Archive for September 2012
I told you so. And I hope to be saying that again in about a month.
I told you last year, and earlier this year, that when animals and baseball intersect, it’s an omen. The Brewers parlayed that unexpected encounter with a Cooper’s Hawk last season into the best home record in baseball and a deep run into the playoffs. The Cardinals crossed paths with a squirrel late last season, and the result was the franchise’s tenth World Series championship. Just last week, a sea gull pooped on the hat of Orioles pitcher Tommy Hunter as he prepared to take the mound. The result? Hunter got the win and the Orioles walked away on top after 18 (!) innings.
I’m not too proud to reject this dubious meta-avial prophesy. I’ve been an Orioles fan for 33 years, most of which have included painful suffering. In 1996, the Yankees got away with one of the all-time most bogus playoff calls when a (douchebag) kid snatched a ball that could have been and out and helped turn it into a home run that tied a game that the Yankees went on to win. The very next year, the Indians stole home and game 3 of the ALCS on another totally bogus call. I was so crushed that I didn’t watch baseball for four years. What was the point when it is so obvious that you’re fated to lose by way of umpire hosings? So I’m thinking that it’s about time that the baseball gods smiled upon the Orioles after years in the basement of the American League east. The bird crap was a sign from above, and encouragement to not give up hope–and in light of the aforementioned episodes, how fitting that the sign came in that particular form.
But I know better than to hold my breath. The O’s are still battling for a division crown, if not a wildcard birth, so I’m going to keep cool and try not to break my fingers by keeping them crossed so much. Let’s get to the playoffs first, and then see what happens. That should be enough for the next week as baseball’s regular season wraps up.
There’s but one remaining question… this hat has been in my closet since I bought it 2 months ago. I’ve been afraid that if I get it out, I’ll jinx my birds.
Should I start wearing it?
I saw a classified ad in Poets & Writers recently. The literary publication Hospital Drive was looking for writing “that examines themes of health, illness, and healing.” Whenever I comb through the P&W classifieds, I run my catalog of writing in my head to see if I have something I could send to any particular publication. Sometimes a publication wants something highly specialized–sometimes that works out because sometimes you write something that is so specialized that there might not be any practical way to get it published other than by somebody wanting something out of the norm. Regardless, you didn’t write whatever you wrote because you wanted to get published. You wrote it because if you didn’t you weren’t going to be right.
When I saw what Hospital Drive wanted, I thought of a poem I wrote several years ago that has been doing nothing but sitting on my hard drive, and on my flash drive, and on my external hard drive (because you backup your writing obsessively). So I dug this out, took a look at it, remembered how much I liked it, and fired it off:
The moth that flapped and fluttered in
the spider’s web above me as
I lie atop the exam table
is still. I am prostrate, breathing
and watching him, staring into
the hypnotizing fluorescent
white lights where he is stuck, alone
except for me below. We wait.
We are the prisoners of fate.
I was surprised to hear back from Hospital Drive asking me if the poem was still available because they wished to send it on to their next set of readers. I was pretty happy that I made it past first cuts– I liked the poem, but was never really sure if it offered much to anybody but me. If I remember correctly, it has been rejected by other publications. Earlier this week, Hospital Drive joined the ranks of the rejectors.
The seed for the poem came while I was recovering from an Achilles injury I suffered on Thanksgiving Day, 2007. I just now dug through some old journals and found the above draft in November, 2008. I dug further and found my first scratchings on May 13, 2008. I remember starting it and getting frustrated because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, and I was struggling with the iambic tetrameter. I obviously picked it up a few months later and was able to craft something.
Odd, this one… my friend Barbara and I have talked several times about “autobiographical poetry,” which is the term we’ve given to our poems taken from our real lives. There is no intentional use of symbolism, but readers can find symbols and assign meanings because they might not know that the poem is “true.” Here, the spider’s web and “hypnotizing flourescent white lights” are merely pieces of the setting, but they act as strong symbols when you read the poem from the outside. That’s one thing I liked about it as I was drafting, and it’s something that has become more common in my poetry as I’ve continued to write over the last four years.
Nonetheless, Hospital Drive doesn’t want me. Guess I’ll keep writing and see what happens.
There are several threads of opposition to Maslow’s Hierarchy, the same as there are in regard to Freud or dream interpretation, the same as there were to electroshock treatments and Rorschach Ink Blot tests. One of those threads posits that the hierarchy supposes that humans only act to fulfill deficits, and that stations on the hierarchy are in a constant state of flux as a result of that. Others have supposed that physiological needs such as sex are taken only as physiological needs regardless of the emotional effect. The best argument I have heard against it is that it is ethnocentric. It is steeped in the culture of western civilization, which is dominated by a self-first bent. What about other civilizations / cultures / societies that are community-first? Where does that leave them in regard to Maslow? From a spatial point of view, is Maslow saying that most of our lives are so filled with meeting the deficits at the bottom of the hierarchy (the needs that take up a huge amount of physical space on the pyramid) that we have little time or space left for the upper reaches? Maslow even posited that very few people will ever reach the top. It looks to me like a cognitive pyramid scheme.
Unfortunately, Maslow has placed esteem right below where I make my career and find a substantial part of my identity. As such, I’ve run into an endless stream of zealots through the daily ins and outs of my job who see esteem as the goal instead of as the next step to get where we really need to be, which is to shape minds that want to know, want to inquire, want to explore, discover, create, and change things. Like I said, too many school personnel see esteem as the ends instead of the means. If I could create a catch-phrase for them, it might well go like this: “Now that we have the feeling good about themselves, they’ll teach themselves!”
Unfortunately, “esteem-first” has lead to a lot of pumping of teenage egos. It can take many forms–pick your favorite: giving an overabundance of A’s so kids feel good about their grades. Allowing an almost unlimited amount of time to complete work so kids feel good about completing their work. Accepting any work that is completed with little regard to quality or expectations so kids feel good about some kind of accomplishment. Allowing a generous amount of “wiggle room” for grades so kids always feel they have a chance at passing. Having almost zero class rules–they would just serve to bring kids down and not help them feel good about being in your room. Declaring most everything to be excellent because that term is a panacea that will soothe raw feelings and punctured egos.
The problem here is that very little of the real world (or standardized testing for that matter) operates that way. Once kids leave the comfort and safety of an institution that feeds and strokes their egos instead of one that challenges them and demands a level of excellence that is just barely out of reach (yet still reachable– it’s in their Zone of Proximal Development), they are left with a deep, dark chasm between what they thought their abilities were and what they actually are. Not only that, but more immediately, as the kid moves through the class ranks of public education, it causes a huge amount of friction for other teachers. Good luck if you have those students the next year down the line. Students will revolt when you make them do rewrites until they get it right instead of taking whatever they scratch out. Students will object when you have a standard set of rules that don’t vary much and that don’t let them do whatever whenever. You will hear unfading echoes of something like this: “Mr. / Ms. _____ from last year was the best because…” and that because is something that the previous teacher did because it was easier to soothe the kid than to demand more and better– and why not?–it’s right there on Maslow’s hierarchy! We’re supposed to be helping them feel better about things before we can get them to learn! But read the fine print… our jobs as teachers lies in the upper echelon of Maslow’s hierarchy, so we can’t stop when we feel like we’ve served the kids properly by helping them feel good about themselves. The problem with esteem is so rampant that the entire state of California tried an esteem-forward approach years ago. It failed miserably–to the point where a generally accepted definition of “self-esteem” couldn’t even be reached. Some findings included paradigm-shattering revelations, such as students with pumped-up self-esteem actually make less effort on their work because they have been convinced that they are already little geniuses and have mastered any particular skill or concept. And don’t discount how generous loads of esteem is a key ingredient in sociopathic behavior.
Something else I read summed it up well, I thought: Esteem can’t be injected. It has to be earned.
Fortunately, our guest speaker last week didn’t dwell exclusively on esteem. She went on to talk about creating classroom environments in which students feel safe and comfortable. She kept returning to a key point, as well, which was that the relationship students have with their teachers can be a significant factor in how willing they are to work and succeed, and that relationship is of paramount importance to students whose family roots have burrowed through lower socio-economic stratas. My school serves a great deal of students that fit that demographic. The speaker said 50% of our students. I researched the same for my thesis a few years ago and found the number closer to 30% at that time. However you cut it, we have a lot of poor students.
Given all this, especially the divergence towards relationships and classroom environment, I ended up feeling halfway decent about our back-to-school speaker. It’s hard, if not impossible, for me to feel any better about it because I’ve seen too many school personnel take whatever they are given and expend great effort to bend it right back to their safe zone of self-esteem, except it’s not solely for the benefit of the students. It feeds the teacher’s ego, too, and rampant mediocrity is the result.
We had our de rigueur motivational speaker during our initial day of teacher inservices last Monday. I’ve sat through eighteen years of speakers, all too many of whom had something to sell. Regardless of their motivations, some have been stellar; others have been stinkers. Rarely do they bring anything knew for me, but that’s more a function of having taught for 18 years now. I didn’t get anything new on Monday, but I did get something that I’ve been rolling around in my head quite a bit.
She almost lost me from the start by busting out Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and focusing on the bottom part of the upper echelon: Esteem. I typically react to the promotion of esteem the same way Catholic school nuns react to the f-bomb, so for the speaker to start off that way at 8AM on the first day of school was almost enough for me to zone out and merely pretend that I was paying attention. It would have been easy enough to do, being but one face in a sea of 300 teachers, administrators, and support staff, and unfortunately I wouldn’t have been the only one. But my emotions connected to esteem kicked in and got me thinking beyond what she was presenting, and I bore her out if only to hear where else she was going to go.
I can remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as far back as Psychology class my senior year in high school. I saw it again two years later in an undergraduate Intro to Psychology course. A year after that, I started to see it frequently enough to think it was tatooted on my irises–it’s one of the cornerstones of teacher education at the undergraduate level, and as I can now attest 22 years later, it never really goes away. Abraham Maslow first proposed the whole thing in 1943, and laid it out like this:
Since it’s hierarchical, you can only get to the top by fulfilling every need at every level from the bottom up. If there is a deficit in any level, then a person is stuck in that level and acts on motivations (whether consciously or unconsciously) that will meet those deficits. So if you don’t have a sense of familial love, you can forget about having respect for or getting respect from others. You’re stuck on the third level of the hierarchy. Maslow noted, too, that only 1 person in 100 will ever reach Self-actualisation.
Maslow’s theory has been supplemented, despite his having died in 1970. A recent variation on the heirarchy looks like this:
Esteem has been subordinated to the top of the lower echelon, and guess what is directly above it? My job. There’s the root of the problem I was having when esteem was trumpted at the opening of Monday’s presentation. Ask most educational psychologists, school administrators, student services personnel (counselors, social workers, psychologists), and teachers, and they’ll tell you how vital esteem is in the grand scheme of all we try to do. What they won’t tell you is how too often esteem is the ends instead of the means.
I wrote down a ton of notes Monday, which helped me remember a few things and raise more than a few questions. I had never before questioned Maslow’s Hierarchy as a theory. To me, it was a system of thought with a decent argument behind it– same as the Big Bang Theory. Or had I drank the Kool-Aid way back in undergrad and bought into Maslow all along? Maybe it was me who was part of the faceless masses mindlessly uttering the one thing that will kill an institution: We’ve always done it this way. I realized then why I had such a strong reaction when esteem was used to kick things off. Education on the whole, especially some schools with which I am intimately familiar, treat Maslow’s Hierarchy as Gospel rather than theory. Hang around long enough, and you’ll find out why Maslow is revered and why too few people treat him with healthy skepticism–because it saves people from thinking and questioning at the deepest intellectual levels that are most beneficial to an institution. Blind acceptance keeps many people in a safe and comfortable place despite the hierarchy being theoretical and having no numbers to back it up. The hierarchy has unfortunately become a gateway into mediocrity, and the springboard is right there in the middle.