Archive for January, 2008

Are the candidates listening?

January 31, 2008

I am a dad.  I am a student.  I also teach high school.  As such, while I can imagine what it’s like to have three children five years of age and under to be vying for your attention, and I can imagine what it’s like to seek the attention of a teacher, and I can imagine what it’s like to monitor and administer to the needs of 32 adolescents, I cannot imagine the patience I would need to occupy, teach and protect five to ten little ones in a pre-school setting. 

With the problems my son has faced in pre-school with what I suspect to be bullying, and the possibility that his bully may be expelled, I’ve dedicated much of my coursework this semester to looking for solutions.  How can I help my son deal with aggressive peers so he does not become a bully.  So he does not perpetuate his own victimhood.  How can I help the bullies in pre-school get the education they need and deserve just as much as my son?  How can I help parents of both victim and bully to become greater advocates for their children? 

USA Today published an opinion yesterday, and I’ve written about this before, that a study was released earlier this year indicating pre-schools with too few teachers and too many students witness higher numbers of expulsion rates.  Is universal pre-school the answer?  Oklahoma seems to think so.  “Oklahoma offers ‘universal’ preschool which means that parents of all incomes have the option of sending their 4-year-olds to a state-sponsored preschool, transportation included. The state also insists that all preschool teachers hold bachelor’s degrees, and they are paid the same as regular school teachers.”  My home state has yet to make kindergarten mandatory, so we lag a bit behind such an offering. 

Oklahoma’s policy is not mandated, it is an option, and I think its being optional is a positive, but what I like best about Oklahoma’s policy is the bachelor’s degree requirement and pay.  I’m curious though as to class size, and the article indicates there are dangers in states seeking to replicate Oklahoma’s success, and Florida is one example of how not to build a universal preschool program:  “Florida rushed its preschool system out the door with seemingly little attention to setting standards. Florida cosmetologists face stiffer licensing than preschool teachers, and preschool operators there are free to pursue a choose-your-own-curriculum policy.”

With early childhood education funding part of the current presidential debate, like my colleague Jeanette’s concerns with health care, where would the money come from?  More importantly, will it be done right? 

Cause for Concern

January 30, 2008

What is the problem?

How do you gather evidence that a three and a half year old is being bullied at pre-school?  It’s not like his memories are clear.  Getting accurate information from one that age is difficult.  Any reference on any particular day could be a reference to an event that actually happened that day, or the kid could be reliving the same event over and over again in his mind.  He threw a rock in the lake and it made a big splash on one day, and when you ask him six months later what he did today, he threw a rock in the lake and it made a big splash.   


But after this past New Year’s, when Boy returned to school from winter break on a Monday just fine, yet on Tuesday was so upset his mom had to take him home, I started to get concerned again.  A three and a half year old should not be afraid to go to school, but was he afraid?  Maybe he just had a great time at home on vacation.  Heck, it’s not like I was chomping at the bit to get back to work.  When mom picked him up on Wednesday, she found out Boy had nearly pulled a bookcase over on top of himself (where was the teacher, and what was Boy doing yanking on a bookcase), and then on Thursday it all hit the wall.  The ouch report indicated the kids were walking down the hall, holding on to their loops and O___ bit Boy on the hand.  There were no toys involved, so it was not a sharing issue. Admittedly, Boy has the power to annoy, but the kid bit him hard enough for me to see it six hours later when I got home from work.


Some folks we spoke with said, “Get him outta there.”  But why should my kid be the one who has to leave?  I want him to be able to learn how to deal with these kinds of problems.  I want him to be able to assert himself.  I also don’t want him to bite, punch, kick or “hurt him’s bones.”  At the same time, no child should be afraid to go to school.  If at three a child no longer wants to go to school, that’s an ugly looking 15 years on the educational road ahead. 


Is there a solution?

The next day my wife talked to the director of the preschool center.  They offered to move Boy to another class away from Biter.  He was in the 3-4 group, and they could move him to the 2-3.  Well, that’s something, I thought.  The director also indicated she’d meet with the other child’s parents.  Again.  Last time it seems there was a discussion about violent video games. 


The father said to the director, “Oh, you’re one of those people.” 


My wife got the impression that they would probably expel the other child.  What do those 15 years on the educational road ahead look like for a kid who gets expelled from pre-school?


What are you prepared to do?

When m – – – – r f – – – – r is spewed from the mouth of a child in a 3-4 year old classroom, there’s a problem.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said those words, and I’ve said them in front of my kids, but not as a part of my everyday vocabulary.  We have no video games at home.  But is that the solution?  Yeah, there aren’t any video games, but the kids have way more time in front of the television than I did as a kid.  I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that I admit I’m not a perfect parent, and I don’t want to tell another parent how to raise their kid, and I don’t think the schools, county, state or feds should raise their kid either, but when your kid bites my kid and there’s clearly a problem, I want you to be willing to find a solution beyond criticizing the director of the center for hating on you because your kid at three or four enjoys shoot ‘em up video games. 


Were I the parent of a biter, and evidently an habitual one, I know I’d want to find out what’s going on.  In fact, that’s what I’m trying to do, and I’m taking steps to make the situation a little better for my kid.  What are you doing? 


It’s not like there aren’t options, though in early education some of those options are limited.  Look at it this way, if the other kid is at preschool as long as my kid, there’s 2 and a half hours of contact time for the teacher to have with the kid.  That’s not a long time to observe what’s going on.  Plus, when you’re lead teacher for 3-4 year olds, how do you watch a single kid for suspected behavioral issues when you’ve got 5-10 other kids working with permanent colors, glue and simultaneously wetting their pants. 


The reason I ask is this: 

MSNBC did a story yesterday morning showing correlations between bullies, victims and ADHD.  As an adult who didn’t know anybody with ADHD growing up, but as a teacher after the diagnostic boom in the early 1990’s I’ve been suspect of some diagnoses in the past, but I must say it’s an issue that holds more water for me.   Regardless, early behavior problems need to be monitored by the school and the parents because the earlier you can catch a problem a kid’s dealing with, the earlier you can help that kid and maybe make her life a little easier. 


See, according to the article, kids with ADHD symptoms are “four times as likely as others to be bullies.”  But it gets worse.  “[C]hildren with ADHD symptoms were almost 10 times as likely as others to have been regular targets of bullies prior to the onset of those symptoms, according to the report in the February issue of the journal Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology.”  These aren’t American kids they studied either.  The study was done in Sweden, and I’ve got a hunch the problem is bigger in America than in Sweden.   


What does the study mean?  There’re a couple possibilities:  The ADHD kid may just be a jerk, or “it might turn out that the attention problems they’re exhibiting could be related to the stress of being bullied.” 


Linda Carroll interviewed Harvard professor William Pollack for the story, and while he doesn’t necessarily contribute anything a rational adult couldn’t figure out for him or herself, he does point to the urgency of the problem.  First, you have a hard time learning when you’re afraid.  I tell you, after some creep spit on me in middle school it got real hard for a long time for me to want to go to school.  Second, Pollack reminds us that bullied kids often turn into bullies.   


So what do we do?  Medication for ADHD, the story reminds us, doesn’t treat aggression.  It helps a person focus, it doesn’t deal with depression or anger.   


What am I prepared to do?

More than anything, the story starts to look like every other piece of parenting advice out there.  You’ve got to look for signs.  You have to communicate with your kid (and at three that’s a tall order).  You’ve got to look to the school for help and advice when they let you know your child is a problem, and if they won’t help you, maybe you need to find a new setting for your child. 



January 29, 2008

As indicated in my entry “Nature vs. Nurture,” we have a three-year-old boy. When his older sister was born, my wife and I were both working, and my wife returned to work after seven months maternity leave. A local university housed a daycare and preschool for infants through kindergarten, and after touring the facilities, we settled on their location as it was convenient for my wife to pick up and drop off on the way to and from school, it was diverse in its population and faculty, and we just liked it. Why does anyone ultimately settle on their childcare location of choice?

As with any young child in daycare, our daughter was frequently sick. It’s the nature of the beast. By exposing your young child to other children, she’s going to get sick. But when we learned we were expecting Boy coincided with our daughter being hospitalized for pneumonia, and four months later she required nebulizer breathing treatments at home, so we decided it would be a good idea to keep both children home for as long as we could after Boy was born. Dad got to stay home that time. What a delightful year it was, and if you can afford it and your job will permit it, I recommend that dads have the same experience I did.

After my year was up, we returned to the university daycare/preschool. We never really considered anything else. They had proven reliable. If there was an ouch report we got it immediately, and the teacher explained what happened. If there was a fever, we were called to pick up one or the other or both. Big Sister adapted quickly as she’d been there before. Boy had a harder time, but he eventually developed a routine, and he loved the stuffed babies. Our greatest concern occurred when he was about 16 months, and another child scratched his face and drew blood. At three and a half, Boy still has a scar on each cheek. Unfortunate, but either the other kid had huge claws and moved fast, or Boy was too slow, or a teacher wasn’t paying attention (which can easily happen in a room of 10 toddlers moiling around like puppies).

Boy and Big Sister stayed with the program at the university for a year and a half. We ultimately pulled them when my wife gave birth to our youngest daughter in the middle of the school year. After ample recovery from the birth process, our three stayed at home with Mommy, and once Mommy was fully functioning and negotiating getting all three out and about, she was able to enroll Big Sister in our school district’s sponsored preschool program, for by this time she was four and kindergarten eligible come fall.

Our kindergarten program is only half day, and it was important for my wife and I that someone be home to meet and greet the bus both coming and going. We tightened our belts, and she’s been at home full time since the fall of 2007. With Big Sister going to school, and at the time Little Sister still working on sitting up and rolling over, we wanted Boy to have some socialization experience combined with learning. We found an affordable storefront daycare/preschool center, and we enrolled Boy in 2 ½ hours of preschool M-F. My wife’s reasoning was that he’d had a year and a half of socialization in daycare, and we didn’t want him regressing. Our understanding is that boys sometimes need a little more, and we wanted to provide him the tools he would need to succeed in our community’s school system as he is eligible for the community sponsored preschool this coming fall.

I don’t know exactly when it started, but my wife would describe a couple boys that were a real handful for the teacher that happened to be in the same 3-4 class as my son. She explained it appeared this pair took all the teacher’s attention sometimes. We shrugged it off, knowing other children who can be difficult, and our children aren’t necessarily always angels, I mean have you seen me in the grocery store with the older two?

Then, new vocabulary entered our house. Boy talked about “gentle touches.”

“No hits. Gentle touches,” he’d say dragging out the words gentle touches as he’d softly stroke your arm or face with his hand.

“Right, we don’t hit.”

“No, g e n t l e t o u c h e s.”

Boy seemed to be enjoying himself, and then we received the first injury reports. Boy reached for another toy as another boy did and the other grabbed our boy.

“What happened son?”

“O____ hurt my bones.”

“He hurt his bones?” I asked my wife. “When did bones enter his lexicon of things to be injured?”

Then things became more suspect. My wife told me she overheard the following dialogue as she and Boy hung up his coat:

“You shut up.”

“No you shut up.”

“No you shut up.”

“That’s weird,” I said.

“It gets better,” said my wife. “Then it escalated.”

“No you shut up m- – – – r f – – – – r.”

“No you shut up m – – – – r f – – – – r.”

“What? Was anybody around?”

“The teacher was on the other side of the room, but she’s got double hearing aids.”

“What’d you do?”

“I told them to stop. ‘Those aren’t nice words, and I don’t want my son to learn those words.’”

“Did they stop?”

“They seemed surprised that I said anything, but they stopped.”

That night, after I read Boy and Big Sister a story, I turned off the light, and Boy asked, “Mama’s bones hurt?”

“No, mama’s bones don’t hurt, why?”

“My bones hurt.”

That’s when I started to suspect that my son was being bullied at preschool.

Shadows on the wall of the cave – first draft story

January 28, 2008

Where do bullies come from? That is a question for the ages. For me, I’m curious why I have been both perpetrator and victim in my life. In middle school I moved to a new state and was therefore the new pre-pubescent kid with a funny last name who was starting to develop a weight problem, and sometimes that’s all it takes to appear to have a target on your back. By the time I was in high school, I’d developed a circle of friends and felt fairly insulated, but as an underclassman, there were still weaker, smaller, weirder kids who were selected for wedgies and nipple twisters in the locker room after gym class, and my anxiety levels increased if bully or victim got too close to my locker. I certainly never stood up for those guys. The anxiety I felt however did not prevent me from developing prejudices against those whom I simply did not know. And it was easy not to know the real world in that privileged, perhaps sheltered, community. Two friends educated me in very different ways, and from them I learned that one reason bullies exist is because they are ignorant.

I met both of them as a junior in high school. Joe was my drama director and Kath became my girlfriend. Kath and I dated during college, and my friendship with Joe grew after I graduated high school.

I got to know Joe first. Assistant director for the fall play, Joe was a local actor brought in to coach acting skills for those of us who had no training. Joe was my earliest introduction to a rebellious adult. He let us call him Joe, and he befriended us to the degree his position afforded. He was only seven years older than us, but for 16 year olds, those seven years seemed a lifetime of adult experiences that we were at least another year from joining, yet he seemed to relate to us so well. He indicated his desire to direct a play called Voices from the High School, and as he told us passionately about its subject matter, I thought it sounded great; it dealt with drinking and death and adolescent insecurity; though it also included scenes addressing homosexuality among high school students, and I didn’t know any gay people.

The next semester I got to know Kath. As I spent more time with her during rehearsals of the spring musical, Joe encouraged my friendship with her, teasing me about how geeky I got around her – as if I could get more geeky. Kath and I started dating and high school moved on.

Near the end of my senior year of high school, Joe starred as Alan in Lanford Wilson’s Lemon Sky on the South Side of Pittsburgh. It was my first time into the South Side; it was my first time seeing a play in the round, and it was the first time I observed a character struggling with his sexuality. The play ends with Alan kicked out of his abusive father’s home because he does not sleep with women. I thought it was extremely powerful, and I was impressed with Joe’s ability to play a character so unlike himself. After high school graduation, I stayed in touch with Joe, and Kath went to school 100 miles away, but I continued to spend time with both of them. I remained in town for college at the University of Pittsburgh, and since Joe was in town too, we got together every couple months to go see a movie and grab a bite after. That first semester, we talked about Kath and school, and his shows, his job, and the dates he rarely went on. His dating life was so dry that one night I recall him dropping me off at my parents’ house, and he said, “You know I’d consider being gay if the thought didn’t disgust me so much.”

I don’t remember how I responded; possibly with silence, but most likely it was a grunt of agreement, for at the time, while I considered myself homophobic, I really didn’t know any gay people. I knew people who I thought were gay, but I didn’t hate them, or even not like them, and I certainly wasn’t afraid of them.

On Christmas Eve at Kath’s house after our first semester of college, she and her sister were talking and a man’s name came up in conversation. Kath asked, “who’s that?”

Her sister indicated this was their older brother’s boyfriend. I could feel Kath shrink in the chair beside me at this information. My mother had told me of rumors that her brother was gay, but Kath had not spoken those words directly to me, and I knew she now felt obliged to say something. She turned to me and said, “we have to talk.” We bundled up to take the dog for a walk, and as we left the house it felt like we were in one of those spy movies where the protagonist knows his house is bugged, and he has to tell his girlfriend how much danger they truly face.

“My brother’s gay,” she said.

“I gathered as much. Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“You’ve made it pretty clear how homophobic you are.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

But where did that homophobia come from? After all, I didn’t know any gay people. I learned in that moment that her brother’s sexuality had no impact on how I felt about his sister. Nor did it have any impact on how I felt about her brother. In that moment I knew that it never would have made any difference when I received the information, and it therefore made no difference now. Of course I’d be okay with her brother being gay; after all, I wasn’t.

How arrogant does a heterosexual person have to be to think that a gay person would actively pursue someone who isn’t. Consider for a moment how humiliating it is for a heterosexual to be turned down by someone of the opposite sex. Now multiply that humiliation by the fear a homosexual must face in his or her daily life of intolerance, and add to it the burden of pursuing someone whose chemistry and biology just doesn’t work that way and therefore would have no interest, and you might begin to have an idea of how self-important a heterosexual is who fears a homosexual pursuing him or her.

Joe and I continued to talk about our relationship woes; his were markedly absent, and mine were consistent. Joe never questioned my choices, so even when I broke up and got back together over and over with Kath, he would bear both my tears and delight. I remember his pained tenor when I called him late one night in a Dungeons and Dragons session; I was convinced my life was over, sobbing and in shock, and he offered to leave his friends at one in the morning to talk to me. I passed that offer and others to come as my relationship collapsed, but I am forever grateful for his ability to remain unbiased when it counted and protective when I needed it most. We also continued to see films together, and now that I was old enough to drink our film experiences were usually accompanied by a beer or two after. I recall distinctly one evening in 1994; we went to see Interview with a Vampire, and as we crossed the parking lot to the bar under the chilled November, starry sky, a carload of teen boys drove by and called out, “Fags!”

“Well,” I said unnerved.

“Punks,” murmured Joe.

And we said no more about the incident as we entered the bar. Yet, it bothered me. Somehow, I wanted the opportunity to respond. I have no idea what I would have said, but I was full of conflicting emotions. What made them think we were gay? How dare some stranger shout something like that at just anyone? But how often had I called out an epithet to someone I did not know? I let it eat at me, yet an idea stuck for the remainder of the evening; maybe Joe’s gay.

That winter, I came full circle and assisted Joe with what I could on the musical at my high school alma mater. He left early one evening for a rehearsal of his own, and when I asked him what play, he responded with, Hairdresser On Fire. Didn’t sound like anything I’d have any interest in seeing, so I asked if he’d be bothered by my not seeing it.

“No, it’s not the greatest of scripts.”

After the run of the musical, I picked up a local events paper. There was a review for “Hairdresser.” However, the headline included the words Queer Theater. I read the review, but I never said anything about it to Joe. I don’t recall anything from the review itself, but again that bizarre notion of Joe being gay was there, and this time I couldn’t quite shake it. However, despite my impression, and despite the ease with which I felt I could talk to Joe, telling him I thought he was gay when I knew he wasn’t could have been irreparably damaging to our friendship.

Another year went by; another high school musical came and went, and we found ourselves at Houlihan’s, drinking wine at the adult cast party. I have no idea how much we drank that night, but it was enough that we called another friend to pick us up and take us to another bar where we switched to beer. Upon our arrival, we each had a pint. At one point our friend excused himself to the Men’s Room, and Joe and I sat, sipping our beer, when he asked me if I had a quarter.

“I don’t know, let me see. Do you need to make a call? I’m sure Greg can drive you home.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Here’s one.”

“Flip it.”

I did.

“Is it heads or tails?”


“Mike.” It was a statement. As if he was affirming for himself that he was indeed talking to me. That I was sitting next to him. In the next instant I became that kind of self-aware you remember from grade school when you didn’t do your homework and your teacher called you to the board. My world slowed down as if I saw every detail of an accident, seeing how to stop it from happening, yet powerless to do anything. If my world slowed, I can’t imagine what it was like for Joe when the next words seemed to crawl out of his mouth, “I am gay.”


Greg returned from the restroom. There it was. Seven years of friendship. And this person at the bar sitting beside me . . . never . . . changed. He was still my friend. I don’t know how I responded outwardly. But I realized while I thought I knew Joe was not gay, I had back-story that told me otherwise. I couldn’t stop thinking about what had just transpired. Did he really tell me he was gay? Was he just kidding? Is he trying out for a new role? Has he always been gay? I came to realize that one of my closest friends had to keep a secret from me for seven years. In doing so, he may have very well been keeping himself from the truth as well. I became more and more impressed by his courage, flattered by his faith in me, and happy for my friend. He didn’t have to lie to me anymore. He could be who he was.

I was saddened by his struggle, and while I was happy for him, I became worried for him too, for far too many in our society feel it is in their power to judge and exact punishment on their fellow man because their fellow man is different from them. Those are the people my God condemns.I have become more and less aware of differences and how unimportant differences frequently are. It informs how I behave and what I believe.

Before I had children, a guidance counselor where I teach told me she needed to speak with me privately. As I walked in her office, she asked me to close the door.

“Am I in trouble?”

“No. Sit down.”

I did.

“A student spoke to me in confidence the other day, but since it directly involves you, I felt you should know.”


“I don’t think this student is even in one of your classes, so it was a little strange.”

“Okay, who is it?”

She told me, and I informed her I knew the student from Student Council.

“Well he told me that you came out to him.”


“He also told me he’s shared this with another student.”

“Let’s just hold on a second. I don’t want to know any other details. First, my wife will be happy to know I’m not gay. Second, I don’t want you to tell him I am not gay, and if anyone asks, it’s nobody’ s business. I don’t want to know who the other student is that has been told that I’m out because I don’t want to feel the urge to correct him or her. My sexuality does not matter because it shouldn’t.”

A student asked me later that year, “What will you do if one of your kids is gay?”

“One of them is.”

“You don’t have any kids.”

“My students are my kids until I have my own.” While he thought about that and began wondering which of his classmates is gay I said, “I don’t know. Hopefully, it won’t change the way I look at my child. But as I’ve said all year, you can’t say with confidence how you would behave in any given situation unless you experience that situation. You can’t say you hate someone or something you don’t know or have never experienced. You never know, and if you think you do, you’re going to get knocked down a few pegs. I can say that I will love my child, and I hope I will not have to worry about how society will treat her or him. What would you do?”

Where do bullies come from? They come from everywhere, and oftentimes out of ignorance, but sometimes the ignorant bullies learn.

Nature vs. Nurture

January 24, 2008

There are any number of topics I care about that are urgent for me, and which have a certain urgency for various communities.  I’ve become particularly passionate about politics for instance, and with the primaries spread from January until May, there are and will be plenty of issues to discuss both for my class, and for the benefit of discussion.  For one, my frustration as a resident of Michigan and its treatment by the national Democratic party because of the arrogance, ignorance or ineptitude of the state’s Democratic party.  How one of the most suffering states in the nation in regards to unemployment (and I could go on) that happens to be a swing state with a large number of juicy electoral college votes could have been ignored by the party and two of its candidates makes one wonder why the state should go “blue” in the November election. 

I am also a public school teacher, and increasingly over the years both in my occupation and in my daily life as a consumer, I have noticed a culture of entitlement that is disturbing at best and epidemic at worst. 

Perhaps because of the culture and my habit of overanalyzing everything, I feel threatened as a parent by this culture that seems to be out to get my children.  I’m not stupid; I know the culture of America is about creating little consumers, but there are other cultural concerns I have regarding how best to raise my children.  As mentioned above, I am also a teacher, and my classes have just finished Fahrenheit 451 and Frankenstein, and both texts explore the cultural issues that concern me and parenting, respectively. 

I have mostly settled on exploring bullies.  Dealing with bullies and what makes them are issues with roots in both the culture and parenting.  I am a father of three young children.  Two daughters and a son sandwiched in the middle.  The oldest started kindergarten this year, and on the school bus before winter holidays, an older student expressed disbelief in the man in red with the beard.  This is not quite the bullying I intend to explore, as the aforementioned issue is one that has to be dealt with eventually by any parent whose child experiences life outside the confines of the homestead.  Such a discussion gets into issues of faith and hope and love which are good discussions to have with a child at any age. 

The youngest just turned one, and the only bullying she’s experienced is her own low grunting growl she’s developed when someone removes a toy from her reach or somebody pays too much attention to Mommy at home. 

It’s the boy that I intend to discuss.  Now three and a half, I’m coming to realize he is at a key point in his life.  Not to say that the others aren’t and I’m not worried about them too, but as a former boy myself, there are experiences I had that I don’t want him to have to know as directly as I did.  I have lots of questions, and I don’t know that I will have answers, but I invite you to join the discussion as it progresses.

Researching “Boys will be boys”

January 23, 2008

As a graduate student in Liberal Studies, one of my tasks this semester is to blog about our coursework.  See my About page for more information. 

There will be weekly blog assignments that a public intellectual can use and cite (the last entry for one on storytelling is an important tool to the effective blogger), but from what I understand there will also be a longer series of blogs about a topic of my choosing that is of importance to a community.  The size of this community depends in part on you and how effectively I create tags and searches and links. 

Currently, I subscribe to Yahoo news feeds and Google news feeds and Google blog feeds and Technorati feeds on the following three tags:  preschool bullies, preschool expulsion and raising boys. 

Right now, the information coming in is thin.  Maybe I’m not searching right, maybe I’m too prejudicial about what kind of information I want and what kind of information I don’t want, maybe it’s just too early or maybe there aren’t many people talking about my concern.  I notice there are lots of moms dealing with this problem in forums, educators dealing with this problem in forums, and the media is starting to pay attention, but there aren’t many dads.  Where are you dads?  How are you raising your boys to be decent yet able to stand up for themselves and others?  How do you teach a three year old those values?  

Despite my data collection concerns however, in the local newspaper last week there was an article that caught my eye (“Preschool expulsions examined” by Lori Higgins for the Detroit Free Press), and in light of the problems my son has faced in preschool, I have decided dealing with preschool bullies is an issue of urgency and a discussion worth having.  If you have suggestions for me, I welcome your comments, and if you want to participate in the discussion, please join in.    

Power in story

January 22, 2008

What makes a good story? 

In NPR’s StoryCorps, “A Father’s Memories of Auschwitz” Debra Fisher tells of the final time she asked her father about his experience in Auschwitz.  As a child, reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, Fisher had a hard time recognizing the camp described by Wiesel from the description her father had always given her.  Her father never wanted his daughter to know her father suffered.  But when her father was hospitalized, and she knew she was down to her last chance, she asked again.  The strength of the story she tells comes from the imagery she provides of her father kicking off his blankets, and the brief but effective dialogue, and the catch in her voice as she tells her story.

Does that mean a story must be sad to be good?

In NPR’s Story Corps, “As First Dates Go, This One Was a Doozy,” Sigmund Stahl tells how he met his wife.  Stahl had a list of names he’d consider asking out on a date, and a friend asked him weekly if he’d called anybody.  Stahl finally broke down and called the girl at the top of the list.  Sitting down together for the first time, he asked what she’d like to do, and she indicated she wanted to see Deep Throat.  Not familiar with the film, he took her to see it – “There was a line around the block.”  At the end of the evening, alone in his apartment, Stahl realized the gumption this woman had, and he decided to call her again.  The strength of Stahl’s story stems from the unexpected.  Stahl is 82 when he tells the story, and he was married to that girl for 30 years. 

Imagery, effective dialogue and a twist.  The catch in Fisher’s voice and Stahl’s marriage to the young woman he took to see Deep Throat are indicative of truth.  How do those qualities hold up against Ernie Pyle and George Orwell?

Pyle, in “The Death of Captain Waskow,” describes the captain as “young” with an air of “sincerity and gentleness.”  Members of his company share their experiences with Captain Waskow and Pyle places the reader in the scene by describing the night as Waskow’s body was brought back.  Pyle earnestly describes the numbers of dead bodies coming down the mountain and admits he did not know them all.  But when Waskow’s body came down the mountain, the members of Waskow’s company responded.  They cursed, they apologized, and when it was all said and done, they went to sleep.  Pyle uses imagery and honesty to share a single moment, and while there were other dead that evening, Pyle was clearly struck by the difference in approach to Waskow on this particular evening.  That is another part of what makes a story. 

Sometimes there is simply a singular inexplicable event or circumstance that needs re-telling, and telling it honestly is all it takes to tell the story well.  Another important factor in telling a story well is self-awareness.  Not self-consciousness in a paranoid sort of way, but an awareness of the self and how we view ourselves. 

Orwell, in the opening of “Shooting an Elephant,” indicates in the first sentence that “I was hated by large numbers of people,” yet one gets the sense that Orwell recognizes he is not singled out by this hatred.  In addition to this self-awareness, an effective story is also one that has the benefit of perspective.  Debra Fisher, Sigmund Stahl and Orwell all have the benefit of time from when their stories occurred to when they share them.  Pyle too has a certain perspective, but Pyle’s comes from having been in Europe for a lengthy period of time and witnessing death; his story is more immediate than that of the other three.  Orwell’s story re-emphasizes the role of imagery.  It is strong and detailed.  We know the author’s thoughts, and we know what the author sees, hears and smells:  “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.  It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him.”

The story told is good when it must be told.  It must be honest.  Its teller must be aware and conscious.  Imagery puts the listener or reader there alongside the storyteller.  But overall, I think truth is the most important.  The teller must know the truth and the reader or listener must believe the teller.         

What ill omen is this?

January 16, 2008

Is this somebody’s idea of a joke? 

First, let me remind you — at least one more time this week — that I’m taking a class. 

One of our assignments for the week is to look for public intellectual references in the world wide web and reflect on what we find. 

Google’s first reference is to Richard A. Posner’s Public Intellectuals:  A Study of Decline.  Really?  Is this what I’m getting myself into?  A declining field?  Clearly this is a book I’m going to have to pick up, but the review alone — “Posner tracks these two trends to their inevitable intersection: a proliferation of modern academics commenting on topics outside their ken. The resulting scene–one of off-the-cuff pronouncements, erroneous predictions, and ignorant policy proposals–compares poorly with the performance of earlier public intellectuals, largely nonacademics whose erudition and breadth of knowledge were well suited to public discourse” — is a challenge.  Do I comment only on my occupation at potential risk to my career, or am I a qualifying non-academic with a large enough breadth of knowledge to be able to speak intelligently about a wide range of topics?  I’m no Socrates, but I’ve read, taught and understood The Republic.     

The next link that catches my eye suggests further doom in its title:  “Did blogging kill the public intellectual?”  Oh, dear God, let’s hope not.  (Note to self:  must read  the Russell Jacoby piece cited by Alex Halavais, for another piece by Jacoby is mentioned by Siva Vaidhyanathan.)  Halavais explores this question about blogging and the death of public intellectuals.  The criticism that blogs — to paraphrase Ray Bradbury — say nothing and say it loud, loud, loud is a notion that Halavais disagrees with.  Come to think of it so does Ozick. 

If, for instance, tomorrow I were to write about my son’s problems with pre-school and explore how his little three and a half year old mind works, does that make my blog less useful?  Halavais asks it in this way:  “Why should the ways in which we arrive at our final ideas be hidden from public critique, involvement, and discussion?”  Writing about three or four year old bullies in pre-school and how to raise a boy in our world today may not be the stuff of Socrates, but as Ozick wrote:  “Contemplation in public is what political intellectuals commonly do, and what the quieter private thinkers on occasion slip into doing. . . The private thinkers have the advantage of being written off as bunglers when they do speak out, or as cowards when they don’t.  But for the public thinkers, who are always audible in the forum, the risk is far more perilous.”      

There is another interesting issue  Halavais raises, and it is an issue mentioned by Dunlop, and that is the idea that the fad of the blog has peaked, but Halavais suggests that even as blogs disappear, it does not mean the end of the public intellectual.   

We’re around.  We care about things.  We worry about our peers and colleagues and what we witness.  Because of our worry, we say something.  We may not always be heard, but we have to make our thinking public, because I’d much rather speak out like M. Frederick Voorhees than stay silent and wait for the Brotherhood to send me a razor blade like Winston Smith

Public or Private

January 15, 2008

Cynthia Ozick in “Quarrel & Quandry” establishes a difference between public and private intellectual.  And so far as I can tell it’s a thin line — in her opinion — between private and public.  I suppose up until now I have been more private; though, even now I might still better fit Ozick’s definition of private as opposed to public.  Time will tell ultimately.   

Despite her distinctions, Ozick does ask what you may be asking:  “if we could clearly define the difference, is it important, would it matter?”  I don’t think it fully matters. 

What is that distinction though?  Why does Ozick indicate Socrates is public and Aristotle is not? 

“Public intellectuals know that history is where we swim, that we are in it, that we can’t see over or around it, that it is our ineluctable task to grapple with it.”  In other words, sometimes the public intellectual gets “it” wrong.  Ozick says, “Thinkers, after all, do not simply respond to existing conditions. . . they strive to sort out — to formulate — the cognitive and historic patterns that give rise to public issues.” 

“People who are privileged to be thinkers are obliged to respect exigency and to admit to crisis.  They are obliged to expose and war against those rampant Orwellian coinages that mean their opposite and lead to purposeful deception.”  I am privilged to think and be a thinker.  I am in a position that requires me to find the truth in a world that Dunlop describes as increasingly relative in its truthfulness. 

I am traditionally careful with my words, but only in seeking to be truthful.  I am willing to risk “being judged mistaken” just in case I am right. 


What is this public intellectual?

January 15, 2008

As you may or may not know, I am currently a graduate student, pursuing a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies.  The final course is the Public Intellectual Practicum, and while I’ve indicated Rusbridger identifies potential outlets for the Public Intellectual, there is arguably no stronger outlet for one who wishes to make his or her thoughts public than the blog. 

Tim Dunlop is one who recognizes the power of the blog.  In his piece “If you build it they will come,” he argues “bloggers are the new public intellectuals.”  But is just any old blogger a public intellectual?  There are, after all, a lot of blogs out there.  And Dunlop argues that some still believe this style of public thought is just a fad. 

Dunlop, and I, believe strongly that a blog is what puts the public in public intellectual.  “Without the resources of a media agency. . . they are [often] merely reactive to the news of the day as published by major outlets.”  However, “the interested blogger can read behind the headlines. . . and subject the bare news story to more scrutiny than it would normally get.”  For instance, with all the talk and questions about what went wrong with the polls in the New Hampshire primaries that had Barack Obama leading Hillary Clinton until the results were in and Senator Clinton actually won, folks were asking what went wrong.  Let me suggest that maybe the polls were flawed.  With my state’s primary today (Michigan), I answered four calls over the weekend from the Huckabee and Romney camps, and for one call I admittedly lied about my intentions.  Why I did that may be the subject of a future blog, but let me suggest that perhaps when we are polled, sometimes we are not fully truthful about our intentions.

Dunlop argues then that public intellectual blogs “are politically engaged, not artificially detached,” but where Dunlop says political, I understand political to be about more than just politics.  I think social engagement is just as vital and valuable for the public intellectual. 

While when I say social engagement, on one level I mean a social consciousness and the activity that ought to come from such social consciousness, I also mean the act of making thinking social.  Public. 

By making thinking social and public, there is an element of what Dunlop describes as breathlessness:  “[B]y engaging in political debate in such a public way, people often move beyond their own knowledge horizon, or come up against people who are simply better informed than they are.”  And it is that element of exposing oneself – so to speak – that is so important about public intellectualism.  “Argument precedes understanding and is central to democratic opinion formation.”   For instance, I’m not sure what I will be blogging about in the future.  I’m not sure what issues I will write about for my practicum.  I will write about things I know about, but there are other things I  want to write about that I don’t know much about.  Illegal immigration for instance.  I know on some level what an illegal immigrant is, but I’m not quite sure why Americans are so virulently anti-illegal immigrant.  Aside from the illegality.  More often, it seems to me that we are anti-non-English speaking immigrant, and we automatically assume that if you’re non-English speaking that you are therefore an illegal immigrant.  Do we know how difficult it is to become a citizen?  What distinguishes an illegal immigrant from a worker on a visa?  How easy or difficult is it to go from being a visa’d worker to an illegal alien?   I don’t have answers to those questions, but as Dunlop argues:  “democracy relies on public argument.”  He cites Christopher Lasch in arguing:  “only by subjecting our preferences and projects to the test of debate” do “we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn.  Until we have to defend our opinions in public, they remain opinions. . . It is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of ‘opinions.’”