To My Students, To Make Much of Time: An Open Letter

You would probably be surprised to know that, in an existential sense, I don’t think my syllabus policies on attendance and behavior are all that important. I, too, am guilty of being late to meetings (although almost never class), whipping out the Blackberry at inopportune times, and missing deadlines; and my personal preference would be to let my students be responsible for their own choices. You are adults, after all, and if you aren’t feeling burning love for English at the half-naked hour of 8 a.m., it’s not my business to give a rip.

Right? Well, not exactly.

In the seats of my classrooms are traditional students living at home, teen parents, full-time night shift workers, returning students, first-generation college students, second-language learners, veterans, ex-gang members, elite athletes, high school dropouts, honors students, and retirees. Some of you are dealing with personal and health challenges; some, even the youngest of you, are heroically supporting yourselves and your families; some of you are strong students who couldn’t afford four-year colleges; some of you are all of the above.

You are making huge sacrifices to be in my class, giving up sleep, hours you could be working, friends you could hang out with if you didn’t have homework, cash for tuition and book expenses, time with your children and families most of all. You’re dragging into my 8 a.m. class in spite of everything, all for the promise that if you keep up with college you’ll have a better life.

When it gets to be mid-semester, like now, the weather is crummy, the workload is increasing, the holidays are looming, and the grades are anxiety-provoking and sometimes disappointing. This time of year, when college becomes less like a photo montage of future successes and more like a slog through the dark and cold to a class that you’re not sure you’re going to need, you sometimes forget why you’re here.

It is my job not to forget. It is also my job to remind you why I’m here. I’m here because English, and particularly writing, is life’s great equalizer. If you can write and communicate, you will be able to achieve your goals; if you can’t, you will have a much harder time. When you become a good writer, it doesn’t matter how you did in high school, what your family is like, what you wear, what kind of car you drive, what color you are, what sins you’ve committed, how much money you have, what lowly position you occupy in the company hierarchy, how cute you look on Saturday night, what you pay for shoes, or where you got your education. If you can write well, you will always sound smarter than you are, and you will always get respect and be heard. And if you can’t write well, you will never get the credit for your intelligence that you deserve.

It is also my job to let you know what it takes to write well: First, practice; second, practice; third, revision; fourth, revision. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, explores the careers of extraordinarily successful people, and concludes that it takes 10,000 hours of active, diligent practice to acquire expertise in any skill (the exact number of hours has been debated, but there is near-universal agreement that there is a direct relationship between level of expertise and hours of practice). At this point in your college careers, how many hours have you spent reading and writing? For most of you, the answer is, “Not many.” Given your lack of practice, it’s far too early in your careers to draw any conclusions about what kind of writer you might become: You just need more hours of practice.

If you are the fashionably late type and are doing something during the first five minutes of class that will make as much difference in your life (or someone else’s) as writing, by all means, continue. Otherwise, missing those five minutes at the beginning of every class will make it harder and harder to reach your goals. You’re paying for those five minutes with far more than money, and you could be using them to change your life. The hours you miss will not come back, and people who see you walk in late won’t understand that you deserve a break because you have more than your fair share of demands on your time. They’ll just think of you as the one who’s always late.

Even if you’re always on time, in a typical English course, if you actively, diligently practice, you will spend only around 45 hours on English. If you also do your homework and readings and take the time to apply what you’re learning in English class to your daily life, you’ll make even more progress towards your 10,000 hours. The amazing thing is that you will see so much progress in so little time – if you spend it. Writing is no different from any other skill you practice and learn. Really. These are papers, and we’re not saving lives here…except when we are. If you learn how to write and you commit to revising your writing until you say exactly what you want to say, you will have powers nobody else can give you and that nobody else can take away: the power to give yourself chills, and the power to be heard no matter who you are.

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They Shouldn’t Have to Die to Get Our Attention

Several times a day, online news, a facebook status update, or another “It Gets Better” clip reminds me that bullying can end in death. Just the other day, I was at the doctor’s office, where a gigantic screen that dwarfed the room featured photos of a young teen who had committed suicide after being bullied. Pinned in my seat as the tearful mother described finding her son dead and insisted that she must tell her story to prevent similar tragedies, I wanted to weep myself. My emotions were mixed: horror and sadness at the mother’s loss and the tragedy of a young person’s suicide, a sense of violation that this story was forced on me at that particular moment, and outrage, not just at the bullies, but at the notion that bullying is only noteworthy when it ends in suicide.

I don’t need to enumerate the ways that bullying has become more public, and more permanent, than when I was a child. Bullying through note-passing and whispering in my own teen years has turned into a blowtorch of humiliation on social networking sites, and the virtual “Kick Me” signs are nearly impossible to remove. Dan Savage’s incredible “It Gets Better” project has drawn attention to the particular suffering of young gay kids, but it seems important to remember that most victims of bullying will never get media attention. With 30% of kids reporting that they have been the perpetrators or victims of bullying, according to a September 2011 report by the Democratic Independent Congress, the number of victims dwarfs the few dramatic and tragic stories reported in the media. The number of young people involved in bullying may be far higher, however, according to Dana Boyd and Alice Marwick’s New York Times editorial, “Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark.” Boyd and Marwick observed and interviewed teenagers and found that, despite nearly unanimous insistence that bullying didn’t exist, that once the word “bullying” was changed to “drama,” the percentage of teens admitting their involvement “as victims and/or perpetrators” skyrocketed.

I don’t mean to diminish the anguish of those teens whose chose suicide as the final escape from their tormentors, nor the grief of their families and friends, and I applaud everyone who has released an “It Gets Better” video or has taken action to draw attention to the prevalence of bullying. But the problem is like the truth that the flea we see means that 300 more are lurking in the rug, and the media’s fetishistic fascination with death-by-bullying has the potential to cost more lives than it saves.

Here’s why: Put yourself in the mind of a bullied teenager for a moment. In their editorial, Boyd and Marwick discuss the rhetorical divide between the words “drama” (everybody does it) and “bullying” (which carries a gigantic stigma), “For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive.” In other words, a teen who admits to being a victim of bullying is implicitly acknowledging her position at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and, as Boyd and Marwick find in their study, “Many teenagers who are bullied can’t emotionally afford to identify as victims, and young people who bully others rarely see themselves as perpetrators.” As those of us who were bullied know all too well, the shame of admitting you’re the kid who is left out of every game and social event is bad enough.

The media portrayals of bullying suicides add to this shame, though, by sending the  message that teens aren’t really suffering – and that therefore they can dismiss their pain as unimportant – unless (or until) they’re considering suicide. Yet another way the media portrayals might be counterproductive is by creating an incentive for bullied teens to attempt suicide because they don’t see any other way to voice their pain or ask for adult help. In the 15-24 year-old age group, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 1 in 5 have “seriously considered” suicide in the past 12 months. Chances are none of them have said anything to an adult, and possibly not to anyone. I am not implying that suicidal kids are all bullied kids, but depressed or bullied teens (and adults, for that matter) are more likely to conceal suicidal thoughts than not. The message I am afraid that the media is giving kids is that they haven’t really suffered unless their trauma ends in suicide. Unfortunately, a dead child is beyond our help, but the living kids are all around us, telling themselves things really aren’t bad enough, or unusual enough, to be deserving of adult notice. The media’s fixation on the most extreme consequences of bullying has the potential to do further harm, in contrast to the “It Gets Better” videos, which offer encouraging messages of survival.

How many of the (admittedly few so far) readers of this blog were bullied themselves? And how many of us tell ourselves, “Well, if I got through it, so should they”? How many feel that the bullying went beyond being a rite of passage and crossed the boundary between painful experience and trauma? Sure, it gets better. Sometimes it doesn’t. And yet here we all are, still alive. But you know what? I’m pretty sure very few of us told. I’m pretty sure even fewer were taken seriously when we did. We can’t be everywhere, and we can’t see everything – but we can see past the media drama to the more subtle instances of suffering close to home, and when we do, we should be ready to listen.

Time Worth Wasting

As of this writing, the Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading – some would say metastasizing – all over the country and now all over the world. The list of reasons I could choose not to participate is long: I have stacks and stacks and stacks of grading remaining to do; at 42, I’m too old to join what seems like a youth movement; Occupy’s lack of a coherent message makes it seem like a weekend project for disaffected millennials; the marchers and campers are predominantly white and I’m white, and I don’t want to live up to a stereotype of myself; and I’m just one person, so my presence doesn’t add much to the effort. Beyond the circumstances of this particular movement, I am not a person who enjoys being in crowds, shouting simplistic slogans, hearing ideas I believe in reduced to accusatory black-and-white statements, or listening to earnest speech after earnest speech after earnest speech. There are activists who enjoy activism, but I am not one of them.

But still, my life since the few days of abortive antiwar rallies in 1991 has been riddled with various protests. I have rallied in the dark, on glorious days and gray ones, and once in a deluge with Seattle police in riot gear standing shoulder to shoulder. I have been cheered and I have been heckled. I’m not going to pretend I’ve been out every weekend, and I’ve gone through long periods where it has seemed like writing letters to the editor is a better use of my time. Nevertheless, I was at the Occupy marches today, Saturday, October 15, representing the long-suffering 99% – even though I’m an employed, not particularly remarkable Gen-Xer who would just as soon have been enjoying the sunshine somewhere other than at the Washington Monument.

But still. I was there, well before I was inspired and well before horns started honking in support, before tourists gave us the thumbs-up from open-roofed buses, and before a yellow schoolbus full of kids hung out the windows to cheer us on, their faces painted with excitement. Before all that, I was there because, when voting is not enough, people have to vote with their words, and when that’s not enough, we have to vote with our feet. When I march, I am not expressing myself, but telling the world that I am part of a disregarded whole. I am doing my part to combat the media narrative that direct action and civil disobedience are committed only by the scruffy, the pierced, and the disreputable. If I am not there, my opinion is no better than if I didn’t give a rip, so I have a responsibility to support the causes I believe in. By showing up, I am telling the world that my point of view exists, even if it is destined to be defeated or diminished. I am telling the world that I am not going to go silently.

In this case, though, the simplicity of the message – we want governments to consider our welfare, not just corporate profits and political expediency – may end up surviving its assault by the media. What is frustrating about this movement is also what makes it unique: Rather than advocating a specific course of action, Occupy is challenging the cultural and political assumptions that individual rights can be sacrificed in the name of political stability. We are the 99%, and we finally spoke up for ourselves. If I can’t spend a few hours on a beautiful Saturday afternoon voicing my support for a more just world, why should I expect someone else to fight the fight on my behalf?