Category Archives: Education

Trail Trash

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Camp’s magical bin of “Trail Trash”

At camp there is a magical box. It’s a magical box because the more trash that gets put into it, the cleaner camp becomes. This box is known as our Trail Trash, a motley collection of litter odds and ends found scattered across the camp property.

Though our camp may be on an expansive forested area in a natural setting, it doesn’t mean that litter isn’t produced here. Quite the contrary, actually, as our camp plays host to a multitude of 5th graders over the course of a few days for their environmental education. With ten year olds, a whole compilation of stereotypical litter materializes on the ground seemingly out of nowhere—candy wrappers, chip bags, plastic toys. The vast amount that gets dropped is tremendous, as if every 5th grader’s pocket leads directly to the ground. At camp, we can forgive this incidence of litter with magnanimity because the students are young and still learning to look after themselves and their surroundings. Thus, when leading a group of students through camp, I always keep my eyes peeled on the ground for those teachable moments inherent in litter. If I am inspiring and unyielding enough about picking up litter, then after every class I lead the students will have collected for me a few pocketfuls of trash to add to the Trail Trash bin.

I don’t like to think of litter as inevitable, but it is a part of life that must be dealt with. Even with the best of intentions, we all unknowingly litter. Things fall out of our pockets, or get sucked out the car window. We fumble a wrapper that is immediately swept up by a breeze. Something slips from our grasp and drops irretrievably into a crevice. We forget about things we’ve left outside, and before we can remember they have been lost to the entropy of the environment. I have littered in these ways a lot—countless times, in fact. Like death and taxes, it seems that litter is one of the few guarantees of life. But the inevitability of litter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it.

This is why we so strongly encourage and model the responsibility of picking up litter at camp. Ultimately, the vast majority of trash on our camp is produced by our campers. Through the practice of picking up trash instead of blithely walking past it, students become involved in the solution of cleaning up their own environment (though they likely don’t even realize that they are the ones making it dirty in the first place). Our students learn that it is not only environmentally unacceptable—but also socially unacceptable—to cast unwanted items into the environment. They learn that when throwing something ‘away’, there really is no away. From the trash the students pick up, they can visually see that the litter on the ground stays on the ground and continues to get trampled into the dirt until someone takes the initiative to pick it up.

I love referencing the Trail Trash bin at camp because it gives me great satisfaction to pick up litter and then deposit a handful of it into the bin, continually watching the level of trash rise. The bin provides a clear visual demonstration of our human impact on our hyper-local environment. The same sentiment towards trash compels me to pick up litter in other areas where I find myself as well, not just when I’m leading children at my job. Having lived and traveled to many places, I have seen firsthand how litter is a problem everywhere. Rubbish is just casually tossed aside to join the ranks of other discarded items on the wayside, and few places have advocates championing for their cleaning. Maybe not everyone feels the same way about litter as I do. Maybe not everyone knows better either. But trash is trash nonetheless.

Litter is a form of pollution, but unlike some forms of chemical or radioactive pollution, litter is something that we can tangibly handle. It is a visual presence as well, the results of trash being immediately observable to the onlooker. There is really no excuse for the amount of litter in our society where we all should have learned better. But just taking a look down any old highway or around any old vacant lot, one will see that we still haven’t acted any differently. Litter is the low-hanging fruit of pollution. It is everywhere. It takes no specialized equipment to clean up. If our goal is to clean up our environment in all forms, maybe we can start small. We can start with the pollution that’s the most obvious and unsightly and close to home. We can challenge ourselves to pick up trash instead of walking over it. Maybe then, more people will begin to be interested in solving some of our more troublesome pollution problems.

 

Cape Cod Canal

The popular park lining the Cape Cod Canal

 

Since I absolutely love the feeling of accomplishment from picking up litter, I recently went to a trash clean-up event along the Cape Cod Canal in honor of Earth Day. Along the canal runs a narrow linear park with open space and a recreational trail popular with residents and tourists alike. For an organized clean-up area, the canal was in pretty good shape to begin with. In order to find trash, the volunteers had to scramble down onto the rocks which line the canal and rummage through the seaweed in order to find small bits of litter. After a couple of hours of searching, I didn’t even manage to fill my large trash bag. I pulled out lots of individual pieces of trash though, but most of what came out of the weeds was small, fragmented bits of plastic—water bottle caps, drinking straws, cigarette filter tips, plastic rope fragments, balloon ribbon. Though it may have not been completely satisfying to only find small bits of trash, the clean-up event was gratifying nonetheless based on the fact of what trash wasn’t there. The evidence from this clean-up meant that the bigger and uglier trash is either being picked up or not produced at all—well, at least in our well-loved public parks. What remains in the environment are the smaller, more hidden bits of trash that may not have even been intentionally disposed of improperly. This example provides some hope that we must be doing a good job educating people about not littering—at least in some places. On my drive back to camp that day, I could still see all the roadside clutter clearly visible at 55 mph. Cleaning up our recreational areas is a good start, but our less beloved areas still tend to get carelessly dumped on.

 

Roadside Litter

Compiled rubbish common along many a roadside

 

But at least picking up litter is a place to begin. I genuinely hope that someday trash won’t be such a problem in our society. I hope that someday the trash that we’re picking up now—the small, one-time use disposable plastic bric-a-brac—will be phased out of our society completely. Educating people not to litter is one challenge, but the bigger underlying challenge is to refrain from producing all that garbage to begin with.

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Primitive Survival Instincts Bred in the Toxic Classroom Environment

Tornado Classroom

 

It all changed after a series of bad days. Especially after one particularly tough day where I ended up reaching a turning point. It started, innocently enough, in a kindergarten classroom. Within the first 20 minutes of class, one troublesome boy raised both his middle fingers and yelled ‘fuck you’ to a classmate. Accepting his correction, but not changing his behavior, he continued to harass and hit other students throughout the morning. Later on, a tardy student walked into the class, promptly stealing some chapstick from another student. After refusing to correct her actions and to make amends with that student, she became defiant. “Make me, motherfuckin’ bitches,” she called out as she ran around the room, “Go ahead—call the principle. She’s a bitch!”

The afternoon, unfortunately, got worse. Instead of kindergarten, I was switched to a second-grade classroom. Older kids did not mean more mature behavior. Instead, when the students came in from lunch recess, they immediately proceeded to physically fight with one another. One student raised a chair above his head and threatened to throw it. The principle had to be summoned—the quarrelling students had to be removed. While waiting for backup to arrive, I held the most intent student back by the shoulders. He had been insulted by another student and was now deadest on pummeling him. I got down on the student’s level to reason with him. He made no eye contact, he spoke nothing. All I could see was the glazed, glowering expression of a young boy narrowly focused on physical atonement on those who he felt had wronged him.

Both classrooms ended in chaos. That school was not a safe learning environment. It was a place where physical and emotional violence was dripping at the seams. Driving home that day, I reflected on what I had just experienced. It was a lot to process. Once back to the safety inside my house, I plopped down on a chair in the living room. A visceral sense of relief finally settled over me. As I debriefed my day with my housemate, my body started to physically tremble, sympathetically, autonomically. While at school, my adrenaline was flowing in the moment as my attention was focused on the extreme behavioral challenges in the classroom. Once fully removed from the situation, my body was left quaking from the trauma of the day.

That was the turning point for me. At my third week of substitute teaching, I came to a crossroads. It was either get tough or get out. I knew I couldn’t continue in the teaching position with my idealistic attitudes of kindness and compassion. So I got tough. Instead of focusing on nurturing the development of the students, it became more imperative just to control them. It was an unfortunate reality, but this change of focus was a move for my own survival as a teacher. The situation had devolved to a point where basic jungle survival instincts kicked in.

As an idealist, I came into the job soft and compassionate, motivated by the belief that I could make a profound impact upon the youth. I wanted to look favorably upon children as kind and innocent. I wanted to run the classroom with fairness and generosity, giving the students the benefit of the doubt in all situations. Fundamentally, I wanted to foster holistic personal growth in the students—all within the short day-long duration of my stints as a sub.

Instead, I shockingly found what could become a very corrosive environment inside the classroom. These kids don’t know you, and they don’t respect you because of it. They aren’t of the upbringing where they learned to respectfully listen and obey adults or authority. To them, you are a stranger with no weight or consequence to their lives. They see you and think they don’t have to follow because “Man, I don’t even know you,” or “You’re not a real teacher.” The relationship I developed with the students never reached my idealized version of youth mentorship; instead, what organically developed was a predicament of antagonistic adversaries. As a substitute, you have to be stern and assert your authority, lest you quickly lose control of the class. You budge an inch, the kids take a mile. Eventually, you begin to develop the mentality of a prison guard controlling your wards. Your task as a sub is to force your prisoners to follow the lesson plans no matter how much they try to derail your efforts.

In the end, I became a much more callous person. My patience shortened. Authority and control became my goals—not out of a desire for control itself, but out of sheer necessity. Each morning, I had to prepare for battle with the mindset that these kids are out to tear me down. In a behaviorally troublesome classroom, I had to enter drill sergeant mode quite frequently, barking the students into a terrified submission. Often, I had to publicly shame certain students in front of the classroom just to make an example of them. Teaching was not an uplifting experience—for me or for the students.

For all those reasons, I had to quit being a substitute teacher. The person I feel that I am and the person I feel like I want to be did not line up with who I was becoming as a substitute. So I had to quit while I was ahead, before my integrity became corrupted by the corrosive classroom environment. I honestly enjoy working with children, but how did teaching become a position where children are viewed as the enemy? I’m not that kind of person. I don’t want to be that kind of person. But I am as much a product of my environment, and those toxic classrooms created a menace in me. I never wanted to yell at kids. I didn’t enter education to yell at children. But nevertheless I found myself slipping into the mire of the circumstances.

More than anything else, I was appalled by what I witnessed as the toxic learning environments that predominated in many school classrooms. It started with a culture of disrespect for the teacher and for the learning process, then broadened to include a disrespect for any students interested in learning. In my classrooms, there were numerous fights and countless episodes of crying. There were times where I as a teacher did not feel safe in the classroom. No doubt that my students, young and vulnerable as they are, felt any safer. Instead of becoming an opportunity for inquiry, learning became the punishment for misbehavior. How, then, can you expect anyone to value or invest in the educational process? Thus, I had to remove myself from the situation once I felt myself contributing to the culture of school as a penal system.

In stark contrast, life was much easier in the suburbs. I found I could be more relaxed and compassionate towards the students, reaching closer to my idealized vision of classroom flourishing. Instead of being a punisher and enforcer, I could be a friend, mentor, and teacher. But even though the suburbs are easier, I couldn’t allow myself to stay there. I could never feel right about selling out to the suburban school districts and contributing to the flight that attracts resources away from the already under-resourced districts. I felt it more important to be in the urban school districts where the behavioral issues were most pressing and the impact of a teacher is most needed. But I also found that I couldn’t survive there—at least, I found I couldn’t survive there while being the type of person I was striving to be. Being in the inner-city classroom for too long reverts one back to primitive survival instincts. Values like kindness and compassion take a backseat when your main goal becomes surviving the day.

The Inevitable Predictability of Career Tests

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I’m a sucker for a good personality test. Still am, even as I get older and my personality seems to cement. I habitually take and re-take old favorites like Myers-Briggs, True Colors, or Enneagram just to see what my results are—generally, to see if they match the way I feel about myself. Retaking the tests as I mature, I’m always curious if my more recent results still match my results from earlier. Partly, this fascination stems from me always searching for new insights into myself—particularly, the kind of insights that feel certain and definite, like those garnered from the results of a scientific personality test.

My early college career was a particularly fruitful time for taking such tests. As an emerging adult trying to understand himself in a college context, such tests provided reassurance; they were like a friend who knew me well enough to point out that I’m not altogether crazy or odd. And with the personality tests came the related career-matching tests; young college me also needed to discern what role he would play in the adult world.

One test that stood out to me way back when and still stands out to me now was a career-matching test—the Strong Interest Inventory—taken at the career counseling center midway through my first semester. When I took this test, I was not looking for career matches in particular—I was still a stubbornly committed engineering major who was only taking the test as part of another class’s assignment. Given my doubts about the necessity of career counseling to begin with (I can figure everything out on my own, right?), offering the test as class credit was a great way to incentivize one reluctant college freshmen to venture into the career counseling office. However, upon having the test explained to me by the career counselors, I became intensely intrigued out of the sheer curiosity of what insights these tests might provide about myself.

The Strong Interest Inventory was not exactly just a career-matching test. Rather, it was a query of what I was good at and what activities I found fulfilling—and then the test metrics compared my results to the jobs in which people with similar aptitudes and interests described as fulfilling. Essentially this test was a comparison of how well my personality and interests would fit into a wide range of career fields.

A week later, after the results of the test were processed, I went back to career counseling to see the outcomes. As a college freshman blindingly intent on the engineering program, I wasn’t too happy with what I learned. Although already disappointed by the lack of joy that I was encountering as an engineering major, I was even more disappointed with the results of the career match survey. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that engineering was not in my top ten job matches. In fact, engineering scored rather low on the list, which gave some validity to the less-than-amorous feelings I’d been having to the engineering discipline. But—what I couldn’t get over was what my top career matches actually were.

 

Career Test Snip

 

Sitting there smack dab in my top ten matches were jobs I’d never even think of considering: chiropractor, corporate trainer, school counselor, nursing home administrator…on and on. Sure, I definitely could have seen myself as a carpenter. But match number two as a minister? (oddly enough, writing a blog post seems peculiarly similar to writing a sermon). And my top match…an elementary school teacher?!? What?!?!? Are you sure you didn’t mix my results up with someone else?

To my abundant surprise, my top ten career matches were vastly different than expected. As high school me had thought so strongly of his performance in the ‘hard’ disciplines of math and science (my stronger subjects in high school) and had greatly relished his introversion (i.e., I didn’t want a job working with people), he couldn’t have seen himself touching any of those occupations with a ten-foot pole. Opposite of my hard-science, asocial bias, my top ten matches were all very much centered on the social disciplines.

As a college freshman, I found the results so far removed from my expectations that they were amusing, borderline comical. I quickly dismissed the results and switched my major from engineering to…biology (to stay in the sciences, of course). I was not quite ready for such a radical switch from the picture I had of myself as an elitist physical scientist, nor did I believe I would desire such a socially-oriented job either. Sure, engineering was not for me, but even less could I envision myself in those other careers.

I tucked the results of that career-matching test away in a folder, somewhat out of personal respect at the mound of high-grade paper it was printed on, and partly out of the sheer curiosity of how wildly unexpected the results were. I mean, c’mon…nursing home administrator?

But reality found a way of having its last laugh on me. Though I shunned the outcome, I nevertheless kept making choices that wound me closer to the results of the test. My majors in biology and environmental studies deepened my love of nature, a passion that I couldn’t help but share with others. So I decided to begin working in the outdoors in a capacity where I could share this passion, first becoming an outdoor guide and then later teaching environmental education. After gaining some experience with youth in education, it wasn’t such a big leap to take on classroom substitute teaching when the circumstances called for filling in a gap in employment. That, of course, led to working in public schools—where the bulk of available assignments come at the elementary level. Thus, out of economic necessity more than sheer personal desire, I found myself working as my top career-match from that test of my freshman year. Inevitably, I have worked as an elementary school teacher.

And you know what? I agreed with the test results. Far from the discordance I felt earlier while in the engineering discipline, I found the elementary job to be meaningful and fulfilling. Being an elementary school teacher was a challenge that I could both accomplish and feel like I was making a positive difference in the world. Somehow the results of that career test snuck up on me. I’m glad they did. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t even have begun to suspect that I would enjoy such a job.

Maybe there is a degree of validity to all these career tests that we take. After all, I didn’t go out in search of the types of jobs matched for me. Rather, one thing just led to another and I ended up stumbling to results myself.

(Perhaps maybe the results of another career-test will sneak up on me—during graduate school, I took a different career test that gave me the top occupations of nanny, combat soldier, gynecologist, and underwater welder. Of those, I’d take the underwater welder!)

 

 

Things Your Substitute Teacher Probably Never Told You

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I’m not a certified teacher, nor do I have any training or classroom experience (but I won’t tell the the students this). The field is generally short-staffed, so any decently educated, mature adult can fit the bill. The work itself isn’t lucrative, and the pay isn’t too enticing either. Lots of us working this job are only doing it temporarily until something else comes along. And nothing irritates me quicker than having a student claim that I’m not a ‘real’ teacher.

I don’t know this school very well. In fact, I likely may have never been to this school before. So much of working this job is figuring things out on the fly—room locations, educational culture, school policies, etc.—and one of the best strategies is to find the nearby teachers who will be helpful throughout the day. In the classroom, much of the time I’m going to be relying on the students to ascertain whether I’m following classroom protocol correctly. And if I don’t do something exactly as your teacher does it—DEAL WITH IT!

I arrive at my assignment early enough to read over all the sub plans, always entering the classroom with a slight hint of dread upon the possibility that no material was left to teach in class. Though I may have read through all the plans ahead of time, I’m usually just a topic ahead of the class and I’ll use every spare moment to plan my next teaching move.

I often don’t know the material I’m teaching myself. I do know enough, however, to talk my way around things in order to give off the impression that I know. When I don’t know, I often ask for a student volunteer to do an example problem in front of the class—doing this might help jog my memory, but more importantly it makes the students feel more engaged in class.

I only have three sets of professional teaching clothes. I can get away with this because I’m usually never at the same school more than three days in a row.

I generally feel very appreciated by the school staff, even though often I don’t feel like I’ve done much in a day. I may not be a great teacher, but what’s more problematic for the school is having no responsible adults available to oversee the students. And at some schools, even making it through the entire day in the classroom is an accomplishment in itself.

My threats of punishment may very well just be empty. Since I don’t know enough about the punitive system at this school and where to send students for misbehavior, I often rely on the perception that a student will get punished as a method to gain cooperation. When I say I’ll leave names for the regular teacher about misbehavior, I make sure I do—but then I never know if the regular teacher ever does anything about it. When I do know where to send disruptive students, it is an incredible tool for classroom control. Sometimes all it takes to control a classroom is to remove one particularly disruptive student. At some schools, one of my initial tasks upon arrival is to learn how to call for security.

The teachers that the students fear most are often the teachers I fear as well. I’m not kidding when I tell the students that they don’t want Mrs. So-and-So to come into the classroom because she won’t be happy when she is forced to come in to chastise a deviant class. It’s not that I get scolded by the teacher for doing a bad job—it’s more like every time a teacher comes in to quiet my class, I feel like I’m not meeting the expectations of the substitute job.

I’m not just here to babysit. I’m here to teach, and I actually really love teaching too. Though much of my time is devoted to managing the behavior of the class, when I have a really engaged group of students, it makes up for the shortcomings of many bad days in a row.

I like it when students love me, but I think it’s often more fulfilling when they hate me. My goal isn’t to be the students’ friend, but if the students are mature, then I’ve found I can be more lenient as long as they are able to self-direct themselves to finish their work. If the students misbehave, though, I also like getting strict with them to the point where they clamor how their substitute is the worst one ever. When I hear that, I often feel accomplished for bringing some discipline to the classroom.

Sometimes I actually prefer the more difficult assignments. Sure, the suburbs can be nice and easy, and the kids can be very polite and well-behaved. But that gets really boring really quickly—those are more like the‘glorified babysitter’ assignments. At the other end of the spectrum are the really tough inner-city schools, where no one really ever has control of the classroom. I personally like the challenge of having a trying group of students with their myriad behavior issues, but only to the extent that their behavior is possible to be controlled. Not all days end up going well, and on those days where I fail I often get to learn more about how I could become a better substitute.

I also prefer working with younger grades—not necessarily because I enjoy younger students more, but because younger students need the teacher more. By the time students reach high school, they can pretty much take care of themselves. Younger students are often a squirrely handful, but I’d much rather have the day fly by with the many concerns young students bring to the teacher rather than spending the day being generally ignored by high schoolers.

I dislike showing videos in class. In fact, I often bemoan those assignments. Fortunately, I don’t show videos that often. Part of my dislike stems from having to watch the same video multiple times in a row—but more likely, I don’t like it because if the students aren’t interested in the topic, then making them watch a video leads to even more behavior issues difficult to control.

I can’t promise to remember everyone’s name. There’s only one of me, but there are 30 of you. And some of you may look similar to other students I’ve had before. I’ll try and pronounce you name right, but I’ve probably never heard of it before, nor will I understand how the letters in your name make certain sounds (like how ‘Aja’ is pronounced ‘Asia’). I feel bad for a lot of students based on their names—like the 7th grade girl named ‘Isis’. And with some names, like ‘Sir’ and ‘Everythang’, I have to hold back a chuckle while taking attendance.

 

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I Taught Kindergarten Art Class at an Inner-City School

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I taught a kindergarten art class in an inner-city school. The assignment was coloring. I was the substitute.

Watching the class, I stand back and wonder what life is like for these kids. Life seems simple when they are all coloring. But how will the circumstances they were born into affect the types of people they will become as adults?

I was substituting in the urban school district because of a belief that I can do some good in the world. But should it really be me, specifically, doing this? I’m physically different than the students. It’s apparent. I’m a white teacher in a class of non-white students. The teacher I’m subbing for is white. The overwhelming majority of teachers I’ve seen in this school are white as well. Is my presence alone contributing to the purported narrative that whites ought to occupy positions of power in society? That non-white students ought to be in a subjective position to their white counterparts?

By taking this assignment, have I taken an opportunity away from an equally-qualified minority teacher? There just as well could have been no minorities available—after all, I haven’t seen many in classroom education, even in this school district. Wouldn’t these young students—impressionable, still developing their ideas of societal norms—benefit from seeing someone who looks like them physically leading the classroom? To see a living example that indeed they too can achieve such a position in society? Are we failing to model equal opportunities for all students?

Upon entering the classroom, a handful of students comment on how I’m a male once they see me as their substitute. A male teacher in early childhood education stands out to them—it doesn’t fit their narrative of who constitutes pre-elementary teachers. So maybe, in fact, my presence can tell them something—it can make them understand that career roles should not be limited by gender. Yet I feel a bit out of place myself—there is the strain of gender roles in the workplace. ‘It’s not masculine to enjoy working with children’—or, that’s the notion that’s been entrenched deeply within me from growing up in a less-than-egalitarian society. Personal experience tells me otherwise; I’ve found it incredibly fulfilling to work with children, but I’ve always felt that that’s an emotion best left hidden. ‘Working with children is women’s work’, the familiar narrative goes. Though I fight to not believe it myself, taking a look at my coworkers seems to make the opposite argument. The glass ceiling that holds women back from advancing in the workplace also holds men from stepping aside. But for men, it’s not for want of opportunity or advantage. Rather, it’s the social pressure that rewards positions of power and demeans positions of service.

“You have a good heart to be doing this,” I mentally console myself from inside the classroom. But having a good heart alone doesn’t pay the bills. Here I am in class wondering how substituting is going to pay for my car insurance premium so that I can continue to be able to get to work. Ultimately I won’t have to make the decision between having transportation and having a job that feels meaningful. I still have enough savings to subsidize my living expenses until I can make ends meet. I wonder to myself how many children in this class come from families who have that luxury?

At lunch I eat a banana and a bag of crackers that I pulled out of a dumpster last night. On my walk back to my car this afternoon I’ll look for empty beer cans to return for the deposit. Any little extra bit of savings will help. Taking a brief economic pulse of my situation makes the outlook not so cheery; I’m feeling guilty now about spending $4 on a craft beer earlier in the week. Even such small amounts seem extravagant to me now.

In the past two years, my income failed to break the poverty line. I found ways to make the money stretch though—living out of a car saved rent payments; my workplace often provided meals and lodging; and I’ve gone for a time without a vehicle or insurance. Now, however, I’m trying to live a semblance of a ‘normal’ life for a while. I’m back to paying rent, owning a car, and buying insurance. The costs of life are burdensome. I know I’ll make it through this year, though. If I can’t do it on my own, I always have my family support network to fill in the gaps. I wonder how many of my kindergarten students come from families like that.

I think too about how I could be making more money working at a fast food restaurant—a job that doesn’t even require the level of education I’ve received. The prospect briefly tempts me. Working with children can be rewarding, but it can also be demanding. The idea of an easy-out in the fast-food industry seems like a godsend. But no, I’ve made up my mind already. I’ve decided to make a difference by working in education. But how many potential difference-makers are lost from the workforce because the jobs where they can do the most good don’t offer competitive pay?

I frequently hear lectures about global poverty and the wealth of the American people. I look online to see that I am approximately the 400,000,000th richest person in the world. The website lists facts about how impoverished other nations are and encourages me to donate money to redistribute the wealth I do possess. I am convicted that I should be more charitable, but I’m not sure how I can afford it right now. Another online tool tells me I’m in the bottom 13 percent of income earners in America. Can I be both wealthy and not at the same time?

I don’t feel as if I have the right to think of myself as poor. I’ve always had enough to get by. I grew up in an upper-middle class household and to this day I still strive to give off the appearance of having a middle-class lifestyle. Considering yourself to be poor was never presented as an option, only as a joke we could tell ourselves when we couldn’t afford the next big discretionary purchase. Though based on income I would qualify for Medicaid, I still refuse to take the social assistance. Pride has much to do with the decision. Stubbornness also. White, educated, middle class people like me aren’t supposed to rely on government assistance to get by. We’re supposed to provide everything for ourselves. ‘Medicaid is for the downtrodden.’ ‘People like me aren’t allowed to be poor.’ I feel dismayed, as if I’ve failed my upper-middle class upbringing. I have no illusions about aver achieving the wealth my parents have earned. Conservative voices say that those on welfare are a drain on the economic system, and I’d hate to think of myself a drain.

Societal pressure makes me question if I’m failing myself as a man as well. Those socially-engrained gender roles dictate men as the providers, the breadwinners in the household. I have enough to support myself, but not others. Though I reiterate to myself that I don’t believe in those norms, I can’t help but sense the social pressure of the ideas have been engrained in me from childhood. I feel less of a man for it. I wonder about the kindergarteners again. Are us adults subversively teaching our children these same outdated ideas of gender?

I have to go register my car at the Secretary of State. I don’t know which address to use. I haven’t had a permanent address for nearly two years, and even where I’m currently staying at I won’t be for long. My basic ID, my driver’s license, is from a state I haven’t set foot in for a year and a half. As of yet, I can’t even prove to the state of Michigan that I actually live here. These complications which I face are all from my chosen lifestyle of mobility. It’s a luxury I can afford—the cost of chosen transiency. But what about the people who live here permanently, yet don’t have stable housing? They face similar complications as do I, but theirs stems from a lack of opportunity for fair and stable housing. Having the proper ID is a fundamental necessity in our age, but it’s a complicated process as well. Do those that lack ID know what hoops to jump through in order to prove their very identity?

All these issues lay in wait at the back of my mind during class. They’ll emerge more strongly in times of lull after the workday. In class, I try to focus on the task at hand. Coloring is simple. It’s an escape from the pressures of the world. I try and believe that I can make some sort of difference in the lives of these children. Maybe somehow they can escape the opportunity traps that lie ahead of them as they get older.

If nothing else, these experiences in inner-city public education have been teaching me empathy. How can those in power deny sympathy to our disadvantaged sisters and brothers?

Learning the Ropes

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The sloop Clearwater sailing through the Highlands section of the Hudson River

 

“It is not that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better.” –Francis Drake

 

I’ve been learning the ropes lately, so to speak.

It’s been two weeks on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, in a crash course on boatsmanship and environmental education. I’m a sailor now, though I’m not yet as salty as my boots are from swabbing the deck with brine.

Foremost, learning the ropes entails that a rope isn’t just a rope—it can be a line, a sheet, a halyard or a downhaul. The nominal difference doesn’t mean much to a landlubber’s hands, though—every rope helps aid in developing the all-important sailor callus. Two weeks in and I can now flop-flake a downhaul, dogbone a line, or Ballantine a halyard. Better yet, I know what all those terms mean too. But learning the ropes goes beyond just the ropes—among other things I’ve learned how to hoist up the main sail, steer with the tiller, be a dock jumper, and furl the jib.

Confused by any of the terms yet? Sailing culture has its own lingo. Rarely does a component of a boat share its name with its onshore counterpart. The cook prepares food in a galley, not a kitchen. Below deck, we walk upon the sole instead of floors. And, using the head on a ship is an entirely different thing than using your head on land. By now, practical experience has resolved my long-standing confusion of which side of the boat is port and which is starboard. There are so many new and funny-sounding terms to learn: jib, gaff, shroud, boom, peak, throat, transom, fo’c’s’le, dogged, pin, cleat, lazy jack, and my favorite new term baggywrinkle. Though we may be on a tall-masted historic ship, we aren’t pirates. No arrrghs or ahoy mateys found here.

 

sloop-clearwater

The 106-foot long Clearwater under full sail

 

The Clearwater is very much an educational ship. Its revolving crew of apprentices, interns, and volunteers, who stay for one week to a few months, means that new hands are always coming aboard to learn the ropes for themselves. This means that onboard the ship is an active learning environment; new crew learn from their shipmates, and those aboard for longer gradually switch from primarily learning to teaching as well. Two weeks in and I’m happy that I can now ‘show the ropes’ to newcomers. The constant influx of trainees and volunteers serves as an indicator of the grassroots origins of the Clearwater, which was founded by Pete Seeger and other activist musicians in the late 1960’s to educate and create awareness about issues of water quality. Clearwater’s alumni crew number many and all contribute their part to the mission of the ship in a different way.

New crew members get one full day of formal training before taking part in educational sails. The rest of learning on the Clearwater is done practically—learning by doing. The process of sailing itself proves to be very educational, and with around 20 sails now under my belt, I’m beginning to feel quite comfortable at the undertakings. Tasks onboard are done in a progression of difficulty. Prove yourself capable of performing one task, and the captain or mate will assign you to something more challenging. Each day and each sail is a little bit different, so there’s always something new to learn. Standing by as a deckhand, you never know which task the mate will assign you to—and once you’re told, you just have to repeat back the command and perform the task with minimal preparation. Learning by doing on such a large sailing vessel seems like a high-stakes game, but everyone’s looking out for each other to make sure the crew is learning well and performing their best.

Education aboard the Clearwater extends from training the crew to instructing the participants on the ship’s many educational sails. The primary focus of Clearwater is the educational sails, and a typical day sees two three-hour sails of this type take place. All of the crew onboard are not only sailors but are also educators, and will lead a variety of educational curricula. Students who sail are as young as fourth graders and as old as college students. Just like every sailing condition is different, every educational program is tailored to the needs and learning level of the group. The basics of each educational sail remain the same, with participants helping to hoist the sails before going to different learning stations covering aquatic life, water quality, Hudson River history, and navigation. As someone not from the Hudson River watershed who knew little about the river before sailing, I’ve ended up learning as much about the Hudson River as the students I teach. At first, teaching the standard material is being only one step ahead of the group in knowledge. After a number of sails, though, I’ve found I’ve learned enough to teach more and more, and every new sail presents an opportunity to teach the same material in a different manner. And, I absolutely love it when people ask me a question that I’ve just learned the answer to.

Learning the ropes also means adjusting to a different lifestyle. A life on the river is different than a life on land, particularly when you live on a replica of an 18th century cargo ship. The modern conveniences of life aren’t found in the living quarters. There is no air-conditioning or heating, no refrigeration, and only limited electricity and running water. Our restroom situation is as simple as using a five-gallon bucket. Living on the ship really shows you how much—or how little—it actually takes to live. The social environment is an adjustment too. With a crew of up to 19, quarters are close on the 76 feet of Clearwater’s deck. You have to be comfortable not only working closely with people, but also living with them on your time off. However, the Clearwater tends to attract a certain type of person who can thrive in a tight community aboard an active sailing ship. The community onboard the ship has been the best resource for learning to sail and one of the biggest highlights of learning the ropes.

Learn more about the sloop Clearwater at http://www.clearwater.org