• Strong Like Me

In the uncanny world of my dreams last night, I was wearing my teaching credential around my neck, as a charm on a chain. The credential was a dogtag the length of a small fingernail. It hung next to another charm, a religious symbol, the Unitarian Universalist chalice, which is usually represented as a flat dish with a flame above it. In this dream, though, the chalice had a lid and a spout, like Aladdin’s lamp.

I had students in my charge, but they were nowhere to be seen. We had ventured into a moss green field surrounded by birch trees; I had sent them off to the woods to look for hidden treasure. It was clear to me in the dream that this was the most worthwhile lesson I could offer.

lampglobeInstead of tending to my students, I was standing next to a picnic table, chatting with a young man who had come to observe my class, I held the necklace in my hands and tried to explain its meaning. My identity as a (lapsed) Unitarian, with its focus on questions rather than answers, on possibilities rather than dogmas, was something I never mentioned explicitly in my teaching, but it certainly informed the decisions I made.

When I looked down, though, the necklace had transformed into a thick white plastic collar. Inset within the plastic shape, spinning on a form-molded axis, was a racquetball-sized plastic globe in blue and green. Within the dream-symbol workshop of my unconscious mind, the product designers were working overtime!

In fact, the little globe was identical to a real object, a little treasure of mine that I keep in a drawer in the studio Micropalace where we live (as opposed to the storage space where Hubby and I stockpile most of our possessions). I received it from a dear friend, who was five at the time (now she’s eight).

She belongs to my adopted Bay Area family, former housemates of my husband’s, with whom we have been having dinner once a week for the past nine years. Over these years, the parents have allowed Hubby and me to be true auntie and uncle to their three talented, whip-smart, athletic daughters. Their precocious social skills have been enhanced, I like to think, both by an absence of television and by the constant meddling of their many adult friends.

One instance of preternatural empathy and grace manifested itself years ago, when I was grieving my father. The Middle Child, not quite six years old at the time, assured me consolingly that death is a natural and universal experience. Everybody dies, she confided, with a pat on the arm and an earnest gaze. Everybody. Even me. To pester, nag, encourage, proofread, and giggle with all three of them–and to receive their dazzling expressions of youthful wisdom–has been one of the great privileges of my life.

Unsurprisingly, the Youngest One has exhibited leadership qualities since well before she could speak. While learning to walk, she skillfully managed her adult staff, coordinating their hand-holding shifts. Once she was walking, she was strutting around patting pillows, rounding us up for stuffed animal tea parties. Pulling on sleeves, she dragged us up to dance.

She explored her environment avidly, reacting with the same shocked tears of outrage every time she ignored our warnings and toddled herself off the dining room bench. Then she was up and at it again.

Not long after her fourth birthday, at her eldest sister’s middle school graduation, I spotted Youngest One off from the festivities, seated under a redwood tree, holding court with three or four preteen boys.

For a brief phase, though, she played a little rough with her age mates, insisting on the games she wanted, stealing turns, hoarding toys. Once, in her living room, when she yanked a block out of a smaller kid’s hand, I got indignant. Stop that!

What?! Here, she executed a preternatural eye roll but also blushed, clearly upset that I had hollered at her.

That’s your guest! I insisted.

She held my glance for a few moments, then shrugged philosophically and gave back the block.

This was quite a new pattern for her. Usually, when reproached, she went and hid behind the floral chair in the corner. It was the next week when she came up to me and pressed the little blue globe into my hand. A present, she declared in her piccolo voice. Because you’re strong, like me!

In my dream as well as in my drawer, then, the globe constitutes a pep-talk, a reminder of Young One’s élan and my own occasional outbreaks of personal efficacy. It’s a pep talk that I can use about now, because I am feeling the temptation to wallow in helplessness. On another front, a dear, lifelong friend of mine is gravely ill, and there’s not a thing I can do about it. That means that in the abstract sense my own world is cracking.

When it comes to the larger world, I struggle for my footing against political forces pushing for education cuts, the monetization of the electoral process, the elimination of environmental accountability, and hegemony for the largest corporate players in the economy, with in the government, and even on the net. (Why do I feel like I’m “injecting politics” into a personal essay, harping on these issues, when the other side is politicking so relentlessly.)

As for the teaching tag and the magic chalice, they seem to be a prayer both for the power to effect change and the wisdom to use it well, qualities that feel like they’re far out of my reach. It has taken me most of my life just to learn how to nudge a good-hearted but strong-willed child to put down a block and play nice. Now I want to nudge a whole freaking planet, and keep nudging, in a scenario where the kids with the most toys will never stop grabbing for more.

• Morning in Alameda

8:27 AM

Ordinarily, I don’t do mornings. Certainly not before the crack of nine. I’ve always slept in whenever possible, but now that my tutoring schedule sometimes runs to 10 pm, I have an excuse. Unfortunately, one of my other idiosyncrasies is that I have trouble managing my possessions. In other words, I lose stuff. At the gym, I pay for the quarter lockers. It’s cost effective when considered against the price of continually replacing my own padlocks.


So, yesterday I left my iPad in a classroom on the island of Alameda, where I was teaching an after school debate class. Doing debate with 4th- and 5th-graders is one of life’s great pleasures, something, I imagine, like riding a temperamental horse: exhilarating, perilous. As elementary school students, they still live in a world where principles can be relied on. Promises need to be kept, offenses require precise apologies: “It’s not that you bumped me and I fell. I’m mad because it really hurt and you laughed at me.” After elementary school, we continue to yearn for a morally coherent world, but middle school cures most of us of the hope for justice.

For debate workshops, my iPad is crucial. That’s because I have a timer app that goes toc-toc-toc as you spin the second-hand to set the dial. Classes in the late afternoon, when kids have been studying all day, can easily fall into rambunctious turmoil. In this case, though, as owner of the iPad, I hold the reins. The desire to touch the timer, I assure you, runs as deep as the longing for a just world, and I have the power to grant fulfillment or take it away. The kids know that mishandling my tech would bring consequences that defy imagination–in computer-savvy Alameda it would be like mishandling a statue of the Virgin at a Catholic School–so I can trust them to follow my rules with the device.

With that control in place, the event pretty much runs itself. Once we have a resolution to argue, I choose the judges. Almost everyone wants to be a judge–even the most impish child has a sober judicial side just waiting to come out–so I assign the role through a random drawing. Then, by consensus if possible, we organize the teams. It’s a common pedagogical practice to start debaters off with fairy tales, replete as they are with ethical conundrums. The story I had planned to do, “Rumplestiltskin,” turned out to be one they had already hashed over in their regular class.

And so we moved on the Frog Prince: Undervalued Dreamboat? Innocent Victim? Slimy Interloper? Passionate arguments emerged. The Princess tried to break her word after the Frog Prince risked his life to rescue the princess’s golden ball. What is a grown man doing, even in frog form, asking a young girl to take him home to her bed? (She’s obviously a child: she’s playing with a ball.) And what do we really know about this prince and the “castle” that he’s promising to his would-be bride? What if the castle is really a dump?

During in the breaks between the four rounds, one of the three judges also took on a coaching role, smoothly incorporating the technical terms we had just learned: “I want to see more pathos. Really show me your emotions. As far as logos, make sure your arguments connect.” A second judge, a wag who likes to raise his hand just to get called on so he can announce that he has nothing to say, transformed himself into a gracious host. If the timer ran out on a speaker, he stretched out his arm, asking, “Would you like to complete your statement?”

Since this was an intramural event, I was happy to allow the students make these small adjustments to the usual proceedings, adjustments that encouraged full and satisfying participation. At some point one of the debaters respectfully pushed back against Judge One’s torrent of advice. “We appreciate what you’re saying, but we’re up here doing the best we can.” On the other hand, the debaters also took the initiative to ask for a bit of feedback from the third, hitherto silent judge.

After arguments closed, the judges went to the whiteboard and drew up a chart with the scores for the two teams (0-4 points for each of 5 categories). Then the kids discussed the results among themselves, staying on topic for a full 15 minutes, without any prompting. In my education as a teacher, I was taught that my role is to facilitate “negotiation of meaning,” so I find it gratifying when such negotiations catch fire.

With the quarter hour we had left in the session, we tried a form of debate devised by the students. One student stood at the back of the room and one at the front, trying to lure other students to their side. We settled on a simple topic: red vs. blue. (In many schools, where Norcal and Socal loyalties run red and blue respectively, this could be a volatile, even taboo subject, but in a well-to-do area like Alameda, the preferences are arbitrary.)


The red side, I have to say, suffered from too much reliance on logical argument: People say that water is blue or the sky is blue, but that’s just a trick of the light. Blue rode to success on a wave of pathos: The sky may not really be blue, but blue is what we see.

I lent my support for the red side, but the blues rejected my appeal to authority–A billion Chinese can’t be wrong–and shot back with an irrelevant yet devastating counter-assertion: “Your shirt is blue.” Despite blue’s intimidating numbers, the controversy raged on until it was time to go. Then the students, helpfully cleaning up the class materials, came at me with wadded piles of paper, which I stuffed into my bag. We locked up the classroom, and I was 15 miles away before I realized I’d left my iPad behind.

Today, therefore, I have hauled myself back to Alameda, getting to the school before instruction starts to retrieve my mysterious object of desire, which I will need for a 1 pm debate class with another group. And now here I am, negotiating the meaning of morning, that beautiful time I seldom see, where the people who aren’t rushing to their jobs walk around with their minds in loose focus, taking in whatever comes.

I’m at a coffee shop, and the barista is telling a red-headed customer with a flowered purse, a diamond-patterned shirt and a camouflaged jacket that he is hoping to get back to nature.

“That’s so good,” she replies, chewing up a few leisurely bites of pastry before adding, “It’s the most important thing.”

“Actually,” he says, “I’m growing a few things in my drainpipe.”

While he pours in the milk for her latte, she rips open two sugar packets and shakes them in at the same time. “I just love everyone here,” she announces to the staff, before she grabs her cup and heads off for work. For this moment only–do not expect any more out of me–I love mornings, as I have always loved the application of well-intended words.

• What’s under your bridge?

“Too much social interaction!” a young friend of mine is roaring, sitting on his heels in his swiveling desk chair. A proficient internet pilot, like many of his generation, he has been showing me a computer game based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of several books we’ve read together. He also mentions an online version of the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. I start telling him about the old days, when D&D players sat around a kitchen table rolling dice. I’m just getting to the part about my generation staying up late over cold pizza and flat soda. That’s when he breaks in, cutting off the reminiscence: “Too much interaction face to face!”

He’s kidding, I think. As a teacher, I can attest that most 6th-grade humor has the consistency of roasted chestnuts. This particular 11-year-old, though, constitutes an exception. He’s got a wit that’s hard and sparkly as diamonds. The first time I met with him, I asked him whether he knew what it meant to “infer.” He told me he’d encountered the word “inferences” before. “So I can infer what it means.”

Now he confirms for me the ironic tone of his protest, as he goes on playfully to describe a future world where young people will hunch over devices texting each other even when they’re together in the same room.

Much has been made, and for a good long time now, out of the isolating effects of time spent online. Sociological studies, widely publicized on the internet, blame that same internet for the decay of social networks in the phenomenon we so tellingly capitalize as Real Life. I pooh-pooh the fretting, because I love the new opportunities: keeping up with former students, tracking the growth of my niece and nephew. It pleases me to be able to determine where I’ve seen that actor on that show before, with just a few key taps, or to fact check (and verify) the assertion that Lupita Nyong’o looks gorgeous in every color she wears. I like having my reach extended, beaming messages to old friends who belong, in my personal cosmos, to the distant galaxy known as elementary school.

Much has been made of the way the internet brings out the worst in us, for instance through flame wars, cyber-bullying, and derogatory “bashtags.” Here, I share the concerns. So often, I see posts and articles whose gist is “I have no sympathy for so-and-so.” Much of the time I see reason for withholding fellow feeling, whether from well-heeled individuals raising tantrums over the fraying of their privileges or from vicious killer on death row. Still I find myself reflecting on the suspension of sympathy and its role in the actions of the wrongdoers just mentioned.


Flinging put-downs on the internet is a seductive business. We get the excitement of confronting others’ behavior without all the consequences and risks. Particularly aggravating for me is the anti-immigrant screed. Such messages often appear in the second person, accusing some unidentified “you” of parasitical laziness.

These postings, I admit, spark the urge for reciprocal bad behavior on my part. Are you saying that our immigrant elders (mine and others’)–whose language learning suffered because they washed for, cooked for, cleaned up after, scolded, and cared for entire extended families, serving as one-man or one-woman safety nets–who worked multiple jobs to bankroll the education of a highly skilled and often seamlessly bilingual new generation–now need to “Press 2 to hang up and learn English”?

Come over and say that to me here.

If anything, though, my internet anger raises my awareness of my own fundamental trolldom. Like many others, I suspect, I tend toward an ingrained defensiveness that I’ve nurtured for a long time–probably since my first-hand experiences of how young people do also say terrible things to each other on a face-to-face level. Some days, no provocation is too small to stir the troll in me.

Yesterday I was standing at a corner where a tiny side street meets bustling San Pablo. The walk sign there takes forever to come on. As I was waiting, a woman strode up and forcefully jabbed three or four times at the button, when I had ALREADY PRESSED IT! Look at her folding her arms smugly, as if in expectation of instant success. Does she think she knows some better way than I do of pressing a walk button? Another 45 seconds of DON’T WALK will wipe that self-satisfied smile from her face.

Forty-five seconds did go by, with her aplomb undiminished. Then we crossed the street and started walking up the same steep hill. “That’s a cute dog,” she said to me, pointing to a fluffy white pooch walking by on a leash. Then she said the same thing to the tall woman walking the dog and gave the animal a friendly pat. Geez, what’s wrong with you, I asked my troll, getting so worked up about a perfectly pleasant stranger? My inner troll just shrugged at me and headed back under my inner bridge.

Hostility, says the troll. It’s what I do.

That’s just one example of an unseen flare-up in me of old feelings. On the other hand, here’s something new. Once every few days, usually peering at budding trees outside a window, over the shoulder of a student writer, during silent moments when the student needs to skirmish with the structure of a hard-to-structure sentence, I experience a shiver of unaccountable joy. I feel that I’m where I am supposed to be, that everything is right. And it’s true. I am doing what I dreamed of doing when I was in my 20s, a mix of teaching, writing, and art making–and actually the art making is more than I had even dared to dream. So the feeling’s not surprising, but its piercing sweetness is.

The euphoria has to do simply with being present, in a way that cannot be synthesized, even as our electronic devices deliver streams of positive and negative reinforcement that are, I do believe, rewiring our brains. Spelling, for instance, is in genuine peril, mark my words. Many students right-click two or three times a sentence to turn anylisis into analysis or–if they’re not careful–into analities. They’re not memorizing the words, but they’re going to have to cut down on the clicking, or they won’t be able to make deadlines. It’ll be like getting stuck at the endless DON’T WALK sign every day of their lives.

Still, I’m holding out hope for books and for swivel chairs, as well as for late nights and cold pizza, with the electronic universe as a powerful complement to–but not a substitute for–our breathing lives.