Victoria Jelinek


XXIII: Blue Dog Day

Depression is melancholy minus its charms – the animation, the fits. Susan Sontag

depression long roadMy mind has been playing tricks on me all day. I almost convinced myself that my bad liver was a result of my candy intake. Seriously. For a moment, it seemed real. So real, that it almost justified my drinking at 9am. The rest of the day, I’ve been thinking that I’ll try to make it through fifteen more years. That’s the goal. Ten to see my son off to university, then five more years to have fun, do what I want, potentially decimate my body. Then, like a cat when its ready to die, I’ll quietly go off somewhere by myself. These morbid thoughts give me comfort. I think, “I can make it through today…” Then, “I can make it through the next year…” Then, “I can make it for ten more…I think…” “That’s all, that’s all…” But that “all” is everything.

It’s horrible to feel this way. It’s heavy and dark and bitter and mean and uncomfortable. I want to escape me. Barring that, I want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head and just pass time. The day, the year, the ten years, the fifteen. However, there are always people around me. My husband would interrupt this. Not because he would be concerned, but because it would annoy him that I was in bed ‘lolling about’ while he was taking care of our child, our house, and ‘business.’ Then, of course, there’s my son. My precocious, sweet, talkative boy who hums and sings to himself as he skips up the stairs, heads out the door, or plays by himself. He zones in on me like I’m a beacon whenever he’s home and demands I engage with him. Not in a pushy, aggressive manner, but because he likes me and wants to show me things, talk to me about what he has seen or done, and to hear what I have to say about it. He’s still cuddly, even as I can see the man that he will become, and he’s way too big for me to lift up. I try to engage with him. To pay attention to what he’s saying. I try to put a smile on my face. I try to pretend not to be me for him.

It’s entirely for him that I’m not drinking and inhaling to my heart’s desire. Or staying in bed all day. Or running away to somewhere else more suited to my real self. Somewhere dirty, large, and anonymous. He’s the reason I stay. He’s the reason I try at all. He’s the reason I will make myself go to the grocery store to get food, even as I absolutely dread the inevitable prospect of running into someone I know. He’s also the reason that we have any semblance of a social life. As an only child, or a “unique” as the French say, he wants playmates. As a naturally curious and social boy, he wants company and activity around him. As he’s still very young, he can’t arrange them or go by himself, and his father is unconcerned with having a social life, happy, instead, to be a homebody. So, I must arrange ‘play dates’ and social plans. Then, I must stay for a “hello,” and a “how are you?” and sometimes a cup or glass of something to be friendly. However, I find these interactions very hard. I feel as though I am perpetually masquerading as a ‘normal’ person, and consequently, am such a fraud. I don’t know how to have small talk when I’m sober, and I know people don’t want me to launch into “serious” talk, which is a “downer.” Having to interact with adults and children alike is painful and anxiety provoking for me. And now there’s no reprieve from the stress of it all.

Moreover, ‘the slings and arrows’ of children and their parents’ politics are very hard for me to observe, digest, and remain calm about. ‘Cookie cutter’ type kids and their parents are popular. They’re confident about asserting themselves. The kids spot the ‘Achilles heel’ of any child and exploit it cruelly. The other kids gravitate to these types. Prompting me to wonder if there isn’t some truth to the idea that people, in general, do like dictators – someone to tell them what to do and how to be. Tennessee Williams notes in “Night of the Iguana” that humans are the only creatures that won’t do anything to get out of a trap, such as bite off a foot or an arm. The kids ‘fisty cuffs’ are generally all forgotten relatively quickly, but it’s terrible to watch when you consider that these human propensities begin early. Ugh, and the little clusters of cliques, with those who are the ‘henchmen’ to the popular kids often being the meanest. Girls seem to be the worst. Or the best, depending on how you look at it. I think of the film “Mean Girls” frequently. Even among the hierarchies of adults. I hate observing these dynamics. It ‘winds me up.’ It makes me feel like I’m in grade school or high school all over again. I hated those years. I felt like a captive.

I keep looking for justice and signs of human thoughtfulness: to notice the person who picks up after himself when leaving the cinema. Or notice the car that uses only one parking space. Or notice the person who lets someone in front of them in the line at the grocery ‘cause they only have three items and the other person a trolley full of goods. Or see ‘the chancer’ get fired summarily. But it’s so hard to do when I feel so fucking bad. And, it often makes things worse ‘cause I don’t see these things everyday and then I’m angry. Then, like the masochist I am, I sling abuse at myself for being “so negative.” I tell myself that it’s MY fault that I see the ‘bad’ things about people in the world! I’m sending out that ‘energy’ and it’s causing a reverb by bringing negativity to me!” “If I could only change my perspective then it would all be fine. All would be different.” “It’s how I see things that’s the problem.” “It’s me. I suck. I’m horrible, beastly, angry, critical, and judgmental.” “I should relax and not think “too” much.” Problem is, the only way I don’t think too much is to ingest a mind-altering substance. If I’m to make it another fifteen years, I can’t. It’s already ‘dicey’ that I’ll make it that far with what I’ve already done to myself.

And that’s when I want to spend my day in bed. It’s then that I see little point in venturing out into the world. It’s then that I return to the idea that I’ve had a good run and I’m eager to be done with it. I’m tired of watching imposters get ahead. I’m tired of bullies dominating society – both on a micro and macro level. Of mediocrity reigning. Of the rise of pride in ignorance and the consequent disdain of intellect. Of no one really giving a shit about anything. I’m tired of it all. I’m tired of me.

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XI: A Moment of Silence…

Posted today on Twitter. I think it says it all…Brave American Children



IX Public Education

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Pacific NW Oak TreeThe state of public school systems throughout the world is generally deplorable. It’s disheartening to consider how this reflects societal values and it’s frightening to consider the implications of this culturally now and in the future.

I spent a year observing classrooms in England, the USA, and Switzerland before I decided to re-train as a teacher. What I saw in public schools (not “public” in the English sense) was alarming: overcrowded classrooms, horribly behaved students, excerpts of books taught rather than entire books because there isn’t enough time or motivation to teach the entire book, and teachers privately asking me how to get ‘gigs’ writing literature guides, as I did at the time, rather than “having” to teach. I remember crying one day as I walked back to a friend’s house in London after having spent a day observing classes at a local academy. I felt, then, as I do now, as though there is little hope for future generations given the incredible challenges for public schools as a result of the lack of social and governmental support for them.

Because the quality of training, support within the schools for teachers, the general behavior of the students in the classrooms, and the curriculum of the international baccalaureate, I did my practical training at a private school in Switzerland while I simultaneously completed my pedagogical certifications at a school in England. When I graduated, I went to work at another private school in Switzerland for the next four years. Having seen the kids through their courses and off to university, I decided to take some time out. I was fed up with the level of privilege I saw, and what I perceive to be the growing inequity in society between kids with money who are able to have superior educational experiences (such as smaller class sizes, teachers paid well and consequently not “burnt out”, and a level of general expectation from both parents and administrators that education is key to success personally and professionally) and kids who do not.

So, I offered myself up as a substitute teacher in a local high school where I live in France. It wasn’t teaching literature, as I was trained to do and which I am passionate about, but, rather, English as a foreign language for an eight-week placement, full-time, 200 kids per week. Even so, I was excited to get in there and to bring IB philosophies to students who had not likely been exposed to it before. How naive I was. The kids did not understand that the games I played with them in the classroom had learning objectives. They were so unused to play and autonomy, that they became over-excited and consequently disruptive, thereby destroying any possibility of an appropriate learning environment. My desire to reason with them, to model respectful and open-minded behavior, was seen as weakness to the majority of them. Most were only responsive to base punitive measures. My carefully constructed lesson plans which integrated visual, oral, written, and kinesthetic activities, were never completed because I spent much of my time each class, each day, managing poorly behaved students. Exercises that I assigned that involved their having to create, imagine, make connections between ideas, were simply too difficult for most of them to do. They preferred rote exercises and prescriptive worksheets. The majority of them do not value education – they want to be ‘celebrity bloggers,’ or ‘international sports stars.’ When I tried to reason with them that IF they became, for example, a professional sports figure – and that’s IF they were good enough and opportunities presented themselves – their careers would be over very early. What, then, would they do to earn a living? I was met with blank looks to this question. When I tried to speak to them about how ‘celebrity bloggers’ should be able to write, to observe and to process cultural trends, they could not see the connection. This doesn’t surprise me, given that many of the parents don’t value education or encourage respect for teachers. For example, one English parent over a casual dinner told a friend of mine shamelessly and stupidly that her son had pretended NOT to speak English “just to mess with me,” his substitute teacher. The child of a friend of mine at the school (who was not in one of my classes) wants to be a filmmaker when he grows up but does not know what a literature class is OR the point of being able to deconstruct stories in order to make good films. His parents, likewise, also do not make the connection. Another parent of a very naughty child in one of my classes simply rolled her eyes at her daughter’s continual misbehavior and said that she never did “go in” for school. (She has already been held back a year and she’s 12). Another parent told me that literature and the arts are “useless,” and her child – who was in one of my classes – refused to do “extension” work in literature (while I taught fundamentals of English to the French kids) ‘cause “there’s no point to it.” Under the influence of parents like this, ignorant of the role of education on the quality of their children’s lives and for the betterment of society collectively, who don’t value respectfulness towards teachers or peers, opting, instead, to reward Darwinian competitive behavior, and who believe sport, and maybe science and math (which of course trump the humanities and the arts), then it’s no wonder that their children have the values they seem to, behave in the classroom as they do, and require constant ‘sticks’ to maintain order, rather than ‘carrots’.

But here is the crux of the trauma for me – my colleagues and the school, itself, should have known better. As it was, most of my colleagues at the school were disdainful of me, opting, often, to put on English language films for their classes to watch (to students who couldn’t spot a verb if it bit them or string together a rudimentary English sentence, much less understand a film in English) and saw me as a disruptive idealist who didn’t know how to teach “properly” and who made them look bad. The administrator’s gave me zero support: I had no computer in the classroom, no way to project images, no sound system, no books, no dictionaries, just, literally, chalk and a chalkboard. Adding to this, I would intermittently be moved to random classrooms when there were visiting seminars or intermittent meetings, thereby disrupting any rhythm I might have had, as well displacing 200 students in the process. Wouldn’t it make more sense to assign the visiting class to another room? Each week, I would write up a brief report of the material I had covered in each class as well as the comportment of the students, and then send it by email to the Vice Principal and the teacher I was ‘covering’ in order to keep them informed. Over eight weeks, I did not once receive even a response of ‘received and read’ to any of my Saturday morning emails, which would have been a simple courtesy. When I completed my contract (a mighty challenge as I frequently wanted to run screaming from the school) out of professional courtesy (and even as I had a date with a very large cocktail), I went to the Vice Principal’s office to shake her hand, let her know I’d tidied the classroom, returned the keys, and was finished. She made me wait outside her office for twenty minutes while she chatted and laughed with a friend, then she limply shook my offered hand and did not say a single word to me – not a ‘thank you’ for teaching kids who had had NO teacher for five months before I came in, or any kind of acknowledgement for the hurdles that had been placed in my path by the school itself, my colleagues, the parents, and the students.

With the parents, administrators, and the teachers themselves – often absent for months at a time with no substitutes in and without any recourse to their positions and accompanying wages – disrespectful, over-extended, exhausted and ‘calling in’ their lessons, or, ironically, too ignorant and lazy to exemplify the ideal of being a lifelong learner, it is no wonder that the majority of children aren’t motivated and enthusiastic about learning. For the last few weeks since I left this school, I have had an existential struggle: do I ever want to teach again? Having been treated with such disrespect every day, all day, for these weeks, how can I regain the confidence that I am, indeed, worthy of respect? And if I can’t regain that confidence, how can I ever command a classroom again and consequently create a positive learning environment? With parents who don’t give ‘a fig’ about education, much less the humanities, who implicitly and explicitly indoctrinate their children with the same notions, what hope is there in communicating its importance to their children? Why bother?

However, the fact is that in several of the classes, there were students that were interested, engaged, and who appreciated my efforts. I know this because they made ‘goodbye’ cards for me, I received many hugs upon departure, a few classes stood up and applauded me and then shook my hand as they filed out of the classroom, and one child cried. Even so, exhausted, saddened, and angry, I have perversely turned this positivity to negativity because I now criticize myself for not protecting THESE students when the foolish students were being disruptive. I should have kicked these kids out of the classroom. I should have been harsher to them in terms of punishment. But I was operating under the arguably misguided ideology that they, too, were worthy of my respect and patience.

Upon reflection, I suppose I’ve learned a few things, both good and bad. I think that I can’t work in a public school system because there are little resources financially, many parents often view school as a ‘necessary evil’ or a type of day care, so there is little support there for one’s efforts. This breaks my heart because I have ALWAYS been a staunch advocate for public schools, believing they’re the lynchpin of a successful society. I also feel that I’m a coward, walking away from a necessary and important fight to educate children for a better world. In a day and age where politicians and the general public are complaining about public school teachers asking for a living wage, and are braying idiocies such as “They already get their whole summers off!” and “They leave work at 15:30 each day!” I should be trying to fight the good fight by attempting to effect change, to reach a few, bright, motivated students, modeling idealism, curiosity, and a life spent learning, both formally and personally, as the true measure of success. But I can’t at this moment. I feel injured and confused. Right now, I don’t even want to speak to people outside of my closest friends and my immediate family, because I’m horrified and saddened by where society’s values seem to be, and, subsequently, the cultural trajectory we’re collectively on. Where fame and money are the ultimate measures of ‘success.’ Where intellectualism is seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Where kindness and sensitivity are signs of “weakness.” Where it’s okay for children to be impolite to their elders because their parents don’t discourage this behavior and are unwittingly creating narcissistic, entitled future adults.

Also unsettling is that my son is destined for the same public school that I worked in and saw close-up. There are no private schools within practical proximity, so going to a private school would require uprooting him from a gorgeous environment and an ideal lifestyle, where he learns so much about the natural world. Moreover, my husband argues that our son is, and always has been, a good student, a respectful child to his teachers and elders, and that the onus for fortifying his general education is, ultimately, on us, his parents. There is reason to what he says, and I think that I’m up to fighting this righteous cause…But what about teaching again? I have always honored the profession and I once loved doing it. I know that I was an effective teacher and that I changed many of my student’s lives because they and their parents have told me so repeatedly. Do the few who I am able to inspire through my love of literature and the disciplines it touches upon (geography, politics, philosophy, culture, film, history, psychology) become the fortifying force that keeps me ‘in the game’? Do I keep teaching despite the troglodytes I encounter, or, perhaps, because of them? Do I return to teaching in private schools – even as my own son is not in one and even as I ideologically don’t condone them – because the comportment of the students is better, the resources and support available to teachers is good, and I’m paid exponentially more than what I get paid in a public school? Or, is this being complicit to a global system that actively does not want the masses to be able to think?

ADDENDUM:

A few English friends have seen this piece as an attack on the French system and the ‘heart’ of France itself, without my considering context. This was absolutely NOT my intention. As a result, I have included my response to one such friend’s feedback:

This is in no way an attack on the French system or government. (I love this country with all of my heart – AM French too – have chosen it over all the other countries I have spent years of time in!).  I had hoped that by mentioning initially that this is about public school systems globally; the observations that I did in Europe, UK and USA before becoming a teacher; that I reference English parents’ behavior/statements regarding their kids here; and my general, philosophical questions about income inequality and private versus public resources and morale, that this essay is about public schools versus private schools (with the theme of income inequality and consequent motivation and opportunity), rather than a specific system. I have used the French system because it’s a recent experience. It’s an example, but by no means the only one I could use and, given the aforementioned, doesn’t really matter which one I would use because their ultimate root – in my opinion – is still the same (income inequality, consequent resources/pay/motivation/morale and practical learning).
 
Also, if I were to have gone into the ‘nitty gritty’ cultural complexity of  “Why?” the French system (or any other public school system) is as it is, it would be another essay (or would be very convoluted. A virtual treatise. Or academic 😦 ). For example, as you note, speaking about the way the French “channel” kids into specific professions, could also apply to a certain extent anywhere, based on more subtle socioeconomic aspects. For example, I went to secondary school in Scotland, and lived in England for 13 years, and I would argue that while it’s not, perhaps, as overt as the French system with their (very early) channeling, the Scottish and the English “channel” their kids, too, by having most leave at 15 – like the French – to learn trades and do unskilled labor (like the French) and the rest go on to college then university. And then, as you note, the uni that they end up going to in the UK effects their work prospects (as well as the accent they end up using). I would also question the motivation behind England’s intention to test under-fives now (me thinks this is very dubious…about financing elements and “channeling” possibilities). In the USA, again, while all kids MUST go to school till 18 (or receive an alternate high school certification), the reasons for inequity in the public school system there also goes back to economic realities. Yes, the American Dream exists for a (very) few, exceptional (and lucky) lower class and middle class (by US standards, not “middle class” by UK definition) folks, but I would argue that, ultimately, it comes down to their family’s social and practical resources and consequently the public school resources available to them. And, again, where Americans go to uni matters a lot and the price is extortionate, even for mediocre uni’s (such a bloody Socialist me).
As for my colleagues at the French school, I also met a few that were lovely and tried to be helpful…but I suppose (and perhaps here’s where working in Hollywood for so long may have ruined me), mentioning them detracted from the general experience and point, which, in my opinion, comes down to income inequality and consequent lack of financial/practical support for public schools, teachers, and the kids who go to them. I will, however, reflect upon your points and, perhaps, adapt this to another essay (or make it one of many in a book? Perhaps write about elements of my time in Switzerland teaching? Perhaps include observations as a student in various places? Hmmm…).
Thank you, v.

May 2, 2019: An article from The Guardian on education and general poverty, which is NOT unique to England or the UK. It’s an epidemic throughout the world.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/30/staff-fantastic-but-can-fight-pupil-poverty-incoming-president-headteachers-union?CMP=twt_a-education_b-gdnedu

 



The Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name
July 6, 2018, 9:59 am
Filed under: From the Soap Box | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20180702-the-epic-story-of-the-map-that-gave-america-its-name

Yet another way France and America are historically connected…

Fr townIronic, however, how few of the French I meet everyday understand this affinity. The French (in general) view the English and the Americans as “the same thing” (the next one who says this to me directly will get the question as to whether they regard themselves to be the ‘same’ as the Swiss-French, given that they speak the same language, which they will most emphatically deny).

What’s worse, is that an anti “Anglais” is spreading throughout France. For example, the little French boy that is my son’s dear friend, told him the other day at school that he “hates the English.” My son’s response was to say that he isn’t English, he’s American. The boy responded, “They’re the same thing.” This did not stop the boy later that day and the next morning from coming to ours hoping to play with my son. I understand it’s the influence of the grandma – she’s a provincial person – but one sees how quickly the kids pick up these ignorant statements, even as they don’t understand what it means (much like those who propagate these types of ideas). I joined a field trip with my son’s class the other week, too, and a teacher had a ‘go’ at me for speaking English with a group of little boys (who are Swedish, Danish, English, and American) when it is a French speaking school. I gently admonished her not to be so parochial, that the children speak two or three languages and easily switch between them depending on their audience – “what a gift! So international!” Later, I heard her gossiping about me to a few of the other teachers, which I chose to ignore.

It also irritates me that the local, everyday French (in general) loathe Macron. Don’t get me started on their flawed “logic” when they  ‘explain’ why he’s so “terrible.” They also refuse to answer my question as to whether they prefer the Front National – and I do ask. Their lack of a response is an implicit response. These people remind me of Trumpsters in the USA with their bandwagon statements, hypocrisy, misinformation, and incomplete information/ideology.

It makes me so sad how the general populace of any place is ignorant of context, history, theory…so limited in critical and logical thinking and reasoning…and so naturally disposed to tribalism (lending itself to xenophobia) and aggression…