Updated: Jul 19
You will become the storyteller of your own life; and as a result, the universe, recognizing that you have mastered your lessons, will stop putting you back into the classroom. -Dr. Alberto Villoldo, The Four Insights
One year ago today—and the prior six for that matter—you would have found me fidgeting in my seat, attempting to take deep breaths and telling myself everything was going to be okay, and counting down the minutes on the nearest clock. I would have been frozen in a moderate to severe state of fight or flight, experiencing varying degrees of physical and mental agony, and in attendance of one sort of school faculty meeting or another. For situations such as these, I had learned to self-medicate at an early age, out of necessity I had become an adept pharmacist. Before, my saving grace would have been an ice cold six pack of keystone lights awaiting me after work—sure on many days I would have waited until after I worked my ass off in the gym—but on the more troubling of days, I would have only made it until the nearest gas station on the route home. After years of careful observation, trial, and error, I had come to rest upon societies most accepted, preferred, and encouraged form of drug use, alcoholism. For me, the first pull off of that Pabst Blue Ribbon or Keystone Light on the drive home was like a breath of fresh air. It was a feeling of freedom and a mouthful of "fuck you" contained within a sixteen ounce can. It made all the ridiculous shit you had to endure in order to fit the mold seem bearable. The weekends spent with friends, bar hopping and going to parties and concerts, were the antidote to everything I hated during my nine to five. In fact, it was the only thing that made it possible for me. But not anymore, I had decided to face my demons, no matter how grave things got...
Every year, the week before students are due to arrive, the school staff reluctantly sets their alarm clocks for the first time in months and head into school to undergo preparations for the rapidly approaching new year. This is a mandatory forty hour work week that entails happy greetings and how ya beens, fleeting attempts to look busy, and forlorn announcements from school administration that "this is sure to be the best school year yet!"
Among the social workers, there was actually very little to do without the students around, and when we weren't just going through the motions and doing our best to appear to be justifying and fulfilling our "contract hours", you could find us attending meetings designed for teachers that had little to nothing to do with us. On some occasions though, we did attend a handful of relevant meetings and discussions held by a unique few members of the faculty who had become inspired at some point during the previous summer. These meetings might have addressed difficult topics such as trauma, the student's mental and emotional well-being, and rising suicide rates in adolescents. These were the noteworthy occasions in which you would have found me to be interested and engaged, as opposed to looking for an escape route out the back door. I would ask questions and do my best to participate in whatever the conversation happened to be. After a few years of this, and noticing how none of the discussed changes ever seemed to take place once we were on the front lines and in the thick of a school year, the mere lip service to these matters started to offend my sense of integrity. At one such meeting I hesitantly raised my hand to speak—feeling like I must have as a less than confident young student—and commented that it seemed like we always talked about how we were going to focus on things like "meeting the students where they are", and "attempt to be more compassionate and understanding to the students' needs", but then once the reality of the school year set in, things always seemed to go right back to how they were. I'm not sure how well this intrusive and untimely comment went over, but it's not like I was ostracized or anything, it just seemed that anyone who cared or sympathized with what I had said was just as lost in regards to what to do about it as I was. What we were up against was Big, and it was hard to even pinpoint what "it" was...
While the football team was engaged in their infamous "hell week", so too, were we. One of my favorite portions of this week was Mandt training—with the possible exception of mock fire drills and evacuations—and when I say favorite, what I mean is most dreaded. This training was a monotonous droll through deescalation techniques and various ways conflict and chaos could be best contained and managed within the school setting. Some of the more holistically based ideas presented were actually quite good, but things really got interesting when we reached the "jiu jitsu for teachers" portion of the training. During this portion, those of us in attendance would have to awkwardly move through a series of physical maneuvers upon one another, enacting everything from hair pulling, biting, to choking, all of which involved a fondling of sorts on co-workers that would prefer not to be touched at all. We would take turns in front of the group, drilling take-downs and various holds, but not without first fulfilling the requirement of asking permission—of course. Hands would be placed on each others foreheads, hips, and armpits. Needless to say we got to know each other quite well. I would typically crack jokes throughout the entirety of this portion of the training, attempting to lessen the horror of the experience. We did this same training every year, for that was all the longer your certification lasted. So, by my sixth consecutive year, I had very little humor left in me about the ordeal, rage is a more accurate description of what I felt. After the physical portion was completed we would finish up with around a thirty page written exam, on which every single page had to be individually dated and initialed—don't ask me why—I can picture it now, entire forests being chopped down in the name of the almighty "MANDT training"! Did I ever see any of this used? Not really. For the most part, what I saw exhibited by myself and others in the face of calamity was purely reactive and instinctual.
The weeks that followed were my personal favorite. Seriously. Whether I myself was in high school, attending the University of Idaho, or working at the high school, I always felt a sense of giddiness and joy. The starting of a new year brought with it a sense of nostalgia mixed with possibility, like the late August sun warming your skin just before a chilly breeze of fresh wind sends a shiver through your bones, reminding you that winter is approaching. There is excitement in the air; romances to be sought after or rekindled, friendships to be born, knowledge to be gained, and skills to be learned. In my younger days there were flannel shirts, tailgate parties, whiskey and beers; now there are flannel shirts, calm, clear, relaxed meditations, hot cups of dark coffee enhanced with delicious pumpkin spice almond milk creamer and cold, crisp kombuchas. I used to work on a good buzz, now it's a good microbiome. There are many beautiful aspects of an academic environment and even as I explore the harsher realities of what I witnessed therein, my intention is never to lose sight of that beauty. I know that I loved it, because I am still grieving the conclusion of that chapter of my life. Even in the most mechanical, dry, barren, concrete covered of places, you will find stubborn flowers taking their stand. In schools, the flowers are the children. Still so vibrant and full of life, yet to have been made cynical and statue-like by the ways of the world. And the rules, did I mention the fucking rules?
During what I would consider to be the Golden Age of my time spent working in the public school system—prior to a collapsing of illusion and subsequent disheartening—I truly felt myself to be immersed in something wonderful. Sure academics and school work were a part of the beauty, but the days were also filled with playing basketball with all the kids in the gym, weightlifting and calisthenics in the weight room, and time spent listening to students sing and play their instruments in the choir and band rooms. I showed kids how to walk on their hands on the gym floor, joined in games of soccer and frisbee out on the football field, learned to make miniature sculptures in ceramics with Cheyenne, and played guitar in the hallways and on the bleachers with many a young ones over the years. There was a time when a couple of my colleagues and I even had a ping pong table set up in a secret classroom where we could sneak away and practice some "self-care" when it was deemed necessary. The stars had aligned in my favor and the dream work situation was allowed to exist for a time, unfortunately, something within the dynamics changed—whether it was the chemistry between those I worked with, school administration, different individuals coming into positions of power, or the ever-looming possibility that I alone had changed, I don't know—but nevertheless, things steadily started to take a nose dive into a much more dire and dark experience.
Humor was often the only thing that could penetrate the seriousness that seemed to saturate so much of what went on within the school. Timeliness, assignments, grades, points, and due dates were treated as matters of life and death; the notion that none of these things are actually that important in the grand scheme of things would seem an act of violence against what so many rigid staff employees held to be the incontrovertible facts of life. I must say that the students and many of my co-workers provided a great deal of laughs over the years—light, life, and perhaps a smile, did manage to bust through the seams on occasion—and it is not as if things were horrible all the time by any means. As with anything, it was not simply black and white, we humans are a complicated bunch and are not to be confined to an overly simplified attempt to describe our behavior.
I suppose that as a social worker within the school system, you are much more exposed to the "lowest common denominator" interactions occurring within the school. This very likely has the effect of creating a bitterness, and an, at times, pessimistic view of much of what goes on there. You are confronted with the reality that there is a population of students for whom the school system simply does not work, and whether or not they are given diplomas—courtesy of The No Child Left Behind Act—they are left behind in every other conceivable way. Mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. On more than one occasion, I had to do my best to explain to a distraught teacher or school administrator regarding one of the students I worked with, "if what you need is for them to be a "normal" student, it just isn't going to happen." But it is not only the students who endure the most hardship outside of school that are adversely affected by the current system, the affluent students will leave primary school ill prepared for the demands life will inevitably place upon them as well. I know because I was that affluent student.
As young students we are led to believe that we must only follow paths that have clear outcomes in the area of career. When I decided to start a master's degree in school counseling, my back was against the wall monetarily speaking. I had been performing social work in a high school for four years and was barely making it by financially. I found myself at a crossroads where I really needed to make a decision about how I would progress on a career path. At this time, I had begun deeply considering and contemplating what I should do. What I knew was that I had a great passion for learning and was very much interested in psychology, philosophy, and spirituality, and how these areas of study could be applied to help people overcome struggles involving mental health, addiction, etc. My strengths are and were connecting with other human beings and developing relationships. At this point, I was deciding whether to pursue a master's degree in school counseling, mental health counseling, social work, music, psychology, or philosophy. At the time, I was reading all of Alan Watts's books and listening to his lectures on YouTube, I clearly remember deciding, "that’s what I’ll do!" "I want to be a philosopher!" And what do you suppose happened? Every person I told my plan to laughed and told me I could never make a living doing that. I became discouraged and started looking for a more “realistic” option. I landed on school counseling because for the most part I had enjoyed the school environment, and could potentially draw upon my knowledge in the areas of psychology, philosophy, and spirituality in order to help young people overcome struggles and find meaning in their lives. Really though, it seemed to be the safest option, the one that would least require me to step outside of what I knew and felt comfortable with. Because I felt I needed to make a decision quickly, I didn’t take the time to consider that obtaining this degree would entail going an extra 50,000 dollars in debt on top of the 30,000 I had already accrued from my bachelor's degree. I did not consider that there may be other routes I could take where I could perform a similar task in my community without taking on this sort of debt. And I also did not consider that the reality of this position may resemble nothing close to what I had conjured up in my own elaborate scheme. By the time the truth of the situation I was in hit me, it was too late, I had already taken on the loans and felt I needed to finish the degree...
Students need as much insight as they can get before making major decisions such as taking on massive student loan debts that will often times either provide them with little career options, or none at all. I realized at some point that if the students I would have been working with were anything like me, the scenario might play out something like this: I did what everyone told me to do. I graduated from high school, went to college, got a bachelor's degree, did an unpaid internship, got a solid job within the school system, went to graduate school, and worked towards a master’s degree. After all this was said and done I would have 80,000 dollars in debt and no guarantee that there would be a school counseling position available upon graduation. I was still broke. School counselors starting salary in Idaho is around 40,000 a year, which is hardly enough to justify the payments on the student loans you had to accrue in earning the degree. AND, I would be blocked at every turn in providing the type of support and guidance I felt was most necessary for students I would be working with. It may seem as though I am being negative and maybe I am, but this is a likely reality of that situation. How could I feel confident about advocating this type of path to students when I knew its reality in my own life?
Can we be honest about the fact that modern day adolescents often glean very little from the literature of Shakespeare, Steinbach, and Fitzgerald, unless that is, it happens to take the form a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio? I have been the fly on the wall of many classrooms in which this literature sailed right over the heads of the students—my head as well. The assigned readings have gone unchanged for how many decades? I was tickled when I discovered one teacher in the school I worked at who had the nerve to make Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World an assigned reading—a book that might actually have something relevant to say about our current times. The writers I mentioned above surely have much to offer, especially Shakespeare, who I am learning more and more about and having to adapt in regards to my view on him, or the many prolific writers that likely made up "Shakespeare". I have recently been educated on just how profound and revelatory the writings of Shakespeare truly were, so apologies to anyone who may have been offended... My point is more that these writers are seldom represented in a way the reveals their true depth and hits home for modern students. And how long are we going to beat the mathematics drum? Do you really believe it? When was the last time you used algebra 2 or calculous? And don't bullshit me. I was a major advocate for calculators in schools, work smart, not hard, right? Then I discovered that the students had found an app that could take a picture of your math problem and instantaneously deliver an answer. Brilliant! It was always interesting to hear what teachers would attempt to conjure up when frequently asked by the students, "how is this ever going to help me?" Pesky students... always wanting to know why... I observed in one geometry class as the teacher showed a video of a 6'9 NBA basketball player shooting free throws. He then explained to the camera how he uses geometry to assess the proper arc he will need to put on the ball to give him the highest probability for making each shot. Are you kidding me? Math has been completely removed from its origins—namely that it is a way to better understand the universe. What about the sciences? I never once heard the words quantum physics or epigenetics mentioned, two of the fields of science that are showing us that much of what we had previously thought be true, simply is not. I also never heard it so much as mentioned that we humans are continuing to systematically trash and destroy the planet and environment upon which we depend on for our very survival—something that seems pretty important for those who will be inheriting this state of affairs to know... A minuscule band width of history is all that is taught, and from guess who's perspective? The unsavory and messy details can be forever swept under the rug—so we would like to think. It seems to me like our schools have some serious catching up to do if they have any chance of being relevant. Google and Wikipedia? Use them! "But it's a test!" Even more reason to make sure you get the right answer! If you are wondering how you should feel about what you have just read, I should tell you this, I put almost this exact rant in one of my last grad school papers and received an 11 out of 10 points—this precious extra credit point was bestowed upon me by no less than the magnificent Dr. Yelgdim himself—so there you have it!
One of the effects of no child left behind has been to focus on the so-called standards, science and math, they are important, they are necessary, but they are not sufficient. A real education must give equal weight to the arts, humanities, and to physical education. -Sir Ken Robinson, How to Escape Education’s Death Valley, TED Talk
Robinson also states in this same TED talk that in countries such as Finland where higher levels of success are being reached in education and learning, and dropout rates are almost nonexistent, that the education process is individualized and students’ unique natures and needs are respected and worked with. This is in direct contrast with the need of the United States' educational system to make students conform and submit to a one size fits all standard of learning. He goes on to mention that countries such as Finland also hold their teachers in significantly higher esteem and provide much more support to them.
What is currently taught in schools also does little to nothing to prepare young individuals for the psychological and emotional challenges that await them upon graduating high school and separating from their parents. This is a major disservice, one that I have personally experienced and continue to work to overcome. Little to nothing is taught about the nature of the mind, the effects of trauma, or techniques for overcoming and working through difficult life experiences. Things such as mindfulness, self-knowledge and awareness, and self-care are not taught. Classes in psychology, sociology, mental health, and other related fields are not required or valued. The current value and belief system holds in esteem only what is quantifiable and profitable. My question is this: What good is a job or money or security, if we are all miserable and basically discontented the majority of the time anyways?
Some might raise the valid question of whether or not schools were ever intended to address areas such as the ones I have mentioned above. While it may be true that they were not—at least not in modern schools in the United States—it doesn't change the fact that school is where our youth will spend the better portion of their days during the most formative years of their lives, or that it has become self-evident that these areas are the ones that are most desperately needing addressed. If they don't learn these ideas and tools at school, where else do we suppose they are going to learn them? And who better to teach them than the very people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to teaching? Although changing the system from within did not seem a viable option for me personally, it may very well be for others, who am I to say?
And what about the unrealistic expectations schools place upon students, such as having them sit still and listen for hours each day? This completely ignores human nature and has us labeling children with Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyperactivity and drugging them. I am pleased to say that when I was in first grade and the teacher told my parents they needed to put me on Ritalin, they essentially told her to screw off. Go Mom and Dad! This is the manner in which our current education system goes about judging, labeling, and alienating many children. The truth of the extent to which my hands were tied in regards to how much I was, and would be able to help students mentally and emotionally became crystal clear. In matters where it came down to the rights of the individual student and their overall well-being being honored and respected, or the school system itself being upheld and given the final say, things unfailingly erred on the side of the school system. This did not sit right with me. I saw how in the same manner as myself the other teachers and school staffs' hands were tied when it came to meeting the needs of individual students, the school system needed to be maintained at all costs; I saw how things always tended to lean in but one direction...
It was during this time when so many difficult truths about the system in which I worked were cascading my way that I happened to read a book called Three Cups of Tea, a book about education in Pakistan and how it provides an opportunity for freedom to the children there. It tells the story of a great man named Greg Mortenson who had made it his life's mission to build schools and provide education to children in the Middle East, who would not otherwise have had this opportunity. I could not figure out why it left me with such a bad taste in my mouth while and after reading. It was certainly meant to be an inspirational book, yet there I sat—in a first-world public school—completely uninspired by what I was reading. I realized that the reason was that in the Middle East education is more often viewed as a privilege and an opportunity for a better life and freedom. Students there, wanted to be there and were usually grateful. This is not the whole story of what I observed every day in the school I worked at, where for many students, school was a prison, a place where they were unheard, judged, labeled, and told what to do—with little to no room for compromise or discussion. It was often an environment where they were forced to do many things they did not want to, things that they saw no value in.
I got out because how much time do I have to spend fighting a system that I know is antagonistic to everything I am talking about. Self-empowerment is not the intention of a system that manipulates a large population. -Bruce Lipton, PhD. Stem Cell Biologist and Developmental Biologist, & Author of The Biology of Belief (speaking on Russell Brand's podcast Under the Skin about why he left his position at Stanford University)
My dissent from those I worked with happened slowly but surely as the years crept by. I came into the position within the school starry-eyed and green, I was just happy to have my first "grown up" job that would surely provide a bit of stability and command some degree of respect from onlookers. From the beginning it seemed ironic that I had found myself helping struggling juveniles within a high school. Those who had known me in my earlier years were likely both astonished and proud. Some of the deeper dynamics at play in my return to the school went completely unnoticed—by me—until those final years. See, I came in with the assumption that many share within the school system, the assumption that if a student is getting into trouble or having difficulties in school, it is some combination of their, and their parents' fault. The school system itself is not part of the problem... Prior to witnessing what goes on within schools from a fresh perspective, this belief wouldn't have seemed that far out to me. Because I was stoned on any number of mind-altering substances throughout much of my high school career, and also engaged in many other forms of criminal activity during that time, it was easy to think that the problem was solely me. It was only in seeing how seldom the students' deepest needs are met in the school environment, in combination with the unrealistic expectations that are perpetually placed upon them, that I began to see that the school system itself plays a large role in many of the issues observed therein.
I recall a weekly team meeting I attended with members of the special education department wherein the leader droned on about grades, homework, and SAT scores. Mindless chatter continued until I could no longer bear it and raised my hand to speak. With boiling blood I reminded those in the room that we just that week had had a young female student attempt suicide—at school—and it had yet to be mentioned. I asked how we could sit there and pretend that SAT scores mattered in the face of something like what we had just seen. This young girl had drank a water bottle full of vodka on her way to school, then upon arriving, swallowed the remainder of her bottle of psych meds, and then took a blanket and laid down to die in a hidden corner of the school hallway. She had the words "sorry not sorry" written in sharpie on her arm. When she was found she was incoherent, but luckily this time, was able to have her stomach pumped and lived to see another day.
Accidents like this were not uncommon among the students I and my coworkers worked with. I recall another young man attempting something similar that same year. At high schools there is something called ISS. "In School Suspension." What it actually is, is "in school prison." Our school had three of these four by four foot windowless rooms to install students in if their behavior got out of hand, or, if they simply refused to follow directions. These rooms would actually make some sense if a student was completely out of control, but more often than not they were used when a student wasn't doing what they were told to do. Some students actually enjoyed these rooms for the quiet and chance to calm down they provided, other students had quite another reaction. The most horrific I can recall was the above mentioned young man, who was placed in one of these rooms for some reason or another. Within a short amount of time he was able to break a pair of glass science lab goggles, make a massive incision in his thigh, and when he was found I was told he was going in and out of consciousness with a puddle of blood on the floor below him. He was taken away by an ambulance and survived the incident. Needless to say, I had a hard time forcing students into those rooms after that, it almost always seemed a cruel and over-the-top punishment. I tell these stories mainly to draw attention to the fact that at times, there are bigger problems to be addressed within schools than academic performance. The students I worked with often had problems stemming from home and environment that made academics seem completely useless. I would have to agree.
It is hard to describe how easy it is to become callous and insensitive working in an environment like that. I often found myself pissed off at students for not being able to go along with the program, for their not being able to just buck up and meet my expectations. At some point I was struck with how often I heard the words, "I need you to get to work", "I really just need you to get some work done...", "Back to work!" These words emanated from the mouths of teachers, administrators, and other school staff with an alarming frequency. It started to seriously bother me to the point where I began considering taking a day to count how many times I heard the word "work" uttered. I thought we were at "school"... wouldn't the word "learn" have been more fitting? If nothing else it would have made the absurdity of the command plain for all to see. I also started to find it interesting that the sentence so often started with "I need." I began silently asking, "why do you need that so badly?" Another common form of manipulation that is ever-present within schools is that of bribery, reward, and punishment. Whether or not there is a place for the latter two is a discussion I would be willing to entertain, but let's take a closer look at what this actually adds up to in a typical school scenario, and also observe the subtle psychological effects this surely has on impressionable young people. "Treats" were often used as motivators to get students to complete their school work. "If you finish up those last three problems you can have the Snickers bar", "if you want to partake in the class party you will need to have all passing grades", "if you refuse to follow directions, "privileges" will be taken away, or, you can just go to ISS." Essentially what the students are hearing is, "if you do what we want you to do, you are good", "if you don't do what we want you to do, you are bad", "NO SOUP FOR YOU!" In this same tradition my Grandparents had started paying me for good marks in school around second or third grade. Ten bucks for an A, five for a B, and so on. There is no question that this reward system came about because prior to that I was not doing well academically, and while they were surely well-intentioned, I do wonder about the more unconscious and unintended affects this may have had upon me. What it did do was persuade me to apply myself in school for the first time—even if it meant changing who I was—and gave me something tangible I could look forward to for the increased effort I was having to put in.
Around the time when I was beginning to notice many of these subtler dynamics is when I also started to realize that educating the students was not the only motivating force. There were other more subtle and unscrupulous motives at play, though I have no doubt they were often unrecognized by the teachers involved in them. I had stopped engaging in these sorts of interactions almost from the very beginning. I just was not going to force kids to do shit all day, it only made life a living hell for the both of us. What I found was that this didn't necessarily mean that the students I worked with never got their stuff done, sometimes they just wanted to. For me this was respecting them, allowing them to determine the sort of results they would like to see in their lives. Eventually, I boiled it down to one simple value: I don't believe in forcing people to do things that they don't want to do (myself included), I do believe in encouraging people to do things that they do want to do, but don't because they are difficult or fear-producing (myself included). The difference is subtle and could be summed up with one word, respect. Students were often resigned to being numbers and statistics; and bodies in desks, meant dollars in the school bank account. For those in positions such as mine as a social worker, the reminder that our jobs relied upon the students being present at school was constant and often a cause for concern. This is one such example of how the adult to student relationship is subtly altered and destined to unfold in an unjust manner.
Because my job was primarily to help with behavioral, emotional, and psychological issues, my decision that I wouldn't force kids to do school work was both accepted and allowed by co-workers—I wasn't fired. I may have sensed some uneasiness and irritation with me at times, but that was about as far as it went. The less I felt inclined to manipulate students' actions and behaviors for the sake of the system, the trickier things got. Many of the students I worked with not only did not want to do school work, they didn't want to be awake at school—sleeping was much preferred. They didn't want to be seated in a desk, in a classroom, and they really just didn't want to be at school. Now what the hell was I supposed to do about that? Force them, of course... But there came a time when I just couldn't do it anymore.
I started to see why I had turned to drugs and alcohol when I was 15 years old. The first couple of beers were a great way to numb the pain, the first bowl I smoked in the back of that jeep—crammed and sweat soaked—with my friends, an unexpected escape, but nothing could compare to the first time my buddy handed me a couple yellow pills called Norcos (Hydrocodone), that day in the back of our sophomore history class. It took about a half an hour before school didn't seem that bad after all...
Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage. -Smashing Pumpkins
It got to the point that I began to feel that I had more in common with the students I worked with, than the staff. Any novelty or headiness there may have been in having power over the little humans had vanished, there were many times when it seemed they actually deserved more respect than the adults—at least they were still being themselves. In a clear state of mind I would understand that both deserve equal respect, but the students just happened to be the ones that garnered very little within those school walls. Imagine now, as an adult, if you had to ask permission to use the damn restroom... Now imagine that someone on a power trip could actually tell you no... This is the sort of thing that happens all the time at schools, just a small example of how young people are stripped of what seem to me to be the most basic of human rights.
Examples of how rigorous adherence to the rules often caused unnecessary conflict started to present themselves to me more and more often. One day I walked into the teachers lounge—where I could often be found either by myself, holding court, or having discussions with other employees—and encountered a distressed paraprofessional educator; I asked her what was the matter. She said that lately they had had a female student going into intense screaming fits, making the classroom unbearable for her and everyone else. I asked her if there was anything she was having the student do prior to these screaming fits... She told me that it usually happens when she has the student eat her pear with a fork... I laughed and said, "if you tried to make me eat a pear with a fork I would freak out too, just don't do that anymore..." She replied that she had to, learning to eat with proper manners was on the student's list of objectives for the year. This is one small example of how a lack of realistic sensibility and flexibility is the true cause of so much contention in schools. In this example, the young girl was intellectually disabled, and did not possess the ability to appropriately communicate that she felt what was being asked of her was bullshit, but really, this is the case for all students. At every point on the spectrum of ability and intelligence, students will experience difficulty expressing how they feel and what they need at school. The intellectually disabled students in the school were among the most joyful I encountered; the way they could enjoy listening and dancing to music or helping with simple tasks around the building was unparalleled, it seemed that the occasions in which they would have outbursts were when they were coercively corralled and pressured to do things that were beyond their current ability or just plain nonsensical. The majority of students I worked with were intact intellectually, where they suffered impairment was in the area of emotionality. Another day, I walked into the classroom in which I worked to find a teacher playing tug-of-war over a book with a student, eventually ripping it from her hands... The book was for personal reading and therefore not for school related purposes, and it was not deemed a suitable time for personal affairs. It quickly became the premise for a heated conflict. This is the sort of thing that can wound a sensitive individual's—like my selves'—soul.
I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my thirty years of teaching... The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic—it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor. -John Taylor Gatto
After healing from TMS (The Mindbody Syndrome), and addiction to drugs and alcohol, doing what I can to help others to do the same has become very important to me, both because I feel compelled and also to make sure I myself never end up back in that place again. At the very least I know I will no longer naively be a part of the problem. My perspective as well as purpose in life has taken a drastic turn. Everything looks different now.
Coming to see that much of what was expected of me in my position at the school conflicted with what I knew to be true, was not easy. One of the most simple dictum's when working in the helping fields comes from a man who is known as The Father of Medicine, Hippocrates—"First, do no harm." I now couldn't even fulfill this most basic of values without coming into contention with the machinery of the school system.
I started to see how many of the students were already developing any number of symptoms including a variety of physical ailments, chronic pains, and mental illnesses. These were often combined with various forms of addiction, for some it was phones and video games, while others were beginning to experiment with drugs, alcohol, and relationships. If we look honestly, we can see that this is often times the best and only option they have; it is a survival response to the conditions in which they find themselves. Positive and healthy alternatives in which students might handle the multitude of stressors that are being thrown their way are scarcely taught, and far from a primary concern. In real time I watched as students manifested symptoms in the face of mounting stress and tension. These were cases in which it would have been extremely difficult or just plain unacceptable for the student to express their true emotions—how they actually felt. Looking back, I was no different. I suffered with horrible and unexplainable back pain starting around the age of 15 years old. I was a regular at the chiropractic office at this early age, does that seem at all strange to anyone else?!
This reminds me of a student I had the pleasure of working with named Frank. Frank did not want to be at school, and he wasn't shy about verbalizing the feeling. Frank had to resort to the only thing that seemed to get him out of school, faking sick, or being sick. When he was at school he attempted to catch up on as much sleep as possible. We got along great. Maybe because I felt that if he was sleeping, he obviously needed it and allowed him to do so, and also because I treated him like a human being. I never attempted to make him feel like shit or guilt trip him for not being an outstanding student. Frank had severe depression and was experiencing chronic pain at the age of 16. I remember days when he would be limping around the school, barely able to lift his feet off the ground, complaining of his hips and back. There were times I and other staff balked at what we thought was a elaborate scheme to get out of doing school work. This was before I understood TMS, which made cases like this a cause for sympathy and compassion, rather than judgement and incredulity. It was plain to see that he was in pain. I remember one day going outside to get a breath of fresh air and seeing Frank drive past the front of the school—he wasn't supposed to be driving or leaving school—he put up a hand to cover his face and I told no one of what I had seen. The sublime shirt I mentioned in the previous blog, Frank bought that for me. One day we got to take our students—who could not afford it—to Target to go clothes shopping, they were each allotted a small sum of money. Frank knew I liked the band and chose to get me a gift...
Like so many other failed relationships in which I have been part, things seemed to erode and crumble right before my eyes. True to form, I didn't let this prevent me from holding on for dear life, desperately attempting to salvage what once had been. The majority of negative karma I have accumulated over the years has come as a direct result of sticking around long after I should have walked away. No good can come from staying when every sign in the universe is pointing in the other direction. There is a point of no return that is reached, and if not honored, can have massive untold future consequences. You live and you learn I guess, it seems as though I prefer it the hard way.
In case I wasn't getting the point, a new character and antagonist appeared on the scene of my final year. A vampiress of sorts, breathing down my neck in a fashion that I had experienced at jobs in the past, but had yet to at this particular job... Like so many other systems in our modern culture, fear was often the glue that held things together, it was the governing force that created the basis for many peoples' daily decisions and behaviors. In these types of systems everyone is in constant fear of how they are being viewed by whomever happens to be above them in the hierarchy. When we are feeling inadequate and fearful, a common response is to point the finger at someone else—unconsciousness at its best. If someone else is wrong then we don't have to be, and if we can focus our negative energy on someone else, we never have to actually take a look at ourselves. The students often do what they do because they fear the teachers and administrators, the teachers are afraid of how they are being perceived by the administrators for whom they work, and up and up it goes. I would often have to consider how if the students I worked with were not doing well academically, how that might reflect upon my competence in my position. This is the same dynamic the teachers were facing, the fear that if the students were not following the rules and going along with the program, how that could be used to judge their effectiveness as an educator. It was as if any slack were allowed the whole system might just fall into chaos. I found myself nestled in somewhere near the teachers, possibly below, but certainly above the students, and no doubt below the administration. Because it was my aim to withdraw myself from the puppetry of the system, my goal was to do what felt true, and not base my decisions on the fear of being outed by another school staff. It worked out for a decent amount of time, but eventually did start to give way to a deepening sense of fear and paranoia, because I certainly was not conducting "business as usual." I supposed it was only a matter of time before someone took up issue with my way of doing things and I wasn't particularly thrilled for the experience when it came. The writing was on the wall, but I just wasn't ready to throw in the towel. I still had kids to save!
A peculiar little dude I worked with towards the end by the name of Ralph, played computer video games the way you might imagine a crackhead smokes rocks; with all the necessary enthusiasm, determination, and singular focus needed for the cause. He was highly intelligent, and far smarter than I when it came to mathematics, engineering, and computer technology. Miraculously, he could play his games and ace these courses seemingly at the same time. Unfortunately, his success did not extend to classes that were outside of his field of interest, those being language arts, science, and ROTC. For this reason, a few of the teachers decided that the "privilege" of video games would be withheld until further notice. I did not agree, for video games were his primary coping mechanism, or if we want to get right down to it, addiction. I had a fairly good idea of how this was going to play out... It would be especially challenging because the source of his drug—the computer—was something he had to use to complete his school work. Their answer was to give him a squishy stress ball and send him off to class with the expectation that he would squeeze it, rather than play the games when he felt stressed or anxious. This would essentially be like giving an alcoholic a squishy stress ball, sending them into the bar, and telling them they couldn't drink... "Here, just squeeze this if things get rough!" Sure enough, they went through with the plan and banned him from the games, and guess what happened? Headaches, hemorrhoids, and a complete inability to stay seated in his chair. Now, he would pace the room. Coincidence? You have to understand that you can't just strip someone of their coping mechanism—their addiction—without first addressing the underlying reasons—repressed emotions—at play. This is the sort of thing I was up against, day in, and day out.
More and more I began to feel that the walls were closing in around me, remember that talk about disillusionment and cognitive dissonance? Well once again, I had found myself neck deep in it. I had glimpsed a greater reality the previous summer, spent alone with only the mountains, trees, and lakes to relate with. A reality where you didn't have to numb yourself in order to do that things you didn't want to do, in order to pay for shit that you didn't need, to make yourself feel better about the things that you didn't want to do in the first place. At some point you gotta get off the fear Ferris wheel.
A memorable last effort at making things work at the school came in the form of a young man I resonated deeply with. Colter showed up at school one day—seemingly out of nowhere—with his guitar and the sort of attitude that let me know we spoke a similar language. I was paired with him and right away we connected and started playing music together. I felt that this was a sign for me to stick around another year. At this same time another student had decided that they wanted to learn guitar, and I had set about teaching him his first chords. I was catching glimpses of the happiness I used to feel frequently at the job, and brought every ounce of optimism I could muster with me to the school each day. I remember the day Colter worked up the courage to sing me a song he had written, I will never forget the chorus. "I'm a nice person if you really get to know me, it's in my head, it's in my head. I'm a different person if you really get to know me, it's in my head, it's in my head."... I responded with a cover I had been playing a lot at the time, the first verse goes:
I'm lost and I can't seem to find my way home, I've been burnin' up time, burning out my mind on an endless winding road.
All my burdens keep me hurtin' ever present ever certain, all alone they keep eating at my soul.
It's hard to see the future when the present doesn't suit ya, every day feels like a blinding cold.
-Twiddle, Lost in the Cold
This redemptive phase lasted maybe three weeks. I showed up one day in class and asked another teacher where Colter was. She informed me that he and the other student I had been teaching guitar had both been thrown back into juvenile detention for probation violations the previous day. I never saw either of them again. Discouraged and filled with grief and resentment, I ground on.
One day soon after, I decided it would be a great idea to show our class a video by the poet and youtuber Prince Ea, entitled "I Sued the School System." If you haven't seen it, check it out. It has millions of well deserved views and illuminates some truth in a gentle and meaningful way that won't likely send you into an outrage. I had originally seen the video the prior year when it was shown to a class by another teacher at the school. I couldn't believe it, "she knows..." I silently whispered to myself. To my dismay, I would find that it changed nothing about the way she ran her classroom, if only it were that simple. A year later, I would be the proprietor of truth in the classroom, I clicked play and let that bad girl stream up on the projector screen at the head of class. An elegantly poetic critique of the very system we were immersed in poured forth as I sat back and watched with a Buddha's smirk and amusement. The video concluded and almost immediately my friend and co-teacher felt compelled to ask me right in front of the entire class, "Tyson, why do you even work at a school?" ... I froze. I did not have an honest answer handy. This ordeal sent me into a frenzy of anger and resentment, for I knew there was truth in those words spoken by my fellow teacher. It was as if the Universe itself had posed the question in what may have been one of my lowest moments. Not wanting to be the harborer of any negative feelings, I sought reconciliation with my friend and later that night after a workout and some time to clear my head, sent a message with the best answer I could summon. "I love the students and enjoy the company of my co-workers." The stuff about bills, fear, confusion, and loss... went unmentioned. I added that I did have some serious issues with the school system. She actually said she agreed with much of the video and felt that it was a broken system, then proceeded to let me know that her question wasn't meant to cause harm. "She really just wanted to know." I was well aware that it wasn't a personal attack, it was a question I had been putting a tremendous amount of energy into avoiding—something that could no longer be done.
Over the years I had become very close with one of our counselors at the school who specialized in college and career preparation. We could call her a mentor of mine, but really she was a confidant and friend. I would describe her as jolly, with an added spunk that was sparse around those parts—she was also a great listener. She generally seemed to have a good time while at work and this gave me confidence that there was still hope for me in this perspective future. I spent many hours in her office discussing various aspects of life, few of which had anything to do with school or career. She had put in her time and years, and was due to retire around the same time I would be starting out in the profession. I might have known something was up by the sense of urgency and excitement she exhibited as her retirement date neared. The corona virus shut down the school a mere two months before her designated last day, and she expressed to me that she had made it very clear to the administration that she would not be making up for this time the following year. She was done. She was even willing to use the remaining vacation and sick leave she had built up over the years if necessary. I could plainly see that the never-ending staff meetings, bureaucratic obligations, and ever-increasing demands placed upon her by the school system had finally worn her down. And there I was, just getting started... I felt, "boy am I fucked, I'm burnt out thirty years too soon..."
When the tension would become all-consuming and overwhelming, I found myself heading out to the track for a walk. I had long before established a walk that led me around the track and school, providing a brief respite. Those are truly some of the sweetest memories I have of those finals years. I would breath in the fresh air and allow my mind to wander as I stared off towards the distant mountain ranges, I felt free during those precious passing moments. There was a pull-up bar next to the track about half way through the walk that I would stop at to do sets of pull-ups to release some of the massive stores of energy I would build up throughout the day. I started to consider this pull-up bar my crucible, and by the end, was taking the walk around four times a day. I can't imagine how many thousands of pull-ups were done during this time. Many days one of the students would join me for the walk, it was during this time that we were able to talk about matters unrelated to school. On special occasions we would conclude the walk with heading out to my car to visit my dog Jane. She would lead us over to grassy area next to the parking lot and allow her belly to be scratched. The students loved this. Jane spent a many of days patiently waiting for me in her kennel, for this, I felt varying degrees of guilt. I often had to remind myself that the mandatory time I spent within the school was different only in degree. We were in this together.
The end was nearing and we were both soon to be released from our kennels. I came to see that the door to mine had been unlatched all along. Never had this been more clear than in those last two weeks. I summoned the courage on a cold winter day, one week before Christmas and typed up my resignation letter, picking a final day three weeks hence—why I would do this when what I wanted was to be done that very instant, was yet another example of my reluctance to jump—and went to have a sit down with the administrator in charge of my department. The wheels had officially been set in motion.
If you don't feel right about where you are, you shouldn't be there. You have to stand up for what you know is right, it's the only way things get better. -Grandma Donna
We came back from Christmas break and I began a grueling series of conversations with those I had become so close with over the years, regarding my decision to leave. The bare bones of why I was leaving were elegantly danced around and at most, gently tickled. To be honest, much of what I have written here would be considered rank heresy by those still employed by the public school system. The topic is highly sensitive to say the least. It is also difficult to be overly condemning when you know that the majority of those working in schools are there because they have big hearts, they truly believe in what they are doing, and for them to question that would be extremely painful. It begs the question, how can we be honest about the pitfalls and shortcomings of a system gone astray, while still honoring the beauty and importance of academic institutions? I am not so prideful or foolish to claim that school did not significantly impact who I am today, and it is not always easy to parse out what positive life affirming effects it had from the ways in which it instilled fear, unworthiness, and limitation. The case isn't closed on any of these matters. I can tell you this, I truly believed that I was basically dumb, throughout much of my life, this conviction lasted all the way up until about two years after graduating with my bachelor's degree. It was only when I was immersed in a self-taught learning style in which I was reading and writing voluminously as well as voraciously, that I began to see that I was in fact smart—be it in my own way. I could finally see that I possessed a unique intelligence all my own—as we all do. The school system's tendency to assign a person's worth to a letter grade, and also to measure a person's intelligence with points and numbers clearly did not serve me. If anything it was harmful and had me convinced that I was both inferior and stupid. This being said, school no doubt provided me with many of the tools I need to be able to express myself in this manner. I learned to read and write in school, two things that have quite literally saved my life, time and time again. School provides a (somewhat) controlled environment in which you learn important social skills for navigating life. It also gives parents time they might not otherwise have to catch their breath. If nothing else, you learn how to get shit done, one way or another.
Education is no doubt extremely important, where I feel there is a need for change is in what we are educating about. Much of what is currently taught in schools does not translate into the leading of a life of good health and well-being—much to the contrary. It seems that the current system makes a priority only what is perceived to be valuable in the work environment, and is in support of the current economy and consumer-based society in which we live; while ignoring the deeper needs of the individual and community as a whole. Addressing the problem is an important first step in creating a conversation that will lead to change, but it is certainly not sufficient for the changes that need to occur without new ideas and solutions being presented. The next step will be discussing how we can improve the existing system, or better yet, create an altogether new one.
The conversations that took place with my co-workers tended to lean more towards what I planned to do with the future, rather than focusing on my reasons for leaving in the first place. The two are so deeply intertwined that I suspect it made no difference. I laid it all out there—I had very little left to lose at this point—about my experience with addiction to drugs and alcohol, the chronic pain I had endured for years, and how I had started to heal. I spoke of how I wanted to help people to heal from chronic pain, mental illness, and addiction. I spoke about how I had been engaged in my own healing process and how this had been the catalyst for so many changes and breakthroughs in my own life. Interestingly enough, this had the effect of provoking many of those I talked with to really open up in a way I had seldom experienced with them in the past. Some spoke of their own or a family members struggles; with addiction, chronic pain, and mental illness. Some revealed that they too had often considered pursuing something different, but they felt that they were too old, had waited too long and had passed up too many opportunities in which they might have leaped, or that the job just provided enough stability and comfort that it was unthinkable to walk away. The conversations were often quite uncomfortable, and therefore meaningful. I continue to find that just because we are older now does not mean that we aren't dealing with all the same difficulties the students are. If anything, we have merely become more comfortable in our masks. We have become better at hiding who we are and our true feelings, in order to survive in this world. We have taken our addictions, illnesses, chronic pain, and mental dispositions to just be a part of who we are, a part of our innate make-up. Rarely do we even question such things.
A particularly special conversation took place with a man we called Officer Harris, our trusty school policeman. Officer Harris had come to my aid—and rescue—on many an occasion in which a proper uniform, badge, and other symbols that tend to demand respect were deemed necessary. Previously, I had had a mixed relationship with police officers, this was the first time in my life when one had become my peer and was on "my side". I never once saw Officer Harris misuse his power. He would take his time to speak with the students and always attempted to hear their side of the story. He kept calm and level-headed in very difficult situations. I was happy to communicate all of this to him and let him know that I admired the way he held his position of power. I told him that he was the first police officer I had ever been friends with, and that I respected him a great deal. This was another piece of my healing that I was blessed to have the opportunity to touch on.
Getting sober, along with the unrivaled understanding that unaddressed inner conflict was the cause of my chronic pain, made confronting these issues at my place of employment inevitable. I am convinced that anyone who found themselves in my position would also have to grapple with these complications. You would be hard pressed to find anyone working in the school environment who is not struggling with varying degrees of addiction, mental illness, or chronic pain; the trouble is that they often go unrecognized as such, and moreover, are not thought to have any connection to what is going on within the lives of the folks experiencing them. As soon as drinks with coworkers and friends after work was no longer a possibility, there was no way to escape the reality I was inhabiting. I thought, "the only reason anyone can handle this bullshit is because when they get home they can have a drink." But even that is too simplistic because alcohol isn't everyone's preferred form of distraction. Some will go home and proceed to gobble down snacks, some will numb out with the tube or facebook, some will immerse themselves in fantasizing about their next big purchase, while others will spend their time off fixating on whatever distressing symptom their body happens to be presenting them with at the time. Maybe we will save the sex and lust talk for another time... I myself needed a special concoction of all of these to keep my demons at bay. When I became bored and dissatisfied with this way of living, the skeletons stood right up and started walking out of the closet. If it sounds brutal, that's because it kind of is. If it seems okay, that is because most of us spend the majority of our time occupying the grey area in which our addictions have not yet completely ruined our lives. We can continue on another day...
It was another wet, cold, and wintery Idaho day that I found myself back out on the same walk Jane and I had taken during my lunch break countless times over the years. A pretty walk, through a park, next to an "Indian Creek", and paralleled by a set of old Union-Pacific train tracks that were still in frequent use. The tracks were so close that when the trains would come roaring by I would have to plug my ears to ease the sound of the blaring air horn that proved to be too much to handle on most days. I had made my peace with everyone at the school and was now faced with the awkward remainder of days I had signed myself up for. I had so thoroughly shaken things up as of late that my internal compass and coordinates were completely blown askew, I barely knew where the fuck I was anymore—although I knew the place like the back of my hand. It was as if in an instant what had once been home was unknown and foreign territory. But, I still had unfinished time to serve on account of my self-given sentence.
I had wrapped up speaking with everyone whom it seemed necessary, students included, and found myself with two weeks yet to go. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. This ain't happening. "Why do I keep signing myself up for more suffering!?" I thought. I decided to talk with the supervisor, the last day was moved up a week... Another two days go by... Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. I would liken it to being released from prison, but telling the warden you would like to stick around for a little while. At this point I was mercilessly beating myself into submission. "You can't even make it eight more days!?" Jane and I were again freezing our asses off on that same walk during my lunch break when I had the come to Jesus moment, I was not going to make it, the next day would have to be the last. How embarrassing! I felt ashamed and humiliated, distant echoes resounding from a time long thought to have been left behind. It took every ounce of courage and strength I had to finally break free of those chains I had for so long been bound by. The time had finally come when I would see what lay beyond that tired and bleak reality, time for a venture into the unknown. I walked into the school ready for some more full disclosure and the first person I saw was the administrator in charge. Without hesitation, I walked up to her and said, with zero forethought, "so actually... tomorrow is going to have to be my last day, I just didn't realize how painful this was going to be."... The look on her face said it all... If she only knew...
The problem with logic is there's too many loopholes, the problem with Truth is that it's usually brutal. -Atmosphere
Love your struggle,