Misery loves company

The Thinker by Rodin

My eyes: they are burning. My nose: it is itching and it is sending occasional signals to my lungs to make me sneeze which I do explosively, usually three times in a row, followed by blowing my nose several times until inevitably the cycle repeats itself. In short I have a cold, or perhaps just cold symptoms. The former is more likely because for nearly two weeks my spouse has been under the weather too. She had one of these two-week killer colds last year about this time, and it is back. Until two days ago I had resisted acquiring whatever she had. It’s likely I have something else, but in spite of the regular sneezes from hell that hurts muscles in my back, this is actually a good sign. For me anyhow the cycle rarely varies. The explosive sneezing phase lasts a day or two, but it comes at the end. It takes a few more days for my voice to recover.

One can love one’s spouse while secretly wishing we weren’t sharing so much of our intimate space this way. The last two weeks have been like this, but not because I find my wife particularly grating. I’m used to her and her ways but when she suffers, which is about half the time, she won’t suffer in silence. She’ll let me know and I can’t do much but fetch things for her, offer sympathy and make occasional suggestions that get largely ignored (“why don’t you see a doctor?” “oh, it’s just a cold. there’s nothing they can do.”) until the misery reaches some unbearable zenith and then she is off to the urgent care clinic. Colds come and go but she also gets persistent migraines and other forms of headaches, as well as other chronic issues which effectively mean she spends what seems to me to be half her life, maybe more, in some form of misery. Doctors rarely give relief. She bears it as stoically as she can, which is not much. And so another day ends, a new day begins, and the pattern is likely to repeat.

We go through boxes of tissues at alarming rates but otherwise soldier on. Retirement is supposed to be about enjoying leisure but so far there hasn’t been too much of it. I go to bed later and wake up later, but the business of preparing our house for sale consumes much of my working day, otherwise I am doing consulting when there is work in my inbox. The consulting remains mostly pocket change, if $6000 so far this year is pocket change. The preparing the house for sale task though keeps going on, but there are signs of the edge of the forest. The kitchen gets repainted tomorrow and that is likely the last room to get a full coat of paint.

Between moaning in misery about her own condition, my wife chastised me today for working on the house when I am sick. Experience suggests I will spend the day sneezing regardless, so my feeling is I may as well work, which today involved mostly laying masking tape along edges of floors and cabinets in the kitchen, and painting the baseboards in that room. It’s what I do. I just sort of soldier on because if this is a cold then it’s a minor one, so I might as well keep going. It beats dwelling about how I don’t feel great. The fix up list keeps expanding somehow, but I also know our clock is running out. With my wife out of commission so much, I must take up her slack and that usually means painting something but occasionally involves some minor carpentry, shuffling off donations to places that will take them, or two nights ago, installing some new blinds in our front windows.

Despite the continuous minor construction, the house is looking good. I feel good about all the work and the $7000 or so in direct expenses so far since I retired trying to make the house look new instead of 30 years old. Yesterday I was touch up painting. A new carpet went down in the basement a couple of weeks ago. It looks good and for the first time in the 21 years we’ve been in the house, the basement actually feels warmish in the winter. The house is sort of battened down now with curb appeal, but inside there is still clutter that needs to be sorted through, windows that need cleaning, and more painting to be done. I am guessing we are about 85% done at this point. The hard stuff is largely behind us.

It sometimes seems surreal that we are likely to be moving within three to six months. We had our realtor at our house yesterday and penciled in March 1 as the date to list the house, but maybe February 1. It all depends on decisions not firmly made yet, and one involves whether to have a house constructed near where we plan to live near Northampton, Massachusetts. If so groundbreaking will have to wait until spring thaw, which is usually April 1, and construction will take about six months. House selling though is best done in the spring. It’s peak market and selling at other times of the year is problematic. This means temporary housing is likely in our future, something we are not looking forward to but will likely have to deal with. On the plus side it’s relatively easy to move 5 miles instead of 400.

Our Christmas lights are up on the porch for the last time. The tree will go up at some point too, largely because my daughter will expect one when she visits us on Christmas morning. My wife has done her Christmas shopping. I haven’t started it yet.

I taught my last class at Northern Virginia Community College last night, somewhat challenging as the cold symptoms had kicked in. The final exam is next Tuesday and that should end my fifteen-year off and on again teaching as an adjunct at the college. Teaching there feels comfortable now, so leaving this part of my life leaves me feeling wistful. I’m not sure if I will be able to find teaching opportunities where I end up. I may be closing this chapter in my life.

In retirement I thought I’d have plenty of time to exercise, but it’s challenging getting it in. Working around the house takes up much of my day, and involves a lot of moving around. I figure it counts. I walk around the neighborhood when I can but lots of rain has made walking outside problematic. The gym is still an option, but it’s hard to find the energy to go. Lately I’ve been going only every other week or so.

So that’s basically my life, at present.

Stepping through the retirement door

The Thinker by Rodin

Should retirement be scary?

Presumably the answer is no, providing you have your ducks lined up. This generally includes having a decent pension (if you are lucky enough to have one), a well stocked 401-K, maybe an IRA or two and a house that is either paid off or close to being paid off. Ideally, you would retire on something like eighty percent (or more) of your pre-retirement income. Then it’s off to do what retired people are supposed to do, which is play golf and go on plenty of Elder Hostels.

The sad reality is that many Americans simply cannot afford to retire. Many others found that they have been thrust into an early and de-facto retirement. They are laid off and no one wants to hire them because they are fifty-plus and thus old. Maybe they got an involuntary retirement with a token “thank you for working for us” one time payment of $50,000. In any event, they are too young for Medicare (age 65), too young for social security (age 62), and too old to get any affordable health insurance. They are hoping they don’t have to move into a mobile home or, failing that, a cardboard box under the freeway.

Yet people still retire all the time, often before they would like to do so, but sometimes because their stars were properly aligned. I am eligible to retire next year a few months after I turn fifty-five. I always assumed that before I retired from my somewhat senior federal job that I would have some other job lined up. Playing golf does not appeal to me, but staying busy and productive does. One way to stay busy is not to retire from my federal career. The other way is to retire from a federal career I have known for thirty challenging years and start another one.

It’s a dilemma that should be a good one, but is one that for some reason fills me with trepidation. The reason I am considering it at all is because a full time faculty position is being created at the local community college, the same college I have taught at as an adjunct off and on for eleven years. They will be interviewing candidates in the spring and the new instructor will start in the fall. Presumably, I would have an excellent chance of getting the job. They already know me and know that I am a reliable commodity who knows the material. My credentials and experience would be difficult for other candidates to match, and since the job would pay about half what I make now, they will be unlikely to fill it with someone other than an eligible retiree like me. However, with my pension as a retiree, I could teach and maintain something like my current standard of living.

So accepting the job if it is offered should not be a hard decision. I would retire from one career and formally start the next. I wouldn’t feel the pressure to play golf or spend days sitting on park benches. I would stay gainfully employed, which is probably a good idea until the house is paid off. And I like teaching, at least a good part of the time, otherwise I would have not been doing it for so long.

But instead I feel this nervousness and trepidation. In fact, a whole host of feelings I did not expect are welling up inside me. I ask myself interminable questions. Like why should I leave a job I really like? It’s rewarding, pays great and my work has achieved some note. I do sometimes feel that I’ve contributed all that I can, so there is no compelling reason to hang around if other opportunities open up, like they are doing now.

Moreover, I have also learned that teaching is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a noble profession because you have to be a bit crazy to do it. Students are often lazy and apathetic, and some of them cheat. I caught two cheating in my last class and had to flunk them, which was not a pleasant experience. Many of the classes are quite elementary, hence not too interesting to teach. And yet, there are rewards. There are always a couple of interesting and talented students in a class. Occasionally, you can make a real difference with a student. Last semester I taught a thirty something man with ADHD. I was his first attempt at college after a failure long ago. He succeeded in my class, mostly due to his hard work, but also with my help and encouragement. I may prove a pivotal transformative figure in his life. That’s neat.

Yet I expect that teaching full time would be a different experience than teaching a class or two a year in the evenings.  There are a lot of aspects of teaching that are not much fun. Lesson plans. Grading homework. Discipline. Students who blow off classes and then expect you to bend over backwards for them. In short, the job would likely be more of a challenge than the one I already have, a lot more tedious and with murky rewards. Watching a student or two in a class rise to true excellence is rewarding, but more rewarding than the work of the team I am leading? How do I top my career with the great things we have already done together? It’s a career that really excites me: watching the promise of information technology being delivered in ways that make the world a better place. Users of our system send tracking information to Google Analytics, which I can monitor in a control panel. Today I marveled watching the real-time usage of our site in Google Analytics, which reported 350-450 active visitors at one time, with five or more web pages being sent every second. That’s an accomplishment, certainly not something I can claim credit for, but which I certainly orchestrated.

And yet any meaning from my job is something I alone ascribe to it. Retiring from my federal job would be closing a thirty-year door on my life, but another door would open, different but potentially more rewarding. One thing I am reasonably certain about: when the door closes on my federal career, it closes for good. I would step into a much different and more challenging world, one that may piss me off more than please me. One that may ultimately say to me: what the hell were you thinking?

And while I might close a door behind me, there would be tendrils from that past that would follow and affect the rest of my life. A pension is as good as gold, at least until Congress in a fit of austerity decides it doesn’t want to pay it, or decides to reduce it. If history is a guide, it won’t happen, but you never know. There are no certainties in life, not even from Uncle Sam. In any event, drawing a good salary today guarantees more security than the promise of a pension at half pay once out of it.

I’ll figure my way through this bittersweet dilemma. Life is about living and life is defined by change. Life may be offering me a new opportunity, meaningful in new ways but still meaningful. If offered the job, the real dilemma will be finding the courage to step through that door.

The virtues and pitfalls of fellowship

The Thinker by Rodin

Ever notice how people tend to congregate with people who act and behave a lot like them? I am no exception. I live in a middle class suburb, quite similar to the one I grew up in, with people mostly of my race and around my income level. Our weekends are spent on domestic things like mowing grass and trimming hedges.

Why did I seek this lifestyle instead of hanging on to my old lifestyle, which was living in a townhouse in a truly diverse community? In part it was because I got promoted and could afford a single family house. But I also didn’t like the teenager next door persistently sitting on the hood of our Camry while he smoked, who continued even when repeatedly asked to stop. I’d never do that with his car, or turn up the bass on my stereo so his floorboards rattled. I shared similar values with many of my neighbors, but not with some, particularly those renting next door. So when opportunity presented itself, I skedaddled to a community that did share my values. Here typically the only noise I hear from my neighbors is if they turn on their leaf blower. No one sits on my car hood anymore either, because my car is parked on my property, not communal property. I am happier when people that share my values live around me.

It has been remarked that Unitarian Universalists like me are principally a lot of liberal, upper income, predominantly white people. That is true of the UU church that I attend, although we do have a handful of African American members now as well as a few other families from other races and cultures. In our unison affirmation at every service we covenant to “help one another in fellowship.” Now there’s a strange world: fellowship. It’s so archaic that I had to look up the definition:

The condition of sharing similar interests, ideals, or experiences, as by reason of profession, religion, or nationality.

Fellowship is basically enjoying spending time with people a lot like you. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy going to services: not only do I hear great sermons, but services are followed by coffee and conversation: code words for fellowship. There I try not to eat too many carbohydrates while chatting mostly with liberal white guys and ladies and discussing issues near and dear to us, like the building expansion. I also practice fellowship by attending my covenant group meeting at the church once a month: more time to interact with smart white people, share our travails and joys, and to discuss some issue of the heart.

I’m not a Rotarian, Lions Club member, Masonite, or Knights of Columbus member, but they are all principally doing the same thing: practicing fellowship. Fellowship seems a bit unnatural to us liberals, even though we guiltily enjoy it. Surely we should be using our time to help the poor or save the earth or something. Instead, we are busy engaging in fellowship. The actual doing of that other stuff is somewhat harder, at least in person. It’s much easier to give money to charities. If I start handing out food to poor people, I may get grateful looks but some teenager may also decide to sit on the hood of my car. That would not be cool.

It turns out America is all about fellowship, and our fellowship is often fierce and insular. Texas governor Rick Perry represents a certain kind of fellowship: almost exclusively conservative Republican white guys and their spouses from Texas with evangelical roots and humble beginnings. He won’t hang out much with George W. Bush, who is also a conservative Republican, but really only gave lip service to religion and evangelicals, is a faux Texan and never had to worry about bills because Daddy always had his back. No wonder they reputedly don’t get along.

Americans love to self-segregate. We mostly unconsciously surround ourselves by yes men who largely parrot our values. Hear enough of it and when you hear something outside of your bubble your tendency is to be hostile toward it.

Yet we do need to escape our bubbles now and then, because too much fellowship leads toward insular outlooks, warped perspectives and ultimately a false picture of how the world is and what is required to fit inside it. It turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do that, because it requires an open mind, an open heart and finding the courage within yourself to admit that, hey, maybe I am insular. And maybe it came from too much fellowship.

And yet I have found out that fellowship does have merit. I find enormous satisfaction is simply having a community of fellows: people a lot like me that I can bounce ideas off and know I will get heard. In many cases these people may superficially look like me, but they often have life experiences they can share that are outside my experience. Of course, it tends to be easier to consider these ideas when they come from people you perceive as peers.

One way I step outside my comfort circle is by teaching. I teach a course or two a year at a community college. It gives me some satisfaction, but when I teach I am also deliberately moving into a zone of potential discomfort. I am not a peer, I am a teacher, which makes me something of a leader and judge. And unlike in my congregation, neighborhood or even at work, few white middle class faces stare back at me from across my desk. Instead, I see lots of hues. I see people working two or three jobs and still trying to fit college into their lives. I see more women than men. I see a plurality of people from India and Pakistan. Communicating with them is sometimes a struggle, because we both have to struggle through cultural, language and age barriers. At the end of a class I am frequently wrung out. However, I do return home feeling like I have a truer understanding of the community I live in than if I had stayed home instead. By stepping outside my comfort zone, I have developed empathy for the tough lives that so many people endure for just the chance for real middle class prosperity.

I hope you do something to step outside your comfy circle of fellows, at least semi-regularly. It grounds and centers you. It also makes you appreciate the comfort of fellowship in more measured doses. Last week I traveled all the way to Tacoma, Washington and back. Yet it was like I never left home: the same sorts of people and the same conveniences of modern living were available 2300 miles away, right down to the Starbucks on the corner. For a truly grounding experience, I merely had to drive a dozen miles to campus, stand in front of a room full of students, speak and listen. Last night, as is true of most nights after teaching, I felt that I learned far more than I taught.

Random thoughts running around my brain, Part 2

The Thinker by Rodin

It helps to write an occasional topic-less post. Seinfeld was always fun to watch, and it was a show about nothing. So it’s okay to have a post that is the same way from time to time, like this one, where more random thoughts running around my brain make it to electronic paper.

  • Who do I really admire? Those who can refrain from overeating on Thanksgiving. That requires willpower I do not have. All I can do is limit the damage, which means lots of protein (eggs) with breakfast, exercise (a two and a half mile walk, in my case) and try (but not always succeeding) not going for seconds. The best way for me not to succumb to food temptations is to keep them out of my house. On Thanksgiving, like the cornucopia, they overflow in abundance and I am sucked into their vortex.
  • As frequent readers know, my wife and I are now proud owners of a new 2011 Subaru Impreza. It’s my wife’s first “new” car just for her. She can have it. I drove it for the first time yesterday. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I just don’t like it. She chose a manual transmission. It took a full minute for me to remember how to start the car (press down on the clutch, then turn the key). It’s been at least five years since I drove a stick and it now seems unnatural and bothersome. It did not shift particularly smoothly and because its pistons are mounted horizontally instead of vertically, the car feels like it wiggles sometimes, particularly when shifting to higher gears.
  • Subarus are just so chick cars. I had heard this, but thought it was just a stereotype. It is not. This became clear to me when I spent some time reviewing the glossy Subaru Impreza brochure my wife brought home from the dealer. Every page is meticulously designed to appeal to women, not men. All the photographs and illustrations are ever so carefully arranged photographs to carry a common woman-orient theme. Woman driving Subaru with dog in the window. Happy families. Women in jeans, model thin, in tight blouses running on lawns. Women lounging on the grass in front of their Subarus. Subarus parked in front of art galleries and coffee shops. On every page comforting female words: made to last, affordable, efficient, smart investment, built for living, stability, control, economical (well, maybe not at 23 mpg), agile, dog-friendly. What they won’t say: Subarus are just not sexy cars, they are practical and reliable cars. They ooze ordinary. If this is my wife’s midlife crisis mobile, she should have gone for something sexier rather than a car so relentlessly practical. I tend to buy practical as well, but Subaru make it a fetish.
  • With the purchase of the Subaru Impreza, our oldest car is now just six years old. I think this means my lifestyle is finally catching up with my income. I’m glad to be driving my Honda Civic Hybrid again, instead of a boxy, oversized Honda Odyssey I never liked.
  • Just why was it that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats? It’s like they have a death wish. Democrats rescued Wall Street, which now vilifies them because of consumer protection laws designed to keep them from doing the same stupid things again. Democrats kept a nation from collapsing into another Great Depression, saved our banks and financial institution, and kept our car industry and the huge ecosystem associated with the car industry. They even gave enormous tax breaks to business, just like Republicans. With friends like Wall Street, who needs enemies? While most Americans are struggling, businesses are enjoying record profits and refusing to use their profits to hire Americans. If Wall Street had any lick of sense, they would be promoting Democrats, not pillorying them. If I were President Obama, I’d say enough is enough and every day call attention to these record profits that are not being used to put Americans back to work. Heck, if they won’t hire Americans, I would campaign to raise taxes for big businesses. A populist campaign would also be a compelling 2012 campaign theme.
  • There’s a new Harry Potter movie out and I just don’t care to go see it, not even in IMAX. In fact, if I do see it, it won’t be in IMAX. My eardrums and neck still hurt from my last IMAX movie experience.
  • I am sick of being middle aged. The cardiologist keeps playing with my heart medications and giving me twenty-four hour Holter monitor tests. In spite of the surgery I had earlier this year, I still have foot and thigh nerve problems. Sitting is a painful endeavor and physical therapy hasn’t really made the problem go away. I cannot stand all day and earn a living. Ouch and more ouch.
  • And speaking of middle age, one scary statistic from this news report jumped out at me: “The poll finds that two in five men between 45 and 65 having problems with sexual functioning. Only 19 percent of female boomers say the same. For both genders, less than half received treatment.” That explains the overwhelming number of drug ads for sexual dysfunction. If only the magic blue pill also made older men actually want to have sex. Women, would it be too much to ask you to diet and exercise? Yeah, I know, you want us men to do the same thing.
  • I’m getting used to having a stepmother. She is old fashioned, so I addressed her by my father’s last name, which she liked. There is a lot to like about Marie. My dad chose well. My guilty thought of the day: I may like her better than my late mother. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that she did not have to raise me, so she comes with no baggage. Anyhow, my father and stepmother graced us with their presence and appetite for Thanksgiving, and showed us pictures of their honeymoon in Switzerland, which we watched on our high definition TV.
  • Speaking of Thanksgiving, the cat enjoyed the occasional scraps of turkey we threw his way last night. And he is being very useful making a rug of himself on my lap as I blog.
  • It makes so much of a difference to teach a higher-level class. The material is more interesting to teach, the students are awake and interested, and they are just interesting people in general. I will miss teaching them when class ends in a few weeks. This is why I got into teaching part time. Unfortunately, when you teach in a community college, you are much more likely to get a class full of students who would rather be somewhere else and would just as soon tune you out.
  • When I feel despondent about the state of the world, it helps to facilitate the youth group at my church. They are such a wonderful group of engaging, thoughtful, sensitive and humane youth. Perhaps with future leaders like these we are not necessarily doomed as a species, although I sometimes think we deserve to be. I hope to blog more about them in the future.

Little Cherubs

The Thinker by Rodin

During services, we parishioners know the cue. At the Unitarian Universalist church that I attend, it is a song from our hymnal. It begins “As we leave this friendly place.” We stand when we sing it. Until this moment, the children have been up near the front of the sanctuary. They have been half listening to the minister or the Director of Religious education tell them a story. With the first bar of the familiar hymn the children, roughly ages five through twelve, exit the sanctuary and head downstairs. It is Sunday school time.

From downstairs, where I am preparing to greet them, I can sense their imminent arrival from the rumble of the floorboards above me. For this week, I am their Sunday school teacher. One thing is for sure: it will not be a dull class. On a typical Sunday, there are about a dozen children in my class, ranging from first through fifth grade. They cascade down the stairs and head straight for the back classroom where I and another teacher are waiting for them. On this day, I am their primary teacher. The backup teacher is there to help if needed, but also to ensure I do not molest any of them. Not that my church members are paranoid or anything, but we have to explicitly declare that we will not engage in any inappropriate behavior.Nor are we allowed to be alone without another responsible adult present.

For some reason, there are few things that I find more terrifying than grade school children. Therefore, I find it a bit ironic that I am here, busily setting up chairs, arranging tables and distributing art supplies. I taught Sunday school about five years ago to some Junior High school students. Since then I gave it a pass. Nevertheless, when the church was one teacher short last fall I decided it was time to get off my duff and volunteer.

Teaching the Junior High students was fun. Yes, like most their age they were overcommitted and scattershot about attending. However, we were able to go on some neat field trips, for we were learning about other faiths. Unitarian Universalists may be unique in that we have no creed. We feel part of our mission is to help each person find their own authentic faith. My junior high students got an eyeful and an earful that year. From being proselytized after services at a Mormon Church, to an incense-filled trip to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, to a two-hour plus service at a black Pentecostal church where the patrons were literally dancing in the aisles, they got some fascinating exposure to the world of divergent faiths.

For this new group though it was back to basics. Did they know about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? This teaching comes by default in most Christian churches. (Arguably Unitarian Universalists are not Christian, although their roots are in Christianity.) For the most part the stories of Moses, David and Goliath and Solomon are all new to them. There will be no boring lecture for these students. They need to keep their hands busy. They do get a reading. Then it is quickly time for arts and crafts. For a few weeks, we worked on a paper mural describing the story of Moses. A couple weeks later we were writing the Ten Commandments (somewhat sanitized — trying to explain adultery for a third grader is a bit much) on “stone” (cardboard) tablets.

What you do not know from week to week is whether you will impart any actual learning on these children. We do our best, but in many ways, it depends on serendipity. Sometimes the children are on the warpath. There are siblings in the class and sometimes their mission is to make life miserable for their sibling. Mostly what these children are are, well, children. Consequently that means they have short attention spans and all sorts of needs for attention. So it’s “She’s hitting me” and “Can I get a drink of water?” and “He’s not being fair” and “I don’t want to” and infinite variations in between. The only question is whether it will all cascade out into a toxic group dynamics situation.

That usually depends on the success of the first few minutes. Can the children be organized and stay focused? If so, then you are likely to have a good Sunday school experience. Otherwise, watch out. If nothing else teaching younger children has reinforced to me that I do not have a calling as an elementary school teacher. I do not know how teachers do it year after year after year for five days a week. The chaos is constant. If you are lucky, only a couple children will be misbehaving at a given moment. In the worst cases, it becomes a free for all. I am sure elementary school teachers get training in how to deal with it. I suspect though that they learn to cope. You teach in between the plentiful periods of chaos.

I too have learned a few things about elementary school children. One thing I have learned is that while children are not geniuses, all children are master emotional manipulators. It is instinctive with them. They know how to play off parents, how to anger a sibling in five words or less, how to devastate someone’s feelings, and how to work persistently to get what they want from someone. While they may not be able to persevere at their ABC’s, they are relentless when it comes to getting what they want. They will keep up the Chinese water torture technique as long as necessary until results are achieved.

I have one girl who goes into tears at the drop of a hat. Psychologists might call her “emotionally sensitive”. Maybe she is, maybe she is not. However, she certainly is good at pulling strings. She knows crying will get her some attention, be it good or bad. Other children are quiet and introspective. Others engage in annoying habits or simply head off in random directions at the slightest impulse. Others are itching for a fight. My job is to impart a little learning. Sometimes I succeed. It is hard to measure results.

While the adult in me finds these traits annoying, I am still attracted to their enormous energy. If an adult is a 100-watt light bulb, children on a bad day are going at 1000 watts. Most are incredibly curious. Yet they will flit from thing to thing as fits their feelings and the context of the moment. What I find neatest about these children is how incredibly alive they are. Life just radiates out of them. They are wholly engaged in this thing called living. Moreover, they are still self centered enough to think that we all exist to help or amuse them.

For me the most gratifying aspects of teaching them are not imparting some old Bible stories. They are those few moments when I can pierce through their defenses and tap into some positive aspect of them. The emotionally sensitive girl, for example, reacted quite well when at a quiet spot I would seek her out and tell her simply that I liked her. Her eyes brightened up.

Personal attention: that is what their world is about. They all want it, even the ones who appear withdrawn. What they really need though is someone who can understand and complement something unique about themselves. They like to hear it. They want to know they are not just another kid at a desk, but someone with unique gifts and talents. Their appetite for such attention is boundless.

This apparently is my real mission on those Sunday mornings when I teach. As they go through school, they will meet a myriad of adults. They need to hear from all of us, even though our acquaintance may be ephemeral, that they are both good and special. Despite my initial misgivings, I found that I get something from them too. For a while, I can put away some of my cares and concerns. For a while, I can bask in the pleasure they take in being so passionately, painfully and gloriously alive. Sometimes when I head to work the next morning, I succeed in carrying that energy forward into my adult world. Sometimes on Mondays after teaching, instead of shuffling off to work, I walk with a bit of a spring in my step, a smile on my face, and with a fresh reminder of a time when life was full of enormous possibilities.

Thanks kids.

College Pretenders

The Thinker by Rodin

The community college system was invented to make college affordable and available locally to ordinary people. You don’t need a 3.8 average to get into most community colleges. You generally need either a high school diploma or a G.E.D. For those who come from families of modest means paying for two years of education at a community college at a rate of $72 a credit hour (where I teach) is a bargain.

Perhaps it is because the tuition is so inexpensive that it is so easy to throw in the towel. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Yesterday I finished yet another semester teaching a course at Northern Virginia Community College. As usual as I recorded the final grades I felt dispirited. But I shouldn’t feel this way. It’s been the same way since I started teaching back in 2000.

I started the semester with 24 students. It had been a long time since I had a nearly full class. So I had some hopes that maybe this semester would be different. As I do at the start of every semester I went through the syllabus with the class to make sure my students knew my expectations. I told them that to succeed in the class it would take an average of four to eight hours of study per week, plus time for the projects. I emphasized how important it was not to rely on my slides alone but to read the assigned chapters in advance. I advised students to underline areas that were unclear and be prepared to participate in class. I said they needed to turn in their homework promptly so that I could give them feedback promptly. I told them I had office hours after every class. If they didn’t understand anything or had any issues they needed to see me during office hours or email me so we could work through their problems. I told them this was a medium level course. It was not English 101, but neither was it Calculus. It would move at a fairly brisk pace. Still, it was a college course. This was not high school.

Since I lecture from Powerpoint slides, I provided them with handouts of my slides. For most lectures I had several examples that I created that we could go through together as a class. Particularly in the first half of the semester we had regular labs. And if this was not enough to cement learning I started out every class with a review of the previous class. Since the class meets once a week, sometimes just reviewing the last class consumed an hour of class time.

So you would think that a student would have all the tools necessary to excel. But the most important tool is motivation. And that is the one tool I cannot supply. The sad fact of the matter is that many community college students simply lack motivation. When push comes to shove I strongly suspect that their coursework comes last. I’m not sure what they are doing with their time. Perhaps they are working three jobs in addition to going to class and are simply exhausted. Perhaps they are downloading smut or doing roll-playing games on line instead of reading and homework. Perhaps they are high on drugs or intoxicated by beer.

So what happened to my twenty-four students this semester? Here is the final tally. Five students simply withdrew from the course. Three decided to audit the class. That left 16 students who were going to try for a grade. In other words a third of the class dropped out or decided getting credit for the course was too much hassle.

Of the sixteen one guy showed up for the first class then stopped coming. He got an F, of course. But we appreciated the money he gave the college. Perhaps he can write his tuition off as a charitable donation. Of the remaining 15 three got F’s. There was 1 D, 3 C’s, 3 B’s and 4 A’s. One grade is incomplete but the woman will likely pass with a B. So out of 24 students, only 50% will have a passing grade.

Looking at the grading sheet of those who got C’s, D’s and F’s it’s pretty easy to understand what happened. For one thing, these students kept skipping class. They were there one week and the next week they couldn’t be bothered. The class starts at 9 AM on Saturday mornings. Perhaps they were out late partying Friday night. But I suspect the real reason is that they just didn’t care. They had nothing vested in the class. Perhaps their parents were prodding them to go to school but they really didn’t want to go. Perhaps lectures and labs was just not their thing. Perhaps they managed to catch colds every other week shortly before class.

But also these students were very scattershot about turning in homework. Like attendance, homework was 10% of the grade so it did count for something. In previous semesters homework was often turned in weeks late, when it was turned in at all. Some of the more brazen students had simply copy and pasted my posted solutions and turned those in. This semester I changed the policy: students had two weeks and no more to turn in homework and receive credit for it. But many students apparently didn’t care enough to do the work. And in the process they didn’t get the practice they needed so they could do well on the projects. So they set themselves up for failure.

And some couldn’t be bothered to turn in projects. I went the extra mile and sent out email notifications to those who did not turn in their projects on time. Mostly I heard nothing. One student said he was having problems. I said turn it in. Even partial credit is better than no credit when the final project is 20% of our grade! But he didn’t. I figure he never even started the project.

I’ve taught enough courses now to have a pretty good idea who is going to succeed and who isn’t. If their eyes are glazed over or closed they are not paying attention. Almost without exception students who come from India or China will do well. Two of the four students who received A’s were from India. The only other Indian in the class received a B. Usually if the students are fresh out of high school or twenty something they lack motivation. I wonder why that is. Do they suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder? Did they skate through high school pulling C’s and expect that they could skate through college with the same strategy?

Do students today even learn how to study? A lot of my students can’t be bothered to take notes. It seems they expect it all to be handed to them. It appears they think a course is something that can be worked on when it suits them. They don’t seem to understand there are consequences for falling behind.

And every semester I see some new twists from students trying to make the course easier for them. This semester I found one couple who were apparently living with each other and taking the course together. The woman tended to miss every other class but no matter. Her boyfriend was there taking the notes. Naturally they wanted to do their final project as a team, something I allowed in the past. But I strongly suspect the boyfriend did the entire project. In another case two guys were partners in a small business. In yet another case a guy who did his homework let the other guy sitting next to him copy and paste it and turn it in. Apparently some students have no ethical grounding. I guess they figure if the can download illegal music with impunity why not do the same with their homework. Why would this be a problem?

As I noted back in 2002, I am a karmic facilitator. It’s a shame though that even though I provide karmic lessons for so many of my students that the lessons seem to bounce right off them.

I am scheduled to teach another course in a couple weeks during the summer semester. I have seven enrolled students so I doubt it will go forward. It is just as well. I try not to take these failures by my students personally. My boss assures me this happens in all the classes. But after this dispiriting semester I need to recharge to go through this whole cycle again in the fall.

The Cost of Indoctrination

The Thinker by Rodin

I went to public school in Florida in the early 1970s. As part of a requirement for graduation all students were required by the state to take a course called “Americanism vs. Communism”. As I recall it lasted a quarter and was part of what would otherwise pass for a history credit.

The course purported to clearly distinguish between the American way of life and the totalitarian/fascist nature of communist governments. In it I learned more than I ever expected to about communist theories and leaders. Our class even had a guest speaker who had lived behind the Iron Curtain. She provided a first hand account of what it was like to live in a totalitarian state. I confess after completing the “course” I had no desire to become a communist. But I had none before the course either.

Yet the course has bothered me to this day. And this was because it was not really learning. It was indoctrination, courtesy of the Florida state legislature. While it certainly had its educational aspects, it was neither fair nor balanced. No communists were invited to counterpoint. No mention was made that Communism was a direct result of the brutal oppression of the Russian people. Nor was the very real exploitation of the workers at the time (both in Europe and here in the United States) and the fact that laborers lived lives in poverty with no hope of a better future given any mention as the conditions that bred communism. The course was really about the evils of communism as perceived through the lenses of a nation twenty years or so into The Cold War. It did not provide a genuine understanding of communism. It did not provide context. It was not really education.

At the time this was an isolated example. Today though students have to pass more and more “courses” that are really just indoctrination. In some cases the courses are worse than indoctrination. Why? Because they present themselves as unbiased when they clearly are not.

The best example that I can think of is the modern sex education course taught in our public schools. In many school districts abstinence is openly preferred. Indeed this is Bush Administration policy. Any suggestion that sexual curiosity between boys and girls of that age might be natural is rebuffed. Homosexuality is often not discussed, and when discussed is discussed in a tightly scripted way so that the size and scope of homosexuality is difficult for the student to understand. In many school districts masturbation is not discussed. Even discussing birth control is off limits for many students. Instead of discussing sexuality in context, sex education has become a discussion of the potential horrors of premarital sex. It does little to give a student any idea how to actually cope with their feelings. Sex education has become indoctrination. It usually fails to present the balanced set of information needed by students to make informed choices.

In Cobb County, Georgia school officials require a sticker on biology textbooks indicating that the Theory of Evolution is simply a theory, and not a fact. The educators in that school district are apparently not sufficiently advanced to understand there are multiple definitions for theory. The first definition is “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena” not “An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture”, which is the least used definition. Nor apparently could they be bothered to find out from scientists which definition applies to the Theory of Evolution. Hint: it’s not the second. Another school district in Pennsylvania wants to require students to also learn about so-called “Intelligent Design Theory”. And you can be certain that if this theory is discussed no mention that it falls into the “assumption” category of theories will be made. It’s much easier to talk about theories in general and let every crackpot theory in than to limit discussion to theories with actual merit.

Let’s be clear what is going on here. Increasingly we are sending this message to our children: we don’t want you to have the best-known information. We will tell you what the truth is. But our version of the truth is based on our faith and prejudices, not on an impartial assessment of the facts. We think it is better to ignore certain facts, present facts selectively, and provide alternative viewpoints with no basis in reasoned analysis than to present the modern understanding of the current world put together by academics with no axe to grind. The message is pretty much this: it’s okay for us to lie to you. It’s for your own good.

So what is the purpose of education then? How does a student handle the real world without a clear understanding of it? Increasingly our children cannot. Perhaps this is why although global warming is as much a theory as is the Theory of Evolution we’d rather live in denial. Those pesky, abstract, non-biased scientists can be really annoying telling us things we don’t want to hear.

Imagine if driver’s education course included no mention of what to do if you see a stop sign. Most of us would be appalled to put our children in the driver’s seat without this basic understanding. But for many of us parents we would rather pamper our prejudices than do what is best for our kids: just give them the best-known facts. Life will be complicated enough for them in the 21st century. Why make it needlessly difficult?

Where is our sort of brave new world thinking also happening? I bet you can find it resurgent throughout the Muslim world. It’s been going on in the Vatican for millennium. Spanish bishops are still scared to admit that condoms prevent sexually transmitted diseases. I bet you won’t find this sort of wishy washy learning happening in most of today’s emerging high tech economies. I bet in India “Intelligent Design” is not taught along with the Theory of Evolution. Guess which society is going to be better prepared to move and adapt to the future?

There is a cost to ignorance. There is a cost to selectively presenting the facts. There is a cost to lying. For a country that claims to worship freedom, it’s odd that we won’t give our children the freedom to learn free from our own petty biases. Let’s give our students the freedom to see the clearest picture of the universe, as we know it. We do them no favor by placing them in a world where they must always engage with one arm tied behind their backs.

Back to School

The Thinker by Rodin

After more than a year off from teaching it’s back to the classroom tomorrow morning. It appears that (ever so slowly) information technology (IT) is becoming hip again. The collapse of the dot com world followed by the outsourcing of IT jobs made students leery about investing time and money in IT. So lots of proposed classes ended up canceled and I took up other interests, like blogging. But the economy must be slowly improving. And apparently not every IT job can be outsourced. So community college students are trickling back into web technology courses again.

The course I am teaching is a basic HTML course, with a dash of cascading style sheets and Javascript thrown in. I’ve taught it at least three times before. At this point it has become a low maintenance course. The slides are tweaked from semester to semester to keep them current. But the lesson plans, projects and even the exams are pretty static. This is good because I already have a lot on my plate already. I agreed to teach the class with some misgivings.

Those misgivings include my parents, now 30 miles away instead of 600 miles away, and my 84-year-old mother who spent two late nights at the emergency room over the last week alone. I opted for the Saturday class since it fits my schedule and allowed me to travel as business needs dictate. I just didn’t hear from my boss at the college that I had actually been assigned the course I requested. By that time we had tickets to see shows in Canada. So I missed my first class. Fortunately the college found a substitute. I offered to let someone else teach the course, but my boss declined. I guess she knows I teach a quality course.

One of the saddest things about teaching at a community college is to see how many students are student wannabees. As an introductory course my course is often their first real college experience. And while you can get a fine education at a community college at a bargain rate it is still incumbent on the student to actually perform at the college level. So many of them arrive with the high school mentality and figure they can skate by in a community college too.

The community college offers guidance, counseling and numerous other programs to help students. Yet it appears that many of my students don’t know about them or won’t take the time to attend. In a typical semester about half the class drops out or mysteriously fade away.

Of course I warn my students orally and I put it in the syllabus: the average student needs 4-8 hours a week plus time for projects. They need to read the material in advance, not hear me restate it. If they find themselves lost or confused by the material then they need to call me or see me after class. Yet so many of my students find that when the rubber meets the road they have other priorities. Often it is a job: the boss wants them to work late. Often they are working two or more jobs. Sometimes a child gets sick and they have no backup, or figure it doesn’t matter if they skip a class or two or four.

Still I feel something of a failure when this happens. It will probably happen again this semester. But this time I am determined to try harder to stem the attrition rate. I truly want every student to succeed. I have to get better at coaching my students. They need more encouragement from me. I certainly have tried to be encouraging in the past but I need to try harder.

So today I was at the Northern Virginia Community College campus in Sterling acting as much like a student as a professor. I waited in line at the campus police office for my parking sticker just like everyone else. It was good to be there on a Friday because teaching a Saturday class gives you a false perspective. I get lots of working adults when I teach on Saturdays. On a Friday the campus is full of young adults. There were times when I felt youthful being among them. In my own 47-year-old way I still feel youthful. Seeing so many fair faced young ladies in shorts or short skirts, many with ample bosoms on display almost made me feel like I could start flirting with them. I had to forcefully remind myself I was not 18 anymore. As an instructor and a married man I was allowed to look, but not to flirt and certainly not to touch. And anyhow, ick! If I were 18 I’d want nothing to do with some 47 year old!

I find that despite the heartaches of teaching at a community college it is still rewarding. When I see a student succeed I feel like I have accomplished something important. I particularly like the students who pick up my enthusiasm about information technology. The best students will see me as not someone they need to accommodate in order to get a good grade, but as a man with a lot of valuable knowledge and perspective that can lead them into an exciting career.

I learned recently that I am less than eight years from retirement. That still boggles my mind but as a civil servant I am allowed to retire at age 55. But I don’t think I will stop working. Teaching is often hard work but I seem to have the bug. It would make an excellent next career. Perhaps after I retire I will be looking for full time openings at NVCC. I know I’ll never get rich on their salaries but my pension will pay the bills. It may be that my current job is yet another springboard for my last and most important career: teaching.