26 February 2013

The Stand In: Round 2 (Part 2 of 2)

It was a day full of noisy chaos, bad food and acting out. Several times throughout the day my thoughts turned to "What is the problem here?" but repeatedly the scope and complexity of the problems overwhelmed me. In the midst of an activity, for example, a conflict would arise between two students. Addressing the conflict required an interruption of instruction for the majority of students in the room. The roots of the conflict -- attention deficits, emotional instability caused by problems at home, lack of prior instruction (at home or school) in anger management and conflict resolution, for example -- could not be fully addressed in the moment so the task was to devise a quick, improvised, partial "fix."

Meanwhile, what about the other students?

And what to do about the insanity of one person holding responsibility for 8 hours of supervision and instruction of twenty-seven 7-year-old children -- many of whom are in desperate need of individualized attention. I understand there's no money to hire teaching assistants but why is there no money? The answers to that question are also complex and broad-based.
I could not bring myself to eat anything the cafeteria served at breakfast or lunch. Even granting that the offering would be viewed as a God-sent smorgasbord for many people across the globe, there was nothing remotely appetizing about either the food or the way it was presented:  standing in queues of 40 or more, waiting to receive a plastic tray holding corn chips smothered in cheese product and ground gray meat on crumbling white-buns, to sit at long unwashed tables in a noisy, ill-lit, unadorned room. Again, I contemplated "What is the problem here?" and recognized the role of limited funding.

I could describe the overall experience of the day as herding cats in a dilapidated space on an empty stomach. 

At the end of the day, a few minutes after the students left, the permanent teacher showed up. We talked for awhile and I learned a few things. She had not left a formal lesson plan, she said, because substitute teachers are generally pulled from a pool of folks already in the school community; she specifically mentioned bus drivers. "They already know the kids," she said. In my mind, this raised more questions but I didn't explore them with her. I guessed she'd have no answers, either.

As I reported to her on the day's events, I learned that my one-time experience was similar to her every-day experience:  the same kids behaving in the same ways, the same conflicts arising, the same frustration with lack of resources. We were both painfully aware of the ravenous need for attention among the kids. Many of them were clearly acting out just to enjoy a few minutes in the spotlight.

What's going on? Why are so many little people so desperate for attention?  More complexity.

I also voiced no question or comment about the problems that seemed, to my unseasoned eye, easily fixed. Why, for example, so many errors in the worksheets? Does it take money or some other scant resource to proof worksheets before distributing?

For example:  The students were to match words in one column with their opposites in a second column. Some of the pairings made sense to me:  "near-far", "more-less" and "high-low", for example. But other pairs were not so clear-cut:  "make-destroy" and "child-adult" are examples. In one case -- "ask-told" -- although I felt awkward about the possibility of being perceived as undermining the authority of the permanent teacher, I chose to tell the kids that a better translation was "ask-tell".

In another section, students were to completed the sentences provided with words from a list at the top of the worksheet. The sentence "Max ____________ the bend in a hurry and bump into his sisters" needed "rounded" from the list to fill the blank but what about the mismatch of verb tenses? I did a little teaching about adding "-ed" but in a class that included two children who do not read at all, at least 7 others with serious attention deficit issues, and the remainder restless and ready for lunch, what was the point?

And I wondered about the advisability of overloading the walls with signs and lists and charts. With so many of the children hyper-activated already, the lack of empty spaces, places to rest the eye, seems counter-productive to me.

I returned to my car for the drive home and discovered I'd left my lights on. The battery was dead. I hailed a female teacher who appeared to be waiting for a ride. Polling other departing teachers around the parking lot, we found a set of jumper cables. Her husband arrived just minutes later eager to help. There are men for whom the open hood of an automobile, especially if the stranded party is a female, is an irresistible siren call. Electrical issues complicated and prolonged the process of charging the battery long enough to lure some of these men to my car. There were five men standing around the car by the time the engine finally turned over.

Two or three female teachers came over just to be part of the scene. It was Friday afternoon, after all, so maybe the scene looked a little like a party. Folks chatted and laughed. Pumped me for information:  where was I from, do I have "people" in Marshall County, why-in-the-world would I relocate to MS from CA. Overall, it was one of the most pleasant social engagements I've had since arriving in MS. Nice people. All of them ready to help a stranger and make jokes while doing it. I especially appreciated the absence of of any display of religious zealotry. 

The sun made its first appearance of the day while we were gathered around the car. I saw what looked like an eagle somewhere along 311. A paradoxical conundrum sat front and center in my mind as I drove -- how can a place be so messed up with such good people in residence? It was another big, complex question but it was the first one of the day I could consider without grinding my teeth.

24 February 2013

The Stand In: Round 2 (Part 1 of 2)


So the education system in Mississippi has gone crazy. Education has been derailed here. In a big way. At least in the quarters I've visited since arriving 6 months ago. I don't know how it happened. (There's broken debris everywhere. Explosion? Attack? Collision?) I don't know when it happened. (There's evidence of serious "rust", like the wheels haven't moved in a very long time.)

There are a lot of people plodding through the wreckage:  teachers and students, superintendents and school boards, bus drivers and vendors and other people "holding down a job."

I worked Friday substituting for a second grade teacher out in the county. I drove 30 minutes through fog that looked like a vanilla shake rolling across the land. It wasn't treacherous driving under 40 mph.

Google Map was wrong again; I stopped at a Cousin's fuel center to ask directions. There were several police cars parked there and I figured they'd know the way to the school. Inside, the smell of fried chicken met me at the door. Within seconds my mouth was watering and I knew I had to have chicken for breakfast. For the first time in my life.

A bright, warm space full of good ole' boys: two behind the counter, 4 in police uniforms throughout the store, 2 in guys in "work clothes" waiting to pay for their stuff, and another guy just hanging out talking with one of the cashiers. Something in the way they looked at me made me very aware of being a woman. They were all white men but it wasn't race consciousness that stirred. They were polite and accommodating, attentive.

15 minutes later I reached the school. (I ate the chicken on the way.) The outside of the building was..."drab" is the only way I can think to describe it. It wants brightening.

Inside was drab, too, but the walls of the long, dimly hallway were adorned with poster board and construction paper signage: tributes to famous people like Oprah and Obama and Martin Luther King Jr, many of them in various stages of coming unstuck.

The Main Office was not yet open. "She's late," someone murmured as they passed me at the door. I couldn't tell if she was a teacher or a member of the office staff ...or what. Elementary-aged children moved in loose lines in both directions; some lines were seated on the floor along the wall, apparently waiting for their teachers to arrive. There were adults present but I couldn't tell who, if any of them, were responsible for the kids and in what capacities.

I don't remember now how I finally ended up in the classroom. I remember I sat for awhile with another sub in a short row of chairs in the hall. She said she'd subbed a lot at this school. She was finishing a teacher education program and was hoping to both pick up in-class hours and be noticed by someone and offered a permanent job. She said Marshall County schools are "the worst" in the area on all counts. "Go over to DeSoto," she said. "It's like another world. Just better teachers and facilities and, you know, they run their schools better over there."

My kids were sitting on the floor in a line against the wall outside the classroom. Most of them were. Classes begin at 7:30 a.m. and breakfast commences at 7;45. Late arrivals trickled into class after we returned from breakfast at 8. Twenty-four ultimately showed up.

There was no lesson plan. Hot pink post-it notes were attached to short stacks of paper on the largest desk in the room bearing cryptic messages like "If kids finish worksheets from Reading Block, they can write sent" and "Soc/Sci for only A Group while B does computer". Sixteen people under 4' tall were swarming around me offering advice: "Mrs. R_______ always.... Now it's time for......" Cute kids. Constantly in motion. Constantly sounding. I had no idea what I was supposed to do; the assignment had been described as "teaching assistant; 8 hours." Where was the lead teacher? It was crazy.

We attempted a reading activity after breakfast. [A note on breakfast:  two strips of bacon, a piece of dry toast, a carton of milk and a flat disk, about 2" in diameter, made of what looked like egg-colored putty. I did not eat. The cafeteria floor was littered with food. This room was more drab than the hallways; no decorations on the walls.] Not everyone had a book. Not everyone could read. Most of the kids could not sit still. Most of them could not stay on task without direct prompting.

In the Reading Block, and throughout the day, I was struck by how much the kids needed/wanted attention. About once every half hour I felt the overwhelm of having to listen and respond to 14 people at the same time....while monitoring the activity of 10 other people...who are rolling on the floor, throwing things at each other, rummaging through the wastebasket and hugging each other. It was crazy.

I made it up as I went along, using the story given in the book and passing out a worksheet that one of three obvious Teacher's Pets helped me locate. It was during this activity I learned that one of the children does not read or write. Although the kids informed me the worksheet was a test (prompting mini-crises at three of the seven tables because "He's copying off me!!"), I made it a class project and we found the answers together and allowed errors to be erased and corrected. One of the Pets became quite agitated by this change in routine.

I learned about other routines when conflicts arose about whose turn it was to be Bathroom Monitor or Line Leader, or to pass out worksheets or pick up worksheets or erase the board or change the date on teh calendar or turn off the lights at lunch time or...whatever.

By the time we finished the worksheet the kids were climbing the walls. I'd discovered the daily itinerary among the much ado adorning the walls. I had to fill 25 minutes before we lined up for lunch. I got them on their feet and we jumped and lunged and twirled our arms and hooted like owls for awhile. For the first time all day, we were all doing the same thing at the same time without conflict or some other attention-grabbing maneuver! It was great!

I followed that with a totally improvised group collaborative story, grabbing characters and plot developments, place names and food names, etc. from the kids' suggestions. It was a ridiculous story and, as always happens with improvisation--in the classroom no less than the theater -- the kids were on the edge of their seats, totally engaged.

At least for awhile. The activity seemed to wind them up after awhile:  everyone was yelling suggestions at the same time and some of the kids started saying things like "But he couldn't have a red bike! Nobody has a red bike! Daddy said nobody has a red bike. He couldn't have a red bike...!!" It was approaching crazy again when the Lunch Reprieve arrived. Whew!

21 February 2013

Till the World Turns

On my FaceBook Wall this morning, I found this Rumi translation:
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
 and also a photo of performance artist Marina Abramovic with an attached story about audience reaction to her "Rhythm 0" (1974):

Both posts resonate with my contemplation of The Substitute Teaching Event.

I am always conscious to the truth of the idea expressed in the Rumi quote. And I believe arriving at this awareness is a crucial step in the evolution of human consciousness. It is viewed by many as an "advanced" or "elevated" state of consciousness. With no sense of superiority, I concur. There is no sense of superiority because the attainment of this consciousness has not exempted me from struggle, pain, frustration, confusion, etc. I believe these things are the essence of the Human Condition. They are the "suffering" that Buddhism speaks of. They are inescapable.

They are of our own creation. We construct the Heaven or Hell (or between) that we live in. We are each God in this way: powerful Creators of Reality.

We manipulate the Universe. With our minds. We create categories and form opinions. We make decisions and choices. We "believe" in something...or we don't.

We make meaning. We create Reality

but Existence is another thing altogether. We don't know why we exist. We don't know how we came to exist. But we're here. And we try to make sense of what we find here and we call the results of our conjecture Reality.

Evolved consciousness or "wisdom" is the vast field, the cosmos, that contains the multitude of human Realities. It is the ocean that holds all the drops of Reality AND the "sum total" that is greater than all those droplets AND the Infinity that stretches further still, beyond (and through) all of that.

Ultimately, the whole of creation will evolve into this awareness, become aware of Itself this way. This deepening of awareness is as natural and necessary as the decomposition of organic matter. Part of the Life Cycle that our little lives mirror and express.

Prior to reaching this awareness, we believe in whatever we are thinking. We invest emotionally in what we are thinking and live through relentless Thought and Feeling. Thought and Feeling defines us and gives us life.

We cling to it. And fight for it because our survival depends on it.

We openly embrace some of our Thought and Feeling. Whatever our label or role -- artist, minister, teacher, politician, policeman, vagabond... -- Thought and Feeling serves as mask, filter and template for our lives and our encounters and interactions with the World. It guides and informs the posts we make to FaceBook and other social media, for example.

There's also a dimension of Thought and Feeling that we do not embrace. Sometimes we struggle with it. Some refer to it as the Shadow. When we react defensively to something it is sometimes because it pokes our Shadow. Or feels like an attack on our acceptable, life-sustaining Thought and Feeling. A slap to the Mask, so to speak.

The actions of audience members who abused and threatened Ms. Abramovic during her performance and those of me and the high school students I interacted with earlier this week exemplify the "embrace and reject" dynamic. In both instances one realm of Thought and Feeling was embraced -- for the audience an interpretation (e.g., "offensive" or "vulnerable") of the artist's performance; for the students a framing of their current school experience (persecuted); and for me, convictions about the value of education and "best practices" in learning environments -- while another realm, the Shadow, was provoked, triggering struggle or rejection.

Luckily, no "resolution" is possible. No corrective is needed for the actions of the artist or the students or me. There exists no fix for any of the seemingly "bad" things that happen and none is required. The evolution of Consciousness is effected through these events.The whole of Human Consciousness evolves and advances through our lives -- through our triumphs as well as our sins and mistakes. Our lives are the enactment of Consciousness Evolving. This train is bound for glory.

In the moments where we perceive the dynamic of embrace and reject, without judgment, we tap into the evolved Consciousness. Through spiritual practice, we "tap" into it with greater frequency and for increasingly longer periods of time...(ah, Time...save it to discuss at some other...time). It seems like a numbers game sometimes; as though it matters that there are fewer evolved people than un-evolved. This is an illusion, a product of the Thought and Feeling machine. No single drop of water in the ocean is any wetter than another; and there's only one ocean anyway.

Through practice, step by fragile step, there is less and less to fight about, less and less to long for. Fewer things rise to the level of "amazing" or "admirable." Nothing means more than anything else. Everything is just a part of the whole. Being is enough. Being is all. I feel it sometimes like a thrum or vibration running through everything. Grace Jones' "Slave to the Rhythm" is one of my favorite artistic expressions of this idea.

Still from Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" performance, 1964.

We move as physical bodies through the physical World, mediating the experience with our Thought and Feeling . Assaulted and assaulting. Embraced and embracing. Rejected and rejecting. Everything happens. Everything is happening. And

20 February 2013

The Stand In

I might have anticipated my foray into substitute teaching this week would be the disaster it turned out to be. But I didn't.

Quite the opposite, in fact. My excitement and enthusiasm were so high Sunday night I couldn't sleep. Back in CA, on the nights before sessions with the teenagers of Youth Experiencing Success in Santa Cruz or the Making Waves Academy in Richmond, I never could sleep. My head was filled with ideas for activities the kids would respond to. I was always nervous AND eager.

In retrospect, the differences between those programs and education in MS are apparent. And after almost six months of discovering (and experiencing) stark (and startling) differences between MS and everywhere else I've ever lived, it is curious that I walked into the Substitute Teaching Nightmare so deluded. I really should have known better.

I learned soon after arriving in Holly Springs that substitute teachers for all but the "Christian Academy" are hired through the "educational services" branch of a nationally known independent employment agency (which shall remain nameless in accordance with agreements I signed during their orientation for subs). On the basis of past experience, having worked through this agency before in other cities, the choice to source educators through them seemed rife with potential disadvantages for students and the educational process generally. I had always known the company to excel at record-keeping, marketing and sales, and customer service and to be less impressive as an employer. They were very good at assessing the labor needs of their clients but not very good at cataloging the culture of the work sites they staffed. Skill sets of potential hires were rigorously tested and ranked through a half-day battery of computer-based tests. The face-to-face interview at the end lasted less than 15 minutes.

Given the importance of education in the modern world and the consequently critical role of Teachers, it seemed careless and wrong-headed for this independent temporary employment agency to be entrusted with the selection and placement of teachers.

But what did I know? And besides, there weren't a lot of other earning options in view.

What I encountered during the process to get listed on the substitute roster for Holly Springs was a hybrid creature:  its skeleton familiar to me from past temp work but its muscle and skin distinctly Mississippi/Southern. It took months to apply -- months of virtual inactivity. After submitting resume and application via email (and hitting an interpersonal snag with one of the office staff a week later when I called to confirm they'd received the documents; she assured me they would have let me know if they had not received it...huh? I wondered), I heard nothing more. A month later, I called again to inquire about next steps. The person answering the phone was dismissive:  "We'll get in touch. We're not doing anything til after new year."

Two months later I received an email announcing date, time and location for Orientation and directing me to an online form I was told to complete. "Bring two forms of ID."

Sitting in my car in front of the site a month later, finishing my breakfast and having a final cigarette before the Orientation, I watched the other attendees arriving. A tiny red flag fluttered in my head:  they're all overweight. I didn't analyze the information; just 'marked it'.

There was a homey-ness to the meeting. Most of the other seven participants seemed to either know each other or have a mutual acquaintance. There was a lot of laughter before the training started, sprinkled throughout conversations about weather, food, hairstyles and money. The coziness continued in the formal presentation. Our trainer emphasized and expanded some of her talking points with "real life" stories that felt like gossip as she shared them. Most of the stories were hard to believe, e.g., "Mama walked right into that classroom and slammed a 10-pound bag of potatoes on that teacher's desk and said....."

The video provided by Corporate was happy and sterile; it reminded me of the performances depicting the heroic journeys of pioneer Mormons that I saw in the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center museum in Casper, WY:  everybody so upbeat and and energetic, everything working out so nicely. In the video, a handsome young white guy smiled and strolled down pristine hallways full of happy school children. Between these shots, stills of neat little lists like "The Five Rules of Successful Substitute Teachers" and "Three Things to Always Remember" flashed onto the screen.

We signed lots of forms, a few of them way too long to actually read. Others that seemed redundant to me -- e.g., signing a form that verifies that I read and signed the previous form or signing one form twice, the second signature verifying that I understood what I just signed. I made no comment about any of this. I didn't say a word about the misspelled words and typographic errors in several of the documents. Why say anything?

We were told the final step of the process was fingerprinting and that this would take place later in the week in a different town at 10 a.m. As it happened, that created a schedule conflict for me. I was told the next opportunity would be two weeks later.

Although I definitely had that "four hours of my life I'll never get back" feeling at the end, I was also happy. The weather was beautiful and, having signed a lot forms, there was some sense of progress and accomplishment. (This sense was diminished the next day when the agency telephoned to say they needed my address. Did they mean the same address that appeared on the resume, application, registration form and W-2 I'd left with them in my file less than 24 hours ago? This raised another red flag but I had house guests and we were having a good time. Again, I didn't analyze the flag.)

(For the record, they called a second time that day requesting my home addresses for the last 10 years. I said I'd get back to them. I haven't gotten back to them. I don't know if they're still waiting.)

The following week they called to say there was an unexpected opening at the fingerprinting desk. I was to appear at 8 the next morning at an address in Hernando. On the 50-minute drives to and from this place, I wondered about there being no place closer to get fingerprinted. I wondered how substitute teacher candidates with no car or no money for fuel  would manage this process. But the weather was beautiful. It was a great day to be free and healthy and on my way to a paycheck.

Knowing nothing about any of the schools staffed by the placement service, I signed up for all of them. I was willing to go wherever they sent me. Less than a week after fingerprinting I received my first assignment. I answered the telephone and listened as a disembodied male voice provided the details: 10-day assignment at a high school 25 minutes up the road teaching reading, writing, acting and public speaking. Report to the Main Office at 7 a.m.

I was excited. I posted to FaceBook. I started thinking about what to wear. I rejoiced to have such close alignment between my assignment subject and my professional passion.

The assignment was to begin in two days. Two days to revisit lesson plans from the improvisational theater workshops I'd facilitated in CA in the previous year. Two days to retool and tailor these plans for use with MS teenagers.

The night before, the automated voice called to say my services were no longer needed. I logged on to my page at the agency's website and discovered the 10-day assignment had been reduced to 3. The new assignment started the following Monday, for two days, followed by a return engagement the following week on Thursday. I guessed the permanent teacher's vacation plans had changed.

On Monday morning I reported to the front desk in the Main Office where a beautiful teenage girl sat drinking a Coke and eating a fast-food breakfast sandwich. She glanced at me when I entered and went back to her meal. "Good morning," I offered. "I'm here to substitute for Ms. G_______."  "OK," she responded, wiping her mouth with a well-manicured hand. "My mom's back there. She'll be out in a minute." I stepped away from the desk and wandered around the waiting area for a few minutes, checking out sports trophies and school spirit banners on display. After awhile I took a seat.

A few minutes later a woman dressed in black entered, signed a clipboard on the front counter and sat down beside me. "You here to sub?" she asked. "Yes, I am. First day," I replied. I learned that she had been assigned to "my" classroom for two days the previous week. Coach W_____ entered from a different doorway and instructed the substitutes to follow him. A third woman, who had entered during my conversation with the woman in black, stood and accompanied us.The door opened directly into the cafeteria, a bright, noisy space with high ceilings, full of arriving students. It felt everything in the room -- including tables and chairs -- was milling.

Coach W deposited me in a classroom near the end of one of several hallways leading off of the cafeteria. My first impression was jarring:  the room was freezing cold and it was a mess. A teacher from next door stuck her head in to say hi and ask if I needed anything. "Is there any way to get some heat in here?" I asked. She said she'd call maintenance. Piles of student papers cascaded from the teacher's desk and the utility table beside it. Candy wrappers, textbooks, markers and a few items of clothing littered the floor and some of the desks. A mutilated whiteboard ran the length of one wall, smudged windows dominated another and a third was like a massive scream, tattered construction-paper creations on a variety of themes in taped disarray flapping in the wind current from the furnace blower, now powerfully kicked into service.

I noticed several handwritten notes taped to the door. They were thank-you and miss-you notes from the permanent teacher to her students. A sub from down the hall walked down to welcome me to B_________ High. She said she had subbed for this teacher a few times during the current school year.. I learned two important things during our brief conversation:  first, the name of the class was "Learning Strategies" and, second, the permanent teacher had been on leave since surviving a near-fatal car accident in the first month of the school year.

She helped me look unsuccessfully for rosters for the six classes I was to teach. She said she would contact the office and get them for me. She also informed me there were no lesson plans; either the permanent teacher hadn't left any or they'd been mislaid in the succession of substitutes to share the desk in the intervening 5 months.I asked if the textbooks lying around the room pertained to the course. She assured me they did but said that no one, not even the students, seemed to know which chapter they should be on by now.

I don't have the heart for a detailed rendering of events. Scenes from that day will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.

Some broad-stroke remembrances and impressions I will share:
  • There were 7 attentive, willing students in the first period which began at 7:35 a.m. I was happy to see them, full of energy and ready for adventure. Class size grew with each successive period. The students were less focused, less willing and brought what I'll call more "attitude" as the day passed. Five minutes into the final period I was hoarse, hungry and looking forward to the end of the school day.
  • By their own report, during the brief and infrequent moments of mutual engagement and shared focus that occurred between me and students during the 8 hours I was there, the students are angry about the way administration has managed their instruction since Ms. G_________ left and feel like they've wasted a year. By their behavior, I gather they greatly resent my presence -- not me personally but rather the symbolic presence of the Substitute.
  • I have as much difficulty now with certain personality types of high school culture as I did when I was a student. Examples being girls who work hard at being tough and boys with poor hygiene who make strange jokes. Another unchanged phenomenon: I'm a target. The gauntlet I walked on my way to the teacher's lounge during my "planning period" was vividly similar to countless walks I made down the hallways of New Albany High School over 40 years ago.
  • I assigned the last two classes a writing task as "exit pass". One of the tough girls yelled, "What if we don't write it? You can't make us stay! You can't make me be late for my next class!" "You're right," I answered. "In fact, I can't make you do anything. I can only give the assignment and collect the papers of those who write and leave a report reflecting who complied and who didn't." All her steam with me disappeared. She spent the rest of the hour complaining to her girlfriends in a voice loud enough for me to hear.
  • I was desperately thirsty most of the day. Even after sending a student to the cafeteria in second period to fetch water, I remained excessively thirsty. I am still thirsty, two days later.
  • The students aren't happy with the arrangement -- a seemingly endless parade of substitute teachers.. The subs in question don't like much more and at least two permanent teachers at the school voiced similar dissatisfaction to me. Nobody feels like "it" is working. How make a change..... I see this as one more manifestation of "how dysfunction persists." None of the dissatisfied parties have power or authority on their own to change things. Each individual fears repercussions and will not risk speaking up. United they might stand a chance but they exist within a dysfunctional system. A standard feature of dysfunctional human systems is that the people inside them have limited awareness of or confidence in the power of standing together.. 
  • I wrote a follow-up 'thank you' note to the lead teacher at the Y.E.S. program in Santa Cruz when I got home from school. On the drive home, comparing my experience with a bunch of drug abusing teens in CA with this experience -- small-town/Bible-Belt MS kids, the primary difference seemed to be level of student willingness; a willingness that presents first as potential and is then either nurtured and supported (at Y.E.S.) or neglected in a hundred different ways until it dies (B__________ High and, from what I hear, in most schools across the state).   

I got home and had a drink. Didn't even take off my jacket.

Then I made a shorter second drink and called a friend, a new friend who lives here and taught at Holly Springs High when he first moved to town several years ago (the friend mentioned in the earlier post "The Big Tiny Moment"). That felt good.

Then I got busy on the computer:  revamping lesson plans, switching from a focus on reading/writing/acting/public speaking to a focus on learning strategies; designing a couple of visual/manual teaching aids and printing them off; doing searches on "substitute teaching" and "high school age psychology" and "fillers for teenagers". I was disappointed and angry and hurt and scared and humbled but I would do what I could to have a different experience the next day.

The next day? After a night of deep, restorative sleep (helped a lot by a night rainstorm), I got up, dressed, collected my new lesson plans and went out to discover the car would not start. I called the agency and said I would call them back after AAA showed up.

I didn't call AAA. The car had acted up this way before after heavy rain; I knew that in 30 to 60 minutes the system would reset and the car would start. But I confess I was relieved. I didn't have to go back to the snake pit and I didn't have to lie to get out of going back. The car still wouldn't start 30 minutes later and I called the agency to report it was going to take awhile and they should remove my name from the assignment for that day. Later in the afternoon the car started without a stutter.

In the interim, I logged in to my page at the agency website and unchecked all schools outside Holly Springs in the availability roster. If this is what "school" has become, I can at least limit how early & far I will drive to spend a day with noisy people who did not invite me and who wish I wasn't there.

I haven't decided about next Thursday, the last day of the assignment. I have some curiosity about how the re-engineered lesson plans might work. How the kids might respond. We'll see if my curiosity lives long enough to propel me back to the scene of the crime....

16 February 2013

Privacy in the Time of Cookies

"Invasion of privacy" is currently high on the Top Ten list of Things People Are Talking About/Worried About. At least here in the "Greatest Nation on Earth".[?: Are people in other places also talking about and equally worried about protecting their privacy? From the Wikipedia entry on "privacy":  The concept of universal individual privacy is a modern construct associated with Western culture, English and North American in particular, and remained virtually unknown in some cultures until recent times....The word "privacy" is an example of an untranslatable lexeme and many languages do not have a specific word for "privacy". 
Privacy is commonly viewed as an entitlement. Frequently someone will say "I have a right to my privacy" and their facial expression and body posture and tone of voice will be full of emotion. People think of "privacy" as something that belongs to them, something they possess. It's a God-given right and a built-in, non-negotiable component of Freedom. Invasion of privacy violates the Bible and the U.S.Constitution in many people's minds. Emotional responses include hurt, rage and fear; there's a passionate commitment to "protecting" Privacy and fighting off any attempts to invade or diminish it.

When someone says "... invasion of privacy!" most everyone understands immediately, on a visceral level, what they're talking about. Invasions by "the Government" are considered especially outrageous."What?! They invaded (y)our privacy?! ...You just don't do that; you don't invade people's privacy..."

On the social level, outrage about "invasion of privacy" can be felt regardless of political ideology or party affiliation. There may, however, be distinctions in what triggers the outrage -- e.g.,most Liberals feel strongly that Government should "stay out of the bedroom" and "keep its hands off women's bodies" while Conservatives feel duty bound to "invade" the same privacies through legislation (usually in the interest of protecting something they see as more important; "American way of life" or "Family values" are examples)...but don't touch their guns and don't tell them how to run their business.Those are private issues.

With the explosion of the Internet into every sector and crevice of human daily existence, and our dependence on it for everything from recipes and entertainment to companionship, community, career advancement and family genealogy, concerns about Privacy have increased and intensified The Internet is, by design, public, pervasive and interconnected. Coupled with the fact that most people have little idea (and a certain level of paranoia) about who sits "behind the curtain" of the WWW, about who exactly is looking at what exactly, suspicions of having been violated and preoccupation with the possibility of violation are commonplace.

As is my wont when encountering widespread social acceptance of a largely undefined concept, I consulted the dictionary and Wikipedia to illuminate and unpack "privacy." Wiki says

(from Latin: privatus "separated from the rest, deprived of something, esp. office, participation in the government", from privo "to deprive") is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively.
The ability to seclude myself and information about myself. Probably also seclusion of information about my lack of information about myself, i.e., I am entitled to my ignorance, willful or otherwise; and whatever information I am rigorously denying or avoiding is also none of your business. 

Privacy says "There's something here that I don't want you (or the Government or my neighbors or children or my boss) to see."  What's the basis for this statement? Often some fixed, unconscious fear that exposure will cause some kind of death: 
  • you'll think less of me
  • you'll have power over me
  • you'll take what I have
As my son entered adolescence he became highly defensive of his privacy. The door to his bedroom became a barricade. It was closed at all times. Opening it required express permission. The room and its contents became "private." There was no announcement or discussion; the new policy became effective immediately at some indistinct point in time. Compromise was out of the question and suggestions to the contrary were met with vehement pique.

His experience as an only child and mine as the eldest of four contrast sharply. I never had a room of my own; I shared with either or both of my sisters. We each slept in our own bed but the room and many of its contents were shared:  furniture, hairbrushes, books, alarm clock, cosmetics and calendar to name just a few of the things I remember. We even shared some clothing. 

Privacy, as in "private possessions", though I don't remember thinking about it much, encompassed little more than my bed, my diary, my winter coat, my toothbrush. There was no physical space that belonged only to me and was exempt from community access. 

I suspect being brought up this way contributes to what some describe as an unguarded and tolerant attitude about Privacy and "invasion of privacy." 

One of the reasons I avoid air travel is the security gate ritual. It's not, for me, an issue of invasion of privacy; in fact, there is something mildly erotic about being commanded to partially disrobe in public and being felt up by a uniformed stranger. Rather, I take issue with the purpose of the procedure and have doubts about its effectiveness as anything more than an inconvenience.

What I learned about privacy fairly early on was that closing my eyes and being quiet were reliable ways to transport myself to a "private" space. 

What I've come to believe about Privacy and "invasion of privacy" is that existence leaves a trail I am powerless to conceal; 

I take it for granted that if I'm doing whatever I'm doing online and They want to find me, They will;

I'm disinterested in developing the stamina it takes to maintain an illusion of invisibility or separation -- there's no payoff attached to either that appeals to me;

The idea that protecting my "privacy" and guarding certain information about myself is a protection against what others think of me has been disproved countless times;

I have lost so many cherished and sacred "things" in my life and discovered over and over again that the best of me, the most valuable "things" cannot be lost or stolen. Perhaps because they aren't ever possessed by me, really.

I've had my wallet stolen. Apartment burglarized. A boyfriend who read my journal. Caught a co-worker devouring the last bite of something delicious from a container bearing my name. Stumbled upon photos of myself on someone else's refrigerator or website. 

And I didn't die. I survived whatever impression of me was taken by anyone involved in those events.

Which is not to say I don't recognize prerogative:  I may or may not want you to know that I eat peanut butter cookies in bed. But I can live with whatever you decide about me after you find out, and with whoever else you decide to tell my "secret." 

And my enjoyment is unlikely to be any less.

14 February 2013

Is This the Way?

Gradually Falling Asleep in Apathy of Unconsciousness
Artist:  Paulo Zerbato
Now and then, needing a quick, short-hand description of what I'm doing in Holly Springs (for example, responding to the question I am asked most frequently these days: "What brought you to Holly Springs?), I have used the term "community development." It's a little embarrassing hearing myself say it, aloud, to a witness. 

It sounds so ... focused and intentional. 

People who do "community development" have "talking points"....don't they? Buzz words or keywords or boilerplate verbiage, for use in interviews and conversations, press releases and web page copy

They know what they're doing and they can talk about it, explain it. They have clear objectives. A game plan.

A mission statement.

The term implies a confidence and commitment and....a clarity that I do not have. . 

The ground shifts. I've been here for almost six months now. People and relationships come into sharp focus and then fade. Routines are short-lived and driven by an ever-changing set of circumstances.

Life is always like this but I feel it with a particular intensity in unfamiliar environments. In a new town or a new job/gig the learning curve is steep because there are fewer reliable points of reference. Climate, geography, speech patterns, food, social protocol, fashion, population density...everything is unfamiliar. Everything is being learned. 

At Wal-Mart last night I noticed a couple things:  first, the line at the gun counter was really long. Second, I was the only person in line to checkout who had neither candy, flowers, a stuffed animal, a heart-shaped balloon or anything pink or red in my basket. When I saw all the Happy Valentine's greetings on FB this morning I thought "Oh! I get it:  yesterday was the day after the State of the Union address (guns) and the day before Valentine's Day (hearts and flowers)."

I move around in the environment, noticing, observing, making connections. 

It's what we all do, all the time. But I left one place where I was noticing, observing and making connections and moved to a new place where I am noticing, observing and making connections. Naturally, the question arises, for people in the old place and the new place, "Why did you move? What are you doing?"

The Wikipedia entry for Beck  outlines his many years of hard scrabble. The boy paid his dues! There's not much explicit information about the motivations. What would he say about why he was doing whatever he was doing at any point in his career? What underlying desire sustained him through the hardship? What was his mission?  

I can say that I came to Holly Springs to help launch a multi-faceted project, largely art-centered, toward a variety of ends, including the revitalization of Holly Springs, MS. I can say that specific project has been tabled for now; still, some of the objectives attached to it remain in play. Thinking about it today, I realized that wherever an objective was in alignment with my life mission and innate passions, it survived the derailment of the original plan.

Example:  I wanted to host artists from all over the world in a retreat space where they could work on their art, share the work in exhibition and performances and/or lead classes and seminars while in town. I wanted departing guests and audiences to say "I had excellent food and conversation. I learned something new."  There are no artists in residence and no classes or performances scheduled; but I am making delicious food, planning a garden, practicing "presence" in my interactions around town, advocating for arts-integration, and studying the history of this place--all of them activities I would be engaged in if the project was still in motion.

I don't know how to do community development. It scares me to think about doing it. If it consists of telling the truth in meaningful conversation, of being silly or brave enough to try new things, of "being the change" every day and cheering other agents of change, of becoming better and better at listening, of finding the courage to stay in motion while the environment lapses into inertia...

We can say I'm doing community development. But it's really no different from how I live anyway.

09 February 2013

Sex to Crime to Suicide to Pizza

The thread started yesterday with finding this video of a TED talk by Cindy Gallop posted on my FB Wall:.

Wow!  Real, intelligent, courageous, on-point, compelling....  I wish I'd given that talk.

Somehow, my thinking flowed on from there to my old dream of being a courtesan; and then, possibly influenced by the culture here in Holly Springs, another old dream surfaced:  living a life of crime.

One of the brightest jewels in the town's crown is the annual Pilgrimage, a weekend of tours through plantation homes, guided by local maidens dressed up in period costume. Being neither young nor maidenly, and there being no hoop skirts in my wardrobe

I pulled the bead bag down from the attic and drenched the front porch in Mardi Gras beads and trinkets. The Pilgrimage doesn't happen until April but Mardi Gras is this Tuesday.

Then I heard Christine Wiltz on NPR talking about her book about the life of Norma Wallace, "The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld." Seemed to pull together both strands of my thinking: crime and high-class courtesan-ship.

I haven't read the book yet but here's a link to  Chapter One as excerpted in the New York Times.

She was married five times.

Always to men younger than herself. Each husband younger than the preceding husband.

In her last marriage, to a man 39 years her junior, she relocated to Mississippi in an attempt to reduce his exposure to the temptations of New Orleans and the younger women "sashaying down Esplanade."

She was trying to hang on. To him, to her life and her identity. She failed. The story ends with her suicide in Mississippi.

You can imagine perhaps, as I sit in yet another town that is not New Orleans (a town, coincidentally, in Mississippi) how and where my thinking has gone in the hour and half since the radio story ended.

Not feeling suicidal.

Relishing these examples of self-possessed older women. Wondering about the shadow side of Ms. Gallop's life. Adding "The Last Madam" to my "Want to Read" list.

And thinking about ordering a pizza.

08 February 2013

Great Big Tiny Moment

He accepted my invitation to stop by for a drink on his way back from Oxford. ETA 7:45p. At 9 he was nowhere in sight and I hadn't heard a word from him. I went ahead and made myself a drink and sent a text,"Where are ya?"  A half hour later he called; he'd stopped for one drink at an Oxford watering hole and run into friends. One thing led to another and now he wouldn't be able to stop by, other obligations to meet in Holly Springs.

A few minutes later the phone rings again. This time its an acquaintance calling from Berkeley. She's just been evicted. She has until the end of the month to find somewhere to live until a new lease begins at the end of May.. She wants me to ask my former host in Berkeley if she can move in there for three months..

This acquaintance is not an easy person. She immigrated to the Bay area from India almost 8 years ago. Besides finding it difficult to understand her heavily-accented English, our conversations during the year that I knew her consisted almost entirely of complaint:  about American culture and the high cost of living in the SF Bay area and the barely-cloaked sexism, racism and class bigotry she battles every day and the lack of employment and... Last night's conversation was similarly riddled with disappointment and stories of disapproval. As always, I listened. I empathized.

I told her I didn't feel comfortable recommending her to my former host as a short-term house guest but I would sleep on it and see how I felt in the morning. I said I would also think about other options for her.

Yesterday afternoon I had presented before a group of educators, principals and administrators of the Holly Springs School District. I was allowed ten minutes to introduce myself and my work; to offer a mini-primer in what exactly "arts educator," "improvisation," and "artist-in-residence" mean; to discuss how the arts can be integrated throughout standard curriculum and support classroom teachers; and to demonstrate how an improv playshop works. Ten minutes. To my credit, this largely unresponsive group of 12 adults laughed heartily twice. There was no time allowed for questions or reactions. I have no idea how the presentation was received.

I was grateful for the great thunder, lightening and rain storm last night. I curled up with a new book and dozed off into the deep, coddled sleep that bourbon, reading and night storm permit.


Even waking to gray skies and a chill wind, this morning felt like a clean slate, a fresh start, a renewal. I felt certain I would not ask my former host, who had made it clear when I left five months ago that she was profoundly relieved to have her 3-bedroom home all to herself again, to open her home to my sad acquaintance. I'll continue to brainstorm other options.

I am at peace with whatever was (or was not) communicated in my presentation before the group of school leaders. If any of them have even a tiny twinkling interest in enhancing the curriculum at their school, they'll call me. If not, perhaps I'll try again if I'm still in Holly Springs this time next year. Or perhaps some other project will commence in the meantime. 

My no-show new friend from last night stopped by this morning to return a jacket I'd left at his house when we met a few weeks ago. He asked if I had plans for the weekend and suggested I could call him and we'd find something to do. I told him I couldn't promise anything. "It's been a week of unfulfilled promises and unrealized possibility and I'm struggling with the weight of so much 'no'", I said. "I know that 'shit happens' and best laid plans don't work out. It's just that when a whole lot of best laid plans fall through, it brings me down sometimes."

He launched into an explanation of what happened last night and I burst out with "No! I hate feeling myself in the role of chastising School Marm....listening to 'dog ate my homework' rationales! You don't owe me an explanation." I'd been out of bed less than 30 minutes when he knocked on the door; my etiquette programming had not yet been switched on...

I retrieved my espresso, grabbed my cigarettes and headed to the chilly front porch. He followed and our talk turned to Life in Holly Strange. He, his wife and daughter are relative newcomers here, too. Commiseration was what brought us together.

Somehow, over the next few minutes, my heart thawed (I hadn't realized it was frozen until the thaw started.). As he talked about wandering into that Oxford bar and unexpectedly finding friends there, I imagined myself in his shoes. After however-many days of social drought in Holly Springs, finding myself in a lively environment in the company of people I like, Guinness in hand and stimulating conversation in the air....yeah, I "got it" how it might be tempting to relish the juiciness of the situation. How it might be difficult to pull myself away and drive back to Holly Springs.

And I also "got it" that he wasn't casting me in the School Marm role; I was doing that to myself, inside my own head.

And I thanked him for staying, for continuing to talk. "I can feel you in my heart right now. I'm sorry for that pre-coffee, 'I don't want to hear it' blast. I was thinking about me instead of listening to you."

The sky was still white-gray and my ankles protruding beyond the hem of my sweatpants were cold but when our eyes met, the warmth of friendship wrapped round us. He smiled. I smiled. "Talk to you later," I said. "OK," he replied.

Whatever else happens today, I can chalk this up as a great day.

07 February 2013

Don't Want People to Think...

With arguably good intentions, friends or colleagues sometimes offer advise on the premise, "Well, you wouldn't want people to think ________."

It's strange advise. Is it ever possible to be sure of what anyone is thinking about whatever I'm doing?

Wouldn't it be kinda creepy to be able to control other people's minds?

Doesn't the evidence of life experience suggest that people are going to think whatever they think?

And, I don't know about you, but I'm willing to take the risk of being surprised by other people's responses. In a very real and time-tested way, other people's unmediated reactions and responses help me know who I am.

04 February 2013


I am still in MS. I continue to reach out (and in) in every direction for friendship, insight, commiseration, critique, suggestions... It is a matter of survival. I hit pay dirt last night on the telephone with this poem, read aloud to me, by a friend in Santa Cruz:

The Dakini Speaks

My friends, let's grow up.
Let's stop pretending we don't know the deal here.
Or if we truly haven't noticed, let's wake up and notice.
Look: everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It's simple-how could we have missed it for so long?
Let's grieve our losses fully, like ripe human beings,
But please, let's not be so shocked by them.
Let's not act so betrayed
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.
Impermanence is life's only promise to us,
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.
To a child she seems cruel, but she is only wild,
And her compassion is exquisitely precise:
Brilliantly penetrating, luminous with truth,
She strips away the unreal to show us the real.
This is the true ride-let's give ourselves to it!
Let's stop making deals for a safe passage:
There isn't one anyway, and the cost is too high.
We are not children any more.
The true human adult gives everything for what can be lost.
Let's dance the wild dance of no hope!

--Jennifer Welwood

This morning, more scavenging and excavation and harvesting yielded this response from a FB friend I've never met. A woman older than I who is a MS native: [Note: Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn" has been running through my head nonstop for a few days. A few photo portraits of the woman who immortalized that song seem in order.]

Mississippi is not a nice place. It will weigh you down. You will adapt or you will leave. Make no mistake about it, every noble soul who remains adapts because the struggle is too great to not release something of value.

The natives will deny the problems, defend the divisions, and point to places outside where "it's just the same." People will die and be glorified in death. But they're still be dead and living in Mississippi will probably be the cause of their death on some level.
I like this John O'Donohue quote: "Only if there is beauty in us can we recognize beauty elsewhere: beauty knows beauty. In this way beauty can be a mirror that manifests our own beauty. This has little to do with narcissism or self-absorption. To achieve a glimpse of inner beauty strengthens our sense of dignity and grace. The glimpse ennobles us; it helps awaken and refine our reverence for the intimate eternal that dwells in us." 
I have observed that the job of racial reconciliation is an extremely difficult one --- that is, if you are sincere and want to do it correctly. Northern Ireland, South Africa, Mississippi are tough mission fields. I find that blacks are usually the ones doing the reaching for reconciliation, and whites are usually the ones readily accepting forgiveness. I think that is a flawed model. Everybody needs salvation and everybody needs forgiveness. Blacks must forgive themselves (ourselves) for having been chattel slaves; for having been impotent to stop the violence and oppression. We can do that only if we can find beauty in ourselves. For about ten years (1970-1980), we had that confidence. But it went back Hollywood. Anyway...
Think on this quote from John O'Donohue (and read him): "If you try to view yourself through the lenses that others offer you, all you will see are distortions; your own light and beauty will become blurred, awkward, and ugly. Your sense of inner beauty has to remain a very private thing."


My charmed life continues, being delivered just what I need when I need it most.

Some keys live in the awesome silence that surrounds and permeates me. Some keys live in the words of others, float and flutter and stampede into my awareness, opening doors....nudging me into wakefulness.

03 February 2013

Email to a Friend in North Carolina

"Dismay"    Artist:  Ed Newman (http://ed-newman.blogspot.com/2011/10/dismay.html)

This is a "bad" day so it's likely foolish of me to attempt a response to your inquiry, "...tell me about you...what have you created...".
Holly Springs would be described in performance jargon as "a hard audience." To the eye, at first glance, it is a lovely place:  lots of old trees, architectural flourishes that evoke a romantic nostalgia for days gone by, a slow-ish pace.
After five months in this place, I am somewhat heart sore and intellectually depleted and exhausted. People are gracious and cordial, but there is a superficiality to everything here that leaves me feeling undernourished most of the time. Beyond this, the pervasive dominance of religious ideology is, I believe, strangling any creative, life-affirming, freedom-engendering impulses that might try to take root, and, by extension, is slowly killing the town.
I have abandoned for the present any attempt to proceed with my original dream of establishing an artist retreat/conference/education center here. In a town that seems content with letting the extant beauty and culture disintegrate before their eyes, what chance does an uppity black Yankee woman artist newcomer have of launching something new?
I say that this first year will be my year of "relationship building" but, in truth, I do not know how to build relationship here. I am by nature an introvert and traditionally disinclined to "suffer fools" so building relationship is at best challenging and, in this environment, daunting.
But I press on. I have recently made the acquaintance of one person who may turn out to become a trusted friend but other similar glimmers have turned out already to be false starts. I have hooked up with a non-profit preservation group -- Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs -- and, although none of them are from Holly Springs and all but one member are "white"...and although they are fairly up front about caring not a crumb whether the community of Holly Springs supports their work (this is in direct conflict with my priorities to date), there appears to be some imagination and interest in things and ideas and people beyond the MS state line, so I will hang with them for awhile.
I continue to practice piano daily at the Episcopal church. Am in conversation with the local HBC, Rust College, about teaching there in the Fall. Have registered with Kelly to be a substitute teacher and will submit an application packet to the MS Arts Commission for inclusion on their Teaching Artist Roster to connect with (paying) gigs in area schools. I have written one new song "Morning in Holly Springs" which becomes increasingly more heart-rending to sing...

A dreary commentary but pretty clear writing given the grumbling fog I move in today.

I wake up most mornings with an exasperated analysis of Holly Springs and MS already in progress in my mind. This morning it ran something like this:

Local culture is a hundred iterations of "denial." Many people here personify Hillary Clinton's recent description of the GOP on FB:

‎"There are some people ... who can't be confused by the facts. They just will not live in an evidence-based world. And that's regrettable..."

Despite plentiful evidence that the antebellum South was not a Paradise on Earth, the period is constantly evoked and promoted with affectionate nostalgia. I am surprised by how many conversations, no matter the topic, somehow wind their way back to or through a discussion of either the Civil War or slavery.

There is no industry to speak of here. A puzzling number of real estate-related offices on the town square. Not one decent restaurant in town. No bookstores. No performance venues. Only one art gallery that I know of. No movie theater. No children's clothing or toy store. No art supply store. No coffeehouse. No schools of dance. No yoga studio. No

And yet, reading promotional materials from the Tourism and Recreational Bureau of Holly Springs it would be easy to think there's something going on here. Rather than investing time, attention, labor and love to take inventory and make a frank assessment of the undeniable potential in Holly Springs, the community appears to choose gazing into a magic mirror and broadcasting the self-congratulatory hallucination they see in it.

Yesterday I hung a sign over my desk:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." (Buckminster Fuller)

I'm gonna walk with this notion for awhile...see what develops.