Learning is Change

Parents vs. Teachers?

I am not entirely sure when it happened, but at some point in the last 50 years, teachers became “Other.” They became people who come from outside of the community in which they teach. Teachers became antagonists in a war for our nation’s soul. They became masters of indoctrination as well as robots doing the bidding of boogeyman unions.

They were no longer civil servants who spent a great deal of money to join a profession with very little monetary upside. Teaching was no longer a vocation to which people heed the call but rather a dead-end job of last resort. Teachers were not kind. They did not care for, or even teach, your children. Rather, they were a liability, a parasite leaching off of the perfection of your kids for a paycheck. 

At least that is what you would think if you only read the Facebook comments.

In particular, the comments that were so well highlighted by Nick Covington, an History teacher from Iowa, in a debate about whether to put cameras in every classroom of a school for the expressed reason of “seeing what our children are being taught.”

This thread struck such a chord with me because it seems so foreign and such a drastic departure from the discourse that I was a part of as a teacher in the first decade of this century. And yet, it follows directly from the rhetoric of fear that has been pervasive in many other areas of our lives, from politics to healthcare. 

I felt so strongly, that I felt compelled to respond. Not to poke fun at the outlandishness, but rather to delve into what is really being asked for and seeing if these words can stand on their own when they are taken out of the toxic cesspool that are Facebook parent groups:

This is the clearest indication that many parents do not know how to navigate the publicly available curriculum of their schools. The information about which books are being taught, which textbooks are being purchased, and which teaching resources are being utilized is not a secret. In fact, the vast majority of these decisions are made at a district level and are available via open records requests. The need for cameras is entirely misplaced, given the wealth of opportunity that is afforded to parents for engaging with the transparent way that public schools have to make purchases and provide records.

This seems like an innocent enough statement, as we have come to believe in the proliferation of “body cams” for police officers as a true asset for public awareness and accountability of bad actors among them. And yet, this would require us to see students as (potential) criminals, and I find it hard to believe that parents want their students to be thought of in that way.

The issue is that Cameras do not discriminate. They will pick up hate speech from everyone. They pick up the vulnerable moments of kindness from all. They will pick up the mistakes of every single fifth grader who hasn’t figured out the boundaries of acceptable behavior. They will pick up the machinations of an ill-informed teen who is bullying a classmate for their differences (politically, socioeconomically, racially). It is a statement of belief that all behavior should be policed. And the results of that are that all children will be prosecuted for their transgressions, not just the adults that you think are “doing harm.” And yes, that includes your children. Read this statement another way, “If your children have nothing to hide, they will hide nothing.” When your kids are the ones under suspicion, how much do you want cameras in the classroom?

It is obvious from this statement that this individual does not trust teachers, but what is less obvious is she also do not trust her children (or the children of the other parents in this Facebook group). If she trusted her children, she would not worry about multiple viewpoints in the classroom. She would know that her children would be able to critically evaluate “woken, leftist or progressive beliefs” and reject them as inferior ideologies. Instead, she sees her hold on her children’s minds as so tenuous that even the mention of equity in a classroom will somehow turn them away from an “america first” perspective.

So, I have to wonder, is this belief system so fragile, so uneasy and ill-conceived, that it will all crumble if it is presented with an opposing viewpoint? If “progressive beliefs” are that powerful and persuasive, it is a marvel that any other viewpoints have survived in the face of them.

As for the respect argument, I would love to probe into what it would take to “earn” this woman’s respect. Does she want each of her children’s teachers to share lesson plans with her for approval? Does she want the teachers to take a loyalty oath to her way of thinking? Or, perhaps it would be better for the teachers to simply have the vague threat of being fired perpetually hang over them because of cameras in the classroom. That would certainly earn her respect, right?

Or, is it rather, that she is afraid that her children will learn to think for themselves and question the things that she has taught in her home? She would certainly see that as disrespectful! And that kind of disrespect is something that she will not stand for. Her children are her own. They are not independent thinkers. They are not capable of making their own decisions. They do not deserve respect. Oh wait…

My only response to such thinking is this:

Surveillance is not inevitable.

It is a choice that we make each day. It is a stance that we take in our public and private spaces as to whether or not we actually want all of our lives to be recorded and available to others to parse through and find objection with. We do not need to “suck it up and deal with it.” We should fight the invasion of our privacy, and think critically about any time that we invite surveillance into our lives (Ring doorbells, etc.). We should question the need for more data and inform others whenever data is being collected because it isn’t just what is being done today with these recordings. Today they exist as simple video files on a hard drive somewhere. But, what would happen if you had trillions of video files that could be used to train machine learning in order to “spot suspicious behavior” or “determine intent” before actions occur? This is not about what these cameras are capable of in this moment, it is what these cameras allow for in the future.

We are definitely at a crossroads in our discourse about the education of our children. From clandestine board meetings to remove employees with a lifetime of service to debates about whether or not our history can be taught in our schools, this is not an easy time for teachers to care deeply for our kids. These are important conversations, and ones we should be having. But, let’s do it in the open. Let’s not hide behind private Facebook groups where we can whip each other up into a frenzy. Let us have good-faith arguments about our educational standards and the scope and sequence of our curricula. But, let’s root it in the agency that kids have over their own lives. They are the ultimate beneficiaries (or casualties) of our decisions, so let’s make sure they are rooted in the hard-fought history of the last 50 years and not just the last 50 months.

Also, don’t put cameras in classrooms, please! It is a terrible idea.

Fascism isn’t cool… for long.

Teenagers are a construct that has propelled popular culture forward for 100 years. But, prior to the end of the first World War, they mostly didn’t exist. It wasn’t that somehow people skipped from age 12 to 20, but rather that there was no pause between childhood and adulthood before the advent of child labor laws and the progressive political movements that supported them. In 1900, children (10-15) made up nearly twenty percent of the work force. A generation later, this was seen as an affront to the family and to the normal progress of young people.

In 2014, Director Matt Wolf made a film from the perspective of these individuals who had magically been transformed into “Teenagers.” He did so by looking at existing archival footage (and the stories that surround them) of Teenagers in The United States, England, and Germany:

Within these vignettes of newly minted “Teens,” the movie explores the rise of political and social power for students around the world. It shows how seductive night life was (thus, flappers) and how much the Nazi’s (and to a lesser extent, the communists) relied upon the zeal of young people to affirm their ambitions. As the youth started to see themselves as the inevitable future of the world, it was clear that they wanted to be a part of something big. And Fascism was about the biggest and newest thing you could find in the late 1920s and early ’30s.

In the beginning, Fascism was a form of rebellion. It was going against the established world order. Fascists were the underdog class, trying to come to power. Their ideas were not yet mainstream, and for a generation of kids for whom rebellion was a rite of passage, fascism felt like a logical extension.

One such German teenager describes her plight this way, “parents complained about the unemployment and poverty, but they didn’t do a think. [I] wanted action. So, [I] joined the Hitler youth. My mother expected to be unquestioning and obedient, like the maids. But, I rebelled. I wanted to be different – to escape from my narrow childish life… to be allowed to belong to a community which embraced the whole youth of the nation.”

And yet, once the fascists (Adults) were in power and the kids fully realized what fascism meant, once they saw the hate and the death that came along with imposing a racial and ideological hierarchy, teenagers no longer flocked to it. Their culture-setting rebellion shifted to asking for more freedom and more opportunities for expression.

So much so that by 1945, the teenagers of that era wrote their own “Teen-Age Bill of Rights,” which states that Teenagers should have the following:

  • The right to let childhood be forgotten
  • The right to a “Say” about his own life.
  • The right to make mistakes to find out for himself.
  • The right to have rules explained, not imposed.
  • The right to have fun and companions.
  • The right to question ideas.
  • The right to be at the romantic age.
  • The right to a fair chance and opportunity.
  • The right to struggle toward his own philosophy of life.
  • The right to professional help whenever necessary.

These statements (in particular the right to question ideas and struggle toward your own philosophy) is how I know that Fascism will never truly be “cool,” at least not for very long. While hatred and bigotry may be interesting for a season, it is the teenage propensity to question ideas and construct their own theories about the world that will never let it become the dominant philosophy.

So long as we never return to putting children to work in large numbers, there will always be a class of people with enough time and attention to rebel against the current political “prevailing wisdom.” And if we should ever again find ourselves on the brink of war, we should turn to the youth of the world (the ones who will actually fight that war) and they will help pull us back from the precipice.

While it is emphatically true that children are the future, it is the teenagers who are the arbiters of what that future will actually be. And somehow, the fleeting interests of youth are a lot more reassuring than the entrenched opinions of the old right now.

Asking Forgiveness

I ran across an incredibly insightful tweet this week, one that I could not ignore or get out of my head since I saw it:

“Forgiveness is not a hot tub time machine. Forgiveness brings about a new reality.”

We cannot go back in time to before we caused others trauma. We cannot undo what is already done. We are still the same person who made the mistake. We don’t get a do-over, and we do not get to cover it up as if nothing happened.

And when I ask for forgiveness, I am not asking for those impossibilities to occur. Instead, I am asking for those who I have wronged to co-create a future in which we are both equal stakeholders. When that forgiveness is granted, the new reality that I am presented with is infinitely better than the one that came before.

It feels simple. And yet, it is so incredibly hard. To ask. And to forgive.

Which is why it was some kind of beautiful coincidence that I was also introduced to a simple way to facilitate such a conversation this week. Via a LunchClub meeting (a free networking service that I have used to meet over 90 incredible human beings during the pandemic), I was introduced to Victoria Yeung. Through her Canadian consulting firm, Nonsequitur, she and her co-founder have built out a series of notecards that are “fill-in-the-blank” versions of apologies:

Along with their incredible Apology Guide workflow, this kind of simplified version of asking for forgiveness makes me think that there is hope for us all to bring about a new reality, together. So, how might we use this process? How might we bring about new Political realities? Or, new Marital realities? Or, new realities for religious tolerance? Or, perhaps, just a new reality for the divided neighborhoods and communities we inhabit in 2022.

MAGA could apologize for assuming that only their votes should count. Leftists could apologize for impugning hard working police that are trying to bring about social justice from within a racist system. Christians could apologize for demonizing all other religions. Average Israelis could apologize to average Palestinians for their oppressive policies.

I fully recognize that it isn’t that simple, and that having a notecard doesn’t guarantee that forgiveness happens. And yet, when faced with the alternative, a world in which we only move further apart from one another, forgiveness is the only way forward. I wish that we would choose it more often.

Why I left Public Education (and then came back).

In November of 2010, I became the first ever Online Community Manager for Edmodo. I was the 13th employee at a startup that was barely two years old. It was my first remote position, and also my first role outside of public education. This is how I framed it to those I left behind in the Douglas County School District:

In the past 7 years in Douglas County, both as a Teacher and as the Online Learning and Technology Resource Specialist I have been supported and fulfilled in my work. In fact, I can’t imagine a better way to have started my working life. From a very young age I wanted to be a teacher, and I always said that I would only leave the classroom in order to create change on a larger scale. Once I was in a district position created to do just that, I promised I would only leave Douglas County if my vision for online communities led me to something that was bigger than any district. I believe that I have found that thing. 

It was certainly “bigger” than my role in a school district or in the classroom. It is true that in my role at Edmodo, I worked with thousands of teachers across hundreds of schools. I brought “the good news” about social learning networks and hybrid learning pedagogies to schools that had never experienced it. In other words, it was an exciting time to be an “Influencer” at a company on the forefront of educational innovation.

I stayed less than a year.

Now, this happened for a lot of reasons. I struggled in a remote position at a time where the best tools for team communication were group Skype chats. I chafed in a role with an overly “attentive” supervisor. The health insurance situation at a startup is rough, and my COBRA plan for keeping Kaiser as my family’s insurance provider capped out at 12-16 months. But, none of that really mattered in the end. I left Edmodo because I wasn’t happy.

I wasn’t happy because my theory of change was intensely flawed. I believed that by increasing the scale in which I was creating change was directly proportional to my own sense of purpose and happiness. I believed that by reaching thousands of teachers (and through their classrooms, tens of thousands of students), I would be serving a greater purpose. I would be introducing new learning modalities and opportunities for collaboration that I had experienced in my own classroom, but there was something lost in the pursuit of that goal.

Scale is a seductive myth.

It is a myth because the things I learned in my own classroom, cobbling together a set of tools that worked for my students specifically was not the same as learning from a single platform that is ready-made for ”digital education.” It is seductive because you can talk yourself into the idea that by getting everyone on board with Edmodo, Google Classroom, Moodle, Schoology, Canvas, Blackboard, or any number of other tools, you are doing something fundamentally “Good for Kids.”

“Creating change on a larger scale” is only possible if you don’t care what kind of change you are creating. And, I did care about the kind of change I was making, and not all of that change was for the better. The change I made in creating Edmodo’s first online “Help Center” was to ensure that teachers became advocates for a product instead of a practice. The change I made in getting whole schools and districts to move their classrooms into Edmodo was to help create an environment where the classroom is never missing from the students’ lives, whether that classroom is a positive and supportive place or not.

The purpose of my work is not generic. It is not to build better general purpose tools or to make learning better in the abstract. The purpose of my work is to learn as much as I can in the time that I have, and to make the spaces I inhabit a more connected, equitable, and inclusive place for others to do their learning. As it turns out, there is no single product or organization who does that. But in 2010, I didn’t know that yet.

In 2010, I believed that change was sufficient. I believed that if we only got enough people to move away from worksheets and paper-based textbooks and move toward online communities all of our education systems would get magically better. Hint: they did not. That is why I left. It is why I have yet to join another company or organization who believes they are going to “transform education at scale” without first doing the deep work of understanding the impact that the transformation will have on others.

And that is also why I took a good long look at another educator who just this week has made the decision to leave a prominent role in public education in order to “make pedagogy a conversation that defies its usual container” (if that quote doesn’t make sense to you, I highly recommend reading Sean’s full post). He is making his own decisions for his own reasons. I cannot judge him, as I have made very similar decisions for very similar reasons.

And yet, it is my sincere hope that the kind of change that Sean Michael Morris ends up creating at Course Hero is the kind of specific change that he actually believes in. I deeply enjoyed (most of) the people I worked with at Edmodo. I loved being able to see into dozens of classrooms a day and talk with teachers from around the world. I am even proud of the work I did to empower teachers and students to be better collaborators and creators in their classrooms. But, I do not believe in Edmodo any more than I believe in Apple. And, I absolutely do not believe in indiscriminate change.

If, as is suspected from at least a fewopinion havers” online, Sean’s role at Course Hero does not align with the values he has written about for years (student ownership of learning, skepticism for surveillance edtech, etc.), I fully expect him to move on just as I did from Edmodo. I expect that he will take everything that he learns from Course Hero and become even better at advocating for the kind of change that I know he deeply believes in and passionately fights for.

Full Disclosure: I was directly responsible for choosing Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel to keynote the leadership strand for the Innovative Education Colorado Annual Conference in 2019. I did this because I read An Urgency of Teachers, and I wanted others to know of their work in writing such an essential book for modern educators.


Art Credit: Oliver Wilkoff (Paint and Marker on Canvas)

Feeling safe is a privilege. Not everyone does.

I don’t fear for my life in the way that many Ukrainians are just waiting for Russia to rein down upon them. I don’t worry about domestic abuse or being tracked by a jealous spouse. I don’t fear others around me as I walk or run down the streets of my neighborhood. I am not even a little concerned that my windows will get smashed out of my car while it is parked.

In fact, I have almost nothing to fear from others in my safe little existence. And so, what are my responsibilities to others as I traverse the world unmolested?

Late last week I heard a quote that traces back to Lilla Watson (an aboriginal/human rights activist from Australia in the 1970s and 80s) that resonated deeply and presents an answer to this question:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I believe that my liberation is not the same as my relative safety. I am not free, until others can feel the kind of safety I feel as I walk into a mall as a white man. I am not fully liberated until others are not tracked and policed with black-box technology. And, my responsibility to others is to ensure that my safety doesn’t make other people less safe.

By retreating from the city-center of Denver, I am taking my resources and my attention away from the spaces where safety is not assured. But, I can also bring those issues (of scarcity, of institutional racism, of poverty-induced crime, and of mental health needs) to my own environment. I can speak about and amplify the voices of those who are working to create the kind of safety I feel.

And, get this, I am willing to feel less safe. Because my feelings, at the end of the day, do not matter. I am not less safe for having a more diverse world. I am not less safe because traditionally excluded individuals becomes more included in circles of power and influence. I am not less safe when more of the population has access to the basic rights of health care, education, and a economic opportunity.

And conversely, I am not willing to feel more safe by ignoring the oppression of others (or, actively working toward it). My safety is bound up with the safety of those who do not already have it. And, yours is too.

What Happens When Middle Schoolers Read Maus?

I was introduced to the graphic novel, Maus (I and II), in my second year of teaching. I took over an existing Gifted and Talented program from a master teacher who had already been using the book in her classroom. Upon reading the book, I knew exactly why it had been chosen and why it should be an essential component of any curriculum seeking to deeply understand history and the complex ways we fit into the broader story of hate, prejudice, acceptance, and love for your fellow humans.

In 2005, it didn’t seem all that controversial to me to include stories of the holocaust in the curriculum. The Book Thief had just come out and was a flying off of the library shelves in our school. The only thing that ever made my students uncomfortable about the book were the brief scenes of naked (Mouse) bodies during the scenes in Auschwitz. This seemed like a pretty normal reaction, given how uncomfortable most 7th/8th graders are with their own bodies. The book worked well within our interdisciplinary curriculum (the Social Studies teacher and I would make sure we were integrating our lessons together so that the historical context of the Holocaust was understood as they read the book).

But, here is the most important part: The Kids Learned. A lot.

That is what is missing from a lot of the conversation around Maus being banned by a school district in Tennessee. The kids learn from this book. They weren’t just looking at the pictures or learning about the history of the systematic extinction of the Jews. Instead, the middle schoolers took the graphic novel as a serious literary work of non-fiction. They did textual analysis and justified their thinking with images and quotes from the book. They also learned empathy and how to spot power dynamics in speech. In short, they were students, reading a book to understand themselves and the world around them.

But, you don’t have to take my word for it. In a rare moment of future-proofing, I had my students share some of their thinking about the book on Slideshare, which somehow still exists in 2022. These were my instructions for the assignment in the third year of teaching the book to my classes:

Frame analysis:

  • Describe- Describe the frame in detail. Make sure you find even the smallest pieces of information that are hiding within the illustration.
  • Explain- Explain the meaning of each of the objects and details in this frame. What do these things symbolize or represent? Why does the author use this image instead of another one? What message is the author trying to convey through this frame?
  • Expand- Show how this frame and its different meanings relate to the rest of the book or to your own life.

These are some of their responses that I found most relevant for the current debate about this book. As you look at them, remember, if this book were banned in my school district, these students would have missed out on this learning. And I ask you, what is worth that?

When I read these passages from my former 7th and 8th grade students, I know just what we are giving up by banning these books and encouraging censorship in our classrooms. This is what is at stake, and while I know that there is no “sacred text” that should be taught in every classroom, this should always be an option for students. Our kids are smart enough, empathetic enough, and mature enough to handle these important issues. We should not be afraid to let them do so.

For the Kids

COVID and Vaccination politics are making for some very strange communication coming from my children’s school district, Littleton Public Schools. This week, every parent with at least one student in the district received a notice that Littleton was discontinuing the use of school buildings as community vaccination clinics. On the face of it, it seems reasonable enough. The school district can decide what it wants to do with its buildings during non-school hours (3-7 PM). And yet, the reason for this change is anything but reasonable.

According to the letter sent by the district superintendent on January 25, 2022, the issue arose when the district learned “the State of Colorado does not require minors to be accompanied by a parent or guardian as long as parental consent is collected and shared prior to the appointment through the vaccine provider’s online scheduling system.” This means that students could sign up online for a vaccine and mark that they have parental consent, even though they might not. They could then receive the vaccine without the parents ever being involved.

And, as it turns out, a few of them did just that. The access to a potentially life-saving vaccine was too much for some parents, though. They were ”outraged” when their children exercised free will and circumvented the intent of the system in order to get vaccinated. But, the parents were not outraged at their children for making this decision. Instead, the ire of the anti-vaccination parents was directed at the school district for providing access to the clinic.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that this flawed vaccination procedure was ”uncovered” by a couple of students who posed as older than they were and/or falsified written parental consent and then captured the process on camera. It was a deliberate attempt to eliminate the clinic, as they knew that the “outrage” would soon follow.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

We can’t have a fully vaccinated public because we are afraid of providing access to it for all who want it for fear of upsetting those who do not. We can’t embrace personal responsibility because we believe that the actions taken by an individual do not matter, only the actions of an institution that followed their own procedures. We can’t take a stand for public health or collective action as a school district because we fear the impact it will have on the reputation of the district.

This is all done ”for the kids.” It is in their name that both the inclusion of the clinic at a school building, and ultimately the removal of that clinic were done. But, how can it be both? How can it be “for the kids” if we are simply teaching them that the way to get rid of something you don’t like is to create a “fake outrage” amongst those who are already outraged at the science of vaccination? How can it be ”for the kids” when everyone in the district receives a letter that we care more about the feelings of a few parents than we do about letting kids make informed decisions about their own health.

I believe that this kind of communication sets a dangerous precedent. Clearly, the district felt as though they had no choice. They cannot be seen to support students getting around parental consent. They cannot be seen to advocate for kids not listening to their parents. And so, the precedent is clear. My children’s school district does not stand by the science or information literacy that they are teaching. They do not stand by the students who need a way to circumvent the ill-informed opinions of their parents. And ultimately, the school district communicated to one and all that the people with the power to change things are the ones who lie and then are offended by what those lies allow.

I am disappointed with the decision to close down this clinic. But, I am even more disappointed with why the decision was made. It was ostensibly made “for the kids,” and yet, it feels to me like it really was “for the parents.” When we make decisions about public health and public education with outraged parents as the only stakeholder, we are doing it wrong.

Victorian and Regency Viewing

The Victorian era (and the Regency era that preceded) is fascinating to me. It was a time of great change, and of great reckoning for entrenched ideas of class and gender. It was a time in which marriage and the unions of property and status were major concerns (at least for wealthy white people who were powerful enough to have many popular stories written about them). It also established many of our notions of romantic love and feminine virtue. It is the original era that we rail against when we speak about progress, but also the one we turn to for the best hint about how things can change quickly (for the better).

I find myself turning to this era, again and again, in books, tv shows, and movies. I turn to it so that I may escape current events that feel unmoored from what I had believed were the foundations of our society. I also turn to it to help understand the last time that ”the modern world” intruded into the private lives of all people and fundamentally changed what was possible. The internal combustion engine, communication tools like the phonograph and telegraph, and more efficient textile manufacturing provided access to the kind of life that was only possible for the very rich in previous generations. This new opportunity presented a challenge to the established order that had to be worked through via gradually (excruciatingly so, in some cases) providing more rights for everyone with this new access.

I find so much resonance with our current time. We have had the great revolution of access once again (or maybe everything is just a continuation of the access the printing press gave), but we have yet to fully work through what it means for how we relate to one another. When everyone has equal access, how do the power structures need to change to match? When we can all have up to the minute fashion and technology, what need have we for the rules that were established when we did not?

There are lessons to be found within our art about the start of the last great shift toward democratization and away from rigid class and gender roles. I aim to find them. So, this is my tour through the media that I have come back to again and again (watching Pride and Prejudice (2005) a dozen times in the last year alone). It is what I have learned through the stories of unrequited love and unspoken truth:

  • Pride and Prejudice (2005) – The very human drama of fighting for love despite family and societal obligation comes through in this adaptation. In one of my favorite scenes, Lizzie (played by Keira Knightly) is looking around at Pemberley manor (Mr. Darcy’s home) and she comes to a marble sculpture of Mr. Darcy amongst all of the priceless works of art in his collection. Even with all of the weight of history surrounding her, she is able to understand that her life is not cold and calculating. It is not marble, perfectly sculpted. She can walk amongst it and pull someone who is ”made of stone” into the real world, conjuring him into existence as an act of love. This transition from the ”asthetic perfection” of the ideal to the very real choices that we have to make as humans is something we must do now. We are not striving for a perfect collection that is dead and uninfluenced by modern life. Instead, we are striving for the living and breathing version of ourselves, making hard decisions and making progress.
  • Pride and Prejudice (1995, Mini-series) – This is, by most estimations, the most enduring version of this story. For me, though, it all boils down to a single scene in which Lizzie is walking from her home to the nearby manor inhabited by Mr. Bingley while her sister, Jane, is ill and recovering . In this version, as in all faithful renditions, she walks through the rainy countryside and shows up to Netherfield covered in mud on her shoes and dress. This is the first time you truly can see the difference and shades of wealth that exist in Victorian-era England. The mud on Elizabeth’s feet are met with disdain by Mr. Bingley’s sister. She is declared “almost wild” and therefore not fit for polite society. It is this ”wildness” that fascinates me. The idea that there is any one way to be or one ideal for a woman (or man) lest you be considered “wild” is the struggle we are going through right now (and perhaps, ever since the Victorian era). We are no longer called ”wild,” though. We are now called ”liberal” or ”woke” or any other number of things that scream out ”other!” I think that Lizzie’s muddy shoes are worth a closer look. To me, they show the independent confidence that our current moment requires.
  • Pride and Prejudice (1980, Mini-series) – In this edition, I tend to focus on the many conversations that directly reference the sending and receiving of correspondence. As it is the dominant form of communication during the Victorian era (and every other era prior to innovations like the telegraph), the letters they read and discuss feel like they are standing in for whole people. There is no anonymity nor is there any attempt to hide from the implications of these letters. It is a way to bring the humanity of other households into your own. We could learn a lot from this. The weight of the words informing of Mr. Wickham’s treachery is fully felt by all involved, even though it is only through one of Jane’s letters. And yet, even when we have hard proof of wrongdoing in signed testimony and correspondence between two of the offending parties, many can still not find a way to believe their truth. We should learn to respect the written word, but the truth of it, and the lies.
  • Pride and Prejudice (1940) – This interpretation of the Austen novel is not worth watching, save one lesson that I found compelling. In this version, Mr. Wickham is not punished in any way for his impropriety. He is not contrite, nor does he learn anything from having eloped without the intention of marriage with Lizzy’s youngest sister. In fact, he ends up ”rich” from an inheritance, or at least so he says. The true lesson that I took from this rendition was that our conduct must have consequence or it is meaningless. If you are able to ”get away” with any kind of behavior and come out better off on the other side, there is no incentive to live in a way that benefits others.
  • Death Comes to Pemberley (2013, Mini-series) – In this addition to the original story, this extends our view into married life between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth at their Pemberley home. While the TV mini-series would have you believe that the lesson of the story is that you marry for love and never doubt those you love, I believe the true value of this story is in questioning the relationships we believe are beyond reproach. I won’t spoil the ending, as this story is relatively unknown, but suffice it to say, there is a relationship that was sacrosanct and through a series of revelations, becomes anything but. I believe it is worth looking at our heroes and those we put our trust in to see if they continue to deserve it.

As you might know, Pride and Prejudice is not the only Regency Era drama to be recorded on film. I have enjoyed each of these in turn, although I have learned slightly less from them from a modern perspective:

  • Emma (2020) – I learned that kindness is not optional, especially when you are in a position of privilege and power.
  • Sense and Sensibility (1996) – I learned that passion cannot be the whole of the story. Love is built over time and is reinforced with action. Passion is easily deterred, and more often, deferred.
  • Sense and Sensibility (2008, Mini-series) – I learned that promises made in confidence are hardly promises at all. It is only when we are transparent with others that they become true.
  • Sense and Sensibility (1981, Mini-series) – I learned that instant gratification can often come with a heavy price.

Now we come to the Victorian Age properly. While there have been many forays into this genre, the 2020s have yielded some incredible results. And in each case, a female protagonist is the one who has showed the way forward for our divided time:

  • The Nevers (2021) – While there is far more magic in this show than I would otherwise enjoy in a period piece, the fact that it is predicated upon (mostly) women gaining power over men in multiple different ways. Some of them are smarter or more inventive. Others of them are stronger or larger. Others still can see into the future, although not in a way that gives away all of what comes next. This is a story about gathering those who are “different” and protecting them as they discover their unique gifts. In 6 short episodes (which may be all that ever are made), I have learned the power of building community, of working together toward a better world from in a found family. Change (and chaos, to a certain extent) are the default state for the world, and yet that does not mean that everyone wishes for that change to come. In fact, most often others will work against change and will convince themselves that they are “winning” when it does not come. But, winning does not look like the status quo. Winning looks like holding on to those you love within a community that creates new things and is open to those who are different. Winning looks like discovery and diversity, not predestination and patriarchy.
  • Enola Holmes (2020) – In this extension of the Sherlock Holmes universe, his younger sister is challenged with finding her mother and avoiding “finishing school.” This is a proper mystery, but with overtly political plot points. It is set against the backdrop of the push for voting rights for the average Englishman. Enola’s mother is involved in this effort (perhaps even with violent implications for how to gain these rights), and Enola is caught quite in the middle of the conflict, figuring out how she fits within this larger whole of society. She tries on a number of different identities, ultimately deciding that she needs to embrace her full self: romantic and logical. It is this that I gained the most from. Too often we are presented with the dichotomy of feelings vs. facts. This is a false choice, and Enola hits this home by allowing the “greater good” logical argument to move her forward while still trying to pursue and protect those that she loves. We do not have to give up our feelings or forget the ties we have to our family to be able to make progress for our world.
  • The Gilded Age (2022) – There has only been one episode of this promising show, but I have already found it compelling enough to include in this post. It is the story of old money vs. new money in 1882 New York City. But, the story is told almost exclusively from the perspective of the women who perpetuate stereotypes and seek to push past them. There is a New Money wife and mother who is trying to break into the social circles of the best New York families. There is a poor young woman (due to her father’s mismanagement of money) who goes to live with two rich aunts and who befriends a black woman on the voyage to the city. This friend has a storyline her in own right, staying on with the “rich aunts” as a secretary for the matriarch. There is class struggle between the servants and the aristocracy. There is even a very rich secretly gay couple that touches upon presidential politics in the 1800s. This mosaic is not fully in focus after only a single episode, but the ground work is laid to see our own timeline through the drama onscreen. I believe the show is entirely about the concept of Gatekeeping. The rich aunts are gatekeepers for the old families, even though they wish to have the liquid cash of the newly moneyed families. The white servants are gatekeepers for the new black employee, even though they know she has skills (penmanship and command of the English language) that they do not. The protagonist is a gatekeeper of her own feelings and wishes to be a part of the modern city life, even though she is being urged to take part by many of the ancillary characters. It makes me question what I am gatekeeping from myself and others. But, gatekeeping has a reason to exist, even if the reasons are hardly ever valid. We gatekeep in order to preserve our power. We gatekeep to keep continuity with the past or with our perception of how “things should be.” We gatekeep so that we can protect ourselves from hurt. As I was watching the show, I kept asking myself, “who am I gatekeeping, and why am I doing it?” My children, my colleagues, my spouse, myself?! Yes. Now, on to discovering “why.”

Clearly, my viewing habits are not objectively “cool.” Victorian and Regency era stories (steampunk-style notwithstanding) are well trodden territory. The multiple versions of the same story are testament to that. And yet, I am convinced we have not learned everything we can from these narratives. And that is why I keep on returning to them, again and again.

Making promises with promises

In the beginning of the (current) pandemic, Kara and I decided to fundamentally change our living room. We decided to put away “the play room,” an ever expanding set of toys that were shoved into a 8 x 4 Kallax. This was an acknowledgement that our children were no longer playing with blocks or puzzles or klip klops. It was also an acceptance that we were ill-equipped to actually spend a significant time in our home that wasn’t about entertaining children. Up until 2020, most of the independent “adulting” we accomplished was outside of the home. We would go for a night out, a dinner or happy hour, sans children. It didn’t require us to change our home. It didn’t challenge the status quo that our house was focused upon the important work of parenting.

But in those first months of staying home, we knew that marble runs or manga tiles were not the only possibilities in our home. So, what should we do with our living room? What kind of “living” should we be doing in this newly re-found space? Listening to vinyl and sitting in mid-century modern chairs, of course!

So, I threw myself into researching the best record players, amps, speakers and wireless listening solutions that we could afford (which, as you might imagine, did not mean getting the best that money can buy). After a few weeks of waffling, I decided on the following:

All of this new equipment promised to provide hours of blissful music listening. This was my endgame, the best options that could completely redefine the front room of our home to feel as though adults lived here. These choices would usher in a space filled with music, a shared space for all kinds of relaxation, contemplation, and conversation.

As you might imagine, it didn’t quite pan out that way.

I thought that my exhaustive research into all of the various tools for bringing vinyl listening into the 2020s. Alas, it did not. As it turns out, synchronous wireless playback of analog audio to multiple speakers around my house is not as easy as dropping the needle. Multiple times, Kara tried to put on a record and gave up because getting the speakers to “wake up” became nearly impossible. Sure, I could come in and fix the issue (wifi, audio syncing, power, etc.), but that didn’t mean that it was any easier to use the next time around.

I thought that buying all of the vinyl I had coveted for years, including a large foray into collecting Vinyl Moon music discovery records, would make me want to play that music more than just streaming any song on Apple Music directly into my brain via AirPods Pro. As it turns out, looking at the beautiful cover art is not a decent substitute for having the release that came out a few hours ago ready and waiting for your eager ears.

I thought that getting “the best” equipment would lead to the best experience for my family. But a year and a half later, the headphones are downstairs with my work setup, the headphone amp having only been used a handful of times. After guaranteeing that Play-fi would be the most universal wireless protocol (across multiple different vendors), I am left fiddling with routers and add/removing speakers every time I want to enjoy those sweet scratches and pops of a spinning record.

The thing I promised my family, a room for listening, was based upon the promises that I was making to myself that I could simplify things enough to make them easy to use. And, I was basing those promises upon the promises of Meze, SCHIIT, Martin Logan, and U-turn Audio that their equipment would come together into a single cohesive system. Those promises didn’t pan out, and neither did the ones I made to myself.

I could never make things simple, because things aren’t simple.

Saying that you want a space for doing great things is not the same as actually making great things. Instead of a space built exclusively for listening, we have made a space for working from home, unwrapping presents, making art, making important Pokemon trades, having deep and enduring conversations, and dozens of other purposes that never would have fit into a “room for adults.” While we were clearly ready to get rid of the “play room” with its chunky puzzles and hundreds of matchbox cars, we were not ready to give up on putting together puzzles of our own design.

Sometimes the most important promises that I have made are the ones that I cannot possibly keep. It is only in my failure to do so that I have found the real promise of what is possible.

Popcorn ceilings and Past decisions

It is a great wonder to me that Popcorn ceilings still exist. They have never been particularly attractive, even when every ceiling was covered with this polystyrene concoction. My particular Popcorn ceiling is good for dampening the noise from my three children and covering over whatever cosmetic imperfections would otherwise be there. And yet, if we (or anyone else) were building this house today, there is a 0% chance that we would resort to a Popcorn ceiling, even though the vast majority of my life has been under the watchful eye of this texture. In my parent’s house, I slept a foot or two below my own personal Popcorn batch in a lofted bed for years. Perhaps it is the familiarity that has bred this brand of contempt.

Or, perhaps it is just how much our current version collects things in all of its nooks and crannies. It is like the english muffin of our ceiling has been spread with dust, with particular care wherever there is an edge, a comparison corner where the popcorn meets a relatively smooth modern wall. Those are the places where our ceiling is the darkest. It is calling attention to the past, to the neglect of this tired aesthetic choice. But, it isn’t just dirt that our ceiling attracts. Our ceiling collects sticky toys, also known as Mochi’s. It doesn’t collect them for a few moments or even a weekend. Rather, these toys, once captured by the ceiling, are stuck for good. One such toy, a dingy white seal, has been on the ceiling for nearly a year.

You see, the Popcorn doesn’t care that you want the toy back. Even though you are ready to move on, to get back to the new games and play that you have planned, the Popcorn is not. It will hold on to your toy and to the dust and to anything else that is absentmindedly thrown at it. It was here before you and your toys. It will be here long after.

Our past choices watch over us, just like Popcorn ceilings, unflinching in their static indifference to our current decisions. They will collect the detritus of our movements, the dead cells of our daily dreams. And our past will take more too, like our idle moments of play with toys that do little more than distract. Our past does not care; it will take all of our machinations and look down on us, just waiting to consume more.

To be clear, you can scrape the Popcorn away. You can, through great effort, get rid of the dust and the Mochi’s that have amassed over the years. You can start fresh, by facing the past up close, and making the decision, again and again, to scratch at the layers of what you thought were good decisions. It takes work to remove what was. There is no easy way to remove the all-consuming Popcorn. It must be done by hand.

Are your hands up to the task? Or, do you prefer to look at the sticky toys and dirty corners that get worse by the day?