shaping minds


In these unusual times, in which people are sent to work and study at home, in which schools are closed, and we rely on the sense (I know – what sense?) of the greater public to be rational (but… have you not been washing your hands before? have you a reason for hoarding toilet paper?), I reflect on a few things:

We have no idea if things go “back to normal” in a few months. What if we are moving in a direction that is completely different from anything we’ve known before? For the time being, nothing at all changes for me. My life has been one long exercise in social distancing, so I have the same amount of human contact right now as ever. That is, none. And the world from my vantage point remains exactly the same calm it has always been. It is much like my life at Christmastime. The retail world bursts with angry mobs trying to buy the limited supply of the latest toy/game/whatever, lights and decorations appear everywhere. But Christmas is like any other day in my world. And this feels like that. So far even rare visits to shopping outlets haven’t been any different from normal.

As many of my friends and acquaintances shift to working from home and having to do some form of home schooling, many of them have praised teachers and remarked on the difficulty of a teacher’s job. I agree with this completely. I taught for a brief moment in my younger life, and I would never, ever like to do it again. I have to hand it to teachers, particularly the best of them. Yet, tonight, as I was reading a book that mentioned something about the artist David Hockney, I was reminded of how limited, limiting, and judgmental teachers can be, bringing their personal prejudices and convictions to school and ‘infecting’ young people with them.

Our academic decathlon team in high school had to study several works of art, including Hockney. What is burned into my memory isn’t his work but instead how our advisor – one of the district’s well-respected history teachers – declared that she didn’t approve of our having to study Hockney because he is “a pervert”, which was, for her, a very thinly veiled code of disgust and disdain at the fact that Hockney is gay. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m pretty sure that most of my friends would feel angry to learn that any of their kids’ teachers were making such remarks in a classroom. It’s been… I don’t know… almost 30 years since this teacher made this comment, and I remember it so clearly, so angrily. She was summarily judgmental about everything, but this particular comment felt so bitter, venomous, hateful and damaging that I’ve never been able to forget.

Meanwhile, I had a teacher in elementary school who was deeply loved, popular and gifted – extraordinary at connecting with the minds she was shaping without injecting ideological or controversial ideas into the equation. I recall things that, even as a child, I didn’t agree with, such as the Reagan/Bush 84 bumper sticker on her car, but she didn’t bring her politics or religion into the public-school classroom. And that, too, has stuck with me.

Both teachers are examples of the extremes the education system might serve up randomly – and it makes me thankful in some way that I don’t have children. You just don’t know what kind of education – or inaccuracy, biases or prejudices they may be exposed to day to day, and would they even tell you everything their teachers said? I don’t recall ever mentioning the “pervert” comment to my parents, and they would not have been invested or interested anyway. But personally, I would be livid if I had kids who were exposed to these kinds of hateful opinions.

It also strikes me as typical (and horrifying) these accepted norms. The same year we studied Hockney we also studied opera star Placido Domingo. Our teacher thought he was magnificent. I had no idea at the time that Domingo would be just another in the endless list of men exposed as a serial sexual harasser. But it’s disappointingly unsurprising that the teacher, and by extension her students, and all of society, looked at Domingo and pretty much all other entitled men, with admiration, regardless of their behavior and treatment of others while they vilified someone like Hockney only because of who he is. (I wish I had adequate words for how angry it makes me to reflect on this now.) I can hope teachers aren’t still out there saying, at best, insensitive and thoughtless things, but I suspect there’s still a whole lot of this – and I would not even know where to begin exposing and expunging it from the education system.


the railway children


The Railway Children
Seamus Heaney

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

Like lovely freehand they curved for miles
East and miles west beyond us, sagging
Under their burden of swallows.

We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle.