The Road To You-Know-Where (or, the Baseball and the Broken Window)

I spend a fair amount of time online. To anyone who knows me, this should not be a secret. Maybe I’m not as active on social media as I could be, but I play games, I browse the Internet, I contribute to forums ‘n’ stuff. Like most of us, I’m a frequent observer of heated conversations, discussions, arguments, and…well, things that are just not respectful enough to qualify for any of those labels. When you read enough of these, you start to see recurring themes come up.

I have a bit of a hobby when I lurk through particularly vitriolic word vomit: I like to see how many similarities I can spot between adults arguing online, and kids arguing at school. Anyone else who deals with kids on a daily basis probably does the same thing, because it’s equal parts disturbing and hilarious. In fact, more often than not, I witness things online that I have never seen from kids, and I think to myself for the quintillionth time: adults could learn a lot from kids if they just paid attention.

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Don’t believe me? Go watch some Black Friday footage. That’ll do it.

But there is one thing adults and kids seem to have nearly-equal difficulty understanding, and it’s so basic that it’s been a proverb for so long nobody knows where it even came from: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. As a concept, pretty much everyone understands it (including kids, albeit sometimes after a bit of explanation). From the outside, when someone does something that harms someone else, we are very good and rendering a quick judgement. And when you’re on the receiving end of something lousy someone else did, you understand it thoroughly.

But when you’re in it, when you are the one in trouble for something you definitely didn’t set out to do, it’s different. There’s always a reason, a rationale – a problem, somewhere. And there’s a good chance you’re not going to accept that maybe the problem is you.

With kids, you see it in very straightforward ways. Gary pushes Ajit while they’re playing, Ajit bashes his face off the concrete, and when Gary gets in trouble he says “I didn’t mean to!” And we know he didn’t mean to, we know it was an accident, and yet we’ve still got Ajit with a chipped tooth and a bloody chin. We don’t crucify Gary the same way we would if he’d done it on purpose, but we still recognize that there’s a measure of responsibility to be taken, even if it’s as simple as an apology.

With adults…it’s different. The occasions where this problem comes up are more nuanced, more controversial. Not to mention, we like to think we’ve grown out of making mistakes like that. We like to think we’ve matured beyond that point.

We haven’t. Oh, dear goodness, we have not. No, quite the opposite: we absolutely cling to this idea that what we meant to do should somehow absolve us of the stupid, insensitive, or inconsiderate things we did.

And when you know what to look for, you see it absolutely everywhere. Jacob won’t apologize for that prank he pulled on Ted, because he didn’t mean for Ted’s cell phone to get wrecked when he was pushed in the pool. Lex made a homophobic joke, not knowing that Gloria was a lesbian, and when she gets called out, she accuses Gloria of being “too sensitive” because it was “just a joke.” Far too many white people think it’s okay to say racist things if you didn’t mean to be racist. I have literally had people tell me this. I wish I was kidding.

The list goes on and on, and it only gets worse when other folks get involved, because a whole bunch of them will leap to the defensive and say that the intention is what matters. So-and-so should stop being so offended or learn to forgive, because such-and-such didn’t mean to do it.

That attitude, while in some ways understandable, bothers me. It would be one thing if folks would take these experiences and learn from them, so as not to make the same mistakes in the future, or else handle the situation differently if it comes up again, but far too often, that ain’t the case. Instead we double down, insist that the one person who had a problem with us was overreacting, whatever we can do to convince ourselves that we’re not the bad guy.

Because ultimately, that’s the problem: we never want to be the “bad guy” in our own story. We’re the good guy. We’re the hero, not the villain. The victim, not the oppressor. In these situations, where everyone seems to be convinced we did the bad thing, we’re not being obstinate, stubborn, and defensive; we’re refusing to suffer an injustice.

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We’re like Cary Elwes in Robin Hood, though nowhere near as beguilingly handsome.

What we forget in these moments is that there are things in between. These things are never either-or. There are steps in between victim and oppressor, hero and villain. Within that ugly grey area, there lies a whole domain of unintended consequences.

So, we are psychologically ill-prepared to deal with the idea that we may have done something wrong – or, even worse, that we may have harmed someone in the process of doing something right. We may have done or said completely the wrong thing for the right reason, but because our reasons are so good, we convince ourselves that the same applies to our actions, and anyone who was harmed or offended by those actions? They are the real problem.

This tendency has been so magnified lately, especially given the kinds of political and ideological tension that exist in the world right now. Racism is honestly a great example: white privilege and white fragility in North America are under the spotlight more intensely than they have ever been, and POC are becoming more and more empowered to say “hey, that thing you’ve been casually doing forever? Stop it, we hate that.” And damned if us white folk won’t just sit down, shaddap, say we’re sorry, and move the heck on.

That’s why, whenever I find myself embroiled in a debate over the value of one’s “intentions,” I find myself imagining that we’re taking ourselves out of the murky grey waters of the adult world and going back to school. So, let’s pursue this thought exercise a little. We’re no longer talking about isms, relationships, difficult adult things.

Instead, we’re back on the playground, and we’re playing ball.

The Baseball and the Broken Window

The premise is simple: it’s a nice day out, and Dougie and Stevie (whose names I chose entirely at random, and you can’t prove otherwise) are having some fun with a bat and ball. Dougie throws the pitch, Stevie swings with all his might. Crack. The ball goes flying into the outfield. Unfortunately, the outfield isn’t really a field, and the ball sails right through the window of Old Man, uh…Donald, who lives in a house nearby.

White House
Which, just in case anyone had forgotten, is not this house. This is not the house. Just saying.

So out comes Old Man Donald, angry about his broken window, and he finds Dougie and Stevie, bat and glove in hand. And what do the boys say? “It was an accident. We didn’t mean to.”

This is the whole crux of the problem. Opinions will vary on how this problem should be solved, and there is much here that, in real life, would depend on context (how close to the house were they playing? Have they broken windows before? Did Old Man Donald get hurt by the broken glass? Etc…) but for now, the facts are simple: Dougie and Stevie didn’t mean to break the window, but the fact remains that the window is still broken, and the boys are responsible.

So let’s do one of my favourite activities and torture this metaphor a little. On the one hand, we’ll have the story of Dougie, Stevie, and Old Man Donald. On the other, we’ll have, uh…Fred, your average straight/white/cis/able-bodied/middle-class dude.

Buckle up.

Scenario #1: Playing Too Close to the House
A.K.A. “It was just a joke, calm down.” “I obviously didn’t mean it like that.”

In this example, Dougie and Stevie’s little game of baseball was so close to the house, it might as well have been in the backyard. They still didn’t mean to hit the house, exactly, but they picked a spot where it was a pretty tough outcome to avoid – and the longer their game went on, the more that broken window would shift from “risk” to “guarantee.”

So when Old Man Donald comes outside and the boys say it was an accident, that defense gets a lot harder to sell. Sure, maybe the pair didn’t realize just how close to the house they were, but it’s much more likely that they did, but (as kids do) they were like, “psh. We won’t break anything. We’d never do that.”

So let’s flip over to Fred. This is what happens when people make “edgy” jokes in mixed company. Let’s be honest: most of us have things we’d say or talk about with particular friends or in private, and maybe that’s perfectly fine. I mean, maybe not, but that’s a discussion for another day. But as an example, Fred’s buddy tells him a very crude joke about, say, autistic people. Is that okay? Not really. But at least if it’s just between Fred and his buddy, the potential damage is limited – no broken windows yet.

The problem is that Fred doesn’t have a lot of people with autism in his life. Instead, he’s surrounded by people like him, and they all tell offensive jokes all the time. So what happens when Fred ventures outside that bubble? Well, we know exactly what happens: he tells the awful joke, not realizing that someone in the group has a, I don’t know, an autistic brother. That person reacts. Maybe they’re angry, maybe they’re upset, but it ain’t good.

You also see this happen with derogatory slurs (like n****r, f****t, or the apropos example to the situation above, r****d) or even words that can be used in a derogatory way (like gay). In every one of these cases, anyone with their head screwed on properly knows how touchy these words are, and someone like Fred either doesn’t expect anyone around them to have a problem with it, or just doesn’t care if they do.

What Fred Should Do:
The obvious step here is to apologize. For bonus points, Fred might take some time to check himself and decide that maybe he shouldn’t be saying stuff like that in the first place, let alone in a crowd.

What Fred Actually Does:
As I said, Fred is too insulated. His friends don’t have a problem with his language, and they find that type of humour hilarious. And he obviously didn’t mean to offend anyone; it’s not his problem some people can’t take a joke. So he gets defensive and dismissive. He reminds everyone that he didn’t know so-and-so’s brother had autism, overlooking that he would never be able to know such things without being told, so he’s clearly just fine taking that risk. He says it’s “just a joke,” and the fact that some folks aren’t laughing is their problem, not his. He says he didn’t mean it “that way,” despite the wide array of other, better words he could have chosen.

In other words, since he didn’t mean to offend anyone with his offensive language, they shouldn’t be offended. Because that’s obviously how it works, right?

Scenario #2: Not Knowing the House is There
A.K.A. “I’ve never heard that before.” “Nobody would be offended by that.” “You’re way too sensitive if that bothers you.”

Dougie and Stevie really thought they picked a good spot for their game. They’re on a field next to a long wooden fence with tall trees on the other side. They aren’t really trying to avoid breaking windows, specifically, so much as they’re pretty sure there aren’t any windows nearby to break. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that Old Man Donald’s house is just on the other side of those trees, and they’re a bit too close to the fence. They play on, completely unaware of this, until the Smash-tinkle-tinkle of broken glass.

This time, some bystanders might actually feel bad for the boys a bit. They would have been more careful, but they honest-to-Gord didn’t know the house was there. Problem is, Old Man Donald still has a broken window – and from his point of view, these neighbourhood boys should probably have figured out that if there’s a fence, there’s probably something on the other side.

So in Fred’s case, a situation like this comes up because he says or does something he didn’t even realize might be offensive at all. There are some kinda niche examples of this; far too many people, for instance, don’t know not to pet or play with a service animal at work. But you also see this in other forms, such as asking a very inappropriate question (“You’re trans? Does that mean you’ve had surgery?” “Now that you’re married, when are you going to have kids?”), delivering a backhanded compliment (“I didn’t even realize you were from India, you’re so well-spoken!”), or just blundering into a stereotype (“Well, the student’s Chinese, so he’s probably under a lot of pressure at home to do well in school”).

Granted, in every example above, Fred should absolutely know better. There are much more subtle cases, usually with way lower stakes, but of course the lower the stakes, the more likely we are to acknowledge that we may have misstepped. Like the popular scenario in which cis folks will argue over the pronouns of a trans person, but fall over themselves to apologize if they accidentally misgender someone’s dog.

What Fred Should Do:
Another situation best resolved with a quick but sincere apology, along with a mental note to avoid such things in the future.

What Fred Probably Does:
All right, nobody likes being caught off-guard, especially in those situations where you genuinely thought you were being nice or showing interest. Realizing that you ruffled some feathers is one thing; realizing you did so by saying something you might frequently say and that, to you, seems totally innocuous? Such moments don’t just throw that one moment into relief. They go through the entire history of similar moments and dig out every possible occasion where similar things might have been thought but not said.

That is a process someone like Fred maybe can’t handle too well, so he retreats into his defensive self. He gaslights the offended party by, as above, making them the problem. It was, after all, a perfectly innocent thing to say or do. Anyone would have, in his place. He says “that’s ridiculous.” He paints the other party as a miserable, hyper-sensitive snowflake who can’t handle the real world. He laments how people these days can’t do anything without someone being offended.

And meanwhile the person on the receiving end of all this is just like…I don’t want to go around all the time feeling hurt, insulted, or uncomfortable. What makes you think I want this any more than you do?

And it’s hard being that person, too, because often you face a lot of societal pressure to let it go. Take the service dog thing, for example. You’ve got a cute little kid coming up to pet your dog, and the parent should be doing something but isn’t, and when you gently tell the kid not to touch someone else’s dog without asking (especially a service dog), the parent goes off on you. You’re made to look like you’re overreacting and being unnecessarily mean to a child who just wants to pet your doggy, and meanwhile you’re just trying to go to work.

Scenario #3: Finding Out About the Window Later On
A.K.A. “You never told me before, how was I supposed to know?” “She didn’t mention it at the time so it can’t be that big a deal.”

This time, Dougie and Stevie didn’t actually hear the window break. The ball went flying out of reach somewhere they couldn’t get to it, so they did something else, and they went home. Old Man Donald himself would have gone out there and told the boys off, but he had to take care of the broken glass, and by the time he had dealt enough with the symptom to go out and deal with the cause, he was tired, and decided it wouldn’t be worth it.

As such, the boys didn’t find out what they’d done until quite some time had passed and they were playing again, and this time, knowing what had happened before, out came Old Man Donald to chase them off, knowing the risks of them playing ball that close to the house. Of course, unless they asked the question, neither boy would ever really know why the old man didn’t want them there.

(As I said: torturing metaphors is jolly good fun.)

This scenario is what happens when, for whatever reason, the person we’ve harmed by our words our actions doesn’t tell us, at least not right away. In Fred’s case, he made a drunken joke about his, er…buddy’s girlfriend’s weight. Poked her in the belly or something to that effect. Perhaps she was uncomfortable, but not wanting to rock the boat, she just laughed it off at the time, only for it to come out in tears on the ride home.

So Fred maybe doesn’t even hear about it from her. Maybe he hears it from his buddy, who had to witness the aftermath. Or maybe he doesn’t even hear about it at all, until one day he realizes that his buddy has been distant for a while and asks what’s going on. That’s when he finds out that those jokes and jabs didn’t land as well as he thought they did.

It would of course be ideal that people communicate when these things happen, but there are many legitimate reasons they don’t. Maybe they feel threatened. Maybe they think it’ll just ruin the night. Or maybe they’re second-guessing themselves, deciding that maybe it wasn’t that big a deal, yet still unconsciously stewing in their hurt feelings.

But regardless of what the injured party did or didn’t do, we come back to the fact that the window was still broken. It certainly sucks that Fred didn’t know or realize that fact, but the incident is really defined by what happened when he found out.

What Fred Should Do:
What someone does with their own hurt feelings is their own business, and if Fred decides after this that he wants to re-evaluate the friendship, then so be it. But in the moment, all he should be doing is apologizing – no strings attached.

What Fred Probably Does:
What’s really interesting to me in these situations is how much stock the offending party puts into what is “fair.” In this example, Fred considers it unfair that his buddy’s girlfriend felt that way and never said anything, and so he also thinks it’s unfair that he should have to apologize at all, given that he wasn’t given the chance at the time.

Of course, what he’s missing in his calculations is that it wasn’t “fair” for his buddy’s girlfriend to have to hear Fred’s jokes about her weight, nor to have her physical boundaries broken. There are lots of things, indeed, that aren’t “fair” when we get right down to it. Fred’s hunt for fairness might not pan out the way he wants it to, is my point.

Scenario #4: Breaking More than Just The Window
A.K.A. “I didn’t know [deeply personal information] so it’s not my fault.” “You should be over it by now.” “Grow a thicker skin.”

In this scenario, Dougie and Stevie didn’t just break the window. In fact, things would have been a lot better if it were just the broken window. Unfortunately, the baseball sailed across the room to the mantle, smashing the urn containing the ashes of Old Man Donald’s late wife. Windows, see, they can be replaced. It’s a huge pain and often costly, but it’s still more of an irritation or inconvenience.

But something like that urn? Different story. That’s not a physical blow; it’s a deeply emotional one. So when Old Man Donald comes out in an absolute fit of rage and grief, it looks to the boys to be completely disproportionate to the offense. It isn’t until later, when someone explains the situation to them, that they really understand just what kind of damage they did.

Now I’m going to admit here: I’ve been guilty of this one. Or rather, I’ve been guilty of breaking the window. When I was younger, I used to make “Your Mom” jokes. Not a lot, but I wasn’t a stranger to them. Once, during a party with some friends, I made a “Your Mom” joke, and everyone around me suddenly went quiet. It was one of those moments where you know right away you’ve Done Something. As it turned out, there was someone in the room whose mom had just died earlier that year. To say that the joke didn’t land well with him…well, that would be an understatement.

I haven’t told a “Your Mom” joke since, because the important lesson I learned was that you never really know what’s going on in someone’s life, head, or heart. But I do believe that everyone is fundamentally capable of this, and you don’t have to be a bad person for accidents like this to happen. Knowing where to draw the line helps; telling those kinds of jokes in the first place was something I needed to grow out of. But when we do stumble upon these moments, the real test happens afterward.

What Fred Should Do:
So I guess this is less Fred and more Me, but what I did was apologize profusely and feel like a sack of crap, and as I said, change my behaviour for the better going forward. You may find this to be a recurring theme in these “Fred Should” sections.

What Fred Probably Does:
Some of these moments are so horrifying that we don’t even know how to process how badly we just stepped in it, but some of them are pretty forgivable if we just own up and move on. Now Fred, let’s say he had a pair of friends who’d been trying for a baby, and he was badgering them for an update, only to find out that there was a miscarriage. This is one of those situations that is unfortunate, but that one could potentially move on from.

The thing is, Fred doesn’t quite figure out that he shouldn’t have been pushing this question in the first place. Instead, reaching desperately for a way to not blame himself for the turd he just stepped in, he decides that he never would have been so insistent if he had already known about the miscarriage, and so he manages to make it their fault for not telling him about it – never mind that he isn’t entitled to that kind of private information from anyone.

Imagining that Fred were in my place at that party those years ago, Fred is the kind of person that would make the joke, hear the news, and then double down by saying “you should be over that by now.” He’d convince himself it wasn’t his problem, that the whole “Your Mom” thing is perfectly innocent and no big deal, and that anyone who’d really be offended by that clearly needs to work out their own issues.

He’d probably also be down a friend by that point. Possibly several.

Scenario #5: The Neighbour who Doesn’t Mind
A.K.A. “My black friend said it’s fine.” “Jerry’s gay and he says it all the time.”

Everyone has that one neighbour, don’t they? The one who manages to ruin it for everyone else?

So Dougie and Stevie break the window, but when Old Man Donald comes outside, they tell him “we’ve broken lots of Mr. Pence’s windows and he never got mad.” And it’s true, of course. In fact, Donald asks the neighbour Pence about it, who just shrugs, grins and says “boys will be boys. I don’t mind about the windows.”

Meanwhile, Dougie and Stevie realize they have made a mistake. Just because Mr. Pence didn’t seem to mind too much, it doesn’t mean the same for Old Man Donald, because Old Man Donald minds. Old Man Donald minds very much.

Let’s make it clear: no group exists as a hive mind. No one member of any community can speak for everyone in it, and within any community, there are going to be different boundaries. This is particularly true for marginalized groups, a fact which has caused no shortage of controversy. Black kids at school, for example, have been known to give their white friends “N-word passes” (which personally, I find problematic to no end, but that’s just me).

But, well, we know Fred. He doesn’t understand the nuance of a group having some say in the use of charged, targeted language, and he has a gay friend who uses “gay” as an insult quite a bit. So when he inevitably uses that word around the wrong person and they get huffy, his natural response is: “well, so-and-so does it and he’s gay.”

Thing is, of course, that Fred isn’t gay. It’s a word that’s never been used to oppress him, or anyone like him. He hasn’t quite put together that just because one gay guy isn’t offended by it, the same may not apply to every other gay guy (or not-guy) he meets.

What Fred Should Do:
He should stoppit, of course.

What Fred Probably Does:
He doubles down. He goes on a rant about how words are just words, about freedom of speech, about how he isn’t actually talking about gay people when he says it – all that good stuff. But the crux of his argument, the piece he sees as his trump card, is that one gay friend of his who thinks it’s no big deal. And if that’s what he thinks, then that’s all the justification Fred needs.

All of that is naturally missing the point in a big way, because typically, if you’re a good person, you don’t go out of your way to offend people. Being sensitive to someone’s boundaries isn’t a violation of his free speech; it’s being a good person.

(By the way, to anyone reading this who happens to be named Fred, I’m sorry. This isn’t about you. I’m sure you’re perfectly nice.)

Scenario #6: The Owner of the House is Too Nice About It
A.K.A. “Oh, I did that thing again, didn’t I? It’s so hard to remember!” “You should have been clearer.” “I didn’t think it was that big a deal.”

Up above it was the neighbour who was probably a little too lenient about the broken windows, but what happens when Old Man Donald himself doesn’t make a big enough deal about it? Dougie and Stevie regularly play baseball out there, and they seem to send the ball sailing through a window fairly often.

Old Man Donald, however, is conflicted. They’re just boys, they’re just playing, there aren’t too many places in the neighbourhood where they can play, and after all…they’re only windows. He worries that if he pushes things further to get them to stop, he’d be the bad guy, because after all, they’re not being broken on purpose.

Of course, when Old Man Donald’s daughter comes to visit and there are broken windows every time, she reminds her father that while the boys aren’t breaking the windows on purpose, they aren’t doing enough to avoid it, either – and they might, if the old man would do a little more to make them take responsibility.

However, if we take the story at face value, we’re literally victim-blaming. Old Man Donald is the one with the broken windows, and making sure they aren’t broken by flying baseballs shouldn’t be his job. The onus is on Dougie and Stevie to change their behaviour, because they know they are repeatedly doing something wrong, and that’s not okay. But they’ve made the mistake of thinking that just because the old man isn’t getting them into trouble, it must not be that big a deal.

The reality is that sometimes we just don’t feel comfortable setting those boundaries with people. Sometimes we don’t even realize that setting boundaries is even allowed. Fred’s my roommate and he keeps eating my yogurt cups and it bothers me? Well, it’s not that big a deal, and I don’t like conflict, so maybe I’ll just label them, or leave a note, or I could just buy more so we both have enough to share.

But the thing is, I shouldn’t have to tell Fred not to take my damn yogurt. It’s my yogurt and I paid for it and he didn’t ask me, he just went and took it. I’m not the problem here; Fred is the problem. And every time I don’t deal with it, the resentment and annoyance fester and bubble until one day, as Fred’s on his way out with another one of my yogurt cups, I totally explode and yell “dangit, Fred, buy your own gosh darn yogurt!!”

Except I’m maybe not that polite.

What Fred Should Do:
Fred really shouldn’t be taken aback, because the guy’s been stealing from me forever without so much as a few bucks payback, so the next step would be to apologize, to stoppit, and maybe throw in an offer to buy my yogurt for a while.

What Fred Probably Does:
In the world of Fred, if I had a problem with his stealing, I’d have said something about it before I got so angry. How dare I yell at him since I never said anything before? And even if I point out that I left notes, I labelled things, I moved the yogurt to my side of the fridge, he’s going to say “well, it’s only yogurt, it’s not a big deal.”

Again, the guy simply can’t accept that he’s been ticking me off for this long, so he makes it my fault that I let it go on – even though anyone with a brain could figure out that it was a habit he shouldn’t have gotten into in the first place.

Scenario #7: Being Mad at the Owner of the House
A.K.A. “I don’t care, he deserved it.” “I’m not gonna go out of my way for her after she [did thing].” “I won’t apologize to him until he apologizes to me.”

In this version of the story, Dougie and Stevie are holding a bit of a grudge against Old Man Donald. Could be lots of reasons why – maybe someone stole his newspaper and he accused them without proof. But whatever the reason, the boys aren’t fond of him.

So this time, when they break the window…they still weren’t trying to do it, but neither of them is overly broken up themselves about it. The thing is, even if the old man wasn’t fair to the boys about that newspaper, does he deserve to have his windows broken? Does that make anything better?

What this example represents is how petty we can be, which goes back to the whole notion of “fair” and “unfair.” Maybe it’s about getting even; maybe it’s just a matter of personality. There are no shortage of reasons why two people might not like one another, even just for that particular moment in time. But expressions like “two wrongs don’t make a right” and “an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind” exist for a reason, and are very applicable in situations like this one. And there’s often a fine line here between the damage we did versus the damage we meant to do, and when we cross that line, in our own pride, we convince ourselves that it was justified.

So let’s say Fred is in an argument with his girlfriend about who’s supposed to vacuum. It’s the kind of stupid argument that blows up into a bigger one for reasons that have nothing to do with the vacuum (I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about). It gets more and more heated, nobody’s giving up any ground, and then out of nowhere Fred says something like “stuff like this is why your ex treated you the way he did.”

That would be a horrendous thing to say under any circumstances, but it’s far worse if we add to the mix that Fred’s girlfriend’s previous relationship was very abusive, and that it took her a long time to open up about that fact at all. Fred’s words definitely end the argument, but only because there’s no coming back to something as mundane as vacuuming afterwards. Even he has the self-awareness, right when the barb leaves his mouth, that he’s gone too far.

What Fred Should Do:
Okay, I admit it, I went with a bit of an intense example. This is kind of a broken stained glass window sort of situation. But still, Fred should be apologizing out of every orifice he has, learning to be a better partner, and hoping beyond hope that his girlfriend has low enough self-esteem to stay with him after something like this. Most of us, I imagine, would be hoping for the opposite.

What Fred Probably Does:
This is all about pride, same as any argument like this that goes overboard and stays overboard. He’s blundered into thinking that he has to “win” – as if he’s in some sort of competition with his girlfriend, when the healthier reality would be to team up against the problem.

At this point, then, he’s not even really thinking about how to make things better. He’s thinking about how to win, or more to the point, how not to lose, and he sees an apology as “weakening” his position – pushing him closer to losing. So he digs in his heels. He says to himself (and anyone who will listen) that he’ll apologize when she apologizes first. He’ll rationalize that she brought it on herself.

But he doesn’t realize that what he said about his girlfriend’s ex is so far removed from the problem that it’s not even in the same league. He doesn’t understand how to have an argument without losing his respect for the person he’s arguing with, even if it’s someone he supposedly loves or cares about.

Sadly, there are too many people who have the same problem he does.

Scenario #9: Breaking a Promise Not to Damage Any More Windows
A.K.A. “I thought you were over it.” “It’s hard for me, you have to be patient.” “I’m not comfortable doing that yet.”

This one pretty much explains itself. The kids have broken the window before, and last time it happened, they promised it wouldn’t happen again. But they’re still playing ball in the same place they were before, and sure enough, another ball sails through another window one day. So, out he goes, Old Man Donald, to remind Dougie and Stevie about their promise to break no more windows, only to be met with excuses. “We don’t have anywhere else to play.” “I can’t help which way the ball goes after I hit it.” “If we change direction we might break someone else’s windows.”

Even if the boys had owned up to it, even if they’d said “sorry” and pooled their allowance a second time to replace the window, the fact remains that they didn’t learn their lesson from the previous occasion. They didn’t make any meaningful changes – and that would be the sign of a true intent to learn from their mistakes.

This one hits close to home for me, because as someone with terrible impulse control and an over-reliance on muscle memory, I have been this person, and I have done it repeatedly enough to pretty much be Fred, and that sucks. So this one ain’t gonna be about Fred – I’m just gonna put myself in it, here.

I consider myself an ally where trans rights are concerned. As such, I absolutely understand the importance of getting someone’s pronouns right. However, I have not always lived up to that where my own friends were concerned. I won’t go into specifics, obviously, because anyone who’s been on the receiving end of this is entitled to their privacy and I’m not about to make a spectacle of my well-deserved comeuppance, but suffice it to say that I repeatedly misgendered a friend, and it happened so often, and for so long (we’re talking more than a year), that I came damn close to losing that friend as a result – and the worst part was, I barely even realized how bad things were, and how often it was happening.

And I mean, this was a friend I’ve known for years. Granted, maybe that made the adjustment a little more difficult, but frankly, that’s no excuse. In fact, that makes it worse: they shouldn’t have had to all but leave the friendship behind out of sheer despairing futility before I deigned to consider their feelings. In short (as they accurately put it when I talked to them about this post), “years of history doesn’t eliminate onus, you donut.”

I could give excuses for why it got so bad, but the truth is, I was a donut. And those excuses would be as hollow as my own empty centre, no matter how tasty and appetizing the remainder of the pastry.

I should just…stop, with the metaphors.

What I Should Have Done
The mental readjustment needed when a friend’s pronouns change does not always come easily, but that doesn’t put it on them to change us. If I was having trouble rewiring my brain, it was on me to practice, to keep it in the front of my mind, and if I screwed up, to catch myself. My job was to take responsibility for that journey, and actively remove it from the list of things my friend had to worry about.

What I Did:
I can thankfully say that I did not do anything up in the AKAs on this one. Those are lines trans folk hear too often, because people will tell them how it’s often inconvenient or feels weird to make those changes themselves, and it makes their experience more comfortable if they can, say, ease into it. Or wait until they’re ready. I didn’t woe-is-me, I didn’t make it my friend’s fault, I didn’t whine about things feeling uncomfortable.

But I also didn’t change. I placated myself by thinking “I’ll get it eventually,” and “these things take time,” without actually taking in that there had been time, and I didn’t get it. It became something that would theoretically work itself out. Spoiler alert: not so much.

I write this well aware that I’m still mending the fences (and with the permission of the friend in question), and I’ve got faith that we’ll rebuild, but I also know that the lack of trust was something I created. The one thing I’m hopefully doing right is learning from the experience.

Scenario #8: Overdoing the Apology for Breaking The Window
A.K.A. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I’m such an idiot, I can’t believe I did that, you must completely hate me, I’m really trying so hard…etc…”

Okay, now let’s take a look at the polar opposite of that last scenario. Imagine being Old Man Donald, coming out of the house after the baseball goes through the window, and finding two boys who are an absolute miserable, heaving, sobbing mess. Turns out Mom was nearby and saw what happened, and she’s presently ripping a verbal strip off the pair. Mom sees the old man coming, and she’s beside herself apologizing. She says she’s so sorry for the damage to the window, and she really tries her best, but it’s just so hard with Dougie and Stevie, and so on, and so on.

Now, Old Man Donald isn’t heartless. Of course he does his best to reassure her that it isn’t the end of the world. Except…nowhere in this outpouring of emotion is there any mention of paying for the window.

See, the over-apology has a number of effects that aren’t actually productive. One is to create the appearance of accepting responsibility without actually solving the problem. Another is to put a giant, uncomfortable spotlight on the victim and blow everything way out of proportion. The offended party probably just wants to deal with it, move on, and think about something else, and the offender isn’t helping any of that along. In fact, just the opposite: the offender is turning themselves into a victim.

Fred, for example, has a bad habit of making little comments about the appearance of his female friends in a way that makes them uncomfortable. One of these friends eventually got through to him that she doesn’t like it, and as in the example above, the planets aligned in such a way that Fred promised to stop using them around her. Only her, mind you, and that’s another issue, but we’ll get to that by and by.

However (again, as above) he slips up one day at a party and mentions how good her butt looks in those jeans. She gives him a look, sending him a quiet signal to remind him of what he’s doing, and when he sees it, he’s totally beside himself. But let’s be clear: he’s not beside himself because he’s overstepped a boundary and his friend’s feelings are hurt. He’s beside himself because he let himself down, which is an important distinction to make. He thinks he should be better than what he did. He feels all this pressure and doesn’t know what to do with it. He becomes immediately fearful and insecure over the possibility that the friendship might be ruined – in other words, he’s upset by the consequences his comment might have had for himself. Not her.

What Fred Should Do:
Aside from just not doing the thing, Fred should acknowledge his fault, briefly apologize, and talk about something else. And then he should not do the thing. And maybe he should consider thinking beyond that one friend and not doing the thing in general.

What Fred Probably Does:
“I’m so sorry, I’m such an idiot, I really didn’t mean to, it’s just a really hard habit to break and you look really good tonight so I couldn’t help myself–” on, and on, and on. Heck, half an hour later he’s still saying things like “sorry about before” when he sees her.

So now, her entire evening is about this. She tried to send the message without making a scene, but the scene got made anyway, magnifying the issue. Now, something that made her uncomfortable for a moment is perpetually making her uncomfortable as people – those who disagree and those who agree – are sharing their own opinions. And she knows, in the back of her mind, that he’s probably going to slip up and do it again, because he isn’t consciously solving the problem or changing his behaviour. He’s just making his guilt her problem.

Scenario #10: People Constantly Breaking the Windows
A.K.A. “Wow, it isn’t that big of a deal.” “You should take it as a compliment.” “I don’t know why she overreacted like that.”

If you’ve been reading all the examples so far — well, first of all, kudos. This turned into a much, much longer book than I’d planned. But second, you may be wondering to yourself about the rest of the neighbourhood baseball enthusiasts and why Dougie and Stevie seem to be the only ones running afoul of Old Man Donald.

Well, wonder no longer. In this scenario, like, everyone breaks his windows. Lucy breaks his windows. Mikey breaks his windows. It’s like the whole darn neighbourhood is conspiring to break his windows. So when Dougie and Stevie, in what we can only assume is a community right of passage, are finally the ones to break a window, Old Man Donald absolutely loses his mind. He comes outside and hollers at them for ten minutes without breathing. The boys – along with some of the neighbours witnessing the spectacle – are totally taken aback. I mean yeah, the broken window sucks, but surely it doesn’t suck this much.

But the thing is, nobody else’s windows get broken as much as those of Old Man Donald. Heck, some people in the neighbourhood have never had their windows broken, so they have no idea how much time, money, and effort it takes to replace them all the time, they’re not constantly bandaging little cuts from the broken glass — in short, they think they’re seeing a huge overreaction.

You see this a lot with micro-aggressions – little things that are problematic (sometimes massively) but seem to an outsider like they aren’t a big deal. Like when women get random comments from NiceGuys™ on the street. Someone who never or rarely experiences this might not mind, or be too bothered. But someone who gets it all the time stands a good chance of telling the NiceGuy™ to shove it, since his unsolicited comment is the 85th one that day. And then, again, she’s “overreacting.”

Or in Fred’s case, he’s got this new gay coworker. Fred doesn’t consider himself homophobic (because of course he doesn’t), but when he meets this colleague and finds out he’s gay, he can’t resist making a big joke of saying “well, now I know who not to stand next to in the bathroom!” The guy gives a little chuckle, tells Fred not to worry, and they go on with their day.

And the next day, Fred has a lovely meeting with HR, where he finds out he’s facing disciplinary action for making comments that constitute sexual harassment and homophobia.

What Fred Should Do:
Take his lumps and stop being such a homophobic idiot, maybe?

What Fred Probably Does:
Oh, he loses his mind. After all, this was just a light-hearted barb, a joke – the guy laughed, for Pete’s sake! If he had a problem with it, he should have said something or dealt with it directly, not gone squealing to HR!

Except of course if the coworker had mentioned it, Fred would have gotten defensive and started gaslighting, as is the way these things usually go, and the coworker knew it. He’s sick of dealing with crap like this, so he decides right away to nip it in the bud.

(Actually the most likely scenario is that the guy wouldn’t say anything and just take it on the chin, because he knows he’s more likely to make a lot of enemies and end up even less comfortable at his workplace if he makes a stink.)

But the point is, either way Fred has no idea why anything he said should be that much of a problem. Even if he does realize that it was inappropriate (not a safe bet), going to HR was completely unnecessary. This guy just wants to paint himself as a victim, thinks Fred.

Funny…people who think that way never seem to stop and wonder why anyone would want to do that when the alternative is just coming to work in peace.

Scenario #11: Breaking a Window On Purpose Because It’ll Get Broken Eventually
A.K.A. “I’m just being honest.” “I don’t sugarcoat things, I just speak my mind.” “You say I’m a b***h like it’s a bad thing.”

Yeah, I’m really stretching the metaphor here, but stay with me.

See, this time Dougie and Stevie are very aware that they might break windows where they’re playing, and they figure someone’s going to come along and break that window anyway, so they stop being careful. And when it inevitably happens, well, it’s Old Man Donald’s own fault for living so close to where people play baseball.

We all know someone like this. That person who doesn’t understand things like, y’know, tact. They use their own interpretation of “being honest” to excuse themselves for being a**holes. These are the kinds of people who will disguise an insult or disparaging comment as “brutal honesty” while telling themselves that they’re doing the person a favour, because eventually someone is going to say it.

Fred is very much the type – we saw that in Scenario #7 – but he’ll do it even when he’s not in the middle of a heated argument. Sometimes he’ll do it on purpose, or sometimes he figures out that a comment he made didn’t land the way he wanted it to. A buddy asks what Fred thinks of his haircut, and Fred goes “I think it looks kind of ugly and makes your ears look too big.” His (new) girlfriend suggests ordering pizza tonight, and he says “I don’t know, you should watch your weight.”

Eventually (probably frequently) someone’s going to call him out on this, but Fred tells himself that it’s worse to “sugarcoat’ things, and isn’t it always better to tell the truth than to lie? Because again: Fred’s a black-and-white thinker, and if he doesn’t say exactly what’s on his mind, in exactly the same words, then it means he’s lying.

That’s what he tells himself. He knows better, obviously, but rationalizing is a lot easier than being an actual good person.

What Fred Should Do:
Fred should apologize and acknowledge that his words caused hurt feelings. After that, he should learn the difference between “honesty” and being a royal toolbag.

What Fred Probably Does:
Fred throws his hands up in the air and says “hey, I was just being honest. Would you rather I lie to you?” and completely misses the point. In fact, he probably misses the point intentionally, because he knows that what he’s saying is rude and insensitive. He’s just convinced himself that as long as he’s being honest, it’s okay to hurt some feelings. And if people can’t handle it, that’s their problem.

People like Fred carve it out as part of their identity. They become proud of being a**holes, and they give themselves carte blanche to say whatever comes to mind, because if someone in his life can’t handle it, then they aren’t worth his time anyway.

I’m not saying that this condition is incurable. It probably is, but I’m not saying it.

So anyway, in conclusion…

This list got…long. Really long. It took me days to write, and it’s ridiculous. I know.

I actually had more. Like people who break windows while trying to prevent other people from breaking them. Or–

Look, nevermind. If I don’t stop now, I never will.

But the point is, as much as I’ve exaggerated Fred’s tendency to do, say, and think every wrong thing possible, it’s much easier to make any of the mistakes on this list than we want to let ourselves believe, and the next time it happens to us, we’re all going to be thrown for a loop.

But there’s value in saying you’re sorry. There’s value in accepting responsibility, even if the damage you caused was an accident. All of us need to learn that in one way or another, because it’s how we learn and become better people, not just for the sake of the people we might mistakenly harm, but for the ones after that, and for our own selves.

Anyway. Like I said, it’s a trend I see that bugs me. Next time you see it, maybe you can tell the baseball-through-the-window story instead of me.

Grades Are Stupid

You know, I really wanted to come up with a better title than that. “Grades are stupid.” It’s way too on the nose; there’s no subtlety or mystique about it, and there’s no way to tease it out and make someone looking at it go “hmm, I wonder where that handsome, charismatic devil is going with that provocative, interesting, alluring title.”

(I’m sure that happens a lot with my other writings, otherwise I just wouldn’t sleep at night.)

But no, there’s really no coming back from being quite so blunt, and while I’m not really setting out to ruffle feathers (well…not just to do that, anyway), I know that my perspective on the issue may not be shared by all of my colleagues, not to mention legions of other parents and educators.

I always get thinking about this when I’m writing Report Cards, though. Sit me down and ask me about your kid, and I could talk for ages about what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard, what they’ve shown me. I could describe things I’ve seen them do well, I can explain what challenges they seem to have. And I can do that in the comments, to a point…but at the end of the day, I’m expected to boil that nuanced, productive conversation into a number. Somehow.

And I do. And every time I do it, I think to myself: man, grades are stupid.

The weird thing is that every single time someone disagrees with me on this point, I’m surprised. I shouldn’t be, by now, but I am anyway. I’ll attribute some of that to me being incurably obstinate, insufferable, and smug – but not all of it. Some part of me must be able to recognize that there are awesome, intelligent, talented people who disagree with me here, and there’s a very real cognitive dissonance I experience when I try to puzzle that one out.

It goes, rather arrogantly, like this: how can this genuinely brilliant person I respect possibly believe that grades are a good thing?

I mean, (1) a grade doesn’t tell us anything we can learn from.

It’s not that I’m ignoring the other side of the coin, here. I understand the arguments. There is value in the efficiency and directness of grades. Many of us are programmed with the unquenchable desire to score ourselves, to be able to know exactly where we rank on what. It’s tangible, practical, easy to understand. If you got 7 out of 10 points on a math test, you know exactly where you are. There’s no muddiness and complexity to it, no layers, no qualifiers. You got seven questions right, and there were ten questions. Cold hard facts, ma’am. Tells me everything I need to know.

Students really should be able to dock marks from their teachers for misleading titles. (Credit: WikiHow)

Except…how true is that, really?

Let’s pretend that test was written by an actual student – say, oh, Steve. Does that number tell Steve everything he needs to know? Or his teacher? Or his parent? In fact, this all begs the question: what do we learn from looking at this?

Let’s break it down. Here’s what we do know:

Is it just me, or does that list seem a little anemic? Actually, we aren’t done yet. Being good critical thinkers, we use this data to come to our own conclusions:

So that’s a little better, I suppose.

But wait! We’re answering the wrong question here, aren’t we? All that information came from looking at the test, not the grade on it. I think we need to revise the list somewhat. Here’s what we know just from looking at the grade:

Welp.

I guess what I’m saying is, at the end of the day, what is that number even there for? Even on a test — which is, in my opinion, already a very limited way of finding out what a kid knows — it adds absolutely nothing of value to the information we take away. And that value only decreases when we shift to the more “traditional” grading schemes.

Which brings me to how (2) grades are unnecessarily confusing and unclear.

Let me tell you, as a teacher, the battle with students and families over what constitutes this grade over that grade, and why that grade isn’t this grade instead, is endless. And it is exhausting, because everyone has a different idea of what grades actually represent, and sometimes, what even qualifies as “success” in the first place.

The example above uses a straight-up score out of ten, but you won’t see that on a report card. Depending on the age of a student (at least in Ontario), you might see a percentage, or a letter grade, or even a completely separate numerical “level.” Here’s a chart, because why not.

FractionPercentageLetter GradeNumerical Level
80-100 / 10080-100%A- / A / A+Level 4- / 4 / 4+
70-79 / 10070-79%B- / B / B+Level 3- / 3 / 3+
60-69 / 10060-69%C- / C / C+Level 2- / 2 / 2+
50-59 / 10050-59%D- / D / D+Level 1- / 1 / 1+
There are more, but they only make less sense.

So many questions. Why does the “A” or “Level 4” spectrum cover double the percentages of any other grade? What is the precise point a C becomes a C+? Why do we look at anything under 50% and go “welp, nothing to see here” as if understanding half of the concept is basically the same as understanding none of it at all? Why oh why do we even bother to have a Level 1-4 if kids are just going to end up with percentages or letter grades on the Report Card?!

These things confuse me, and I’m an educator. I’m the one who’s supposed to be able to explain this crap to everyone else.

But it gets worse, because as I said, what the school system legally considers “successful” and what a family or a student considers “successful” can be wildly different. Here’s something that might blow your mind a little:

If you did everything you’re expected to do, that means you earned a “B.”

Shocking, right? B means you did it, good for you, you demonstrated that you have a reliable understanding of what we’re doing and that you can follow instructions. B means “Successful.” But tell that to half the students and families I’ve worked with over the years and they’ll look at you like you have three heads.

Maybe it has something to do with the way American schools see it:

FractionPercentageLetter Grade
90-100 / 10090-100%A- / A / A+
80-89 / 10080-89%B- / B / B+
70-79 / 10070-79%C- / C / C+
60-69 / 10060-69%D- / D / D+
These are…not realistic standards.

In fact, here’s a fun/scary meme I found a few years ago that illustrates the point very nicely:

Yikes, much?

I realize this is a joke, but it’s one of those jokes that is rooted in truth. So you’ll have to forgive how uncomfortable I am at how many times I have parents call me, when I give their kid a B on something, to ask “what is she doing wrong? Why is she missing marks?” She’s not, lady. She’s doing everything I’m asking her to do. But guess what? Simply checking the things off the list is not what makes you stand out. Following the instructions doesn’t make someone exceptional.

But that’s the entire crux of the problem: to these people (and to so many of us), an “A” doesn’t mean “Exceptional.” Or, more worryingly, we convince ourselves that success means being exceptional at everything.

This creates a system in which (3) kids are taught that the only way to succeed is to be practically perfect.

It’s remarkable to me how afraid students are of making mistakes, but there is absolutely nothing more to blame than this particularly horrific aspect of the way we teach. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but teachers don’t expect kids to get perfect scores on tests (at least, sane teachers don’t). There’s a reason that getting 100% on a test represents an A: because it’s more than we expect.

This message doesn’t get through very well through grades, because when there is a “better” level, a “higher” score, we convince ourselves that not getting that higher score means we failed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had kids in my classes actually burst into tears when they see an 84 on their report card. I can’t, because it’s happened that many times.

This is barbaric.

We’re no longer invested in our learning at that point. We’re far more invested in our own doubts and insecurities. And so to avoid that outcome, kids will avoid all kinds of strategies that would help them learn and improve: they don’t ask for help, they don’t take risks, they don’t attempt things when they don’t think they’ll succeed on the first try – you name it.

In fact, the most arduous battles I ever have in the classroom aren’t with the ones who typically struggle at school, but rather the ones who are used to getting an A on everything, and hunt that A like a predator. And why? Because, amazingly, they don’t listen to the instructions. They convince themselves that I’m playing some kind of game with them, that I won’t actually tell or show them how to succeed, that they’re supposed to do something else, do more, whatever. And then they shoot themselves in the foot, give me something I almost can’t mark because it’s not demonstrating the skills I’m looking for, and then I’m the bad guy when I tell them they screwed it up.

But this perfectionism is partly a symptom of another issue: (4) grades force students into competition.

Now, I’m not the type to say that all competition is bad. It can be a healthy experience from which to grow. But the thing is, in order to be competing with someone else, there has to be a “winner” at the end, and that means there has to be a “loser.” Or many “losers.”

LEARNING SHOULD NOT BE A #$%@ING COMPETITION.

Seriously, for Pete’s sake, how do you “win” at freaking learning?! Everyone learns every freaking day!

Of course, I don’t believe this effect was necessarily intentional in the very origins of our system, from the factory model that intended to process kids through rote learning and skills in order to spit them out into the workforce to be productive members of society. Regardless, though, it’s what we’re stuck with, and it prevents students from celebrating their own achievements (or squaring off against their challenges) because they’re too busy comparing themselves to everyone else.

The ease with which I managed to find this little comic bothers me.
(Credit: http://gc2000.rutgers.edu/PEACE/index.htm)

And that isn’t the only way education is competitive, not by a long shot. (Note that I said “education” there, not “learning.” They are very different.) For example: post-secondary education. Limited availability, lots of applicants, gotta have the big marks to hit that cutoff and, y’know, have access to more education.

If you couldn’t tell, I have no small amount of disdain for what I just had to write.

But what really gets my goat is that we always use phrases like “preparing kids for the real world” as a way of justifying these awful hoops we make them jump through, and I, for one, have no idea where that idiotic platitude intersects the practice of grading at all.

You wanna know what I need in order to get a job? Skills, a resume, good references, and a successful interview. Maybe I also need a degree in something or qualifications in such-and-such, but I either have that, or I don’t. My employer doesn’t look at my transcripts and go “oh, gee, well, you only got a 68 in your third-year production course.”

So why should universities be allowed to place so much emphasis on the specific numbers these kids have when they leave high school? Why isn’t applying for university the same as applying for a job? We lose valuable, dedicated, amazing young people every year, people who would bring unique talents and skills to the table, because they didn’t get the “numbers.”

@#$% the numbers. They’re the main reason (5) a kid’s first attempt is the only one that gets to count.

And this, of course, is done in the interest of “fairness” (barf) to the other kids. If Jimmy gets a lousy mark on that test, welp, too bad! You’ll have to try harder on the next one. Alison’s project was missing something that screwed the whole thing up? Gee, well, you really should have read the instructions more closely, honey.

Not all teachers do this crap, but frankly, I am unapologetically judgemental of those who do.

Because it’s nonsense. How does that saying go? “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?” How can we possibly be sending kids that message if they never get a second chance? It’s ridiculous. Jimmy could learn from the mistakes he made on that test, give the content another try, and do better next time. Alison learns a valuable lesson in making sure to read the instructions and criteria carefully, but if she puts in the work, she can fix what’s missing and give the teacher what they want. Just because we give kids the chance to learn from and adapt to failure doesn’t mean we’re depriving them of the lessons we learn from screwing up.

But no, we can’t do that, or it wouldn’t be fair would it?

@#$% fair.

This idea of strictly-equal-opportunity “fairness” in the school system is artificially-imposed crap, entirely dependent on the competitive nature of grades. The only reason it isn’t “fair” for Jimmy to get a second shot at that test is because Susie over there worked hard and earned a better mark the first time. It has nothing to do with helping Jimmy learn, or building Jimmy’s confidence in an area that’s difficult for him. It’s about keeping everyone happy as they run toward the stupid finish line.

And even on the occasions where we do get things like “re-tests” or students can take another shot, there’s a good chance they’ll be penalized on their final mark because they had to do it again. Or because it was late. Or some other incredibly arbitrary reason that comes down to absolutely nothing but pettiness and power plays. If Jimmy knows his stuff, if Alison understands the material, those are the only things that should matter, not the “fairness” of the grade they get for it.

Oh, and another thing. (6) Students don’t even control the grades they get.

I bet that one’s gonna squeeze a bit of lemon juice on someone’s paper cut, but come on. The student certainly contributes the effort and the work that earns them the grade, but the grade itself? That is up to the fickle whims of whichever adult they happen to be stuck with for the duration.

And it’s not like we haven’t seen this be a problem before. Got a teacher or professor who doesn’t like you? Welp. Might suck to be you. We all like to think we’re more professional than that, but teachers are no less loaded with bias than anyone else with a working brain and a backstory. In fact, the Peel Board is currently sitting in uncomfortably hot water because of the frankly embarrassing levels of anti-black bias (let’s call it what it is: racism) institutionally pervading the whole darn system.

And let me tell you, it is easy to manipulate what goes on in a classroom to benefit one type of student over another. It’s so easy, we do it without realizing we’re doing it. We love all our students, and yet we’re pretty darn good at creating mechanisms for them to fail – and many times, we believe we’re doing it in the interest of “fairness.”

Well, y’know what’s not fair? How (7) kids end up permanently labelled by their grade – by themselves, and by their teachers.

It could only be less subtle if we literally tattooed it on their foreheads.

Everyone reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about. There are a whole lot of ways we like to spin it, a variety of euphemisms we use to disguise it, but we see it all the time. That’s an “A” student, and that’s a “C” student. She’s “high,” he’s “low.” And studies that I’m far too lazy to go and find right now have repeatedly told us that once a student is slotted into the category they’re in, it’s danged impossible for them to find their way out – especially when their teachers buy into this bull@#$%.

It comes back to bias. If I’ve decided in my head that Billy over there is a “C” student, I’m going to be subconsciously looking for the flaws in his work to be consistent with the label I’ve attached to him, but if I’ve decided that Shelley is an “A” student, I’m going to be excusing a whole lot of those same flaws in the pursuit of justifying my judgement. And we don’t do this on purpose (usually). It’s beyond our conscious decision-making process. If we’re really good at what we do, we can catch it, but that takes practice and is a heck of a lot harder when everyone else around you is parroting the kid’s label whenever he comes up in conversation.

But that’s me, a professional. What happens when a kid decides they agree with the label? What happens when Billy figures out he’s a “C student”? I’ll tell you what happens: he stops trying. He decides he’s never going to go further, so he doesn’t bother to make the effort – even though, with the right help and guidance, he could definitely improve.

And when Shelley decides she’s an “A student”? She keeps doing her excellent work, but gets used to the idea that her way is the best way. This makes her more difficult to work with, makes her reluctant to take any risk that might screw things up, and makes the entirety of her identity and self-worth revolve around getting that “A” and maintaining that status.

Because ultimately, (8) grades make us focus on what we failed at.

It’s an uncomfortable trend I’ve noticed, really, that kids don’t celebrate their successes – at least, not as much as I’d like them to. When they see they didn’t get the grade they were expecting (or hoping for), they don’t stop to think about the things they did right. They instantly zero in on the things they did wrong.

This makes Billy the “C student” from above even more of a difficult case, because when improvement is judged on a sliding scale based on a defined “top” and “bottom,” “best” and “worst,” moving along that scale doesn’t feel like it counts at all. Going from a C to a B? Now that’s something! But going from a C- to a C…well, you tried, dear.

And I hate that, because another thing we know about self-improvement is that it doesn’t happen in huge steps. It’s a slow and consistent process, changing and improving little things at a time. With a grading scale, though, we completely forget that part and decide that the only moves worth making are the big ones. Even parents buy into it. I have to encourage families all the time to celebrate the little steps forward, because otherwise they just…don’t. It’s not an A or a B, so why are we celebrating? We don’t see the movement we made along the line, we just see the huge gap left between where we are and the end point.

Not to mention (9) learning shouldn’t have an “end point” in the first place.

Let me flip back to Shelley the “A student” for a second and ask a question. If you’re at the top of the stairs, are you going to keep climbing? No, of course not; there aren’t any more stairs for you to climb. Or, if there are, you’ve already gotten to the floor you wanted, so there’s no point. So for Shelley, having reached the top already, she’s not looking for ways to grow or improve. All she’s worried about is staying at the top of those stairs.

But if learning is a staircase, there is no top. Learning is a lifelong process. Learning is the Penrose Steps.

Could not have found a more perfect image if I tried. Really. I think I’ve peaked.
(Credit: shutterstock.com)

This is another part of what makes grades so dangerous: they limit our capacity for growth and improvement to a limited, narrow set of “expectations” to be fulfilled, so rather than thinking “what can I do?” students are instead stuck on “what am I supposed to do?”

And teachers fall into this trap as well. We look at a test with a perfect score, a project that got an A+, and we don’t put any energy into giving those kids feedback that will help them grow as learners. We just give them a hearty “Well done!” and send them on their way to their next inevitable success. The result, after years of this pattern: adults who are so convinced of their talent and superiority that they have no idea how to learn from their mistakes, and learn some really nasty lessons the hard way when they encounter their first real taste of failure.

And we see this everywhere. Heck, we see it in educators all the time, because for a group of people who are supposed to love learning, we are remarkably resistant to change, and we are very, very threatened by perceived criticisms of our work. We cling to tradition for tradition’s sake because it’s the way we’re supposed to do things, and we don’t question those traditions because that might force us to re-examine the way we’ve been operating for who-knows-how-long.

It’s a shame, because (10) being exceptional at everything is unrealistic.

The whole notion of a “Straight-A Student” is mind-boggling to me, and I’ve shared my opinion of the Honour Roll already on this blog. To me, it all comes down to the strange idea that kids have to be good at everything, which is completely antithetical to how things work beyond school.

For one thing, everyone has weaknesses. Everyone. And the way we condition our kids (and ourselves), those weaknesses are something to be ashamed of. They’re not challenges to be faced, they’re embarrassments to be hidden or avoided. This is not healthy. We need to acknowledge those things we struggle with so that we can overcome them, compensate for them, or seek support. It’s the only way we grow as people.

The other side of that coin is that everyone has strengths. We all have talents, skills, things that come naturally to us, and there is nothing wrong with developing those capabilities further than we would pursue skills that don’t come to us as easily. A kid that’s passionate about science should have the freedom to be passionate about science without having to worry that he’s only got a B- in English.

And that’s another thing: what’s wrong with being average, for Pete’s sake? If I hate doing something, but I’m good enough at it to get by, why should I be destroying myself to reach further than that? If I have enough skills to navigate whatever path lies ahead of me after my academic life, isn’t that enough?

Honestly, “average” should be re-branded as “successful,” because that word “average” is just another way of comparing kids to one another to determine where the bar is set, and if we’re going to do that, why have a curriculum at all? Why have a standardized set of expectations if we’re not going to celebrate successfully achieving them?

Speaking of skills, what really kills me as a middle school teacher is that (11) the skills that get grades aren’t the important ones.

Anyone familiar with Ontario K-8 education will know about the Learning Skills area of the report card. It’s the section at the front where we write an evaluation of a kid’s non-subject-specific skills, using yet another grading system for some utterly baffling reason:

GradeStands For
EExcellent
GGood
SSatisfactory
NNeeds Improvement
Honestly, if we have to use grades, these would irk me a whole lot less.

The skills on this page include Responsibility, Organization, Collaboration, Independent Work, Initiative, and Self-Regulation. Y’know…skills that are universally essential and helpful as an adult.

But despite that we technically grade these skills, and the detailed comments on them are the first thing one sees when looking at a report card, these are not skills that any part of the system takes seriously. Kids and families breeze past them (unless there’s an N or maybe an S), teachers are held much less accountable for them in terms of evidence. There are exceptions, obviously, but by and large they don’t carry the same weight as the “proper” grades further on.

I hate that, because Learning Skills is the section I take the most time and effort to complete. I consider my assessment of those six skills to be the most valuable and actionable items on the entire Report Card, by far. And I am mystified when anyone disagrees with me, because these are skills that not only apply to every single academic subject we force kids to learn, but also to every other aspect of their lives.

Imagine, for a moment, if we just didn’t use grades at all, if the only quantifiable way for a family to determine their kid’s success was by reading what the teacher had to say. Learning skills would become so much more valuable and important, because everyone involved would make the connection that developing the learning skills is the most effective pathway to success anywhere else.

But unfortunately, comments don’t get that kind of attention, because (12) once kids see the grade, nothing else matters and the learning stops.

Their families, too. The minute there’s a number or a letter or a this-out-of-that, most folks decide they’ve seen all they need to see. Teachers write feedback for kids all the time, and sometimes it’s seen and taken in, but those occasions are far outnumbered by those in which the grade is all that matters.

This is a massive, pervasive problem, because accepting and making use of feedback is an absolutely crucial skill. Kids need to learn how to set goals and next steps, and follow through. They need to be able to reflect on what they’ve already done, so they can learn from mistakes and avoid repeating them.

But I’ve honestly lost count of the number of times a perfectly bright, capable student won’t do that. Back when I still attached grades to things, I’d give a student a nice, detailed comment about what I liked and what we could do differently next time, and maybe they’d read it once, but when the time came to do something else and they had the opportunity to actually apply the suggestions I gave them, they didn’t even remember I’d said it in the first place.

And even if they do take in the feedback – or better yet, if they come looking for it and ask, dollars to doughnuts the question is going to be “what can I do to improve my mark?” See, the grade is the end point. Not personal growth, not a goal, not the pursuit of learning, but the grade.

Which might be just as well, because (13) when there are grades to be given, teachers don’t always put in the effort to give detailed feedback, either.

Between curriculum expectations and the hovering Axe of Damocles that is the mark we have to put down, providing meaningful feedback, especially in the subject comments of a Report Card, gets shuffled to the back burner.

It’s not like we don’t care. Ask most teachers about any one of their students, and we can rattle off a whole bunch of strengths, challenges, observations – the works. That’s a lot easier and more compelling to do, however, if we know that on the other side, someone is really listening. And if nobody’s paying any real attention to the comments, it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Why work yourself to the bone writing paragraphs that nobody’s going to bother caring about?

Of course, there are families and kids who do read them, but we come across another stumbling block: because the grade is sitting right there, whatever is in our feedback has to somehow justify it. We can’t simply describe what a kid can or cannot do; we have to set the kid in their place on the scale, because we know we will be scrutinized and held accountable if what we’ve written doesn’t somehow explain why the grade looks the way it does.

So, we churn them out in a manner that exposes us to as little risk as possible. Subject comments are, let’s be honest, a joke, nothing more than a vanilla-bean overview of things we’ve been doing in that subject, with maybe a milquetoast next step to satisfy the higher-ups. We get generic Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4 comments ready to feed into the system, neatly assigning them to each kid in much the same way the letter or number grade slots them into their appropriate box. I do it, too.

So we are then left with a whole lot of suck with very little of meaning to pull from it. As I said above, we get the most license to be authentic and honest from what we put into the Learning Skills section, but also as I said above, that’s because nobody cares. In the same breath with which we tell teachers that feedback is crucial to a student’s growth, we slap them down by devaluing that very feedback for the sake of a numerical quantifier.

Sigh.

As I said, I wanted to put together a better title for this piece, but at the end of the day, it’s just that simple. Grades are stupid. Breath-takingly, mind-numbingly stupid.

The thing is, as critical as I have been in this piece of kids, families, my colleagues, and the school system at large, I have extraordinary faith in all of those entities. I have huge faith in the power of education. And I come at this topic so angry for the same reason I get frustrated with kids who make the same gosh-darn mistake over and over again: because we are better than this. We are better than the system we have created and that we so desperately cling to. We are better than the structures that evolved at a time when we knew next to nothing about how learning really happens. We can be better.

And lots of us already are. My own (former) principal, presumably on behalf of the school board, encouraged us not to assign grades or marks to things unless it’s on the report card. Kids and families are adapting in great, positive ways, and are asking the right questions. Educators are showing courage and humility, throwing themselves into uncharted waters and boldly challenging the stereotypes that accompany the educational status quo. Things are changing.

I want them to change more. I want learning to be the goal. I want kids to be prepared for the world, yes, but I want us to remember that they are already part of the world. I want them to be prepared for real life, but this is their real life. Let’s stop making them fight for the top spot. Let’s stop rewarding the low-risk high-reward approach that causes kids to stagnate and hold themselves back from expressing their true potential.

Grades are stupid. Let’s do better.

Can I talk about middle school for a second?

Hi. Sorry. Don’t mind me.

I just realized…I talk about this all the time, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually written about it, and that’s bugging me. And I seem to be on a bit of a writing kick lately, so what the heck.

This is exactly what I look like right now. Exactly.

Here’s the thing: you know how everyone has that thing, the one they tell people about and know going in that the first response they’ll get is sympathy? Like the second you finish the sentence, they’ll get that sad-puppy look on their face and say something like “Oh, my goodness” or “I’m so sorry” or “Are you okay?”

In my life, I’ve had precisely two things like that. One of them is that I’m adopted, although that honestly doesn’t happen as much these days…I think the world has finally figured out that you can be adopted without being an orphan.

The other thing? That I’m a middle school teacher.

It’s inevitable. I tell someone I teach middle school, and they immediately do that sympathy wince, like when you’re describing that time you stepped on a thumbtack. And then the next thing out of their mouths is always something like “that must be so hard.” Or “you must go through a lot of wine.” Or my personal favourite, “you’re a better person than I am, those kids are a**holes.”

(That last one was a direct quote, by the way.)

And every time this happens, I find myself running around the same well-beaten track in my head, and the words on the starting banner are: Why does everyone think we’re so miserable?

I mean, I know why. It’s hard not to know why, because there are so many reasons. For one thing, everyone in my social circle seems to have hated their middle school years, so any talk of those years is planting them right back in their own personal hell. For another, the stereotype of selfish, entitled young teenagers is a relentless trope that just won’t go away, no matter how hard we try to slap it down.

It grinds my gears the most when the question comes from other teachers (high school or kindergarten, take your pick!), because of all people, you’d hope other educators would understand how kids of any age can be equal parts awesome and terrible in different ways, but no. Tell them what grade you teach and they’ll make that I-just-stepped-in-dog-doo face and go “oh, I could never teach middle school,” in that gossipy, inside-jokey voice, as if they’re expecting you to go “yeah, me neither, haha, it’s terrible.”

No, please, go on. Tell me more about how much I secretly hate my job.

I think, in those cases, it happens because middle school is less relatable. Younger kids are cute and older kids are practically adults (ha, ha, as if) but folks see middle schoolers as the worst of both worlds: young enough to be annoying but old enough to have an attitude. And, I mean…not that there isn’t some truth to that, but it’s like saying all cats are affectionless a-holes because they aren’t as unapologetically happy-go-lucky as dogs.

Yes, I’m a cat person. Don’t change the subject.

Coming back to the point, among the remaining possible answers to the question of why people look at middle school as some kind of paid purgatory, I end up coming to the natural, unpalatable conclusion: there might actually be more middle school teachers, compared to other grade levels, who do hate it.

I don’t actually think it’s that simple, though. I don’t think middle school gets a bad rap simply because it’s harder. All teaching is hard, if it’s done right. It’s tough, exhausting, stressful, and uncomfortably political. That’s not unique to middle school, and let’s be honest: I wouldn’t last a month trying to teach Grade 2.

So what is it then? Why, even among teachers, does middle school get so much flak? Honestly, I think the uncomfortable truth of the matter is pretty simple.

Middle school makes teachers feel vulnerable.

Think about it. Teachers, as a group, run the gamut in terms of personality, strengths, and weaknesses, but there are some details most of us have in common.

First, we were probably good students ourselves.

This hardly seems like a groundbreaking point; if you finish school willing to turn around and go right back in for the rest of your career, you probably enjoyed it on some level. Maybe you’re an academic, and you just enjoy learning and watching those A’s roll in. Maybe it was your teachers, and the positive impact they had on your life. Maybe you weren’t even a “good” student at all, but there was something about school that made a difference for you.

Whatever the case, most teachers were successful in school as students (they had to be, in order to get into obnoxiously competitive teacher’s college programs). We grew up knowing the answers, and so we like problems that are easy to solve. If there’s a problem, this is the answer. If there’s a mistake, this is how you correct it. We don’t like complicated, messy problems without direct, practical solutions.

On top of that, though, I think when we’re successful in school, we’re biased. We believe the system works, because it worked well for us, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This means we have a harder time empathizing with the people who were less successful, because if we made it through and did well, so could anyone. We don’t see the flaws in the system as easily – mostly because we don’t want to.

(Incidentally, this is exactly how something like white privilege works.)

So, having done well, graduated, and then become teachers ourselves, we end up doing the same things our teachers did. We propagate the same methods and traditions without stopping to examine them. Why do we have students write tests and do homework? Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. The result is a group of professionals that are hesitant to challenge the status quo, because the status quo has always seemed to work. That’ll be important in a minute.

Second, teaching tends to attract control freaks.

If that offends you, honestly, good. And if you’re a teacher and not a control freak, also good!

I should point out, though, that I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism. In fact, given the amount of organization and planning required to do well as a teacher (not to mention the challenges of managing kids’ behaviour), being able to take control is a valuable, sometimes necessary trait.

For better or for worse, most teachers are at their best when things are predictable. We lay our plans, we deliver our lessons, we do what we need to do, and we have to function this way in order to survive. Teaching comes with so many endless lists of things to do and manage, so many consecutive things to think about, that we have to organize that chaos into something we can control.

I swear, the first thought of 90% of the teachers who saw this scene in The Little Prince was “I want one of those.”

The thing is, though, that possessing too much of this quality can bring issues of its own. On the one hand, you have a teacher who’s a control freak because they need it. They can’t handle the stress of spontaneity, fall apart when things don’t go as expected, and have difficulty when students are struggling to understand.

On the other, you have a teacher who’s a control freak because they want it. These are the ones who always dreamed of being called Mr. or Mrs. Lastname and enjoy the power and authority that come with the job. This leads to power struggles with students, petty and spiteful choices, and the constant need to be right.

Those, of course, are the outliers. Most of the time, teachers are people who just kind of like to have things a certain way, and that is very relatable.

Third, teachers tend to carry a lot of love for kids.

Again, no surprises here (teachers love kids? SHOCKER), but stay with me. Granted, teachers don’t always connect well with all of their kids, but to survive in this job (and, y’know, actually do it well) you need to be the kind of person that is capable of bonding and building relationships with kids or teens. So it’s kind of a natural fit: we work our butts off in our work because we actually give a crap.

And that can be the issue, too, because what happens when you really care about someone? When they don’t treat you the way you want them to, it hurts. You take it personally. And the thing about a classroom full of kids is that they don’t see the kind of work we put in. They don’t even always see how the things we’re doing for them are actually for them at all. So if a teacher can’t take a step back and look at things objectively, a kid acting out of line becomes a personal attack. You fall into the trap of thinking “they wouldn’t do that if they liked or respected me.” Or, worse: “they wouldn’t do that if they were a good kid.”

Because that’s how teachers like this one survive. They can’t be objective enough to examine their own methods, or consider what else might be going on with that kid at that time, so they protect themselves by labelling the kid. You see this all the time, and not just for this reason. He’s a bad kid. She’s a C student. You name it, it’s been said. And then – because teachers talk – that label gets stuck to that kid so strongly that they spend the rest of their academic career struggling under the weight of it.

Mind you, most teachers are amazing, fantastic people, and you don’t need to be an awful teacher to be averse to middle school. So let’s imagine our hypothetical case study: a teacher who was likely a successful student, probably has some control freak tendencies, and on top of that, cares deeply about their kids.

You might be able to see how this is a perfect storm in middle school.

See, my argument isn’t that middle school is more difficult. It’s that the ways in which middle school is difficult are a perfect match for many teachers’ insecurities. The nature of the challenge is what makes it so threatening. It’s like…teacher Kryptonite.

But without the glowing green stuff. Unless you count highlighters. Probably not, though.

The funny part is, though, that for some teachers (like myself and the majority of my colleagues), that challenge – the Kryptonite, as it were – is what we enjoy most about what we’re doing. The stuff that turns a lot of professionals off the job are the parts that make it fun.

So what are those parts? Well, we’ve all heard most of them before, but let’s look at it through the lens of our hypothetical teacher, whom we’ll call Mrs. Doe.

First, middle schoolers are a hormonal mess. Everyone knows that, and I can’t even argue: it’s true. They are at the age where they’re figuring out how to be people, and at the same time their physical bodies are undergoing chemical changes that affect every aspect of their behaviour, one way or another.

At the same time, the world is getting less black-and-white. The innocent filter of good and bad on the old ethical compass is getting more layered, fuzzy, and grey. They begin to deal with more adult, complex challenges in their social and personal lives, but don’t yet have the maturity or life experience to know how.

That means middle school problems are messy. Friendships are born and broken, change becomes uncomfortable, and emotions run high. Situations that seem like no big deal to us as adults (because we have the benefit of knowing about the much bigger deals down the road) seem like the literal end of the world to the kids.

So our Mrs. Doe, who’s a good student and much better at dealing with problems that have straightforward, understandable solutions, is caught off-guard. She has prided herself on knowing the answers, but in this case there aren’t any, and that makes her vulnerable. How can she be respected by the kids, or herself, if she gets this one wrong?

The next thing everyone knows about middle schoolers is their famous attitude. More accurately, middle schoolers are at an age where they are learning that they are allowed to have an opinion that is different from the adults in their lives. They have their own likes and dislikes, their own beliefs, and are beginning to figure out who they are.

So, they’re flexing these newfound muscles. They question what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They want answers that wouldn’t even occur to most younger kids. They try out their growing sense of humour, and test you to see what they’ll get away with. Their social lives become more important, so their schoolwork is suddenly competing for their time.

Enter Mrs. Doe, who is, as we have established, a bit of a control freak. She loves it when the younger kids look up to her, hang on her words, and do what they’re expected to do with a cheerful “yes Mrs. Doe.” It makes them happy to see her happy, and things proceed according to plan.

(Yes, I’m well aware this isn’t how it always – or even often – goes in primary, but stay with me.)

Now she’s surrounded by these big kids, putting on the teacher mask, and realizing that being “in control” may not be as straightforward as she wants it to be. Maybe she can’t pick her battles, and she ends up being very strict, because of the frequency of things she sees as “misbehaviour.” She sees it as disrespectful for students to question her choices. Maybe she doesn’t know how to answer when she’s asked: “why are we doing this?”

Regardless, it can be very easy in middle school to be drawn into a struggle for power, where your opponent is your own student and you find yourself trying to “win.” For many of us – adults in general, not just teachers – the hardest thing in the world to do is to decide not to play. When you’re faced with that on a daily basis, it can be exhausting. Surviving it requires you to have a sense of humour about yourself, be willing to be wrong, and make some tough decisions about when to just…let go.

And that kind of feeds right into the final quality I mentioned above: our good Mrs. Doe really cares. She loves her kids, even when she hates them. She wants to see them blossom, and most of the time, she’ll be rewarded.

But what she may not be prepared for is that as kids age out of the phase of their lives where adults are respected simply because they’re older (and sometimes wiser), as we’ve already established, kids grow more distant. Working with younger kids, you’re enveloped by the omnipresent sense that you are needed and wanted. In middle school, you see this change.

Make no mistake: as much as they may deny it, middle schoolers still need you. In some ways, they need you a lot more than they would have when they were younger, as their lives and challenges grow more complex, and the consequences are greater. But that need takes on a different form, one you sometimes have to dig around a little to see, and sometimes you don’t get the payoff of seeing that smile and hearing them say “thank you.” Sometimes they trust you enough to walk in your door, sit you down, and say “I need to talk to you about something.” Other times, the best you can hope for are those little moments, like when you ask them how their soccer tryout went, or gently help them answer a question they’re stuck on, and you catch the little grin, or hear the words of gratitude.

It’s an entirely different world in some ways. And it’s hard. I would never shame a teacher who couldn’t handle the world of middle school at all, because first of all I wouldn’t last a week in kindergarten, but more importantly, every one of us functions in our own way.

Seriously though, kindergarten…nope. Never.

As I said, I love middle school. I love how honest they are. I love their sense of humour, and I love the pity-laughs and groans I get when I tell an awful joke. I love helping them navigate complex emotional problems, even when they seem petty or trivial. I love getting that split-second moment with a kid who’s been driving me up the wall, where you catch their eye and genuinely know that you reached them, if only in that instant.

Most of all, I love that I get to be myself, and in the end, I think that’s when any teacher is at their best. Some of us are at our most authentic when we’re corralling a group of six-year-olds for a singalong, others when they’re leading detailed, complex discussions of literature in a room full of university-bound Grade 12 scholars. Me…I think it’s when I’m talking to my kids, sharing with them, and seeing the look on their faces as they understand that I see them not just as “children,” but as people, sometimes for the very first time.

Like I said, it’s not for everyone. Middle school lives up, in many ways, to the reputation it gets. But to me, it’s a magical, transformative, dramatic, hormonal, utterly chaotic rollercoaster ride that I wouldn’t miss for the world.

The Cost Of “Efficiency” In Education

I was listening to the radio today and there was a discussion about the economy that caught my attention.

This was strange, because under normal circumstances, I’m unlikely to be found listening to the radio in the first place, economics make my head hurt, and my attention wanders like a fruit fly in the world’s most badly-maintained kitchen.

Nonetheless, catch me it did. I don’t know the names of the host or the guest (my brain was doing its fruit fly thing when the program started) but the bit of the conversation I picked up on focused on two words: efficiency and resilience. The discussion was about the kinds of inequalities that happen if we create systems in our society that are too efficient, because those systems make us less resilient.

And if you’re anything like me, that last sentence was about as clear as mud.

On the bright side, this has always been one of my favourite meme images and I love that I have an excuse to use it. Bless you, Nick Young.

But never fear; the guest went on to explain what he meant in a way relevant to our modern day – that is to say, hospitals during the pandemic.

For example, nurses. Hospitals are staffed with as few nurses as possible, to minimize the number of nurses who spend time on the clock with nothing to do. The same is true for PPE: hospitals only store the amount that is needed, so that excess supplies are not sitting there, taking up space, unused. These practices are in place to increase efficiency.

Still with me? Good.

So, the problem is that with too much efficiency, the system lacks resilience – which is the ability to withstand high levels of stress. When Covid hit, hospitals were suddenly flooded with high numbers of patients, and those “efficient” numbers of nurses and stocks of PPE suddenly weren’t enough. The system had to struggle in the face of unexpected pressure.

(The guest on the radio was using American hospitals to demonstrate this point, but I imagine the example isn’t super off-base up here in Ontario, either.)

The lesson I took from what I heard was that we shouldn’t sacrifice resilience for the sake of efficiency – rather, strike a balance between the two that isn’t wasteful, but still allows us to handle unexpectedly high pressure. In the case of hospitals, this would mean having a few more nurses and more PPE in storage, because even though there might be a little more time and money spent on resources that are not constantly in use, we would be ready in the event that they were needed.

If I’m being honest, this seems like common sense to me, but then again, I’m not a politician. And either way, you’d have to be very foolish indeed to prioritize saving money over maintaining the quality of care in our hospitals.

Whoops.

But that’s beside the point. What struck me was how these ideas fit into education (and no, I’m not going to make the predictable point about underfunded and overcrowded schools due to budget cuts, as relevant as it would be). Those two words – efficiency and resilience – are concepts we deal with frequently as educators, although we’re usually using different language for it.

For example: the curriculum. We have a curriculum that is absolutely packed with content, jammed with specific expectations, multiple strands, massive amounts of detail, and high expectations, all of which we are expected to complete within a year. As a result, teachers have to maximize every minute of every day, carefully planning out how much time will be spent on a particular task, unit, or strand, just to be certain that everything gets covered by the end of the year.

This, to me, is an example of high efficiency. Ensure that, due to the overflowing content and high expectations, no classroom time is spent on things that are unproductive. Distribute and maximize the resources so as to minimize waste.

Fair enough, but my question is: how resilient is that system?

If we follow the lead of the hospital example, to figure out how resilient a system is, we have to look at what the system needs under high pressure, and whether it has enough. In hospitals, it was nurses and PPE. In our curriculum example, the answer is time.

This point is very relevant right now, with the disruptions to the usual school routine. The effects of re-opening under the shadow of Covid are rippling across the province in many forms: delayed starting dates, frequent staffing and enrolment changes, additional safety measures and procedures, multiple system-wide reorganizations — to say nothing of designing an entirely new online model of schooling from basically scratch. It’s safe to say that, just like everything else right now, the school system is under unprecedented levels of pressure.

The test of our resilience is happening now. And just to show you what I remember from Grade 10 Science class, we’re going to run this little hypothetical thought exercise like a legit classroom experiment. I even went and found a worksheet! Look:

If this is traumatic for anyone else, I’m eager to know.

Granted, this is going to be just about the least scientific experiment in the history of science – because let’s face it, science may not be my strong suit – but nonetheless we’re gonna give it the ol’ yeoman’s try. I even came up with a name for it: Curriculum Learning Efficiency And Resilience.

But to save time, we’ll just use the acronym. And we’ll do it without a trace of irony.

The C.L.E.A.R. Test

According to our template above, we should first establish our purpose. If we want to find out whether our system’s efficiency is balanced with its resilience, we need to establish whether, under duress, there is enough of the key commodity in demand to successfully produce the same results as any typical year. Since that commodity is time, we’ll do this:

Next, our Materials, and we really do have a lot to work with here. How depressing. Let’s just go ahead and fill them in.

Phew. Quite a list. Fortunately for all of us, I already promised that this wouldn’t be an entire post dedicated to lambasting the present state of schools. The real question is whether the system is designed in such a way that we can accomplish the same objectives despite the dumpster fire.

Now for our Hypothesis. Will there be enough time to cover the curriculum this year, given the high stress on the system?

…What? Too concise? I’ll be honest, that isn’t usually a problem for me.

But all right, fair enough. That was kinda cheating. I’ll be a good role model here and articulate things properly.

Because let’s be real…even without a lot of research to back us here, well, we can do the math. Under ordinary circumstances, a school year consists of ten months – or 40 weeks – of daily instruction. From this, we already subtract roughly four weeks of holiday time (winter and March breaks, Easter, Victoria Day, Thanksgiving), another week or so’s worth of professional development days, and…let’s say a week in the event of inclement weather (bus cancellations included). So now we’re down to about 35 weeks. For the time being we’ll assume no impact from teacher illness, or other extenuating circumstances.

However, even time spent in school doesn’t always “count.” The first week pretty much doesn’t count, as everyone adjusts to new routines; and at least two weeks of June, if we go by content that actually ends up used for assessment, doesn’t really count either; report cards require time to be edited, printed, copied, and distributed. At the secondary level there’s even less, considering first and second-term exams.

So for the sake of argument, we’ll say that we’re now down to about 32 usable weeks of instructional time. That’s 20% gone, right out of the gate, and we haven’t even started, nor have we factored in time lost to assemblies, school events, emergencies, or other unscheduled gaps here or there.

Under these timelines, teachers already (usually) come down to the wire. If you doubt this, ask any teacher how they feel when their classes in the Spring are unexpectedly interrupted. But we manage. Everything gets covered that needs to.

Although…does it, really?

Consider this: when we plan, we can’t take into account what our students are going to struggle with, or what obstacles will face them, because we have no way of knowing. When something does come up, we have two choices. Either we plough on ahead, meaning the struggling kids fall behind, or else we spend longer on a unit, task, or concept than we had planned, and that eats into that precious, scarce resource: time.

On top of that, maybe the kids aren’t struggling. Maybe they’re into it. Maybe they’re engaged and curious. The tight timelines also have the unfortunate side effect that when kids unexpectedly engage with something we didn’t think they would, we have to shut it down and bring them back to the plan.

Think about that. Kids are eager, curious, and doing something meaningful, and instead of jumping on board and exploring with them, we have to tell them to stop. How is that education?

So, all of that, before Covid. I don’t think it’ll take a huge leap of logic to fill in the blanks, here. Given our starting point, I can really only think of one appropriate way to sum up our Procedure:

All of this brings us to an important question: if our time was already in higher demand than we could account for, can’t we already conclude that our resilience is pretty low? Are we not already in an unbalanced state?

In that case, what happens to the rest of the experiment?

And that’s kind of my point. We have evolved as a society to be more efficient, in many ways, than we ever were, and the school system is not immune to that change. Technology alone has completely transformed the pace at which we can deliver instruction, and has made it possible under circumstances that would have been inconceivable even ten or twenty years ago – heck, we can do it completely online now. Badly, yes, but we can.

But that, in essence, is exactly the problem: we have leveraged the gift of “efficiency” in our school system in all the wrong ways. We know a lot more about teaching and learning than we used to, but on a fundamental level, our methods haven’t changed at all. When technology allowed teachers and students to do the work more quickly, we just added more work. Instead of using the time that we had gained to meaningfully transform our system and maximize–or even transform–the learning and growth of our kids, we gave that opportunity up in the name of efficiency. We even chopped off the fifth year of secondary school, forcing kids to do the same amount of work in only 80% of the time.

In brief: we do not have a resilient system, and we don’t really need to finish the experiment to understand why.

Mind you, I’ve only used one example – the curriculum – to demonstrate my point. Education is littered with more, and my perspective is pretty much that our stubborn adherence to sacrificing everything in the name of efficiency is doing everyone a disservice.

At the end of the day, though, the real question is that of fixing it. How do we re-invent an institution as resistant to change as education? Where do we find the time to deconstruct education when every minute is already in demand? The cake of our society has already been in the oven too long to separate its ingredients; how can we change a system when that system is so inextricably tied to so many others, all of whom relentlessly pursue the unattainable (and, frankly, irresponsible) goal of maximum efficiency?

I have no idea.

Back-to-School In Ontario: A Snarky Limerick

Foreword: Last week I got sick of feeling upset and angry at the schooling situation, and decided I’d rather laugh at the absurdity of it instead. This is what happened.

I originally wrote this on Twitter/Facebook, but I now feel that I want to preserve it here for posterity.

Anyway, here’s a snarky chronology of Ontario’s return to schools, in limerick.

I’m deeply sorry.

Take heed of this tale most upsetting,
But one we should not be forgetting,
Of kids and class sizes
Unwelcome surprises
And teacherfolk stressed to pants-wetting.

It began with a deadly disease
That brought the whole world to its knees.
It came out of the blue,
Cut the system in two,
Weaponizing an uncovered sneeze.

Then along came the noble Premier,
Who’d just finished, it must be made clear,
Gutting schools and their boards
To put money towards
Making rich people richer. (And beer.)

Said our Doug, in a stunning display
Of humility rarely at play:
“Since we must turn the tide,
Let the experts decide,
While I simply get out of the way.”

So we waded in waters uncharted
(Though the praise for poor Doug was half-hearted,
‘Cause it turns out the dunce
Also slashed health care funds;
We were fighting a fire that he’d started).

Though the summertime shutdown was galling,
Infection rates seemed to be falling.
So Doug said, “screw the rules.
Let’s reopen the schools!”
To which most replied, “well, that’s appalling.”

It became quite apparent that Ford
Spent too long on the bench and got bored.
With the novelty spent
Back to normal we went
While the expert advice went ignored.

“Safety first,” Lecce said. “We will strive
To keep kids and their teachers alive.”
Experts said, “hey, that’s keen.
Set class caps at fifteen.”
Lecce laughed and said “nah, twenty-five.”

“Surely not,” said the masses. “We hope
That with students online we can cope.
Will you get off the bleachers
And pay for more teachers?”
He thought for a bit, then said “Nope.”

So while school boards, amid the excuses,
Keen to free up their necks of their nooses,
All sat down and began
To come up with a plan
Ford and Lecce sat on their cabooses.

Thus, we come to the month of October
Ever swimming in anti-microber
As the staff do their best,
Overworked, scared, and stressed,
Trying somehow to stay sane (and sober).

But if you feel down in the dumps,
And you’re fed up with taking your lumps,
It still can’t be denied,
Ford and Lecce aside…
At least they’re still better than Trump.

“The Coolest F***** We Know”

(CW: This post contains a description of homophobic violence and language, which I am choosing not to censor. Please consider your own safety and wellbeing before reading.)

This morning, my principal called me up to tell me my portable was vandalized last night.

For context, I’m teaching online now – a whole kettle of fish in and of itself, and that’s a story for another day – but the portable I usually teach in, now used by other staff as somewhere to do their planning, has been my little home-away-from-home for the past four years. As such, the little box is known pretty well as Mr. Kyle’s Room™.

So my principal called me before the day started to give me the news. Someone had left spray-paint graffiti on the wall of my portable, which the staff were working diligently to remove before too many kids saw it. The message left by the culprit consisted of the following words:

“The coolest faggot we know.”

Now my principal, who can be an absolute mama bear when it comes to her staff, was overflowing with concern for my well-being. She chose her words with precision, spoke softly and gently, and listened carefully. I got the sense that she would have refused to hang up without making damn sure I was looked after, if she had any inkling that I wasn’t okay.

And you know, it’s funny…when that thought crossed my mind, the next one was: well, why wouldn’t I be okay?

That question has been on my mind all day. This graffiti was an act of homophobic violence, certainly. It was on my wall and it’s no secret to anyone at the school that I’m gay, so there can be no doubt that the message was directed squarely at me. By all accounts, I should be deeply and personally bothered by this act.

But I’m not.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I’m bothered on behalf of the custodial staff who had to deal with cleaning it up; I’m bothered on behalf of my admin and the challenge of dealing with vandalism in the havoc before the day began; and let’s be honest, the word ‘faggot’ is a violent word. I’m significantly bothered by the idea of a closeted kid who may have seen it, and certainly the members of staff who saw and were affected by it. Overall, now that I think about it, I’m very bothered…just not for myself.

I don’t think I’m building much suspense here, because I think it’s obvious where I’m going, but in the aftermath of this incident I’ve had a whole lot of people joining my principal in the outpouring of support, citing how awful an experience this must be for me, and how courageous I am for taking it in stride. And that’s kind of the thing: I don’t feel unsafe, I don’t feel threatened, and I’m not feeling angry on my own behalf.

I’m kind of feeling like I want that phrase on a t-shirt, really.

There are obvious reasons that I don’t work in graphic design, but you get the point.

I’m being a bit cavalier, I know. The phrase is enormously problematic on several levels – heck, if you don’t get why, try replacing the word ‘faggot’ with the N-word and you’ll see what I mean. And just for the record, ‘faggot’ is not on the list of words in my vernacular, no matter how powerful a reclaimed term can be, just because I generally find it distasteful.

But regardless, in a roundabout way, there’s a compliment here and I’m having a lot of trouble being properly offended on my own behalf.

I mean, think about it. I’m not just some faggot. I’m the coolest faggot. And given how many gays there are in mainstream media these days, I feel like I’ve ascended into some pretty enviable ranks. Adam Lambert? Elton John? Lil Nas X? Pft, move right over and make way for Kyle.

I defy you to find hair that is cooler or gayer than this.
(Toronto Pride, circa 2012)

Really though, what the phrase says about me is less interesting, at least as far as I’m concerned, than what it says about the person who wrote it. I can’t help imagining the psychology of the culprit, and wonder what kind of place they were coming from when they scrawled these words on my wall. Whoever it was could have just written ‘Faggot’ and stopped there, but they didn’t. For whatever reason, they didn’t. And the question I keep coming back to is why?

I have a few guesses, one or two logical leaps that aren’t difficult to make. I’m almost certain this was a former student (or students) of mine; that kind of directed message wouldn’t have come from a complete stranger, and you don’t call a teacher ‘cool’ unless you know them well enough to be sure.

If we accept that premise, the next logical conclusion is that whoever the kid was, they must not like me very much…but at the risk of sounding naïve, I’m not sure that’s true. Obviously they aren’t a fan of the gays, and they wanted that part to be loud and clear, but the stuff around the Big Bad Word is weirdly positive. Why would you put that kind of spin on a message for someone you hate?

I think the simplest answer is the most likely: the homophobia wasn’t the point. If anything, it’s a qualifier – kind of like how insecure straight guys will make an innocuous comment like, “nice shirt,” and then immediately follow it up with “no homo.”

So the culprit went into my class unapologetically homophobic, found out I was gay, and somehow – perhaps in spite of their best efforts – managed to like me anyway…?

I admit, even if it is a compliment, it’s a pretty damn backhanded one. But for the person who wrote it —

(For the sake of clarity, this anonymous graffitist needs a name, and in the spirit of stupid decisions made with, at best, questionable motives, I’ll go with Steve, in honour of our bungling Education Minister, or the former Prime Minister – let your conscience be your guide.)

— for Steve, it might have been the best he could do. Steve might be constitutionally incapable of actually changing his mind about gays in general, but if I managed to reach him, even a little, isn’t that better than nothing?

For the record, I’m not about to dismiss Steve’s actions here, regardless of his motives. His artwork affected – and could have affected – more people than just me, as it was no doubt intended to.

On a personal level, though, I remain conflicted. I’ve taught kids who I was never able to connect with because, upon learning I was gay, they never let down their guard. I’ve had kids I’ve never met call me homophobic slurs behind my back, occasionally upsetting my own students so much that they come to me about it in tears. Every year, despite my best efforts and owing only to that one piece of my identity, I meet a new Lost Cause and have to accept that there’s nothing else I can do.

And I’ve taught kids who have grown through me. I’ve had kids who, having gotten to know me, admitted they were wrong about people who are gay. I’ve had families call me, outraged that I would share such a personal detail of my life with my kids, and walk away from the conversation with new understanding. I’ve watched homophobic discomfort fade as the mutual trust and respect had room to grow.

But it’s somewhat rare to come across that in-between case: the ones like Steve, who can’t let go of their core belief in the fundamental wrongness of homosexuality, but simultaneously see someone in me that they like, and somehow manage to make the two conflicting sides coexist. Or, maybe more likely, he’s only homophobic because the rest of his friends are.

And having seen both better and worse, at least in Steve’s case there might be some hope down the road.

Anyway, like I said, I’m conflicted. A very smart colleague told me that I don’t need to be okay with this, and on a number of levels, I’m not. I don’t want to dismiss or excuse homophobic violence just because it could have been worse. I just…

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just an inherent flaw in who I am, but there’s still that little part of me privately celebrating that somehow, in some way, I was able to reach Steve.

Maybe the next faggot can take it from there.

Why the Back To School Debate is Completely Missing The Freakin’ Point

I’ve been seeing this conversation pop up frequently on Twitter, on Reddit, all over the place.

Granted, I often see it in the context of American schools, whose approach to distance learning was apparently very different from my school board, but it’s no less charged a topic up here. We had “Distance Learning” for three and a half months, and we’re all wondering what school will look like in September.

The way I’ve been seeing it, we’ve got people on one side…

We need to get the kids back to school!

It’s impossible for teachers to engage kids at a distance and keep them accountable for their participation online!

Distance learning isn’t enough, the kids aren’t motivated, nothing is getting done, and making sure the kids are keeping up and getting their work done is putting so much strain and pressure on families!

…and then we’ve got the other side…

It isn’t safe to send kids back to school!

Distance learning may not be perfect, but it’s the best we can do right now and it’s the safest option for everyone!

Our system needs to adjust the distance learning model to meet the needs of our community, so that everyone can meet the standards regarding curriculum, assessment, evaluation, and participation!

…and you know what? Both sides make sense. I can’t honestly tell you which side of the fence I fall on these days, whether it’s back to school, or distance learning, or some Frankenstein-esque hybrid of the two.

Most of the reason for my ambivalence here is that I’m frustrated about an ingredient of this equation that really isn’t being talked about. There’s a vital and important truth of the matter that nobody’s saying out loud, and I think it needs to be said.

When we go back in September, we can have a system that meets our educational standards, or a system that protects kids from Covid. 

We can’t have both.

Honestly, nothing will convince me otherwise, because the success of our system, as it currently exists, depends on a rough student-to-teacher ratio of thirty to one. This ripples out to a whole mess of organizational areas, including:

  • The number of kids per class
  • The number of teachers per school
  • The number of teachers hired to the Board
  • The maximum number of kids per school building in total
  • The number of administrative staff allocated to a school
  • The number of custodial staff allocated to a school
  • The level of funding a school board receives

…and so on, and so forth. Our entire system is flawed

(Cough) Excuse me. What I meant was that our system is broken

(Cough, cough) I’m so sorry. I don’t know where that came from.

What I’m saying is, we have constructed our system in such a way that it is impossible to thin out the numbers and still get every kid an equitable education. You could even argue that even without the need to reduce the number of kids in the room, it’s still not possible to truly give every kid their best chance.

Let’s not beat around the bush: this is a failure on our part as a society. Of the many things Covid-19 has demonstrated to us, one of the most vivid is just how much we rely on the school system to carry the excess load of a growing population, and support our ever-growing pull-up-yer-bootstraps capitalist workaholism.

And while I don’t want to get overly political about it, educators have been saying these things for years – and governments have been ignoring us to pray at the altar of the almighty budget dollar.

So, in short, we’ve made our bed. Now Covid-19 has come along and made it unequivocally clear that either we’re going to have to lie in that bed, or we’re gonna have to suck it up and buy a new one.

Screenshot_6
And good luck to anyone who wants to actually get any sleep.

So while we figure out the problem of the bed being too gosh-darn small for the number of kids we’re throwing on it, let’s talk about our current dilemma. What it comes down to, at the end of the day, is:

Something’s gotta give.

We are going to have to sacrifice something, possibly many somethings, when we hit the ground again in September. So while I let someone else continue the Back To School vs. Distance Learning debate, I’ve put together a list of possible ways we might address the challenge, and the main ingredient we would need to sacrifice in order to do it.

The Hybrid Option: Curriculum Content

If we imagine a hybrid model – where half the school is in one day, the other half the next day, and so on – we’re looking at essentially cutting the year in half, regardless of how much you intend to overwork the teachers (more on that later). There’s no two ways about it: kids are getting about half the time that they normally would in the classroom, under the consistent instruction of a single teacher for, at the very least, each subject.

If we accept that loss, it means deciding that there are some subject areas that just aren’t going to be covered. It means we prioritize: do we shift the focus away from the artistic subjects in favour of the core ones? Do we reduce the number of strands or expectations in every subject that we’re going to address?

Regardless, these are decisions that can’t be made willy-nilly. If we choose, as a system, to sacrifice some of the content we’re going to cover, then we have to do it with purpose. We have to go in with an understanding, and all of us educators have to be thoroughly in the loop.

The Distance Learning Option: Evaluation & Grades

This is among the necessary sacrifices we make when we move to a distance model, and I’m sorry in advance if you’re one of these people, but it drives me absolutely crazy when I see comments like these from otherwise amazing teachers (I’m paraphrasing):

Without being able to give grades or take attendance, we don’t have any method to keep kids accountable and ensure that they are completing the work. 

Now, mind you, I’m not debating the truth of this statement. I’m just saying I don’t care.

Honestly, I don’t. I mean, obviously I care about engaging my students and giving them my best, and supporting them through the material I’m offering, but if kids are not engaging, either because they can’t, or their families lack the resources, or their families aren’t applying the pressure, or there’s other extenuating circumstances…

Well, why is that a problem?

The thing is, we can’t equitably assess or evaluate at a distance, for the same reason we can’t grade a kid’s homework. First, we have no idea who did it. Second, some kids have a lot more support at home than others. And third, we aren’t witnessing the learning in action, which is what we’re supposed to be assessing.

I get frustrated with teachers who insist on stressing out about this, because to me, it’s missing the entire point of education itself. The reality is, kids and families have other needs. It’s thoroughly unfair for us to evaluate them – thus possibly influencing their entire educational path going forward – when we can’t even guarantee them a level playing field.

So if we go into Distance Learning, we as a system will have to agree that the evaluative side of schooling (arguably the least flipping useful side of schooling) can’t be a priority.

The Back-To-School Option: The Kids

So I’m being glib now, but we all recognize that this is reality. If we send all the kids back to school, aiming for regularly-sized classes on a regularly-arranged schedule, we are sentencing some kids to death.

We can have all the safety procedures and protocols in place that we want, but lest we forget: we are dealing with kids, here. Kids and their families. At the absolute best of times, we know – just from observing the chaos of parents dropping their kids off in the morning – that a big group of people isn’t always going to follow the rules. So let’s talk about the ways we already know how to mitigate the ‘Rona.

We already know that the best way to reduce the spread of Covid-19 is through social distancing. Cram as few as 20 kids into the average classroom, and you already know that isn’t going to work. I’m regularly shifting sideways to get through the gaps between kids’ desks in my room, and I’ve got a lot fewer desks than most of my colleagues do. So that’s done, right out of the gate.

Then there’s masks (at a time where even hospitals are still dealing with PPE shortages). Obviously the school can’t regularly provide kids with masks. Heck, given the amount of band-aids we unnecessarily go through in a day – or pencils! – expecting kids to keep and use one mask for a day, let alone a week (hygiene notwithstanding) is an exercise in futile idealism. We can ask students and families to bring their own, of course, but kids are going to forget, or not bother, and we’re certainly going to have anti-mask families out there. So, again, we fall at the first hurdle given the numbers.

And then there’s sanitizing. I love kids, I really do, but any parent or teacher will tell you that kids are, speaking generously, not the most fastidious of people. Kids forget to wash their hands all the time. On the best of days, schools are fantastic little incubators. Add Covid-19 to the mix, and you’re looking at a ticking clock repeatedly reset every time a kid touches something and then their face, or vice versa, masks be damned.

So that’s a wash. But the really scary thing for me is the occasions I’ve seen online going as far back as April where people were dismissing the potential deaths of children as an acceptable compromise. Here, just in case you needed another reason to hate Dr. Oz:

Screenshot_7
It’s an older tweet, sir, but it checks out. https://twitter.com/JoshuaPotash/status/1250788907287023619?s=20

The Have-Our-Cake-And-Eat-It Option: The Teachers

Yes, here we are. This is the final (and let’s face it: most likely) option that is likely to be presented as the solution to our troubles.

The fact is, I’m either cynical or realistic enough (you be the judge!) to know we’re not going to see the government and families make any of the above sacrifices openly or willingly (and let me be clear, I do not advocate for the Back-To-School option). We’re going to be expected to do it all, which as I stated at the beginning of this post, is not possible.

At least, not without several teacher casualties along the way.

Take the hybrid model, for instance. Some of the logic goes that there will be families who keep their kids at home anyway, and they’re going to want online school options available. This, of course, is on top of the kids needing synchronous learning online during the days when their half of the class isn’t at the school. And then, naturally, there are the kids who do come to school, and who will be taught during the regular instructional day.

And naturally, it falls on the classroom teacher to do all of these things.

Let’s be real here: distance learning is a full-time job. So is classroom teaching. We can’t do both jobs at once.

If we try, one or more of the following things are going to happen:

  • The curriculum content/assessment will be utterly lousy
  • The teachers will burn out by October
  • The whole darn system will fall apart

Going into September, this is ultimately my worst fear. I fear that we as educators are going to have monumental and unrealistic expectations placed upon us, and then be held up as the scapegoats when it’s completely unsustainable.

However, I am going to remain cautiously optimistic.

My hope is that the parents and families of our community will recognize how bag-of-hammers bonkers the whole idea is, and we’ll start having realistic conversations about the reasonable management of expectations. We’ll actually talk about what we’re going to let slide, based on our priorities.

But we can’t have our cake and eat it too. If we’re going to make any progress toward a reasonable schooling solution in the fall, we need to at least accept that, as much as we’d love to, we aren’t going to be able to do all the things we want to.

And that’s okay.

Uncomfortable Things I Learned From Writing Gender Neutral Characters

So I’m writing again.

I don’t mean this post or this blog, although lard knows it’s been far too long since I put my thoughts down here. I’m writing again for real, working on my second book, and trying not to think about what a monumental task it is. The first time around, the writing, editing, and publishing of the darn thing was equal parts grueling and rewarding, and after that, even though it felt great to get the story out there and receive the fantastic feedback I got, it was still a lot of work.

Seriously, it’s as if a few years ago I climbed a mountain and went down the other side on a pair of skis. The way up was difficult, and treacherous, and sometimes discouraging. The way down was still exhausting, but felt so joyous and liberating that I didn’t notice how hard I had to work to stay on my feet. When I finally got to the bottom, I looked back at that mountain and thought to myself, holy crap, I did it.

And now every once in a while I look back at that mountain out the window, and part of me wants to go right back up. But then I think about it, and I remember that long, arduous climb, and I find myself thinking, never again. I did it once, I crossed it off my list, I don’t need to go back for seconds.

So here I am with my ice pick and my boots, and damn it, I’m going to get back to the top of this thing again if it kills me.

Mind you, it won’t be the same climb. Last time I just sounded my barbaric YAWP and threw myself at the slopes. Research? Planning? Pfft. Me care not for that boring stuff. Me author! RAH!

Conan-Barbarian-Marvel-Comics
This is EXACTLY how it looked.

Image credits to RawPixel on Pinterest and Writeups.org

This time, having done it once, I found a few shortcuts, did a little planning, and got the right tools for the job. So who knows, maybe I’ll beat my old record.

But I’m noticing an annoying pattern I’ve gotten into that I think might be a sign of a bigger problem with me, and a red flag for a cis ally writing a book about a trans character.

If you haven’t read the book (and please do, I worked ever so hard), it’s set in a world of dragon-like people called wyverns, who are unique in that they don’t have a biological sex binary like we do – that is to say, they don’t have a male and female. They are their own gender, or they don’t have one, or however you want to look at it.

One of the chief reasons I wrote wyverns that way was to address the reality that people, too, may not fall into the male or female camp, which has turned into a pretty common talking point these days, but hadn’t when I started in on that book. And through the device of the wyverns, I wanted to introduce kids to the idea of gender-neutral pronouns.

For the uninitiated: wyverns, not having a gender binary, have their own pronoun. The way we use he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs, wyverns use wy/wym/wys. Here’s one of my buttons illustrating the subject:pronous-button

But as proud as I am of that idea (and make no mistake, I am proud of it), when it came down to actually writing the story, the gender-neutral wyverns taught me a whole lot of things about myself that I was decidedly uncomfortable with, since even then I considered myself an effective and experienced trans ally.

Now I’m sitting down to write another book in the same universe, and I’m realizing that some of these struggles haven’t gone away. As such, in a (hopefully humbling) effort to fix myself, I thought I’d share.

So here we go. A list of uncomfortable things I learned from writing gender-neutral characters. Gods help me.

 

1. I gender them unconsciously.

Like I said: wyverns are genderless creatures. Of the many ways they define and distinguish themselves, gender isn’t a factor. They (and the humans in their universe, actually) don’t use gender to decide how to dress, how to act, or what they enjoy.

So how come I keep writing “he” and “she” when I’m writing wyvern characters?

Seriously, this was one of the points Leslie (fabulous editor) and I had to attentively and consciously dig around for after the manuscript was done, because in almost every chapter, for almost every wyvern character, there’d be a “he” or a “she” in there. We probably fixed hundreds of them before the darn thing went to print.

When I bring this up to people, I get the answer that it makes perfect sense. After all, these wyvern pronouns aren’t part of my usual vocabulary, so I instinctively switch to the ones I’m familiar with.

But taking a step back I wonder, is that really it? If I was really thinking of these characters in a non-gendered way, surely I wouldn’t instinctively want to call them “he” or “she,” would I? It would feel wrong.

And at that point I realized, based on their personalities or their clothing or whatever other gender norms we keep around, I was assigning wyvern characters “male” or “female” in my head.

This wasn’t a matter of conscious thought, either. It was automatic. The logical part of my brain knew that I was writing a character that was neither male or female, and the instinctive part of my brain took that information, accepted it, and still went “yep, that’s a lady.”

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It is scary how much effort it takes to unlearn stuff like that, and I say this as someone who’s been in the process of unlearning it for years. YEARS! 

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Part of being an ally is recognizing where you’re still either learning or unlearning. I realized quickly that as I kept writing, I’d have to pay much closer attention. I couldn’t put myself “in the zone” the way I usually did. I had to be mindful and watchful, simply because of my own biases as a cisgender guy who doesn’t have to think about these things day-to-day.

Frankly, I think that mindset would do a lot of us good.

 

2. Using the right pronouns out loud feels weird.

Speaking of mindset, let’s talk about having a conversation using vocabulary you made up.

As a fantasy author, when I get talking about the world and universe of my book, I get really self-conscious, especially when I’m talking about people or places (or words) that don’t actually exist. I instantly feel like I’m acting all full of myself, as if by acknowledging that these are characters and settings I wrote about, I’m stroking my own ego and boring the tears out of whoever I’m talking to. Everyone who has a hobby they love knows this feeling, when they get talking to someone about it. Like there’s a neon sign above you pointed directly at your head that says “please remove from buttocks.”

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It’s precisely as uncomfortable as it looks.

But, if I’m being honest, it also makes me feel kind of silly. I can work really freaking hard to construct decent names for my characters, or words to fit the world I’m building, and then feel like I might as well be saying “and then she iggbytorkies and flaggurates with Gloobelfarb” when I use them in a conversation.

In short, it’s awkward. And I always kick myself afterwards, because hindsight always points out that I’m basically apologizing for my work, and that ain’t a good habit.

When we’re talking about pronoun use, though, it’s that “silly” feeling that needs close examination, because it isn’t far off from the reaction a lot of cis folks have when confronted by real gender neutral pronouns: that unsettling, self-conscious feeling that you sound stupid for using the words, even if they’re extremely validating for the person you’re speaking to.

So I ask myself: why should I feel silly, even when speaking to people who are fans of the book, for using the words “wy,” “wym,” or “wys” out loud?

The objective answer, of course, is that I shouldn’t. I should be setting an example as the author that those pronouns aren’t “silly” at all. Just a little different, or new. That’s the entire point of having them there in the first place, and if I can’t take the words seriously, how can I expect that from anyone else?

All that said, it’s still an uncomfortable reality to acknowledge: I’m so trained to view “he” and “she” as the only options, that even in a universe of my own design I’m uncomfortable with the things that deviate from the established norm.

The real question is, how do I get past it? How do I divorce my own self-consciousness about my writing from the much more important work of normalizing gender neutrality?

Until I figure it out, I guess I’ll have to fake it till I make it. Never underestimate the effect of appearing confident even when you’re not, as they say.

 

3. I don’t know whether I should correct people.

On the surface, this may be the dumbest example on this list. Yet, I can’t deny having run into this more than once when I talk about Wyvern with someone, because all those things I mentioned up above? They ain’t exclusive to me.

The first time I noticed it was when I was reading the first draft of the story to my students, years ago. Kids would ask questions, share their thoughts, give me feedback, and it was great…except that when they would talk about wyvern characters, they would almost never use the words wy/wym/wys. They’d do the exact same thing I did: use whatever binary pronoun best fit their image of the character.

And the most worrisome part for me was, for all those times I unconsciously gendered those characters myself, the kids gendered them exactly the same way as I did.

I’ve noticed since publishing the book that it isn’t just the kids. If I get talking to anyone who’s read the story, and we gab about the wyvern characters, not only are they always using “he” or “she” pronouns, but no matter which character it is, they’re using the same ones I accidentally used.

So not only did I unconsciously assign them genders in my head. I apparently made those gender assignments very clear.

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It’s not like I blame people, and after all, deconstructing our ideas of gender is pretty much the point of the whole book, so when these slip-ups happen, they’re excellent teachable moments for all concerned.

…which would be great, if I ever called people on it.

Maybe it’s because I’m self-conscious about the work, as I mentioned above. Or maybe it’s that I’m just grateful that the book has fans, and I’m afraid to say anything that might scare them off. Or maybe I know I have trouble too, and feel like a hypocrite for pointing it out to others. But I just can’t seem to correct people when they use the wrong pronoun for wyverns.

Seriously, I can’t do it. I can correct myself, even mentioning it out loud when I say “he” instead of “wy.” But when someone else does it, I clam up. For whatever reason I just don’t have the confidence to stand up for the characters I’ve created.

I won’t lie: this kinda scares me.

 

I get thinking about what choices I would make if I were put in that position in reality, and the idea that I may not make the right choices, or the best ones, is seriously troubling to me. I have not yet been blessed with friends who identify with gender-neutral pronouns other than “they/them/their,” but what if I did? What happens when it’s my job to be an advocate, to remind someone to use “xe” instead of “she”? Would I be as cowardly as I am about my own creations?

Coming right down to it, I don’t believe I would – with wyverns, the only thing at stake is my own pride, and I don’t think I have it in me to invalidate other people that way. But that hint of doubt makes me deeply uneasy, and I know this is an obstacle I need to overcome if I really plan to put my money where my mouth is and use Wyvern as a vehicle of education and allyship. If I can’t advocate for my wyverns, then I’m not really an “advocate” at all.

Further, this whole inner conflict throws another point into focus: this is the same struggle faced by people who don’t identify with a binary gender – except they have it a lot worse, because it’s not some abstract fiction they’re trying to defend. It’s their own identity. If I can look someone in the eye and tell them it’s okay for them to correct people when they mess up a pronoun, I haven’t the slightest excuse not to hold myself  to that same standard for my wyverns.


I feel like this is a list I’ll end up adding to as I keep writing, but it’s more than enough to think about as-is, and putting these things into words is giving me a bit of a kick in the butt. All of these points are part of my journey as an ally, and working at them is my everlasting, ever-changing, ever-evolving job.

At the end of the day, I’m looking out the window at that mountain and constantly fighting that nagging voice in my mind that’s always asking whether I’m even worthy of that climb at all. It asks if I’ve really earned it, or whether someone like me has any business climbing that mountain in the first place.

Still, though, I’m going to climb that mountain one way or another because I believe I can learn. I believe that the story and its message can be a force for good, and from this point forward, I will stop apologizing for it. Every time I do that, I’m apologizing for the stories and experiences of the people who see themselves in it. I owe the few fans I have more than that.

Alright. Back to work.

An Open Letter to Premier Doug Ford

Foreword for those reading: As I explain below, I will be engaging in a day of silence on Thursday as a form of protest. This action is a response to the government’s directive that families may now exempt their children from Health lessons that deal with 2SLGBTQ+ realities. While this does nothing to prevent us as teachers from having those conversations outside of Health, this is transparent bigotry at its most blatant.

If you feel the same way, please consider sharing this post with others and joining me on Thursday the 21st in silence.

I would also like it to be made very clear that the Peel District School Board has no choice in the matter, and within its inalienable responsibilities to the Ministry, is doing everything it can to ensure that 2SLGBTQ+ realities remain represented in our classrooms. Further, this letter is not related to any ongoing collective bargaining.

Below is my letter to our esteemed Premier. Thank you for reading, and for your support.


Dear Premier Ford,

On Thursday, I will not speak.

This week, families in the Peel District School Board – and undoubtedly many other School Boards across the province – will be informed that this year, under certain conditions, they will have the legal right to exempt their children from discussions of gender and sexuality-diverse people, and the realities they experience. Though thankfully limited in scope, allowable only in the context of the Health and Physical Education curriculum, this decision remains a loud, heartless message to all of us. As such, I feel compelled to return it.

I am a teacher. I am also gay. More importantly, I am out and proud. Every single one of my students hears my story, and my school board has always supported me. I do this because the existence of my identity, my life, and my family is not negotiable. Neither are the lives and realities of the students and families I am privileged to work with, including those who may be gay, or trans, or anything else.

In short, we exist.

I realize that this simple truth may represent an inconvenience to you. Clearly, your government and ministry value our children who are gay or trans far less than those children who are not. In fact, they must be quite threatening indeed, for you to attempt to quarantine the very mention of their identity inside the classroom. I’m genuinely sorry you feel that way, though I’m grateful that this attempt you are making, in your contempt and fear, to erase and silence those kids is undercut by those of us who refuse to be erased.

However, just this once, I’ve decided that I’ll give you what you want. You want our silence; for one day, I will grant it to you. This Thursday, Peel schools and families will be informed of their newly-given right to occasionally ignore the human rights of others. On that day, borrowing inspiration from the Day of Silence, I will not speak a single word. I will let my silence speak for me. I expect that to my students, whom I cherish and whom have heard me tell my story, my silence will speak volumes greater than any words I could possibly say. But regardless, since you want that silence so badly, for one day, it’s yours.

That is as generous as I can be. After that, knowing how much you would take from me if you could, I will give you nothing else. I am part of a community that is vibrant, strong, proud, and full of love; a community that is represented in every single institution in this country, including our classrooms; a community that exists, lives, THRIVES, and will not stop for the sake of your convenience, or the comfort of those who are threatened by our reality.

Our children deserve better. WE deserve better. So please enjoy my silence on Thursday, because after that, nothing is going to shut me up.

Most sincerely,

Kyle J. McGiverin

#NotAllFlamingos – or, The Culture Problem.

I keep noticing a weird trend. And, for once, it isn’t just on social media or Reddit – I’m noticing it in random conversations, as well as discussions I’m getting drawn into. This trend, in short, is this: we, as a people, are raging hypocrites.

And in other news, the sky continues to be blue and bears are hibernating in the winter.

But I find it interesting all the same, and what interests me is what we choose to be hypocritical about – in this case, we have an odd duality as a society on our response to sweeping generalizations of character. And it’s quite selfish, I think, and I’m certainly guilty of it myself. What it comes down to is that we are very happy to accept sweeping generalizations about people as long as they aren’t being made about us.

Take, for example, the emergence of the #NotAllMen tag a few years ago. This was in response to the rapid (though extremely delayed) recognition in our society of the victimization of women, and the statistics on assaults (sexually motivated or otherwise). The original movement was a response to the complacent attitude that has been emerging regarding the status of women in North America – in other words, the idea that we don’t need feminism anymore, and that the status of women’s rights in our nook of the world is peachy keen.

(There’s a lot more detail to where this came from that I’m not including here, but bear with me.)

So, threatened by this, we started seeing that tag above. #NotAllMen. As in, not all men assault women, not all men abuse male privilege, and so on and so forth. And meanwhile, those on the other side of the fence were scratching their heads and going “when did we say it was all men?”

It’s interesting how, when we’re dealing with anything controversial, we feel this need to firmly divide ourselves into two separate, clearly distinct camps, especially when it’s completely unnecessary.

But then, the unfortunate truth is that the #NotAllMen people did have a legitimate complaint in one particular corner, because there were some people accusing all men.

Can we do nothing in moderation? Seriously. As the Grand High Witch said in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, “if you are vonting a steak, you do not cook the whole cow.”

In fact, we’ve been seeing this in the political strife between #BlackLivesMatter and the police. On one side you have people crying, “All cops are racist!” and then on the other you have people shouting back, “Cops aren’t racist at all!” and then you have those sensible heads in the middle (on both sides) going, “uh, maybe the truth of the matter is around here somewhere.”

See, here’s my take on it: I don’t think a lot of us understand the difference between “All X” and “The Culture of X.” Hence, we are faced with The Culture Problem.

I’ll use an example here from my own experience (that several of my friends have heard me use before). I belong to several cultures of people, which applies to my intersecting experiences within my own society. These cultures include: people who are white, people who are male, people who are cisgender, people who are gay, and so on. These intersect in different ways – I am white, I am a white male, I am a cisgender male, I am white and gay – many permutations, all with different overlapping experiences.

I hope you are with me so far, because this took me a long time to understand.

So, let’s take all those subcultures I just mentioned and lump them together. I am a white cis gay man. As such, I belong to that particular subculture as a whole: white, cis, gay men, and in particular, white, cis, gay men who live in Toronto.

For the sake of simplicity, I shall refer to members of this subgroup as Flamingos (not that I think any of us could last long standing on one foot after a night on the town).

I’ll be blunt: I have many reasons to dislike the Flamingo subculture.

Flamingos, as a culture, have a disquieting history of being racist, transphobic, exclusive, and have this nasty habit of playing up the status of victim, to the point where some of them are convinced that they totally understand racism because they’ve experienced homophobia.

Now, if there happened to be a Flamingo reading this, it’s quite possible that he would be privately raging at me right now, because maybe all those problems don’t apply to him personally, and how dare this guy accuse all Flamingos of being racists and so on. He also probably resents the term Flamingo to begin with, but that’s beside the point.

However, notice that not once did I say “all Flamingos.” I said that these are problems of the culture of Flamingos, notably of the North American big city variety. And I didn’t say all because I don’t believe that this problem is shared by all Flamingos; I, myself, am a Flamingo by definition, and these are problems I do my best to avoid.

So, with that established, here’s the sticking point. If what I just described doesn’t fit me at all, my instinct might well be to say so, loud and clear. #NotAllFlamingos and all that. “Maybe that’s what some Flamingos are like,” I might say, “but not me.”

And this is where it all falls down. This is where we get into disagreements that are just about impossible to resolve, because nobody seems to have the same answer to this most important of questions: how much responsibility should one accept for the culture they belong to?

Let’s face facts: I’m not perfect. As much as I am conscious of the efforts I make not to demonstrate the problematic aspects of the culture I belong to, sometimes I do anyway. But nobody expects perfection (well, okay, some do, but that’s another problem entirely). The true test of my character isn’t in whether or not I make a mistake, but rather, how I respond to being informed of the mistake.

This spills over into the whole Flamingo thing, because when Bubba gets irate about the problematic aspects of the culture of Flamingos, I have a few choices I can make. I can deny all responsibility (#NotAllFlamingos) and make it Bubba’s problem for blaming everyone’s problems on me. Or, alternatively, I can accept that, as much as I dislike those aspects of Flamingo culture, I’m still a part of that culture, and I can at least validate, if not fully take responsibility for, Bubba’s reality.

This last step (which I admittedly still struggle with) is at the heart, I think, of all these Us vs. Them problems: nobody wants to be blamed. Nobody wants to shoulder, even for a moment, the thought of being responsible for our own culture. But then, if we don’t, and they don’t…who will?

Ultimately, I don’t know what the answer is, but I am fairly confident that #NotAllFlamingos isn’t it. The society I live in gains nothing when members of a culture refuse to acknowledge their own responsibility for, and influence over, the problems perpetuated by that culture – especially those cultures who sit in a position of privilege. Put bluntly, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away, nor does blaming it on a few bad apples.

It occurs to me that I never cleared up what I meant when I mentioned hypocrisy, so here it is: the people most likely to make broad, sweeping and unjust generalizations about other groups of people are the most likely ones to parrot the #NotAll tagline, and that is a hypocrisy unlike any other, in my book. I get this one a lot when I hear people talk about Millennials, because for some reason it’s perfectly okay to paint a wide swath of people with the problem-with-your-generation brush. I’ve been told that my generation is entitled and that we expect jobs and homes to be handed to us like candy, and then, when I reminded this person that it wasn’t the Millennials that over-stressed the importance of a university degree or burned down the housing market, I was – surprise! – rebuked for over-generalizing.

I’m really not entirely sure what my point is, when it’s all said and done, except that I wish more people understood the difference between “all Flamingos” and “the culture of Flamingos.” I think I’ve come a long way in understanding that when someone complains about white people, they aren’t necessarily talking about me, and that regardless, I still need to pay attention, because that is the culture I belong to. I wish we could all do that, from both sides: recognize that a culture can have its problematic elements without  condemning (or defending) every member of it at once.

I don’t think I’ll hold my breath, though.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go practice standing on one foot. #NotAllFlamingos can do that, y’know.