Monday, October 29, 2012

I.D.

Studs Terkel, our national treasure and oral historian concluded in his book Working, "Your work is your identity." Sure is. Not only do we identify ourselves by what we do, we lose that identity when we have nothing to do or no longer work. This conclusion that Terkel reached after interviewing hundreds of people in a wide variety of professions is hardly shocking. Americans have valued work from the early days of the republic. It's a huge part of our national character. In fact, we value hard work so much that when faced with the trauma of job loss, or career changes, or loss of satisfaction in the workplace, we often blame ourselves. From the Great Depression of the 1930s right on through to today's stagnant economy, we have been living with identity crises that stem from work. For a teacher this loss of identity is particularly difficult. I know a few folks that have had a difficult time adjusting to their like after teaching. Their identity changes literally, from Mr.or Ms. whomever to just a first name. That's the least of concerns. Since teaching is so all-consuming, the sudden loss of all the necessities can be jolting. Who am I now that I am no longer Mr. Greene? I think I know. But for many it's a real conundrum.
I've been thinking about distancing myself from all things educational. Just take a little break and remove myself from public education, completely, and see what that feels like. I think it's time. I do enjoy my part-time job working with beginning teachers, but it's not the same. At all. It's not the same as teaching. It's often said that something happens to a teacher that leaves the classroom. They lose touch. I believe that; I always have. When you leave the trenches, you lose perspective, by degree. In the six years I've been away from full-time teaching I can certainly relate to that. I realize that things change exponentially. Many of the issues and methods have changed drastically in the last few years. I appreciate these changes, see them constantly, and try to adjust. But many issues and methods are exactly the same. Discussing big ideas, encouraging students to think deeply and challenging them to enjoy their education will never change. I hope. So what would it mean for me to remove myself from the game. It means not getting so emotionally involved when I resist the privatization of public schools. It means taking a break from blogs and websites, editorials and education books. It means, more than anything else, becoming another person and taking a more neutral stance when thinking or talking or especially listening to anything to do with schools. No identity crisis here. My personality, like my profession is fairly established.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Teamwork

I’ve been a Giants fan for over 50 years. The great teams of the 1950s are hazy childhood memories. My first recollection of the New York Giants being “my team” goes back to the seven year old days of my life when I would retreat to the backyard of my folks little S. California post-war home and practice making Willie Mays’ catch from the ’54 World Series. Not the over the shoulder basket catch that has become an iconic moment, but a jumping version I thought would suffice. Last night, as the final Presidential debate dominated most of the news stations, the Giants again made it to the World Series with a scrappy little team that refused to quit. As President Obama showered Mitt Romney with his forthright, measured foreign policy salvos, the Giants lived up to their name in the San Francisco rain. Nice evening. While I can’t share my politics with my father, every post-season Giants game he’s with me. The transplanted New Yorker, like the team, gave me a love of baseball that has endured for almost 60 years. Growing up a Giants fan in Los Angeles took a bit of toughness too. It served me well. So I’ll watch the World Series, but the best of the season is already over. Another Series win would be nice, but it’s not necessary after the 2010 victory. That was a “one time before I die” experience for this Giants fan.
This morning many teachers I know are enjoying a good laugh at Mr. Romney’s proclamation “I love teachers” last night. I’d sure like to hear him elaborate on that a little more. Is that why his prospective Secretary of Education is anti-union? If any organization gets a bad rap it’s teacher’s unions. They have been demonized. This from people who have never taught. The public perception concerns unions as obstacles to progress. They certainly do have some things to clean up but what gets me is that rarely is the importance of teacher’s unions discussed when it comes to protecting academic freedom. That is the real issue here. Academic freedom that gives the teacher the right to make curriculum decisions is the real threat. It allows teachers to be creative and hones their skills. In whose interests is a skilled, well informed, creative, inspirational teacher a threat? Let’s debate that. Like those scrappy little Giants, there are thousands of teachers who depend their unions to reinforce the democratic ideals they teach.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Please, Sir

It happens with increased frequency. In fact, I like to tell myself that I must have been knighted. That's the only explanation for being called "sir" so many times these days. I know it's a sign of respect. It's also a sign of age or experience or even good home training. I'm not complaining, just taking note. Occasionally I'll get called "young man." A bit condescending since I'm retired. Guess it depends on the age of the person doing the calling. Sir comes with age. It's a constant reminder, but not the only one.
There is a real phenomena called the male gaze. Men look at women. Sometimes appropriately, sometimes not. With age, it can be a real troublemaker whether you care or not. I like to look at people; all people. I also have a long history of talking to young people. In 33 years in the classroom, and another 6 years supervising student teachers, I talk to lots of young people. It's natural for me. It's what I have always done and they reciprocate without question. But lately I've noticed that I can't do that out of context any more. I am no longer the friendly teacher, the comforting, nurturing role model, the mentor to just anyone. I've noticed how my gaze or interest can bring quick judgments or an uncomfortable reaction. In most ways, that's probably a good thing. But in some ways, just a few, it's disappointing, if not saddening. But, I get it. The male gaze makes a fascinating discussion. It's been a lively topic at my writing group on more than one occasion. Yes, men need to be aware and take responsibility for their behavior. They need to be aware of the difference between a gaze and a leer. They need to look at all people, not just women in the eyes, and they need to be especially aware when interacting with young people. But sometimes it's complicated. Sometimes it's much easier to talk to people of all ages and let them sort it out. Aging is subtle, even in this culture. Some of my former students look much the same as they always did 20 or even 30 years later. Some are unrecognizable for various reasons ranging from experience to gender identity, to health issues. A few look older than I do...no really they do. I've noticed that many of my friends who are my age or close to it seem to relate the impact of technology quite differently. Most (especially the educators) adapt and learn from students and peers and make remarkable progress. Others simply retreat into the past for anything that is either comfortable or uncomplicated. They seem to have made decisions about books not E-readers, writing checks as opposed to online bill paying, and having telephones that simply make calls and nothing more. Not I. I'm just taking my time. One thing I do know is that when I talk to young people today, kids in the schools I visit, or my friends children, or the younger generations of my family, I always learn something.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Little Gem

Last week I returned to Little Lava Lake. This beautiful spot, high in the Cascades mountains was where I really learned a lot about fly fishing. And it's not really the lake, it's what happens there. Sitting under the shadow of Mt. Bachelor, a dormant volcano and Central Oregon ski destination, the mighty Deschutes River emerges from this lake as snowmelt from underground springs. The river literally begins as a small stream exiting the lake. About a quarter of a mile from this watery eruption the river, about the size of a large creek, flows through a small meadow. It is in this stunning spot where I have caught rainbow and brook trout, and now, this year a few Oregon Mountain Whitefish.
My day there this year was the latest I've ever been there. I usually go in July or August and once or twice in September. But never in October. Last week there were no mosquitos and very few people. The water was icy cold, but the beauty of the place, even on a cloudy day remains. This site has become a kind of cathedral for me. I always manage to see more wildlife there too. As usual, I saw osprey and deer. In years past I've seen a family of otters, a great blue heron and numerous ducks. While standing hip deep in the swirling waters, fish rising all around me, a Kingfisher perched nearby to check me out. Always something new. One of these days, and it better be sooner rather than later, I'm going to spend a week there. I'm going to spread out, sleep in, walk all over the place, downstream, float the lake, drink in the sunsets and sunrises. I'm going to get my fill of this place because I want to keep it with me forever. I only hope that it will last, in it's present form, for future generations.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mirror Image

I've seen a lot of them lately. Usually in book stores. These pictures of musicians, writers, generational icons. These pictures of familiar faces grown old. In his new autobiography Neil Young does it perfectly. On the cover is a picture of him, very intense, as he appears today. On the back cover is the same kind of picture of Neil Young in his prime.
It strikes me that some folks don't remember the young Neil. I get that. Many of the new friends I have in Portland don't know or remember me as a younger man. And then there are those like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Sure their faces have deep lines. Their voices are a bit more craggy too. But their aging over the decades is less obvious. Bob Dylan keeps rolling along. Five decades in the business and the new albums keep coming. The image of Dylan today is radically different from the young curly headed boy with no facial hair. The voice is fairly gone, but the lyrics as contradictory and subtle as ever. Maybe more of these rock stars will make their way to postage stamps. Will they do what they did with Elvis? "Do you want the young or the old Elvis stamp?" Some of both please.
I really love the people who age gracefully. The ones who manage to change with the times but don't really change. They accept the gray hair and it becomes silver. Silver is more valuable than obsidian. This juxtaposition of faces is both fascinating and frightening. There really does come a time when we look into the mirror and see someone else staring back. It's what we do about that and how we feel about what looks back that determines the measure of self-acceptance. I was standing on a corner yesterday waiting for the WALK sign. Three twenty somethings waited behind me and one was talking and gesturing wildly about a friend of theirs who had a recent encounter with someone. "She's like Im not gonna talk to him...he was an older man in his 60s..." Clearly this 65 year old being present meant nothing. And that is the stark reality, isn't it? Most people I meet think I'm a bit younger than I appear. The irony is that I use no dyes or make no attempt to hide my age. My silver-gray lightly dusts a bit of black, but my beard borders on white. So be it. Sometimes I read obituaries. There are all kinds and most are far too brief to encapsulate a life. Occasionally there is not just one picture but an array of photos over a period of time. That's really who we are and who we were. It is also much more interesting.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Grad..ually

Four years ago 81% of the people questioned in a study agreed that a college education was a good investment. Today, that figure has changed to 57%. It's not difficult to see why. Many of the students in the last high school classes I taught are living proof. They played by the rules. They graduated from college, most with the help of financial aid. Now they are still waiting tables, living at home, wondering what comes next. Of course this does not apply to all. Some are working in careers like teaching and engineering, some are back into graduate programs and some are carving out an existence by working and doing what matters most to them in any way they can. Maybe there is no job in the particular field they studied like fine arts, dance, psychology, or mathematics, but they have figured out how to do make a small living and keep their interest and passion in another field very much alive. This got me thinking. What kind of investment is a college education. Certainly the financial one is substantial, but that is hardly where it ends. If everyone who wanted a good job that promised a lifelong career with full benefits, could get one without a college education, what would they sacrifice? That is, what comes along with attending college that has nothing to do with investing financially in your future? My response to that question would begin with my own experience. For four years I was immersed in an academic environment that offered, perhaps unrealistically, a opportunity to reflect on big ideas. Reading, thinking, clarifying ideas with others by discussion and representing your knowledge in a variety of ways is the most valuable part of the experience. If college enrollments are in decline, and they appear to be, does that mean fewer people will be critical thinkers? I'm not sure. Perhaps college enrollment and the desire to read books or think deeply are exclusive. How do you put a price tag on what it means to be educated?