The Five Best and Worst Things about this School Year

Every school year is going to have its ups and downs. While teaching is definitely a difficult profession, I feel blessed to have a job that gets me excited to go to work every day (well, almost every day). Last year I wrote an end-of-the-year post thanking my students for the opportunity to be their teacher. This time, I’ll be counting down the five best and worst things about this school year, or at least the things I am legally able to share.

So, here goes… five bad things, ranging from the catastrophic to the mildly annoying:

1. Losing my voice the entire first week of school. There’s really just no getting around this one. It sucks to be a person incapable of speech, much less a teacher trying to set the tone for the rest of the year. I usually lose my voice once a year for a day or so. This year I lost my voice for eight days, thanks to an unfortunate combination of laryngitis and food poisoning. On the bright side, my students were pretty understanding, and they wrote me letters so I could get to know them better. I was amazed how many wrote that they were excited to have me as their teacher, despite the fact that they had never heard me speak (or maybe because of it)! I do remember one funny moment when I was whispering to a student I had just met to show her to her assigned seat. In all her first-day-of-school eagerness, the poor girl whispered back.

2. Getting hit by a car on the way to school. I think this one also pretty much explains itself.

3. Stressing out about the faculty versus students free throw competition… and then going 1 for 6. Womp womp. Fortunately there was so much going on that week (if you were there, you remember), that nobody seemed to care. Still, the super-competitive side of me wants a rematch.

4. Every minute I had to spend in the halls. I remember the halls being stinky and crowded when I was in high school. At the school where I now teach, the halls are like the mall scene in Mean Girls: the teenage equivalent of a watering hole. Here rival students compete for dominance and try to attract the attention of a mate. In the halls, you see things you don’t want to see and hear things you really don’t want to hear. This year I had to monitor the third floor halls, which should be a piece of cake compared to the notoriously rough second floor. Here is a typical conversation between me and a student trying to skip class by wandering around the halls: Me- “Do you have a pass?” Student- silence. Me- “Where are you going?” Student- silence. Me- “Tell me your name.” Student- silence. Me- “You really need to go to class.” Student- silence. “Okay then, I’m just going to follow you until you go to class.” You can see how this would get frustrating after awhile.

5. Grading essays. Occasionally, a teacher will get the treat of grading a near-perfect essay. The other 99% of the time, trying to follow the convoluted logic, historical inaccuracies, and illegible handwriting of a fifteen-year-old is enough to make your brain hurt and your eyes water in pain. Then you have to do it 125 more times.

So that’s about it for the bad stuff; now on to the good. Here are the “greatest hits” of school year 2014-2015, or as it is known around these parts, our best year ever:

1. Getting to work with wonderful student leaders in the clubs that I sponsor. Being a faculty advisor can add a lot of time and stress to an already-busy workload—including before and after school meetings—with no additional financial benefit. Fortunately, I am blessed to work with student leaders whose motivation and organizational abilities I can only envy. I have had the opportunity to get to know my current and former students on a deeper level through their participation in clubs, and to witness their amazing talents and passions in action. One young man was riding his bike to a Key Club meeting early in the morning when he was hit by a car, who then drove off and left him bleeding in a parking lot. The next day, he apologized for not being there, bandages and all. Fear not; the future is bright!

2. Inspiring students to want to learn. It’s a cliché of course, but every teacher dreams of inspiring young minds to care about their particular field and to see its importance in their lives. My two favorite lessons of the year are both hands-on activities where the students take the lead. In the first lesson, I have students simulate Indian Ocean trade by buying and re-selling goods from various cities to see who can profit the most. It is hilarious to see them haggle with each other and come up with their own creative ways to attract business. The second lesson is the infamous “alliance game,” in which students strategize in six different “countries,” make deals, and finally go to war, engaging in clever diplomacy and military strategizing. This year each class had a great war (except for the one class where everyone got so tired of the lone neutral country that they decided to simultaneously invade them). Often the weakest students shine the brightest in these activities. Admittedly, trying to facilitate student engagement can have its false starts. There is nothing like seeing a hand go up in the middle of a heated debate from a kid who rarely contributes– to experience those fleeting moments of anticipation– only for the student to then ask to go to the bathroom.

3. Learning from my students. Every year I have that one student who teaches me more than I teach him or her. This year it was a young man from Afghanistan. He was bright, charismatic, and respectful, despite making it to class only about half of the time. He did not hesitate to share his opinions with the rest of the class, even though he was the only immigrant. At the beginning of the year, I wondered if I might have a problem with this student, as he seemed a bit too enthusiastic in his approval of patriarchy. I was explaining how, in classical China, women were supposed to stay in the home and take care of the kids. He began nodding his head enthusiastically, saying “yes, yes,” as the girls behind him scoffed and glared in his direction. But then something happened that was totally unexpected. In a round table discussion on the Scientific Revolution and secularism, he spoke out about his own religion’s need to modernize. This caught me and the other students completely off guard. In a world where so many struggle to understand the other side, he was able to see the pros and cons of both his highly traditional society and our modern one.

4. Working with and getting to know amazing colleagues. Let’s face it; we all get tired of dealing with teenagers seven hours a day, five days a week. Sometimes we just need some sympathetic adult conversation. I am not one of those teachers who encourages students to eat lunch in her room– sorry; that’s my time. Everyone needs to vent on occasion, but it is important as a teacher to surround yourself with positive people. I have been blessed to be surrounded by intelligent and caring colleagues who are always willing support me both professionally and personally, as I try to do for them. There is no better cure for a bad teaching experience than to share a good laugh with the only other people who would understand! Even more so than in the past, this year has witnessed the formation of new friendships and the deepening of older ones. I am profoundly grateful for both.

5. Being appreciated. Earlier today, I was packing up my room while trying to hunt down the dozen or so students still in danger of failing the semester. I was so ready to be done with it all and wondering whether anything I did this year actually made a difference. Then I looked in my mailbox and saw a letter. I opened it to find this message from a student I taught last year. It read:

Dear Mrs. G.,   

I am writing to thank you for always having passion. You were always so passionate about history and about teaching that it had to rub off on everyone. Watching you teach and talk with such enthusiasm made it so much more interesting to learn. You always seemed like you were happy to be there and happy to talk about it. Everyone saw it. Your passion enabled you to prepare us well for our AP test. You are a great teacher and you have influenced so many. Thank you for caring and making us care as well. I hope you never lose your passion and that it helps you as much as it does us. Thank you.

Now maybe she was instructed to write that letter by a parent, or perhaps another teacher. But in that moment, I really didn’t care. Her letter was a great reminder of how much we really mean to our students. We don’t always get the same immediate satisfaction as an architect surveying a completed house, or a lawyer who has won his case. Instead we get a test score, a number that is supposed to somehow represent what our students have either learned or not learned after nine months in our care. But regardless of tests passed or failed, the good we do never dies.

So, despite being in many ways a year of disasters, I will look back fondly on this school year. Being a teacher is a tremendous responsibility and privilege. Thanks to my amazing students and colleagues for making it all worthwhile. 

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How to Not Succeed in Life: Nine Things Every Young Graduate Should Know

Tis the season for graduation speeches, when accomplished individuals draped in medieval garb deliver words of wisdom to anxious twenty-two-year-olds. I usually hate such occasions: the sappiness, the clichés, the self-congratulation. I skipped my college graduation and likely would have passed on my high school ceremony too, if given the chance. When it comes to doling out generic life advice, I am certainly no expert.

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But with so many wonderful speeches floating around right now, I thought I would offer up a timely antidote. As you can see from the title of this post, my “speech” will focus on how to not succeed in life. That’s right. I plan to dispense terrible advice, carefully designed to deflate the hopes, dash the dreams, and derail the destinies of our country’s brightest young minds. Why, you might ask? Well, keep reading, and hopefully you’ll see.

Good afternoon, class of 2015! And what a fine looking bunch you are. Today is finally here, the day you will each receive that expensive piece of paper henceforth entitling you to a life of quick and easy success. The hard part is pretty much over, so I suggest you begin the celebration tonight, and continue for at least the next few months. Relax. Rest on your laurels. Trust me; you’ve earned it!

Fortunately for you, I’ve decided to keep this address mercifully brief. After all, I know how short your attention spans are! Still, should you get bored at any time during the next fifteen minutes, I encourage you to get out your smart phones and start scrolling around on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Chances are you will find something stimulating enough to distract you for the few seconds you might have otherwise spent developing a complex thought, or just mentally recovering until something genuinely interesting turned up.

So, here it is. A lifetime’s worth of advice condensed into nine convenient points.

1. First, I want to just remind you that you’re awesome! Thirteen years of grade school and four years of college should have been enough to artificially inflate your self-esteem, but I’m not willing to take any chances here. As Exhibit A, just look at your awesome grades. A’s are now the most common grades awarded, up from 15% in 1960 to 43% now. Think about how much smarter that makes you than your grandparents! Humility is okay, but only when it’s the false kind. Like, “look at me over here; I’m awesome, but I’m so humble about it! Which pretty much makes me double awesome!” Right on, bro.

2. Second, let me remind you that whatever is going on in your life at any given moment pretty much predicts the entire rest of it. When times are good, assume the rest of your life will be nothing but smooth sailing. By no means should you plan for a “rainy day”; those only happen to other people. Don’t bother giving thanks for your blessings. Everything good that comes your way is the direct result of your unparalleled brilliance.

3. On the other hand, should you find yourself experiencing a moment of doubt, much less a major setback, take this as a clear sign that your life is now headed for total and irredeemable failure. You have fallen off the smooth escalator ride of personal advancement, and there is simply no getting back on. Didn’t get the job you wanted? Your boyfriend broke up with you? You feel a nagging sense of discontent, as though something important is missing from your life? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s rare for people to recover from such misfortunes.

4. Compare yourself to other people about your age, and worry obsessively about what other people think about you, including casual acquaintances and strangers on the Internet. This is best done through the infallible lens of social media. Your friends sure seem happy on Instagram. Look, some of them are even at the beach right now. Or dating someone awesome. Or just landed a dream job in your field. Yep, something is definitely wrong with you.

5. Don’t take risks. After all, you might fail. Instead, play it safe. Put in the standard forty-hour work week, and expect to be rewarded generously for it. After the first month or so on the job, begin presenting your boss with a weekly list of demands to help you strike a better work-life balance. Remember, it’s his (or her) job to accommodate your needs.

6. Take this time in your life to experiment with multiple sexual partners. You’re in your twenties after all, which according to virtually every pop culture outlet means you should be having lots of meaningless sex. Don’t worry about the potential for contracting a sexually transmitted disease, experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, or becoming emotionally involved with someone entirely incompatible with your values. Instead, find someone cool to cohabit with, and just see what happens. You know, nothing serious. This will all be easily explained to your future spouse, should you choose to get a future spouse.

7. Try to live in as narrow a world possible. Don’t deviate from the routine. Avoid travel to foreign countries, as this is both dangerous and expensive (you need your money for alcohol). Also, don’t read books. You read enough books (or started them at least) in school. Instead, pass the time by watching lots of reality TV.

8. Be selfish! Think primarily about your own happiness. Don’t bother trying to help others around you; that’s their business. Surely someone else is taking care of the poor in your community and helping oppressed people throughout the world. You’ve got more important stuff to deal with. Take your family and close friends for granted, and only show up on their doorsteps in times of personal crisis. Don’t bother returning phone calls, checking in, or helping out. They know they can count on you (when it’s good for you).

9. My final and most important piece of advice is this: make excuses for yourself! Do not by any means accept personal responsibility for your actions. If something doesn’t go your way, it is almost guaranteed to be somebody else’s fault. In a jam over who to blame? Just use one of these handy fall-backs: your parents, society, the 1%, inequality, racism, sexism, oppressive cultural norms, Fox News, and/or the Electoral College.

Well, class of 2015, it’s been great. Thanks for listening. You may have noticed some similarities between these nine points and some of the social and cultural messages you’ve already been exposed to. They are the little destructive thoughts and bad habits we are all prone to slipping into from time to time. But the fact that these mistakes are common does not make them any less harmful, so here is my real advice:

  1. Believe in yourself, and take pride in your achievements. Stay confident, but humble.
  2. Give thanks for your blessings and understand that material success is not guaranteed. If you were to lose it all tomorrow, what would keep you going?
  3. Expect setbacks, but try to maintain a sense of perspective when they occur.
  4. Don’t compare yourself to others, especially on social media.
  5. Take calculated risks and be willing to sacrifice for your dreams. The world does not owe you anything.
  6. Think carefully about the consequences before entering a sexual relationship with someone, and don’t cohabit before marriage.
  7. Broaden your mental horizons with plenty of travel and good books, including fiction. If you can’t go abroad, seek out new experiences in your own neck of the woods.
  8. Take time to serve others in your community, but also invest in your close relationships. When you do fall on hard times, it’s not society that will comfort you, but your family and close friends. So make sure you are there for them too when they need you most.
  9. Don’t make excuses for failure; instead use it as fuel to drive your next success.

But first, congratulations! You really do deserve it. A college degree is a major accomplishment, and certainly nothing to scoff at. I wasn’t lying either when I said you’re awesome. So good job, and good luck!

Giving Up Our Natural Rights for Artificial Ones

It’s been a long time since there has been this much fundamental disagreement in America over the nature of liberty. Judging by recent events, many Americans no longer value our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Where did this disregard originate, what worldview underlies it, and how can we fight it? These are the questions I plan to address in this post.

First, there is a reason that freedom of speech and religion are combined in the First Amendment. While freedom of religion involves the right to pray and worship as one chooses, religion is not a strictly private matter. It is not enough to say, “Believe what you want, just keep it to yourself,” a new twist on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Religious freedom is primarily the freedom to live according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. We don’t surrender this right when we step out of our mosques, churches, synagogues, or private homes. Even atheists and agnostics have the right to come to their own conclusions on moral issues, to not be compelled by the state to participate in behavior they find morally questionable, and to voice their opinions on matters of conscience.

So how can Americans, whose country’s very existence was founded on the belief that we are endowed with rights by the “Law of Nature and of Nature’s God,” be so quick to denounce and even condemn them?

I believe the answer to this question is two-fold. First, a people will only voluntarily surrender a right if they believe doing so is necessary to secure a greater, more important right. Second, one’s conception of liberty depends on one’s understanding of truth itself. There is a deeper moral and philosophical conflict underlying our political debates.

Every high school government class is likely to contain some discussion of how certain rights can often conflict with others. It is the role of the law to define and adjudicate where one person’s rights end and another’s begin. For example, one could reasonably renounce the “right” to steal from one’s neighbor in exchange for the right to be secure in one’s own possessions. But this only shows that the right to steal is not a God-given, inalienable one, or else it could not by definition be forfeited.

What “rights”, then, are so important that a bill entitled the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” could possibly become the subject of a national debate? Since when did religious freedom become controversial?

To hear the outcry in the media, one would think RFRA proponents were claiming the unlimited right to religion, but this is clearly not the case. One has only to read the text of the law, going back to the original bill signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993. RFRA laws simply state that if the government is going to impinge upon your right to religion, it must have a very good reason to do so, a “compelling government interest.”

For example, it is illegal in this country for people under twenty-one to consume alcoholic beverages. Yet children as young as seven receive Holy Communion at Mass. The government has correctly judged that keeping a child from having a sip of what many would consider wine (but that Catholics regard as Christ’s holy blood) is not a compelling enough interest to prevent the practice of a crucial aspect of the Catholic faith.

On the other hand, it is easy to envision a scenario in which the government might reasonably conclude that one’s right to freedom of religion does not include the right to polygamous marriage (as in the case of Islam and Mormon fundamentalism) or the traditional Aztec practice of human sacrifice. The government has a compelling interest in protecting the well-being of children and the lives of would-be victims.

Again, nothing too advanced here. The reason religious freedom has fallen out of vogue is not its complexity, but rather its apparent conflict with the gay rights movement.

Unfortunately, the focus of the gay rights movement has shifted from defending the rights of gay Americans to embrace a homosexual lifestyle free from discrimination and persecution– to live and love as they choose– to the right to do so without anyone voicing so much as a word of criticism or objection. After considering (and rejecting) a strategy that would have promoted civil unions as a legal protection for gay and lesbian partnerships, liberals now claim the right to redefine marriage, an institution as old as human society itself, to suit the sexual and emotional needs of homosexual adults.

Anyone who so much as breaths a word of caution at what would undoubtedly be one of the largest social experiments in human history is mocked as backward, bigoted, and “on the wrong side of history.” Anyone who dares defend the traditional understanding of marriage is roundly chastised on social media, subjected to intimidation and threats, and targeted for financial ruin.

Despite earlier promises and reassurances, the power of the state is now being used not only to silence religious opposition to the redefinition of marriage, but to require participation in what amounts to government-mandated speech. Baking a cake, photographing a ceremony, and even arranging flowers are forms of speech requiring the creative energies of the baker, photographer, and florist. Declining to participate in same-sex ceremonies, or any ceremonies for that matter, is not discrimination; it is the constitutionally-protected right of every American citizen.

Why is this so difficult for people to understand?

It is a sad reality that college campuses, which should be the most open to debate and even controversy, have instead led the charge in the attack on freedom of speech. Many young Americans no longer see the importance of protecting speech they and their friends in the echo-chamber of liberal elitism disagree with. It is easy to picture the fervent nineteen-year-old student tilting her head in confusion at the notion that even unpopular views deserve protection. “Why would you want to protect the right to be wrong?”

All sorts of excuses are given for limiting unpopular (usually conservative) speech. The first is to label it as “hate,” reducing traditional Christians to the level of Neo-Nazis and the KKK. (In Canada, it is now a hate crime to advocate a traditional definition of marriage or to quote the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality.) The second is to trot out the lie that appeals to traditional morality are dangerous and intolerant, as they may damage the fragile self-esteem of anyone who is not a “privileged” heterosexual white Christian male.

But scratch beneath the surface, and one discovers a radical metaphysical and epistemological shift underlying the culture wars. Traditional Christian morality rests upon an understanding of natural law, the idea that reality is absolute and that objective truth can be discovered outside of one’s subjective feelings using the human faculties of reason and observation. On the other hand, those who share a progressive worldview regard reality as just a powerful illusion, and truth therefore a social construct. It is not fixed or eternal—not handed down by a divine Creator. Rather, we are the collective creators, and truth is whatever the majority of people in a society say it is. To borrow a line from Orwell, using this standard, 2+2 can equal 5.

Because the liberal basis for truth is so tenuous, resting on such a fragile foundation as popular opinion, all dissenting voices must be singled out for ridicule and then silenced, lest they supplant liberalism as the dominant narrative. Inconvenient facts must be suppressed in the name of whatever generally agreed-upon Higher Cause. Dogmas are propagated in the absence of biological or physical evidence (for example, the notion that a man can become a woman, or that a fetus developing in the womb is not a person).

On the other hand, the best conservative and Christian thinkers are not afraid of challenges to their positions. They can rest assured that the truth will not change, regardless of whether they lose this particular debate on this particular day. Moral relativists enjoy no such reassurances, resulting in a cauldron of insecurity and doubt simmering under a veneer of artificial confidence. Tolerance is not enough; all must be active participants in the creation of this artificial “truth.” This metaphysical insecurity explains the paradox of the intolerant Left, which only tolerates relatively insignificant differences in appearance, but not the more meaningful differences in belief. They will accept any combination of sexual and gender identity (hence the diversity designation LGBT-QIA), but not a difference in opinion, especially if it comes from a member of a specially-protected victim group.

In conclusion, our natural rights to life and liberty are being subverted. In their place, Americans are being offered an array of artificial, man-made “rights,” mainly the “right” to engage in any and all sexual activity (pre-marital, homosexual, polygamous, adulterous) while being freed from the consequences of said activities (contraception, abortion). But this is only symptomatic of an erroneous understanding of morality, based not on a rational understanding of natural law, but rather a “might makes right” approach to truth itself.

What is needed now is not just a reordering of the hierarchy of competing rights, but also a proper understanding of where those rights originate.

I began this post by observing that it has been a long time since Americans were this divided on the nature of liberty, but this is by no means the first time. Just over a hundred and fifty years ago, serious individuals actually debated whether a person had the right to own another human being. A slave’s right to liberty was considered by many to fall below the slave owner’s right to own property.

Our rights come not from society or even the law, but from our Creator, as clearly stated the Declaration of Independence. We can discover these rights using our God-given faculties of reason or “common sense”; they are thus “self-evident.” It does not take a doctoral degree in philosophy to understand that people are born and have a right to be free, but it takes a clever perversion of the law to argue that a man can own another man. Even a child intuitively knows that the life of a brother or sister growing in his mother’s womb is a human being worthy of protection, a “baby,” but it takes decades of social conditioning and some very convoluted Constitutional jujitsu to fabricate the right to end that life, often for no better reason than convenience.

Those who today speak with such confidence about being “on the right side of history” would do well to recall that abolition and emancipation were once unpopular and controversial views that many sought to silence. The loudest voices demanding an end to slavery were not secular ones, but Christians who felt compelled to carry their moral convictions into the public square. In the end, the natural right to freedom prevailed; not because it was popular, but because it was right in its conformity to natural law.