Help! I Need Somebody

I spent a while today talking with a student about asking for help. We started off talking about how their math was going and they said that they just didn’t get math. I asked why they didn’t ask me for help. It has been half a year and I haven’t heard a peep from them asking for help. They said that asking for help makes them feel weak. They’d been told that by influential people in their lives. It wasn’t an issue of appearing weak to others, either. It was an issue of their sense of self. And it made me sad.

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I think human nature makes us want to feel in control. The world is a scary place. We may no longer be fighting for our lives on the savannah, but the physical events that threatened our control over our life have been replaced by more intangible ones. We worry that we’ll fail, that we won’t have food or shelter, that the people we care about will leave us. Modern society has given us a plethora of sources of anxiety, stress, and depression beyond what we’ve known in our evolutionary past. Looking around the world and observing all of the events in our lives that are not under our control can be overwhelming. And in countering that, we want to feel that there is nothing we can’t accomplish on our own if we just try hard enough.

When you attempt to do something but don’t succeed, it can feel like just another thing that is out of your control. I can understand initially not wanting to ask for help because it does feel like saying “I give up. This is one more thing that isn’t for me. One more thing I just cant manage.” It’s much more fulfilling to achieve something on your own. It gives you the sense of control. But asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. If anything, it’s a sign of strength because it takes a strong person to admit that they need assistance. Especially if they are asking someone they look up to, someone they don’t want to disappoint. (So it’s important for people in that position to be sensitive to their response when people ask for help.) That strength is the strength to recognize what we can and cannot control, being willing to embrace that, and act in a way that allows us to improve our lives rather than stagnating in the name of “grit”. Being willing to receive help is one step towards acknowledging the absurd and doing what can be done to find hope in it.

As I’ve often said before, there is very little that we can control in our lives. It is a struggle against the absurd from day one; Sisyphus and his rock. The more we delude ourselves into thinking we can control more than our own actions and reactions to things, the more frustrated we become. When we turn away help or refuse to ask for it, we are ignoring one of the few things we actually can control – utilizing resources that are available to improve your position. By not wanting to feel or appear weak, we actively make ourselves weaker. We give the absurdity of life another chance to derail us.

I cannot think of any great human achievement that was done in isolation. Isaac Newton is quoted as saying “if I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I don’t doubt that Isaac Newton left to his own devices, could have and would have still provided significant contributions to humanity. But someone had to teach him. Someone served as a sounding board for his ideas. Having had some time to reflect on this more, if I could go back to the conversation I would tell the student this: you are incredibly talented. I have no doubt that you can and will achieve great things. But that will be difficult if you get hung up on trying to do everything on your own. Don’t see seeking help as weakness. View it as an opportunity to grow more than you could on your own and to offer more to the people around you. Your life will be hard enough. No need to make it any harder than it has to be. Don’t allow yourself to be deceived by the absurd.

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Purpose

Boy, it’s been a while. As usual with projects I start, this fell to the wayside for a while. But I’ve been feeling the need for a good therapeutic write lately. I just re-read through the other posts on this site and it made me realize something. The way I feel now is not new. I have felt this way before, and I will feel this way again.

I feel a bit like Pagliacci. I try my hardest to make school a place of hope, of opportunities, of growth, of happiness for my students. I’ve written before about students’ struggles and my inability to comprehend how they continue to exist in spite of those. I had a brief conversation with a student today about how they hated their father. “He’s a jerk. He’s mean to my mom. He’s mean to my siblings. I don’t talk to him.” I’ve had my own issues with my dad and our relationship is far from perfect, but I don’t hate him. I can’t imagine living like that. I can’t imagine trying to focus on education when someone I’m supposed to love unconditionally, and who is supposed to love me and my family unconditionally, treats us so poorly. And that’s just one student. Multiply that by the 30 or so students I interact with regularly, and the 100 some at our school and it feels utterly hopeless.

Life is harsh and cruel. I do feel alone in a threatening world. But I try not to reveal that to my students. At least, not in a way that makes them feel hopeless as I do. (I don’t think it’s valuable or advisable to lie to students about our personal beliefs as teachers.) I try to help them develop a feeling that they can be agents of change, even as I go home at night and feel that I’m not making a difference, that I can’t make a difference. Who does the great clown Pagliacci see when he can’t laugh?

I think I need to make some changes in my life. I’m not sure what yet. But I have a nagging feeling that 30, 40, 50 years from now I will look back at this time in my life and say “What might have been?” If what I’m doing right now isn’t helping, then I should try something different. Maybe I’ll head west. The mountains have always rejuvenated me.

Sisyphean Struggle

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I was at a conference in Chicago recently for science teachers. I was fortunate in that my college, through grant money, was able to pay for me, an alumnus, to go. While I was there, I had a good time for many reasons. I got to see my best friend and his wife. I got to spend time with educators and pre-teachers from my college; it’s always nice to catch up with fellow Norse. And I got to see Bill Nye.

Seeing one of my childhood heroes speak was incredible. I was in awe just from being in his presence. But his talk had a subtle pessimism to it. It might just have been the pessimist in me, but I honestly saw a sad, angry, pessimistic version of Bill Nye. And later the next night, I had a sad, angry, pessimistic conversation with two fellow teachers. We talked about how difficult our job can be. They’re not difficult in the same way other jobs are. But we face a truly Sisyphean struggle as teachers.

We go to school everday of the school year. We have students that don’t. We have students that don’t eat regularly, that have no home, that have no support, that are from splintered families. Anyone familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy knows that the basics for survival have to come before learning can happen. We have parents that think they know how to do our jobs, we have parents that think we aren’t doing our jobs, we have parents that think we should do their jobs. We have students that have 2 hour bus rides, students dealing with depression, students struggling to find a balance between who they are, who their friends want them to be, who society wants them to be, and who their parents want them to be. And somehow, in the midst of all of this, we expect them to learn. Do you know how difficult it is to help a student understand the importance of their education when they go home at night and are not supported in their education? Do you know how hard it is to get a student to stay awake so they can learn something because their anxiety keeps them awake all night?

I try so damn hard to give something to my students. To be a person they can voice their concerns to, to be someone that will understand that today they’re just struggling, to be someone that knows that life exists outside of our walls and it impacts them each and everyday. And I still have parents telling me I’m not doing my job. I’m not forcing their children to sit through torture everyday for some nebulous or totalitarian conception of what learning is, of what school is for. Then, when the students aren’t having bad days but just don’t want to do anything because they have no one telling them their education is important (or popular culture and politics are telling them fame, glamour, looks, money are more important than being articulate), they don’t want to do anything.

I want a better world for myself. I want one for my friends, for my family, for my future children (or yours). I firmly believe that education is the way to a better world, and I know education is the way to a better world. But I can’t convince parents of this. I can’t convince students of this. All I can do is go to school everyday and push my boulder up the hill. I might reach a handful of students. I might have an impact on their lives. But even then, they leave my life. My boulder rolls back down the hill and I start over again.

This job is draining me. I do not know how much longer I can keep doing it. I romanticize the absurd, I like to think I embrace the absurd but it is wearing me down. I don’t know how much longer I can see parents destroy their children or students throwing away their lives and our world with it. I know it will continue to happen, but perhaps if I go far enough into the wilderness I can truly embrace “out of sight, out of mind.” Because right now, it’s always in my sight and always on my mind.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop?

Periodically, I get a feeling in my arms and/or legs requiring me to move them. If I do not get up, wiggle around, stretch, flex, or be active it drives me crazy. The urge to move is consuming. It’s happening right now and I can’t seem to find a way to satisfy it. I’ve tried jumping jacks, push ups, dancing, jiggling, sitting and standing in different poses. It’s still there bothering me. I am sitting here trying to write and I keep twitching, moving different parts of my body as I type this. I wonder if this is what it’s like to have Tourette’s? As I sit here in my seat having the hardest type in the world just sitting still, I am reminded of my students.

If you try to get an adolescent to sit still for 6 hours a day, you’re going to be largely unsuccessful unless you have something mind-blowing for them to do for those 6 hours (or the newest Call of Duty game… I digress). They’re more or less made to be loud and move around, and yet I get angry when they are. Then I go home and have my own difficulties sitting still, when no one is around to tell me it’s bad. It’s familiar rhetoric, but instead of creating a bunch of mindless, inactive worker bees (an oxymoron?), shouldn’t we instead be trying to cultivate these tendencies and guide them on more productive paths? Let’s find a use for all that energy, for the loud interjections and jokes that seek to draw attention. There has to be a better way.

I love stock photos. Sit down, shut up, and learn!

I have the good fortune to work at a very innovative school where questioning the traditional modes of education is encouraged. Our student’s are allowed to learn about whatever suits their fancy (within reason and occasionally following some guidelines) and demonstrate their learning in a way that they feel is appropriate. Yet a lot of them are having trouble getting out from underneath the weight of being told what learning looks like and what is appropriate to learn about. My students can do almost anything they would like, and yet I am repeatedly stuck reading papers and going over slideshows.

I have one student in particular though, that is having a lot of trouble even just getting work done. Motivation is a big issue for some of my students, but this one in particular. In conversations, a common theme has been “I could die of a brain aneurysm tonight, so why should I care or take the time to plan about my future?”

I’ve had trouble answering this question. I don’t believe in an afterlife, so the argument from reflecting on my life there holds no water with me and I am not going to argue a position I don’t believe when I’m not intentionally playing devil’s advocate. I imagine one could get a point in old age where a similar reflection would occur, and you might come to find that your life was a disappointment. But then you die and don’t care anymore. So what?

Uh. Yeah.

The opinion of other people might have weight with some. But not this student. They don’t seem to care what other people think. If you don’t think that you should put effort into living because in the end you’ll die and everyone that ever knew you will die, unless you’re the one in million MLK Jr. or Gandhi or Stephen Hawking, what argument can persuade you?

I don’t have an answer. I agree on all of it. But there is something about who I am and where I’ve been that makes me strive for more. I don’t want to get to the end of my life only to look back and feel like I wasted it. Even if everyone I ever knew will eventually die and history will forget me, I want the people that did know me to feel that I was significant in their lives. I haven’t identified what it is that makes me feel this way, so I have a hard time articulating an argument for it. Some day, maybe. Right now I’m stuck.

Dum Spiro, Spero – Superheroes

In the past two years I’ve gotten REALLY into super heroes. It quite obviously is related to the dawning of the renaissance of superhero stories on TV and the big screen, but I’ve always been a fan of the genre. I remember watching the 1978 Superman and the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman films with my dad and one of my favorite tv shows growing up was The Justice League on Cartoon Network.

I'm no good at puns, but if I were this and every article would be full of freeze puns.

The Governator as Dr. Freeze. Maybe it was his intense cold that caused the batsuit to spawn nipples?

Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten huge into the comics side of things. They’re a little cost prohibitive for me at the moment but any chance I get to go to a bookstore/comic store I pick up whatever looks good and take a peak. Someday, when I’m worth billions as a teacher, I’ll read more comic books.

I like superhero stories because they give me hope. For the most part, superheroes tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. They think that the world, and people in general, are something worth saving. Even when they are repeatedly facing the worst humanity as to offer, they don’t just give up and go home. To these men and women (and sometimes children), not using their powers for the betterment of society is as criminal as the acts they aim to stop.

Totally faster than Superman. His past races have even been ret-conned in the New 52 reboot with Barry Allen. He was just holding back.

The Flash is my favorite superhero. I don’t really know why, it’s just been that way since I’ve been little.

I think one of the real reasons this appeals to me is because I’m a teacher. As a teacher, every day is a struggle. I’ve got students who will choose not to work, be offended that I offer to help them, or ignore me entirely. I have to come in with every day as a new day. If I take the actions of students from previous days personally, I’d certainly never succeed. Instead, I always have to look for the best in them. They need my help to cultivate their strengths and address their weaknesses. If I were to ever give up on them I would be committing an act more criminal than most of what they do to me. It can be hard to find hope in a situation like that and so, I need the example of superheroes to help get me through my days. Even if they are fictional characters.

We tell stories for a reason. They teach us lessons, they spread information, and they are the birthing points of our hopes and dreams. I hope that my actions as a teacher are making a difference in the lives of my students. I dream of a better life for them and for the world around them. No matter what happens, I will continue to feel this way. Dum spiro, spero. While I breath, I hope.

So It Goes

This image captures the humor and sadness pervasive in Vonnegut's novels.

I started reading The Last Interview compiled by Tom McCartan. It’s a collection of interviews with Kurt Vonnegut. He’s absolutely one of my favorite writers. I had my first experience with him as a senior in high school when, as co-president of the school’s book club, we chose his first book Player Piano to read for our first book of the year. I can honestly say that I remember next to nothing from the book, other than it started in Schenectady, New… York? And at some point the story moved to an island? I remember enjoying the book but not finding it particularly mind blowing. Then during my first year of college, I started hanging out with a bunch of English majors (which I never could quite explain, seeing as how I was a biology major and spent most of my days with other biology majors). My soon-to-be best friend in the whole wide world told me he thought I’d enjoy reading some Vonnegut and sent me the short story “Harrison Bergeron”, which I fell in love with.

From the movie adaptation of “Harrison Bergeron”, “2081” – beautiful and moving.

I went on to immediately buy three of his booksSirens of Titan, Slaughter-house Five, and Cat’s Cradle. At the expense of getting good grades, I read the first two of those three almost immediately. Of the two, Sirens of Titan had a larger impact on me. There was a line near the end along the lines of “The purpose of life is to love whoever is around to be loved.” To my 18 year old mind, this was a profound statement and one I adopted as my life-philosophy almost immediately. Even today, not really much later, I still can see this line echoing in most of my daily living. It was Cat’s Cradle though that ended up being the most influential.

For some reason, I didn’t end up reading Cat’s Cradle till over a year later. The story, I’d argue is the epitome of his writing. It’s got great humor cut with a ubiquitous touch of sadness. I’d like to think that it was the book that also sent me off towards becoming a full-fledged atheist. I almost immediately became a subscriber to his satirical religion “Bokononism”. In fact, its still my “Religion” on Facebook. With a little more digging through parts of my facebook I never look at anymore, quotes from it are spread around all over.

After Cat’s Cradle, I was hooked and couldn’t be stopped. I now own and have read a majority of his books and short stories. His writing speaks to me in a way no one else so far has. Did I mention we’re both secular humanists? He wrote his feelings on his sleeve, to confuse a metaphor. His satire gave a window into the mind of man who seemed sadly optimistic without having any reason to be, other than his belief in the deep down potential for good in people. I say sadly optimistic, because he seemed to feel there was a lot of sadness in the world, as evidenced by this quote from The Last Interview:

“The most horrible hypocrisy or the most terrifying hypocrisy or the most tragic hypocrisy at the center of life, I think, which no one dares mention, is that human beings don’t like life. Bertrand Russel skirted that, and many psychoanalysts have too in talking about people lusting for death. But I think at least half the people alive, and maybe nine-tenths of them, really do not like this ordeal at all. They pretend to like it some, to smile at strangers, and to get up each morning in order to survive, in order to somehow get through it. But life is, for most people, a very terrible ordeal. They would just as soon end it at any time… Most people don’t want to be alive. They’re too embarrassed, they’re disgraced, they’re frightened.” pg. 71

You see this theme echoed throughout a lot of his writing. Life is tough and all anyone is looking for are a few people or activities or items that make it a little easier. More and more I’m starting to agree with him. We like to pretend that we’ve moved beyond the “red in tooth and claw” existence of Homo sapiens before civilization. But instead of all us facing the threat of being eaten by a lion or starving to death, most of us face much different demons (not to trivialize the struggles of people who actually do risk death via lion or starvation, but in first world countries most people struggle a bit differently). We fight psychological threats, often becoming our own worst enemies by drowning in our fears, our work, our stress, and our comparisons to other people.

See the cat? See the cradle?

In an era where we’re endlessly connected by technology, it has really never been easier to feel isolated (he writes sitting alone in his living room over 100 miles from anyone he really cares about having just skyped with his best friend over 300 miles away). I hear what I just said more often than I’d like to, to the point it’s almost becoming cliche, but I won’t deny there is some truth to it. It’s hard work reaching out to other people, trying to form connections, and making honest, deep connections. It’s a risk – you risk your attempts being unreciprocated. When I’m feeling particularly down and alone though I have to remind myself of one of my other favorite Vonnegut quotes: “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.” Timequake (I’ll be honest I don’t know what page).

Even if I still don’t have any more friends or personal connections after reading that, I still feel better. I’m not alone, no matter how alone I feel. There are other people out there with thoughts and experiences similar to mine. That alone brings me out of my melancholy, which at times can be crippling enough to leave me curled up on the couch watching Netflix ad nauseum. But when I think about all the other people out there like me, I feel a little less bad. I’m able to focus on making life what I want it to be – I read more, I get outdoors more, I write more, I bake more. I take more time to be who I want to be. And I really like that.

Anti-science sentiments from the left

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Brief post: work has kept me busier than I expected. It’s chaotic but I love it.

The right side of the political spectrum gets a bad name for being anti-science, as it should, but it’d be false to say that liberals are all pri-science. Anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, anti-fluoride. These are just a few of the issues common to science deniers on the left. (I’ll be the first to admit it’s not be rely as bad as the right but the fact that it’s an issue at all is troublesome. )

My dad’s old boss has a wife that is a delightful person but I recently had to block her posts from my news feed on facebook. I haven’t called her on it as I don’t know if this old boss has any impact on my dad’s career anymore but I wish I couls. Amyway, she posted a list of bottled water companies that had fluoride in their water. I’ve tolerated her posts on anti-GMO stuff because I think legitimate complaints can probably be leveled at the corporations themselves (as opposed to the fear mongering going on about GMO products, which the science show to be mostly alright). But anti-fluoride is just bat shit crazy. Seriously. The amount of fluoride in the water is enough to be beneficial and small enough to be below harmful levels. Being against fluoride is just plain stupid (looking at you Portland).

Meh. Anti-science and anti intellectualism drives me nuts.

I Am The One Who Knocks

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*Potential Breaking Bad Spoilers. You’ve been warned.*

I recently started re-watching Breaking Bad and I was struck by 2 things – why does Walt almost instantly take on an almost father figure to Jesse and why does he seem to hate his family so much?

Right from the get go, Walt protects Jesse. I get that once they’re in business together, he has an interest in keeping him loyal for legal purposes and he needs him for street distribution. But why does he protect him so fiercely? He goes after Tucco when Tucco beats up Jesse. He vouches for him to Gus. He goes to the drug house after Jane’s death to help get him out of his addiction. (I’m only just now finishing season 2 and I binged watched the show the first time through, so my memory of seasons 3 and 4 is hazy at best) Even at the very end, he ends up tackling him to the ground and ultimately (unintentionally) takes a bullet for him.

Most of the time Jesse seemed to be a screwup. He failed Walt’s chemistry class, sassed him, messed things up, was nearly caught in the initial raid in the pilot episode. Walt almost seems to care about Jesse more than his own family. Speaking of which, he sure seems to hate them. There are very few instances of him being loving and sincere with Skyler. He doesn’t seem to interact with Walt Jr. much. He is hot and cold to Hank and doesn’t interact much with Marie. And why? Sure we all have fights and disagreements with family but this is a little much. All they seem to do is care. It seems like he wishes they just wouldn’t care about him.

I suppose at the end of everything, he really just loved making his meth. It made him feel powerful and it was more of an application of his skills, more so clearly than teaching. Of course he’s clearly not the best teacher either… Knowledgable, sure, but from what little of his pedagogy we see, it’s pretty bland. Anyway – thems my thoughts.

Sidenote: Everyone in this show has really interesting voicemails. Also, when they’re packing up dead Jane at the end of season 2, the father is standing there watching them move her around and putting her in a bag. It’s only once she’s finally in the bag that a paramedic says, “Sir, you may not want to be here for this.” For what? Zipping up the bag? Because he probably wanted to watch you man handle the corpse of his little girl but watching you zip her up was too much?

I Am The Night!

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Bats are one of my favorite mammals. I find them to be simply delightful. They’re one of the most diverse groups of mammals on earth, with over 20% of all mammal species being bats. Depending on the species, you can really see their evolutionary relationship to other mammals. Some bats have faces that look almost identical to deer or foxes. Plus their babies are adorable.

Bats belong to the order Chiroptera which is further divided into Megachiroptera and Microchiroptera. Megachiroptera are the large fruit eating bats found in the Old World. They don’t live in North America. Microchiroptera are probably the more familiar bats, the small ones that people murder without hesitation because they wanted a warm place to sleep. Chiroptera literally means “hand-wing”. This name comes from the fact that they literally fly with their hands. The bones running through their wings are essentially the same bones present in our fingers. I like to point this out because this becomes a fascinating piece of evidence that all live is descended from a common ancestor. If you look at the image below, you can see the similarity in forelimb structure betweens bats, humans, and birds. We could also include horse legs, whale flippers, and dog legs and see the same thing. This diverse group of critters have the same bones in roughly the same location!

 

At some point in the past, there is a common ancestor that all these organisms descended from. Over time as their different lineages split off on the branch of life, mutations occurred in the genes that coded for the development of these forelimbs. So long as the mutations were beneficial (or at least neutral) in their effect, they could be passed down. Eventually these forelimbs kept getting altered until we arrived with the different forms we see today. Evolution does a great job of slowly jury-rigging existing systems over time for novel uses. Bats and birds both use their forelimbs for flight, but the structure of their wings is completely different. Isn’t that neat?

If you live around trees and step outside around dusk, chances are you can see them swooping around saving you from insect pests. In terms of pest control, bats provide anywhere from $3 – 50 billion in services! That’s not even looking at their worth as pollinators. They’re the hero we need but not the one we deserve. Why don’t we deserve them? Bats are dying at an alarming rate thanks to the white-nose syndrome (WNS). And most people don’t know/don’t care/think bats are flying rodents. They’re not. They’re not rodents at all. While we’re talking about misinformation, bats are not common carriers of rabies. According to the CDC, its likely that less than 6% of all bats carry it. However, if you should wake up in the morning and find a bat flying around your room absolutely go get a rabies vaccine. Rabies is essentially incurable.

This syndrome is caused by a fungus that was likely brought over to North America. It loves living in caves and finds the bat to be a perfect host. Except the bats can’t stand the fungus – its loud and rude and wakes them up early from hibernation. When they wake up early, they find that most of their food sources are gone because its winter time! So they starve. The fungus also degrades their tissues which affects their ability to fly. Imagine having someone come live with you who likes to slowly drill holes into your bones until your legs and arms don’t work anymore. WNS currently has a morbidity rate somewhere between 90-100%. The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) is one of the most common bats in North America and will likely become extinct if we cannot halt or slow down the spread of WNS. We need a Batman for bats! Some dark knight to crusade for the knights of darkness.