Friday, May 31, 2013

Boxed In

It was during the 60s and I was invited to a meeting of people interested in civil rights. The moderator asked us to sit in a large circle and then introduce ourselves. One after the other, I heard people say their names and then tell what they did. I saw myself categorizing them as they said their professions and wondered how they would categorize me. My career was as a wife and mother—housewife, and I knew how that looked on a resume. So when it came my turn, I said my name and turned to the individual beside me to allow him to introduce himself. There was a long pause and then he collected himself and said his name and profession. Later, during a break, people came up to me and asked what I did. I could see they needed more information so they knew what box I could fit in.
While working as an educational therapist, I saw the value of categories. You couldn’t get services for children without those labels, and so I don’t want to throw out the idea of categories, but the labels can be limiting as judgments are made. Determining intelligence is a complicated matter, and labeling can be a simple matter, too simple. We have no trouble with the label “left handed.” However, saying someone is “lower middle class” can be a different story.
Numerous studies have been made regarding labeling. Two graduate students, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, set out to show that the recipe for academic achievement requires more than raw intellect and lots of schooling. They kept the details of their plan a secret and told teachers that the test they administered was designed to identify which students would improve academically over the coming year. They called these students “academic bloomers.” The test was really an IQ measure with separate versions for each school grade and had nothing to do with academic blooming. Rosenthal and Jacobson recorded all the scores and then chose a random sampling of children and labeled them “academic bloomers.”
The “academic bloomers” in reality should not have had any more success than the other students. But the results at the end of the year showed that they did. They outperformed their peers by a 10 to 15 IQ points. Four of every five bloomers experienced at least a 10-point improvement, but only half the non-bloomers improved their score by 10 points or more. Teachers admitted that during the year, they praised the bloomers for their successes, over looked their failures, and devoted plenty of time and energy to ensuring they would fulfill that label of blooming.
There are some lessons in here, I’m sure. Are you allowing yourself to be a “bloomer”?


Friday, May 24, 2013

The Spider's Web

It was a typical early summer morning in West Seattle. A container ship foghorn woke me about 4:50 with its low bass “Who-o-o-o-.” I didn’t mind and waited for the Ferryboat’s able reply. Three short blasts. 

I thought about the movement that had originated the sound. How that action coursed through the air and was then received by my eardrums. We are amazing creatures!

It’s like the spider’s web on mute. That spider spins an intricate web (you could write a book—books—about the process) and waits for the message. She’s really smart for she can recognize who’s calling. The breeze jiggles the web. No response. But the moment a meal appears, she acts.

Our bodies are constantly bombarded with messages and we long ago learned to sort through them, ignoring most and paying attention to the important ones. At least I hope that’s what I’m doing. For I live in a web, fine invisible lines connected to every part of my life. I call them energy fields. (I have to call them something. Try not naming things. Just try!) As the spider’s web is necessary to survive, so is ours. And here I have to drop the analogy as it’s getting thin.

Friday, May 17, 2013

High School

I recently read an article in The Week (April 26, 2013) which suggested we’re still stuck in high school. When I think of traffic snarls and the TV news, I’m not surprised. When I think about high school, I’m convinced. High school does something to us, it’s our first real template for adult action.

Most studies of personal growth focus on the early years, zero to three. Those are the years when our sensory systems of seeing and hearing are developing and many believed that all functions developed in the same manner. But that’s not the way in which the more sophisticated functions work in executive function and emotional regulation. Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist, says if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in adolescent years. (And those of you with adolescents are saying, “Tell me about it…”) Steinberg says our self-image from those years is adhesive, so too our preferences. Why at 60, he wonders, is he still listening to the Allman Brothers?

It’s all about our brains, really. Just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—that part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect—gets very busy. This activity allows young adults the intellectual capacity to identify a notion of a self. However, at the same time, that prefrontal cortex hasn’t finished developing. It’s still working, adding myelin (a substance that speeds up and improves neural connections), and until it completes that wiring—in our mid-twenties—the more primitive, emotional parts of the brain have the greater influence. That’s when we’re all in high school. Now we know why adolescents have problems self-regulating and are so dramatic. Everything is more intense. There is more dopamine activity going on at that time than at any other time in the human cycle.

If all of this is true, and the scientists would have us believe it is, Jennifer Senior, the author of the article, claims most American high schools are sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents. Robert Faris, a sociologist, says it’s like putting people in a large box without any clear predetermined way of sorting status. And status is what it’s all about. Who am I? Where do I fit? Do I belong? Kids create the hierarchies and too often from the crudest common denominator kind of stuff like looks, clothes, and sports abilities. Brene Brown of the University of Houston says most of us opt for one of three possible strategies for the pain. One, we move away and hide. Two, we move toward it and become “people pleasers.” Three, we move against it by using shame and aggression. She believes that whichever method you chose, it becomes your modus operandi for life.

In our adolescence, we were quite sure we knew what reality was. I know I did, but the truth is I didn’t have a clue, was blind and didn’t know I was. What I really had was a story I told myself.

Maybe we can be grateful for all that adolescent angst. We did learn to cope. And perhaps some of the worst of adult America looks like a replay of high school because it’s populated by people who formed their identities in American high schools. Makes it possible to have a little compassion for those so damaged by their experience they’ve not been able to leave it behind or to write a new story and move on. And by the way, have you gone to your high school reunions?

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Handyman

My handyman just finished his chores. I gave him his check and we stood in the doorway and chatted. He’s so sweet. I know little about him except that he’s married. I think they have a baby for I often hear one in the background when I call him. Makes me think that the news is (and has been) lying to me for years, or at least presenting a very prejudiced view of the world.

If it weren’t for the people who are actually IN my life, I’d have a twisted view of humankind that’s for sure. “Breaking news,” they gleefully tell me and then bring up obscure pictures of a crime happening somewhere. It’s often not even in my locality. There are probably any numbers of shootings or robberies, but this happens to be either the one that’s handy and the TV truck could get to before the broadcast, or it’s a very exciting one—who cares from where. That’s not news. That’s gossip as far as I’m concerned. I come away depressed at the condition of the world.

And then my handyman comes to make a repair. Or a stranger on the street catches my elbow as I stumble over a broken piece of sidewalk. What if the news broadcasters were required to present a fair picture of what is really happening in the world? At least one good report for every bad. That might get us closer to the truth. Only just closer, for I believe that for every “baddie” there are at least ten, maybe twenty “goodies” out there. I know my handyman is one of them.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Learning Curve

I have no idea where all those educators and OD people got the words “learning curve.” Curves I can handle. Got lots of those and learned long ago how to dress them. And in a car, I’m pretty good. I’ve done the Amalfi Coast in a rented VW, all those tunnels and winding roads. And Mexican mountains. No problem. But this learning business. You’d think at my ripe age I’d have some tricks, some ways to perhaps cheat or beat the system. No such luck. Seems like every time there’s something new, I’m stuck at step one without the proverbial paddle (my clich├ęs may not work, but you get the point). No curves when it comes to learning. For me, it’s more like a treacherous rock climb up El Capitan without ropes.

I have a computer, cell phone (that I tell no one about and keep only for emergencies), and a television with the DVD stuff. I Skype, have a Facebook account and do LinkedIn. So I thought I was doing pretty good. My grandchildren are impressed, but then they love me. And then I decided I needed a new computer. This was not El Capitan. This was Everest. I’m waiting for the computer guru to come and help me as I am lost. If I ever surface, you’ll hear from me. In the meantime, please do what you can for me, light a candle, kill a chicken, pray, whatever, for I need all the help I can get.

I wouldn’t mind all the effort if I knew that from now on it would be clear sailing in the learning department for me. But there’s no guarantee. I’d better keep the ropes and carabineers handy. You never know.