that infuriate me. This driver's opinions, the sticker tells me, are so wrong-headed that someone needs to stick a finger in his face while shouting down all his stupid talking points.

The irony of this reaction is that it's precisely the manner of argument advocated by the offensive sticker. I don't want to reason with you, bumper stickers tell me, because you're just plain wrong. And since that's the problem with the sticker itself, there's nowhere to go but shouting.

Shortly after I started writing this blog, I put up an essay about the church's two thousand year crusade against Judaism. One of my readers took issue with it, and began posting lengthy diatribes that, rather than engage my arguments, quoted long passages from the Bible "proving" that anti-Judaism is scripturally justified. He wasn't interested in a real dialogue: he took whatever replies I posted as fuel for his fire, ignoring my points and just unleashing another tirade of right-wing Christian propaganda. I finally unfriended him on Facebook.

This blog has never been about arguing points. Yes, I occasionally use it to channel my inner curmudgeon, posting rants about things that just don't make sense. But I really don't like to argue. As much as I love watching Bill Maher's Real Time news panel, I tune it out when the arguing starts. People raising their voices, shouting over each other so no one can be heard, refusing to listen to any salient points--it makes no sense to me. 

Bumper stickers are like that: hitting everyone who reads them over the head with a club of irrationality. Even if they're making a good point, they're doing it in a way that tells me the driver of this car cares not one whit for anything that might take the wind out of his inflammatory sails. "God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it."

Back to the NRA YES plate: at least bumper stickers come off. Driving around town with a vanity plate proclaiming your support of an organization that goes out of its way to promote the rights of irresponsible parents to leave loaded weapons lying around so their toddlers can die horribly tells me here's a person who might as well not have any ears to hear what I have to say.

It was probably foolish of me to take that picture. It may even be risky to write about it in this space (though considering my last post had a grand total of 9 views, I'm not too worried about this guy hunting me down). Maybe what I need is a bumper sticker that says something like "My progressive public-school-attending child would like very much to reason with you about the complexities of the issues you're espousing, and encourage you to open yourself to the possibility that there may be other valid opinions on the topic."

On the other hand, that'd probably get me beaten up. Better to abstain.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Frustration Learning

What has this robot got to be happy about? Certainly not how well his software is running where I work.

I don't teach in a gym anymore, but I do teach in a computer lab.

Scott School is short on space. There are not enough classrooms for the students we already have, and we actually had to add a class this year. Meanwhile, arts programs are expanding: music is now year-round, and we just added a part-time art teacher for half the year. This forced an issue that should have been addressed last year when, as I reported consistently, the gym proved an impossible place to teach music. Over the summer, there was a realignment of facilities, and the English Language Development classroom was shut down, with one third of it turned into a computer lab and, on the other side of a divider, the rest of it now the music room.

This is still far from ideal. For the most part, teachers choose the other computer lab, off the library, when their students need some screen time, but occasionally that one's occupied, and their class is in my room at the same time I'm teaching music. That's not too bad. What is bad is when, for the last 20 minutes of my morning teaching schedule, there's a class in there for Enrichment and Intervention, which is a fancy way of saying let's have the kids sit at a computer while a not-very-computer-literate specialist tries to figure out why Imagine Learning isn't running well, and ultimately tells the kids to just play on one of the approved game sites.

Imagine Learning is a comprehensive reading program that has loads of bells and whistles. Students play games that evaluate their progress, which is then supposed to be reported to the specialist in charge at the school so he or she can run targeted interventions on those that are struggling with English. In theory, it makes wonderful sense: harnessing the power of the internet to get kids the individualized help they need. In practice, unfortunately, it's very different.

For 40 minutes a day, I have E&I duty, like that I just described, but in a sort of auxiliary computer lab in the library, using laptops. Two different classes are there for twenty minutes each. Along with another specialist and an instructional assistant, I go from computer to computer helping kids figure out why their log-in isn't working, why their headset just shut down, how to click through the constant Microsoft System Update requests, and if we get through all these, explaining that Imagine Learning has frozen yet again because it just got to a video segment and the district's network just doesn't have the bandwidth for that. At that point, I direct them to pick an "educational" game site and go there. The games they like best are Flappy Dragon and Run 2, which may be teaching them some minor skills about manipulating space, but appear to have no other educational value.

I don't know how much the district paid for Imagine Learning, but after three weeks of watching students struggle with it not because they're having a hard time with the lessons but because the software just doesn't run well on our equipment, I have to wonder what the point of it is. I understand they are scheduled this way so that classroom teachers can have their contract-mandated 40-minute uninterrupted lunch (which I get to take after I'm finished with E&I duty). But one the kids are stuck on the same unit, every one of them, because it always resets back to the beginning, presumably because they're all making mistakes in the tests, and yet the specialist who's supposed to be intervening is on leave right now because trying to figure out how to use Imagine Learning stressed her so much she had to be relieved--and that's when the software's working; half the time it just locks up--it seems to me that all we're really doing for those twenty minutes is teaching children to stick with a product that doesn't work. There's no enrichment happening here, and no intervention without someone trained in using the administrator side of the software, so what's the point? Considering the emphasis on reading, couldn't this 20 minute block for each class be better spent with an actual book that won't freeze, lock them out, or keep resetting back to page one unless they actually want to reread it?

Lest you consider me a total Luddite, I'm actually a technology fan. I'm not a first adopter of any innovation, but if it intrigues me, I get in on it as early as I'm convinced it will be reliable. I do all my writing and bookkeeping on computers, keep my calendar on my iPhone, am frequently checking either it or my iPad for news updates and information about friends and family members, I compose and arrange music on my computer, and I've been known to play video games obsessively. There's a lot more I could throw in here, but really it's quite simple: I use the stuff a lot. I think it's good for children to be computer literate, and there are whole worlds of information at their fingertips that I only came into once I was in college, and then only through exhaustive research. Screen time is not a bad thing in and of itself.

Where I draw the line, though, is school. I'm not convinced we need to have kids using computers for anything other than research. There are so many things that can go wrong with the Imagine Learning program, and the capital investment is so huge--laptops, charging stations, beefed-up broadband and modems, increased server capacity--and don't forget the additional investment needed to train specialists in every building, that I have to wonder how the decision to implement this was made. How much is this costing us? And how well does the company stand behind its product, which up to now has been a near total dud at my building?

The answers to all these questions remain to be seen. For myself, I'll just have to keep crossing my fingers that whoever's running the E&I time during my kindergarten classes can keep the frustration out of his or her voice as the program freezes up, or the network goes down; and I'll keep reporting to the library at 11:10 to help children with the equipment problems I can do something about; and to tell them, over and over again, to go on ABCya or Arcademics for whatever time they have left.

Stupid robot.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Nation of Abusers


A flashback:

The first semester of our last year of seminary, my first wife and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in married student housing next door to a fellow student and his wife. We had a toddler, they had two pre-school aged children. They were friendly Texans, and we got along well at first. One day I was visiting them when I noticed a paddle hanging on the wall. The husband saw my eyes on it, and chuckled, making a joke about how nothing else would get his kids' attention. I may have smiled weakly, nervous about sharing my real feeling about hitting a small child with a piece of wood. I know I became uncomfortable with these people from then on.

As the semester progressed, both our child and their children had trouble sleeping. One night I was up with Sarah, who would not go down in her crib, when I heard screaming from next door--probably what was keeping her awake. I could just make out enough of the words to realize our neighbors were trying to get their children to stay in their beds--which were in a windowless closet.

Time went on, and the screaming became a nightly event. One day I opened our door to head down to the university center and check my mail, and found the neighbor's little boy bent over in our doorway, his father about to give him a whack with the paddle. I can't remember how I reacted; I hope I asked him to please do that in his own space, but I'm afraid it's more likely I gave a fake laugh, closed the door, and stayed inside to fume.

The screaming escalated, and finally we approached the head resident about it. He brought the couple down to his room so they could see their accusers. We had betrayed them, it seems, a far worse thing than what they were doing. They may have been issued some kind of warning. We moved to a different room, so as not to have to awkwardly bump into them as often, everyone graduated, and we left Texas, glad to be done with that savage place.

Flash forward to the present, and a cascade of stories about professional athletes beating their wives and children. Even as the outcry leads teams to finally suspend these abusers, it is met with a chorus of defenders, people who insist that spanking is as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie.

Of course, that's what they once said about slavery, that "peculiar institution" that included whipping among its many tortures.

Americans spank their children with frightening frequency. Conservative Christians insist (see the "Proverbs" paddle above) that spanking is actually mandated by the Bible. Christian parenting guides go into great detail about how to lovingly spank a child into better behavior. There are still hundreds of school districts that feature paddling as part of their discipline programs.

I attended two of those districts in the 1970s. When my family moved from New Hampshire to Idaho, my parents were shocked to learn that Idaho schools still paddled misbehaving students. They had talks with the principals of every school their sons attended, informing them that if there was to be any corporal punishment, it was their job, as our parents, to carry it out. Just call them up, and they'd take care of it.

Even so, I found myself on the wrong side of a paddle in the seventh grade. I was obsessed with getting a good grade in biology, but had come up against a mental block that had me worrying I might not: metric conversions. Idaho's answer to teaching the metric system was having students memorize conversions between metric measures and their English system equivalents, most likely so if we ever did come across those socialistic metric thingies, we could turn them back into good old pounds, bushels, and pecks. I struggled with these numbers, just couldn't get them down. On the day of the test, knowing I didn't have the numbers, I surreptitiously slid my textbook into my lap, found the page with the conversion chart, and began filling in the numbers...

Only to have my test paper ripped out from under my pencil and loudly torn in two by the teacher. He'd caught me. He stomped back to his desk, sat down, and stared at me as I stewed in my own juices, humiliated, knowing my test score had just turned into a zero, and my grade would suffer accordingly. After several minutes, he got up, walked down the hall, and came back to the doorway with my math teacher. He beckoned to me. I got up, my knees weak, and walked out into the hall. "I can't believe it," whispered the math teacher on seeing me. "Do you know what this means?" asked the science teacher. "It means I won't be on the honor roll," I sobbed out. He ordered me to bend over and touch my toes, then delivered five hard swats.

I went back into the room, tears flowing from my eyes. I pulled a notebook from under my desk, and wrote an apology letter, dropping it on his desk as the bell rang before stumbling out of the classroom. I cried through math class, cried all the way home. When I came through the door, still in tears, my mother asked what had happened. "I cheated on a test and got paddled," I sobbed.

There was hell to pay, but not for me. My parents could see I'd more than learned this lesson. They had a session with the principal, called the teacher on the carpet--he'd never paddled anyone during the period I had science, had never even warned us it was a possibility--and extracted from him a promise to let me take the test over. I studied hard, got an A, and made it on the honor roll.

You could say that the paddling taught me a lesson, but considering the reversal that followed--my apology letter had also made a difference--what I really learned was to be contrite when caught misbehaving. I also acquired a psychic scar that is still with me. The physical pain was, I think, gone by the time I got home, though the following year, the math teacher who'd witnessed the paddling was himself suspended for leaving bruises on a student he had paddled.

And what about my parents? Their deal with all those principals was, after all, that they would do the punishing if their children deserved it. And they did. They believed in spanking, but used it sparingly. I only remember being struck twice by them, though there were probably other times when I was too young to remember. On one occasion, it was just my father being fed up with the bickering in the back seat, reaching back and slapping me on the leg. In his anger, he hit me harder than he intended. I was wearing shorts, and the slap left welts on my bare skin. I remember that moment almost 45 years later for the pain it gave me and the embarrassment I felt over having a hand print on my thigh.

I understand that, psychologically, it's been demonstrated the only thing children remember of corporal punishment is the pain and humiliation, that it is an exceedingly inefficient way of teaching behavior. I've also heard many an older adult reminisce about the good old days when kids learned how to behave at the receiving end of a hickory stick, a ping pong paddle, or a hairbrush. I can imagine the threat of such violence keeping some children from being naughty in the same way jail time may be a deterrent--and yet American prisons are filled to overflowing, and children continue to misbehave, even in homes where tannings are still dealt out. Sometimes all it takes to get a misbehaving student to shape up is a warning that I may call his father about how he's acting, and the fear in his eyes tells me that if I do, he'll be lashed by more than a tongue when he gets home that night.

You've probably guessed by now that I'm not in favor of spanking, paddling, or any other method of beating the naughtiness out of a child. It doesn't accomplish what it's intended to, it does lead to children growing up to be as abusive to their own offspring as their parents were to them, and it infuses what should be a nurturing relationship--whether it's parent-child or teacher-student--with violence. With all that said, I also understand where the urge to be violent originates. My children could, at times, drive me nuts, exhausting every benign weapon in my parenting arsenal; and still they would bicker, whine, complain, refuse to help with the simplest of chores. At other times they could be lovely, of course, but when they weren't, I found myself at times driven to the point of yelling at them, slamming my hand down on tables, struggling to get their attention, and thinking that maybe a swat on the rump might not be such a bad thing. I gave into that urge a time or two. If I did, I know it accomplished nothing but to further alienate that child from me. It may have broken up the fight, but it also left both child and parent emotional wrecks, weeping over what it had come to. I think that's how it was with my parents: for all their protestations to the contrary, they really didn't believe in hitting us, and only did when they were driven over the edge by our behavior.

For spanking to be delivered lovingly and correctively, it would have to be administered by a serene adult who can calmly explain why this must happen, who then did so with restraint. There may be parents who can consistently spank in this way, but I've never seen one. All the spankings I've witnessed were doled out with at least a dollop of anger--which eliminates any possibility they were rational, intentional, or systematic.

In fact, outside of sado-masochistic relationships, the very notion of loving corporal punishment is an oxymoron. It's violence, using it on a child or spouse is a form of abuse, and we of the 21st century should give up pretending it's anything but that.

Talking Back to My (Older) Self


Of course young me can't just take the advice of old me lying down. Even though at 22 my tendency was to be far more respectful of authority than most young adults I meet, by the time I reached my early 30s, that had worn off. When it comes to insolence, I was a late bloomer, but bloom I did. And when I talked back, I did so with all the rhetorical powers I had honed as a preacher, taking on whomever I was pissed at point by point, not stopping until I had immersed every argument a would-be mentor might make in a bath of boiling logical scorn.

So now, without further ado, I project myself back nineteen years. Young Mark holds in his hands a letter from the future filled with the typical platitudinous valedictory advice middle-aged men cannot help dishing out to adults young enough to be their sons and daughters. He pores over it, highlights flimsy arguments, feels his blood boiling at the Hallmark Graduation Book quality of the thing. He sets it beside his keyboard--it's a hard copy, and his scanner's text recognition software is too primitive to digitize the letter--so he'll have to retype all the points he's about to dissect. He's furious, but also strangely thrilled: there's nothing quite as satisfying as taking down a father figure, even if it is your own balding, wrinkling self.

Don't take yourself so seriously. Of course I take myself seriously. All around me is pain, suffering, injustice. My first wife threw me out, my son has epilepsy, my daughter isn't adjusting well to the divorce, my father had a stroke that was blamed on the divorce, the Bishop and the Cabinet are challenging the Conference's decision to ordain me--how can I laugh at a time like this? Worse, how can you laugh at what I'm going through? There's nothing funny about this.

Listen to your parents. (And your supervisor, your professors, your pastor, your rabbi, that older guy at the gym, the waitress who knows you better than you know yourself, and on and on and on.) You have got to be kidding. My parents and, come to think of it, my family have been completely consumed by Dad's stroke. Nobody in my family has ever been divorced before, and they don't know what to do with me. As for my supervisor, see above: he doesn't think I should even be in this field. He also called me down to Salem to tell me I should take megadoses of vitamins. No, the people I'm listening to are younger, maybe not as young as me, but young enough to have fresh memories of what it's like to lose a relationship. And they're here for me, as nobody in my parents' generation is.

Family matters. See above. My family hasn't got time or understanding for me. They're as traumatized by the fact that I'm getting divorced as I am by the divorce itself. Maybe in a few months, they'll remember I'm here, wonder how I'm handling this shock, but for now, family has to be whatever I can find.

Friends matter. You actually have a point here, though the part about high school and college friends does not, unfortunately, hold water. Everyone I knew in my youth is, as far as I know, still happily married, and from what I've seen, married people of my generation really don't want to let the specter of divorce into their wheelhouse. It terrifies them that they might be next. On the other hand, the friends I've discovered in my community save my sanity several times a week. I've had more lunches with more people in the last few months--meals where I just picked at my food, but somehow found myself nourished by the company--then I can count.

What doesn't kill you really does make you stronger. I'd like to say you have a point here, too, because I keep telling myself this. Unfortunately, I'm still not convinced I'm going to survive this, no matter what the divorced people I meet tell me. I look at them and see that they're still single, years after their marriages end, and that scares me. I don't want to be alone that long. I'm afraid that might kill me. Which is why I'm really going to ignore the next point you make, old man.

Look before you leap. Yeah. So you say. But I'm terribly lonely, and when I'm by myself, the demons of this hell rise up and dig their claws into my soul, dragging me back into the pit of despair where all I can do is wail and gnash my teeth. I want someone in my life so badly that I will leap at anyone who takes an interest in me, even if she has too many problems of her own for me to handle. A couple of years from now, I'll leap right into a marriage even less advisable than my first. And this career that's treated me so badly: I'm going to hang onto it for dear life until it finally falls away from me. I took this plunge, and I'm riding these rapids for the duration, until they hurl me onto the shore, broken, half-drowned, barely alive.

Be patient. Patience is for Zen masters. That's not where I am. I want a relationship, want a new TV and stereo to replace what I left behind in the divorce, want a better car as this one passes 200,000 miles, want the esteem of my community, want to publish a novel even though I've barely begun writing fiction after a fifteen year drought. And I want to feel better. More than anything else, I want to be over my grief, moving on with my life. I'm losing so much time to this pain. Can't I please start enjoying my 30s now?

Be happy. I wish I could. Instead, I'm going to be tragic, broken, wounded. I'll build up my body with running and bicycling, head off on pilgrimages to the coast, the mountains, the desert, juggle parenting and work as best I can, try to teach myself how to date (something I never learned in my teens and 20s), convince myself I've found the right person to be my second and permanent wife. Along the way I'll have some experiences that thrill and delight me, help me forget for a few minutes or hours or even days just how unhappy I am; but finding joy in every moment will elude me for a very long time.

30-something me pauses here. It seems he's had much more insight into the coming years than can be rationally explained. Perhaps receiving a letter from the future caused some of that future to leak into his awareness; who knows? Time travel is a dicey thing. Whatever the source of these glimmerings, these glimpses of difficult days yet to come, he is a stubborn young man. He will do this his way, not the way recommended by some future version of himself, because that is how young adults learn: getting knocked down by reality, picking themselves up, and trying something different. Or not different; sometimes it's "fool me thrice" that finally leads to "shame on me."

The years ahead will be harder than he can imagine. The separation from his children will expand despite all his efforts to keep them close by. The work of ministry, already starting to lose its interest for me, will become a burden. His second marriage will be disastrous. He will be without work for three years, and when he finally does settle back into a new/old career--teaching music--it will be many more years before he is confident enough to consider himself truly competent. It might even take him until he's 53. There will be many more failed relationships before he finally meets the real love of his life.

In fact, it will be fifteen years before things really start to look up.

To a 33-year-old man, fifteen years is nearly an eternity. That's almost half the time he's been on the earth. How can he hope to be that patient, to find happiness in the Sisyphean drudgery of rolling the relationship boulder, the career boulder, the parenting boulder, the ex-spouse boulder up the mountain again and again, only to see it tumble back into the valley just as the summit appears to be in sight? And yet, somehow, he'll survive those years, emerging from them a new man, centered, focused, present, content, frequently joyful.

So I'm cutting the younger Mark some slack. Whatever mistakes he made in the hubris of youth, he paid the penalties, suffered the consequences, learned the lessons, and bit by agonizing bit, constructed a truly adult self with a future more wondrous than he ever could have imagined. I'm grateful he hung in there--even though at times "hanging in there" meant knowing when to give up. Thanks to that stubborn tenacity, I'm here now, a happy man in a transformative marriage and a challenging, rewarding career, who finally knows how to live well, and has set about intentionally doing just that, for the rest of his years.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Talking with My (Younger) Self

Stew tries to get through to his youthful self.

Passing Strange was only on stage for a few months in 2008. I heard about it on NPR, as composer/author/narrator/lead singer Stew talked with Terry Gross and and Kurt Andersen about his autobiographical brainchild, a two hour coming-of-age rock opera filled with humor, angst, and gorgeous music. The snippets I heard on Fresh Air and Studio 360 were enough to make me want to see it or, barring that, to listen to the soundtrack; and yet somehow I never did. It faded from my memory until, scrolling through the Comcast menu (we just switched), I discovered it had been filmed by Spike Lee and was going to play on Showtime.

Amy and I watched it Sunday, and it was riveting. Stew is on stage for the entire show, singing the story of his youth with such power that we could not believe he could sustain it for a single performance, let alone a three-month run of nightly shows. All the performances were of that caliber. The music was flawless, not a false note in the show, with several choruses that knocked us back as few rock concerts ever have. And the content...

The story itself is simple: a youth (that's all he's called in the show) chafes against his single mother's love, finds himself in rock music, and travels to Europe to hone his craft. In Amsterdam, he has his first experiences with sex and drugs, but everything there is just too mellow for him, so he travels to Amsterdam, where he pursues a more nihilist, avant garde approach to music while living in a community of iconoclastic artists. Then his mother calls to plead with him to come home for Christmas. He brushes her off, not realizing she is dying. The plane ticket he ends up buying is for her funeral. Through it all, Stew is commenting on the story, inserting knowing insights, rolling his eyes at his own youthful narcissism, and finally, in a hair-raising duet with his younger self, driving home the truth that he will never see his mother again, that his quest for artistic perfection has cost him the chance to say goodbye to the only person who ever believed in him. The youth seems to hear, but then falls back into idealism, telling himself he can make his mother immortal by turning her into a song. He sings that song with the help of her spirit, and the play ends.

The duet between Stew and the youth affected me for a deeper reason than its musical and dramatic brilliance. For over a year now, I've been writing about my personal transition from youth to middle age, and in this amazing theater piece, it was put to music. So many times I've wished I could summon up my 20-something self and tell him what I've learned, as Stew struggles to do and, inevitably, fails. Young men just can't listen to the voices of experience all around them. They have to figure things out for themselves.

Even so, I've got a few things I want to tell that 1980s Mark. My last post was all the advice I had for my children, and wish I could share with him, about the end of relationships; but there's much more he needed to hear. Things like:

Don't take yourself so seriously. Youth is a time of energy, health, and creativity. It's also a time for being taken down a notch. 20-somethings make huge mistakes. They choose careers before they've experienced enough to know whether they even like that line of work. They marry people based on a few months' courtship, then have children with those near-strangers. And when these choices blow up on them--when the career proves disastrous, when the marriage sours, when raising children is far more difficult than they ever imagined--they become deadly serious. I look back at my terribly serious younger self, and cannot believe how ridiculous I was in my too sober assessment of life.

Listen to your parents. And your supervisor, your professors, your pastor, your rabbi, that older guy at the gym, the waitress who knows you better than you know yourself, and on and on and on. They may seem impossibly dated in their take on reality, but that's an illusion. In fact, there is very little new under the sun. Every problem you're facing, they once went through. Okay, they were probably never cyber-shamed by having naked selfies go viral, but everything else you're going through--work, parenting, buying a house, struggling to stay married, changing careers, changing spouses--someone in your life over the age of 40 has experienced, and knows more about it than you. Talk to them and, more importantly, listen to them. They know a thing or two.

Family matters. Your parents may be squares, your siblings may annoy you to pieces, but they really do know you better than even your spouse. They were there as you grew up, and shared more experiences with you than anyone you've known at this point in your life. And they love you. It may not be a healthy love, may indeed be laced with enough codependency to keep an AA chapter going for years, but it's a love based on who you are, rather than what you do. Cultivate it. Visit more often, talk on the phone more often, text message more often; and however enticing it may be to spend a holiday at a resort, remember you will not always have youth family to share that day with.

Friends matter. The people you knew in high school can stay your friends, but only if you stay in touch. The people you know in college can also stay your friends, but again, you have to stay in touch. I lost contact with my high school friends so quickly that, at our five-year reunion, they all seemed like strangers to me. I held onto my college friends a little longer, but not long enough. These were people who shared formative experiences with me, who comforted me through some of those terrible failures I took much too seriously, and still loved me despite both the failures and my overreactions to them. I miss the connection we had, and I wish I could bring it back, but so far I've only managed an occasional Facebook "like" with them and, every couple of years, getting together with one or another of them for a beer.

What doesn't kill you really does make you stronger. Part of the truth in this cliche is that our disappointments feel like death because we don't know any better. Yes, divorce feels like the end of the world, and in a way it is; but life gets better. In fact, I'm happier now than I ever was in either of the failed marriages I grieved so deeply when they ended. Realizing that neither of those divorces killed me, and finding myself emerging from the dark clouds of grief, I marveled at the new muscles I had discovered. I also learned some things about myself, many of them summed up in the post last week about breaking up. In truth, much of what we consider strength of character is simply the wisdom of having survived a trip through hell. "That was horrible!" "Did it kill you?" "No." "Guess it could've been worse, eh?"

Look before you leap. Look long and hard. Both of my youthful marriages came after less than a year of courtship; and in fact, the engagements came, in each case, after less than three months of togetherness. After the second marriage came apart, I finally made a promise to myself: I would not again enter into a fully-committed relationship until I had been through at least a full year with my future partner. The truth I had learned was that people change from one season to another, and that only with time can those changes be put into perspective. Perspective downgrades the intolerable to merely irritating, possibly even endearing. It also reveals patterns that can be far more troublesome, and may cause one to have second thoughts about a lifelong partnership.

 The same goes for careers. I attended a liberal arts college, but was in a professional degree program, so I never got the full experience of sampling all the disciplines. If I had, I might now be working for a newspaper or a senator, or teaching political science in a university; then again, I might be a respected novelist. Don't get me wrong, I love teaching music; but there are so many pathways I never even looked at, or just dabbled in.

Be patient. You're not going to be a master teacher, win a Pulitzer, or fill an arena right out of the gate. Every person you look up to had to start small. Some started more brilliantly than others, but none got to the top without hard work and perseverance. Most teachers have a hard first year; many have a hard first decade. It doesn't just come naturally. After you've been doing it awhile, it will seem like it does, but that's the ease of experience. If you give up too quickly, you'll never earn that sense of knowing exactly what to do, no matter what happens. Speaking as someone who did give up (in 1985), then came back (in 2002) and, at 53, is finally finding that rhythm, I can tell you it's worth the wait.

There is much more I wish I could tell my younger self. I look back at that lonely, insecure young man, so fiercely dedicated to his principles, so clueless about how to apply them diplomatically, and so utterly ignorant about love, sex, and marriage, and I want to put an arm across his shoulders, introduce him to the beer he won't discover for another decade, and tell him it's all going to be all right. Just look at me now: sure, I don't have as much hair, and I'm still struggling to shed the same forty extra pounds I was carrying around when I was that age; but I'm happier, less serious, more optimistic about where life is taking me. And that's all I ever wanted. The ambitions I had were simply for contentment which, at the time, I defined as having an intact family unit, husband, wife, children. And that brings me to my final, and most significant, piece of advice to the younger me:

Be happy. Embrace the life you have. Stop telling yourself happiness is just around the corner, that if you can just overcome this obstacle, get past this crisis, your marriage will finally be secure and then you can be happy. Be happy now. Let go of the suffering you keep channeling into your heart. You don't have to have the life of your dreams to be happy. The life you have now is enough--if you let it be enough.

This was the hardest lesson for me to learn, and I'm not sure I could even begin to convince 22-year-old me that happiness is not in finding the right girlfriend and landing the perfect job. It took me until my late 40s to figure this out, and until I did, I kept trying to achieve that dream I'd had since the age of 5. (Seriously, that's how old I was when, after reading Richard Scarry's The Baby Bunny, I set my sights on my lifelong ambition: to be a daddy bunny. Really, just a daddy. Hopefully you get the point.) Marriage, parenthood, career, avocation--whatever I was chasing, I finally came to realize, was, in the words of Ecclesiastes, vanity, a longing after wind. Placing all one's hope in the future is futile. It may never come. Finding contentment in the now is what makes life truly meaningful.

So there it is, young Mark: find happiness today. Tomorrow will take care of itself. And the happier you are today, the better chance you have of being happy tomorrow, as well. Happy people are much more attractive at interviews and on first dates. Leave the angst to the philosophy majors, and start living.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Talk They Really Need to Hear


There are two talks every parent dreads having with his or her young adult children. The first--the "where babies and STDs come from, and how to prevent those things from happening" talk--really only needs one good, awkward run through, and frequently that's just to confirm what you've always suspected, namely that your kid knows plenty about penises, vaginas, intercourse, procreation, sexually transmitted diseases, and the pros and cons of all the various prevention methods.

The second talk is the one that really matters. It's also the one you're going to have to repeat over and over again, possibly as long as you and your child are both taking up space on the planet. It's about breaking up.

I recently attained a milestone in my life as both a parent and step-parent: all my kids have been through breakups. They've managed it with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they've been the dumpers, sometimes the dumpees. They've manifested a spectrum of emotions from indifference to grief to fury to elation. I've had a few conversations about what breaking up felt like for them, much of which boils down to me patiently and empathetically listening, occasionally adding in an "I know" or "I'm so sorry." When I have been able to give advice, it's mostly been checking to be sure there's someone around they can turn to when I get off the phone with them. This morning, contemplating the possibility of another round of calls like that, it occurred to me I should put something in writing, a reference manual for me, my kids, and others facing this ordeal; a "Breaking Up for Dummies," if you will. So here goes.

First, my credentials: I'm in my third marriage. Before and between those marriages, I had a number of other relationships, including an engagement that went nowhere. I have occasionally been the dumper, much more often the dumpee. In one case, being dumped was a relief--if it hadn't happened when it did, I would have initiated it myself soon after--but mostly, it's been something I was dreading, and it hurt like Hades when it happened. So I know some things about this stuff. Now fasten your seatbelts, boys and girls; we're in for a bumpy ride.

1. Breaking up is a normal stage in relationships. I know you don't want to hear this, but it's true. Settling down with your first love and staying together until you're dead is a fairy tale. I know of one couple from my high school years who really have stayed together into middle age. All the others came apart, many of them within a few months of graduation. Relationships are like pets: they're adorable when they're puppies, fun when they're active adults, and if we're lucky, they stay sweet until they pass quietly away and we can say our goodbyes with sadness and acceptance. But we're not always lucky. Sometimes the relationship goes senile, and starts doing crazy things. Sometimes it gets rabies, and has to be put down. Whether its passing is gentle or turbulent, I can say with certainty that all relationships end, and the only way to avoid the pain of them coming apart is for both of you to die at the same time.

So "forever" is a myth (unless you're a Mormon, and you and your spouse are sealed for eternity; and no, I'm not going to go after that particular belief at this time, other than to say it's the best reason I know not to be a Mormon). Even if you stay together until death do you part, one of you is going to go first, leaving the other to go home to a suddenly empty house. But this blog is not about that kind of breakup, so we'll set it aside and return to the topic at hand.

2. Normal or not, breaking up sucks. You were a couple. You did everything together: eating, drinking, recreating, fornicating, procreating, parenting, sleeping, waking, everything. Then something happened. Maybe one of you started doing more things with friends than with you, and you were stuck doing stuff by yourself. Or maybe you're the one who realized you were missing being with those other folks who just didn't care for your partner, and knowing the feeling was mutual, you still missed them more than you were irked by the nasty things they said about him or her. Maybe someone at work caught your eye, and even though you didn't do anything about it, you found yourself having a fantasy relationship. Maybe your partner took a fantasy relationship to the next level.

At some point, you began to feel yourselves coming apart. When you were together, you were starting to say mean things to each other. Your love-making became infrequent, and was tinged with desperation. When you were apart, there was a growing sense of dread: is it going to be over? Food become either much less interesting or much too interesting. People began asking you if you were all right: you seemed brittle, nervous, depressed.

All these feelings are normal, and they will pass. They are what Jesus called "rumors of war" (Matthew 24:6, Mark 13:7), a foretaste of the much more difficult days ahead; and while Jesus was talking about the apocalypse, not a breakup, I think the analogy is entirely appropriate. Few things I've experienced feel as apocalyptic as the end of a relationship.

3. It's probably easier to be the one who ends it. As I said earlier, I've been down this road a lot of times, mostly as the one who got dumped, and I can say with but one exception that it always hurt to be on the receiving end of that decision. I expect this is because I don't like endings, and I will go to great lengths to keep a relationship on life support, bustling about the house, trying to make everything better, cleaner, neater, less stressful for my partner, so that she will want to be home with me rather than off with those friends who keep telling her bad things about me and encouraging her to step out on me (at least, that's what they're doing in my fevered fantasy brain). The little compromises that are a part of any relationship start to become big concessions, until I'm sacrificing things that really matter to me--vocation, parenting time, career, fitness, my family of origin--all in the name of keeping this relationship together. It's exhausting and, when the end comes anyway, despite my herculean efforts, shattering to know how much it cost me, and for what? It's like spending $10,000 on a veterinarian bill, only to have the pet die anyway a week after coming home.

Pouring that much into a relationship creates a codependent singularity, a black hole into which you've poured so much of yourself that it's grown massive, taken on a life of its own. When the relationship ends anyway, you're stuck on the event horizon of that singularity, unable to escape its gravity. All the light in your world is being sucked into it. You sleep poorly, waking up in the darkest hours to howl into your pillow. You stop eating altogether for awhile because nothing tastes good. You fill your playlist with mournful breakup songs, put them on a continuous loop. Nothing has meaning. People stop returning your phone calls because they're always about the same thing: why? Why why why why WHY?!?!?

Being the one to pull the trigger, on the other hand, is, in my experience (and my observation of those who dumped me), a far easier thing to take. Getting over being dumped can take months, even years. Letting go of a relationship I've ended, on the other hand, is more likely to take weeks, sometimes just days. Once the ugliness of the conversation is over and you're on your own, you may even feel like going out and celebrating; and you may find yourself dating so quickly that, should one of your ex's friends glimpse you intimately hobnobbing over drinks with a new prospect, you will quickly become the object of scorn.

It should be noted that there's a very different mindset involved in being a dumper. Usually you're the one who's been pulling away, rather than pouring in. You've steered clear of the singularity. Perhaps you've intuited what your partner has been doing, and have pulled away precisely because you don't want to be sucked into that death spiral. Most likely you've been putting off that hard conversation because you want to spare your partner the agony. Which brings me to some genuine heartfelt advice:

4. Just pull the damn trigger. Once you know it's over, end it. This goes for both the one pulling away and the one fixating on keeping things together. If all you feel about your relationship is dread--whether it's the dread of going home to that emotional maelstrom, or of wondering if when your wayward lover comes home it will only be to break up with you--then it's no longer providing either of you with what relationships are for: intimacy, support, pleasure, warmth, togetherness, love. Stop the insanity! Pull back from the event horizon before you're trapped there; or get your partner to arrest his or her descent into that black hole. Yes, it's going to be hard saying those words, and even if you were anticipating saying them first, it's going to be even harder hearing them; but the longer you take getting to "no," the worse it's going to be for both of you.

This runs counter to a lot of conventional wisdom. When I was in junior high, I would occasionally leaf through one of my mother's women's magazines, looking for the occasional movie review or sexy lingerie ad. One of them had a monthly column called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" The marriage counselors who wrote for this column would issue prescriptions of ways the couples could heal from the anger and betrayal that had cast their relationship on the rocks. Some of those prescriptions were extreme, the relational equivalent of chemo. And then would come the prognosis as, looking closer at the personalities involved and the water under the bridge, the counselors speculated on how terminal the relationship was, even with therapy.

Healing a broken relationship is very hard work. Staying together has always been a priority for me, and I've instigated relationship counseling in four of mine. It may even have done us some good. But all four relationships ultimately came to an end, anyway.

I'm not saying that working on a relationship is pointless, but I am saying that the work has to be mutual, intentional, and ongoing. If you're not both on board, if one of you is just going through the motions for your sake, then you're wasting everyone's time, not to mention a good deal of money. If you don't feel hope after counseling; if the same thing keeps coming up, no matter how many times you talk it out with the counselor; if you're not both willing to be partners in the hard work of staying together; then let it go. Initiate that very difficult conversation, and move on to the next part of your life.

5. Healing will take time. It's not going to be easy. You'll lose a lot of sleep. You may lose a lot of weight--my first divorce was the most effective weight loss plan I've ever been on--or you may not--after my second divorce, I didn't even have a slimmer waistline to show for that three-year relationship. It will seem like this pain is forever, especially if you were the one pouring everything you had into keeping the relationship together.

That's the event horizon. And here's the good news about it: if you hang in there, if you force yourself to get up, go to work, eat good food, work out, then minute by minute, day by day, you will begin to feel better. One day you'll surprise yourself by not thinking about your ex for a whole hour. And then you'll find yourself thinking about going out--but not by yourself! Find someone you can hang out with, a friend, an acquaintance from work, someone, anyone; and when you're out, here's the most important thing: don't talk about the breakup. This will make it possible for your new acquaintance or old friend to be something more than a breakup sponge.

Don't get me wrong, you still need someone to be a sponge for you; but make sure those people (and by all means, spread it around! No one person can handle being your sole confidante at a time like this!) have a permanent connection with you that is thicker than the water of friendship. That's right, I'm talking family: parents, siblings, maybe cousins (if you're really close); not, I must add, your own children, and I must add it (though I shouldn't have to) because I've known many people in the midst of breakups to share inappropriately with their children. The best person to do this with, of course, is a trained therapist, but if your insurance won't cover it, or if you need more than an hour a week to perform this emotional dump, family is your next best choice.

Vent those feelings. Vomit them out. Read good books, go to good movies, listen to good music. Eat good food, drink good beer. 

Here's the best healing advice I can give: take that trip you always wanted to go on, but couldn't interest your ex in. This is an excellent way to remind yourself you have good reasons not to be together. For much of my first marriage, I tried to interest my wife in traveling to the national parks of Utah. A year after we separated, I finally took the trip by myself, and found it moving, healing, transcendent. It may even have meant more to me as a personal pilgrimage than it ever could have as a family vacation. Four years later, I commemorated my second divorce with another road trip to Utah. Two years later, I went back to run my last marathon there. Five years after that, I introduced my son to Utah. And finally, two years ago, I went there with Amy. That she was in as much awe as I, and still talks about the wonders of the red rock country, speaks volumes about compatibility.

Doing these things, you will still grieve. You will still have moments of intense yearning (see the next point about this). But over time, they will lessen in frequency and severity, until one day your look around yourself and realize it's going to be all right. Because it will.

6. Relationships are addictions. Sometime around the middle of my umpteenth breakup, I realized something: this felt really familiar. Too familiar. Like coming down with the flu and then getting over it. There were stages I had to go through, stages that felt the same every time. Once I was through each of them, I could predict what the next would feel like. The depth of feelings varied, the length of the stages varied, but the whole process was predictable. 

This is some important wisdom. By stepping back from myself and observing the process of breaking up and healing, I had isolated the breakup virus .Knowing what to expect, I was able to vaccinate myself, and found, to my pleasant surprise, that the whole thing became much more bearable.

Being in a relationship is a natural drug. Infatuation, the first stage of falling in love, causes your body to release endorphin. You find yourself having a lover's high: the sky is bluer, the grass greener, food tastes better but you don't need as much of it, petty annoyances don't get to you. As good as it feels, you can't build a lifelong partnership on such feelings, so after awhile they ease off and cognitive bonds develop. But the memory of that endorphin rush, and the longing for it, never completely goes away, and it continues to be a reward for the intimacy you share.

But then things start to come apart, and you find yourself not getting your RDA of endorphin. You crave that rush, and because your partner is your only means of getting it, you long to be close. You may become needy in your partner's eyes as you try to draw him or her in. Ironically, this can create even more distance. Now you can't get your fix at all, but like the most pitiful of addicts, you're willing to sacrifice anything to have it again: your dignity, your values, your family, your soul. The more you give up, the less good it does, until finally, you're forced to quit.

That's when the physical symptoms really kick in. It's been almost twenty years since I first experienced that pain, but the memory is still vivid: the longing sensation in my throat, the spasms in my gut, the vomiting of grief as I wailed and sobbed my way through night after night.

As I said at the beginning of this point, it took me years to understand the biological and psychological roots of these feelings; but understand them I finally did, to the extent that, when I finally had to accept that my engagement was over, I was able to call a friend and tell him, "____ and I just broke up for good. I'm going to be in a bad way for a few days, but then I'll be okay." I knew what to expect. Knowing it didn't take it away, but it did prepare me to live through it. It also helped me, as I entered into my next relationship, to take precautions against becoming so addicted to my partner that I could not live without her, which proved far healthier and more satisfying for everyone involved.

7. I'm here for you. Here's the final point for both parents and children: we love you. We want you to feel better. We know you're going to spend some time feeling awful. We know your friends will be impatient with your process. But we are not your friends; we're your parents. It's our job to sit with you through yet another breakup, yet another sob session, to watch as you pick up your pieces and start again, hoping you've learned something new from this one. When others shut you off, we're still here, for as long as it takes for you to finally be ready to move on.

With that said, we do have lives of our own, jobs of our own, marriages of our own that we need to nurture. Sometimes we only have a minute or two to listen to you crying into the phone, to tell you "I know," and then to say, "I have to go, but we'll talk again tomorrow." But talk we will, hoping that, by the time in our own lives that we are no longer able to talk with you, you will have matured to the point that you don't need us for that.

8. And one to grow on. I've been telling myself this since my second divorce: Love is worth the effort. And it really is. I've been both single and coupled, and I can honestly say that, for me, the latter is far preferable--but only if it's mutual. A one-sided relationship is worse than no relationship at all. It's an addiction to a bad drug, a possession by a cruel and selfish demon, and you're better off without it.

As you're healing from this breakup, you will be tempted by sensations. You'll want to feel the affirming warmth of attraction, the rush of infatuation, the release of consummation. It may even be good for you to have a fling or two, just so long as you understand that's what they are. I don't advise one-nighters; as good as they may feel, they'll ultimately leave you feeling empty, even dirty. Don't go to the opposite extreme, though; this is not the time to settle down with someone new. You really can't know if this is the right person for you until you've been through a few seasons together, long enough to see how he or she deals with disappointment, frustration, anxiety, fear. Take your time, and once you've found someone new, be intentional, careful, open with each other. With a relationship like that, you can build something lasting, something that's more than sex and affinity, something that may just last you until death do you part.

And if it doesn't? I'm still here. Give me a call.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Hey! I Know You!


There's nothing like the slow smile of recognition when a child realizes I'm not a stranger, after all.

I taught at Margaret Scott School from September through January last year, then changed schools until the end of the year. The plan was for me to remain at Hartley, the other school, until next January, then switch back to Scott for a full year. This way, the PE teacher I was trading places with and I could move just once a calendar year, yet still do full half-years at each school. But then plans changed: the Portland Arts Tax kicked in, and my position was altered to have me at Scott full-time, year-round.

It was hard to say goodbye to the Hartley students in June, knowing I wouldn't be coming back at all. It was also nerve-wracking to have no idea where I would be teaching in September: I'd been in the gym, a location that, except for convenience to the administration, becomes more unworkable in my mind the farther I get from it. With PE continuing for at least half the year, that was not going to work, so somewhere in the Scott building would have to be found for me--or I'd have to be on a cart. I got no word, either way, what was going to happen, only learning that I had a dedicated class room (actually about 70% of a classroom, with the rest given over to a computer lab that's only in use for 20 minutes of my own teaching day) when I returned to the building to pick up my ID two weeks ago.

After a busy summer with relatively little actual vacation time (I went on a study trip to Ghana! We got married! We bought our house!), and six days of inservice with far too little time for me to prepare for my first day, I was not as excited about Thursday's first student day as I should have been. I could've used a week or two more of off time, really needed at least one more planning day, but I had none of that. Ready or not, children were coming. I started meeting them on bus duty, putting stickers on their shirts to let their classroom teachers know which bus to put them on after school.

All around me, I saw faces I recognized, on bodies that were bigger than I remembered. A lot of growing can happen in seven months. A lot can happen to children's memories, as well, and at first there were few who acknowledged my identity. Once they started coming into my room, though, the awareness began to sink in.

I know that, for many of them, the biggest memory barrier was environmental: we weren't in a gym, and I wasn't using an amplification system for my voice (though I may yet turn to that--my voice was exhausted after just two days). They weren't used to seeing me in a normal room, or hearing my voice without electronic enhancement. Some, on first coming into the room, said to me, confusion on their faces, "Hey, weren't you the music teacher?" My room, you see, was the ELD (English Language Development) room last year, so there's an additional barrier to recognition: am I teaching ELD now? And when did they start teaching it to Anglo kids?

Over the course of our half hour together, recognition slowly dawned on their faces, and with it the slow shy smile of a child realizing there's an adult in this room who cares and is here to share something wonderful--and is someone who was doing the same thing last year, in a different place.

Children crave consistency. I've been in schools where I know I followed a teacher less engaging than myself, and yet heard how much students missed him or her. I assume the same happened when my successor came into the building. It's not about who's the better teacher in such cases; it's that children want to know what to expect when they enter a room.

Many of the children I teach come from homes where dinner and bedtime hours are erratic; where parents and parental figures come and go; and where love is not always expressed in ways that make sense to children. They come to school seeking the consistency and routines their home lives lack, the discipline their parents and guardians mete out erratically, the love that they don't know how to share. When we who are the staff of this school are at our best, we provide all these things for them; plus we give them an education.

The confusion at my presence, five months before I was supposed to be here, in a room that wasn't supposed to be mine, is completely understandable. The stress it places on the child's expectations is a temporary thing. The smile and the sentiment behind it--"Hey! I know you!"--is my reward for sticking with this school, this district, and continuing to bring music into the lives of children who need it almost as much as they need the breakfasts we also provide.

The reward for me is the parallel smile that comes to me: "Hey! I know you, too--and I'm very glad to see you!"