Shine In Your Own Way:
Inspiration for Parents of Failing Kids
by Nancy Gill
Chapter Thirty-One
Roads Without Scenery

Lori and Lisa are completing their senior year by computer. For me, this would be like hiking the Appalachian Trail by computer, but they don't mind it too much, because it's mostly the school subjects they find boring. They also think of many of their classmates as immature, and prefer to spend their time with older friends. Taking courses by computer, for them, is like cramming for tests in subjects you hope you will never see again. They hope they can hold that useless and uninspiring information in their heads long enough to pass the quizzes and unit tests, and that's it. They would prefer to have their heads filled with other things, like movies, and television, and a social life. Since they like to spend their mornings sleeping in, this schedule works fairly well for them - except for the fact that they have huge blocks of empty time that they don't know how to fill productively, especially without parental or professorial guidance. They are used to looking out for themselves, however, and would not welcome too much guidance at this stage in their lives, so I've offered to look in on them once a week, to see, screen by screen, what sorts of questions they are required to answer, and what sorts of information they're packing into their short-term memories. I also discuss their composition and literature assignments with them, and try to explore some ideas and issues that might stand a chance of remaining in their minds after they have left high school behind.

To me, it's a sad thing that high school has come to this: cramming useless, boring data into minds that recognize uselessness and boredom for what they are, especially when the people who possess those minds have so many empty spaces where meaning and purpose and engagement have the right to be, and need to be. And it is a sad thing, too, to realize that traditional classes are just as boring and useless as computer programs, for many kids. "This is life!‚" I want to say, to whoever is responsible for this state of affairs. "LIFE!" The school district's motto is "What's best for kids." What a sad commentary that is on the quality of our schools!

At my former university, "Wisdom is the fruit of reflection" is carved in stone on the building that houses the computer center, so I know that this district is not the only one that has failed kids, and failed to see the absurdity and shame of what they do, in the name of education. And, the other day, I happened to tune in to my local radio station in time to hear a discussion on creativity, which the speaker justified by suggesting that Microsoft, Starbucks, and Boeing needed creative people to keep profits high, so it's not just the schools that are myopic and misguided.

I suspect that we all realize that this country needs improvements that politicians and the business community cannot provide, and I suppose that all adults who care about kids wish they could see and help create some of those improvements, because they don"t want anyone's kids to grow up empty-headed and numb from years of having their spirits neglected and even flattened by the emotional and intellectual paving equipment we call school and modern society.

The question is, maybe, how all these alert and caring people could possibly identify themselves to each other, and work together to ‚"do something" to do enough to let kids and parents know that too many bridges are out, and too many roads have fallen into disrepair on our modern superhighway to nowhere that our kids should be going.

Well, that's the backdrop for this little stage I've set for myself. After decades of working with kids, I do know that the only sensible advice I can give myself at this point is this: "If you can't take a big step, take a small one." I told myself this when I took early retirement from my college-teaching position a decade ago and began working with children one house at a time. I told myself it;s not a competition; it's not a race. It's just a day-by-day decision about what to do with a conscious life,

Perhaps it would be helpful to spend some time reflecting on what a conscious life is, and how it differs from other kinds of life. But, first, it might make sense to ask what other kinds of life there are, My answer, which I hope is not too abrupt and unhelpful, is "More than I know." Here are some that I do know:

(1) There is the habitual life, the automatic pilot life, in which we live our years out in stale air, with no open mental and emotional doors and windows. It's kind of a womb life, a womb without an umbilical cord, a womb with nothing connected to anything, a womb without a source of nurturing.

I've seen that kind of life everywhere I'e gone in my sixty-five years. I saw it in my own home, as a child, where my mother always did the wash on Monday and the ironing on Tuesday, where dinner was always on the table by 5:50, and where dinner almost always consisted of boiled or mashed potatoes, canned peas or beans, and a hamburger patty, except for Sundays and holidays, when we almost always had pot roast or fried chicken. I saw it in the way the sheets and pillow cases and towels were always folded, the way the canned goods were always stacked, the way the houseplants were always arranged. I saw it in the clothes that each family member wore, in their colors, and their predictable combinations. I saw it in the gardens, where the sweet peas were always in the garden by the wall, next to the tiger lilies. I saw it in the way we mowed the lawn, always starting here and ending there, and following this route. I saw it in the route my father took to work, either down Arnold Hill or through the park. I saw it in the route we took to church, and school, in our destinations for family rides--almost always to the hamburger place in Montesano, or to somewhere else for an ice cream cone, or to Twanoh State Park, for a picnic.

Some of these were fun, and memorable. We called those traditions, not habits. We chose to do them. The others we did without thinking. If I multiply our family by all the families in the country, I see how many things get done every day without thought. I see how convenience destroys spontaneity and imagination, how it wears down the edges of delight like old brake pads, until there’s no longer anything left.

There is the "My team is better than your team‚" and the "my house is better than your house," and "my children are better than your children," and "my job is better than your job," and "my salary is better than your salary," and "my car is better than your car," and "my group is better than your group," and on and on. I see that plenty of people lead lives that they and others measure in these ways. Whatever consciousness there is is invested in competition, in doing whatever it takes to maintain a sense of privilege and superiority.  On the surface, perhaps, this might seem like a much more conscious life than the habitual life, but those who are locked into it are as locked in as those in the first category--as they will find out if they attempt to break with custom and try something that their family and friends have not tried, and have not approved of.

I cannot say, for others, what the conscious life might be, or might involve. I'm not even sure if I can speak for myself, but I will try.

As a child, I realized, around the age of three - I think a little before - that I needed to look out for myself. I didn't know if other three-year-olds had to do this. It seemed, at that time, that I was caught off guard too often, that, just when I assumed I was safe, there was an adult in my life, usually a family member, who habitually and unexpectedly hurt me. I didn't know if there was a safe place anywhere where I might go to protect myself. I felt small, and fragile, and totally alone. I felt frightened, sometimes terrified. At about this same time, I underwent surgery for a birthmark on my arm, a large ganglion of nerve endings. No one explained to me what surgery was, or why it was necessary, or what it would involve. I did not know what a hospital was. When we arrived at one, and stepped inside, it felt cold, and hollow. It had an unpleasant medicinal smell. I remember being prepared for surgery. I remember something black and rubbery coming down from above me and covering my face. I thought my parents had arranged for these stiff, silent, unfriendly strangers to kill me by suffocation, and I fought them off with all my two-and-a-half-year-old strength.

A few years later, I had my tonsils out, and went through that same experience again. About that time, my brother was born, and my mother nearly died of peritonitis. My sister and I were separated and sent to live with relatives more than an hour away, where, again, cold, unfriendly strangers seemed determined to ignore my needs and feelings, and where, in addition, because an older relative was dying, I was required to be absolutely quiet and unobtrusive. If I was hungry, or lonely, or sad, or frightened, or curious, I was not to call that to anyone’s attention. I was to play quietly by myself, on the porch or outside the dining room window every day, week after week, month after month. I was not to inconvenience anyone.

This is not a path to consciousness that I would recommend to anyone. Never once did an adult ask me how I was feeling, if I was hungry, if I needed anything, if I would like anything. Never once did anyone put an arm around my shoulders, or tell me how my mother was, or how my sister and brother were. They simply did not see things, or feel things, from a small child's point of view. They had grown-up things to think about. Sometimes my grandmother sent me into the front bedroom to stand next to the bed where my great-grandmother was, to see if she needed anything. I was very short, and the bed was high, so all I could see was her tiny bony frame, and her bony hand on the blanket. After that, I had some grown-up things to think about too, which I was not capable of thinking about, and so I put those things in my nightmares, and thought about them there--which, I suppose, is what all small children do.

When I was in ninth grade, my mother's father died, and, soon afterward, her mother began to behave strangely. She would turn up the stove in the dining room so high that the temperature in that part of the house must have been about ninety degrees. She would make herself lunch and forget to eat it. She would pour herself a bath, climb into the tub, and sit there until the water was cold, forgetting that she should get out and dry and dress herself. Soon after that, she was taken to the state mental hospital, an hour or so away, where my parents thought I would be allowed to visit her, but, at the last minute, I was told that I must remain in a large sitting room near the door. I sat down there, assuming that the others sitting here and there on sofas and chairs were also visitors. Being a friendly, outgoing, but somewhat shy child, I smiled at everyone near me, and quietly said hello. No one looked at me, or answered. Everyone but me was as quiet and still as a statue. It dawned on me that these statues must be patients. I wondered if my grandmother was sometimes brought here, if she, too, had become a permanent statue-like person.

All my life, it has seemed to me that my education has been primarily an education of the heart. In many ways, it has been an unspeakably painful education, teaching me to listen to myself and to others in ways and degrees that perhaps many others, both children and adults, have not had to listen. In many ways, it has been an education in grief, and loneliness, and longing, balanced, somehow, by music, art, literature, and the beauty and immensity and silence of the natural world - and by something else, which I don't know how to name or describe or account for: a sense of playfulness that reaches out to encourage others whose lives, often, have been much lonelier and much more painful than mine. It seems to me that this something else was there first, that it was, from the beginning, joyous and affirming, and that it was not diminished or harmed by anything that came after.

When I meet children and teenagers who need someone's help and encouragement, it seems to me that they recognize this part of me, and trust it, and, though they may not know any details of my life, because this part of me has survived intact, they believe that it is safe for their spirit to come out and meet it, and so. at least in some cautious, tentative ways, take new, conscious steps of their own.

Back to the bookstore