A Weekend of Sexism on Parade

This last weekend provided some very powerful examples of sexism. I, as a man, had the luxury to not fully appreciate the ubiquity of these before. The first was glaring and galling. The second was subtle and pernicious. Both are worthy of some serious soul-searching reflection.

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But before we get to this weekend, some context.

A few years ago, when I heard about Kamila Shamsie’s challenge to make 2018 The Year of Publishing Women, I shared the idea with my wife and co-publisher, Paige, and we jumped at it. Shamsie has since admitted that she proposed the idea as a provocation rather than a realistic suggestion, but it was perfect for us. Our publishing company, Not a Pipe Publishing, was just starting out. Announcing our acceptance of the challenge was a way to attract the attention of some amazing authors. We’d already signed a few, and the men were just as excited about the idea as the women. It wasn’t a completely self-serving business decision; Paige and are both ardent feminists, and we wanted to participate in taking some action to move the publishing industry closer to equality. I believed, at the time, that sexism in publishing was the consequence of unconscious bias and a systemic inclination toward a kind of conservatism that is not ideological but rooted in inertia. Companies publish books based on what is similar to what has sold in the past. Reviewers review books based on which books have been the most discussed in the past. Awards committees give out prizes to books that are getting lots of reviews and which are like those that have won in the past. Bookstores shelves books that are similar to those which have received lots of reviews and won lots of awards in the past. And because women were locked out of publishing for centuries, even though women write more books, buy more books, and read more books than men, all these institutional forces push the industry towards the books that have been more successful going back to Homer and Plato and Aeschylus. Lots of the people involved in this chain of decision-making were probably unaware of the bias or felt incapable of changing it, I thought. If we could just bring attention to it, it would be diminished, at least somewhat.

That’s what I thought.

I was wrong.

In the years since we accepted the challenge, I’ve had my eyes opened to systemic sexism that is far more conscious. I heard a very successful literary agent explain to a group of people that women are more likely to write bad books because they are staying at home and living off their husbands, while the men who write are more serious about their craft because they are risking their role as breadwinners to be writers. I spoke with other agents about the responses they get to rejection letters; women tend to accept rejection, while men sometimes write horrifying replies about how the female agents are stupid bitches who don’t recognize their genius. I don’t get those replies, but I have seen that when I say we’re not accepting submissions, women politely take my card and note when we will be open, then submit when we ask for their manuscripts. Men ignore me and pitch anyway.

Not all men. I know. But always men. Only men.

Over the last few years, I’ve also kept up on the stories of blatant, conscious, vile sexual harassment stunting women’s careers. Harvey Weinstein gets outsized attention for being the most famous and the most disgusting pig, but I’ve watched as some of my literary heroes have been revealed to be piglets to his county fair prize winner. I don’t know if all the stories are true, of course, but I know that it’s vanishingly rare for women to make up stories of abuse. It’s appropriate that our courts maintain the principle of innocent until proven guilty when deciding criminal culpability, but we all get to use our own judgement when deciding who to look up to, and choosing to believe or disbelieve an accuser violates the principle of innocent until proven guilty either way. If we decide he’s innocent until proven guilty, then she’s guilty of being a liar until the case is adjudicated. So if we’re going to convict the accuser of being a liar or convict the accused of being a creep in the court of our own hearts, we can and should use a lower standard of evidence, and we should check ourselves when our admiration of the accused’s work is clouding our judgement. Talented people do horrible things, too, and most victims of sexual assault and harassment never tell anyone. When they do, our skepticism silences more victims. Until we live in a society where victims are so confident they will be believed that fake-victims regularly abuse our trust, we should believe victims. I know that’s scary for men. We worry about being falsely accused. But our fear should not outweigh our concern for victims any more than our admiration of an abusers’ novels or comedy or movies should outweigh the damage they have done to their victims. I believe the accusers, and as more of them have come forward, it’s eroded my ability to believe the bias in publishing is simply unconscious.

I’ve also had to acknowledge my part. I teach high school English. A teaching coach came into my classroom a few years ago and took notes about who I called on while I taught my students. Sure enough, I was calling on the boys the most, and I was never calling on the girls who didn’t raise their hands. Confronted with this information, I got defensive. It wasn’t my fault some of the girls weren’t raising their hands, right? Only, it is. Before that little girl ever started school, she was already getting the message that her opinion wasn’t as valuable. And before that little boy was in school, he was being taught that his opinion was authoritative. And all of us reinforce those beliefs when we keep calling on the boys and not calling on the girls. One by one, the boys look around and learn that they should be raising their hands because that’s what boys do. And even my girls who are raising their hands are looking around and seeing that their female peers are doing so less and less, and they are getting the message they should stop. That’s on me. Part of my job is to break that trend, to call on all the students at times even when they don’t raise their hands, to affirmatively say, “What do you think? I want to know your opinion,” and to implicitly say, ...because your opinion matters to me. Because there’s at least one man in your life who cares about your opinion just as much as he cares about the opinion of the boy next to you. I had to learn to do that, and I’m still working to get more consistent at it. It is just as important or more important a lesson to teach my students, female and male, as any of my language arts curriculum.

And it would be disingenuous for me pretend that my own sexism is limited to neglecting affirmative steps. When I look back at things I’ve done and said in my life, I have to acknowledge harm I’ve caused. I remember, when I was sixteen, I once yelled a gross catcall at a woman just to impress the guys in the car with me. In that moment, I’m sure I scared her, degraded her, and ruined her day, and I didn’t care about her opinion at all. All I cared about was the opinion of the boys in the car with me. And the woman was pushing a stroller! Even if the child in that stroller was too young to understand what I said to her/his mother, I was already laying the foundation that this was something men did to women and something which her/his mother had to endure simply because she was female. And I can never take that back.

Nor can I take back the times when, as a single man, I treated women as objects to be acquired. Nor the way I treated my former girlfriends as though intimacy was something I had to persuade them to relinquish. I have a lot of guilt in this area, and none of it will be expunged by publishing women’s novels or retweeting women’s tweets or encouraging any of my current students, because those actions don’t redress any injury I caused to the individuals I harmed.

But I can listen to my wife and take her advice. She says the best thing we can do is to raise a son who will be better, and she’s right.

So I offer the stories of this weekend to any of you raising boys. Keep these in mind when choosing how to teach them about how they should behave.

I was signing novels at a bookstore on Friday along with some other authors. Most of us were inside the store, but one of my colleagues, a friend and a fellow author published by Not a Pipe Publishing, chose to set her table up just outside the store to encourage passersby to come in and visit the rest of us. I was too far away to hear all of her interaction with a particular guy who came up to her table, but he caught my attention because he was loudly offering to buy one of her books.

Hey, she made a sale, I thought. Good!

No. Not good at all.

He wasn’t offering to buy her books because he was interested in reading them. As I eavesdropped, I realized he was trying to bribe her to leave the signing early and come with him to a concert at a bar down the street. She politely explained that she couldn’t leave early, that she’d already told some young readers to come by and get books, and she was waiting for them. He offered to buy two of her books. Then three. Then he asked how many it would take to get her to leave with him immediately.

And here’s where my privilege really kicked in: Instead of acknowledging what he was doing, I immediately assumed that he must have been a friend of hers who was making some tacky joke. Because nobody could be that crass, right? I was doing mental gymnastics to try to justify his behavior. Why? Because she didn’t sound upset. She kept politely refusing, laughing off his increasing offers and increasingly strident requests that she come with him. Later she told me that she went out of her way to mention her husband, not in a confrontational way, but just as a hint. He said her husband didn’t need to know! He was trying to buy a date (and who knows what else) for the cost of three paperbacks.

And she just took it in stride. She is not only a talented novelist, but an accomplished teacher, a recognized educational leader, and the co-owner of a small business. She had clearly said, “No,” about a dozen times. But he refused to hear her. By the time I was realizing he was not a friend of hers and I should stand up and at least go out there, she’d convinced him to leave by enduring his insulting proposition. She didn’t confront the underlying premise that her romantic attention and probably her body could be purchased for the cost of three paperbacks, not because she accepts that as true, but because it would have extended the interaction, escalated the confrontation, and perhaps become physically unsafe. How many times can anyone calmly endure that without starting to let it seep into their self concept? Even without accepting that she was worth about 45 bucks, she had at least accepted that a man could treat her as though she was worth 45 bucks without jumping out of her chair and kicking him in the balls. How many more of those interactions would it take to lead her, or someone who was younger, had less of a strong support structure, less of a defined self-concept than this woman has, to start to believe that this kind of interaction is acceptable?

The same day I was contemplating that question, I had the following interaction with an editor our company is hiring to clean up some of our novels. Like our author, this editor is a successful, experienced, and accomplished professional.  She worked for a small press before going to work for a university press, and now she has gone freelance. She was telling me about the transition from the small press to the university press where she edited the work of PhDs. “It took a while for a couple of them to actually trust their work to me. This past December, I edited a piece for publication in a magazine; it needed significant cutting. I took out a lot of wordiness, really tightened it up. The prof thanked me, seemed impressed. ‘I'm good at this,’ I told him.

“I realized after I said it that I had not ever said anything like that before. And I wondered if it was a gendered statement. Women are not expected to go around telling men that they are good at particular tasks.”

I think about this in the context of what the author faced at the signing. She couldn’t say, “Look, I know you want to take me out on a date because I’m good looking, and I might take that as a compliment if you also recognized that I’m an author at a signing, that I have other obligations than your interests, and that my interests outweigh yours right now because I’m good at what I do! Now piss off.” There is an indirect but significant relationship between all the messages women receive that inhibit their ability to articulate their own worth and the way that they are conditioned to endure diminishing treatment from men.

On the same weekend I was confronted with both these examples (at the same freakin’ time!) one of my former students posted a question to her page on Facebook. “Do you think women or men are more oppressed? It’d be nice if you’d elaborate too!”

I hopped in: “Well, women get paid less for doing the same work, have to work harder to be taken seriously, and when they do achieve the same levels of authority as men, they are disparaged for it. Men are oppressed by sexist ideas of what men are supposed to be, but not nearly the same way women are oppressed by ideas about what women are supposed to be. And when it comes to romance, Margaret Atwood summed it up well: Men fear that women will reject them. Women fear that men will kill them.”

A woman replied: “I believe white men are blamed for everything that's bad, so they may be more oppressed. Women have more choices available to them and generally have more control in relationships and family life.”

This is so demonstrably wrong that it’s absurd, and I wanted to scream. It proves what Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi wrote: “Women are the victims of this patriarchal culture, but they are also its carriers. Let us keep in mind that every oppressive man was raised in the confines of his mother's home.” And yet, while it may or may not be helpful for a man to ask men to notice the patriarchy, I don’t think it would be that useful for me to try to mansplain the concept of the patriarchy to a woman, so I refrained.

One of those white men she thought was blamed for everything, another former student of mine, did reply, and he seemed comfortable with that notion, though he may have just been trying to be polite. He wrote about how both men and women are oppressed in different ways. That was more politeness than I could bear.

“You're right,” I told my peace-making white male former student, “it's not the same. But we should also watch out for false equivalence. The two kinds of oppression are different. Toxic masculinity twists men into all kinds of pretzels we don't want to be in in attempts to be ‘manly,’ sometimes with very serious consequences. There's no way to measure, but my guess is that men are pressured, culturally, into riskier behaviors than they would choose otherwise on an order that leads to lots of unnecessary deaths. Heck, I once watched a guy trying to impress some girls dive head first into some shallow water. He ended up scratching a lot of his face and chest off, but it could have been a lot worse. And why? Because he thought they would be impressed. And when you look at the mass shooting in Norway a few years ago and the one at Virginia Tech, both shooters were responding to rejection by women and the feeling that they, as men, weren't being as respected as they felt they deserved from women. That's toxic masculinity at its most poisonous. But even then, we need to acknowledge that it's a lot worse for women. Imagine if you were sitting in a college classroom and every single person in there was saying, ‘White men are all evil, and we hate you for being one of them!’ And it hurt your feelings and you got up and left. That would be a bad experience, it would be wrong, it would be unfair, and it certainly qualifies as oppression of a kind. And at the same time that you could be going through that, 100 times as many (a thousand, 10 thousand?) women are being beaten and raped by their partners, while the number of men being beaten and raped by female partners is vanishingly small. Both oppressed? Sure. But every time a white man complains about how hard it is to be blamed for things other white men have done, I cringe. They don't sound like they are pointing out a real injustice. By creating a false equivalence, they reinforce the idea that they don't get it. It's like meeting someone who just became a paraplegic and saying you feel like you've both suffered because you stubbed your toe once. Yeah, stubbing your toe hurts. But to all my fellow white guys out there, c'mon, dudes! Read the room!”

But that’s wrong, too, not in substance but in approach. It doesn’t help to tell butthurt cis straight white men of means to stop whining about the fact that people are finally waking up to centuries of white male oppression and it makes them uncomfortable to hear about it. No one likes to be told that the thing that hurts them isn’t a big deal. That’s why I want to offer these examples, not because I’ve figured out their full implications, but because I think the only way people, men especially, are going to look beyond their own fear of the loss of cultural dominance is to provide very concrete examples of mistreatment of others that we can avoid. Maybe we can start with refraining from treating an author like she can be bought and eventually move all the way to recognizing that an editor is a lot more talented and qualified than she feels capable of admitting.

And if you, like me, have a son, have this conversation very directly. Tell him that women put up with a lot of stuff that we don’t have to. Tell him it’s not fair. Tell him that putting up with mistreatment for long enough leads anyone to start to think it’s normal and they deserve it. Tell your son to recognize that and challenge it. Tell your son that he can’t just stop at fair but needs to push on through to equal, and a lot of times that means working for a degree of equality a woman doesn’t feel comfortable demanding. And that goes for a Person of Color, and LGBTQIA person, a person from a minority religion, an immigrant, a differently-abled person, a person who grew up in poverty or an abusive household, or anyone else who has been taught they they don’t deserve equality.

And you might want to mention to your son that you’re still learning. My son is well aware that I don’t have it all figured out (he knows I don’t have much of anything figured out). I hope that makes him feel more comfortable growing up to be a man who doesn’t think he has all the answers, either.

 









 

Easter 2018

For my friend Lola White who is sick (and tired) on Easter. 

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Once upon a time, in a medium-sized city called Jerusalem that seemed to be constantly occupied by people who wanted to oppress its residents, the government killed a local prophet who had been spreading some really radical anti-capitalist, pacifist, feminist messages that scared the shit out of them.

After he was buried in a make-shift mausoleum and his male followers ran for the hills, the women who clearly loved him the most came to honor him and clean up his body. When they got there, the stone had been rolled away, and an angel was chilling in the cave.

“Where’s Jesus’ body?” they asked him.

“It’s cool that you came to see him, but homie took off. Remember how he could make all those predictions about the future that kept coming true? Well, when he came back from the dead, he looked two thousand years into the future and got super-pissed. So he called up his pops and said, ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ which is a reference y’all won’t get for a couple millenia, and then God sent him to a country on the other side of the world.”

Mary Magdalene made her hand flat, stared at it, and then flipped it over. “The other side?”

“Nah. The world is round. Like a ball. The Greeks have already proved that. But some of y’all are still going to be saying it’s flat in two thousand years. That was one of the things Jesus was pissed about, now that you mention it. Be glad he took off. He really was resurrected on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Consider yourselves lucky that he split.”

 

Jesus teleported into a crowd coming out of a megachurch on Easter morning in 2018. They had just been singing a bunch of happy songs, so they were exceptionally patient with the clearly mentally disturbed man wearing a sheet with blood all over it.

“Okay, dipshits, I have some things to say, and then I’m ascending to heaven to chill with my dad. So listen up!”

“I see y'all are the majority now. Congratulations. Quit pretending you're an oppressed minority. Not only is it embarrassing to you and to me, but it makes you do stupid things out of fear. On second thought, go ahead. Vote for the racist sexual predator who promises to build a wall to keep out people who need protection. Wreck your own country. I don't give a shit. You assholes just killed me.

“In fact, why don’t you just pretend I was totally kidding about that ‘Blessed are the poor’ line. And that ‘Take all you have and give it to the poor.’ Fuck those guys, am-I-right? I can tell from the way you’re all dressed that you have worked very hard and earned everything that you’ve got, so you’re morally superior to the poor people who didn’t bother to show up today because they are at their third jobs, those lazy bastards. Go full Smaug to your greedy little heart’s content. You dickholes crucified me, so taking foodstamps from children will be small potatoes to you pricks.

“While you’re at it, why don’t you keep on throwing more people in prison than anybody has ever. And applaud the idea of killing more criminals. Old Testament justice, right?” He pointed at the cross on top of their church. “It’s not like killing criminals should give you all pause or anything. Idiots.

“You know what, why don’t you just destroy the whole world. Dad considered it once and then changed his mind. But you can do it if you feel like it. Put the CEOs of the most rapacious oil companies in charge of everything and make the whole planet Dad gave you into an unlivable Venus-Earth hell-hole. Natural consequences, bitches.”

Just then, two police cruisers rolled up. They didn’t have their sirens on, and the officer climbed out slowly, clearly not very concerned. “We got a call from your pastor about a person disturbing the congregation,” one began. Then they saw Jesus.

“Holy shit! Get down on the ground, motherfucker!” they shouted.

Jesus started to raise his hands.

“Gun!” one yelled.

Then they shot him twenty times because he had brown skin.

As he fell, he just had time to say, “Not again.”

Let’s Play Pretend

Let’s play pretend.

Imagine you just got a new job. You’re straight out of school, so you have no experience in the workforce. The company that just hired you has a way of doing business, and you don’t have enough experience to question it. You simply wanted a job, and now you have this one.

Every day you are going to go to a big office complex where a thousand other people work. The person from HR who hires you, and who you will never see again, explains that your responsibility is to watch two movies each day and take a little test about each one. That’s it. That’s your new job.

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But when you new boss shows up and pops in the first movie, it’s Part 3 of a trilogy. All the questions on the quiz require knowledge of the first two movies. You do your best to guess. It’s exhausting. You are not told how well you guessed on the test. The boss pops in the next movies. It’s also Part 3, but of a completely different trilogy you haven’t seen. You take another quiz. You don’t know how you’re doing. You go home.

The next day, the boss pops in another Part 3. Then another.

The next day, the movies are still a Part 3s, but they’re in a foreign languages with subtitles.

The next day they’re in a foreign language with subtitles … that are in a different foreign language.

The next day the movies are still in a foreign language with a different foreign language’s subtitles, but now  the movies are set on fast forward. Now you watch three of them, all still Part 3s of trilogies you haven’t seen. You take three quizzes that you don’t understand.

How many days would it take before you’d start to put your head down, or zone out, or look at your phone during the movies?

“Um, excuse me,” you ask your boss one day. “Could I maybe see Part 1 this time so I do better on the quiz?”

“Sorry,” she says. “I know this is a difficult job you have, but I’m not allowed to let you do anything else. The folks at corporate headquarters decided this was the best way.”

“But what good does it do them to make me do it this way?” you ask.

“Oh, trust me, I sent them a thousand memos about that. I’ve emails members of the company’s board. I even called the CEO. He said he supported me and told me to tell you he cares about you, too, but this is all we’re allowed to do.”

Then she hits play, and you start watching another movie. Part 3. In a foreign language. With foreign subtitles. On fast forward.

You keep working there. You are so depressed that when you get home, you just lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling. It’s amazing that you even get up and go to work each day. At work, you’re tempted to punch somebody in the break room just to feel … anything.

Regardless of your attentiveness, payday rolls around. You were never told how much you would be paid. You work up the courage to ask your new boss. She says, “Oh, didn’t HR mention this? You get paid in a lump sum in 13 years, but only if you do well enough on the quizes.”

What would you do? How many of you would want to quit?

“Also,” the boss explains, “you aren’t allowed to quit for 11 years. Then you can choose to quit, but if you do, you won’t get paid anything. It will be like you were never here. Actually, it will be worse than that, because you’ll get nothing and I’ll get a pay cut.”

Crazy, right?

 

This is what school FEELS like to a student who is a couple years behind. Maybe he came into the school behind due to poverty. Maybe he was neglected or abused at home. Maybe his parents are great, but they’re working three jobs to make ends meet and didn’t have the means and time and skills to read to him and nurture him get him fully prepared. And English isn’t his first language. And he has a learning disability. If he can keep his phone in his pocket, keep his head off the desk, and guess well enough on the state tests, in thirteen years he gets a diploma, and the school isn’t punished for having a high dropout rate.

So what would you want if you had that job? My guess? You’d want the boss to start popping in Part 1 instead of Part 3. You’d want to get to watch the movie a couple times before taking a quiz on it, if you didn’t feel like you understood it the first time. You’d want it to be in your own language until you learned enough of another one that you could at least read the subtitles, and you’d want to have those subtitles in that new language kept there until you had mastered that language. You’d want the movie to be slowed down. You would want a boss who cared about you enough to change your working conditions. You might even need the healthcare plan to include mental health coverage to deal with your depression. And you’d want to feel rewarded regularly and not just with a ceremony and a certificate at the end.

In educational-ese, you want ESL services, Special Ed. services, school counselors, differentiated instruction, and a teacher who views students through a trauma-informed lens with the autonomy to teach students at their level rather than a level mandated by someone who doesn’t know anything about individual students. That’s what you would want for yourself, so certainly it’s what you want for your community’s kids.

I’m lucky to work in a school that has ESL services, SpEd services, counselors, differentiation, and which is in the process of becoming a trauma informed school. I’m glad that we care about how our students feel and not just the scores they get on a test or the number of them that hold on until graduation. It’s not like that at every school. I’m lucky. But I still need to remember that the kid in my classroom who is putting her head down or pulling out her cellphone or simply not showing up each day might not be doing those things out of a lack of respect for me or a lack of motivation. In fact, if I’m doing my job right and providing her with interesting and challenging lessons, and if she’s still doing one or all of those things, instead of getting angry with her, I need to figure out how to meet her where she’s at so she can feel successful on a regular basis. As one of my colleagues, Nikki Hansen, said to me today, “Sometimes you have to say, ‘The needs of the group and the lesson are not going to merge.’” That’s true for the whole class, and it’s also true for the individual student. Sometimes the needs of the kid and the needs of the lesson aren’t going to merge, and I need to change what I’m doing for the sake of the kid, not ignore the kid for the sake of the lesson.

Sounds like an easy fix, right? If so, you’ve never taught 150 kids a day.

 

So this is how you can help:

When you hear politicians or talking heads pretending they support teachers and students but then cutting the very things you would want if you were that employee at that imaginary company, call them on it.

When you hear them talk about test scores and drop out rates, ask them what services they want to provide to help those students.

When those politicians say they want to give me a gun but also want to shorten the school year and increase the size of classes, point out that they are not making kids safe; kids are safer in school than they are at home, so shortening the school year is a safety issue, and the absolute best way to reduce the number of school shootings is to reduce class sizes and train teachers in trauma informed  approaches so that we spot and connect with that scared, lonely, angry kid before he becomes a mass shooter. That’s how we keep our kids safe. Not by shooting that kid and the kids on the other side of the drywall behind him.

And when some billionaires want to cut their own taxes at the expense of kids and promise to kick a little bit of that tax cut down to you if you’ll agree to decimate your local school, point out that this is a really bad deal for everyone but them. Increased investments in schools are just good math. Would you rather pay a little less for a kid’s education now and then pay for that kid’s drug problem because he was so depressed he decided to self-medicate? Or worse, pay $1000 less now for his education each year and pay $80,000 a year for his stay in a for-profit prison? (Hint: The billionaire wants you to take that deal. He holds shares in that for-profit prison.)  Or would you rather pay a little more in taxes now so that kid gets a good job and can pay that back himself? Maybe he’ll be the police officer who protects your house. Maybe he’ll be the plumber who comes to your rescue when the pipes freeze on Christmas day. Maybe he’ll be the nurse who lifts you out of bed and gets you to the toilet when you’re in a nursing home. Yes, maybe that very kid who was behind in school and didn’t speak English and had a learning disability and a history of abuse will become the oncologist who removes the cancer that was going to kill your spouse. It is possible. With the right support, kids can overcome just about anything. Make sure the people you vote for are aware you see through their talking points and want to support that kid.

Oh, and one more thing: Sometimes my lessons aren’t Citizen Kane or The Godfather or Black Panther. There are a lot of days when my lessons are The Godfather 3, or Transformers 3, or Jaws 3, and I admit I’ve had some that turned out to be Pluto Nash and Ishtar and Planet Nine from Outer Space. Making a major motion picture that everybody likes is really hard, and teaching a lesson that works for every kid is a little bit harder. So give your kid’s teacher some grace and the same supports you would want for yourself.


 

Open Letter From A Teacher Who May Take A Bullet For Your Child

Hey America, I’ve been reading your response to the latest school shooting, and I think we need to have a little talk.

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There's always a pivot away from talking about guns. The pivot is pushed by the NRA, broadcast by right-wing media, and parroted by my conservative friends as though it was their opinion before they were told to say it by Fox News. It used to be "Mental Health." But that is hard for the NRA since the Republicans they bribe every election cut mental health funding and repealed an Obama rule so that it would be easier for the mentally ill to get guns. Plus, the mentally ill commit fewer gun crimes than those who are undiagnosed among us, so that was always a red herring anyway. It stigmatizes mental illness to distract from an unrelated problem, and people are starting to realize that's even worse than "thoughts and prayers."

One of the new anti-regulation favorites is that teachers like me should carry guns in school. I can’t stress enough how shockingly ignorant this idea is, both as a teacher and a gun owner. My job is to teach your kids, America. To do that, I need them to be thinking about how to analyse literature or organize an essay. I need them focused on my lessons and feeling safe in my room. And I need to be thinking about whether they are putting that comma in the right place, not whether or not they might reach for the gun in my holster. More guns do not lead to more safety. If that were the case, with 300 million guns in this country, we would be the safest place in the world. But anybody who knows anything about guns knows they shouldn’t not make us feel safe. They should make us hyper-vigilant because guns are dangerous. Police officers have to be constantly aware of the danger posed by their own firearms, and they are also keenly aware that their guns make people feel nervous. Any cop worth her salt would tell you that loading up a room full of guns would not, and should not, lead to a more casual learning atmosphere. Know who wants you to believe that putting guns in every classroom would help? The people who would sell those guns. Please don’t make my classroom into your warzone in order to prop up the gun industry, America. That “solution” is just stupidity.

After the most recent school shooting, I’m seeing a lot of people repeating a new talking point: There's "moral decay" in this country. I'm guessing they want us to think the increase in mass casualty events would be remedied by people going to church more or voting for the Republican party. Yeah, the party that pushed for a pedophile to be one of their Senators and chose a guy who ran on stoking racial fear and who has a history of cheating on his wives and committing sexual assault to be their candidate for President. You know, return to Republican family values.

Guess what, America? This time, the NRA talking point is right. We do have "moral decay." If we hear about 17 people dying in a school, and many people's immediate reaction is to look for any way to argue to keep more guns in more people's hands, we do have a moral problem.

Jefferson's formulation "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is in that order for a reason. If you think your liberty to own a gun trumps someone else's right to welcome their living child home from school at the end of the day, you have moral rot in your core that you need to confront, America. You have a moral cancer, and it's not caused by declining church attendance or single parent families. It's caused by a political ideology that says me, me, me. My gun. My tax cut. My wall. It says your pursuit of happiness is not my problem. Your liberty is not my problem. And now it's saying your life is not my problem.

This is going to be an uncomfortable conversation, America. Americans fear partisanship. No matter how tribal we are when we vote, we don't want to admit we have the same fervor when it comes to our parties as we do when it comes to our sports teams. But parties stand for policies. They have platforms. So let's stop pretending. No political party is perfect. But in the same way you would root for your sports team even if they lose, even year after year, but wouldn't root for them if they started shooting people on the field, you should have core beliefs that you can honor in the voting booth and speak about publicly when one party acts out your values, but you need lines that can't be crossed. When one party loses its way, say so. It’s time to say so, America.

Conservatism is not the problem. As a Progressive, I recognize the value of conservatism. We need people who are progressive to push this nation forward, and we need people who are conservative to pump the brakes and get us back on track when we're off course. But the current Republican party is not conservative in any way. They are barrelling ahead so fast the Democrats have become the ones saying, "Slow down!" The Democrats are not progressive enough for us Progressives, but that's because they are trying to be the bulwark against a Republican onslaught of nativism, misogyny, bigotry, and greed motivated, at its root, by a dogmatic adherence to an Ayn Rand Objectivist ethos that selfishness is virtue. Well, we're watching the effects. This ethos may or may not produce this school shooting or the next one. Is a school shooter motivated by the White Supremacist website that told him to kill, or the Jihadist Imam who told him to kill, or the toxic masculinity that tells him a girl doesn’t have a right to say no when he asks her out on a date? We may never know what goes on in the minds of these shooters. But the current Republican ethos does produce our country's response to this shooting, and to the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that. It tells people to watch these horrors and immediately scramble to protect their guns rather than protecting children. It tells them that particular knee-jerk response is okay, that they can still look themselves in the mirror and think of themselves as good people because they are protecting the American way of life from dangerous people of color, from Sharia law, from some Stalinist dystopia which started with a soda tax. It tells them they are right to be selfish.

It's not easy to tell someone they are wrong. It's uncomfortable. They will be offended. They will be defensive. And most of the time, they won't come around. Trust me, America, no matter how many times I say that I have been wrong before, that I’m sure I’m wrong about things now, that it’s okay to admit when we’re wrong, that I will still love and accept them no matter what, some people will never back down. It’s tempting to give up, to throw up one’s hands. But I refuse to give up on my country. I keep believing Americans will stand up and say, “We are a community, a group of people who need to live together. An ideology that puts personal freedom to harm the country above the right of other Americans to live, an ideology of selfishness, is unacceptable.” Whether that ideology of selfishness manifests as taking away someone else’s healthcare so some people can be multi-multi-billionaires instead of just billionaires, or making sure more Americans die in forest fires and floods and hurricanes so some people can pump more shale oil, or sacrificing someone else’s child in school so others can hold on tighter to their AR-15s, this ideology is consistent and consistently toxic to living with other people in a community. It’s unpatriotic. It’s wrong. And people who put their own favorite liberties before their neighbors’ lives are not “good.” They’re only slightly more decent than Trump’s “very fine people” who marched through an American city chanting Nazi slogans. Reasonable people can have legitimate disagreements about how we’re going to live together. But when someone crosses the line to an inherently anti-social ideology, this is not an area where we can simply agree to disagree. In this case, agreeing to disagree is like telling your doctor that the cancer in your lung or testicle or breast is balanced out by the healthy cells in the other lung or testicle or breast, so you’ll let the cancer and healthy cells just hang out together and agree to disagree about whether you should live. The current Republican ideology is literally weaponized selfishness, and that is cancer to a community.

The Republican Party is not irredeemable, just as my Republican friends on Facebook are not irredeemable. But the party is wrong, and so are they. It can come back and be a valuable part of American policy making and public discourse after all the people who have signed on to this ideology of weaponized selfishness are removed from office. The next generation of Republicans will see their predecessors scuttle off to be high paid lobbyists for their favorite donors, that next generation will read the political tea leaves, and they’ll come back, maybe with a new name, as a party that wants to figure out how to offer constructive conservative responses which seek to help all Americans, people of color, immigrants, women, the LGBTQI, and our children in our schools. But the current generation, the ones who just shot down a clean DACA bill because they wanted more restrictions on legal immigration to keep America whiter, the ones who want to take away people’s healthcare coverage and Social Security and Unemployment/Disability Insurance and literally take food away from children in order to teach people to stop being sick or old or poor, they all need to go. The ones who want to make sure that the most dangerous mass shooters can have the easiest access to guns in order to make it equally convenient for responsible gun owner who are begging, begging, begging for them to make it more difficult for us, they need to all be voted out. I am a responsible gun owner. Please, America, make me have a safe for my guns (I have a safe). Make me take a safety class (I have, but Hell, I’ll take another). If I am ever accused of stalking or assaulting someone, don’t wait until I am convicted; take my guns away the moment I’m arrested, and don’t give them back until I’m found not guilty. And America, since we have all agreed that it’s okay for you to prevent me from having a nuclear weapon so I’m obviously not keeping guns in order to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. Military, if you decide that some of my guns are not the kinds that private citizens can have unless they are in their state’s reserves (you know, “a well regulated Militia” where people wear uniforms and follow the orders of an elected civilian official) you can absolutely take those kinds of guns away from me. I used to be duped by that rationale, that the Second Amendment was about citizens having the means to overthrow an oppressive government. That was before I learned enough about U.S. history to recognize that our Founding Fathers were far more concerned about slave revolts than preserving their means to plot a coup against some future tyrant. I was wrong. See how easy that is, America? I was wrong. So here’s the thing, America: You can place some other restrictions on me and still be well within the limits of the Second Amendment, or you can even make a new Constitutional Amendment that repeals or replaces the second, and I even if I do not like it, I will obey it. Know why? Because I like Americans more than my guns. It is more important that I live in community with the people around me than that I get to have my way all the time.

So, America, please reflect on your reaction to this latest school shooting. And the last one. And the next. Maybe you cried alone and in the dark after you heard the news, America. Maybe you prayed. And maybe those expressions brought you some personal comfort. Your gods, if they are listening at all, have clearly decided to wait for the last 18 years since Columbine for you to get off your ass and do something. At this point, they are probably a little miffed when you bring them into it, since it just makes them look impotent. But by all means, America, pray if it makes you feel better. I just want you to think about what you say when you come back to the public square, on Facebook or Twitter or TV or your local newspaper. Those records are going to be there for a long time, America. History will be able to see if your first reaction was to barf up the latest lines from the gun industry or, worse, to bark out, “Screw your kids. Get your hands off my guns!”

Trust me on this. I’m a teacher. I’m the one who will run towards the shooter while your children run away, America. I’m not allowed to tell my students what their politics should be, and I take that seriously. But I do teach them how to read between the lines. That’s my job. They are getting pretty good at it, I’m proud to say. They can tell that your obligatory expressions of grief before you veer off into the next anti-gun-regulation talking point are just fluff. They hear you loud and clear. They know you are saying you don’t care about their lives as much as your guns, America. They get it. They’ll remember. This will haunt them.

Well, it will haunt them if they survive past Graduation Day.

A Devastating Hurricane: Donald Trump’s State of the Union Speech

A poem by President Donald Trump

(merely excerpted, edited, and arranged by Benjamin Gorman)

 

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A people asked their President for a status update.

     He said,

          (Not shitting you. All his words.)

     he said,


 

“A new tide of optimism was already sweeping across our land.

                                                                  A devastating hurricane.

 

                            Hail of gunfire

                             took a bullet, almost died

                                 a safe, strong, and proud America

                       bombs in civilian hospitals

           detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay

             slashing,

                      old, broken

                                  cruel

                                        disastrous

                                                                  A devastating hurricane.

 

                     Walls of flame

           the graves of our great heroes

want to be where the action is

         precious girls were brutally murdered

                                                          murder

                                                                  A devastating hurricane.

 

                        A pregnant, homeless woman preparing to inject heroin

                  severely wounded by an explosion

            inserted a tube to reopen an airway

    horribly injured and on the verge of death

               a train ran over his limbs

                     endured multiple amputations

                        ate dirt, permanently stunting their own growth

Building a great wall

                                                        tortured

                                       traveled thousands of miles on crutches.

                                                                  A devastating hurricane.

 

                                                        Extinguish

                                 from the face of the Earth

           American heart, American hands, and American grit

         their corrupt dictatorship

       depraved character

          menace that threatens our world

                a special place called America

                          tortured to death

                             always serve American interests

                                  that is what Americans have always stood for,

                        always strived for, and always done

                                                                  A devastating hurricane.

 

              Depraved character

                          corrupt dictatorship

                               what the regime fears the most — the truth.

                                                Thank you,

                                         and God bless

                                       America.”

A whole lot of press for #TheYearOfPublishingWomen all in one day!

Yesterday, before I knew an article had appeared in the Oregonian about our publishing company, I got an email from a reporter, Madeline Hall, at KXL-FM 101 in Portland, asking me to call her about an interview. Foolishly, I thought I was calling to schedule an interview (maybe with Mikko Azul whose novel hit shelves today). I waited until the end of the school day. Then I called.


"Okay," she said, "just repeat your name and title so I can check the levels here." 


And that was it! We were doing the interview! It was on the radio tomorrow repeating during their morning show from 5 to 9. Luckily, she edited out all my stumbling and fumbling. 

Later yesterday evening, one of Not a Pipe Publishing's authors, Kate Ristau, texted to let me know the article from the Oregonian had been picked up by Bustle! 

Check out the articles and the sound files of the interview here

Why I Feel Great Right Now: A Tiny Bit of Writing Advice

I'm a writer, dammit.jpg

I feel great right now. Big deal, right? That's my business, so why should it concern you? If you're a writer or involved in any other creative pursuit, maybe you'll find this helpful.

Today I went to a day-long meeting with a team of excellent educators who are working to make our high school a trauma informed school. It would take a while to explain what that means, and it's largely beside the point, but one of the activities involved identifying our own stress level and coming up with strategies to cope when we are getting near breaking. It will come as no surprise to anyone that one of my strategies is to write. It calms me, it helps me focus, and, as I was reminded tonight, it gives me a charge of positive energy.

I left the meeting and slipped back into stress mode. I have far too much on my plate, something I'm sure many of you can identify with. I wear too many hats. Besides being a teacher, a job that is always more than full time when done properly, I also am the co-publisher of a small publishing company. We may have bit off more than we can chew, committing to publish nine novels in a single year. We accepted author Kamila Shamsie's challenge to make 2018 "The Year of Publishing Women," and we got so many great submissions by incredibly talented authors that I may have said yes to too many. We'll see if we can pull it off. In the same way I feel a constant pressure to be a better teacher for my students, I also feel an obligation to do right by these authors. Beyond the creation of the books themselves, there's the marketing, and that is a task so daunting it can become paralyzing. I wear other hats, too. I'm very involved in my union, serving on the state board and working as an activist to promote public education in every way I can. The work is really important to me, and I can't say no when I think there's something I can do to help. Oh, yeah, I'm also a dad and a husband who isn't around for my son and wife nearly as much as I'd like.

So I'm carrying around all this stress, and I'm thinking about the coping strategies I articulated earlier in the day but which I do not employ enough, and then, out of the blue, I thought of a line for the next novel I'm writing. Just a phrase, not even a whole sentence. I used to carry around writing implements everywhere for just such an occasion, but now I can just reach into my pocket and connect to the whole world, so I grabbed my notebook-in-the-cloud and started jotting down some notes. Bam! Next thing you know, I've got 1000 words cranked out and edited twice. More importantly, they are mischievous words that make me even more excited to finish the book and put it in people's hands. You know that feeling you get in between playing some practical joke on a friend and the moment when they discover it? That eager and impish anticipation? That's how I feel about this book now. The premise itself may be too big for my powers as a writer. I may fail. I'm learning to not only accept that but aim for it. I want to write something so difficult that I might not be able to pull it off. But this, at least, will be fun as hell to write.

And that brings me to my advice to other writers and creators out there: Fight for the time. Yes, all those other items on the to-do list are still there, looming, and if I think of them I can feel the stress pressing in on my body. But you know what? I'm a writer, dammit. This is one of my hats, just as much a product of my values as my work for my students and my fellow authors and the public school system. And I don't need to feel guilty about the fact that it's also a lot of fun. I can imagine the looks on people's faces as they read my next book. I can justify the time by reminding myself I'm working for my readers, and they deserve something from me, too. But I can ease my stress by reminding myself that I don't need to do this out of obligation to anyone.

I'm a writer. It feels great to acknowledge that. And it feels good to admit it feels great. 

 

More Evidence that the World is Shrinking While Growing More Absurd

I'm signed up to receive Google Alerts for the titles of all my books so that I can immediately share good reviews and weep at bad ones. Today Google informed me that one of my books, Corporate High School, was listed on an educational website. I thought, "That's cool. Maybe it's another classroom where they're teaching the text." I clicked on the link.

It turned out, it's a website where people go to buy plagiarized term papers. In an effort to see if they actually carried papers already written about Corporate High School, I entered my name and email address. I didn't hide my identity at all; anyone looking at my listing would see the same name as the the one on the cover of the book. Within minutes, I had emails from dozens of people offering to write papers on the book for me. I realized I didn't want to be associated with a company that provides this type of "educational services" and unsubscribed.

One intrepid woman grabbed my email off the list before I disappeared and sent me a direct email outside the company's system (something the company would probably frown on, so I won't reveal her full name). I responded very carefully.

"I'm curious," I wrote. "Have you read the novel Corporate High School?"

"Hi Benjamin," she replied. "Yes i[sic] once did in a public library. I got a preview of it here." And she sent me a link to the listing for the novel on Goodreads.

It’s possible she has read the book, but I was skeptical. I wrote, "That's wonderful! What public library carries it?"

"Its[sic] located in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. However, the library is currently closed for renovations upto[sic] early next month."

 Ann could have been talking about the McMillan Library in Nairobi. Turns out it is currently closed for renovations. Perhaps there's a copy of  Corporate High School  inside?

Ann could have been talking about the McMillan Library in Nairobi. Turns out it is currently closed for renovations. Perhaps there's a copy of Corporate High School inside?

Again, this is possible, but I think it's highly unlikely. It seems especially convenient that the library is currently closed. I didn't see a reason to try to call her out on it, though, since I don't actually want to spend a bunch of money to get an essay about the book. I didn't reply.

She reached out again. "Do you have a softcopy of the book?"

I decided to break the news to her as gently as I could. "I have hardcover and paperback copies ...because I'm the author of the book. I received a note from Google Alerts saying there was a reference to the book. I am not interested in a term paper about the book, but I'm glad to hear it is being read. Thank you for brightening my day!"

She was very pleasant about it, and we're now conversing about what a wonderful city Nairobi is, and how I should look her up when I come to visit someday.

But I can't get over how ridiculous the Internet has made this tiny world we live in. There are 9,183 miles between Independence, Oregon, where I live, and Nairobi, Kenya, where my new friend lives. (For point of reference, the circumference of the Earth at the equator is only 24,901 miles, so Ann is almost the full 12450.5 miles to the exact opposite side.)  Thanks to a Google Alert and some curiosity, she was able to offer to help a student cheat by providing that student with a paper about a young adult novel he hadn’t read (and which, I suspect, she has not read either), a paper he would turn in to his teacher. Only she was offering that paper to the author of that novel who is also a teacher! I should feel doubly cheated (triply? quadruply?), but I can’t. It’s just too perfectly bizarre.

I rarely write critical book reviews. I'm making an exception for Lauren Kate's Fallen

I recently assigned my 9th grade students to start Goodreads accounts and study reviews so they could write their own reviews of the novels they read in my class. When students friended me, they noticed that almost all my reviews are somewhere between positive and glowing. That’s not because I only read great books or love everything that I read, I explained. As an author, I sometimes run into my fellow authors, even some big name celebs, at various conferences and tradeshows, and I would feel awkward if I thought the person had read, or someday would read, a review where I trashed his/her work. Not all authors make this choice. I respect my fellow authors who have decided that their brutal honesty is a part of the way they build trust with their readers. I think that’s a reasonable calculation to make and an honorable position to take. I’m just too much of a people-pleaser for that, so I mostly limit my criticisms to writers who are dead. I kick them when they’re down. Way down. 

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I’m making an exception for Lauren Kate’s Fallen. If I ran into her at some writers’ event, I wouldn’t feel badly about this critique. In fact, I’d love to get to talk with her about it and hear her thoughts. My criticism isn’t going to hurt her sales at all. She’s done just fine, thank you very much. But as a co-publisher of an indie press, if someone presented this book to me with an absolute guarantee that it would have Ms. Kate’s sales, I would still turn it down. I found this book profoundly, disturbingly anti-feminist. Anyone considering reading this book should view it through that lens and pay close attention to the messages this novel is sending to the young women and young men who read it. I don’t want to dissuade anyone from checking it out, but please keep that framing in mind if you choose to do so.

The book is not badly written. There are some truly beautiful turns of phrase, and Lauren Kate has a great ability to give each character a unique voice. I liked most of the characters and was able to endure the obligatory extended descriptions of the love interests’ bodies. That’s not my thing, but I try not to yuck on anybody’s yum. That’s not the problem with this book. 

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that this is about a young woman who has been living multiple lifetimes, always coming back to the angel who loves her. That’s in the book’s description. Romance isn’t my bailiwick, but I picked this up because my students are reading it. And that’s precisely why I feel compelled to write about it. As a teacher and a father and a feminist, and I don't think this book is good for my students or my own son. I'm not a prude. I'm not offended by the hints of sexuality. I'm bothered by the way the romance plays out. Although it's justified by the plot, the whole conceit seems designed from the first chapter to be forcing together the female protagonist, Lucinda, and one of the male love interests, Daniel, who keeps negging her. Though we later learn why, the fact that she is drawn to this young man who treats her so horribly is a terrible lesson for both young women and young men. None of my female students should be told that they should tolerate this kind of disdainful treatment, and none of my male students should be told that women should find it appealing. At one point Lucinda even admiringly quotes a line from Roman Holiday: "There was a man. He was so mean to me. It was wonderful." No, it’s not. This is not attractive or mysterious or alluring behavior, and it shouldn’t be framed as acceptable. Even when we learn why he’s been trying to push her away, there’s no recognition that women shouldn’t put up with crappy treatment from men. We’re told that he feels agony because he has to try to push her away. We're supposed to feel sorry for him because of his negging.  What we are not told is that he feels any guilt about his treatment of her. Because his motivation is to save her by driving her away, we’re supposed to believe this absolves him of guilt for his generally cold, sometimes rude, and sometimes downright cruel treatment of her. The plot may tell us that she overcomes this because of the supernatural nature of the relationship, but we're also explicitly told that it’s because she just loves him so much. Stop and think about that. This is a romanticization of a domestic abuse victim’s mentality, that she just loves him so much that she’s drawn to him regardless of his horrible treatment of her. 

I know this phenomenon is far from unique to Kate’s Fallen. It’s a variation on Pride and Prejudice and exists in a lot of other romance literature. But at least in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has the dignity to be offended by Mr. Darcy’s cold indifference and doesn’t come around until she learns about his truly admirable qualities. In Fallen, Lucinda loves Daniel in spite of his treatment of her long before she realizes there’s anything more to him than a pretty boy who is mean to her. 

I know this is believable because it happens in the real world. I also know that part of the reason it happens in the real world is that our culture is in constant conversation with our art. Let’s stop romanticizing this behavior in our art to justify it in our world. Guys who treat girls the way Daniel treats Lucinda are not angels trying to save their eternal loves from damnation. They’re just jerks who will get more abusive with time and cultural permission. If we’ve learned anything in 2017, it’s that we need to stop making jerks into heroes and start acknowledging that too many of our heroes are just jerks.