on barbers and relativism

“Just got a call from Peggy Kibler down the street. Tony Drago collapsed and died this afternoon.” -text from my mom, January 27, 2014, 8:50 p.m.

The inadequacies of 21st-century grief: I doubt Tony the barber even knew what a blog was, much less ever read one, much less ever read this one. That makes this an idle gesture, but not an empty one.

Tony was my neighbor. Some of my earliest memories are of him sitting in his driveway on hot summer nights, perched contentedly on his folding lawn chair throne, sometimes joined by family, friends, or passerby but just as often existing, alone, at peace. He knew everything about everyone, but not in the malicious, nosy way you see on TV. His folksy omniscience never stopped feeling like true wisdom to me—not even after I grew, and left, and traveled, and worked. In terms of pure variety, I may have already seen more of the world than Tony ever did, but I’ve understood far less.

He was my neighbor, but he was also THE neighbor, at once both the living embodiment of every warm-hearted suburban stereotype you’ve ever held and a reminder that stereotypes can only scratch the surface, even when they fit you to a T. “Gregarious Italian barber from Chicago” is fairly accurate shorthand for Tony that somehow misses the point entirely.

From time to time, I catch myself imagining my childhood as a heady, Terrence Malick-like series of images bleeding formlessly into each other, and when I do, Tony’s barber shop recurs frequently. My brother and I used to joke that we could write a sitcom constructed solely from verbatim barber shop quotes—delivered by a colorful cast of characters including Bob the mailman and a host of other prickly white dudes whose names I can’t remember. Like his driveway forum, but coarser, Tony’s barber shop was open to anyone who needed to talk (or read Playboy quietly while others talked)—like a therapist’s office reserved for patients who would have beaten up Freud in high school.

That absurdity looms large and comic in my memory. But the barber shop was also where I caught some of my first unfiltered glimpses of adulthood, and not everything I saw was unambiguously positive: bad marriages, middle class disillusionment, racism, meanness. Tony generally remained above the fray, but it was still his fray, and that moral dissonance was jarring.

Years later, having committed quite a bit of moral dissonance myself, I’m less quick to judge. I work in a nonprofit, do-gooder sphere that has a tendency to reduce people and positions to extremes of goodness and badness, and I credit Tony, among others, for giving me the complicated perspective necessary to reject that absolutism outright. “Good” is hard to be, and harder to measure. Tony wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect at being Tony. And he was so good.

So, what now? I’ll wake up tomorrow, and send Tony’s wife a sympathy card, and go to work, and that will be that. I’ll feel a little sad, until I forget to. The English teacher in me would like to somehow tie this all back to the closing lines of The Great Gatsby. But “boats against the current” is, I suspect, too highfalutin for Tony the barber, so how about this: “Too cool to be forgotten.”

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nope, i lied, it gets worse

Astute readers of this blog (all twelve of you) will notice the slow progression from broad, vaguely political statements to smaller, often sadder, more intensely personal reflections. This wasn’t an accident.

Remarkably, I feel less qualified to speak about “poverty,” or the “achievement gap,” or even, in a lot ways, “education” than I did before I even entered this sphere of American life. Which will tell you a lot about why most education writing in this country is hopelessly reductive, and generally misses the point: there might not be a point. And if there is one, it’s so absurdly complicated that you’re not going to find it on WordPress, which is basically LiveJournal for the slightly more professional among us.

Now, barely over a month after the fact, my earlier post about “feelings” seems naive. This past month hasn’t been a humorous GIF. It’s been a legitimate emotional nightmare, the kind of Reality Bites scenario I probably should have experienced after my undergraduate years but didn’t, because I was too busy, too overwhelmed, too stimulated. Whatever life anxiety I should have overcome as a 22-year-old is coming back to haunt me, two years later, with two years compounded interest (and only a little bit more money to compensate for it).

Exhibit A: a friend from college breathlessly recommended the new novel Taipei by Tao Lin, an NYU graduate who has earned roughly equal levels of scorn and praise for his prose describing the angsty, drug-aggled lives and times of “brilliant” liberal arts graduates in 21st century Brooklyn. The book is, I think, supposed to be satire, but passages of it are so potent that I’ve literally had to put my head down on my desk and breathe for a couple minutes before continuing. Like this:

“Do you sometimes feel like it sucks—to just, like, live in this world?” Continue reading

solipsism at its finest

A few days ago on Twitter, I posted that I was “pretty sure [the following image] will be my life for the next month.” Considering how rarely I ever even use the word “feelings,” that’s quite an admission.

FEELINGS

But it’s true, and it’s only getting more true. Even worse, it’s graduation season again, and a whole new flock of bright young things is ruminating on social media about the uncertainty of The Future. It’s enough to make me want to pull a Howard Beale and start screaming, alone, into the rain: “Nothing changes!”

Well, some things do. My skin is clearer and my beard is thicker than they were two years ago. I’m less broke (though not dramatically so). I iron, sometimes. But “it”—this whole aimless young adult thing—does become less communal. Back in May 2011, I was soaked with feelings too, but it wasn’t a solitary deluge. It was more like a beach party, with everyone wearing floaties and drinking PBR, reminiscing sweetly in the sun and paying minimal, ironic attention to the roar of the great unknown. If I was lost, so was everyone. Apprehension loves company.

It’s not the same this time around, even though a healthy percentage of my Teach for America friends is also facing pending unemployment. Culturally, the understanding is less “You’ll find your way” than “Find your way already, Jesus.”

And that’s fair! Certain living things require coddling to thrive: infants, pandas, the rainforest, freshly graduated liberal arts majors. I don’t miss being a part of that category.

But I do miss being a part of some category, or at least a more specific category than Professionally Dissatisfied Human. We are legion, I know, but we are also weirdly complacent, and I’m not ready to submit to that.

My big fear is that, with my Teach for America commitment almost behind me, I’ve exhausted another method of resistance, and I don’t yet have one lined up to take its place. Continue reading

reflections on a flawless vacation

I’m only a few days returned from a breathless, life-affirming trip to Southeast Asia. Here are some thoughts, all at least a little bit pretentious. I apologize. Travel does this to me.

***

Kuala Lumpur

Here’s a real first world problem for you: I’ve inherited just enough of my father’s frugality to feel guilty about spending $1000+ on spring break—but not enough frugality to not spend that $1000+ in the first place.

This guilt has caused me to spend every significant vacation of my adult life waiting for what you might call the “tipping point”: the moment when any residual buyer’s remorse evaporates; when the trip could have cost twice as much, ten times as much, could have bankrupted me and I wouldn’t care, because the experience has already become essential. Put more simply (and melodramatically), it’s the feeling of not being able to go back to the way it was before, of “I can’t imagine living without these memories (even though they are brand new).”

It took longer than usual for me to reach that tipping point this time, which makes sense, because the trip was also more expensive than usual. I was meeting up with my college roommate Mike—who now lives and works in Shenzhen, China—for an itinerary that was whirlwind and vaguely ridiculous: Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Singapore, and back to Hong Kong. Seven days.

The tipping point didn’t come until night three, our first night in Kuala Lumpur. In a taxi, after midnight, speeding recklessly, stuffed with street food, bleary eyed from beer and jet lag, so tired that I would end up falling asleep at a bar less than 30 minutes later—yet I couldn’t close my eyes. I felt this intense pressure to absorb all of it—the noise of the crackly, too-loud cab radio; the dark alleys and crowded streets whipping past; the smell, the heat and the sweat and the spice and the pollution—because I knew that even if I moved to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow, permanently, I would never be this person in this moment again. And I liked being that person, in that moment. Continue reading

friday vignette

I’m slipping again. So in an attempt to forestall my snowballing guilt about not writing (and to actually sound like I’m happy for once), here’s a quick tale of Marianna.

I drove two former students home yesterday after Quiz Bowl practice. They’re both ferociously intelligent but academically mediocre—so we have a lot in common.

Whenever I drive students home, there is an awkward moment where I turn the car on and my poor little Honda Civic is suddenly, literally shaking to the sounds of whatever radio station I was listening to at top volume 10 hours earlier on the sleepy ride to school. At least nine times out of ten, that station is K97, “Memphis’s ONLY hip hop and R&B” (which is a total lie, by the way). K97 is filthy, and amazing. My life is richer for knowing it.

That opening blast of heavily edited hip hop throws most students for a loop, but these two had already caught me listening to Waka Flocka at some point last year, so they could roll with it. Instead, we got into a reasonably nuanced discussion about contemporary hip hop: what we like, what we don’t like, who’s coming up, who’s past his prime.

At this point, the radio edit of ASAP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” came on, which is sooo good… but not in front of the children. I changed stations to something playing “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore, the number 2 song in America right now, and a perfect example of what a wise friend once called “hip hop for Asian girls.” (The New York Times ran a similar but less racially charged takedown last month; it’s worth a read.) The song is empty but ubiquitous.

I gestured towards the stereo and said something like, “I can’t believe this song is so popular.”

Student 1, without missing a beat, said, “I’ve literally never heard this song.”

After a few seconds of listening, student 2 sighed loudly and said, “Is this guy white?”

Gonna miss these kids.

on pretending

If I saw you over the summer and you asked how my first year of teaching was, chances are good I did one of three things: ignored the question outright; talked briefly about something technically true but mundane, unsurprising (“I love the kids!”); or lied. I’m sorry.

I had my reasons. The first and most sobering of them is that my gift for pithiness seemingly doesn’t apply to teaching. I have no idea how to reduce the cumulative experience of last year into easy, striking anecdotes. Good things happened, bad things happened, even worse things happened, but all of these things, good or bad, resist easy summarization. They don’t fit the narrative. Last December, I described the opening line of Joan Didion’s “The White Album”—”We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”—as my “mantra.” Lately, the closing line seems to fit better: “Writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

I don’t mean that in a depressive way. There’s something liberating about losing the plot so badly you start to question the plot’s existence in the first place. Second semester was dramatically better than the first. I felt looser but more empowered, less optimistic but more inspired. Some people respond well to Teach for America’s “change the world” rhetoric; I found it defeating and, last January, made a conscious decision to ignore it. That decision came back to haunt me (Don’t they always?), but I’m still here. Continue reading

addendum

One night this past week I streamed the new Frontline episode about Michelle Rhee, ex-chancellor of the D.C. Public School District and a hugely divisive figure in the education reform “battle.” Rhee’s tactics are harsh—heavy emphasis on standardized test scores, indiscriminate firing of ineffective teachers and administrators—but have made her something of a folk hero among the education reform set. The fact that she was essentially run out of office after two years only polishes her legend.

Some people find Rhee’s ball-busting style admirable. Others find it despicable. I, inevitably, fall somewhere in the middle. I first heard of Rhee and her efforts two years ago, when I caught the last half of the documentary Waiting for ‘Superman on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic. I had already committed to my two years with Teach for America at that point but hadn’t yet taught a day in my life. Rhee’s rhetoric seemed grim but appropriate, given the circumstances of 21st century American education.

Smash cut to today, with a couple thousand hours of teaching under my belt, and I’m not so sure. I’ve met a lot of teachers in the past two years—good ones, bad ones, smart, dumb, short, tall, kind, petty. Many of them (including myself, for large swaths of last year and some days of this one) would be considered ineffective under Rhee’s testing-focused criteria.

But here’s Rhee’s big mistake, and it’s not something that I see talked about very often on either side of the education divide: with very few exceptions, I have not met any teachers who don’t want to be effective. No one frets about mediocre teaching more than mediocre teachers. And “accountability” (everyone’s favorite buzzword) will only get you so far if you’re not giving those teachers the development and support they need to be truly held accountable for anything. Continue reading