Today as many of us cast our vote in an historic election with much at stake, I offer the wisdom and heart of Ruby Sayles as she shares her experiences in this beautiful interview with Krista Tippet on her show On Being.
“My brother went to the St. George’s,” I told Bill, the man running the weekend program, “and I went to Holy Grace Academy.”
He smiled knowingly. “I’m a St. George’s guy too.”
With that acknowledgment, we knew we were from the same tribe of Catholic kids. “Did any of those St. George’s gentlemen ever feel you up?”
Several people were sitting around the table when Bill shot me that question. He grinned and waited.
I hesitated—“Well, I guess even gentlemen sometimes did things like that.”
And while I had acted like I took his comment as a joke, playing it cool, inside I was shocked. I don’t think I’ve ever had a man ask me that, and so publically, in front of folks I’d just met.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the exchange, so the next day when I caught Bill alone I said, “You really are a lot like my brother. He’s the only man I can think of who’d ask me a question about some guy copping a feel.”
Bill seemed to shrink a bit as he offered an explanation. “Well, I only said that because I felt comfortable with you.”
He may have been comfortable, but I sure wasn’t. “But I guess I could really get into hot water if I said that out in the workplace,” he offered.
So why am I revisiting this story? He said something offensive, I answered and then called him on it. But not the way I wish I had.
This isn’t the first time a man has made suggestive comments to me—under the guise of humor—and I feel like I should be able to handle the situation better—as soon as it happens. A few days later as I replayed this incident over in my mind, a good response came to me. I could have said, “Excuse me?” and then paused. For several seconds. Long enough for him to be uncomfortable. I could have taken my power without getting into the tug and tussle of common male excuses like “I was just teasing” or “Can’t you take a joke?”
I realize now, almost a week later as I replay this incident, that I needed to rehearse. I was caught off guard by his remark and I played along, the way so many women do. Just the way I was taught.
I’m not a kid, and I know how to stand up for myself. But like many women that I know, I froze in the moment and reverted to the nice girl of my past. I love that “nice girl” who’s still inside of me, and from now on, I’m going to protect her.
Here is a primer from David Hosier, MSc, on how to handle humor that is hurtful or embarrassing.
It should be borne in mind, also, that if we complain about being the object of cruel and hurtful humor, we may find ourselves accused of ‘not being able to take a joke’, or of ‘being oversensitive’ , that it was ‘just teasing’ or, especially irritatingly, being told that we need to ‘lighten up.’
There are, however, various methods that can be used to discourage others from using destructive humor. These include:
don’t ‘play along’ by joining in the laughter just because you feel pressured to do so
bluntly state you do not find the ‘joke’ funny or that it’s not your kind of humor (people who laugh at everything, paradoxically, often have little sense of humor and certainly lack discernment)
start defining limits and boundaries if someone continually oversteps the mark by making so-called ‘funny’ comments are hurtful
ask the individual to explain precisely why s/he considers what s/he said to be amusing
respond with bored indifference, perhaps even feigning agreement.
Maybe you’re like me–the pairing of the words teaching and contemplation is about as harmonious as fingernails on a piece of slate. My response to that pairing is rooted in my early experiences with contemplative practice. My great-aunt was a Sister of the Good Shepherd and lived in a cloistered convent. When I questioned my mother about what the word cloister meant, she told me that the sisters could not leave the convent and that all of their visits were conducted from behind a screen.
“What do they do all day?”, I asked my mother.
“Pray,” was her simple response.
To a little girl who loved people, that isolated life of prayer and seeing visitors from behind a screen made no sense. Contemplation seemed to be reserved for nuns in a cloister–it had nothing to do with the outside world where I lived. My early experience may have clouded my understanding of the riches waiting in contemplative practice, but half-a-lifetime later, I am finally discovering contemplation’s gifts.
I began meditating in earnest about eight years ago when I was working in a challenging teaching situation. The angry woman I taught with often used sarcasm with the students. Sometimes she was openly hostile and contemptuous of my ideas. I never knew what I would find when I worked with her, so I often found myself in a state of hyper-vigilance.
A friend suggested that I try meditation to help me calm my mind, especially at night when I began to dread the next day and replay all kinds of awful scenarios from our interactions. At first, the only effect I could see was that I slept well after I meditated. But as time passed, I found myself calmer in the face of my colleague’s tirades. I began to observe her behavior and to notice how I felt inside. I breathed more easily. And I was able to choose my words and actions rather than shutting down or fleeing.
Another gift of mediation was that I began to talk back to my initial judgments. If I saw my administrator, I sent her love instead of negative thoughts. When I had a challenging student in the class, I paused for a moment before I spoke. I was more tuned into my bodily sensations and how my inner state was affecting my actions.
I began to realize that all of the skills I practiced during mediation were slowly showing up during my work hours. Just as I had learned to observe any thoughts that arose during my sitting practice, I was now observing thoughts during the day, reigning in my wandering mind. In that brief space between observation and awareness, I found some clarity and calm. Teaching was actually becoming a form of contemplative practice.
Mirabi Bush, a mediation teacher, was recently a guest on Krista Tippett;s radio show, On Being. Bush discusses how she learned mediation in India doing the 1960s, and how she returned to the United States, “… when I came back two years later, I was pregnant and married and had a child then. So I couldn’t — when we first came back, meditation — we still had the model of it[meditation] being monastic. And so having a child and being a meditation teacher was just — no one could imagine that… ” (from On Being, 9-2016).
But Bush goes on to talk about her work in the world now and how she creates mindfulness programs in businesses such as Google, where she teaches a program called “Search Inside Yourself.” The program blends a cultivation of mindfulness and emotional intelligence to help Google’s engineers bring a deeper awareness to the human dimensions of their work and their own role in the experiences and policies they create for people.
But back to the classroom—back to the place where kids daydream and teachers count the minutes until the class ends. In that crowded space, mindfulness can be as powerful a tool as a smart board, benefitting both teachers and students. I leave you with the words of William James, writing in The Principles of Psychology from 1890:
“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”
One of the greatest joys that we have as humans is our deep and profound connection to nature. For me, there is no better reminder than the season of fall to appreciate both the power and the beauty inherent in nature. The colors of the leaves are rich and intense. The flavors are aromatic and dense–pumpkins, apple cider, and pears. Fall also offers us golden weather–crisp, cool days, still warm enough for a light jacket or sweater. I never feel so much a part of life as I do in the fall.
Yet there is the reminder of our mortality tucked behind all of the lush beauty of the season. The leaves turn red, yellow and orange, then flutter and spin into brown blankets. The branches of the trees reach up, naked, embracing the sky. And the birds leave for warmer weather.
Poet Jane Hirshfield reminds us of the magic to be found in a lake—water capable of both taking and returning things. She invites us into her world to explore leaves and fish, hope and longing. Enjoy the magic of this lovely poem.
I want to give myself
as this maple
that burned and burned
for three days without stinting
and then in two more
dropped off every leaf;
as this lake that,
no matter what comes
to its green-blue depths,
both takes and returns it.
In the still heart that refuses nothing,
the world is twice-born —
two earths wheeling,
two egrets reaching
down into subtraction;
even the fish
for an instant doubled,
before it is gone.
I want the fish.
I want the losing it all
when it rains and I want
the returning transparanence.
I want the place
by the edge-flowers where
the shallow sand is deceptive,
steps in must plunge,
and I want that plunging.
I want the ones
who come in secret to drink
only in early darknes,
and I want the ones
who are swallowed.
I want the way
the water sees without eyes,
hears without ears,
shivers without will or fear
at the gentlest touch.
I want the way it
accepts the cold moonlight
and lets it pass,
the way it lets
all of of it pass
without judgment or comment.
There is a lake.
Lalla Ded sang, no larger
than one seed of mustard,
that all things return to.
O heart, if you
will not, cannot, give me the lake,
then give me the song.
I am reblogging this post by Diane Ravitch because so many people are impressed when the very wealthy, like Bill and Melinda Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and his wife donate money to seemingly good causes. But nothing is ever really free, and donations always come with a price. Here is a cautionary tale as we head into the election season.
Antonio Olmedo writes here about the new undemocratic, unaccountable Philanthrocapitalism, as embodied by the Gates Foundation:
In 2008, in their Ode to philanthrocapitalism, Bishop and Green claimed that philanthrocapitalists are “hyperagents who have the capacity to do some essential things far better than anyone else”. Apparently, the fact that they “do not face elections every few years, like politicians, or suffer the tyranny of shareholder demands for ever-increasing quarterly profits, like CEOs of most private companies” or that they do not have to devote “vast amounts of time and resources to raising money, like most heads of NGOs”, situates them in a privileged position to “think long term”, to go “against conventional wisdom”, to take up ideas “too risky for government” and to deploy “substantial resources quickly when the situation demands it”. These new super agents can solve the problems of the world, and do it fast, cleanly, and absolutely.
Behind Bishop and Green’s philanthrocapitalim, Bill Gates’ creative capitalism, and David Cameron’s Big Society, which are closely related conceptions, is a new relation of ‘giving’ and enacting policy. This relation is based on a more direct involvement of givers in policy communities, that is a more ‘hands on’ approach to the use of donations. In previous writings we have referred to this new political landscape as philanthropic governance, that is the ways in which, through their philanthropic action, these actors are able to modify meanings, mobilise assets, generate new policy technologies and exert pressure on, or even decide, the direction of policy in specific contexts.
The problem here, or the problem for some of us, is that the claims and practices of new philanthropy are premised on the residualisation of established methods and traditions of democracy. They see no need to respond to or be accountable for their philanthropic investments to anyone else but themselves. This is what Horne indicates when he claimed that new philanthropists operate in a ‘para-political sphere’ within which they can develop their own policy agenda untrammelled by the vicissitudes of politics. What we are facing here is more than just givers who ‘vote with their dollars’. As Parmar puts it: “the foundation-state relationship, therefore, is not a conspiracy – it may be quite secretive and operate behind the scenes, but it is not criminal enterprise. It is, however, strongly undemocratic, because it privileges the right people, usually those with the right social backgrounds and/or attitudes”. The direct involvement of new philanthropists in the para-political sphere enables “some individuals to act as their own private governments, whose power can be used to challenge that of the state and force it to re-examine its priorities and policies”
Gambling with children’s future
Essentially this is a simplification of policy, a cutting out of the messy compromises, dissensus and accommodations that attend ‘normal’ policymaking. But perhaps change is less simple than it seems initially from the perspective of great wealth! In a recent public letter from of Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, there is a frank recognition that single-mindedness and a deliberate circumvention of traditional policy actors may not actually be constructive or effective in getting change done.
“… we’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make system-wide change.
Mark Forrester was my mentor during the first semester that I taught in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland in College Park. But he is so much more that a teacher—Mark is a father, a husband, a poet, and a true friend. I hope readers will enjoy his blog on what it means to be a witness to one’s students.
When I think of former students, as often as not my first impulse is to offer an apology.
Danny was a junior in college, a student in my professional writing class. He showed up for class every day, on time, and sat in the front row of the classroom. However, the work that he submitted often seemed careless and reflected an immaturity that also appeared when he spoke up in class. He would offer loud observations that were irrelevant to and threatened to derail our classroom discussions. He embarrassed another student by noting that her name was also that of a videogame character.
Not surprisingly, I quickly grew frustrated with Danny. I was not rude to him, but I’m sure I directed more of my time and attention to those students who seemed more engaged and willing to learn.
On the last day of the course, I overheard Danny discussing the treatment he was receiving for autism. Would I have treated him differently if I had known this from the beginning of the semester? I’m not sure what specifically I might have done differently, but I know that my attitude would have been changed—and in teaching, a change of attitude can mean everything.
Of course, Danny is not the only student I have had in my career who was struggling with difficult circumstances. I have had students who were suicidal, who were in abusive relationships, who were dealing with eating disorders, who were sick and overworked, who were facing criminal charges, who had been sexually abused by a parent, who had a parent who was dying, whose best friend died that semester, whose parents were going through a bitter divorce . . . along with many other challenging and emotionally overwhelming situations. You cannot teach long at any level without encountering enough genuine tragedy to make Dickens seem like Pollyanna in comparison.
Few of us still subscribe (at least consciously) to the old-fashioned notion that our students come to us as empty vessels, eagerly waiting to be filled with knowledge. However, it’s often easy to forget just how un-empty those students really are. For a student like Danny, a teacher may be able to make adjustments in their teaching style. But when a student is struggling with the imminent death of a beloved parent, how can a teacher hope to make the distinction between cumulative and coordinate adjectives seem important?
The answer, of course, is that you can’t. In the moment, such matters are not important to the student, and they should not be important to the teacher. For that matter, the injustices imposed by prison privatization and the dangers posed by global warming will not seem important either. While it is a noble pursuit for a teacher to want to serve as a witness on behalf of their students, it is too easy to assume that you know best what needs to be witnessed.
A good witness must be an active witness. To be an effective witness, you must start by being an attentive listener. You must know where your students stand, what the content of their vessels really is, what they need and what they are ready to learn. Many problems, perhaps including Danny’s autism, carry the additional frustration of making it more difficult for the student to speak up about what they are facing, meaning that the teacher must do more than listen. We must observe carefully, we must empathize fully, and we must assume the best of our students—no matter how many times we have already been burned by that assumption.
We must first allow our students to witness to us.
So, Danny, I am sorry. I did not listen when I should have, but I hope that I am a better listener now.
Bio: Mark Forrester is a high school dropout, former chef, and haiku poet. He has taught literature and composition courses at the University of Maryland for 24 years. Mark is an Assistant Director of Maryland’s Professional Writing Program, and in 2014 was honored with a Philip Merrill Presidential Scholars award for mentorship.
I first met B. Morrison at the Maryland Writers Conference several years ago when she published her memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. She wrote her courageous account of being on welfare for a brief period in her life as a way of saying to the world, “Look, this awful situation can happen to anyone. Even someone from a good home with an education.” Last year we did a series of readings together where we both discussed the importance of looking back at our lives to move forward and to heal.
B. Morrison’s gentle approach to memoir writing is encapsulated in this quote from Othello:
“What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
I’ve been teaching memoir classes for quite a few years now. What I’ve found is that people want to share their stories for all kinds of reasons. They may want to leave a record for their families. They may have experienced a particular era, such as World War II or the 1960s counterculture, that people may later want to learn about. Or they may have gone through some other trial and believe that what they have learned may help others. Some simply want to discover the shape of their lives, to see their life as a sustained narrative rather than a collection of random events.
While writing therapy is an established field, when I teach memoir writing I am not there to be a therapist or counselor. I am there to help them find their stories and to tell them. But inevitably I am also there as a recipient of their personal stories. As I read or listen to a participant’s story, I share their experience. I am a witness, but one with certain responsibilities.
Finding the story
I often work with people who want to write a memoir or have been asked by their families to create one, but they don’t know where to start. “My life is ordinary,” they might say, or “I don’t remember anything much.”
No matter how ordinary your life may seem, you have stories that will interest others. You may have to excavate them. You may have to shape them to make them more effective. You may have to get out the power tools.
To find the stories participants in my classes want to tell, need to tell, we do writing sprints. I offer a prompt, a suggested topic such as “Write about a time you fell down.” I leave it open-ended, so that the prompt could be interpreted as a physical fall or a metaphorical fall. Then we freewrite for a set period of time, five or ten minutes, just writing anything, whatever comes, without worrying about grammar or structure; just writing.
It’s surprising what comes out of these sessions. And such memories are like a magician’s rope of scarves: you start to pull and more comes out and more and then even more.
To shape stories we talk about story elements, such as characterization, setting, story structure. We work on including dramatic scenes. As one student put it, sometimes you need to take an axe and chop holes in your narrative that you can then fill with scenes.
A safe place
Memoir classes are different from other creative writing classes because people are sharing true and often painful experiences. It’s important for me as the teacher to create a safe space for such sharing.
One aspect of that safety is privacy. In the first session of every class I remind everyone that what is said in class stays there. It is fine to share what you’ve learned about writing, but nothing about the lives or experiences of others.
Another aspect is respect for each participant’s voice. We take turns critiquing work, going around the table, each person having their say. It is part of my role as the teacher to ensure that any criticism is constructive.
Even more important is that I make certain we critique the work and not the experience, not the person. For example, if a person’s memoir piece is about a past conflict with their mother, we would not say, “You should have felt this way or done that.” Instead we look at the writing and offer suggestions for making the piece stronger, perhaps by adding more sensory details or varying sentence structure.
I and the others in the class bear witness to the writer’s experience, without criticising the experience itself. However, though I work with adults rather than children, if I thought one of the participants were in danger, I would act. That is part of my responsibility as the teacher.
In a story the protagonist (who in a memoir would be yourself) goes a journey that starts in one place and ends up in another. In the best stories, it is actually two related journeys: one external and one internal. For example, in her wonderful memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells the external story of growing up with imaginative but irresponsible parents. Her internal journey is to learn to appreciate them for who they are and, as her mother says in the first chapter, to tell the truth about them.
Writing a memoir means digging into the emotions of a past event. Like the protagonist of any story, as we write about our experience we expose the inner wound that drives that particular story. It may or may not be healed, but at least it is heard.
Biography: B.Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara provides editing services and conducts writing workshops, including courses this fall through the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program and the Baltimore County Arts Guild. More information: http://www.bmorrison.com.
Definitions are important, I used to emphasize when discussed crafting an argument with my students. Definitions serve as the foundation for a common understanding of an issue. And when we want to find a definition, we usually consult the dictionary. While there are many definitions for the word witness, the following entry in Webster’s seems most appropriate to the work of teacher as witness: “to be present at, to see personally.”
Teachers are present at many events in students’ lives: reading a first book, winning a race, mastering an instrument, graduating. But as teachers, we always need to bring the personal into the classroom, to see personally each of our students. To move past the challenging behaviors or the angry words and sullen refusals to participate. As teachers, we are called to look at the student more carefully, more thoughtfully, so as to help them manage whatever challenges they carry.
“There’s beauty everywhere. There are amazing things happening everywhere, you just have to be able to open your eyes and witness it. Some days, that’s harder than others.” Sarah McLachlan
I learned this lesson most deeply when I taught adolescents in a psychiatric hospital several years ago. To say their behaviors were inappropriate and challenging is to understate the situation. And while I was often at a loss as to how to break through the students’ defenses, I found my way in with poetry. The more I knew about each student, the more I was able to connect in a kind and understanding way.
The series of poems that I began while I worked in the psych hospital grew into a collection of poems that detail the stories of many of the students, teachers, and administrators I have worked with over the span of 40 years. Writing the poems helped me to go deeper into each student’s story and at the very least, to gain more empathy. Here is one of the poems about a young woman struggling with gender identity in high school. I hope her story will encourage you to witness the people in your life as personally as you are able. (Published in Mipoesias, Fall, 2015)
Rena’s brown eyes focus on something in the distance—
She slumps in her chair
cropped brown hair frames her frozen face.
Rena never smiles
except when she talks about her going back to Brazil
or about caring for her 5 year old sister.
They make castles together and later Rena writes stories
with a heroine named Marvelous Maggie.
Rena tells me I love reading to her and writing stories.
A smile spills across her face.
Rena fails every class in 10th grade—
despite repeating 9th grade work. At midterm,
she begs for the chance to take Honors English 10 I’m bored. If you challenge me, I’ll work, she promises.
When I ask Rena how she’s doing, she looks past
me, then shuts her eyes. My parents work all the time, so I have to take care of my sister. I want to take a drawing class. Have you seen my sketch book?
“How’s it going in English?” I missed a test because I was sick, but I’ll make it up this week. I’m doing great though.
Rena doesn’t tell me she has a D average. I’m going to Brazil in January, so none of this matters.
Rena’s hair is shorter every time I see her
She sports a spikey leather collar around her neck,
wears baggy tee shirts with old Punk band logos. She holds hands
with a girl when she leaves school. When we have a progress meeting, she says I used to want to kill myself and I’ve been feeling really sad again. I don’t think I’m going to hurt myself, but I’m afraid.
Rena refuses to speak to me because I tell her parents what she said.
She turns away when I approach. She continues to fail every class.
Rena shaves all of her hair and leaves a strip long, hanging over one eye.
She dyes it green. I see her hugging a girl in the hallway.
Her clothes more masculine, her face impassive, yet defiant.
My parents won’t let me go to Brazil, she tells me.
I’m dropping out of school.
Last weekend I participated in a writing workshop at Ikaros Restaurant in Baltimore. Rafael Alvarez and Rosalia Scalia served as co-facilitators and offered the participants a wealth of great information about writing as a craft, more specifically, writing fiction and nonfiction. That’s why I took the workshop–I want to expand beyond poetry and interviews and begin to write profiles and stories.
Of course, the teachers assigned us extensive homework. Lots of reading, lots of exercises to flex our writing muscles and stretch our skills. Before the class had ended, my inner voice started chattering and making plans for how I could accomplish my goals. Like many inner voices, mine pushes me to achieve as fast as I can—–and to get moving NOW! I call her my inner rabbit.
Have you ever watched rabbits move? They don’t scamper in a straight line when they want to go somewhere–they flip, do side-twists, and sometimes even hop in circles. Sometimes they get startled and stop, sitting in one place and twitching their noses while looking side-to-side for danger. Rabbits are fast, but not all of their movements seem purposeful.
Think of the hare in the Aesop’s Fable “The Tortise and the Hare.” When I close my eyes, I see the hare scampering ahead, rushing headlong, sure he will win the race. And I used to think that being like the hare or the rabbit was the only way to achieve my goal. How would my inner rabbit’s behavior manifest as far as achieving my writing goals?
First, my inner rabbit would look at all of the books that the teachers recommended and buy them, preferably that day. She’d schedule herself to read a book a week–which Rosalia recommended–and finish four books in a month. My inner rabbit has a lot of catching up to do. She’d read novels and text books, rewrite her stories and use the model of one of the masters to help her. She’d look for a new writing group and meet with them once a month. She’d take more classes, go to more conferences, enter a few contests….and keep working on her poetry as well.
But I know from experience that after a few weeks, my rabbit-approach would leave me breathless and frustrated. The initial rush of enthusiasm invariably withers after a few weeks of intense effort. More books unread, more papers shoved into the recycling, or put into a folder and forgotten.
As much as I love rabbits and enjoy watching them scamper and play, they make poor role models for achieving goals. But I know that my inner-tortise can rein me in and get me focused. Instead of buying lots of books, I looked at my collection and decided which ones I need to read and annotate. I bought two classic novels and have a partner to read them with. And I selected one short story to use as a model to help me rewrite the draft that I shared with the writing class.
What’s my timeline? How fast do I think that I’ll accomplish my goal of getting a story published? I’m giving myself a year to work on my craft and absorb all that I’ll be learning. I have a hard time running anyway, but I’m a strong walker!