Monday, November 29, 2010

Big Brother

In the past few weeks, I've spent the better part of my spare time helping some students with their college applications. They are doing whatever it takes to delay getting started on their essays. Makes sense, the college essay can be intimidating, particularly for those students who never thought college was an option. Around Thanksgiving, it occurred to me that I am not exactly getting paid overtime for the extra time I'm putting in to do this shit. So why am I doing this?

Well, I guess if you know me (and I don't even know if I even know me, so don't feel left out), then you must know that I didn't really join the teaching gig to roll around in wads of cash.
Side note: Instead, I write this blog with the hopes of an editor from Penguin randomly finding it and offering me a book deal. Holding my breath. Starting now...
It must be Monday evening because my mind is all over the place. It's been a long fucking day and now I'm sitting in grad school, frequently looking up at the board and nodding my head to a professor who clearly has no plans for today. Currently, we're discussing how to come up with better "learning goals" for our lesson plans to make them sound sexier. Apparently, if our learning goals sound sexier, our kids will remember them better. Here's one I came up with:
Apply the properties of exponents in problems involving scientific notation and Penelope Cruz naked.
I think I might be onto something...
Back to the point: why am I dedicating all of this spare time to reading college applications instead of getting ahead on my planning or grading? My thought is I'm doing it because I have a big brother/oldest child complex. I've gone through most of my life figuring shit out on my own, without the guidance of a knowledgeable parent, sibling or mentor. Two examples:
  1. When applying to college, I had no idea what to put as my intended major. I asked my physics teacher, who suggested, "Well, you like computers. And you're pretty good at math. So why not computer engineering?" Why not indeed. I applied and got into a computer engineering program at a large university. Later, I found out I hated computer engineering - it was too theoretical for me. I switched out and chalked it up as a learning experience.
  2. In high school, I had a pretty rigorous schedule of AP and honors courses, so I only got to choose one elective a year. My freshman year, I decided to take an elective called "Exploring Technology" because, get this, it sounded cool. That class sucked balls. And while I was hating every second of it, the rest of my peers were in Spanish I. They stayed in the Spanish curriculum for all four years of high school, which helped them later in life as most colleges require at least four years of a foreign language to meet foreign language requirements. I didn't make the cut, so I had to pencil in foreign language courses in college. Yet, another learning experience.
I guess I feel a slight (ginormous?) burden to ensure my students know their options. I want them to know what the easiest path to success is (I bet I'm even more annoying with my brother). Unfortunately, I think I'm coming in with this advice to the wrong age group. No "regular" teenager wants to think about the future or hear about what to do from some strange good-looking adult (it's okay to admit it). The "future" to most teens is tomorrow. I was never that teenager because I was forced to take a leadership role early in my family. 

Most of my students listen to me when I give life experiences, but I can't help but wonder if they actually take it seriously. Only a few of my top students are anywhere near done with the college application process. And I've had to annoy those students everyday to get on top of their shit.

Will it all be worth it? I hope so. But even if it it's not, I don't think my ego will allow that conclusion to be reached. It seems I'm always going to be big brother in my mind.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Stop Whining

I wish I had a mini-Arnold Schwarzenegger in my classroom that would go around saying this when appropriate.

Dear Santa: make it happen.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Don't Work. Avoid Telling the Truth. Be Hated. Love Someone.

A good friend of mine recently sent the transcript of a convocation ceremony speech by Adrian Tan for the graduating class of 2008 at NTU. I really liked it and thought it was inspiring. Here it is:

Don't Work. Avoid Telling the Truth. Be Hated. Love Someone.
"I must say thank you to the faculty and staff of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information for inviting me to give your convocation address. It’s a wonderful honour and a privilege for me to speak here for ten minutes without fear of contradiction, defamation or retaliation. I say this as a Singaporean and more so as a husband. 

My wife is a wonderful person and perfect in every way except one. She is the editor of a magazine. She corrects people for a living. She has honed her expert skills over a quarter of a century, mostly by practising at home during conversations between her and me. 

On the other hand, I am a litigator. Essentially, I spend my day telling people how wrong they are. I make my living being disagreeable. Nevertheless, there is perfect harmony in our matrimonial home. That is because when an editor and a litigator have an argument, the one who triumphs is always the wife. 

And so I want to start by giving one piece of advice to the men: when you’ve already won her heart, you don’t need to win every argument.  

Marriage is considered one milestone of life. Some of you may already be married. Some of you may never be married. Some of you will be married. Some of you will enjoy the experience so much, you will be married many, many times. Good for you.

The next big milestone in your life is today: your graduation. The end of education. You’re done learning. You’ve probably been told the big lie that “Learning is a lifelong process” and that therefore you will continue studying and taking masters’ degrees and doctorates and professorships and so on. You know the sort of people who tell you that? Teachers. Don’t you think there is some measure of conflict of interest? They are in the business of learning, after all. Where would they be without you? They need you to be repeat customers.

The good news is that they’re wrong.

The bad news is that you don’t need further education because your entire life is over. It is gone. That may come as a shock to some of you. You’re in your teens or early twenties. People may tell you that you will live to be 70, 80, 90 years old. That is your life expectancy.

I love that term: life expectancy. We all understand the term to mean the average life span of a group of people. But I’m here to talk about a bigger idea, which is what you expect from your life.

You may be very happy to know that Singapore is currently ranked as the country with the third highest life expectancy. We are behind Andorra and Japan, and tied with San Marino. It seems quite clear why people in those countries, and ours, live so long. We share one thing in common: our football teams are all hopeless. There’s very little danger of any of our citizens having their pulses raised by watching us play in the World Cup. Spectators are more likely to be lulled into a gentle and restful nap.

Singaporeans have a life expectancy of 81.8 years. Singapore men live to an average of 79.21 years, while Singapore women live more than five years longer, probably to take into account the additional time they need to spend in the bathroom.

So here you are, in your twenties, thinking that you’ll have another 40 years to go. Four decades in which to live long and prosper.

Bad news. Read the papers. There are people dropping dead when they’re 50, 40, 30 years old. Or quite possibly just after finishing their convocation. They would be very disappointed that they didn’t meet their life expectancy.

I’m here to tell you this. Forget about your life expectancy. After all, it’s calculated based on an average. And you never, ever want to expect being average.

Revisit those expectations. You might be looking forward to working, falling in love, marrying, raising a family. You are told that, as graduates, you should expect to find a job paying so much, where your hours are so much, where your responsibilities are so much.

That is what is expected of you. And if you live up to it, it will be an awful waste.

If you expect that, you will be limiting yourself. You will be living your life according to boundaries set by average people. I have nothing against average people. But no one should aspire to be them. And you don’t need years of education by the best minds in Singapore to prepare you to be average.

What you should prepare for is mess. Life’s a mess. You are not entitled to expect anything from it. Life is not fair. Everything does not balance out in the end. Life happens, and you have no control over it. Good and bad things happen to you day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Your degree is a poor armour against fate. Don’t expect anything. Erase all life expectancies. Just live. Your life is over as of today. At this point in time, you have grown as tall as you will ever be, you are physically the fittest you will ever be in your entire life and you are probably looking the best that you will ever look. This is as good as it gets. It is all downhill from here. Or up. No one knows. What does this mean for you? It is good that your life is over.

Since your life is over, you are free. Let me tell you the many wonderful things that you can do when you are free. The most important is this: do not work. Work is anything that you are compelled to do. By its very nature, it is undesirable. Work kills. The Japanese have a term “Karoshi”, which means death from overwork. That’s the most dramatic form of how work can kill. But it can also kill you in more subtle ways. If you work, then day by day, bit by bit, your soul is chipped away, disintegrating until there’s nothing left. A rock has been ground into sand and dust. There’s a common misconception that work is necessary. You will meet people working at miserable jobs. They tell you they are “making a living”. No, they’re not. They’re dying, frittering away their fast-extinguishing lives doing things which are, at best, meaningless and, at worst, harmful. People will tell you that work ennobles you, that work lends you a certain dignity. Work makes you free. The slogan “Arbeit macht frei” was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. Utter nonsense. Do not waste the vast majority of your life doing something you hate so that you can spend the small remainder sliver of your life in modest comfort. You may never reach that end anyway. Resist the temptation to get a job. Instead, play. Find something you enjoy doing. Do it. Over and over again. You will become good at it for two reasons: you like it, and you do it often. Soon, that will have value in itself. I like arguing, and I love language. So, I became a litigator. I enjoy it and I would do it for free. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve been in some other type of work that still involved writing fiction – probably a sports journalist.

So what should you do? You will find your own niche. I don’t imagine you will need to look very hard. By this time in your life, you will have a very good idea of what you will want to do. In fact, I’ll go further and say the ideal situation would be that you will not be able to stop yourself pursuing your passions. By this time you should know what your obsessions are. If you enjoy showing off your knowledge and feeling superior, you might become a teacher. Find that pursuit that will energise you, consume you, become an obsession. Each day, you must rise with a restless enthusiasm. If you don’t, you are working.

Most of you will end up in activities which involve communication. To those of you I have a second message: be wary of the truth. I’m not asking you to speak it, or write it, for there are times when it is dangerous or impossible to do those things. The truth has a great capacity to offend and injure, and you will find that the closer you are to someone, the more care you must take to disguise or even conceal the truth. Often, there is great virtue in being evasive, or equivocating. There is also great skill. Any child can blurt out the truth, without thought to the consequences. It takes great maturity to appreciate the value of silence. In order to be wary of the truth, you must first know it. That requires great frankness to yourself. Never fool the person in the mirror. I have told you that your life is over, that you should not work, and that you should avoid telling the truth.

I now say this to you: be hated. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Do you know anyone who hates you? Yet every great figure who has contributed to the human race has been hated, not just by one person, but often by a great many. That hatred is so strong it has caused those great figures to be shunned, abused, murdered and in one famous instance, nailed to a cross. One does not have to be evil to be hated. In fact, it’s often the case that one is hated precisely because one is trying to do right by one’s own convictions. It is far too easy to be liked, one merely has to be accommodating and hold no strong convictions. Then one will gravitate towards the centre and settle into the average. That cannot be your role. There are a great many bad people in the world, and if you are not offending them, you must be bad yourself. Popularity is a sure sign that you are doing something wrong.

The other side of the coin is this: fall in love.

I didn’t say “be loved”. That requires too much compromise. If one changes one’s looks, personality and values, one can be loved by anyone. Rather, I exhort you to love another human being. It may seem odd for me to tell you this. You may expect it to happen naturally, without deliberation. That is false. Modern society is anti-love. We’ve taken a microscope to everyone to bring out their flaws and shortcomings. It far easier to find a reason not to love someone, than otherwise. Rejection requires only one reason. Love requires complete acceptance. It is hard work – the only kind of work that I find palatable. Loving someone has great benefits. There is admiration, learning, attraction and something which, for the want of a better word, we call happiness. In loving someone, we become inspired to better ourselves in every way. We learn the truth worthlessness of material things. We celebrate being human. Loving is good for the soul. Loving someone is therefore very important, and it is also important to choose the right person. Despite popular culture, love doesn’t happen by chance, at first sight, across a crowded dance floor. It grows slowly, sinking roots first before branching and blossoming. It is not a silly weed, but a mighty tree that weathers every storm. You will find, that when you have someone to love, that the face is less important than the brain, and the body is less important than the heart. You will also find that it is no great tragedy if your love is not reciprocated. You are not doing it to be loved back. Its value is to inspire you. Finally, you will find that there is no half-measure when it comes to loving someone. You either don’t, or you do with every cell in your body, completely and utterly, without reservation or apology. It consumes you, and you are reborn, all the better for it.

Don’t work. Avoid telling the truth. Be hated. Love someone. You’re going to have a busy life. Thank goodness there’s no life expectancy."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Same Old Conversations

It's almost mid-November and I guess that means it's time for the students who weren't 100% serious about change to start going back to their old ways. I'm beginning to have the same old conversations with different students.

I had an epiphany last week and it kind of took me by surprise: my students will always be in the same age group every year I teach. It doesn't matter if I continue to mature or get old, they will still be the same. That's kind of discouraging.  I can't just one day decide I'm sick of having the "school is important for your future" conversation or the "life sucks for everyone, you just have to push yourself" conversation. In this age group, everybody thinks their problems are simply the worst.
"No one has problems like me, Mista. You don't know me."
Sometimes, depending on the student, I really just want to respond with:
"I don't want to know you, brah. Can you please just do your homework? Thanks."
I really like this one too:
"Mista, what would you know about problems at home?" 
Nothing. You missed the first day of school where I talked about my own problems so you could you know, relate and shit.

Teenagers. Everything is a god damn competition. Whose life sucks more? Hey kids: this isn't something you should want to win. And even if you do have it the worst, what exactly do you win? No students in our school give sympathy points. They're too busy thinking they still have it the worst. The only option you have is perseverance. Come to school, take care of your shit, do what you have to do and get on your way. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Okay, maybe that was little too much ranting. I understand life is tough, especially if my students have no one at home to truly push them and no examples at home to live by. Sure, there might be a few gems that rise from the ashes of a broken home, but they are outliers. They're the best students I'll have and some of them are going to break the cycle of abuse and poverty. I just can't help but wonder though if the "real" work for me should lie with the students who won't do that. How can I work with them if their attendance is less than 50%? I can't just halt the curriculum until everyone shows up, that's absurd. In the grand scheme of things, Integrated Algebra is just not that important if you're living in a shelter by yourself and working part time to support yourself. Or is it? Okay, it's not.

So for now, I'll stick to having the same old conversations with these kids, if and when they ever show up. Of course, they're teenagers and the last thing they want to hear is someone else telling them what they should or should not do. In that case:
School is terrible for you. I forbid you to go there anymore.