Sunday, October 26, 2014

His Eye Is on the Football

When I work out, I greatly prefer the work to be literally out. Outside, that is. Running and hiking, my favorite sweaty indulgences, cry out for fresh air, even when the weather is wet and windy. I may come home drenched, but I'm always more vibrantly alive, and I know I've accomplished something. I've gone somewhere. That matters.

Unfortunately, at 53, my feet can no longer handle daily pavement pounding, so for the last two years, I've added a bicycle to my exercise regimen, and here I have to admit to being a fair-weather exerciser. It's not that I can't ride in the rain, and if the temperature's not too low, I frequently do. When it's also windy and dark, though, I begin to worry about whether the other vehicles on the road--those weighing tons, rather than the few pounds of my bike--can see me, or avoid me. On days like those we've been having lately, I take my workout indoors to a spin class at 24 Hour Fitness; and if there's no class to be had on a given day, I take myself to the spin room and create my own class.

That's what I did yesterday. The spin room overlooks the main floor of the gym, the back wall one large window, the other walls mirrors, so that even with the overhead lights off, there's plenty of illumination. As I pumped myself up one imaginary hill after another, podcasts in my ears, I occasionally checked my form in the mirrors. When I did, I saw the main floor's big screen TVs reflected, each tuned to a sports channel, and between them, a poster that befuddled me. I couldn't tell exactly what it was, but it reminded me of this:

Why, I wondered, would Leonardo's The Last Supper, or something framed like it, be hanging in a gym? After I was finished sweating on the bike, I headed downstairs for a shower, but paused to get a better look at the poster:
Look closely, and you should be able to understand my confusion as I viewed this in a mirror from across a large room. The parody is not as precise as it was in the Battlestar Galactica version from a few years ago, but there are just too many parallels for it to be a coincidence. The varied colors of the jerseys roughly match those of Leonardo's disciples, even to the red on the central player. The players' postures also mirror those in The Last Supper, with bodies angled in a reflection of the disciples' confusion as Jesus announces one of them will betray him. The sky in the background, the architecture of the stadium, the dimensions of the poster, even its inadvertent placement in the gym, all evoke a sense of familiarity for what is probably the most iconic work of Christian art in the history of western civilization. Add to this the fact that the poster is promoting an all-Sunday-long celebration of America's favorite sport, and the message rings as clearly as a muezzin calling from a minaret: The hour has arrived! Gather in the sacred place for prayers!

I write frequently about football. I've called it a blood sport, speculated that the impulses we channel into it are the same punished by Noah's flood, considered the possibility that the game is an expression of male aggression, among other meditations on the pastime that comes closest to being America's true religion.

I call football religion as one who has been both a scholar and practitioner of religion. While all organized sports have trappings that mirror religion--the devotion of adherents, the practice of rituals, the regularly scheduled gatherings for worship, and the endless analysis by professional thinkers about the philosophy, polity, and praxis of the faith--football most wholeheartedly embraces the metaphor. It's not just the format, either: the content of football is filled with religious themes, many of which, if they were presented in a church tract, would cause a skeptic to turn away in disgust.

As band director of Banks High School for two years, I was present for every home game of a winning football team, and witnessed first hand devotion expressed to a Pentecostal extent. I also saw young men crash into each other with impacts that made me wince, and on one occasion, watched a teenager carried off the field to a waiting ambulance. The college games playing yesterday at the gym were frequently put on hold while medics worked on a fallen player who, if he was lucky, would limp off the field, and if not, would leave by stretcher. Injuries to limbs, backs, necks, and most upsetting, to brains are stock in trade for football, and often lead to lifelong impairments. As I hope I made clear by talking about high school players, this is not just about wealthy star quarterbacks. We put children in pads and helmets and send them out on football fields to crash into each other, calling it PeeWee league. Only a tiny fraction of those who play this game ever see any financial compensation at all for the risks they take and the health they sacrifice. This religion practices sacrifice in a way that modern, "civilized" religions have mostly abandoned or, barring that, rendered so symbolic as to remove any sense of life actually being laid down for atonement or devotion; but every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday children and young men give up legs, arms, sanity for America's True Religion.

Here's a more prosaic parallel: a common criticism of institutional religion is its obsessions with rules of behavior, and the creative ways in which its adherents subvert those rules. Consider the lengths to which United Methodist pastors and administrators will go to pretend to be both honoring the letter of the Discipline while looking the other way so that gay and lesbian pastors can maintain their ordination, or the huge majority of Catholics who practice birth control. Now take a moment to think about how blatantly coaches manipulate time out rules to stop or run out the clock, and how much time is spent at any game with referees consulting on whether or not a rule applies to a given play.

Consider also the pageantry of the sport: cheerleaders, fireworks, jet planes flying overhead, the presentation of the highest honor upon a dais shaped like an enormous football. The money we spend on these frills and googaws is mind boggling; and yet, when one considers the finery that makes medieval European cathedrals so gorgeous, most of it purchased through the sale of indulgences to peasants, it's hardly unprecedented to pour so much treasure into an object of devotion.

For all its violence, football also creates a space for young men to learn and practice teamwork, the sense that all are a part of advancing toward a goal and of defending one another from opposing forces, but this also feeds into what is, perhaps, the most disquieting aspect of the football religion: of all organized sports, none works better as a metaphor for eschatological conflict.

Football strategy is like trench warfare. Advances are usually numbered in yards, sometimes feet, unless a breakthrough can be achieved. Each team has just one piece of artillery--the quarterback--who, when adequately defended, can launch a long-range assault on enemy territory. When opposing teams engage, bodies crash into each other, often piling on top of each other like something one might see on a battlefield. Individual games are like battles leading up to a final, apocalyptic confrontation during which the two surviving armies go at each other with all they have, for there can, in the end, be only one winner, one force vindicating the devotion of its adherents; the rest, all the teams, all their fans, are cast off into the outer darkness to weep and gnash their teeth until the cycle begins again the following season, and the harvest of limbs, brains, and dollars recommences.

Blood sport, blood religion: however you think of it, there's nothing more American than football. Whenever I'm at the gym, in a bar, or anywhere that football's on the TV, I feel the pull of it. I can't keep my eyes off the screen, can't help feeling the thrill of an advance, wincing at the crunch of bodies, suffering along with the paschal sacrifice of yet another athlete's femur, vertebra, cranium. I feel it, but I rarely succumb; for as with institutional religion, I have chosen not to embrace the wholehearted surrender of myself to idolatry, however tempting it may be.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Call Me Mr. Awesome

He's a little bit on the too old side, but I think the physique is about right.

Kindergartners say hilarious things. They say them with utter candor, their eyes wide, the expression in their faces so pure and passionate they would be the envy of many a thespian striving for realism. They confuse "Mr." and "Mrs." all the time; in fact, when I'm teaching kindergarten music, I am probably "Mrs. Anderson" about as often as I am "Mr. Anderson." More often than either, I'm "music teacher." Today, however, was a first: as my first class of kindergartners filed into the room and took their places in the opening circle, one of them looked me in the face and said, "Hello, Mr. Awesome!"

I was, of course, flattered, enough so that the ensuing half hour--which featured an inconsolably sobbing little girl and a sneakily violent boy punching his peers when I wasn't looking--was far more tolerable than it would have been otherwise. I chewed on the moniker for the rest of the day, in fact, posting it on Facebook and sharing it with other teachers, who also got a kick out of it.

The cool thing about it is that it finally gives a kindergarten-generated name to a phenomenon I began noticing last year: to many of my students, I'm a hero. Everywhere I go, children glimpsing me smile and wave, calling out my name, even when they're supposed to be walking silently down the hall. They're also supposed to have their hands at their sides in the hall, but passing me means half those hands come up, eager for a high-five. If they can, they often break away to fling their arms around me.

Last year I likened it to being a rock star, but that was when I was teaching in the gym. Since I moved into a classroom in the main building, the displays of affection have become more personalized. I know a big part of it is that I'm just more relaxed this year: I already know most of these kids, I'm in my second year of teaching general music after four years away, and almost everything that made teaching difficult in the gym is gone. The sole complicating factors now are high flyers, and many of them seem to be among my biggest fans, despite how frequently I am forced to discipline them. I think they can just see the difference in me: I'm not as frustrated, not as defeated by the huge echoing space I had to deal with all last year. Music is a time they can be with an adult who clearly enjoys having them around and is giving them fun, interesting things to do.

I've graduated, then, from being a celebrity to something much more accessible, and I can see this in the number of children who confide things in me, showing off their loose, missing, or new teeth, letting me know it's their birthday, talking about a significant experience, or just plain talking. One kindergarten girl has regaled me with her observations that the songs on the radio are all about "booty booty booty," and that some boy told a girl she was "poo poo." Another told me, her face shining, that her mommy was going to pick her up after school, and she just loves her mommy.

Part of what's working, I'm sure, is that without the stress of the gym, I can handle a half hour of any class without losing my cool. Many a teacher, when I tell him or her that the class has been challenging today, says "Welcome to my world"; and while I do experience every teachers world for two half-hour sessions a week, they are correct in that, like a favorite uncle or grandpa, I always get to hand the children back to the person their lives really revolve around when our time together is finished. That half hour may be hard--there are two fifth grade classes, in particular, that try my patience--but it's just half an hour. When I was young, a teacher exploding at a class I was in made me feel like I'd lost that teacher's approval, even if I'd had nothing to do with whatever set off the tongue-lashing. So I'm careful about such things, and while I will occasionally stop the lesson to deliver a lecture on appropriate music room behavior, I keep my temper in check.

That makes me a safe adult, an adult they're happy to be around, whose emotions are in control, and whose primary mode of expression is approval. And, as I said earlier, my classroom is a place for fun activities and some of the best toys in the world.

No wonder they wave, high-five, and hug. No wonder that one little boy called me "Mr. Awesome," even if it's just because he didn't get "Anderson" right. And I'm glad he did: as hard as his class was to deal with, I still managed to finish feeling fairly awesome. This is a huge part of why I love my job so much. I'll finish by quoting a poster I've seen hanging in many schools, wrongly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: 
To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty. To find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exaltation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.
A fourth grader asked me after school today what I wanted to be when I was his age. "A scientist," I told him, "or maybe an astronaut." He laughed, and said he wanted to be a designer (he didn't say of what), so he could make a lot of money.

Somehow money has never seemed much of a token of success to me. For years I sought the success of public approbation for the sermons I delivered and the church work I did; but in time, I realized this was a vanity, not a true sign of success. Then I rediscovered teaching, and bit by bit, student by student, I began to accumulate the one currency that made me feel truly successful: the affection of children. As a music educator, I do strive to find the best in my students, and to draw more of it from them than would be expressed without my encouragement. At the end of every day, watching my students climb into buses and cars, I feel like I have made the world a little better for each one of them. In my classroom, I have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sun with exaltation, and I know there are many young lives breathing easier because of my presence in them.

Knowing all these things, "Mr. Awesome" becomes much more than a cute thing a kindergartner said to me. It's who I really am: the most successful guy in town.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

As Numerous as the Stars

"I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring." (Genesis 26:4)

The promise to Abraham appears throughout both testaments, reworded by each writer to mean whatever will support the point being made. At times Israel is seen as a blessing; at others times as a conquering horde; but always, there is the assumption, whether explicit or implicit, that all this came out of one patriarch who had only two children, and abandoned one in the desert, then nearly killed the other to prove a point.

But I digress. This essay is not about that rabbit hole of scripturally-sanctioned child abuse. Or maybe it is; we'll just have to say whether that point gets revisited at its conclusion.

What I'm writing about here is the ripple effect. Last night after the Comedy Sportz show, Scott Simon, who performed our wedding, asked us how happy we were and how many children we were planning to have. This was a joke. "Millions!" I replied. "Our children shall number as the stars in the sky!" This was not a joke--at least, not completely. Amy immediately caught my meaning, relating it to the hundreds--actually, by now, thousands--of children I have taught music to.

I've often thought there was a cruel irony to God's promise to Abraham. He was elderly before he fathered his two sons, and would not live to see either of them father children--a moot point with Ishmael, who was cast off in the wilderness as a child and might as well have been dead to Abraham. Isaac, the one son who was to be the channel for God's promise, had but two sons and, like Abraham, only bequeathed the promise to one, Jacob. Only in the fourth generation did the legacy begin to multiply--though if one traces the neglected story lines of Ishmael and Esau, one can imagine many more offspring.

But this is taking the principle far too literally. If we let it be simply about numbers and heritage, the Jewish people, those most directly descended from Abraham, have been a relatively small fraction of the peoples of the earth. But if we consider influence, the entire history of Christianity has to be taken into account; and now we're starting to get that "stars of the sky" effect. And, yes, we must also acknowledge that Muslims, too, consider themselves children of Abraham.

This brings me back to the exchange with Scott that occasioned this essay. As I move among the children of Scott School, the 200 a day I teach music to, the dozens more I interact with on duty, I am keenly aware of how what I do will impact them. Specifically, it is my charge to make music so rich, so enjoyable, so much fun that, if they see me in a supermarket years from now, they'll tell me they're still musicians, playing in a band, singing in a choir, doing karaoake at their favorite bar, making Youtube covers of their favorite songs (that's for you, Sarah), or just humming along in the car. It's also up to me to be an adult male presence in their lives that is gentle, patient, compassionate, and consistently firm, because I know this, too, will be a part of their school experience that will stay with them well into adulthood.

How do I know this? Because of the teachers who stay with me. I could write another column about other authority figures in my life--pastors, Scout leaders, older adults who befriended me--but when I think through my list of patriarchs and matriarchs, the top ten consist almost entirely of teachers.

In most cases, that's a good thing. There's Mrs. Reeder, the first grade teacher who creatively found a way to channel my literary precocity in an era before there was any concept of differentiated instruction. Then there was Mrs. Westendorf, the fifth grade teacher who created projects for me and affectionately called me her walking encyclopedia. Leaping forward to high school, there were many teachers who helped make me who I am, but the one whose presence looms largest was Dan Ogren, the band director who taught me to love music.

I had always liked music. I started piano lessons at five, took up the trumpet at 11, and the summer before Mr. Ogren came to take the place of his disgraced (and ultimately acquitted) predecessor, I was on course to becoming the scratch pianist (definition to follow in a subsequent blog post) I am today. So music was important to me, but I had not yet decided to make it my life. As a performer, I was timid (never a good thing for a trumpet player); as a creator of music, I had yet to even begin to grasp the inner workings of harmony; and as a consumer of music, my tastes were those of a 60-year-old. Mr. Ogren burst into the music room loving music, loving teaching, and thrilled to be working at his twin passions in the sleepy logging town of Philomath. Over the course of the next two years, I absorbed both those passions, and took them with me to Willamette University, where I majored in music education and met the final pioneer and perfecter of my youth, Martin Behnke.

Like Mr. Ogren, Dr. Behnke was young: just 33 when he became director of bands at WU. His approach to music education was, like Mr. Ogren's, simultaneously relaxed and enthusiastic. He exposed his band to a wealth of great music, much of it contemporary. At first I found these pieces with their complex rhythms and dissonant harmonies hard to play, harder to appreciate, and wondered why the composers and arrangers had made so many choices challenging to the ear, but over time, Dr. Behnke's patient promotion of this music expanded my tastes to the point that I graduated from Willamette, my narrow focus on romanticism had blown up to include all periods of music history, and the stage had been set for me to open my mind to popular music, as well.

In the years that followed, I left music teaching for a sixteen year adventure in the ministry, finally coming back in 2001. Reentering the profession, I had encounters with both Ogren and Behnke, each on the verge of retirement. Seeing them at both the beginnings and ends of their careers, I had a chance to reflect not just on how significant they had been to me, but to thousands of other young people. In particular, one day in 2002 I was able to observe Dan Ogren teaching sixth grade band, and was astonished at how connected all those children were with him. After Philomath, I learned, he had left high school teaching for good, spending the rest of his career teaching elementary and middle school music. He talked with me about why he had made this choice, the way in which the "coach culture" at Philomath had turned him off to high school teaching, and how at the beginning level he could focus on education rather than competition. I heard much the same from Martin Behnke at his retirement dinner two years later, as he spoke with pride about how he had finally managed to eliminate the awarding of prizes from the Willamette University Jazz Festival because, as he said, music should never be a competitive sport.

A year after that dinner, I met Doug Goodkin, Orff teacher extraordinaire, and had my approach to teaching music turned on its head, as I learned the essential importance of play in the music classroom. I've written a lot about Doug, a teacher of teachers who continues to inspire me. He, too, has taught countless children to love music.

What all these teachers have in common is the breadth of their influence. Anyone who teachers for any length of time impacts huge numbers of children in ways that reverberate for the rest of their lives. These are the descendants who number as the stars in the sky. I'm beginning to have a sense that I, too, may have such an influence on my students.

The sobering part of this metaphor, and the part that brings me back to Abraham, is what happens when generations of children pass through the classroom of a teacher who is incompetent. I've had my share of teachers whose lackadaisical approach to classroom management permitted bullying to take place almost under their noses; whose poor grasp of subject matter, pedagogy, or both kept me and my peers from learning nearly as much as we should have; and who took out their own pain on their students. Some of those teachers have left scars on my psyche.

They've also left me committed to avoiding the mistakes they made--a commitment I have not, I must admit, always succeeded at fulfilling. At times, my frustration at classes who did not take to my lesson plan has been directed at them, rather than myself. At other times, high flyers with an ax to grind have managed to get under my skin far enough to see my eyes flash with anger, to hear my authoritative teacher voice shift to my angry disrespected AARP member voice. I worry that these students, and the classes that were present when I lost my cool, will carry with them for years the memory of the time Mr. Anderson blew up; that some of the stars in my collective student sky will be darker because of that one time when I lost it.

Getting back to Abraham: the patriarch of three world religions had no education in ethics or leadership. He stumbled often, broke promises to God, cheated on contracts, exiled one son to the wilderness and nearly put a knife in the heart of the other. Perhaps that's why it was only with the generation of his great-grandchildren that the promise of a multitude of descendants finally began to be realized.

Saint or rogue, the legacy of Abraham is awe-inspiring in its depth and breadth; as is that of every teacher I know. Someday, perhaps, I will be able to point to a few stars I had some small part in elevating to the musical sky. For now, I am simply humbled, sobered, and blessed to have the vocation of teaching children to find life in music.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Because They're Children

In all honesty, when I learned I would have to spend an hour a week at Four Corners School, I was not happy.

I walked into the library at Margaret Scott at the end of August for our first full staff meeting thrilled to know I would be in a classroom, rather than the gym, and that I would not have to divide my year between Scott and Hartley Schools. Then I started to hear rumors about Four Corners, a school I'd never heard of. There was talk that my time would not, in fact, be undivided, that this other school had laid claim to some open space in my schedule and that the decision had been made, without consulting me, that I would have to teach there, as well.

All these rumors proved true: on Mondays and Tuesdays, the last half hour of my work day was open. The administrator of Four Corners, an alternative school for high-needs children with major behavioral issues, had learned that music was being restored across the district, and had invoked state law to get some music instruction for her students. With Scott just five minutes away, and those holes in my schedule, it wound up being me.

I wasn't happy at the prospect of this alteration to my schedule, especially with the idea of working with children who had such issues. Those I talked to assured me the support at Four Corners was remarkable, that I'd be working with small groups of children and multiple adults in the room at all times. I talked with the administrator and was impressed with her dedication to the children, man y of whom had been abused, all of whom needed far more attention than a mainstream classroom could provide. They come from neighborhoods across the Portland area, with other districts contracting with Reynolds to place students at Four Corners.

So I went. Mondays and Tuesdays, I ushered first graders out of my room as quickly as I could, grabbed whatever instruments I intended to use, and drove down 148th to Stark. Access was with my badge, which let me through two levels of security both entering and leaving--many of the children are a flight risk. I never had more than a dozen children, and all of them were enthusiastic. Clearly they enjoyed whatever I did. I chose basic Orff music games to play with them involving their names at first, then lummi sticks. I taught them "Head and Shoulders Baby," an African-American playground game with a catchy tune, and they ate it up. They couldn't do everything I wanted them to do--partner games proved especially trying--but they hung in with me, never becoming too bored or frustrated to keep working.

Then came word of another change: a fourth kindergarten teacher was to be hired, and my two empty spots would be filled. I would have to hand Four Corners over to another teacher in the district, one who should probably have been there from the beginning. He's a first-year teacher, fresh out of his degree program, energetic, dedicated, a good fit. He shadowed me yesterday and today as I wrapped up my six weeks with the Four Corners kids.

Today there was a new boy in the older kids' class. The children had been prepared by their teacher for this to be my last day. One boy said, "I'll miss you." The new boy said, "I've just met you, and I'll miss you." As I ended the abbreviated lesson--a traffic issue delayed me five minutes, so I really only had twenty with them--and the children began lining up to leave for the day, one of them gave me a hug, something I'd never had at this school, and I felt my heart melt a little more.

I hadn't wanted to be at Four Corners, and it was often difficult to teach there, but here's the thing: these are children. They've got more issues than the children at Scott, but not that many more. In fact, many of my classes at Scott contain children who, if their behavior issues were just a little more extreme, would be good candidates for Four Corners. It can't take them: there just isn't room in its program, and every school in our impoverished district has more such students than are commonly found in suburban districts. So we put them on behavior plans, try to practice restorative justice, and work to minimize their impact on the other children in our classrooms.

Some of these difficult children suffer from nothing more than an excess of enthusiasm. They want very badly to play the instruments, so badly that they can't help themselves, because one of their biggest challenges is impulse control. Today at Four Corners there was a boy who just could not keep his hands off my guitar. I see that with many of my classes at Scott, and I can't blame these children for touching what they should leave alone until I give them permission. It's a tall order, but without that discipline, music class can become chaos.

These children make it hard to teach; and like the Four Corners children, they need what I have to offer. They need to move, to sing, to play, to fill their ears with sounds that please them. They are only guilty of loving music too much.

And they love me. They smile when they see me, hug me when they're leaving my room, however many times I've told them to stop playing, told them not to be so aggressive with the instruments, finally put them in a time out because they just can't control themselves and the class needs them to be separated out before the lesson can go on.

I love them, too, and I feel for them in their neediness. I love those Four Corners kids I won't be seeing again, as well. Just six weeks of 20-25 minutes a week, and saying goodbye today hurt.

Why should it hurt? Why should children I've spent less than three hours with, and one I just met today, affect me so deeply?

Because they're children. For all their problems, all the challenges of working with them, all the ways in which they make teaching so much harder than their better-behaved, more attentive peers, they are children: innocent, inquisitive, eager to please, easily embarrassed, affectionate, sweet children; and being who I am, I can't help loving them.

That's why, however exhausted I am at the end of the day, however frustrating it's been to continually correct the course of a class that is hellbent on going there in a handbasket, I end every day knowing I have the best job on earth.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Too Many Children

The sign worked: Beaverton passed its school bond. 

This is not my school, though I do drive by it daily on my way to work (it's Sunset High School, in case you're wondering). In 2013, Beaverton voters passed a bond measure that accomplished what this parent (also the principal of Sunset High School) hoped to achieve. Class sizes went down, elementary schools restored music and PE, and teachers, students, and parents all breathed long sighs of relief.

I work in a district that also features large classes, reduced services, and crumbling buildings. Unlike Beaverton, Reynolds hasn't passed a bond in over a decade. That bond expires next spring, when the district is putting another capital improvement bond in front of voters, expected to pass because it won't increase taxes at all. These improvements should bring class sizes down simply by adding classrooms to buildings like Scott Elementary, where my music room shares space with a computer lab, art classes are held in the gym, and the kindergarten classroom we're adding in a couple of weeks will be depriving several specialists of the room where they do their prep work, consigning them to whatever corner of the building they can find.

Last year, when I started at Scott, we were short a first grade teacher. That meant I had 45 first graders coming to the gym for music (I didn't get a real room until this fall). Even with two aides for each class, this was unmanageable. The hiring of the third teacher brought sanity to the first grade, but not the kindergarten, which had 27-30 children in each class, many of whom became "high flyers"--children whose behavioral issues overwhelm the ability of both the teacher and the students to stay focused on lessons. There were also two fifth grade classes of 35 students each, and again, each had large numbers of high flyers. I saw them all, struggled with teaching many of them in the gym, and found myself burning out by the end of January, when I switched to a different school with its own share of high flyers, though none of its class sizes approached those I'd known at Scott.

I'm back at Scott and, as I said, in my own room which, despite the presence of a computer lab on the other side of a room divider, is leaps and bounds better than teaching music in a gym. Much to my delight, kindergarten has become the highlight of my day: being in the smaller space, with a circular rug to focus them, keeps the little ones focused on the lesson. First grade is another matter: we gained more children over the summer, resulting in class sizes of 30, 30, and 32. The high flyers from last year are all back, and all but one or two of them are just as difficult as I remember them being when I left the building in January. This year's fifth grade classes, on the other hand, all have manageable sizes, maxing out at 24, but every class has half a dozen children who either cannot or refuse to permit their classmates to learn.

Yesterday after school, we had a twenty minute staff meeting at which our principal explained the district's new approach to discipline: restorative justice. This approach keeps high flyers in the building, works to have them resolve their issues in the classroom, and teaches them to improve their behavior now, while they are still malleable, rather than setting them on a course that leads to prison. It makes excellent sense, and as I understand it, there's plenty of research to support its positive impact on children.

What wasn't present in that twenty minute description was any sense of how the teachers at Scott Elementary will be able to apply it. After the principal left, there was a lengthy venting session as one after another of them aired problems and frustrations they're experiencing with higher-than-normal numbers of high flyers. Many of the restorative justice ideas revolve around classroom meetings, when the class as a community works to resolve a problem. I've seen this practice at work for years now, since long before anyone had ever heard of restorative justice. One fifth grade teacher stated she was spending most of her instructional time on meetings, teaching and reteaching and rereteaching appropriate behaviors to children who just don't get it. The presence of so many high flyers in her room meant she was only getting in, as she put it, twenty minutes of actual instruction a day. My experience with her class bears this out: if it weren't for a handful of children dominating the class's half hour with me with their disruptive behavior, I could be teaching that class three times as much as I actually manage.

Some teachers bridled at the thought that suspensions will only be applied in the worst cases. One had had a laptop stolen from her room, and thought that something like that ought to have a consequence more significant than the proverbial slap on the wrist (proverbial because corporal punishment has been appropriately removed from the school administrator's disciplinary toolbox). The counselor told her that research has demonstrated--and, if we thought about it, all our own experience bears it out--that suspensions just don't work. They send children back into the environment in which they learned the behaviors they're punishing, under the supervision of the parents who taught them to act in these ways, who are themselves now doubly irritated at being saddled with a child on a work day. If these children are to learn how to be productive members of society, rather than imprisoned drains on taxpayers, the place for them to do it is at school.

And yet, their presence in the classroom is impacting everyone's learning. Last year Scott School went from a level 3 on the state report card--passing--to level 1, the lowest rating. The consensus of the teachers yesterday afternoon was that it all comes down to one thing: we need more adults in the building. Large classes need to be smaller. All classes need aides. The principal needs an assistant, as well as a dedicated restorative justice specialist. We need adults who can take the high flyers aside, help them come down from whatever excitable state they're in, mediate whatever disputes they're having with each other, help them learn how to manage these issues the next time they come up, without having to bring the rest of the class, all of whom already understand these things, into the picture, robbing them of valuable instructional time.

It's a simple solution. It's also expensive. One thing that has made kindergarten easier for me is that each class started the year with an aide, but those aides are temporary employees. When the new teacher starts in two weeks, those aides' contracts will end. Aides are not as expensive as teachers--they're classified, rather than certified, and work on a wage rather than salary basis--but having them still adds up. As another teacher pointed out with anger in his voice, the district's priority has been putting iPads, rather than aides, in every classroom.

The solutions these veteran teachers see to our current difficulties are literally old school: smaller classes, more adults in the building and, one other factor I haven't mentioned, more recess time for the children. Letting them blow off steam outdoors, rather than sitting them down in the library for twenty minutes of Imagine Learning, could help many of them find the calmer center they need to interact more appropriately with their peers and their teachers.

The principles of restorative justice are something we all adhere to. We love all these children, and we want to make our school a safe haven for them, the one place in their difficult loves where they can find security and stability. That's what we're doing to the best of our abilities. Unfortunately, there are just too many of them, and not enough of us, to achieve that ideal. Until we can correct that unbalanced ratio, we'll keep at it, doing our best, knowing that far too many high flyers are slipping through our fingers without learning the skills they need most to become successful students and, ultimately, successful adults.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

So Are You African Now?

No, but I do love this shirt.
And I'm also fond of this one.

It's true: I wear that orange shirt a lot. I don't wear the green one quite as often, mostly because it doesn't have a pocket for my phone. But since landing in Portland July 1, I've probably worn one or the other of these shirts at least twice a week, probably more. At this rate, they'll be threadbare by the time I have to start wearing long sleeves, which is a shame, because they're the first garments I've had custom-made for my measurements since probably about 1988.

I love the shirts because they fit better than anything else I own, they're incredibly comfortable in the warm weather that's just about to let up this week, they get me plenty of compliments and, most of all, because they remind me of where I was not quite four months ago. I wear them so often that Amy asked me two days ago, as I put the orange one on yet again, "So are you African now?"

Hardly. I was only there for two weeks, and I only saw a small part of one small country on that enormous continent. I experienced one ethnic group, one style of cooking, and just a handful of places. But the richness of that experience will be with me for the rest of my life.

I wrote thousands of words about the experience as it was happening and in the days after my return, almost all of which appeared in this blog. At Orff 101, my POSA chapter's annual introductory workshop, I took participants through a crash course in boboobo, the drumming/dancing style we struggled to learn through a week of sultry afternoons. I also shared slides of the trip, as I've done with my family. None of this did even a modicum of justice to what I actually experienced. There's no way it could: you had to be there.

When Ewe story tellers begin spinning a tale, it's common for someone in the audience to comment, "I remember. I was there." This is not, of course, literally true, but it captures something about how deeply the story is felt by its teller, and how important it is to the hearers. If the teller's passion really comes through, if the content strikes a nerve with the audience, if it feels to both that, no matter how far-fetched or mythic the story may be, it is fundamentally true, sheds light on some common experience that everyone has had, makes sense of one of life's fundamental mysteries; if, in short, the story, however fictional, rings true; then of course one can say, on hearing it, "Ah, yes. I remember. I was there." This is true whether it's an Anansi story about the spider-trickster-Promethean scoundrel or a recounting of the birth of a baby.

I have not managed to tell my Ghana story that effectively, in large part because I'm still integrating the experience. At times, I fine myself startled by a memory of a feeling. Amy and I shot pool Monday night at our neighborhood sports bar, and as we left the establishment, stepping out into the unseasonably warm October evening, I felt a rush of sensations carrying me back to an evening performance in Dzodze: the children in their traditional costumes, the drummers, the garish florescent that rendered everything a ghoulish green in our photos and videos, and most of all, the nervous delight of being pulled out into the courtyard to dance with these young performers. I remember; I really was there.

What has evaded me is managing to share that sensation with others well enough that they, too, remember it with me, that they feel that they were, in some small part, there with me that night. And not just there: I want them to feel the organized chaos of the marketplace, the smell of the equatorial countryside, the humid heft of the air, the wonder at how intimately rhythm and dance permeates every aspect of that society. I want them to know the warmth and humor of Ghanaian children, hawkers, tradespeople, and even panhandlers who hang around to converse long after it's become clear there will be no money for them. I want them to experience the surprise of being tutored in bargaining by a stranger who couldn't abide seeing me be taken for a tube of toothpaste, or by a merchant selling me a drum who really doesn't want to sell me a shaker for the price he originally quoted, and won't feel like he's cut me a fair deal until I talk him down.

I rattle off these experiences and feelings, and maybe you can experience some small part of what I'm saying just by reading them. As time passes and Ghana fades in my memory, I hope that more of what I came to know there will be integrated into my way of interacting with others, whether they are family, friends, colleagues, or students. And that's when I will become at least a little African; not from wearing a shirt, not by dancing with my shoulder blades, not by breaking down a complex drumming pattern into microrhythms; but when I can patiently, lovingly welcome someone else, whether a child or a peer, into a new way of thinking, turning their world on its ear. That's when they'll be able to say, "Oh! Now I remember. I was there." 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


First things first: there are few things I enjoy as much as my weekly dose of Bill Maher.

Real Time, Bill Maher's politics/celebrity chat/comedy hour, appears every Friday on HBO. Maher has been playing this game for two decades, putting together panels of pundits, politicians, and celebrities to discuss whatever current events are of interest to him, mingling them with comedy bits, and closing out the hour with a commentary that is always thoughtful, often hilarious, and occasionally moving. When it aired on ABC, the show was called Politically Incorrect. Then Maher took things too far, insisting that the 9/11 terrorists may have been many things, but cowards they were not. Soon after that, he moved to HBO, where he was given much freer rein not just to say unpopular things, but to sprinkle them with four-letter words. There are times when the show devolves into a shouting match, as liberal and conservative voices try to talk over each other, and I find those moments frustrating and not particularly interesting. The rest of the time, it works for me.

Last Friday, Real Time touched on a topic that is a sore spot for me and for many people I know: Bill Maher's tendency to attack Islam as a religion that fosters ideas and practices that should be antithetical to the liberal values of Western civilization. Maher is probably the best-known atheist in America, and has never been shy about attacking any of the religions. When he takes on Islam, though, his own vaunted liberalism takes a back seat to what can seem at times almost like bigotry. The discussion on Friday's show started off like so many others, as Maher and his last guest, atheist author Sam Harris, launched into the usual laundry list of things that are wrong with Islam.

Until Ben Affleck stepped in. The actor/director leaped into the conversation with the accusation that these charges were racist, that it was no different from calling all Jews greedy or all persons of color criminals. Affleck is no debater--though that has never been a disqualification for appearing on Real Time--but he was passionate and so intense I wondered at times if he'd hopped himself up on a stimulant before coming on the show that night. What Affleck lacked in finesse, the other members of the panel--former Republican chairman Michael Steele and newspaper columnist Nicholas Kristof--made up for, as all three joined in loudly, placing Maher in an uncomfortable spot he's not used to having: being the object of his entire panel's scorn.

Kristof made the best point, that Maher was associating the bad behavior of specific Muslim groups and countries with the entire religion. It's a colossal logical error, like saying "I was robbed by a black man, therefore all black men are robbers"; or, "my boyfriend cheated on me, therefore all men are sluts." It's not a conclusion that can be rationally arrived at.

Maher likes to spin out statistics when he goes on one of his anti-Islam tirades, but really, it all comes down to guilt by association. ISIS is Islamic, therefore all Muslims are terrorists. Okay, he'll admit, maybe that's taking it too far; but there are lots of Muslim countries that tolerate this behavior. Hmmm--but isn't ISIS being opposed by Muslim governments throughout the Middle East? Maybe so, but there are plenty of horrible things done by those same governments, policies that would never fly in the West, and yet the people stand for it.

And here's where I come into the picture. In my study group in Ghana there was an Iranian woman who talked quite freely about politics in her country, in particular about former president Ahmadinejad, who, she said, everyone had hated. Why, then, did he stay in power for so long? The answer is clear to anyone who's followed Iranian politics in the last 35 years: Iran is not a democracy. It's a theocracy that permits much of its governing to be performed by a nominally elected legislature and president, but the real power lies with the imams.

Not all Muslim countries are theocracies, but many of them are far from true democracies. We of the liberal first world forget that democracy depends to a large extent on prosperity: dissent is far less threatening when everyone has a home, a car, and a pension. In the absence of such comforts, it takes a strong dictator to maintain order. Opposing authoritarianism, whether it is secular or religious, means opposing armed security forces who are not afraid of opening fire on protesters. Bringing about change in such places takes a mass effort--an Arab Spring, a Green Revolution--and the results, which typically come at the cost of considerable bloodshed, are never guaranteed. Assad still rules Syria, Libya is descending into chaos, Egypt has become a fully militarized state, and ISIS, a product of the Syrian revolution, threatens to tear what remains of Iraq asunder.

It really is asking a lot of third world Muslims, then, to call on them to overthrow their governments. If change is to come in these places, it will come gradually, as Western ideas percolate down through the internet.

But what about those atrocities? Female genital mutilation, homophobia, the full-scale oppression of women, beheadings for relatively minor felonies, shame-killing of rape victims, and there's much more that Maher brings up. All these things are horrendous, and there are certainly Muslim countries in which they take place. What Maher fails to mention, though, is that Muslims have not cornered the atrocity market. Africa is a homophobic continent, and this is true far beyond the Muslim belt. It wasn't Muslims who criminalized homosexuality in Uganda. In fact, the root of this homophobic trend, which has been worsening in recent years, is most likely Christian missionaries. FGM, on the other hand, has cultural roots that probably pre-date Islam.

At its heart, Bill Maher is committing a religious error, ascribing a particular collection of sins to an entire group of people because his Bible tells him to. It may seem strange to accuse America's most popular atheist of such a mistake, but if you've listened to any of his anti-religious rants, you know that the first commandment of Maherism is blame religion for everything.

For me, it's a chicken-and-egg problem. Yes, many religious people are homophobes, sexists, racists, and worse, and most of them can quote chapter and verse of their holy book to justify their prejudices and the crimes against humanity that result from them; but there are also plenty of irreligious people who cling to these ideas. It's not a religious thing, you see; it's a human thing. It becomes a religious thing when people create religion in their own image. If that image is hateful, so to will their religion be.

That should be where Bill Maher and I come together. Like him, I'm a skeptic of all things religious. Unlike him, though, I don't blame religion for ruining people. I blame people for ruining religion.