Toughen Up, Buttercup

A former classmate’s comment about how safe spaces and group discussions where kids express emotion are ruining this generation got me to thinking, and thinking often gets me to writing, as you may have noticed.

I am aware of a new concept in education of “safe spaces” for students who may encounter ideas or works which trigger their own feelings around a traumatic event or where students of particular marginalized groups can get together without people outside of those groups to talk. I can’t really speak with authority about them as they actually function because I’ve never actually seen one or used one. I know people often go off half-cocked about how great something is or how terrible it is without actually knowing anything about it. My experience in life is that when you really delve into anything, you find out there are pluses and minuses.

My classmate conflated this concept (which he clearly doesn’t like) with a support group environment I’ve used in my classroom for a couple of decades. I will shamelessly admit that making my classroom feel “safe” has been a pretty important thing to me for my entire teaching career.

I hear a lot that “life is hard and we have to toughen kids up.” I figure that’s kind of true, but I also think that life shits on people enough to toughen them. They don’t need to get shit on in my classroom to make it in the world.

It’s not that I favor bubble-wrapping kids. I was not a helicopter parent. I didn’t take care of my kids’ problems with peers or teachers for them. I figured they needed to learn that themselves. I let them walk to the bus alone and play and fall down and get bruised. I am a teacher of literature, and with that, I often touch upon history and current events and human issues that are timeless, all of which tend to expose kids to just how awful people can be to each other. No bubble-wrap here.

People commit atrocities because of race (To Kill a Mockingbird and The Power of One) and politics (Long Way Gone). People betray one another and destroy lives in the name of religion (The Scarlet Letter). Economic injustice and greed exist, and they suck (The Great Gatsby). People get raped and people suffer depression (Speak). Abortion is a complicated subject, and the more deeply you look at it, the less clear the whole thing is in either direction, plus, there are a lot of ways we treat people as disposable besides abortion (Unwind). Childhood is not all innocence and playing fair, and in the end, all this is a reflection of adulthood (Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye). These are just a few of the books I’ve taught over the years.

Literature, I tell my students, is an instruction manual for life. It allows us to come together and explore the most difficult parts of being human in a way that is unattached to us and provides us a bit of distance. Maybe we even read about something before we experience it, so when we do experience it, we are not utterly taken by surprise. When we read The Scarlet Letter and talk about Roger Chillingworth, I make a dark promise to my kiddos: If it hasn’t happened to you yet, someday someone will do something unforgivable to you, and you must decide how long you will carry that weight before you put it down.

I do not think it is in a student’s best interests to allow them to opt out. I don’t think parents should opt their kids out, nor do I think schools should.

I do think the classrooms in which these things are discussed should feel safe. I think rape victims who don’t want to read graphic descriptions of rape should be allowed to take care of themselves by skipping that section, maybe even take a break to “go to the bathroom” and breathe, if needed. If the trauma is very recent, okay, maybe you can bow out altogether.

But I’ve had my share of trauma, and I don’t retreat every time a reflection of that trauma comes up. I don’t voluntarily do school shooting stuff, so no, I haven’t read The Hour I First Believed, nor have I seen Elephant. If either were required for a class or something else I was doing, I could swing it. Whatever trauma I have personally experienced, I will discuss more frankly with those who have shared the experience, so I see the value of gatherings of only those who have experienced the trauma. I also think that being the direct target of homophobia, racism, et cetera is traumatic. I’m in no position to tell people whose experiences are unlike mine what they have “the right” to be hurt by.

And don’t tell me that people “shouldn’t” be hurt by these things. If I tell you that a knife shouldn’t wound you and you shouldn’t bear a scar from a knife wound, will that make you immune to being cut? Will it keep a scar from forming?

This is why classrooms should be safe. So kids can say what they think and hear what others think without needlessly inflicting damage on each other. You’ll get cut in the kitchen enough times in your life. No one in school needs to bring a blade to “toughen you up,” metaphorically speaking.

Now, for those who don’t know me and don’t know about the class I teach, it’s called ACE (Alternative Cooperative Education). Before you go off on how “cooperative” probably means some new-agey shit, like teaching people to cooperate with each other, the “cooperative” actually means that we work in partnership with business leaders to make sure our kids are learning the skills businesses need. (Ironically, the ability to cooperate with others tops that list.)

I teach reading, writing, and business skills with a healthy dose of personal responsibility and work ethic to kids who have not been super successful in traditional classes. These are not kids with disabilities; they are generally kids who don’t do school for a variety of other reasons. Are some basically just lazy? Sure. But none of them is stupid, and many of them have back-stories that I find make super-judgey people awfully uncomfortable. (I just re-read that. I’m not saying kids with disabilities are stupid; I’m just asking that readers not make that assumption about my kiddos.) Think things like having both parents in jail because when you were 8 years old your body was being sold to pay for Dad’s drug-habit, then going through the foster care system for years. Think using drugs and alcohol with mom or dad while you were still in preschool. Think getting the crap beaten out of you by your dad until until you were finally big enough to hit back. Think being told your whole life that you are worthless, that you’re the reason your mom or dad’s life is total shit. A former student recently made a comment to me along the lines of thinking her life had been much rougher than almost any other student I’d had. Don’t get me wrong—she’s had a damned hard time of it. Still, the look on her face when I shared a few others’ stories said a lot about what we assume children’s lives are all like.

If your life was hard, but none of this stuff happened to you, and you thought helping kids feel safe would ruin them, make them soft, well, now maybe you have a different understanding.

So in my classroom, it’s okay to cry. It’s even okay to cry “just” because some other kid called you a name, because sometimes that name is simply the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You can cry because the work I’m asking you to do is hard and you’re frustrated. When you’re all done crying, I’ll make you do the work anyway, but it’s okay to cry.

And if you cry, I will ask if you want a hug. It’s okay to say no, and I’ll respect that. It’s okay to say yes. In my classroom, you can just walk through the door and ask for a hug, and you’ll get it. Even if you are 6-foot-6 and headed into the Marines in two weeks when you graduate. Heck, if you’re a former student who has done multiple tours of duty in a combat zone, I will meet you for a beer, sit with you while you cry in it, and give you the same hug I gave you when you were a kid. (I have actually done this.) In my experience, this does not prevent said Marine from returning to the combat zone weeks later.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Leave a comment

The Day After (2016)

We are in deep trouble.

I told you all that I would probably stumble in my resolve to handle this election with grace. I am flabbergasted at our choice in president and heartbroken that Jefferson County abandoned its children. The damage done so far is only the beginning.

That said, I’m not giving up on my country or my profession. Groups will face persecution on a scale we haven’t seen in quite some time, but those of us who care for justice—not just for ourselves but for everyone—are going to have to step up. After all, when justice belongs only to a few it isn’t justice; it’s privilege. We may find that privilege is a precarious thing. You know, that “First they came for the Socialists” kind of thing.

We are going to have to take risks, invest time, be and do more than we ever thought we could. We cannot surrender to bigotry and ignorance and fear.

We don’t have to hate anyone to do that. We don’t have to spread vitriol. We do have to speak up for justice, show up for justice, invite and invite and invite the rest of our country (and our county) to join us.

I know my fellow teachers will be disheartened today. We’ll be back to big pay cuts. We’ll hemorrhage teachers to all the other districts that chose to invest in their children. It’s difficult not to feel as though we have worked so hard only to be slapped in the face. Take some time, Jeffco teachers. Lick your wounds. I am considering teaching my classes today and then taking half a sick day in the afternoon when I don’t have students. I feel a need for church.

But I have an after-school commitment to a kid that I’ll go back for, because I promised that no matter what I would be the teacher my students deserve. I meant it.

At some point we’re going to have to shake it off, and those of us who remain will have a lot of strenuous work to do.

People before me have worked hard and made sacrifices to make progress, to form a union that protects teachers and kids, to provide opportunities to kids of all backgrounds, to strengthen families in all their forms. It’s bad enough to be facing the setbacks we are in these areas, but I will not abandon these causes for which others gave so much. I may feel discouraged, but I will not be dissuaded.

We lose only when we surrender.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 1 Comment

Win or Lose 2016

I wrote this just before the Jefferson County recall election last year. It seems even more apropos this year, with a few adjustments:

Tuesday night, or maybe early Wednesday morning, we should know the outcomes of this election.  I wanted to revise this now, a public challenge to myself for which I can be held accountable, and to my fellow United States citizens.

This election will put many of us who have cared passionately about the outcome into one category or the other.  We will be winners or losers, and no matter which side we took, we will most likely believe that our whole country won or lost with us. Emotions will run deep.

Win or lose, I hope that we will remember that we are not each other’s enemies.  No matter what signs your neighbors had in their yards, no matter what words were exchanged face-to-face or on social media, we are family, friends, and neighbors.  Hard times will fall on all of us, and we will bring each other meals, care for each other’s children, watch out for each other.  We will bear loss and celebrate life together, because we are, in the end, human beings–flawed but loving, no matter whom we voted for.

Win or lose, we all truly do care about our country.

I’m human.  I’ll stumble.  Win or lose, I will be as tempted as anyone to feel smug and superior or angry and bitter.  I know I will.  But I resolve not to fall.  I intend to stop and remember the inherent worth, dignity, and humanity of everyone around me, even those I believe were wrong, or selfish, or lazy.  I will reach for humility and forgiveness. At least, I promise to start trying really hard no later than Thursday.  I’ll stumble.  I’m human.

Win or lose, I will never forget the amazing people I have met in the past two years of political activism around the issue of education.  Sure, I’ve seen some really ugly behavior on both sides of the 2016 presidential campaign, but my personal experience working for funding for my local public schools has been nothing but positive. Nothing can ever truly diminish my faith in my fellow human beings because in the past two elections, I have met hundreds of our species’ finest.

Win or lose, I will walk into school on Wednesday morning and be the teacher my students deserve. Whom their parents voted for will make no difference. May we all go to our jobs, and out on our neighborhood streets, and to family meals and begin the work of healing. And then, may we find the strength and the grace to reach beyond that, even. And then, maybe even listen to each other–really listen–and try to understand, and love each other.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 1 Comment

Jeffco Mill Levy and Bond Issue

When Jefferson County Schools waged a battle to take its schools back from corporate reformers, I blogged about it ad nauseam. There was much to write about. First the public needed to be made aware that there was even an issue. Then we had to motivate teachers and community to fight for it. We fought like hell and won a major victory.

Now we have something new to work for. It’s not as sexy as rescuing children from those who had a political agenda rather than kids’ interests at heart, but for Jeffco now, it’s just as important.

We have a mill levy and bond issue on this November’s ballot. These are biggies, and they’re vital to Jeffco’s future—both in the form of our children and in our overall economic prosperity. Like the board issue, it is important for those of us in the know to talk to our friends and neighbors, and in the weeks to come, we’ll be back out pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to make sure everyone knows—Jeffco Schools are in dire need.

We know that Jeffco voters are very skeptical about new taxes, and it is certainly valid to want to know why we are asking for approximately an additional $4.25 per month per $100,000 assessed value from property owners.

First, you need to know that at our current funding levels, Jeffco must spend $1,449 less on each child than Denver. We spend $1,151 less than Boulder, and around $500 less per child than Cherry Creek and Littleton. Is this because our children deserve less? I don’t think so.

Jeffco pays teachers, on average, 19 percent less than surrounding school districts, making it possible for them to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Do we believe all our kids deserve is new teachers who are gaining experience, while other districts’ kids deserve the fruits of that experience when teachers leave us for better salaries? I certainly hope not.

I truly believe that even people who do not have kids in Jeffco Schools (and that’s 70 percent of our voters) care about the children who surround them. They want bright futures for all our kids.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend there are some folks out there who only care about money. According to, one study showed that people are willing to spend 20 percent more for a house in an area with good schools. A 20 percent return on your home’s value seems worth the very modest investment of this mill and bond.

If you want to know more about how the money will be spent, click here and read up.

Then do the right thing for our kids and our community and vote yes on 3A and 3B this November.

As always, feel free to share this.

Posted in Education | 1 Comment

Are You Sure It Was Rape?

One of the hard things this country has been doing, and I am proud of this country for doing, is pulling up carpets on issues and exposing what’s underneath. One issue we are slowly exposing is rape culture, and we have much work to do.

I and every other woman I know has either had direct experience with sexual assault or knows multiple women who have experienced it. One would hope we’d come a long way since my experiences in the 1970’s, when my own mother told me not to report because what I would be put through by the police and the courts would not be worth it, and I would probably lose. At the time, it would have been totally acceptable for them to question my sexual history, but even the fact that I had none would not have saved me. My clothes, my attitude, whether I had fought (though I was young and naïve enough to not fully understand what was even happening, much less fight)—all of these would be questioned, and I would most likely not be believed.

With the decision not to report came a great deal of regret and years of feeling guilty. My abuser went on to be in a position to abuse other girls. I have borne the weight of that responsibility my whole life—the fact that I was between the ages of 12 and 15 at the time notwithstanding.

But we have further to go, and now a young woman who means my whole life to me is facing this, and like the women and girls of my generation, not feeling like she could report it. Like me, until recently she wasn’t able to call her assault what it was, because even we women are taught to question ourselves. Now, there are acknowledgeably gray areas that can occur in sexual situations. I understand that. Given the mixed messages society gives both men and women about what constitutes consent, I asked her whether she thought her attacker could identify what he had done as rape, and she said no. Then I discovered all the details; I can tell you without the slightest doubt that she was assaulted by a predator who knew exactly what he was doing. He manipulated his way into her home, slapped her, and ignored her struggles, yet she could not bring herself to “accuse” him. In 2016, young women still believe they have somehow misunderstood when rapists willfully violate them.

Like my generation 40 years ago, she faces a legal system that does not automatically believe a woman who reports a rape. “Are you sure?” No one asks a mugging victim whether he is sure he didn’t voluntarily give up his wallet. No one finds out he gave money to another person—in a store, on the street, wherever—and then suggests that it was understandable that the mugger thought it would be okay to take this person’s money.

And you know, not all thefts are violent. Faced with a mugger who is clearly bigger and stronger and very demanding and intimidating, more than one person has handed over a wallet or purse without further threat or protest. No one says that crime can’t be prosecuted or even investigated. When someone is bilked of money, defrauded by a master manipulator, they often have legal recourse. No one tells them that, because they were conned by an expert before their money was taken, the conman wasn’t a criminal. Charles Ponzi went to jail. No one tells those victims they have no right to report the fraud. But we tell women who are conned into letting predators into the safety of their homes that what happened to them wasn’t really rape.

Remember, prosecution is not conviction. I’m not saying every man accused of rape must be punished. In America, we have a presumption of innocence, and that is important, but this does not require an immediate presumption that the accuser is lying or delusional, either. It means both are treated by their own side as if they are telling the truth, and the final determination is made through investigation and, when possible, in court. I have no doubt that people have been accused of stealing things when they were, in fact, willingly given the items in question, or who never had possession of the items at all. But how often is the victim of a mugging unsure he was even mugged because society tells him it’s ambiguous? After all, the mugging victim engages in voluntary exchanges involving money. How can he be so sure he was mugged? How often do we tell that victim that he shouldn’t “ruin the thief’s life” by reporting him?

People get away with all kinds of crimes: murder, burglary, embezzlement, you name it, because no justice system is perfect, and great care must be taken to try not to convict innocents. It’s entirely possible that a woman may report a rape and be believed, and the case may still not even go to trial. Sometimes that’s because of a system that secretly still blames the victim, but sometimes it’s just a genuine lack of evidence, as may occur in any other crime where the perpetrator goes unpunished. That happens. I get it. But many rapists get away with it over and over because their victims don’t report them, and how can we protect people if there are rapists getting away with it all the time? The National Institute of Justice reports that of the “rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated against women and girls in the United States between 1992 and 2000, only 36 percent of rapes, 34 percent of attempted rapes, and 26 percent of sexual assaults were reported.” Men under-report even more because there is this idea that they cannot be raped. It is wrong, of course, but who tells them that before it happens? Almost no one, I suspect.

How can this still be? Granted, more rapes are reported now than when I was in my teens and twenties, but do you know how that happened, according to the National Institute of Justice? Not from victims reporting it themselves. The initial increase in reports came from third party reporters like witnesses and family members. Somehow they knew they would be believed without blame, whereas the victim, herself, did not. Victims must be empowered to report, and that means their word should be as trusted as the word of anyone else who reports any other crime.

For those of you who worry that people will cry rape willy-nilly, the solution is readily available: explicit consent. “Is this okay?” “Hey, do you wanna…?” Then going no further without “yes.” I have begun teaching this in ACE, during the portion of the class where we talk about teen issues. I explain to the kids that the law is not as full of bright lines as they would like to believe. This is why we have a trial system. I tell them that, while reporting rape is not a guarantee of prosecution or conviction, all nonconsensual sex has the potential to end up in a rape conviction. Explicit consent protects both partners—from the pain of feeling violated and from the charge of rape where no rape was intended. For those who think this puts a damper on the mood, ask people in the BDSM community, where explicit consent is an absolute requirement. They seem to navigate it pretty well. (No, I’m not advocating BDSM for all; I’m saying they seem to have some pretty wild sex and still get in some version of “Do you wanna…?”)

Yes, indeed, America still has work to do. May my grandchildren’s generation be a safer one.

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Yes, More on White Privilege

I have vacillated between “there is enough blathering about race from people who haven’t really given it any thought, so there’s no need for me to add to the cacophony,” to “there is enough thoughtful commentary about race from thoughtful people, so there’s no need for me to add to the discussion,” to “maybe I have a different perspective than anything I’ve seen so far, so maybe I have something of value to add.”

Guess which won?

This is long, because the issue is complicated, but here’s the key idea: I teach at-risk students in a predominately White school, and this gives me a different perspective on things like privilege and “compliance” and things of that nature. I hope you’ll stick with me.

The alternative class I teach has support groups, and in those groups, kids talk about the issues they face in and out of school. Marijuana possession, alcohol possession, minor skirmishes with the law are not uncommon. Most of my students, regardless of race, are respectful to cops, but more of them are disrespectful than you might imagine. These students are, without exception, White. They frame their disrespect with “that cop had no right to…” Heck, it’s not even just the kids in the alternative class. I had a high-achieving White debater pull a pocket Constitution out of his pocket (I love debaters!) and lecture a cop about what he did and did not have the right to do.

My students of color think these White kids are crazy. When you’ve watched your father gunned down in front of you by cops (as two of my Latino students did) or your friends or siblings cuffed and thrown on the ground by police, you comply. Like one Black student said to his White peers in one of these conversations, “It doesn’t matter what a cop has the right to do. If he shoots you, you’re dead.” I should also mention, this conversation was years before Ferguson.

I know someone’s going to ask, were the cops justified in shooting the Latino kids’ father? I have no idea. They were very young at the time, so they don’t remember the particulars. They remember the trauma. He was a drug dealer, so it’s possible. I had a White kid who lived the first years of his life on the run from the cops with his parents who were criminals. His parents were apprehended in front of him in such a way that they both lived and it didn’t seem to stop him from being disrespectful of authority figures. These are anecdotes, not statistics, but I’m just sayin’.

It never occurs to my White students that a cop will shoot them. Never. Occurs. To. Them. Even the White kids who are respectful are just scared of getting in trouble. They’re not scared of getting beaten up or killed. My Black and Latino kids are afraid for their physical safety. I can’t seem to get a grip on trends for Asians. I’ve heard both points of view, and if the trend is identifiable at all, it comes from where they live—predominately White suburbs, no fear of cops; predominately mixed urban areas, fear. As far as I can tell, for Blacks and Latinos, it doesn’t matter where they live. Cops can beat you or kill you, so do what they say.

And that’s just a reflection of race in police interaction.

In my senior class, we read a graphic novel called American Born Chinese. It’s about how race and racism affect Asian students in predominately White America. Before we start, I have the kids talk about racial stereotypes. It’s Columbine, so my classes are mostly White, but they are more mixed than many other classes at the school. (The proportion of students of color being identified as “at-risk” in schools is its own piece of institutional racism.)

We list different races on the board and brainstorm. White jobs: doctor, lawyer, businessman, teacher etc. (This list is always, by far, the longest list. These are just a few of many similar jobs.) Black jobs: Cop, drug dealer, hair stylist, maybe a couple of other low-paying or criminal jobs. Latino jobs: Housekeeper, lawn maintenance, Mexican restaurant owner/worker. Asian jobs: Scientist, computer jobs, nail salon worker, Chinese restaurant owner. (The Mexican and Chinese assumption is part of the stereotype, despite the many Latino and Asian ethnicities that exist.) One year I had a Native American student point out that I hadn’t listed Native American. I put it on the board and kids had one answer: Casino owner/worker.

Keep in mind, kids of all races create these lists. The kids do tend to contribute mostly to stereotypes for their own groups, not others, for fear of “looking racist,” but in the end they all agree these are the stereotypes.

There is a lot of talking and joking during this activity. We list other kinds of stereotypes, not just jobs, but the next piece focuses there. I follow up by asking, “What if every Black child grew up in a world where it was assumed that he or she would be a doctor or a lawyer? What if every Latina or Latino was expected to be a scientist or corporate CEO? What if White kids grew up in a world where people assumed they would clean houses or mow lawns? No one would explicitly tell them they couldn’t do any of these other things. It would just be a world where that’s what you saw around you on TV or when you were out and about, that kind of thing.”

And the room gets really quiet for a while. There’s just a long moment of cognitive dissonance while they wrap their heads around it. The discussion picks up again, but that moment is profound, I think. This is institutional racism. This is White privilege, so ingrained that even children of color often buy into it.

From my perspective, it is counter-productive to talk about White privilege and institutional racism only from the perspective of two or three or four high-profile cases of police shootings. These things are so much more complicated, so deeply embedded in our culture that they cannot be reduced to sound bites from a few news stories. I mean, even I have had to reduce 30 years of teaching into a handful of examples (though they are examples of many similar experiences throughout those years) from one school. And I am only one teacher.

So yeah, I’m okay with all the perspectives getting posted on Facebook, and I hope this was worth contributing. I hope all these contributions add up to no longer denying the existence and significance of White privilege and institutional racism so that we can solve the problems they cause.

Posted in Columbine, Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 3 Comments

How High School Debate Can Save America

I am taking a break from the book I’m working on to write this. Yes, after a two-year hiatus defending public schools in Jeffco, I’m actually back to the book project I was working on with a former student. (Sorry, Danielle—I’ll have to get those markups to you Monday.)

These are potentially divisive times. Well, they are just plain divisive within our country, but I’m writing this in hopes that they need not be as divisive among each other.

There is this form of debate in the world of high school forensics known as Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate, and it draws upon ideas and skills that would serve us all well. The other term for this kind of debate is “values debate.” You’ll see why as I explain.

Let’s say the resolution (topic) of today’s debate is: The United States should place stronger restrictions upon the Second Amendment.

A student who competes in this area will have to debate both sides. There are usually three preliminary rounds, so they will go affirmative (agree with the resolution) once or twice and negative (disagree with the resolution) once or twice in a combination equaling three—his or her actual opinions notwithstanding. Sides are assigned in the tab room; debaters do not choose. To advance to the fourth round, the debater will most likely have to have won all three rounds, depending upon the number of competitors.

Both debaters must build their cases upon a core value. Common core values in LD include such things as justice, security, freedom, utility (the greatest good for the greatest number), etc. They must defend the supremacy of their value using philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, as well as reason and logic.

“But these are such vague values!” I hear you cry. Part of their task is to define the value and defend the definition. Another part of their task is to offer a criterion, a way of measuring whether or not the value is achieved. This is done with a combination of philosophy and real world evidence.

Going back to the resolution, it might play out like this: The affirmative offers the core value of safety with the criterion of reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. After explaining why safety is the ultimate value in this debate and why his criterion is the best measurement, he is going to explain how stronger restrictions on the Second Amendment provide reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. He’s going to cite gun-related accidents, suicides, and murders using statistics from credible sources, like the FBI, the CDC, etc.

The negative might then offer a different core value, such as freedom. She may use the Bill of Rights as her criterion. After she defends these, she will explain how the entire Bill of Rights is the foundation of freedom in America, and how any encroachment upon it risks all of the freedoms we hold dear. She may go more deeply into the topic by explaining how the right to bear arms prevents the rise of a despotic government.

The debate, which is highly structured and lasts about 45 minutes, will usually involve a clash of core values, where each tries to prove his or her value is of greater importance than the other’s. They will attack each other’s reasoning and evidence, trying to show contradictions in each other’s cases or show evidence from other credible sources that mitigates or negates altogether the other’s sources.

It doesn’t always go exactly like that. Sometimes both debaters offer the same core value. They might even have the same criterion. At that point, the debate will be about which side best protects safety—reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. Is it gun restrictions that save people from gun-toting murderers, and gun-free homes with lower gun accident, suicide, and fatal domestic-violence rates? Or is it gun freedoms, which allow homeowners to protect their loved ones from intruders and despotic leaders?

You see, a difference in views on a particular issue does not necessarily mean a difference in values. And where there is a difference in values, this does not necessarily indicate a lack of values on the part of one side or the other.

In debate, neither debater is trying to convince the other. They are trying to convince an impartial judge (or three or five judges in an advanced round). That is to say, they are convincing a judge who is not invested in one debater or the other and who has been trained to base the decision solely upon the arguments and evidence presented in the round and the skills of the debaters—the judge’s own opinion on the topic notwithstanding. On the ballot, judges explain the rationale behind the decision. Most judges do a pretty good job of keeping their own views out of the decision.

Ethics are important in debate and are part of the judge’s consideration. It does not behoove a debater to get nasty. There is no reason to get nasty about one’s opponent’s side of the debate because neither debater chose their side. They may or may not actually hold the position they are defending, and each one may never learn what the other actually believes. It doesn’t matter.

Besides, if one’s opponent is cute and funny and smart, one may be wanting to get the other debater’s phone number for when the tournament is over…

Does this sound hard? It is. And remember, the kids doing it are between the ages of 14 and 18, and many of them are AMAZING!

I hope you’ll think about all of this in the weeks and months ahead. Have the hard discussions. Question your own and each other’s positions. Just don’t assume that people who disagree with you have no values or even that their values are different from yours. You might even try stating the values upon which you base your position, and ask other’s for their values. Find the common ground, the humanity in each other. Then we might find truth.



Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments

In Which America Did You Grow Up?

On my way to church this morning, I pulled up behind a car with a bumper sticker that said, “I miss the America I grew up in,” and I found myself nodding and thinking, “Amen to that.”

Then I wondered…did I grow up in the same America as the person in front of me? Do our nostalgic wanderings take us to the same place? If we all want to make America great again, do we all want the same thing?

Through the wide eyes of children, their country is their family and their immediate community. Children seldom realize the diversity of America; they know only that their corner is home. It is what, when they are adults, they will most likely believe America was when they were young.

I grew up singing Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary protest songs in two-part harmony with my mother. My family boycotted orange juice for a time because of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay sentiments. I grew up believing that Roe vs. Wade was an important victory for women and hoped the Equal Rights Amendment would further advance that cause. In fact, I met one of my closest, oldest friends defending the ERA to my 9th grade classmates. I was raised to believe that racism was real and an impediment that would one day be removed so that all could share in the prosperity of America, but it would take work. I was raised to believe the world had much work in it for my growing hands.

The America of my youth was my family, my Unitarian church, and my school, which for a time was Open Living School (or “the hippy school,” as I recalled it to my own children). In my childhood, it was understood that “war is not healthy for children and other living things.” Like most people, my parents chose friends who held similar values to theirs, and these adults defined my world. They believed in social justice. They were mostly White, but they adopted Black children, Latino children, and child refugees from Vietnam, and we all played together. Yes, I recall the America in which I grew up with great fondness.

I miss unapologetic feminism. I miss the open acknowledgement of racial inequality coupled with the passionate desire to abolish it. I miss righteous indignation in the face of unjust war (though I don’t miss the draft or the hostility our troops faced when they returned home).

Is that what the person in the car ahead of me longs for?

In a recent Facebook post, I suggested that the phrase “politically correct” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Likewise, I think perhaps we should ask what making America great again means to each of us. Only when we truly understand what others mean when they speak, only when we acknowledge that we have different roots, but all those roots—seen through the eyes of children—hold home, can we build the bridges our nation so desperately needs.

Posted in Family, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments

Vacation, Visions, and Visits

It’s summer again, and I almost don’t know what to do with myself. For the last two summers, I poured my heart and soul into preserving Jeffco’s public schools. Last fall I spent nearly every weekend fighting the good fight. I told John Ford a month ago that it wouldn’t feel like summer unless I knocked on some doors. Good news, it really is summer, so there are doors in my future.

Back in the fall of 2013 a couple of women from JCEA knocked on my door to ask me to vote for three pro-public school candidates. I felt a moment of guilt. My building association rep had asked us to knock on doors that day, but I was answering my door, so clearly I hadn’t answered that call. The idea of three such extreme candidates as Witt, Newkirk, and Williams winning that election was just inconceivable.

I kept using that word. Turned out it did not mean what I thought it meant.

I will not make that mistake again. JCEA has worked with other Jeffco stakeholders to create a powerful vision for schools our students deserve. I feel really good about it. I would love a district where all voices matter, where all schools are safe and welcoming and where high quality teachers are respected and supported. I hope for a district where students learn more and test less. I want strong public schools as public institutions and strong communities. I want them badly enough to knock on doors a couple of days this summer to talk to my colleagues about how to ensure all of these things.

I never again want to spend day after day going door to door to alert people to a nearly successful assault on our public schools. I want us all to be on the same page, pulling for the same things, alert and aware and able to avert a crisis before it happens because we’ve been talking to each other and our neighbors all along.

The Independence Institute and Americans for Prosperity are not through with Jefferson County. There are millions of dollars going into classrooms instead of the pockets of these institutions and their members, and as long as that is the case, we cannot afford to be complacent. They are quietly publishing their strategies, hoping to correct past mistakes. They know that Jeffco loves its educators, so they are cautioning their members against directly attacking us in their messaging. They still think our kids are pawns, but they caution their members against openly saying so. They are really angry about the alliance that was built between teachers, parents, and other community members. The basic message: Make nice to teachers’ faces, but continue to undermine their ability to act collectively with each other and the community to protect their kids and the integrity of their profession.

JCEA has asked its members to give one day this summer to staying in shape, staying strong for our kids, sharing our vision, refining and more deeply defining it. These are the conversations we love to have with each other anyway—how we can make Jeffco the best place to teach and the best place to learn. These are not going to be the worried conversations of the two years before, but rather hopeful, visionary conversations. Won’t you join in?

First, please welcome those of us knocking on your doors. Second, please give one day of your summer. I really think you’ll find it rejuvenating and exciting. That’s why I signed up for two days! Follow this link to choose a day.


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I have said in various ways at various times that one of the things I remember most right after the shootings was an intense desire to talk to someone else who’d been through it—someone from Jonesboro or West Paducah, one of those places no one remembers now because somehow we became the synonym for a school shooting, and those that came before got lost to those not in the club. I wanted to talk to someone ahead of me on the path in the hopes that they could help me believe that I would live, smile, go two minutes without thinking about what happened.

Less than a week after the shootings, I did talk to some folks from Jonesboro on a T.V. show, but they didn’t seem to have any answers. It had been a year for them. I know now how silly it was to think they would have answers yet. I know now how little healing happens in a year.

This is where I am, 17 years later, for what it’s worth. I have since met, face-to-face and online, many others forced on this journey, and I know they appreciate the occasional look at what’s up ahead.

I am always acutely aware of April, from the first to the thirtieth. I am grateful that April is one of those months that hath only thirty days. I don’t dread it anymore. I don’t even remember the last time I did dread it. I don’t feel each day peel away toward the 20th like layers of skin, hardly noticeable at first until spring air starts to scald like acid. That, too, is a long time gone. I just wake up every day knowing it’s April.

I notice when the weather is like that day. It doesn’t hurt. I feel no anxiety. If I go for a walk around the outside of the school during my planning period (which I do all year when the weather’s nice), I walk out the doors I walked out of that day, past the park where we climbed the fence to get away, and I remember all of these things the way one remembers anything, really. Like “Yeah, those are things that happened.” I never walk out in April without remembering them, though.

I’m an avoider. It’s been years since I have been in the building on the anniversary. I take the 20th off. I might be able to teach again, but I cannot sit in that building so quiet waiting for 11:20 to come and go, listening to Frank read the names over the intercom or even just knowing he’s in the library reading them. I think of Rachel, Dan, and Isaiah every single day—not just in April—every day. I’m not necessarily sad; that’s not it. I just remember them. I remember them alive and smiling. I choose not to sit at school and remember how they died. I’m OK with my choice, just as I’m OK with people choosing to be there. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Tomorrow’s a bit of a crap shoot. Some anniversaries are harder than others, but if I keep busy, I do just fine. Really, I do. I get together with people or take on a big cleaning project. I did both last year. Tomorrow I’m having lunch with my stepmom; timed it so I’d be on the highway at 11:20. I’ll be thinking about traffic, not watching the clock.

It’s a long, long way from the first anniversary, when I just wanted to sleep through it—drug myself senseless, go to sleep on April 19 and wake up on the 21st. A long way from the fifth anniversary when I was drunk by 11:30 in the morning. A long way even from the 10th anniversary, when we invited the kids who’d been at school that day to come back: I braced myself for tears and trauma and reopened wounds only to find a commons area full of babies—babies—and smiles and laughter and catching up with “kids” well into their 20’s with careers and families and beautiful beloved faces.

Oh, yes, companions on this path, there can be joy even on that most dreaded day.

You may already be figuring it out. If you’re not there yet, if the anniversary of whatever you went through still devastates you, well, go back at look at the introductory phrase at the beginning of this sentence. You’re just not there yet. You’ll get there.

You’ll get here. It’s not a bad place to be. Ask me again in another 17 years.

Posted in Columbine, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 4 Comments