This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 6)

VI.

Home, if I had to choose one place, would be a tract of land, just north of Santa Fe on Highway 84. A few miles beyond Camel Rock runs the Pojoaque arroyo, soon after crossing the bridge, there on the left, on a hill, the adobe house. A long eastern wall of windows faces the Sangre de Cristo mountains; the western wall, the front porch, looks toward sandy barrancas that rise up five hundred feet above the spruce and sage brush. My grandparents lived in that house from the early eighties until my paternal grandfather’s death in 2000. We went there as often as we could. Maybe the landscape, so beautiful, so hard to live in, sank deep into our souls because its beauty, its harshness, are at once of this world and at the same time remind us that our time on earth is not for long.

The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I lived there. Having changed my major three or four times, I had, just that spring, finally declared English. I was lost. I went there to help my grandparents, to be their handyman and gardener – though I am neither. I went there because I had nowhere else to go and needed family.

Santo Domingo, Rep Dom. I’m 19. Home on summer break. It’s the end of another medical mission tour.

I didn’t go to high school, nor did I home school in the traditional sense. Instead, halfway through the tenth grade, I began to work as my Dad’s personal assistant – patient triage, pharmacy, running national and international errands for him. When I wasn’t working for Dad, I translated for work groups. On the side, I was to have kept up with my studies, reading an old college history textbook, working through geometry on my own. Instead, I spent that time reading CandideMoby DickCatcher in the RyeHuck Finn and studying German. After two and half years of this, any inkling of self-discipline was gone. Any facility with math sloughed off. Though we should’ve known my dream of becoming a doctor, like my father, was but a dream, I marched confidently into chemistry and calculus and embryology. Further complicating things, the summer after my sophomore year I’d decided that I couldn’t be a missionary for the church of Christ in Latin America, I didn’t see the point of trying to get people to switch to my brand of toothpaste in the hopes that with it their pearlies would be pearlier.

That summer I read Whitman, played bocce and drank beer with my grandfather, sat on the front porch and had conversations with my grandmother, dug fence posts, watered his pear trees, built a retaining wall, linseed oiled the wood on the adobe house, drove up to Chaco canyon to tour the ruins. I worked the land every day: hoeing, weeding, watering the trees. Both my grandfather and I ignored the hard fact that his pear orchard was a chimera. They never produced fruit; and, now, they are not there. But it was a lesson in tending a plot of land, in living in a place with a contentious history, in learning how to be both of these United States and something other.

After all, the First Peoples and the Hispanic of the southwest have been working out their relationship to the larger nation for centuries.

God Bless the Children of the Hollows

It’s a little cold in these parts this week.  We’ve been closing schools less for the ice and snow and more for the single digit temperatures.  I signed up to receive my county closings and delays by e-mail, and received an odd and amusing list of bus route changes yesterday.

Bus shelter built by parents for their children

Note: This list is incomplete, but I picked out a few personal favorites.

##### Bus Route Changes ####

  • Buses 1118 & 1111 will not run Bufflick Hill; buses will turn at Sweeney Hollow
  • Bus 1107 will not run Dodd Hill; will turn at rock quarry
  • Buses 602, 620, 631L, 624 & 401L will not run Dry Branch Hollow; students may catch bus at the mouth of the hollow on Cabin Creek
  • Buses 1014, 1004, & 1015 will not run Happy Hollow
  • Bus 1010 will not go over Mt. Carmel
  • Bus 1003 & 1009 will not go into Tate Hollow
  • Bus 1012 will not run Holmes Hollow – will pick up at mouth of hollow
  • Bus 1003 & 1009 will not cross Buzzard Rock
  • Bus 1002, 1004, 1015 will not run Hughart Hollow

Two things come to mind.  First, I’m not sure many of us truly appreciate how hard it is to get to school, still.  There is a lot of yammering about and criticizing of rural educational attainment rates, parental apathy, and lazy kids.  I don’t know about you, but if I missed breakfast (again) so I could stand in the freezing cold and wait for a bus that’s not coming up my road for the privilege of being picked up at “the mouth of the hollow,” I might stay in bed.  This is assuming I know the bus route has changed.  It is probable my parents don’t have Internet service in my home near Buzzard Rock.

By the way, I’m six years old.

The second thing is that I could have walked to my child’s elementary school yesterday, easily.  Some days when school is delayed or closed I feel myself becoming agitated that children are missing a day of instruction “over nothing,” and then I receive an e-mail like the above and I rethink the situation.

If we all can’t be there, no one gets to be there.

This is the beauty, and the frustration, and the agony, and the glory of the public school system.  If we can’t figure out a way to pick you up and get you there — you, the one child on at the mouth of X Hollow — we will wait for you.  If conditions are so bad that we can’t find a way to get every last young’un to the school house, we will all stay home.

I posted a few of these bus route changes on Facebook and an old friend immediately recounted, “Remember in 1976, when Kenna Elementary lowered ropes down to the foot of the hill to help kids climb up to the school one winter?”  This was not my school, but this was my West Virginia growing up.  School was important, and grown ups did crazy but wonderful things to make sure we arrived there and that we wanted to be there.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was this spirit of we all go together.

We don’t have the system where it should be.  There are more than a few things that are not right in terms of policy and process.  The energy around we all go together, however, is still there; I remind myself that is a good thing in the Big Picture per the values of our country when I start to fume over inefficiency.  We need to keep that spirit, but find a way to not let it keep us at the lowest common denominator of everything all the time.  Upgrading our system to year ’round schooling would be a solid launching pad for getting our priorities as well as our values back in sync.

In the meantime, it’s very cold again this morning.  God bless the children of the hollows.  Amen.

Image credit: I.D. photo show on architecture, lost and found

How D’Ya Like Them Apples? IQ and Education

Someone asked me last week if I think the bell curve of intelligence quotient scores is even across political parties and political positions.  Without hesitation I said yes.  I don’t see any reasonable explanation for why IQ scores would necessary correlate to a person’s political opinions.  I do think, though, that the likelihood that our nation can even out with some moderate positioning on a range of issues is hampered by our struggles with educational attainment rates and public education dynamics in general.

How can we ever expect to communicate with each other to achieve more balanced and reasoned understanding when test scores and drop out rates indicate we are failing to establish even basic language skills?  And if we never leave the communities where we grew up to learn in an environment with a diverse representation of people from around the country and even the world, how can we develop appreciation for diversity and what people different from ourselves have to teach us?

In the midst of my pondering, I turned to Will.  Will always helps me figure things out.

Good Will Hunting is a favorite film in our house.  We ping back to it often, from personal reasons to conceptual storytelling to a love of Robin Williams in dramatic roles.  A quote that gets a lot of play on a regular basis is, “How d’ya like them apples?”

Photo credit: E. Gaucher

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall Will (Matt Damon) is trying to get the attention and admiration of Sklyar (Minnie Driver) in a bar frequented by Harvard University students.  An arrogant pretty-boy tries to embarrass him by asking him questions about books he’s sure Will has never heard of, let alone read.  Much to his dismay, Will knows the books.  Very well.  Well enough to end up humiliating the other guy, and well enough to get Sklyar’s phone number on a cocktail napkin before she leaves.  Outside the bar, Will knocks on the glass to get stuck-up’s attention.  “Do you like apples?” Will asks.  “What?”  the guy insides replies.  “I said, do you like apples?”  The guy shrugs and nods, confused.  Will slams the napkin with the newly inked phone number up on the glass and into his face.  “Well, I got her number.  How d’ya like them apples?”

The scene is a classic illustration of the disconnect between education and intelligence.  The entire movie pivots around questions of what it means to know anything.  In the apples scene, Will comes out on top.  He has exposed himself to great works of art, and he has a photographic memory that allows him to regurgitate on cue lengthy analyses of everything from sculpture to political theory.  What’s brewing underneath his cocky persona, however, is anything but educated.  We find out later in the story that he has, for good reasons, completely isolated himself from real life experience.  He lives in his head with the thoughts and lives of others running roughshod over his courage to engage life on his own terms, and to have a true education.

Sean (Robin Williams) nails him on it with this memorable monologue:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny… on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope. Sexual orientation. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seeing that. If I ask you about women, you’ll probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites…… But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman… and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap… and watched him gasp his last breath lookin’ to you for help. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. I look at you. I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that.

Will is a smart kid.  Smarter than smart.  But he is lashing out with information as a weapon rather than being willing to let other people teach him anything, and rather than allowing himself to be vulnerable to the many possibilities that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does about what life is really about.

Intelligence can be a wonderful thing, and fortunately we know now that there is more than one way to measure it.  Intelligence of any kind, however, requires the humility and depth that only participating in a shared environment of respect for real learning can deliver.  It starts in school, but it hardly ends there.

Actually, if you do it right, it never ends. And that mindset is the one that has the unique power to moderate the sound and fury of today’s political climate, regardless of what else a person believes.

The Short Ladders

I have a friend who, when he moved to West Virginia, was taken aside at a cocktail reception and told knowingly, “One great thing about this state, the ladders are short.”

 The ladders are short meant that unlike many other places, an ambitious person can climb very quickly to positions of power and recognition without too much effort or time invested.  Ten years ago I didn’t think this was such a bad thing.  Today, I’m rethinking that belief. 

The Short Ladder

 Let’s start with the good side.  It is absolutely true that due to the very small pool of college-educated people in our state, there is limited competition for job opportunities that require a degree.  I moved to Charleston from Chapel Hill, which was the opposite environment – “The Triangle” of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill is one of the richest regions of educational attainment in the country.  NC State, Duke, and UNC support a community where 3 out of 4 people have at least a B.A.  In West Virginia, 3 out of 4 have never been beyond high school. 

So there is some basic excitement one can generate in these parts by just showing up and being willing to engage a project or problem.  With the economy being what it is today, I think it is even more likely than it was when I moved here that someone can advance their opportunities for leadership experiences and promotions to decision-making positions on a compressed timeline.  What it may take 10 years to build elsewhere may be accomplished here in less than 5 if you play your cards right and know the right people.   Before I had been in state one year, I served as the executive director of two nonprofit organizations (simultaneously) and was appointed special assistant to the governor.  I say this to underscore that I didn’t just observe it, I lived it; and quite honestly, it was thrilling.  I don’t know that I wouldn’t take these opportunities again if I had a “do-over,” but I certainly would proceed with greater caution.

Now, the bad side.  There is a lot to be said for taking time to get somewhere.  The process reminds me of building a house.  The faster it goes up, the less likely it is to be well-constructed.  It may be pretty, but the first heavy rain shows the roof leaks. 

Taking time also mitigates the dynamic of ambitious people having a sense of owing someone for their opportunities.  I see a lot of young gun types taken under the wing of the old guard, helped along quickly, and then just as quickly losing their edge by becoming part of the status quo overnight.  One goes from working on reforming the system to protecting turf much faster here than in what I call the natural world.  Sadly, this is exactly what we don’t need in West Virginia.

A mass exodus of young people for opportunities elsewhere 20 years ago contributes to older professionals being anxious to hire those they see as having potential to succeed.  That exodus left a big hole that will take a long time to heal.  Sooner or later, folks start to realize what’s under their feet is a little thin.  The  politics of elected office as well as the simple politics of human nature start to show through the paint, and who owes what to whom becomes an issue. 

Looking down from the short ladder reminds a person that though he or she may be up, they are not that far up.  Another unfortunate feature of the short ladder is that it often tops out abruptly.  No one wants to go down, but where to next?  I see more than a few frustrated people at the end of their short ladders. 

This is a cautionary tale.  In no way do I think this is every story or that everyone who takes advantage of an attractive offer early in their career is making a mistake or destined to fail.  But I do think there is much more to the decision than saying yes.  It is an unusal situation, and requires wisdom that is likewise unusual in the very people most likely start up the short ladder.

Before you put a foot on the short ladder rung, ask yourself if you wouldn’t really rather wait for a good, strong, taller ladder.  Perhaps better one of those than 5 or 6 of the others.  As my girlfriends who lived on the top floor of our (elevator-less) college dorm used to tell the guys, “It’s worth the climb.”