Love, Love, Love

20 Jan

“Some things you do for money, and some you’ll do for fun. But the things you do for love are gonna come back to you one by one.” –John Darnielle

When it comes to my work ethic, particularly with my personal writing, I operate under the influence of a debilitating cocktail of practice: I am at once an extreme procrastinator, and incapable of stopping something I start…even if it means imploding the whole business 3/4 of the way through and starting all over without break or consideration. This leads to an instance like what I have here in this post. At lunch today I began writing a new post (a piece excoriating policy-makers and administrators for creating toxic work environments in schools) before ultimately deciding during an early evening Facebook break that this was an exercise in unnecessary negativity.  So I scrapped the whole thing for a fresh start.

During this trolling break, scrolling through my “news feed” I came across a piece that two friends had both posted within a two-hour period (and no it had nothing to do with SOPA.) This particular link was a letter from a new collection of John Steinbeck’s writing. It was a response to the news from his son that his son, Thom, had fallen in love with a young lady at his boarding school. I was struck by two things: the fact that his son, similar in age to my students, was confiding in his father about his first love (the letter references the sons’ insistence that this was “not puppy love”); and the the way in which Steinbeck addressed the dual nature of love itself (this extremely potent power that can be both life’s greatest blessing, and most fearsome curse.) I don’t know that it is something I have been seeking out in the literature I have read lately, the music I have been taken by of late, or the speech and art that has moved me, but this idea has recently been with me in abundance: that love is a duality (it can be both a boon and a burden, and it is a necessary a gift to give to those we curse as well as those we bless.) More and more, these days, I believe this to be true in my interpersonal relationships, in my dealing with family and friends, and even in my work.

On MLK day I was searching for an appropriate quote to express the sentiment of King and other intellects of his time who helped to shape the institutions that have influenced me on a daily basis and in my career (schools, prisons, economic systems, etc.) I was reminded of a quote by David Dellinger, Chicago Seven member, and someone who marched, spoke, and rallied beside King.

“THE ONLY WAY WE CAN BEGIN TO BREAK THE VICIOUS CIRCLE OF           BLINDNESS, HATRED, AND INEQUALITY IS TO COMBINE AN UNCOMPROMISING WAR UPON EVIL INSTITUTIONS WITH AN UNENDING KINDNESS AND LOVE OF EVERY INDIVIDUAL-INCLUDING THE INDIVIDUALS WHO DEFEND EXISTING INSTITUTIONS.”

I am by no means a scholar of the 50s and 60s or Dellinger himself. My knowledge of King is limited by my age. And I am actually not a great fan of Steinbeck (although I do count Grapes of Wrath as an absolutely essential read for any student of literature and the humanities.) But that letter, and those words by Dellinger rang unbelievably true and real to me in a personal sense, but also in a professional one. I had to delete what I had written in this blog previously when I thought about these words, this concept, in the context of what I am experiencing as a teacher and mentor in the type of environment in which my students, my coworkers and I are try very hard to succeed (against odds) each day. The truth is, I would like to believe, even my frustrations and occasional anger come from a place of love.

When I worked in a cubicle, staring at database screens all day, everyday for the first 2 years of my post-collegiate career I would say to anyone who listened: “I don’t care about money, I just want a job that I love going to each day.” Most days since I began teaching over five years ago, I can say that is the case (even if many of my students would argue I don’t always show it.) The days I feel like I can’t roll out of bed, or I can’t deal with one more act of idiocy, or I need to shut off my lights and be alone, I can say upon reflection after the moment, are only the result of my passions, as well. I guess I believe too passionately in the practice and ideology that drives me to teach how I teach, where I teach and why I teach. And when this is met by policy, expectations, and evaluations that are antithetical to my own ideals…well, it is, I will admit, frustrating to a level that I would label somewhere between “infuriating” and “crippling.”

Hang with me for a minute here, because perhaps for anyone who has not dedicated their careers to working with young people, where I am headed may seem a stretch. But when I read Steinbeck’s advice to his teenage son about the dichotomy of the two types of love, I thought not only about how this quote could serve as a teachable moment to the young people I teach every day, but how invaluable this sage wisdom could be for the adults who shape the students’ lives and education daily. “One (type of love) is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness, and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greatest respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.” In the work of many policy makers, administrators, and yes even some teachers, it is this unfortunate first example (self-serving love) that dictates their careers in education. Decisions are made, policies are blindly enforced, and things are done in schools and classrooms daily by adults who value self-importance at a greater standard than kindness, consideration, and respect.  Shit, I do this myself on occasion.  I have visitors from the network coming in?  Scrap the real lesson, and give them the old dog and pony show.  Have to earn that good old “Satisfactory” rating.  I am not proud of this.  And I am certainly not proud of the fact that I am forced on a regular basis to shut my door and block out or ignore that much more severe examples of this self-serving “love” are going on in hallways, classrooms, and offices throughout the school, city, and nation.

The quote that opens this post is from a song that has been repeating itself often (to my sheer pleasure) on my iPod these days.  It is a song titled “Love, Love, Love” on the album Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats.  The entire album is a thirteen-song love letter by the lead singer, John Darnielle, to his recently deceased step-father.  His step-father abused and neglected John for most of his childhood and young adult life.  It is this song, and the one that follows it (and concludes the album) that stand out most for me.  Part of it is the way that Darnielle so succinctly and cleanly illustrates the dichotic nature of love as not only a notion, but also a real and true feeling that cannot be placed in any one box, or perhaps even put into words, and yet it drives the things we do in life, almost everything we do.  And then there is the universality of what he is saying.  Of course I do not believe that the institutions and policies that frustrate me in my daily work as a teacher can be equated to an abusive step-father (although I would argue that education policy in modern America is becoming increasingly abusive towards an already underserved segment of the nations’ population).  However, I do think there is something more universal in what Darnielle sings.  It is the same message that Dellinger made so eloquently in his speeches; that Steinbeck made in his letter to his young son, Thom; and that so much of the best literature about the human conditions shares, as well.  What we do from a place of love (both the beautiful and the ugly things we do) so long as it is sincerely done from that place of love, is the most worthy and real thing we can do.  This is why I laugh when someone like Mike Bloomberg suggests increasing teacher salaries based on test-performance, and objective evaluations, or paying large “signing bonuses” to top students from elite colleges who sign-up to teach.  These are not the teachers you want, Hizzoner.  The teachers who are in it for the money almost always are the ones who hide behind their union, and who value their own intellect and paycheck over their students’ experiences and needs.  These are exactly the people Bloomberg and his anti-teacher acolytes are really railing against.  So why make the incentive to teach all about money?

Mayor Bloomberg, the teachers you really want are the same teachers any student would want: someone who lives by the words of Steinbeck, Dellinger, and Darnielle.  The ones who know it’s not about the things you do for money, or fun, but about the things you do for love, love, love.  Even if that love is so passionate that it means they protest outside your office every time you make a rash statement or try to push an agenda that shows you do not know our individual students from a statistic.  Are these people angry with you?  Yes.  But believe me, it comes not from a place of selfishness, but a place of love.

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