Alan Jackson and Essays

I was still sitting in my classroom yesterday, a couple hours after school was out, earbuds in, grading, occasionally singing along with an album of old Gospel music. Suddenly I looked up from my desk, fully expecting to see someone in the room–lots of someones.

The feeling was identical to that sensation you get when you feel a shift in the room and turn around to see that the principal has unexpectedly led in a gaggle of district people and new teachers to observe your classroom management.

Except I saw no one. I blinked and took my earbuds out, the same as I would if there were corporeal beings who wanted my attention standing before me. Still, the sensation increased, until I felt I was in a densely crowded room of profoundly compassionate and interested observers.  I don’t know how long I sat there, tears streaming down my face, because it was just that kind of experience.

I know: it sounds crazy–and let’s face it: it’s May, so teachers are all a bit nutty–but I’m telling you, I was not alone.

While we are talking crazy, let’s go all out: As I sat there, I desperately wanted one of those unseen beings to be my grandmother–the hymns I was listening to, after all, were her favorites. I have felt her close before, this year, in quiet moments. But I don’t think those beings were there for me, this time. If she was there, at any rate, I don’t think  I could have found her in the crowd.  It would be like locating her among the occupants of a cathedral, while remaining motionless in one corner.

So where did all these people come from, and why to a muggy high school classroom, late on a May afternoon? If you were a newly guardian angel, is that the field trip you would sign up for?

I wonder how many of my students have family members who have passed on from this life, who still watch over them. I wonder how often those unseen beings are anxious to direct our words or actions, as teachers, if we let them.  I wonder how it would change my students’ lives if I could channel even a fraction of the amount of love I felt in that moment, into my daily interactions with them.

Do angels really descend from above, bringing “echoes of mercy and whispers of love”? I am absolutely convinced that they do.

 

 

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I hate to break it to you, but…

You know that conversation you keep having in your head on repeat, because you never said what you should have said, when you had the chance?

Today’s conversation in which I didn’t participate fully: Why we should do “the right thing” even when it’s difficult to do so.

The consensus: Doing the right thing makes us happy.

I didn’t speak up, because what I really wanted to point out was that doing the right thing doesn’t make you happy. And I don’t actually believe that.

Or… maybe I do.

It’s like this:  Most of the time, doing the right thing doesn’t make you happy. It might make you stronger, kinder, smarter, or more patient–but let’s face it: experiences like that almost never come with grins and giggles.

Experiences like that don’t even come with a deep, abiding sense of satisfaction that while what you are doing is difficult, it will all be worth it in the end.  If they did, they wouldn’t have the power to shape you into something better than the you who first engaged with that experience.

Making a choice that has a highly probable chance of reward  isn’t doing “the right thing”; it’s doing the logical thing:

  • If I don’t succumb to this addiction, I will live a healthier life and enjoy better relationships.
  • If I don’t say what I’m really thinking right now, I won’t have to try to take it back later. 
  • If I tell the  truth about this, I might lose this friendship, but I won’t lose my sense of integrity.

1+1=2. Duh. Of course doing those things make you happy.

But some of our most important choices cannot be made with expectation of–even eventual–personal reward. Sometimes doing the right thing will benefit other people–even strangers or future generations you may never meet.

And what if doing those right things is going to result in diminished prospects or vastly increased pain or uncertainty or loneliness for yourself? What if it opens you up to sustained or unending recurrences of that pain? What then? Is it no longer “the right thing”?

The reality is, most of the time, the experiences that shape us most profoundly don’t have a foreseeable end. They are of the “thorn in the flesh” variety that Paul spoke of–those difficulties that afflict us  relentlessly and come back again and again, just when we think we’ve seen the last of them. Those are the things that refine our characters–and they don’t make us happy.

Yes, eventually, that refining process can  result in greater emotional/spiritual/psychological stability, which can translate into greater capacity for happiness–but let’s face it: capacity doesn’t equate with content, most of the time.

I think it is dangerous to promise younger generations that doing the right thing will make them happy. It is setting them up for disillusionment and failure. It would be more accurate to promise that doing the right thing will make them better humans. And I guess that’s a happy thought. So maybe I’m talking in circles?

 

 


Why You Can’t Prevent Suicide

I started this post on Father’s day, and deleted it several times. Yet another tragedy in the weeks since, and the aftermath of both, have prompted me to reconsider.

I have a wall in my classroom covered with old dictionary pages. At some point, I started adding senior photos and thank you notes.

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I never meant to enshrine all this impetuous, youthful gratitude; things just accumulated. But sometimes I find myself rereading these notes–surprised at how many years have passed, or checking the back of a photo to remember a name.

Today I looked for a note from my student teaching days, back before I had a permanent classroom of my own: a note written by a 12-year-old boy, with Crayola markers, on a sheet of printer paper, folded not quite symmetrical.

A note written by a boy who grew into a beautiful, funny, loving–and inexplicably, desperately unhappy–young man. I wanted to read his note again–maybe to see if there was a clue there, any indication of the darkness what would knock us all sideways at the end of his junior year. I wanted to examine it the same way I examined his grades and attendance record and discipline history–searching for meaning, patterns, anything to make sense of a senseless situation.

The note wasn’t there, but somehow I hoped it might be–that maybe it was one I’d found misplaced in a file, and stapled up there to get it out of the way. But I didn’t.  Maybe I tossed it–tossed that entire folder, in a fit of I-must-get-this-place-organized determination.

At any rate. It wouldn’t have satisfied me. It wouldn’t have explained anything. It wouldn’t have given me the key to preventing yet another incomprehensible loss.

I know that.

And yet I still looked.

Because it seems we should be able to prevent these tragedies–it seems that when a child is in that much pain, it should seep from his pores and leave smudges on his desk, alerting us that he has decided to never sit in another chair, or walk another hallway, or fake another smile, ever again. Unhappiness that potent should carry a vile odor, compelling everyone within reach to track down the monstrous source and root it out.

It shouldn’t just hit us all unaware, in the middle of the night, with the flick of a blade or a trigger or pill bottle.

Isn’t that what all these lapel buttons and social media posts and status updates are saying? That if only we–his parents, his friends, his teachers–if only we had been more vigilant, we might have noticed something?

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You’ve seen these images. You’ve thought to yourself, yes… I must be vigilant. Maybe you’ve even looked at your own students or children or friends, and gone through the checklists, reassuring yourself that you, at least, haven’t missed the signs. Maybe you even wondered, If suicide is 100% preventable, who didn’t earn a passing grade in this case?

I appreciate the prevention sentiment.  I appreciate that the people crafting these buttons and posting these images value the life of these children every bit as much as anyone else.

But I disagree with the idea that suicide is “100% preventable.”

You cannot prevent suicide.

You can offer compassion. You can offer advice. You can offer a listening ear.  You can be alert to all the signs of withdrawal and detachment and despair, and engage in all sorts of proactive behavior.

But no matter how much you love another person, no matter how much help you offer, no matter how carefully you monitor their behavior–no matter how much you weep and pray  and even plead with the heavens to save your child or your spouse or your friend, you cannot be with them every moment of every day, and you cannot prevent a person who has decided to do so, from taking their own life.

You can’t do that.

You can offer alternatives, but in the end, we each have the freedom to do with the precious gift of life whatever we desire. You are not responsible for another person’s desires, or their choices.

Even if you missed some of the signs–even if you were too busy paying the bills or monitoring someone else’s at-risk warning signs or scraping yourself out of bed that morning, and missed a despairing text message, you are not ultimately responsible for their choices. They are.

Acknowledging this truth does not mean you love or respect or value that person any less. Suicide is not a zero sum game where if enough blame is assigned to the guilty party, the innocent suffer less. It is catastrophic and excruciating and it blindsides even those who agonize in private, bitter silence: I should have known.  But that “100% preventable” statistic is true about only one person’s potential suicide: the person reading that statement.

You are responsible for you–and yes, part of being you includes being a light to a darkening world, and spreading hope where despair seeds itself relentlessly, and engaging in dialog when others demand debate or even silence. But it does not include holding the power of life and death in your hands.

You are not a God; you are human.

And that hurts.

But it doesn’t need to destroy you.


Starbucks and Cemeteries

Someone in today’s professional development meeting mentioned that our classrooms tend to look more like cemeteries than Starbucks. (Presumably that’s a bad thing.) All hyperbolic statements aside, she has a point: Grey-walled classrooms with rigid seating arrangements aren’t always the most conducive to learning.

But what is to be done?

Some union guy somewhere, sometime, came up with this rule that janitors can’t do jobs belonging to teachers and teachers can’t jobs belonging to janitors. Let me be the first to say that I appreciate that rule–particularly when a student vomits in the center of my carpet, or the fluorescent light bulbs develop a psychedelic rhythm during 3rd period.

Other times, I really just want the holes in my wall patched, and I know how hard my maintenance guys work, and I suspect that the help ticket I submitted isn’t languishing all alone in anyone’s inbox.

So a couple of summers ago, after weighing the relative merits of forgiveness and permission, I broke out the drywall repair mesh and plaster, bought a few cans of paint… and drew the classroom blinds. One thing led to another, and pretty soon, I was building book shelves, and buying books, and resurfacing the 1980’s Formica counter tops and re-enameling the door jambs.  Let’s be real: it got a little out of hand.

(Particularly the counter top resurfacing. That stuff is somewhat… aromatic)

But. Looking back over the last two years, it was probably the best 2 weeks of summer vacation (and $500) I’ve ever spent. Every day I walk in and feel at home–and my students do, too.

Before

The original Prison Grey

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The existing counter tops: A lovely 1980’s mauve, complete with splintered edges.

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24 feet of bookshelves, plus resurfaced window sills

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Dictionary page wall.

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School colors: Maroon and Gold, and a resurfaced counter top and door jamb

So here’s the deal: This summer, if all goes well, I want to get rid of the rickety, thigh-slicing, hair-pulling desks 🙂 I can’t tell you how many students have cut a leg or torn their pants or gotten their hair pulled out by a protruding bolt. Last year, I had to staple my favorite jeans shut, from hip to knee, after sidling a bit too close past the back row.

Is this the point at which a girl starts a GoFundMe account?


More Than the Sum

After giving this commencement address at the graduation for Moses Lake High School yesterday, I have been asked by so many people for a copy for scrapbooks, etc., that I’m posting it here. You can make your own copies 🙂

The written version–which I followed pretty close in delivery:

There’s a sign over the entrance to the 500 hallway that reads, “Through these halls walk the greatest people in the world.” And, I’m not trying to pressure you, but think about that:  there’s almost 7 & 1/2 billion people out there. Do you really believe that the greatest people in the world walk the halls of Moses Lake High School? And that you are one of them?

If you have taken one of my AP classes, you know that you have–within you–enough water to fill a 10-gallon barrel, enough fat to make 7 bars of soap; carbon for 9,000 lead pencils, phosphorus for 2,000 match heads, iron enough to make a medium-sized nail; and small quantities of magnesium and sulfur—all of which can be purchased at Ace Hardware for $20.  That… doesn’t sound very impressive.

So who are we to say that you are more than the sum of your parts? Who are we to say that you are great, and turn you loose in the world as responsible adults?  84 of you received an essay assignment this week in which you were to argue for you final grade. Tanner Merkley argued his this way: “Mrs. Lybbert,” he said, “I deserve an A because I am an A student. I’m smart, and I earn A’s in all my classes. What is there to argue?”

Tanner still had to write the essay.

Maybe, like Tanner, you believe that you are one of the great ones. Maybe you believe nothing but the best about yourself today, and tomorrow, and in the future.  But maybe you don’t. Maybe you are looking around thinking, Yes, yes… I went to school with some great people.  I wish I were one of them.

Maybe, when you think about your future, it looks a little less brilliant than you’ve heard it’s supposed to be. Maybe, when you think about your past… Well. Maybe you try not to think about it at all, because there are things there which definitely feel like more than the sum of your parts–things that will swallow you whole if you stop trying to escape them for even a moment.

I want to say I know how you feel. But I don’t–because it’s hard to truly know another person–to figure the sum total of their experiences and contributions–and when we try, we’re not very good at it.

But I have had many of you in my classes over the past 4 years. Some of you twice. And I have noticed this: You are so much more than the fat and the iron and the sodium in your inward parts, more than the  electrical synapses and blood and the sweat and the tears, more than the blown-out knees and the championship titles. More even, that your grammatically incorrect tattoos.  

So who are you? How do we measure greatness?

I grew up on the Canadian prairie. It’s cold there, and windy. Really windy. In the spring, we’d tie one corner of a bed sheet to each foot, and hold the other two corners. And then we’d  stand up, and hold on for our lives, because the wind would grab that sheet and yank it out in front of us, and drag us across the dry grass. If we let go, it would–quite literally–knock the wind out of our sails, and we’d end up with grass in our teeth.

We’d have competitions, to see how far we could go. But the wind wasn’t really fair–it’d send one kid thirty yards, and his neighbor not even ten feet. It wasn’t a very good measure of greatness.

Life, like that prairie wind, often isn’t fair. It seems to favor one person, and punish his neighbor.

You know this.

But maybe you think that if you hold on tight enough, if you angle your sail just so, if you brace yourself in all the right ways, you are guaranteed to get to where you want to go. Maybe you think that if you’re one of the ones with grass in your teeth, you’ve done something wrong.

And sometimes that’s true.

But often, it isn’t. Life isn’t predictable, and it isn’t fair–but it’s a fantastic exercise in becoming.

And that’s how we measure greatness:  It’s not about what college you got into or how many scholarships you were or were not awarded. It won’t be about who hires you or what you invent, it won’t be about anything behind or before you–because greatness is measured by what is inside of you. [Reader footnote: Ralph Waldo Emerson said something along these lines; the idea is not mine, but a paraphrase of his: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”]

Good choices do result in better opportunities–most of the time. Effort is rewarded–in almost every circumstance. But not always. And circumstances are just that: circumstances. They aren’t you. No matter how great or average, terrible or wonderful, all the little moments of your life do not have the power to define you.Your reaction to those circumstances does that.

Over the past four years, many of you have faced incredible difficulty. Some of those difficulties have played out in public. Other setbacks were private–but every one of those challenges has one thing in common: they didn’t beat you. They didn’t win–because you are here today, and you are going to get up tomorrow, and you are going to get up the day after that, and you are going to keep showing up, every day, to face your life, imperfect as it may be, because that’s what kind of people you have become–not in spite of the difficult parts of your lives, but because of them.

A great life does not lack imperfection as one–or a thousand–of its parts. Life is not a fast food menu, and you can’t choose just one option. Life has never worked that way, and  it never will.  If you never risk failure, you will never succeed.  If you close yourself off from rejection,  you will never be capable of love. Setbacks precede progress.

Divvied up into your chemical elements, you are just 20 dollars worth of dry goods at a hardware store. Combined into the witty, compassionate,  incredibly resilient young people you are–whom I have had the privilege of getting to know–you are of immeasurable value: not because someone has run up a total on some cosmic ledger of all the pleasant or praiseworthy parts of your lives, but because you ARE, because you exist as a whole person, and because you are in the messy, painful, beautiful process of becoming something greater.

Class of 2016: You are worthy of love. Of celebration. Of charging into life with your arms and your minds wide open to experience all of it. I have been humbled to learn your stories, and to associate with you. Thank you for walking through the hallways at Moses Lake High school–and for finally walking out of them.

Walk every hallway of life with your head held high, and when you can’t hold it high, at least keep it screwed on straight. Don’t let appetites, fear, or other people control your choices. Find a mentor, and be one.  Be confident, but not arrogant; be bold, but not overbearing.

And above all else, remember Leonard Cohen’s advice: Ring out the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.


Four Generations of Gynecology

My 15 year old son received this group text tonight. I’m tempted to have a poster made, and mail it anonymously to the youth leader who sent it:

gynecology


Alternative to Zimbabwe

I’m learning something about myself, that shouldn’t have taken me nearly four decades to learn:

I don’t actually hate people.

In fact, I love people. I find them fascinating subjects of study.  I find their stories interesting, and their quirks amusing. But for much of my life, I have been beating myself up over the fact that much of the time, I find other people incredibly annoying in inexplicable ways.

For example, I don’t ever find my students annoying during class, or even between classes. I don’t find my children annoying on long car trips or at the park, or during dinner. I fully expect to be 100% emotionally and intellectually available to 30+ kids every hour, for 7 hours a day. I fully plan and expect to engage with my 11 year old while I’m making dinner. Those types of interactions don’t bother me a bit.

But others…

Well, let’s say that I’m in my classroom and all of my students are doing group work and you come into my room and see me walking around, not exactly in the middle of actively “teaching” at the moment and you want to talk about the thing you’re planning for next weekend. Or I’m making dinner and you drop by and expect to fulfill your VT assignment by inviting yourself to help me peel potatoes. After all, I’m not really busy, right? And in fact, you’re helping me be less busy?

Well.

Sometimes I fantasize about moving to a third-world country where I don’t know the language and nobody knows me, and living in a small hut with no outside communication. Ever.

This puzzled me. How can I like you so sincerely, and yet wish you out of existence so often?

Until I realized that I don’t actually find you annoying. I find the fact that you’ve interrupted my train of thought annoying. Maddening. And then I feel guilty about being annoyed, and I try really hard to swim back up to a social level of consciousness, and I engage with you in my kitchen or classroom, and then you leave and I’m exhausted and feeling more annoyed and more guilty and the next time you call or drop in unexpected, I’ll probably pretend I’m not here, simply to avoid that same cycle.

I’ll probably even move my desk into the corner where nobody can see if I’m in my room, and I’ll eat lunch in the dark, and put my earbuds in, even though I’m not listening to music, just in case someone pounds on my door for 15 minutes straight and then turns out to be someone with a legitimate reason for needing access, and they get a key and lets themselves in, so I need an excuse for not answering.

Not because I resent the fact of your existence in any way.  I don’t actually care if you chew loudly, snort when you breathe, or walk on your heels. You could probably drop a jar full of marbles on a tile floor and I wouldn’t notice–as long as you don’t expect me to respond to any of those things.The problem is, the vast majority of people expect a response–an acknowledgement of their existence. Fair enough.  It’s been said that feeling invisible is one of the worst experiences for mental and emotional health. That most people crave acknowledgement. Expect friendly engagement.

And if that’s what I have planned, I’m up for that–totally.

But if it’s not? If I was planning to physically buy groceries, or wash my dishes, or spend my lunch-hour thinking through a lesson plan or a problem, and you “pop in” and expect me to even recognize your face, let alone the syllables coming from your mouth as English?

Well.

You’re probably going to annoy me.

More than you can possibly know.

I think I’ve figured out why I get along so well with strangers (and other people who know how to conduct 20 second phone calls and, say, borrow a textbook without doing anything else except borrow the textbook) and yet experience so much inner conflict over other, more important relationships.

You see, I can smile and say hello to every person I meet in the grocery store, but on the same day duck six different aisles because a friend or acquaintance is down every stinking one of them. It’s not that I don’t like those people. I’m just doing something else right now, and I don’t want to be interrupted. That little old lady who needs help reading the ingredient label? Not annoying. A friend? Duck. The young mother who needs someone to watch the cart while she cleans up vomit? Not annoying. A family member who wants to make comments about the number of milk jugs in my cart? Duck. 

Because that other thing I had planned? It wasn’t the groceries. That’s just an alibi. Something to keep this ridiculous bundle of nerves and muscle cells, these hands and feet, otherwise occupied. What I was really doing was inside my head.

I used to think that something was wrong with me, when I looked at the caller ID, and would ignore calls from people I really do love, or would take the long way around at a social function in order to avoid truly delightful acquaintances.

But I think it’s about emotional and intellectual engagement. I don’t have to authentically engage with the half-blind woman or the young mother. I’m just a serviceable body, mindlessly performing a function.  On the other hand, someone I care about? You are going to drain every bit of energy out of me if you walk up to me right now and demand interaction. Because I care too much to be a robot with you, ever. If I’m going to talk to you, I’m driven to make it meaningful, which there isn’t time for in a grocery aisle. And I’m not necessarily prepared to plunge into a meaningful conversation every time you are.  As  a matter of fact, most of the time I’m not. You may think I’m just cooking dinner, or filling my shopping cart, or washing my white board.

But actually, I’m not even in the room.

Unless you force me back into it–compel me back into the confines of mortality to satisfy your ever-present need for being seen and heard and acknowledged at every moment.

And try as I might, I can’t help but resent you for doing that.

Is this wrong?

Is this a symptom of selfishness at the most fundamental level? This craving I have to escape the room?

I think I used to believe I was selfish.

I used to believe that I had to be fully present, all the time, for every person. Totally forthright and transparent, and acknowledge your existence, every time.

But I’m starting to question that. I’m starting to wonder just how available to everyone I really need to be. Maybe some of us really are introverts. Maybe some of us just aren’t built for the kind of social interaction Western society values.

Actually, I’ve always known that.

But I’m starting to think it’s not something to be ashamed of, or to fight against, or apologize for.

Or try to change.

Maybe some people don’t live inside their own heads enough or ever. Maybe they have no self-awareness and constantly need to leech energy from other people in order to feel alive themselves.

And maybe that’s totally normal and fine for them, and they shouldn’t feel ashamed of that, or fight against it or apologize for it.

But maybe I don’t have to allow myself to be leeched.

Maybe if you ask me a question I don’t want to answer, or don’t want to answer right now, I don’t have to worry about your feelings if I prefer to raise an eyebrow but otherwise ignore your inquiry. Maybe I don’t have to allow you to sit at my bar and peel my potatoes. Maybe I can tell you that now is not a good time. Maybe I don’t have to explain to you why I do or do not do certain things that you think I should or should not do. Maybe I shouldn’t believe that the happiness and well-being of every person I interact with is contingent on my interaction or lack of interaction with them.

Maybe I should just live my life and trust that you’ll live yours and if you still like me the way I truly am, we’ll still be friends, and if not, well… I’m sure you’ll find symbiosis in another ecosystem.

Maybe if I did that more often, I wouldn’t get to the point where I want to move to Zimbabwe.