Spirituality and Memory

Image by Okan Caliskan from Pixabay

I came across this Terry Pratchett quote last night, It’s from his book Jingo. .

“Night poured over the desert. It came suddenly in purple. In the clear air the stars drilled down out of the sky, reminding any thoughtful watcher that it is in the desert and high places that religions are generated. When men see nothing but bottomless infinity overhead, they have always had a driving and desperate urge to find someone to put in the way.”

I think Sir Terry thought the ground state of human existence was existential angst. I know my older brother, who crossed in November of 1973, did. I know my oldest sister does to this day. And I know her nihilism started when my oldest brother died.

I tried existentialism but it didn’t do anything for me. After years of agnosticism, I finally realized that it’s not about religion at all. It’s about spirituality, a word which took considerable abuse in the 19th Century. I’m strongly attracted to Celtic spirituality, as well as India’s religions and spirituality. I also have a strand of Native American spiritual tradition in me as well. There isn’t a name for my belief system, and Goddess forbid that it ever get one. For then it becomes a religion. The moment a spiritual tradition becomes a religion it begins to degrade.

The Gnostic/Essene/Judaic spiritual traditions were rounded up and labeled Christianity. From that time to now we have come from do unto others and Love is All_ to right wing evangelism and fundamentally stupid fundamentalism.

Last night my wife was watching an episode of 24, and she said “the vice president’s going crazy” to me as I walked out of the bathroom. My reply was “ ‘Did you hear the news? The vice president’s gone mad. Where? Downtown. When? Last night. Gee that’s too bad.’—Bob Dylan, Clothesline Saga.” It’s just in there. Sometimes I can access it instantaneously. Then there are times when I can’t remember what I went in the kitchen for. My wife’s gotten used to it over the course of 42 years, but she still frequently says, “How do you do that?” I can’t really answer her, beyond pointing out the obvious, that I have a good memory. It’s not the having part but the instantaneous accessing part that kind of blows her mind sometimes.

What has this to do with spirituality and religion? Not a damn thing to do with religion. Spiritual tradition would say it is a special gift, vouchsafed to me. And so it is. Not surprisingly, it served me extremely well when I was in the classroom.

Outside In

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Spending four years as a substitute also helped give me an unusual perspective on teaching. When I went back to school to finish my bachelors and get my teaching certificate, my subbing time was disdained and I was made to take a bunch of courses I didn’t need, except to get that degree and certificate. So I went through the process—three semesters in the classroom and a semester of student teaching.

When I finished it was the summer of 1983. I’d been out of “my” school for two years. I started subbing again right away, and nothing much had changed (except that I had the certificate.) A couple of teachers who had previously been aloof seemed to find that it was appropriate to talk to me now that I was certificated, but as before they said nothing worth listening to.

In December of 1983 the social studies teacher was forced to resign abruptly. He was in the middle of a nasty divorce, and his wife accused him of molesting her daughter (his stepdaughter.) The district hurried him out the door as if he had leprosy, which, in terms of teaching he did. Guilty until proven innocent.

I was offered the job, and I took it like a shot. I would be teaching at the school my wife worked at. The school we had been a part of for over three years. I could barely believe my good luck.

Coming from the outside into the fold in mid-year would have been interesting and challenging enough, but it took me about an hour to realize I was in for a really rough ride. Not to put too fine a point on it, the guy had also been an alcoholic who actually kept a jug in his desk drawer. He poured it into a coffee cup and drank all day. The kids knew it. All he ever did was write and assignment on the board and then sit and drink. The kids therefore had what amounted to a free period every day. The unspoken agreement was that he wouldn’t bother them if they didn’t go wild and try to burn the building down. As long as they kept the noise down, they were pretty much free to do as they pleased. A minority of them resented this, because they wanted to be taught. When the novelty wore off a larger number of them wearied of the arrangement as well, but they didn’t know what to do about it.

Then one day he resigned, and there I was as their new teacher. All I had to do first was completely change the classroom culture. I went at this full-throttle. Lectures every period, homework that was actually graded and returned, tests that actually required them to study—and coming down hard when some of them decided to see if they could still get away with screwing off. I quickly got a rep amongst the faculty as a disciplinarian. It was just self-preservation, but it would carry forward, and save me a lot of trouble with new classes in the future.

The guy’s gradebook was an absolute nightmare. He had columns for every homework assignment, test and quiz, but many of them had no grades at all, and others had just a few. There was not a single column that had grades recorded for every student. This went all the way back to the beginning of the school year.

When I consulted the principal about this, he said it was ok to base their grade for the quarter on the two weeks’ worth of grades they would have to me. I could test them on that material and call it the final exam grade. I determined the semester grade (all that really counted) by averaging their letter grades for the two quarters—in other words, an A and a C would equal a B. It was crude and highly inaccurate, but it was the best I could do.

It was a good thing it was the last two weeks of the semester. I worked 80-plus hours each of those weeks. Over Christmas break my wife tried to reassure me that it would be easier in the spring semester. It was, relatively, but I made it harder on myself by hewing to the traditional lecture/homework/test model. It was how I had learned history in high school, and my three semesters of ed courses hadn’t shown me a viable alternative.

So I came all the way inside. A traditionalist teacher who expected a great deal of his students, took no shit, and in return gave them a lot of information about historical topics. I didn’t recognize/realize it, but I was trying to fill their minds. It would take several semesters for me to recognize this, and to realize I had to find a better way. That took some time.

Dreaming and Teaching

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It is said that some people are born teachers. This may be true. It is definitely true that some people are born with a love of learning, and that sometimes leads people into teaching. With me it was the latter. I had never given thought to getting a teaching degree, and during my first four years in the classroom I didn’t have one. In fact I didn’t even have a bachelors, but these were small schools and they were sometimes just glad to have a warm body to substitute. I was warm, and it soon became clear that I was a very good substitute, and became much in demand.

I first walked into a classroom as a substitute in the fall of 1978. I had just turned 22 in August, so I wasn’t much older than the members of the senior class. I never stopped to consider that, though. I was their teacher.

        It didn’t take long before I was modifying the lesson plans I was left, which were often extremely sketchy, or nothing but a bunch of busy work. Busy work is one of the great frauds of the classroom. Assigning kids a chapter to read and a bunch of questions at the end of that chapter to answer will NOT keep kids busy. It will bore them. They know why it’s been assigned, and they know it is going to be boring. Hence, the fifty-minute class period will be boring—or in some cases, more boring than usual. And the person at the desk is not their regular teacher, but is very real, and very competent, beyond that.

        Busy work with a sub in the room is open season, in other words. Kids are like sharks, and they smell blood with the sub in the room and nothing to really do for 50 minutes. I knew this would happen. I had loved high school, and I knew all the tricks a high school class would try on a sub. So I made sure right away that the kids recognized me as a teacher, and not a “sub.” I told them I didn’t care what usually happened in that classroom, but I was NOT their regular teacher, and we would do things my way while I was their substitute teacher. I also told them about respect—specifically, that is has to be earned. I pointed out that works both ways, and that startled a lot of them. With one statement I had brought the power dynamic of the classroom right out into the open. I had created an alternate reality in that classroom. That which was not spoken of openly, “Who’s the boss, and how does this all work? And how come nobody ever talks about it?” I had opened a door on another method/approach/perspective to/on teaching. Method, approach and perspective would doubtless all have been used to describe what I was trying to do. I didn’t need to describe it. I just needed to do it. Once we were through that door together we were in a place where teachers respected their students enough to acknowledge that fact, and use the teachable moment to help them realized they had a reciprocal obligation to respect me.

Dream World

Image by Bing N. from Pixabay

About ten years ago, maybe more, one of my older sisters suggested I start a blog. Look, sis. Finally.

Ultimately, this will be a blog that is largely about teaching and learning. The website is called “mindkindle” in reference to the Plutarch quote, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindle

Before I get to that, though, it might be nice for you to know a little bit about the blogger. After all this edifice needs some kind of foundation.

Not quite forty-three years ago, in the fall of 1975, I was a sophomore at the University of Colorado. My freshman year I had been an engineering major, even though I realized about a month into my first semester that I would never be an engineer. I was completely unsuitable for that profession. So, in the fall of ’75, I changed majors. I became an English major, with a creative writing emphasis. That was a big change, but I’d written a couple of short stories, I had a superb instructor for the Great Books course I had taken in the fall of ’74 (I salute you, Joanne Karpinski, wherever you are) and at the beginning of the 75-76 school year, under the influence of a ridiculous, and potentially lethal, number of tequila hookers, I decided to change majors. Thereby hangs a tale I will tell you another time.

Ever since then, for almost 43 years, I have tried fitfully and periodically to become a writer, without success. I remain unpublished, and my output prior to late 2017 was pathetically small. Another tale rests in that “late 2017” reference, but again that is for another time.

For now, I want you to know that I have lived most of my life in an alternate reality. I hope to explain both the how and the why of that to the reader’s satisfaction. When I was growing up I had a father who was vey psychologically abusive, and of the three younger children, he chose me for the target of his wrath. As a WWII vet whose company had been the first group of Americans through the gates of Dachau, he had a lot of wrath. He just didn’t know how to deal with it, other than by drinking, taking Valium, and yelling at and belittling me.

My response was to lose myself in books, and later in board wargames as well. My reading engendered a love of science fiction and fantasy, and the first wargame I played started me on a path that would eventually lead to my teaching high school history. Even so, I spent as much time as possible between the ages of 6 and 14, when my dad died, reading and playing games. I was able to lose myself in the books and games. I still got yelled at and belittled, but I didn’t live in dread of the next episode because I was in a different reality.

I continued my wandering in alternate reality throughout high school (he had committed suicide by motorcycle in the summer of ’71, just before the start of my sophomore year.) Although I got heavily involved in social activities—clubs and student government—my retreat to my refuge became ingrained. Then in the fall of my sophomore year I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons. Suffice to say for now that game is a powerful portal to another reality.

The continuation of my habit of getting out of mundane Dodge as much as possible was partly due to depression. Back then depression was hardly even recognized, and when I became profoundly depressed after my dad died, the conclusion was it was a phase, and I’d get over it.

What no one, including me, knew at that point was that I was developing Type II bipolar disorder. It would be decades before I was finally correctly diagnosed and treated for the condition. During those many, many years my life was a roller coaster. When you’re hypomanic you definitely aren’t living in the mundane world. You are an amazing human being, with creative power beyond that of mere mortals. You are incredibly charismatic, and women find you irresistibly attractive. Those things are all actually true, to a degree. The cost for this is a complete loss of impulse control, and an out-of-this-world optimism that makes it seem alright to spend money like it’s going out of style and quit jobs at the drop of a hat. I call this unreasonable optimism because these behaviors were based on an absolute conviction that a better job, paying more money, would inevitably fall into my lap. I was also convinced during these episodes that women would fall into my lap, and a surprisingly large number did, albeit online. Another future tale.

The episodes of hypomania, however, only slowly became as severe as I’ve described above. Moreover, I never realized they were an aspect of my mental illness. I came out of depression, and so of course I felt good. The good became stronger and stronger, until at last it destroyed a lot of things.The depression was brutal from the start, and it became markedly worse and worse. It, too destroyed some important things.

Like my dad, I turned to alcohol to try to cope. Alcohol, fantasy, re-creating historical battles… these things constituted my escape mechanisms throughout the rest of college, and through the first five years after I failed to graduate from CU, in 1978. I also started smoking pot in the fall of 1976, and my last two years of college were spent in a cannabis haze. Playing D&D, getting high, and having sex became my reality.

The pot-smoking came to an end in the fall of ’78, due to a lack of supply. The drinking and board gaming continued. My reading tapered off, except for Tolkien’s trilogy, which I re-read again and again. D&D largely dropped out of the picture due to a lack of players. So I drank, and re-fought historical battles on a map covered with hexagons, employing small cardboard squares for the military units. These games were intricated and complicated, all the better to lose oneself in.

Then in the summer of 1982 my wife brought an Apple II home from school. She had gotten a grant to get three of them for her classroom, and she brought one home that summer to learn how to use it better.

I quickly learned how to use it to play computer games, first a Star Trek game that came with the computer and soon a number of purchased games, all of which were of the fantasy role-playing variety. I’m sure you’re totally surprised by that.

In the almost 37 years since that summer, I have spent countless hours lost in my computer screen, killing monsters and taking their stuff, solving riddles and mysteries, and completing heroic quests. It sounds juvenile, and I suppose it is. But it is the alternate reality I’ve happily inhabited for all those decades.

 I hope, and believe, that this life experience, because of its strangeness, will bring a perspective on what I have to say in future that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. I have a lot to say about the “real world” as well as about my life experience. I hope you find it worth reading, and I will always welcome your comments. Dialog is far superior to one-sided communication.