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the youth

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the poor in spirit

(Because this veers into rant territory, parts of it might be incoherent. Apologies. Remember, this is my sketchbook.)

One of the other teachers sometimes wears a t-shirt from her university mediation group to school. I told her jokingly that I wished we could teach mediation, educate the kids on the idea of the BATNA. But later, I realized that I wasn't joking at all. I work with sixth graders, and historically, between the school transition and the puberty, sixth and seventh grades are prime time for jerkhood no matter where you are. The kids yell at each other. When they get angry about something, instead of just TELLING US, they act it out in weird passive-aggressive ways or blow up over some other, usually much smaller, incident. And it's ridiculous. I tell them all the time that if they would just speak nicely to each other, their detentions would probably go down by 50%. The root problems wouldn't go away, and there would still be times when a good holler was necessary, but the road to solving them would be a lot smoother and faster for everyone.

But even so, I like them (obviously), and I know they have the skills to act decently. It's a matter of practice.

The other night I went out with that same teacher in a group for her boyfriend's birthday. She introduced me to one of her other friends as follows: "This is Miss Eason. She thinks about privilege a lot." (This was a compliment. She'd heard me read one of my essays.)

She's right. I do. Because, over the last eight years, I've spent a lot of time working with those very same kids, mostly very poor, mostly minorities, and - often because of the behavior described above - every day you spend doing that is a hit from a boxing glove on a spring, one that's labeled "Privilege." BAM! You did not struggle with this. POW! You took this for granted. WHAM! This problem never even occurred to you. And, to add insult to injury, the rest of the world often sends the message of fault - that struggle is a result of error, that the punches you feel are all in your head.

Because these boxing metaphors are somewhat opaque, however, I'd rather share the best summation of privilege that I've read recently - a hard knock to the idea that everyone here has the same shot. It comes from this article (via my friend Veronica, a former teacher herself).

There’s no give in the finances of a low-wage family: no margin for error, no wiggle room to account for the inevitable vagaries of life. Each day is spent tiptoeing along the edge of a canyon, knowing that the slightest breeze could push you right in.

Things that seem fairly minor to middle-income families — an unexpected car repair, a high heating bill during a cold snap, a trip to the E.R. when little Connor breaks his arm — are cause for total panic, because there’s no cushion to absorb them. Pay for that car repair and now there’s not enough for the light bill; forgo the light bill and now there’s a late fee; pay for all that and now there’s not enough for the rent.

It takes almost nothing to start a real avalanche.

My head started to hurt. People sometimes say folks are poor because they make “bad decisions,” but she wasn’t doing anything wrong (and society needs nurse’s aides, after all, so it seems reasonable to hope you could be one without worrying about starving).

What’s more, I could think of many middle-income and well-off people who’d made “bad decisions” without spiraling into poverty; the difference was just that they’d had the resources to fix them. (They could afford counseling and medication for the depression that sparked the alcohol problem, pay off credit cards just by trimming back on vacations and eating out. They could go back for a second semester after partying and flunking out, because it hadn’t taken their entire life savings to get them there for the first.)

But she had no cushion. There could be no surprises. She could not make mistakes.

I was raised to believe in the power of perseverance to overcome obstacles. I saw it happen through my parents, two of the hardest-working people that I know - people who, truth be told, operated without a cushion for a good part of their adult lives. I was raised to believe that people naturally gravitate towards a market economy. And to be honest, I still do, in my own way.

But I can't handle anymore the inverse of that idea, that these life challenges always equal fault somehow, that privilege doesn't matter that much, that the market weeded you out. As though trauma can't be inherited; as though simply attending your local school is definitely enough to prepare you for the world; as though, if you have all your paperwork in order, your applications or your loans or your processes will definitely go through. As though emotions are illegitimate, or they play no role.

Here is life in America: we trade things with each other, because that is our natural impulse, but not everyone has access to roads, or is allowed to trade with everyone else. Your school might not prepare you for the world. Your culture might not be recognized as legitimate by other people, which is, in a way, the same thing as saying that you are not legitimate either. And the world will tell you that this is your fault, because on paper you had the same chance as everyone else. But paper is two-dimensional. It doesn't let anyone else in.

The Salon article above ends with a call to compassion. In their marvelous book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, the Catholic theologians Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison argue that compassion means "to suffer with" - to understand the experience of another before making these judgments or decisions. It's easy to write off compassion as a series of inefficient handouts, a pie-in-the-sky solution, instead of what it really means: changing the tenor of the argument, lowering the amount that we scream at each other. Trying to understand the vast systemic factors that inform the other person's viewpoint. Privilege is about not having to suffer unless we choose to do so, but making that choice - the choice to at least listen and understand - doesn't mean giving in as much as it means making the problems easier to handle, by everyone. We who have so many resources, can it really be so hard?

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the facts, as they stand

HILLARY This prompt says, "You're stranded on a desert island and you can only take one thing. You can't bring a tool, like rope or a hammer, and you can't bring anything electronic. What would you bring?"

TYRELL Well, I guess in that case I'd bring a friend.

HILLARY Oh, that's a good one.

TYRELL Yeah, so I'd have someone to talk to, and someone who could help me out.

***

(A few minutes later. TYRELL'S MOM comes in)

HILLARY Tyrell was saying for this one that he'd bring a friend. I thought that was a really good answer. You know, so you'd have some help.

TYRELL Yeah. And then, if I got hungry, I could eat him.

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what we had and what we lost

I wasn't really planning on writing about Jordan Davis. Because it's not like my opinion differs from thousands of others (death --> bad --> injustice), and anyone who has ever met me, or read anything I've ever written, could probably have guessed my stance. Besides, while I do hit that sweet spot of being both famous and widely beloved,* I don't have quite the following necessary to inspire a mass peace 'n' justice movement. Maybe next year.

But then, in a Florida Times-Union article about the case, I came across the following line:

“We all wanted to live lavish,” [Davis' friend Floyd] Haynes said. “We all wanted to be successful. We all wanted to be successful, not rich, but powerful, like music as it moves through you.” 

This is a description that stopped me in my (reading) tracks - I actually went back and read through it again to make sure I understood it. It's a throwaway line in a regional newspaper on a case that still isn't receiving the attention that it should, and it comes from a seventeen-year-old. It's amazing - a perfect description of power and desire and teenage aspiration. And its speaker was a friend and a peer of this boy who got shot, a person who, by luck and by chance, still happens to be alive.

I was talking to a teacher the other day and we were complaining about how the great flaw in educator memoirs is that it fails to capture how funny and brilliant and alive children, in particular, can be. We get so caught up in the narrative of long hours and poverty and solitude that we forget to notice the rest. I know a sixth grader who, on paper, is a low-income minority at a public school who can't pronounce his Rs and reads at the level of an eight-year-old. He is also, and this is not an exaggeration, one of the smartest people I've ever met; his metaphors are boundless, he has a knack for teaching others that some adults I know could learn from, and his ability to improvise a story is unparalleled. He has an imaginary acquaintance named Baby D. The other day, we had the following exchange:

MISS EASON [Student], I know you were running out there. Baby D told me.

STUDENT (looks me straight in the eye) You are a fibber. Because yesterday I sat on Baby D, and now he's in the hospital.

I have known this kid for about three months, and even with that short period of time, I can tell you that my life is better - more entertaining, more colorful, grander - for having known him. And he's just one example; over the course of my (varied) career, I've known literally thousands of children, and I could give you ten more descriptions of ten equally amazing students right now off the top of my head. We're so accustomed to focusing on the struggle that we ignore the fact that these students have just as much capacity for magic as any other human. Which is why, issues of injustice aside, it physically hurts me to think that these are the children who will grow up to be targets, that the only thing that separates them from the fate of Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis or a hundred other unnamed victims is luck.

And this is what I wish we would talk about more, aside from the obvious issues of light and darkness: the fact that when someone - particularly a young person like Jordan Davis - dies, our world is dimmer. Naomi Shihab Nye says that "(a) man leaves the world/and the streets he lived on/grow a little bit shorter." We have no idea what or whom Jordan Davis could have become. We have no idea what words he could have spoken. Because the streets he would have walked on are shorter now.

Instead, we have the words of someone much like him, whose survival seems at this point to almost be a fluke, and the words of some girl who happened to read about it. So I guess that's why I changed my mind about writing this. Not because my own words are so eloquent or so deserved, but, because I am alive, I can at least use them to call attention to the ones we don't have anymore.

 

*joke

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in the headlights

TYRELL At school this week everyone had to write a story.

HILLARY Oh yeah? What did you write about?

TYRELL A deer.

HILLARY A deer...doing what?

TYRELL Attacking.

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the limits of human knowledge

(Tyrell is not feeling well.) 

HILLARY I think we need to cross-multiply now. If we're writing this as an equation, what does 40x equal?

TYRELL  (hands over face) No one knows.

HILLARY According to the problem, it's eight hundred.

TYRELL  (hands still over face) No one will ever know.

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some recommendations

Because I have GOT to close these tabs, and I need a break from the other thing that I'm doing. I have to post this now so that I can go hang out with my dog, who is looking at me plaintively because no one else is home and I'm not playing with him.  

  • More on how the Internet is irrevocably and terrifyingly changing human behavior.  Particularly interesting read in conjunction with this Wired article about gangs and social media usage and the coverage of al-Shabab's usage of Twitter. Neither of the latter articles goes into the actual impact of these technologies on behavioral choices to my satisfaction (though the Wired one touches on it), but this is still such a new area that I suppose it's excusable.*
  • This article on the impact of outside factors on crack addiction manages to be counterintuitive and totally logical at the same time. On the one hand: crack is wack, and also there are a million well-publicized examples of seemingly fine lives totally derailed by addiction. On the other, though, of course a person's environment has an influence on whether or not they want and need a distraction, even if that distraction is pipe-based. I think there's a lot to explore w/r/t what factors actually prevent this sort of behavior - I wonder if they're not as obvious as they look.
  • Finally, if you haven't jumped out a window yet, Hook Theory provides a fun way to look at how songs are related from a music theory perspective.

*File under "Sentences That Will Be Quaint." 


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more answers to important questions

(Sunday morning with Tyrell, my ten-year-old reading buddy.) 

(I will return with real content soon.) 

1.  

 HILLARY So in this chapter they use Willy and Milly, the hamsters, to try to retrieve the squid.*  (pause) If you had a hamster, what would you name it?

TYRELL  (without hesitation) Jamster.

HILLARY Jamster? Jamster the Hamster.

TYRELL And I'd give him a little hamster-size boom box.

 

2.  

HILLARY Let's say you had to sum up this book for your teacher, in one or two sentences. What would you say?

TYRELL I'd say NONE OF YOUR BIZNESS.

HILLARY No, really.

 TYRELL I'd say, "I'll tell you if you promise to give me an A+ on everything for the rest of the year and forever."

HILLARY NO, REALLY.

 TYRELL No, I'd give her the real answer! (pause) As soon as she agreed.

 

*Highly recommended. It's not perfect, but the Amazon review really doesn't do it justice.  

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we, as a society, really undersell the personalities of children

HILLARY Okay, so now use "pondering" in a sentence.

TYRELL I'm thinking about pondering.

HILLARY Oh, so you're pondering pondering.

TYRELL  (gleefully) Meta! Meta meta meta meta meta!


HILLARY  "Hereby" means, like, "officially now." As of right now. So, for example, I hereby declare -

TYRELL That I am awesome.

HILLARY  ...That you are awesome.

TYRELL And I always have been.

HILLARY  (sighs) And you always have been.

(pause) 

TYRELL  That was an awesome sentence.

  

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another useful reminder

HILLARY Do you know that word, "jubilant"? 

TYRELL No. 

HILLARY It means, like, joyful. Joyful and celebratory. 

TYRELL Like the song "Celebrate"! 

HILLARY Yes - 

(TYRELL begins singing "Celebrate good times, come on!" and clapping his hands) 

(Note: we are in a school library) 

HILLARY (makes "cut it out" motion) Buddy. You can't sing right now.

TYRELL  (patiently) I'm just trying to make it jubilant up in here.

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