The View from the Existential Porch

A porch used to be a state of mind, especially in the South.  It was a place to wax philosophical about the world and everything wrong with it.  It was a place to share news, shuck corn, snap green beans, and catch a breeze.  In the year 2014 modern conveniences like air conditioning and refrigeration have caused us to lose the need for fresh air. When we lost that, we lost valuable communication time.  Last week I caught a glimpse of the past with a couple of friends.

We are lied to as children and teens and told that one day when we become adults we will be able to do exactly what we want. All too often life gets in the way, and it leaves no time for us to do those things we wish to do.  But once in a while stars align, and we end up on the porch with friends, old and new. I found myself on my porch surrounded by friendship, laughter, and cigar smoke.  I ended up with an evening that couldn’t possibly have been planned in the best kind of way.

Perhaps the porch atmosphere first exists within ourselves.  Maybe the porch is an existential porch before it can be anything else.  The people on your porch define your porch.  For instance, on my porch I had two friends.  One old friend and one brand new friend helped define that porch for me.  We are subject to what others will allow us to share withholding judgement.  We are also subject to what we feel comfortable sharing and discussing.  That particular night felt like a no-holds-barred getting real with ourselves kind of night.  That is probably the rarest of porches.

What makes a porch a porch?  As I was sitting outside under the stars with my friends talking about everything from philosophy to theology, love to divorce, and all the things that make us humans, I realized I was in a  consecrated gathering place.  I was in a meeting of sorts, although a very relaxed one, holding council with people that matter about the things of our lives that matter. I watched my concrete (in both senses of the word)  porch transform in front of me into a state of mind where  I experienced acceptance, thoughtfulness, and companionship.  I laughed, I thought deeply, and I listened to two guys that at times I was doing well to catch 5% of what they were talking about.  I grew as a person.  I considered things.  I wrote down books I wanted to read.  I never wanted to leave the porch. Why would you want to leave a place that made you glad to be a human?  I could have stayed on the porch for days.

How did I end up on this porch?  The short answer is relationship.  A porch is a starting and ending point.  It can be where you greet someone new, or it can be where you watch someone exit.  You can turn a stranger on your porch into a friend.  Some porches are traveled on everyday.  Some people wind up on our porches more than others.  In today’s society, we are used to finding our identity in what we have instead of who we are.  If we drive a nice car, have a nice job, and have a nice television we must be good people. But what happens when people never get past the porch? Will they still like you when they aren’t going to sit anywhere but the front steps?  Can you offer others undivided attention, heartfelt concern, and thought provoking questions?  Do you have friends that you can debate whether you are looking at a star or an airplane for 10 minutes straight?

Your porch is what you make it.  What kind of porch do you sit on?  Some people have a hard time seeing past themselves, but a porch can help you see the world in a different way.  It can be a place to share humanness, struggles, and advice.  It can make new friends seem like old friends.  It can remind you why your old friends are still your friends after all these years.  Sometimes the easiest way to go somewhere is to stay on the porch, and the places you end up may be out of this world.

Unapologetically A Human

Lined up across the room of my 8th grade literature class was every student waiting for their turn in the spelling bee. I was sweating bullets when I finally got my first word.  It was the first round, and I was so relieved when I heard my word.  Sugar.  I was so excited I quickly blurted out S-U-G-E-R.  I then promptly smacked myself in the face before the teacher had a chance to tell me I was wrong.  I knew I was wrong.  I heard it with my own ears. To say I felt stupid is the understatement of at least 3 decades. My first word in the spelling bee was also my last. The other kids went on spelling words for what seemed like forever while I sat cuddled up in my shame. I guarantee those kids don’t even remember that day, while it is marked in my history forever.

We all do dumb things.  We all get overconfident and immediately become righteously human in ways unimaginable seconds before. Moments of weakness remind us daily we are not deity, and we should have no such grandiose opinions of what we are capable of doing. To remove all doubt, I’ll admit that just this week I tripped over my own feet a few times, closed the door to teacher’s lounge on the principal I’m currently working for, had my car get stuck in gear and lurch forward in front of a group of new friends, and I called someone by the wrong name 4 times in a row.  Did I mention it is just Monday? So, my point is impressing people isn’t exactly a forte of mine.

We all want to belong.  That’s why we struggle with rejection from an early age.  It doesn’t matter if we are on the playground, in a classroom, or even at home with our siblings.  We strive to fit in.  We want to make people like us because it’s a part of what makes us human.  To be rejected on a basic level is devastating.  As children, those that reject us will be considered sworn enemies for a lifetime or until the next week when a different kid tells us we can’t play kickball, we are picked last for a team, or we are laughed at for not having the current cool item.

As nice as it would be, this doesn’t go away when we become grown ups.  We want to seem acceptable to our peers.  Some of us might want to be the funniest, the prettiest, the nicest, the best cook, the best party thrower, or even the best screw up, but we all want to be something to someone.  To be nothing to anyone says we are practically invisible and unimportant somehow.  As a fly on the wall at any water cooler scenario you could listen in to conversation to see that the basic need to not be rejected is still relevant and alive in any person.  Can some people generally not care?  Yes, I believe that is possible.  On a more specific note we all have people who we invest in their opinions more than others.  We will care about them, even if we don’t mind the herd’s point of view.

Lately I’ve been considering what happens to you after repeated rejection? What if the rejection is from the one person that has an opinion that matters to you?  I know what was true for me.  I started to tell myself stories. I made excuses for the person rejecting me.  I considered maybe the person didn’t like himself. Maybe he is hurting right now because of something that he is going through.  Or perhaps he is depressed. He had a poor situation growing up, so maybe that explained it.  Specific days of rejection I’d say to myself that he must have had a bad day at work. In general, I would hypothesize that perhaps he just didn’t value the same things I did.

As a result of all these stories I told myself something sinister happened.  The stories stopped being about the person who was rejecting me emotionally, and they started to be about me.  When the person I looked to for affection or affirmation didn’t have the reaction I was hoping for, I told myself I told the story wrong.  I felt like I was annoying them by needing attention in the first place, and just maybe I was too needy emotionally, and they deserved to be left alone instead of being bothered by me and my needs.  I felt like my narrative was uninteresting, and no one would want to hear about my day.  I questioned whether jokes were funny because he never laughed. It didn’t matter what excuse or reason I ended up telling myself for the day, the end result was the same. I felt alone, lonely, unloved, and unwanted.

Do you sometimes do dumb things?  Of course you do.  That makes us the humans we are.  If anything the stories that make us dorky or human should unite us and bond us.  We all have them, after all. Moreover, our stories are not important unless we tell them.  Our stories make us who we are, and we are wired to want to share, build community, relate, and communicate.  Relationships are tricky, but wanting to be accepted transcends age, gender, location, and whether we were popular as a young person.  There are people out there that want to hear your stories.  They want to invest in you.  They want to know about the time you spelled sugar wrong in a spelling bee, how you poured liquid soap into the dishwasher once and caused an evening of agony, and the time you took Benadryl right before a church service and couldn’t stop singing “I Feel Good” during the sermon.   If someone isn’t investing in you, don’t stop telling your stories. Tell the stories anyway.  Those that matter will adore them.  If they don’t, they just aren’t your people anyway.

Thinking Deeply about Thinking Deeply

Metacognition can be a dangerous activity.  Thinking about other people’s thinking  can be even scarier.  I’ve had the unique experience to have spent time in various classrooms in the past six months ranging from 2nd grade with 7 and 8 year olds, to 5th grade with 10 and 11 year olds, to 9th- 12th graders who can be anywhere from 14-18.  They all have something frightening in common.  They are all used to getting an easy answer.

I think the greatest problem students face today is the lack of struggle. The greatest reward comes with hard work.  The struggle makes you stronger.  A butterfly builds a cocoon for itself, only to have to tear that same cocoon apart after it completes metamorphosis.  What would happen if someone tore open the shell and let the butterfly out?  It dies.  It won’t be able to fly because it has never had to fight through the material to gain freedom.  Are we cutting open the cocoons of students and standing there in disbelief when they just give up? Are we handicapping them for the world they will live in and things will not be easy?  What will they do when they can’t google every answer?  Technology solves a lot of problems, but it creates as many as it solves.

My feelings on this stem from the time I have spent in the classroom.  It does not matter what the age group, the questions students ask are always the same. The most disturbing questions I’ve heard are ones that I would have never thought to ask my teacher.  “Do I have to write the sentences?”  “Do I have to show my work?”  “Can I use a calculator?”  Most people would think, yes, but I asked my teacher those same questions back when I was in school, but there is a big difference in that now students are used to not having to do those things, and when asked to do them they act like you are trying to kill them.

I know that most people will claim my education in the late 80’s to early 90’s by all rights was sub-par simply because we only had one computer in the back of the classroom, and we only used it to play Oregon Trail.  Sure, we were taught in units about dinosaurs and Native Americans.  Do I remember everything I was taught?  Absolutely not, however, I gained something valuable from this kind of learning.  I learned how to research without the benefit of typing something into a search engine.  I learned how to glean important information and throw out what I didn’t need. I learned proper sentence structure when I wrote those 300 book reports. I was forced to not just read to do a book report, but I had to think about that book.  I made models of volcanos, Native American villages, and cells.  We collected bugs, leaves, and wildflowers.  We labeled, we followed rubrics, and we didn’t have a clue that we were doing anything of substance because it all seemed kind of fun.  But, even with all the fun we had, there were no easy answers.  We had no Google.  We had World Book Encyclopedia and whatever the card catalog had for us to use, IF we could in fact figure out the Dewey Decimal System.

Students of today rely heavily on technology to do their work for them.  If you don’t believe me, just ask them.   The local high school is full of classrooms where students spend all their spare time on cellphones, or other mobile devices, and they are traumatized if you ask them to put it down for a few minutes to actually talk with them in person.  Their only thoughts during class in the local high school are when can they can get their phones back out to play music, take selfies, and text their friends. Coupled with this problem there is the other  issue that has nothing to do with technology.  It has to do with a mindset that this access to technology has created. Because there is always an easy answer, they do not know what it is like for a problem to take many steps and time to solve.  We know that in the real world the jobs that we have are not likely to have answers waiting for us on google.  Students that are in today’s classrooms, getting ready for tomorrow’s job market need to understand how to think. Right now they are used to letting a computer do most of that for them.  What does this mean for our education system?

The reality is students might not remember all the finer aspects of geometry, Spanish III, or chemistry.  They will remember working together to solve problems, and what is the most important to remember?  Sometimes it is healthy to give a student a problem and let them work through it. We should be asking them hard questions.  We should ask questions that may have more than one answer.   We should teach them to question things and not just take things at face value.  We need students that struggle, and are given time to struggle.  We need to stop letting students google answers, and instead ask them to dig deep, think deeply,  and embrace the struggle.  Let these students figure out for themselves how great it feels to accomplish something they never thought they would ever be able to do.  If we are truly going to prepare students for jobs that are not created yet, we have to change the way we educate them so that while technology is used, it is not the focus.  If someone had focused on technology when I was in school I would only know about cellphones the size of an infant, a computer without a mouse, a dot matrix printer, and an overhead projector.  Those were all great, but they weren’t the focus.  The focus was on what I needed to make me an educated member of society.

We can’t predict the future, even as teachers stand with the future in front of them everyday.  We don’t teach subjects.  We teach students.  What do the students of today need to know to be a well rounded person? We know they will figure out the technology, but will they figure out how to embrace the struggle before we have a country full of CEOs that are looking for the easy way out? Struggling makes us strong.  Teaching students to think and ask questions trumps showing them how to find the answers.  Answers will come, questions require digging deeper.

Sitting In Someone Else’s Chair

I remember the day I got the key to my first classroom. I was shocked someone trusted me enough with a key to something I saw as so valuable. That key represented I was part of something bigger than myself. It was acceptance. To some people that key was a paycheck, a duty, or stacks of papers to grade. All I could see was the difference I wanted to make.

Today, in sharp contrast, I waited for an assistant principal to unlock the door of the classroom where I was to spend the day in someone else’s chair. I thought about the lack of a key, and how locked out I feel right now. The difference I wanted to make does not go away with the absence of a key. Without a chair of my own it would be easy to feel not quite a teacher, and not just a babysitter either.

What makes you a teacher? What makes anyone what they are? Is it the key that fits in the lock where they work each day? Is it the chair they sit in? What about the papers on their desk? All of those things I no longer can call mine, but I still feel like a teacher. I still hold teacher credentials. Are those the key? But I’m reminded of the months I was still in school to get my teaching license, and I was an intern at a local elementary school. Even then I felt like a teacher. So, a teaching license doesn’t make a teacher a teacher either.

I think what makes you a teacher can’t be tangible. I think of Jesus sitting on mountains, roaming around with followers. He had little with Him. He needed no Promethean Board, paper clips, or red pens. He didn’t need a textbook or a list of important words hanging on a wall. He had followers, or students, because of the example He gave. He taught with kindness, loaves and fishes, and a fisherman’s net. He taught with stories, ones that made you think. He never held a teaching license, never had a key to a building, never graded a stack of papers, and never had a chair to call his own. His teaching was nomadic, but clearly effective. I have to wonder if He knew the difference He was making. I’ve always heard that if a student didn’t know how much you care, he won’t care what you know. I’d say Jesus probably understood this better than most.

So I guess I am left having to take a note from what Jesus never said, but instead did. I’ll travel from classroom to classroom sharing a chair with some great teachers. My message is different, and not as important, but it is what I am supposed to do. I’ll do it with a willing heart knowing I don’t have to have a key on a key ring, a red Swingline stapler with my name emblazed across the top, a bookshelf full of curriculum, or a chair to call my own. After all, the greatest gift a teacher can give his or her students is to never stop learning. So far, I’ve learned a lot about teaching from students, content that I normally don’t come into contact with, and about myself.

Who needs a chair? Real teachers never sit down anyway.