Taking Things Apart

About two weeks ago, I came home from work to see my mom and wife preparing to take apart the pipes under the kitchen sink. The sink had been draining slowly for a few days and she had decided to call my mom, who knows a few things about home maintenance and repair, so that she could learn to do it herself. Three hours later, after a trip to the hardware store and a few breaks to just stare at the mess we’d made, the sink was put back together and draining just like it should. The process, though, was very uncomfortable for me. Partially because I didn’t know that The Kitchen Sink Project was going to happen, and partially because I feel very uncomfortable with taking things apart and making a mess.

In part some of my discomfort — that borders on dread — stems from my upbringing. And what better way to get to know myself and my childhood hardwiring than to throw myself into new or uncomfortable situations? My mom liked a very orderly, neat and clean house. And I don’t blame her:  she was a single mom with two kids and she had to go to whatever lengths she could to make sure we were clean, clothed, fed, and educated. As a result, keeping a tight schedule and an orderly home was the cornerstone of my childhood. Neat and orderly is generally a good thing, but sometimes there can be too much of it.

I remember as a kid, probably around 10 or 12, I felt inspired to draw, so went to take out some art materials. I opened up the cabinet and reached for the little plastic watercoloring set that we had had for years, but at the thought of having to control and then clean up the mess, I stopped myself. Rather than deal with the burdens of mess and clean up, I chose to avoid it. I chose to do something else instead. And that wasn’t the only time. As I grew up if I could do something cleaner, tighter, more contained, I chose that option. I systematically began to avoid messes, experimenting with materials, taking things apart, getting dirty.

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Odds and ends from the tool closet.

The philosophy of staying need, tidy, and contained continued at school, too. When it came to those typically messier, more hands-on subjects like art or science, my teachers trotted out the easiest possible options. Paper and pencil drawings in art, maybe occasionally something like paper mosaics with construction paper and glue. And for a real treat, drawing with oil pastels or chalk on paper. In science, work mostly revolved around textbooks — books we couldn’t even take home to read, because in middle school there was a set of 30 for about 90 of us. In fifth grade I got to dissect an owl pellet, but I think my teacher only got five or six, so we had to share in groups of five or six. For me as a student, explorations meant looking on from a safe distance — from behind glass at a museum, by looking over my grandpa’s shoulder at his workbench, by wondering in my head and just leaving it at that. Maybe sometimes I’d look it up in a book.

And what does this mean? In part I see that it makes me really aware as a homeowner that I am uncomfortable with fixing things, with taking things apart, and making them work again. I’m afraid to make a mess. Partially because there’s the nuisance of cleaning up afterwards, but also because I’ve never really dealt with this kind of mess before. I haven’t had the chance to explore under someone else’s guidance. And as far as the house is concerned, I’m both child and adult as I begin this process of learning. I’m leaning how things work, I’m pushing myself to explore pieces and parts of the house and how things go together, I’m trying to build the belief in myself that if I take something apart I will have the know-how to put it back together again.

That experience with the sink was small, but empowering. With some perseverance, a little willingness to experiment, some coaching from my mom and encouragement from my wife, I did it — actually my wife and I did it. And afterwards I felt that click in my head, that particular part of my body and brain turn on and get excited. I felt the rush of doing something real for myself and my house. And as a teacher it made me want to bring that rush of excitement, that kind of learning experience, to my students.

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My grandpa’s tool, now mine.

Because truly, how often do they get to explore and play — and with something that can eventually become real and meaningful? Culturally I see that there’s a push for kids to be “college and career ready.” And as a teacher I believe in education. Of course. But the obsession with college and “good jobs” is, frankly, bullshit. We see that the most recent generation of young adults is deep in college loan debt, to the point of being paralyzed by it. And in many cases, I see that people don’t know how to do. Generally speaking, we don’t cook for ourselves very much, we don’t fix things for ourselves, we don’t make or manufacture things for ourselves. Because — didn’t you know? — that’s someone else’s job. Somewhere along the line of pushing our children to be college and career ready we began devaluing and distancing ourselves from the valuable work of taking things apart, fixing things, and making them work again. Which to me is one of the most real things a person can do. It’s a tangible example of our realness and our power in the world outside ourselves.

And as I get of taste of my own realness, my own power to fix and make things, I see that I’m starting to question things. I’m asking, how does this work? How is this put together? Why does it work like this? Is there some way to make this better? Where does this come from? Can I fix this? What can I do to change this? And if I’m asking these questions after fixing one little ole sink, what kind of questions would our kids start to ask themselves when they have a taste of a something similar?

And if I see that I have the power to question, to take things apart, to get messy, to put things back together in a way that makes them better — and to clean up the mess, too — then I see that I can be powerful in other ways, too. And when “powerful people” want to tell me that they’re right and I should fall in line, I can stand in the knowledge of my own power and push back. I know that I don’t have to avoid taking things apart or to making a mess. I know now that I have the power to fix it. And I want the same confident stance for my students and for the future adults of our planet.

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An assortment of inherited and newly purchased tools: vise grip, wrench, pliers.

There is beauty and power in being real, in being here  and doing things that are visible and tangible, things that concretely alter and improve the landscape of our lives. So let’s take things apart — from the humblest kitchen sink to the way we view ourselves and our places in the world. Let’s get messy and work on it together.

Was I that kid?

The classroom is most definitely a microcosm of society. Just like in “the real world” — also known as the world outside the classroom — there are moments of imbalance and injustice. What I’ve been struggling with and turning over in my head the last few weeks is what I can do about it, both as the adult in the room when I’m teaching and as a person in the world when I’m not.

Columbus Day just passed and I was going to say something about that, something about how it’s a bullshit day, that it should really be a day to honor the African Diaspora and the First Nations People rather than the conquerors. Then I was going to say something about facing the reality of our American culture, that many of the most “American” things emanate from non-white people and non-white places, ranging from the music we listen to to everyday technologies we take for granted.

But that statement alone wasn’t going to be enough; this nationwide, even worldwide negligence of balance, truth, and justice is part of it for me. It’s part of my slowly roiling frustration when I’m in the classroom this year. Another part of it is that now that I’m working with white kids — my first time in 11 years of teaching — I’m now seeing my biases up close on a daily basis and I’m seeing how extremely fucking sneaky they are, and worse yet, how little innocent white kids rely on them, base their entire stance in the world on them — and how adults like me perpetuate the cycle.

And so I arrive at a buffet of doubts and questions. Was I like these white kids when I was a kid? Did I take up so much space with my whiteness and the privileges it brings that I left no space for anyone else? Did my entitlement over-magnify me to the detriment of my peers? Did my implicit expectation that of course I’d win or get what I asked for or be chosen or go first take that experience away from someone else who was just as deserving — or more deserving? Did I just go through most of my life thinking I was a sweet girl in grammar school, friends with everyone, darling to all, while my classmates were just waiting for me to leave the room so they could finally breathe and take up some goddamn space?

I’d love to believe that I wasn’t like that. But maybe I was. Maybe I did take up that much space in the classroom, in the teacher’s psyche, in my classmates’ mental and emotional space. And with every inch I took, every time I raised my hand, answered a question, made some subtly domineering move in the classroom, my non-white peers got just that much less space for themselves, for their self-expression, for their self-exploration, for their risk-taking, for their leadership, for their ideas, for their questions, for their existence.

And there’s nothing I can do about it now, unfortunately, no way for me to go back and fix it, fix myself, teach my younger me how to not be an entitled jackass kid. But what can I do now? What can I do?

Well, I have to see this as my chance. I get to be a defender and a bridge and a guide all at once. My job is to guard the classroom space, keep it clear and open for all of my kids to lead, question, grow, take risks — to defend all of my kids’ rights to experience education, the act of learning and engaging and growing past their current boundaries. My job is to bring these kids together, bridge their differences, draw them close together and set up the expectation that they will always mingle, always integrate, always know one another, and always wish to know one another. My job is to guide them through rich and diverse materials, highlighting the beauty and value in everyone, in all of us, honoring our shared humanity. How exciting. How terrifying.

I acknowledge that I’m going to fail, and do it wrong, and forget myself and give in to something deeply coded into my brain. But I’m trying to push through my own shit to open up space and keep it open, one inch at a time.

i see you, i thank you, i love you

I just came home from a long visit with The Kids. Let me explain. I’m not a mother, but I’m a teacher. So in a way, I’m a part-time mother to many. In this specific case, The Kids are a family of four kids who are currently being taken care of by their grandmother, who they consider their mom. The full storyline is a little muddled and gray, but in general the gist is something like the mom was mentally and emotionally unstable, had four (or maybe five) kids within about six years, and through a series of abandonments and neglect, left them with her own mother to take over full custody and care for them.

I’ve come to know them — and love the shit out of them — through my wife, who was preschool teacher to the youngest two, the boys. Through a long series of conversations and events we saw that one of the boys was gifted, like truly gifted, and he qualified to attend the regional gifted program that’s housed in my school. Besides seeing them at school, we’ve gotten closer to them over the years, taking them out on the weekends and during the summer, attending their teacher conferences and meet the teacher nights, helping with school projects, all that.

And we just came home from a long visit with them. Unfortunately they’re struggling to deal with school and their emotions and how to treat one another and how to listen to their mom — essentially how to process and deal with their unfairly fucked up lives. But none of this stuff is their fault, they didn’t create any of the circumstances or make any of the decisions that have landed them where they are today. And even though they’ve been struggling lately, overall they’ve been amazingly resilient and strong; they’ve gone through more emotional trauma than even most adults and they’re not even four feet tall yet.

Which leads me to thinking about several things. One, the mothers and fathers — parents through blood or love — who, regardless of what life has thrown at them, have pushed themselves to get to work, show up for their kids, do whatever is in their power to protect, nurture, and push their kids to their highest heights — I see you, I thank you, and I love and admire you for the sacrifice, the drive, and the never-ending persistence that you show. Because of parents like you, your child’s success is not a possibility, it’s already a fact. You are doing it, and it’s already happening.

Two, to the children of these circumstances — whether you are still small or already in a grown-up body living in the world — even if it doesn’t seem like you’ve had much in your life that was given to you, like nothing was ever easy, you are making your life — you are the creator of your fortune — and because you have come from such depths you have the capacity to know such heights. You have been burnished by hardship, and smoothed by rough waves, and your success means more to the world — it just does. Your accomplishments, your wins, your awards and prizes, they are a beacon and a victory, a jewel in the crown of creation, because your life demonstrates how a person can create something wonderful from almost nothing. You are a piece of magic on earth.

So to my friends and even unknown readers who are seeing this, I know it can seem like your life is hard and small and heavy. All the little shit builds up to a crushing weight. But take a minute and look back to those moments when you were low, so much lower than you are now. And ask yourself — how have I gotten this far? Most likely the answer is that it’s been through the care of a parent — from blood or love — and through you, your power and your decision to be better. Please keep going — don’t stop — you’re almost there. And I see you, I thank you, I love you.