23 November 2011

One for the Memory Book

When I was young, summertime meant a trip to visit the grandparents. Until the last half a decade, my grandparents lived within a handful of miles of each other, which was incredibly convenient. Inevitably, though, we'd stay with my mom's side of the family. It was a practical choice - they had more room, more toys, and a generally more kid friendly place to be. This meant that visits with dad's side of the family were always more formal, forced and - to a kid wanting a movie to watch that wasn't about airplanes or the history of Utah - quite boring.

It wasn't until I grew up a bit that I started appreciating visits with both sides of the family for the different benefits they provide. Mom's side of the family comes with impulsive trips, casual chaos, and lots of silliness. Dad's side of the family comes with intellectual stimulai, good food, and determination.

It wasn't until I went to college that I think I fully appreciated how lucky I was to have two sets of living grandparents. Even at eighteen they seemed, if not invincible, then at least young enough to not be in any real danger of death anytime soon. The majority of my friends did not have four living grandparents, or at least not four living grandparents who were all still independent and relatively healthy. Grandparents who travel and watch Napoleon Dynamite and buy iPads and Wiis (no joke.)

But in recent years it has slowly dawned on me that I would be naive and ungrateful to ignore the opportunities I have with my grandparents. They are limited, after all. I watch hands shake as they eat at dinner time. I see tables with medicine and hear about more surgeries and count my lucky stars that those days in my life are not in the immediate future. But they will be. Give me another forty years.

I say this because this Thanksgiving I've been with my dad's parents. I've not spent Thanksgiving with them since my uncle died twelve years ago. My dad's parents are particularly appreciative when I come to visit them. Unlike my grandparents in the north who have family decently close by to come visit them often and regular family vacations, my grandparents in the south live in relative seclusion from family. It means a lot to them when I come.

It's not a complete picnic. My grandpa shares my love of language but is often oblivious to the effect that he has on the people around him when he gets on a storytelling spree. The first day I was here, for example, a "quick question" turned into an hour and a half long string of stories and anecdotes. It can be utterly exhausting to keep up with him. He wants me to look at his stories and listen to his poetry and I would selfishly rather spend time quietly reading a book and relaxing from the stresses of my job.

But when I step back from my own selfish desires I realize that the inconvenience of now won't be around forever. I don't want to regret the chance to hear my grandpa's convictions about life and to miss out on the chance to collect some memories from him. So I tried a different tactic this weekend: I started asking him questions before he could ask me. I asked him about how he met my grandma (at a dance). What it was about her that he liked (she could dance well and is, apparently, a good kisser.) I talked to him about the town he grew up in and the traditions of his house. Slowly, I'm starting to get a glimpse of the personalities of my great grandparents, something I've never had before, and what my grandpa was like as a boy.

I can still say with honesty that three hours of conversation with my grandpa too many times in a row can be exhausting - but I can also say that I treasure knowing that my grandpa is proud of me, and cares enough to want to share his story with me. Who could blame him? Everyone wants to be remembered.

19 November 2011

Be Not Ashamed

I had the chance yesterday to watch an edited version of The King's Speech after school with the movie club I sponsor at my school. Although I rebelliously prefer the unedited version, the movie is still worth watching either way. I know I've written about this movie before, but each time I see it something new about it touches me. It's a powerful story.

This time I was reminded again of how much effort it took for Bertie to overcome his problems, which he never really overcame, by the way. He spends the entire movie fighting against his speech struggles and comes out of the movie a little better, but still struggling. He is able to gain more confidence in himself and he's able to get through the speech at the end, but he's never on par with his German counterpart, Hitler. That's what most movies would want to do. Pit the underdog against the champion and have the underdog either surpass or at least match the champion at the end. You don't have that luxury in real life. Sometimes there are wounds and weaknesses that never quite go away. Sometimes you have to fight.

I think everyone has a handful of these problems. For me it's a social life.

It seems contradictory, really. I'm very obviously quite verbal. I'm not (or, at least I don't think I am) hugely awkward in social situations. I just have never really liked them - particularly when it comes to dating. I have some kind of overwhelming fear when it comes to dating that I can't seem to get over no matter how hard I try. It always works in the same pattern: I start out excited for the first date, I go on the second date and have a good time, but between the second and third date my brain starts to panic, and by the time the third date call rolls around I'm looking for any excuse not to answer the phone or to delay returning calls or to run. Last time this happened I tried actively to fight against it by forcing myself to agree to a third date, only to spend the rest of the evening in my room with my head under a pillow, frustrated that I can't just be normal and allow myself to enjoy life for once.

I should be complimented, right? I should be flattered that someone deems me interesting and nice enough to take out more than once. I should be able to do what everyone else seems to do and to just have fun. But to be quite frank, dating scares the heck out of me. Just writing about it right now is making my shoulders tense and my stomach turn.

I can come up with all sorts of logical reasons for why I am this way, if I want. Fear of abandonment stemming back to the sixth grade. Few positive dating experiences in high school leaving me unprepared for the serious business of college dating. Too much social or internal pressure. Fighting against the chains of depression and feelings of inadequacy in general, not just in my social life. Circumstances that put me on the spot when I'm much happier when things are casual and I don't feel like I have to act a certain way or feel a certain way when I don't - guilt for not wanting to act a certain way or feel a certain way when I probably should. . . it's all very complicated.

I recognize that many of you who read this could quite easily either relate or think I'm being overly dramatic. I get that. I'm not exactly proud of this side of myself. It's a very conscious battle I'm trying to fight here. But guilt isn't really helping me move on, and pressure to get over fear immediately is only making it worse.

Back to The King's Speech connection - one of my favorite scenes is when Bertie is preparing for his coronation at Westminster. He finds out that his speech therapist (Logue) is not government certified and is frustrated, accusing him of lying and being a fraud, even though Logue argues that he never once claimed to be a doctor and has not advertised himself as such. At one point Bertie turns his back on Logue - when he turns around again Logue is sitting in Saint Edward's chair rather cheekily, which makes Bertie furious. Logue tells Bertie that Bertie himself did just say he's not king, so it shouldn't matter, when Bertie shouts that he has every right because he has a voice. It's a real turning point for Bertie, who has been feeling for what may have been his entire life up to this point that because he struggled with speaking, he could have nothing to say that anyone would want to hear. He believes in himself for the first time. It doesn't cure his problems, but it helps.

I'm not quite there yet. But I am, at least, very tired of feeling ashamed that this is hard for me. It feels on the outside like something very silly to struggle with that is all in my head because so many people around me seem to have the socializing thing down in spades, but feeling guilty is not helping me to find a way to heal. It's time to start being a little more patient with myself.

10 November 2011

For Bob

As a warning - I'm not really sure what the purpose of this particular post is. Usually I have some sort of goal or idea I'm focused on.

Today's a little different. It's November. This year marks another anniversary since the death of my uncle way back when I was in junior high. Twelve years.

To be honest, it isn't something I think about all that often. Bob and I didn't have a terribly formal or frequent relationship. I didn't know anything about his personal life and only really remember seeing him two or three times in my life, even though I know it was more than that in actuality. I remember the last time I saw him the Christmas before he died - how excited I was, and how excited he was, to see us. There's a great picture I have of him carrying me and one or two of my cousins all at once. I remember going home that night and feeling so terribly lucky to have an uncle as cool and fun as Bob.

I also remember how still my house seemed the night I came home from a babysitting job just under a year later. It was silent. But not silent because my younger siblings were sleeping - that awful slow motion type of silence. I remember my parents coming downstairs from their bedroom and my dad looking about twenty years older than I thought of him as being. I'd never seen him like that before. It was jarring. Dad never lost control like that - at least not to grief.

I remember going out to the funeral and gradually learning bits and pieces about what had really happened, according to my cousin, at least, who had either heard it from her parents (who didn't censor as much as mine) or made it up for shock value (both of which are very possible.) I remember feeling totally unsure of how to respond to everything, feeling in a kind of limbo because everyone around me was more sad than I was and feeling pressure to do. . .something about it.

In the years that have followed since Bob's death I've learned more about him. He was Bipolar - manic depressant, they call it. Active and reckless, never quite settling down. High on life one day and contemplating suicide the next. He was an avid sportsman and photographer - when I think of Bob, I think of the outdoors. It's kind of laughable to think of him at a cubicle, actually. In my mind, I don't ever picture Bob still. I think he'd be bored by it.

When I was younger I took up photography and my dad let me use Bob's camera. It was a beautiful piece of machinery that camera, and I took care of it like it was sacred and only gave it up last year when I could finally afford a digital camera that could perform as well as the old film one did. Every time I used the old one - and when I use the new one too - I feel like I'm stepping in where my uncle left off. This imaginary relationship I've built with him since his death that I never had with him in life always feels so close when I'm taking pictures. Maybe it is all in my head. But I think he'd like to know that I take pictures for him.

That wasn't all I inherited from Bob, though. I don't suffer from depression the way that he did by a long shot - but there are days every month or so, like yesterday, where I get a glimpse of understanding. Days when I have to step back from the lethargy and despair and recognize that, logically, nothing in the day has been that despair worthy. Days when I force my way through knowing that, for me at least, the next day will be better, because my "dark days" don't last nearly as long, or come nearly as often.

I don't think Bob would be, or is, happy to know that the legacy of depression still runs in the veins of my family. But I do think he would be happy to know that since his death, we have been able to put a name to it, and that makes it easier to fight. I know, now, how suicide rips at a family - but I also know the spiritual strength and care from the Lord that does come when tragedy strikes so unexpectedly. It is an awful way to gain that understanding, but I am glad that I have it.

So, Bob - this November as I spend Thanksgiving with my own brother and your parents, I want you to know that I am grateful for you. Because your memory has inspired me to fight. To not give in when days are hard. To get outside more and tell my family I love them more and - most of all - to love myself enough to tackle my weaknesses honestly and confidently.

07 November 2011

It's not a secret, right?

I had a chance to go to Disneyland recently on a whirlwind weekend trip that involved two glorious days away from school, approximately twenty eight hours in the parks themselves, less sleep than I have had in a long time and the best food ever. Given the novelty aspect of this trip and the summer of hard work it represented, I decided that I ought to get some kind of souvenir. Only. . . I don't collect pins. Or wear hats. Or need any more t-shirts. And if I want a Disney movie, I'm not going to buy one in the park, I'm going to buy one used online for half the price or less. So I found a cute ornament for my Christmas tree and. . . being me. . . a book. (That's right. Some people buy all kinds of assorted Disney memorabilia, and I buy a book.)

The book, Brain Storm, is written by Don Hahn, one of the executive producers on many of Disney's most successful films (including Beauty and the Beast.) I've not finished it yet, but it's broken into easily digested sections so odds are I will. His goal is to talk about the creative process and offers some practical advice towards gaining a greater understanding of creativity itself. Coupled with my reading of Ken Robinson's Out of Our Minds, my brain has been working overtime on this idea of creation over the last few months. Not just the idea of creation, but the common misconceptions of it.

For example, I had a parent request of me recently that I send home an example of a "perfect" essay. To be honest, I didn't really know how to respond. As an essayist myself, a "perfect" essay is something of a joke. No essayist that I know of (or have read) would ever admit that such a thing exists, at least not in their own writing. Writing isn't an art that is perfected, it is explored. But this parent didn't see writing as an art form - it was a checklist. Eventually I mailed home an essay from the internet that I didn't even read all the way through.

I give this example because it is a nice symbol of a common problem I see (and others see) cropping up more and more often in the way parents and students (and people in general) talk to me about the way they approach learning. It is a series of things to check off a list. Skills are things that you used to not know and then, after a lesson, you have mastered, and you can move on with "real" life. The "art" of gaining an education in any field, whether it be math, science, English or the arts, are being sacrificed in favor of fake rewards that don't mean much and "skills" that are forgotten within days. Teachers don't assign homework because students won't do it and parents won't make them. (This is, incidentally, one reason why the arts are so valuable in schools - you can't fake your way through the arts. If you can't sing well, everyone knows it.)

In Hahn's book he points out how easy it is to be intimidated by the great thinkers of the past - men like Edison or Disney himself - men like Steve Jobs and DaVinci who seem to have that creativity thing down in spades. But, Hahn argues, the great thinkers of history (with the possible exceptions of Disney and Jobs) didn't have access to the same tools we do. We have the world of information available for free to us so long as we have a computer with the internet on it. In under ten seconds, I can find out nearly any fact I want to know.

But that's part of the problem. It used to be that having knowledge of a subject guaranteed you a job, because having that knowledge alone was rare. But not in this world. To enter any field that involves creative thinking - everything ranging from engineering to graphic designer and back again - employers want people who can come up with ideas and follow through on them. The world is moving too fast for any business to stop evolving, and it takes people to make that happen.

This is good news, really. What it means is that anyone with the right set of skills can find success, college education or no. The tools you need to be successful are pretty simple: it takes hard work, and a passion for what you do that is not swayed by setbacks.

But somehow in our "Occupy ______" nation, those skills are drowning in a sea of excuses and people lazing around from one task to another. Here in the valley, I'm not sure how this functions elsewhere, "stress" has taken on the label of "overwhelmed", which means that parents are now requesting students be excused from assignments or late work (and then wonder why their kid doesn't know how to do basic tasks at the end of the year.) If a student doesn't know how to do something, or has a learning disability, or has problems at home, then all of these things (sometimes combined) become the barrier that keeps a person from even attempting to try. Which is fine. Everyone's got problems. But it's no secret that if you don't do the work you don't get the reward.

Unless, of course, you whine about it long enough that someone gives you a gold star or a cookie or an "everyone wins" trophy to make you feel better about it.

02 November 2011

Pay Day Part the Second

Remember all those blog posts I've done recently demanding that teenagers are better than we give them credit for?

I was right.

I've been frustrated for a while by the way one of my classes has been going. The students in the class are great, but something just wasn't registering. Part of the problem was quite clearly in my obsession with organization and inability to just relax and enjoy what I was doing. But that wasn't the entire solution.

Then, today, my wonderful class council did exactly what I've been hoping they would do all year by taking class into their own hands. They were as aware as I was that something wasn't right. And they've presented a perfectly reasonable and well thought out solution that is exactly what the class needs. They were right. And they presented themselves in a way that was very clearly with the intent of working as a team - the whole class, me included. This isn't students against evil teachers who won't see reason or teachers against lazy students just trying to get out of work- this is good, rational human thought from two sides of a problem both trying to reach the same goal: a class that is both fun and challenging and not a waste of time (or a burden of time either.) This is trust on both sides that we can address problems instead of ignoring them. This is maturity.

Class today went better. Students left feeling understood and I'm leaving today feeling a huge weight lifted. I am so very proud and impressed of the way they have handled this. We're pointing in a good direction. We're going to be better because of this. And I'm teaching the best students ever.