Monthly Archives: February 2009

New Book

For some time I’ve been writing chapters to a book. I had the idea of putting some of the chapters on this blog to see if any of you had comments on the subject matter or the writing style.

The working title of the book is I’m Probably Dancing. If you read the book’s Introduction (below), you will see why I chose that title. If you have the time, I’d appreciate your comments…

Book Title: I’m Probably Dancing


Not long ago I phoned one of my sons and got his voice mail. I heard him say…

“Hey, this is James. I’m probably dancing right now, or doing something else amazingly fun, so leave a message…”

When I heard these words, I felt that something had gone terribly right!

When I finally did reach James, he made a comment that I will never forget. “Dad,” he said, “In my whole life I think I’ve known only three people who are actually doing what they want to be doing instead of what other people think they should be doing.” And he named the three which, of course, included himself.

Think about this: How would you like your children to grow up and tell you they are doing exactly what they have always wanted to be doing? What else could they say that would make you more proud of them and think, just maybe, you had done a good job of parenting?

If you are an adult, how would you like to be able to say to James, “The reason you only know three is that you haven’t met me!”

Unfortunately, I have met people all over the world who are not doing what is in their hearts to do. Instead, they are doing something someone else talked them into doing.

If you aren’t sure what I mean by “what is in their hearts to do”, you will understand as you read this book. I hope you find yourself being convinced that you really can do what you want to do. And, until you are doing what you want to do, you will continue to live someone else’s life instead of your own. You may even be good at living someone else’s life, but it will never be your life. You will continue to be unfulfilled and always have that gnawing feeling that you are taking someone else’s path to a place you were never intended to go.

By the way, what does James mean when he says, “I’m probably dancing right now or doing something else amazingly fun”? It means that, after doing many other things in life that our culture might consider more “respectable”, he has been willing to accept the truth that he is never happier or feels more fulfilled than when he is performing. Can a “real man”—and a spiritual man at that—also be a great dancer? Meet James Davis who is an inspiration to a lot of people, including his Dad.

This book is dedicated to those who are doing what they have been told they “should” be doing, but who would rather be doing what was in their hearts to do. I hope you are encouraged and inspired as you read of the people I’ve come to know.

I warn you that I am not going to avoid controversy in writing this book. I think some things need to be said about an increasing narcissism and self-centeredness in our society. Narcissism and self-centeredness are not what this book is about. This book is about ordinary human beings, in relationships with one another, finding the freedom—and giving one another the permission—to be all they were created to be.

I have purposefully made each chapter short, covering one, main point. After reading each chapter, put the book aside. Consider your life and how it does or doesn’t relate to what you’ve just read.

Then, write and tell me your own story: Did you discover you were living someone else’s life? What did you do about it? Or, perhaps you gave yourself permission as a child (or adult) to do what you were meant to do. Tell me about that, too. I like stories…

My Informal School Survey

Some inner clock is ticking in every life, warning us we have appointments to keep with reality: real work to do, real skills to learn, real battles to fight, real risks to take, real ideas to wrestle with.”–John Taylor Gatto

Yesterday I was subbing in Middle School: 6th grade, to be exact. This is my favorite age because the kids are still young enough to be fun but not old enough to be “cool”. And, they tend to tell you the truth when you ask them a question.

So, I thought I would take a completely unscientific survey of these kids’ attitudes toward school by asking them to choose between 2 sets of possibilities.

My first set of possibilities went like this:

1. You have learned how to study and get “A’s” on all your tests. When you graduate from school, you will have a perfect 4.0 average because you have made straight “A’s” in all your subjects. Unfortunately, you are only good at studying for (and taking) tests; but after you take a test, you forget most of what you studied. When you graduate from school, you will have a great school transcript, but you will not know very much, and what you do know won’t be the things that will help you very much as a grown up.

2. You really love to learn and you remember almost everything you ever study in school. Unfortunately, you are not good at taking tests, so that you never make above a “C” on any test you take. When you graduate from school, you know more than most of the other students, but you graduate with only a low “C” average.

After I asked for a show of hands to see which of these 2 possibilities the students would choose, I then asked them to choose from a different set of possibilities as follows:

1. There is no such thing as public school, so you will never go to school. You will never be “in a grade” (like 4th or 6th or 12th grade). You will never take school subjects (like math, science or history). You will never use school books. You will never take school tests. There are no school sports or cheerleaders. Your friends will not be “school” friends because there is no school. Instead, your friends will be members of your own family, your neighbors or anyone you want to have as friends. There are lots of adults in your life (including teachers) who will gladly give you their time, wisdom, experience and encouragement, but no one will ever force you to learn anything unless you want to learn it. Because there is no school for you to attend, you get to decide, for yourself, how you will receive an education (if that is even something you want). You may teach yourself some, or all, of the time. You may even go to work or start a business or do a combination of any of the above.  If you grow up stupid or uneducated, it will be your own fault.

2. Everything about school is the same as it is now: You will continue going to school just as you are doing now until you graduate. Teachers will tell you what you are supposed to learn and you will be given tests to find out if you have learned it.  The grades you receive throughout your schooling will become your permanent academic record.

I was surprised at their choices. Well, maybe, not all that surprised.

What should I title this?

The other day I was watching my class of 7th graders. I was delighting in all their energy and foolishness. The boys were squirming in their desks and the girls were chattering like little girls do. I thought to myself, “Can I tell them? Can I really tell them what I think about what’s going on here?” If I did, here’s what I would say…

I want to tell you a great secret that I think no one would ever dare tell you, that few people even know and fewer, still, even care about. It is the secret of what public schooling is all about. I have wondered if you, at age 12 or 13, are mature enough to understand it. But, I think I will tell you, anyway, and let you decide, for yourself, if what I am about to say even matters.

First, over these few months I’ve been a substitute in this school, I have watched how you respond to the various assignments given you by your teachers.

Most young people seem to have an easy time with at least one of their subjects. They may actually like math or history or literature. But, while one student is enjoying a subject, most of the other students in that class are either hating it or just enduring it. The student who actually likes math probably hates English, while the girl sitting next to him may like English but hate math.

Some of you—especially the girls among you—are usually willing to do what you are assigned to do, whether you want to or not, and whether or not you feel the assignment has any meaning to you. Girls seem to have a little more willingness to do what they are told and to accept the premise that teachers know what’s best for them. So, they oblige their teachers and, as a group, tend to make better grades than do middle school-age boys.

You boys, on the other hand, seem to be less willing to accept what you are told to do. When you don’t want to do something, you show your disagreement: sometimes in little ways (like drumming your fingers on the underside of your desk or rocking your desk back and forth so it makes noises, or any number of distracting things). Sometimes you show your disagreement in ways calculated to make the teacher crazy and to make him or her react to your behavior. Sometimes you refuse to listen to the teacher or do your work or you throw something when you think the teacher isn’t looking. All these things are done to show that you don’t like what’s being done to you.

Teachers are hired to teach you the material in the books. Teachers don’t decide what books they get to use and they don’t get to decide what you have to learn. That is decided by a committee that chooses textbooks. Lots of teachers don’t like the textbooks they have to use. Too bad. Teachers are not allowed to teach something other than what they’ve been told to teach. Even if a teacher thinks what she is told to teach is a waste of your time, she still has to teach it. Why? Because, at the end of the school year, you will be taking a test that has questions coming from the material she is told to teach you.

What if you don’t want to know what the teacher has to teach you? What if you know in your heart that what you are being required to learn has no value to you right now and no value to anything you are going to do in your future, either?

This is a problem, because lots of students know in their hearts that what they are being required to learn is a waste of their time. What happens then?

Well, the law requires that you be in school until you are 18 and the law requires that you be taught what the committee who chose the textbooks says you have to learn. If you don’t like it, and if you decide to make trouble, then what?

First, the school tries to persuade you of the value of good grades: “Good grades,” they tell you, “will lead to great jobs with you making lots of money in your life and your future happiness will be directly tied to your making good grades today and every day you are in school.”

If that doesn’t work, the school tries to scare you by saying something like, “Making bad grades will eventually lead to a miserable life where you will always be working hard for long hours at jobs you hate and you will never make enough money to have anything you want.”

I have never known a teacher say that actually learning the material she is teaching will lead to a good life. You are only told that good grades will lead to a good life. This is why many so-called “good students” learn how to study for tests so they can earn a high grade, only to immediately forget what they learned. These students have understood a basic secret about public schools: It is getting good grades, not getting a good education that is important.

What schools will never admit is that “schooling” is not “education”. Education only happens when a person (whether age 5 or age 105) decides he or she wants to know something. When this happens, “education” happens. When someone doesn’t want to know something, but is being forced to learn it, the only thing happening is “schooling”. And schooling is not education.

One of the most damaging things school does to young people like yourselves is to make you afraid of failure. What do you think made this country great in the first place? It was lots of people willing to take risks. All risk has within it the possibility of failure. But if you spend twelve years learning that failure is so bad that it is to be avoided at all cost, you will not be a risk-taker in your life. Instead you will do what you are told. You will always want to make a good grade and please the one in charge. You will avoid the very thing that could, possibly, make you a great success, or a great inventor, or a great musician, or just a great person!

I should not say this, but I actually respect students who are “trouble-makers”. Most schools are very controlling places where it is difficult to make your individuality known. It is an even harder place to make known that you don’t like what is being done to you, that you don’t like the way you are being treated, that you don’t like being made to do things anyone with any sense should know is a waste of your time.

[end of my speech]

A week ago the entire 7th grade was supposed to go outside and play. It was 34 degrees outside but it was time to go outside and play. All the teachers stood just outside the door of the school, shivering, while the students dutifully played on the playground (shivering). Just then a very slim, young girl came to the door and asked one of the teachers if she could not go outside but go to the art room. She said her art teacher asked her to come find her regular teacher and get permission from her to go to the art room instead of going outside.

Her teacher (standing outside in the cold) asked the girl if she had a note from the art teacher proving that the art teacher had, in actual fact, given her permission to go to the art room. The girl said she didn’t have such a note from the art teacher who had simply told her to go get permission from her regular teacher. The regular teacher said she wouldn’t give her permission. Why should she believe the word of a child when the child had no proof? Then, the teacher turned to another teacher standing next to me and said, “What would you do here? Would you let her go to the art room? (The tone in her voice was one of total contempt). The teacher standing next to me said, “I’d let her go just to get rid of her!” At that, I walked away. The last I heard was the regular teacher telling the girl, “I’m going to give you permission, but if you get in trouble, it’s not going to be my fault!”

Today I found the girl sitting in the lunchroom. She is a very shy girl whom I’ve never heard utter a word. I sat down next to her and asked if I could tell her something. She said, “Yes.” I reminded her of the incident the week before and she said that she remembered it. I then said to this girl, “I want you to know that I didn’t like the way you were treated when you asked to go to the art room. I thought it was very disrespectful of adults to treat you that way.” Then I got up from her table, left the lunchroom, and went on to my class.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of the teachers I see would truly love to be giving their students an education; a real education. And, I don’t let students show disrespect or act in ways that make it difficult for other students. I sometimes will send them out to the hall to work just to get the room calmed down. But, I know very little education is really taking place. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes every day and no one will admit that the Emperor is naked.