The Dreams of Others, or Why Pepper Spray Is the New Hot

After Black Friday 2008, Peter S. Goodman wrote his New York Times editorial, “A Shopping Guernica Captures the Moment,” in which he speculates that the trampling death of a Wal-Mart employee is a logical consequence of inequality in the economy. He writes, “It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began with violence fueled with desperation; with a mob making a frantic reach for things they wanted badly, knowing they might go home empty-handed.” That same year, one of my students, an employee at Kohl’s, was punched so hard by a Black Friday customer that he fractured his eye socket in several places and was unable to complete the semester. I am not going to forget what his eye looked like any time soon – and he didn’t even make the news because nobody died. I wonder how many other employees were subject to violence, rudeness and worse in the name of holiday shopping.

Three years later, desperation having become a way of life, a woman in Porter Ranch, California now-famously pepper-sprayed her fellow Wal-Mart customers in a bid to get her hands on an X-box without waiting in line. My four year-old niece, hearing my mother and sister-in-law talk about the pepper spraying, began to ask questions. My sister-in-law explained that the woman was very, very bad because she’d hurt people’s bodies just so that she could get what she wanted. “What if she comes here?” my niece asked. Her mother’s answer: Police would catch the woman and put her in jail until she learned her lesson. My niece, however, was still not satisfied: “What if she escapes? What if she gets out of jail but she hasn’t learned her lesson?”

To soothe my niece, we stumbled for reasons that it was not possible for bad people to be let out of jail – a claim that, to my mind, was more or less a necessary lie. The world is full of bad people who aren’t in jail: Lt. John Pike, of unprovoked U.C. Davis pepper-spraying fame; Wall Street types who knowingly defrauded consumers and pocketed the government bailout money; Republicans in Congress, who plan to extend the Bush tax cuts on the country’s wealthiest 1% by eliminating tax cuts for the poor and middle class.

Meanwhile, Alex Epstein, writing for the Fox News website, argued in “Let’s Give Thanks for the One Percent” that we should be grateful to these looters of the national treasury on the grounds that some of them create jobs. Naturally, he praised Steve Jobs as a national economic savior – but, as my father pointed out this Thanksgiving, the jobs Apple has created are mostly at overseas factories. Epstein concedes, “The grain of truth here is that some Americans are rich because of government favoritism, such as bailouts, handouts, and other cushy deals.” The solution, he argues, is to attack favoritism, not income inequality.

I am having trouble distinguishing the two, however. If the type of income inequality that results in CEOs of failing companies making 343 times workers’ median income isn’t favoritism, I don’t know what is – unless Epstein and others of his stripe want to claim that the CEOs are worth 343 times more than the rest of us. When these CEOs lay off workers, raise bank fees, or close companies and happily pocket ever-higher raises, I will even go so far as to call it looting, whether said looting has Congressional support or not. (And notice that I’m strategically not even mentioning this week’s story that showed that Fox News viewers were less informed than those who watched no news at all.)

Meanwhile, Occupy protesters across the continent are facing evictions and arrests. Apparently, protests against income inequality are unpopular with high-earning looters and their institutions. Also, many Occupiers’ camping clothes have started to look scruffy – and we all know how “scruffy” fares on television. Beyond their appearance and their bad habit of eschewing hierarchy, the Occupiers have been criticized for not adequately representing people of color, using heaters in subfreezing weather, and mixing with homeless people. Honestly, some people talk about class warfare like it’s a bad thing.

Personally, I am in full support of any class warfare that promises fairness rather than blind trust that our most elite earners won’t take advantage of favoritism. When a pepper-spraying woman loots a Wal-Mart, we feel outrage; when the robber barons loot the 99%, we’re supposed to feel grateful for their ingenuity. I am pretty sure that given the choice between being pepper-sprayed and being laid off, priced out of an education, or sentenced to an economic landscape tilted against their interests, most everyone would choose the pepper spray.

In each case, the dreams of the powerful outweigh those of the many – or, to paraphrase my sister-in-law’s words to my niece, a few people are very, very bad because they hurt others just so that they can get everything they want. Their desires, though, seem insatiable, even held against the backdrop of job loss (especially of those jobs that appear to have moved overseas for good), escalating hunger, and declining support for those in need, including students, on whose education our hopes to emerge from the downturn depend.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to visit the high school in Reseda, California where my mother is the college counselor. It was a few days before the application deadline for University of California colleges, and the office was crowded with stressed-out seniors and their admissions essays, several of whom asked me for feedback. I read about a student who sought (and found) his heroes in fantasy novels when he couldn’t find them in life, another who sold handbags on street corners to help his family, another who came home one day to find her mother and sister had narrowly missed being shot in front of their home and promised herself she would work towards a different sort of life for herself, another whose years of frequent moves gave him the strength to come out to his friends and family.

All of these students are far more courageous than I am or ever was. Their vibrant, hopeful voices reminded me of what it was like to be young, eager to learn, and full of determination – and yet it’s not clear that they will all get to attend college, or, once they do, that they will be able to find jobs that use their skills. Why? Because the looters’ dreams are worth 343 times the fragile hopes of the students in Reseda. Call it class warfare if you like, but every 17 year-old willing to wait in line deserves a fair shot at achieving his or her goals. To argue otherwise is to become the hand that wields the pepper spray and uses it to steal people’s futures.

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The Season of Make-Believe

Cartoon by Roz Chast of The New Yorker

It’s the time of year when we’re all supposed to be pie-eyed with gratitude and cornbread-stuffed with love of humanity. It is also the time of year when surly shoppers clog the grocery aisles with bloated carts and your normally-civil neighbor snarls over the last size medium red sweater, when the streets sparkle with decorations and explode with honking horns.

Even in the midst of the Deprecession, a good percentage of the 99% will spend most of the holiday season contributing to corporate profits. We may voice the sentiment that it’s not material things that really matter, but – let’s be real here – we also don’t want to show up at Mom’s without decent gifts for everyone, and we don’t want to offend our families by saying we really just don’t need any more of the fruits of capitalism. After all, the gifts we don’t need are just one of the many burdens we carry home with us for the sake of our loved ones.

I doubt a truly authentic holiday experience is really better than our imaginary one. Some people think about the tragic consequences of the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World, the overseas sweatshop workers manufacturing holiday gifts, and the hundreds of future garage sale items purchased each season, but most people don’t want to be the one who sours an occasion with too much reality. Ultimately, our relationships are worth more to us than our ideals. We may not want to worsen global warming, but we do want to fly across the country to be with our families. Hypocrisy? Maybe. And we want to be ourselves, but usually not so much so that we’re willing to start an argument at the Thanksgiving table. Those “rules” about not talking religion and politics exist for a reason. Most of the year I’m honest to a fault, but once the calendar tips into November, I’m happy to trade the whole truth for a half truth that makes peace, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

If we had perfect families who were perfectly understanding, it might make sense to be perfectly truthful. Unlike the trinkets and tokens we’ll give this season, though, truth can really only be given to those who are open to receiving it. The rest of us whose family lives are somewhere on the continuum of imperfect – which is to say most of us – decide what we want our memories to be like, and then, as best we can, we go about trying to be the people we wish we were, at least for a few days. Our great gift to others is not what we carry in our suitcases, but our willingness to be more accepting, more emotionally generous versions of ourselves.

Don’t Touch That Ball: A Modest Proposal

The riots at Penn State can’t help but make me think of Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece, “A Modest Proposal,” with apologies for my copious plagiarism.

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through State College or watch football on television, when they see the streets crowded with fans of both sexes importuning the Penn State leadership to sell themselves to the athletic department.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by rioting students at Penn State that a young healthy boy is a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome quarry, whether raped, fondled, bear hugged, or enticed by promises of football glory. When a coach showers unseen, the fore or hind quarter of a child will make a reasonable target for sexual molestation, especially during football season. I grant that children are somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for coaches, who, as they have already devoured most of the college funding, seem to have the best title to the children.

I can think of no one objection to protecting football over children, unless it should be urged that the number of students will be much increased at the college. This I freely own. Therefore let no person talk to me of other expedients: Of reporting sexual misconduct to the police; Of using neither position nor prestige to seduce young boys: Of utterly rejecting the materialism that would make children instruments of sport: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, and gaming in athletic funding: Of teaching our rioting students to have at least one degree of mercy towards innocent children. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, integrity, and sportsmanship into our sports programs, who, if a resolution could be taken to obey our native laws, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon the public in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing.

Therefore I repeat, let no one talk to me of these and the like expedients until we have at least some glimpse of hope that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.

But, as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing that colleges and students would value the safety of children over football, I fortunately fell upon this proposal.

After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion as to reject any offer proposed by wise individuals. Those who find my proposal offensive should consider two points. First, as things now stand, how Penn State will be able to find advertising dollars and sponsorships. And, second, there being millions of poor children in this country who would otherwise be beggars in effect. I desire those college officials and football fans who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold as to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness for their children to have been offered up for sex at ten years old in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided the misfortune of the indictment of a child molester and the firing of those who helped cover up his crimes. Surely there is no greater misery upon the breed than to hazard football program funding.

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary change, having no other motive than the public good of my parents’ alma mater, by advancing our most popular sport, providing for underprivileged youth, and giving some pleasure to the general public. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny.

My Kind of Dinosaur

The Professor of a Certain Age frequently appears in a pair of dueling stereotypes: the white-haired and endearingly eccentric white male who delivers brilliant and inspiring lectures; and the doddering, out-of-touch microspecialist whose tenured bliss has propelled the national education crisis. I am approaching both a birthday and the one-decade mark in my career as an English instructor, so, although I have had some opportunity to observe Professors of a Certain Age in their natural habitats, I have found that neither of the stereotypes quite fit the senior faculty I have known.

The more I teach, however, the more I notice a gaping divide between two ways of approaching “experience.” One involves a long, monogamous marriage to a handful of ideas, and a long, exhausted shuffle toward retirement. These faculty are apathetic towards their students, their disciplines, and often both. At some point in their careers, their desire to do the minimum possible subsumed their desire to contribute to the profession or to their students’ education. They have been teaching the same things in the same way (and making the same comments at department meetings) since before some of their colleagues were born, and their teaching practices stagger unwavering into perpetuity, mostly because making significant changes seems like too big a hassle. They are our Professor Binns, who in the Harry Potter series goes on showing up to class to deliver the same endless lecture, unaware that he’s actually dead.

I don’t know everything, but I know for certain that I don’t want to end up burned out and lazy. I have had two other careers that made me smoulder down to cold ashes, so I sometimes worry that I’ll fall out of love with my third profession. Consequently, I have been trying to gather ways to protect myself from future obsolescence. Fortunately, most of my senior colleagues are inspiring role models and mentors who – despite counting their years of teaching in decades – continue to do outstanding teaching, go to workshops with facilitators who have a fraction of their experience, and continue to evolve as professionals. (They have even taken time out of their breakneck schedules to encourage the sometime neophyte who authors this blog.)

The other day, a colleague jokingly referred to herself and a few colleagues as “dinosaurs,” meaning that they’d been employed at my college long enough to remember the last few curriculum overhauls, but everyone in the room knew better. Rather than “I know what I’m doing,” these teachers’ motto is “I’m always learning.” I have asked a few of these perpetual learners what it takes to be a productive, Darwinian sort of dinosaur: the type that grows wings, decides one day to walk upright, or sprouts an extra arm for holding stacks of papers while opening classroom doors.

One wonderful thing about asking teachers about teaching is that they are so generous with their secrets. Nearly all of them have recommended keeping their minds open to experimentation, testing something radically new every year, going to conferences to harvest new ideas, and trying not to remain too long in a comfort zone. One colleague eschews conferences but reads academic journals; several others regularly interrogate themselves about their teaching; a couple have pursued doctoral programs. Nancy Sommers, co-author of the Hacker handbook series, says that staying connected to students has sustained her through thirty years of teaching and study of responding to student writers; along those lines, she told me about an elderly professor who tends his inner flame by calling former students on their birthdays. She also said that making space for her own writing has also kept her from falling into a rut.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the need to reach the distant universes of our students’ potential while simultaneously commenting through stacks of essays, spending hours in committee meetings, and getting the laundry done and bills paid. When I attend a conference, though, I inevitably feel revitalized. This past weekend, I was in Portland, Maine for the Two Year College Association Northeast Conference. I left not only with a couple of beautiful scarves, but also Nancy Sommers’ ideas on how to comment more effectively on student writing, a panel’s strategy for encouraging better composition pedagogy, and former Maine poet laureate Baron Wormser’s unique strategy for teaching literature (which I tried in two classes this morning with impressive results).

It is reassuring to know that for one weekend I was doing what is required for productive dinosaur-hood. Years ago, after a particularly dreadful class session I taught when I was an adjunct, one of my full-time colleagues said, “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that teachers must also learn.” I often tell people, students included, that I have the best job in the world. Even if eventually I will be one of the dinosaurs, I don’t plan to become a fossil. Good teaching, it often seems, is not about what we can invent, but what we can steal; and it’s not about the information we deliver, but what we can perceive and absorb.