storytelling vs data: ultimate showdown.

Hi, Internet. How was your week? Mine was crap. (But you're getting used to hearing this, yes?) 

We had some depressing meetings this week. Okay, just one. One really depressing meeting. Can I be very honest with you? If I tell you what's going on, will you promise not to send this blog to anyone who can fire me for writing this out loud? Or maybe stick me with the scary-as-shit 5th graders next year? 

What we're doing in public education is very, very misguided. Well-intentioned. But misguided.

Listen: I want everybody to read. I want a society that's 100% literate, so we can all have safe drivers and not unknowingly sign things that say we robbed a bank or whatever. I mean, I LOVE to read. Reading, for me as a child, was a means of escape. Reading is AWESOME.

And I get it: we all want to cream the shit out of China, show the world who's REALLY top dog. In case our nuclear arsenal isn't enough. 

But listen: reading should be FUN. Learning to read is a process, and you learn to do it by DOING it. The more you do it, the better you get at it. But it should not be for instructional purposes only. Books should be MAGIC. Stories are what makes us understand the world and each other. Stories stretch us, open us up. I read an article the other night about how children who don't read enough fiction become adults who aren't able to empathize with other humans very well. Which is why I am so very alarmed right now as a teacher, a writer, a reader, and a mother about what's going on in public schools right now (thanks, Common Core). This obsession with non-fiction, practical text is going to be the undoing of Humanity, mark my words. Right after Social Media disables us, Non-Fiction text will come in and finish the job.

I'm not saying NO SCIENCE. Science matters; I LOVE Science. I really believe Science is going to help save human beings from ourselves, or at the very least from cancer or heart disease. But magic and mystery matter, too. Data does not a life make. When you die, I assure you: you will not care what you scored on a test in 10th grade, or what reading level you were at in 2nd grade. When you die, you will think of your stories, of who you loved most, of who you fought with, of times you were awed by the world's beauty, of times you were horrified by its terror. When my dad died, I didn't give a flying rat's ass about what his manufacturing plant's production numbers were, and neither did he. I sat next to his still body, thinking about the last time I'd hugged him and all the circumstances surrounding that, and why there hadn't been more hugs, and how there never would be forever after. 

And we're losing sight of that, in our race to show China whose dick, I mean brain, is biggest.

So really, when I write these angst-y about work blogs, what I'm actually worried about is where we're going as human beings. I'm depressed over what's happening in my school. But I'm also very very concerned, Reader(s). Human beings are not just data; we are complex organisms of intricately intertwined experiences. All human beings, no matter how young or old, have strengths. We all have weaknesses. Some people are very Math-y. Some people are more Word-y. Some people are Art-y. Some people are more wrestle-y. Some are good at driving trucks. Or at being silent ninjas. Or assembling furniture from boxes. Everybody (EVERYBODY) has a talent. And sometimes talents aren't discovered until later on in life. And sometimes you have talent in 2-3 areas.

What I'm also saying is: not every talent requires college. And not everybody is a scholar. Not everybody's going to college, or is even meant to. I think everyone should have the OPPORTUNITY to go to college...if they want to. But I'm also saying it's wrong of us to lay the blame at the feet of teachers if a person and/or their family doesn't value education enough to want to go higher; that's a societal ill, not an educational one. And there should be absolutely no shame in deciding it's not for you; that cleaning out gunk in sewers is more your thing. We've got sewers; we all use them. None of us want to wade through layers of steaming feces in the streets; somebody's got to clean up the shit.

I disagree with people who tell me I'm being arrogant and elitist when I say that. And I disagree because, theoretically, I too want EVERYBODY to be a nuclear physicist and solve global warming and fix the Middle East and discover the cure for cancer. I want that. Don't you? But I also like to stay grounded in reality, and I like to recognize the quiet strengths that come out of people. I have a little boy this year who likes to make sounds. He's driving me nuts. Oh my god, Internet, absolutely effing nuts. But he also cracks me up. Because I see the future comedian that is blooming in him, if public education doesn't test and squish it out of him. I see his Happy, and how good he's going to be. If data divers don't make him feel like just another number. If test obsessives don't destroy his love for storytelling.

This is what I do every day - I go into my classroom and I read and I laugh and I tell stories and I sing and I talk with children. I let them know they aren't just another number. Today we had a soft lockdown...and that made some of the children think a bad man was in our building. And some of the children remembered their parents talking about Sandy Hook, what happened there. And so we had to stop a Language Arts lesson and sit and talk: first, soft lockdowns are no big deal; we just stay inside until they say we can go outside again...and second, what would happen if it was a hard lockdown, meaning a bad person came into OUR school? And I let them know: I love you SO much, I would do every single thing I could think of to keep you safe. The bad person would have to come through ME to get to you. You are THAT important to me. I've only known you for four weeks, and I already love you THAT much. 

And my little comedian man? You know what he thought about? My daughter, Miss M. He asked, "But wouldn't your daughter be sad if you got dead?" And then we had to have a talk about THAT. About how, yes, she would be and it would be very very hard for her, just like it would be for me, if something terrible happened to her. And then we talked about how sometimes terrible things do happen, and nobody really understands why, but we can still be okay because we all have invisible strength inside of us that helps us keep going. We just have to know it's there, even if we can't see it.

So. One more day of not teaching Complete Sentences really well so they can pass that part of the tests. Will that matter to them? I don't know. It's more important to me that they don't just know they're loved, they FEEL it. And sometimes, knowing and feeling you're loved is so much more important than increasing your data and passing some tests. And telling our stories, which is really just sharing our fears and our loves. That's so so SO much more important than data and tests. And knowing we're all in this together. So much more important. 

There are people out there, I want you to know, who will read that last paragraph and say something very cerebral like: "But that's not going to get them a well-paying job in the private sector or increase our chances of staying a world superpower." And I hope those people all choke on a piece of overpriced filet mignon and go to hell. And I hope, when they're in hell, they have to take test after test after test and no matter how hard they try, no matter how hard they work, no matter how much their fingers bleed and their brains burst open over and over and over again, they never ever pass them. And nobody cares. Because their pain doesn't matter; just their data.

Which is why the meeting I was at earlier this week really upset me so much. Because I was told if I don't move every child in my class an entire year's level in Reading (and then some), based on some arbitrary chart I don't even know where they got it from, it won't be because they're living in a hotel and there's no organization at home; it won't be because they're not getting adequate nutrition; it won't be because they're watching their mom get hit every night or coming home to an empty house and taking care of themselves and their younger siblings or that mommy just doesn't care about school and so neither do they. It won't be because of any of that. It'll be because they had the misfortune of getting a teacher who had instructional issues and didn't work hard enough to fix those. In 180 days (which is really more like 150 days, due to testing). It'll be my fault. I'm magic. I'm supposed to be magic. 

This is the source of my distress and angst (when not being distressed and agonized over my personal life of course...wait for it! Wait for it. That portion's on its way in few more paragraphs). I'm working harder than I ever have. I don't know that there are words in any human language to describe the tired I am. I'm tired down to the inner depths of my soul. I am desperate for someone to come massage these tired knots out of my soul. 

Earlier this week, I feel like I was kind of told: that's not hard enough. That's not tired enough. But then I'm also told: No, we're trying to help you work smarter, not harder. Then I'm told: you're not working hard enough. Then I'm told: you're not working smart enough. Then I'm told: not hard enough. 

Which one do you want, Public Education? I'm flatlining over here, make a decision. 

Anyway. Today was bad. Yesterday was bad too. I had to take M to softball practice. 7:00-8:30, on a school night, twice a week. Exhausted. Defeated. Annoyed. I was in a dark, foul mood. So when one girl on M's team started tossing her face mask in my general direction and it almost hit me while I was grading papers, I was barely civil. Sorry to that girl and her mom. And when the coach called M "Michelle" again for the upteenth time, I was barely civil when I corrected him - learn their names, goddamn it. They matter. And if I interacted with you yesterday or earlier today, I'm really sorry. When I get into one of these moods, I'm rather...black. Ish. Funky. No fun to hang out with.

Maybe this is why, last night, I stopped by my old house and let myself in with the key. C was out of town on a business trip. I just wanted to be somewhere familiar, where I had some happier memories. Where nobody was stomping around above me, no yippy dog was barking down the hall, and nobody was having sex next to me and concluding it all with some type of bad late 80s pop hit (I have next door neighbors who get amorous late at night, and the man - a deep baritone, who actually has a keen sense for musical tone - likes to finish up with ditties like Ice Ice Baby. Fortunately, Miss M has either been at her dad's or blissfully asleep; at some point, I suppose we'll end up having THAT talk...5 years early, thanks so much kinky next door neighbors). Basically, I just wanted to be surrounded by familiar sounds and smells and...familiar stuff. Without late night Cinemax softcore film noir in the background. 

C is painting the downstairs. A hideous (sorry if you read this, C, but it is true) a hideous white-ish grey. All of our beautiful, spicy colors of earthy green, cinnamon, harvest yellow...going white-ish grey. I just sat on my old red sofa and sobbed at what he's about to do, for a very long time. And I sobbed because that was the sofa I used to take naps with M on, laying on my chest. And because my old cat Tasha died in that chair there. And I am homesick. 

Not for C, who I love a lot, but do not want to be married to anymore. I am not homesick for our relationship; we simply don't work in that capacity. I'm homesick for peace and safety, I think. Just peace and safety. And the Known. And warm colors and quiet. I feel like I'm constantly surrounded, at work, by clinical colors and loudness. Do this! Yesterday! We're pretty sure you potentially suck and are hurting children! Get the data up! Increase their growth! Now! Now! Now! 

I am not just stressed and exhausted at this point. I am actually going slightly numb, at work. I feel trapped and helpless and powerless. And I don't like this. I love the children they gave me this year, and if you walked into my classroom on any given day, you would see us reading and talking and laughing and enjoying each other. It would LOOK fabulous. But if you walked in my classroom at the end of the day, on any given day, you would see me sad and quiet, hurriedly prepping for tomorrow, stressed out about something I haven't done or something that's due or paperwork...or I'd be vegging out and checking my phone, simply unable to cope with the stress anymore...or I'd be in tears. Just sitting. In tears. Powerless.

Tomorrow I'm going to a sweet friend's house for burgers, beer, and swimming. We've been talking a long time about writing a TV show based on what teaching in an elementary-level, poor, urban school is like. I'm not good at writing scripts, but she has family members who work in the TV/Film industry who are going to help us. Because we've got STORIES, seasons of stories. Stories you just can't make up, but are really real. Most are ridiculously funny. Some are sad. Some are infuriating. Some are heartbreaking. Just like Life. But mostly, we just want people to know how hard it is. I talk to people all the time who voice this. They say, "You have the hardest job!" or "I couldn't do what you do!" But do they really, really KNOW? We want them to feel it. Because we want to stop what's happening to our children, to our schools. This is very, very wrong. 

.........or you know. On the other hand, I could just be a drama queen. Totally addicted to attention. I'll let you decide.

Tonight, after dinner, Miss M and I were driving home and she was so so MAD at me for not buying dessert. She sat in the back crying, saying mournfully morose things like, "Nobody wants me as a child. Nobody will ever ever love me. I guess I'll just be by myself forever and EVER. Because that's my FATE." (Sound familiar? Go back through this blog...apples do not fall far from trees.) 

And so I kept saying, "That's not true. You're my favorite child in the whole world. I will ALWAYS want you." (I would protect you with my life, my darling. I would take a bullet for you, my little wannabe-mermaid.

To which she screeched, "THAT'S NOT TRUE!!! What?! You think just telling me you LOVE me makes no dessert BETTER?!?! Well, YOU'RE WRONG!!! YOU HATE ME!!! You OBVIOUSLY hate me!!! What?! You think telling me I'm your favorite child makes what you did OKAY?!!? What?!?! You think you're the SMARTEST??!! What?! Do they give out DEGREES in PARENTING now?!?! What?! You think you have a PhD in MOM?!?!"

And that made me laugh my ridiculous shitty mom ass off. Which made her even angrier. And so she sobbed in the back while I literally peed my pants with laughter. Seriously. I had to change when we got home. But not before I got her a McDonald's ice cream cone, as a consolation prize and a thank you.

Because when I was finally able to collect myself, I realized: I haven't laughed, really laughed, in about 48 hours. And maybe THAT has really been my problem; I am so much more pleasant to hang out with when something makes me laugh so hard I pee my pants and my ridiculous mom ass comes off. (I wonder if there's some data to back me up on that?)

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