Confessions of a She-Geek

March 19, 2016

The Tree (Memento Mori in the USA)

Filed under: Daily life — Teresa @ 6:58 pm

A few months ago I was jolted out of almost being asleep by a horrendous BANG. Heart pounding, I lay in my darkened room, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. After a few seconds of lying in the darkness, not hearing any further sounds, I slipped into sleep.

The next morning as I was getting ready for work, I wondered briefly what happened the previous night, but it soon slipped my mind. Later that day as I glanced through the headlines of the local news, my eye was caught by the image of a mangled car sitting next to a tree that I recognized. That BANG was the sound of a car-on-car collision which ended the life of a local woman.

At first I felt guilty for not having gotten up to see what had happened – as if seeing with my own eyes the first responders in action would have in any way changed the tragic outcome. Then I felt grateful that I hadn’t borne witness to what was undoubtedly the grisly aftermath. Then my thoughts turned to the victim’s family, and how sad the situation was. As I pulled into my driveway that evening, I noted the deep gouges in the yard across the street, and marveled that the tree itself appeared unscathed.

Over the next few days, that tree became the focal point for various impromptu memorials: stuffed animals, photographs, flowers, and so on placed around the base of the tree. A memorial gathering took place by that tree. And day after day at some point the same car would be parked near that tree for a while, then drive off. My heart went out to the driver.

Since then, someone has continued to make that tree a focal point for his (or her) mourning process: a bouquet of flowers tucked into a black ribbon and a yellow ribbon, both of which are tied around the trunk. And every so often, a car will appear for a while. The driver will spend several minutes standing quietly next to that tree, head bowed, then get back in the car and drive off.

A couple days ago, a small gathering took place by that tree. I realized after the fact that it has been about six months since that sad event took place. And those ribbons and a fresh bouquet still decorate that tree. And part of me wonders: at what point will those items be removed from that trunk for good?

Not too long ago I saw a YouTube video from the PBS Idea Channel which posited the question: Is it okay to mourn celebrity death online? (Spoiler alert: it totally is; there’s no one “right” way to mourn). Ostensibly an opinion piece about the increasing role social media plays in the grieving process, the video also touches on how Western cultures deal (or don’t deal, as the case may be) with death, grief, and mortality. Simply put, Western cultures in general, and the U.S. in particular, do not know how to handle death. We treat it as an enemy to be conquered; outwitted, somehow, through modern medicine and self-care and cosmetic surgery, collectively pretending that we’re not all, ultimately, going to die despite all these things.

This, combined with The Tree, has put me in a reflective state of mind. See, The Tree makes me uncomfortable. I’d just as soon not see the tangible signs of mourning every time I look out one of the windows on that side of my house. I’m sympathetic, but uneasy witnessing someone else’s grief. And I wonder: is it because I want to help these people, but don’t know how? And I wonder: how am I defining help, anyway? Putting an end to the emotional pain they are trying to process, laid bare to my eyes? And I wonder: is this helping them, or just making it easier for me to retreat into this cultural programming?

Sure, one could argue it’s about quality of life, and making sure that our time in this world is as enjoyable (read: unpainful) as possible, for as long as possible. And yes, that is a good goal, and one worth pursuing. But sooner or later we all die. And culturally-speaking, we tend to avoid that simple truth and treat death as something unusual and to be surprised by when we are once more facing it. Is it fear of the unknown? At least partly, I’d say yes. Now, depending on your belief system, you may feel pretty confident in knowing what happens to us after we die. And that there’s no reason to fear what comes next. But this is not something reflected in American culture.

After mulling it over for a while, here’s what I’ve come up with. This isn’t about fear; it’s about avoidance of pain. Grief hurts. Mourning hurts. The sudden appearance of a person-sized hole in your life (whether or not you believe that one day you will be reunited with that person) is incredibly painful, and collectively we do everything we can to avoid it. We want that pain to END as soon as possible, and don’t appreciate being reminded that it’s always there, lurking in the shadows, as the inevitable happens to people we care about.

But here’s the thing about mourning: avoidance as a coping mechanism? Sucks. And a culture that focuses on NOT dealing with death leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the inevitable. Religious rites help fill this gap, giving us a framework in which we can work through our pain. And certainly there is a lot of WORK involved in the lengthy list of to-do’s necessary to tie up various loose ends when someone dies. But the bottom line is that mourning is difficult, and messy, and while you can be sympathetic when someone else is in mourning, you cannot take on their pain and do the mourning FOR them, however much you might want to.

In the case where you and your loved ones have the same person-sized hole appear in your lives, you have to watch your loved ones handle their own pain, while trying to help you handle yours, while also trying to let you help them handle THEIRS. There’s some comfort in knowing you share the same pain, but it doesn’t really lessen it.

The Tree is a case in point: someone is clearly struggling to work their way through a broken heart, attempting to patch up the person-sized hole left in his (or her) life. And really, I think that’s what mourning really is. It’s the appearance of the person-sized hole, acknowledging that the hole exists, and eventually patching the hole. The hole is still there, but it’s covered over. And if you live long enough and love enough people, eventually there will be a lot of patches over a lot of person-sized holes. There’s a beauty in that; in knowing we’ll all be part of someone else’s patchwork. Maybe keeping that in mind is a first step toward a culture shift.

December 30, 2015

Teacher, teacher (can you teach me?)

Filed under: Daily life — Teresa @ 6:20 pm
Tags: ,

A recently-posted opinion piece in the Toronto Star has been making the rounds on Facebook. The gist of the piece is that paying teachers more hasn’t led to higher scores on standardized tests.

The responses to the original posting are astonishing – a lot of the respondents seem to truly believe that paying teachers a higher salary is a waste of money because then people will go into teaching for the high wage, rather than out of some altruistic desire to help prepare children to take their place as productive members of society.

I don’t know what’s more absurd: saying teachers shouldn’t be paid more because the test scores aren’t any higher, or suggesting that paying more would attract all the wrong people.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I started my career as a teacher, and taught in the classroom for five years before I realized (read: admitted) that it just wasn’t for me. I have first-hand experience as a teacher, which I strongly suspect is five more years than the people who made these comments have.

Saying that you know what it’s like to be a teacher because you went to school, is like saying that you know what it’s like to be a doctor because you have an annual physical. Actual contact time is just the tip of the iceberg, and in no way reflects how much actual time teachers put in.

If you divide a teacher’s salary by the actual number of hours worked, I think it’s safe to say that even the “exorbitant” pay of a whopping 50,000/year doesn’t amount to very much per hour – at least not in the U.S.

While it may technically be true that teachers “get the summer off”, those “summers off” are generally filled with prepping for the upcoming school year, taking classes to meet continuing education requirements, leading students in extracurricular activities (which at least in the U.S. are pretty much a condition of employment), and in some cases, even TEACHING summer school.

I have never, ever met anyone who went into teaching because the pay is fantastic and the working conditions are ideal. It’s hard, HARD work. Anyone who believes otherwise, just needs to spend an academic year shadowing a teacher. Every hour spent with students is the result of several other hours of prepping and followup.

Using standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of measuring student progress, is frankly bogus and always has been. All standardized tests measure is how well students can take tests. Some students do very well on tests; others don’t. If you believe that the only point of the educational system is to help kids score well on tests, then you pretty much believe that education basically IS pointless.

The point of an education is to teach kids how to think, and how to function as productive members of society. Standardized tests do NOT measure that. And the time-honored contention that standardized testing is necessary because there’s no better way to measure progress, is a very, VERY old argument that becomes less valid with every passing year.

Authentic assessment (i.e., measuring what students have learned in a way that accurately captures the student’s level of mastery) MUST involve more than just standardized tests. We use standardized testing because numbers are easier to boil down into statistics. But when the statistics themselves don’t give an accurate picture of what’s really going on, there’s a fundamental problem with that approach.

Teaching to the test may in theory lead to higher test scores (assuming that the students actually TRY to do well, which is by no means a given), but all it proves is that students can succeed at taking tests. It’s NOT an accurate rendering of what students have actually accomplished.

So what do I suggest? How about this: using performance-based assessments that actually demonstrate what students can do? Having students work on cross-disciplinary projects which demonstrate the ability to pull together, analyze, and communicate new information? Establish baseline competencies for each student, which the student then completes as part of ongoing coursework?

How about not boiling students down to scores on standardized tests, which puts an inordinate amount of pressure on students to do well in this one thing, while ignoring all the other things he (or she) also does as part of an ongoing education?

Unless you really think that doing well on a test IS the point of education. If that’s what you truly believe, then feel free to ignore this post.

September 13, 2015

More Than a Feeling…

Filed under: Daily life — Teresa @ 11:43 pm
Tags: , ,

I’ve heard it said that suffering builds compassion. In suffering, conventional wisdom tells us, we find common ground on which we can build connections and help to raise each other up. It does seem that many people choose to turn their pain into something positive, building up from what was burned down much in the way that forest fires can lead to new growth.

A couple weeks ago the Twitterverse blew up when actor Misha Collins was mugged in Minneapolis. Fortunately he wasn’t seriously injured and has fully recovered since then. Rumor has it that he refused to press charges against his attackers, and despite the attack he still participated in the fan convention that he flew in to attend. He chose to put aside whatever he was going through to do what he thought was most beneficial.

Now, this actor uses his celebrity to do some impressive things, including establishing a charity called Random Acts. Mr. Collins’ actions suggest that he is deeply compassionate and committed to helping others wherever he can. At various Q and A sessions with fans, he has alluded to a less-than-ideal childhood, marked by poverty (he was homeless for a time) and a fair amount of adversity. Yet he emerged from these experiences with a heart for helping people who are struggling. Was it his own experiences that made him so determined to lighten other people’s loads?

On the flip side, is it possible for a person who has never faced adversity to understand what it is to struggle? Does someone born in the lap of luxury have the capacity to empathize with someone who has to choose between keeping a roof overhead and food in his belly? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the pampered rich may not be able to grasp something so far outside their own experience **coughdonaldtrumpcough**. If you’ve never been hurt, or hungry, or cold, you won’t be as inclined to help someone who is hurt/hungry/cold.

Yet recent scientific studies suggest otherwise. Just Google “toddlers and empathy” and see for yourself. Human beings seem to be hard-wired for compassion toward one another. So what happens? How do we go from being naturally predisposed to kindness, to the merciless nastiness that is far too prominent in the world? Why does pain lead some people to greater kindness and others to cruelty?

Maybe it’s not the pain itself, but our response to the pain that makes us bitter. I’m happy to say that I’ve rarely been seriously injured, but have on occasion needed to take heavy-duty (prescription!) painkillers. I’ve noted that while under their influence, I may still feel pain, but I don’t mind that it hurts. And if I don’t mind the pain, I can ignore it and get on with things. So is that the answer? Is holding on to our natural compassion more a matter of just accepting that potential pain, and if it hurts, then it hurts?

Maybe so.

August 22, 2015

The Greatest Help of All?

Lately a lot of thoughts have been swirling around my head about the concept of help and how it applies to daily life. On the surface, it seems pretty straightforward: help is providing assistance to someone in need. The assistance may be financial, physical, emotional, spiritual, or some combination thereof.

It’s a fundamental concept in a number of world religions. Most people agree that it is good to help those who need it; consensus seems to be that we are actually obligated to help one another. Some even say that’s our purpose in life. But when it comes to practical application, the nature of what it means to help is surprisingly divisive.

The arguing begins where the rubber meets the road. For example, government-sponsored social programs provide assistance, but only when someone can prove that they actually need it. Fair enough: there are a limited number of resources available, and squandering them on people who don’t really need the assistance means less is available for the people who really, really do. From a practicality standpoint, that just makes sense.

But a small percentage of people are gaming the system, successfully obtaining more help than they actually need. The response has been to add more regulations, making it harder to commit fraud – which unfortunately also makes it harder for the people who do need government assistance, to get it. For programs based on the principle that help should only be given to people who actually need it, the increasing amounts of red tape may well be a necessary evil.

Here’s where it gets a bit trickier: are we directed to give help to people who need it, or to people we deem worthy of it? For example, if someone commits a heinous crime, but also clearly is in dire need of counseling, are we obliged to provide it in addition to punishment? Or are we able to say that criminals may need help, but they don’t deserve it – and therefore we are justified in withholding it? Is helping criminals somehow diminishing the suffering they’ve caused to victims and their families?  Maybe this isn’t an either-or proposition; maybe we’re supposed to help both criminals and victims – an idea many would object to as adding insult to injury.

I struggle with the concept that help should be based on merit. I don’t like the notion that I’m deciding who is worthy and who isn’t, but I find myself falling into this way of thinking. I see a panhandler on a street corner and automatically question whether the person actually needs help, or is just claiming to need it. Is it my place to decide whether that person is telling the truth? Yes, it’s my money, and yes, I can decide what I should do with it. But if I’m commanded to give help when it’s needed, isn’t it enough that he (or she) says the need exists? The person may be telling the truth, after all. I have no proof that the person is lying; just my own suspicions combined with friend-of-a-friend tales where panhandlers drive off in shiny new Cadillacs.

There’s also only so much help one person can give. Ideally, the greatest possible degree of assistance should be given to the largest percentage of people. With that in mind, is it better to give a greater amount of help to a few people, or a smaller amount to more? Would it be better to focus my efforts on helping people half a world away, or more locally? Which would have the greatest impact? Which is more beneficial? And should one group have a higher priority?

Some people say it’s hypocritical for someone to spend vast amounts of time and energy working to help people half a world away instead of those in one’s own community. I don’t know that this is an either-or proposition, really. If some people focus on providing local assistance while others put their efforts overseas, everyone is still getting help. Overall, the goal is still being met.

I’ve also found in myself a rather ugly attitude that if I’m giving help, the people receiving it owe me gratitude and should be happy for for what they get. I become annoyed when I make a donation and receive a response that boils down to, “thanks for the money; can we have more?” I find myself grumbling that I already gave, and where does this organization get off coming back for more? That makes no sense. Clearly I thought the charity needed my help, or I wouldn’t have contributed in the first place. Why am I upset by receiving confirmation that I was right?

After all, if we’re here to help one another, I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing. That doesn’t oblige the recipient to express gratitude or pretend that the assistance I gave solved the problem entirely. More to the point, is the help I’m giving somehow contingent on receiving acknowledgement or reward? It shouldn’t be. Should I be upset if the person I’m helping seems to assume that he (or she) is entitled to assistance? Because if our purpose really is to help one another, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect assistance if assistance is supposed to be provided?

I don’t have any answers, really. About all I can do it try to fight the whole “I want to help, but only when I want to do it, and only to people I think deserve it, and only as much as I want to” thing. It’s an ugly bit of wrong thinking that needs to be weeded out. Wish me luck.

Blog at WordPress.com.