An Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran who has spent the past decade teaching Iraqi refugees in a public school reflects on what he’s learned about love, war, and school.
Memoirs Iraq War & Education
||Loudonville, New York
||12 publishers interested
A White Rose: A Soldier's Story of Love, War, and School is a memoir from the perspective of an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, who has been teaching, among others, Iraqi refugees in a New York public school.
This book tells anecdotes of war and teaching and draws the conclusion that Operation Iraqi Freedom never brought freedom for similar reasons as why compulsory education fails to educate; that is, forced freedom works about as well as forced learning.
It was one of the toughest things in Brian's life to admit that Operation Iraqi Freedom was more about American interests than it was about American freedom or protecting Iraqi civilians. When he put his life on the line for an ideal and had that reality pulled out from under him, it changed the way he perceived everything. Brian got into teaching because he wanted to help people, but he found himself once again questioning the way in which people “help.” Distinct from most "teacher" books or movies, this book deals directly with compulsory education as a form of imprisonment.
When Brian started teaching Iraqi refugees, a surreal connection was established. When he saw how unyielding the system was to them – eighteen hour tests, high school for six years, classes they couldn’t possibly pass – he took a step back and realized the system is unyielding to all students, indifferent to their humanity, and interested only in compliance and metrics. He didn’t commit violence in Iraq only to come home and commit violence in schools, and especially not against Iraqi refugees.
Why did he write this book? It was never his intention to do so. He wrote a couple of short pieces about Iraq in order to sort out his own feelings, and he spent a lot of time thinking about how to build a better school model. Pretty soon, he had a manuscript, and it’s something that he believes is equal parts emotional, practical, and overall useful for people who value bringing love and respect into education.
Chapter One: A White, White Rose
She tells me about a song they used to
sing about a white, white rose and writes it on my chalkboard in Arabic. When
the students go home, I sit in the classroom, pretending to grade papers. I
look at the song and start to cry. It’s in Arabic, and I don’t know the words.
I don’t know how I got on this road and want off, but I
keep going because I need a job but also because I was born with a permanent fuck you attitude. There’s no way I could ever walk away from this much pain.
It’s a swamp with beautiful white roses everywhere. You can just see them
through the fog and ghosts.
Chapter Two: Love, War, and School
We become more in sync with the
universe, and while we will always at times feel anger, jealousy, and shame and will always make mistakes in the material world, if we live in love then
we have the foundation to be able to grow internally as a result of whatever
happens outside our heart. When you choose to love, you will love no matter
what people do to you and no matter your relationship to them. You will love villagers in China who haven’t even been born yet!
How? Because your love for mankind has, or should have, nothing to do with the external. You love your spouse because of what is inside you; your love begins and
ends in your being. She doesn’t feed you love; she can’t stop feeding you and
cause you to hate. You have the ability to choose love. Whether I love or hate
the man who tried to kill me, that’s energy that is happening in my heart. It
has nothing to do with anything else.
Chapter Three: Consent Is Sexy
A teenager’s nature
is not laziness. Their preferred state is not ignorance, and it is not
necessary for extrinsic motivation to be delivered by trained professionals in
order to prevent them from bare-knuckle boxing under a bridge in exchange for
drugs and money.
Chapter Four: I Don't Do Homework
I didn’t do homework that I couldn’t finish in homeroom or on the
bus. Once, I did all my homework at home and missed a tackle football game
outside, and I never made that mistake again. On principle, I
never read a novel assigned by an English teacher, even though I spent most of
my early childhood in the library. I’d pick up enough in class discussion to do any assigned work, assuming I could finish the assignment in homeroom. Since I got to school early, I would climb through windows and open teachers’
doors to confuse them; I would take the building physically apart, whenever
possible. I have no clear memory of any class, but many memories of the weight
room and football, lunch, and the bus rides back and forth, the only parts of
school I enjoyed. I wanted to care about what the teachers cared about and to give a damn about my grades, but I physically could not bring
myself to do it.
Chapter Five: We All Have Lyme Disease
Most of us have a
figurative Lyme disease. We are in pain all the time and have come to the
conclusion that this is just what life is. We have been sold on the idea that
debt is a normal, healthy way of life. We have been sold that fast food is
food, that variety in what we eat is unimportant, that frequent intoxication is
a part of our culture, and so we build our bodies with poison. We have been
sold on commercialism and the idea that things can fill the emptiness that
comes in not knowing ourselves or our place in the world. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.
Chapter Six: Diversity in School
In education, there is not much
diversity of thought, but rather an inclination, an intuition, a purpose to
standardize. School-people are an insulated bunch. Teachers go to graduate school, where they are trained by former teachers, and administrators are former
teachers who go to grad school to be trained by former administrators who were
former teachers, all with their own ideas of how to be successful in an outside
world of which they were rarely a part. This particular plant is watered by the
state, and so there’s a clue as to who built this echo chamber, and to what
end. Noam Chomsky said, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is
to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively
debate within that spectrum.”
Chapter Seven: School Doesn't Work Without a Whip
I do not want to give some special
testing exemption to refugees or other English learners; compulsory testing is harmful even to students who ace
the tests. Compulsion is another word for slavery, and I’ll have none of it.
Chapter Eight: The Courage of Our Convictions
What a small and petty thing schools
are, making teenagers, who have seen much more war than I have, take twelve or eighteen hours of standardized tests in a day, telling them they can’t leave the system
until they pass all five tests. They’ve had experiences that are inconceivable – family members beheaded, car bombs, villages destroyed, families
separated for years or decades or forever, a lifetime in refugee camps,
community members killed and others committed to insane asylums. How pathetic we
are that we allow refugee students to take tests that we know they will fail,
and watch them come back, and fail, and come back, showing courage in the face
of silliness. If you are a part of this system and you don’t speak out against
it, then it’s one of two things: either you deeply believe in the value of
high-stakes, standardized tests, or, like I said before, you’re acting like a
coward. I don’t mean that with any meanness or ill will. Courage is a high
quality fuck that that results in a tar-and-feathering. You’re not
courageous for speaking out against Nazis, unless you are currently living in
Nazi Germany. You are courageous when you look at the people you love, who
believe or tolerate something that’s clearly wrong, and you say I love you, but fuck that, I'm not doing it. I want to be the person who was for
Abolition before the Civil War.
Chapter Nine: A Declaration of Independence
The problem is a complete lack of
dialogue and intentional decision making. In fact, going to school is rarely a choice at all, but rather the thing you do because everyone else
does it. There is nothing wrong with going into school aware of where
schools fall short, making a conscious decision to use school where it
benefits you, and not taking the insidious parts of school so seriously (if
you don’t care about grades, then they can’t use grades to control you; if you
shrug off homework, they can’t continue to steal your time away from your
family and community). There is also nothing wrong with parents supporting a
teenager in withdrawing from school and allowing them to educate themselves -
not necessarily in isolation, but by their own design. There are as many ways
to get an education as there are people on earth, and, contrary to popular
school-lore, you don’t need to be a certified expert to do it.
Chapter Ten: Form a Junto
In 1727, when Benjamin Franklin was just
21 years old, he started a small club that he called Junto. The club had five
other “ingenious” members besides himself, and although he was the youngest, he
was their leader. They met once a week on Friday for the purpose of “mutual
improvement” and required members to “produce one or more queries on any point
of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and
once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any
subject he pleased.” They would debate differences civilly “in the sincere
spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of
victory” and eventually even banned “all expressions of positiveness in
opinions, or direct contradiction.”
Chapter Eleven: Publish an Underground Newsletter
Our freedom of speech is not some cute,
optional, anachronistic thing that you write about on a short answer quiz about
school uniforms or some such silliness. Your freedom to assemble (e.g. Junto),
to create and distribute content, to express yourself (e.g. to ask a Klan member Why do you hate me when you don’t know me?), and to be able to do
so without fear of violence or censorship is absolutely fundamental to a free and just society. It is not a right given to you by the First Amendment – the First Amendment simply states what
your human rights are. Even if the first was removed, even if it were amended,
even if it were made illegal to voice certain opinions, your right for
individual expression would still be as much a right as breathing. On this
issue, rules and laws are irrelevant.
Chapter Twelve: Stay Debt Free
You could think in a groove and live
your life on a train, letting the tracks take you wherever the tracks take you.
Or you could be intentional and informed in your decisions and have a plan for
your life. There are very few jobs that justify fifty or sixty thousand bucks a
year for four years in order to be “qualified.” Be creative and be informed.
Transfer community college credits. Take CLEP exams. Get a four year degree
in six years and pay cash by working a full time job. Or a full time job and a
part time job. Know what you’re working towards and eliminate debt, so that if
you change your mind later it doesn’t kill you to know you have a hundred
thousand dollar biology degree hanging in the kitchen of the tapas restaurant
you just opened.
Chapter Thirteen: Become Self-Reliant
you trust yourself. It means that you don’t depend on other people’s work or other people’s assessment. Reliance on others is dependency, and dependency
is for children. People often counter this with you live in a society
or you have to learn to collaborate or you don’t live on an island in the 18th
century. All of these things are true. It is also true that if
you aren’t any use to yourself, then you aren’t going to be any use
collaborating in this great societal collective that everyone keeps telling me
I belong to. Every great athlete playing on a team has to bring himself or
herself to the gym, and they have to put their own two hands on the barbell and lift. Every master carpenter in every construction company has
to drive each nail into each two-by-four with his or her own two hands. Jiang
had to have the heart to approach strangers and be rejected before he could
start his own company whose mission is to help others with rejection. I had to
decide that I was willing to make myself emotionally vulnerable, as well as
possibly fail in reaching my goal of $25,000, before I could collaborate with
anyone else. If you aren’t self-reliant – if you can’t rely on yourself – then
which group in their right mind would want to rely on you?
Chapter Fourteen: Drop Out
I’m going to offer you a possible
program. It is not the only way to get an education, but you might find it
helpful to have some kind of structure when considering what
kind of experiences you want to walk away with. First, as with all things, this
will only be made possible with the blessing of your parents. I do not minimize
the kind of courage this will take for everyone involved. Your family and
friends are going to think you are crazy, they may think your parents are
acting irresponsibly, and there may (or may not) be pushback from the district.
In order to make this work legally, you are going to have to register as homeschooled,
which carries its own stigmas. You may be perceived as that kid who
wears a colander as a hat and can’t talk to peers without speaking in Klingon,
or maybe you’re that family who hates Darwin so much that your parents are
willing to hide you in the basement until they’ve properly instructed the devil
out of you. I encourage you to think of homeschooling as the legal
mechanism necessary to put yourself through your own “school” (although, in New York
at least, you can’t legally call your program a “school” without the blessings
of the crown). Make sure all the legal stuff is in order so as not to be
distracted from the business of living your life.
Chapter Fifteen: Post High School: Control the School Board
What if a group of self-directed
learning advocates were disciplined enough and organized enough to usurp a
school board, possibly a small district with a relatively high number of
homeschooling families? I don’t mean with the intentions of redirecting public
funds to learning centers for homeschoolers, or to steal books from the school
library, or anything like that. I mean to put people in positions
of authority who are willing to fight for personalized education for all
More and more people are waking up to
the truth that stuff like high-stakes, standardized assessments, or school
funding, or state standards, or federal involvement in education, or
billionaires and their charter schools, or any other flavor-of-the-day-Diane-Ravitch-style-edu-controversy are all mostly symptoms of a problem, which is compulsion. Even more to the
root, the problem is the threat of violence implied in compulsion. You cannot
bring peace and love with compulsion that is backed up by violence any more
than you can bring freedom through military occupation, and the more powerful
and omnipresent school is in your family’s life, the more the threat of
violence looms over you.
This book appeals to:
-Anyone unhappy with the school system and looking for answers.
-Homeschooling families, self-directed learning advocates, and families who are proponents of democratic schools such as the Sudbury model.
-Those who are libertarian-leaning as there is a strong anti-war, pro-liberty tone to the book.
Brian Huskie is a National Board Certified teacher with ten years of experience, an OIF veteran who teaches refugees who come from the country he helped destroy, and a homeschooling father of two boys.
Once the book has
been published, I will organize a book tour with a minimum of fifty stops within the first twelve months. I will self-fund transportation, etc., for any
stop within a hundred-mile radius of Albany, NY, and I could also do engagements
in NYC and DC area. I will speak and sign books at book stores, libraries, schools, and colleges.
I am willing to do more for the promotion
of the book and to make connections at news outlets. Over the past two years, I have raised $25,000 for
a refugee student scholarship endowment in Albany, and in an effort to
promote this endowment I reached out to a number of people. As a result, I was
interviewed on the local NPR station, a couple of local television stations, the
front page of the Times Union, a number of blogs, and I was on Shepard Smith’s
show (Fox National News). I am self-directed and motivated to make this book a
success and would also welcome any insight or guidance from your marketing
Toad Book Store, Oneonta
Book House, Herkimer
Leaves Used Books, Ithaca
Bookstore Plus, Lake Placid
Golden Notebook, Woodstock
Dog Books and Ale, Hamilton
House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany
Bookstore, Saratoga Springs
Book Village (6 book stores)
College of St. Rose (I’m a graduate of each)
Bookshop, Bennington, VT
& Noble: Colonie, Saratoga, Pittsfield (MA), Kingston, Hadley (MA)
Also, any number of democratic schools or learning centers.
Books Brian has drawn insight from for A White Rose are:
Peter Gray’s Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013)
Blake Boles’ College Without High School (New Society Publishers, 2009)
John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction (New Society Publishers, 2009) and Dumbing Us Down (Douglas & McIntyre, 1991)
Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook (Lowry House, 1991)
Carl Rogers’ Freedom to Learn (Merrill Publishing Company, 1986)
John Holt’s Teach Your Own (Da Capo Press, 1982) and Escape from Childhood (E.P. Dutton, 1974)
All of these books, as well as A White Rose, place an emphasis on respecting a student’s choices as to what and how to learn, even at a young age. Brian is a huge advocate of self-direction and consent in education, and all of these books support those positions.
All of these authors have interesting stories: Peter Gray is a researcher who also learned about self-direction and self-regulation by raising his son; Blake Boles and Grace Llewellyn run unschooling programs and camps that are unique and brilliant; John Taylor Gatto seems to have intuitively known what schools were up to from the beginning, and also instinctively knew how to combat them while somehow not getting fired and becoming NY state teacher of the year; Carl Rogers was a psychologist who worked some concepts of student-centered learning into his classes; and John Holt, who wrote many more books than listed, was hired and fired many times for speaking out about the suffocating nature of forced schooling.
A White Rose is different from the books listed above because Brian's experiences, as a veteran, are different. He has come to a lot of the same conclusions as the writers listed, however, a culmination of his experiences with violence in Iraq, teaching refugees from Iraq (and elsewhere), and the birth of his own children has lead him to a philosophy of nonaggression. Compulsory schooling, by definition of the word “compulsion,” is aggression towards students and families.
A White, White Rose
I was back in college within a week of returning from Iraq. I had begun my undergraduate odyssey in 1998 and now, in 2005, I was ready to be done. I was ready to finish a degree, get a big-boy job, get married, and have kids. I was 25 years old, and if all went as planned I figured I’d be able to spend my weekdays working and raising kids and my weekends drinking beer with the vets at the VFW by my 30s or 40s.
I’m that age now, but I’ve still never been inside a VFW, or even marched in a parade. It wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid connecting with other veterans - I just didn’t do it, no real reason why. Or maybe Iraq was chasing me like an asteroid through space, and I didn’t want to pause long enough for it to catch up. I didn’t want to entertain the notion of PTSD or fear or alcohol addiction. I didn’t want to hear about the suicides. I didn’t want to swap war stories that seem so unreal in Albany, NY, that our truths sound like lies. I didn’t want to face the possibility that the killing and destruction in Iraq had nothing to do with protecting freedom – that I had played a small but exuberant part in manufacturing war for profit.
I was all alone. I did get the degree, big-boy job, wife, and kids, but in the early years of all of that, I felt desperately alone. Nothing seemed particularly important. Even the news – thirty killed in a car bomb in Baghdad – was on a ticker under the main story of Brittany Spears' breakup or some other nonsense. Jesus, I thought, Have any of these people seen thirty destroyed bodies, littering the marketplace, then stacked like firewood before being loaded onto a truck to be brought to the morgue in Tikrit?
I still feel like an extraterrestrial if I try to talk about what “keeping America safe from terror” looks like in real life. Either I’m laughing at things that freak out the civilians or I’m crying over things that were significantly less horrific than storming beaches in Normandy. I’d rather not feel like a baby or worry the neighbors, but sometimes I drink too much just so I can summon the monster, drag him out from under the bed, and give him a kiss. Then I wake up with a headache and pretend it didn’t happen, and the little bastard goes back under the bed where he belongs.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in 2010 I was nowhere near this aware of what was going on inside of my heart and soul. My journey took a turn three or four years into public school teaching when the woman who taught the advanced English Language Learners retired. She recommended I take her job because I married an Indian woman and so that somehow made me the logical choice to teach foreigners. I formed a connection with several of the students and one Iraqi girl in particular.
When I see her, I see the boy, bullet scars and burns; I see the son flopping dead in his arms and kids in uniforms walking to school, and I remember how we used their desks for firewood. I see the Spiral Tower and the Golden Mosque. Samarra. Sulfur. I love you. I’m sorry. Now burn. She tells me how her uncle is lost in the Tigris. It will be her mother next if they don't leave soon. I have waking dreams: we blow up her house because that’s where the men who extorted her father kept weapons. She waits for me after school with red inked English and math quizzes to cry over verb tense and mismarked decimals.
She tells me about a song they used to sing about a white, white rose and writes it on my chalkboard in Arabic. When the students go home, I sit in the classroom, pretending to grade papers. I look at the song and start to cry. It’s in Arabic, and I don’t know the words. I don’t know how I got on this road and want off, but I keep going because I need a job but also because I was born with a permanent fuck you attitude. There’s no way I could ever walk away from this much pain. It’s a swamp with beautiful white roses everywhere. You can just see them through the fog and ghosts.
I was with one other soldier at a traffic control point when two Iraqi kids came over to talk to us. They wanted to go buy kebabs for us and charge us triple for them. They also wanted our bullets, so they could scrape the bullet off and light the gun powder. We teased them for a few minutes, haggling over kebabs and lighting matches. The older one tried to get us to give him a grenade for a couple of kebabs. The soldier who was with me pretended to throw the grenade. He didn’t even have it in his hand - it was in good fun - but the younger one stumble-ran into the weeds and started crying. He was bawling. He wouldn’t let anyone near him. I took off my helmet and gave up my gun and brought the kid a Gatorade. He whirled around and hugged me, and we hugged in the weeds for a long time. When I hug my four-year-old I sometimes feel that little Iraqi boy’s ribs. Then he showed me the scars on his leg. He had been burned from his ankle to his thigh. He was covered in scars. He made a machine gun noise, pointed to his leg, and said “Amerikee!” That was eleven years ago. If the kid is still alive, he’d be 18 or so. He’d be in my class.
Like a bad movie, fireworks on the Fourth of July made my heart race, at least the first few years after I came back. Then, with time, it faded, and I moved on. Until Fourth of July, 2014, ten years after Iraq. I was with my family on Montauk beach watching the fireworks, and my youngest, two years old, was terrified. He tried to run away high up on a sand dune. I ran after him, caught him, picked him up, and tried to console him. The kid just went limp. My son didn’t move, didn’t make a sound, and just fell asleep, almost instantly. I’m kicking in doors and raiding homes. There’s a man. He has some kind of certificate signed by Saddam Hussein, and he doesn’t look scared. His son, less than five, in the upstairs room. There is shooting and yelling, and the kid just sleeps. I pick him up and brought him to his mother, and although he was unhurt he wouldn’t wake up. My son just goes limp in my arms.
We took over a hospital and, after a day of fighting, a man brought his son in. The son, maybe seven or eight years old, was obviously dead. He was flopping around in his dad’s arms. The father was laughing uncontrollably – maniacally. I’ll never forget it.
"It happens," says an Iraqi student. "A man was killed a week before his wedding. His mother was laughing, too. She said it will be alright; she said her son is still alive. His fiancé runs home and changes into her wedding dress. His body is in the house, and they both danced around it, laughing, saying he was alive, that he wasn’t dead. Nobody could stop them. The mother didn’t have any other family. She was dead within the month. The fiancé was sent away to the place where they send all the crazy people."
When I see my students, I see the crowds of little kids who begged for pencils and candy; I see the kids who walked to school until they canceled school so we could fight. I break their desks to burn for warmth in December, and our sniper takes a position in an elementary classroom. I see the boy whose leg was burned, and the little limp sleeper who had guns pointed at him, and the laughing dad. I see them in my own kids. It haunts me.
These kids from Iraq, as well as refugees from other places in the Middle East, Africa, Burma, and Nepal, didn’t choose to have war or persecution happen to them. They didn’t choose the actions of their countries or of ours. They all have their own stories, but somehow, they made it here. They have an obligation to make the most out of their lives, and they know it. It’s a second chance many don’t get. What are they going to do with this new life they were given?
I was given a second chance, too. When I first got back from Iraq, I was angry. I wanted to fight “9/11 Truthers,” anyone critical of President Bush (who had blessed us all with the opportunity to go kill bad guys and prove ourselves), anyone critical of the war or invasion, anyone who suggested that terror isn’t real or that American soldiers aren’t the good guys or that they sometimes do bad things. My family has a dozen combat veterans; I saw the rubble from the twin towers; I put my life on the line; I was shot at, blown up, and crashed-up. Have you ever put your life, and the life of everyone around you, both friend and foe, on the line for a belief? Not your career. Not your GPA. Your actual, literal, life. I have. I dare you to challenge that belief.
That’s how I felt, and so I know how people feel when I say things like “teachers aren’t the most important factor in the learning process” and “school resembles prison” and “compulsion is violence.” I get it, just as I didn’t want to look Iraq in the eye and say maybe killing people and breaking their stuff isn’t the best way to spread love, peace, freedom, and democracy, no teacher wants to look their students in the eye and say maybe bribing and threatening you and your parents isn’t the best way to offer education that’s effective, respectful, and caring. Teachers do care, and they do want to help students – there is no doubt in my mind that that is almost always true. However, one definition of culture is “the way we do things around here,” and our culture says to separate your children from yourself…and your dangerous traditions…and your medieval religions…and your attitudes towards sex...and your attitudes towards money…and your other perverted ideals…and have strangers raise them from ages five to 18. Then structure everything to incentivize these young adults to indebt themselves financially to institutions of higher learning. This indentured servitude will last for the majority of their adult life, during which time they will have fleeting moments of wondering who they are and where they fit into society, but most of the time they’ll distract themselves with touchscreens.
One of the most common questions students ask me, when they find out I was in Iraq is are you any different? Are you crazy now? Well, I was a little crazy before I signed up. However, I am different now, though it took a while to sort out exactly how. I learned something they can’t teach in school, something institutions around the globe rather you not learn. I came to terms with my mortality. Like in the poem "The Twa Corbies,"when I die, nobody is going to know where I went, my dog and hawk and lady will move on with their lives, and naught but the wind will blow over my bones for evermore.
Figuratively, of course. I assume somebody will mourn me. With luck, I die somewhere near people, so they’ll know where my corpse is. They’ll do something with that corpse, and so they’ll know where that is, too. (The week before we went to Iraq, the Chaplain said to us, I want to die like my grandfather; peacefully in his sleep. I don’t want to die screaming and on fire, like the passengers in my grandfather’s car. Ha!). Yet the memories of us are finite. In three or four generations there will be no one alive who ever met you. Given enough time, you’ll leave no trace of your existence, in print or memory. It’s not just our bodies that return to the ether.
Most people I know are either scared of dying and avoid thinking and talking about it or they don’t care and have no reason to think about it or talk about it. Those who don’t care shrug it off as something mechanical, something biological and unavoidable and wave it off as a nuisance that doesn’t matter now. What matters now is personally consuming whatever can be accumulated.
Denying your mortality out of fear or indifference is denying your humanity. When you deny your humanity, you deny the humanity of others and the sanctity of all life on the planet. Machines don’t care if they hurt feelings, destroy the environment, skip out on responsibilities, or play on their smart phone all day. When I see students who are physically unable to put their phones away, I can’t help but to picture a tree that’s wrapped itself around a telephone pole. At some point, their hands will grow skin around those damned things, and they’ll have to plug themselves in at night.
It’s not enough to act fearless towards death. You have to acknowledge the deadline. Iraq made me do that. I saw all kinds of people get all sorts of dead. I’m not saying it doesn’t bother me to think about or that I’m personally in a rush to die. What I am saying is that if you don’t accept death as inevitable, then it’s much easier to allow yourself to be controlled by the irrelevant. When you come to terms with being finite, you prioritize. If your doctor told you that you have six weeks to live, then I bet you’d spend less time liking and sharing memes and more time telling grandma you love her. As your unofficial medical counsel, I need to tell you that you have only some number of weeks left. The moment you were born you jumped out of the airplane, and the only thing you don’t know was how high the plane was.
There are humans, and there are machines. Institutions would prefer machines over humans because machines are programmable, predictable, and replaceable. It’s why we teach sex education and not philosophy in school. Better to learn about the plumbing than explore what it means to be human. But students need sex education because there is a danger in them not knowing about AIDS and condoms. There is a greater danger in students not having the opportunity to come to terms with their mortality and the implication that has on their life.
Humans are turned into machines when our work owns us and not us our work. African slaves were machines designed to work the fields. They weren’t given the rights of humanity, namely, personal sovereignty, community, culture, and family. “Property,” while accurate, isn’t a specific enough term. They were machines. Given enough time of having a master and having that master demand tasks of you, you will lose your humanity. There were slaves who lamented the end of slavery and wished things could go back to the good old days, before they were free. This is how institutionalization works. Factory workers on a furniture assembly line are less satisfied with themselves as people than are custom furniture builders, regardless of pay and benefits. On the assembly line, the master assigns the task and the machine performs. The worker is subservient to the apparatus. If you are assigned work and have no option to quit that work without being penalized, you are being co-opted by machinery. You are being prepped for college and career, that is, you are moving down the conveyor belt, assembled by other robots who were assembled long ago in a similar factory who are all being held accountable by an even bigger and colder machine. You are being taught that you have an input and an output and someone can push a button to make you dance. Given enough time, leaving that situation can be painful, but even if the physical conditions of your enslavement are good, giving up your personal sovereignty is never good for your humanity.
In school, nobody ever asked me, Do you think about dying? Where do you think you go when you die? How do you feel about your mortality? To my knowledge, no teacher would ever ask a student that in the district I work, or any other district. It’s not in the curriculum. It took a year in a war zone for me to confront one of the most awesome and overwhelming abilities we have, something no other being on earth can do: the capacity to consider our personal death and what that means for our life. You don’t know what you’re giving up if you ignore that in your humanity.
I don’t separate “education” – a special thing done in a special place by specialized, certified people, during a special period in a person’s life – and life itself. My experience in Iraq in 2004 has made me afraid for my five-year-old son, who feels as deeply as I do and who has as hard a time forgetting the capitals of states as I do the bright white flash and return-fire.
Four years into teaching, I had a Dominican girl in class who was terrified of public speaking, even in front of our class of ten. I more or less forced her, using every coercive teacher trick I knew, because I was always taught to face your fears. I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do. She was trembling even after she was finished, and, although she kept coming to class, she cowered in the last-seat-last-row for the rest of the year. She volunteered for nothing more. I wrote about my experience in Iraq because I’ve always been told to “just talk about it, you’ll feel better.” That advice is shit.
What is education but life itself? Like Tim O’Brien alluded to in The Things They Carried, there is no moral. He writes, “in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.’” I’d probably use a different word than “oh.” Lessons?
We smashed their schools, burned them, and shot people based on the time of night they were outside. They dressed up like our allies and blew themselves up when they weren’t murdering the families of our actual allies and throwing their headless bodies into the Tigris. Write a five paragraph essay on that. Or write about how we’ve lost more soldiers to suicide than to combat. Your choice. Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence.
Being lawful and following the rules means allowing their reality to become your reality, and their reality includes you pledging your allegiance to their republic before you’re old enough to wipe your own ass. School is a photocopy of life. It’s a combination of Office Space and the eye of Sauron. It primes you for reliance on others. It has the illusion of a beginning, middle, and end and progress, but then you wake up and realize there is no moral. “Education,” if such a thing even exists. I just call it life. There are tears, laughter, regret, love, and patience. There’s empathy and apathy. There’s living and dying. If you’re going to give a single person a single grade for that, you might as well fail me. I’m not playing, and I’m done running from Iraq.
Consent is Sexy
I had a senior, who was very interested in "honest but uncomfortable conversations" with peers, come running into my class, showing off a button that read Consent is Sexy. If I remember, the Gay-Straight Alliance, in collaboration with a health teacher or maybe a school psychologist, had a bunch of these things made and were handing them out at lunch. Apparently the indomitable wave of college campus rapes is a result of a conspicuous lack of gay kids with pins.
But sure. I agree. Consent is “sexy.” I’m just shocked that the irony is lost. First of all, my wife and I homeschool our kids, and usually the first “tough” question friends and family ask is what about socialization, i.e., how will they learn how to interact with peers? Well, here we are, at public school where all the wonderful socialization happens, and we find it necessary to remind 17 and 18-year-olds, in writing, not to have sex with people who don’t agree to have sex. Whatever “socialization” means, it should include the knowledge and ability to not rape (preferably without reminders).
Second of all, Consent is Sexy pins were handed out in a compulsory school where students don’t have the opportunity to consent to anything. They have virtually no say in which classes they take, and they certainly have no say in what is taught or how it is taught once they get in those classes. They don’t get to use the bathroom without written permission; homework isn’t a mutually agreed upon voluntary activity; students eat when they’re told to eat, move when they’re told to move, speak when they’re told to speak, write when they’re told to write, and so on. They are never once asked by anyone for permission to have these things done to them. Compulsion means to be forced to do something; consent means agreeing to do something. There is nothing consensual about school. No wonder we need buttons.
Compulsory education is an ineffective way to teach and learn, as well as antithetical to the principles of freedom upon which this country was founded. Yes, I know that much of those past freedoms were freedoms for white protestant males. I’m not denying that, but that important fact also isn’t a sufficient reason to deny freedoms to more groups in the future. In fact, the “scientific” reasons given for denying groups rights in the past are similar to the reasons given to deny teenagers rights now: slaves should not be given freedom because they would not be able to handle it – blacks by their nature are lazy, violent, and must be controlled; women should not be allowed to vote because they are ignorant and a woman’s brain can only handle so much complex thought before they become ugly and infertile; teenagers should not direct their own learning because if not pushed to do something then they would choose to do nothing, with the exception of drugs, sex, video games, and fighting (ignorant, violent, and must be controlled).
There are a few assumptions that I’m going to make about teenagers and education:
- A teenager’s nature is not laziness, their preferred state is not ignorance, and it is not necessary for extrinsic motivation to be delivered by trained professionals in order to prevent them from bareknuckle boxing under a bridge in exchange for drugs and money.
- They aren’t broken, and so we don’t need to fix them.
- Just because a student complies doesn’t mean they are engaged; just because they can recite data doesn’t mean they’ve gained knowledge or wisdom.
- A teenager is not a child. They are ready for real responsibility. Suggesting that they, for example, should be required to obtain written permission to use the bathroom is a humiliating affront to their dignity. The same goes with force-feeding Shakespeare and algebra.
- An underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the reason why teenagers are impulsive, is as much a gift as it is a curse, and it is not a reason to lock teenagers up in a series of rooms all day. Either God, evolution, or both made us that way for a reason. Risk-taking is good. Danger is good. Adventure is good. You don’t get to be old and wise unless you are young and dumb. Cutting teens off from adventure produces adults who are timid and neurotic.
- “Education” is not something that only happens in certain places at certain times with certain well-trained people. Independent thought and action is your birthright, no matter what anyone tries to fill your head with.
- Teachers are not the enemy. They are, for the most part, loving, patient, competent people with a drive to help students achieve. The enemies are not students, school administrators, parents, or school boards. Even politicians aren’t the bad guys in our story (they aren’t the good guys, either). The insidious notion that permeates most of our society that they won’t learn if we don’t force them and the ones who are best equipped to force them are school-people is the enemy. Nothing will change politically until we as a society call out this myth for what it is.
Even if you resist the notion that schools are prisons or that teenagers aren’t inherently lazy or dangerous, if we could come to agreement on some of these points, then we have some common ground upon which to start our journey.
“I need your help figuring out what these questions are asking,” a fellow teacher said to me. She had fourteen multiple choice questions from the NY common core Regents Exam, which is required for graduation. Next to the questions she had another paper with four main categories – analyze, inference, etc. – and a bunch of subcategories underneath. We dutifully read the poem and the multiple choice questions and began the process of categorizing, so we could later collect data from students’ answers and quietly use the outputs to inform our inputs.
“This is stupid,” I said, but continued doing it.
“I know,” she said half-heartedly. We have known each other for a decade. I think we both knew I was about to rant, and one of us didn’t really want to hear it. When you work at the burger joint and the boss tells you to salt the fries, you salt the fries, I imagined she was thinking. No need to turn fry-salting into a bid for congress.
“What if the poet himself doesn’t know what he is inferring?” I circled author’s purpose for number seven. “What if he doesn’t know his own purpose? What if this is just some deep expression of something he’s feeling but can’t otherwise articulate? Or what if he thinks he knows his purpose for writing, but every single reader takes it differently? What if he is expressing something about his life or his experience that he can never properly understand himself? What if he doesn’t get his own motivations?”
She put down her pencil and smiled politely. “I think you’re overthinking it. Just, on its face, your first instinct – what’s the question asking? We need to know which performance indicator to teach.”
We finished, the work day finished, and I left the school building. On the way home I stopped by the grocery store to pick up something for dinner, and while waiting in line I mindlessly scrolled through my social media. At the top of my timeline was a link shared by a group I follow: "I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems." Sara Holbrook writes:
Did I have a purpose for writing it? Does survival count? Teachers are also trying to survive as they are tasked with teaching kids how to take these tests, which they do by digging through past tests, posted online. Forget joy of language and the fun of discovery in poetry, this is line-by-line dissection, painful and delivered without anesthetic.
The universe speaks to us in coincidence. We can hear it if we listen. When we don’t pay attention or when we hear but don’t heed, then we set ourselves up for failure. The energy of the universe flows around you, and choosing to swim against the current will lead to nothing but exhaustion.
This is why our education system fails to educate. Learning is social and playful. Mammals wrestle and play tag in order to do all the things necessary for survival. They do not take seriously the training they are doing for the most important parts of their lives – catching prey, eluding predators, establishing enough dominance to secure a mate, and raising young. It is meant to be joyful.
How many times have I told students that, when answering essay questions on a test, it doesn’t matter what you think, it matters what you can support using the textual evidence in front of you. You’re not trying to change the world, you’re trying to pass a test. Literature is meant to be playful – but so is physics. If you aren’t on the playground, it’s going to show in whatever you create. You will produce one lifeless piece of cardboard after another before they finally print you a degree, which itself probably won’t even be on cardboard.
Compulsion – non-consensual education - requires violence; it requires complete control over what students put into their brain, the people they are exposed to, the places they are authorized to be, and oftentimes, with free lunch programs, what food goes into their body. Compulsory systems are resentful of families who do not enforce homework or dress code policies, are reluctant to allow parents into their buildings except once or twice a year on special “open house” days, and fears parents who choose to homeschool. It is damn near the most unnatural way a human of any age can authentically learn. Can you imagine a couple of puppies being forced to wrestle under threat of in school suspension, while a well-trained expert looks on with a clipboard, marking off points?
I’m not interested in “reforming” education. I don’t care about tinkering with the curriculum or bickering over charters and vouchers. I’m interested in revolting against compulsion. Cotton fields and tobacco farms are amoral things. You can be an abolitionist and still see the value in t-shirts and cob pipes. If you’re an abolitionist, then what you are against is slavery and what you are for is freedom – freedom for individuals to live their lives any way they choose, so long as what they choose doesn’t infringe on others to do the same. I’m not calling for the end of public schools. I’m calling for the end of compulsion.
Compulsory education is against the law of nature. There are a number of people who are very upset about the possibility of transgender bathrooms in public schools, and they’ll cite the same reason. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of transgender bathrooms because it goes against the natural order of things, but you see nothing unnatural with using the force of law to separate a child from their family and culture from the ages of five to seventeen to be fed and taught by strangers during the best part of their waking hours, then I’m sorry, but we’re probably not going to have much in common.
The grading policy is the whip that keeps the whole thing moving. Here’s your homework assignment. Ask a dozen teachers, what is the purpose behind grading students? I don’t know for sure what they’ll tell you, but whatever they say will likely fall into one of three categories:
(1)Teachers prone to euphemism will say to check for student understanding.
(2) A well-intentioned teacher who gives considerable thought to assessment may say to give feedback to the students and their parents.
(3) The authoritarians prefer to hold students accountable – these are the same people who will say they’ll have a boss one day, won’t they? (Nothing screams cultivating a love of learning louder than your boss is here to hold you accountable).
The first two categories you could do without an alpha-numeric score. I could tell a student what grade I thought they would receive on an essay based on a rubric and exemplars (but I’d rather not – after all, I’m not writing this book based on a rubric), or the writings overall effectiveness based on peer or public review, or ask them good questions after an oral presentation, or report to their parents how many hours they spent at their internship. Nothing done in typical or radical schools requires a recorded grade on a transcript in order to check student understanding or communicate with parents, and definitely not down to a single percentage point (somebody please tell me the difference between an 86% and an 87%). Furthermore, if grades were an objective and accurate reflection of a student’s knowledge and skill, then why do we have “honors” ceremonies and give kids special diplomas, stickers, pizza, bagels, juice, and other little treats for performing as we wish them to? This isn’t a competition they signed up for. It’s something they are forced into. They are stripped bare to expose their strengths and weaknesses, then they are told they are good and given a treat as if they were a dog that learned to sit.
Ask a teacher of a non-credit bearing course what their greatest struggle is. Those are the teachers who beg and plead for teeth to their programs; they need some way to grade for accountability purposes. They’ll tell you their daily struggle is attendance and student buy-in. Therein lays your answer. The purpose in grading students is coercion. It works equally as a bribe as it does a threat, with the unfortunate (unintended? I doubt it) consequence of training students to anticipate a stranger’s valuation of an arbitrary and narrow curriculum as a superior indication of worth than intrinsic valuation of a self-directed, limitless curriculum. The result is a system that conditions students for boredom. Nothing worth doing could possibly be boring.
The "but you’ll have a boss one day" people are actually tipping their hand as to what school is really all about. Governments require that the people be dependent on them in order for the government to remain viable – the more independent we are, the less relevant they become. Therefore, government schools would do well to get kids used to having an arbitrarily selected stranger as the authority figure that is necessary in their lives. We could drop the pretense of school and just put students into jobs if we’re worried about their ability to listen to a boss, although the reality is it doesn’t take twelve years of school to figure out what a boss does. That still doesn’t properly address the dangers in treating absolute compliance to a series of strangers as a principle worth living by.
Growing up, I loved John Updike’s story "A&P" about a boy who quits his job after the store manager embarrasses three teenage girls in bikinis. When I was in my early twenties I had a retail job, my boss had me follow a young black man about my same age around the store. I had followed suspicious people before, black and white, but this time seemed different, and by the end of it I realized I had been a participant in something that I was uncomfortable with. I wasn’t as cool as Sammy from "A&P" – I didn’t walk out and quit on the spot - but I started looking for a new job right away and pretty soon after that gave my two weeks notice. A boss isn’t the same as a leader, a leader doesn’t need state-sponsored compulsion or grades for people to follow them, and compliance is a value best reserved for dogs.
Grading learning will inevitably lead to a corruption of learning. It is not learning at all, but a training in dependence and subservience. We are learning creatures; it’s in our DNA. We aren’t as strong as bears or as sturdy as goats, but we can build a house to live in, a gun to shoot the bear, and a stove to cook him up with a bit of butter from the goat. Nothing else on earth can do that, and it happens through an automatic drive for knowledge. We could wave a wand and make all schools in the world disappear, and learning will still keep on keeping on much as it has for the past ten thousand years. It’s natural and healthy because it is in our instinct to survive.
Our eating habits are distinctly human, too. We sit down with the people we like or love, often give thanks, and go through little rituals like passing dishes around to every member or remaining seated until everyone is finished. We rarely eat with people we dislike, or with strangers, unless absolutely necessary. We eat like that for the same reason we love, empathize, and, synonymous with learn, play. It’s gratifying for us. It strengthens us as individuals, families, and communities. It teaches us about ourselves and those around us. It makes us physically healthy.
The graded versions of these things are hot dog eating contests, spelling bees, matchmaking reality shows, recitals, trivia games, standardized tests, and so on. They are quantifiable because they are specific; you can peg it with a percentage or rate contestants hierarchically. Genuine learning can never be quantified. None of the quantifiable stuff is the natural way of learning things except for when it is done just for fun. If taken too seriously, or for too long, or under threat, none of it is healthy.
Benjamin Franklin said he was the best physician that knows the worthlessness of most medicines. The “medical model” is often used as an analogy for education: your graduation rate is your “survival” rate, thus your students who fail to graduate in four years are your “mortality” rate. Any choice by the school to emphasize social and emotional standards over data-driven-standards is akin to a doctor saying, “I didn’t take your blood pressure, but I feel as though you’re just fine.” It’s the worst metaphor I’ve ever heard for what learning is; not only for the fear necessary for making such an argument work (you’re killing kids by not using data!), but also for the insidious assumption that kids are “sick” and that we school-people are the only ones with the cure. It’s the way we rationalize the compulsion and ensuing violence: if we don’t make them, they won’t, and it’ll be chaos in the streets. I’m leery of any fear-based argument.
The natural state of kids isn’t “sickness;" or, to put it another way, ignorance, laziness, violence, unmotivated, indifference, evilness, etc. As controversial as this statement may be, kids are not going to revert to savages or drooling vegetables if they don’t get n credits by xth grade.
I’m not against schools if treated as learning centers, but their purpose isn’t to fix kids. Fix them? I didn’t know they were broken! School vision statements often read something like, “We believe all kids can learn” or “life-long learners” or something silly like that. What an absurd thing to put in writing! “We, at Grassy Hill Elementary, believe all Kindergartners can get taller” or “We, the Prospect Junior High cafeteria staff, believe that all kids can and will eat food.” A human being’s natural state is curiosity. I’ve described myself as an advocate of self-directed education, but truth be told, all learning comes from the self, so, in a sense, “self-directed education” is redundant. Students will be life-long learners, of one thing or another; they will deliberately pursue their own dreams, or unconsciously pursue someone else’s. Either way they are learning self-sufficiency, or else they are learning compliance.
Data has become my least favorite four letter word. Felix Baumgartner used data to inform some of his decisions when he jumped out of a frickin’ space pod and plunged the 120,000 feet back to earth, but something tells me the data wasn’t the central thing in his heart and mind throughout the entire process. Neither was what “grade” he was going to get – it was a pass/fail proposition. Data was the central concern of trainers and technicians, not the driving force for the man on the mission to be the first space-jumper in human history. I don’t see great teachers as trainers or technicians. I’m sure if Socrates were alive today and had to sit through even a single meeting discussing how to use data to inform instruction, he’d kill himself all over again.
Benjamin Franklin also said that any fool can complain, and most fools do, so I’ll offer a better metaphor. John Taylor Gatto spoke of education being a “helix" sport:
"Here’s a principle of real education to carry you through the moments of self-doubt. Education is a helix sport, a unique personal project like seatless unicycle riding over trackless wilderness, a sport that avoids rails, rules, and programmed confinement. The familiar versions of this are cross-country skiing, sailing, hang-gliding, skateboarding, surfing, solitary mountain climbing, thousand-mile walks, things like that. I think of education as one, too.
In a helix sport the players search for a new relationship with themselves. They endure pain and risk to achieve this goal. Helix sports are free of expert micromanagement. Experts can’t help you much in that moment of truth when a mistake might leave you dead. Helix sports are a revolt against predestination.
Bringing children up properly is a helix sport forcing you to realize that no boy or girl on earth is just like another. If you do understand this you also understand there can exist no reliable map to tell you all you need to do. Process kids like sardines and don’t be surprised when they come out oily and dead. In the words of the Albany Free School, if you aren’t making it up as you go along, you aren’t doing it right."
 “’I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you are alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored’” ~Louis C.K.
 'Do No Harm': A Hippocratic Oath for Schools http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/09/05/03stewart.h34.html