Author: JDJPlocher

Gradfessional Development

I spent most of last week attending an Advanced Placement (TM) Summer Institute, a training program for teachers who teach AP courses. I spent a week doing it last summer, too, with no idea that I’d be teaching it two months later. This year, I went to the session for new and returning teachers, which made it a bit of a grab-bag. I was at a table with a middle school teacher who was simultaneously moving up to high school and about to teach AP Literature as a one-semester class, a teacher who’d gone to the same session I did last summer (and was, like me, one year into teaching AP), and a third who was about to teach AP for the first time. Between the four of us, we had two collective years of teaching AP Literature.

There was a lot more experience in the room, though, people who’d been teaching AP English courses (Language or Literature) for long enough that they really had to work to count up their years of experience. We didn’t really get into which degrees people had, but it came up in passing that a few people had masters degrees (in either English or education). That’s relatively common; a postgraduate degree in your field gets you a pay bump in most districts. (Aside: my summer courses back in Bowling Green were full of music teachers because, in Ohio, teachers were required to get a masters degree within a certain number of years of starting teaching.)

Professional development—and this institute was 30 hours of professional development—is always a mixed bag. It’s common to go a whole day and pick up perhaps five to ten minutes’ worth of stuff you might use. The AP summer institutes, thankfully, are better than that. Even so, there was a lot of repetition. A lot of margins filled with spirals and such:

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From day one, the slowest day, and one on which the slow crawl of my doodles across the page became a spectator sport for the next table over. And the consultant leading the workshop.

We frequently broke to work with our groups (our tables). Those situations had me thinking about my smartest person in the room post. Graduate school and inclination make articulating snap analyses quick for me. Most of the time, I can come up with something that at least sounds smart very quickly. By the second day, I was intentionally backing away from my group because they’d already started to look to me for answers. (I did my best to be a good teacher and ask questions instead.) The situation made me a little crazy, not because my group members were awful (they were great!), but because it frequently put me on the spot in ways that encouraged me to indulge in bad grad school habits. My responses curved back toward my old seminar self and a need to prove not only that my readings were good, but that they were particularly good and that I was particular smart. In among my notes, I wrote a short poem:

I think fast, get to my answers

Fast

Like a fox

Especially when they are wrong

Too clever by half in half the time.

Even when I want wisdom,

I want for wisdom.

As much as I miss some of graduate school—the discoveries, the fun parts of research, the camaraderie—I don’t miss analysis as a competitive sport. As we slogged through sample texts and sample student essays, the institute participants got there. Also from my notes: “By the end of the day, we frequently descended to the worst of ourselves, quibbling like grad students over the minutiae of texts, forcing literature into the procrustean bed of the Hero’s Journey.” English teachers are articulate. We grasp the basics of texts quickly. We also have a related capacity to give slight disagreements undue significance. Doing this to texts is a big chunk of the reason I didn’t go to grad school for English…never expecting that I’d end up in music history and comparative studies, where the arguments just as frequently hop back and forth across the line between inane and inspired.

You know where else I heard lots of self-serving cleverness mixed in with cool stuff? Academic conferences. Those are as close as higher ed faculty usually come to the kind of professional development required of secondary teachers. From my current side of the fence, that seems so weird. Professors aren’t obligated to know how to teach. (That doesn’t mean they don’t, or that there aren’t many who take their teaching at least as seriously as their research, including writing books and giving seminars on pedagogy.) “Continuing education” is keeping up with your discipline. There is a whole section of a tenure portfolio or CV dedicated to “professional development,” but it again comes back around to conferences and committees, to research and knowledge and “scholar” as a profession.

Do I lose my thread? I lose my thread. Let it suffice that in the Venn diagram of secondary teachers’ professional development and academic conferences, there is a space of significant overlap having to do with cleverness and ways of displaying it.   

The thing is that none of the cleverness we participants performed for one another makes us,  in itself, better teachers. We don’t have to win arguments about literary meanings with each other, never mind with our students. We have to teach them to make those arguments in fruitful, responsible ways. Parts of the APSI did a great job of that; I picked up lesson plans and strategies that should help me help my students. Other parts didn’t. The squiggles in my margins testify to that.

When it comes down to it, teaching teaching is not so different from teaching writing: “here is what I did and how I did it and here are a bunch of ideas that might work for you.” There are technical details—what is on the AP test, how they’re scored, what the College Board requires in a syllabus—but so much of teaching is the delicate blend of performance, communication, and knowledge. I’m not going to lie: being clever helps. It’s the rest of the stuff, though, that I’m working to develop. Professionally.

NfN: Shanna Germain’s The Poison Eater

I haven’t read a new novel published by a gaming company since the days when Dungeons & Dragons was still a TSR property. Back then, I spent a lot of time with novels that frequently wore their related game mechanics on their sleeves, sometimes to the point that you could see a change in editions in a character’s new capabilities. Some of those old novels were good, but many exemplified the worst of “genre” fiction.

Monte Cook Games ended my long hiatus from game-company fiction by including a novel from Shanna Germain as a stretch goal in one of their (awesome) Kickstarter launches. The Poison Eater is a novel of Numenera, the first of the Cypher System games. Numenera, as a game, is hard to pigeonhole. It is essentially a game about discovery in an impossibly far-flung future. Mix the surreal sci-fi art of the 1970s with Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, sprinkle liberally enthusiastic extrapolations from modern sciences, then dial the weird way up, and you’ll get close. As a game, it’s a long way from D&D.

And The Poison Eater? It’s a long way from those old Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novels.

Overview

First: Numenera is as distinct enough as a setting that you need no acquaintance with it to appreciate Germain’s novel. There’s little reliance on conventional fantasy or science fiction tropes. Numenera, as a game and setting, relies on “the weird.” It’s an actual thing in the game, something you’ll see in sidebars and in the main text. The weird of Numenera drives the game—there are billions of years of accreted and discarded and forgotten technology. It is, functionally, magic. What sets Numenera’s weird apart, though, is the persistent sense that all of these devices and ruins meant something else, or still mean something else to a sufficiently knowledgable party. Residents of the Ninth World are bricoleurs, tinkers assembling meaning and utility from bits of other worlds they can’t ever fully comprehend. (I’ll spare you the long tangent about engineers and Claude Levi-Strauss and semiotics.)

Talia, Germain’s protagonist (and the titular poison eater), is just as much a bricoleur as the rest. She’s putting together a new life from lies and devices she doesn’t understand. For much of the novel, she knows just enough to hide what she knows. She and Khee, her faithful warbeast companion, have run to Enthait, a city in the middle of a desert, protected by its greyes and zaffre and by the visions of the poison eater. Said visions are induced by some of the city’s weird devices. The society’s pattern is thus: the poison eater identifies threats to the city; the greyes and zaffre deal with them. When neither the visions nor the dealing with them are simple, you have good grist for a novel’s mill.

Germain’s writing is evocative. She creates the setting as much by what she neglects to explain as what she does explain. It reminded me, at times of Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is better than anybody I’ve read at picking exactly the right amount of exposition, the perfect details that allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Germain accomplishes similar things not so much through her selection of details, but through her diction. There’s a persistent poetry to The Poison Eater that perfectly suits the ambiguities of its protagonist and the inexplicabilities of its setting. The ambiguities of her word choices and the way she uses sound convey Talia’s uneasy relationship with the world. Good stuff.

The Plot

For all that the novel’s climax features a battle with inhuman forces, the fundamental conflict of The Poison Eater is an interior one (more on that below). As the poison eater, Talia must decipher her visions, which, rather than visions of distant places, are instead memories of her previous existence as a captive of the monstrous vordcha. She must negotiate her relationships with her lover, Isera, and Isera’s daughter, with the captain of the greyes and a technician and the orness (Enthait’s nominal ruler). Talia must decide whether she will commit to these people, whether she will trust them, and whether she will let them trust her.

Talia’s internal conflict plays out against the backdrop of the city of Enthait and against an increasingly imminent exterior threat. There’s a classic skeleton to the story: establish a group of characters with complex relationships, then add heat and pressure to see what breaks and what welds.

The Cool Thing to Consider

Germain establishes the central conflict—and the coolest thing about the novel—in the first two sentences:

Poison never lies.

But Talia does.

“This statement is a lie,” right? Talia knows she is a liar. She has, we quickly learn, been making up the visions the poisons bring. Her comrades expect her to die soon, because that is what poison eaters do. (The poisons really are poisonous.) Talia has other plans, though. Surviving the tenth poison means becoming the orness and getting control of Enthait and a superweapon. The superweapon would, hopefully, allow Talia to destroy the vordcha. The problem? Talia isn’t sure whether she’s a true poison eater. She’s not sure whether the superweapon actually exists. She’s especially unsure of the orness.

Talia consciously wraps herself in lies and, like so many heroes, finds the isolation of falsehood hard to bear. She is torn between desires: desires for the weapon (which would end her fear), desires for stability, rather more literal desire for Isera—but that, too is coupled with a need for their relationship to be more than mere coupling. She must face the question of merely surviving versus actually living. Ho hum, yadda yadda. Mopey intrapersonal conflict. Why do we care?

Beyond the obvious reasons (the quality of the writing, all the reasons we read novels in the first place), we care because Germain keeps wrong-footing Talia, and, by extension, her readers. Just when Talia thinks she has figured something out, she discovers another layer. The nature of truth itself gets murky as Talia matches wits and belief with the orness, her memories, and herself. This is a novel deeply concerned with questions of truth and consequences.

It reminds me at times of China Mieville’s Embassytown (one of the few Mieville novels I have enjoyed without rolling my eyes at the way he wears his cleverness). Embassytown is a novel for linguistics nerds and philosophers, but similarly involves alien forces and the power of lies. The aliens speak two words at once and, because of the relationship between the simultaneously spoken words, cannot lie. Resolving the eventual crisis in that novel requires that, via metaphor, the aliens learn to lie.

There’s nothing so complicatedly linguistic in The Poison Eater, but there’s a similar shell game with what is true, with simultaneity and the effort to comprehend competing ideas. Germain makes it work, which is what takes the novel beyond low-level genre expectations. She does this in part through her use of language; poetry is great for wielding ambiguities and simultaneities. Though Germain doesn’t do any Tolkien-esque pages of song, her novel is shot through with passages that are suggestive and allusive rather than properly expository. She also makes it work by refraining from explaining everything.

That brings us back to bricolage and bricoleurs and Numenera as a game and a world. What makes this novel “literary” is also what makes the game cool: though the foundation and frame are built of fundamental human questions, the rest of the structure is pieced together from the partially-unexplained and the wholly-inexplicable. It’s a fantastic place to play with truth and lies and mystery, and Germain does a great job of it.

What We Nick from this Novel

Reverse your reversed reversals.

Keeping both your characters and your readers guessing is a dangerous game. It’s too easy for the whole thing to slide into murkiness. This is especially true if you throw out all the mysteries at once. What makes The Poison Eater worth nicking from, though, is the way that single strands of mystery weave to and fro. Characters find intermediate answers that seem, in the moment, to be final. Don’t be capricious about it, but let your characters run with incomplete or wrong answers for a while. You—and your readers—will learn something about them, and you’ll potentially do a good job of building the drama, too.

Light/Socket

Last weekend, my family went camping. This involved a flashlight hunt; the kids have the usual interest in them and they end up everywhere. We were particularly looking for one from our last camping trip, which prompted digging through the minivan to see if it had gotten stashed somewhere in there.

The flashlight we were looking for never did turn up. Instead we found this:

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It’s a flashlight, obviously, by Eddie Bauer. It is also, though:

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A socket-and-screwdriver set. Flashlights and socket sets, two things that go together like chocolate and tuna fish…

…unless you were my dad. Since my spouse and I beat my younger brother to having kids, we ended up with the minivan when my dad died. My mom had gotten a thorough mechanical review of it, and cleaned out most of the stuff that my dad had left in there. Most.

My dad was always putting things in the van. It was not only his commuting vehicle, it was the catering vehicle and the barbecue puller (we had a trailer-sized gas-and-lava-rock grill). It was where he kept his stuff. I still remember when he got a car phone, how it sat between the seats in its leather box, hardly ever used. He also filled the van up with flashlights, because apparently you could never have enough of them. By the time I got the van, it still had a couple of the big Maglites, the kind that for some reason I will always associate with Richard Grieco breaking cantaloupes on 21 Jump Street (something about proving to gangers that a crowbar, not a cop flashlight, killed their buddy). There were matchbooks. There were a couple of sponges. A first aid kit. A fire extinguisher. A pair of my dad’s sunglasses that I wore until they broke.

And, under the passenger seat, this flashlight-socket set that had remained out of both sight and mind for years. It is such a dad thing. You never know when you might need to shed some light on some…emergency auto repairs? That would have made more sense if my dad had been the sort who did his own automotive work. His level of expertise, like mine, ended mostly at checking fluids.

It’s such a goofy thing. Why would anybody make it? You can still get them, apparently, so you can “never be caught unprepared for household emergencies or repairs.” The reviews mention that keeping charged batteries in it is a challenge, and most of the praise is that it’s a convenient package for the small socket set, or that the flashlight was handy during a power outage, not that there have been times when having a flashlight and socket wrenches saved the day.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Saving the day, I mean. That’s what dads want to do. We get sold, sometimes, on the fantasy of the perfect tool for the job. My dad was hardly immune to this, even in the kitchen, where a good paring knife and a good chef’s knife and your hands can accomplish at least 80% of what you need. Despite this, we had a few kitchen tools that we only used once or twice. I’m sure there were a few that never made it out of the cupboard.

Being a dad is the same way—as much as we might want to have the perfect, day-saving tool, the real work is the stuff you do every day with basic knife skills. In doing the dishes. In paying attention to your ingredients. In knowing the people you’re feeding. I can’t help slipping into kitchen metaphors because that’s where my dad lived. That’s where it was easiest for me to get along with him, to understand him. That’s where he taught me so much of what, like all sons, it took me a long time to understand: we want to save the day. We want gadgets that are perfectly suited to the problems. We want to have a magic wand to fix things for the people we care about…

…but we don’t. We have work to do, everyday work, and every day. If we really want to be good at the fatherhood thing, that’s the work we must do. There are no magic wands, and rarely do we have a perfect tool for the job.

Still, the flashlight/socket set has gone back into the van. Who knows? It might save a day.

Perpendicular to Everything

I had planned to write a Nicking from Novels today about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve just finished rereading the novel. I picked it up at an airport bookstore coming or going from Wales—it seemed like the kind of thing that, as a 17-year-old who desperately wanted to be a writer, was a necessity. I remember being caught up in the madness of it, the descriptions of jazz and the mythology of the American Road. Dean and Sal screwed up too many things to really be role models (and it wasn’t the 1950s anymore), but they were close. I thought there was something to emulate in the life fully lived, the mad saintliness of a Dean Moriarty.

On the Road ought, as a thumbnail sketch, be a buddy comedy: two friends pursuing kicks back and forth across the country. Rereading it over the last week, I’ve thought more about how much the two protagonists screw things up. Dean leaves wreckage in his wake, always, whether it’s his broken marriages, stolen cars, or nicked wallets. Sal, vitally, knows better and goes along with Dean anyway, even encouraging him. They enable each other in all the worst ways. It’s a tragedy.

Those were things that, I think, it would have been impossible for me to understand at 17. I could think, in the abstract, that it was bad for Dean to abandon first one wife, then another, then the mother of yet another of his children. As a parent, an adult with “real world” responsibilities, I get just how awful it really is. I also see the casual, almost helpless misogyny in so many of the protagonists’ interactions with women. The desperate moments—picking up cigarette butts on the street, going without food, having  to beg shelter from resentful near-strangers—stand out more. I got a much better sense of just what beat meant to Kerouac, and it wasn’t good.

None of this keeps On the Road from being a beautiful book. Kerouac does breathtakingly poetic things with language, whether he’s talking about Dean or music or the Road. There are these brilliant moments where a metaphor snaps everything into perfect focus, the kind of clarity that only comes when a thing is likened. It’s magic. I can’t recall any other author (or many other poets) who can do that so consistently, make it seem so natural within the flow of words.

The metaphors make the melancholy all the more sublime. On the Road is simultaneously a deeply Romantic book and a deeply American book. It embraces loneliness and the pursuit of women just as enthusiastically as Keats and Byron and Shelley. It transposes the unknowable wilderness to the road itself, but treats it similarly: a place to be astounded and to know oneself. The characters chase life. They do that, though, in an American context. The American Dream is always in the background, the dream America dreams of itself: the mythic West, the tumult, the go-ness that always wants a home to return to. Sal and Dean never seem quite sure whether they’re running toward something or away from it; they’re fleeing life, too.

For me, today, it has been about away. I’m sitting in a coffee shop and the news has spent the morning rehearsing a gun attack on a congressional baseball practice. The Senate is manufacturing a healthcare bill in secret that seems likely to be catastrophic to people I care about. Last night I dreamed of concrete and plywood and baseball and music and all these things have knotted together in my stomach. I want to go, to go perpendicular to everything, away from everything in a direction that doesn’t exist. I get—I dig—a bit of what push-pulled Sal and Dean to the road over and over and over. They’re chasing something, fleeing something. Their drive—and their driving—is inseparable from the melancholy, from the sense that the world is spinning and spinning and the only things worth knowing are the things that are spinning away.

Tonight, probably, I will sleep better. Tomorrow, probably, the news will be a little less dire. Tomorrow, probably, there will be no knot in my stomach making my feet itch to walk in a direction that doesn’t exist. Today, though, I’m a little beat, a little beaten down, with words the only things that can take me the direction I need to go.

Reflections on a Third Teaching Year

Forty-eight hours ago, I turned in my keys and signed out of my school for the summer. That doesn’t mean there’s no work to do: I have some projects to plan, some bureaucracy to manage, some trainings to attend…but by and large, the next two and a half months are mine for other things. Including (finally!) getting back to Walking Ledges.

My thoughts after my first year of teaching full time were long enough to require three separate posts. Last year, I apparently didn’t feel that anything beyond signing my contract renewal was noteworthy.

This year has been different in that it has been largely the same as the previous one. Signing that second contract was a big deal; working a second year in the same place was less about the moments and more about the way the work shaped other moments.

Teaching advanced placement and intervention simultaneously kept me on my toes. I joked that I had “only the skinny parts of the bell curve.” That’s not entirely true; some students end up in intervention classes who don’t belong there, and the same is true of AP classes. They all require different strategies (differentiation!). They all require attention. They all require—have a right to—the best teaching the school can provide. We  teach the students who walk through our door.

That’s one of the things that hasn’t changed from that first set of reflections: students are the best thing about the job any time they aren’t the worst thing about the job. (Most of the time, the worst part of the job is bureaucracy.) What did change? Well…

Improvisation and Iteration

My class assignments changed back in August, and I had to hit the ground running with my AP Literature course. Mid-August up through November was a bit of a blur. I knew only a few of the texts I taught. One or two were a matter of staying ahead of my students. One of the perks of having done this for a while, though, is that you’re better able to leverage the authority you get just for being the one at the front of the room. I’ve always worked from broad outlines and sketches, filling them in as I go. That’s become my general mode of lesson planning…at least until I’m wrangling challenging material or challenging students. At those times, I damn well better bang out specific, timed lesson plans. Most of the time, though, teaching AP allowed me to improvise and bounce ideas around with my awesome students.

Teaching intervention was, most days, at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d taught the course a full year. With it being a one-semester course, I’d already taught it twice by the time the 16-17 school year started. That meant that I had plenty of material sitting around waiting to be re-used. Or modified. Or shifted to a different context. Or thrown out all together. The pleasure of teaching a course I’d been through before is much like the pleasure of editing and revising. The iteration helps you smooth things out, improve the good things, eliminate the ones that aren’t working, and try new things in small doses.

Of course, you get new students. Tests change. Administrative requirements change. Lessons that were awesome for one class can fall flat the very next period. So even when you’re fine-tuning, you frequently have to improvise a new melody.

Collegiality

I’ve said it before, and I meant it: I like teachers. Not all teachers are awesome people, but it seems like most of them are. (No self-congratulation intended!) In a year when there was so much craziness going on in the world, I appreciated having colleagues who could help keep me grounded and focused on the things I could control. My fantastic department head won district teacher of the year, and deserved every bit of it. My fellow AP/pre-AP teachers are doing cool stuff with curriculum. My next door neighbor is the loudest guy in the building, a raconteur who holds down the head of the teacher’s lounge lunch table. It’s good to have work friends again.

Plus, my colleagues get (most) of my jokes. Even when they’re not funny jokes.

On Finding my Niche

I started teaching full-time at a charter in East Austin, commuting too many miles and too many minutes. I spent my days with eighth graders who, mostly, were not good at being in school (no matter how smart they were). I’d done most of my substitute teaching in middle schools. It seemed like a good idea. Looking back, it’s hard to sort out which challenges were first-year-teacher things, which were specific to the school, which to the commute, which to the grade level… Being a first year teacher is hard!

This year, teaching AP, things felt…right. Teaching advanced placement seniors is about as close to teaching college as you can get without actually doing it. There are advantages, though: I get to spend so much more time with my students. I see them every day, learn so much more about who they are and what they hope to do. I would have gotten some of that with professor-ing full time, with the mythical tenure-track job. I was absolutely not getting it as an adjunct. The AP kids, usually, remember to call me by the correct title.

I still love teaching writing. I got faster, over the year, at grading the exam-specific stuff. I’m working on more and better ways to build writing into the curriculum. I love showing students how a text can do multiple things at the same time, how no matter what a multiple-choice exam might require you to ‘understand,’ literature and life are messier. When I do my job well, when it is at its most satisfying, its the students who get that, who find the meaning in the glorious mess, who explain it as best they can (which is sometimes brilliantly).

Next year, barring another last minute change, I’ll only be teaching seniors—AP and “on-level.” As excited as I am about spending the summer writing, about my summer to-do list, I’m already excited about what’s coming up when August rolls around.

Reality’s Got Teeth

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
—Shylock, Merchant of Venice (III.i)

Most of what I write is fantastic.

waits the necessary beat

…by which I mean it’s not real, nor is it intended to be. I don’t think there are many places that becomes clearer than in the way so many of the novels I read and games I play deal with violence and its consequences. In most roleplaying games, damage is abstracted to hit points or health levels. It usually doesn’t matter where you get hit or what you get hit with, because damage is just another stat that you track. Healing, likewise, is a matter of popping a healing potion or medkit, sometimes resting a few days. Few games deal with scarring. I’ve yet to see any deal with rehabilitation.

A lot of the novels I enjoy are the same way. Our heroes get the crap beaten out of them. They get stabbed or shot or scorched by magic. Then, a chapter or two later (sometimes just a page or two later), they’re back to running across rooftops or dueling with evil wizards or piloting starfighters. Writers—myself included—build in medical technology or healing magic that’s just as fantastic as the dragons or fireballs or jump gates. I’ve tried, in the novels I’ve written, to keep track of injuries, to let them mean something. But I’m guilty, too, of slapping magical healing or nanosurgery or such on my characters once the crisis has passed.

Partly, it’s a genre expectation. Partly, it’s really hard to effectively write a scene where being able to sit up unassisted for fifteen minutes is a victory. Mostly, I think, we as writers and readers find pain, well, painful. Agonizing months of rehab, scars that don’t fully heal? No thanks. Get me back to the monsters and swordfights and ancient mysteries.

Recently, a family member was in a serious car accident—the “we’re not sure she’s going to live” kind of car accident. She spent a week in the hospital with a laundry list of trauma. Now that she’s out of the hospital…she still has that laundry list of trauma. Her recovery will take months. Realistically, she may never recover 100% of what the accident took. Almost dying will do that to you. Right now, the walk from bed to the bathroom is a hike to Mordor carrying the one ring.

Injuries have consequences. Pain is real. If you prick us, we bleed, whether or not we’re Jewish. This is why current U.S. politics are seeping so deeply into so many lives: policies cause material harm, whether that’s choosing between health insurance and utilities or facing deportation or understanding that your rights aren’t as good as somebody else’s. Life isn’t fair, but that’s no excuse for abandoning the work of trying to make it better.

Watching my sister-in-law in her hospital room, working to breathe, only inconsistently able to track what had happened to her and what was going around her, I couldn’t help thinking “there’s no way to write this pain.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Writing and reading promote empathy. When reality has the kind of bite it does right now, that’s more important than ever.

Forty-Five

On January 20th, we inaugurated Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

I remember, back in February of 2016, before Trump was even properly on track for the Republican nomination, writing a post on Facebook about belief in policies not making people good or evil. (There were a lot of moral judgments flying around between Berners and Clinton supporters on top of the tumult in the Republican field.) One of my high school friends pushed me on a particular point of phrasing. At that time, I confessed that Trump had said things that went well beyond the political for me, things that crossed moral lines.

In February.

A year ago.

The outrages and the outrageous have only compounded since then. We now have a sitting president who boasted about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. We have a president who mixes George W. Bush’s insight and Reagan’s nostalgic machismo with Nixon’s paranoia, disdain for intellectuals, and ethical corner-cutting. His campaign strategy was that of the most effective internet trolls: keep spewing shit, ignore anybody who tries to call you on it, and then yell about the bias of the mods. He approached the campaign with all the savvy of a reality TV star.

With a substantial assist from the electoral college, Americans kicked the only alternative off the island.

I’d watched Brexit unfold in real time through the social media accounts of European friends. There was disbelief. There was grief. There was a sense that an order was ending for all the wrong reasons. People predicted immediate disaster.

November 10th felt the same way. I’m not going to lie: I cried. It wasn’t in disbelief, though—I live in Texas. I grew up in rural Idaho. Hell, I’ve spent time in the deeply-red outer ring suburbs of the Twin Cities. There’s a lot of bigotry in this country, much of it quiet and wearing the clothes of class and the trappings of “responsibility.” Even more, though, there are many people who already see the world ending, for whom progressivism and any hint of relativism are failings of both morality and civilization. There are people who see zero-sum games everywhere they look and understand others’ rise as their loss. There are those who believe fervently in American exceptionalism and national pride. Trump was able to tap into all of that. I cried that day because the world I want for my students, for my own kids, is not the “great again” one that Trump spun for the crowds.

Is the best case scenario for our president “too incompetent to really damage much”? Alas, that’s unlikely. He’s built a cabinet of the rich and richer, of executives and careerists who have in many cases aggressively argued to end the existence of the government offices they’re about to lead. Steve “Breitbart” Bannon is his chief policy advisor. Even if Trump himself is too busy throwing Twitter fits about the meanies who make fun of him, that cabinet is going to make things happen.

The media won’t save us. It can’t. Let me tell you about one of the impossible situations teachers occasionally face. Sometimes, there’s a student who decides to say “no.” No threat of consequences will move her. No appeal to personal responsibility, to judgment, to the needs of fellow-students will dent that “no.” As a teacher, your only recourse is to call in administrator (or, sometimes, an SRO). Trump has said “no” to the media in so many ways. He has said “no” to the American people when they have asked about his tax returns, his potential conflicts of interest, and, in most cases, any description of policy beyond “best,” “outstanding,” and “terrific.” He’s the president now, and he doesn’t care. There’s no administrator to call in. His surrogates are already talking, literally, about alternative facts… We’ve taken internet echo chambers into a real reductio ad absurdum.

There were protests over the weekend. As Congress moves to gut the Affordable Care Act—a law, incidentally, that guarantees my son his health insurance—their phones are busy as hell. There are calls to make sure the cabinet nominees get at least standard ethics office screenings. We can push back. We might lose. We will lose on some things, because it’s not for nothing that Trump was elected. It’s not for nothing that Republicans control government. Democracy means losing sometimes.

What we can’t lose is democracy, as fragile and incomplete as our American one has always been. We will have to build our own bulwarks against the flood of propaganda that is already flowing from the White House with its “alternative facts.” We must keep one another from falling into “some people say…” no matter how much we’d like those things to be true or untrue.

This isn’t reality TV anymore. It’s reality. We have an obligation as citizens to deal with it that way.