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life

My Three Rules for Living:

  1. Pay Attention
  2. Be Kind
  3. Don’t be an Asshole

Unicorns-? Rainbows-0

Not long ago I walked out of a Target Store and as I stepped out from under the overhang I saw a vibrant rainbow arching over the expansive parking lot. Excitedly I looked around to exclaim at its beauty until I noticed that not one of the at least two dozen people in front of the store had seen it. Even though some shoppers were facing east towards this spectacular exhibit in the sky, every one of them was looking down at a cell phone-maybe at a video of a rainbow!

My first thought was to point the colorful hues out to them, but I got the sense that they wouldn’t care to be distracted from the important business of texting or playing games on their electronic devices. As I watched the people coming and going from the parking lot and the other stores next to Target, I was amazed that not even the kids walking with their parents paused to look up at the very predominant colors framing the parking lot.

I stopped on the way to my car to wonder in part at the unmistakable sight of the rainbow, but more to continue to watch and wonder how it was possible that not one other person noticed it. Finally as I put my bags in the car and got out my own cell phone to take a picture, a woman in a car near mine asked me if I saw the rainbow. I didn’t see who spoke but was so happy to have another person notice the rainbow that I could have hugged her just as an expression of a shared humanity in wondering.

Had a Unicorn with a horn appeared from pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no doubt no one would have noticed that either, even if the Unicorn prodded unobserving people in the ass with its Unicorn horn. The response probably would have been to complain of being disturbed from the important task of “selfing” or texting LOL to a BFF. WTF Asshole, wake up and smell the Unicorn!

This got me thinking about an incident that occurred recently at the University of Florida when a male frat boy taunted a black female pedestrian with slurs of a racial and sexual nature. His behavior was inexcusable and that he felt entitled to treat this woman in this way is a sad statement of the entitled culture to which he appears to belong. What got me thinking, though, was my experience with the rainbow because, though unfortunately I’m not surprised at his ignorance and his appalling treatment of the woman, I was completely amazed by the fact that he noticed anything at all. Based on my observations of the people of the rainbow, I know that very few people will bother to lift their head enough to take their eyes off of whatever device has them in a trance. Surrounded as this boy most likely is by like-minded, or maybe more to the point, non-minded people, it is a wonder that he or any of his frat-boy brothers’ can function in society in which looking beyond a cell phone or thinking is possible. The rainbows and unicorns and women of color, or not of color that are part of a larger picture don’t have to exist in the small world picture created by technology. Just don’t “Friend” it or “Google” it and change the definition on Wikipedia. With every thought and idea compressed into a tiny screen the world of this boy and so many others will continue to shrink. Who knows, maybe this is the start of a new evolutionary process by which those of our species who are so absorbed in technological devices may themselves become as small and limited as the technology they need to survive. What will these cell-phone-size-brain people do when confronted with the inevitable “Fatal Error!”? Like lemmings they’ll probably follow one another into oblivion, but I’ll be oblivious because I’ll be looking at the rainbow and waiting for the Unicorn.

Corny? You bet. But paying attention has its rewards.

Reading

What a thrill to walk into a bookstore and see a new title from a favorite author and, though somewhat less thrilling, is the anticipatory excitement of a website announcement of an upcoming release date. Each new book by Ivan Doig provides me with an eagerness to rush home and crack open the book to enter what is always a captivating journey through the pages.

My early introduction to the western lands seen through the eyes of young Jick McCaskill in English Creek made me feel like I knew this young man, and the names of the characters and places in and around English Creek, Montana certainly add color to the palate of Doig’s storytelling prowess.

His most recent book, Sweet Thunder, follows Morrie Morgan, a character who makes a return from Doig’s previous novels, as he comes back to Butte, Montana with his wife. Set in the 1920’s, with the backdrop of the copper mining industry, the story seems to preface the same type of ecological damage and poor conditions for workers that are seen in many mining and manufacturing operations today. Conflict in the novel centers in part on the money grabbing greed of industry executives and corrupt political influence, and as is typical with Doig’s writing the vividness of the characters, situations and settings create a sense of the reader being present at the time.

In Doig’s Morrie, I find a character that at times I don’t even like, yet I am also hopeful for him to find success in the many circumstances that he encounters. That Doig can illicit a reaction in me, so that I can dislike a character yet feel compelled to keep reading and root for a positive outcome for Morrie and his wide variety of companions, is a tribute to Doig’s ability to develop a tale that the reader becomes a part of.

Reading Sweet Thunder recreated the same sensation that I’ve discovered anew with all of Doig’s books, that of being so drawn in by the connections between the characters and the situations that I become as invested in the outcome as the characters appear to be.

common core crap

Telling youngsters that learning for the sake of learning can be the end goal itself without the promise of a high paying job in the unforeseeable future is a hard thing to sell in this age of consumerism. But maybe, just maybe, if education focuses on the, usually, innate curiosity in young people and in having teachers who generate excitement about the subject area(s) they teach, there will be less of an expectation that standardized testing is as a reliable measurement as it is made up to be.

Education may be a big business to some and certainly testing company executives are reaping the benefits of testing, but for most people, especially the students, there is little pay-off. High standards are not achieved as the result of testing, but as the result of setting high expectations despite testing.

There is plenty to be said for the need to expect higher achievement across the board for American education, and it’s no secret that Americans of all ages, not just school age, compare poorly with other nations in just basic knowledge in subject areas such as math, history and geography.

The statistics generated from FCAT scores in Florida have often been used as measures to point out improvements in certain areas or in certain schools, but when the percentages of reading levels go down from 4th and 5th grades, drop again in 6th and again in 7th and 8th, it doesn’t look promising for the futures of these kids or of any of us. No, the lowering percentages are not huge and, Yes, it could be said that reading gets harder as children move forward in school, but it would make more sense to think that if kids are learning to read effectively in the lower grades, their capabilities would improve as they advance.

With the hesitation steps of the Florida Governor to adopt the Common Core Standards it might seem that Florida would advance its education criteria to meet the standards that will be required of most students in America, yet even if he ever makes up his mind to follow the plan, will the new tests really be an improvement for any child in Florida or in the rest of America? As far as I can tell, the only improvement will continue to be to the pockets of those involved in the big business of testing. Testing figures can be skewed and interpreted to show what agrees with whatever agenda is being promoted, but who is speaking for the children? Are teachers, parents, the community, the students themselves speaking up? And is anyone listening?

Some argue that testing is stressful. Sure, so is a lot of stuff.  I’m not against tests, a little stress, or pressure, but that pressure needs to come from students who are intent on driving themselves and through teachers who know their students and the capabilities each one has. Successful learning comes out of going beyond what can be asked on a multiple choice test. It requires thinking, making comparisons and connections and striving to gain knowledge to discover a myriad of things whether it be how to make the money a student desires, or how to give back to the community. It requires learning how to be a human who does not expect all the answers to every question to be a check in a box.

Education a dream?

A newer iteration of the American Dream is that now college education is touted as necessary in order to achieve success, or at least garner a higher income. Little is noted; however, what a high price is paid for this dream and how often it becomes a nightmare of debt often without the benefit of a career based on that college degree, if one is earned at all. What is often lost amidst the drive for degrees in careers that require a college education is that a student actually care about the field rather than the money. The message that many hear is that money is the key to the dream even if the interest or talent isn’t present and also that the jobs are limitless for anyone who gets a degree.

It’s hard to get an alternative message across that says, while money is certainly a big consideration, it should not be the only factor in career choice. Often the dream is following ones dream despite the money, but more significant for almost every young person starting school who is told that college is necessary for a successful dream is the fact that there are not enough college-level careers available if every student who hears the never-ending mantra “you gotta go to college to get a good job and make money” was actually able to follow that goal of a college education. Sure, it’s a positive thing to tell all first graders that they can and should go to college, but the raw fact is that the inequities in education across school systems and within school systems bar many from that goal, but more to the point, someone has to clean the bathrooms and pick the tomatoes and work the mundane jobs that allow those who can get to and through college without accruing unmanageable debt find the dream.

Maybe instead of lying to the kids about the possibilities available to everyone, we ought to get to the real basic path of education which is to give all students the opportunity to achieve literacy, become knowledgeable about what is going on around them and learn how to think independently and make decisions about the choices, both personal and political that affect them and all of us.

Because education will be a main theme on this site, I want to begin with a connection to the opening quote on the home page. My return to formal education, brought me to Professor  Catherine Turner’s English class where she introduced us to the work of such perceptive writers as Annie Dillard and Scott Russell Sanders. Reading Dillard’s essay “Sight into Insight” and Sander’s essay “Listening to Owls” taught me new ways to observe and listen. As Dillard observes in her essay “The secret of seeing, then, is a pearl of great price.” Sanders concludes his essay with the thought: “We can’t hear the earth sing above all the racket our species makes. Listening to owls is a remedy for such deafness.” Sitting on my front porch serenaded by the owls, I realized how important it is to be open to new ways of seeing, and hope that this new-to-me medium will open a dialogue into insights on reading and education.