courage: misfit island

why less emphasis on safety might lead to more safety

I take my boys to the socialized park. Everything is free there.  Even the kids share with one another; and get this, the parents actually chastise children who assert their individual property rights.  Ayn Rand would be appalled if she were still living. I live in a diverse neighborhood.  People see this and ask if it's “declining.”  Apparently white flight is still the measure of a quality location.

A woman next to me sees Joel jump off the slide and says, “Should he be doing that? It looks dangerous.”  It's the equivalent of a jump from the top of a couch, but I respond with, “I think he'll be alright.”  She calls her son over, cleans his arms with wipes and pulls out the hand sanitizer.  “Now, you didn't touch any kids, did you?”  He shakes his head.

A few minutes later, a girl wanders over and starts playing with Micah.  She introduces herself to me and her mom looks up from her iPhone and chastises her for talking to strangers.  I can't blame her.  She doesn't know if I'll take her child away from her.  What she also doesn't know is that her cell phone is taking her away from her child.

Her husband asks, “Are you going to let him use that?” when Joel goes to the drinking fountain. Minutes later, his two year old is guzzling a twenty-ounce bottle of Gatorade. It's at this point that I start to feel really self-righteous about adhering to the values of a Culture of Fear.  Until I realize that I am, on some level, afraid of these people.  I lock my doors.  I rarely talk to strangers. I'm shy.  True, my fear connects more to be introverted, but it's still a fear.

So, I push Micah on the swing and talk to the Gatorade dad.  He says he's scared of raising a girl.  He's afraid he won't be gentle and his wife thinks he's a pushover on discipline and he wonders if he'll keep his job in this economy.  He asks me what I do for a living and I explain that I watch minds grow.  When he asks if I'm worried about online predators in a computer class and I tell him that I'm more concerned with the medium itself.  We can get really scared of the boogie man and miss the magical box taking our soul.

He reminds me that Socrates worried about written text and that middle age monks warned against the Gutenberg Press and that teachers worried that pencils would lead to students being sloppy about mistakes.  "Is it possible that you might be a little too worried about the dangers of computers?" he asks.  Micah hears us and responds, "It's possible pig."

I leave with the lingering sense that this park is not a particularly neurotic place, but we are all united by the common experience of irrational fear.  What if, on some level, we're all afraid of the wrong things? It gets me thinking of all the ridiculous things I'm afraid of in my own classroom – kids getting too loud or the administrators judging my lesson plans or low standardized test scores. I'd like to think that I'm a little more courageous simply because my son is playing in the dirt. But I'm humbled by the notion that we're all a little scared.

*     *     *

So, we're learning about scapegoating and freedom as we approach the topics of World War II. Students naturally gravitate toward topics of racism and immigration in the questions about loaded language and using language to marginalize people. In response to a fairly bland Bell Work question, “Who in our society is marginalized through language?” a student raises his hand.

I'm expecting a paragraph and instead he begins a poem called “That's Gay.” He mentions the pain of hearing “gay” attached to anything that doesn't work right. A movie is boring, so it's gay. A song is overplayed, so it's gay. Someone hits another person, so it's gay.

He uses imagery, metaphor, tone – but none of that makes the poem risky. He breaks the rules by abandoning the instructions (choosing iamb over paragraphs), but even that isn't the courageous part. What makes the poem powerful is that he is speaking out against his peers. In an environment dripping with machismo, he uses poetry to tell the truth. His voice wavers, but it remains loud and grows louder until the end.

A boy nearby begins to clap and a few more join in. Finally, he says to the class, “I'm gay. Saying this might mean you will hate me, but I want you to know that I'm okay with who I am.”
I'm moved by the courage to speak up and I'm moved by the boy who risked his own popularity to clap. I know it's an issue that's still controversial and I have no intention of sparking a moral debate and turning a story into a talking point. I'm simply pointing out that I was stirred by his courage.

Afterward, I asked the young poet if others in the class already knew.

“My family knows and a few close friends. But I wanted them to know.”

“So, why today? Why here?”

“It felt like a safe place.” It sometimes requires a safe place for a person to face fear. It's why people become courageous in AA meetings and why soldiers on the battlefield, surrounded by the safety of their comrades can face their fear. And yet, if my main focus had been a “safe” classroom, he never would have felt safe enough to be himself.

*     *     *
I assign the students a project called, "United by Borders."  Here, each child writes about personal borders that they have attempted to cross.  Some students describe reading the eviction notices and going through the ritual of packing quickly as they jump from apartment to apartment.  Others write about the literal border, the behemoth monster that spirals through the arid landscape and separates wealth from poverty by the crap-shoot of geography. One girl writes a poignant essay on the death of her father, wondering if the true border is mortality or the emotional border that prevented her from ever truly knowing him in the first place.

It's a “dangerous” assignment, bringing up uncomfortable narratives and yet it happens only when students feel safe. It has me thinking about a scene from a Christmas special, where Rudolph visits the Island of Misfit Toys.  The toys stay in isolation, because they are viewed as different.  Some are legitimately broken.  They don't bounce properly.  A clown fails to smile.  A jack in the box doesn't pop up on time. Perhaps the island can include men who wander in caves trying to find truth or those who throw plates in anger.

Maybe that's why I like teaching junior high.  At that age, I was so convinced I belonged on the Island of Misfit Toys; that I was too broken for normalcy and that somewhere on the mainland were the pretty ones who didn't break, who could smile on demand and could be more useful.  Maybe that's why, as removed as I am from most of my students' borders, I feel a certain kinship as I read each paper. It makes me wonder if we're all misfits and there is no "mainland" at least not in this world and that maybe the best I can do as a teacher is be vulnerable and transparent and allow students to feel known and heard. It makes me wonder if there is no such thing as the highlight reel.

So, Rudolph gets gains the courage he needs when he spends some time with the misfits. He's in a safe place and a scary place – an icy island where people don't play nice. He's becoming whole only when he is able to be broken. Perhaps I am reading too far into a children's show, but I'm hoping my class can be a bit of an Island of Misfit Toys. Or maybe it can be a bit like Survivor in reverse.

*     *     *

"You used to work in A.E.?" I ask a fellow staff member.

"I loved it there," she explains. 

"Weren't the kids crazy?" another teacher asks.

"No, they were kids. They were just in trouble, that's all. Crazy, perhaps. But nothing crazier than adults I guess."

"But they were kids who had been kicked out," I add.

"It was like Survivor in reverse.  Each school had a few kids that they could kick off the island and then I got them.  Call it a second shot or a new chance or rock bottom or whatever, but they worked hard and we got along.  Maybe they just needed a new island. Maybe they were just afraid and needed a safe place."

*     *     *
Curriculum writers tend to create safe subjects. Clear distinctions exist to separate out the bad guys and good guys and with just the right melodrama and imagery, students learn that the heroes always win. So, I have the students try to abandon the hero narrative for a moment as they examine the life of Abraham Lincoln. Using primary sources, they realize the flaws in his character, the mistakes in his life and the moments of confusion in his ideological journey.

After reviewing information in a jig-saw (where each member reads a section and then reports back to the group), I ask students questions about Lincoln's legacy.

“I never knew that he was such a screw-up,” a kid points out. “He failed in business. He was only okay at war. In politics he kept losing. His wife hated him. Most of the country didn't vote for him and then when he was elected, people hated him so much that they had to fight a war to leave the country. Then he gets shot before the Union wins. Maybe he should have realized that success just wasn't his thing.” 

Really? We're questioning one of America's greatest leaders?

Another student responds, “I admire him. I know that he was flawed. I know that he was not always successful, but it gives me hope that even if you try and things don't work out in the short run they can last in the long run. I think we tend to think of courage as something that the outrageous people do with big bold moves. What if courage isn't facing fear but simply doing what is right regardless of the consequence? Maybe the most courageous people look moderate in the moment, but risk it all when the stakes are high.”

*     *     *
I realize that my examples tend to be related to social studies. It's a subject that lends itself to controversy and collision, dichotomies and viewpoints and talking points and bulleted points. But what about an objective subject like math? Thinking of this concept, I write a poem about math.

show your work
prove it
the process
the system
the graphite numbers
coldly lining up

dreading the red check mark
simply saying
"the product is more important than the journey"

binary machinery
every number
predictably acting as numbers act
always neutral
a Switzerland of sorts

even the irrational
must be rational
even negatives
act positive when they muster the courage to multiply

do they envy six or twenty-eight for being perfect?

numbers never lie
(they're just used and flipped and pimped by dishonest humanity)

neatly contained

until . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

need an area
to exist


numerical anarchy
in a suburban sea of normalcy
always changing
never ceasing
dependably illogical

imaginary numbers
telling grammar school textbooks
to "eff off if you tell a kid
he can't find the square root of a negative.
I'll be useful for my lack of propensity
to follow the rules."
messy - dirty -scary
never neutral
unable to stay in line

if I was a # I'd be real
but irrational
and sometimes
I'd be imaginary

The district requires me to post an Emergency card printed on pink paper with comic sans and clip art. For what it's worth, I don't think there is anything comical in Mercury spills or fire or tornadoes. I'll chalk it up to irony and continue with my assumption that people design schools with safety in mind. We have fire drills and lock-down drills and gates and ID cards. Students learn to avoid cuss words and spit out gum and walk in the hallways and yet . . .

Most of my students don't feel particularly safe in school. Case in point: they paint a few controversial murals on our walls. Art can be provocative and so we were not shocked when a teacher complained of “that Arab-looking guy” on a mural about immigration. When I drive by the school with Javi over the summer. It's painted white; a simple act of cowardice in the waning summer days when no one is looking. I go home and write another verse to “Blowing in the Wind.”

how many bubbles must a child fill out
before he sees there’s no choice?
yes and how many walls will be painted white
before they silence our voice?

The answer is blowin' in the wind. It's blowing in a vapor of good intentions. Javi reminds me that they probably believed that this was the best way to create a safe learning environment. Someone in charge decided to paint over controversy with white-wash, believing that comfort and safety are identical. It's the same impulse that leads to banal basal textbooks and meaningless, uncontroversial worksheets. It's the desire to shelter kids in a gated community without realizing that the gates would form a prison wall.
What if the safest place to be is the most unsafe place?

*     *     *

“Are you sure that you want to post this article?” I ask a student about her article regarding why undocumented immigrants need to face deportation before we allow them back in.

“I still want to have it on our website. I interviewed immigrants for the documentary and my family is made up of mostly immigrants. It's just that I was thinking about this in the cafeteria. You know when someone cuts in line and you get real angry? What if my family cut in line when we jumped the border?”

“I see your point. Look, your tone was respectful and everyone has a right to their own voice in this class. I just want to make sure that you understand that people might get offended.”

It is a moment of confusion that helps me understand the district people who paint over murals or the textbook people who make banal basal readers or the mom on the playground who spreads hand sanitizer on her son's hands every few minutes. I want kids to feel safe enough to be courageous and often times this is a confusing mystery. If she posts this article, she very well might feel unsafe.

She refuses to post anonymously and a few students give her a hard time. It's not nice. It's not pretty. However, it provides a chance for her to see that courageous actions have consequences and it provides an opportunity for students who are offended to see that there are others who respectfully disagree. The process ends with a slow reconciliation, where the students involved realize, at least on a cursory level, that we are all on a Misfit Island and that it requires courage to speak and to listen.

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