Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Some thoughts on the Bullying Epidemic

I've only been hit in the face one time in my whole life.  I should clarify, I have taken martial arts a few times, and of course I got hit in the face during practice (dishing out my own brand of return fire as well), but that does not count.  I'm talking about fist into face connection due to some aggravated conversation/situation.  I was in Jr. High and struggled quite a bit with establishing and defending myself.  West Liberty is not the most accepting school/community to outsiders, and it took many years before I really felt assimilated into the fold.  I wasn't a "wimpy" kid, but I wasn't necessarily a confident "stand-up-for-my-selfer."  So, when a certain boy on my basketball team started pushing me and verbally threatening me, I took it onto myself to wait until he began to walk away and then whip him in the back of the head with my coat.  Mistake.  He turned around and before I knew it, his knuckles kissed my cheek.  Surprisingly, and I don't say this in any kind of macho revis paion of history way, it didn't hurt that bad; I think this is mainly because he held back.  But, that was it.  He walked away, I walked away, end of story.  

Physical bullying was never something I dealt with.  Emotional and verbal bullying, however, laid it's roadwork all over my elementary school life.  Suffice it to say, reverberating effects from rejection still interfere with my psyche today.  Moving on.

Monday night, I, along with my wife and some friends, attended an anti-bullying seminar held at West Liberty-Salem High School.  The presenter was a therapist and expert in the field of dealing with both bullies and victims and had presented three times already that day.  I felt bad for him; I mean, I like the sound of my own voice, don't get me wrong, but there comes a point when enough is enough.  He energetically and politely soldiered on.

It was not at all what I expected; I looked forward to some kind of summary of the bullying situation in American schools and how educators, police, military, the President, and potentially alien life forms were going to speak wisdom and peace into the classrooms.  Surely there was some plan or scheme in place which would change the dark atmosphere of lockerrooms forever!

Sadly, this was not the case.  Instead, the presenter spent 2 hours training parents (which I am not) how to teach their children to not be victims by learning confidence techniques and self-defense.  (I need to add, he did not advocate violence; rather, learning ways to non-violently defend one's self).

Before I go on, I have to say that I appreciated what he had to say and believe it does have a lot of value to all students.  However, I was shocked that this was the approach to bullying.  He showed us that, statistically, bullies are seldom caught.  So police lockdown wouldn't do much good.  I was waiting for the introduction of anger sniffing german shepherds who could sense when students were getting aggresive with one another, but that did not happen.

The gist of the evening was that for bullying to be stopped, there must not be any victims.  So potential victims need to be taught to no longer be victims.  I could not help but feel that something was wrong with this approach.  It addressed the problem, certainly, but it didn't address the root of the problem.  It treated the symptoms, but did not cure the disease. 

I couldn't help but wonder what kind of system we are sending our students to that fosters environments of power, heirarchy and violence without any real way to stem the issues.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but school is about education, not a model for "The Lord of the Flies."  If they start passing a conch around classrooms, I'm yelling fire. 

How can a public system have such little control over its space; I felt like this presenter was going rogue inside the system, training little guerilla confident youth to stand up for themselves like Rambo against the Vietnamese.  What is this system of public education we promote?  It seems crazy!  Take control of the schools!

But I know that this is not likely.  With budget cuts, the student to teacher ratio continues to rise; with less supervision, it is much easier for these kinds of situations to occur.  And frankly, teachers were trained to educate, not serve as prison guards, and the principal was not meant to be the school warden.  Yet, this cycle of bullying and violence only begets more bullying and violence.  It's generational; parents pass it down to children, who pass it down to children, etc.  Where does it stop?

I am not an educational philosopher; I speak in ignorance to the depths of the issue.  But I work with kids, and I was a kid, and I someday want to have kids, so I will be dealing with this issue throughout my life. 

What do we do?  What can I do?  I commend the efforts of the school system in putting this seminar on, and I pray that it does raise awareness of bullying, that it happens even in our small town.  But I can't help but thinking that we're only introducing doses of chemo to a cancerous system, a system that is unpredictable and potentially life threatening.  Is it time to develop new ways to educate?  Is it time to change the ways classrooms are run?  Is it time to bring in the German Shepherds (I will volunteer my border collie for the job).  And ultimately, what does the church have to say about this issue, because I guarantee that we have both bullies and victims within our walls. 

In Luke 4:18-21, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah and proclaims His coming ministry:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He desires to see justice done in the world and in the classrooms, that healing may come to all, victims and bullies together.  What form this comes in, I can't say.  But I look forward to the future of this volatile issue. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Reflecting on Nostalgia, Loss, and Flight: A Review of Poetry in America by Julia Spicher Kasdorf

There is a universal longing, a part of the human condition, which causes one to reflect on and desire for the past.  Whether a Christmas in which all of the siblings, uncles, and cousins attended and nobody was belligerently drunk, or that great Sunday afternoon movie spent in pajamas on the couch.  We enjoy remembering our families, for better or for worse, and those influences which helped to shape us.   And yet along with that nostalgia is a natural sense of loss, moments that cannot be recaptured or changed.  In Poetry in America, author Julia Spicher Kasdorf writes on the paradoxical longing and loss by interweaving stories of the past and present with self -reflections on her person as an author, artist, mother, and woman. 

In the epigraph, Kasdorf includes two quotes about birds, one from a traditional American folk song and another from Paul Valery, Chose tues (1930) which says “One should be light like a bird, not like a feather.”  She seeks to frame her life and work as active flight rather than passively being blown about by the wind.  And so, she explores issues of her upbringing, the influences of her father and mother, the Mennonite church, related to her value as a woman and her journey of coming into her own.

 Kasdorf appropriately chose Affirmative Action, a painting by Jerry Kearns, for the cover art.   It depicts the tension between a traditional view of women and the desire to rise above those views by portraying a woman dressed and made up as a “traditional” housewife, holding a shovel and digging with fierce determination on her face with a cityscape in the background.  In the same way, Kasdorf too exudes resolve while exploring and wrestling with her own place in relation to those roles.  However, this is not a feminist treatise; it is an honest and intimate look at her own life, as well as life in general, in ways that beg the reader to identify themselves in her poetry. 
In the first poem, “Double the Digits,” she writes about a game of speeding that she and her friends shared as teenagers when they would drive through the back roads of West Virginia.

“When my dad’s Plymouth Fury hit 78,

Weightless, on a crested curve of Route 136
and nearly flew into the grill

of a soda delivery truck, we swerved
toward a pole on Donna’s side, then

were gone before the guy hit his horn.”

She reflects on the dangerousness of this game and the unwillingness to quit until life circumstances and age separated her and her friends.  Her words recall an ancient urge for recklessness and flight, something imprinted into our genes, which again affirms the chosen epigraphs.

“And now, I can barely stay in the lines,

So I keep going back, as if those times,
half a life ago, could explain why some women

get driven by a dumb desire for flight.”

In trying to reconcile the persons that society and circumstances have molded us into being, we often know the responsible and safe way, yet, in moments of crises, seek and yearn for that flight, even if it means careening around 25 mile per hour curves going 50.  In addressing her own history, Kasdorf opens the doors for the reader to insert his or her own stories. 

Though the tension between gender and society lies in the subconscious of the entire collection, a number of poems directly address the sometimes oppressive disconnect that happens when men do not recognize and accept women as deserving of respect.  In several instances, Kasdorf encounters the awkwardness and audacity of chauvinist male antagonists.  In “On and Oregon Mountain I remember the Hebrew Mystics,” she writes,

“a man who’d offered to scrape the frost off from my windshield tried to kiss me awkwardly in the parking lot.” 

 And in “Westmoreland,” she writes about how “an ordinary man, a dentist or someone’s dad,” exposes himself to her in the public library.  
Kasdorf, though does not take the opportunity to decry the evils of our male-driven society, but rather pointedly asserts her disquiet at the incidents and seeks some sense of understanding and learning from them.  In doing so, she does not isolate her readers and speaks truth to a larger audience. 

Poetry in America is not just a single poem within the collection; it is a broad view of our lives.   In this lyrical look at the intimacies of our everyday, the joys and sorrows, work and play, parenthood, suffering, and a slice of literature spoken aloud in a bookstore which sells more coffee than anything else, Kasdorf captures that sense of nostalgia, loss, and flight that the Everyman experiences and feels.  Her writing is funny, strong, poignant, unsettling at times, and is a work worth reading and returning to; a reminder that we could all use a little self-reflection.