Tuesday, April 24, 2012

30 Years to Learn

Increasing awareness of my own mortality has me looking back at moments in my past, and lessons that were taught, but not learned until years later. My third grade teacher (we'll call her "Mrs. Y", because she definitely got a lot of "why" from me) taught me two of those lessons, though I didn't quite grasp them as a nine-year-old.

Third grade is the year I was put in the gifted class in our new school. I had always known I was quicker to catch on in school than my classmates, but now I had proof that I was smart. This coincided with another big event in my elementary school career: my first non-A grade. It was the most "non-A" you can get, in fact. I can't remember which came first; I want to say I ended up in the gifted class because they felt I wasn't being challenged enough, but it could just as easily have been the other way around. The worst part of the failing grade, though, is that it was in spelling, which was one of my best subjects at the time.

How does a gifted child who taught herself to read at four years old suddenly become a failing student? I stopped trying. I didn't need to study the spelling words, I already knew how to spell them all, and I could ace any spelling test. I didn't see the point of writing the words over and over, so I just didn't do it. Mrs. Y could have just let it slide. I had a French teacher who actually put me in independent study when I didn't do my homework, so that I could work at my own pace and just take the tests. But not Mrs. Y. She just kept giving me zeroes when I didn't do the work.

Mrs. Y also had a tradition of giving a book to each of her students at the end of the year. As she was handing out Babysitter's Club books and other preteen "fun" stories, I was getting more and more excited as my turn came. And then she handed me a copy of Little Women. To this day, I feel bad about my reaction. I was absolutely crestfallen, and she saw it in my face. She tried everything she could to cheer me up, explaining how it was a more "grown up" book, and how much she loved it when she was a girl, but all I saw was how different I was from the other girls, and now even my teacher was confirming it. I ended the school year wondering why my teacher hated me, and thinking maybe the book was punishment for not writing my spelling words.

Of course, I read the book over the summer, loved it, and went on to read other "grown up" books long before I probably would have otherwise. And I learned that sometimes what we want and what's best for us aren't necessarily the same things.

The other lesson took a lot longer to learn, and I'm still not fully versed in it. It lies in the awful, monotonous, repetitive rewrites of those spelling words: talent and intellect mean nothing if you're not willing to do a little bit of work, even if the only reason seems to be "because I said so." My mother called it "playing the game", a former boss called it "being easy to work with". Sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do, for no reason other than because you have to do them.

So, thank you, Mrs. Y. You understood that awkward, obnoxious, too-smart-for-her-own-good nine year old a lot better than she gave you credit for.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Art Lesson

I hated math and science classes when I was in school.  I hated them a lot.  My math and science teachers were dull at best, condescending at worst.  I hated the subject matter, that it was so black and white and so, so dry.

I loved art classes when I was in school.  I loved them a lot.  My teachers loved what they were doing, and were thrilled to share it with us, regardless of our level of talent.  I loved that there was no black and white, no right or wrong answer.  I loved that we were graded on how well we expressed an idea, regardless of what that idea was, on how well we expressed ourselves.  My art classes were what made me opt to pass up an early graduation, because I wanted to stay and learn more about drama, music, painting, and pottery.  Without art classes, I likely would have dropped out of school the instant it was legal for me to do so.

Today, having been out of school for a couple of decades, I can say honestly that I have yet to find myself scrambling to remember the formulas and theorems of algebra and geometry or the mass of the elements on the periodic table.  But every day, without fail, I find the need to think creatively.  Every day, I have a need to express myself in one form or another.  And every single day, I find cause to appreciate the beauty around me.

Seeking to eliminate the arts from a standard school curriculum is hypocritical.  We all enjoy movies and television.  We like good books.  We have prints and paintings hanging on our walls.  Without art, we have no actors, no cameramen, no script writers, no authors, no painters, no photographers, no public speakers, no musicians... the list goes on.  Look around you; your home was designed by an architect-- an artist.  The car you drive?  An artist decided how it would look.  The magazine you're reading, from the photographs to the layout is all the work of (say it with me, now) artists.  And most artists find their passion when they're young; they find it in art classes.

Without art, we lose a lot of what makes life so enjoyable. And where does it end?  Creative writing is an art!  Get rid of it!  Literature?  Nope, that's art, out it goes.  In fact, get rid of Language Arts altogether; it's even got "art" right there in the name, so it's gotta go.  Wait, those cheerleaders... are they... dancing?  Oh dear, dancing is an art form; we'll miss you most of all, cheerleaders.

There's a reason why we start school with crayons instead of compasses and paints instead of protractors.  There's a reason why, as children, we loved to play dress-up, and why we loved pretend games like cops and robbers.  Imagination is a vital part of what makes us human, and it's so very important that we nurture that instead of doing such a great disservice to future generations as teaching them that the world is composed entirely of dry facts.

Life isn't black and white.  Education shouldn't be, either.

Friday, February 11, 2011

All the World Loves a Clown...

I've been thinking about my late mother a lot recently.  I think it's because, as I get older, I see more and more of her in myself.  I did a blog post awhile back about the funny things we remember in our lives, and that absolutely holds true with my memories of Mom.  Most of them are just random things about her, like the slight "mm" before she said "hello" when answering the phone, or the goofy look she'd get on her face when she was swing dancing in the living room.  But my favorite memory is one that I can't even retell without laughing out loud.

My oldest nephew was around six years old at the time.  His birthday is in late December, and the family was gathered for the Christmas holiday.  My mother called my nephew into the kitchen to give him his birthday gift.

Oh, how excited he was as he came running in!  A gift!  One just for him that wasn't part of the holiday festivities!  Oh, how quickly excitement can turn into fear, and fear into sheer terror.

Mom called him over to her, and reached around and picked up the gift... a clown doll.  If one wasn't already creeped out by clowns, this doll would have done the trick, with its big, red nose and dead, staring eyes and maniacal, blood-red grin.  She held it out to him, and his eyes grew wide as he slowly backed away, shaking his head.  Mom insisted it was adorable and kept waving it at him, and his little head shook faster and faster as he backed up against his own mother and found he could go no further.  Eyes huge, he stood his ground and tentatively reached out his tiny hand...

And then Mom pulled the string.  The string that made the clown laugh.

It was the laughter of every wake-up-screaming nightmare you've ever had, the cackle of a thousand mad scientists in a thousand old horror movies.  Vincent Price at the end of Thriller couldn't touch this laugh.  It was the laugh of a dead-eyed clown that wanted to devour your soul.  My poor little nephew shrieked, turned, and practically climbed up and over his mother in his attempt to get away.  I suppose it didn't help that the adults were all shrieking with laugher by that time, too.  I can only imagine it from my nephew's viewpoint, all these bigger people cackling like insane hyenas as the Laughter of the Damned rang out above it all.

To this day, I have no idea whether Mom really thought that was an appropriate gift for a six year old, or if it was just her own brand of hilariously twisted humor.  I like to think it's the latter, but that's mainly so I have an excuse for my own warped mind.

So, thanks for the memory, Mom, and for every wonderful thing you did for all of us.  And thanks, especially, for saving that clown trick for the next generation instead of me.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hi, Anxiety

I heard someone with an anxiety disorder tell someone else, "You don't know how it feels!"  And I got to thinking... everyone knows how it feels.  Everyone has been in a situation, at some point in their lives, that made them feel anxious.

It's that feeling when the boss, towards the end of the workday, says she needs to see you in her office.  It's the feeling when the teacher asks you to stay after class for a moment.  Or when you're walking alone at night and you hear footsteps behind you.  And sometimes, it's just a feeling that passes.

We've all felt it.  You tense up, your mind starts racing, your heart beats faster.  Your body is entering a "fight-or-flight" response to whatever threat it's perceiving.  And, while you can control how much of it you show, while you can take deep breaths to calm the physical symptoms, the fear is still there until the situation ends.

The person mentioned above could have done more to explain the problem by explaining that those with a generalized anxiety disorder don't need a catalyst to feel that way, and there isn't a situation to just try to get through.  Some days, we wake up with a general feeling of unease.  Sometimes, we hear a certain word that just triggers something in our minds that starts our hearts racing.  And sometimes, we're just sitting there, minding our own business, when an overwhelming fear drops onto us like a heavy, wet blanket, and it feels like the walls are closing in.  Sometimes it's just for a few seconds, a fleeting terror that passes.  More often, it lingers.

As you can imagine, this can cause problems.  The fight-or-flight response is called that for a reason, and most of the time in our daily lives, flight isn't an option.  People with severe anxiety issues tend to be angry a lot, because we can't escape whatever our mind has decided is a threat.  Some of us are very lucky and we find a doctor who recognizes the problem right away, and helps us solve it.  Others aren't so lucky; they go through most of their lives wondering the same thing everyone keeps asking them: "What is WRONG with me?"

No one's really sure exactly what causes generalized anxiety, and, like many other conditions, it's likely to vary from one person to the next.  Studies show that there are biological and psychological factors, which means there are a lot of treatment options available.  I personally opt for medication, currently with a mild sedative when I feel like I'm heading toward a panic attack, and just living with it the rest of the time for now.  There are daily medications as well, and many people also benefit from cognitive behavior therapy to help them see the world as less threatening.

Sadly, it's also sometimes over-diagnosed (or worse, self-diagnosed), much like Asperger's and ADHD, and becomes an excuse for bad behavior.  It makes treatment and understanding more difficult.  The best way to know a diagnoses is accurate is to talk to more than one medical professional.  And don't use it as an excuse. If you really have it, then you'll know it can be treated; if you choose not to, that's on you.

The point of this blog post is twofold.  First, to increase awareness of the situation, for those of you who do wonder "What the hell is wrong with her?"  And second, to increase awareness of the options, so that people can take responsibility for their lives and stop blaming it on a treatable condition.

I hope it helps all two of you who read it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sooner or Later, You Sleep In Your Own Space

There are a few things I would blog about, but I find that I censor myself to keep the peace with certain friends and family.  It makes me question who I am sometimes.  On one hand, I want to strive for harmony in my life, cheesy as that may sound.  But on the other, I want to be able to express my opinions without worrying about who I offend.  And we're not talking about radical opinions here, either.

I guess, in a roundabout way, what I'm trying to say is that it's perfectly okay for people to identify as Christian, Jewish, Muslim (though, I guess that depends how many ignorant folks are around).  Yet I have to be afraid to say, "I am an atheist."  On Facebook, I say this regularly-- to other atheist friends, or to people I don't know at all.  I said it at work one day, just in a casual conversation when someone asked me what I believed, and the room went silent.  Why?  Why is it that I'm asked to be tolerant of others' beliefs (and I am, as long as they don't harm others), yet I get stares for my lack thereof, or "tsk tsk" noises, or told outright that it's only because I "have the Devil in me."

I am an atheist.  This is my choice.  It is my life, not yours, and my afterlife or lack of one.  I am not a "wicked, sinful" person, nor am I in league with your Devil.  I am not more likely to kill someone because I'm "godless", nor am I more likely to steal, harm, commit adultery, nor anything else on your list of commandments.  I am an ordinary, everyday person, going about my life, trying to live it as well as I can.  I give to charities, and when I have time, I volunteer to help others.  I know how to be kind, generous, loving, and I know the difference between right and wrong.  Just because I don't get my moral code from a book doesn't mean I don't have one.

Do I have a problem with religion?  You bet I do.  This is it, right here.  It's a divider, like politics.  It makes it easier to depersonalize others, to write off their opinions because, "Who cares what they think?  They're an atheist/Muslim/Catholic."  It makes us put people into little categories instead of the one big category of "human being."    This is not okay

Just stop it.

Love your neighbor, regardless of whether they worship Jesus, Allah, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Love them because they're your neighbor, and recognize them as a fellow human above all else.  Judge them on their actions, not on their beliefs.

Anyway, that's what I've been wanting to say for awhile now.  I'm tired of censoring it, and I'm tired of not being true to myself.  Just, seriously: let people be who they are.  The world would be dull if we were all the same.