Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Being Rad

My mom came to the United States by way of a naval ship in 1962.  Born "Doreen San Nicholas Leon Guerrero," she grew up as "Doring." Pronunciation had a lot to do with the differences in spelling. On most documents she was Doring, and when addressing letters or signing off her name on personal cards, she always signed it that way.  For the longest time I thought that was her name.  It wasn't until I heard her emphatically tell the registrar at one of the local elections that her name was "Doreen."  

Not Doring.  Like I always thought.

She told the clerk that that was who she was when she first moved here, but she does not spell her name that way so it needs to be changed.  It didn't matter what it said on her Naval ID card and drivers license.  That interaction lived in my mind for a long time, mostly when I was older and found myself correcting people when they mispronounced my first name.

It's "Vera" like "Sara."  Not "Vee-rah . . ."

During my early 20's I looked back on that early experience and fantasized that my mom was sort of a radical.  A practical one, but nonetheless, a radical.  She was just so clear in what she expected from that registration clerk and coming from a culture of deference, well beneath the Chamorro cultural radar - it was a unique boldness for me to witness.  Funny how recalling one event in time can survive and persist.

I've been thinking about this idea because the kids and I were discussing language and how change over time creates new words, sometimes reinvents words, and sometimes recycles words.  It started  because John-Pio was doing some pull-ups and when he went to failure, I was like, "Whoooooa John-Pio!  That effort was so rad!"  He laughed.

Rad.  Radical.  Radness.  My impulse to use the word has since prompted me to wage the battles within myself to go forth and be rad in 2014.  Here's how I'm planning to do it . . .

Seek small changes.

As a teacher I know that the organization doesn't always trust its teachers.  In the eyes of the beholders especially the policy makers in Wisconsin, I feel like my colleagues and I are viewed as professional irritants who are tolerated more than embraced.  Lately, I've felt like I've been teaching on a fault line.   I know that seems dramatic but this year in particular has felt personally tortuous.  I have not felt rad at all.

Yet I think I sympathize with the system and organization.  I get it.  If my teaching goals weren't so rooted in my own identity I'd be cynical and sarcastic with a system like ours.  Instead, like my dedicated colleagues, efforts for personal and professional growth passionately inform us, which is why it's possible to feel sympathetic even when faced with piles of odds and ends that feel unfinished and overwhelming.  With constant adjusting, constant succumbing even when the things we're asked to focus on feels useless and overdone - its driven me to ambivalence and caution.  And maybe, just maybe this can be a new kind of rad because while plugging away, there are those highlights when small battles have led to incremental changes, and for those times, I feel lucky and hopeful.  What matters most right now is that in spite of it all, we have our students trust, and every educator knows that it's the small nudges, not the all-out epic wars that create that trust.

Act locally.  

I'm going to be more like Brad.  He's been rad for a long time having reconstructed his lifestyle by investing in the Community Car, riding his bikes or skateboards for transportation, and creatively traveling his region as a rep.  Over 7 years ago he convinced me that we can be a working family with only one car, and he was right.  Public transportation has grown on me to the point where the ride just isn't long enough.  Not only that, but since we've just recently allowed John-Pio to eat meat once a month, it's been okay to spend a little more on local beef, pork and poultry when we know how and where the animal was treated as a living thing.

There are tons of other examples but let me just say that Brad's been at this for a long time, including building a climbing gym and since acting on his vision from years past by growing it bigger and better.  He acts in a way that's practical, quietly working patiently from the inside of the family and public loop seeking only modest change.  No pressure to conform.  Always considerate and enthusiastic.  His local acts are rad.

Act authentically. 

It's so important to be real.  Being forthright and sharing stories helps solidify values.  Tell stories, spit a verse, write a rhyme, contribute to the family poetry book, make sure to listen more than talk, dance - those are some of the ways I can be rad.  Stories and narratives bridge the connection to experiences and in my opinion, is one sure way to grow authentic bones.

The other day Misa and I were going through an argument she was having with herself about how she treated her brother.  She said, "When you and Daddy argue, you don't really fight but you argue . .  ."    Whew!  That was a time when I could help her embrace rules that are based on values:  We value each others way of thinking that we follow some rules when we argue - rules like we don't hit below the belt, we don't name call, we don't bring up the past, we stick to the subject, and if we can't solve it then we decide to table the matter until later.  Acting authentically can be really impressive to the young and recall what it means to be real.

I'm going to model making decisions not based on rules, but on the things I value.  Because the truth is, values trump rules.  So when my kids feel forced or like I'm being unfair, I won't be wishy-washy or unsure because the things I decide are driven by a real impulse for personal investment in their growth and independence - those are values and acting authentically can build rad relationships.

Live in the world of "and." Climb.

My relationship to climbing is mutually painful.  It's very hard sometimes to do this, this, this, and climb so instead, I've been doing this, this, this or climb.  That or trips me up.  Sometimes this sport brings out the risk-averse in me that I end up walking on eggshells - it's just too easy to rely on natural ability and past experiences.  It's less risky to just get by.  So I've stayed the same.  On the continuum of radness, I'm on the far left of the line.  And for someone whose identity is as a climber, that side can be kind of isolating.  So I'm committing to get to the midpoint of the continuum of radness by practicing ands, and making climbing more of a priority.

There's the preceding verb to all of this:  Be.  Rad.  Radical.  Radness.

So I just called my mom to check out the story to see if I remembered it correctly and she said that it's partly right even though she doesn't remember the incident at the voting booth like I did.  Apparently, what I left out was that she always wanted to be "Doreen," and that over time it just was.  I read the first part of this blog to her and she laughed - she was like, "Vera Jean, that is not radical.  Radical is what Jesus Christ did for us."

So I'm left with that bit of authenticity to start off 2014.  Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: Split Families

Last week my teaching partners and I received an email containing a string of communication between two parents about their child who we have as our student. The string was actually between the parents (who are divorced) and we were cc'd.  It was kind of awkward.

Split family situations aren't unusual for educators, but the involvement by cc'ing us (passive as it was) is a telling reminder that different kinds of family structures create all kinds of complexities for parents, step-parents, and children, not to mention teachers.  And while involved adults can display their emotions and thoughts passively, contrast that to children who can be forthright and honest, like my one student did when he publicly recited this the day before Thanksgiving:

I'm thankful that my parents aren't together but thankful that we can still have Thanksgiving with each other even though they're divorced and even though it'll be in different places.  I'm just thankful I was born.  

No matter what the family structure is like, there are inherent stressors.  They range in degree and type but there's no doubt that split families are just hard.  I'm in the know on this one.  I was 18 when my own parents split, and I became a stepmom to Emma in 2002, so I ran the treadmill of varying emotions, logistics, and levels of involvement.  With Emma, I was cognizant of who I was and always considered my place in the system because in truth, I just didn't want to be that stepmom - or step-monster for that matter.  Mostly though, I observed and waited patiently day to day as Emma grew into her own.  And man has she taught me - someday I'll publish the list of lessons I've learned from her.  Not only did she teach me how to be a stepmom, but those lessons transferred into my job as a teacher.

In fact, whenever parents come to school for conferences or whenever there's tension or unexpected exchanges like the one I mentioned, I always take it back to my experiences.  Just as strong as my empathy and concerns are for all parents, I have that much more for divorced parents.  Believe me, I know some of those experiences that frustrate and at times, infuriate.  I know what it's like to be in the background, and I also understand boundaries.  I get purpose, too - like, if what I'm doing or saying does not serve a productive purpose, I should withhold that action or thing that's at the tip of my tongue.    I've figured out that at times it's okay to have the second to the last word, and that having imaginary conversations about the things that bug me are healthier than a conflict that won't be resolved.  I also understand distance and disengagement, and I get that on all sides, it's a necessary part of a system that's broken.  But I also know what it's like when the system flows and those times are when agreements and decisions are made because it's really, really what is best for the child.  

You probably recognize the idea of flow if you've read or heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  As a skier and climber, I've been reading his work for over two decades and I can honestly say that it applies not just to athletic performance or to the learning process, but it's also a part of teaching and parenting.  The best moments of flow in parenting are not when parents are passive, receptive, or status quo.  Mihaly says that the best moments seem to occur when we're stretched to our limits because we have chosen to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.  In my opinion, this aptly applies to parents in split families.  

If flow is to be possible in a split family, it means both parents have to suck it up.  Every family has different crosses to bear, and what matters to one might not be that big of a deal to another.  Nevertheless, it might mean that they agree to attend parent-teacher conferences together or that both households will implement an organizational system to keep the kid in check as s/he switches houses. Maybe it's an agreement that there will be no public bashing of each other in any way whatsoever, whether it's through an email, text, or conversation - and certainly not to the kid.  That difficult thing might be making decisions from a set of shared values that they've identified together instead of ambiguous actions or behaviors.  It could be something that's super hard and seemingly impossible like accepting that once and for all, your households are different and that's just the way it is.  Although flow is not something that's easy to achieve, it becomes possible, and even probable if agreements and decisions are made because it's really, really what is best for the child.