"Then again, if I don't do this, who will? If not now, when?"
Date: Thu, 21 May 1998 12:38:14 -0700
From: Erin Rosenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To: Richard Geib (email@example.com)
Subject: What Society Needs to Face Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit Hi Richard. It is with terrible sadness that I write to you on the day that a most bloody rampage took place in an Oregon high school. I am horrified to see this tragedy unfold in front of a nation seemingly lax to the shocking reality of violence.This is a terrible tragedy-in motion. It has not ended yet. This is more than about hugging adolescents and making them feel accepted and wanted. This is about a new era of violence in American society-especially in American high schools. While it is true that adolescents are being neglected and their self-esteem is being damaged more than in the past, that is not the principal factor in their choosing to take lives. Their motives may stem from abuse from parents or a system that prevents teachers from helping their students , but their choices may also originate from a deeper more universal source. Perhaps it's our society's fascination with violence and the amazing amount of money flow that comes from the production of violence that has poisoned the minds of our adolescents. The solution is not so much to have adolescents share their feelings with teachers at school and gain acceptance in the school community much as it is to teach adolescents about other ways of life than the violent ones we see on TV and in films. Let's show our adolescents that the world can be a beautiful place without violence. Simply hugging them and saying you're ok won't do it. We need to reeducate our youth. But the price for the violent society we've created won't go away soon. And the price keeps getting higher. Metal detectors and massive searching at school may tragically become the new norm for this age of violence that our society has so eagerly bought into. Are we not ashamed?
By all means go ahead and Teach for America! Just leaving my 20s, I think that whole painful (for me, at least) decade is about finding out who you are (they tell me the 30s are about consequently finding out where you fit in the world). As such, I cannot really offer you much advice - but you know that. If you feel gung ho about working with inner-city youth and are ready to be 100% present to the life and job, by all means go ahead. I do not regret my time in that capacity - although I would rather eat glass than do that again. Everyone has their comfort zone, and maybe that kind of lifestyle really does it for you.
I now teach wealthy children and it is a much better job. To put it more exactly: my children actually want to learn and know how to read and write, etc., and their parents will kill them if they don't do well. My current students also seem much happier (if more needier in some ways) than my former poor ones. At the same time, teaching is teaching and there are the same stresses and bad days. Today, for example, was a very bad teaching day and I was just as pissed off at these teenagers as I used to get back in the ghetto. Past a certain point, kids are kids - no matter where they come from. And teaching is teaching - you have to prepare, get up in front of people, and then TEACH. It can be tedious and requires the utmost patience, as you probably know by now. I caution people from entering teaching unless they come with almost a quasi-religious vocation for the career. Working in a "problem area" just magnifies things since more and more is dumped onto your lap without much forthcoming in the way of help. But then you are in your early twenties and (hopefully) full of energy to engage all these problems in your classroom. As for me now, I get deathly tired just thinking about them. But then I am at a different stage of my life and the perspective is changed.
If you want to be a teacher, the ghetto can be a great place to get your "combat" immersion training. I see these private school teachers where I work complain about things and I just have to laugh. Being an inner-city teacher can be a unique teaching experience. You can be exposed to certain things that are challenging and interesting. But my experience had more to do with misery, desperation, and just a mess which would break one's heart. You talk about "resources" and the fact that you and I have them and others don't. I would counter that it is more precisely called "education," and even if you and I have not five cents ("resources") to our names we will always be different than a lot of people in the ghetto simply because of our educations (using that word in the broadest sense). As Epictetus claimed, "Only the educated are free."
I respect very much your decision to "try to ameliorate the conditions in some of the worst neighborhoods in the country." However, the lack of education and ignorance in those communities is huge - a vast darkness stretching out into the distance. With an honest devotion and bone crunching workload, you will be bringing the light of education to a small part of that darkness and you need be happy with that; for every one success you might have four or five failures. You talk about "helping hand, shoulder, ears, shoves"... but don't forget that you - no matter what you do - are going to be an authority figure in the eyes of students who for that reason are often going to even pay hardly any attention to you. The view from behind the teacher's desk is very different from that out in the rows of students (responsibility, etc.) - but then you probably already know that. But I still believe that a young person struggling to succeed against the tide is a special thing and they need good devoted teachers as much as anyone else - maybe more than other people. But you need to be able to get past those failures you will have - those many failures. Very much a job for the half-full glass of water people, I reckon.
On the other hand, I always think there is something missing from the lives of those people who took the easy route their whole lives. Their virtue seems lifeless and narrow; they do not have a larger vision of humanity and the human condition. They are a bit boring - I always felt more at home in some Mexican ghetto restaurant than a yuppie hang-out with the money chasers. If you look in my webpages you will see lots of stupid but exciting places I have lived and traveled to in my 20s. That is the time to do it. If you really have guts, I would travel around the world with five dollars in my pocket doing odd jobs here and there. Move to New York and become a writer, living on thirty dollars a week! But become a teacher because you are called to it and not because you need a paycheck. Teaching is a job which leaves you exhausted at the end of the day. If you want to do something else besides teach, do it. Because after teaching you are not going to have much energy to do anything else. You will be a wage slave and have a career, with all the good and bad that entails. If I were 20, I would head out for the highway in search of adventure; being an adult is overrated. (Did you check out my Europe journal?) Last year I discovered that I had worked like a bitch for almost five productive but traumatic years which flew by like the wind. So I quit my job and went to Paris, Hong Kong, Argentina and Chile. You can always work out the money deal, one way or another.
But I ramble. I applaud your precocity; at twenty years of age, I was more concerned with seducing the co-ed in the front of the lecture hall than with such weighty questions as you pose. Then again only taking your putative first "grown-up" steps, you will probably take some missteps, doubling backs, wrong turns, re-evaluations, as well as hitting your stride, etc. exactly as I did when I was your age. And none of this career crap is as important as your loves and losses, hopes and dreams, etc. But I wish you much luck in your adventure, Victoria, no matter where it takes you. But for God's sake get out of the university - that place is the death of the soul!
Very Truly Yours,
At 01:04 PM 1/12/98 CST, you wrote:
Dear Mr. Geib,
I have given your response a great deal of thought and discussed it at length with my family, friends, and co-workers. Indeed, I sent in my Teach for America application this morning, but ...I am torn. I know, I know: I'm twenty, it's my job to be torn.
You see, if I could do anything - anything at all - I'd train horses. I'd buy myself a hundred acres in Wyoming, a dozen horses, and just ...live. Quietly. I am by no means a quiet person; my second career choice would be acting, but I'm afraid I'm not much good at that. I love teaching, I really do, and I have dreams of teaching hearing kids and deaf kids and then building my own school and teaching at a university ...but I don't want to. Isn't that awful? I don't want to. I'll never admit it, but I don't think I ever grew out of my childhood wish "for a pony."
I am an excellent teacher. I started teaching one class to two grades, and now it has expanded to six classes in si grades, with other teachers asking me to guest teach in their classrooms, other schools offering me positions, and community groups asking me to teach from their youngest to their most senior groups. I'm warm and enthusiastic and ...well, whatever else most people expect out of a female elementary school teacher ...and I love doing it ...but I want to act and write and draw and ride and I just don't see any opprtunity for doing that - and I'm really good at finding and making opprtunities. I threw myself through high school and college ...but none of it is what I want. I wish ...I wish people could define themselves on their own terms. I've been all around the world, and I've never seen such a success-driven lifestyle as the American one appears to be. I've asked my parents if I could take the year that I shaved off of college and go work on a ranch, but my mother nearly had an apoplexy and told me that she hadn't sacrificed her whole life so I could work on a ranch.
Whose are we, anyway? The question seems to pose a paradox. We are not our own - GOd or parents or time itself gets in the way of that, yet we are completely responsible for all of our thoughts and actions. Not a single hour of the day is ours, nor have we any say over when they come, but we are completely responsible for their passing. Is it merely our lot as human beings to make the best of what we have and not consider such ideas and their ramifications?
"Make me no monuments, my friend, for they, too will pass, and I would rather be forgotten in my own time than to have philophers scratch their heads over my headstone and crumble them, so dishonorably, further. Make me no palaces, no thrones, no songs, only a bed amongst the heather where I might lay my tired head and rest in the lap of God."
If no one's said it already, someone should. Ach, forgive me, stranger, for my audacity, I mean no offense by it. Your comments, of course, would be welcomed - but I will be late for class...
"Advice" is a dangerous thing to give or take, and I a little loathe to write you these "comments." Yet since you asked, this is honestly how I see it:
In my opinion, part of growing up is taking responsibility for one's own path in life. Conversely, part of being a parent is learning how to let go of your children as they become adults in their own time. I am not sure if your mother lives vicariously through you and your success in life after "sacrificing her whole life" for you. I would argue that your life is not her life, and that going off to Wyoming to train horses is no waste of an excellent mind or education. You are only 20 years old and will probably change your mind as to what you ultimately want to do more than one more time before you are fully "settled." Yet it would seem to me difficult if not impossible to be truly "settled" in your life if it is not the one you have freely chosen.
In your cura animarum and process of finding out exactly where you fit in this world and who you are, I would suggest that you need to be true to yourself above all things. Trust me, Victoria, that the years they are a-running and you will resent your mother if you live to please her and forego the adventure which should be your adult life. That is of course easy for me to say half a continent away, as I don't need to face the prospect of hurting my mother. Yet it appears you are going to have to make a decision.
I do believe that we are free moral creatures - or, at least we have the God-given potential to be such. However, I think with freedom ineluctably comes the responsibility to accept the consequences of our actions. You may be forced with a decision on whether to do it your way or that of your mother. Adult decisions; you want one thing, you give up the other - there is no getting around it. Yet we cannot avoid such decisions as adults, although parents make them for us as children and adolescents. But you are not a child any longer and are ready to take your first exciting steps as an adult. Yet your mother seems unprepared to give you such a freedom. That is sad. Nevertheless, she might force the issue - which could be painful. Yet you are free to do as you wish, no doubt about it. What is to stop you? I remember hearing that Merriwether Lewis - of Lewis and Clarke expedition fame - abandoned his solitary mother to explore North America.
Those lines you quoted to me have a defeatist air to them which better suits old age than ambitious youth. I might counter with the following advice from Emerson: "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.... Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." To keep teaching - an activity which does not displease you - and please your mother would be the easy route, I think. I do not advise you to take the easy route; and if your mother truly loves you, I suspect she will understand.
After a year or two out in Wyoming, you might very well decide to return to Washington and resume your old life. Or you might find yourself in Tokyo with a new job - or married to someone you met and moved to the Canadian prairie, working with disabled kids in San Francisco, or selling real estate in Virginia or Hong Kong or Buenos Aires or Mashed Potatoes, North Dakota. But you are going to have to step up to the plate and announce to the world what you have decided for yourself at this early stage of your unfolding story. If you decide to Teach for America because of the pressures put on you by someone else, you will still have made a choice.
I wish you luck whichever path you choose.
Very Truly Yours,
P.S. Call me "Richard" instead of "Mr. Geib." You are old enough to vote and are a professional colleague of mine, albeit in a different school and thousands of miles away.
P.P.S. The more I think about it, the less I like that business about wanting to "lay my tired head and rest in the lap of God." I disagree with the implication that all we do is vanity and will pass into dust with the passage of time. It is not true that this life breaks everyone, and those few whom it does not break are the ones for whom we live today - they are immortal in our collective memories. It takes, after all, a thousand years of such "heroes" to create a Bible, Torah, Koran. As U.S. Army General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (a hero of mine; soldier in wartime and English professor in peacetime) claimed at the Gettysburg battlefield after the Civil War:
"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls."
Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 13:09:50 CST
From: Victoria Wayne (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To: Richard Geib (email@example.com)
Subject: Re: "I'll send my horse to travel next."
It would be a sad thing were one not to recognize an apple of wisdom, and worse yet not to eat of it when offered. How else did we end up where we are, and how else could we progress otherwise? I see *someone* has read Ecclesiastes (g); it was a hard book for me to study, especially at the time I had to study it. It presented me with a paradox: yes, he (the author) passed away and returned to dust, but his writings and ideas are still an animating, thoughtful force in our lives. The way I would resolve it today would be to say that even the Preacher says his ideas are not his own (there is nothing new uder the sun) , and regardless of what is said or done, it's been said and done before. To take that further, I would argue that the refreshing of great deeds and spirits (as in your quote, lovely as it is) is a testament to the very transience of mankind, that we must be constantly reminded of such deeds and must accomplish them over and over to inspire us to persevere - for do we really seek to transcend our past? Can we? What right to we have to say either way?
I, for my part, cast my lot with Qohelet. I want to do and be and help to the best of my ability, but not for the purpose of accomplishing great things. Instead, I seek to cultivate what talents I have and enjoy a simple life among my fellow men, merely for the sake of enjoying my strength, shoring up my weaknesses, enjoying the beautiful world I inhabit, and trying to show others the way to the same if they would choose it.
I think I would become bored if I were to disappear for too long - I think I have too much energy and, yes, too much arrogance, to stay quiet for long. However, I am loath to take so much personal responsibility when it has been taken for me for so long - it is an unwieldy burden, and one I have only perceived before as a dark but weightless cloud above my head. I'll be ok - I'm just ...trying, I guess is the word I'm looking for.
I have had a great deal of correspondance with Teach for America this past week, and I have had the good fortune to find and chat with some people who know about or have been through the program. The majority opinion is that there is not enough support for teachers in the field, nor is the training and orientation sufficient for preparing candidates for their positions. I have decided that since I have no education in psychology or development or whatever it is I'm going to be studying once I get to graduate school, since I'm so young, and since because I've been assaulted before I wouldn't be very comfortable in that kind of situation to begin with, it would be best if I sought out another avenue for work. I have interviews with two private schools - one year teaching positions in Connecticut and Maryland that will give me enough money to go to grad school - I think that is the way I'm going to go.
I can't thank you enough for your patience and consideration. Even though I have made my decision concerning the Teach for America program, should you want to continue a discussion about life, liberty, and the pursuit of free and equal education for all, I would be more than happy to respond.
What do you think of this?
"Of living sapphire, once his native seat; and fast by hanging in a golden chain, this pendent world, in bigness as a Star of smallest Magnitude close by the moon. Thither full fraught with mischevious revenge, accurst, and in a cursed hour he hies."
Paradise Lost 1050-55