Monday, November 15, 2010


When I was in high school (Jeff ‘57) it was just assumed that I would be a high school English teacher. It’s what girls did. (No one thought I would ever marry.) I managed to put some kinks in the plan: my teaching focus was dramatics and I taught on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana in short bursts. 1961-66, 1970-73, 1988-91. This excludes my student teaching in Evanston, IL and three months in Cut Bank, a white town at the edge of the reservation. When I reflect on whether I was a “good” teacher or not, the answer always depends upon where and when I was. That is, in the right circumstances I was pretty good but in the wrong circumstances, I was dreadful.

The key difference seemed to be the students. I’m sure that my present bond with Tim Barrus comes in part because he is the age of my first batch of students, who were equally remarkable, “Boomers” born into a unique time. Some of those early Sixties students committed suicide, some became drunks. some died of misadventure -- car accidents, violence, prison. Some became teachers and school superintendents against all odds. (They’re retiring now.) The school was rough, keeping order mostly by excluding students who were trouble -- if they didn’t get a clue and leave. Cops got shot in the gut or dragged to death. A few of the kids, both in school and on the street, were natural poets.

In the Seventies it was the teachers who were in trouble. The students were trying to take charge, to force the adults to behave. The smart adults were reading Kozol and A.S. Neill and the Third Force psychologists. They formed Free Schools.

In 1988-91 I was in Heart Butte, a new high school in a remote place where drop-outs could get a new start. Ten years later Cut Bank, a white town, was a total mismatch for me except for one class of boys who were determined to evade any kind of control except on the athletic field. We got along fine because I didn’t try to control them. The problem was the other classes whose idea of school was from the Fifties, an idea they got from Spielburg/Lucas movies and sit coms. All surface, no content.

Someone asked me once what teaching was like and was startled when I said it was like sex. What I was trying to express was the intimacy of shared ideas. When a classroom achieves that state, it’s flying, it’s a “high,” it’s transformative. No way it can ever be achieved by tabs-and-slots prescriptive curriculums or lesson plans. It won’t show up on national exams. Brain-to-brain contact is far more powerful than genital entanglement. Tim understands this. The American public does not. The American Public seems to be afraid of all kinds of intimacy. They do not trust any high that isn’t either adrenaline or a drug. (They don’t understand sex either. They think it’s about satin sheets and champagne.)

Robert Sapolsky (who is not afraid of anything except maybe barbers) has a fascinating article in today’s NY Times. It’s about how our brains confuse the metaphorical with the actual. “What are we to make of the brain processing literal and metaphorical versions of a concept in the same brain region? Or that our neural circuitry doesn’t cleanly differentiate between the real and the symbolic? What are the consequences of the fact that evolution is a tinkerer and not an inventor, and has duct-taped metaphors and symbols to whichever pre-existing brain areas provided the closest fit?”

The schools seem to think there has to be a choice made between the metaphorical and the actual. One consequence has been the ignorant discrediting and belittling of abstract concepts, even as -- at the other extreme -- grad school whiz kids leave reality altogether and try to live in abstract theories. Few do what Sapolsky is talking about: find the concepts that will make our real world a better place. Even thinking about what “better” means or what education “is” has become a victim of the same confusion. “Better” means more money; “education” means a piece of paper that will get you a better job. The motivation is not the sheer pleasure of learning but rather lifelong fear of poverty. Sapolsky suggests, “We study hard to get admitted to a top college to get a good job to get into the nursing home of our choice. Gophers don’t do that.” Gophers don’t go to school. At least not on purpose.

The principal at Heart Butte (not this one -- one twenty years ago) said, “You’ve got to MAKE them learn. FORCE them to learn.” I said, “You think education is rape. I think it’s seduction.” He said, “That’s right. RAPE them!” He was a deeply ignorant man. I didn’t quit -- I was fired. If he reads this, he’ll believe he was right. If I think that “thinking” is like sex, I must be a dirty old woman. I might do something that would get the school sued. Deep down he did not believe Indians should go to college anyway -- they had to be taught obedience so they would make good janitors and cooks. They were people who were destined to get their hands dirty, unlike himself.

The ranchers and farmers around here dirtied their hands and broke their backs so they could send their children to good colleges, in hopes their children would eventually put them into good nursing homes with no gophers. They hate gophers.

“High” and privileged thought has been a phenomenon of the cities where the population is dense enough to support the specialization necessary for learning some things. Good universities gather together people interacting passionately. Now the Internet -- which came onto the dining tables of the ranchers so they could follow the futures market and know when to sell -- has become a way for rural youngsters to participate in university-level thought. On the reservation at least a few of the community college students who are now learning spreadsheets and databases will be seduced by ideas.

Education and sex are best learned in a mix of the actual hands-on reality and the curiosity, dexterity, and experimentalism of ideas. I was tickled that Sapolsky had to look up “haptic,” one of my favorite words -- it means related to hands. In this place one needs to know the land by picking it up in handfuls, smelling it, tasting it. But also it’s crucial to think about DNA, satellite-imagery, and how to use the GPS on the combine as well as how to repair the combine. It’s not about just drilling the earth with seed. It’s about fitting oneself to the planet, awareness, and -- maybe most of all -- love. Not Hallmark love -- dirty, self-sacrificing, often painful, love. The way Tim teaches.

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