A Note To My Students, Past and Present

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I’ve had this rose for almost 20 years. It’s blue craft foam with a florist wire stem, both artfully twisted into something much greater than the sum of its parts. One of my high school students gave it to me, just because. Over the years, it’s followed me from house to house, carefully packed away with all the fragile treasures, and I’ve always had it on display in my home office. I’d be devastated if anything ever happened to it.

The student who crafted this for me wasn’t particularly academic, nor did she think much of herself. She was artistically talented, had a great sense of humour, and was a loyal, caring friend, but declined any and all compliments. Even when she presented me with this thoughtful gift, and I marveled at it, she insisted “It was nothing.” All these years later, I can remember her name, her face, her voice, and all kinds of stories she told me. I sometimes look at this lovely rose, and wonder if that student has any idea that I still think about her, years and years later.

After 20 years as an educator, my head still swims with snippets of memories of all kinds of students. I remember the one whose home was bombed when he was three, and he didn’t speak for almost a year afterward. I remember the one who protested in Tiananmen Square. There was one who couldn’t write her final exam because she had joyfully welcomed a baby the week before, and another who had been in a film with Jackie Chan as a child. Some of them really liked me, and a few of them (hopefully not too many) hated my guts. A handful of them have reached out to me via social media over the years, now busy with full, adult lives. But they’re all still in there somewhere.

Lately, this little rose has been a potent reminder of the situation we’re in, and not in a bad way. This semester, my students and I had to jump online three quarters of the way through our course, and we did our best to squeeze our conversations through WiFi. The rose was in the background as we got through our lessons, and now that our course is finished, it makes me think of the people in our class this semester. It makes me hope that they know that I’m still thinking about them, especially with all that’s going on in the world at the moment.

I feel pangs of something I can’t quite name for my own little thinker too, who very badly wants to go back to school. The rose has reminded me to assure her that her teachers are thinking about her, and that they share her wishes. I try to explain to her that she probably still occupies space in the heads of teachers from years before, and not just because she’s a memorable character.

That’s just the way teaching works, you see. No matter how well the semester or year goes, students don’t just filter in and out of classrooms without leaving a mark on the folks who are educating them. They sneak into conversations, challenge us to do things differently, maybe better, and occasionally, they spark worry. Whether you love your teaching job, or can’t stand it, whether the year goes swimmingly, or is a hot mess, your students wedge themselves into your brain.

For any parents who are reading this, please be assured that your kid’s teacher took something of them home when they packed up and headed indoors. Know that they think about all of their students every day, and that when they look at pandemic stats, or hear that there’s at least another month or two where they won’t be face to face with their classes, a little bit of them crinkles up and aches. And no, the fact that your kid was part of their class when this big, horrible thing happened won’t overshadow anything. Their teachers’ memories of the class of 2020 will include the kid who likes to eat purple crayons, or the one who sings the national anthem the loudest, or the one who insists on feeding the class fish. Please make sure your kid knows this too, that they’ve made an impression that’s likely to be there for a long, long time.

I’d give an awful lot to tell these things to the student who made me this rose.

Philosophy Ain’t What It Used to Be. Thank Goodness.

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I would give an awful lot for us to not be in the situation we’re currently in. I have no wish to see children out of school, people out of work, and our physical well-being threatened. Like many people, I’m doing what I can to help, and I wake up every morning wishing I had the smarts or the ability to make it all just go away. I’m profoundly sorry this is all happening, and I’m even more sorry that there are so many suffering because of it.

But I’m not sorry that so much will change because of it. I’m not at all upset at the idea of a “new normal”, although I’ve never been a fan of the word “normal” per se. Quite a lot of stuff hasn’t really worked for a long time, and we’ve become pretty comfortable with it not working. Long before we were told to stay put in our houses and wash our hands thoroughly and frequently, there were a lot of things that were long overdue for an overhaul.

And philosophy was one of them.

Perhaps the fact that philosophy is thousands (or tens of thousands) of years old somewhat excuses the fact that it got kind of…stuck. History is lousy with stories of people doing things out of habit, because they were comfortable with status quo. But philosophy is supposed to be better than that. Doing things a certain way, for a prolonged period of time, “just because” is considered a major philosophical no-no. Philosophers are supposed to bristle at the notions of comfort and habit. We’re supposed to relish change, or at least be open to it.

So, here are handful of things about philosophy that I hope to see re-envisioned, as everything else is likely to be in the not-so-distant future:

  • It needs to be accessible to everyone, because now more than ever, everyone needs it. I know philosophers say that it’s for everyone, but a lot of the time, that’s just lip service. We don’t always communicate and share things in a way that everyone can understand. We don’t go out of our way to include everyone. We don’t always embrace philosophical thinking in children, and we don’t bolster it in adults. Philosophy empowers, consoles, enlightens, connects, and everyone needs that, especially now.
  • It needs to be practical and applied. I’m all for ideas-for-the-sake-of-ideas…sometimes. That kind of approach has its place and its value, but it’s just not enough anymore. I’d go so far as to challenge any philosopher, studying in any branch of philosophy, to find an everyday use for whatever they happen to study. Go out on your front porch, watch strangers pass by on the street, and ask yourself “How would this make their lives better, right now?” If philosophy can’t help solve problems, then what are we doing?
  • We need to start looking for it everywhere. It’s not like it wasn’t already in movies, books, cartoons, music, food, theatre, sports, and all over the place. Philosophy needs to become just another part of our culture, something we just do all the time, in every part of our lives. We need to point out what’s there, and stir it into all kinds of new things too.
  • Philosophy needs to make friends with tech and new media. There are some thinkers who’ve made the leap, and who are constantly experimenting with ways to make dialogue and inquiry work online. There has also been a whole lot of resistance. Getting philosophy to go digital isn’t an easy ask, by any means, but our choice at this point is do it through tech, or do it alone. Beyond this, there’s a lot that philosophy can contribute to the tech world, and to digital literacy.
  • We need to take pleasure in asking questions, instead of being afraid of them. A non-trivial part of the mess we’re in right now stems from the fact that humans don’t turn over enough proverbial rocks, because we’re afraid of what might scurry out from under them. As philosophers, we have to model the joy of thinking, and nurture it in others.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how COVID19 has effectively sent the lot of us to our rooms, so that we can think about what we’ve done. Anyone who has the privilege of being able to shelter in place probably has a lot more time to do just that- think. What an incredible wasted opportunity this would be if we didn’t take advantage of that, to sharpen our skills and re-evaluate the way we’ve been unjustifiably resting on our laurels, to come up with solutions needed by those who aren’t so lucky, so privileged.

For as long as I can remember, philosophers have been asking why we don’t get the attention and respect we deserve. We’ve bemoaned the fact that we aren’t always seen as useful or relevant. Well my friends, this “‘new normal” that will supposedly be waiting for us when the dust settles isn’t going to magically appear on its own. It’s going to require deep thinking, the asking of difficult and uncomfortable questions, the very things that philosophers claim to specialize in. This isn’t the opportunity we were planning (or hoping) for, but it is an opportunity, nonetheless, to help ourselves grow as thinkers and as a community, but also to help others find their sea legs in the midst of a terrible storm.

Anyone up for a change?

Poem: Frida’s Brow


Frida

Frida’s Brow

An uncomfortable recess

lay between past and present

mother and father

adoration and infidelity

 

Greater still was the chasm

Yawning

between agony and ecstasy

cleft in two

at the point of a metal rod

 

Even the paintings

methodically dissociated from themselves

“acid and tender”

shattered mirrors of  love and life bisected.

 

Only a sharp, thick, glossy bar of ebony

to unite warring factions

connect the dots

between a being of two minds

and two spirits.