Thursday, October 29, 2009

1989: Some Views From The West


In November of 1989 I was 22 years old.  The fall of the Berlin Wall was news that gripped us.  For those of us who grew up in America viewing East Germany and East Berlin as part of the "Eastern Bloc" countries, it was an event that seemed unbelievable.  To us, East Germany and East Berlin had always been part of "those Communist governments" under the Soviet control.  As far as we had ever known, an attempt to even approach the Wall in East Berlin got you shot on the spot.  So from a Western perspective, to see the Berlin Wall come down was a great victory for democracy.  We thought of little else.

Yesterday I was talking with some of my college students about the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  It is amazing to know that for them there has never been a Berlin Wall, an East or West Germany, an East or West Berlin.  There is no such thing as memories of a "Cold War" or the prejudices that went along with that.  There is no concept that life had ever been any different for the people of Germany.  There is no concept of the idea that American students once held prejudices against East Germany for being part of the "enemy" of Communist governments.  It is nice to see those prejudices gone.

This Fall we are joyfully remembering the events of 20 years ago when, those of us old enough to remember, saw the Berlin Wall come down.

The Festival of Freedom web site (in both German and English) is one of many sites full of information, both now and then.  BBC World News America reporter, Franz Strasser is documenting a three week journey through his "homeland" of Eastern Germany.  Go take a look.  It is well worth it.  And I have no doubt that it will be well worth following.  Oliver Fritz, who was born and raised in East Berlin, has a great web site about life "in the East".  He also will be doing an interview with BBC radio this Saturday.  {Author's note:  If you click on this BBC radio link, then click on "Listen Now" and fast forward about 26 minutes, Oliver's interview will be starting.  I believe this will only be available to listen to until 11/6/09.  If I find out any information about it being archived I will add it here.}  This one, he assures me, will be English.  My attempts to listen another interview that he did were immediately dashed, since it was not in English.  But if any of you out there speak German, here it is.

For those of us from the West, Oliver Fritz's web site is, I think, particularly insightful. It gives us personal glimpses of lives "on the other side of the wall".  And for most of us from my generation and older, that is something that we are not accustomed to seeing.

Another thing that has been interesting for me is to hear is the recent interviews and different stories of the memories of how people's lives were affected by the fall of the Wall.  From a Western perspective images such as these where people were clambering over the Wall or chipping away at it  by hand or with rocks or with hammers, are forever etched in our minds.  And who can ever forget the pictures we saw of throngs of people wanting to cross a border that had separated them from other parts of their own country, and perhaps even other members of their family, for decades.  But when all the hubbub of those initial days died down, most of the world paid no attention to what happened in the weeks, months and years that followed.  In our minds we only saw a wall that had separated people by a distance measurable in feet.  What we didn't really understand was that to some degree, these people really were worlds apart.  We assumed that those from East Berlin and East Germany would suddenly wake up the next morning and have an entirely Western perspective on things.  We assumed they would understand and live out the culture and ideals of a Western thought pattern.  We assumed that they would suddenly understand and flourish under an economic system that had, for decades, been unknown to them.  Obviously that was not the reality.  But we heard very little, if any, of that.  In this article from 1999 , we gain a bit of insight to how, on a personal level, people were negatively affected.  It shares some insights of prejudices and economic difficulties.  It certainly is an interesting perspective.

I would guess that in the years from 1999 to 2009, things have steadily improved.  The current generation of young people has no concept of a life in either East or West.  For this generation there have never been two countries or two cities.  However they do have parents that lived the reality of East and West.  And so I would also guess that it will take another 20 years for that memory to really start fading.

However, despite the struggles that may have followed those events of 1989 in Germany, I am glad that during my lifetime that Wall came down.  There were many who saw it go up but did not live long enough to see it come down.  So in this year of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I will, in my heart, celebrate a little extra for those who never had the opportunity.


As I write this, my heart aches with the memories of the events of Tiananmen Square in the Spring of 1989.  My hope is to come back to that in Part 2 in another post and share some of my thoughts and reflections about an event that did not end so well.  Additionally it is important to remember that even now the people of China are living behind a Great Firewall.  I hope that it soon comes down as successfully as the Wall in Berlin did 20 years ago.

Monday, October 26, 2009

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, He Loves Me... Anyway???

Ever have anyone tell you that they "love you anyway"?  Or did you ever hear someone say "he/she is a great guy/girl, and I love 'em to pieces, but..."  Well I have, and here are some of my thoughts...

Let's think about some of the things to which we might normally attach the word "anyway".  "I don't really feel like cleaning the toilets, but I'll do it anyway." "I don't really feel like mucking the stalls, but I'll do it anyway." "I don't really feel like plunging the toilet, but I've got to do it anyway."  "I don't feel like studying for a math test, but I'll do it anyway."  Got the idea?  Yeah, I think you do.

So how about it?  Do you like the idea of being "loved anyway"?  Hmmmmm....

Now let's think of some things that we might attach the word "but" to.  "It would be a great house, but the foundation is falling apart."  "It would be a great class, but the teacher can't teach."  "He's a nice boss, but he doesn't have a clue about my job."  "It would make for a fine pet, but I'm allergic to cats."  Got the idea?  Yeah, I think you do.

So how about it?  Do you want someone to "love you, but..."?

Love, true love, is by its very nature unconditional.  The minute you attach a condition to it, it isn't love.  I don't know what it is.  But I do know for sure that whatever it is, it isn't love.  Wow, do I have the makings for a country song here or what?  Seriously though, when you throw the words "anyway" and "but" into the same sentence as the word "love", you have misused the word "love".

In addition to not understanding the word "love", if you attach a condition to it, I would say you have an attitude problem.  To say to someone "I love you anyway" implies that the person to whom you are saying that is unworthy of love.  But somehow, like cleaning the toilets or mucking the stalls, you're going to force yourself to do the deed and love them anyway.  If you "love them but...", you have immediately negated the "I love" part of the sentence by attaching a "but" to it.  That's the entire purpose of a "but".  It negates the first thing you said by showing how it can't really be so.

Now I'm no theologian, but I do feel compelled to put a challenge in here for those who study the Bible.  I can not recall any time where God loved us "anyway".  I can not recall a single time that God loved us "but".  I do know that the Bible teaches that God is love and that God loves us.  I do know that the Bible teaches that I am a sinner. (Not too hard to believe.)  I do know that the Bible teaches that God demonstrated His love in this way: even while I/we were sinners, Christ died for us.  I can not infer from anything I can find in the Bible that God will somehow force himself to love us, even though it's real drag to do so.  No, I just find that He loves.  He does not stop to think about our flaws.  He just loves.  Now, don't misunderstand me.  God, better than anyone, knows all my sins and flaws.  And there are plenty of them for Him to know about.  Yet He loves.  He doesn't love "anyway".  He loves.

Now I would think that if anyone would have the right to say that He loves "anyway" it would be God.  After all, I have offended Him, strayed from Him, sinned against Him.  And yet when he speaks to me in the Bible, He says he loves me.  It's a miracle.  And it is one that only God is capable of.  And I am and will be eternally grateful for it.  I can not understand it.  I can only thank Him for it.   I do believe that He has created humans with the ability to love.  I also believe that sadly, we are flawed in the way we do so.

So in thinking about love, I have concluded some things.  If another human loves me, I am honored.  If another human does not love me because they find me unlovable, then that is understandable and I am okay with that.

There is a value that we do and should place upon other humans.  But that is not necessarily love.  There is affection that we sometimes feel for one another.  But that is not necessarily love.  There are certain commonalities that we may have or ties that may bind us to other humans.  But that is not necessarily love either.  These things can be love, but they may not necessarily be so.

I'm not sure that I am prepared to define love.  I do know that we can love.  I do know at least two things about love for sure.  It is a miracle.  And it is unconditional.  If it does not have those two qualities, it is not love.

Remember the saying, "it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all"?  Well I'm going to modify it a bit.   In my opinion,  it is better for someone to not love you at all than to have them love you "anyway".


Author's note:  I received a couple of responses to this post via email instead of the comment section, although I don't know why since the comment section is open for anyone to respond.  One of the responses was a picture.   I have posted it here. The second comment below was also from the same individual.  I could not figure out a way to imbed the previous picture into the second comment, so I put it on flicker so that you could link to it from here in the blog if you are interested in seeing any responses.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Is That a Suicide I See Behind That Smile??

Today is a very serious post about a very sad and very difficult topic.  I will try to not make it too long, but I don't know how it will go.  So if you're reading, bear with me.

A couple of semesters ago one of my students had missed a couple of classes, so I emailed her to ask how things were going and if everything was ok.  I received an email answer back from her telling me that a friend of hers had suicided, and, obviously, my student was not doing well.  I asked her if she needed to talk.  And since I'm writing this blog, obviously we talked.

That conversation was something that I had pushed to the back of my mind over the past year.  But it came to the fore again a couple of weeks ago when I read a post over at The Business of Family.  Connie was talking about smiles.  She was talking about giving away smiles and sharing smiles with everyone you meet.  And when I read that, my mind replayed the conversation I had with my student last year.  In that conversation about her friend's suicide, my student kept repeating something that really stuck with me.  She said that she was very confused because her friend had been a very happy, kind, helpful and cheerful person.  She told me about how her friend had been someone who always had a smile for everyone.  In fact, if you weren't smiling when he caught up with you, by the time you were done talking to him you would be smiling too.  Her friend would always be the first in line to help if you needed it.  He would always be quick to give a hug to someone who was having a bad day and cheer them up.  He always cared about everyone.  My student expressed to me how she just couldn't understand how the suicide could possibly be part of the picture that she had in her mind of this person.  And as far as she knew, at that time, there had been no suicide note or anything else that contained any clues as to what had happened.  It just didn't fit together. 

That day, when talking with my student, I said very, very little.  I did a lot of listening.

What my student didn't know that day was that while I may have been saying very, very little, I was thinking a great many things. And when I saw that post a couple of weeks ago, all those thoughts came back.  I wondered then, as I am wondering now, could it be that perhaps that person was aware of the fact that what people wanted to see was a smile?  After all, everyone likes a smiling, cheerful, helpful person.  Could it be that perhaps he gave them all what they wanted?

My student asked me why her friend didn't call anyone that day.  She wanted to know why he didn't call her.  She wanted to know if something could have been different if she had known.  I said nothing because those are all questions to which we have no answer.  I just let her emote.

But in my heart I wondered then, as I wonder now...  Had her friend at some point attempted to portray a part of himself other than the smiling, cheerful, helpful individual?  Was it not received very well?  After all, everyone likes a smiling, helpful, cheerful individual.  But what about the days that you really don't feel like that?  Perhaps he understood that you are not as well received when you are not having a smiling, cheerful, helpful day.  I don't know.  No one knows.

To illustrate the above point, Connie's post also brought to mind another conversation that I had this past spring with another student of mine.  He was telling me about a time when a high school friend of his had threatened/attempted suicide.  My student coldly (I thought), and ignorantly (I felt) brushed the incident aside as "something everyone believed this kid did in order to get attention".  Even now as I am writing this, I can not possibly tell you how my stomach churned when I heard that, and how my stomach is churning now at the memory of that conversation.  At the time of the conversation I said nothing.  I was too busy holding down my emotions.  Even now in thinking about it, my anger is flaring.  I also gathered from further comments during that conversation, that as a result of that attempted suicide, my student didn't really have a relationship any more with that person that had been a friend in high school.  I don't know anything more about that person or that situation.  But I'm going to guess that one thing that young person learned from that attempt was to never, ever show that piece of himself again.  So perhaps now he'll "just keep smiling" right up until the moment when it's not a threat or an attempt, but a real deal.  Because, of course, everyone likes a smiling, cheerful person.  (As an aside, in defense of my student, I will say that we did have another conversation later where I found out that he was not quite so cold, nor quite as ignorant about the topic of suicide as I had initially thought. However, in my heart, I'll never be able to get past that first conversation and the initial attitude he portrayed.  And as a result, my anger flares every time I think about it.)

What I do know about smiles is that they can be faked.  For some people it's because they know it's what others want to see.  They know that everyone likes a smiling, cheerful, helpful individual.  They know that no one has time for a person who has a burden.  And they know they won't be as well received if they dare not smile.

There are other reasons to fake smiles.  For some of us it's part of our job.  As a teacher, I'm supposed to hide any negative emotion that I'm experiencing.  I'm always supposed to be pleasant and make my classroom a happy learning environment.  I'm supposed to make sure that my students are comfortable in my classroom, and that I set up an environment conducive to learning.  So I'm pleasant.  And I laugh a lot.  My smiles are usually real. And I do sincerely laugh a lot. And usually I enjoy my students, and we find things to laugh about. After all, how else are you going to survive a math class?  Whether you are the student or the teacher, nothing helps you to get through math class like a good laugh.  So we find something to laugh about once in a while - and we even joke about teachers who are crazy enough to have a degree in Mathematics!  But this semester is different.  Sadly, there are some days when it's nothing but a show.  (In my mind, this is especially sad since I am not a fake person, and I can't stand people who are.  Therefore, faking a smile is almost like a sacrilege to me.)  This semester, for a number of different reasons, two of which happen to be the death of my friend and a serious illness of a family member, I've had a lot less energy to do the show.  So on some days the smile is missing altogether.  I can't even fake it.  And I think my students are a little surprised - especially the ones who have had me as a teacher in previous semesters.  But I can still fake it enough.  This semester there are a lot of days that the smile is there only because it is supposed to be. If you don't know me well, you won't know the difference. And if you only want to see a smile, then that's what you'll see. Sure, I can give you what you want to see. After all, part of what every teacher does is acting.  So even on the tough days, I am sure that none of my students have any idea of the grief or the burdens in my head and in my heart that I carry with me into the classroom.

And so all of this, and much, much more, I thought about when I read that post about smiling.  Over time, something that I've come to understand through observation of myself and others, is that there is a heart deep within every person that may not always be in sync with the external smile that they are showing you.  Sure, if all you want is a smile, a person can give you a smile.  But if all you have time for is a brief second to look for a smile, then there is no telling what you may have missed below the surface.  You may have missed a wonderful conversation, an exciting adventure, a funny story, a loving touch, a sharing of a delightful soul... Or you may have missed a tragedy.

And so goes the story with smiles....  I guess you never can be absolutely sure exactly what might be hiding behind them.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

It's OK To Get Angry, Just Don't Get "Pissed Off"

WARNING:  Potentially offensive language may be used in this post.

Before I start, I have to say right off that when I am conversing with someone who has a good supply of swear words in their vocabulary, I do find the frequent use of expletives offensive and unnecessary.  But, in all honesty, I must say that an occasional well placed expletive, does serve a purpose.  However, if it's the only thing you have in your word bank for emphasis, then you need to buy a dictionary.  Because almost without exception, effective writing and speaking should be completely void of vulgar expletives. Choice expletives are, in my opinion, like hot pepper on a slice of pizza. A very little goes a very long way.

Well, I can tell you right now, if your sense of humor isn't like mine, stop reading.  Because while I find some of this rather funny, others are likely to be offended.

So this week my husband posted a comment on my sister's facebook wall.  It was in response to some photos she had put on there.  And my husband commented that someone "looked pissed" in one of the photos.  Well apparently this is unacceptable, unnecessary and vulgar language - or so he was informed.  Now first of all, I must say that if someone posted something to my wall that I found "unacceptable, unnecessary and vulgar", I would simply "unfriend" them.  I mean can't we do that these days in this world of fickle friendships and followers?  Or how about blocking them from writing on your wall?  Doesn't the technology allow you to do that?  Or how about deleting what they said?  I don't know.  I don't have a facebook page to be honest with you.  But based on my limited social networking experience in other areas, I'm pretty sure that facebook is similar.  Anyway, that was not the option that was chosen.  Instead my husband recieved a rebuke.  So be it.  Now don't tell anyone what I'm about to say, cause we might get a spanking next, or possibly even lose our cell phone privileges, but both he and I actually thought it was kind of funny.

But after the humorous side of it was enjoyed, it set me to thinking about a more serious aspect of this whole "unacceptable and vulgar" language thing.  And I'm here to tell you that I must say that over the years, I've observed many things about people, as well as listened to how they spoke.  I've seen church elders having affairs with congregants, but thank God, I never once heard them use the word "pissed".  Because using the word "pissed" would have been inappropriate for someone of such a position in God's house.  I've seen a parent so screaming mad that spit was flying out of the corners of his mouth, but I must admit, I never did hear the word "pissed" used.  Well, that's a relief.  Because using the word "pissed" would have been a bad example.  Once when I was a young child, an older sibling caught me masturbating and kicked me until I stopped.  But thank goodness, I never heard the word "pissed" used.  That would have left a mark on my emotions.  I've watched people emotionally and mentally manipulate each other, lie, deceive, and stab each other in the back.  But, I can honestly say that I never once did hear them use the word "pissed".  Thank goodness they were above such vulgarities, or it might have had some sort of negative affect on me!!

Let's see what else... Well I'll be quite honest with you.  In my family, we don't have "arses", we have "asses".  And when I'm good and "pissed" because my kid isn’t home at the time she was told to be in, and she hasn’t called to let me know what is going on, I give her a call on the cell phone. When she picks up, I skip right past telling her to get her "arse" home.  I tell her to get her "ass" home.  Because I have no idea what an "arse" is.  That never was defined for me.  But whatever an "arse" is, apparently it isn't anywhere near as vulgar as an "ass". Because I’ve heard one of my siblings say it. And I don’t think she would ever tell her kid to get his or her “ass” home. That would be vulgar!

Now I will tell you one thing you won't hear me saying...  I don't use expressions like "Oh my gaaaawwwwhhhhssssshhhhh" or "Oh my gaaarrrrrrrrsssshhhhh" and then pretend that I'm not saying "Oh my God".  If I think that it is inappropriate to take the Name of the Lord in vain, then I don't say "Oh my gaaaawwwwhhhhssshhhhhh" instead.  I just don't say it because, if I don't believe I should, then I'm real enough not to.  And you won't find me saying "Oh geeeezzzz".  Because once again, I have a conviction against using the Name of Jesus in any way except prayer and worship.  So therefore, I don't say "Oh geeeezzzzz" or "Oh geeesssshhhh" in an attempt to ease my christian conscience and pretend that I'm not saying "Oh Jesus".  "Oh geeeeessssssshhhhhhh" or "Oh geeeeezzzzzz" isn't fooling me a bit.  I know that you're using the Name of the Lord in vain.

But we all have our flaws and our sins that we like to make excuses for.  And we all like to find a way to pretend that the wrong we are doing is right.  So if we can focus enough attention on the fact that I just used the word "pissed", we might, for a few minutes, forget about what you're doing wrong.  And that really is the point now, isn't it?

As for me, well, you can always choose to unfriend or unfollow.  I won't be the least bit offended.  Believe me.  And there is absolutely no reason for you to be reading my blog unless you find it enjoyable or insightful.  So move along.  And if you are offended by the fact that a professing Christian such as myself may have a store of "vulgar" words in their vocabulary that they occasionally pull out and put to use, then here's my advice:  go on back to your seat in your pew where the pastor is having an affair with the organist and no one is ever using the word "pissed".  You'll be much happier there than here.  And do I think it is right for christians to use "vulgar" language?  Hell no!  Where did you ever get such an idea??  But does one slip out every now and then?  Shit yeah!  You bet it does.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cheating, Engaging Lessons and Other Hazards of Teaching

This weekend I was correcting the paperwork that my students were required to hand in with an on-line test that they took last week.  It was, as it always is, a fascinating study in student mathematical competency.  It never ceases to amaze me how a student who can be math retarded in class or when it comes time to an in-class test, can suddenly produce exquisite, precise, detailed work for every problem of a on-line test that is worked on at home.  It's a miracle!  Oh no, wait, I guess it's cheating.  But the way I look at it is that I did tell them that I would not accept the answers on the computer unless they handed in the detailed written work to go with it.  And, technically, they gave me exactly what I wanted.  So in that regard, they followed the letter of the law to the very last jot and tittle.  However, I will say, that while following the letter of the law, they most certainly missed the spirit of it.  So to whomever these students got to do their homework, I say a world-wide public "thank-you".  In fact, perhaps you should take an Algebra class and get the credits for it yourself!  And if it happened to be a web site that they found which did the problems for them, to the on-line service I say "well done".  Your site is getting lots of hits.

But there were some amusing aspects to this also.  Because the tests were computer generated, each one was slightly different from the other, and the questions were scrambled each time.  And wouldn't you know, there were students who never even noticed that.  They "worked together" on one test that one of them had written down the questions from, and then logged into their own account to enter the answers.  And when they did so, they never even noticed that the questions on each individual test were different.  Honestly, I think the stupidity of not figuring that out is upsetting me more than the fact that they all input the same answers from one test.  Needless to say, those scores were not too impressive.  Well, the one original person who wrote down the questions got some of his right, but everyone else in the group got everything wrong.  Ahhh, the hazards of cheating.  Really now, if you are going to attempt to have an ace up your sleeve, be sure you're playing poker and not chess!!

Another fascinating observation is when two or more students make the exact same type of mistake.  I'll say no more on that one.  Well, I will say this: if you're going to "work together", it is supposed to help your grade, not hurt it.  You should catch each others mistakes, not encourage them.

I'm going to guess at this point that not too many of my students have a clue that they provide me with a lot of material for my blogs.  For goodness sake, they can't even figure out that the computer generated test randomized questions!!  No, I'm not too worried that they'll recognize themselves here.

Another hazard of teaching that was brought to my attention this weekend was from a tweet that I saw from @eduinnovation.  The tweet was about making lessons more engaging instead of blaming the internet for distracting our students and banning it from the classroom.  Actually, it made me laugh.  As anyone who knows me or reads my blogs knows, I don't ban lap tops or cell phones in my classrooms.  So I know all about students playing on-line during math class (all while thinking I have no idea what they are doing).  But the reason I laughed, and quite heartily mind you, is because, quite honestly, I can't imagine that a math lesson would ever, in a million years, be more engaging than WoW or Xtube.  Nope, no way.  For one thing, I teach fully clothed.  So right there I already lost the battle to Xtube and other similar sites.  And even though I happen to like math, I'd have to be the first to admit that it doesn't hold a candle to WoW.  Not that I play WoW, but I've got the idea.  And if I know anything about fantasy, I'm going to bet that not only is it loads of fun, but I'm also going to bet that every human female character on there has got that same amazing feature that our old-fashioned 70's and 80's comic book characters had.  Yep, you know what I'm talking about - double D in Zero G prominently displayed.  Sorry, but no way is any math lesson I ever put together going to be more engaging than that.

Then there's the facebook updating/texting competition.  Can you imagine a math lesson ever being able to compete with "John and Sue just slept together!!  OMG!!!  I so can't believe she ever did that!!  What was she thinking??  OMGBBQ!!"  Really now, what would you like me to put together for a math lesson that can compete with that?

So about those engaging lessons... I guess I have to say that, ultimately, choosing to listen in math class is going to have to be the student's choice.  I'll do my best to make it engaging as far as math goes.  But engaging compared to Xtube, WoW and facebook/twitter?? No way.  Sorry, it just ain't happening!