Monthly Archives: June 2010

The First Milestone – 1000 Hits

This morning – just a moment ago, in fact – Leila and I had a small celebration.  Putting down our books and raising our cups that sloshed with the bottom half of our second cups of coffee for the morning, we toasted 1000 hits on the CairnBlog.

Thanks to all who have taken a look.  Thanks and cheers to those who have come back for a second or third look.  And my deepest gratitude to those who have chosen to follow my odd written wanderings regularly – although, I must confess, I look on you all with just a bit of amazement and curiosity.  As the author of such plentiful and frequent incoherence, I wonder who in the world read such meaninglessness.  It is rare that I write 500 words and think, “Now that is worth the time it will take to read.”  Nonetheless, I keep trying.

Marianne Moore says it best and she is right: One can perhaps please one’s self and earn that slender right to persevere. It is a rare and elusive feeling, but worth the travail.  For me, the bottom line remains, it is a joy to write something that others find pleasing, and it is in that thin hope that I continue to attempt the nearly impossible.

And so, our toast – Let these first thousand page views not be the last thousand.  Thanks to all.  It is an honor and a pleasure.

Now, back to it.

“Weapon Rentals” – a day in the life.

This comes courtesy of my neighbor Tim.  Brilliant!

"So yeah I know it's kind of a hard sell the cars drive by pretty fast and they're not sure what we mean by "weapon rentals" they kind of look funny at us but as I was telling my friend Amy you never know when you might need a weapon even on a nice day like this I mean things just happen and you know if for some reason all of a sudden you needed a weapon for some reason how convenient would it be if there were a stand or something like right there you know what I mean? omg I mean you have no idea what the boys are like in this neighborhood they are so stupid they're always hiding and running around like idiots and sometimes you just want to hit them with a stick you know? you have no idea what it's like to be a girl up here do you like my necklace?"

The boys running up in the background is my favorite part.

Ah!  Summertime fun.

Questions and Answers: What you need you already have.

At minute 9:28 in the above TED talk, Charles Leadbeater, who is particularly interested in the innovation that comes of meeting great needs in under-resourced school environments, talks about one school program in one of the poorer communities in Brazil and their habit of beginning each day with a question.  Leadbeater asks us to, “Imagine an educational system that started from questions, not from knowledge to be imparted.  Or started from a game, not from a lesson.  Or started from the premise that you have to engage people first before you can possibly teach them.”  I have and I do, and I believe Leadbeater is exactly right in what he is suggesting.

Something pernicious happens right about the time students graduate from school.  It comes of a constellation of forces and societal expectations, not one of which is wholly responsible but each of which contributes to coerce a transformation in students, a turning away.  NB: by students I mean learners and by school I mean a learning environment. It comes about as a “natural” and expected step forward, an advancement in the development of the self, sometime between high school and graduate school, adolescence and adulthood.  At some point, as the result of our educational system learners are expected to become knowers.

Sir Ken Robinson, the noted creativity thinker and eminently convincing proponent of sea-change in education, points out that if you didn’t know any better, upon looking at the American educational system in 2010 and asking yourself, “What is it designed to do?” you would have to conclude that it is primarily designed to produce university professors – that is, to reproduce itself.  Our educational system produces knowers, not learner.

In fact, there is a significant societal stigma that attends the notion of a learner.  It connotes beginner, amateur, inexperience, even naivete and ignorance, as in language learner as opposed to language expert.  At a meeting I attended recently of the local beekeeping community I heard one new member use the phrase “still just learning” to mean that she lacked the answers she needed.  She said, to the best of my recollection and not exactly quoted, “I am still just learning about beekeeping, so I want to ask the experts in the club…”.  It was a beautiful moment of communication between club members, because one of the more knowledgeable members addressed her, saying, “I have been doing this a long time, but I am no expert.  I am still just learning, too,” to which we all laughed.   Of course we all understood both perspectives.  “I am just beginning, so how would I know?” and “I have been doing this long enough to know what I don’t know.”  Whatever your perspective, it is clear that most true experts know that the salient experience in becoming an expert is becoming acquainted with more and more challenging questions, not answers.

As much as I value questions and as much as I think about and try to understand that a teacher should strive to become a master learner, not a master knower, I too have felt the uncomfortable compulsion to give an infirm answer to a student’s question before admitting I didn’t know. Most of the time I can control myself and I am proud of my courageous, unknowledgeable response.  “I don’t know the answer to that,” I proclaim, when I am feeling strong enough.  But it is there, the insecurity, the remnant of the societal norm that I resist.  “I am the teacher,” I think to myself when I am feeling weak.  “I should know.”  So, what is it about mainstream education in this country today that so requires teachers to be knowers and students to be the only learners?  I believe the answer lies in our conception of knowledge.

If we understand knowledge to be an external thing, a thing acquired and kept, as a material object, then it follows that there are those with more and those with less.  It is a materialistic model that regards knowledge as a commodity to be bought or bartered, as in, “I have it, and I will give it to you for a price.  I will sell it to you.”  In this model, knowledge flows from teacher to student, like the filing of Yeats’s famous pail.  Students are customers and teachers are venders.  The relationship is clearly defined and learning is the agreed upon result of the commercial arrangement.  There are all kinds of problems that flow from this model – and they all have to do with the common marketplace promise of “satisfaction guaranteed.”

If, alternatively, we understand knowledge to be inherent in the learner – something a student already has, latent within him, then what some people have more of and some less is access to self-knowledge, and the teacher’s challenge becomes, not increasing the flow of knowledge through the conduit, like a hose, but evoking insight.  In this model of education, there is no transaction of material and no commercial arrangement.  Students are questers, seekers, capable of effecting their own transformation of learning and of answering their own questions.  The teacher becomes a guide, and a facilitator – asking questions to shepherd student to their own answers.

It is a radical shift in our conception of education, but it is not new.  The Quaker wisdom tradition allows for the presence of an Inner Teacher, an inherent source of knowledge and guidance that requires evocation, not augmentation.  Quaker community members strive, not to supply answers, but to ask questions that help a friend or colleague hear and understand what their inner teacher is saying.  The notion is clear: knowledge resides in all of us, latent perhaps but there.  Guides, mentors, and teachers ask questions to evoke the answers that are already there.

I confess merely a passing familiarity with the tenets of Quaker spirituality, but so be it – in that, as in so many other things, I am “still just a learner.”

This is Wendell Berry on the same topic.  Imagine what education – indeed this country – would be if we could embrace the radical notion that what you need you already have.

The Wild Geese – by Wendell Berry

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end.  In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves.  We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes.  Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here.  And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

A Teleological Look at the Apology

It is important to know that an apology, first and foremost, wants to have an effect.  An impact.  That is its reason for being.  It seeks to change something, to improve a relationship between people in the optimistic hope that moving forward can be better, more satisfying, and more secure in a shared understanding of why what went down went down and where people’s intentions lay.  In that way, it is an invested gesture; the apologist is invested in the idea that the future can be better than the present or the past.  The apologist cares.  That’s why you don’t hear people say, “It’s doesn’t matter, but I’m sorry” or “I don’t care if you believe me, but I’m sorry.”  Such phrases harbor inherent contradictions.

So, my first point is simply that an apology, unlike other rhetorical forms, wants to have an effect, and if it doesn’t, it is worse than meaningless, it is a failed gesture.

And that is also why the apology bears a teleological examination – because its function and its purpose are more important than its form and more important than its logic.

The word apology is a combination of two roots: apo- from the Greek meaning away from or separate and –ology meaning the study of or really speech that.  So, an apology is speech that separates or moves away from.  Language that distances the speaker from the act or the decision or whatever it is the apology is for.  The key here is that an apology, at its root, is a rejection of past behavior.  The apologist is saying, “That isn’t how I want to be moving forward” or “I wouldn’t do it that way again.”

My second point is that an apology distances the apologist from past behavior.  It does not embrace the past.  It rejects it as wrong.

So, an apology can’t embrace or accept the state of things and reject it at the same time.  In this light, the phrase, “I am sorry, but that is just the way it is” stops making any sense at all.  I know it is a commonly uttered sequence of words, and it does express something, but it is not an apology.  In fact, it is a ducking of responsibility, a sugar coating, and a failure to stand up to the difficult reality of the situation.  If that is simply the way things are, it may be painful, but coopting the language of the apology to ease the pain is inappropriate.

Similar issues exist with, “I am sorry, but that’s the way I am” or “I am sorry, but we have always had a hard time communicating” or “I am sorry, but you are going to have to get used to it.”  Not one of those is an apology because they all embrace the way things are.

At this point it should be obvious that conceits like “I am sorry, but I had to do it” and “I am sorry, but you made me do it” don’t function as apologies, either.  Again, something is expressed by such phrases, but it is more akin to blame than contrition.

“I am sorry” is best when it stands alone.  No buts.  And really no explanations.  Sometimes an explanation can be helpful in understanding why something happened, but that is a separate issue and it needs to be addressed separately.  It is fine to ask, “Why did you do that?” or “What were you thinking” or even to offer, “I want to tell you what I was thinking” but that, too, seeks to incorporate what happened into some logical, meaningful context, as if to say, “I am sorry for what happened, but it had to happen for these reasons” or “There is a perfectly good reason for what happened.”

And so, my third point is simply that apologies are not logical and they make no alliance with reason.  They are fundamentally about emotional healing.  The desire to give an explanation of one’s actions is a compulsion of the apologist, not the one to whom the apology is given.

The apology is about ownership.  To be credible and effective as an apology – to bring about a change in an relationship between people – the apology needs to express ownership of decisions or actions.  In some sense this is just a reiteration of the previous points, but it is also the core understanding.  An apology has to say, in some way, “I broke it, and I want to fix it.”

This is a key understanding and critical for the apologist to feel in its fullness.  In issuing an apology, one must be able to answer the question, “What did I break?”

  • If you feel that nothing was broken, you will be drawn to apologizing for another’s feelings, which is patronizing, as in, “I am sorry you are upset” or “I am sorry if you felt you were wronged.”
  • If you feel that you didn’t break it, you will be drawn to locating the responsibility elsewhere, which won’t have an effect on the one to whom you are apologizing, as in, “I am sorry, but I had to” for some reason.

Notice that the important question to answer is “What did I break?” – not “Why did I break it?”

My last point is simply that an apology functions by accepting ownership of one’s roll in breaking or damaging something, not by explaining the circumstances.

The really hard implication to this is that if you feel like you didn’t break it, you have no business apologizing for it.  Life and the daily interactions between people can be painful, but there are other, more potent salves in certain circumstances.  The apology is not to be overused or misused in the wrong situations.  It is a very specific tool, not a cure-all.

And it will be meaningless if it comes in the form of “I am sorry for what I did, and under the same circumstances I would do it again.”  It can’t say that, it can’t sound like it is saying that, it can’t even insinuate that what happened was inevitable.  An apology is a rejection of the past and a hope that the future will be different.

And just know that an apology that begins, “I am sorry, but…” will never succeed.

How does the apology qualify as a live encounter?  Because, fundamentally, the real apologist confronts himself in real time, weaponless and without armor.  When we apologize we are Oedipus realizing that the scourge of the land is himself, we are Gilgamesh realizing that he killed Enkidu, not the gods, and we are Odysseus realizing that his own arrogance has cursed him.  The only dragon we every slay is ourself, and in so doing we achieve greatness.

The Wall of Death

The photo is taken from the North Face Facebook page.

Here is a treat. Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser, young soldiers in the German army in 1936, care more more mountains than for the military. We first meet them as they are scrubbing urinals for returning late to base after a climbing trip. The CO comes to see if they have learned their lesson. “Can’t you read your watches?” he bellows, to which Hinterstoisser, standing at attention and staring straight ahead, answers in full formal address, “Sir. We don’t have watches, sir!” Their work detail is subsequently tripled.

It is a classic scene that illustrates the conflict inherent in addicted alpinists: the uber-relevance of climbing and the comparative irrelevance of anything else – time, duty, even Hitler’s army. Later the two quit to try to be the first to climb the North Face of the Eiger, and what follows is a gripping retelling of true events on what was known as the Wall of Death.

Interwoven are important and well developed sub-stories of honor, integrity, and what matters most. In one amazing scene that you will have to see to fully understand, a young journalist, just starting out and eager to make her name as a photographer, looks at her editor who is handing her a camera, and cans the whole deal by saying, “I didn’t come here to take pictures.”  In one short sentence, she nukes her editor and her journalism career, asserts herself, and redefines her reasons for being in Switzerland at all.  It quickens the pulse.

Another aspect of the film of no mean significance is its historical portrayal 30’s era mountaineering.  Belaying, rappelling, and ascending looked a lot different in the days before ascenders, ATCs, and figure-eights.  Rope in those days was a three-strand twist of what looked like hempen twine, and there is one scene in the film in which Andi and Toni are hammering out their own pitons in preparation for the climb – leading this reviewer to conclude that chief among the factors responsible for the explosive popularity of climbing over the last 40 years is that by the 1970’s if you wanted to climb, you didn’t also have to be a blacksmith with a full-furnace hot forge in your garage.

It is great storytelling.  Subtitled, so be ready to read.  Interestingly, all of my kids watched it all the way through and enjoyed it even though their collective tolerance for subtitles is probably three lines long.

Here is more info.  Have Netflix send it to you.  There is enduring truth to be found on the Wall of Death.

Northside Denied – or – No Picnic on Mt Shasta

We were soundly rebuked on Mt Shasta recently.  There are no two ways about it.  Five students and three guides shivered and whined in our tents overnight at 10,000 feet as a cold and steady snow blew in from the west.  By morning the icy squall had dropped eight inches of crystalline powder, leaving a blanket of windswept snow that buried our bivouac sight, muted the features on the moraine, and left our summit ambitions in ruins.

Fleeting moments of sun allowed tantalizing views of the peak.

It was beautiful, for sure.  In the morning, the sun was breaking through the waves of clouds that blew through in irregular intervals.  It would go from cold and dark, windy and snowing, with visibility falling below 100 feet to bright, glorious shining  sun and tantalizing views of the peak.  But those ecstatic moments would disappear all too soon and I felt myself swayed with the waves of clouds.  Weather has an immediate effect on attitude.

I was aware of my fickle inclinations and the effect of the whims of weather, but I couldn’t shake the vascillations.  As a cloud blew in and the sharp, shining needles began falling, I would think, “What are we doing here in a storm?  We have to mobilize to descend.  This could settle in, the winds could whip up, the snow could really start falling, and we could get stuck here.”  And then the clouds would break in rays of low morning sun, the wind would die down, and the mountain, what we had come to climb, would come back into view.  Spirits would rise, someone would inevitably throw a snowball – I even made a snow angel – and I would think, “Maybe that’s the end of it.  Maybe we can stay.  We are doing okay for now.  Let’s brew up again and wait a bit.”

We arrived at the trailhead – or as close as we could get in the van – on Thursday afternoon.  It was a planned 5-day ascent.  We would be down and out on Monday.  That left us time to acclimate, time to teach the important skills of roped glacier travel and self arrest, and a bit of flexibility in our summit window.  The road to the trailhead was still snowed in to two and a half miles out, which extended our first-day’s hike and cut into our itinerary – not a great way to start the ascent but not a big deal, either.  By the time we reached the trailhead parking lot on foot, we had already traversed a mile on snow and the last 300 yards in post holes.  That, and having come from sea level that morning made the decision to camp at the trailhead that night a good one.

The view from the North Gate Trailhead, Mt Shasta.

The weather was fine that day and that evening.  Clouds were building, but slowly.  The temperature was chilly but the sun was out most of the time.  And occasionally the mountain would come out in full view beckoning us toward her slopes.

We were optimistic despite the weather report.  How could you not have high hopes, if not high expectations, with a peak as shapely and inviting as Shasta smiling down on you.  A view like that can make you believe in yourself.  The forecast called for a couple of low pressure systems to come through beginning Friday evening.  Neither system was predicted to be strong and they were calling for little to no snow accumulations even at altitude, so we felt secure continuing on.  We would simply keep a weather-eye out, as they say, and constantly reevevaluate our situation, which is our practice in the mountains, anyway.  One of the two other guides, my second, and I had been on this route before, so we knew what to expect from the terrain.

So, we set off on Friday morning making for the moraine and our basecamp at just below 10,000 feet.  We could take a direct route up the valley because the trail that led our from the trailhead to the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers was covered in three to four feet of sintered snow.  Snowpack like that makes off-trail travel a bit simpler.  You can go wherever you want, take any line up the valley, and the surface you tread is relatively uniform and predictable – as long as it is cold, which it was.  It should have been easy hiking – except it wasn’t.  Not for me.

My energy was sapped and I was struggling to keep up with the group.  My pack was heavy and I felt it.  Sometimes a heavy pack is a joy, a sort of motivation in an odd way.  Sometimes you feel the heft and it is pleasing, like getting out of bed in the morning, a chore but a joyous one.  It is a lovely sensation that makes you feel strong and worthy and a part of something.  Other times your pack is heavy and you don’t want to heft it.  It weighs you down like a pig on your back.  It is crushing and you feel slow and you obsess over what you packed that you didn’t need.  Your mind begins to calculate and scheme and lead you into dark places, entertaining wild possibilities to explanation or escape the burden you bear.  Breathing hard, huffing for oxygen, well behind the group, mildly frustrated, and trying to keep my attitude on straight,  I actually wondered if one of my companions had hidden a stone in my pack.

I couldn't get enough air, my pulse was consistently up around 160, and the muscles in my legs just felt weak.

I wondered if I could just be fabulously out of shape.  Teaching in the classroom all year doesn’t do much for physical fitness, it is true, but my struggle was indicative of a level of fitness well below my typical standard.  Had I let myself go that far?  My rock climbing had slipped, I knew that, but this was bad.  I couldn’t get enough air, my pulse was consistently up around 160, and the muscles in my legs just felt weak, like I was recovering from the flu or something.  It was appalling, really, that I lagged so far behind, but it was what it was.  Whether a conditioning issue, a sickness my body was fighting, or some kind of long-built up stress response from the year, I didn’t know, but I couldn’t hide it and a group is only as strong as its weakest member.  I just wasn’t used to being the weakest member.  I took it slow, worked hard to suppress the anger that was building in me at having been left behind by my co-leaders and focused on my breathing.

Actually, it wasn’t entirely miserable.  In fact, I enjoyed hiking alone to a certain extent.  I followed the group’s rowdy footprints in the snow, analyzing their steps and tracking them like prey.  Slowly we progressed up the valley to the moraine.

By 1:30p the weather had deteriorated significantly.  We were almost at 9500 feet, climbing the steep slopes to the top of the moraine where we would make basecamp and spend the next three nights of our summit attempt.  As we emerged from treeline, leaving the last pines behind us, we felt a breezy but insistent wind blowing from the west.  It would snow soon.

It began snowing as we crested the mor

It began snowing as we crested the moraine.

It began snowing as we crested the moraine.  There were still moments of clearing, but they were shorter and less complete.  Tired and weary, some more than others, we lunched at the top.   Two loaves of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly disappeared quickly as we all passed them around and slapped together sandwiches.  We were huddled in a rocky outcropping, sheltered somewhat from the wind and snow.  It felt good to eat and I could feel myself growing stronger with the influx of fuel.  I knew we were close, but the immediate surroundings were unfamiliar.  We had come up a slightly different route than last year, hoping to gain our basecamp site from a different direction, but we weren’t there and I couldn’t tell from our lunch spot how far away or really in what direction our basecamp lay.

And then the weather hit.

In the span of 10 minutes the temperature dropped 15 degrees and the snows set it in earnest.  I urged efficiency in donning layers and packing up our lunch.  The kids were slow to respond in the teeth of the gale, but I didn’t want us to spend too much time out in weather like that.  Not only was the temperature dropping, but apparently a kind of post-lunch lethargy had settled over us.  It was time motivate and get on with it.

We pushed up and over a rise in the moraine, looking for a familiar chute near the far  lateral edge of the moraine, but near white-out conditions made everything harder.  The terrain seemed alien.  My glacier glasses kept the blowing snow out of my eyes but the wind bit my cheeks and nose.  I pulled my balaclava up over my nose and in an instant my glasses fogged up, obscuring vision and orientation.  My fingertips, too, were painful.  I wore thin, windproof gloves, which were far better than nothing, but my hands had become chilled at lunch and now were taking too long to warm.  I had full ice gloves in my pack but I didn’t want to stop moving long enough to retrieve them.  Even when I managed to keep my glasses clear of condensation, the visibility was so poor I couldn’t see far enough to gain a reliable orientation or a sense of where we were on the moraine.  I keep looking around, waiting, hoping that something I saw would connect in memory.  I just wanted to recognize something.  It all looked likely and yet none of it looked positive.  Uncertainty reigned.

At a flat spot, somewhat sheltered from the brunt of the gale, we reconnoitered.  My second and I decided to scout the area in an attempt to locate ourselves or a suitable bivouac site.  The important thing was to keep making progress toward getting us all inside and out of the weather.  I hesitated only a moment at the prospect of leaving the group to wait in the cold while we scouted – hypothermia can set in quickly – but as long as my partner and I went together and weren’t gone too long, it was a viable plan.  I noted to my third that we would be back in ten minutes and encouraged him to do what he could to keep people moving and warm.

It is called a whiteout because everything turns the same shade of white – or grey rather.  Sky and ground, up and down, all begins to look the same.  Topography recedes and abates, features disappear, everything lacks distinguishing detail, and your depth perception goes to zero.  In fact, walking about in the wind and snow, there were times when I couldn’t tell if I was walking up hill or down.  At times I staggered searching for solid ground which seems to shift under me.  It can be a dangerous situation if you are not sure what the surrounding terrain looks like.  A cliff edge can be absolutely invisible because the snow covered edge is indistinguishable from the air beyond it.  Experienced mountaineers have walked – not fallen – walked right off the edge of precipices to their deaths.  Footprints in the snow show a track of calm step leading right over into the abyss.

My partner and I were careful, though, and we scampered about arguing with ourselves and each other about where we thought we were in relation to last year’s basecamp – ultimately to no avail.  We were not lost by any means, but we didn’t know where we were in relation to where we wanted to be, which isn’t a bad situation, necessarily, as long as where you are is okay.  We weren’t likely to find our particular basecamp in the storm and I wasn’t even willing to keep looking, really.  My partner and I decided to find a suitable bivouac site, gather the group, and set up a storm camp.

The site we found was among some boulders – not quite as sheltered as I would have liked but gaining time, at this point, was more important than finding a perfect site.  In some haste, I gathered the students and laid out the plan for setting up shelters in the wind.  We needed to work together well and not, under any circumstances let go of a tent.  I showed them how to use ice axes as snow stakes to secure their tents and how to bury a rock as a “dead man” anchor.  We all worked together on each tent and then, together, moved on to the next to get the shelters set up well and quickly.  We all had an interest in every one of us having a shelter, and in no time we had four solid tents erected.  The wind and snow had not abated, and we all climbed into our shelters to hunker down and wait for the storm to lift.

At one point, after three and a half hours recumbent inside our tents, my second, who had set up his own tent and was its sole occupant, began to stir.

“Who’s got the mashed potatoes and sausage?” he bellowed.  “And I need a stove and a fuel bottle.”

I couldn’t believe it.  “What are you going to do, Scott?” I called through the gale.  I knew what he was going to do; I just wanted to hear him say it.

“What’ya mean,” he called back.  “We gotta eat!”

“It is pretty cold out, Scott.  And it is still snowing.  Let’s just pass around some power bars and gorp and call it good for tonight.  We can eat a good meal in the morning.  It is pretty cold.”

“No, no,” he said with resolve.  “The kids gotta eat.  Where’s the sausage?”

So, with all of his layers on, in below zero wind chill, with the snow coming across the moraine, my intrepid second leader, cooked freeze-dried mashed potatoes and sausage for our group.  When it was done, he and my third leader collected bowls from the students and delivered hot meals to their tent doors.  It was an amazing gesture, one of toughness and conviction.  It was something I learned about my partner.  I felt I glimpsed a bit of his fiber, his caliber, and I was proud to be up there with him.

The storm broke about midnight.  I didn’t see it, but I am told that in the early morning hours the skies parted and you could see stars blinking down on us.

There wasn’t much of a decision to be made in the morning.  It was still bitterly cold, but more than that the storm had covered the mountain in eight inches of fresh powder.  The avalanche danger higher on the glacier was now prohibitively risky, and ours was not a winter ascent.  The decision to pack up and go down was easy.

Wind still blew and an occasional snow flurry came through, but our descent route was clear and we glissaded down the moraine head wall.  Disappointed to have been denied our ambition but ecstatic to have fronted the elements and our own discomfort, we laughed with each other and at ourselves for the night we spent shivering in our tents as the snow fell.

The mountain is a fickle master.  You don’t go there to conquer anything except yourself.

A Letter to a Teacher

This is a letter – email, actually – I recently posted to a fellow educator and one of my earliest mentors.  It came about as you might expect.  He asked me, simply enough, “How did your school year go?”  But for  some of us in schools, the answers are never that simple.  I went something like this:

He:  “Is your year almost over?  How did it go?”

I:  “I am done only just this evening.  I am glad it is over.  It has been a hell of a year for a challenging number of challenging reasons.”

He:  “I know what you mean.  The mania and the frenzy of schooling is difficult.  I have felt that way many times before.” (paraphrase).

I:  “I am not sure you have.  Let me tell you how it hurts.”

And then I laid it on him.  The following is more or less what I wrote:

Regarding the “I am glad it is over” feeling: I feel like I am good with the mania and the pace.  I feel like that is a choice we all, as teachers, collectively make – whether we feel in control of the choice or not, we are in control of it, and we do it, and I perpetrate the mania as much as anyone by participating in the manic system, submitting to schedules and deadlines, enforcing them, etc.

The thing that is needling me now is something that I first pondered in my 3rd year here – 6th year of classroom teaching – when I spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what schooling was – what was it that we were doing as teachers?  That was the question I was always asking, tacitly or not, in my work.  It manifested in the decisions I made, the way I positioned myself at school, how I taught my classes, the identity I brought to the classroom.  And it was a worthy question – still is – because it determines all of those things and everything else we do as teachers. What we think we are doing in school – our conception of what it is to teach – determines how we do our life’s work.  Classroom policies, the space we create for learning, and how we define success in the classroom, among many other really significant things.

So, in my 3rd year here, I first glimpsed a terrifying possibility: What if when I finally come to understand what schooling is here – I no longer want to be a part of it?  What if what school really is is not good?

This is an important question?  What if I fell in love with an illusion?  What if school isn’t about human potential, experience, curiosity, surprise, self-governance, and enlightenment, not about learning at all?  What if it really is about sorting kids, categorizing them like beef or eggs, creating obedient workers with “good study habits” so that they can serve our economy?  What if it really is about homework and grades and science fair projects and pencil and paper tests?

If it is about all of that nasty dogma, then either I subordinate my ideals to the service of that and “learn to love the bomb”, or I go to work every day and I fight against the system (which not really a system, it is people) to win small battles in a lonely war with few comrades in the service of scarcely held belief.

This is the old stuff, right?  I know that.  This is Horace’s Compromise – and why Sizer started CES and his other school reforms.

Okay, so, fine, right?  Get over it.  Big surprise that my school doesn’t perfectly fit my delicate sensibilities.  Big deal that I have to put some of my idealism aside in order to go to work every day.  Lots of people have it a lot worse in their jobs.


Yes, AND lots of people don’t feel the need to improve the world with their work.  Lots of people are not teachers.  I DO believe teachers are special.  I DO believe that the work we do is fundamentally optimistic, idealistic, and forward looking – not just getting by, living through another day, but actively pursuing and effecting the change we want to see in the world.

So, these two positions are in conflict:

•Do I man up and get over it, tamp down my idealism and my need for a good fit between my work and my convictions, participate in a system that has flaws and try to value the participation and not the system, sacrifice what I think is important for the larger context of a school and a faculty and a group of people all doing the same thing, abandon my ego for the selfless goal of someone else’s vision of a better reality?


•Do I man up and get over it, stand up for my intuition, my convictions, and my beliefs because from where I stand today and what I know right now I am sure they are right and good and possible, trust in what is and has always been fundamentally with me, stop acquiescing to the impulse to accept the responsibility and the blame for when my core beliefs run afoul of institutional norms and the direction the school is going, stop wondering what is wrong with me that I seem to be the only person in the room with my set of priorities.

That question and the million, myriad ways in which it came up this year are why I am glad it is over and that I can now think about it a bit instead of constantly reacting and responding to another difficult situation.

Sometimes I wonder, what was so good about the first 5 years at this school?  Were things that different in the teaching environment? Or did I just see a lot less, was my vision poorer in some way?

Sorry you asked?

See you soon.


Teaching is a hell of a job.  I do still love it.