perhaps this should be a reflection on teaching. It is for the most part not, because I have other things on my mind.
I think of the past, the present, and the future.
The past - I look back 15 years ago to this date in Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence post, brutalized, and left to die.
The present - there are the financial issues with our national government and the accompanying political position
The future - the statewide elections in Virginia are almost upon us
But for all three - past, present, future - I think of my beloved spouse Leaves on the Current and her ongoing battle with her cancer.
Tomorrow morning she will enter Fairfax Hospital for an autologous stem cell transplant - on Monday and Tuesday they will chemically wipe out her immune system as a means of suppressing her blood cancer, then Wednesday they will transplant back the stem cells gathered this past Monday (and since cleaned) to rebuild her system.
Someplace in the next few weeks, while she remains in the hospital until October 28, she will lose her hair. That is a given.
Yesterday she had her hair cut short and styled. I have for 39+ years only known her with long red hair. During her treatment she had to stop coloring her hair and let the gray show. Now it is short. I think she looks greats.
And yesterday, for the first time in several years, and in solidarity, I cut my hair cut short and my beard shaved off.
When she updates her Facebook and Twitter pictures, perhaps I will post what I really look like.
The different images we now present as we go forward are in a way emblematic of my thinking right now.
Let me explore.
We are the same people, albeit changed by the experience we have undergone since her cancer was discovered on January 27.
We are changed because we are more sensitive - to ourselves, to each other, to the world around us.
We are both more patient and impatient - we are patient with the normal human frailties, because we know they pale compared to the realities of life and death. We are impatient with those who push a political agenda without concern for its impact upon real people (and for me, that includes the political education of what my friend Pasi Sahlberg of Finland has called GERM - the Global Education Reform Movement - that is distorting real learning and teaching - and you didn't think I would write something deeply personal without referring to teaching and learning, did you??)/
We are changed because we are more forgiving of the normal bumps and grinds of human discourse and encounter, that there can be misunderstandings, that we will not always agree.
We are also much more impassioned about things with long-term impact, such as what is happening to the environment. Some of the environmental damage may soon be irreversible, and we both want to scream at those who willfully blind themselves to that reality.
But let me only speak/write for myself.
I first saw a young lady with great legs and long red hair more than 40 years ago when she appeared in a music theory class with the wife of a German professor at Haverford College.
I have had beard and no beard, long hair, medium hair, short hair. Sometimes I have altered my physical appearance as a proxy for dealing with frustration in other areas of my life. When I was younger, I would do one of four things - change jobs, move, chair my hirsuteness, or change whatever relationship status I had. We cannot afford to move - that is not just financial, it is also how rooted we are in our community, which is in part why I commute 45 miles to my new teaching job. Having just taken on this teaching job, I am committed, barring a health crisis with my wife, through at least the end of this school year, and in all likelihood for as long as I can do the job properly, to my own high standards. And believe me, I have no intent of changing my relationship status - we remain committed to one another as long as we are both alive, and quite conceivably beyond that as well.
Leaves is almost 11 years younger than me. In the past we used to wonder what she might do when I predeceased her. While that is still possible, we also accept that it is possible she will pass before I do. Neither of us has any intimation of forthcoming death - except for a day or two when her early diagnosis was metastatic organ cancer, neither of us has felt that her disease was life-threatening in the near term, and we still feel that way.
But there is a change.
The quality of lives we lead now increasingly matters to us, because we are all too aware of the fragility of life, and that the clock is running for both of us.
We do not have biological children.
We have nieces and nephews and in my case two grand/great=nieces.
I have several thousand former students, and more than 100 current students.
They are part of our legacy.
We have the writings of various kinds upon which we have both spent blood, sweat, and tears. That is also part of our legacy.
But that legacy is incomplete.
How we live each day is also a major contributor to that legacy, whether or not others may notice, because we are both aware.
And I said I would speak only for myself, yet I find myself using first person plural voice. Go figure.
I have written here - and elsewhere - much less. I find I am more inclined to jot thoughts in the spiral notebook that is rarely out of reach than to turn to a keyboard. So often when I encounter things I expect that if it is important someone else will write about it that column or this piece of news, that unless I have something particular to add, perhaps something very personal, it is not how I want to spend the time and energy.
From time to time, as I am getting up at four in the morning so that I can arrive at school by 6, I wonder what life might be like were I not teaching? When a third of the students in a class come unprepared, having done neither the reading nor the written homework for what is supposed to be a college-level class, and I look at all the books I wish I had time to read, I wonder if perhaps I should really retire, make whatever adjustments necessary to live on the remaining income? Then I remember that I knew of the cultural difference of the school to which I agreed to come. I know that I was hired in large part to raise expectations for students and their families.
Last evening I mentioned something to Leaves on the Current. We are now almost two full months into the school year. The only times I have raised my voice (other than in enthusiasm) have been to get immediate quiet so that students can hear the morning announcements.
I find that my gentleness is coming out.
In part it is the 45 mile commute. I allow enough time for traffic problems, which happen at least every other week. Thus when I encounter them, I let go, listen to music, and do not get wired up, concerned about being late. If no problems are encountered, i get to school usually with about an hour before students begin coming in, which allows me to prepare at a leisurely - and reflective - pace.
It is also, of course, having lived through the illness with Leaves over the past 8 plus months. Some things are simply not worth expending energy being upset.
There is another side effect, and it is important for my teaching - I am finding that I am becoming much more in touch with my intuitive side.
I have always been highly intuitive. In the past I would say things that might surprise people, and when asked why, as someone who thinks quickly, I could come up with what seemed a rationale explanation, although it would be strictly ex post facto - I had had no CONSCIOUS awareness of the things I would offer as explanations.
On Wednesday, the students in my STEM Policy class, all juniors, were doing presentations on mini-policy briefs they had prepared. One group had been assigned an area that impacts them all - the school system filter blocks access to many sites that should be accessible to students in a STEM program. As I was listening to the discussion with the other students after the presentation, I found myself walking behind the students. I was standing off the right shoulder of a student to whom I will refer only as X. I found myself interjecting that of course X didn't care about the filtering, since he had figured out how to get around it. He turned around and stared at me and asked how I knew that?
Turns out he is a computer whiz, he had figured out a work-around - although he had not used it on a school computer - and he had told only a few close friends. Some other students, aware of his computer prowess, probably had surmised that he had done it, but as I checked afterwards, no one had really discussed it.
So how did I know? I really cannot explain, any more than I can explain why in Quaker Meeting for Worship sometimes I know that I have to rise and deliver a message, I do not know why or to whom it is directed.
Who knows, perhaps subconsciously I processed his body language during the discussion without even realizing it.
Or perhaps there is also this - when I worked with computers, I often did thought experiments about things out of curiosity, but once I figured out how to do something, I felt no need to do actually carry it out. That definitely applied to getting around security roadblocks.
Unless I am being truly myself, which means I am vulnerable, I am gentle, I am not in touch with my intuitive side.
IF I am not in touch with that part of myself, then I am not fully being myself.
If I am not fully being myself, I am not the teacher I can and should be, because I am not genuine with my students, I am not trusting them with myself, so it would be unreasonable of me to ask that they trust me as I attempt to take them outside of their comfort zones so that they can grow, intellectually and as human beings.
The past - I have at times not always been fully myself. America has not always been what it should be. Our politics have often not met the NEEDS of all Americans. But we have had glimpses of what that kind of politics can produce, as I have had glimpses of who and what I can be.
The present - we are reminded of the need for genuineness. In America we see the financial needs of so many, the real jeopardy many face. I look at the very different community in which I now teach and what I can bring to the students therefrom if I remain sufficiently patient and gentle even as I challenge them, realizing that I will be able to use my intuition to help guide me.
The future - it is certainly at risk. The environment, economic stability, political participation, the very nature of our society and our nation. How I teach, what may happen with my students. In both cases we do not go into that future blindly, but with knowledge both of the risks and of the riches and experiences and insights we all bring to the paths on which we now travel, all of us in our nation, me in my classroom.
And me in my personal life.
A life that is not mine alone, but bound inextricably with Leaves on the Current.
Her illness is a major part of that, but it does not define. Rather it illuminates.
After all, she has done remarkably well, because she has an informed trust in her medical team, because she has a strong sense of faith, and because she expected that I would be fully supportive, even though in the past some of my words and (in)actions would have given her reason to question that commitment.
For me teaching is a reflective process.
Long before I became a teacher, living was a reflective process.
I have spiral notebooks and scraps of paper going back half a century. At times I can go more than a year writing nothing. Other times I go through a notebook in less than a week.
When I first read Socrates as a freshman at Haverford in the fall of 1963, his statement that the unexamined life was not worth living struck deep into my soul. At first, not fully understanding how to reflect while still living meant that attempt to reflect could be paralyzing, keeping me from continuing to live.
From time to time I still withdraw, observe the world around me and myself, and become seemingly passive as I reflect.
More often, even as I am busy living - teaching - working politically - a part of me is observing, storing images and impressions for further consideration.
And part of me is weighing the evidence, both consciously and on other levels, including the intuitive.
Perhaps how I approach this does not make sense for others. I can well accept that attempt to require broadly in our society would not make sense.
But I can share it, in the hopes that it will evoke in others what is appropriate for them, which may well be something very different.
I remember that in the creation story in Genesis, on the 7th Day God rested, looking on all that he had created, which was very good.
I still believe in goodness.
I still have the Quaker belief in answering that of God (or if you prefer, that which is good) in each person I meet.
Even when nature is at her most furious, in earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, I do not view the world as hostile.
I am 67.
I could die today.
I could live for another 20 years.
In either event, I want to feel that I am giving more than I am taking.
Being gentle does not prohibit my being fierce when fierceness is required.
Illness, whether our own or that of someone about whom we care deeply, can be a great teacher.
I have tried to be a good student.
And now, if you don't mind, I think I will return to living the life now informed by those lessons.