Why Do We Teach Kids Mediocrity?

Why Do We Teach Kids Mediocrity?

Summer, regretfully, is over. Students all over the country are heading back to school, and here in Iowa, I had lunch today with two lovely young ladies, one of which is starting high school tomorrow. 

At some point during that lunch, I suddenly flashed back to a number of scenes from my own high school. I’m not sure why - maybe it was listening to her worry about the upcoming year; maybe it’s because my 20th reunion is approaching; maybe it’s because I now mostly teach kids fresh from that phase of life. Whatever the reason, a set of memories came rushing back, linked by a theme I had never realized before. 

Someday I will write about the many positives of my secondary school experience. Today is not that day. 

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Why organized religion?

Why organized religion?

Do you ever wonder this? I do these days, especially while cringing at the public display of self-professed Evangelicals like Roy Moore or that pastor who got a standing ovation for admitting sexual assault or so-called Christians online who spew hatred against anyone who doesn’t look like them. It seems as if religion continues to be yet another platform for the worst instincts in humankind.  

Now, I acknowledge that these examples only reflect the public Christianity of a certain majority culture. Are there other "types"? Of course. Is there a Christianity of a more private, distinctly minority Christian experience? Yes, my own, in fact. Did I realize its impact on my life before this week? No, not really. 

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What is Privilege? On Cleaning Bathrooms at Harvard, and Harvey Weinstein

PC: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

PC: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

At the end of my freshman year at Harvard, my best friend Joanna and I decided that the best way to start our summer break was to stay on campus an extra week and clean dorms. This job, called “dorm crew,” was an extension of a system in which work-study students cleaned dorm bathrooms during the school year. Why did we do this? Was it for the character-building benefits of manual labor? For the inner satisfaction of making filthy rooms sparking clean? As a gesture of hospitality to the alumni paying big money to rent the rooms during reunions? 


The correct answer is: boys. We had been hanging out with two guys in our entryway, and they were staying on campus a little longer. That meant we wanted to stay a little longer (go ahead, roll your eyes at this stupidity; I certainly am), and dorm crew offered housing that week.

In addition to housing, there was another perk - money! They paid us a smidge over or under $10 an hour, I can’t remember, but I remember thinking if I worked 8 hours a day for 5 days, that was a lot of money! I reported this to my mother, who told me in her usual blunt way that that was NOT a lot of money and this was NOT a worthwhile endeavor. But to me, at the time, three digits was pretty good. You see, I arrived at college with no money of my own. Had I attended Harvard just a few years later, my financial aid would have been a full ride, but as fate went, I arrived on campus, signed a stack of loan promissory notes, and was advised to take advantage of my work study “award.” Funny that they call it that, when most of the options don’t sound that rewarding. I chose to work as an usher at Sanders Theater, which wasn’t too bad. I got to see music performances of all sorts, and the work was easy - take tickets, tell patrons they can’t bring in their coffee, and hold firm with annoying students who couldn’t get a ticket but want you to let them in anyway. I made almost $40 a night! That was my own money, and it was precious. So when it came to the opportunity to make hundreds in a week, I thought, not bad! 

Looking back, I can’t believe how naive I was. It was one of the hardest weeks of my life. I thought I was prepared - as a kid, my brother and I had to do pretty much every chore both in and out of the house: sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, dusting, washing dishes, taking out trash, laundry, ironing, gardening, mowing and weeding, and random home repairs. I was totally prepared for this, I thought. But I wasn’t. The rooms were disgusting beyond belief. Imagine the messiest person you know, imagine him or her as a stressed out teenager, and imagine what his or her small room looks like after not disposing of trash or cleaning the floor or any other surface for an entire year. You cannot actually imagine. And the bathrooms. Omg, the bathrooms. Despite regular cleanings, some of them were legitimately hazardous waste sites. I should have called the EPA. My first thought when I witnessed these horrors was that there was really only one recourse: 


But, I had signed up. I had to do it. The schedule was grueling. We had strict instructions about what needed to be done in each area - for the living area, we started by hauling out everything left behind (from tvs, fridges and other large appliances to copious amounts of alcohol. Some guys worked dorm crew just for the loot). In the bathroom, it was a combination of rough de-griming followed by increasingly detailed levels of cleaning. I remember crouching down and scrubbing shower walls for hours. My back hurt, my arms hurt, my legs hurt, and yet I was bored out of my mind. To make matters worse, my student supervisor Misty (who I’m sure is a managing partner at an i-bank now) was a relentless taskmaster. She saw the littlest streaks on faucet handles and checked the backs of the toilets, and she would scold us about everything. I resented her immediately. WHAT SICKO CHECKS THE BACK OF THE TOILET??

Somehow, the week finally came to an end, and the check I got in the mail didn’t even come close to compensating me for my troubles. I was sorry I did dorm crew, and I vowed never to do anything like it again. 

Why did I think of this now? Well, I’ve been reflecting a lot on privilege, and how it is so hard for us to recognize our own. In a sense, it’s understandable - if you haven’t experienced something, how can you understand the struggles of someone who has? For instance, until I did dorm crew, I’d never before felt the pain of pushing my body beyond what it wanted, for work that was so unsatisfying. Yet there are so many around the world who work much more physically demanding jobs for the entirety of their lives, for the pennies in my wallet. Intellectually, I knew that, but after dorm crew, I started to notice and perhaps understand these people more. In law school, I interviewed for summer jobs with agencies working against human trafficking and slavery, and I doubt I would have done that without dorm crew. I gained infinitely more empathy and perspective by living the slightest version of their lives. In so doing, I clarified my own privilege: it is a privilege to not have to do manual labor. 

Manual labor is just an example, of course. The greater issue is the increasing divisiveness and inequality in society that makes it harder and harder for us to empathize with others. I worry today about the kids I see - for instance, kids who think that cleaning and other manual tasks are only done by other people. I worry about how easy it is to close yourself off to the realities of others if you've never been asked to push your own bodily limits. Freedom and control over the use of your own body, your physical being, is something many of us, especially in the developed world, take for granted, but even in our midst there are people who feel they have to give up their bodily comfort and even integrity to survive. 

I thought about this, the privilege of intact bodily integrity, recently, because of the sexual harassment claims that have risen up like a mushroom cloud over the American entertainment industry. Like all women, I experience harassing remarks constantly and have had my body subjected to demeaning and violative treatment. As a small instance, I remember being groped on a packed subway car; a hand reached from behind me and rubbed itself into my butt and crotch region before I whipped around to see who it was. That was mere seconds, but I reached a level of fury and fear for my life that is seared into my memory. Others have far worse stories to report, and I cannot even read about them without these emotions resurfacing. 

In the wake of the media blitz around Harvey Weinstein, there have been more conversations about sexual assault and more men involved in these conversations than I’ve ever seen, which is awesome. The reactions from well-meaning men have included doubt and fear about how their past behavior has been received and confusion about how to proceed going forward. 

Graphic in a recent broadcast by sky NEWS. 

Graphic in a recent broadcast by sky NEWS. 

Another reaction I’ve heard and read is that, yes Weinstein is a scumbag, but might the mob be jumping too quickly to pillory everyone else now? Shouldn’t we proceed cautiously, and wait for proper procedures to suss out the facts, before judging the accused or ruining their lives? Now, I agree to an extent - we need fair justice systems and presumptions of innocence, and we shouldn’t dump on a public figure just because it feels good. But here’s what I was thinking - when these headlines break, just as much as some people can’t help but argue fairness and temperance, others can’t help but flash back to every harassing encounter in their entire lives. For many women, these encounters begin early. I was probably in elementary school when someone called my home and, hearing a little girl on the line, proceeded to talk graphically about genitalia for minutes before I unfroze myself and finally hung up, my entire body shaking. What has become clear to me is that the lack of those very experiences that fuel outrage or mortal fear is itself a privilege. That is why smart, educated, nice, helpful and good people willingly work against gay rights, universal healthcare, reproductive rights, progressive taxes, etc. Because they are privileged to NOT have had the experiences that fuel outrage or mortal fear on these issues. 

You might say that what I call privilege should be called human rights. I agree.  But that is not the world we know. In the world we know, we need this word - privilege. Admitting privilege, then, is acknowledging that you are in a better situation than someone else. Note that the existence of more privileged classes above you does not negate the duty to admit one’s privilege. This is because acknowledging privilege is seeing inequality below you. It is the first step to fixing that inequality. 

Denying your own privilege, by contrast, is accepting the status quo. Many people do this using the fiction that they or their families deserve things more than other humans because of some quality they believe about themselves (e.g., being smart, hard-working, respectful, savvy, etc.). I am very worried when I hear people imply that the reason they have things is due to those qualities. Congrats on your accomplishments, but I guarantee you there is someone in terrible conditions who has all of the same qualities who will never enjoy the life you have. Acknowledging that you don’t deserve this any more than they is the only way to desire change for everyone.

I am sure now that that dorm crew experience had a deeper impact than I could have imagined. The following year, in a philosophy class, the teaching assistant (a dapper, well-coiffed and somewhat snooty white male student at HLS) posed a discussion question: should manual labor like dorm crew be required for college students? Back then, I was far more unschooled in my emotional control and in my debate tactics, and I argued violently and vehemently that yes, it should be required, and oh-ho! Might it teach all of these spoiled kids some valuable life lessons!! Predictably, I not only alienated everyone but disposed them against my position. I also came off as an angry asshole. 

I think what I wish I had said, is that diversity of experience, especially unpleasant ones outside of our own sphere, builds the empathy that leads us to admit our privilege and thus do our part to change the world. I don’t mean that we should all try to engage in hard manual labor or feel sexually abused. But one simple way to start is is to ask more questions, to listen more, to those with different experiences. Like many other women, I have never spoken of the harassment I experienced until now, because no one was talking about it. There is an ocean's worth of pain yet to unleash in the women around you, and if you listen, I guarantee some of the things you hear will be infinitely more uncomfortable than any cleaning duty. Even for me - I took a class in law school about gender violence, and it was one of the most depressing experiences of my entire life. I despaired for humanity. Nevertheless, what I learned drastically informed and changed how I view sexual assault. 

I am privileged to not have been the victim of more serious sexual assault, as so many friends of mine have been. I am privileged to work in a field that engages my mind AND that is physical in a way that connects mind body and spirit. And yet, I can only see that privilege because I have experienced, however briefly, the other side. Let’s work to experience more, to see our privileges and admit them, and to work towards a world in which we don’t need this word anymore. It can’t come soon enough. 

"A More Perfect Union" - PART THREE

Charlize and the kids. 

Charlize and the kids. 


If you haven't read them yet, here are: 

I accomplished pretty much everything I wanted in South Africa, except meet Charlize Theron. Her charity, the Africa Outreach Project, was funding the NGO for which I was working, and she was slated to come visit just weeks after I left. I had always wanted to meet a megawatt Hollywood star and confirm that we are all, in fact, just normal people (I would have that chance years later with Rachel Weisz, but that’s a story for another time). 

No fear; I did accomplish other things, including writing up my research and submitting it to a medical journal (read it here). Some of the most interesting legal findings were that the South African Constitution, newly enacted after the end of apartheid, guaranteed a swath of human rights, including access to health care services!! There was even a Children’s Act granting children 12 years of age and older health rights, including those related to reproductive health. Wow. As the US considers reducing health coverage and reproductive services for millions, I am not sure who holds moral superiority. Perhaps the end of apartheid allowed the South African people to finally dream big about their new society. In this dream, equality under the law meant equality of access to critical health services, and they boldly wrote it into their governing laws. If only we were so visionary. 

I didn’t realize it then, but beginning with this and other experiences I had as a budding lawyer, my lifelong idealism began to die. It died bit by bit in my experiences with immigration cases, rife with fraud, in the ways community organizing hurt the communities it was trying to help, in discovering how institutions of so-called justice protected rather than punished perpetrators of gender violence. The more I learned, the more I realized how very, very difficult it was to fight institutions of power, self-interest, and oppression. Eventually, my plans to change the world through law fell away, squashed by reality. 

I know, this sounds despondent, but it was not entirely a bad thing. Let me explain. 

The idealism I had up to that point was a reflex borne out of childhood training. For as long as I could remember, my mom conscripted me into service for our immigrant community because I, born in the U.S., was a native English speaker. I grew up writing appeal letters and translating documents, making phone calls and explaining how things worked to Chinese business owners or those caught in legal or health troubles. My mother felt a strong duty to help when she could, and she passed to me an innate compulsion that I couldn't fight. After I left home, I jumped at it all, whether distributing magazines and movies to patients at Mass General Hospital, teaching ESL in Boston’s Chinatown, working pro bono to get veterans medical benefits, researching the foreign investment climate in Mali for a UN report, and many many other projects. Sometimes I even doubted the helpfulness of what I was doing - but I felt compelled to do it anyway.  

One might think that volunteerism is good, no matter the motivation, but something about it bothered me. Once, in college, my dad questioned why I was spending so much time teaching ESL. Here was a man who spent all of his free time serving people, especially new immigrants, through our home church - and even he wasn't sure why I would jeopardize my studies to do so. Disturbingly, I didn’t have a good answer. I just felt like I had to. 

In law school, I saw other versions of me. Often the students who threw themselves into public advocacy work did so at the expense of their health and wellness -- and complained about it constantly. They were also some of the most inconsiderate people, as roommates, friends, and colleagues. It was as if their do-gooding umbrella only sheltered them and their clients (and the latter even up to a point). I had thought that doing good meant that you were a good person, and yet there was often a discrepancy between “doing good” and being a total asshole. 

The only way I could reconcile this was that, often, people “do good” to satisfy their own needs. For instance, some people are so enraged by injustice that they have to do something to assuage the anger. I often fall into this "righteously angry" category, and Elizabeth Warren definitely does. Others need to feel needed, to feel martyred, to feel morally superior, to feel capable, etc. The list goes on. Habitually or professionally helping others does NOT, in fact, mean, that you are a nice person. This is not to say that volunteerism driven by our own needs is bad. Of course not. It serves very real voids in society and can be a good thing to do for one’s spiritual well-being. 

However, what I learned from South Africa is that volunteerism originating primarily from your interests will probably not change the world. This is because, as I saw, in order to change someone else’s reality, you have to understand their reality, and that takes a long, long, time and a lot of heartache and a whole lot of love. And most of us, quite frankly, just aren't up to all that. Our volunteerism culture teaches us to get our pro bono client the outcome they’re seeking, celebrate, and move on.  Sure, that helps in the short run, but that does not usually change the client’s long-term reality. It’s easy to show up for a housing court hearing (and certainly generous of you to do so!) but it’s harder to give someone enough emotional support that they can leave an abusive spouse or break an addiction so that they won't need your services again just a few months down the line. Most of the time it’s just more than we signed up for.  

As my childhood idealism died, a new one took its place. Instead of skills of doing, I became interested in skills of understanding - listening with empathy, communicating non-violently, and building self-control and patience. On these dimensions, I had a huge amount to learn. I could write an appeal letter, but I often couldn’t help losing my temper or saying nasty things when angry. I could do an intake for a pro bono client, but I couldn’t sense what a friend really needed when she came to me for advice. I had much to learn before I could be a mature agent of change in the world.

Building these skills is a humbling journey, and I expect I’ll be on this path my entire life. In the meantime, I keep four guidelines for my efforts to change the world. They are:

  1. Start local. The need may seem greater elsewhere, but so are the barriers. So, start as close as possible to you. This means getting to know your neighbors, your family, your friends, your coworkers, as people. By being a positive influence on the people already in your life, you hone the communication, listening, and empathetic skills you will need to help people even more different from you. Which leads to - 
  2. Learn to ask questions and listen. Not just for the answers you want, but especially when they are not what you expect. Action should follow this step, not precede it. 
  3. Step outside of your comfort zone. If you feel confident, you might not be learning enough. Confidence can blind. 
  4. Love thy neighbor. Burnout is real. Burnout is when the victories stop outweighing the costs. And the sort of victories we need - gender equality, racial equality, income equality, will be a long time coming. If you’re deadset on helping a community, get to know them until you love them. Or start with a community you already love so that you’re in it for the long haul. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others changed the world by standing up for their own people. 

In my mature idealism, I see now how much we can help each other without understanding - which is to say, not very much at all. To change someone's life is to live among them, to understand them well, and ultimately, to love them as ourselves. it's the hardest thing any of us may ever do, but may be, even here in our first-world bubble, a matter of life and death.

"A More Perfect Union" - PART TWO

One of us is pleased. 

One of us is pleased. 


South Africa ended up being the perfect antidote to my wanderlust because it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Of course, I was keen to see the animals. Turns out there was a small game reserve close to the office! My colleagues gave me directions there as if describing the nearest Walmart. One afternoon, another volunteer and I took my trusty little rental car for a spin in the reserve, where I fell in love with giraffes, decided I hated warthogs, and got chased by an ornery elephant. It was thrilling. 

I also discovered that the east coast of South Africa is a landscape of immense beauty. The coast of the Indian Ocean is a stretch of sandy beach frequented by surprisingly few people, with a jagged coastline that wanders into the distance until it turns into the legendary beaches of Mozambique. Sometimes you could see pods of dolphins jumping in the sparkling ocean. Landward, nature was beautiful too. The highways leading out from Durban wound around gently rolling green hills; I remember the sun staining them with fresh color as I drove in the early mornings. 

Being winter, the water was cold but still spectacular.

Being winter, the water was cold but still spectacular.

In terms of food, there is no single South African cuisine, but there are some signature eats. Chief among these is bunny chow, curry served in a carved-out loaf of white-bread, a dish that originated in Durban’s Indian population. There were only a few restaurants in the rural town where we were based, and Nando’s Chicken, with its delicious peri peri chicken, was our choice for eating out. It is still the only restaurant I associate with that town, so when I came across a Nando's in Baltimore, I knew that Kyrie Irving was right and that the world really is flat. 

Bunny chow!

Bunny chow!

The most interesting discovery, of course, were the people. The Zulu people were lively and warm, and their culture was both fascinating and paradoxical to me. Here were people who had Rihanna ring tones but observed tribal traditions, prayed Christian prayers but talked seriously about witch doctors and spells. Their language seemed impossible with its clicks, but English was commonly spoken. I saw people wear traditional tribal and modern dress side by side. Some didn’t know how to work a camera, but the cell signal in the game reserve was better than in parts of the Juilliard building. 

The disparity between modern and traditional, between developed and rural, was more striking than anything I’d ever seen. The interstate highways in South Africa, for instance, are really quite good. The Zulu roads, by contrast, are nothing more than battened-down dirt. To get to the rural schools, I literally off-roaded (my poor little rental car): I had to turn off the paved highway at a certain opening in the guardrails. It wasn’t marked; you just had to remember that it was roughly so many minutes after the last junction and opposite a certain field with a certain kind of tree in it. From that point on, there were no signs; there was only your spatial memory and your desire not to hit anything that guided you along the shanty houses, people, and livestock. I miraculously found one school after having been taken there once or twice, hoping the entire drive that my mental map would hold. This was ten years ago. No one used GPS. The first iPhone had just been released to the world. I really don’t know what I would have done if I had gotten horribly lost. 

Found it! Phew! View of the "parking lot." 

Found it! Phew! View of the "parking lot." 

The influence of the tribal culture was totally new to me, as an outsider, but I could tell it was vitally important. My first day in the field, I went along to a meeting with the local inkosi, or tribal chief. As far as I could tell, the chief had no official governmental power but was a cultural figurehead, at the level of a religious leader. He seemed to have considerable sway in all matters and was a source of authority I had to consider in my research. A tribal chief! I felt like I was at Epcot Center at Disneyworld, that’s how much I knew about this sort of thing.

When I wasn’t in meetings and activities with the staff, I worked on my research. The legislative and policy research was pretty standard, as was the scientific and medical research on HIV/AIDS. The way more interesting part was when I tried to understand how all of this information impacted rural schools. That meant interviewing teachers, administrators, students, and other constituents to ask them how they felt about this or that. I must have been a sight, an Asian girl with an American accent wearing borrowed clothes (in Zulu culture, women wear long skirts for proper occasions and I didn’t bring any) asking a very conservative group of elders how they felt about condoms in classrooms. I had some people tell me that only I, being such a strange sight, could have gotten away with asking the questions I did. 

One of our "parent" meetings. 

One of our "parent" meetings. 


When you’re as far out of your comfort zone as I was, you’re bound to learn some life lessons. Here’s one I learned: you cannot hear what someone is saying until you understand their context. As intimidating as it was to ask the questions, listening to the answers was even harder because they changed based on the context of our meetings! For example, in my largest community meetings, the pattern was that mostly men would stand up to mostly denounce AIDS prevention efforts in schools on the grounds of protecting “tradition.” However, as the groups grew smaller, I heard different things - I heard support for anything that could stop the epidemic. I heard openness to measures like more thorough sexual education. I heard teachers' and administrators’ frustration at their daily struggles with the fallout. Above all, I heard (and felt) an exhaustion at the disease’s toll. People were worn out by the deaths of young people and constant funerals. In personal conversations, both men and women said that something had to be done and that new measures, such as the ones we were proposing, had to be considered.

The reason the consensus differed so much from public to private arenas was clear - traditional values made it very, very difficult to have frank discourse about sexual health. Schools did not teach sex education, nor did parents, so any information came from peers, which usually included a host of dangerous myths. Matters of sex were more likely to be ritualized, rather than discussed - For instance, I had read about virginity testing - a ritual where young girls are deemed pure or not by genital inspection in a public ceremony - but assumed it was a figment of the past. A staff member corrected me and affirmed to my shock that it was very much a current practice. Given the cultural symbolism of virginity, it was small wonder that talking about it in schools might be viewed as a threat to traditional values.

To make matters worse, one key constituency, parents of these school-age children, was hard to find. When I scheduled a parents meeting at a rural school, I saw in the packed crowd mostly older women and men, grandmas and grandpas. They were the caretakers of the students now -- the in-between generation was gone. AIDS had left behind the age demographic most rooted in the tribal tradition to handle its aftermath (this is apparently still true).

Although the schoolchildren were wonderfully responsive, the influence of their culture was heavy in everything they said. I gathered that HIV/AIDS had become a taboo word - many raised their hands when we asked who had lost their parents, but when I asked how, they said pneumonia. Not a single one said AIDS or HIV. Since it was likely that many of these kids themselves were infected, it was astounding to me that the greatest influence on their well-being remained an unspoken entity. How do you discuss something that cannot be named aloud?

These conversations taught me another remarkable truth about my fellow man - that people will die before they betray their society’s beliefs. For the most traditional of the Zulu people, not so removed from their tribal history, candid discourse about a sexually transmitted disease could be more difficult than death. I heard stories of adults who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS who denied the disease and available treatment, though they must have known what was happening. When they got sicker, the things that had already happened to others around them happened to them, and the inevitable came to pass. The knowledge of science and the availability of antiretroviral therapies were powerless in the face of culturally imposed silence.

People will die before they betray their society’s beliefs. That was what the public health community was up against. I could propose solutions until the cows came home, but unless people felt heard and their values taken into consideration, nothing would work. Ultimately, it was the ideas and recommendations of students and teachers’ that were the most promising, sensitive as they were to the cultural pressures around them.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was that humans really are the same everywhere on earth. It’s not a far cry from rural KwaZulu-Natal to America today. It’s been often said since the election that certain Americans are acting against their self-interests. I find this completely untrue. In my experience, people always act in their own interests - if you don’t understand how they act, then you don’t understand their reality, period. If you don’t understand their reality, then no meaningful discussion can happen, no matter how well-informed you are. During my time in South Africa, I first thought that my value was to bring legal knowledge. Then I thought I could serve best by asking questions, but I realize now that perhaps my greatest contribution was to come into the room and listen as deeply as I could.