Tag Archives: education

Teachers Under Fire

I was going to say that the title of this post was metaphorical, but anymore, it may not be.

Putting that aside for now, however, teachers today face any number of other difficulties they don’t deserve, some of which have existed for decades and others that have come to the forefront in recent times.

My respect for teachers is immense. I wanted to be a teacher when I was a child. My father, though, wanted me to be an engineer. My mother finally got him to stop trying to channel me away from teaching, but by that time he already had. Not that I ever became an engineer, however. (I might have been able to become one, but I think I would have been a very unhappy engineer.)

Still, even though I never became a teacher (unless you include two years of teaching English to first-year college students while going to grad school), I became involved with education throughout much of my life as a writer. I worked for magazines that included Today’s Catholic Teacher, Early Childhood News, Private School Administrator, School Planning and Management, and Technology and Learning. I edited textbooks on religion, English, and social studies. Education was in front of me at every turn.

The obstacles that teachers face these days, though, can’t be alleviated by articles on classroom decoration tips or advice on self-care (important as that is).

Teachers put up with low pay and out-of-pocket expenses for supplies that they shouldn’t have to buy. They put up with crumbling schools that lack basic necessities like heating and air conditioning. They put up with old textbooks or newer ones that are prescribed by committees who have few choices, thanks to the power of states like California, New York, and Texas. They have to teach in school buildings that may have lead in the drinking water or lack ADA-compliant facilities. (Two years ago, a report said that 2/3 of US schools weren’t up to ADA standards.)

Not enough people going into education – and why would they? The pay is low (and staying low) and respect is not a given. The general public does not understand the process of education, or they think that the way it was in their day is the way it should always be. They place too much emphasis on test scores, meaning that teachers must “teach to the test” instead of allowing children to learn in more fruitful, organic ways such as project-based learning.

There is scientific evidence that small class sizes are better for student learning, but finding the money and the number of educators required for that is not forthcoming. In fact, subjects that aren’t considered “academic” enough, such as art, music, and drama, are being sacrificed. Even recess for grade-school children is no longer guaranteed in order to spend more time in the classroom, despite the fact that physical activity is vital to a child’s health and development.

Many of the difficulties facing teachers were recently highlighted when approximately 4,500 teachers, librarians, counselors, school nurses, and other support personnel in Columbus, Ohio, went on strike. It was the first time since 1975 – nearly 50 years – that they had done so. The teachers’ demands included pay raises of 8% (they were granted only 4%, despite a much higher rate of inflation). But many of the issues they brought forward related to infrastructure issues such as the lack of functioning heating and cooling systems in the schools, particularly since the weather has been so hot and continues to be. And the teachers went back to school after a week on strike, despite the fact that only a “conceptual agreement” was reached. It included no promises of spending on infrastructure, though that was the cause that received the most complaints and publicity.

And what were the repercussions of the strike? The district hired 600 substitute teachers to replace the 4,000 or so teachers and fill in for online classes. In addition, the movement to allow public, taxpayer-supported funds to be used for private school tuition was enhanced, which would leave even fewer dollars in the public system to effect changes. An official for the Center for Christian Virtue, which placed billboards around Columbus promoting private schools, castigated the striking teachers: “These schools are hitting kids while they are down. After all kids have been through, being blocked out of their schools for years [a reference to the COVID crisis], and having just failed attempts at remote teaching, the fact that they would strike now is the ultimate blow to kids,” Baer said.

The Twitterverse reacted as well. While many tweets supported the strike, there were also ones that decidedly didn’t. “For the 2nd time in 3 years, Columbus City Schools athletics have been paused for all Fall sports. Both sets of soccer teams looking to have off campus workouts while the teachers are on strike. Pray for all CCS students and athletics during this difficult time” was one opinion. Another said, “Give them 48 hours and fire them. Their PR is mindless, the kids would rather be in school and their extracurricular activities. If the teachers cared about the kids, they’d still be teaching.”

Nor is Columbus the only place where these battles are playing out. New York City is engaged in a court case over proposed slashed budgets advocated by the mayor, who is a proponent of charter schools that sap funds from the public schools.

I could also mention the flack that teachers are now receiving from lawmakers and parents who want to control what teachers teach, what books they have in their libraries, and even what they’re allowed to say. And don’t get me started on the let’s-arm-the-teachers thing. There’s not enough room here for my outrage. Maybe another time.

So, here’s the bottom line. Teachers have continued to work with purpose, care, intelligence, and dedication. They have also continued to be underpaid, overworked, under-respected, and over-criticized. That they have continued to do so is a tribute to their strength and resilience. But how long must we expect them to do so? Sure, our kids deserve better than what they are getting through our broken education system – but our teachers deserve better too. When teachers get what they need to do their jobs as well as they are able, it’s a win-win. I don’t know why that should be controversial.

As John Steinbeck said, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

Teachers are indeed the artists and architects of the future. We owe them a little more slack and a lot more support.

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Librarians’ Choices

Librarians are the gatekeepers of civilization. Perhaps I should say “guardians.” “Gatekeepers” implies that librarians decide what to admit and what to keep out.

In a way, though, librarians do have to make choices about what books reside in their libraries. They must make decisions based on space, for example, although through interlibrary loans that are now available to patrons, a wider selection of books is available than can be stored in a single building. But interlibrary loans take a while to get to the ordering library. Patrons would prefer it if the book in question were available on the shelves of their nearest branch, and right away, with no queues for bestsellers.

Librarians must go through a selection process to determine what books (and CDs and DVDs and magazines and newspapers, etc.) they will stock on their shelves. Not even the Library of Congress has every book ever printed. (My two books, for example, are not in their collection.) In order to make room for new books, librarians will “weed” their collections, consult their computers to determine what books haven’t been checked out with any regularity, and then get rid of them, often by holding library book sales. That’s one part of the selection process. (Books about making fondue, for example, likely haven’t been checked out in decades and would have been weeded years ago. Besides, people can and do now share fondue recipes online. But I digress.)

At the rate that books are being published, no library can keep up. Librarians consult references like the Ingram Spark catalog, and reviewers like Kirkus and Booklist to find new books that fill a hole in their collection – both fiction and nonfiction. Of course, these new selections are limited by budget, a factor largely dependent on tax dollars and voters these days. Publishers don’t just send libraries free copies of newly published books. Libraries buy books from library “jobbers” or distributors for more than the price they’re sold for at bookstores. Libraries have to pay extra because of the special library binding.

You might think that authors don’t like having their books available in a public library, but you’d be wrong. Library sales can total even more than bookstore or online sales. And reading a library copy of an author’s book can inspire a reader to buy their own copy or seek out other works by the same author. And the author does receive royalties for sales to libraries.

Now, however, there is much talk of censorship and what ought to be included in a library. Librarians have always stood against censorship and kept numerous copies of “forbidden” books on their shelves. Not that they’ve always been successful at keeping them on the shelves. Patrons routinely steal books from libraries, and when the subject is controversial, they sometimes take the book in question into the bathroom and deface it.

Schools and other institutions have more stringent rules for what they select for their libraries. A K-6 school, for example, would not own copies of graduate-level tomes. Their selection process would favor topics that are covered in the school curriculum and books that are likely to be interesting or useful to the age group served by the school. Sometimes parents become involved, petitioning schools or school boards to remove controversial books from school libraries. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. But librarians tend to come down on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion, and have a differing opinion on what books might be interesting or useful or controversial. All of them are against book banning.

Then there are special-purpose libraries that have even more stringent selection criteria. A library in a correctional facility will have law books and even Shakespeare, but no books about gangs, Nazis, or drug use, for obvious reasons. (My husband once worked in a community-based correctional facility, which is how I know this. And no, that’s not where we met.) Prisons are also likely to include books at less-than-high-school reading levels, to take into account the population they serve. That is to say, they don’t discriminate against the minimally literate, but give them what they need and want.

It’s sad when a library closes, even if it’s just to merge with another one to offer more resources than either has individually. It still means that people who live in the catchment area of the smaller library have a harder time getting access to books and other media. But to bibliophiles and library-lovers, there was almost no historical event as tragic as the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the murder of library guru Hypatia in 415 BC. After all these years, that still hurts.

Librarians are often stereotyped as repressed spinsters who delight in shushing people who dare make noises louder than the faint rustle of pages within their domain. In reality, they are, like the libraries where they work, upholders of the tradition of free, public access to learning. I can’t imagine life without them.

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Starstuff

Carl Sagan has been damned as a popularizer of science. Carl Sagan has been praised as a popularizer of science. Since the first time he put on his corduroy jacket and turtleneck to introduce the masses to the wonders of the universe in his ground-breaking TV series Cosmos, he has been many things to many people (and associated with the phrase “billyuns and billyuns”).

So. Is being a science popularizer a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a bad thing if you expect a scientist to remain in the lab and conduct research, without wasting her or his time appearing on Johnny Carson. It’s a good thing if you think science needs to be popular for society to survive.

That Sagan appeared on Carson’s show was not a fluke. Rather than being the epitome of an obsessive researcher, Sagan was an enthusiast and a promoter of science who could, at the same time, entertain as well as he explained.

Sagan was in the news a lot, too. He was the one that insisted that astronauts who had been to the moon be quarantined for a period to make sure they had brought back no alien germs. He was the one who demolished the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, famous for his book In Search of Ancient Aliens, which purported that alien civilizations have visited Earth and left their mark on ancient astronomy, archaeology, and biblical studies. (Every year when he was teaching astronomy at Cornell University, Sagan devoted one whole lecture to debunking Velikovsky.)

Sagan’s astronomy class was swamped with auditors (particularly on Velikovsky day). To be officially registered for Sagan’s Astronomy 102 class, you had to sit through Astronomy 101, a deadly boring class taught by a deadly boring professor. (I had the great good fortune of taking Sagan’s class, and met him at department parties.) His teaching was compelling and his tests were far from regurgitating dry facts.

Sagan’s particular field barely existed: astrobiology. Since life has never been discovered on other planets, there wasn’t much to say about it, though he could, and did, do experiments on what circumstances and elements needed to be present for life to arise out of the “primordial soup.”

He memorably said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” He was also famous for “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge” and “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Carl Sagan is now present on Facebook, despite the fact that he’s been dead for some years. Most of the quotes attributed to him are on the subjects of today’s culture of stupidity (though he didn’t live long enough to see how thoroughly correct he was), the lack of science education in the US (or at least rigorous science education), the dumbing-down of popular culture, and the need for both scientists and people like him to make science accessible.

Many of the Facebook quotations are influenced by the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was required reading in his astronomy class, though it had nothing to say about astronomy. Instead, it was a work that denounced what came to be known as pseudoscience, such as belief in ghosts and witchcraft.

Losing Sagan was a profound blow both to science and to making science available and understandable to the masses. Others have attempted to carry on his work as popularizers of science, notably Neil deGrasse Tyson (who had a part in the “Is Pluto a planet?” debate) and Bill Nye (The Science Guy). Tyson has even starred in a reboot of Cosmos, though nothing can rival the fascination of the original series.

Neither one, helpful as they may be to the science-ignorant, has stepped into Sagan’s loafers as a teacher, a public figure, a prescient philosopher of science, an inspiration. I miss the heck out of him.

Learning Things

This is a poster I have in my study. Lately, I have begun thinking that what it really should say is “That’s what I do. I read books and I learn things.” To put it simply, I wouldn’t know things if I didn’t learn things. And now I think the learning is perhaps more important than the knowing.

I had a course in grad school that was called Research and Bibliography. (We called it R&B.) We did the usual things you do as an English major – write papers about assorted literary figures, mostly. (I once did a paper on William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. I referred to it as my “Willie and Wally” paper. But I digress.)

The final exam, however, was not an essay test or another sort of normal academic exercise. It was, in essence, a scavenger hunt in the university library. Each of the seven or so students had her or his own personal set of questions and had to find the answers. The trick was, you had to know where to find the answers, not so much what the actual answers were. Each set of questions could be answered using the same reference books (this was before computers were available to anyone except the librarians), and students were allowed to point each other to the correct ones.

For example, a question might be “When John Milton used the word pandemonium, how long had it been part of the English language?” (Trick question: Milton invented the word. It means, literally, “all the devils.”) The answer could be found in a reference book called the OED, or Oxford English Dictionary. Another student would have a different question that also required using the OED. And you could say, “you’ll find that in the OED.”

In that case, the test was not at all about knowing the answers to the questions, but knowing – or learning – where to find them (something that we should have learned from writing our papers and bibliographies).

There are different types of learning. My husband learns mostly by visual means, absorbing information through television documentaries, for example. Some children learn their letters and numbers best by drawing them in a sand tray or fingerpainting them. For a while, these multiple styles of learning – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. – were a major influence on education, and teachers were encouraged to use a different style if a child wasn’t learning through the one that was normally used to teach. (They may still be. I haven’t done textbooks in years.)

So. I read books and I know things – but only because I learn them. I was reading a book about mountaineering, for example, and came across the word salopettes. I could tell from the context that it was an item of clothing, but I just had to learn which one. A quick Google and I learned that salopettes are to the French (and mountain climbers) what bibbed overalls are over here (only, presumably, down-filled instead of denim). It’s a completely useless thing to know – I can’t imagine it being useful even on Jeopardy. But it was fun to learn.

Of course, I’m not putting down reading or knowing. For me, reading is what comes before learning, and knowing is what comes after. And, for me at least, both are pleasurable occupations.

I wrote about learning a while back, and this is what I said about it:

I count a day when I don’t learn something new as a day wasted. I love it when I’m able to start a Facebook post with TIL (Today I learned) or “I was today years old when I learned that….” Learning is all around you. You just have to reach out and grab it!

That’s still my philosophy.

Adults Saying No

I read a story a long time ago. A woman received a call from her child’s school’s PTA, telling her that they needed two dozen cupcakes (or something similar) from her for their upcoming fundraiser.

The mother thought for a moment. “How much do you expect to earn through this event?” she asked.

“Three hundred dollars,” came the reply.

“And how many people do you expect will contribute baked goods?”

“About 15.”

The mother promptly sent the PTA a check for $20 and did no baking.

The PTA members seemed quite upset by this. But here was a mother who had learned to say “no,” while still supporting the PTA’s goal in a tangible way – just without adding a baking chore to her job, or indeed whatever else she had to do.

Saying “no” is important. Lately, we’ve been hearing that permitting children to say “no” to an unwelcome hug or kiss, even from a close relative, is an early lesson in bodily autonomy and setting limits. Similarly, children should be able to say “stop” when being tickled and have their boundaries respected. 

Perhaps because many grown women didn’t have a chance to learn how to say “no” – and have it heard and accepted – they still don’t know how to set those boundaries.

It’s especially hard to do when children are involved.

I read another story about a woman eating a bowl of strawberries. Her child had already eaten his bowl of strawberries, but wanted his mother to give him her last berry. She ate it herself instead.

I remember this caused a furor among those who read the article. Most of the people who wrote in to the magazine where it was published were of the opinion that the mother should have surrendered the last strawberry to her child. Mothers were supposed to sacrifice for their children, they said. The mother who ate the last berry in her bowl was being selfish.

A few replied, however, that the mother was right – and within her rights to eat the strawberry herself. Her child had already eaten his share of the berries. By insisting on being given the last berry, he was, they said, learning greed and that all his wants should be gratified, to say nothing about disrespecting his mother, who, in eating the last berry, was saying “no” to him.

Nothing was resolved, of course, but everyone, it seemed, had an opinion.

Parents have to say “no” to their children sometimes, especially in cases involving danger. They also have to teach their children to say “no” – again especially in cases involving danger. And they would do well to teach their children to accept a “no” from someone else.

But when an adult says “no” to another adult, as in the first example, the response is often incredulity. How dare a mother refuse to participate in a school bake sale! The fact that she contributed in her own, deliberately fair, way seemed an affront.

But saying “no” to requests for time, money, energy, and effort is natural and understandable. It’s very difficult, though, especially for women, and especially without adding some excuse – doctor’s appointment, visiting relative, or whatever. Some feel guilty even when the excuse is valid and true.

Because that’s what’s really happening here. Parents feel guilty when they decide to deny their children – or their children’s schools – anything.

And feeling guilty is a hard habit to break.

Who’s the Bully Here?

You know why kids bully? Because adults bully. But no one wants to have that conversation.  — Lauryn Mummah McGaster

I saw this pass-along on Facebook the other day and decided that I did want to have the conversation. When we think about bullies, we usually think about kids bullying other kids – classically, stealing their lunch money or more recently, tormenting them for being perceived as gay, or any kind of different, really.

And what do we say when that happens? Kids can be mean. Kids can be cruel. Kids have no respect. In other words, the problem arises in the kids themselves. They shape the victimization of others, presumably out of thin air.

But stop a minute. We know that kids learn what they see adults do. They learn to talk and walk. They learn to swear and belittle. The walking and talking may be hardwired into humans, but the rest is clearly learning by imitation.

But adults aren’t bullies, really. They don’t go around stealing lunch money and certainly not in front of their kids.

You might be surprised, but adult bullying happens a lot at work.  Belittling and humiliation seem to go with business just as much as board meetings and yearly reviews. Not all workplaces are toxic, of course, but almost every one contains a group of gossips or a clique that excludes others just like children do in the cafeteria. They yell at underlings. They sexually harass others. They steal credit for others’ accomplishments and boast about it.

But wait, you say, children seldom if ever come to where their parents work and see them behave this way. How can they be learning bullying from them?

Bullying behavior starts with an attitude, a sentiment that there are winners and losers in life and the winners have the right (or even the duty) to lord it over the losers. Think about how many people were influenced by the “look out for #1” philosophy.

Adults carry these attitudes home with them. Children pick up on them. Think about what adults do and say in front of their kids, even – or maybe especially – when they don’t know the kids are within earshot. They bitch about their neighbors and their bosses. They use words like “bitch” and “bastard” and worse. They talk about their day and how “stupid” some co-worker was or how they “felt like smacking” the customer service representative.

And think about what adults say when their children are being bullied. Often the response is, “If he hits you, hit him right back. Show him you’re the boss.” This perpetuates the “winners and losers” scenario and sometimes leaves the “loser” with a desire to victimize someone even “lesser.”

Worst of all, think about how often adults bully children. There are too many children who are badly abused, hit and kicked and belittled by their parents. These cases sometimes get reported to Children’s Services.

Those are the extreme cases, however. Seldom does a single slap or two get reported. Telling a child that he or she is “no good” or “stupid” or even “a big disappointment” never gets reported at all. Some adults use humiliation, name-calling, and fear, all in the name of discipline and good behavior. Some pit one child against another, praising the “good” child and condemning the other. Some blame and shame ruthlessly.

They may think they are raising obedient children, but they are showing them through actions, words, and even tone of voice what it is to be a bully or a victim and how often bullying succeeds. The essence of bullying is that one person has actual or perceived power over another and uses that power in toxic ways. Think about how much power adults have over children and how seldom they consider how to use that power wisely.

This is certainly not to say that all adults abuse their power or their children. But when you look at children’s behavior, it’s hard not to see a reflection of the environment in which they were raised.

Bullies don’t just happen. They learn.

Straight From the Art

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like” is an old saying that expresses what many people really feel about art. Unfortunately, what they like is seldom art. More like dreck or kitsch. Maybe not sad puppies, but over-the-sofa mass-produced art. “Art” that doesn’t evoke thoughts or feelings: wonder, awe, challenge, mystery, inspiration, anger, sexuality, tenderness, memory, questions, fascination, laughter, pity. “Art” that doesn’t take you outside of yourself or into yourself.

I did learn a little about art in school – mostly the Impressionists (and a little about the Fauvists) because I was studying French at the time. Later on I learned a bit about cubism, pointillism, and a few other -isms. Still, most of the art hanging in my house is simply what I like.

Oh, I had a Van Gogh Sunflowers poster in my college dorm room and was thrilled beyond words to see the original (or one of the originals) in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Seeing the almost sculptural aspects of the brushwork made me unable to be satisfied with a flat poster ever again.

But gradually, the artwork surrounding me has become more … idiosyncratic.

This was brought home to me recently when, after a natural disaster, most of the many artworks that graced our home were assumed lost. We never knew just how much our artworks meant to us until they were gone. They had become such a fixture in our house that we didn’t really appreciate them as we did when we first acquired them. And that was a shame, because losing them left a distinct hole in our lives.

The rental house that we moved into was entirely devoid of decoration. There were flat, neutral walls; flat, neutral carpeting; flat, neutral furniture. I know they have to make rental houses this way to appeal to renters with various kinds of furniture and taste, but we had nothing to take the edge off all those neutrals. Nothing relieved the eye.

Our “art collection” was nothing elaborate or expensive, but it had meant a lot to us. A large part of my contributions to the household decorations consisted of paintings by Peggy McCarty, a talented friend of mine. These included self-portraits, paintings of food, and a couple of paintings of me or one of our cats, as well as a tiny landscape refrigerator magnet.

Dan collected many posters and prints, some of them signed and numbered, at the science fiction conventions we went to. These featured moody or majestic planet-scapes; cacti bursting off the ground like prickly green rockets on pillars of flame; wizards, changelings, and such; and a carved head of Einstein. Not all of them were to my taste, but, as the saying says, he knew what he liked. And some of them I found stirred my heart as well.

Not that my contributions to our household artwork were all formal and highbrow. One framed poster that Dan got for me was the theatrical poster from the Puss in Boots movie, which had a prominent place on our bedroom wall. The bright orange and yellow background demanded you notice it and, well, I’ve always had a thing for anthropomorphic cats.

Not long ago, we discovered that a number of our beloved artworks had survived the tornado. Some of the unframed, unmatted ones had sustained damage and others still haven’t shown up. But I was so happy to see the ones that did, I almost cried.

Naturally, we went right out and bought a bunch of Command Hooks (“Do. No Harm”) and started alleviating all the neutral walls with things that remind us of our old home while we wait for it to be rebuilt.

My study (actually the small bedroom) walls are graced by four small works: one of apples painted on a board by my artist friend Peggy; a print of a metal tiger from the Chinese Soldiers exhibit at the local art museum; a colorful Debbie Ohi sketch with a Neil Gaiman quote that I won in a raffle; and a framed, round, black-and-white drawing of a cat on a branch with stars in the background.

We each selected one work for special placement in the living room. Dan chose a framed poster of “To Everything There Is a Season” that used to hang in his office. I chose Peggy’s painting of Dan’s first cat, which I had commissioned her to paint for him for his birthday one year.

We haven’t settled on what goes in the master bedroom yet, though there is an evocative blue and white framed print that has a good chance of making the cut. So does Puss in Boots, though it will clash terribly.

But I know what I like.

How the World’s Crappiest Typist Got a Job Typing

Actually, I am probably not the world’s very crappiest typist. I don’t use two fingers in the style called “hunt-and-peck.” (Except the one time I had to use a Cyrillic typewriter to write our Russian vocabulary lists. But I digress.) However, I am certainly among the worst.

As a kid, I played with an antique typewriter like the one pictured here. (It wasn’t quite so antique then.) I think there was even a typing manual that went with it, but my sister and I ignored it. We just had fun clacking the little buttons and seeing if we could hit multiple keys at once and cause a traffic jam up by the ribbon.

I might have learned real typing in high school, but I didn’t. Back then, there were different “tracks” of courses for students thought to have different job potential. Typing, along with shorthand and bookkeeping, was in the “secretarial” track curriculum. (They didn’t call it “keyboarding” back then.) I was on the “college prep” track. Evidently, the powers that be thought that college students didn’t need to know how to type.

I learned how wrong they were when I entered college as an English major. A plethora of essay assignments awaited me and all of the professors wanted them typed. (Admittedly, when I became a college teaching assistant, I required the same, having by then learned from my husband just how illegible human handwriting can be.)

So I got myself a portable typewriter and, armed with that onion-skin paper called Corrasable Bond and a jug of Wite-Out, I began to develop my peculiar typing style. (When typewriter ribbons started to include a white correction segment, I was overjoyed.)

But that was the extent of my typing experience. Over the years I learned to use about four to six fingers (including thumbs) to type, all the while looking at the keyboard instead of the paper or screen like I know you’re supposed to. Memorizing QWERTY seemed beyond me.

Then suddenly, when my freelance writing jobs started coming fewer and farther between, I knew I had to find another way to make some money. And because I was by that time used to working at home in my pajamas, my options were limited.

Finally, I noticed an ad for a work-at-home transcription service. They needed typists and proofers. “Hey!” I said. “I’m a pretty darn good proofer after all those years as an English major and a writer and editor. Why don’t I give it a try?”

While I was still in proofer training, however, I figured out that transcribers made, if not the big bucks, at least larger bucks than proofers. The job required listening to audio files and typing everything that was said into a document, proofing it myself, then turning it over to the actual proofers for final scrutiny. I asked to become a transcriber. But could I do it?

Fortunately, there was no actual typing test where I would have to produce so many words a minute without mistakes. (There probably should have been.) The bosses seemed more interested in whether the applicants had trouble understanding foreign accents.

That indeed is one of the major hurdles in transcription as a job. The audios we transcribe are almost universally boring meetings of business people or lawyers. Half the businesspeople have accents and more than half the lawyers mumble. A couple of times I’ve transcribed podcasts (though they were about business topics) and once a series of interviews with an actor promoting his latest TV series. But that’s been about it for interesting material.

And my six-fingered-and-thumbed typing has been good enough, at least to work part-time. It’s kind of appalling how slow I really am and how long it takes me to transcribe 45 minutes of audio, starting and stopping the little foot pedal that controls it, and often “rewinding.”

But I must be getting better. At least part of the time now I can type-excuse-me-keyboard while looking at the screen instead of my wayward fingers.

State of the Arts

It bothers me that the two trends in art that are gaining the most ground nowadays are prettiness and functionality.

Prettiness and functionality have their place in art, of course. Who doesn’t love a Monet landscape? And Soviet Realism, while hardly pretty, performed its function of representing the worker as hero and inspiring comrades to greater effort.

But prettiness is not beauty. If you look beyond the prettiness of a Monet, you see the sheer talent that it took to break the boundaries of then-current art standards and paint in a way that revealed a different way of looking at the world. And that was beauty.

No one would call Picasso’s Guernica either pretty or beautiful. Its clashing shapes and tortured figures do not inspire “awwws.” They aren’t meant to. The painting is a condemnation of the horrors of war, and it performs that function exceedingly well.

Now, I don’t have anything against art that is pretty or functional. I just think that there is a lot more to art than just those qualities.

But art today – or at least what passes for art – is solely about prettiness and functionality. The National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency, was established to “fund, promote, and strengthen the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.” Now the organization’s existence is in great doubt. The federal budget eliminates it completely (though it hasn’t passed yet).

Why the neglect of the NEA? It isn’t pretty enough. It isn’t functional enough. It supports and promotes a variety of types of art, some of which are challenging, unappreciated, and even shocking. At least that’s what the budgeteers focus on. The NEA, however, also provides grants for projects like arts education in communities and schools, including “the growth of arts activity in areas of the nation that were previously underserved or not served at all, especially in rural and inner-city communities.”

Why, the NEA even collaborates in a program with “more than 2,000 museums in all 50 states that offers free admission to active-duty military personnel and their families during the summer.” But you (and apparently Congress) never hear about things like that.

Arts education in the schools is languishing too. Along with music, it’s been relegated to the heap of the “unnecessary” or watered down to become “art (or music) appreciation,” with little or no thought given to allowing children to create their own art as well as studying “the masters.” It’s like art is now an extracurricular, though not as well-funded a one as sports.

STEM is the current bastion of functionality in school curricula. And admittedly, the U.S. needs more citizens educated in technical fields such as medicine, aeronautics, robotics, engineering, architecture, and so on. Art occasionally sneaks in there, so the programs reluctantly become STEAM, but the focus is still on turning out people who perform what most people consider vital functions in our society – those associated with products, and industry, and money.

But art, even when it’s disturbing, does have a function. It can make us think, love, cry, wonder, or remember. Imagine a world without art. No music, no dancing, no paintings, no sculptures – not even any graphic design. (That would mean no political campaign posters.) Life would be very different and much duller. Even if you don’t believe it, the arts touch you in some way every day of your life.

The arts are far from being a waste of time and money, as some seem to think. Winston Churchill had it right: “The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

 

Dressing Up and Dressing Down

Recently, there was quite a flap in Houston, TX, that quickly went viral. It seems that the administration of James Madison High School had issued a dress code. For parents. Apparently, there had been a problem with parents who came to the school inappropriately dressed.

I had my own experience with restrictive dress codes, though it was not at school (once the administration decided that girls could wear slacks). No, this was at a job I once held.

One day Doris, the HR/accounting person, sent around a memo that prohibited the wearing of shorts or tops that did not cover the hips, as with leggings.

I immediately demanded clarification.  “What about skorts?” I asked. “And culottes? How do you tell when something is baggy shorts or an actual culotte?” (I had no intention of wearing shorts, skorts, or culottes.)

“And what is this about your top must cover your hips? Don’t you mean it must cover your ass?” I inquired. Doris protested that the two meant the same thing.

“I don’t know about you,” I replied, “but my ass is a lot lower than my hips.” (It’s even lower now.)

Doris shooed me out of her office.

But I was not to be thwarted. I kept running back to her all day with requests for clarification. “Pedal pushers? Are those allowable? Gaucho pants? How about palazzo pants?” I kept it up all day, much to the amusement of my coworkers. As far as I could tell, no one changed their style of dress based on Doris’s admonitions. It was not really a concern for me, as I habitually keep my ass, as well as my hips, securely covered. And I don’t even know anyone who owns palazzo pants.

The brouhaha in Texas was a different sort of dress code, however. The school prohibited trespassing on their sacred precincts wearing a variety of attire including satin caps or bonnets, hair rollers, pajamas, leggings, low-cut tops, sagging pants, short-shorts, and “dresses that are up to your behind.”

But these were not rules for the students (although I imagine they had to follow similar ones). These strictures were for parents. In point of fact, moms. Except for the sagging pants, dads were unlikely to appear at school in any of the banned clothing. Probably.

Although it sounds amusing, this was a very serious thing. One mother was even reported to the police when she showed up at the school wearing a t-shirt dress and a headscarf. She naturally asked to see a copy of the dress code in writing, and the following day one was sent out.

Some viewed this policy as an affront to African-Americans, who evidently see nothing wrong with headscarves or satin caps. And I have no information on whether the rules were as strictly enforced on white moms as well. (I do know that bandanas, aka headscarves, have been traditional bad hair day accessories for all races for decades. Maybe even centuries.)

I can perhaps see a school not wanting visitors to enter the actual building wearing pajamas and bathrobes. But for all those moms who must get their kids to school at some ungodly hour, then return home and get dressed and ready for work, the temptation to cut corners must indeed be great. I picture the crossing guards at the drop-off car parade scrutinizing drivers and issuing citations for unapproved curlers.

It’s a good thing most moms don’t have to get out of their cars to deliver their kids to school. There might be a Doris waiting to measure the altitude of their ass and debate the propriety of palazzo pants.