Friend and fellow SGI Buddhist Nathan Gauer has put out his first book, a memoir entitled, Songs to Make the Desert Bear Fruit. To my knowledge, this is the first American foray of Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism into literary non-fiction. There are plenty of books available on the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement and its president, Daisaku Ikeda, titles such as The Buddha in Your Mirror, The Reluctant Buddhist, Encountering the Dharma, and most recently Waking the Buddha. Songs, however, is not such an informational commentary, but the coming of age memoir of a youth who happens to be a practitioner.
In 1999 18 year- old Nathan Gauer leaves behind a troubled adolescence of inadequate schooling, drugs and friends lost to violence to go on a cross-country road trip with his mother. Their ultimate destination is a place well below the radar of most Americans, the impoverished Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota. Gauer poignantly captures people’s lives there, as they are, without a Euro-American guilt complex, nor a noble savage perspective. In fact, were the Lakota not reminding him that he is a white outsider, a reader might forget that the story is being told by an Anglo. On the reservation we see America in all its ugliness, beauty, sincerity and despair, from Gabrielle’s stolen wristwatch to the Rosebud residents crying around the t.v. at the news of JFK Jr.’s death: “Camelot was our story too, you know.”
Trenchant passages in the book detail his inner journey away from anger and aimlessness: “My unwillingness to take responsibility for my past was limiting my ability to envision the future.” Yet Gauer presents his personal transformation as part of a larger reflection on alienation, violence, poverty and mis-education in America. Readers may find themselves compelled to question a society that so easily provides the mire through which he must slog. There is, however, no preaching here, nor does it smack of a recovery story. Gauer simply takes a snapshot and hands over the picture. In describing some young men who are brutalizing a pit bull to ensure its viciousness in the betting ring, he writes:
Watching these sad, violent young men beat that dog every night, you found yourself looking into a mirror that, depending on your angle, reflected either everything or nothing.
As a reader I was left to decide what this meant to me, and it is this hands-off approach that lends his writing its power. Yet this isn’t to suggest that he is afraid to share an opinion. He comments in the epilogue:
Although America still prides itself on carrying the torch of its own ideals into the world, millions of American youth remain marginalized and disempowered, little more than consumers who figure abstractly in competing bottom lines.
Through such statements, Songs takes on the aspect of a generational work, in this case for Generation Y. As such, it stands in contrast to Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, the book that named the preceding generation. Like Brecht’s assertion that art is a hammer rather than a mirror, Gauer does not reflect the zeitgeist, he challenges it head on:
To put it mildly, it is clear that there will be no simple answers regarding the world we, the last generation of youth to graduate from our nation’s public schools in the twentieth century, will soon inherit. However, I have hope. I have deep, abiding, unfashionable hope, for there is another inheritance that can guide us as we grow into our responsibility to create a new age. This inheritance beats at the heart of the dialogue I began with my mentor [Daisaku Ikeda] nearly 15 years ago; a dialogue that has strengthened my sense of responsibility for the links between our past, our present, and our future; a dialogue that I approach every day as a mirror; and above all, a dialogue that calls upon me to act.
Such grounded, open-eyed vision is definitely not fashionable today. In America’s present state of ever-deepening entropy, if there is one thing we still hold in common as a people, it is resignation to a future we imagine will be far worse than the present. Ours may yet become a land of self-fulfilling prophecy, but Gauer shows the courage to counter it. His is not a story of rootless youth, nor of impossible hope. It is a call to arms anchored in the “conviction that our individual and collective voices can create a new era; the belief in our innate potential to sing songs to make the desert bear fruit.”
Having experienced the famous NPR “driveway moment” this evening, I have responded to the story about Amtrak’s new writer residency opportunity. Check it out here. I just got done applying for the program. If I end up winning Wonka’s golden ticket, I could be starting the sequel to Lost Apple on the rails, and that would be very, very cool. More to come….
Ultimately, what I came to see about myself as a teacher is that it doesn’t really matter what is done to me by the system, or those forces trying to degrade or outright dismantle it. Or, rather, I simply can’t let my fear of what might happen control what I do. What matters is my dedication to my students.
Having said this, I can already guess the hackles that might be rising with some. What I am saying flies in the face of common sense, or worse, validates the ideologies of corporate reformers. But before low growling sets in, let me clarify that I am talking about a shift within my heart, not a shift in my awareness or my values.
The truth is that I spent my youth working jobs I wasn’t necessarily happy with, and living every day in fear. The anxiety came from the sense that I did not belong in those roles and that I might somehow become trapped in them. It was an ingrained fear, so deep-set that I was barely conscious of it. It became part of my identity, and when I went into teaching it was still there.
I outwardly validated this fear by getting on the political bandwagon against the blossoming of anti-public school policies in the 2000s. I have spent years filled with angst about the dumbing-down of our society, about the long-term effects of overusing digital media, the decline of reading, the increase of youth violence, all compounded by an over-quantified, test-driven schooling that leaves no room for critical thought or creativity, and that in fact suppresses both. And I have also worried about my job, whether I will have a career from which I can retire, or if it will all blow away like smoke when the unions implode. I’ve worried, and worried, and worried, and I have achieved…worry.
It is not that none of these terrible things won’t happen. They may very well happen. What occurred to me, however, is that I have lived like a rabbit beneath a hawk. And regardless of whether I’ll have a job in five years, regardless of whether American society will descend into a Hobbesian dystopia, my rabbit mentality isn’t helping anyone, least of all myself? This fear of what might happen in the world is endemic to American society. In his collection, <i>Fates Worse Than Death</i> (1991), Kurt Vonnegut writes about the social psychology behind nuclear arms, observing that it is our fear of being enslaved, rather than our fear of death that drove the madness of the arms race (today that threat has been largely replaced by terrorism, ecological decline and global pandemics). Yet considering slavery in ours and our perceived enemies’ histories, he writes:
[T]he last time Americans were slaves, and the last time Russians were slaves, they displayed astonishing spiritual strengths and resourcefulness. They were good at loving one another. They trusted God. They discovered in the simplest, most natural satisfactions reasons to be glad to be alive. There were able to believe that better days were coming in the sweet by-and-by. And here is the fascinating statistic: They committed suicide less often than their masters did (143).
Vonnegut, the Twain of our time, has been accused of being a curmudgeon, but really he is one of the most hopeful and optimistic of our great thinkers. He is not suggesting that we make peace with some inevitable fate. He is exhorting us to get straight with ourselves about the limitless power we possess to transform our lives and the lives of others. Daisaku Ikeda writes:
Those who are facing stiff challenges are earnest. That seriousness provides the power to discipline and strengthen oneself and achieve remarkable growth. That’s why adversity can be considered “the mother of happiness” (World Tribune, 1/21/2011).
Well, that’s all very nice, but what about those corporate reformers? They’re still going to wipe out equal education for all and decimate the teaching profession? It doesn’t really matter whether one has strength and dignity in the face of the storm. The storm is still a matter of fact is it not? Certainly. How can I deny that it is not? Nevertheless, two things compel me: (1) I do not want to live my life in fear, and (2) I cannot possibly motivate students to win in their lives if I am not modeling victory in my own.
When I look at teachers today, I see a million volcanoes, each smoking away in isolation. Yes, we must stand up to our enemies, but when we do so we must absolutely win. Moreover, we can have no doubt about our victory. I have said before that the slander and opposition we receive should be worn as a badge of honor, rather than felt as a spear in the ribs. More than our rage, it is our indomitable dignity that will win the day. We have shown society glimpses of that dignity in the teacher sacrifices at Newtown, but that is only death. Now, we must show that same level of commitment and dignity in our every day service. One might argue that we are, that we have always been doing so. I would agree. The challenge, though is to get mainstream society to see that we are. Let us get our internal houses in order such that we cut figures so compelling, so undeniably compassionate and dedicated to service that when billionaire philanthropists hurl volleys at us, our friends and neighbors will simply laugh them into silence.
I entered public school instruction in 1997. For five years thereafter I taught in both California and Colorado. When I began my career I was fired with a determination to change the system from within. My own experiences as a public student had been difficult to say the least and there was a strong streak of bitterness in my desire to change the system. I was young and optimistic that I could affect great change in public schools simply by being there and doing things differently. In 2002 I began teaching middle school and it was that year that NCLB went into effect. Over the ensuing years my ability to teach freely and creatively became increasingly restrained, culminating in my school’s adoption of a mandated curriculum in 2006. From this point forward I fought deep discouragement each year, feeling that I was unable to serve my students effectively. My original optimism about bringing change from within faded. I felt trapped and unable to do anything but be part of the machine. I wondered how could I have been so naïve.
My problem, however, was not NCLB, nor the curriculum I was required to teach. Rather it was my self-limitation. I had worked for many years at a variety of jobs before entering teaching, in retail, manufacturing, and as a graphics tech. In all of those roles I had felt trapped, saying to myself on a daily basis: This is not my true profession. How long will I have to endure this? I saw the attainment of a teaching license as the doorway to the real life for which I was preparing. Once I got into teaching, I imagined that I would be happy and would perform my work with a confidence and drive lacking in previous jobs.
This preconception turned out to be largely true. I was fulfilling my calling. Still, on some deep level I was holding back and it showed in the restrictions I placed on myself in the face of the obstacles thrown at me by NCLB and my district. As much as I had a passion for teaching, I found it difficult to fully commit myself to the lives of my students. I could be warmly encouraging to a child, foster his or her growth all year, and yet fail to make a call to parents at a critical moment when doing so might have changed that student’s trajectory in my classroom. There have also been students with whom I took the extra step of setting up independent learning projects, but then failed to fully develop the project so that they had the maximum opportunity for success. And then there were students to whom I simply could not bring myself to reach out to fully. As an engaged, caring teacher, I was only willing to go 90% of the distance for my students, in good years perhaps 95%.
I do not share this self-criticism as a result of guilt, or as an act of penance. I relate this personal struggle to illustrate that it is not a matter of how a teacher works with students so much, as the teacher’s internal orientation in this profoundly human work. I wanted to show young people how they can change their lives with their own inherent power. But how could I do so if I was reluctant to do the same myself? This was my greatest impediment as an educator. And furthermore, I realize that I would have experienced this same stultification even without the constraints of NCLB. I had tried to change how I felt about my life by changing what I did in my environment: becoming a teacher. Instead, I should have been open to changing my heart so that my environment would come to reflect it. I wasn’t living up to my full potential. Thinking in terms of the growth of cherry trees, Daisaku Ikeda writes:
The roots are especially important. One expert on trees says that the spread of the crown of a cherry tree is mirrored almost exactly by the spread of its roots below ground. If we water the tree only around the base of the trunk, the tree will become “lazy” and not bother to spread its roots far in search of water (“Teachers of My Childhood”, Soka Education, p. 139).
Applying this analogy to myself, I see the crown of the cherry tree as my students, and the roots as myself. Because my growth was uneven, this unevenness was reflected in my students. Teaching is really about being fully open to people. When I was able to realize this, I was able to re-approach my entire career with fresh eyes. It was a shift in perspective that empowered me to approach the conditions of my work fundamentally differently, and the results have led me to dramatically change my view of my role in education.
More to come in Part II.
I am reluctant to critique the BATs any further, having done so in two posts so far, and stirring up a fair amount of debate. To be fair, my views on this still emerging group should be tentative. Honestly, I hope the best for them, but I will work differently for the shared goal of a humanistic, child-centered and egalitarian educational system. Repeatedly I have been told that my departure from the BAT forum on Facebook is premature, but so be it. I am still around and keeping my eyes open. That being said, I will not come knocking on their door in the future if it seems they’ve changed to my liking. I am not a fair weather activist. But I digress. One of the criticisms thrown at me yesterday in a thread was that I was criticizing without putting forth any viable alternatives. So, some rough thoughts in that regard.
Generally speaking, the BATs approach to organizing makes sense: get people together online, quickly raise numbers, then establish an official website. The next stage, establishing state level forums is probably their best idea, and I hope it works out. Since the group is so widely inclusive, they need to devolve to be effective. Having once helped found an online teacher activist group myself, I know that establishing a platform, or at least clearly defined talking points early on is crucial. The BATs, by allowing such a prolonged free-for-all talking space on Facebook (a limited platform for mass one-on-one engagement), have delayed the establishment of a guiding focus for their group. They then compounded this problem by prematurely launching actions. The phone blitz on the NEA was particularly divisive since many members of the group are either union supporters, or on the fence, and so felt marginalized by this action. But here I am critiquing again!
Whatever approach an online group takes, it needs to be very intentional. Leaders need to set the group’s tone and focus from the very get-go and solicit input from the group members as comprehensively as possible. With dynamically growing groups as large as BAT, this can only be done through voting and quick devolution of the group to regional or state levels. But prior to this development, a general platform must be established and its sticking points ironed out. Again, intentionality on the part of the groups’ facilitators is crucial.
Essentially, BAT suffers from a lack of effective leadership, without which participants’ negative characteristics come to the fore and dominate. This tendency toward negativity isn’t the case with any emergent group, but it certainly is when you bring together people who feel disenfranchised and devalued by forces beyond our control (hence my use of the term wounded birds in yesterday’s post). The very idea of a teacher activist group bespeaks the need for good structure and tight focus.
Assuming such a well-organized online group can be established, what is next? As readers may have gathered, I am a proponent of engaged dialogue. Moving forward, such a group–having successfully devolved from a nationally centered forum to a network of local activists groups–should hold meet-ups to engage in discussions with one another as well as members of their local communities. For teachers, this could mean bringing in parents and talking about standardized testing, its ill effects on their children’s education and the need to opt out. Imagine countless small local discussions nationwide with public school teachers encouraging the parents they serve to opt their kids out of testing? This would bring with it a host of challenges for the teachers involved and would require a strong leadership line from group to local to regional and national levels. It would be great if the unions could support such actions, but most likely they would become opponents as much as the corporate ed reformers. Ultimately it would require a great deal of courage on the part of educators to pull this off, but with structure, focus and committed leadership it could be done.
My proposal here lacks the glamour and anonymity of blitzing Arne Duncan’s office with phone calls. It requires steady, persistent efforts on the part of educators, risking their jobs and professional reputations. It also focuses on face-to-face encounters that can transform the hearts of even adversaries and build a lasting movement. These are just some of my rough thoughts. I will elaborate in whatever comments thread may follow.
This past week has been a heady flight, but I am happy to report that my feathers aren’t ruffled. A few days ago I joined the nascent Badass Teachers Association. Today I left the group. On a personal level it has been the final step in my movement away from direct activism in the progressive education movement. This has been a long journey for me, but I can confidently say that my role as an education reformer is necessarily very different from that of many of my peers.
I have been both supported (mostly) and criticized for leaving the group. Critics told me that I was being premature, that the group is going through necessary growing pains. When I criticized the redundant messaging (preaching and venting) of many members, as well as the snarking, sniping and outright fighting among them, I was met with the justification that teachers have been pent up with rage for so long that they need to get this out. I find this argument weak to the point of being childish. In the group there were times when I couldn’t believe actual adults were saying these things.
Prominent voices (I won’t say leaders because this group was the purest form of anarchy to which I have ever been party) reassured me multiple times that it would eventually all come together. But I found myself scratching my head in puzzlement: aren’t we social animals? Don’t we naturally gravitate toward those individuals who naturally take leadership initiative? But there was no taking of such initiative. The founders of the group, as best I could see, were content to unleash a maelstrom and let it play out, only becoming anxious when it became clear that conflict was accelerating and cohesion diminishing.
I could go on, but it would sound like I’m complaining and I’m really not. In my post yesterday, I identified the problematic role of anger in the group dynamic. I would add that the essential difficulty here is not anger so much as it is the negative state of mind engendered by it. Anger can be either good or bad depending on how one uses it to good or ill effect, or by how much one is controlled by it. Teachers are an interesting lot. I saw the same problems manifesting in the BAT forum that I see in my work as an educator: too many nice, generally passive people who store up anger for too long before explosively letting out. Too many teachers are wounded birds. They entered the profession out of the goodness of their hearts. They give and give and give. And what are they met with in mainstream society? Indifference by many and outright abuse by those who would profit from hijacking their profession. When you care so much about what you do, helping kids develop their lives, this can all be a bit much.
On the other hand, American school teachers can be very weak willed at times. Last summer I posted here on the life of Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator in the Warsaw Ghetto who walked into the gas chamber at Treblinka with all of his Jewish students, even though he had been given numerous opportunities to save himself. And let’s not forget the teachers who gave their lives at Columbine and more recently, Newtown. If we can show that kind of resolve in the face of a drawn gun, why can’t we handle dialogue? Is a genocide or a school shooting easier than the process of listening, thinking, responding, listening again, re-thinking?
The truth of the matter is that teachers have always been the targets of power, for we hold the keys to the door that leads to power. We’re the first to be rounded up in purges and pogroms, the first to be silenced by politicians in less violent times. The public can easily be turned against us, especially by business interests. And our work is generally misunderstood and undervalued. All of these drawbacks to a teaching career should fill us with pride. These impediments should be badges of honor we wear on our hearts every day. Just think, what we do is so critical, of such social importance that the most potent forces in the world want to suppress and harness us!
There have never been such challenges to education as we see today. Certainly our role is daunting, but do we believe in ourselves enough to worry less about what the outside world is throwing at us, and consider more how to strengthen our own hearts? In another recent post, I quoted from an essay by Daisaku Ikeda on the role of teachers. I offer another excerpt from the same regarding the fundamental spirit to which we must hold true:
No matter how callous and indifferent the eyes of the public may be, the gaze of educators must always shine with an unwavering belief in the worth and potential of all students. No matter how fiercely society’s winds may blow, educators must have the compassion to staunchly protect their students and open the path to a bright future for them. When students know that their teachers believe in them and would never abandon them, it can become a source of tremendous courage, enabling them to achieve immeasurable growth (World Tribune, 6/14/2013, 5)
Ultimately, is this not the only thing that really matters?