Use Your Body Up

While waiting with other members of our food co-op, someone who should think of other ways to start a conversation asked me a cuttingly critical question. I couldn’t even come up with an answer. That’s not like me. The best response I could muster was a fake laugh, as if to acknowledge that she must have been joking. (She wasn’t.) Her question seemed to be more curious than mean spirited but it forced me to think about how other people see me.

I thought I’d let Beauty go, along with her twin sister, Shame, long ago. Apparently not.

Some people look amazing all the time and at any age.  They know what clothes are in, what accessories to use, how to walk in fussy shoes gracefully. I’m impressed by them even if they seem like a species only faintly related to my comfortably slouchy self.

My presence makes people who are fashion backward and technologically inept feel much better about themselves. Clearly there are perks for hanging out with me. But apparently I give so little thought to my appearance that others might come away with the wrong impression. As my questioner put it, “You really leave the house looking like that? It must be easy when you don’t care.”

I do care.

I care about practically everything.

It’s exhausting.

I churn through my days trying, and sometimes succeeding, in doing what good I can do even if on the smallest scale. I talk to people and animals kindly, try to listen more than react,  and when I’m upset ask myself what darkness in myself lets me see shadows elsewhere. I write about natural learning and sustainability and peace. I support good causes and when times are hard, as they tend to be, I attach myself to hope like a barnacle.  This leaves very little energy for personal beautification. Heck, I rarely muster up the ooompf to keep weeds from towering over my vegetable plants so there’s no way I’ll get around to using a blow dryer or nail polish. I’ve never had the money let alone the inclination to have a manicure or pedicure, go to a spa, or have my hair styled. Well, I’ve never actually had a hair style….

When I came home I emailed a few close friends. I explained I’d been at the co-op, where we unload a truck and do other labors befitting less-than-great clothes, so I wore jeans and an old embroidered cotton shirt, my hair tied up and scuffed clogs on my feet. Because I’m no saint, I described the unflattering horizontal stripes of the shirt my questioner wore and how it was a so tight that her form-fitting pants pushed bulges of flesh through at least three of those stripes. (I try to be non-judgmental. That day I failed.) Then I asked the most important question. I’ve never steered that question to appearances before. My friends were all ridiculously nice when really, I was hoping to know if it’s time to start dying my hair or stop wearing my daughter’s hand-me-ups.

I know we broadcast something about our self-esteem via our appearance. Still, I’m not any more motivated than I was before that day at the co-op. I tweezed an eyebrow once, back when I was a teen. It hurt at the tears-in-my-eyes level. Won’t do that again. There’s no way I’ll bother wearing earrings or remembering hand lotion.

But I’ve realized an appearance-based truth from all of this. My body, like everyone else’s body, gets used up by life. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Years of changing diapers, gardening, canning, washing dishes, kneading dough, and taking walks no matter the weather have left me with creaking knees and hands that belong on someone much older. These are all ways of using my body for a purpose. When I stroll off the planet I want to know that I’ve enjoyed all the health, vigor, pleasure, and meaningful work my body can generate.

During yesterday’s walk the wind was intense and it started to rain. My face and hands were pelted with icy drops from a beautiful still-bright sky. I should have left the house with a scarf and gloves but I didn’t turn around. I walked right into the wind, letting it toss my hair as freely as it blew the last leaves off the trees. I felt completely alive.

enjoy your body not your looks, beyond beauty, beyond body perfection, die used up,

Aja-ann Trier /www.etsy.com/shop/SagittariusGallery

The Bomb & Me

alive because of the bomb, believe in fate, anti-war, nonviolence, anti-nuclear activist,

Why do we take any one path in our lives? Perhaps a mix of choices and abilities are simply stirred in the cauldron we call childhood. Or maybe there are elements we can’t fathom.

Here’s one reason for my wonderment.

I was one of those kids who worried about every chained dog and crying baby. I wanted to understand why the world contained cruelty and more, how I could fix it.  When I was ten years old I learned about the splitting of the atom. It struck me with cold horror, although I couldn’t articulate why. Before that I assumed most adults were looking out for the welfare of kids and trees and animals under their care. But once that information sank in I was afraid that grown ups were terribly misguided. When I asked questions I found out my country had dropped two atom bombs on Japan and that it now used nuclear power. Adult logic suddenly seemed like a fairy tale. It wasn’t until years later that I heard what J. Robert Oppenheimer, called the “father of the atomic bomb,” thought when the first one was detonated. A verse from the Bhagavad Gita came to his mind: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Cold horror indeed. Even on sunny days I thought about death.

As the child of conservative parents, I don’t recall any family discussions about nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, pro or con. The few times I asked I was told the bombs had to be dropped to end the war and nuclear power was a safe, clean form of energy. I kept to myself the chilling fear I felt whenever I thought about the splitting of atoms. That is, until my father’s old college roommate was in town. Before his visit I was told he was a smart man who had done well for himself. (In other words, ramp up the politeness factor from Good Girl to Really Good Girl.) And I knew my father hadn’t seen this friend since before I was born. All good reasons to mind my manners and listen quietly to the adults talk. Which I did, until I heard him mention he was an engineer for a nuclear power plant. I gasped (not polite unless a wasp is in your pants) and asked him about the dangers of radioactive waste.

He gestured to the light switch on the wall dismissively, asking, “Do you expect the lights to go on or do you know how to generate your own electricity?” As a child still afraid of the dark, I didn’t have much to say. But his response didn’t ease my concerns. That experience taught me to get the facts before I introduced a subject and also to do something about my concerns. Thank you sir.

I’m sure my ten-year-old self would be disappointed with me. I haven’t devoted myself to freeing the world of nuclear waste and nuclear weapons, nor to advancing peace. But it’s an issue that has resounded in my life. I worked with anti-nuclear weapons activist groups for years and taught nonviolence workshops even longer. I campaigned and testified against the opening of two nuclear plants in Ohio (unsuccessfully) and against a five state radioactive waste dump (successfully). When my children were small we attended Hiroshima Day observances each year, floating traditional lantern boats with messages of peace to commemorate the lives lost.  We also hosted a child from the Chernobyl region for five summers, a child we grew to love and whose health is still threatened by elevated background radiation in her homeland.

Then I learned what splitting the atom meant to me, personally.

My father never had much to say about serving in the U.S. Navy in the closing months of World War II except that he had been a radar man. But in the last years of his life we heard more. He told us about one day in particular. He and the entire crew of their ship were called on deck. They thought it was to formally welcoming a new commander. Instead they were given a classified briefing.

They were told all leaves were cancelled and all communication with home would be heavily censored. Their ship was being retrofitted to leave for an upcoming top-secret coordinated air and sea attack on Japan. Their ship would be third in line of the first fleet. It was considered a “sacrifice” ship. In other words, officials didn’t think they were likely to return. My father, a quiet religious teen who drafted right out of high school, faced certain death along with the rest of his shipmates.

A short time later, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. My father lived to attend college, become a teacher, get married, and have a family because of the unspeakable violence wrought by those bombs. I am alive because of those bombs.

That I’ve felt driven since earliest childhood to advance a peaceful, nuclear free world now seems to have roots more mysterious than I can comprehend. I don’t know if that’s destiny at work,  but it calls me to believe that our paths are far more complex than we imagine.

fate, destiny, predestination, peacemaker, Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

Mentor: Fancy Name For Grown-Ups Kids Need

mentor, role model, adult pals for kids, children in the neighborhood, real work for kids,

image courtesy of LisaW123’s Flickr photostream

The little boy just wanted to “do stuff.”

His parents let him traipse around with his wagon on garbage collection day. He’d take home pieces of wood, carefully pulling out nails to store in a can, so he and his friends would have the necessary materials to build forts or go-carts. Occasionally he found small engines that he’d do his best to fix. No one intervened to tell him his pursuits weren’t safe, although he was expected to clean up any mess as well help around the house.

His neighbors didn’t mind having this kid appear whenever they did something interesting—fix a car, build a shed, tend a greenhouse full of plants, run a garage sale. He was eager to learn and even more eager to help, so they did what adults have done throughout time. They shooed him away occasionally but mostly they shared what they knew.

He made use of what he learned. By the time he was 12 or 13 years old, these neighbors let him take on their home and car repairs, recognizing he was able to do a more exacting job than they might have done themselves. He gained more than skills from the adults in his life. He may have been leaning over a car hood with Clyde, but he was also learning how to understand the function of each system by paying attention. It seemed he was only helping Mr. Christman with the heavy tasks of operated a greenhouse but he was also taking in something important about growing old with dignity. It appeared he was working alongside his grandfather but he was also seeing how reputation, honesty, and treating each person with respect builds a small business.

Because he developed richly rewarding relationships with people of all ages, relatives as well as neighbors, he had plenty of examples to draw on as he matured. He saw how different people handled decisions, disciplined their children, laughed off trouble, solved problems, stayed in love.

His experience was rare. It’s becoming rarer all the time.

Throughout nearly all of their childhood and teen years our kids are segregated in day care, school, sports, and other activities. Even when they benefit from the very best programs, if they’re restricted to the company of same-aged peers doing what adults consider educational and enriching they are deprived of the riches found through fully engaging in the wider world. This subverts the way youth have matured throughout human history, when children learned right in the context of family and community—freely able to watch, imitate, and foster relationships with people of all ages.

We put kids in an oddly uncomfortable position when most adults in their lives are focused on them. Children want to center themselves, not have adult attention centered on them. Kids long to model themselves after adults who are engaged in meaningful, interesting, and useful activities of their own. When their experience of adults is limited to those who are there to care for, educate, or entertain children (important callings but not all that adults can do) the dynamic is shifted. The age-old desire to gain mastery and take on responsibility, eagerly becoming a capable adult, doesn’t have the same pull.

There are plenty of educational initiatives to bridge this gap, particularly for teens. These programs connect students with mentors or bring community members into schools to talk about their careers. While these efforts are admirable, such stopgap measures aren’t the way young people learn best. They need to spend appreciable time with people of all ages—observing, conversing and taking on responsibility. Real responsibilities, real relationships.

How can we remedy this?

That little boy? He grew up to be a remarkably capable, beautifully open-hearted, and endlessly positive person. I married him.

mentor, building competence through imitation, children at work,

Emphasis On Testing Cheats Everyone

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SAT language scores aren’t near the levels seen in the early 1970’s.  Some test-takers resort to cheating, most recently seven teens from Great Neck, NY who hired an impersonator to stand in (well, sit in) for them. The company that administers the SAT estimates cheating, mostly by collaboration, occurs in only one-tenth of 1 percent of the 2.25 million students who take the test annually. That seems insignificant, but it underscores a larger problem—our test-obsessed educational system.

E. D. Hirsch Jr., author of The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that declining verbal scores have to do with enduring school days stripped of “substantial and coherent lessons concerning the human and natural worlds…” He goes on to note,

The most credible analyses have shown that the chief causes were not demographics or TV watching, but vast curricular changes, especially in the critical early grades. In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.

I don’t agree with Hirsch’s basic stance that a core curriculum be taught in every U.S. school but he’s got a point. It’s not a new point. Learning has taken a hit heavy hit from the emphasis on standardized tests. The zombifying effect on schools, teachers and kids brought by high stakes testing isn’t pretty.

Even in the best districts, attaining those all-important numbers eliminates opportunities for innovation and time to work with students’ interests. Less stellar districts see their schools under test-heavy siege charged with getting results or getting eliminated.  This drive also shapes the kind of material students see, relentlessly preparing them to reach higher for the Almighty Score while giving scant attention to more complex yet essential skills for higher learning like critical thinking, creativity, initiative, and persistence.

Why this emphasis on testing? We assume policy-makers know what they’re doing. Surely they haven’t been restructuring education based on bare numbers unless they have substantial proven results. Greater competiveness on the world market or at least greater individual success?

Nope.

Here are some eye-opening facts from my book:

National test scores

It’s widely assumed that national test score rankings are vitally important indicators of a country’s future. To improve those rankings, national core standards are imposed with more frequent assessments to determine student achievement (meaning more testing).

Do test scores actually make a difference to a nation’s future?

Results from international mathematics and science tests from a fifty-year period were compared to future economic competitiveness by those countries in a study by Christopher H. Tienken. Across all indicators he could find minimal evidence that students’ high test scores produce value for their countries. He concluded that higher student test scores were unrelated to any factors consistently predictive of a developed country’s growth and competitiveness.

In another such analysis, Keith Baker, a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Education, examined achievement studies across the world to see if they reflected the success of participating nations. Using numerous comparisons, including national wealth, degree of democracy, economic growth and even happiness, Baker found no association between test scores and the success of advanced countries. Merely average test scores were correlated with successful nations while top test scores were not. Baker explains, “In short, the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance . . .”   He goes on to speculate whether testing [or forms of education emphasizing testing] itself may be damaging to a nation’s future.

Individual test scores

What about individual success?

Educational reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Why do we push standardized tests if it has been demonstrated that the results are counterproductive? Well, we’ve been told that this is the price children must pay in order to achieve success. This is profound evidence of societal shallow thinking, because the evidence doesn’t stack up.

Research shows that high test scores in school don’t correlate with later accomplishments in adulthood such as career advancement or social leadership.

We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?

The conclusion?

No.

The criteria for academic success isn’t a direct line to lifetime success. Studies show that grades and test scores do not necessarily correlate to later accomplishments in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or the sciences. Grades and tests only do a good job at predicting how well youth will do in subsequent academic grades and tests. They are not good predictors of success in real-life problem solving or career advancement.

Kids certainly cheat because they haven’t prepared for the test, but they also may cheat because they simply see the whole testing game as a farce.  A survey of 43,000 high school students showed that 59 percent admitted cheating on a test during the past year.

What can we do?

Some of us homeschool.

Some parents submit compelling letters telling schools they will not permit their children to be tested, part of a larger opt out movement.

Some are heartened by the ever-growing list of four year colleges that don’t require the ACT or SAT for admission.

Do you think high-stakes testing cheats our kids?