Sunday, October 25, 2015

My Best Year of Teaching


You may be tired of my complaints.

This week, we will be two months into the school year at Margaret Scott. For me, that's two months without a classroom, carrying what I can from building to building in the morning, struggling to hold children's attention in a huge echoing gym in the afternoon; two months of having just one (hopefully uninterrupted) half hour session for each class (though some occasionally get two, depending on the "tech rotation" nobody's been able to figure out), instead of the two that's minimal; two months of leading "Rhythms" and pretending it's a musical experience for the ninety rowdy children simultaneously occupying the gym; two months of having one mitigating idea after another shot down because, realistically, my curriculum takes a distant second to me keeping an eye on kids somewhere that what I'm doing doesn't disturb any other classes; two months of district administrators reminding me in their own ways that I should count myself lucky to have a job...

Oh, look. I'm complaining again.

And I can't blame you for being tired of it. In truth, there's very little I can do to change my situation this year: the one space in the building that could be a music room is spoken for by programs that matter more to the administration than mine, and no matter how much I disagree with them, they're the ones who decide such things, not me. So quit yer bellyachin', suck it up, and get that basket of Boomwhackers to your next class.

I could do that and get by, grumpily schlepping the instruments I can carry from room to room, scowling at noisy kids, keeping myself going until I can find a better job. Or, better, I can keep the pressure on administrators to shuffle expenditures and put portables on the two sites in the district that have no dedicated music rooms. Perhaps an invitation for the superintendent to come hear what it's like to teach a recorder class in the gym would help.

Those steps will help me get through the year. But they're not going to help me thrive. For that, I need a dose of magic.

Thank God for Doug Goodkin.

A week ago yesterday, Doug was in Portland to lead a workshop for POSA, the Oregon Orff chapter that I'm president of for the next two years. As president, I had the privilege of appointing myself to drive Doug around. I first experienced the Goodkin magic ten years ago at a POSA workshop, and was instantly hooked: here was pedagogy that was engaging, holistic, respectful, and fun. I've studied with him many times since then, and always come away rededicated to my vocation.

Driving him around, I shared my woes, as I've done with anyone who'll listen. After lunch last Saturday, Doug began the afternoon session by uncharacteristically talking for awhile, and I couldn't help thinking he was addressing me directly. He talked about a blog post he'd recently written on "Momentum," (Look it up; it's a good read.) He's been in his current position for forty years, a privilege he does not take for granted. I say "privilege" advisedly: anyone doing the same job for his entire career could get understandably bored, burnt out, be marking time to retirement. Not so with Doug: "This is my best year of teaching," he said--just as he did last year, and the year before. What makes it his best year of teaching? It's not just sharing the music he loves; it's the connections with his students.

And being true to myself, that's why I'm not permitting myself to grumble from classroom to classroom, or to give up on doing anything but worksheets in the gym: my students have better lives, and will become better people, because of what I do. I see that in the way their faces light up when I come into their rooms, in the eagerness with which they run to the instrument circle when they come into the gym, in the way they grin and wave at me whenever they see me walking from one place to another on campus. They love what I'm doing, wherever I do it. and they love me for sharing it with them. When I'm doing it, I'm utterly engaged with them as a group and as individuals. The rest of the world ceases to exist for me: there is only the space I'm in, the children I'm with, and the music we're making together. That is true whether my teaching space is a gymnasium with a thirty foot ceiling or a 12 by 16 rug. We do our thing for half an hour, and when we're done, I relish their disappointment that it has to end so soon.

So yes, my situation is far from ideal. And yes, I'm going to continue doing everything I can to make sure I can teach in a proper music room, on a proper schedule, next year. In the meantime, though, I am committed to making this my very best year of teaching. I will teach better this year than I ever have before. And I'll be complaining less. Much less. Because wouldn't you much rather hear about the wonderful parts of my job? I know I would.

And next year, I'll do it all over again. I have too little time to share with these children, and I can't afford to waste any of it grousing about where or how often I'm doing it. This moment, this now, has got to be the best I've ever taught, and it will be--until the next now comes along, and the now after that. That's how I'll make this my best year of teaching, and how I hope you'll make it yours, too.

In the meantime, 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Legally Wed


It's just a piece of paper.

That's what we've been telling ourselves for over a year--and really, what I've been telling myself for far longer than that. A marriage license is a document that only has meaning because human beings assign it that meaning. It's the same conceit that causes a more durable slip of paper to be worth whatever dollar amount we assign to it: without the tacit agreement of all the humans who are affected by the existence of this document, it would be nothing more than tinder for a campfire, recyclable material for a pulp mill, lining for a bird cage.

I went for fifteen years without having my name on a marriage license, telling myself it was just a piece of paper. Oh, there were times I longed to be part of the legally wed club, especially as I felt my parenting years slipping away from me; but mostly, I comforted myself with the knowledge that the meaning of a marriage license is an arbitrary thing, assigned to it by a culture that freights marriage with unhealthy expectations. I could also tell myself that the meaning of the marriage relationship is in a constant state of flux, trapped between the strictures of church and state, and that marriage tomorrow  may mean something utterly different from marriage yesterday. And finally, I could harken to all the happy committed couples I've known whose unmarried relationships had long outlasted either of my marriages.

And then I met Amy.

Amy and I did something together that I'd always kicked myself for not doing with any other person: we allowed our relationship to develop over time with no expectation that there would ever be a wedding. We gave ourselves time to learn about each other, to share difficulties, to struggle together, grow together, find new things to love about each other, learn how to live with each other's quirks, each other's families, each other's children. Our evolving relationship passed through stages of togetherness, some of them entered into intentionally, others just happening: separate apartments, me moving into Amy's apartment, us renting a house together, buying that house together. Some of our milestones were simple matters of administrative necessity, as when my return to teaching after two years of layoff made it possible for both of us to have health insurance--but only if we signed an affidavit of domestic partnership.

Six years into this mutual experiment, we decided it was time to say some words, and start calling each other husband and wife. We still weren't ready to sign a paper, but we figured that, for all other intents and purposes, we might as well be married. With a few friends and three of our four children, we hiked to a spot on the Leif Erickson Drive (a popular trail in Forest Park), and with one of those friends presiding, vowed to be together for life, put rings on each other's fingers, and stomped on a light bulb. We had a lovely honeymoon on Orcas Island, and returned to the house for which we had just co-signed a mortgage to begin married life.

In most ways, married life was no different from "shacked up" life: at the end of each work day, we'd come together to commiserate about celebrations and frustrations. We laughed about and fretted over our children's lives, worked out, shared meals, went on vacations, bought groceries, kept house, hugged and kissed--and yet it really did mean something that we'd made promises. A year after that event, we climbed a mountain together, sealing the deal once more with a summit kiss.

So why not record our relationship at the county courthouse?

It seemed we'd run out of reasons not to legally marry. The last barrier was habit: we'd spent so many years deriding the institution of marriage, airing our bitterness for how badly it had treated us before, insisting that the piece of paper was just an arbitrary formality with no real meaning.

An arbitrary formality that had been, until May, exclusive to heterosexual couples.

Seeing the celebrations as gay couples married, knowing many of those couples myself--I'm thinking in particular of two 70ish men I know who just tied the knot last year--I saw how important this was to them, that it was a distinction worth fighting for, that rights I had long taken for granted as a not-legally-married heterosexual common law spouse could only be claimed by these couples if they had that piece of paper, and my hardened heart thawed.

That was the biggie for me. I know Amy had some reasons of her own; and as a couple, there was just a sense of rightness to it. We'd lamented those younger, harsher marriages long enough. It was time for us to do it well.

But we'd already said the words--and in truth, August 2 will always be our real anniversary. Not wanting to devalue that special day, we kept October 4, our signing day, extremely small, inviting a few friends and family members, asking a dear clergy friend to "officiate" over the signing of the papers. The legal documents are nothing much to look at. I've inked plenty of them myself, as an officiant. The prettier one, the one we keep, has no legal value at all. The plain document is now filed away somewhere in the Washington County courthouse, and for a small fee, we can get a copy of it.

And as for the marriage? Mostly it's felt no different. And yet, in the twelve days since we signed the papers, I've often caught myself with a silly smile on my face, my subconscious telling me, "Oh, yeah--we're really married." It's still sinking in.

Just between you and me: I really like it.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Mad About Guns


I was scrolling through Slate headlines on my phone last Thursday, as I often do while eating lunch in the staff room. I typically start at the bottom, and work my way up the menu to the most recent story, clicking on those that catch my attention. The last thing I saw, at the very top, was this: "Oregon College Massacre." I clicked on it, scanned the story, saw that a lone gunman had opened fire on a classroom at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, killing nine, then taken his own life after a standoff with local police. I did not visibly react: the staff room was full of teachers and EAs, cheerfully talking about the silly things their students were doing, what their weekend plans were, what they'd be having for dinner that night--standard stuff. I didn't want to rain on that lunchtime parade, didn't want to cast a pall over the rest of the school day. I knew this would hit uncomfortably close to home, and not just because of the Oregon dateline: our district had experienced a shooting of its own just fifteen months earlier, when a teenager opened fire in the boys' locker room at Reynolds High School two days before school let out for the summer. I couldn't erase what I'd just read from my own memory, but I could shield my colleagues from it, at least until they finished their days.

Turns out the school administrators had a different idea: 45 minutes before school let out, the secretary walked into the gym where I was teaching 4th grade music and handed me a sheet of paper. I opened it, and read a brief description of the shooting, followed by a request not to share the information with students. I maintained my own professional demeanor--the skills I learned as a pastor come in handy from time to time--but I have no idea how the other teachers took it. There was no impromptu meeting after school, and nobody I encountered on my way out that day brought it up, nor have I heard anything about it in the week since.

And yet, it haunts me, and I have to think it's the same for many of the others I work with.

I was pleased to hear President Obama say thoughts and prayers are not enough, that to really honor the dead, we must politicize what is happening repeatedly in this nation: disturbed individuals get their hands on arsenals and turn educational institutions into slaughter houses. I was appalled, but unsurprised, that the Republican candidates for president gave lame, NRA-parroting answers when asked about the shooting, some of them insisting, as always, that the answer is more guns. Tomorrow, President Obama will visit Roseburg to meet with grieving families, and just as surely as the Westboro Baptist Church will turn out its homophobic pickets at a gay rights event, the local gun nuts will be protesting his politicization of the mourning process. How dare he come here, with his gun control agenda? How dare he even suggest that keeping guns out of the hands of murderers would make it harder for them to commit massacres?

The President challenged news organizations to compare Americans killed by guns and Americans killed by terrorists in the last decade. The most accurate numbers are stunning: 301,797 have died from firearms in the United States, while 71 have died worldwide at the hands of terrorists in the same period. That's 4250:1. More than 4000 Americans die from domestic gun incidents for every one American killed in a terrorist incident.

Perhaps there's some false equivalency at work here: many of those gun deaths are crime-related, suicides, "accidental" (meaning an irresponsible gun nut left a weapon out, a child found it, and mayhem ensued)--and yet these are numbers are mind-numbingly high. 30,000 people a year are killed by guns in the United States. That's just slightly less than the 32,000 who die every year in traffic accidents.

There is definitely some false equivalency in that last statistic: those traffic deaths would be far higher if it were not for federal and local regulations. The design and construction of motor vehicles is closely watched by several federal agencies, highway maximum speeds are mandated by federal law, the privilege of driving is subject to strict testing and licensing, and driving while impaired by alcohol or other substances can result in stiff fines, jail time, and the forfeiture of one's driving privileges. While the automobile industry has been known to resist installing new safety equipment in cars, its campaigns have always fizzled: no serious person questions the importance of seat belts, air bags, and crumple zones.

The gun industry, on the other hand, has had an unbroken chain of victories going back many years. Attempts to regulate gun ownership, gun sales, gun licensing, mandating training or safety equipment, keeping guns away from children, running background checks, have all come up against the stone wall of the Second Amendment--a statute plainly designed to give states, no individuals, the right to an armed militia.

Whenever a new gun-related abomination is committed, the gun lobby turns out in force to insist it's not the fault of the guns that so many people were killed so quickly. The fact that nations with strict controls on gun ownership don't experience such massacres is ignored. The fact without a gun in hand, one must turn to explosives and poison gas--weapons far more difficult to obtain--to commit a mass murder is also ignored. These self-evident truths aren't just ignored, they are rejected, trumped by the savage love gun nuts hold for their weapons.

And the families of the victims? The NRA's "hearts go out" to them; they are held in impotent "thoughts and prayers"; they are to be comforted, embraced, mourned with; but God forbid anyone give a voice to their righteous indignation at the omnipresence of guns in American hands, or question the colossal fairy tale that guns make us safer. One comment thread I read this week included a remark suggesting that school campuses be turned into heavily defended compounds with high fences, metal detectors, and armed guards patrolling the corridors.

Or we could just get rid of some guns.

Why is that suggestion so controversial? Why are those who own guns so obsessed with the goodness of these killing tools? Why do conservative commentators always insist the problem is keeping guns away from the mentally ill, a cohort of society who are actually far more likely to die from gun violence than to commit it?

Could it be that gun ownership is, itself, a kind of cultural insanity?

That's where it's ending up for me. I've been using the words "gun nuts" intentionally in this essay. This rabid attachment to machines whose sole purpose is to wound or kill, even in the face of undeniable proof that the cost of their hobby is the death of 30,000 innocents a year, can only be explained by collective madness. America is crazy for guns.

And it's killing us.