I put my Christmas lights up Sunday.
I didn’t mean to put up my Christmas lights, to be honest. I wanted to just plug in last year’s Christmas lights–which are also my Christmas lights from the year before–to make sure they still worked. Sadly, they had other plans.
So I had a choice to make. I could try to fix the Christmas lights I put up in 2019 to make them work all over again, or I could scrap them for something new. The old Christmas lights were kind of faded (that’s what happens when Christmas lights have been out in the sun for two summers), and I bought them at a garage sale in 2017, as part of an enormous box of Christmas crap that cost me $10.
One portion of a $10 investment from 2017 did not seem worth the trouble. So I unwound our balcony railing, and the foot of our balcony railing, and the railing of the little semi-enclosed area beneath our railing. I decided some big box store probably already had all the Christmas crap I could hope to get my hands on, and I would just go and purchase new Christmas crap and throw out the mostly non-functional Christmas crap I already owned.
I decided on icicle lights. Some were blue, and some were white, and some were blue and white. Some twinkled, and some didn’t. (This was not a conscious decision, by the way; this is what happens when a guy in a hurry doesn’t think to check that other shoppers may have mixed up the boxes.) I could have fixed it at the checkout, but by then I was way on the other side of the store, so I decided to live with it. The person next to me in line looked at my mismatched light purchases and promptly announced, “Too soon!” as though I had spoken of a tragedy after it recently happened. I ignored them, and went home to put up the new Christmas lights.
It turns out, when you jam icicle lights into a small cardboard box (well, not “you” – you didn’t do it; I most likely refer to someone overseas who is horribly underpaid), the lights and cords get tangled and mangled and twisted every which way, so a small stream of curse words began to descend from our balcony as I worked, but in time I found a system and began the installation. Two neighbors, a husband and wife whom I like very much, were walking their dogs on our block and noticed me working. “Too soon!” the husband cried. I made some crack about how I would rather hang lights when it’s 60 degrees than 16 degrees, and went back to work.
And somewhere after that, a funny thing happened: I began to care about my Christmas lights. In fairness, I tend to put up Christmas lights because the love of my life cares about whether or not we have Christmas lights, and I care about her, and so: lights. But this time, I started to care for me. I figured out which were blue, and which were white, and which were blue and white. I tested to see which ones twinkled and which didn’t. And then, I actually created a plan for my Christmas lights, so the blue would go there and the blue-and-white would go there and the white would be over there and the twinklies would be on that row and the non-twinklies above that row. I zip-tied lights to the railing; I used wire staples to tack lights into the decking. I ran an extension cord and set a timer and put the timer inside a plastic bag to protect it from the future elements. And then, I waited for dark.
Since we’re waiting, let me tell you about Saturday.
First: Saturday was Daylight Savings Time, so I had to set my clocks an hour back. People get all jazzed about the possibility of an extra hour of sleep, but they usually stay up late and negate that extra hour, and even if they don’t, one extra hour of sleep is (for me) not worth several months of driving home from work in the dark. I am not a fan of Daylight Savings Time, or at least I am not a fan of it in November.
The only other memorable thing that happened on Saturday was that I went to a funeral. That’s not even true. I went to something called a celebration of life, though it seemed pretty hard to be celebratory, under the circumstances. I didn’t feel all that comfortable going, to be honest, because I had never even met the deceased. I knew exactly one person at the entire event; a former student of mine who had lost her mom. I think that former student is pretty groovy, and I know from experience that losing a parent is pretty awful, so I went.
I didn’t do well. As I said, I knew one person, and while my former student seemed grateful to see me, my social anxiety kicked in and I didn’t really know what to say, and then my analytical side kicked in and I figured there was nothing I could say that might express the depth of emotion one might feel at losing a parent, so I said close to nothing. I lost my parents at 30 and 31, respectively, and I thought that was bad, but this amazing young person I know is still in high school, and what was I supposed to say? "Too soon!" was what came to mind, and while that was true, it didn't seem to help. And then, of course, other people also wanted to speak with my former student, and so I stood around like an idiot while a host of people wondered, “who’s that old bald guy and what the hell is he doing here?” So when I had a chance, I found my former student once more, gave her a hug, told her to let me know if there was anything I could do (I don’t know why we all say that; what exactly are we supposed to do?), and I left. I felt horrible about it, but by then, I didn’t know how to fix it, so I resigned myself to feeling horrible.
So Sunday, I put up Christmas lights. By all accounts, I put them up too soon, but I finished putting them up at noon or so, and I moved on to other things. I wrote for a while. I took a short nap. I took a shower. I read part of a book. I started cooking dinner. I grilled ocean bass and a pair of bison tenderloins. I cedar-planked the bass and indirect grilled for 40 minutes, added the bison with 20 minutes to go and indirect-grilled that, also, but added some apple chips to smoke things up a little bit.
It was the day after Daylight Savings Time; the sky was darkening as I grilled. It was the day after a celebration of life that wasn’t all that celebratory.
And then my Christmas lights came on.
And you know, the thing is--and I’m not writing this for any kind of dramatic effect but only because it’s true--by the time the lights came on I had kind of forgotten I put them up in the first place. I hadn’t really meant for them to come on–it was “too soon!”–but I left them plugged in just to make sure the timer worked and that everything would light up and the blue would be blue and the white would be white and the twinklies would twinkle, and then WHAM! There they were.
And you know what? I know I’m biased. But they were beautiful.
I don’t know why Christmas lights became a thing. The nearest I can think of is that somewhere back in time a guy in a mostly-Christian area was coming home drunk from the tavern after the sun went down, and he whacked his head on a tree branch, and some well-meaning and caring woman who was way out of this guy’s league but who had agreed to marry him anyway said, “Well, that never would have happened if you had put some lights on that,” and then she put him to bed and nursed his wounds and the next day–like all guys who marry out of their league–this fellow realized she was right, and a tradition was born.
(Please don’t bother to correct me in the comments; I know it probably didn’t happen this way. I also know I could Google it and find out more, but I’m tired of Google. Remember when we could just not know things? Remember when you could say, “I wonder how that started?” and a buddy would say, “Yeah, I wonder,” and you would say, “Huh,” and that would be the end of it? I miss those times. I’ll find out eventually, but for now, just let me live in the mystery.)
There are all kinds of opinions regarding holidays on social media. Some people think, “Too soon!” when it comes to Christmas, and some of those people start drinking Pumpkin Spice Whatevers in the middle of August, while others don’t put their Christmas tree up until December 24 but then leave it up until St. Patrick’s Day.
And you know what? Fine.
We’re about 20 months into a pandemic that has killed more Americans than any virus in history. We’ve endured lockdowns and social distancing. We’ve seen vaccines develop and people argue about whether we should take them or whether we shouldn’t. Some of us (at least, the responsible ones) are still masking and social distancing, even with two and sometimes three shots in our arms. And a beloved former student now goes to bed each night knowing her mother is no longer with us, and she isn’t even out of high school yet, and how in the world is any of this fair?
My Christmas lights came on while I was grilling. And when they did, I learned something: in life, there is no such thing as “too soon.” Life is short–sometimes painfully so–so it’s important to do your own thing while you can. If you want a Pumpkin Spice latte in July, have at it, you Halloween-loving fool; I don’t know why you pay $8 for pumpkin-flavored-sugared coffee, but hey, you do you. If you plan for Thanksgiving beginning November 1, have at it; just make extra stuffing in case I come around, and please don't skimp on the gravy. And if you’re hanging Christmas lights on November 7 or December 23, hang them well and enjoy them, because when you get right down to it, life’s too short to care about other people’s opinions; if you’re living your life for other people’s approval, you might not be doing it right.
And all of this might be a horrible lesson—certainly it is too little, too late, for a young person who thought I might have had all the answers in history class but realized I have way too few answers for life—but it seems that all I can offer is that when all is said and done, the best we can do is to let what little light we might have shine as brightly as possible. I tried to decorate my balcony; was it “too soon”? I don’t care. I tried to comfort a former student who was hurting; did I? I do care, but I can’t know; I worry that I did not, but hope that by being there my former student will know I adore her, and I tried with all the light I had at the time.
And so, my friends: Christmas or otherwise, let your lights shine, whenever you can, and let others judge you as they must (and no doubt will). Your light defines the limits of the shadow around you, blue or white or twinkly or not. That light may not illuminate everything you desire, and that's just the way of things, but sometime between the time you show up and the time you leave, it might burn just brightly enough to show someone else you cared.
That's enough, I hope. Even if you do things poorly--as I did on Saturday--it's better to do them poorly than not at all. If your lights are worn and faded and broken, replace them. And if you can't afford to replace them, let whatever is left shine as well as it can. You never know who might appreciate it, anyway.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Princeton, Wisconsin. I wasn’t born there, but my mother was, and that’s where she was living when she and dad adopted me. Aside from a couple of weeks with an adoption service, Princeton was where I lived for the first six months of my life. My grandmother—Mom’s mom—lived there as well, in a tiny home on Canal Street with a pond and a woods behind it, which made it one of the most magical places to visit as a child, and I spent at least two weeks each summer there under Grandma’s watchful eyes.
So when I found out the bowling alley was for sale in Princeton, Wisconsin, that soft spot in my heart fluttered a little bit. It’s been far and away the worst year of teaching I’ve had since becoming a teacher, and while I had never really considered not teaching, here was a cute little bowling alley that needed a new owner, right there in my hometown, and suddenly I began to consider not teaching next year. I mean, sure, Princeton is over an hour’s drive from where I currently live… And yeah, I have no experience owning a bowling alley… I should still be able to make a living from the sports bar portion, even though I have never tended bar, right? I mean, honestly: What could go wrong?
In the midst of this consideration, I posted about the bowling alley on social media, and that’s when the whole idea took off. Turns out, a lot of people who know me thought it was an absolutely fantastic idea for me to own a bowling alley. I mean, a lot. Which is to say, almost everybody I know wanted to see my whole bowling alley dream become a reality, and many of them were even willing to crowdfund it. Teaching colleagues supported the idea (many teachers benefit from having a friendly place to drink). Friends from high school and college supported it, and some began to plan reunions and birthday parties. Former students supported it and told me how much they might enjoy coming in for a drink when they were in the neighborhood.
So I put together a fake-GoFundMe kind of thing and put that on social media, and the next thing I knew I had more potential donations coming than I knew what to do with. I really liked the idea of owning this bowling alley, but some of my friends seemed even more excited about it than I was, and many of them were willing to put their money on the line over it. That, of course, implied a certain obligation on my part to carry this thing through, so I did what any clueless future entrepreneur would do and called to arrange a tour of the bowling alley. That was on Friday. The tour was scheduled for this coming Thursday.
In the interim, I had a little time to think, which is almost always a good thing. I thought happily about the joy many of my friends might feel if this all worked out, and I dreamt of the reunions and the birthdays and all the other things that might happen at that little bowling alley once I owned it and once COVID was done.
But then I thought: COVID isn’t done. Owning a bowling alley still sounds cool, but going broke while sitting inside an empty bowling alley sounds a lot less cool. If I did go broke, I would go broke knowing I had wasted money entrusted to me by my friends, and that didn’t seem like a very friendly thing to do. Even if tomorrow I could own that bowling alley and operate it with lifted restrictions and at full capacity, most of my hours would be night and weekends while my wife’s hours were weekdays, and the potential joys inherent in owning a bowling alley were not nearly enough to offset a world in which I never saw my wife.
Not to mention, I love teaching. I really do. I love teaching; it’s “being a teacher” that I don’t like as much. If it has been my worst year as a teacher, that’s not the young people’s fault. Teaching—being in the classroom with the young people—remains a great job. Being a teacher—by which I mean all of the other stuff that is not associated with being in the classroom with young people—is what has been problematic. I still have teaching to do, and still feel I can do some good there, and it would be hard to walk away from that just because I don’t like the politics of the job.
And as long as I was doing all this thinking, I began to wonder: Would I have any interest in owning a bar and a bowling alley if it wasn’t this bar and bowling alley? And the answer to that question is, “No.” This bowling alley is charming, and cute, and I hope someone buys it and has a ball (pun intended). But this bowling alley is in Princeton, which is associated with so many happy memories of my youth, and while it really is a remarkable bowling alley, I wanted the town more than the business. I didn’t want a bowling alley nearly as much as I wanted happiness and the chance to remember what it was like to be young.
This morning, I canceled my tour of the bowling alley. But I’m glad this past week happened. I learned a lot, and as an educator, learning is kind of what I do, and has value.
I learned, for instance, that I still want to teach, even if that means putting up with everything else that goes into “being a teacher.” My students will almost certainly benefit from that lesson for the two months that remain of this school year, and perhaps in years to come.
I learned the dreamer in me isn’t dead yet. Even if sooner or later the pragmatic side of me comes to the forefront and says, “You do realize this is idiotic, right?” the romantic side of me is still willing to entertain flights of fancy, and that’s a good thing. I didn’t need to own a bowling alley—I had a ball (there it is again) merely entertaining the possibility of owning a bowling alley. What’s more, several people I know also had fun with this, and there is precious little that is more valuable than being the cause of someone else’s fun.
I also learned a great deal about friendship. There’s an old saying somewhere about how a man can be judged by the quality of his friends, but in my case, that old saying isn’t true: if you judge me by the quality of my friends, you will mistakenly come to believe that I am a much better man than I am, because my friends are amazing. I don’t deserve these people, but I’m grateful they seem to like me anyway. It was so strange and rewarding to have so many friends—some of whom I haven’t laid eyes on in decades—keep chiming in with “What do you need? How can we help? Count me in, let’s do this!” I know some really groovy people, and this experience has made me grateful for them all over again. Thank you, friends.
So it turns out I was meant to learn lessons more than I was meant to own a bowling alley. And who knows? Maybe I was meant to blog about a bowling alley, so that someone else might get curious about that bowling alley and start their new career. I don’t think the realtor or the seller would mind a little free advertising, and really, it’s awfully darn cute. Click here to see for yourself.
If you end up buying it, shoot me a message, if you would be so kind. I will drive over some night and maybe even rent some shoes from you and bowl a few frames. If nothing else, I’ll sit on a barstool and chat with you for a while. When it is time to go, I will walk out under the streetlights and look at what used to be the five-and-dime located across the street. I will get in my car and cruise slowly through my hometown. I will go home happy and remembering what it was like to be young, and that will be an evening well spent.
If you would like to be the kind of person who never stops learning, the best advice I can give you is to become a high school teacher. Some days, you learn just where your limits are and then promptly go right past them, until you're saying words you know you're going to regret. (My personal favorite: "Of all the things you can choose to be in this world, why would you choose to be an asshole?") Some days, you learn about Classical Conservatism from no less an authority than Klemens von Metternich himself. And some days, you see the future, and you learn that humanity might still be OK.
All three of those things happened today. Two of them have the potential to be blog posts (I plead the Fifth on that first one), but it's International Women's Day, so I want to say a few brief words about my Women's Studies class. (Yes, I'm a guy. Yes, I teach Women's Studies. Yes, it's a long story. Suffice it to say that the only reason I teach it is because three little sisters asked me to.)
We've been moving through the herstory of women's rights in America, from the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, through the long trials of the fight for suffrage, with stops in both World Wars and then on into the 1960's. We're now firmly entrenched in Second Wave Feminism. We've read from The Feminine Mystique. We've had group discussions on a host of poems and articles, and beginning at the tail end of last week, we began creating the Feminism Hall of Fame.
It's a simple exercise, based on the plaques from the Baseball Hall of Fame, which have an image of the player, their years in the Major Leagues, and their accomplishments. I altered it so that the students were assigned one Second Wave Feminist and needed to include her picture (preferably from the time period), her date of birth (and, if applicable, death), and then a 300-500 word essay about her accomplishments, all of which should fit on an 11x17 poster. We created the posters last week, and I hung them up outside of my room today.
During class today, we did a Gallery Walk. If you're unfamiliar, you simply display a number of items (in this case, the posters), and then have the students pretend each is an exhibit in an art gallery, and they walk from one to the next and view the exhibits. I asked them to view at least a dozen posters outside of their own, write down a few pieces of pertinent info about the feminist covered in that poster, and then write a brief paragraph about the experience. I reminded them that due to spacing and other issues, the posters were in the hall, and reminded them that other classes were in session in other rooms, and then I turned them loose to work on their assignment.
I've done this exercise before. I almost always have to redirect--not a lot, but on occasion--or point out that there's no waiting at this exhibit while six friends all gather at that one. I didn't have to do that today; not once. This is the first time I've done the lesson in a COVID world, also. Were we always socially distanced? No. Were we ever within six feet of someone else for 15 minutes? Also no. And let me tell you: you could have heard a pin drop. Every student was reading the essays, looking at the pictures, finding out who was still alive, or expressing dismay that someone else had passed away so recently. There were more than a few comments to me: "She was in the movie!" "I remember her!" "I didn't know she was a member of Congress!"
There are moments, being a teacher, when the lesson goes well, or when both you and the students are having fun, or when you get that feeling of, "Hey, it's possible I know what I'm doing!" This was all of those things, and on top of that, it was beautiful. About twenty little sisters (and a couple of fine young feminist little brothers) spent forty minutes in silence, observing positive female role models who, once upon a time, changed the world.
The National Women's Hall of Fame is in Seneca Falls, New York, where way back in 1848 the Declaration of Sentiments was both presented and signed. But for three-quarters of an hour today, the Feminist Hall of Fame was outside my classroom, and its opening was a smashing success.
Happy International Women's Day, one and all. Humanity might still be OK.
Anyone who knows me knows I don't need another typewriter. I'm coming up on 40 of them now. The difference between owning a typewriter and having a typewriter collection isn't a large difference; both of these things give me membership in a shrinking minority of people. A typewriter collection means I talk about Tom Hanks more than other people do; when you're not a typewriter collector, one of the few things you know about typewriter collections is that Tom Hanks has one. I enjoy Mr. Hanks' work and I'm envious of his collection, so speaking about him is not something I view as a hardship, but it doesn't always go anywhere -- we mention the collection and we each choose our favorite movie, and then we have nothing else to talk about.
The thing is, I'm not really a typewriter collector, either. I'm a writer, or I try to be. I don't have a great deal of interest in antique and collectible typewriters; I have interest in typewriters that can be used. I own multiple typewriters because beyond the basics, I know very little about typewriter repair, and I don't want to be caught without a working typewriter. I even have multiples of the same typewriter for this very reason (because honestly; can anyone kill a mid-50's Smith-Corona?). I enjoy knowing I can keep typing for many days to come, but others find my collection mildly annoying. My wife sometimes wishes I collected spoons or thimbles or something--you know, the type of thing where the entire collection might fit in a single drawer.
Still, this post is not really about typewriters, nor is it about the perils and pleasures of typewriter collecting. This post is about Fate.
It happened like this. Earlier this week, I had a birthday. My father-in-law sent me a card with a check. My in-laws have been sending me checks on my birthday every year since I married their daughter; Mom started it, and when she passed Dad continued it. So I had this check from Dad that I needed to cash.
I also have a dear friend, and this dear friend of mine and I exchange letters. I have shared the dorky joy of owning a typewriter with this friend, and so we type letters back and forth to each other, as we only actually see one another four or five times a year. My friend sent me a lovely letter that arrived on my birthday, and yesterday I typed my reply and sealed it.
But the letter needed a stamp, and I didn't have any fun stamps. I had stamps; I just didn't have any fun ones. This is one of my best friends in the world, you understand, and the lack of fun stamps caused a minor moral dilemma. Did I really want to use an un-fun stamp for one of my best friends? Was I supposed to use the same stamps for my dear friend that I use when I pay my bills? I didn't think so.
I had errands to do yesterday. I had told my wife I could take care of the grocery shopping. I needed to put gas in my car. I needed to cash that check I got from Dad. So I figured I would just add to the list of errands and go to the Post Office and buy some fun stamps and mail the letter to my friend, as well. All told, that would only add about ten minutes to my errands (it's a pretty small town, where I live).
So I got the gas and I cashed the check, and then I headed across town to the Post Office. (One should always save grocery shopping for last, so the frozen items don't thaw too much in the car.) I bought 20 stamps celebrating the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Ox, and I used one of them to mail the letter, and that was that.
Except it wasn't. Because I had taken ten minutes to get to the Post Office, my route back to the grocery store had been altered. Not by much -- again, it's a pretty small town -- but enough that my return took me past a St. Vincent de Paul store. I thought to myself, "When was the last time I had been inside this St. Vinnie's?" and I could not recall, but I did remember that the last time I had been inside, they had had a typewriter near the exit. I had time, so I pulled in the parking lot and walked inside, and I didn't find anything I really needed. Still, I walked toward the exit and checked the shelves, and there I found a late-50's Triumph De-Jur Perfekt. This is not the most common typewriter to find, but there it was, a portable in a hardshell case that even had the original brushes and cleaning cloth. Its two-toned color practically gleamed beneath the fickle St. Vinnie's fluorescent lighting. It had a piece of paper in it, so I tried it out a little, and the German engineering (West German, at that time) was evident from the first.
I don't need another typewriter.
"You're buying that?" asked the lady at the counter as I plopped the case near the register. "I just put that out ten minutes ago. But I don't know if I can sell it to you; our credit/debit system is down right now."
If you're following along at home, here's a brief recap of where we are right now:
Anyone who knows me knows I don't need another typewriter. But anyone who knows me also knows that when Fate slaps me upside the head, I pay attention. Welcome to the collection, Beautiful.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way. When I last posted on this blog, I had a plan for what came next, but that plan got cast aside due to my students. Honestly, it’s OK when things get cast aside due to students—a lot of learning can happen out there in the Land of Unexpected—but my plan got derailed, and it’s kept me from putting together the sequel to my last post for longer than I anticipated.
We started Second Semester recently. My Women’s Studies classes are only a semester long, so I bid adieu to one group and welcomed another. It’s hokey, but in each of my classes I ask students to fill out a “Getting to Know You” sheet. It’s not much—just a few questions that help me 1) learn their names and a few things to associate with them, and 2) learn the names of bands they listen to, so when we talk music I seem cooler than I am. As part of this exercise, I ask students to write down one question they would like to ask me, and then I answer that question, so they can get to know me a little bit, too. The questions are usually pretty innocent, but this time, one of the young ladies in the class threw down the gauntlet, and asked, “What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?”
By this point, most of the students in my school district are aware of a portion of what went on with me this year. At the beginning of the year, I hung up a Black Lives Matter flag in my classroom. I was subsequently ordered to take it down, and I took it down. That’s the portion of the story they know, the same portion I wrote about in the previous blog post.
The rest of it goes like this.
I was ordered to take the flag down, and I did. I was informed that the reason it had to come down was not because whoever had given the order to take it down had anything against black people, but rather because I had—and this quote is accurate—"failed to show both sides” of the issue. Of course, I had questions, the most prominent one being, “What the fuck? ‘Both sides’?” I pondered what that meant. Did that mean I could keep the Black Lives Matter flag on the wall, as long as I added a white robe and a hood to a different spot on the wall?
Whoever gave the order for the flag to come down didn’t know this, but I used to be a drama major. I wasn’t very good at it, but I know a lot of people who were, and who went on to careers within the arts. I know at least three people with access to a university or semi-professional costume shop, and I could probably get my hands on a white robe and hood; I was willing to do that just to see if that was really what the Powers-That-Be wanted. I calmed down, mostly because I really don’t want anything to do with the KKK hanging in my classroom (or anywhere else near me, for that matter).
Instead, I filled out a form that allowed me to speak in front of the School Board and on a Monday night in late September of last year, I delivered what I thought was a pretty good speech. I mentioned the ‘both sides’ thing and told them I didn’t know what might best convey the notion that black lives DON’T matter, and I also told them that I chose to believe that showing ‘both sides’ was not, in fact, what they wanted. I talked about the School Mission Statement and whether we were living it, I spoke about my own whiteness and about liberty and justice for all… Honestly, it really wasn’t a bad speech. Well, I didn’t think so, anyway.
Public comment is just that—comment, and not conversation—so when I was finished speaking I left the meeting and went home. I don’t know what I expected to happen; I suppose I hoped that those who had decided to make me take the flag down might reconsider.
Instead, shortly thereafter I had a letter placed in my employee file. I had to attend a meeting where I was informed I was being written up for a fire code violation because my classroom walls were “cluttered” with flags and maps. I was being written up for not sharing lesson plans with my building principal indicating just how a Black Lives Matter flag might fit with my classroom curriculum. I was written up for failing to address my concerns through proper channels, and asked to reconsider how much I posted on social media. And I was reminded that I had an obligation as a teacher to teach ALL students within my classroom.
It was a non-disciplinary letter, at least. When I asked what the alternative might be, I was told the alternative was that I would be “walked outside in the rain.” I still remember that line, just as I remember looking out the window to check how much it was raining (quite a bit). I even remember thinking to myself, “Oh, shit: do I have an umbrella in my room?”
I was told I could write a reply to the letter. I was told that if I felt the need to resign my position I would not need to pay the $1500.00 required by the Employee Handbook to break my contract. I replied to the letter. I did not resign.
I had other options. Some people I knew watched the live stream of the school board meeting and heard the speech I gave, and they know some people, and before too long, I had been invited by two competing television stations to be interviewed about the incident. Everyone I corresponded with at both stations was thoroughly professional and quite pleasant, but while I appreciated their interest, I turned them down.
I turned them down because suddenly the whole situation seemed to be about ME. I had been forced to take down MY flag, and wasn’t it all an injustice to ME, and so on. I’m not saying that’s even how the people at the television stations felt, I’m just saying that’s how it felt to ME, and that didn’t feel right. I happened to agree—what occurred had been an injustice to me, in my opinion—but what about the ongoing injustice perpetuated against black people? Wasn’t that the point? Going on TV felt self-aggrandizing. It felt like I would end up as the focus, and I didn’t want to be the focus. I wanted the Black Lives Matter movement to be the focus. I felt like my own tiny issue was getting conflated with the much larger issue of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I didn’t think that was appropriate.
You may think everything that happened to me was perfectly appropriate and I deserved every bit of it. You might think the opposite. Whatever you think is entirely up to you. I will say that I have spent the past several months teaching on eggshells, afraid that whatever else I might say in support of racial justice or even about black people in history might be enough to get me “walked outside in the rain.” It’s Black History Month. I’m about six class periods away from starting our study of the Civil Rights Movement, and I don’t even really know if I’m allowed to talk about it. What happens when I say Malcolm X may have made some good points? What happens when we read the Black Panthers manifesto? I don’t know, but I keep an umbrella in my classroom.
And all of that was going through my head when I moved from one piece of paper to the next and read a question one of my new students wrote: “What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?”
I don’t know if I was supposed to talk about it. But a student in my class had a question, and when the question got asked, I answered it. While I didn’t record my response, I recall saying something like this:
“Most of you know I had a Black Lives Matter flag on the wall this year and I was asked to take it down, and that has made this a pretty hard year for me. I put it up because I believe in the words: I believe black lives matter. They have value. I’ve had a Pride flag up on my classroom walls for the past five years, and when people ask me why I have it, I tell them that a lot of students come into this classroom, and some of them are gay. And those gay students—and trans students, and bi students—deserve to be valued and respected and appreciated as much as the straight students who come into this classroom. I put up the Black Lives Matter flag because I believe Black students—and Hispanic students, and Native students, and Asian students—deserve to be valued and appreciated every bit as much as the White students who come into this classroom. And I believe that, whether the flag is on the wall or not.”
I thought that was an OK thing to say. Some of the students agreed; a couple of them even applauded, which was nice of them.
But here I am, doing the same thing I said I wanted to avoid; I’m making this post about ME.
You want to know about me? I’m a middle-aged white guy. I have no business being thought of as some kind of champion of the Black Lives Matter movement; I haven’t gone to a rally, I haven’t taken part in a march, I haven’t sent any money, and I’m not black. I hope I’m an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement, but I could easily understand if after reading this post, people might not consider me to even be that.
Because if you really want to know about me, then you should remember that I caved. I was told to take down the flag, and I took it down. I tried to change some people’s minds about that, but when I failed, I didn’t try again. I could have taken the fight to TV, but I turned down the interviews. I could have resigned to show my commitment to the principle, but I still show up each day and go to work in a place that will not tolerate having a Black Lives Matter flag on the walls of a U.S. History classroom. Which is to say, I showed a commitment to the cause of racial justice until it became personally inconvenient for me. That’s not “woke.” That’s white privilege.
As I said earlier, there’s a lot that can be learned in the Land of Unexpected, and this 50+-year-old white guy learned a lot that day. I thank that young person in my Women’s Studies class for helping me learn I am still a long way away from the kind of man I wish to be. Maybe someday I’ll be “woke,” but not until after a lot more work.
A few weeks back, a fellow teacher phoned my room during a passing period to ask about some headwear one of our students had on. Our school has a hat policy (not allowed). Our school has a far more nebulous policy regarding head coverings.
I had seen this student in a previous hour, and I had witnessed the headwear. In my day, it would have been called a do rag, but my day was many days ago, so I have no idea if that’s what it would be called today. When I saw it in my classroom, I let it go. My colleague, however, had asked the student about it, who of course responded with something along the lines of, “Well, I just got out of Brehm’s class, and he didn’t say anything.”
I explained my reasoning to my colleague, but I won’t explain it here, because it’s always possible the student in question might read this and I have no wish to call out or embarrass that young person; their story is the introduction to what follows, but it isn’t the point of this post. The point is what happened at the end of the phone conversation with my colleague. This was a few weeks ago, so I’m certain I’m paraphrasing, but she said something close to, “Well, I thought I would ask you, since you seem to be the most ‘woke’ person who works here.”
While it might seem paradoxical, to me ‘woke’ has one notable thing in common with the word ‘racist,’ and that is, I don’t think you get to decide for yourself if the term applies to you. Someone else gets to determine if you happen to be racist, and someone else gets to decide if you’re woke. But that one word – ‘woke’ – changed the entire tenor of the conversation. Instead of talking about a do rag (or whatever it’s called), we were suddenly talking about race.
(We interrupt this post to consult the internet, to ascertain whether my line of thinking is at least a little bit correct. There, I learn the article of clothing is indeed still called a do rag, or a do-rag, or a durag, which came from dew-rag, where ‘dew’ was a euphemism for sweat. Also called a wave cap, it is designed to accelerate the development of waves or dreadlocks, or to keep waves or braids from shifting while asleep. And yes—the point I really wanted to make sure I made correctly—the garment is traditionally associated with African-Americans, with a history going back to slavery, through the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power movement, and into today. Even history teachers should double-check their history, from time to time.)
I am white. The colleague on the other end of the phone that day is also white. The student wearing the head covering in question that day is also white. But my colleague’s use of the word ‘woke’ got me thinking. Would I have asked a black student to remove a do rag? No. I never would. So did I act correctly in also not asking a white student to remove it, and therefore made a good decision? Or, had I allowed a young person to engage (perhaps even unknowingly) in cultural appropriation, and therefore made a poor decision? Weeks later, I still don’t know the answer to that question.
But I do know how I felt at the end of that phone call, because this marked the first time someone else had applied the word ‘woke’ to me. I won’t lie; I felt complimented. I felt good about that. When it comes to race, I would like to be as ‘woke’ as I can be. But the feeling didn’t last, because I don’t believe I deserve the term. I don’t think of myself as woke. At best, I’m still trying to wake up.
I work pretty hard to include race relations as an essential part of my U.S. History curriculum, and I hope I do a passable job. At the Freshman level, our portion of U.S. History basically covers the 1890’s to Whatever-We-Get-To, which in some years has been Nixon and in some years has been Trump and in some years has fallen in between. But my students cover Plessy v. Ferguson. They’re tested on Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and Ida Wells. We go over the Great Migration and Black Wall Street and race riots and the KKK in the 1920’s. We talk about sundown towns and the Tuskegee Airmen, about the Democrat/Dixiecrat divide of 1948. By this point in the year, I am routinely about two weeks ahead of my colleague who also teaches U.S. History, and when we chat about it, he’s not worried, because we both know he’ll catch up due to the time I take going through the Civil Rights Movement. I am a white educator attempting to do a passable job of teaching black history; I can always do better, but I promise you, I try.
As someone who tries, I have kept my eye on the Black Lives Matter movement for some time now; basically since its inception following the homicide of Trayvon Martin. Since then I’ve learned other names, of course. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Jacob Blake. And I am wise enough to know there are many other names that I have not learned.
For many years now, I have placed a Pride flag on my classroom wall. It heartens some people, and offends others, and sometimes I am asked why I have it up there at all. My response is always the same: “A lot of students come into this classroom, and some of them are gay.” A lot of students come into my room, and some of them are black, but I never put a Black Lives Matter flag on my wall, until this year.
For the record, it lasted almost a full month before I was ordered to take it down. And for the record, when I was ordered to take it down, I took it down.
Monday is February 1, the beginning of Black History Month. The week of February 1-5 has been designated by the National Education Association (NEA) as “Black Lives Matter at School” week, designed to explore topics of racial equity in education. On top of all that, a few weeks ago a colleague called me ‘woke’ when I am unworthy of the title.
So for a little while, this blog will be turned over to issues of race. Trust me, I know, I get it—we don’t need another white guy trying to teach us about race in America, so that’s not what I’m trying to do. Instead, I’m trying to tell my side of one particular story. It’s a story where black lives matter, and where I am absolutely not the hero. Perhaps it’s a mea culpa regarding the way I wish things would have gone.
While ultimately, I still think it’s for someone else to decide, maybe—just maybe—I might be waking up.
They say money can’t buy happiness, but some of us at work decided to play the lottery anyway. As the recent Mega Millions jackpot climbed toward the billion-dollar mark, the gentleman in the classroom next to mine suggested we get a group together. I had organized a few such groups in past school years, and so when asked, I agreed to take it on again.
I had no plans to do such a thing until I was asked, simply because when you start a lottery group at work, it creates pressure. Some people absolutely want to get involved, but others only get involved because of that pressure. Everyone knows the odds of winning the lottery are horrible, but everyone knows that—every once in a while—people win the lottery. Therefore some members of the group don’t really want to be there at all, but they really don’t want to be the poor soul who has to come to work the next day after 30 people in the building combine to win the lottery.
So a band of enthusiastic participants and a band of reticent participants with FOMO came together, and we collected over $200. That bought us over a hundred lottery tickets, and when the drawing came, we WON! . . . a grand total of $18.
But here’s the thing: no one won the jackpot that night. Now all of us had FOMO. Was I supposed to just cash out and buy doughnuts for the break room when there was still $840 million out there? Of course not, so I emailed everyone in our group and told them I would use the $18 to get nine more tickets for the next drawing.
Then, people starting coming in. As long as I was getting some tickets, I should get a few more, and next thing I knew I was collecting money all over again. This time, the group widened to include a few more members, and we collected over $250, so I bought over 125 tickets for the drawing, and we WON! . . . a grand total of $16. But once again, no one won the jackpot that night. By now you know the pattern, so off we went again, this time with $1 Billion at stake; about 40 of us chipped in about $300, and we WON! . . . a grand total of $20, while someone in Michigan purchased the winning numbers.
There’s two ways to look at this. It would be easy (and perhaps even accurate) to say a group of 30-40 suckers pooled their resources together for the privilege of turning about $800 into twenty bucks. I look at it the second way, because for about ten days, losing that money was one of the best things to happen to me this entire school year.
Look, we all know we’re not going to win the lottery. The odds of winning are worse than getting struck by lightning twice. You have a better chance of getting canonized as a saint than you have of winning the lottery. So you don’t go into it looking to get rich; you’re pretty sure you’re just throwing money away.
Our group at school threw money away. But for me, at least, it was about the first time this school year that I did. I am mask-wearing, CDC-guideline-following kind of person, so since March of last year, my wife and I haven’t gone out to dinner or a movie. Nor did we sit home ordering items off the internet. I am by no means rich (and even a little poorer after playing the lottery), but I spent less money on lottery tickets over the past two weeks than I would have spent on social engagements in a non-COVID ten months.
The question arises, then: If you know you’re not going to win and you know you’re just throwing away your money, why play at all? My answer is simple. For me, playing the lottery is not at all about buying lottery tickets; it’s about renting Hope.
We teach in a public school that routinely ignored local health guidelines in order to get kids back in the classroom, and the I’ll let you imagine the results. On top of that, you may recall we had a Presidential election in November, one that stretched WAYYY past November and only got settled this past week. But then, while waiting for that first drawing, my colleagues and I began to think about something different. Seriously, how many conversations have you had in the last five months that weren’t about COVID or politics?
The lottery changed our thinking. Knowing we had no chance of winning, we began to dream about winning. We began to ask each other all of the “What would you do?” questions that come with the hope of an influx of cash. And then we didn’t win, so we got to have those conversations for another four days, and then we didn’t win again, and it continued.
What I found, in many cases, is how little we might actually need. Most of us had difficulty saying what we might do with A BILLION DOLLARS, but almost all of us could talk about how radically our lives could be changed with a quarter million, or even a hundred thousand, or even less.
We didn’t dream about the foolish, millionaire-playboy kind of things (well, except for one of my colleagues in the Social Studies department, who said he would come to school with a case of Modelo and spend the day making snow angels on school grounds, but if you knew him, you’d understand). Most of us dreamt of security. Pay off our mortgages or our school loans, get a more dependable car, put kids through college—that kind of thing.
We didn’t yearn for untold millions. (Don’t get me wrong, we would have accepted them, had the ping-pong balls gone our way.) What we really wanted was a little bit less worry about how to make ends meet. We wanted more time with our families and less pressure, and for most of us, that was good enough.
There’s a host of conclusions that could be drawn from this, ranging from how pleasant it was to get to know the people I work with a little better, to how unpleasant it is that an advanced society such as ours does not have an advanced social safety net. I could talk about how stressed we are as we shove 25 students into a classroom that isn’t large enough to socially distance while we watch people in other districts begin to get vaccinated. But I don’t want to talk about any of that stuff, because I’ve had a bunch of those conversations already.
Instead, I just wish to express gratitude to the teacher in the classroom next to mine who suggested I start a lottery group. It snapped me out of myself. It gave me something to look forward to. And it proved that money can, in fact, buy happiness, if you approach it with the proper point of view.
If you’re like me, you may recall Chicken Little from stories told to you in your childhood. Some of you may know it as Henny Penny, but the basic idea is the same. Chicken Little was out for a walk when struck on the head with an acorn that dropped from a tree. Panicked, Chicken Little began to tell anyone he could, “The sky is falling!” This gloom-and-doom forecast was of course not true, but Chicken Little managed to instill panic into Henny Penny and Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey and a host of others before the story was done.
I am reminded of Chicken Little this week, because I teach in the public schools, and we are coming to the end of our first semester. And we need to talk about how badly it’s going. We need to discuss the fact that the very fabric of life as we know it is falling apart, and that a disaster of epic—and perhaps even Biblical—proportions is coming toward us at full speed. Maybe you’re already aware, but perhaps I am the first to warn you:
Our Students Are Falling Behind!
As background to this disaster: Last March, a number of schools in the nation shut down as part of an effort to shelter in place to combat the spread of coronavirus. For my school district, that happened on Friday, March 13 (cue ominous music). Teachers in my district were given five days to overhaul our curriculum into an online format so that we might begin online instruction on Wednesday, March 18, with the goal of coming back to school in person during the first week of April. Strike that; during mid-April. Strike that; by May 1. Not that, either. As it turned out, we were not going to come back to school in person for the remainder of the school year, so what began as a two-week stopgap measure became “virtual school.”
Then came fall. Here, results vary, but most districts chose one of three options:
Our Students Are Falling Behind!
This is bad, if you didn’t know. For students, it means they are missing out on vital lessons that will prepare them for life in the 21st century. For teachers, it means the evaluations they receive for efficacy will show they are less effective; that can get them disciplined, and even fired. For parents, it means their children lag behind their global competition, so it’s possible someone from Finland or China or Mexico might be coming for their child’s future jobs. And for administrators, too many failing students means one could be labeled a failing school, and that can lead to disciplinary actions, firings, or—worst of all—reduction in funding.
And kids are failing. We have more failing grades than ever before. We have statistical evidence and we have anecdotal evidence. We have spreadsheets. We have charts. Put it all together, and we have the single most powerful force in education today: we have “Data.” You can’t beat Data. Data has let many a district go full “Moneyball” on their young people.
(If you’re unfamiliar with how that works, think of public education as baseball. Data shows us who is going to hit the most home runs, and who strikes out the most. Once a district has identified the lowest quartile of batting averages, it can give directives to raise those batting averages. It rarely provides the actual means to raise those batting averages—for example, hiring more teachers which makes for smaller class sizes and more personalized approaches to “batting practice”—providing the directive is enough. With a directive but without the means, the teacher is left to fend for her/himself, and if it goes poorly, a child’s low batting average is therefore the teacher’s fault; the district can conclude that batting averages didn’t rise because the district had the wrong coach. The end result is that far more districts care less about the Home Run Champions and far more about how many batters get on base, even if they get there with a walk, or—God forbid—are hit by a pitch.)
But I digress. The main point is that this data is crystal clear. It says:
Our Students Are Falling Behind!
Some students, it turns out, don’t learn well in the virtual model. Some don’t learn well in the hybrid model. It turns out that part of student learning might be very closely tied to being in school, but in a COVID paradox, coming to school strongly increases the chances of being sent home and into quarantine as students contract the coronavirus. That, in turn, means those students will end up having to learn virtually for a good portion of the year.
On top of that, a lot of the students are stressed. Maybe they don’t learn as well in the new format but their parents want them to get the same grades anyway. Maybe they have to come back to school full-time because it’s open, but they’re terrified while they are there.
Some of this fear is a little morbid. Every time the phone rings in my classroom, the students start a betting pool as to who is going to have to be sent home next. A certain gallows humor emerges whenever the principal or assistant principal knocks on the classroom door, looks through the window, and gives a teacher the “come here, please” sign.
But some of this fear is just plain fear. Some kids are scared of getting sick. Some are scared of getting others sick. Some are scared because their best friend is quarantined for two weeks and now they don’t have anyone to eat lunch with. Some are scared because their parent’s restaurant is losing money because fewer people are going to eat, or their parents are fighting more, or their grandmother seems to be coughing a lot.
And of course, some aren’t scared at all. Some think the virus is a hoax, that masks are a violation of their personal freedoms, and they will work to take their off or let it fall below their nose—or below their chin—whenever they please. Which only scares other kids more, because they view the non-mask-wearers as ignorant petri dishes just waiting to infect the entire classroom with a virus, or with ignorance, or both.
What I mean to say is that Our Students Are Falling Behind! because that’s normal. Some students haven’t been inside of a classroom in 10 months. Some have gone from five days of instruction to two or three. Some have tried to be there all five days, but have been unable to do so because of quarantines. But whichever model is in play, students are doing their best in the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans, as of this writing, and there are far more important things going on than their grades.
In spite of all of that, last week I assigned them Friedrich the Great’s “Essay on the Forms of Government,” and we talked for almost an hour about what government is supposed to do, and be. We talked about reasons for taxation and why punishment needs to fit the crime, and what can be done with the poor, and reasons to maintain a military, and I’m here to tell you: These kids aced it. (And rest easy, data people; everyone passed, and not because I wanted them all to get on base, but because everyone deserved it.)
And today, when I had a class of three students because a quarter of our school population was quarantined, and then a class of two students for the same reason, we just talked. We could have talked about the Reign of Terror and its effect on France, but instead we talked about why I became a teacher. We talked about the importance of creating a mixed tape when trying to pick up girls in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We talked about my favorite class in high school and about their favorite class in high school, and why grades were or weren’t important, and what they hoped to do in future years, and how much we all really, really wanted to get vaccinated.
The moral of this story is both simple and true: The sky isn’t falling, and the kids are all right. If they’re behind, so what? Teachers meet students where they are. We teach the ones who are behind, and we teach the ones who are ahead, and we do that in person, or virtually, or sometimes through the mail. Just get out of the way and let us teach, and the students will learn. That’s the whole reason we show up in the morning.
The kids are all right. No one from Finland is going to show up to steal their babysitting gig or their after-school job at Culver’s, because their bosses at those jobs value flexibility, and the ability to think on their feet, and the ability to keep working even when faced with really hard challenges. And all of those things are things students have learned by trying to go to school in a pandemic.
And you know what? The schools are all right, too. They’re doing what they always do, but now they’re doing it in three different schedules with routine absences among the student body and the threat of illness lurking everywhere. On top of that, they’re organizing food pantries and sending meals home for families and providing free laptops, and they’re doing all those things for the masked and unmasked alike. So let’s give schools a break. They’re not failing; the social safety net is.
I don’t know when this virus will go away, and neither do you. But it will go away, and if on that day students’ test scores are a little lower, on average, maybe we can give the young people credit for everything they’ve endured instead of listing the ways they came up short. Maybe we can remember that these are human beings we’re talking about, and not batting averages, and treat them as such.
So ease up, Chicken Little. The sky isn’t falling. The sky’s the limit. I work with young people every day, and they’re amazing; if you let them, they’ll amaze you, too.
Today is January 19, 2021, which among other things makes it the last full day of the Trump presidency. Tomorrow will mark the one-week anniversary of President Trump’s second impeachment, and the two-week anniversary of the Capitol Riot, when President Trump incited his supporters to attack the United States Capitol Building and the members of Congress and the Vice President inside of it.
Since that riot, and since that impeachment, and especially on the eve of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, Trump supporters have cried that Trump critics are being too hard on the 45th President of the United States. Now is not the time for impeachment, they said; it’s a time for unity and healing. Now is not the time to prosecute the rioters at the Capitol Building; it’s a time for unity and healing.
No, it’s not.
There will be a time for unity and healing, and quite frankly, I hope it’s soon. But we’re not quite there yet, and part of the reason we’re not is that we still don’t have answers to a few questions.
For instance: Where’s the wall?
You remember the wall, or should I say, The Wall. Candidate Trump promised his supporters—and by extension, the rest of America—that if elected, he would ensure there was a wall running along the entire length of the border separating the United States from Mexico. Not only that; he was so clever that in addition to getting this wall built, he was going to get Mexico to pay for it.
It’s OK if you don’t remember, because candidate Trump made a host of promises, and it was hard to keep them all straight. He was going to get rid of the deficit. He was going to overturn Obamacare. He was going to create a fund for infrastructure, starting with a promise of $550 billion to repair America’s roads and bridges. He was going to be a busy guy—so busy that he would never have time to play golf.
Of all the things he promised, the wall is the one that stands out in my mind. Part of why it stands out is how ludicrous it was. Honestly, building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico was a really stupid idea to begin with, and the idea that Mexico would pay for it was ridiculous.
But when I think about the wall, I remember how candidate Trump’s base just ate that idea up. I mean, they believed, and because candidate Trump wanted this, they wanted it, too. Because candidate Trump showed them it was OK to be xenophobic if not outright racist, his base decided they could be those things, too. And since he was smug, they took smugness to a new level; they took so many opportunities to denigrate the “snowflakes” and the “libtards,” to mock those who were different, all because their leader showed them it was perfectly acceptable to behave that way.
So when Trump supporters ask for unity and healing, I have questions. Are you still xenophobic? Might you be racist? Do you still mock those who are different? Do Black Lives Matter? Do Blue Lives Matter, when your side engaged in violence that harmed—and even killed—members of the Capitol Police?
And where’s the wall? Have you finally realized just how often he lied to you? Do you understand that you were used?
There is no wall. There is no infrastructure fund. Obamacare is still here. He never banned foreign lobbyists from contributing to US elections. He never achieved 6 weeks of guaranteed paid leave. He never had a plan for coronavirus. Operation Warp Speed is slow.
He played a lot of golf.
And then turned his base loose in an attack on the United States Congress.
And now. . . Now, when you think you have a better idea of who he really is—now you want unity and healing. No. Not yet.
And here’s why.
Many of us who were never Trump supporters have always been kind of amazed at you who were. We wondered why you couldn’t see what we saw. Then we wondered if you did see what we saw, and decided to follow him anyway, which makes us wonder how well we know you. We’ve spent a good part of the past four years wondering if you were duped or if you were serious, and we still don’t have a good answer. We still like you—most of you—but we wonder just how far we can trust you, because we saw what happened to you when candidate Trump came on the scene and started spouting his nonsense, and what happened almost cost us American democracy.
And what did you do all that for? Really—was it just to briefly experience a sense of superiority? Were you in it for the hats? Four years ago, you helped elect a con man, who then did what he does best. He conned. He blustered. He lied. He led his supporters—many of whom professed to be good Christians—on a path of slow but steady moral decay. He weakened America even as he shouted about American exceptionalism.
You say you want unity. So do I. You want healing. Me, too. But first, I want you to admit you were suckered; I want you to say, in public, “He never cared about me; he only cared about himself.” And then I want you to apologize, on behalf of the tyrant you elected, because we both know he never will.
Then I will start to give you unity and healing. Because then I will begin to trust you again.
A funny thing happened to me as the calendar flipped from December of last year to January of this year: I lost my parking spot.
I should rephrase that: I didn’t lose “my” parking spot, because I don’t really have a parking spot. The spot I usually used didn’t have my name on it. I wasn’t assigned a numbered space and told, “you park in spot #47,” or anything like that. What I did have is a parking spot I chose in August of last year.
A certain degree of thought goes into choosing a parking spot. Some people like to be as close to their chosen building entrance as possible, and some people like to park far away to get their steps. Some like to park next to others they know, to facilitate conversation at the beginning or end of the shift. Others like to park with few cars around them, either for privacy or fear that another car door might open and nick their paint.
I compromised. I chose my spot in the second row, but furthest from the entrance (while I don’t believe I will lose 30 pounds that way, I am a person who could benefit from getting their steps). It ended up being far enough away that few parked right next to me, but in a row that is still relatively close to the building; because of the latter, I could walk out with a coworker or two if our schedules aligned. It seemed like a good place. I liked it. From August Inservice to Winter Break, I parked in the same place every day.
When school started up again on January 4, someone was in my parking spot.
I’m not going to mention names. But there are only about 3-4 people who get to work earlier than I do, so you can be sure I know exactly who took my parking spot. From August to Winter Break, this person parked at the very end of the front row, almost directly in front of me. I don’t know what happened, but on my first day back from Winter Break, they abandoned the front row and chose my spot in the second row.
And I’ll tell you, I was lost. I had come to depend on that parking spot. I always parked in that parking spot. So I felt a little miffed that I had been put out, but I also worried, as well; because I always had the same parking spot, I had never paid close attention to where everybody else parked. Now, I had to choose a new parking spot. Obviously, the person who took my parking spot didn’t concern themselves with whether or not someone would be put out, but I was very concerned, because I was going to have to park somewhere else and didn’t know if I would be taking someone else's spot.
I parked next to a buddy of mine in the back row, but I was almost certain I was taking someone else’s spot, and even if I wasn’t, I didn’t want to feel like a joiner. So the next day, I just sort of picked one at random, but it seemed too easy; if it was easy for me, it was almost certainly easy for someone else, and I imagined I was taking that someone's spot. So on a break during my second day of wayward parking, I looked out the window and examined the parking lot. There was an entire area that seemed vacant, the far end of the sixth and seventh rows; the next day, I took the last spot in the seventh row, and remained there for Thursday and Friday.
Somewhere in that stretch, my assistant principal caught me in the hall and pulled me into her office, saying she needed to talk to me. “Brehm, what’s up with the parking?” she asked. “I always park three down from you--why aren't you in your spot?”
That opened my eyes a bit. I wasn’t the only one affected by this; it turns out others had been thrown off, as well! Should I say something? Should I call out the person who took my spot and demand its return? I know it isn’t “mine,” but others had acknowledged it as such, and not just me!
I did nothing. One parking spot more or less doesn’t really make much of a difference. But it got me thinking. When it comes to parking, there’s a bit of a Social Contract in place. No one really set it in place, but it’s there. We choose our parking, and most of the rest of us come to accept our parking, and eventually we tacitly agree, this is how we will park. For the good of the group and to keep a certain order within this tiny subset of society, we come together to observe these “rules.”
Well. Some of us do.
Please understand: this post is not designed to lash out at the person who now parks where I used to park, it's designed to show a certain manner of thinking. When I was displaced, I agonized about not upsetting someone else, but the person who displaced me didn’t give it a second thought. Why should they? After all, they didn’t do anything wrong; the space was not assigned to me, except through the unspoken parking lot Social Contract. They were perfectly free to park where they wished, and they did.
But to me, this illustrates a larger point. We like to talk about the freedoms this nation of ours provides, and that’s a worthy conversation. But the manner in which we apply those freedoms varies. There are some, like me, who enjoy the exercise of certain freedoms, but I worry about how my freedoms might affect others. The person who now parks where I used to park isn’t malicious—I really don’t think this person cackles wickedly when pulling in and thinks, “Let’s see how Brehm likes this!”—this person just exercised a freedom without worrying how it might affect other people. They weren't out to get me; they just didn't think about me.
Lately, though, I've come to worry about those who are malicious in their exercise of freedom, who perhaps are out to get me, who seem to believe their freedom means they don't have to care about me at all--or you--that they are free to do to us as they will.
We’ve just begun the study of the French Revolution in my AP European History class, and today we had a discussion about The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. A student brought up Article 4 of that document, which states:
4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
And for a while, I was pretty good: I talked about how everyone in the room has the absolute freedom to throw a punch, but that freedom ends at the tip of someone else’s nose. And then I couldn’t help myself: “How does Article 4 apply to those in America who don’t want to wear masks?” Do we have the freedom to get ourselves sick? Absolutely. Does that mean we have the freedom to get someone else sick? And how—if we don’t know if we’re sick or not—are we to best exercise the freedom we have in relation to the potential injury we could cause someone else? If the limits are to be determined by law, why can’t we enforce a mask mandate?
There are a lot of divisions in the nation right now, as any sane reader is no doubt aware, but the one that needs to be fixed soonest, it seems to me, is the one that exists between those with compassion and those without it.
This isn’t a Republican/Democrat thing, because I am a registered Neither, and I see those with compassion on both sides. I might suggest those who were involved in the Capitol Riot lack compassion, and I certainly believe that the current President of the United States lacks compassion, as evidenced by how quickly he turned on the very rioters he helped incite. But the vast majority of Republicans I know are decent people who care about others, just like the vast majority of Democrats, and the vast majority of those who don’t vote. The vast majority of Catholics I know have compassion, as do the vast majority of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, and Agnostics.
We don’t need a law for this; just a Social Contract. I’ll go forward in compassion, and you’ll go forward in compassion, and then most of us come to expect compassion, and eventually we tacitly agree, this is how we will live. I’ll put my mask on, because I don’t want to get sick, but I also don’t want you to get sick. I’d appreciate it if you would show some compassion and do the same for me. I’ll let you vote, and you let me vote, and if your candidate has more votes than mine, I’ll accept that; I’d appreciate it if—when my candidate has more votes than yours—you’ll do the same.
Don’t misunderstand this as a call for unity and healing in regard to the rioters at the Capitol. Those folks broke the Social Contract, and deserve punishment. The President broke the Social Contract, as well, and every day he goes without punishment emboldens others to do likewise.
But there are plenty—Republican and Democrat alike—who observe the Social Contract, who wear their masks even when they don’t want to, and who accept that Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States. Those are the people who can exercise their freedoms while respecting the freedoms of others; those folks have compassion for their fellow Americans.
This would be helpful in all areas of life, and not just politics. I started with a parking spot. I don’t know how or why the person who parks where I used to park decided to park there, but I don’t really need to know. They parked there, and I chose to be compassionate about that and show concern for their needs, and I found a new parking spot, one that—after all this, I hate to admit it—I kind of like.
If you need me, I’ll be at the far end of the seventh row. I could use the steps.