Punch Line

Beyond my face-to-face life, few people have impacted my development more than comedian George Carlin. Along with Richard Pryor (and indirectly, Lenny Bruce), Carlin entered my consciousness while I was a teenager in the 1970s, a redneck mired in the racist provincialism of rural upstate South Carolina.

Of course, teachers and writers—along with a wide array of artists, thinkers, etc.—shaped my Self and my mind, but Carlin and Pryor were essential doorways into critical thought. Notably, Carlin and Pryor taught me the importance of language and its relationship to power, foundational concepts that would in many ways lead to Paulo Freire as well as my careers as a teacher and writer.

So when Carlin was trending recently—a video clip of him talking on Larry King with many people connecting Carlin’s comments about comedian Andrew Dice Clay to the current controversies around Dave Chappelle—I felt I had to explore the Tweets and how people were navigating Carlin today:

First, I believe it is important to stress that Carlin clearly begins these comments by supporting Andrew Dice Clay’s right to be the sort of comedian who people found to be deeply offensive, offensive in ways that were not funny (homophobia and misogyny, specifically). Carlin is weighing in but distinguishing between “can” and “should.”

As well, Carlin checked King about “we” laughing at Clay, suggesting that Carlin did not find Clay funny even as he supported something like free speech for comedians.

In many ways, Carlin was way ahead of his time and this on-air discussion fits well into the larger “cancel culture” debate among comedians (see the Jerry Seinfeld/Bobcat Goldthwait situation, for example); but of course, Carlin’s tempered comments also match perfectly the Chappelle controversy.

The world of the comedian is filled with violent-adjacent language—”punch line” and the common claim that comedians “kill” when jokes or sets work really well. (Carlin has brilliant, early jokes from the 1970s about replacing “kill” with “fuck” in movie dialogue, highlighting the essential violent nature of American culture.)

But Carlin makes a case for the importance that comedians punch up, using comedy to challenge power, and that Clay tended to punch down, specifically at the expense of marginalized groups such as homosexuals and women.

I think, as many on Twitter claimed, that Carlin’s comments are relevant to Chappelle even as some try to justify Chappelle’s trans-phobic rants as attacks on outsized influence by what Chappelle and his supporters see as misguided trans-rights activists. Chappelle apologists, then, seem to believe Chappelle is punching up.

That argument is nonsense, missing a bigger point, one also made by Carlin but somewhat glossed over.

At its core, the problem with Clay and Chappelle is less with them, and more with their audience. One common justification expressed for Chappelle’s recent comedy special is that his garbled perspective on trans people is embraced by his audience and that those he criticizes (trans-rights activists) are the ones out of the mainstream.

Chappelle apologists argue that the court of public opinion supports Chappelle, and thus Chappelle is justified, if not right.

As Carlin notes, Clay had an audience, many white males who, as Carlin notes, were deeply insecure and prone to a wide array of bigotry (that likely would have included anti-semitism, Carlin adds since Clay is Jewish).

If we set aside whether or not Clay and Chappelle crafted funny jokes, if we set aside whether or not Chappelle is punching down or up, we cannot set aside that Chappelle is speaking into and directly fueling environments of hate and exclusivity.

Trans people live delicate lives and their margins are frail, thin, and Chappelle is being cavalier and calloused, placing his right to free speech (in wrong-headed ways) above the lives and rights of marginalized and oppressed people.

Chappelle is certainly aware that there was a fairly recent world where white comedians made their livelihoods on racist jokes and the most aggressive and offensive use of racial slurs; maybe they had the right to that language, and yes, they certainly had audiences who agreed.

But mainstream acceptance of racist jokes and racial slurs were contributing to environments of hate that directly impacted Black people in negative and horrible ways.

Clay and Chappelle should be bright and perceptive enough not to need these comparisons to their own potential frailties, but these points do highlight that comedy is not in some sort of joke vacuum; there are consequences for jokes told and the laughter that often occurs about the Others used in the pursuit of those jokes.

Chappelle’s doubling down on trans-phobia isn’t funny and it isn’t inconsequential.

Finally, while I do support Carlin’s video clip going viral, and I do agree Carlin’s perceptive analysis of punching up and the audience for comedy is directly applicable to the Chappelle debate as well as the current discourse around “cancel culture” (where I side with Goldthwait, not Seinfeld), I have a huge caveat for the added belief that we need Carlin alive today since he would be a solid and powerful voice in this situations.

As much as it pains me to write this, I am certain that given time and space, Carlin would, in fact, disappoint us now. There is a bittersweet advantage to having the ability to cherry pick from Carlin’s brilliance (a real thing, in my opinion) and to ignore that as he grew older, Carlin lived up to his standard less and less.

The Carlin of my teen years, the 1970s, is a sort of peak Carlin, one I tend to idealize; the Carlin of the King interview is the mostly sober and mature Carlin of 1990 (Carlin was being interviewed, not on stage performing).

Carlin tended to devolve into the angry old man, and his comedy content and targets became sloppier and sloppier even as his delivery and craft remained impressive.

I think Carlin alive now would slip and fall on his face right before us—similar to the recent crumbling of the ways some of us have idealized Margaret Atwood.

Carlin’s comments on Clay are worth highlighting, and his analysis speaks to how we can and should navigate Chappelle and cancel culture.

But this is also a lesson in the dangers of idealizing and idolizing.

In my own way, I love Carlin and am eternally grateful for his contribution to my mind.

Carlin was, ultimately, a man, a human, frail and flawed. He occasionally said some really stupid shit.

We don’t need him alive now to recognize that he is right about the direction of punch lines. And we would all be better off if we simply used his words from 1990 to recognize the importance of everyone’s humanity.

There is no punch line more valuable than our collective humanity—and about that, even if he would fail us today, I feel certain Carlin would agree if he were still alive.


See Also

Comedy Is Not Pretty: In Black and White

Canceled?: The Day Comedy Died

“I’m Just an Old Fart, Leave Me Alone”: On Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin

On Positive and Negative Feedback to Student Writing

Several students in my literacy course in our MAT program chose to read Donna Alvermann’s Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents. While the initial discussion around Alvermann’s essay focused on those students struggling with the density of her academic writing, they emphasized the importance and power of her addressing student self efficacy in the fostering of student literacy development:

Adolescents’ perceptions of how competent they are as readers and writers, generally speaking, will affect how motivated they are to learn in their subject area classes (e.g., the sciences, social studies, mathematics, and literature). Thus, if academic literacy instruction is to be effective, it must address issues of self-efficacy and engagement.

Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents

That discussion led to some very insightful comments about the importance of providing students feedback, as opposed to grades, on their writing as part of the drafting and workshop process (anchored in their reading Graham and Perin’s 2007 Writing Next analysis of research on teaching writing).

As a long-time advocate of feedback and someone who practices de-grading the classroom as well as delaying grades (assigning grades for courses but not on assignments), I strongly supported this discussion, and was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students.

That discussion had a subtext also—a concern raised by several students about the need for teachers to provide students positive feedback (so students know what they are doing well), and not just negative feedback. (Some of that subtext, I am sure, was an unexpressed directly feeling among some of these graduate students that they received mostly or exclusively “negative” feedback from me on their first submitted essays.)

After several students worked through this argument for positive feedback, I asked them to step back even further to consider, or -re-consider, what counts as “positive” or “negative” feedback.

In the sort of way Alanis Morrissette perceives irony, I found on social media Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession posted at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency—a brilliant portrayal of the tensions created by teachers giving students feedback on their essays, which begins:

I appreciate the hard work that went into this essay. It has many merits, but it also has something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it. In fact, I’m writing this feedback on my phone, cowering in the bathtub with my wife, after your essay terrorized and nearly destroyed us….

The essay was formatted correctly, and each sentence was more or less intelligible in itself. But altogether, the effect was—disorientation. Worse, actually. Pure senselessness. The Void.

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

This satirical piece does exactly what my MAT students requested, blending positive (“many merits”) with negative (“something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it”) feedback; and I think, herein is the problem with the dichotomy itself.

Once dramatically while I was teaching high school and often since I have been teaching at my current selective liberal arts university, I have encountered students who perceive all feedback as negative and reject having to revise their writing.

My argument to my MAT students was that actionable feedback on student writing is not inherently “negative” even though it does suggest something is “wrong” and needs “correcting” (perceptions grounded in students’ experiences in traditional classrooms that focus on the error hunt and punish students with grades).

However, I am well aware over almost four decades that part of my challenge as a writing teacher is how to help students to see and respond to feedback as supportive and not an attack on their work or them as people (we had a great discussion about whether or not students can or should see their writing as inextricable from them as people).

In other words, affect matters.

Throughout the past 20 years teaching in higher education, I have been struggling against the perception by students than my written feedback is “mean,” “harsh,” “negative,” etc., while they simultaneously find my face-to-face feedback supportive and “good.”

I continue to seek ways to make feedback on student writing more effective as a key aspect of helping students grow as writers and thinkers as well as fostering their independence as writers and thinkers (learning to revise and edit their work on their own).

Students persist, however, in finding the feedback “negative,” and occasionally shutting down.

If there is a path to moving past the dichotomy of negative/positive feedback to student writing, I think it lies in the following concepts and practices:

  • Having explicit discussions with students about the inherent need for all writers to revise writing, ideally in the context of feedback from an expert and/or supportive writer/teacher. I often share with students samples of my own work submitted for publication with track changes and comments from editors.
  • Rejecting high-stakes for low-stakes environments in the writing workshop format. This is grounded in my commitment to de-grading the classroom that honors that writing is a process (see More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work).
  • Adopting strategies and rhetoric that rejects deficit ideology and the error hunt (Connie Weaver). It is important for teachers and students to prefer “revising” and “editing” instead of “error,” “mistake,” and “correcting” as the language surrounding the writing process. The pursuit in writing must be grounded in the recognition that all writing can be better even when it is currently quite good (and especially if is is somewhat or deeply flawed).
  • Clarifying for students that challenging and critical feedback is intended as actionable by students as writers, and thus, inherently positive. One of the recurring tone issues I experience with students viewing my written feedback as negative is misreading questions; students often read questions as sarcastic or accusatory when I am asking in order to elicit a response (for example, when I write “Did you look at the sample?” how I move forward with helping a student depends on that answer). As my MAT students expressed in the context of Alvermann, students absolutely do need to see themselves as writers and do need to trust they will be successful, but they also must embrace the need to revise and the awareness that no one produces “perfect” writing in one (or even several) drafts.

Feedback and the dynamic between teachers and students (including trust) are the lifeblood of the writing process when students are young and developing. As I noted above, affect matters and the teacher/student relationship inevitably impacts how effective the teacher is.

As teachers providing feedback, we must be careful and purposeful in our feedback, focusing on actionable feedback and creating/maintaining a culture of support and encouragement.

To that end, I believe we cannot reduce feedback to a positive/negative dichotomy that serves only to reinforce the cultures and practices we need to reject, deficit ideologies and the error hunt.

In the McSweeney’s parody above, the writing teacher and their wife are ensnared in a demon-possessed student essay, but the more horrifying detail of this piece is the ending—the realization that teachers and students are actually trapped in an even greater hellscape:

“I did it,” she sobbed. “I killed it. I killed it.”

“You did it,” I said, climbing into the bathtub with her, holding my wife close. “It’s over. It’s all over now.”

Silence.

Then she said, “It’s not over.”

“What—”

“You still have to grade it.”

80%

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

Yes, let’s work on feedback and the affect created around the writing process, but let’s not ignore that their are larger dynamics (grades and testing) at play that erode the teacher/student relationship as well as the effectiveness of teaching and the possibilities of learning.


See Also

Student Agency and Responsibilities when Learning to Write: More on the Failure of SETs

The Problem of Student Engagement in Writing Workshop

Teaching and Learning as Collaboration, not Antagonism

The Trap: The Ends v. Means Tension in the Pursuit of Content Knowledge

Over the course of almost 40 years, I have taught writing/composition to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. I am well aware of the cumulative toll of reading and responding to 10s of thousands of essays by students who are both learning to think and learning to write.

Those essays are often vapid and jumbled, and thus, the work of a writing teacher can be incredibly tedious.

The Onion parody of student writing, Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation, is too accurate for me to laugh since, despite sharing the piece with students, I still often read essays that begin with the same sort of dramatic and over-simplified claims fictitious Jeremy Ryan offers:

For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation. Many advancements have been made in summer breaks since these early times, but it is also true that many different traditions have lived on and continue to remain with us today. This is why, since the beginning of time, mankind has discussed what it did on its summer vacation.

This is what I intend to prove within the course of this essay.

Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation

So when I noticed a Twitter thread about teachers/professors struggling with responding to student essays, I offered the following responses:

The trap, as I note above, results from any teacher’s perception of the role of content knowledge and the acquisition of the knowledge in the teaching/learning process.

Is that content knowledge the ends of instruction and learning, or the means of instruction and learning?

I think Rod Graham speaks for many teachers who incorporate student writing in order to assess whether or not students have acquired essential content knowledge as an ends of the lesson, unit, or course.

However, I have a different view of what constitutes “content” and I tend to place that content in the context of the means of learning.

For example, this week in my first-year writing seminars we have begun our journey toward their submitting a formally cited essay. My guiding goals for this assignment is helping students make the transition from high school thinking and writing to behaving and thinking as writers and scholars (especially in ways that are expected in undergraduate education).

First, I cautioned students about what it means to gather sources in order to write a cited essay. Students tend to begin their search of sources with a predetermined outcome in mind (they will lament, often, that they didn’t find what they wanted to find) so I tell them they are seeking a body of evidence in order to learn more deeply about a topic (thus, start with a question, not a conclusion/claim); and then, their job as student-scholars is to credibly represent what the evidence shows (whether that is what they “wanted” to find or not).

Next, I introduce them to the difference between mainstream approaches to topics (the “both sides” approach) and scholarly approaches to topics (more nuanced, and often resulting in only one credible “side”).

To engage with the problems of “both sides” approaches, I shared the current controversy in Texas: Books on Holocaust should be balanced with ‘opposing’ views, Southlake school leader tells teachers.

Several students were visibly shocked by the “both sides” mandate about the Holocaust (much to my relief) so we explored exactly what those “sides” might be, and then applied that to other topics such as slavery in the U.S., sexual assault, etc.

However, when I shared my own work on corporal punishment and the negative backlashes I experience for my public work against corporal punishment, the student reactions shifted dramatically; as is typical, several students argued for corporal punishment (although I clearly noted the evidence overwhelmingly rejects any positive outcome for corporal punishment).

Of course, this is an ideal example of the power of cultural norms and ideology (specifically religious training and beliefs) to trump empirical evidence, and it serves my larger instructional goals, but this dynamic is troubling none the less.

This lesson as well as the cited essay assignment represents my practice of using content as a means to acquiring authentic ways of thinking and writing (a different type of “content”) regardless of the content knowledge being interrogated or explored.

Students are free to choose any topic for this essay, and ultimately, I will be assessing how well they explore and incorporate sources and then how credibly they represent their sources over the course of synthesizing a coherent essay; I also trust that these students will acquire content knowledge (ends) as a result of interacting with that content as a means.

I do recognize that many teachers will and should continue to use writing as a mechanism for assessing the acquisition of content/knowledge, but I also must stress that this dynamic will necessarily be tedious for teachers and students—and that it likely inhibits many important goals for students as independent thinkers/scholars and writers.

As I Tweeted above, students experience content as an ends far too often, and are invited to use content as a means far too rarely.

Prompts and rubrics do most of the work for students, and in effect, infantilize those students, guaranteeing any acquisition of content is superficial and transitory.

If we want students to think and write with sophistication and nuance, we must provide students many, many opportunities to choose what content they engage with and then practice those sophisticated and nuance moves with content/knowledge as a means to their own growth as scholars and writers.

Conservatives Seeking Education as a Buffet of Ignorance

Several decades ago, the following true story about teaching in a small, conservative Southern town, seemed like a once-in-a-career experience: A new social studies teacher at my high school was challenged by a parent because this new teacher covered Middle East geography by detailing the regional tensions correlated with religion among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Ultimately, the parent wanted their child removed from the class because, as the parent announced to the principal, “I don’t want my son knowing religions other than Christianity exist.”

Fast forward about three decades—passing through several rounds of school choice movements (which I will connect later)—and now public school teachers and college professors across the U.S. find themselves challenged in a similar but far more extensive and organized way concerning Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Mike Gonzalez, for example, at the Heritage Foundation, has constructed Try This “Critical Race Theory” Checklist for conservative and Christian parents who, like the parent above, want to opt their children out of knowledge.

Along with explosive and even violent school board meetings about mask mandates, Covid, and, yes, CRT, parents are now organizing to opt their children out of education; for example, the Orwellian-named Families for Educational Freedom offer a CRT Lessons Letter and a Intrusive Survey Letter; the former outlines what parents want their children to have freedom from [1]:

We/I,________________________________, the parent(s) of _______________________________, grade ________, are/is exercising our/my fundamental parental rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, and/or any other state and federal laws to opt our/my child out of any instruction in Critical Race Theory (CRT), including but not limited to the following ideas or principles —

• That any race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and/or socioeconomic status is inherently superior or inferior to any other race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin and/or socioeconomic status.

• That any race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or national origin is privileged or oppressed.

• That race-based stereotyping and labeling are acceptable as part of “anti-racism” education.

• That an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race.

• That an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race.

• That America and its institutions are fundamentally racist.

• That the values, principles, and/or ideals of one’s own family or religion are fundamentally incorrect, racist, and/or preventing them from social and emotional growth. 

These teachings of CRT foster discrimination and harassment on the basis of race and are a violation of our family’s values and religious beliefs.  It is well-established that parents have a fundamental right to direct the religious upbringing and education of their children.  Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).  You are not to instruct or inculcate my child on the aforementioned or following subjects, without providing me at least fifteen (15) days prior written notice and providing me with the intended materials and lesson plans. 

The prohibition extends to any promotion, legitimization, or normalization of CRT, no matter how your program or approach is defined or packaged, including but not limited to any instruction, materials, or conversations related to “equity,” “privilege,” “intersectionality,” “diversity, tolerance and inclusion,” “anti-racism,” “microaggressions,” “white privilege,” “white adjacency,” “hate speech,” “hate crimes,” “critical social justice,” “postcolonial theory,” “postcolonialism,” “sensitivity education,” or the like.

CRT Lessons Letter

The bullet points may look familiar since they are occurring, often verbatim, in state legislation attacking CRT directly and indirectly as well as banning the use of the 1619 Project.

These misleading but purposeful strategies parents are using to censor curriculum in public schools is a logical evolution from how a minority of parents have been leveraging control over public education for decades—opting students out of sex education, book challenges and banning, a revolving door of school choice schemes that pander to what parents want their children to learn (without the price tag of private schools that are often appealing because there parents can and do monitor and control what is and isn’t taught), periodic challenges to the teaching of evolution, etc.

If polls are even remotely good indicators, the current Republican Party remains about 40% loyal to Trump, suggesting about 10-15% of Americans constitute this movement against CRT (likely a similar percentage to the Moral Majority movement coinciding with the Reagan presidency).

While this is a significant minority, the U.S. has long had a powerful and very vocal conservative and Christian influence that is solidly anti-education.

One of the great ironies (similar to the organization’s name noted above, Families for Educational Freedom) of the backlash against CRT (beyond that CRT doesn’t really exist in K-12 education) is that it rests on an old and tired argument that leftist teachers are indoctrinating students; this is projection from conservatives who are, in fact, seeking to indoctrinate students.

While leftists are extremely rare in K-12 education, marginalized in higher education, and nearly powerless in the economic/political system of the U.S., as I have noted often, true leftists, critical educators, are adamantly opposed to indoctrination and recent efforts by Republicans mirror commitments to indoctrination found in China.

Ultimately, this CRT mania isn’t about CRT, but is part of the steady and determined effort by an anti-education minority to dismantle universal public education and academic freedom because at their core, as William Ayers concludes:

Education will unfit anyone to be a slave. That is because education is bold, adventurous, creative, vivid, illuminating — in other words education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens. Training is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers. Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.

excerpt from To Teach, William Ayers

Conservatives and Christians embrace education as training, indoctrination, as mere preparation for work or passive compliance with the dogma of religion.

The attacks on CRT and efforts by parents to opt out of curriculum deemed “indoctrination” or claimed to cause “racial discomfort” are poised to turn education into a buffet of ignorance leaving our children and teens intellectually starved and the status quo safely protected.


[1] See:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

The Inevitable, Exponential Decline

Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas

In the consumer society called “America,” we humans are often nothing more or less than the objects we accumulate.

Or as comedian George Carlin explained, we are ultimately our “stuff”:

Nine months into being 60, I recognize that my life—in the throes of the inevitable, exponential decline—is reflected in some of my most prized stuff, my collection of bicycles that numbers 4 (two Ridley road bicycles, a Santa Cruz MTB, and a Santa Cruz gravel bicycle).

Part of that reflection involves my more than 30 years as a so-called serious cyclist living by The Rules, including Rule #12: The correct number of bikes to own is n+1. Because of major life changes, I now live in a 900-square-foot apartment instead of a house more than twice that size.

Bicycles occupy far too much space, and I have them hanging on the wall, forcing me to climb a ladder just to be able to ride.

As I have been fearing, while alone, I fell off the ladder recently while storing bicycle parts in the only storage space available in the HVAC area above the bathroom. I imagined myself lying broken on the concrete floor while I was falling—feelings I included in a recent poem, blue&black.

The reason I was on that ladder circles back to my bicycles since I was replacing the saddle on my Ridley Excalibur (Flandrien edition).

A few Saturdays ago, I joined the early morning ride from the local Trek store. I took several extended pulls during the ride, and gradually realized my saddle was incredibly uncomfortable, causing numbness and pain.

For cyclists, especially those of us who ride long and intense distances, the saddle is one of the most important components. I rode with Fizik Arione saddles for many years, a flat, long saddle with a faux-suede strip that keeps you from sliding around.

However, I briefly retired from road cycling throughout 2017—after being struck by a car on Christmas Eve 2016—but when I returned to road cycling in early 2018, I had to acknowledge that my body no longer found my road bicycle as comfortable as before.

Much to my chagrin, and embarrassment, I had to raise my stem and change my saddle, then to the Fizik Aliante, a curved saddle designed for people who are less flexible.

I also had to abandon my preferred thin, faux-leather handlebar tape, and returned to wearing padded gloves since I was struggling with hand stiffness and pain.

Those changes made riding more comfortable, even as I strayed from The Rules and the enormous cultural pressure among so-called serious cyclists.

After I stood up from the fall off the ladder, momentarily stunned and shaken, I cursed what had led to having to change my saddle again (this time to the same MTB-style saddle I have on my MTB and gravel bicycle). It took a few minutes to realize I was essentially fine, until I noticed blood marks on the carpet from a small cut on my foot.

Each time I climb the ladder to ride my Flandrien road bicycle, which I have switched to from my Helium SL because the Flandrien is far more comfortable, I see the inevitable, exponential decline of me reflected in the gradual replacement of parts on that bicycle—the raised stem, the padded handlebar tape, the bulkier saddle.

Much of this is depressing because it reflects a life-long war for me between me and my body—a body that never seemed to be able to attain the demands I have made of it, a body often disappointing and flawed.

But there is also more, a recognition that my being drawn to a sport grounded in Rule #5 (harden the fuck up, or HTFU) has a great deal of disfunction that I should walk away from, instead of gradually and reluctantly relinquishing piece by piece.

Some of that disfunction can be traced to my father, a hard-ass product of mid-twentieth century bullshit about working hard and suffering. Any of the success I have achieved as a cyclist resulted from my ability to suffer, just as my father taught me directly and indirectly.

My father suffered himself into an early grave.

And there are days now, especially after mountain biking and some gravel riding, when my shoulders ache just like my father’s failed him for the last couple decades of his life.

The machine is wearing down.

I have been sharing stories about the inevitable, exponential decline with my students, including telling stories about my life as a cyclist for about 35 years.

I now confess that the HTFU lifestyle was a really bad way to live and ride, and that I am paying for it. I usually share the story of the day I quit the Assault on Mt. Mitchell—a 102-mile ride that concludes with about 30 miles of climbing—just as I was starting the climb.

I didn’t just quit that day; I quit ever doing the ride again (after about 20 starts and 16 or so finishes of the grueling event since 1988).

My story of coming to reject a life of suffering, a hobby of suffering, seems to resonate with many of my students, notably my athletes (especially the football players) and students in ROTC.

Those students deeply inside cultures of suffering appreciate a different perspective than what they are being told within those cultures; those students are often up very early in the mornings doing grueling physical activity before starting their day as students.

They are bone tired, often fighting the urge to fall asleep in class.

I tell them that it doesn’t have to be that way, that life can be filled with joy and pleasure.

As I write this, I have recently ridden my bicycles 6 days in a row, and found myself in a hole. Tired. Sore.

As I write this, it is day 2 of rain with several more days of rain forecast.

I am anxious about not being able to ride. I am also slipping into the depression that comes with the contracting daylight of October.

I am a good existentialist who recognizes our passions are our sufferings, but I am far too inadequate at being a human who can resist the allure of HTFU.

Yes, I know—and believe—that we are supposed to imagine Sisyphus happy as he turns again and again to descend the hill in order to roll his rock, his Thing, back up the hill.

But at 60, I am newly aware Sisyphus would be happier if he were simply to quit, no longer to be defined by his stuff.


See Also

Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

Death Takes a Lifetime, and then a Year

Claiming Teacher and Student Agency in the Era of the “Science of Reading” (RRC)

Reading Recovery Canada

Claiming Teacher and Student Agency in the Era of the “Science of Reading” –  presented by Dr. P L Thomas, Professor of Education
December 13 2021 – 6:30pm (eastern time) – session will be recorded for repeat viewing until August 31, 2022

The “science of reading” movement has direct roots in a U.S. media narrative starting about 2018, but the Science of Reading now drives reading and education decisions in many states and provinces. The decisions and legislation often includes policies and practices not supported by research (for example, grade retention) and further de-professionalizes teachers. This session places the Science of Reading movement in historical context and disrupts the “evidence-based” claims of Science of Reading advocates. The goal of the session is to provide teachers the evidence and support needed to assert their professional autonomy in support of their students’ needs and agency.

Access presentation PP HERE