Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rolling Apples: Far From the Tree Makes Me Break My Parenting Silences

I am writing this at 1:30 in the morning on top of an opened copy of the book Far From the Tree. I’ve only made it 26 pages in (or virtually none of this 900-page tome), but what I’ve read so far has left me with that itchy feeling in my fingers and brain that I’ve come to recognize as a clear message: go ahead and write or you’re not sleeping.

Far From the Tree is a critically-acclaimed book that examines the stories of parents and children who differ in significant ways. If “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” these are the stories that prove exceptions. Author Andrew Solomon profiles parents of children with disabilities, children who have committed atrocious crimes, children who are prodigies, children who are transgendered, and more. In this first chapter, he has also woven his own story into the fabric of the book, explaining that his identity as gay was one that his own parents never quite accepted even though they loved him and wanted him to be happy.

He talks of vertical and horizontal identities. Vertical identities are the ones that are passed down through generations and genetics, racial identity is typically vertical. He also cites religious and cultural practices. Horizontal identities are the ones that we have to find outside of our biological family because they are the places in which we differ from our kin. Instead, we find ourselves seeking these “families” in peer groups. He places his own identity as gay as vertical (since he was born to heterosexual parents) and cites deaf children born to parents who can hear and child prodigies who are much more intellectually advanced than their parents among those who have to seek their identity peer group horizontally.

It’s so far a fascinating read, and I am a little worried how hard I am going to have to work to not sit here and read all 900 pages while shirking my other duties (including the biological ones like sleeping), but right now, I need to write.

The thing that has me furiously typing is a quote from the book that I have now returned to six times:

"We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time. The Noble Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask particle-like questions, and a wave if we ask wavelike questions. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other. Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine shortchanged identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness."

There are several reasons that this passage has been drawing me back again and again (not the least of which is that this passage is so rife with the agonism that I spent the past few years writing a dissertation about), but the main thing that I want to talk about in this post is how it has me wanting to come out of the shadows about the position I’m in as a parent of a child that is both an apple close to and far from the tree, a rolling apple who I love very much and whose happiness and future path to fulfillment has become the primary driving force of many of my daily decisions.

I don’t talk about this much, and this is hard for me to write.

Writing and spilling it all for the world to see is a cathartic practice for me, and it’s what made me start this blog those six (six!) long years ago in the first place. I don’t hide many skeletons in my closet feeling very strongly that the skeletons are a lot less menacing when they’re out in the sunlight. It’s there that they often turn to dust, and what once seemed terrifying and heavy becomes light and blows away. Since this blog began when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter and since its earliest themes were squarely rooted in my burgeoning identity as a mother (and what that meant for the intersection with my identities as a feminist, wife, scholar, and professional), I wrote about my daughter a lot in those early years. I wrote about uncomfortable interactions surrounding her biracial identity, choices I made as to what she was allowed to watch on television, and struggles I faced when it came to negotiating parenting in an equally shared marriage. I wrote about my daughter, but mainly because I was writing about myself.

In those earliest years, I also posted pictures of my daughter and used a lot of personal details, but the anonymity of the Internet also makes it cruel, and the cruelest comments coincided with my daughter’s burgeoning maturity. It was much harder to write about her as this somewhat-abstract quality in my own life without fully considering the way that writing nibbled at the edges of a story that wasn’t mine to tell: her story. I stopped posting pictures publicly. I pulled back on the personal details in stories. I still talked about parenting, but it was always in a more distanced, buffered way. I found it harder and harder to talk about my specific experiences as a parent without talking about her specific experiences as not only my child, not only a child, but also just an individual person with her own right to negotiate privacy, sharing, and communication.

And because of those decisions, I have left out a lot of my experiences from this public platform. I have made a few one-line references to the fact that my daughter has had some behavioral issues. I have shared some funny anecdotes of her “spirited” personality. I have given cautious glimpses of some of the intense moments of my daily life that make parenting both an amazing well of inspiration and a tremendous drain on my emotional strength. But I have not talked about specifics. I have not waded into the waters of terminology or diagnoses. And I have done so not because I am ashamed but because I cannot at this moment tell where my story ends and hers begins.

Perhaps that’s because there is no such seam. She is five. She is old enough to have the autonomy to get herself strawberries from the refrigerator, pull the step stool from the wall, wash them, and eat them, but not yet old enough to remember to pick up all the discarded stems strewn about the floor like Hantzel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs leading to her book fort. She is mature enough to make insightful commentary about the nature of forgiveness and social pecking orders but still too immature to understand that the other children on the playground might not want to play her game and that doesn’t mean they “hate” her. 

When she has a public meltdown that has everyone in the vicinity staring at me like I have just severed someone’s limb in the middle of aisle 6 and am now holding it gleefully above my head just to disrupt their shopping trip, I feel very much like it is my story, like I am the one in the spotlight. But I know that later (sometimes only moments later), I will be holding a little girl who is spilling her deepest insecurities at my feet and trusting me to hold them safely for her until she can take them back, one by one, and process them. When I am getting phone calls from the school that give me actual anxiety attacks at work about her behavior at school, it feels like my story to tell, but I can’t separate that moment of dread in my belly as I sit in my office from the fact that my daughter (so little with such big emotions) is sitting a mile away with her own dread settling over her.

There has been no clear division separating her from me or me from her in this story, and so I have told almost none of it.

If I were a different kind of person, I think I would continue this way. I don’t think this story needs to be told in the sense that it is all that unique or all that earth shattering. But I am not a different kind of person. I am the kind of person who processes through dialogue, who shares, who finds strength in telling her own story and watching it form for an audience, who drags skeletons out of the closet and into the sunlight as a source of power. The fact that I have kept choking this one back down has been painful, and it’s been a pain I have felt that I was supposed to endure.

But parts of Far From the Tree have me questioning that impulse.

At one point, Solomon writes of his own mother’s aversion to his identity as gay and says this: 
“The problem wasn’t that she wanted to control my life—although she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy. The problem was that she wanted to control her life, and it was her life as the mother of a homosexual that she wished to alter. Unfortunately, there was no way for her to fix her problem without involving me.”

Elsewhere, he says of parents who have learned to accept vertical identities: 
“Broadcasting these parents’ learned happiness is vital to sustaining identities that are now vulnerable to eradication. Their stories point a way for all of us to expand our definitions of the human family. It’s important to know how autistic people feel about autism, or dwarfs about dwarfism. Self-acceptance is part of the ideal, but without familial and societal acceptance, it cannot ameliorate the relentless injustices to which many horizontal identity groups are subject and will not bring about adequate reform.”
Later, talking about the disability rights movement, he says that the movements “seeks, at the most basic level, to find accommodations of difference rather than erasure of it.”

And that, essentially, is what my silence has been doing. I have been erasing part of my own child’s identity because it has been labeled an illness. This brings me back to that first quote above and how both identity and illness can be found in the same quality but that trying to define it as one or the other can obscure and narrow the definition.

My daughter, after years of behavioral struggles punctuated with intense bursts of intellectual acceleration, has been diagnosed as having ADHD, giftedness, and some other cognitive struggles. The term most commonly used for this cluster of issues is “twice exceptionality,” which means that she scores above-average in some areas while showing delays or deficiencies in others. It is not, by a long shot, a worst-case scenario. She has amazing strengths that continue to blossom every day, but she also has challenges that are starting to show themselves as hurdles to educational environments and societal norms that present themselves as particularly challenging mazes.

And since at this point in her life I cannot untangle her story from mine, her challenges have also become my challenges. I am faced daily with questions about which aspects of my daughter’s many qualities to try to amplify and which to attempt to “cure,” through medicine, discipline, or otherwise. Which of her quirks and differences are to be carefully nurtured to their greatest potential and which are to be pruned or stunted until they fade to the background? And am I under delusions to think that I have control over these outcomes at all? And if I am not delusional about my level of control, what ethical right do I have to choose for her how to balance them out before she has the chance to weigh them for herself? More practically, how do I ensure she is in a supportive environment at home that allows her to master all of the skills she needs, not just those she naturally excels at honing? And, more difficultly, how do I make sure that environment extends to the educational setting she spends so much of her day inhabiting—environments where I am not present?

It’s this last one that has been such a conundrum. If I want her to get the accommodations that I think she truly needs to thrive in a school environment, she has to have a label. My life has become an alphabet soup of IEPs, ADHD, OT, PT, with a smattering of 504 thrown in to keep it interesting. High academic test scores become an ironic hindrance that somehow “prove” she doesn’t need help even as she sobs uncontrollably after yet another day of being a “bad” girl at school.

Parenting my daughter has challenged every assumption I ever made about parenting in ways good and bad. I have bent where I thought I never would and grown where I didn’t know I could. I have felt joy and pride deeper than I knew imaginable and felt shame and guilt that sliced like a knife. And I am only five years in. And I am starting all over with a whole new apple in two months that will undoubtedly throw me for loops in entirely different directions.

But this is my promise, today, to stop trying to hide this ever-growing bag of complications I’m carrying behind me. I believe it fully possible to respect my daughter’s right to tell her own story, to parcel out her own secrets, while still telling mine. Not only will I be, as Solomon so eloquently describes, a better advocate with her when my truth is laid bare, but I will also be a better knower of that truth because throwing it out here for the world to see makes me see it clearer, too. That is, after all, what most memoir is about, and it is, I suspect, why Andrew Solomon took on the massive project of Far From the Tree in the first place: to find his own truth about his struggles by throwing it out in the public eye.

I do not know which pieces of this I am getting right, but I do know that I am trying and that acceptance and love are at the foundational core of every parenting decision that I make. My daughter may be a rolling apple who visits pastures I cannot understand, but I think this tree has branches wide enough to cover her there.  

Friday, March 18, 2016

What I Learned By Hiring a Professional Organizer for a Day

I stared at the empty Google search bar.

"organizing . . ."

It started to autofill: "Organizing tips." "Organizing books." "Organizing utility totes." All reasonable guesses, Google, but I was in too deep. 

I had read all the "tips" I could handle. There are no amount of pretty Pinterest pins or Life Hacks posts that are going to get me out of this one. As for books, I'd Marie Kondoed the whole place and was left with decidedly (and marginally satisfactorily) less stuff but no more order. And at this point another organizing "tote" or "bag" or "basket" or "miracle device" would just be one more thing I had to find a place for, and I couldn't do it. 

"organizing services st. louis" 

I completed the query and read through the results. They were all cheery and full of before and after pictures designed to make me feel like even my mess was manageable. I browsed for a few minutes, looked over price estimates where available, and then closed the computer. 

"This is ridiculous," I muttered to myself. "I can clean my own damned house." 

But the truth is, I can't.

In the strictest of senses, that's not entirely true. I have cleaned my own damned house. I do it every day. I do it in big ways (tearing everything out of a closet, sorting it into piles of trash, donate, and keep, and putting what's left back in) and I do it in small ways (all those mundane tasks of domesticity). But it was always temporary, and not just in the sense that it would, inevitably, get dirty again (although, yes. That, too). It was temporary in the sense that the things I had put up were perched on the edges of imbalance and seemed absolutely poised to spring back into chaos at the slightest provocation. 

Exhibit A: My daughter is a voracious crafter. She creates approximately two million drawings a day, and they have taken over multiple rooms in our house. After Pinterest told me to hang up ribbons to display them, I thought I had a solution, and I gladly gave over some wall space to support her burgeoning interests. 

But that did nothing to tame the supplies. Pencils, markers, crayons, paper, scissors, glue sticks with lids we'd never see again, glitter that would invade every crevice in the hardwood floors, feathers, sequins, and beads would not be contained by bins or reduced by willpower. So I reorganized, with what I thought was intention and planning, a hutch in the dining room until it contained all of the craft supplies. I stepped back from gorgeously organized drawers (one for each type of item) and clean shelves of neatly stacked materials. 

It stayed that way for hours. Of course, they were hours that my daughter was not home. Once she got home, it stayed that way for about thirty-two seconds. 

I have similar tales of woe from other such organizational attempts. I'd read online about how to keep socks matched or Tupperware containers forever linked to their lids, and I'd implement system after system to have it last less than a day. It's demoralizing. 

And the fact that I am about to bring an entire extra human being into this two-bedroom, one-bathroom space had me in more than a bit of a panic. So I opened the computer up and went back to the list of organizing services. 

I called and made an appointment. I talked to a very nice lady, and we made plans to use one of the days of my spring break to "put some systems in place" that would help. I was . . . skeptical. I was also mildly ashamed and frustrated with myself. It felt like a waste of money we didn't really have to spare. It felt like an unnecessary luxury that someone living a life that isn't at all like mine pampers herself with. It felt, also, like defeat. 

I almost canceled three times. 

In the weeks leading up to our meeting, I continued to declutter in some bizarre anti-nesting nesting. I  threw away and donated without a second thought. Shelves cleared, drawers emptied, and spaces opened, but I refused to put anything in them. It is obvious to me at this point that I can't be trusted with empty spaces. I don't know how to treat them well. I would wait until someone who could justify charging me money for her advice came in to fill them. 

When she arrived at my house, I was nervous. I felt like I didn't have the kind of house professional organizers came to, and I worried she would sense my undeserving qualities. If she felt that way, it did not show. A professional. 

The moment she walked in, I greeted her and then said, "I'm going for function, not form. I don't care if it's pretty. I don't need a single thing in my house to look like it could go in a magazine photo shoot. I just want things to work." 

She asked for a wish list of what we would accomplish over our four and a half hours together. I could tell by her face that my list was too long, but I gave it all anyway: I wanted the craft area I had built in the dining room to function without my daughter having to get everything she owned out to find one pink crayon, I wanted the "bonus room" we'd used for nothing but storage to have some functionality as a nursery or at least a space that makes me feel like bringing a baby home from the hospital is not an insane idea, I wanted a kitchen with cabinets that look like they were not filled haphazardly by a malfunctioning robot using some sort of color coding system designed by three different people who had never spoken to each other and who each suffered from a separate color blindness condition, and I wanted to be able to put dirty laundry somewhere other than the middle of my bedroom floor. 

I've always dreamed big. 

It was clear she knew this was too much, so she asked me to just pick a room. I chose the "bonus room," and that's where we began. But we were in there about two minutes before it became obvious to me that in order to move things out of that room, we'd have to tackle the bedroom closet, and in order to tackle the bedroom closet, we'd have to tackle the closet in my daughter's room, and in order to tackle that, we would have to tackle her toy boxes on the floor. This is the point I had gotten to on my own several times. Everything was connected in some microcosmic web that I could never untangle. My mind always shorted out when I could see more than two major moves necessary to get a task accomplished. Maybe this is why I suck at chess. 

Maybe she could see the sparks of terror flying behind my eyes, or maybe I just looked like a squirrel that was about to get creamed by a truck even though it should have been fully capable of jumping out of the way, but she grabbed her giant trash and recycle canisters, moved them into the other room, and said cheerily, "Let's go." I obeyed. 

A portrait of the author, mid project. 
Over the next four and a half hours, we tackled every single thing on my wish list. Sure, we left a path of debris in our wake. In the interest of time, I told her to pile up things we needed to toss out or sort. Once I could see the bones of the system she was building, it was good enough for me, and I asked to move on. I needed a lot of bones. 

When she left, my house was not yet clean, but there were fully four entire rooms that I could walk into and feel calm. That has never happened. Not ever. 

I definitely felt that the investment was worth the money and time, and I will consider it again in the future. In the meantime, I've been reflecting on the experience and have pulled out a couple of lessons that I hope I can put into use. 

There are Different Types of Clutter

One thing that was obvious was that the organizer is used to having to coax people into getting rid of their junk. She had tons of bags that she anticipated filling with trash and items to donate, but we only filled a few of them. This is because hanging onto things that I don't need is not my problem. My house is not too cluttered because I can't throw away a broken baby toy or part with old dishes when I get new ones. If anything, I might be on the other side of that divide, getting rid of some things a little too quickly (as the need to buy all of the baby stuff all over again is illustrating to me right now). 

But my house was still cluttered. Why? Because we had let things collect in spaces that didn't make sense, and it's all because of the way we moved into this house. When we came here, there were rooms we didn't even need to use. We had moved as newlyweds from a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen too small to hold both of us (not hold both of us comfortably, just hold both of us at all). We had no children. We didn't even have a dog yet. We had spent the last six years as students who had no money, so we had very few permanent things. Our couch was a futon. Our bed was two decades old. 

We put a bunch of stuff in the "spare" rooms because it was easier than really sorting it and making it work in the rooms we did use. Then those rooms became needed. We bought real furniture and needed someplace to put the futon. We got a dog and needed a place to put the dog crate. We had a baby, and she needed a place to sleep. That baby grew into a toddler, and she needed a place to put her one little box of toys. That toddler became a preschooler and she took over our entire house with glitter, dolls, and rocks like the inverse of a plague of a locusts. I took up roller derby and had a box of gear. My husband took up boxing and had a box of gear. We both got too busy for these hobbies and had boxes of gear we weren't even using. 

With each new round of stuff, we found corners to stack them and closets to cram them, and we never stopped to think about the logic of the locations. We were still working from the base we had built years ago when we first moved in, a base that had made sense for two newlyweds with no things and barely any responsibilities, a base that made no sense for our current lives. 

This is a lot of what the organizer spent her time doing. There were a lot of raised eyebrows as she held up a wayward item. "Is this the room you use this in?" she'd ask, holding my husband's shoes she'd found in my daughter's closet, knowing full well the answer was no. "No," I'd respond sheepishly. "And what about this?" she'd ask as she held up a bag of dish towels she'd found in the bedroom. "No," I'd whisper. 

The clutter wasn't because we had too much stuff. It was because the stuff was not in a logical home. That was the reason why it stayed cluttered no matter how many times I purged and sorted. I was only purging and sorting one place at a time, and so the root problem remained rooted. 

Shelves Don't Have to Be Full 

This is probably the most valuable lesson. Because I've spent so long feeling cluttered and overwhelmed by my spaces, I've always seen storage space as prime real estate that must be built up to its greatest potential. I was like an urban developer who could only envision sky scrapers and maximizing the amount of office space I could rent out. 

I filled every shelf, cabinet, closet rack, etc. to its absolute carrying capacity. Anything less felt like a waste. This was particularly true of hidden spaces that would only be seen by the family. These seemed like treasures that had to be completely packed in order to make room for the spaces on the outside. 

This was flawed logic, as the organizer showed me. The more crammed the space was, the more likely it was that whoever needed to get something out of it (especially if that "someone" was five years old) would throw every single thing in the drawer or shelf on the floor. This is why my new craft section wasn't working. If my daughter wanted a pink sparkly sheet of paper (and of course she did), she had to dig until she found it. That meant that she left a trail of crayons, scraps of paper, and knick knacks behind her. For the shelves to work, they needed to appear to my untrained eyes completely wasted. 

But that's the way they need to be if they're going to actually be useful. I just have to let go and accept it. 

Embrace the Domino Effect

Another useful part of this experience was having someone who wasn't afraid to tackle it all at once. I would have never been willing to destroy the "order" in four entire rooms in one day without someone else taking the reins. It is too overwhelming to me, and I would have been a hyperventilating mess sitting cross-legged in a pile of old clothes with no idea what to do next. The fact that the things needed to be rearranged so significantly that each room's solution was dependent on the other was something I had to accept. In the past, I had always tried to fight it, and in the past, it had always failed. 

As we were working, I kept thinking about that scene in The Hunger Games where they're making over Katniss and scrub her clean and bare to get her to "beauty base zero." I needed "clean base zero" before I could do anything else. It is an exhausting thought, but it is crucial. 

Don't Underestimate an Hour

This one is going to sound like it contradicts the last point, but it really doesn't. In the past, I'd always thought that I needed big, full-day cleaning spurts in order to make any progress. If I only had a couple of hours to spare (which is just about the most I ever get), then it didn't seem worth the effort. Why start cleaning if you can't finish, I'd reason. 

But now that something close to clean base zero has been established, smaller projects are definitely worth an hour or even thirty minutes. I can clean out an entire junk drawer in an hour. I can sort through a pile of papers in thirty minutes. 

My mindset has shifted in that I'm not feeling so all-or-nothing about the endeavor, and that gives me some hope that the results might actually last. 

Accept the Kind of Person I Am (And Hire Help Sooner)

I am a very organized person . . . as long as what I'm organizing is ideas in a paper, lesson plans for a class, or some other text-based, project-focused result. 

I am not a person who is good at spatial reasoning and figuring out where things best belong to make a house function. It's not a skill set I have. It's perhaps something I could get better at, but only marginally. 

I can't stand in a doorway and imagine how to rearrange a room. The only way I can rearrange a room is to physically move all of the pieces of furniture and then decide if I like them. If I don't, the only way I can fix it is to physically move them all some other way. It is the most exhausting slide puzzle of all time. 

I also don't have the kind of mind that thinks of food or clothes in "stations." The organizer did. She started separating my canned goods by the likelihood of their use. She sectioned off the grains and the rice. She arranged the clothes by the order you grab them in the morning. She was like a magic fairy. 

It made me think about how great it would have been if she'd been there with me when we first moved into the house. She could have set up those systems when the house was truly at clean base zero: empty. 

If I ever get the opportunity to move again, I think I'm going to calculate this cost into the moving expenses. It seems like a much smarter way to get off to the right start. 

What about you? Have you ever used an organizing service? Do you have one of those magical brains that can just make things work? What lessons have you learned from trying to manage a house and the stuff that goes in it? 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Donald Trump Knows Exactly What He's Doing: Politics, Theater, and Rhetoric

I live in St. Louis and teach at a community college. My classrooms (almost entirely made up of minority students) were abuzz with the news of Trump's presence on Friday. They don't like him, and they were angry that he was so close. Their anger was mixed with disgust, a disgust that extended not only to the man himself but to anyone who supports him. They cited all of the horrendous things he's said about people of color and immigrants. They talked about the young black protesters being assaulted at his rallies while he looked on with glee barely masked as disdain and encouraged the violence.

I share their anger, and I imagine that a lot of them felt the way I did later that day when they heard that protesters managed to shut down Trump's rally multiple times throughout the event: proud. I don't want my city to be seen as a place that welcomes this kind of rhetoric and vitriol. I mean, just look at this compilation of his aggressive comments that egged on violent attacks.

As Rachel Maddow points out in this video, St. Louis, Chicago, and Cleveland have a very powerful thing in common: they have been the recent sites of racial unrest and organized protests for racial equality. They were also all scheduled stops for Trump's campaign this weekend.

Leading up to these events, Trump has repeatedly bemoaned a "politically correct" country that is nothing like the "good old days" when peaceful protesters would have been "punched in the face" and taken out of the room "on a stretcher." As his crowd cheers such blatant calls for censorship, violence, and terror, he laughs that it is "so much fun." "We've become weak," Trump challenges his followers. We've let people "get away with murder" because they walk into a room and put their hand in the air with the "wrong finger" extended. Yes. Flipping the bird is getting away with murder, even if you are flipping the bird because you are protesting people literally getting away with murder. Of course, Trump tells his listeners "these people are so bad for our country" and "they contribute nothing." Once again he cites their raised middle fingers as such an insult that it not only can be justifiably met with violence. No, it is such a problem that it should be met with violence. Violence, Trump insists, is part of how we "Make America great again."

I think Maddow makes one mistake in this otherwise powerful compilation, however. She says that the Chicago rally that night "had" the be canceled because of the escalating threat of violence. She says that Trump's rhetoric is what led up to the violence erupting in Chicago, and I completely agree. However, I think that Trump wanted to cancel Chicago. He wanted to demonstrate just how "weak" our current climate is so that he could embolden his supporters to more aggressively "take it back" by voting for him.

She notes that they waited until the streets and speaking hall were filled with thousands of people on both sides of the debate before canceling and then just let them "fight it out," and she shows images of protesters and Trump supporters clashing to make an impassioned call for recognizing that this is not what politics is supposed to be in America. But I think that those exact same images are being circulated around Trump's community of supporters with a very different message: we're not being weak anymore.

Ignoring that reality is a mistake we can't afford to make. Everything about Trump's campaign suggests to me that this reaction is exactly what he wants, and it's playing perfectly into his overall strategy of political theater.

Umar Lee's article for The Nation on the St. Louis Trump rally says this:
Trump left St. Louis a weakened man, like a fighter who endured a lot of punishment in the early rounds. Chicago was the next stop. Thousands showed up to protest Trump at the UIC-Pavillion and in the end Trump tapped out and refused to speak. Trump submitted to the protesters in Chicago like Conor McGregor tapped to the rear-naked choke of Nate Diaz just days earlier.

St. Louis and Chicago were a lot less friendly than the town halls of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the SEC Primary states. Trump leaves the Midwest wounded before the March 15th contests.
I'll gladly come back and eat crow if I'm wrong (and I guess we'll see when the votes come in Tuesday night), but I don't think that's the right interpretation of these events. I don't think Trump left the Midwest weakened. I think that he orchestrated a very specific theatrical event right before the Midwestern primaries because he knew exactly how much it would embolden his base and get out the vote, and he didn't give a damn how many people were bloodied in the exchange or what kind of racially-charged wounds it slashed in already-torn cities across America.

Consider the location for his St. Louis rally. He spoke at the Peabody Opera House in the heart of Downtown St. Louis. For comparison, Mitt Romney's 2012 St. Louis campaign stop was in Clayton, an affluent suburb with a majority white population. Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck teamed up to speak in 2011 and did it at the St. Charles Family Arena, a mostly-white St. Louis exurb that is more easily accessible to the supporters that filled Trump's rally. I can promise you that most of them had to travel to hear him speak on Friday. There are not many Trump supporters living inside the city limits.

I believe whole heartedly that he chose a Downtown location because he was certain that it would draw not just protesters (who would likely have shown up in scattered numbers even in St. Charles) but organized, passionate, focused protesters who would enact an orchestrated response. That's exactly what he got, and he used it to his advantage. Look at what he tweeted:

For a sense of just how valuable this was to his campaign strategy, look at the way it was reported by Brietbart. "Day of Trump-Hating Rage Began in St. Louis," the headline proclaims. It then shows pictures of protesters stomping on the American flag and notes how many times the "rowdy" crowd interrupted the event. 

And when the Chicago Tribune reported on the Chicago rally cancellation, they did so with this headline: "Trump Cancels Chicago Rally Amid Organized Protests." 

There it is again. "Organized" protests. Trump carefully chose to have his rallies in dense urban core locations where motivated, well-organized Black Lives Matter protesters have been working for months so that he could illustrate the "real threat" to the "good old days": organized minorities who are fighting for equality with well-orchestrated protests. 

Listen to sociology professor (and Turkish immigrant) Zeynep Tufekci speak about the historical significance of this strategy in this interview. She notes that Hitler would often schedule speaking engagements in beer halls to ensure that there would be clashes between protesters and supporters in order to enliven his base. 

And why does it enliven his base so much to see non-violent protesters bloodied and sucker punched? 

It's easy enough to chalk it up to pure, simple racism. As this SNL skit effectively lampooned, there is a very common thread running through his support system: 

But that feels a little unsatisfying to me. I personally know a few Trump supporters (though, for what it's worth, even my very conservative family seems mostly appalled at the possibility of this man becoming president). While racism is certainly a factor, it's not the blatant racism of the Klansmen or the neo-Nazi shown in the SNL skit. That's easy enough to recognize and (relatively speaking) easy enough to combat. (It's also worth noting that Trump's failure to disavow David Duke suggests he'll happily take those votes, too.)

I think that what a lot of Trump supporters are getting pushed up against is the discomfort of facing a world that might be righting some wrongs, the discomfort of equality (however slow it might be leaking in). 

This morning, I read this blog post titled "When You're Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression." Read it. 

The author uses a clever anecdote that doesn't bring up race or class. He talks about working as a server at a restaurant when a new hire named "Chuck" comes in and starts throwing his weight around. An intimidating guy, Chuck was hard to get along with, but his most nagging habit was that he would never be the one to step aside when there was about to be a head-on collision in the narrow restaurant aisles. Chuck acted as if he deserved the space more than anyone else, and one day the author decided to simply not move out of the way. When the collision knocked Chuck off balance, he was so enraged that he cussed the man out and shoved him in front of customers, one of whom complained to management about Chuck's behavior. 

Chuck, you see, didn't think about the author's right to the space. He only thought about his own. And when that right was (rightfully) challenged, he didn't see it as someone else claiming their own slice of the pie. He saw it as someone claiming his slice.

This is how privilege works. You don't usually know that you have privilege. You're just living life. Then all of a sudden someone else comes along and tries to take something away from you! It's enraging! You're not listening well enough to hear that they're actually just trying to claim what is rightfully, legally, and ethically theirs. You only know that it has always been yours and you do not want to give it up. He sums it up well: 
Equality can FEEL like oppression. But it’s not. What you’re feeling is just the discomfort of losing a little bit of your privilege… The same discomfort that an only child feels when she goes to preschool, and discovers that there are other kids who want to play with the same toys as she does. It’s like an old man being used to having a community pool all to himself, having that pool actually opened up to everyone in the community, and then that old man yelling, “But what about MY right to swim in a pool all by myself?!?”
And then he shows that this metaphor explains not just what's happening on the Trump side of the equation, but the other side as well: 
And what we’re seeing politically right now is a bit of anger from both sides. On one side, we see people who are angry about “those people” being let into “our” pool. They’re angry about sharing their toys with the other kids in the classroom. They’re angry about being labeled a “racist,” just because they say racist things and have racist beliefs.They’re angry about having to consider others who might be walking toward them… strangely exerting their right to exist. On the other side, we see people who believe that pool is for everyone. We see people who realize that when our kids throw a fit in preschool, we teach them about how sharing is the right thing to do. We see people who understand being careful with their language as a way of being respectful to others. We see people who are attempting to stand in solidarity with the ones who are claiming their right to exist… The ones who are rightfully angry about having to always move out of the way… People who are asking themselves the question, “What if I just keep walking?”
While I don't think that Bernie Sanders has a monopoly on people who care about equality in his camp, that seems to be the way the lines are being drawn. And, again, the man drawing those lines is the one playing the role both in front of and behind the curtain: Donald Trump.

Trump has publicly come forward to blame Sanders' campaign and its supporters for the violence. He even went so far as to threaten to send his supporters to Sanders' rallies.

I can't help but feel that move is the next step in a carefully-planned campaign strategy, and it has me legitimately worried. I don't believe that Trump will be our next president. I really do think that there are more people who recognize the need for equality, but I'm concerned about what the clashes will look like in the meantime--especially since the people who feel their privilege being infringed upon have some deeply rooted baggage and pain to go along with it.

While I don't agree with Umar Lee's conclusion that Trump has been weakened by the St. Louis protests, I do think that he's right about the particular mix of political history that made St. Louis such a powder keg for the rally. Lee writes about his own North St. Louis family members who lost jobs when factories shut down in the early 80s:
When I looked at the middle-aged men in the crowd I thought of my father. He grew up near Ferguson in the industrial northern suburbs of St. Louis. The first handful of African-American students entered Riverview Gardens High School as he was graduating. The school now is virtually 100 percent African-American. After growing up with white privilege in a unionized blue-collar area of segregated St. Louis County, he entered an increasingly diverse workforce.
And that loss of racial privilege hit those who already had a lack of class privilege particularly hard. Suddenly white blue collar workers who couldn't so easily cloak themselves in racial preference were competing head-to-head with people of color for jobs that they all needed to survive. It was much easier to focus anger on the person standing next to you than it was the big boss you might never see who was pulling the strings.

Trump's rhetoric speaks to these concerns as well. He rails against China and says that we'll build factories in America again. He knows about the hardships his supporters have faced, and he's building up the optimism and hope with one hand while he stokes the flames of anger and resentment with the other.

And the reason is simple: he doesn't care which motivation his supporters use to catapult him into power. He just knows what they want to hear. If they come and vote for him because they believe he'll change things for the better and produce jobs, great! If they come and vote for him because they believe that black protesters and immigrants deserve to be beaten as a sign of the country's strength, also great!

For Trump, there's no distinction. His supporters are a means to an end and nothing else.

It's working very well, and Trump knew that it would. Back in 2013, Trump was approached about running for governor of New York. He declined, but admitted he had a plan for the bigger prize of the presidency. And what's more, he wasn't going to pay for it. The media was going to catapult him to stardom for free. Just read Politico's report of this incident:
“He said, ‘I’m going to walk away with it and win it outright,’” a long-time New York political consultant recalled. “Trump told us, ‘I’m going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.’”
He's playing us. All of us. Those of us who loathe him. Those of us who love him. Those of us who scoff at him. Our roles were already written into this play before he set it into action, and I'm not even sure how we change the script, but I know it needs to change.

Images: Tim Hamilton, ulterior epicure

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Tough Standards and Nurture: Can They Coexist?

Crossposted from


Recently, I read a post on The Chronicle from Charlotte Kent about her insistence that students meet high standards of professionalism and academic rigor in her classroom. She believes that this attitude is key to solving a gap in skills between high school expectations and college-level ones. If students are to become ready for the professional world, she reasons, they need to learn how to abide by the rules.

For her, this means many things, including having a no-tolerance policy for arriving tardy to class, never accepting late work or allowing extra credit, and forcing students to independently follow changes to the syllabus on Blackboard.

I had a fairly complex response to Kent's ideas (one I wrote about at length), but the core problem I had with her argument is that I don't recognize its truth in my interactions with students.
Kent writes:
Students can show up late, but they learn that it matters. If students forget that an assignment is due, they learn how to use their handy-dandy smartphone to set calendar and other reminders about scheduled work. When they return after missing a class without the completed assignment, they learn that the world does not stop with their absence but continues to have demands, even expectations.
They learn to use their peers as support toward ensuring that they are aware of obligations, just as colleagues at work help one another. As many people have said before me, there is no extra credit in life.
But that isn't what most of my students seem to get out of a harsh lesson. In fact, many of the developmental students I face seem almost primed for failure. I see it in their early writings where they reflect on their past experiences with writing. I see it in the responses I get to the first graded assignment. I see it in the number of students whose dwindling attendance directly correlates with the amount of work expected from them.

If these stern lessons bring about positive change in Kent's classes, I understand why she uses them as a tool, but in my classroom, they haven't worked to do anything but complete a self-fulfilling prophesy for many of my students who enter my classroom expecting to fail.

In fact, often the most important thing I can do as a developmental writing teacher is make it hard to fail. I have to stand up to those attitudes of predetermined defeat and insist that my students choose to fail rather than see it as my judgment that has kept them from progressing.

When I first changed from a traditional developmental textbook to the integrated, single-text approach, the one thing I worried about losing was the chance to build up confidence and rapport before diving into difficult work. When the course was slower paced and took longer to complete, I had a chance to make sure students felt capable before challenging that capability with work that stretched those skills. Now, however, the difficulty is apparent from day one. As soon as they start reading that college-level text and seeing full-length essay assignments, they know what they're up against. I've lost the chance to ease them into the work.

But what I gained is worth so much more. Now I have the opportunity to show them that they're capable of college-level expectations from the very beginning. The confidence that I help them build might be shakier at the start, but it's stronger by the end, and that's when it really matters.

Students are perceptive, and they know when the work they're given is truly challenging by college standards and when it is not. They know if they are being talked down to or being given lower hurdles to jump. And most of them resent it. My students want to be in college, and I think they appreciate the fact that the work in my classroom is college-level work--even when they feel frustrated with the reality of having to do it.

With that in mind, I started to ask myself how I addressed what Kent laid out in her article. Am I too lax in my expectations? Am I failing to prepare my students for the "real world" they'll face outside my classroom? Am I contributing to a skills gap by being too much of a pushover?

No. I don't believe that I am. I think that there's a way to walk the line between rigidity and flexibility. I think that a classroom can have solid, meaningful rules that must be followed while still allowing for the missteps and mistakes that are inevitable for any learner, but particularly prevalent in a developmental environment.

The way I manage that tightrope walk changes a little from year to year, but I found several concrete examples that have evolved over time.

Attendance and Punctuality
Kent pulls no punches. "If students are late, they are absent," she writes. I have heard stories of professors who lock their doors when the minute hand hits the 12, admitting no straggler. My policy is much more lax.

Come to class. Come to class five minutes late or even with only five minutes left. Of course, I want you here for the entire class, but I want you here for part of the class if that's the best we're going to get today.

My students come in from working overnight shifts. They catch buses that don't run on time. They drop kids off at school and get held up by questions from the teacher. They schedule back-to-back classes and take a little too long finishing up their math tests. They often have legitimate reasons for being late.

Or not. Even if they simply chose to sleep in or couldn't be bothered to stop their phone conversation on time or wanted to grab a coffee before heading into class, I still want them there.

So I have a policy that I think works. I give attendance points every day. If you are on time, present, awake, and not playing on your phone or otherwise distracted, you get five points. Every day. If you come in late or leave early, you get three points. If you don't come, you get no points. My class has a lot of points (usually between 1200-1500), so these attendance points are not enough to pad a failing grade, but they are enough to make a B an A or a C a B.

And the points speak for themselves. I don't need to have lengthy conversations about attendance and punctuality. I give the students the opportunity to decide for themselves if it's worth it, and if the issues are infrequent, they won't make a difference.

In addition, I occasionally give low-stakes (10 point) in-class activities that cannot be made up. If you're there for the activity, you have the opportunity to earn points. If you're not, you missed it.

I used to do things like drop a letter grade after three absences or automatically fail a student after seven, but this new system seems to work a lot better because it gives more autonomy to the student making the choice to attend.

No Late Work
I used to take late work. I used to penalize a paper one letter grade for each day it was late. Inevitably, a student who procrastinated would decide it was worth the loss and turn their first paper in two days late. Now the highest grade they can possibly get is a C. And while they're scrambling to catch up on Paper 1, we've all moved on to Paper 2. Now Paper 2 is going to be three days late. The highest grade it can be is a D. While they're scrambling to catch up on Paper 2, we've all moved on to Paper 3.

I think you see where this is going. With my old policy, I had a lot of students who were working hard but getting nowhere. I couldn't accept that.

After that, I tried giving "Late Work Passes." There were two for the semester, and a student could use them for a one class period, no questions asked extension. If they still had them at the end of the semester, they could turn them in for bonus points. It was a clunky system that sounded better in theory than it worked in practice.

So now I don't take late work. The due dates are firm, and I use Blackboard to accept assignments so that we all know exactly whether the due date was made or missed.

But within that rigidity, I've built in some flexibility.

For formal papers, there are two due dates. If students get their papers in by the first deadline, they get a grade, comments, and a chance to revise. If they miss that deadline, they won't get formal feedback, but they'll still get a chance to submit before the revision date. If they miss both dates (which is usually 2-3 weeks of class time in total), they miss the chance to earn points on that paper.

For informal writing, I let some scores drop. I give seven or eight "Informal Writing" assignments throughout the semester. These can be journal entries or reading responses, but I only take the top five scores. If a student forgets one or chooses to skip one, it won't hurt their grade.

Bonus Work
Kent writes "there is no extra credit in life," but that's not true of my life. There's tons of extra credit. I've gotten overextended and done less-than-stellar work on a project and then made up for it by going above and beyond on the next one. I've unintentionally  hurt a friend's feelings and made up for it by going out of my way to show how much I truly care about them. Rules get bent for people who use polite language and creative rhetorical flair. The doctor gives my daughter an extra sticker after her check-up when she's been particularly personable.

In real life (at least in my real life), there has rarely been a mistake so grave that it cannot be fixed by doing a little extra.


And I try to give my students that opportunity as well. I give bonus essays. I assign entire, full-length essays for up to 25 points a piece. (The required assigned papers are worth up to 100 points.) I generally base them on topical conversations that come up in class and stagger them throughout the semester with their own due dates. I've never had a student who wasn't already doing very well in the class do more than one of these papers, and even if a student did use them to truly "make up" a 0 on a missed paper, I'm still holding them up to the same grading standards, so I don't feel that there is a negative learning impact.

I also give make-up assignments. Depending on the class and the conversations of the semester, I might add in an extra Informal Writing that can be swapped out for a missed one or a bonus activity that will make up for some attendance points. It's never enough to replace repeatedly missed work, but it is usually enough to give a student who is borderline failing at midterm a true chance to turn it around by the end of the semester.

Reaching Out
Perhaps the thing that I do the most of that would be considered "coddling" my students is that I contact them when they're missing class or not turning in papers. After the first due date on papers, I send an email to everyone who hasn't submitted it yet. When someone is missing several days of class, I send an email asking them to meet with me if they plan to continue the class.

These emails don't take much time out of my day. If I send them through Blackboard, I can send a mass message to everyone who qualifies.

I can't say that students always reply, but about half of them do, and I usually have really good conversations with the ones who take the time to respond. I truly believe that on many occasions it has been the difference between a student fading away for the semester and coming back to complete the work.

Writing all of that up, I can only imagine what a teacher like Kent would say about my class. I recognize that I have made a lot of concessions, but I stand by them.

I give students who have been designated as "remedial" college-level academic expectations from day one. I expect them to read full-length, topical books. I expect them to write thesis-driven, multiple-paragraph essays. I expect them to cite sources, use in-depth analysis, and make logical connections between synthesized texts. I ask a lot of them.

And they can do it. They do do it. But sometimes it takes a little while for them to figure out that they're capable.

And it's important to me that they haven't already locked themselves into a failing grade by the time that message finally clicks.