The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 5)

I graduated from little Forsan High, in Forsan, Texas, way back when. To say the school was small is like saying that the Sahara Desert is a large area of land covered by sand.

There were twenty-one of us who received diplomas during commencement. It took the superintendent of schools—my mother had married the man not long after our arrival in West Texas so he was actually my step-father at the time—less than five minutes to call all our names and to distribute the fancily printed certificates of accomplishment. We then congregated in the vestibule of the auditorium, with our parents and the other guests still seated inside, and screamed our class chant, a thing we had artfully composed all by ourselves. It was basically an expletive-laced manifesto of how we’d just freed ourselves from tyranny and were about to conquer the world with our brains and good looks.

Of course, it took the world about five minutes to distribute all sorts of humbling experiences, which let us know, in no uncertain terms, that our existences actually meant nothing in the larger scheme of things no matter how clever or pretty we considered ourselves to be.

I left home and enrolled in a little university called Angelo State, located in San Angelo, Texas, which was just down Highway 87 from Forsan. I mostly went there because Dwayne Norton, my best friend in high school, had graduated two years earlier and was beckoning me to join him. That plus the town was loaded with bars and discos I really dug with an added bonus being that many of them featured twenty-five-cent-tequila-shot nights on a regular basis.

Up until that point in my life, I had been a good student, but not the sort who consulted with guidance counselors and such. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up—I still haven’t come up with any definitive conclusions yet—so I wasn’t one of these kids who goes to college with a plan and then follows it religiously. It was more important that I be near Dwayne and in a location where I could party like it was 1999.

I started off at ASU by taking a weird collection of courses that were all over the map. Then, just before the start of my second term, I needed to register for an elective, so I looked at the choices I was offered and picked a class called “Introduction to Philosophy.”

Our professor—I can’t precisely remember her name—but I can perfectly recall how she looked and spoke, was a woman from Belgium, which likely made her the first European I ever had contact with. Her last name might have been Randall—that doesn’t sound terribly Belgian though—and her first one could have been Janine or Jeanne. Anyway, she also taught French in the Department of Foreign Languages.

OK, so I’ll call her Professor Randall. She was probably about in her mid-40s at that time and had greying, curly hair. She wore plastic framed glasses, with thick lenses that magnified her eyes, which was very appropriate because she was able to see so much in the texts we read for class. She spoke with a slightly pinched and nasally voice and a strong French accent. But the thing about her I found most intriguing was her absolute courage. She said things in class that were brave and intended to shake our tiny bodies and minds to their cores—we were, after all, mostly kids from little towns who had never been exposed to any sort of real thinking or ideas in our entire lives.

I suppose it was her job to sort of pull the rug out from under us and she succeeded in that mission. I guess I’m being presumptuous speaking for my classmates—perhaps they all just sat there like giant, single-celled organisms and closed their minds to her talk and the texts—but I soaked it all up like a sponge that had never sipped a drop of water but had been waiting and waiting for the opportunity to do so.

Professor Randall kept pouring out those liquid ideas and I kept absorbing them so fast that I could feel that my mind was bloating. But it never did reach the point of supersaturation. There was always room to take in more and more.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 4)

Before I tell you the full story of how I had my mind blown at college, I want to let you know that I’ll be voting for Bernie Sanders for president this year. Yes, I am truly and wonderfully feeling the Bern—as are tens of millions of other citizens!

What does this political confession have to do with this essay and memoir? Aren’t I in danger of losing my focus by veering off like this?

Not in the least! I’m at least partly a Sanders supporter because he seems to understand what many other candidates do not—that the President of the United States has to be the nation’s educator-in-chief.

We take for granted that all American presidents have an important military job to play when we refer to them as the commander-in-chief. We also understand that they have a vital role in keeping America’s economy humming along. It certainly goes without saying that the head of the executive branch of government has a myriad of other duties to play.

What we often don’t realize is that perhaps his most important job of all is to help the populace better understand the world in which they live. This makes him or her—I hope we have a woman president very soon, but just not during this election cycle—the teacher of greatest importance and outreach in this large and complex nation-state.

It is perfectly clear that Sanders understands all this. That’s why he expends so much energy telling the electorate things that make so many so uncomfortable. That’s why he speaks about how out of balance America has become and about how the super-rich have rigged the political and economic game so that the remaining 99 percent of us have found ourselves incredibly marginalized.

In a sense, Sanders is not saying anything that many of us don’t already viscerally understand to be true. But to watch someone running for president break such a taboo—to suggest that America has a variety of fundamental shortcomings—is downright cathartic. Most politicians talk about the country in syrupy, self-congratulatory ways that some interpret as “patriotism,” but Sanders shows us that all is not well in paradise. In fact, his critique raises questions about the very notion that America is an “exceptional” country.

To see so many responding to Sanders so positively suggests that the nation is ready for such an explainer-in-chief. Sanders happened along at a moment in American history when a large segment of the population was feeling self-reflective and ready to accept uncomfortable truths. Learning is often a painful process whereby the learner has to give up old habits and beliefs in exchange for growth. The nation appears ready to make this tradeoff, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 3)

I grew up just north of a tiny community called Georgetown, Texas, a sleepy place of approximately five thousand inhabitants. The nature of the village was such that it was easy for its citizens to live dreamy lives.

I have vivid recollections of the town, as it used to be before it became fast-paced and congested, before it became Austin’s premier bedroom community. Today, the town—it’s more of a city really—is on fire with development. The few old-timers who still live there speak wistfully of a slower and simpler past.

But, back in the day, it was a quiet village, filled with grand Victorian houses that were shaded by tall pecan trees. There was a stop sign or two and maybe a traffic light. People got their groceries at the little Piggly Wiggly and their clothes at Gold’s Department Store on the square. There were a handful of churches and every family attended one. The schools weren’t crowded, nor did they resemble the fortresses of security that we so frequently see today when we drive past one. I guess it was pretty much Central Texas’ version of Mayberry R.F.D. I realize I’ve dated myself some with that reference to The Andy Griffith Show spin-off. I remember a slew of other programs that are part of the lore of 1970s television. Such is the memory of a man my age.

When my parents broke up, I moved, with my mom and brother, to Forsan, Texas, with the result being that I left my life in a small town to start anew in an even tinier one.

The point of all this is that I came of age in conventional places where people never dreamed of entertaining thoughts that were the least bit radical. Most citizens of Georgetown or Forsan didn’t even know what they didn’t know. The vast majority of children grow up similarly, I suppose, in places like I’ve described. It is universally true that the family and the local community give us our shape. By “shape,” I also mean our “limits.”

When I went off to university, I was a small-town boy who was intellectually stunted due to no fault of my own. But because of the influence of those individuals I mentioned in my previous blog, I was also the fertile ground into which the seeds of all sorts of new ideas could be planted. So, when I registered for classes like philosophy, political science, sociology, psychology, and literature, strange flora began to sprout and the terrain of my mind was changed forever.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 2)

1986 was my rookie year. All these years later, I’m still in the teaching game. You could easily refer to me as a grizzled veteran without running the risk of exaggerating. You might also call me an old crank. I’ll answer to pretty much anything.

All these years of experience have provided me with ample opportunities to think about my profession, and I’ve even had an insight or two while doing all this cogitating. For one, it seems that there are basically two types of teachers: Those who chose to get into the profession and those who happened into it by sheer accident. This second bunch I call “Accidental Teachers.” As the title of my essay and memoir makes clear, I certainly consider myself a member of the latter group.

Not long ago, during a Thanksgiving get together, I had a conversation with Betty, the wife of one of my cousins. Several months prior to this talk she had completed her degree in education and was now teaching at Central High School in San Angelo, Texas. She told me all about how her new job was going, what her students were like, and stuff like that. She also revealed that she had always dreamed of being a teacher. When I heard her say this last bit, about she’d always wanted, from the cradle onward, to stand up in front of students and spout, I felt momentarily dumbstruck. It was because her experience was so different from my own. Once this first feeling passed, I felt as if I wanted to congratulate her. She had dreamed of doing the very thing she had ended up doing. I would imagine that’s a pretty rare accomplishment in these United States of America, which might explain why so few people are really happy about the work they do.

Unlike Betty, I had not always (or even ever) wanted to work in the classroom. I had grown up wanting to learn, though, and I owe several members of my family a huge debt for having helped me become the curious person I’ve always been. First of all, there’s my mother, a woman who brought me into this world and then proceeded to carry me around when I was a wee tyke. While doing so, she would point at things and help me really see them for the first time. She would then tell me what these objects were called. I am almost certain this is why I later became so intrigued by words and language and such. Secondly, my father, the dreamy artist and philosopher, helped me learn about the power of the mind and the will to create new and beautiful things. From him, I learned quiet introspection and deep observation. Thirdly, my maternal grandfather, a man now dead for many years, instilled in me a love of current events. He was an opinionated fellow who loved to reason and make arguments. Even though he had little formal education, I still, to this very day, think of him as one of the most influential people I’ve even known as far as my intellectual development is concerned. For example, he instilled in me a deep fascination with politics and international affairs.

These individuals prepared me well to enter school and do well once I got there. I grew up a pretty capable kid, and then I went off to college and fell in love with studying all manner of esoteric subjects. It was this fascination which became a double-edge sword. It both set me free and left me enslaved.

“Take the Other to Lunch”

If you’ve never seen Elizabeth Lesser speak, you’re in for a real treat. Have a look.

Her talk made me think about my own divided self.

On the one hand, if I want to be true to values I cherish, I have to live as tolerantly as possible. A good example of me being open to difference is the relationship I have with a Mike, the fellow who lives next door to my mother and a guy I always like to spend time with when I’m visiting in the little town of Big Spring in West Texas.

Mike and I are totally different in just about every way you can imagine. He’s spent his life doing very physical work in the great outdoors, and I have earned my living inside, in classrooms, where I use my brain more than my muscles. He joined the military and loves guns and hunting and such things. I, conversely, enlisted in the Peace Corps and am a pacifist who fiercely advocates for stricter gun control. He watches FOX news and I regularly read very progressive websites. As you might guess, we are polar opposites when it comes to most political subjects.

Still, every time I visit my mom, I spend time with Mike, often shooting the breeze while we sit on his front porch. For a little variety, we occasionally load up in his pickup truck and drive to a Tex-Mex restaurant for an evening meal of enchiladas and frijoles. Every time we participate in such an outing, we are putting Lesser’s “initiative” to the test.

On the other hand, I know that Mike is very likely a fan of Donald Trump and those of his ilk. I certainly have heard him say things that were very Trumpish. When he does so, I always squirm and feel extremely uncomfortable. That part of me that champions tolerance argues that I should look past what he’s said and focus on those aspects of his personality that are good. Plus, I was raised by old-fashioned parents who instilled in me the importance of being polite. As a result, I find it very difficult to confront others even when they say things that offend me. I suppose this turning of a blind eye is a kind of goodness. Keeping my mouth shut, though, always makes me feel like a sellout.

Getting back to Lesser’s talk, I’d like to add one suggestion to her list of guidelines to follow when taking “the other” to lunch. When you’re with that person, look for common ground—it could be something as simple as an activity you both enjoy doing—and build on it. In my case, Mike and I both grew up in Big Spring, Texas, and we’ve found, over the years, that it’s possible to spend hours talking about our fondest recollections of the place. This sense of shared history has brought us much closer together than we otherwise would have been.

As Lesser correctly points out, these truly are dangerous times. There is way too much “otherizing” going on right now. If we’re not careful, bigotry can become all-consuming and then we’ll find ourselves in a dark place, one hard to escape from.

 

 

My Recent Twitter Spat with a Conservative

I don’t post very much on Twitter. That’s mostly because I find it very hard to say what I want in only 140 characters—I’m generally more expansive than that. So I enjoy lurking there. It’s immediate and allows all sorts of voices, which I like.

Having said that, some voices bother me more than others do. Bigots and political conservatives are two of the bothersome kinds of people I see posting on Twitter. Actually, not surprisingly, bigotry and conservatism often go hand in hand. It’s not that I believe that such people should keep their mouths shut. It’s just I wish they would take the time to think a bit before tweeting. Or, if that’s too much to ask, then to make sure they don’t post things that are factually incorrect.

I see so many posts about Obama being a secret Muslim and/or Supporter of Terrorists and/or Communist and /or Socialist. Ninety-nine percent of the time I just roll my eyes and ignore such gibberish. It’s not that I’m in love with Obama and thus want to scream at people who say bad things about him. Actually, I’ve said plenty of bad things myself. But I generally try to make sure my criticisms are not based on obvious falsehoods and misrepresentations of reality.

I recently saw a tweet by a woman named “J_.” According to her profile, she hails from Texas and describes herself as a “conservative” and “libertarian” who loves “America,” “the military,” “guns,” and so on and so forth. In her tweet she said we have to remember that Obama “supported the Muslim Brotherhood” during their time in power. And then she included a link to this article.

I read the whole piece, including this paragraph, the sixth one, which I’ve cut and pasted below:

“Upon further inspection though, it seems that while the Egyptian qualms hold some water, the American complaints appear to be more recognizable as mere partisan discourse. The money, said to be intended for the MB, is actually for the Egyptian military and is obligated to be used to pay U.S. defense and security companies providing equipment and support for the military, according to the Guardian.”

I immediately stopped reading and tweeted a response. I asked her, “Did you even read the article?” Of course, I was not surprised by the information in paragraph six. Anyone who knows even the most basic facts about America’s aid to Egypt knows that the vast majority goes to the military, thus allowing them to buy all sorts of new equipment, a cute way of funneling money into the coffers of American companies that build armaments and such. Furthermore, since it was the armed forces that removed Mohamed Morsi from power, it can very easily be argued that by giving aid to this group, the US government played a key role in the overthrowing of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course, coming to these kinds of conclusions requires a careful examination of the facts of the case and the ability to do nuanced thinking. J_ seemed either unwilling or incapable of doing either of these things. Or perhaps she was aware she was deliberately distorting the evidence and simply wanted to smear Obama. The most likely explanation is that J_ was simply too intellectually lazy to read the entire article and thus missed the key sixth paragraph.

To make a long story short, after about three more exchanges, she blocked me. Before doing that, she tweeted a response that included the hashtag #LiberalLies. Not surprisingly, she failed to see the hypocrisy of her tweet. So I pointed it out to her and then created a hashtag of my own—#ConservativeLies.

I tell this story because J_ seems to be a typical case. Conservatives very frequently seem to view facts and evidence as of little importance. They build elaborate arguments based on hunches, prejudices, things they heard their neighbor say, or whole cloth. Do you remember how George W. Bush used to talk about “thinking” with his gut?

This recent twitter exchange has got me wondering. Perhaps we progressives need to start being a lot more aggressive in confronting distortions of the sort I’ve written about here? Because we are generally tolerant people, perhaps we take it on the chin too often without punching back? Maybe, given what we’re up against, we have to start being as pugilistic as the other side?

We’re Moving

Our Stuff Boxed Up

My wife and I are leaving Egypt. This move has been in the planning stages for months now, but things got real yesterday when the shippers came, boxed up all our stuff, loaded it into the back of a truck, and then hauled it off to a warehouse belonging to Express International Group, a company that moves people hither and yon. In a few days, another eighteen-wheeler will transport our boxes to the port city of Alexandria. From there, they’ll be shoved into a container and then sent across the wide and wild Atlantic Ocean to Houston, Texas, where they will be x-rayed and ushered through customs. Yet another truck, this one driven by a Texan, will then transport them, via highway and byway, through the piney woods of East Texas to the Austin area, their ultimate destination. The next time we see our things, it will be in a totally different context.

These days my Egyptian wife needs nearly constant reassuring so I keep telling her that we’ll never entirely be separated from this part of North Africa. This is her birthplace and her becoming the owner of an American passport certainly will not change that fact. So we’ll always return. We’ll always be in contact. I will continue to learn the local language even when I don’t hear it being spoken as often as I do now.

Yesterday’s pack up was harder for my wife than it was for me. I am merely attached to this place via marriage and employment. Her roots run much deeper than that, and I sometimes worry about how well she’ll take to being pulled up and transplanted.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying yesterday was easy for me, not by any stretch of the imagination. Things felt very final as our house emptied out, box by box. And this place, more than some of the other countries I’ve lived in, has gotten inside me over the years. Egypt can do that to a person. Living here can be transformative. It certainly has changed me, in more ways than I can ever fully describe here.

I first came to Cairo in August of 2008, three plus years before Hosni Mubarak was unceremoniously kicked out of office. During the uprising against his regime, I stubbornly stayed on even though most foreigners were fleeing by the thousands. I saw and did things I never thought I’d see or do as those momentous historical events unfolded. After Mubarak’s departure, there was a brief period of euphoria. Egyptians felt like anything and everything was possible and they were celebrated, far and wide, as heroes.

That happy time was short lived. Things began to deteriorate after that. And they continue to do so to the point that I wonder when the final unraveling will take place. Some wishful thinkers see stability when they look around them. I see something entirely different. This place is certainly going to have to get much worse before it can get better, if that’s even possible. These last few years have made me very jaded and pessimistic. And now sadness and disappointment are the dominant emotions I feel when I look around.

All that sadness finally got to me. So we are pulling up stakes and about to start again. It certainly feels like it’s time for a new beginning. Please wish us luck…

The Resolve to Evolve

I am a learner. And a teacher. This video reminded me of these facts about my life. It also reminded me what learning is all about and how important it is—or how important it should be—to each one of us, individually, and to the nation, as a collective.

I grew up in small towns in Texas. My upbringing was “typical,” meaning that my family, those people who got first shot at shaping me, were fairly conventional in their thinking and behavior. When I got old enough, I was sent to public schools and had an early education that was structured around official state curricula. I did well, made top grades, and was recognized as a young person with potential. This recognition meant nothing more than I had successfully acquired the knowledge and skills the authorities had wanted me to acquire.

I graduated and went off to a little school called Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. I enrolled in the normal courses students are supposed to take. Then, in my second year, I did something that would change my life forever. I had a chance to choose an elective, so I registered for a class called Introduction to Philosophy.

Taking that first philosophy course was the beginning of the end of my childhood. Up until that moment, my intellect had been carefully managed by all sorts of authority figures, none of whom were interested in exposing me to anything more than mainstream thinking, which is another way of saying “conventional wisdom.” As a child, I had been led to believe that the world of ideas was only so big, when, in fact, it was actually infinitely large. It’s like I had spent my entire lifetime locked in a little room and had been led to believe that that there was nothing more than this tiny space. Philosophy showed me the door leading out of that room. Once I opened it, I could see how imprisoned I had been.

America, in its political thinking, is a bit like I was before I was exposed to philosophy. Too many of its citizens believe that the way things have always been done is the only way things can be done. These worshippers at the altar of the status quo are holding the nation back.

In the upcoming election, Bernie Sanders is playing the role my first philosophy teacher played. He is exposing the nation to ideas and truths that are certain to make some people uncomfortable. But America needs someone to drag it into the twenty-first century. The nation needs to grow and expand its thinking in many areas. Bernie Sanders appears to be the person with enough insight, courage, and conviction to accomplish this noble task.

Thom Hartmann used the term “revolution” in the introduction to the clip I’ve included, but I think “evolution” is the more appropriate word. Sanders is trying to help the nation evolve in its thinking. Of course, once this evolution occurs, a revolution is bound to follow.

It’s Time

Listen up. Bernie Sanders has a good chance of becoming the nominee of the Democratic Party even though many see the favorite—Hillary Clinton—as a shoo-in.

Even some mainstream pundits—a group often seemingly blinkered by conventional wisdom—are beginning to figure out that Sanders has a better-than-average shot. Those making such an argument are, of course, right for a number of reasons. I’ll lay them out.

Reason 1

President Obama changed everything. He’s often been a disappointment for progressives like me, but he has benefitted the nation in at least one very important way. His winning the election (twice) opened the door for other “unconventional” candidates to walk through. Who’s going to be next to step across that threshold? A woman? A true progressive of Sanders’ ilk? Anything seems possible now. “Democratic Socialists”—Sanders calls himself one—certainly benefit from Obama successfully smashing through all sorts of barriers.

Reason 2

People are angry. I’m an American who lives in the Middle East and can testify to the fact that many folks, here and elsewhere, including those in the US, are simply fed up and not going to take it anymore. Noteworthy examples of this exasperation would include recent protests against abusive police practices in the US. Another would be the “Occupy Wall Street” protests of 2011 and 2012. When the OWS movement fizzled, lots of analysts attributed the fact to a lack of leadership. If Sanders can step into that role and re-energize those in the 99 percent, his popularity could snowball because he’s the right guy for this moment in history.

Reason 3

Honesty and passion will resonate. Most Americans value authenticity in politicians. What we often get is pre-packaged candidates who are taught not to turn people off. They don’t say anything terribly controversial because they want to appear to be all things to all people. Their strategy is to win elections by not losing them. Sanders is certainly not pulling any of his punches so far, and I don’t think he’s going to change his tact no matter what happens. That’s not Bernie Sanders. He tells it like it is and lets the chips fall where they may. His honesty and energy are going to inspire millions of voters. Whenever he encounters opponents of the sort I described earlier, he’s going to appear genuinely principled in contrast. Americans have been dreaming of a guy like Sanders for a very long time.

Reason 4

Sanders has put his finger on the problem—inequality of wealth distribution in America. He realizes that many of society’s ills are caused by wealth hoarding by a tiny fraction of the citizens. This is a simple message that most people viscerally understand to be true. Sanders is going to hammer it home time and time again. His opponents are going to argue that he’s a radical for saying this. But he’s not and most will know his message isn’t either. I’ve heard ordinary Americans say what Sanders is saying all my life. And they know, again very viscerally, that the super wealthy own the political system. He’s going to play up the unfairness of all this and win many converts. Americans, of all political stripes, are united in the belief that fair play is what matters.

I’m going to finish with a video I want everyone to watch, especially since it was filmed in Austin, Texas, a place near and dear to my heart. If you do, you’ll see the Bernie Sanders I’ve written about in this blog.

YES!

I want to start with an apology. I’ve been incredibly busy lately and thus unable to spend much time writing.

A couple of days ago, I managed to find a free moment, so I started a new blog, just about finished it, and then ran into a really cool article that inspired me. So I set the piece I was working on aside and will come back to it in a few days, after I’m done with this one.

If you haven’t already done so, look back at my last blog—“Speaking of Politics…”—an article on why I’ll be supporting Bernie Sanders in the upcoming presidential plebiscite. Some of what I write here will relate to some of the things Sanders says in the video I embedded in that previous entry.

If you click on the above link, you’ll be transported to a piece in The Atlantic about a fellow named Scott Santens who is described as “a leader” in the “Basic Income Movement,” which calls for government to provide enough money to every citizen so that their basic needs will be met without having to work. By the way, movements of this sort are gaining momentum in many countries of the world as this video, produced in Switzerland, makes clear.

The article and video got me thinking about how my life would be different if some entity—the government, let’s say—guaranteed me enough money each month so I could be jobless if I wished. Would such a program turn me into a lazy slob?

Absolutely not. I feel completely confident saying that I’d spend a lot more time doing creative things, like writing and publishing, if I had fewer employment worries and commitments. I’d spend more quality time with my wife and family and would become a better husband, son, brother, and so on, in the process. There are causes I care a lot about, so I’d definitely give some volunteer hours, each week, to help those in need. Actually, I’d probably be more active than I currently am because I wouldn’t be so tired and stressed out all the time.

I think, in my case, society would probably get a pretty good return on its investment. I’d certainly continue to “work” but at things I had true passion for and was talented in doing. Contributions, toward the greater good, would come from this and I’d be more likely to feel something akin to self-actualization, in the sense that Abraham Maslow intended. As a result, I’d be happier and more prosperous. A country full of such individuals would certainly have a lot more stability than more hardscrabble places. And in a world full of nations filled with disgruntled citizens, that’s worth a whole lot.