Category Archives: Childhood

Stranger Things: The Eternal Whiteness of the Pop Culture Mind

South Park has Token, and Stranger Things has Lucas Sinclair.

Having come (very) late to Stranger Things, this was one of my first thoughts when Lucas sets off on his own to find the gate (S1E6).

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Since Stranger Things is a pop culture referential series, my experience includes immediately thinking of WandaVision (also referential and driven by pastiche) and how Stranger Things includes more than a passing debt to superhero narratives, along with gaming culture as well as the broader 1980s TV and movie references.

I am a child of the 1960s and 1970s, but the love affair Stranger Things has for the 1980s speaks to vivid elements of my young adulthood spent navigating marriage, fostering a career, and fathering my only child in 1989.

The power of this series and the enduring elements of pop culture in the U.S. have been confirmed for me as I continue to make asynchronous connections (Stranger Things as the child of The X-Files and Mayor of Easttown).

Even though I haven’t watched the show until mid-2021 (I just began Season 2), I do have a good deal of fringe knowledge about the series and essential spoiler knowledge that likely dulls some of the tension created in the show when watched in real time.

I know, for example, certain characters persist even when they are put in serious danger in the first season. In S1E6 mentioned above, whether the show’s creators intended this or not, having a lone Black character placed in danger triggers one of the worst aspects of pop culture, linked to Star Trek (redshirt characters) and the use of “throw-away” characters that are too often Black and other racial minorities.

Lucas isn’t sacrificed, however (Barbara isn’t so lucky).

And like Mare of Easttown, Stranger Things represents a much larger problem in the U.S.—the eternal whiteness of the pop culture mind.

Also like Mare of Easttown, Stranger Things has a white people gaze that is strongly linked to white people dysfunction and the ever-creeping danger surrounding children (mostly white).

Eleven is remarkably frail (the camera work shifting from her intense face to her full-bodied spindly self is excellent), and fantastically powerful (at great expense to herself).

Stranger Things but true: the US Department of Energy does human  experiments, searches for The Upside Down

But the white problem in Stranger Things (Indiana) also sits beside the superhero genre obsession with white Middle America (see also the whiteness of South Park in Colorado and Mare in Pennsylvania).

Superhero narratives in the world of comic books are grounded in (and recursively obsessed with) origin stories, and the origin story of the superhero narrative serves an important purpose as I navigate Stranger Things.

Michael Chabon beautifully fictionalizes who and how superhero comics came to be in his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I was a comic book collector throughout my teen years, the 1970s, and although the rise of the MCU is relatively recent, I have always felt comic book narratives have been incredibly important contributors to and reflective of pop culture in the U.S.

Those original creators, as Chabon dramatizes, were often Jewish and/or immigrants (Joseph Shuster and Jerry Siegel [Superman], Jack Kirby and Stan Lee [Marvel], Joe Simon [with Kirby, Captain America], and Bob Kane [Batman], for example).

These origins are steeped in a singular American Dream by men of aspirational backgrounds, and they seem to have chosen white Middle America as their only template; just think of Superman, an alien expelled from his home planet and landing in the Great Farm Land (Smallville) to be raised by an earnest working class white couple.

Kurt Vonnegut—a pop culture icon referenced in Stranger Things—writes on the first page of Mother Night:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (p. v)

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut

I think Vonnegut has a point not only for anyone (especially children and teens) existing in the so-called “real world,” but especially for those imagined worlds, the ones that seem struck in time and place—and race.

The many powerful themes of Stranger Things driven by the stellar acting must not be reduced to the simplistic “universal” praise—although childhood and the dangers of being a child or teen are shared among viewers regardless of race, etc.

Nancy Wheeler, for example, is yet another spindly white girl/young woman (like Eleven) who directly personifies Vonnegut’s warning; Jonathan Byers confronts her about pretending to be someone she isn’t in Season 1.

Her experiences are valid, and even compelling—although they pale beside Eleven’s.

Ultimately, I am left uncomfortable that Stranger Things has fallen into the well-worn rut (from Superman to Mare of Easttown) because too many people continue to believe the viewing public has empathy primarily for the frailty of whiteness.


Conservatives are Wrong about Parental Rights

With public schools poised to reopen for the 2021-2022 academic year, South Carolina faces the challenges of dealing with another wave of a Covid variant, a challenge made more complicated because of political theater by Republicans.

Columbia (SC) Mayor Steve Benjamin issued a mask requirement for students in the city, and immediately Governor Henry McMaster responded: “’This is another attempt to force children to wear masks in schools without a bit of consideration for a parent’s right to make that decision,’” said Brian Symmes, McMaster’s spokesman.”

The political theater of invoking “parental rights” by Republicans and conservatives falls apart at several levels.

First, if parents do have the right to demand that their children not wear masks (see below), those parents do not have the right to endanger other people—and the mask mandate in schools is primarily about community safety.

“Freedom” in this case is once again not license; parents choosing to keep their children unmasked must also address the consequences of that decision. Those parents then are obligated to provide their children proper education since the unmasking means those children cannot attend K-12 public schooling.

Just as adults are free to drink alcohol, but restricted from driving while impaired (a mandate that addresses community safety), parents and their children may remain unmasked but that means there are restrictions on where they can go and what they can do.

Choice has consequences.

But, there is a much larger issue here about parental rights and how that impacts the rights of children.

Republicans such as McMaster either are unaware of the law or are intentionally dishonest with their “parental rights” rhetoric.

In The Parent as (Mere) Educational Trustee: Whose Education Is It, Anyway?, Jeffrey Shulman details that parental rights and the education of their children are in many ways “circumscribed,” restricted or limited.

Broadly, Shulman explains:

What role should the state play in the transmission of values? What values can the state successfully transmit? How can it do so? To approach these questions, this Article begins with principles laid down by the Supreme Court. It is the state’s duty to ensure that all schools, public or private, inculcate habits of critical reasoning and re- flection, a way of thinking that implies a tolerance of and respect for other points of views. In pursuit of this lofty goal, the state need not make public schooling compulsory. However, the state must see that all children are provided an education that is, in the fullest sense, public—a schooling that gives children the tools they will need to think for themselves, a schooling that exposes children to other points of view and to other sources of meaning and value than those they bring from home. This effort may well divide child from parent, not because socialist educators want to indoctrinate children, but because learning to think for oneself is what children do. It is one facet of the overall movement toward the individuation and autonomy that is “growing up” and is, perhaps, the most natural and vital part of healthy maturation.

The Parent as (Mere) Educational Trustee: Whose Education Is It, Anyway?

There is, then, a long legal history in the U.S. that simply doesn’t recognize parental rights as monolithic, or even sacred.

One way parental rights are limited is directly embedded in the commitment to universal public education:

The state as educator, then, is no ideologically neutral actor. The philosophical foundations supporting a truly public education are the liberal biases of our nation’s intellectual forbearers, biases in favor of a non-authoritarian approach to truth, of free argument and debate (what Jefferson called truth’s “natural weapons”), and of a healthy sense of human fallibility—the foundation, in other words, of our nation’s governmental blueprint. Unless children are to live under “a perpetual childhood of prescription,” they must be exposed—intellectually, morally, and spiritually—to the dust and heat of the race. Whether one considers the formation of moral commitments a matter of choice or duty, of reflective self-directedness or cultural embeddedness, the child must not be denied the type of education that will allow him, as an adult, to choose whether (and in what way and to what degree) to honor those commitments. A public education is the engine by which children are exposed to “the great sphere” that is their world and legacy. It is their means of escape from, or free commitment to, the social group in which they were born. It is their best guarantee of an open future.

The Parent as (Mere) Educational Trustee: Whose Education Is It, Anyway?

The great irony here is that the courts have recognized that public education, the state, has the obligation to protect the individual intellectually freedom of children, even when that conflicts with parental wants or demands that are framed in rugged individualism rhetoric.

That legal recognition creates a tension that is rarely voiced in public discussions:

We are cautioned by family law historian Barbara Bennett Woodhouse that “[s]tamped on the reverse side of this coinage of family privacy and parental rights are the child’s voicelessness, objectification, and isolation from the community.” It is often assumed that state control of education “disserve[s] the values of pluralism and experimentation,” but public education can bring its students a much needed respite from the ideological solipsism of the enclosed family. Public education can physically and intellectually transport the child across the boundaries of home and community. Of course, this transportation comes at a cost. It disrupts the intramural transmission of values from parent to child. It threatens to dismantle a familiar world by introducing the child to multiple sources of authority—and to the possibility that a choice must be made among them.

The Parent as (Mere) Educational Trustee: Whose Education Is It, Anyway?

And thus, the masking debate exposes a couple elements of legal obligations to the community, to children, and to parents since the requirement (or not) to mask impacts children’s opportunities to learn in contexts where academic freedom is protected and where all the people involved are safe as reasonably possible from infectious disease.

However, ultimately, the rights of children must be protected:

No one would suggest that parents may not introduce their children to personal sources of moral or religious meaning. However, to those parents who want their children untouched by other points of view, the state must say that the rights of parents, while profound, are circumscribed—contingent, as the Supreme Court has always noted, on preparing the young for the additional obligations they will take on as members of a pluralistic society. “In a democracy,” political theorist William Galston writes, “parents are entitled to introduce their children to what they regard as vital sources of meaning and value, and to hope that their children will come to share this orientation.” Yet, children have freestanding intellectual and moral claims of their own, claims that Galston goes on to remind us, “imply enforce- able rights of exit from the boundaries of community defined by their parents.” If children are granted this right of exit, they must be able to exercise it freely. They must not be disempowered from making their own intellectual and moral claims in the first place. The state has a duty to make sure they are not disempowered, and one of its best resources to that end is public schooling.

The Parent as (Mere) Educational Trustee: Whose Education Is It, Anyway?

The state is charged with protecting children intellectually and physically when parents do not share that goal (risking the child’s health by refusing to mask, indoctrinating the child in singular beliefs by restricting that child’s access to knowledge and critical thinking):

The full capacity for individual choice is the presupposition of First Amendment freedoms. It is for this reason that the state has a strong obligation to see that free choice is not strangled at its source. The state may not sponsor particular religious or political beliefs, but that is not enough; it must protect children from being forced to adopt particular religious or political beliefs. The state must work to protect the moral and intellectual autonomy of all children. Further, if the state has the obligation to ensure the child’s opportunity to become autonomous, that obligation, as educational theorist Harry Brighouse has pointed out, “cuts against the differential regulation of public and private schools with respect to religious instruction.” Children are owed this obligation “regardless of whether it is the state, their parents, or a religious foundation that pays for their education, and regardless of whether they attend privately-run or government-run schools.” The constitutional freedom to choose is not guaranteed only to be so circumscribed that it exists in principle but not in fact.

The Parent as (Mere) Educational Trustee: Whose Education Is It, Anyway?

The Republican political theater of “parental rights” rhetoric exposes that conservatives are intellectually and legally bankrupt, but it also exposes the essential need for the state to protect children, who have essentially no political power.

McMaster and other Republican governors are clearly speaking to the adults who are likely to vote for them, and not in any way addressing the education and health of children.

The continuing political theater surrounding Covid and public schooling is too often ignoring the children at the center of that storm.

Since children have no political authority or autonomy, the state must function in ways that support parents who honor their children’s intellectual freedom and personal health and safety but also protect children when their parents have motives not in the interest of their children’s ability to think critically and live safely.

The Politics of Childhood in an Era of Authoritarian Education

While on vacation, a friend and I were discussing the paradox of parenting.

A parent often feels a tension between fostering and supporting a child to be the person they want to be as that contrasts with dictating what is best for the child (knowing as adults do that children, teens, and young adults often make decisions necessarily without the context of experience that would certainly change many decisions).

That paradox, that tension has existed for me as a teacher/professor, parent, grandparent, and coach.

I am constantly checking myself in roles of authority to determine if I am imposing my authority onto children and young people (authoritarian) or if I am mentoring and fostering those humans in the cone of my authority in ways that support their own autonomy and development along lines they actively choose for themselves (authoritative).

This is a dichotomy examined by Paulo Freire, and a central concern for any critical educator.

The current misguided attacks on anything “critical” is particularly frustrating for critical educators since these attacks are designed to fulfill the demands of authoritarian systems, partisan politics and formal education.

It has occurred to me recently that I have been in roles of authority for a very long time, beginning with working as a lifeguard in my mid- to late teens. My role of authority literally began, then, with the expectations that I would guard human life—any human life that came into the sphere of the pool where I was charged with monitoring swimming and the safety of not only individual swimmers but all of the people in the pool.

I was a very good and capable swimmer, and for a teen, I was reasonably responsible (although I cringe thinking about being a head lifeguard when only 17 or so). But having the level of authority and responsibility that being a lifeguard entails was quite likely asking far more of me that I deserved.

Those days of lifeguarding set me on course for being the responsible person for the next 40-plus years, exacting a significant toll on me psychologically and emotionally.

Maintaining a critical authoritative pose when in positions of authority is extremely hard, much harder than being authoritarian.

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was practicing in many ways the sort of critical teaching that is coming under attack in 2021, even resulting in a teacher in Tennessee being fired:

At issue was Hawn assigning the essay “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates to students in his Contemporary Issues class in February, and later in March, playing a video of “White Privilege,” a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey to the same students.

A Tennessee teacher taught a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem about white privilege. He was fired for it

Many conservatives see the work of Coates, for example, as radical, while those of us on the left would argue Coates’s work is quite mainstream and accessible—but far from radical. This is the same dynamic around Barack Obama, for example; Obama is a moderate and an incrementalist, but certainly not a radical leftist or Marxist (as conservatives like to suggest).

While I taught high school English in the very conservative rural South, I was mostly allowed to teach texts with only occasional complaints from parents. What looks quite odd now is that I included Howard Zinn in my classes for many years without a peep from anyone (Zinn is a key target of the ant-CRT movement now).

But I also included Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology in my classes in order to help students navigate metaphorical approaches to narratives (a key skill needed in the Advanced Placement course I taught and as preparation for college).

Including Campbell did cause problems since his work complicated the literalism many of students experienced in their religious lives. Fundamentalist Christianity was the background of nearly all my students, and Campbell’s casual claims that all religions and mythologies told similar archetypal stories stepped on the toes of arguments that accepting Jesus was the only way into heaven.

I aroused similar complaints by including Gandhi in my Emerson/Thoreau/MLK unit.

The parental challenges to Campbell and Gandhi were grounded in a type of insecurity that had never been examined critically by those parents, all of which was the result of having been raised in authoritarian environments.

I did have my students interrogate that Sunday school and preaching were not places where they were encouraged to ask questions or challenge any of the “lessons” they received.

So in 2021, I cannot stress too much that the Republican attack on critical race theory and how history is taught is simply a battle for the integrity of the mind of children, teens, and young adults.

Learning and knowledge—especially if we genuinely believe in human autonomy and democracy—are not simply about accumulating facts determined to be true or important by some authority, but are about learning how to know what we believe is true and why.

Human freedom is most threatened by unexamined beliefs, not by the act of questioning itself.

Authority doesn’t just resist questioning, but entirely rejects it as an act.

Republicans and the conservatives drawn to authoritarianism do not trust human agency, do not believe in the free exchange of ideas, and do not believe in the essential power of questioning, especially when the questions are aimed at their authority.

Nothing is as simple as “both sides,” and certainly we should never fall into traps of “only know this.”

There can never be free people, however, without free minds cultivated in the guarantee of academic freedom.

And the free exchange of ideas will never be spaces without discomfort, which now seems to be a smokescreen used by Republicans in their pursuit of securing authority.

Suddenly, Republicans are concerned about uncomfortable white students, but seem oblivious to the discomfort, for example, of thousands and thousands of Black students experience reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Teachers must now tip-toe around the uncomfortable texts and conversations about race and racism because of the possibility of white discomfort (note that Black discomfort about Huck Finn has been repeatedly swept aside under the guise of “classic literature”)—a stance once again disregarding the daily discomfort of Black children experiencing racism.

Intellectual discomfort (what texts and discussions prompt in formal schooling) is often necessary for learning, but existential discomfort (what targets of racism and sexism experience) are not necessary and are essentially harmful.

Authoritarian education is willing to sacrifice the existential comfort of marginalized children in order to shield some children from intellectual discomfort.

Even more disturbing, however, is that what is really being protected is the frailty of those students’ parents and those people in authority who are not willing to risk being challenged or questioned in any way.

Plagiarism, Accountability, and Adult Hypocrisy

You said “I think I’m like Tennessee Williams”
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in

“City Middle,” The National

A refrain by my father throughout my childhood and into my adolescence has shaped how I try to live my life; it remains possibly the strongest impulse I have as an adult.

My father’s parenting philosophy was possibly as misguided as it was reflective of the essential problem with how adults interact with children and teens: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

As a child growing up in the rural crossroads of Enoree, South Carolina, I witnessed my father announcing his dictum, sitting in our living room with a glass of Crown Royal in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

By the time I was a teen, the scenes were often far more physical, occasionally ending with me on the floor as my father attempted to wrestle me into compliance.

A game of him demanding, “Don’t say another word,” and me replying, “Word,” as he tightening his hold on me against the faux-brick linoleum of a different living room floor.

Adulthood for me has included a career in education, where I have taught and coached, and I am a father and grandfather. I am routinely tested, then, by interacting with children and young adults—challenged not to give into the adult hypocrisy of my father, of nearly every adult I encounter.

When the now-former president of the University of South Carolina was exposed as having plagiarized the end of his graduation speech, I immediately thought of my father and adult hypocrisy, certain that little or nothing would come of the plagiarism by the head of an institution that routinely holds students to draconian expectations for plagiarism and academic honesty.

In this case—unlike many high-profile examples that include Joe Biden, Melania Trump, and Rand Paul—Bob Caslen resigned, but there appeared to be nothing to suggest he was going to be held accountable by the system. And honestly, little consequences will occur to Caslen’s power, wealth, or status.

The university-level equivalent of this for students would be if a student were caught plagiarizing and that student were allowed to drop the course without any academic penalty, continuing on with coursework from there.

In academia, however, plagiarism for students tends to result in an assignment zero, a course F, or expulsion. Caslen is experiencing nothing equivalent to these consequences for students.

Since I teach writing, primarily first-year and upper-level writing at the university level, I often write about plagiarism and citation because these aspect of academic writing are both essential and deeply problematic.

I have even referred to the citation/plagiarism trap since consequences for plagiarism and the gauntlet of citation in college scholarship are disproportionately elements of stress for both students and professors.

The tension for me as a teacher, scholar, and writer is that I recognize how academic honesty and the mechanics of citation serve a writer’s credibility even while citation formatting and style guides are unnecessarily complex and often arbitrary to the point of inanity.

When we are dealing with citation, I find myself telling students that I recognize that APA, for example, is often mind-numbingly complex and essential in academic contexts that require formal citation (students also write using hyperlinks as citation, which emphasizes the possibility of citing that is academically honest and not tedious and pedantic).

The harsh reality about adulthood is that accountability, despite all the grandstanding adults do about it, is heaped mostly upon the youngest, the weakest, and the most marginalized. People with status—Biden, Paul, Melania Trump, Caslen—breeze through life little troubled by the bar we set for children, teens, and young adults in formal schooling.

“Pretenses. Hypocrisy” have driven Big Daddy into a rage, and Brick, to drink.

Especially for those of us charged with the care and education of children, teens, and young adults, we must lead by example; nothing is a worse lesson for young people than rhetoric that contradicts action.

If academic honesty and the proper attribution of other people’s words and ideas matter—and I think they do—certainly those standards must be higher for adults than children.

Otherwise, we are proving children right when they realize—as I did one day as a child standing in a smokey living room in Enoree, SC—that adult words are too often bullshit.

Despite all the jumbled mess that is the work and life of William Faulkner, I side with Addie from As I Lay Dying:

So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.

As I Lay Dying (p. 171)

“Words are no good,” that is, when actions reveal that they are merely words that serve to ask more of some than of others.

Thinking Beyond Bean Dad: A Reader

First, Bean Dad (as he would become known) posted a Twitter thread about teaching his daughter a lesson. The thread was flippant, snarky—and about a child not knowing how to use a can opener.

I was, frankly, surprised that Bean Dad took a beating on this because his approach to his child is essentially the foundational belief system in the U.S. about child rearing: The world is dangerous so I better pound on my kid before the world does so she/he is prepared for the Real World.

In far too much of the U.S., that pounding is literal—corporal punishment—but the pounding takes many forms such as grade retention and “no excuses” policies and practices in K-12 schooling.

Gradually, the clever thing to do about the Bean Dad trending on social media was to interrogate the phenomenon as an example of everything-that-is-wrong-with-Twitter. While a valid take, I think, it is also careless to set aside how this thread (whether it was hyperbole, as he claims, or not) is one small but ugly picture of how we mistreat children in the U.S., both in our families and in our institutions such as formal schools.

Let me offer an analogy.

One of the most important moments in the U.S. for the safety of children was recognizing the dangers of lead paint. This moment also is a powerful illustration of the need to target the external danger and not the child.

Instead of teaching children a lesson about lead paint—somehow toughening up those kids so that when they did consume lead paint, they would survive the experience—we used the power of public policy to remove lead from paint—to eradicate the danger, instead of pounding on the children.

Bean Dad quipped about his own compulsion to prepare his daughter for the apocalypse—some sort of version of The Road where the child is always alone?—but there seems never to be any consideration, as Maggie Smith concludes, for a better world: “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful.”

A child is not an inherently flawed human that must be “fixed,” corrected, or improved. A child is a developing human that must be nurtured, and nurturing requires love, patience, and safe spaces.

If nothing else, we must all check our impulses to be Bean Dad so I offer here some reading to reconsider the many ways we fail that calling:

On Children and Childhood

Rethinking grade retention

Rethinking corporal punishment

Rethinking “grit”

Rethinking growth mindset

Resisting deficit ideologies

Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience

I am deeply indebted to the academic and personal kindness and mentoring afforded me during my undergraduate education by one of my English professors, Dr. Nancy Moore.

Dr. Moore combined an admirable ability to challenge students academically while also being sincerely supportive and encouraging. I probably did not need or even deserve her praise, but Dr. Moore always made me feel like a successful student, budding scholar, and most of all, credible writer.

She was one of the first people to treat me as a poet, inviting me to read and share my work in various settings.

But I also recall that she regularly chided me about my literary affections, warning me that I would grow out of some of my favorite authors. Part of that rested on one of my proclivities for authors who dwelled on innocence, such as J.D. Salinger and e.e. cummings.

While my literary tastes have in fact changed and even matured (in the sense that my critical sensibilities are sharper as I have aged), as I am staring down the barrel of turning 60, I remain deeply drawn still to the poetry of cummings, even as my discomfort with him as a person has grown with each biography I read.

This blog post title refers directly to William Blake’s major poetry collection that remains also a favorite of mine since it captures why these works still resonate with me; the tension between innocence/youth and experience/maturity fascinates me since both phases of life are often simultaneously idealized and criticized.

And, of course, it is an existential fact of being human that we experience both phases as well as live through the transition in ways that are often difficult.

I have recently written about the difficulties of physical decline as I age, and that experience sits beside major life changes and being an active grandfather for a five-year-old girl and three-year-old boy.

So yesterday, while spending a few hours with my grand-daughter after picking her up from school before taking her back to her father, I was struck by one of those sudden realizations that she is securely into childhood, no longer any sort of baby. She is very bright, energetic, incredibly loving, and distinctly sensitive in the ways that suggest she has inherited some of the anxiety that runs through my side of the family.

My grand-children have spent their lives navigating fractured families, and she has come to see the world through “whose week is it?” This is sad, but it also shows how she is coming to know the complexity of the world, how she is experiencing the transition from innocence to experience even at the tender age of five.

As our afternoon unfolded, the time together was ripe with the tensions of being a small child in the harsh reality of living. We saw a homeless man sitting by the highway on our way to dinner. At the restaurant, a woman making balloon animals gave her a balloon butterfly that filled her with dread over the probability that the balloons would burst.

I took a picture of her with the balloon butterfly:

balloon butterfly sky

Ad even a video of her talking about navigating the fear of the balloon popping. Eventually, I wrote a new poem, a theory of balloons, which is heavily influenced by [in Just-] by cummings.

On the video, my grand-daughter explains her theory of balloons (slightly edited in the poem):

balloons pop if there’s something spiky
then you cry & cry & then you get one later
i’ve got a balloon butterfly
& i’m never going to pop it
sometimes i’m going to pop it
& that’s okay i’m going to stop thinking about it

Listening to my grand-daughter and thinking about the balloon woman, I was immediately reminded of cummings and [in Just-], which still represents my key moment in life when I made the turn toward English student and writer.

I left high school only modestly drawn to so-called literature, even as I was a voracious reader of science fiction and comic books. I was tepid on poetry and had written some, but it wasn’t until a speech class in my first year of college when discussing this poem by cummings really struck me.

Unlike many poems by cummings, this one is very accessible and powerful in its seeming simplicity. But it also is an effective glimpse into the tension between innocence (the children playing in the poem) and the allure of the balloonman (a real-world Pied Piper and Pan hyrbid that represents the allure of maturity, including budding sexuality).

But I had never, I think, really considered the genius of using the balloon symbolically in the poem until my impromptu philosophical moments with my grand-daughter and the complete accident of her being given a balloon butterfly.

Like a ballon, like a butterfly, our humanity is very frail and fleeting, regardless of where we are on the continuum from innocence to experience.

And as I worked on the poem, blending things that really happened with my own fabrications for effect, I became more and more aware of the bond between my frailty of aging and my grand-daughter’s frailty of being just a child.

She is tiny and very thin, but she also has the tenderest of hearts.

Finding form is always a challenge of poetry, but I also feel the pressure of making sure every poem ends some way that is fulfilling without stooping to anything heavy-handed.

Satisfying to me at least, the last section pulls together an image of heaviness and lightness to combine with the tension of innocence (my grand-daughter) and experience (me) as I carried her inside after our afternoon together:

she falls asleep as we drive
the balloon butterfly clinging
to her tiny child’s arm
too beautiful & terribly frail
i carry her in sleep-heavy in my arms
like a balloon or a butterfly

This morning when I checked on her, I also asked if her balloon butterfly had survived the night.

I am relieved to find out that it has as I recall her sleep-heavy in my arms, completely dependent on my care in that moment, this old man who loves her.

The Meek

When I read this thread on Twitter, I cried:

I read this the day after I walked across campus from my parking lot to my office. Two students approached, holding hands while laughing and smiling as they talked.

They both made eye contact with me, smiling, and spoke.

I thought about my granddaughter, who snuggles still against me. She is four now, and the first thing she does when she walks into our house is take off her shoes and socks.

When we sit together, I hold her bare feet. It is our holding hands.

How any of us treat our own children, and other children, how a people view and treat all children—this reveals a great deal about character that we tend to ignore in the U.S.

In short, we are an awful people, a disturbing antithesis of the so-called Christian values many want to wave like a tattered American flag in the face of the world.

When Barbara Kingsolver wrote about being in Spain with her daughter, she concluded: “This is not the United States.”

Kingsolver explains:

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.

The U.S. is a culture of rugged individualism, no sense of community, as Kingsolver adds:

In the United States, where people like to think that anyone can grow up to be President, we parents are left very much on our own when it comes to the little Presidents-in-training. Our social programs for children are the hands-down worst in the industrialized world, but apparently that is just what we want. In an Arizona newspaper, I remember seeing a letter from a reader incensed by the possibility of a school budget override. “I don’t have kids,” he declared, “so why should I have to pay to educate other people’s offspring?” The budget increase was voted down, the school district progressed from deficient to dismal and one is inclined to ask that smug nonfather just whose offspring he expects to doctor the maladies of his old age.

Our nation has a proud history of lone heroes and solo flights, so perhaps it’s no surprise that we think of child-rearing as an individual job, not a collective responsibility.

And our calloused disregard for children is not our only sin against the meek in the U.S. We are a violent and abusive people for girls and women as well.

Responding to conservative and evangelical support for Brett Kavanaugh (and Trump), Carly Gelsinger offers a disturbing analysis based on her own experiences growing up in “purity culture” driven by the evangelical church:

There exists a generation of women who were never taught consent ― and I’m not talking about Boomers. I’m talking about the hundreds of thousands of us who were raised in church and came of age at the turn of the millennium.

In our world, we were taught that our bodies didn’t belong to ourselves. God owned them, they said, but really, that meant that men owned them. Our fathers. Our pastors. Our husbands. Our politicians. Never ourselves.

Gelsinger recognizes that “[p]urity culture taught young girls to bear responsibility for men’s lust.” And then she catalogues her own experiences as a victim of men because of that culture.

Through her story we must recognize that the U.S. is a large and perverse frat culture in which the meek are initiated through the gauntlet of toxic masculinity and toxic privilege.

If the meek will inherit the earth, the cost of that initiation is far too high and a scar on a people who want to pretend, like Kavanaugh, that we are good and decent folk.

The Betsy DeVos Dilemma: 14 March 2018

After the election of Donald Trump, I witnessed a response on social media I did not anticipate, but have since committed to honor when I comment on Trump’s administration: Black scholars and journalists contested claims that Trump is somehow uniquely awful and asserted their own voices about the historical and lingering consequences of white privilege in their lives.

Not always as harsh as this, but these perspectives were expressing a “Welcome to our world” response to hand wringing about Trump and his policies, rhetoric, and administration.

This racialized awareness has tempered my own urge to identify Trump as uniquely awful; instead, while I do argue he is an extreme and crass political leader, I recognize that many of the policies and the ideology he courts and expresses are often not distinct from mainstream Republican practices for decades (see Newt Gingrich).

When Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appeared on 60 Minutes [1], then, and the media as well as public response was overwhelmingly negative, I checked myself and offered a measured argument that DeVos is, like Trump, crass and cartoonish, but she fits into the twenty-first century series of SOEs from Paige and Spellings through Duncan and King.

That sparked pushback as follows:

Since both Watters and Perry are informed voices I respect, I was then trapped between what I believed was a credible argument and their challenges—even as I found support for my stance among others who I also greatly respect:

So DeVos is a subset of the larger Trump problem that confronts us with people who have attained excessive power mostly because of their ill-got wealth and not because of their expertise or credibility.

DeVos, I maintain, represents an unmasking, however, of what has been happening with the SOE post for nearly 20 years since each SOE throughout the  administrations of W. Bush, Obama, and now Trump has been supremely unqualified and nearly uniform in market-based and flawed commitments driven by ideology and not credible educational research.

From NCLB’s facade of “scientifically-based” to Arne Duncan’s “Civil Rights issue of our time,” education policy at the federal level has been mostly, as I noted about Obama and Duncan, an Orwellian adventure in rhetoric.

This leads to Watter’s concern about DeVos being unlike, for example, John King, who did lend a voice to one aspect of the Obama administration that I believe deserves credit—the elevating of the Office of Civil Rights and shining an authoritative light on racist disciplinary policies in schools.

I remain deeply skeptical of King, who as I note in a Tweet above built his reputation in a “no excuses” charter school that practiced and perpetuated inequitable discipline, and have trouble separating King from Duncan in terms of both being mostly rhetoric to provide a veneer for policies that often produced outcomes opposite of that rhetoric.

The dilemma becomes how to accurately express outrage with DeVos, and Trump, while maintaining our awareness that while they are more overt, even cartoonish, they both fit well within an existing political structure—both Democratic and Republican—that fails to acknowledge race privilege and perpetuates race privilege.

In other words, to suddenly be outraged by DeVos is to admit you have not been rightfully sensitive to how the SOE post has been a train wreck for at least two decades; to suddenly be outraged by Trump is to admit you have not been rightfully sensitive to how the US has functioned since it inception.

That said, we must not become fatalistic, must not allow DeVos and Trump a pass since their entire lives have been passes facilitated by wealth and privilege.

And we must not allow DeVos and Trump to become the singular targets of change; in other words, replacing DeVos or Trump is a goal, but not an end goal because they are markers for larger problems, for larger norms that must be confronted and eradicated.

Yes, DeVos in all her Amway, faux-Christian, Libertarian awfulness is to be rejected and then replaced. And, yes, we certainly can identify ways in which she is exceptionally awful even against a crop of awful SOE appointees. In fact, I struggle to view DeVos as worse than Spellings since Spellings, like Duncan, has social capital and a veneer of decency that makes her even more dangerous, I think.

Despite her incompetence as SOE, Spellings has become president of UNC.

DeVos was wreaking havoc for years as a billionaire activist with almost no one outside Michigan taking notice [2], and she will likely slink right back to that sort of life once she eventually fades from her political perch.

All of this highlights the dilemma of institutionalized incompetence that confronts us in the persons of DeVos and Trump, but not only because of their personal flaws.

Today is March 14, 2018, a national day of protest by the youth of America.

The adults who elected Donald Trump, facilitated DeVos, are shouting that we in the US must not listen to children and teens.

Adults who elected Trump are afraid children and teens aren’t credible, aren’t qualified.

Watch the DeVos interview; watch any clip of Trump.

Then watch a clip of some of the teens from Parkland, Florida.

The choice is quite obvious, and no dilemma at all.


[2] Evidence-based thread on DeVos:

See Also

Betsy DeVos Wants to Reverse Efforts to Bring Some Degree of Racial Justice to School Discipline

DeVos and the limits of the education reform movement

Betsy DeVos Calls “60 Minutes” a Waste of a Half Hour

The Worst Government Possible, on Purpose

CURMUDGUCATION: DeVos: Made Up of Individuals


Changing the Odds So No Child Has to Overcome Them

There are several challenging, and therefore uncomfortable, scenes in Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007); however, when I show this documentary in my courses, few students recognize those scenes as either challenging or uncomfortable.

At one point, several black men from the Little Rock, Arkansas community are gathered outside the school, and they speak directly about the need for blacks to take care of their own, clean up their own communities. These men directly mention the damage of black-on-black crime (which is about the same as white-on-white crime, although the latter is almost never mentioned).

Throughout the documentary, as well, a number of black students confront how hard they work and how some of their fellow black students simply do not try—echoing a rugged individualism and personal responsibility narrative that a white teacher/coach and her white golf team members express.

I use these scenes as teachable moments about the negative impact of respectability politics on marginalized groups:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

…Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.

Respectability politics works in conjunction with seemingly innocuous narratives (rugged individualism, lifting yourself by your bootstraps, personal responsibility) to keep the accusatory gaze on individuals and away from systemic inequity. In other words, political and economic elites are more secure if the majority of people believe all success and failure are primarily determined by individual traits and not by privilege and disadvantage beyond most people’s control.

This semester that discussion has coincided with Laura Ingraham attempting to publicly shame LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” a not-so-clever self-promotion for one of Ingraham’s vapid books.

Along with Kevin Durant’s heated response, James (see video in the link above) stressed, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

Watching James, however, and listening carefully present us with the dangers of his “defeating the odds” motivation (listen to about minutes 1:50-2:15), his own powerful and impressive rise to being King James.

I am not criticizing James, however, and fully support his response, refusing to shut up and dribble.

But a message that suggests anyone can or should be able to achieve what an outlier, James, has achieved is ultimately harmful, speaking through and to the most corrosive aspects of respectability politics.

This call to teach children to beat the odds, in fact, is shared all along the political spectrum from right to left.

The ultimate flaw in a beat-the-odds mentality is, again, that it suggests success and failure lie mostly or solely in the individual, a matter of choice and effort—like having “grit,” a growth mindset, or a positive attitude (all ways to fix inadequate children).

This is a terrible message for children especially since success and failure are mostly determined by systemic forces—except for rare outliers—and the message allows those with the power to change the odds to escape accountability.

LeBron James, I believe, is right about his importance as a role model, as a stellar example of what black success looks like despite the odds being unfairly against him in the form of racism and economic inequity.

And as long as we as a society choose to ignore the odds, choose to allow racism, sexism, and classism to exist, I suppose we should find humane and supportive ways to encourage children to work so that a few of them may hit the life lottery and beat the odds.

But to be blunt, that’s a pretty shitty cop-out for the adults who could, in fact, change the odds so that no child has to overcome them.

It is ultimately a heartless and ugly thing to see children as lacking the drive to beat odds that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

It is political cowardice and public negligence to remain fatalistic about the odds as we watch those odds destroy the hopes and dreams of our children.

If anyone should shut up, that would be Ingraham and her entire cadre of right-wing know-nothings who shovel the very worst narratives that help guarantee those odds will remain in their favor.

And as we listen to James instead, let’s resist demanding that he or any so-called racial minorities somehow erase racism and then begin to demand that those who benefit the most from the odds use those privileges to dismantle those odds.

That, I know, is a powerful ask, but it is one that certainly holds more credence than asking children to be superhuman because we have James dribbling across our flatscreen TVs.

The Outlier Fallacy: Keeping Our Accusatory Gaze on Individuals, and Not Systemic Inequity

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and a celebrity—both of which speak to his exceptional talents, especially in the context of being a black man in the U.S.

In many ways, Tyson is the anti-Sheldon (the fictional nerd genius of The Big Bang Theory), and his celebrity as a scientist serves as a powerful model against corrosive racist stereotypes.

I am but a redneck with a doctorate (EdD) that most in the hard sciences, like Tyson, would brush aside, and my scholarship and public work as a social scientist also land me squarely well below the credibility bar against Tyson’s stature as a hard scientist and celebrity.

None the less, I must offer a friendly rebuttal to Tyson on a recent Tweet:

To which I replied:

Despite his status as an astrophysicist, his wealth of knowledge as a scientist, Tyson’s celebrity, I fear (much as is the case with Oprah), has clouded his better sensibilities.

The celebrity class in the U.S. often uses that celebrity to hold forth well beyond their areas of expertise (see as the king of this practice, Bill Gates). And Tyson very well could have good intentions here, and I concede he may not deserve being held liable for the codes of his Tweet (How many read “broken childhoods” as code for “living in poverty” and/or “single-black-parent home”?)

Tyson’s public is rife with those who cling to successful blacks who reinforce their racism: OJ Simpson, Ben Carson, Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, Charles Barkley, to name a few.

And so Tyson is holding forth as a Great American Winner, and winners often believe that the primary cause of their success is in their own character and effort; winners, in other words, are apt not to consider the role of the rules in their winning—notably rarely considering that the rules could be unfairly tilted in their favor.

So there are two fundamental flaws in Tyson’s Tweet: First is the implication that in the U.S. we are not already focusing on “those who succeed in spite”; and second, “those who succeed in spite” are outliers, and thus, both in the hard sciences and the social sciences more problematic than the potential source of understanding human behavior.

Tyson’s suggestion is trapped within the rugged individualism/bootstrap myths of the U.S. and then speaks to the same—but coming from Tyson, his argument feeds some nasty racial and racist narratives as well (If only we could inculcate in all blacks the character and effort that the black winners [outliers] have…).

People who succeed have character traits that trump people who fail—goes the narrative. And thus, all we need to do is fix those people who do not succeed.

This outlier fallacy fails as science, but it also keeps the accusatory gaze on individuals. While Tyson suggests we focus on winners instead of losers, either option is flawed in that it allows systemic forces to be ignored even though systemic forces (not individual qualities) are often the primary cause of outcomes.

Let’s recalibrate Tyson’s Tweet just a bit to see the problem: Why don’t we study black men who do not find themselves in the criminal justice system instead of studying black men who are incarcerated to understand criminalization?

This proposal, of course, puts the gaze entirely on black men, and fails to recognize the first level problem—the criminal justice and policing systems in the U.S. are significantly inequitable for black Americans.

If our goal is equity and social justice for people trapped in poverty and for so-called racial minorities in the U.S., as well as seeking ways to support children better who are living broken childhoods, Tyson’s musing ignores how we already are failing both goals and promotes an outlier fallacy driven by the white gaze, something fostered among the winners who cannot allow themselves to question the rules that created their winning.

Especially in this time of Trump, seeking equity and justice cannot afford a celebrity class blinded by its celebrity. “Those who succeed” and “those who don’t succeed” are not the sources of where our gaze should be; those are outcomes driven by a game that is rigged.

Let’s reconsider the rules of that game and not the participants, whether they succeed or not.