2016: The Year in Review


So, 2016 is almost over. I read back over last year's year-in-review post, which made me realize how much can change in just one year. Last year ended on such a positive note, but this year ... oh, god, this year. Honestly, it's hard to think of all of the good things that have happened this year (and there have been plenty of them) because they've all been overshadowed by that horror that tinges most of my waking thoughts these days: Donald Trump. If nothing else, though, 2016 has roused me to a new political activism that I have never known or felt before. I had never voted before this election, even though I'd been capable of voting since the 2004 elections. I felt, and continue to feel more strongly every day, that he's a psychopath, a liar, a moron, a narcissist, a swindler, and a bigot. That such a person should be the most powerful man in the world is excruciatingly scary, though right next to it is my terror of my neighbors who believe that such a man is an idol, a person to be emulated, a person to be placed in a position of leadership and authority. I am utterly incapable of understanding such a viewpoint. I hear rumors that some people voted for him not because they like him but because he'll challenge the status quo or "drain the swamp" or whatever. But, of course, even if he manages to follow through on all his promises, voting for such a person is analogous to detonating a pack of C-4 in your house because you'd like to take up the carpet: maybe the carpet will be gone when you're done, but so will the rest of the house. And if he does follow through on all his promises (which may be doubtful, but nevertheless a possibility), then he'll undo years of progress for minorities, women's rights, international relations, energy reform, and a plethora of other absolutely vital issues. But anyway, other people have written about how terrible he is, so I'll leave it alone for now. I really only wanted to lead with that so that I could get it out of my system and talk about other things.

So, besides being the year which future historians will mark as the beginning of the end of human civilization, what else happened in 2016? Well, I finally achieved more-or-less full-time work with all of my little careers. Between the classes that I teach (high school math, high school / middle school percussion ensemble, and high school and middle school computer programming), the piano lessons, the choir rehearsals, the math tutoring, and the occasional programming thing, I've got at least 40 hours of work every week. At times, I want to pull out my hair from stress, but overall I'm really thankful to have an abundance of work opportunities. Teaching high school classes has been especially rewarding this year. The students really seem to like me, and I really like them. After all of the awful years in public school, my current students have revived my love for teaching. I'm pretty sure that all it takes is respect and hard work from both sides, and school can be fun. I still don't know why public school students insisted on playing a game of mutually-assured destruction, but I'm glad I'm done with it.

Let me pause and consider my revival for a moment. I think that at least part of my success at my current school has come from my philosophy of teacher-student relationships, which is generally diametrically opposed to conventional wisdom on the matter. For example, I had professor after professor and mentor after mentor and coworker after coworker tell me that "you can't be friends with students" and that "if you try to be friends with students, then they'll lose all respect for you." But the problem with this philosophy, I think, is that it stems from the belief that the world is deeply, fundamentally, intrinsically a hierarchical place, and that there are built-in systems of authority and subservience mandated by God or 'Merica or whomever, and that these systems discourage and punish friendships that form between the relevant strata. But, of course, if you reject the axioms from which these beliefs are formed (as I do), then you can see that, in the state of nature, people are first and foremost peers, and are only secondarily superiors and inferiors as prescribed by economics and politics. I'm not suggesting that economics and politics don't apply; rather, I'm proposing that not enough homage is paid to the need for economics and politics in the first place: namely, that respect is required to make those systems function and to bring people out of the state of nature. The mayor of a town, for example, isn't placed on the throne by God; rather, he is one peer elected by other peers. The latter concede some of their power and vest it in the former. This concession of power, which is a form of respect, is necessary for any kind of governance. And education is a kind of governance, wherein the students must give respect to the teacher by conceding some of their power. The problem in education and politics is similar: when a teacher or a mayor forgets that their power is derived from the respect and consent of their peers and they begin to believe instead that their authority has been granted by God or some other mechanism — or when they become simply power-hungry and greedy — they become dictators. Then, when their "inferiors" revolt, they are forced to defend their status and to try to gain respect by force. But, in the end, respect can never be taken; it can only ever be given. And the best way to be given respect is to give it first. For me, in a school environment, that means treating students primarily as fellow human beings rather than as inferiors. After all, we all have the same basic needs and wants: we all need to eat, to sleep, to have sex, to love and to be loved, to have fun, to feel that our lives have purpose and meaning, to have autonomy and mobility, etc. This means, broadly, that I try to be a friend before anything else. A friend is one who empathizes, who helps when another is in need, who gives kicks in the butt when necessary. Of course, for a variety legal and social reasons, friendship between adults and children is not as easy or as deep as friendships between social peers, and I certainly don't attempt to make it as easy or as deep. For example, I don't hang out with the students outside of school, and I don't show favoritism. But my point is that I emphasize this friendship aspect of our relationship above all else, rather than emphasizing the superior-inferior aspect. (There are teachers at our school who do the opposite, and they are universally hated.) In fact, I think that people in positions of authority are obliged to be more respectful to their subordinates rather than less, lest the concessions of power of the subordinates be used against them. I also try never to teach that any particular thing is true "because that's the way it is"; I try instead to give reasons for everything I teach and to be honest when I don't know an answer, and I think that the students can sense (even if they aren't able yet to articulate) that this is markedly different from how much education is done. None of my philosophy is new, by the way. Conventional education has discarded my philosophy as "hippie" or "immature" or whatever because it has little imagination to see how students could learn with such a teacher and because all it knows is force; its authoritarian approach to education is, unsurprisingly, mirrored by its authoritarian approach to politics, economics, family, and other aspects of life. Now, I'll admit that my approach works better the older and more mature that students become. It's really hard to be "friends" or "peers" with little kids. With my own daughter, for example, I have to be authoritarian more than I like because she's simply too young and too unknowledgeable about the world and about social interactions for me to let her do whatever she pleases. Also, I'm legally responsible for her, so that carries weight in my interactions with her. But high school students are basically adults (especially physiologically, if not yet legally), and so it makes sense that I should treat them as essentially my peers.

Wow. Sorry to have rambled for so long on that topic. Let's see ... what else happened this year? Well, here are a few other smaller but nevertheless noteworthy things. I've had some pretty mild but pretty persistent health problems. I won't describe them in detail here, but they were enough to keep me moderately stressed for a sizeable portion of the year; which, of course, surely isn't helping my health. I also worked on a couple of projects. One of them is a book of poems for children. This was motivated by two factors. First, much of the literature for children out there right now is abominable. (Seriously, people: how hard is it to rhyme and to stick to a meter? Good grief!) And second, I just simply love nursery rhymes and other poems for children. Occasionally, I come across a good "adult" poem that I like, but they're generally too dense for me. But I love the fun rhythms and simple wisdoms of children's poems. I also resumed work on my virtual study, which is a simple app I've been building. In the app, you're in a small room. Outside the windows, it's always raining, and on a bookshelf nearby there are books to read. I've also been working on my password manager app, but progress there is slower. Oh, and I also got in pretty good shape physically over the summer ... and then promptly lost it all when school began. Oh, well.

Anyway, I think that's about it; at least, those are the major things. Thanks for tuning in, and if you're still reading, thanks for seeing this through to the end! Take care, and I hope that your 2017 goes well!