ISA HOPKINS

Raconteur. Adventurer. Kimchi Enthusiast.

Sleep On It

I wrote this a few days ago but wasn’t comfortable posting it right away.  Then I read this and was inspired to just go ahead and do the damn thing.

Here we are.

Coming back…

Squatting is a strange thing.  Both places that I’ve squatted were places I had access to, technical permission to occupy – I had a key to each, after all – but to unroll my pillow and blanket was a silent prayer, night after night, to go unfound.  I had keys but I stowed my meager belongings in boiler rooms and storage closets, hidden as I strove to be.  The only alternative I had was to sleep in my car, which carries its own risks – I was ‘discovered’ there once, made to move along; had my car been unoccupied it wouldn’t have been an issue but with a person inside a vehicle became something else altogether, a house that couldn’t or shouldn’t be, a monstrous mongrel of a thing untolerated by comfortable middle-class capitalists.

Where one sleeps at night shouldn’t be a political question.  But we’ve made it so, with ever-encroaching privatization of property and regulation of what little public space remains.  For the homeless bereft of a sympathetic couch or floorspace, there’s no option that’s not of at least questionable legality.

I’ve returned to both of my squats subsequently, under respectable daylight conditions, with full knowledge and approval from the property owners or managers.  It’s a strange place to come back to, a site of such furtive desperation made pedestrian by the function of its routine, bereft of the illicit frisson of nocturnal disappearance and unthreatening in the daylight.

Are we dulled by the conventions we create?

The second time I squatted – homeless at thirty-one, six years after the first time it happened – was both easier and more difficult than my initial experience.  At twenty-five I was terrified by the newness of it all and in the second go-’round I at least knew what to do, although the weight of *again* fell more heavily than I might have imagined.  But as physically and emotionally challenging as those times were (and they were), there was something badass in all of it as well; an inherent adventuresomeness that looked, from the right angle, like freedom.  It was an extraordinary struggle and each night the possibility of discovery loomed but each morning I woke up a little bit gleeful, beating the odds for just one more day.  

I am not supposed to say things like that.  I am not, generally, supposed to talk about homelessness at all: I am a Georgetown graduate who grew up in a good middle-class family and there are those among friends and relatives who take my homelessness as an accusation against their ability to provide, against their values, against society at large.  It was none of those things, of course; I stumbled blindly into poverty, willing to shoulder it as a temporary burden as a two-term AmeriCorps member but utterly oblivious to the notion that it might become a more persistent feature of my life.  My mother remains perplexed at my inability to earn money befitting my education.  I used to be so myself, but being so socially and culturally marginalized forces a reckoning with the general operating principles of convention that most of us, secure in houses and paychecks and regular meals, have no obligation to endure.  

Because almost none of us are truly secure.  Dime-store prophets will tell you it’s because the whole damn system is crooked, but that’s too simplistic – there is crookedness in the system and also goodness, but mostly there’s just incompletion; we’ve built, over hundreds of generations, from enclosure laws to the present day, something that works well enough for enough of us that the majority is, if not truly satisfied, then at least more fearful of change than they are of persisting in the status quo.  It just might be the very definition of mediocrity, but it’s damn hard to snap out of, and as a culture we’re too busy reassuring ourselves of our greatness to imagine a better way of doing business anyway.

And what of the homeless, of the poor and the people of color and disabled and trans and marginalized?  We tend to get written out of the story.  We’re unsettling data points and the dominant narrative tends to regress into a smooth, easily comprehensible curve – those models and equations and manipulations are created, of course; they don’t spring fully-formed from a primeval, unacculturated human nature, but are born of education and experience and power, power most of all, the power to erase those who don’t fit.  

There are decided perks to having a residence once more, to no longer being homeless.  Some of them might exist outside of the world we’ve made but most are indisputably a product of it: getting mail and hanging my clothes rather than keeping them in a suitcase and especially not fearing for my own illegitimacy, never doubting my right to occupy the space where I sleep.  I have slid back onto the curve of respectability, just barely but it’s greeted with more approval than the wild wanderings that have defined much of the past decade of my life, a decade which itself constitutes the entirety of my adulthood – I graduated from college ten years ago, and it’s taken this long to beat the weirdness out of me.

But it’s not all gone yet.  Revisiting my most recent squat I’m langurous and unhurried; I know this place in evenings and darkness, and there’s no rush to get back to the scrambling, impoverished respectability of my house tonight.

I do not wish to be homeless again, and when homelessness recurred in my life, it was not by design or by choice.  But fear of repeating past mistakes can be confining and there are earthquakes in the near horizon of my life, big unavoidable shakeups potentiated with a spectrum from greatness to the harsh unpredictable liberation of failure.  

Here, sitting on the same carpet where I once – not so very long ago – slept, I am reminded of the ultimate truth of my squatting, my long couch-surfing, the nights I slept in cars and all the many months when I was homeless: that by refusing to look back or acknowledge where I’ve been is to be complicit in my own erasure, and that there is no shame in surviving.

Redux

For the last decade and change, I’ve had an occasional recurring dream: not a nightmare per se but the kind of too-obvious subconscious excavation that leaves one restless and edgy upon waking, sleep spent in the company of what-ifs and might-have-beens.  In my dream I don’t revisit scenes from my own life but rather those of fictional characters – Mulder and Scully, to be precise, or Doggett and Reyes to be more precise; the “X-Files” of this nocturnal grappling is like that of the show’s ninth and final season, starring Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, with Gillian Anderson dropping in now and again and David Duchovny conspicuously absent.  The dream is always the same: I turn on the television and find the series in its eleventh or fifteenth or twentieth season, and even though I haven’t seen it in years I can’t turn it off.  It’s not very good anymore, which is why my dream-self stopped watching, but yet to wake up from this dream I’m still filled with guilt at having abandoned it.

*

The truth is that I never abandoned “The X-Files.”  The show’s final year was my first year of college and I used to stake out the Ricketts House lounge hours before airtime, to be sure I’d get my necessary weekly dose of Mulder and Scully.  Despite the flaws of the ninth season, I watched every episode; I saw “I Want to Believe” at a midnight showing and pre-ordered the DVD; I started a podcast about the show, in 2012, but gave it up when someone better came along.  

There will officially be a tenth season of the show that has, more than any other piece of fiction or art or entertainment, defined my life.  I should be excited, and I thought I would be.

The truth is, I’m not excited at all.

*

The first episode I ever saw was “Darkness Falls,” late season one (episode 21, I want to say?).  I was ten years old and my friend Alison was sleeping over.  She and my older brother weren’t scared by the episode but I was freaked out, and later that night, when I got into bed, I shrieked in terror: they’d conspired to fill my sheets with glow-in-the-dark plastic bugs, just like the ones that had cocooned Mulder and Scully nearly to death.  

By season three I’d matured enough to watch it regularly with my brother on Friday nights, sandwiched in between the first hour of ABC’s “TGIF” lineup and “20/20”.  Phil had to talk me out of fear when an episode was set in Cleveland (“2Shy”) but otherwise the show’s third year was a slow burn, and the summer in between seventh and eighth grade I began to miss it, to fill the gap by checking out books from the library and searching on the nascent Internet (we had just gotten a modem in the house).  Soon I was lost: ATXF, X-Ville, the OBSSE, Gossamer, Scullyfic – I had discovered my community of fellow obsessives, more accommodating than the junior high classmates with whom I never quite found social traction, and so I met my tribe online instead, at least until I went to high school (season five) and got some real-life ‘phile friends.  Most of them have respectable adult jobs now, DoJ attorneys and museum curators and up-and-coming comedy writers, and kids too; I’ll spare them the name-checking but together we wore out VHS tapes of favorite episodes and built out a battery of in-jokes (“Woodcock!” and “Full bore!” and “David Duchovny’s Reading with Inflection”).  Some of them were already superfans and some of them I converted, with quotes and videos and my incessant evangelical fervor, but we were all weirdos, theater geeks and sci-fi nerds both at once; but we were weirdos together so it didn’t matter that other kids scoffed at our TV shows and our Halloween costumes and our fanfic.

Because, dear god, the fanfic.

“X-Files” fanfic existed in two primary epochs: Before “Iolokus” (a more innocent time, when Paula Graves/Anne Haynes was the peak of MSR (Mulder/Scully Romance)), and Post-“Iolokus,” which blew open the fanfic landscape with the same ferocity and angsty melodrama that the anti-hero has brought to cable television.  At the beginning, I read it all – I remember my confusion at an adventure story that devolved into a sappy romance scored by Celine Dion (what happened?, my thirteen-year-old self wondered) and the glee that my social circle took in the frequently ridiculous romances by the likes of MacSpooky.  We laughed and scrolled – the textual version of covering your eyes – through NC-17 stories like “Sweet Smell of X-Cess,” which revolved around some kind of pheromonal conspiracy; I don’t remember any details except a scene in an elevator which introduced me to the concept of a gangbang, for as surely as we were scrolling past the dirty stuff we were reading it, too, peeking at the luridness from behind our youthful covered eyes.  "He flicked it" became a catchphrase, taken from a sex scene in a story called “Pizza and a Beer” by an author named Leyla Harrison, who died of cancer and was later memorialized by the show itself, appearing as a young agent in two episodes in season 8 and 9.

I wrote fanfic: a porn parody series that interwove a sketch from MTV’s “The State” in its debauchery, and some serious things, too – with one friend I began penning an “Iolokus”-style epic, from which I can still recall one sublime sentence: “In a bullish pose that was vaguely reminiscient of a Gestapo subjugation tactic, Kersh leaned forward with hands folded in deceptive innocuity.”

I’ve been the editor of an online humor magazine for five years now, but the truth is that I reached my absurdist peak at fifteen.

*

I dyed my hair red for seven years.  It grew out of a deal that I made with my parents for Halloween in my sophomore year of high school.  I had planned to dress as a character listed officially as “Fat Man,” a member of the nefarious Syndicate who my friends and I had taken to calling “Cheeks,” but my parents – concerned that I was not displaying sufficient femininity – begged me to dress as my idol, Special Agent Doctor Dana Scully, and I took advantage of their eagerness to go full-on DKS: only, I said, if I could dye my hair for it.  They consented immediately, I looked great as a redhead, and it became my new look until I graduated from college (with the exception of my freshman year, when I shaved my head).  

That first year, I dressed as Suit!Scully.  The following year, I put on a lab coat and went as Science!Scully.  My favorite “X-Files” costume, though, was undoubtedly the one I wore my freshman year, when I dressed as John Shiban, one of the show’s writers.  My BFF, Rachel, dressed as fellow scribe Frank Spotnitz, although to most of our classmates we just looked like boys (an acceptably exotic costume choice at our all-girls Catholic school).  I put olive oil in my hair to emulate Shiban’s follicular sheen and, oblivious to proper makeup techniques, used a mascara brush to give myself a scratchy soul patch.  Ten years later, in the lead-up to the release of “I Want to Believe,” Frank Spotnitz – co-writer and co-producer of the film – began publishing selected fan emails on his blog.  I sent him a message about Rachel and my sartorial homage, and we made it on the site; I was homeless at the time, squatting in a Caltech basement not far from where I’d camped out to watch the final season of “The X-Files” six years earlier, eating ramen and searching out spoilers for the upcoming movie just to have something to look forward to.  Spotsy and Shibes, the post was titled, just what Rachel and I called ourselves back when we were fourteen.

When the movie finally did come out, I flew from Los Angeles to Cleveland to see it with Rachel, honoring the many adolescent hours spent watching episodes in her basement.  The Foo Fighters had a show in Cleveland the night before the midnight premiere and it was my ideal lineup, Dave Grohl and then Dana Scully; Rachel and I were two of three people in the movie theater and though I expected us to see the movie again together before I returned to the West Coast I was rebuffed – “I think I’ve outgrown it,” Rachel told me, and a year and a half later I learned that “it” referred not only to the series but to our friendship as well.  "I never want to speak to you again,“ she wrote in a blindsiding email, and when I could think again what I thought was: but what if one of us finally figures out who Clarissa McPeck, byline at the end of "Fight the Future” and a mystery that we’d devoted fruitless years to unraveling, really is?

Wouldn’t the other deserve to know?

*

One year after that Rachel emailed me again, conciliatory.  We’ve made up, I guess, or at least we’re civil if not close – I wasn’t invited to her wedding and I don’t know if she has kids yet or if her elderly father is still alive, but I suppose it wouldn’t be horribly awkward to run into one another on the street someday, or to drop her a line if I ever solve the mystery of McPeck.

I wonder if she’s heard the news about Season Ten.

I wonder if she thought about Spotsy and Shibes.

*

Here’s why I’m not excited about Season Ten: because once the series ended, there was a second movie.  It was called “I Want to Believe” and it did not do well at the box office.  Its plot was thin but it had Skinner and Xzibit and the gruesome death of Amanda Peet – all good things – and featured Mulder and Scully in a full-fledged adult romance.  And while, once upon a time, Mulder wiping barbecue sauce from Scully’s cheek or their first, chaste kiss was enough to make incoherent episodes like “Red Museum” and “Millennium” eminently watchable, the relationship presented in “I Want to Believe” – in which they live together, in which they make out twice, in which Dr. Dana Katherine Scully, that latter-day template for female emotional dormancy, actually declares that she is in love with Mulder (as she is breaking up with him; DKS giveth, and DKS taketh away) and which ends with the Dynamic Duo swimsuit-clad and paddling through pristine waters, fanfic-like – earned nothing but ire from fans.  On my newsfeed today, someone referred to it as an “abomination.”

So what the fuck do we, the fandom, want or expect from Season Ten?  There is a certain appeal to the idea of breaking out the Kry-Chex Mix and Doritos Covarrubias and traveling back in time to the mid-to-late 90s, to a time when I typed Spanish captions under photos from the show so that I could pretend they were for an assignment when I printed them out at the school computer lab or made my own Scully action figure out of clay before the official ones came out or somehow transported a four-foot-tall cardboard Scully cut-out on a Southwest flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles to accompany me to college – but the truth is that I have aged, and so have Duchovny and Anderson.  They’re older now than they were in 2008, during “I Want to Believe,” and we still haven’t forgiven them for it.  After seven more years of wear and tear and life, why do we think we’ll be any kinder now?

The renewal can’t be to entice a new generation – the young ‘uns of today can discover the original series in full, commercial-free glory on Netflix and Hulu, and the intervening years of vampire slayers and supernatural brothers have rendered even first-season Mulder and Scully old by contemporary standards of sexy paranormal investigators.  It’s not for a happy ending – “I Want to Believe” gave us that, and beautifully – and it’s not for an extension of the show’s convoluted mythology (for that, there are the official “X-Files” season ten comics, which resurrect damn near everyone and introduce a whole slew of new villains and aliens).  We can’t go back to the days of the Cigarette-Smoking Man; he was blown up in the series finale, in a shot which showed flesh burning from his skeleton (although he numbers among the alive-after-all of the comics).  

And that’s the crux of it, really: why do we need to uproot the show, except to prove that we can, except for the impossible belief that it’ll be just like it was the first time around?  Even if Rachel and I were still best friends, even if we still spoke regularly, her parents moved to Florida years ago; I can never revisit the comfort and familiarity of that basement couch, and so it is too with the basement office.  Mulder and Scully have already given us all they have to offer, and it’s time to be the heroes of our own lives now.

If Mulder was right and a dream is, in fact, an answer to a question we haven’t yet learned to ask, maybe my subconscious has been awaiting this scenario for years.  Despite my trepidation, I’ll give it a chance, because I don’t know how not to watch “The X-Files” – I know exactly with whom I’ll be texting back and forth about each new episode (damn her East Coast time zone advantage!) but much like she-who-would-have-starred-in-my-vision-board-if-vision-boards-had-been-a-thing-in-the-90s (aka Scully), I’m skeptical.  

In the immortal words of the SRSG, not everything dies.  But everything must end somehow, and we should learn to let go.

A White Girl Like You

Forgive me. I have not yet fully worked this all out. But Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the prisoners headed to the Soviet Gulag as waves flowing underground. These waves “provided sewage disposal for the life flowering on the surface.” I understand this to mean that the gulag was not just mindless evil—was not just incomprehensible insanity—but served some sort of productive and knowable purpose.

Could it be that believing our police to be constantly under fire is not mysterious—that it serves some productive function, that society actually derives something from its peace officers engaged in forever war? And can we say that the function of the war here at home is not simply a response to violent crime (which has plunged) but to some other need? And knowing that identity is not simply defined by what we are, but what we are not, can it be that our police help give us identity, by branding one class of people as miscreants, outsiders, and thugs, and thus establishing some other class as upstanding, as citizens, as Americans? Does the feeling of being besieged serve some actual purpose?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

 

The SAT curriculum that I tutor recommends a handful of “academic” topics to research and write about for the essay portion of the test.  One of those topics is US internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  In the wake of 9/11, my grandmother – now a nonagenarian – defended the practice to me over dinner once, in DC.  No student of mine has ever broached a similar argument.  In their practice essays, with abstract, philosophical prompts culled from past exams, these high schoolers – invariably – press for a rational humanism (even if not so named), even – especially – during moments of fear or siege.  Theirs is the historical view, while to my grandmother the war, and the patriotism and fear it brought to her, were lived experiences, and we always seem to be so much more adept at moral decision-making when it is distant from our own lives.

 

Survey after survey shows that the majority of Americans believe violent crime to have increased in recent decades, even though the precise opposite is true – and dramatically, overwhelmingly, ridiculously true; beyond margins of error and statistical doubt, we are a safer society than we have ever been.  But trusting in one’s own safety remains a radical act.  It seems an instinctive reaction to assure one’s safety, with weaponry and body armor and legally endowed power of others.  But police, it turns out, are just as prone to disbelieving their own good fortune as the rest of us.

 

We are a fear-powered economy, in so many ways: the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the diet-industrial complex – the fear of physical imperfection is different from the fear of a malevolent Other but less so than we might imagine, rooted in the same imagined, reactive insufficiency.

 

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin Roosevelt, nine years before he signed Executive Order 9066 and imprisoned tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans out of nothing more than unproven racist paranoia – the mythos of America’s salvific role in World War II has rooted most deeply in the European theater, in frankly absurd notions that the British would be speaking German today if not for our intervention (much more likely that their postwar imperial overlords would call Russian their mother tongue), but it was in the Pacific that our military victory was totalizing, though harder to romanticize against the blunt facts of internment and atomic bombs.

 

Our power is less moral than we would like to imagine it.  But it need not be so.

 

Richmond, California, is too small to make most lists of “most violent cities” in America, but on a per-capita basis it has historically outpaced my larger home of Oakland by a wide margin, and Oakland is the most violent large city west of the Mississippi.  Richmond made national headlines about five years ago for a particularly gruesome gang-rape case; it’s the headquarters of Chevron and when I need to reassure my mother that I don’t live in the worst part of town I tell her the story of when, in 2007, I was driving from Berkeley to San Rafael, which necessitates crossing the Richmond Bridge, a structure whose name derives from its eastern point.  It’s a toll bridge, and one exit away from the booths (well into the City of Richmond by that point) I realized I was two dollars short.  I pulled off to find a gas station ATM; perhaps it was 8 PM, maybe even 7:30, dark but not late, and I was well-attired from a day at a job new enough that I was still dressing to impress.  Two blocks from the freeway I found a gas station, stopped, walked to the ATM, found it broken.  In a contemplative pause I was approached by the attendant: What was I doing there, he wondered, curt?  I explained that I was short two dollars for the toll and he hurriedly bid me to follow him into the tiny station convenient store, opening the cash register and tossing me the money.

 

“Now get back on the freeway,” he said.  "A white girl like you shouldn’t be here after dark.“

 

Richmond has changed in recent years, in no small thanks to a police chief who rejects the politics of us-versus-them division.  It is still a challenging place, still economically depressed and essentially owned by Chevron, but crime rates have dropped dramatically and in contrast to Oakland – a safer city that periodically insists on lining its streets with riot police, with SWAT teams from across the state in shoulder-to-shoulder readiness just in case we civilians should rise –Richmond’s police have broken down long-standing hostility and regained community trust.

 

However Catholic or un-Catholic I remain today it was through the language of Christianity that I first encountered ideas of justice, redemption, and freedom.  Christ did not threaten the political order of Roman-ruled Jerusalem because of his soaring rhetoric or his public platform of moderate reform but because he rejected material possessions and his best friend was a prostitute, because radical love was not an idea he preached but one that he lived.  Contemporary America is wealthy in many things but perhaps none so rich as our paradoxes – that in our ever-increasing abundance we feel only more and more insecurity; that as we "protect” ourselves more and more dramatically we perceive greater and greater threats yet looming.  We defend freedom with torture and surveillance, and export democracy with hegemony.  We are purportedly a Christian nation but one terrified by both the radical and the loving.

 

These are not attitudes and practices that an individual can single-handedly change, except in themselves.  So let us start where we are and do the work that we can: let us free ourselves from fear, find refuge in the sufficiency of ourselves and others, and end the siege of our own hearts.

 

Let us send the waves of our liberated love aboveground, to flood the world.

Being an Ally (Or: A Decent Human Being)

Ta-Nehisi Coates weighs in on Bill Cosby, and his own previous failures to confront the rape accusations.  It’s a reckoning, and a lesson in how to face – and own – our shortcomings.

 

The alternative: this perfect Onion piece.

 

Issues of privilege – white privilege, male privilege, the privileges of fame and celebrity – are uncomfortable to grapple with.  Understanding that the world is not, and never has been, a meritocracy can be uncomfortable.  Recognizing the deep imperfections of our heroes can be uncomfortable.  It’s easier to believe that things are the way they are for a good reason.

 

The truth is that there are lots of reasons why things are the way they are.  Some of those reasons are good.  Many of them are not.  This isn’t just about Bill Cosby, or laughing at the Onion.  It’s about understanding our own responsibility in building something better.

To Be A Teacher

There’s a fascinating article in The New Yorker which discusses the notion – the contemporary American religion, perhaps – of performance improvement.  The subject is introduced via a discussion of athletics, where performance (as RBIs or race times or free throw percentages, or whatever the contest may be about) is fairly easily to quantify and compare.

 

For that alone, the article is interesting enough.  Towards the end, though, there is a turn towards educations and, particularly, teaching: can these techniques be applied to teachers?  Why does teacher education overlook these things?  It’s an odd and underdeveloped discussion which leaves out key pieces of information and betrays a misunderstanding of both teaching-as-profession and “education reform” that may be endemic.

 

Contrary to the article’s assertion, most teachers do engage in continuing education throughout their careers; a teaching credential is not granted for life nearly anywhere, and renewal is contingent upon ongoing professional development (which can often take up the majority of a teacher’s summer “vacation”).  Improving teaching in America would be a much easier issue to tackle if it were simply a matter of insufficient education, but as those who study the matter seriously will be the first to admit, the problem is not that American teachers lack units of coursework: it’s that teaching somebody how to be a good teacher turns out to be really freakin’ hard.

 

It is, of course, possible to improve both teachers’ performance and teacher education, but it is a matter of quality and content, which makes for a much more complicated tale than the presence-or-absence story of NBA player Kermit Washington which opens the article.  Most American teachers do run off-season drills, and every teacher I’ve ever known has collaborated – informally, certainly, but they’ve all shared ideas, materials, tips, and tricks.

 

More egregiously, the article does not even mention that the favored technique of education reformers – fire “bad” teachers and replace them with new talent – directly contradicts the notion of skill-building over time.  First-year teachers are, generally speaking, not great; however talented they may be, they simply do not have the practice and developed skills to truly excel.  It takes years to get comfortable in front of a classroom, to integrate instruction and discipline, to balance content delivery and classroom management – anyone who thinks teaching is easy has almost certainly never tried (I have held many jobs of many types, and would without doubt call classroom teaching the most difficult by a mile).  Not surprisingly, therefore, one of the most relevant markers for a teacher’s classroom success is their experience; it turns out the reformist boogeyman of the tenured but burned-out lifer, cruising on autopilot and damaging students while collecting paychecks, is just that: a boogeyman.  There are some who do exist, but they are a tiny minority, more likely to be restored by a sabbatical or a year off than a first-year teacher is to have any greater impact on his or her students.

 

The mythology behind programs like Teach for America is that fresh new talent – where “talent” is synonymous with “pedigreed via the Ivy League or other elite schools” – is, itself, a cure for what ails American education.  Engaging young Harvard grads in urban education is not, in itself, a bad goal, and as an organization founded within a Princeton senior thesis project the self-serving benefit is obvious.  But there is nothing about a prestigious degree that magically confers the ability to teach.  There is nothing about youth and enthusiasm that magically confers the ability to teach.  There is nothing about replacing older, browner, more experienced teachers with younger, more privileged, barely-trained teachers that improves the quality of classroom learning whatsoever; in fact, if one considers it rationally, there’s very little about the idea that makes sense at all, unless one believes that an elite college brand is an adequate substitute for actual and significant professional education and experience.

 

Teaching is much more complicated than playing basketball, but here’s an analogy that might have been appropriate to the article.  American education is not universally terrible or universally mediocre so much as it is extraordinarily mixed: the best American students, teachers, and schools are among the very best in the world, and our worst – which is essentially a proxy for “poorest” – are, frankly, shameful.  It’s as if the NBA included both the 90s-era Chicago Bulls, as well as competitors made up of seasoned pros who practiced in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  And didn’t have basketballs.  They’ve been taught to play basketball and their skills aren’t bad, but they’re used to dodging cars and dribbling and shooting anything vaguely round and rebounding.  When those teams play against the Bulls, in a standard NBA game, they play hard but get crushed – and instead of trying to get them a real place to practice or play, or buying them basketballs, the NBA commissioners and team owners decide that it would be better to fire all the players and replace them with people whose only exposure to basketball has been watching a lot of it.  They’ve never played a full game before in their life, but a lot of them did graduate from Harvard or Yale.

 

It’s a ridiculous scenario, of course, and it would be ridiculous to include it in a story about performance improvement because it so clearly has nothing to do with improvement in any sense.  But that’s basically what education “reform” is trying to do.  We expect people dribbling footballs to be able to outscore Michael Jordan, and persist in the delusion that changing the players is enough to get them into the same game.

The Data Agenda

When it comes to education reform, the reliance on “data” is purported to be a values-neutral statement: data has no ideology, this line of thinking goes, so its use cannot be manipulated.

 

Two important articles – one very long, the other less so – illuminate the lie at work in this proposition.  First, the Atlantic looks at Philadelphia’s textbook allocations.  Textbooks – logistics – are an easy and appropriate place to use data; how many books does a district have?  A school?  Are the books sufficient for the number of students? Have new books been ordered? – etc.  These are straightforward uses of data to help a large organization run more efficiently and effectively.

 

But that’s not where data is being deployed.  Textbook-less students and, especially, teachers instead face data as a measure of their achievement and worth.  The New Yorker’s lengthy examination of the cheating scandal in Atlanta tells the story of a teacher devoted enough to his low-income students that he did kids’ laundry for them – but who was brought down by bureaucratic pressure to conform to data-driven expectations.  Simply put: it is a tragedy, and a fucking waste, and it is not by accident.

 

 

Why is data so misused in education – absent where it is most desperately needed, and omnipresent where it is actively and pervasively harming both students and teachers?  Well, maybe it is because – as the first sentence of this article states – America hates teachers.  It’s not a polemical statement by a teacher: it’s a historical assessment by an education historian.  And to know the history of the American relationship to our teachers should make all of us suspect any kind of “reform” that puts teachers at its center.

 

And hey, maybe if we tracked the data on whether or not they had the textbooks they needed, that’d solve the damn problem.

AmeriChat

In which four AmeriCorps alumni attempt to make plans.
Nic: 
Hello beautiful people,

I know that there was a preliminary push for an Ameri-Hangout on Friday, but I was hoping to get the ball rolling with concrete plans!
Who all is available on Friday? Would we want to do dinner? Just drinks? No drinks (I’m kidding, that’s not really an option)?
Tentatively an 8 pm meet up in the East Bay? I do love Missouri Lounge for cheap drinks, but I am open to any and all suggestions. Let’s talk!
Hope to see all of your smiling faces on Friday :DDDDDD
 Garner:
Thanks Nic!  I’m super swamped with work and school but am really really going to try to make it because it’d be awesome to get together. 8pm at ML suits me!

Nic:
Alright, we got two for Missouri lounge at 8 pm…Isa, James?!
Isa (me):
COUNT ME IN BITCHES

Nic:
SWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEET! Jimbo?!
Garner:
To confirm, we are talking about THIS friday, yes?

Nic:
COrect! Friday, 8/22/14, at 8 pm!
James:
The Jimbo hath spoken and will be @ MLs @ 8 for quaffing and hoopla

James:
Prepare your butts…bitches
Nic:
LOVE. IT. Haha, see all of you beautiful people on Friday!!! (Spouses and dogs welcome.)
Isa (me):
FUCK I THOUGHT WE WERE TALKING ABOUT NEXT FRIDAYI’m in socal through Tuesday, cold kickin it with the twin-expectors. And the soon-to-be grandma of two. (Aka my bro, sis-in-law, & mom.)There’s some good bars in la if y’all feel like a road trip… 😉

Nic:
Schedules pending, we could also schedule fun and games for next Friday as well, but yeah we were talking about this Friday.

Sounds like a pretty rad excuse to miss out on fun and frivolity.
James:
Isa – we can skype you and Garner, Nic, and myself will drink your portion so you can vicariously be drinking with us while we are at the MLS (I keep thinking of soccer for some reason).  Otherwise, through the family in the car and bring em up, I’m sure your grandma is up for a little partying, especially with studs like Nic and myself.But I concur with Nic: both of these Fridays we gotta let ‘er rip!  Before I end this communique let me leave you with a song:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cMVkwtLfMM

no sleep ’till brooklyn – beastie boys w/ lyrics
Isa (me):
i appreciate your commitment to a full amerireunion!  next friday sounds like a plizzan.  if y’all can make it happen.

in the meantime, quaff and hoopl (the verb form of hoopla?) away.
James:
Isa, you shall be missed but we will make dick jokes in remembrance of you, before you’re physically here – then we will make more dick jokes together.

Isa (me):
Awww.  You are the sweetest!  I hope somebody says something like that at my funeral someday.  Right before they make a dick joke.
Nic:
Let us hope you outlive us all, and you can make dick jokes at our funerals some day.
James:
Or maybe we record a loop reel of dick jokes so that we say it at each other’s funeral and then when our ashes shot into space, the record plays on loop so that if any alien lifeform finds our ashes their first encounter with the human species will be via our recorded dick jokes.

Garner:
Oh you guys.

Come Healing

I wrote this two weeks ago.  I sat on it for a bit but have decided to go ahead and put it into the world now.

behold the gates of mercy/an arbitrary space

and none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace…

(sincerely, l. cohen.)

Like so many others I am surprised by the weight of my reaction to Robin Williams’s suicide; he seemed a fixture in the universe, a font of comedic energy that could never quite be tapped, a potent reminder of the power of laughter and storytelling to touch millions of lives.  His death is tragic self-destruction and now conversations are being struck up – again, another time – about how to approach mental illness, how to reach out to friends with depression, how to handle one’s own sadness.  Some essays are insightful.  Some prescriptions are quite useful.  What I am chiming in with, based on my own lifetime struggle with depression which reached its nadir in suicidal ideation nearly one year ago, is simply blunt.

Just show the fuck up.

This seems like an obvious cliche, too simplistic to be of any use, but the truth is that most of us are busy.  Relentlessly, dumbly, riotously, numbingly busy, and more often than not with shit that we don’t even care about.  We’re busy for the sake of busy-ness, because it seems better than solitude; or we’re busy for the self-importance, for the performance of being in demand; or we’re busy because everyone else is busy and if we’re not busy then are we just wasting our lives?  We’re busy out of the sheer multi-dimensional terror of modernity, and while the complaints of busy-ness have existed since the dawn of urbanity technology only enables us to add more obligations to our schedule – we cannot now do something so seemingly straightforward as, say, watch a sitcom without tweeting our reactions to it, or composing tweets in our head while watching, or texting friends about it or checking IMDB to see what that one actor’s name is and where we’ve seen him before, and that’s only if we’re not working on a whole ‘nother project on a different screen; perhaps it’s fun-work or personal-work or work-work (the office is never off, not anymore) but it’s a diversion from our diversion nonetheless.

We can barely even show up and be fully present to a twenty-two minute television show anymore.  We’re not expected to do so, and we’re even encouraged not to (#bottomofyourTVscreen).  How the fuck are we maintaining relationships?  How can we ever show up and be fully present to another full human being in need if our busy-ness is so all-consuming that an episode of “New Girl” feels like a commitment?

The answer is that we can’t.  The answer is that we must make choices about what is truly important, and give our attention to that.  Having a safe, warm, dry home is important; having a large or spotless or Pinterest-ready home is not.  Having some real, close friends with whom you can discuss life is important; having Twitter followers is not.

Laughter – laughter is important.

Distraction is not.

We are creatures of finite psychological resources.  Let’s not waste them on commutes and Kardashians but lavish them on one another; not merely on our spouses or significant others (because society approves of monogamous sexual/romantic relationships between adults but is skeptical about the merit of grown-up friendships, even as the rise of the bromance and the success of the likes of “Friends” makes it all too clear that we seek community, not merely partnership), but on everyone we encounter – with strangers perhaps a smile or a door held open, a high-five and a chat with an acquaintance and hugs and penetrating conversation with our friends – we don’t need to hear everyone’s life story to be kind to them, and contrary to the beliefs of both cynics and saviors kindness is not a martyrdom.

It is, I have found, the most effective antidepressant around, but proper administration requires both its giving and its receipt.

Technology is not useless in this; for friends far from home email can be a wonderdrug and even moderate Facebooking has its place (see above re: laughter), but a voice on the phone or a handwritten card or letter has even more impact.  The older the media, the greater the effect: in the depths of my own misery “Ugly Betty” carried me, the Suarezes and the Meades and Marc and Amanda and Wilhelmina offering a kind of emotional surrogacy when I could summon nothing besides self-loathing, but once they empowered me enough to leave the house and visit the library I found vastly more potent solace in paper and ink and the tactile, psychological intimacy of a novel (“BUtterfield 8,” and holy shit) – not the abstraction and argument of essay or article but the pure power of story.  Printed, bound passport to imaginative space, to something beyond myself.

Everyone is different.  That’s what worked for me.

The other thing that worked for me was having friends.  I only reached out because I had to – not “had to” in the sense of “being so moved by my sadness” but “had to” in the sense of “I was supposed to complete a large data entry project for the small law firm where I used to work but I couldn’t get out of bed for my depression, which only prompted a further cycle of reprobate and shame because what the fuck was wrong with me that I couldn’t get out of bed to do this damn work when I needed the money and I was going to let everyone down and I was so fucking worthless, could I ever be anything more than worthless (no) and I should just hide under this blanket and maybe I would never have to wake up and, god, that would be so easy, could I make that happen somehow? – and then the day came when I had to turn it in and I had no work product and I had fucked up royally and screwed over people I respect and care about, and whose work has real value to the community, and I couldn’t bring myself to lie to them and I had to say something and so the only thing left was the truth, which meant admitting that I didn’t finish the job because I was too busy wanting to be dead.”

I sent an email to one of the associates on the team I was working for – a friend.  It was the first time I came clean to anyone about what I felt.  I was succinct but honest.  And after I sent that email I took a shower (which at that time was an achievement for me) and in the shower I cried, which is a thing I’ve never been able to do very easily – once a year, maybe twice; my grandmother died at the end of April and I haven’t cried for her yet.  It’s August, and I loved her very much.  As a teenager, I took pride in my stoicism.  Now I am less confident of its value.

That single email built within me, over a month, into a blog post.  I couldn’t bear to talk face-to-face and one-on-one, to intimately confess to all those I loved how bad things had gotten, so I put it in writing and let it into the world, all at once.  It was, frankly, terrifying, and the next few days were surreal: many people called it brave, which I had not expected and still do not fully understand, because here I was admitting a weakness and weakness is cowardice and cowardice is not brave.  Intellectually I understand their point (I think), but on a deeper level I have absorbed the culture in which we all swim, and that culture does not make room for anyone’s vulnerability or impenetrable malaise.  The cure always lies in doing: if we are sad, we should just be busy.

But that post was like a lamp in darkness, and friends swarmed to it.  We are habituated to our busy lives and habits, any habits, are hard to break – but what I found is that, once cracked open, those habits can be re-formed into newer, better ones.  Showing up and being present does not mean holding a friend’s hand day in and day out, forever.  It means being there when they need you, which in a crisis might be more acute and involved (and they were) and in the long-term just means reminding them that you’re there and you’re thinking of them and you care (and they are, and they do).  Emails, cards, phone calls, coffee dates – these don’t need an invitation.  An in-joke on a Facebook wall.  An unexpected text: “I saw this and thought of you…”

A loving touch can be a light one.

It’s not hard.  And it’s reciprocal, because for a depressed person, one of the most joyful (re)discoveries is of one’s capacity to share love and affection, to reflect it back to those who love us and maybe even to offer it freely to some who may not, which includes – starts with? ends with? – ourselves.  It may take a while to reach your depressed friend; the effort may drain you, and self-care and boundaries matter.  There might be some negotiating around what you can offer, and it might be uncomfortable, for you or for your friend (or spouse, or family member, or other loved one).

But is it important to you?

Then do it.

Show the fuck up.