The beginning of a new school year always makes me think of warm clothes like long sweaters and stiff cords. I remember an ugly belted sweater I wore until it practically disintegrated. And the sound of corduroys brushing against themselves as I walked quickly down the hallway at South Lincoln High School. You wanted to move fast because the Hare brothers, Craig Nelson and Jerald Collens were standing at the end of the hall. With folded arms they silently judged the girls rounding the corner to history class or the gym. You had to pass by, there was no way around it.
Little did I know then that these older students – who eventually became friends – weren’t only indulging in a mild form of psychological torture! They seemed so confident and held power in our little high school. But they were also compensating for their own insecurities. I hadn’t yet discovered this truth: no one knows what they’re doing. We’re all just muddling through and doing the best we can. Sometimes the best we can do means we’re doing less than our best to others. (Compensating for our own trauma and neglect.) And sometimes staring down someone else’s insecurities can make us feel cool.
One of the best things I learned in high school wasn’t in math or English class. It came from our Home-Ec teacher: “Food is friendship. An offer of food is an offer to be friends”. This came to mind when someone invited me to dinner or lunch. They were taking a risk by offering themselves up for acceptance or refusal. It made me appreciate the invitation more.
As I get closer to a milestone birthday (2022) I have a deeper understanding of so many clichés. I thought, ‘youth is wasted on the young’ meant that older people were jealous of youth. That’s not it at all. It means that with the benefit of hindsight, we would have put emphasis on more important things. Older folks confirm this all the time. As my Mom got sicker, she said, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much of your growing-up years worried about a clean house.” She said she had put too much emphasis on what others thought.
Schools by and large don’t teach us all the right things. We know that now. Yes, we need to be able to read and write, but also to think critically about the information we’re fed. Critical thinking is different from cynical thinking, but plenty of cynics think they’re being critical. The cynics come out during elections and try to pass themselves off as deep thinkers. Critical thinking is also not looking for something to criticize. It takes effort, where cynicism is an easy, knee-jerk reaction.
Cynical: believing that people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.
Critical: involving the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.
We also need a greater emphasis on kindness. A distraught woman posted on Facebook last week that she needed to rehome her cat. Going public was her last resort. She didn’t want to put him in a shelter. Mostly, people sympathized and offered to spread the word. She said her reasons were private but some challenged her anyway. Instead of understanding the terrible position she was in, they judged her and tried to make her satisfy their disbelief. Where was the kindness, the empathy? (Social media commenters aren’t known for those qualities, but why?)
We need to learn that our thoughts aren’t the same as reality. That people think of us much less than we believe. Teachers should inspire us to use our imaginations. To convince students to reach out to the kid who’s a loner rather than ostracize them. We need to acknowledge death and that it’s a part of this existence. That sometimes we need to do the right thing for the whole of society, not just ourselves. That science isn’t an opinion; religion is. We’re all on this spinning blue ball together so we’d better get along and let go of petty differences.
Some teachers do teach those things but they’re the exception, not the rule. And that’s the fault of curricula, not the teachers. They’ve been rock stars by and large through the pandemic. If they’re not centering on realities of life, that’s our fault, not theirs. It’s an abomination that many of us had never heard of residential schools until we were adults. It makes sense, too, because who decides what’s taught? Government. And we all remember the craziness that surrounded updating sex-ed. My goodness. When will people learn that forbidding anything only makes it more attractive? Just ask me about the first time I smoked pot. I was 14. It was “forbidden”. (Fortunately, I didn’t care for it.)
My own criteria for courses would follow a simple line of questions. Is it real? Would the student feel like a total idiot if they found this out on their own later in life? Does knowing it make them a kinder/better person, or help develop empathy toward others? Is it something that will benefit them as they make their own way in the world? This would work for everything from residential schools to filling out tax forms.
The education system will never be perfect. And here’s another thing you learn as you get older: nothing is perfect. Nothing can be perfect. So we shouldn’t expect it to be even as we try to make it the best we can.
I don’t wear cords anymore and I’m allergic to wool. Synthetic sweaters get full of static too easily, no matter how much fabric softener I use. So I layer with breathable cottons. One of the Hare brothers passed away last year. Jerald lives in Arizona and I’ve lost track of the others. I hire someone to do my taxes. But food is friendship, so be careful how quickly you say “no” to an offer of garden veggies or a freshly baked pie. That’s all for today. Class dismissed!