Sunday, February 18, 2018

Paradox: Form and Function and Education

I just published two reflective posts I had squirreled away as drafts. I told someone this morning I "haven't been writing".  I'm good at rewriting my truth to underscore the negative.

      I've taken a full time teaching position in the largest high school in Interior Alaska. I love my current position; it creates meaning from my past and hope for the future. At the same time it's abundantly clear the system of public education is drinking from a poisoned well. I'm not working inside an anomaly school, a unique district or a state dealing with unusual circumstances. And I'm not naive. We live inside a culture of blame and accountability,  so everyone reflexively points at the next guy they feel has more power than they do. It's administration. It's "downtown". It's the School Board. It's the State. There's not enough money. There's not enough space. There. is. just. not. enough. And, in this "system" there never will be. I promise. As long as we have a system that is taken up with the negotiation of power, we do not have a system that negotiates learning, joy, compassion and transformation.  Every player strutting and fretting on this stage has been tarnished by the power structure. The system rules by fear-- from tardy slips and suspension, to lawsuits and budget cuts.

I want to be succinct here, as well as inject some hope.  I've been gnawing on this thought since it occurred to me several years ago: the most intimate work of any species is education of its young. How does a duck learn to be a duck? An elk an elk?  I've had the privilege of watching the growth and development of a wide variety of mammals. What are the essential qualities of each species and how are those cultivated?  The diversity, adaptability, resourcefulness and social nature of humans is what has allowed us to take over the planet. Let me stress diversity--psychological, physiological, cognitive and behavioral. And while there are a few notable exceptions, our relationships are what motivate us, but once again, with wide variance in both content and degree.  Humans are also highly spiritual creatures (reiterate diversity here).  In conclusion, we have piles of young humans who are wired to explore the efficacy of their uniqueness and need long-term trusting relationships that explore spirituality and the communal human commitment<----  "Ms. Whitney, I don't get it..."

I walk by one door in school every day that has a sign: 1) Come prepared to class 2) Sit alone 3) No phones 4) No talking

The solution to "the problem of education" is already underway... but it is small and quiet and struggles against metrics designed for widget manufacturing and not making humans. The solution is in a diversity of options.  We want kids to show up for society/adulthood reasonably sane and ready for the unknown, because that's what we're really educating for-- the unknown.

For me, day by day, I will do my very best with what I've been given. I will keep the faith and will not be afraid.

"He Bites": Finding Compassion in the Living World

     Sitting astride the peaceful twinkle of a Christmas tree this evening, I told a friend--a burly beast of guy--that the oxytocin released during the grieving process softens and socially connects us but, not to worry, he'd have to sob for weeks to months over the recent death of his father before he'd begin to lactate. His face brightened, his calloused hands flew over his waffle-weave shirt to clutch his nipples.
     This type of biochemical narrative to life's grand events is one of my specialties, yet woefully reductionist in countless ways. The fact that my brain can inform me of the correct social circumstance in which to levy my observations is, by itself, a miracle of tangled neural impulses. The word we use to describe the invisible perfection of a functioning body and mind, that state of being that allows us to *just* cross the street/wipe our bottoms/desire cake/scratch the itch is homeostasis. It's no coincidence that the first four letters of the medical term spell "home".  We aren't confronted with the magnitude and intricacies of the body'd functioning until something goes wrong

     I'm not a midlife career changer. I make my money in two, seemingly disparate, employment arenas. I refuse to give up teaching teenagers, and I refuse to give up being a veterinary technician. If we imagine each of these job titles to be a rain drop in a puddle, imagine their radiating spheres of influence, the conversations, the questions they inspire in me--and those posed to me by onlookers. Teachers want to know why I'm not off being a vet tech 100%.  Vet techs want to know why I'm not off teaching. Fortunately, neither teenagers nor cats actually care. Therein lies the first repeating pattern.

Orbiting: Part of All and Part of None

        Here is a picture of a kitten.  This kitten will learn how to be a cat by simultaneously taking informed risks and watching other cats.  If there is something his body or brain isn't ready for, he will either not try or fail. Nature has prepared him for multiple failures by giving him spongy joints and a facile brain ready to trust and try again. Kittens, under eight weeks, readily take comfort from other animals, looking for more information and aid in others around them.
     By the time a kitten is twelve-weeks old, if it hasn't been socialized to expect affection, reliable information and resource-sharing from humans, you have a feral cat. Feral (or wild/stray) cats use foul language, they puff up act real tough, and they use and avoidant behavior, putting themselves in dangerous situations to avoid contact with you. Sure, you can socialize a cat over three months of age. It takes a loooooonggg time.

    "You were scheduled as a meeting sub, but do you mind working with two boys?" The elementary school secretary addresses me while jockeying a variety of papers in her hands and repeatedly checking the computer screen. At 7:21 on a Thursday morning she seems out-of-breath. The school secretary actually runs the school, so be extra nice. And, come to think of it, nowhere in any district in Alaska or Colorado where I've subbed have I ever met a male school secretary.  That covers about twelve years and about sixty different K-12 schools.
    "Of course!" I respond to the request at the same moment a frantic classroom teacher emerges from nowhere and gestures me towards a copy-paper box lid filled with math worksheets and twelve books from a series with titles like "Carelessness", "Listening", "Lying", and "Responsibility". The torn piece of notebook paper on which she's penciled an itemized agenda is askew atop the pile. She tells me the items are for JE, explains that he really is a great kid and to let him choose which morality book he should read--that she hopes he chooses the "Lying" one because that's the one he really needs--then she disappears, at which point  the secretary waves me towards two boys seated on the other side of the front counter just as her phone rings. The boys have the same almond-colored skin, brown hair and shining, dark eyes. The younger fellow's legs dangle from the seat without touching the ground, while his brother is firmly planted and several inches taller. Somehow the information is conveyed we are going to breakfast in the art room. I shake JA's hand (age seven), and greet his brother, age 10. JA officiously leads me down the long hallway, past the library, proudly narrating as we go. We talk about how the morning was, about soccer. I ask him the basic questions a sub never knows, or knew and forgot while at other other schools: when does school actually start in the morning, when is lunch recess, where is the bathroom and water fountain? Once at the art room JA asks the woman in charge of the plastic packages of fruits, donuts, and corn dogs if he can set up the chairs. Other kids show up. JA eats the cornbread off his corn-dog and drinks a chocolate milk while quietly chatting with other students and me. I come to understand they all go outside after breakfast before school starts. JA and I are in front of the door to the playground before he turns to me with genuine concern and asks "Are you coming outside with me?"
          "I need to check with the office about what they need next from me first, OK?"
           He seems distressed "I can wait for you? Can't you come out?"
           I tell him that, after I'm certain I'm not needed elsewhere, I'll find him.

     I'm pleased to see the secretary is sitting down for a minute, but when I tell her JA is outside, she registers alarm "No, no, no, he can't be outside! He needs to be here!"
     In my ignorant collusion, I swiftly turn around and head back for the playground door.
    As a substitute teacher you will always be both a hero and a failure for whatever school you work for. Things move too fast for you to know what's going on in the banal world of schedules, routines, job titles and the location of the pencils. You are a hero because you know how human nature works and can make up learning games within thirty seconds. All schools and teachers know this to varying degrees.
    I've almost back-tracked halfway when a woman in an orange safety vest and a radio in her hand turns the corner holding JA's hand.

       Humans, like cats, are mammals that nurture and educate. But we have developed institutions with institutionalized procedures around this process that make it nearly impossible for any one involved (learners and educators alike) to say well THAT didn't work; let's try something different. These institutions are bullies. They leave shame and anxiety in their wake, placing blame and failure on the individual, chalking much up to things like 'responsibility', 'accountability' and 'expectations', instead of spending time crafting a dynamic response to solve a shared problem. Natural systems respond to challenges to the best of their ability. Nature is instrinsically motivated to keep the natural world running. It doesn't need the elaborate punishment and reward system we humans use to keep our tower of power operating.  Humans are addicted to 'deficit thinking'. If something doesn't work out as planned we look at what failed, instead of what assets weren't used, tapped into, allowed some fresh air and sunshine.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Why I foster

Top 10 reasons to foster kittens

1. The opportunity to max out the photo/video storage on your phone
2. Spread joy on social media with pics and updates
3. Enjoy purring at 3 am as you feed kitties with a tiny bottle
4. The mystery of whether what is on your shirt sleeve is kitten food, poop, or peanut butter.
5. The thrill of watching a struggling kitty turn around and thrive.
6. All your old friends want to come over.
7. The day kittens "graduate" out of your care!
8. Watching wobbly kittens groom themselves for the first time.
9. Watching kittens discover their tail (and those of littermates!)
10. The personalities, preferences and surprises of each one.

I've been a vet tech for about twenty years now. Sometimes I worked 80-hour weeks and some weeks I didn't work in the field at all. Yet veterinary medicine is a modern science based on analysis of concrete evidence and it trusts answers that are repeatable through experiment. Even within mainstream veterinary culture, however, there is a saying "cats read the text book and then do the opposite" to intonate the unpredictability of felines.

When I started fostering kittens last summer I thought it would be a fun way to keep veterinary medicine in my life and I thought I'd seen plenty of kittens in my years. The frequency with which veterinary hospitals see kittens pales in comparison to what the shelter and rescue world sees. These people see kittens in HERDS-- hundreds, thousands in a season, and for a number of shelter employees that is ALL they do: manage kittens.  My foster kittens have given me knowledge I didn't know I was lacking. These are unpredictable, fragile, magical little spirits. I can tell you that a tiny kitten's stomach volume is 4 ml to each 100 gram of body weight, so don't expect your tot to suck down that whole bottle. I can tell you that a 4-week-old kitten should weigh one pound, I can tell you about coccidiosis, herpesvirus, joint laxity in neonates and ear mites. But I can't tell you which one will eat more if you heat the nipple, who likes a cuddle under your chin before a meal, why some won't play with the crinkle toys or eat the expensive crunchy food.

Fostering tiny kittens is consent to shed some tears as well as thrill at a dramatic turnaround. Leave what you know at the door. Save a life, provide love and nurturance. It's desperately needed.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Kitten names

In honor of my first day volunteering with Habitat for Humanity ReStore--
Males: DeWalt, Stanley and Stihl
Females: Makita, Ryobi, Bosch, Black & Decker (BeeDee)

Building a better tomorrow with the power tools of today. Kittens property of if interested in adoption!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

In the Family Way

If your momcat is hit by a car when you are a week old and the only animal shelter in town is a double-wide trailer with nine dog kennels, a Sani-Can(registered trademark) potty out back and an employee named Sam who hasn't had a day off since November...come and hang with us on the mountain. Maybe go to middle school science with me later in the week (sub job).

 Recipe for bottle kitten success:

1. Toast your kittens by a warm fire. Chilled kittens don't eat. If you have 'on the grid' electric you can microwave high-tech warmie things and really go-to-town burning stuff.

2. If you have a sheep fleece left over from your farm, use that.

3. If you have a spayed female cat named "Momcat" handy, explain to her she's needed for clean-n-fluff duty.

4. Tell the kittens they need to hurry up and get cute 'cause people are counting on them!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Chicken in a bag!

4/9/16--Entebbe Uganda, East Africa
I was JUST telling Dr. Wilfred that in the States you can go into a supermarket and buy "chicken in a bag" fully roasted and warm, raised and injected with heinous chemicals that make them enormously plump with meat that falls from the bone and has flavor designed to manipulate your palate in the way I hear methamphetamines manipulate your mind. Damn that's good. I think there's a chemical in the odor to even get you purchasing the poor carcass... 

The above pic is clearly a different "chicken in a bag". There are many snaps I'd love to take of daily Ugandan life with livestock. Yesterday I boarded the Homeland Bus earlier than the rest of the travelers, but just after an older woman had dropped her luggage off in the seat next to me. I realized I'd finally be able to get a good picture of "average doings" without offending anyone or having to explain myself. There were 3 hens in there. They traveled six hours with us. The longer distance busses I've been traveling on are clearly repurposed from EuroAsian fleets sold after the DVD player, aircon, and most of the lighting has failed. Usually the windows open, and this last time the radio worked! There is only one stop for a restroom break, so I always feel like a science experiment regarding hydration.  I don't want to pass out from heat stroke or fluid loss, but I don't want to have to urinate for 4-6 hours. And it's hot. Really hot.
After the Homeland Bus I had to take a boda taxi to Kampala's new taxi park. I should've gone to the smaller old taxi park to get the bus to Entebbe, becuase the new taxi park was mobbed and a drunk guy ran off with my luggage. After a big scene, I got my luggage back and had another hour to Entebbe, which was where my flight will leave tonight. 

4/18/16 -- Blanca Colorado USA
I wrote the above 9 days ago.  I have traveled through a variety of cultures, time zones and alternate realities since then. 17 hours from Dubai to Houston, TX. Houston to Seattle, Seattle to Denver. I bought a 700+ page Stephen King novel at the Dubai airport and used 3 different types of currency for the purchase. And the States are so... quiet. And everyone is so... white.

A few days before leaving for Africa, after signing papers in the morning to sell my Denver condo, I drove to this cabin in southern Colorado. The car was jammed full. A hard left or right turn meant anything from a coffee pot to my pet cat could roll out of place and under my gas pedal. I warranted a traffic ticket for poor visibility out the back window. The cabin is more than 8000 feet above sea level; it clings to the low upswing of earth at the base of Mount Blanca. Turn off route 160 and the pavement gives way to a lazy, broad grid of desert scrub pocked with camper vans strung with wind-tattered tarps, small homesteads and the occasional warning bark of a prairie dog. Modern automobiles offer either good gas mileage or muscle and high clearance.  I'm a sucker for getting 40 mpg, so I drive the dinky 2-door hatchbacks that can actually be blown off the road by speeding truckers.  This means I need to drive differently in the snow and ice, stay aware of soil stability, and be ready to walk. With the car as loaded as it was, however, if I had to stop at my earlier winter parking spot and sledge everything up to the cabin it would take several hours, perhaps two days with rest breaks. 

It was a very warm February day. As I approached the highway turn-off I felt the clip of anxiety. A warm day means snow melt, it can mean a quagmire, tow straps and flagging someone down to help. But if the recent snow load was mild the warmth could be drying out the desert soil and actually helping my traction. I made my turn into the dirt road. You can see the cabin from quite a distance. Most of the mountain appeared denuded of snow, but a few cotton-colored mounds were still visible within the denser clutches of trees.  I could see the path of the road and the soil. I could hear water running and see it in t he gullies. The hillside was a patchwork of color--red soil, gray snow melt, brown, white, evergreen pines, more white, more hope of being able to drive right up to the cabin spiked and plummeted the closer I got. YES! I'LL SURELY BE ABLE TO MAKE it maybe not THERE'S NO SNOW! but that water will be bad YES! no YES! no. My anxiety read like an EKG as I drove, scanned and prognosticated.  I noticed the traffic in my own mind. Then it hit me.

I will not know what will happen until the soil is actually under my tires. 

On that particular day I was able to drive up to the door and unload. The soil was dry. My tires found sure footing.
That weekend I also did the final packing for Africa. I packed, repacked, sorted and packed one more time. What would I need? What would I regret not bringing? I had 8 extra pounds in one suitcase...what could I leave? You won't know until the soil is actually under your tires.  I was simply incapable of preparing for every contingency. The growth part of the adventure would be how I adapted to what was unforeseen... wait... that's most of life...

Missing Dr. Moses-- pic with the gang night before departure
visit with baby Josh
I have returned from my trip one month early. Once the soil was under my tires over there I discovered several things. 1) Regardless of how fulfilling the work may be, or how compelling the personal connections are, I experience relentless heat in the upper 90s as if I'm drowning. Did I know it would be that hot? It IS Africa after all...Yes, I did know. 2) In Africa, my skin is the color of money. I experienced a baffling number (25?) of young men ages 20-35 who wanted to be my friend, have me read their movie script, sponsor their schooling, police officers who said they hadn't been paid, and one who outright asked for sex. Weird. There is also the constant heckling, haggling over prices, stalking, and low-grade resentment of white do-gooders (this last topic is a whole book). Did I know this would be the case? Yes, I did know. But after 3-4 weeks I began to completely shut down socially-- beyond the group I was working with.  Finally, the third component of the soil under my tires that sent me home early was my memories of my own non-profit work.
Lucy, Comfort Dog Program participant--TALL!
The Big Fix is almost ready to move onto their newly developed land--brand new construction in a beautiful rural area. I expected to walk onto the property and feel exhilaration for them. Instead, I smelled the smoke of the remains of Turning Light Farm. The skeleton of my own endeavor is pretty close to what they are doing.

The return trip was an odyssey. It requires another essay with more humor... but FYI the Dubai airport is not to be missed!! 

Final Thoughts
I love telling students "We own the English language". Language is a living, malleable thing. We create it. We dismantle it. We do need to be capable of wielding it to our advantage, pulling out formalities at the right time, but otherwise we can crack it open like a nut and move word meanings around as we see fit. In East Africa I discovered people used the word "reach" as we'd use the word "arrive". Example: On the phone someone asks "Have you reached?" (are you there yet?) or, "I'm glad you reached well." (got there safely) African English is a mashup and deconstruction of almost every common phrase. Even in upscale hotels mispellings and what would be classified as misuses are common. Yet there's a certain poetry to many of the mistakes.

                                I have reached.