Sharpened Sticks and Tattered Shorts: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 3

A sharpened stick about five feet long trailed from his right hand, and except for a pair of tattered shorts held up by his knife belt he was naked.

“Huts on the Beach,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The boys are really gettin’ naked now. And skinny. And with longer hair. This book could have taken a wildly different direction if Golding had realized that the boys are basically turning into runway models.

The chapter begins with Jack “bent double” — oh, how very devolutionary, Golding. This is always a special day when I teach. I make sure to wear pants this day, and I definitely get down on my hands and knees on the classroom floor to demonstrate how Jack is “bent double” — so low to the ground, in fact, that he can cock his head up to see the underside of a tendril, polished from the bristly-backed pigs running through and to feel the warmth emanating from the “olive green, smooth,” steaming pile of pig poop. He hears the “hard patter of hoofs” and it feels to him “seductive.” Yikes. (I say that a lot during this book. I feel that a lot during this book.)

The question here is: What weird (gross?) thing in our lives is seductive to us? Maybe for the hunters out there reading my blog, it actually is pig poop … or deer poop … or some other kind of animal poop. But maybe it’s something more socially acceptable and ubiquitous like money. Do we want to get so close to money that we can feel its warmth and see its steam? In this chapter, Jack’s eyes are described as “bolting and nearly mad,” but I don’t know that that’s too far off from our eyes when we become lustful for whatever it is we decide we want. Yikes.

He tried to convey the convulsion to track down and kill that was swallowing him up.

Whoa. That’s seems pretty deep for 12-year-old Jack. And two lines down from that:

The madness came into his eyes again.

And then he acknowledges,

“But you can feel as if you’re not hunting, but — being hunted, as if something’s behind you all the time in the jungle.”

Just a friendly reminder, Readers, that this is not just a story about boys running around in tattered shorts getting sunburns on an island. This is about us. When Jack senses something hunting him, it hits us that he’s not talking about a literal beast. He’s talking about something intangible. He’s talking about his own evil nature. And, Golding might add, it’s not about Jack. It’s about us — the inevitability of our own evil natures constantly hunting us.

How refreshingly pleasant.

This is where I remind my students that just because we’re reading this book does NOT mean we have to believe in Golding’s philosophy. (I actually hope they don’t!) While we probably all have evil within us, we don’t have to live feeling like we’re being hunted down by it. I believe we have hope against evil. I hope my students believe that. And I hope you believe that, too. (Sucks to your ass-mar, William Golding!!)

But as their pee gets absorbed into the sand, so does their hope. Their clothes (symbol of civility) are in tatters, their shelters (symbol of civility) are shaky at best, their short hair (symbol of civility) is now long and unkempt. Oh, and the adults are still fighting in that war, you know, killing each other. But maybe there is a little hope. After all, hope is the thing with feathers as they say (well, Dickinson, anyway). I’m afraid, though, that the hope-birds flew away a long time ago when the boys hurled a boulder down the side of the mountain in chapter 1:

Echoes and birds flew, white and pink dust floated, the forest further down shook as with the passage of an enraged monster: and then the island was still.

Just to make sure we get the enormity of the hopelessness here, Golding mentions, “Jack had to think for a moment before he could remember what rescue was.” Jack was so obsessed with hunting pigs, he forgot what rescue was. HUH?? How could he possibly forget rescue? It’s literally the boys’ one job. The question begs: What is the “rescue” in our lives? What is the one thing we should be striving for in life? That might look a little different for everyone, but possibly some answers might be:

  • loving well
  • being kind
  • doing good
  • being honest
  • staying humble

All good things, I think. But, like Jack, we get distracted (or even obsessed) by other things. For him it was hunting pig.

But more importantly, what is it for us?

Other things of note in chapter 3:

  • Jack decides they should paint their faces in order to better sneak up on the pigs (here we go with mask symbolism).
  • Simon peaces out. The boys think he’s weird. He probably is. He finds a secret spot surrounded by a screen of leaves. This is a spot he’ll return to later in the book. He seems to enjoy time alone to do some deep thinking. (Remember that critics out there think Simon is a Jesus figure.)

See ya next time. Until then, read chapter 4, “Painted Faces and Long Hair.”

So You Wanna Be a Human? Read Lord of the Flies. (LOTF Post 1)

(The first in a series of LOTF posts. I hope you enjoy.)

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.

So begins William Golding’s famous novel about humanity’s ultimate failure — its evil nature. I first read this book in high school, of course. Then again in college. Then in my first year of teaching high school English.

And every year since.

That puts it at 17 times.

Every year, I tell my students that this is my favorite book to teach because every time I read it, I see something new! I think of something new! I understand my students in a new way! I understand myself in a new way!

I went from mostly agreeing with Golding that we are evil little buggers (back in my recently-post-graduate “disillusionment” days) to later in life realizing that Golding’s got it wrong! We aren’t that bad! (Surely.)

Right off the bat, I tell my students that THIS STORY IS AN ALLEGORY. If we miss this, we’ll get caught up (like Piggy does: “I got caught up”) in the inconsistencies, the illogic, the creepers (which, by the way, are just vines). (And if you’re having a brain fart — happens to the best of us — an allegory is a simple story with a deeper meaning below the surface. Ultimately, the inconsistencies and the illogic don’t really matter because the story of the boys on the island isn’t actually important. It’s what we learn about the human condition from reading a story about boys on an island that is important.)

It’s easy to get caught up in the absurdity of the story: So you’re telling me that a bunch of British boys from all different schools — well, except for the choir boys, who are all from one school — all managed to survive a plane crash in which the pilot died? No girls, no adults, and just a scar down the side of the mountain to show for the plane? Riiiiight.

Its being an allegory can’t be missed. While it is a story about boys running around half-naked on an island with sharpened sticks chasing pigs and each other and pooping wherever they want (near the fruit they eat — gross!), it’s really a story about us.

It’s about what we do when there are no rules.

When there’s no one telling us what to do.

Or what’s right and wrong.

Or where to poop.

So in this tropical-island, full-of-pre-pubescent-boys microcosm, life is magnified, and we see who we really are — naked, except for our tattered shorts held up by a knife belt.

And if I know one thing about being a human, it’s that we’re a touch (a lot?) narcissistic. The story isn’t really about the boys on the island. It’s about us! Oh, well, I’d like to read that!

So I invite you to dust off a copy of Lord of the Flies, and read along with me as I read it again for the 18th time.

We’ll start with chapter 1, “The Sound of the Shell.”

The boys crash land down the side of a mountain on some random deserted tropical island in the middle of an ocean in the midst of some big war that adults are all in a fluster about, hence why the boys are being evacuated. There’s plenty of fruit (conveniently) and a fresh water source (also convenient) and a pair of glasses (I wonder what convenient purpose these will serve…) and a boy who can sing C sharp (clearly this is a sign of good leadership and survival skills) and a bespectacled, asthmatic fat kid nicknamed Piggy (a convenient nerdy-loser-scapegoat for the other boys to mock — “Sucks to your ass-mar!”).

Already in chapter 1, Piggy “waded away from Ralph, and crouched down among the tangled foliage” to take a fat dump. It’s important to note that an all-fruit diet leads to loose stool. The fat kid has probably been stress-eating non-stop since the crash. And as a fun added detail, he grunts while he poops.

And that’s just a little (fruity) taste of the chapter.

Oh, and did I mention that the Hebrew translation of “lord of the flies” is Ba’alzevuv, Beelzebub in the Greek? (The Wikipedia site is pretty fun. It chats about how flies are “pests, feasting on excrement” — and let’s just remember that the boys are already pooping all over the island.)

So you’re telling me that the title of the book we’re reading is basically SATAN?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Well what better book to read during quarantine. Get ready for some introspection. Read “The Sound of the Shell,” and I’ll meet ya back here for the next post. (Don’t have a copy? Can’t get a copy? See if a local bookstore is open — maybe a bookstore near you does curb-side pick-up. And if not, read for free here.)

The story is simple, but its implications about the human condition are not. Reading it forces us to ask the tough questions — of ourselves.

So until we meet again, we’ll start with this question: What would you do if there were no rules?

Your Dreams Are Not Your Own

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” — Hebrews 11:1 —

My husband and I have done a thing. A big thing. It’s exciting and scary, and I (still) have lots of questions about it. But the thing has been decided, we’re doing it, and our entire world is about to change. This week, I’m sharing a post that my incredibly talented and intelligent and philosophical husband wrote. So with my intro as a teaser, please enjoy my husband’s words as he reveals what we’re up to.

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How many dreams have you had? How many can you remember? The answers are probably not zero, and are likely numerous. Whether they were dreams while you were asleep, day dreams, or the figurative dreams of future achievements or adventures, they exist.

My wife planned a wonderful night for us to go out to eat with friends and then to a Drew and Ellie Holcomb concert. It is rarely my idea to spend money on such luxuries, but it was like a dream. Was it my dream or her dream?

As my training in philosophical writing* would have me do, let me briefly acknowledge many definitions of dreams, my delineations of them, and narrow the focus of the topic.

A dream of completing some banal goal is finite and cannot be undone. This is basically anything done in your past that you had dreamt of doing at some point in your life. If it is to run a marathon, once you’ve done that thing, your dream has been accomplished and cannot be undone.

Conversely (or should I say contrapositively — look that up if you don’t know the difference), if a dream can be undone, then it would qualify as not finite (or infinite). You might dream of having a house or a family. Both of those things can be taken from you in varying degrees of tragedy or negligence. To keep that dream a reality is a never-ending effort.

There is also a difference between material dreams, personal dreams, and interpersonal dreams.

No surprise, a material dream deals with some inanimate object that you desire. I have a bicycle. I dream of a better bicycle. One that shifts so smoothly it barely makes a sound. One where the brakes never screech and always work well. One that is lightweight for my wife to move easily on her own but can also have all the desirable baskets, bottle cage, bell, lights, computer and other accoutrements. I can acquire the materials to make that happen, thus dream complete…for now.

A personal dream is something you can, essentially, do on your own. (I realize I needed a mom and dad and food and shelter and whatever else to bring me to adulthood. It takes a village, blah blah, don’t get uppity.) If I dream of running a 6 minute mile, that’s on me. No one else can train or run for me.

As expected, an interpersonal dream involves other people, which can make it much more complex. I dreamt of dating my now wife, but before she was my wife or girlfriend, she had no intention of agreeing to my dream. So this includes all sorts of celebrity encounters, potential friendships, or joint ventures with other beings. (For the sake of argument, if I had a dream to wrestle a bear, that bear would also need to be a relatively willing participant.)

Complex dreams involve lots of the aforementioned categories. We have a house. I dream of making it better. I also dream about who could move into the house for sale down the street (or who of my current friends I could persuade to move there which would make living in my house better). That’s some material, interpersonal, and possibly both finite and infinite dreaming.

Other dreams are fanciful (or were) like playing in the FIFA World Cup. So much time and effort on top of God-given talent would have had to go into that personal dream much earlier in my life for that to become a reality. Plus, given its dependence on coaches or teammates along the way, this is hugely interpersonal.

Or a dream could be downright ridiculous. I dream of being a knight in King Arthur’s court but with modern amenities and the ability to fly in a rocket ship to Mars while eating dark chocolate peanut butter cups. 

And yet dreams for some people — graduating from college — are expectations for others. (I do not plan on unpacking that issue in this post.)

The problem with dreams for me is not if I have them or if I can remember them or how to define them, but can I stop them? People may not dream of moving to a suburb of Jacksonville like Orange Park. I get that. Once you’re there, however, you might develop dreams for your future there. I did.

If I am stuck** somewhere for any length of time (more than five minutes will usually do), I will dream of how it could be better. Imagine a waiting room, for anything. Hopefully I brought a book, but is the seating optimal and efficiently arranged? Sitting and writing at a cluttered desk — can I build shelves? Will that just invite more room for more clutter? Living in my house — what if we knocked down a wall, built an indoor laundry room, added a half bath…?

Some of the dreaming is not location dependent. My kids dream of going to a playground, but not usually one in particular. My wife may dream about a relatively close and not crowded beach, sitting in the warm sun, and reading a good book. I might dream about real estate investments locally or somewhere else which could also be done in that waiting room if I don’t have a book to read.

People, whether they be friends, family, or co-workers, may have dreams for your life. Parents may have dreams (or expectations) of their children to go to and graduate from college. I have dreams for my kids to be happy and healthy but also to be intelligent and kind (and successful, however you define that).

Since this may be more like an unkempt lawn growing wild, let me give it a fresh cut. (Note: I may still get caught on a section here and there just like my real-life mower does for various reasons.) So let’s focus on infinite, interpersonal dreams that are not location dependent and stay in the relatively rational realm. Mine will specifically address my family.

Twenty years ago, the expectation was to go to college, but my dream was to have fun and find a wife. Not incongruous, so all was well. Then, it turned into graduating, actually getting married, having a home together, and maybe more. Hold up. We needed jobs (let’s avoid all topics of dream jobs, it’s ridiculous). 

Twelve years ago, we needed new jobs (again, not dream jobs, just paid employment to thrive). Once settled with better jobs, a big house, and stability, the dream became filling the house with children (and stuff, kind of). With children, the dream quickly turned into wanting more time. Time for everything, the kids, each other, our jobs — life. 

Side note: what did we do with all of our free time before kids?

Six years ago, I stumbled across Mr. Money Mustache and had a new dream — retire early. That’s when we would have time for everything. So I ran the numbers and figured it would take ten years to get to a point of walking away from obligatory work.

Three years ago, well before we could actually retire, I stopped working to partially fulfill the dream of more time with my kids. I was a stay-at-home, homeschooling dad. I loved it. I also still loved my wife. (It’s an infinite dream, one that needs never-ending effort.) If her job was making her unhappy, I needed to at least provide a potential solution. Note: I had already told her to resign or quit or just leave, but that was not good enough.

About one month ago, I applied to teach again. Part of the reason was to provide her a way out without her deliberate resignation. This would serve the purpose of love and protection, too, which I vowed to do. Part of the reason was to possibly live out a dream I had — to live internationally, and potentially raise bilingual children. Recently, my dreams were coming true all over again. I was my wife’s knight in shining armor (see ridiculous dream above, double bonus). I was offered a job teaching math in Ecuador.

Dreams change and yet remain remarkably consistent.

My dreams are not my own, not entirely. And think about the dreams while you’re asleep. They are nothing but weird images and storylines unless you share them. Dreams are not meant to exist in isolation.

Odd note: I have been reading through the Old Testament. So many revelations came through dreams. While I am a skeptic as to the veracity of those claims, dreams can have that power.

Second tangent: I had a dream (while awake) to buy the property across the street from me so I could rent it to a friend before my parents moved down to Florida (my dream for them) to be close to their grandkids (and another dream for them). That dream came true, but is being undone as we are likely liquidating everything for our international move to Ecuador in less than six months. Oh well, dreams can be superseded by other dreams, I guess. 

And we’re back. Back to the Drew and Ellie Holcomb concert, almost. Drew Holcomb has a TEDx Memphis talk of similar nature to this post so I resonated not just with the beautiful music but also the message of a fellow dreamer. (John Lennon was also probably on to something.)

Because my wife shared her dream of a great night out with friends and a concert, we both got to live the dream. What happens when you stop dreaming? I’m not sure. As I mentioned, I can not seem to stop that part of my brain. But what happens when you stop sharing those dreams?

I applied to the school in Ecuador because my wife had a rough week at school and had gone to bed really early on a Friday night with no morning obligations. Normally, we might have just stayed up doing nothing together and loving it. The kids were asleep, too. So I was left awake and alone. Dangerous? I searched for my dream of living and teaching internationally. While I could have remained quiet about my pursuit, I told my wife the next day. My dream was not my own. I couldn’t dream without my family.

I can also tell you my wife dreams of me writing. She turned on her faucet of words months ago. Being so moved at the concert — a dream which was not my own — I felt the need to share her dream of writing. Is it also a Valentine’s Day gift? Bah…who cares; it’s too late anyway.

The dreams that really matter are not just about me. They are the dreams that never end, and I hope they never will.

-Steve

*I have limited the repetitive nature of philosophical writing in this post in hopes for a more readable blog, but if challenged to further develop my thoughts in an unassailable way, I may be inclined to expound on these ideas. For example, some may wonder what the differences between a dream and a goal are. I do not address goals directly in this post.

**Rarely would I consider myself stuck somewhere. It is mostly a choice to remain in that place for some end result or sheer inertia.

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Wise Words from Thoreau: Eat Apple Fritters

“Our life is frittered away by detail.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

If I’m being honest, the first thing that comes to mind when I read this sentence is . . .

apple fritters. (Yum.)

But if you’ve loitered around on my blog at all, you know that simplicity is something I strive for — both in my belongings and my goings-on. Thoreau (bless him) had a nice chunk of money that enabled him to simplify — to leave the conventional world, to burrow away on a farm, to ponder life’s mysteries. How nice for him. Most of us don’t necessarily have the gold bars to provide us with that. And I don’t know that I’d want to leave my family and friends to walk around a property philosophizing about poets putting farms to rhyme, metaphorically skimming the metaphorical cream off the top of the metaphorical farm-glass-of-milk and leaving the farmer with the metaphorical skim milk. Metaphorically speaking, of course. (Read the entire text here, thanks to Project Gutenberg.)

Metaphors and cream aside, details do seem to have a way of scurrying around in our lives, causing us to feel rushed and frenzied and stressed. The devil’s in the details, as they say. How very true.

And I don’t like the devil.

So onward! Onward, that is, with fewer things and fewer plans and fewer details and maybe without the devil. Feeling good about this. And looking at the denotation of the word “frittered” (used as a verb, not as the donut-noun), we see that it basically means to waste, little by little. The definition I linked also uses the word “squander” — oof, harsh. (I like it.) I don’t think anyone wants to squander or waste their life.

So why are we letting the details of our lives do just that? Time to follow Thoreau’s sage and philosophical advice — advice that probably took months to manifest into one word:

“Simplify.”

Perhaps he had simplified a wee bit much, though, in his own life as he found himself likening a mosquito to Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey:

“I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer’s requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world.”

(When I simplify my life so much that I start befriending and anthropomorphizing mosquitoes, please — someone, anyone — intervene.)

Let’s find a nice, healthy balance between allowing our lives to be frittered away by detail and buying best-friends-forever necklaces (like this 14K beaut on Etsy on sale for only $114) for our mosquito BFFs.

It’s all about balance.

And speaking of balance, my four-year-old is adeptly riding a pedal bike sans training wheels. Because he started on a balance bike (linked here), which is basically a little bike with no pedals, he got the feel for the balance it takes to ride a bike and transitioned very easily to a bike with pedals. Highly recommend this method for kids. Dare I say he didn’t need the added detail of the training wheels.

So even those “details” designed to make our lives easier (simpler??) sometimes add an unneeded layer to the already sweet and savory parfait of our lives. (“What’s not to like? Custard? Good. Jam? Good. Meat? Good.” –Joey Tribbiani, Friends)

Take a moment to think of the tools or gadgets or apps you have that are specifically marketed to make life easier and simpler. I think of some of my kitchen tools:

  • bench scraper: I use this to slide underneath sticky bread dough to cleanly remove it from the counter. I like this. I use it. It makes my dough much easier to split and to handle.
  • KitchenAid mixer: I use this when I make big batches of sourdough. I like this. I use this. If I hand mixed, it would take more time in the actual mixing and the cleaning up of the inevitable mess.
  • standing grater: I use this for grating cheese and zesting lemons. I like this. I use this.
  • mandolin: I use this for . . . I don’t really use this. I thought I would use it for thinly slicing carrots or potatoes. And I did a couple of times. But then it was too much of a nuisance to put it together and then take it apart to clean and then put it back together to store.
  • salad spinner: I use this for . . . I don’t really use this anymore. I did use it occasionally, but now I’m mostly too lazy to rinse my pre-rinsed mixed greens. Or I rinse stuff from our garden and then just plop it onto a towel on the counter for a few minutes.

I could go on and on and on — I have LOTS (read: too many) kitchen tools and gadgets. I think the mandolin is still squatting somewhere in a deep, dark cabinet, but the salad spinner has been gifted and is gone.

Hopefully by now you’ve thought of some stuff or some apps that you have, so take it one step further. Ask yourself (honestly): Is this thing or app actually simplifying my life? Or is it cluttering. And if it’s cluttering, it’s frittering and not the yummy donut kind of fritter. Remind yourself, too, that if you have stuff that is simply cluttering (that is, it’s just sitting somewhere gathering dust and it’s not sucking any life or time from you), someone, at some point — whether it’s you or probably family — will have to deal with it. My life was cluttered frittered away by detail when I had to get rid of literally every thing in my dad’s house after he passed away. I remember trying to gather some stuff to donate while he was still alive, but he wouldn’t let me. Then I ended up taking care of it anyway. (And as an important clarification and side-note: My husband — bless his SOUL — worked very hard (harder than I) on clearing out my dad’s house and cave of wonders garage. Without him, I might have gotten sucked forever into the vortex of dusty Hudson and Saab manuals behind the Maico dirt bike out in the garage. So to my husband I say Thanks a bunch.)

Time to get rid of some stuff. And some apps. And maybe even some — gasp — books. We have public libraries, and unless it’s a book you read weekly, there shouldn’t be a huge need to keep it. (That said, my husband and I do have books in our home that are not on loan from the library. But we’ve pared them wayyyy down and we continue to do so. It’s a work in progress.) Books collect dust and silverfish and those icky little pincher-bug thingies — and no one wants those in their house. Keep a few cool ones (books, not bugs), and get rid of the rest.

Simplify your home, simplify your phone, simplify your life. Use those gadgets and apps that are meant to simplify to do just that. And if you find they aren’t actually simplifying, TOSS THEM AND DON’T LOOK BACK. (“No Ragrets“)

As a wild side-note, as I was writing this post, I came across an article in The Atlantic titled “Why Americans Are Always Running Out of Time.” It’s right in line with what I’m saying, and it gives lots of fun research to back up the ideas (there we go with that logos). Derek Thompson writes, “In the 20th century, labor-saving household technology improved dramatically, but no labor appears to have been saved.” Well huh. Why is that? He writes that it involves our shift in what we want and what we think we need. He talks about how before the advent of automatic washers and dryers, “humans blithely languished in their own filth.” As in, humans used to be perfectly fine in their own filth and the filth of others.

And while I’m allll about personal hygiene, I have to wonder if we’re a little quick to throw that pair of pajama pants into the dirty clothes hamper after a single wear. (My sons LOVE to throw a pair of pants they wore for an hour — if you have kids, you know that this just happens some days — into that hamper when they aren’t at all dirty.) If you’re familiar with my Instagram stories, it’s turned into a kind of game to spot the laundry basket lurking in the shadows in all my pictures and videos. So much laundry always . . .

In writing all of this, I have one simple request of you (well, two, actually, because I’d ask that you go back and read that Atlantic article): be mindful of the stuff you use (and enjoy) and try to get rid of the rest. If you don’t, someone will have to. And that’s just rude to let that fall to someone else.

Let’s not let our lives be frittered away by detail (or anything else, for that matter).

Thanks for reading, friends. Now go support your local donut shop by getting a delicious apple fritter. My favorite is Donut Wheel in Cupertino, California — open 24 hours! Enjoy.

Yanking Down Signs and Other Ways to Rebel Against BS

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” –Friedrich Nietzsche–

How am I a teacher? Sometimes I think it is the ultimate paradox in my life. I love teaching. I love being in my classroom, looking out at the faces of my students, talking about participial phrases.

And yet.

There is something deep inside my core that resists. Perhaps it’s the Walt Whitman in me (“Resist much, obey little”). While I am a teacher, I find myself fundamentally against The Teacher and The Classroom and The School. And resisting — in my mind, anyway — is the only way to avoid becoming a rule-following robot, what I imagine Nietzsche meant by his “instructor.”

I do NOT want to become a rule-following robot. But I also do not want my students to become rule-following robots. I feel for my students: they’re simply following the rules they’ve been taught since stepping inside their first classroom. (More about that here.)

Circle back. Why do I teach? Certainly a valid question. I’m on board with Nietzsche here — that the way to corrupt youth is to teach them to think like everyone else. Get them together, slap a set of standards in front of them, hold them accountable, give grades, consider those who fall below standards “special needs,” run around campus after others to give “extra help,” squeeze another study hall into their schedule as the magical remedy, have meetings with them and their parents and their teachers sitting around in a circle talking about how they “are simply performing below their potential” — students hot in the face, embarrassed, squirming to get out of that conference room and into fresh air. Really when will it end? When will the rule-following robot-adults realize that there might be a better way?

When the rule-following robots are the ones making the rules, something has gone very, very wrong. But can we blame them? They grew up being praised for thinking like everyone else, getting A’s on tests written by test-generating software, getting a 1600 on the standardized college-board-created SAT. They’ve been conditioned (just like Pavlov’s dog) to salivate when they see bell curves and rankings and percentiles and graphs. So it’s no surprise that they become rule-following robots writing the rules. And further, it’s no surprise that because of their lives of following rules, they think the youth should as well. (“Kids these days,” they grumble, which roughly translates to “I actually think I’m better than kids these days, and I was also better when I was a kid myself.” Adult snobbery. When does the I’m-constantly-comparing-myself-to-others thing get old? Apparently not when humans get old. Sigh.)

I get fired up about this stuff! I get mad! I get frustrated! But the reason I feel so strongly is probably because I have rule-following-robot tendencies running through my veins. It’s easy to get caught up in the grades, the scores, the elite college acceptance, the powerful job, the ideal family (with 2.5 kids), the Instagrammable home interior, the status. And doing these things or having these things are just ways that we follow the rules. And if we get to a point in our lives where we’ve decided that there is a universal (read: made-up) set of “rules” and we follow them, what we’ve decided (consciously or not) is that we want to be like everyone else. Why, when God has given us such beautiful complexity, would we ever do this?

Because when we blend in, we don’t really have to live. We find the equation for the life we want and simply plug in the variables to solve it. We turn off.

As a teacher, I do my best to walk alongside my students and discover the beauty in learning with them. Instead of letting the textbook teach, I try to get to know my students and adapt the curriculum to fit who they are and where they are in life. I try my best to see them as individuals — all with unique gifts. Do I still teach them the rules of grammar and punctuation and sentence structure? Yes. But I hope to teach them to use the rules as a foundation to build a beautiful structure above ground. A structure that adds something unique to our world.

Because I want my students to really live, knowing that they don’t have to build the cookie cutter houses in the cookie cutter neighborhoods (that also have HOA’s — fees! rules! the old lady sitting on her cookie-cutter porch watching the ne’er-do-well youth, waiting for them to do something wrong — like feed the ducks how DARE they — a finger resting on the HOA speed-dial of her large-button landline telephone that rests limply in her lap!). E. E. Cummings was on to something when he called out the old people in his poem “old age sticks”:

old age sticks
up Keep
Off
signs)&


youth yanks them
down(old
age
cries No


Tres)&(pas)
youth laughs
(sing
old age


scolds Forbid
den Stop
Must
n’t Don’t


&)youth goes
right on
gr
owing old

Oh, man, do I love Cummings. I love that he — as an adult — rebelled against the conventions of poetry. Punctuation and spacing and capitalization rules be damned! He’ll do what he wants. And in this poem, like all his other poetry (that I’ve read, anyway), it functions a little bit like a puzzle. Look back at the poem and note what’s (or, rather, who’s) inside and outside the parentheses. Which words are capitalized? Here’s a rough translation:

//Old people stick up Keep Off signs;

Youth yanks them down;

Old people cry No Trespassing;

Youth laughs, probably while tearing down the signs;

Old people continue getting their jollies by yelling out other rules: Forbidden, Stop, Mustn’t, Don’t;

Youth becomes old.//

Old people are inside of the parentheses, presumably confined by their own curmudgeonry. Youth are outside of the parentheses, free. The curmudgeons of the poem can’t handle the idea of wild youth breaking rules. But look again at the end of the poem. What happens to the youth? They grow old — and all that implies.

Growing old is inevitable, yes, but turning into a rule-following robot-curmudgeon — thankfully — is not. Praise be.

So we rebel, ever mindful of not becoming the instructor Nietzsche references, and ever mindful of not becoming the curmudgeons of Cummings’ poem.

For all the youth out there, know that there are some adults who don’t want to define you by a boxed standard (BS). We understand that BS is something that can be packaged and shelved and bought and sold and resold, and because you are a complex human, we know that of course you can’t be defined by that BS. (And BS stinks!) And know that there are some adults out there who aren’t busybodies sitting on their porches watching and waiting for you to mess up so that they can slap a bunch of rules on you.

Maybe we can all do a better job of seeing humans as unique and complex. Maybe we can settle down a bit when it comes to the BS: the scores, the rules, the fixed mindset. And maybe it’s time to yank down a sign or three.