SZ8X80205//The Myriad Transformations//City on the Fill: Beached Babes in Toyland

Once you have a house on the beach, what do you do there? You play. And where were the toys once made? In factories built along the old new coastline. Continue reading

life lessons

Yesterday, my friend told me a story about how her sixth grade lost the role of Maria in a short skit based on The Sound of Music.

The sixth grade is preparing a graduation celebration that includes skits, songs, speaches, and food. Parents are organizing these events, including an English teacher who wrote the Sound of Music skit. Apparently, the English teacher intended that her daughter would play Maria. However, when the daughter declined, my friend’s daughter said, “Yes!” and started preparing.

Soon after, the English teacher’s daughter sought out my friend’s daughter and said that she wanted to play the role of Maria. My friend’s daughter asked what to do. On her interpretation, she had several options: (1) cede the role to her classmate; (2) ask the teacher to decide, or; (3) audition before the class and let their classmates decide. What my friend’s daughter understood clearly, was that if a teacher’s daughter wanted the role, then their homeroom teacher would take the role away from her and reassign it to the teacher’s daughter.

My friend comforted her daughter, saying that there would be many other opportunities to perform. However, her daughter was sad and so my friend asked me what I thought. I didn’t have to think. I said that it was perfectly natural for her daughter to be upset at such blatent injustice. My friend agreed, but added that in China this was how things happened. Sometimes you could spend more time and energy only to have your work denied or the glory taken away. I concurred, but asked if it was really necessary to learn such a lesson in elementary school.

And there’s the culturally interesting question: when and how do children learn the politics of everyday life?

I remember in high school having a teacher who took a dislike to me. Once when I was not in class (I don’t actually remember the reason), said teacher held a vote, asking students to decide whether or not I should be allowed to remain in class. I was voted out of the class. So, I went to the vice principal to mediate. When I sat down with that teacher, he chronicled what a horrible student I had been — talking in class, passing notes, and not attending. All true. Thus, when he finished speaking, he stood up to leave; clearly, he thought that sitting down with me was enough to demonstrate his good faith in the process.

I actually needed the vice principal to call that teacher back to the conversation, when I had a chance to mention that this teacher made inappropriate remarks about the girls in the class. I had started making snide comments and when he addressed me, I spoke back. Once I said this, the vice principal asked the teacher if their was any truth to my story. The teacher shrugged and then offered the following compromise: I could take a study hall during history class, but receive an “A” for my work. And what did I know? I didn’t turn to my parents, but accepted the deal, leaving the vice principal and history teacher to figure out their relationship, which had suddenly been complicated.

After I told how I was bought off, my friend nodded. She said that she would advocate for her daughter to keep her role. After all, these moments of injustice — in Chinese elementary schools and US American high schools — are learning moments. Unfortunately, we more often than not first learn and then unconciously teach the unequal politics of everyday life.

The Violence of Childhood

In talking with people about sociocratic principles, I find myself reminicing about my time as a vice-principal or college councelor and am once again reminded of the violence of childhood and how that violence shapes our understanding of governance because governance is, ultimately, about figuring out how to live together.

I have a clear memory of a first-grader who didn’t like math. Not hard to understand from my US American perspective perhaps, but unacceptable from the perspective of his parents, teachers, and other Chinese adults in his life. The reasoning was both psychological and pragmatic: to excel in math, self-confidence was important and the best way to develop self-confidence was through high test scores. Moreover, the logic continued, elementary math tests were simple and so there wasn’t any reason, except perhaps laziness or stubbornness for a child not to do well in math.

The boy’s first grade math scores were low by local standards; he was averaging between 88 and 93ish on tests, but his classmates were all forging ahead with perfect scores plus extra credit and, a friend helpfully reminded me, in elementary school most students received over 95 on math tests. Clearly the boy had a problem. Nevertheless, his parents were progressive in that they believed that if a student liked a class, he would do better in it and so it became imperative to talk their son into liking math. They thought that if he liked math then he would (1) stop being lazy and work harder and (2) stop resisting their efforts to make him do extra math problems and cooperate with his tutor.

So the parents talked to him. His grandparents talked to him. His teachers talked to him. Several months into this process, they scheduled a meeting with me so that I too could talk him. Nobody actually listened to him.

At the time, I spoke directly to the parents suggesting that the boy had a responsibility as a student to work hard in class and finish assignments, but had no corresponding obligation to like math or spend time each week with a private tutor preparing for Olympic maths, I was told that (1) I was too idealistic and (2) I was American and didn’t understand Chinese children. What didn’t I understand? The importance of elementary school math test scores? They aren’t actually important. And thus, our conversation came to ignoble cross purposes and the boy continued to dislike math and do relatively poorly at it. Over the next few years, parental and teacher conversations escalated into scolding and punishments, although to my knowledge the boy was never beaten for his math scores.

In retrospect, I think the boy’s parents were trying to tell me that I hadn’t assuaged their fears for their son’s future. I’m not sure I could have because for them math tests symbolized future potential to navigate the “real world”. What would happen, the analogy goes when a child went out in the real world, where life tests weren’t simple and failure meant… although this is actually where the logic stumbles because no one knows how low math scores might ultimately destroy a human life. The immediate source of parental fear seemed to be that if the boy didn’t excel in elementary math, he would do poorly on the Shenzhen high school entrance exam, subsequently do poorly on the gaokao, and then end up in a vocational school or worse, laboring as a construction or sanitation worker. Although here again, the logic blurs, because in Shenzhen rural boys who fail to get scholarships to high school end up working on construction sites and although these same rural boys also collect garbage, cleaning jobs go to rural girls who fail to get high school scholarships. In contrast, the boy’s parents were actually worried that the boy couldn’t do better than getting into a foreign university equivalent of Shenzhen University.

I regret that I didn’t actively listen to either the boy or his parents. Its possible that with more practiced skills I might have helped the boy come to terms with the inevitability of classes we don’t like and how to deal with contradictions between our feelings and our responsibilities. I might also have helped his parents have more reasonable expectations for their son’s test scores and a more respectful attitude toward his likes and dislikes; not their job to tell him how he feels.

When we don’t actively listen to children, we teach them that their desires and fears and joys and accomplishments aren’t important. What matters is that they fit into our graded boxes. Clearly the boy’s parents didn’t care if he actually liked math, they simply wanted to find a way of achieving better test scores. They disagreed with traditions of forcing a child to something he didn’t want to do, and so the solution seemed to be forcing him to like it, so that he would then become a pro-active math student. Equally clearly, I didn’t care about the parents’ fears, I just wanted them to stop wasting my time lamenting a first grader’s math scores. I disagreed with their valuation of exams and didn’t see any way of convincing them that disliking math is okay and thus the solution seemed to be getting them out of my office as quickly as possible.

And there’s the rub: I’m starting to understand the violence of childhood as the lack of respect we have for children’s abilities and desires. And this lack of respect blossoms into grown-up inabilities to actually resolve problems in ways that nourish each other’s lives. His parents left my office more deeply convinced that a huge cultural gap separates Chinese and US American people. I remained in my office anxious that another set of parents would schedule a meeting to talk their daughter into liking a difficult subject, like English. But what seems to have actually occurred was another instance of childhood violence in which none of us adults had the wherewithal to help a six year old learn simple concepts of addition and subtraction.

Confucious on the bus

At dinner, a friend tells the following story:

She was on a bus with her two year old son. Suddenly, she looked down to see him scurrying away. He had seen an empty seat and immediately darted over. This story was told with great pride because it demonstrated her son’s independence and ability-he knows what he wants, goes after it, and succeeds. The story was met with laughter and smiles-yes, an all round great kid.

My a-ha moment: my mother never told such stories about me and thus I continue to line up and wait for others even when this strategy for boarding buses has long proven ineffective.

Indeed, I sometimes fear that I all I ever do in China is un-learn everything I learned in kindergarten. According to Confucian wisdom: at thirty one establishes oneself, at forty no doubts, at fifty know the will of heaven, at sixty everything sounds good, and at seventy, follow one’s heart and make no mistakes (30而立,40而不惑,50而知天命,60而耳顺,70从心所欲而不逾矩). But what if one changed lives at thirty? Can one actually become established and start over at the same time? Or is everything delayed? Or more likely, do we never quite get it right and doubt at 40, wonder about the will of heaven at 50, still become annoyed by chatter at 60, and make all sorts of mistakes when we follow our hearts into our 70s?

Sigh. Because I also know how difficult it is to go home and get back on track to a retirement of effortless grace.