Saturday, June 23, 2012


My hair is usually too long, and I have an earring. I will interrupt an important lesson to tell a pointless story about my kid, my car, my dog, or any combination of these things. I understand that the stories that people enjoy most are the ones that involve my suffering, and make a consistent effort to oblige. I rarely give tests and almost never give homework. I am calm, slow to anger, and smile a fair amount.

It seems that  my messy appearance, or some combination of those other qualities, causes my students to incorrectly assume that I'm nice.

I know this, because they often mistake my general obliviousness for a fast-and-loose approach to the rules. As a result, I confiscate more of their cellphones than do most teachers, and regularly write kids up for things like pass fraud, insubordination, and cutting. I don't very often catch them in these behaviors, but always follow through with maximum disciplinary action when I do. I've actually had students come to me just after the first bell and ask me for a pass to their Block 1 class. I guess there are nice teachers in the school who will do this, but I'm amazed that they think I'm one of them. In every one of these instances, I am sure to remind them that I'm not nice.

I have observed that nice is actually more complicated than may be immediately obvious. I believe that nice people fall into the following subsets:
  1. Nice. Often assumed to be the only category, in my experience this is actually the rarest. Legitimately nice people don't have to work for it, and they can do it just as effortlessly with people they don't really like. Or maybe they actually like everyone, how would I know? They also tend to be much better conversationalists than the rest of us because they're not running everything through a filter of "can I safely say this and not offend this person," or "is this person smart enough to know that I've just insulted him/her." I know of exactly two perfect examples of this, and they're both named Nancy. Sorry, if you're not only named Nancy, but happen to be one of those Nancys, perhaps instead you someone who:
  2. Values niceness. Lots of nice people actually fall into this category, including most elementary-aged kids. Ask almost any fourth-grader which teacher they like best, and then ask them why. I bet no matter how they say it, or whatever else they say, the answer comes down to he/she is nice. It's easy to mistake these people for nice, because they seem rather fixated on it. It's like herd immunity, or the lesser known herd hotness--people assume they're nice because they draw so much attention to niceness that they must be nice themselves. This means that they are merely:
  3. Considered nice. This is a category of people that you'll recognize, but have probably looped in with the first group. They smile a lot, talk in up-beat tones, and display concern about your embarrassing medical conditions. In the moment, you assume they're nice, but afterward you get a vague irritated feeling that you've shared more than you wanted to, and they seemed to lose interest in your story partway through anyway. At the more professional levels they would be called a:
  4. Glad-hander. These are often former high school star athletes who are now assistant middle school principals (see also: here) or car salesmen in fancy dealerships. They have either cultivated niceness as a requirement of their profession, or have ascended through the ranks by way of this talent or acquisition of skill. Typically, they have great teeth, a hearty handshake, and always look you squarely in the eye. They flirt with your spouse, flatter you both, and can  fill any awkward situation with a charm so practiced that they probably learned it in a six-hour seminar in a hotel ballroom (see also: here). 
The good thing for people like me is that not nice is definitely trending these days. Tina Fey made important inroads with her bitch rant, in which she eviscerated the whole have-a-beer-with-the-guy nonsense. The leader of the free world does not need to be your golfing buddy, he/she needs to get a lot of work done and try not to get us all killed.  More recently we've had Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I also mentioned here. I learned from reading Tiger Mother that I'm apparently not only a Suzuki Mother, but a bit of a Chinese Suzuki Mother. Half of the things I read in this book made me think how could she say that to her kid? and the other half I would absolutely say that to my kid.

Here's a list of three things Ms. Chua actually said to her child while supervising practicing:
1. Oh my God, you're just getting worse and worse.
2. I'm going to count to three, then I want musicality.
3. If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM! 

I would never say those things. Okay, I would never say that third thing. Okay, I would never say "AND BURN THEM!"

This book has already met with a fair amount of criticism from many of my colleagues in the outraged-o-sphere. In comparison to most of this stuff, my criticisms of Chua's parenting methods are pretty nit-picky. Even so, I am hoping to enrage some people both in my criticisms, and by not rejecting this approach out of hand. One thing we know about marketing is that pissing people off is a great way to sell blogs (see, I'm not nice). I'm comforted by the fact, however, that the author's view of her own choices is actually highly conflicted and self-critical. She's the one relating all of these stories, and very rarely comes to her own defense.

However, the central question of the book, and the one every parent must answer for him/herself, is whether all of this was entirely for the kids', or was some percentage actually for the the parent's own benefit. Chua says unequivocally that it is all entirely for her daughters. This is dishonest, judged only on the evidence that she herself chose to share with us. Having children is at once an entirely selfish and selfless act. We want our children to succeed both for their own success and for what it says about our parenting and genetic contributions. For example, Chua tells a number of stories that revolve around using her children as centerpieces in elaborate and expensive parties. She mentions the cuisine, the guests, and the pieces her children were forced to play in more-or-less the same breath. She also describes the coercion that she needed to engage in to get her kids to play at these venues, and the fact that she couldn't really enjoy most of the performances due to the stress she herself was experiencing.

These episodes were made possible by another factor that hinders her in good parenting: her enormous wealth. I'm sure there are very wealthy people for whom the pressures, opportunities, and biases of having lots of money don't hinder their parenting. Chua isn't one of them. She talks about being there for her kids' violin and piano practicing every day--except that sometimes she was on world-wide book tours. Even if she did manage to fly to California and back in a single day, she still was gone for the entire day. The fact that she could hire a tutor for Mandarin, another (or two, or more) for the instruments, and another for everything else is a tremendous advantage, but it doesn't count as being there. Hiring a staff isn't the same as parenting, and it seems to me that Chua could have gotten better results from more low-quality time with her kids. Her never-let-up approach was often sustained through methods that most of us can't afford.

Third is her inability to properly work herself into a frenzy. Okay, she can properly work herself into a frenzy, but she doesn't do so over a sufficient span of time. If she were an actual musician, rather than an especially engaged stage mother, she would better understand that there are crescendos that happen for a note, those that happen for a phrase, and those that happen for an entire piece. While the occasional outburst can be useful to shock an audience back into attention, much of the time parenting is about proportional response, and keeping something in reserve for the final push to the summit. Whether calling one's children "garbage" can legitimately be defended in any circumstance, I take issue with the fact that it seems that she would do so without passing through nearly enough gradations on the way. I'm not sure how anything she said to those girls had any effect after she jumped from zero to hysterical in one move so many times.

I should also mention that any parent who is more strict than you will seem unreasonable, and any more permissive will be expected to raise hellions. I have friends who put a forty-six inch TV in their preschooler's room, and others who don't have any TVs in their house. I absolutely cannot imagine either approach, and I'm sure that neither of these people can imagine doing things as my wife and I have.

For as much philosophy, history, and theory are in the book, it comes down to Chua's belief that her parenting style is simply a matter of having high standards, and that anyone with similarly high standards is "Chinese." She does, though, acknowledge that she's using the term loosely, and that it is not always present in Chinese parents, nor always absent in everyone else.

I think she's on to something here--both in that high standards are important, and that having them is generally maligned. One of the festival conductors that I observed remarked that we have a word in our society for people with high standards and limited flexibility when people fail to meet those high standards: anal retentive. It's a rather puzzling leap from Freud's concept of difficulties resulting from toilet training, namely a general interest in collecting and keeping things (eeew), to a general descriptor for people who care about stuff. I guess this is how the language goes sometimes.

Another important foray into not nice was the You're Not Special commencement address. Like the Tiger Mother book, the more subtle points--which are actually rather nuanced, and carefully considered--are not catching people's attention the way individual soundbites are. Like Twilight, and The Hunger Games (see also: here) I feel that people have heard about these things, and feel free to comment on them, more than they have actually carefully considered the entire text.

My favorite bit in David McCullough's speech isn't the bit about there being 37,000 valedictorians in this country, or the fact that even if you actually are one-in-a-million, there are 7,000 people just like you in the world--though those are obviously right up there. My favorite part is:

"Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct.  It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things.  Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others..."

What Chau's book and McCullough's speech have in common is the belief that the application of high standards and strongly-worded critique is a profession of faith in people's--students', children's, humanity's in general--better selves. The big question is whether this can be applied without morphing over toward cruelty an bullying (see also: here). I can think of some real ball-buster teachers for whom every seemingly-cruel thing they did was clearly for the benefit of their students. I can also think of some who were merely sadists. For each of us, knowing the difference determines who we are, what we're doing, and who it is meant to benefit. Maybe it would be easier just to be nice.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

So Sophie

I have had two dogs in my adult life. The first, Roxanne (you're singing that song now, aren't you?), I adopted during the pivotal summer after my sophomore year in college. Pivotal, because that was the summer my best friend at the time (and wife now) and I decided that perhaps it was indeed worth risking the ruin of a great friendship in order to engage in a romantic relationship. In truth, the whole get-Sean-a-dog idea was sort of hers to begin with. The fact that I went along with this plan before we started dating is one of many signs I missed during the two years prior.

At the shelter where we found Roxie was also a litter of eight-week-old Lab-mix puppies. They were rolly-polly, fluffy, and looked exactly like what you picture when you picture a puppy. I had pretty much decided to take one of those little guys home when we went to look at the older dogs. Somewhere in that depressing cell-block was a little stray, not barking like the others, instead, lying at the front of its cage with its paw just through the bars.

"What's wrong with his eyes?"

The staff answered us, and we in turn answered this question a lot throughout her life. It turns out that with mixed-huskies, you can get blue eyes, brown eyes, or a combination of both. For Roxie (who was always assumed to be a boy, due to her wolf-like bearing and fairly butch countenance, I guess) it manifested as one blue eye, and one that was half-blue/half-brown. Not blind, but sorta strange-looking.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that we love, and have always loved, all of our dogs. It's possible, however, to love a creature very much and still be entirely aware of its flaws. If you don't believe me, ask your parents.

At three months old, Roxie was deeply entrenched in her awkward stage. Her ears stood from her head like traffic cones, and dwarfed the rest of her head. Her tail, eventually a proud, curved buccaneer's plume, was at that time too long and straight, giving her the general appearance of an over-sized rat. Still, she won us all over, and came home with me that day.

She lived that pivotal year with us, and thirteen pivotal more. She moved four times with us. She caught 3,200 poorly-thrown Frisbees, fetched 11,600 sticks, and chased several-hundred pump-faked tennis balls (she was always absolutely sure that you'd throw it the next time, even if you'd faked her out two dozen times in a row). She had significant separation-anxiety issues: being left alone for a few hours one time resulted in her eating a whole bag of Hershey Kisses (wrappers and all), and another time polishing off a box of staples (the vet called her an "indiscriminate eater"...and probably called his boat "Roxie"). She  knew she wasn't to be on the furniture, in fact even when we would cheat and invite her onto the bed or couch she never seemed remotely comfortable .  She never had any obedience training, but somehow knew commands like "get over here" and "go away." She could be fenced in by a fence, even if you accidentally left the gate wide open. She averted her eyes whenever Jen and I as much as kissed.

The day we had to put her down, after a prolonged and agonizing decline, was one of the worst of my life. We didn't deal well with the grief and the loss, and too soon were back in the market for a puppy. By this time the Internet was in full swing, and my wife started spending a lot time trolling around on sites like this. Her ratio of visits to this site and dogs that we've gotten as a result is very close to 1:1.

Jen found a litter of, as it turns out, "Lab-mix" puppies who were being fostered a couple of towns away. We test-drove two puppies that day. One was all-black, and passed every puppy-selection criteria we knew. For example, she was content to pretty much fall asleep when you rolled her onto her back and cradled her in your arms. Whether it was because I was on the rebound, or because I had some kind of Messianic instinct to save the bad girl, or because I was told that black-and-tan-mixed-breeds make the best dogs, or...who knows, but I rejected this little goody-goody dog in favor "Scooby" (immediately renamed, because everyone knows Scooby is a boy--and a stupid name) who pretty much failed all of the same little tests.

We now suspect that "Lab-mix" was: 1. a bad guess, 2. clever marketing, or 3. an outright lie--our theory, regularly adjusted according to our feelings about humanity in general, and our feelings about the dog at the moment. Sophie, who is horribly averse to water and has no desire at all to retrieve things, is more likely a pit-bull mixed with some sort of hound (she's pretty long-coupled, and howls at sirens). Pits are in the process of being re-branded as pibbles, in an effort to make them once again more appealing to the general public. They require this image makeover not because they are inherently bad dogs, but because some of the breeding and training practices applied to them have been truly horrifying .

Sophie believes that shoes exist only for her entertainment. She doesn't destroy them anymore, but pairs of shoes are almost never paired in our house; rather, they are arranged throughout according to some larger plan of hers. She barely acknowledges that she's been fed--she'll ignore a full bowl of food until she's good and ready, sometimes hours later. She considers a game of fetch to be complete when she catches up to the tennis ball and kills it, leaving it there, satisfied that she's taught it a lesson. Actually, she will often decline to chase the ball at all, giving you instead a "well, what'd you do that for?" look. She knows she's not to be on the furniture, and therefore only does it when we're not looking. She also knows to appear sorry when caught. She is a two-time graduate of obedience school who knows full-well how to be obedient, and just chooses not to.

Why am I telling you all of this? Isn't this a blog allegedly about about slacking, and school? I'm telling you this because, as I've said here, I believe that dogs who don't know they're adopted shelter dogs have a different attitude than the other kind. I also believe that these traits can be clearly identifiable in people, and that looking for them can be instructive in dealing with teachers, administrators, and pretty much everyone else. Sophie, like many people you'll encounter, sees things as she does because she's never had a bad day in her life.

In our house we have come to use the word "Sophie" as a modifier applied anyone or any behavior that  seems to stem from Sophie's particular world view. Her perspective is rooted in the fact that she feels that she had a pretty good life before we came along--she lived in a big house with her mom and litter mates; she could eat when she wanted; pee freely throughout the house--often choosing her foster mom's elderly father's slippers; she had a nice yard and not a whole lot of responsibilities. She fully believes that if we hadn't come along, someone else would have been won over by her big brown eyes and widow's peak.

This unwavering belief in one's own value and place in the world can be a little annoying in your dog, but can be tremendously advantageous for people. Consider college and scholarship applications, for example. We spend twelve years of school telling kids what they need to do to become better. Then we suddenly expect them to spend their senior year writing essays about how great they are.

When you're getting on toward middle age, as I am, it's easy to assume that this whole thing is tied to a person's age. However, while an older teacher is more likely to have been at some point along the way in a fight for his/her life with a parent, administrator, school board member, or all three at once <shudder>, it is possible to get thirty-some-odd years into your career and remain pretty damned "Sophie."

For example, we once had a district office administrator (hint: he had an office with really big desk, a closet roughly the size of the cafeteria, and a back door so that he could slip out unnoticed when necessary) who would walk into the teacher work room and tell a filthy joke before checking to see  who was there. He was thought to have taken a nap most afternoons, and spent much of the rest of his day on what we called the Pretty Girl Tour. If you were an attractive woman and didn't know about the tour, you were on the tour--sorry, but no one in the district office cares that much about issues faced by the school nurse. Down the hall was another administrator (also gone to another school--we call it "pass the trash") who would spend the last hour of her work day at yoga class, even if she was supposed to be at a meeting of a comittee she was chariring. Whatever obstacles these people faced their careers, nothing caused either to believe that any of this was a bad idea.

Like many other things, it's the fine gradations of so "Sophie" that can be so important, and what you choose to do with these qualities that matters most. Besides, the opposite end of this spectrum can be just as problematic. In dogs, it's the damaged-, twitchy-, biting-type. While dogs who know they've been rescued, like Roxie, will usually have a quirk or two--one of hers was that she had a pathological response to people in uniform (it's great when your dog becomes a snarling, foaming, teeth-gnashing mess whenever she encounters a cop)--but their most dominant trait tends to be gratitude, coupled with some insecurity. In its more extreme forms, however, the dog is so deeply damaged that the slightest provocation will make it lose control of its bodily functions.

Dealing with the human equivalent of these dogs can be especially tricky, because you begin with the assumption that you're dealing with a fairly normal level of resilience, when suddenly you wander onto an emotional landmine. That's probably what's happened when you call your kid's teacher to find out what homework they missed, and end up hearing a sobbing recount of a messy divorce. 

It's not easy to deal with the damaged-, twitchy-, biting type, but you often get a heads-up once someone has discovered one. This isn't so much the case with never-had-a-bad-day types--in fact, very often they end up being the boss of the whole place, just because no one ever told them they shouldn't be. Their qualities are the very ones we're all trying to develop: confidence, charm, stability...height... I'm not suggesting any of this is bad, but it is worth noticing. Pit bulls are widely thought to have a locking mechanism in their jaws that makes it impossible to let go once they've bitten into something. This is a myth. What they do have is a locking mechanism in their brains that make it nearly impossible to change their minds once they've got something stuck in there. When "so Sophie" people are in charge, they can take an organization in bold and exciting directions very quickly and decisively. This makes it especially important to choose carefully where you're standing when they do.