Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What? It's not all single parents' fault after all?

Strangely enough, after my forays around the DfES Father's Direct site, I was going to write another post in defence of single mothers today, before I nearly choked on my Ryvitas to see that our glorious leader beat me to it.

Not that I'm falling for it, but I just have to post some of his words here:
"..he said anti-social problems were not limited to single parent families."

And again...
"..he said anti-social problems were not limited to single parent families."


Wait a minute..... *theme to Love Story jars to a screeching halt* ....

He didn't mention the majority of single parent families who don't exhibit anti-social behaviour, did he?

And look, he still wants us to dump our babies on the Surestart strangers and get straight out to work:
"He said it was important to support lone parents who wanted to get back into work and said Labour policies such as Sure Start and tax credits had benefited all types of families.

- although we do get the 'who wanted to..' proviso.



What does he want? ^^

Monday, February 26, 2007

Teach? Moi?

Lyddie: Where does the sun go at night time?

Me: Ooh I know this one... Right. To explain this we need a roundish yellow thing. Yup, that balloon will do.. And a little round blue thing.. A poker die? Well it's kind of square isn't it? Never mind, we'll pretend it's round. And blue.

Me: OK now, you see this little diamond on the die? Pretend that's our whole country. And the die is our whole planet, which goes around the sun once a year, like this.. and turns around itself once a day, like this.

Me: Now. Watch carefully. In the daytime we face the sun, like this, and at night-time we turn away from the sun, which is why it goes dark. Then next day we face it again, so we're in daylight again. See? So you tell me, where did the sun go?

Lyddie: *Looking out of window* Behind a cloud?

Me: Nooo, look. We're pretending the sun is this balloon. Watch again - keep your eye on it as the little diamond goes from day... to night.... And where did the sun go?

Lyddie: Into the sunset?

Me: OK watch the balloon very closely. The balloon is the sun. The diamond turns away from it and where does the sun-balloon go?

Lyddie: It's hiding?

Me: No, look, it hasn't gone anywhere. The balloon is still here, in front of your face, isn't it? It was the diamond on the die that moved, not the balloon.. Oh never mind. I'm not explaining it very well, probably. *Gives up and puts them both down*.

Lyddie: So where does the sun go?

Me: Nowhere really, it's us that's moving away from it. It's not actually moving.

Lyddie: *Looks at floor* Neither are we.

Me: Well....

Lyddie: Let's make some soup.

Me: Yes, let's.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Opinion leaders and natural resources

This lady is an Opinion Leader. That means she "accesses and understands opinion formers, develops innovative, leading-edge solutions, especially in the area of stakeholder dialogue and public involvement, and she writes and broadcasts widely on public opinion, citizen engagement, corporate social responsibility and political polling."

I discovered her existence by following a trail of links starting here, with the BBC news story about "Poor basic skills 'costing firms'". This led me to something called the Leitch Review, which is an independent review of the UK's long term skills needs commissioned by HM Treasury.

Publishing the report, Lord Leitch said:
"In the 19th Century, the UK had the natural resources, the labour force and the inspiration to lead the world into the Industrial Revolution. Today, we are witnessing a different type of revolution. For developed countries that cannot compete on natural resources and low labour costs, success demands a more service-led economy and high value-added industry. In the 21st Century, our natural resource is our people - and their potential is both untapped and vast. Skills are the key to unlocking that potential. The prize for our country will be enormous - higher productivity, the creation of wealth and social justice. Without increased skills, we would condemn ourselves to a lingering decline in competitiveness, diminishing economic growth and a bleaker future for all. The case for action is compelling and urgent. Becoming a world leader on skills will enable the UK to compete with the best in the world. I am optimistic." [My emphasis]

"In the 21st Century, our natural resource is our people.." Like lumps of coal, then, or nuggets of iron to be hewn out of the ground, or forests of trees to be chopped down.
"'Economically valuable skills' must be delivered through a demand-led approach, facilitated by a new culture of learning, and an appetite for improved skills amongst individuals and employers."

It puzzles me how Lord Leitch thinks he can logically demand a "demand-led approach". He seems to be asking the 'natural resource' (-people-) to request more training. But that's not how people work, in my experience. They usually prefer to ascertain their own desires.

.... Don't they?

I picked up a link from the Treasury site to this lecture, by Jenny Watson, Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, entitled: The Unfinished Revolution. Ms Watson's lecture is part of a Smith Institute (which, you may recall, is currently the subject of an investigation by the Charity Commission to examine whether its political ties with Gordon Brown breach the rules governing charitable organisations following a complaint from leading political blogger, Guido Fawkes.) and Fabian Society (which features largely in Gatto's Underground History of American Education,) lecture series on 'Reinvigorating Community'."

Ms Watson's lecture sets out a five point plan "to ensure we can complete the revolution – and ensure that how we design society reflects the way we live." The five points of change are as follows:

1. Better support for families (including continuing to invest in childcare provision);
2. Enabling men and women to make their own choices about family life – who works, who cares for the children ;
3. Modernising public services and ensuring they are designed to meet modern needs ;
4. Safer communities ; and
5. Creating a future where women and men share power.

Cynical me translates these as follows:

1. Funding for and implementation of forced intervention in family life;
2. Changing family law to weaken the position of mothers;
3. Increased spending (and employment) in public services;
4. Increased spending, employment and legislation for police.
5. I can't translate this: the background narrative is too vague for me to work out the basis for it. It was possibly added to give some credence to Ms Watson's position as Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, though I think we'd be naïve to think that was all it might mean.

This last thought led me to the website of the Equal Opportunities Commission, to see if I could glean any reasons as to why they share this Treasury-funded policy-formulating platform with the Smith Institute and the Fabian Society, and to this list of EOC Commissioners and their business interests and connections, which is a real eye-opener and includes:

Global Partners and Associates
Advertising Advisory Committee
Banking Codes Standards Board
Radioactive Waste Management
Lloyds TSB
CBI Equal Opportunities Panel
IPPR Race Equality Taskforce
DfES Childcare Policy
HM Treasury, Public Expenditure dept
10 Downing St.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate for Education
Primary Care Trust, Manchester
British Medical Agency
Dept of Health
Trade Union Council
National Council for One-Parent Families
The Work Foundation
Communication Workers Union
Sector Skills Development Agency
Pension Protection Fund
Fathers Direct
Commission for Social Care Inspection
Opinion Leader Research
The Smart Company
Chime Communications
Green Alliance
Ford Motor Company
BBC Television
Littlewoods PLC
Commission for Racial Equality
National Aids Trust.

The Equal Opportunities Commission sounds so benign on the face of it, doesn't it? The name evokes a caring image of a group that wants everyone to have a fair chance in life. So, (as well as sharing a Treasury-funded policy-formulating platform with the Smith Institute and the Fabian Society,) why do its commissioners need to have their fingers in quite so many pies...?

Back to Deborah Mattinson, EOC Commissioner from March 2002, and founder and joint Chief Executive of Opinion Leader Research, a research and consultation agency. She is also a Non-Executive Director of The Smart Company.

The combined list of clients for Ms Mattinson's two companies is as follows:

The Environment Agency
Department of Health
The South Bank Centre
The Halifax
The Lattice Foundation
Macmillan Cancer Relief
The National Trust
Northern Rock
Zurich Financial Services

- a rogues gallery, you might think. Certainly some of the people in whose vested interests it is to control the deliverance of 'economically valuable skills' through the 'demand-led approach' of the 21st Century's 'natural resource'.

If you ever wonder why some apparently disparate decisions and public opinions seem strangely connected as if the timing is orchestrated to a hidden plan, this might go some way towards an explanation. Opinion leaders are "plugged into the people that really matter," - they are the linking mechanisms of the public and corporate machines. Their job is to tell us what to think.

They really believe we've been successfully dumbed down to the extent that we can't actually decide anything for ourselves any more and need to have our opinions cooked up by their clients and spoon-fed to us through the supposedly impartial BBC and other media.

We don't need that. We don't need their education, their drug industry, their oil industry, their medical industry (I was reading the other day about the productivity of hospitals and health care trusts. What do they produce, exactly?) or their Not-for-profit Organisations. (Of course they make a profit! York Consulting has just been paid £38,582.50 for a piece of research about home education which involved several phone calls and some writing up. Our own Mike Fortune-Wood produced a much more comprehensive version of the same kind of research for £5,000.)

We are being sold a dream, by compulsory purchase order. It's a dream of safe suburban living, in which everything is predictable and nobody has to think. We're all kept nicely busy, conditioned, monitored and emotionally detached from our families and we're taken care of by paternally benevolent organisations who genuinely care for our individual well-being.

In actual fact, the dream is a nightmare. The people in charge do not care: In fact they see us as natural resources, to be farmed by them.

We really need to wake up.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A calling

I've always thought people who had 'a calling' - a passionate need to pursue a particular vocation in life - were some of the luckiest people around. It seems quite rare in our society though: most people seem to spend their lives never knowing what they really want to do or be and a lot of them therefore find themselves engaged in full-time contracted work that they might not be suited to, enjoying very much or doing very well.

It's something we've been chatting about here recently, because the teens are quite often asked what they're going to do. The thing is that they all do all kinds of things already - some of it financially profitable, some of it potentially so and some of it just living. None of them are natural born ballerinas, world class champion chess masters, painters, sculptors, actors etc. In that respect they're with the majority, not the minority I think.

And yet the way we live seeks to push most adults into specific full-time jobs, and to reward and value them on this basis.

It's been in talking to the children and reading the closing chapters of Gatto that I've started to wonder how beneficial it actually is to have everyone in our society coerced into taking a full-time specialist role. It strikes me that unless a person received a calling to focus on doing one certain thing to excellence, their natural state is to be a self-sufficient, self-employed jack-of-all-trades multi-tasker. And what would be wrong with that? People who could turn their hands to anything that needed doing - to get by and get on sufficiently in the world - would these not be healthy, vital people to be esteemed and appreciated by everyone?

Of course it would be bad news for the big profiteers amongst us, because self-sufficiency does not make for good consumerism, and such people would be difficult to coerce and control by governments and laws, but rather than turning the clock back to the time when we had few or no specialists, how about letting those people who really passionately wanted to specialise do so, and allowing everyone else to just... live?

We wouldn't have to pay consultants thousands of pounds to do very little because the natural vocational specialists would be happy to be left alone to pursue their passion as long as their basic living costs were covered. And really, what other specialist work is worth doing, other than that which is spontaneously carried out to the point of excellence by someone who was born to do the job?

It's an idea for a way forward that might work, isn't it?

NB: About the BBC's reporting of that study, was I the only home educator raising an eyebrow that out of all these comments, they pulled out that one to highlight on the main news item?

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Eighteen years ago today he was brand new: 6lbs4oz, mostly spindly legs and big feet. Now look at him - he's all grown up! 6 feet and a bit! (We haven't measured for a while.)

To paraphrase Mrs T, we have become the mother of an adult. :-)

I was 20 years old, I really didn't have a clue about parenting. I thought he'd be lucky to make it through his first year! But he was resilient and I learned and now his childhood is officially over - though he's been a man for years, of course.

I'm very proud of him: he's everything a mother could wish for. It's been a privilege to bring him up and we wish him the very best for his adulthood :-)


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

*Rolls eyes @ Blogger*

Well, I resisted Beta for as long as I could but in the end it forced me to 'upgrade'. Not impressed so far - there's these two signing in methods and I can't use the old way any more, I have to find the new one and type in my whole email address. I click 'remember me' every time and it never does. It seems to log me out every 5 minutes so I have to keep going through the whole process over again, but conversely it doggedly remembers me whenever I'm doing a Google search so that it feels like being spied on. Not that Google searches were ever confidential but at least they didn't tell me my full name and email address before when I did them, whereas now they do, which is somewhat unnerving.

And there seems to be no improvement to the blog format that I can see, except that we now have labels but I think we've all learned to manage without them for so long now that we have our own category systems in place anyway, so that's not exactly an improvement.

Sooo, Blogger worked ok before. I was happy with it. I get that Google bought Blogger out but it wasn't broke, so why did they try to fix it? And what's the story behind us all needing a Google 'account' now? It all seems very suspicious, but that could just be me being a cynical old bag, I suppose. Please enlighten me if you know more than I do on the subject. :-)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mother of 5 gains qualification in childcare

From the 10 Downing Street website, thus demonstrating the frightening extent to which common sense has abandoned the seat of UK government:

"PM drops in for tea with childcare trainers

15 February 2007

A project to help unemployed people gain qualifications and employment in childcare was given a boost today when Tony Blair dropped in to see them.

The PM chatted with a number of people taking part in the Stepping Stones for Families project at the Glenburn Centre in Glasgow.

Those on the course will leave with a Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVO) and real career prospects in childcare.

They are provided with training, help with coursework and are put on placement in local nurseries.

One of those on the course was Christina Todd, 35, from Easterhouse. The mother-of-five said:

"I worked nights, my partner days and with five children to bring up it wasn't ideal. To come on this course was a great opportunity and I've just finished and got my SVQ qualification."

She now hopes to go on to a full-time job at a nursery.

So what happened to the 5 children, if their mother is only now deemed fit to take care of them?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Washing machine puzzle

You know how family jigsaw puzzling works? Someone sets a big jigsaw out in one of the family rooms and people spend spare minutes working on it, either separately or together but spontaneously, just to pass the time when they happen to be in the room, until it's finished. I love that way of doing things: kind of like working on a wiki website - true, unforced, egalitarian co-operation.

Well, my family's shared puzzle this week is the washing machine, which locked shut after completing a cycle 2 days ago and still refuses to open. We googled and found this great site containing problems and advice for fixing domestic appliances, did some print-outs and there it sits in the kitchen:

for people spend to spare minutes working on it, either separately or together but spontaneously, just to pass the time when they happen to be in the room, until it's fixed.

I like it better than a jigsaw actually, because it's a real life puzzle and one in which we have more of a vested interest in solving (to liberate the clothes trapped inside and enable us to wash more).

It's a brilliant educational project. What are we covering, in Eduspeak? Design Technology, Mechanics, Electronics, IT, Literacy, Group Interaction, Social Skills... probably more if pushed to include it on an education report ;-) It also has the added bonus of saving us £hundreds in both plumbers' services and college tuition fees. So if we manage to get it working as well, it's an all-round winner.

The best kind of practical learning happens through necessity as part of normal healthy functioning family life. Another example happened last night: we were writing a shopping list and Lyddie said she wanted fish, but we were all too busy (on the washing machine puzzle mainly) by then for someone to break off and write it down for her. So I shouted the letters and she wrote it herself. Her first writing! She got her fish too.

I remember from my school days a certain feeling of pointlessness. We were learning to read, write, do maths and science etc., but as abstract exercises these thngs don't mean very much. However, remove school from the equation and add in the factors of a fixed washing-machine and some fish and suddenly these lessons become real, worthwhile, interesting and fun.

It's also much more satisfying to fix your own washing machine than it is to sit like a helpless baby waiting for a professional washing-machine fixer to come to the rescue.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The UNICEF report

Reading the UNICEF report (Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries) yesterday in which the UK was apparently found to be performing so badly, the following points came to mind:

  • Who funds UNICEF and what's its real agenda?

    A quick tour around their website produced this list of corporate 'partners', including such luminaries as BP Foundation (British Petroleum), ExxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft Corporation, Pfizer Inc., Siemens and many, many more.

  • This went some way towards explaining why "the six dimensions taken to measure the well-being of children [were] material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviours and risks, and young people’s own subjective sense of well-being".

  • It concerns me that seemingly equal emphasis was placed on whether children were living in single-parent families or step-families and 'young people’s own subjective sense of well-being'. No questions seem to have been asked about how living with parents who have an unhappy marriage affects children, they just jump straight to the assumption that single-parent or step-parent families are more damaging. I can find no basis for this assumption in the full report.

  • Nor am I happy about the educational indicators. The report has made the typical links between educational achievements between ages 15 and 19, affluence and well-being. I myself do not make that link, as many of the affluent, 'educated' people I know do not enjoy a feeling of well-being, simply one of compliance with the 'norm', whereas my own teens who have no formal qualifications experience a high level of well-being in comparison with their schooled contemporaries.

  • I think it probably is the case that people in the UK tend to have a more negative view of children than some other countries. As children we regularly visited Holland on family holidays and the difference in approach towards us as children between the two countries was very noticeable in basic ways: shop and restaurant staff would go out of their way to be friendly to us just because we were children, for example.

  • According to the report's coverage on the BBC news website, 'Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, from York University, one of the report's authors, put the UK's poor ratings down to long term under-investment and a "dog-eat-dog" society.', but I don't see how more financial investment improves children's wellbeing and it strikes me that increased financial investment would do nothing but exacerbate the "dog-eat-dog society", which is exactly what's in these people's best interests.

  • We tend to assume, I think, that global, impartial-sounding organisations like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (which was also involved in formulating the report), are above the interests of the murky world of international politics and finance, but of course this isn't the case at all. If all this report does is increase investment in forced education systems to the age of 19 and sanction governments' planned further incursions into peaceful family life then I think it can only damage children's genuine well-being.

    "Work develops independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness. Work itself is a value, above a paycheck, above praise, above accomplishment. Work produces a spiritual reward unknown to the reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychologists like B.F. Skinner, but if you tackle it gladly, without resentment or avoidance, whether you’re digging a ditch or building a skyscraper, you’ll find the key to yourself in work. If the secular aversion to work is a thing to be rationalized as schools do, requiring only minimal effort from children, a horrifying problem is created for our entire society, one that thus far has proven incurable. I refer to the psychological, social, and spiritual anxieties that arise when people have no useful work to do. Phony work, no matter how well paid or praised, causes such great emotional distortions that the major efforts of our civilization will soon go into solving them, with no hint of any answer in sight.

    "In the economy we have allowed to evolve, the real political dilemma everywhere is keeping people occupied. Jobs have to be invented by government agencies and corporations. Both employ millions and millions of people for which they have no real use.

    "Young men and women during their brightest, most energetic years are kept from working or from being a part of the general society. This is done to keep them from aggravating this delicate work situation, either by working too eagerly, as kids are prone to do, or by inventing their own work, which could cause shocks throughout the economy. This violation of the injunction to work, which Western spirituality imposed, has backed us into a corner from which no authority has any idea how to extricate us. We cannot afford to let too many children really learn to work, as Amish children do, for fear they will discover its great secret: work isn’t a curse, but a salvation."

    - from The Underground History of American Education, by John Taylor Gatto.

    The children, after all, are not UNICEF's paymasters. To find the truth, follow the money.

    Tuesday, February 13, 2007


    Someone once told me, when I was talking about making decisions for my children based on their potential happiness, that being happy is not the most important goal in life.

    This conversation took place 7 years ago, and I still think about it from time to time, because it made me wonder whether my value system is set up in the best way it could be.

    Happiness is a supremely important goal, in my opinion, because from that state everything else flows easily. I don't mean the kind of giddy, effusive happiness that people might feel on winning the lottery or finding a long-lost friend or relative - just the underlying, day-to-day sort that comes from contentment.

    Happy people tend to be relaxed and more focused on doing what they want to do and doing it well, which usually has good results for them and for anyone else involved. Happy people are more interested in the world around them and therefore in learning. Thinking and learning are very important goals because they enable us to make good decisions and to progress, but an underlying state of happiness is necessary to enable all of that to take place.

    Isn't it?

    Sometimes I'm so sure about these things, then other times I wonder if I'm wrong.

    Sunday, February 11, 2007

    ABC meme, complete with rants

    Found this meme on another blog which I won't link to because it was just too slushy for words.

    A- Available or married?
    That's the choice? Pah.

    B- Best Friend?
    Whoever's being fun & friendly at the time. Usually one of the kids. I'm very fickle though ^^

    C- Cake or Pie?
    Yuck to both. But I could be tempted by Quorn and mushroom pie, on a bad day, I suppose. With garden peas.

    D- Drink of Choice?
    Tea. PG, all the way.

    E- Essential Item?
    Sling. *Blows kiss to Tracy*.

    F- Favorite Colour?
    Oh come on. What kind of meme is this? Stupid inane questions.. White ATM I suppose. *Rolls eyes.*

    G- Gummi Bears or Worms?
    Worms. The garden variety.

    H- Hometown?
    Halifax, land of the big X in the sky ;-)

    I- Indulgence?
    A fresh Daily Mail to grumble at, whilst eating smoked salmon, fresh lasagne sheets, avacado, garlic mayo.. Ack, got to go shopping now ^^

    J-January or February?
    January or February what?

    K- Kids & names?
    Yes they all have them, thanks :-)

    L- Life is incomplete without?
    Breathing. Tends to make things a little, um... dead...

    M-Marriage Date?
    Ooh, ooh, I know this! *Gets calculator out..* *Digs through old papers, finds 20 yr-old calendar..* No, wait, I do remember..
    It was the 20th December 1988.

    N- Number of Siblings? Two, last time I checked. One full, one half. And 4 step-siblings. Six then, kind of.

    O- Oranges or apples?
    ...... Silly question time again. Not playing! *Taps foot impatiently.*

    P- Phobias/Fears? Mice. Ew. *Shudder*. And we won't talk about their big hairy cousins. They just don't exist except in my worst nightmares.

    Q-Favourite Quote? Right now it's this, cos I read it this morning and thought: wow:

    "Spiritually contented people are dangerous for a variety of reasons. They don’t make reliable servants because they won’t jump at every command. They test what is requested against a code of moral principle. Those who are spiritually secure can’t easily be driven to sacrifice family relations. Corporate and financial capitalism are hardly possible on any massive scale once a population finds its spiritual center,"
    by this man:

    R- Reason to Smile?
    I smile a lot. Don't usually need a reason. It can be kind of unnerving, I guess.

    S- Season?
    *Looks outside* Late winter, by the looks of things. Sheesh, my eyes are starting to ache, I'm rolling them so much.

    T- Tag three people! Here's one for Louise, Manda (just cos I love comparing those twin answers!) and Merry. Your challenge is to complete this meme less grumpily than I did! (Not difficult..!)

    U- Unknown fact about me:
    After 2.4 years of blogging? There are none! I'm an open book ^^

    V- Very...?
    Temperamental, if I'm honest ;-) I'm an arrrteest, dahhlink! ok I'm not really. There is no excuse whatsoever.

    W- Worst habit?
    Blogging. But, you know, I could give it up any time I wanted to...

    X-X-treme, X-cessive, X-ceedingly good?:
    Oh dear, they were a bit desperate there, weren't they? It would depend who you asked, but yes to all three no doubt, sometimes. In what areas? You might very well ask that question. I couldn't possibly comment... Oh no, he died! *Cry, mourn* The world will be a poorer place..

    Y- Your favourite food?
    Tiramisu - the really good quality stuff, but it doesn't pass my lips nowadays. I'd be on a sugar high for a week, and drunk.

    Z- Zippers, Buttons, or Velcro?
    Gah, don't be nosy! ^^

    These things are Good

  • Staying up until midnight, stifling yawns, indulging in 'girly talk' with teenage daughter. Gorgeous dresses.. bitchy gossip.. music.. and more and much more. Is it just home ed teens, or is there more depth to them all than the stereotype would have us believe? Last night we covered family history and traits, the effect of magazines on mental health, schooling and the consumerist society, then it's back to making clothes, and finds on ebay and 2nd hand markets and blissful, glorious future plans and hopes and ideas. Delicious. :-)

  • Finding that the taciturn teenage son has so much to say after all: it's a matter of hitting the right trigger. Wow, he thinks deeply too - you need one of these to even get halfway down the depths of his mind.

    I could spend my life just talking to them all at the expense of doing anything else, quite happily. They all have their own natural time slots when they open up 1:1, when they've got time to chat and it's worth losing some sleep for the rewards that come from those conversations. New ideas, fresh ways of seeing things, feedback about parenting methods. Who better than our own teenage children to tell us what works well, and what works less well?

  • Watching an autonomous 4-year old learning through play, all the time, from whatever is to hand.

  • Sunny Sunday mornings, they're good.

  • Friends who pop up saying the exact right thing at the exact right time.

  • Down the Line, Radio 4's new comedy series with Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson and others. I think it's a completely new style of comedy: it's very clever - so nearly straight that you keep catching yourself forgetting it's spoof. Or maybe that's just me being dim ;-)
  • Wednesday, February 07, 2007

    Gatto excerpt

    I Hung Around A Lot In Monongahela

    The great destructive myth of the twentieth century was the aggressive contention that a child couldn’t grow up correctly in the unique circumstances of his own family. In order to avoid having you finish this essay with the feeling it might have been all right for my family to influence my growth so intensely, but for many children with worse families that just wouldn’t do, fix your attention a minute on the less savory aspects of my people, as they might be seen through social service eyes. Both sets of grandparents and my mother and father were seriously alienated from one another, the men from the women and vice versa.

    On the Zimmer side, heavy drinking and German/Irish tempers led to one violent conflict after another, conflicts to which my sister and I were fully exposed. We grew like weeds as children, with full run of the town, including its most dangerous places, had no effective curfew, and tended to excess in everything. Did I forget to mention the constant profanity? By up-to-the-minute big city standards my family skirted the boundary of court-ordered family dissolution more than once.

    Since a substantial number of the families I worked with productively as a schoolteacher had rap sheets similar to my own by social hygiene standards, I want to offer you my Monongahela years as a case study of how a less than ideal family by social work standards can still teach courage, love, duty, self-reliance; can awaken curiosity and wonder; can be a laboratory for independent thought, well-rooted identity, and communitarian feelings; and can grow in memory as a beloved companion even when it is composed of ghosts.

    The city of Monongahela itself is offered as a case study of a different sort, showing the power of common places to return loyalty by animating the tiniest details of existence. The town is a main character in my personal story, a genius loci interacting with my development as a schoolteacher. I invested an extreme amount of effort in the physical presence of my classrooms, I think, because the physical presence of my town never left me even after I was far removed from it. I wanted that same sort of ally for my kids.

    Gary Snyder once said, "Of all memberships we identify ourselves by, the one most forgotten that has greatest potential for healing is place." The quiet rage I felt at bearing the last name of a then socially devalued minority, the multiple grievances I felt off and on against my parents for being a house divided, at my sister for making herself a stranger to me, at my dad for staying away so I grew up with only a distant acquaintanceship between us, the bewilderment I felt from having to sit nightly at dinner with grandparents who hadn’t spoken to one another for fifteen years and for whom I was required to act as go-between, the compounding of this bewilderment when I discovered my Italian grandfather had been buried in an unmarked grave, perhaps for taking a mistress, the utter divide geographically and culturally between Mother’s family and Father’s—the fantastic gulf between the expressive idiom of the Germans who treated rage and violence as if they were normal, and Dad’s people, the quintessence of decorous rationality, the absolute inability of Mother to face the full demands of her maturity, yet her inspiring courage when her principles were challenged—all these made for an exciting, troubled, and even dangerous childhood. Would I have been better off in foster care, do you think? Are others? Are you insane?

    What allowed me to make sense of things against the kaleidoscope of these personal dynamics was that town and its river, two constants I depended upon. They were enough. I survived, even came to thrive because of my membership in Monongahela, the irreducible, unclassifiable, asystematic village of my boyhood. So different from the neo-villages of social work.

    All the town’s denizens played a part: the iridescent river dragonflies, the burbling streetcars, the prehistoric freight trains, the grandeur of the paddle-wheel boats, the unpackaged cookies and uncut-in-advance-of-purchase cheese and meat, women in faded cotton housedresses who carried themselves with bearing and dignity in spite of everything, men who swore constantly and spit huge green and yellow globs of phlegm on the sidewalks, steelworkers who took every insult as mortal and mussed a little boy’s hair because he was "Zim’s nephew."

    I hung around a lot in Monongahela looking at things and people, trying them on for size. Much is learned by being lazy. I learned to fish that way, to defend myself, to take risks by going down in the abandoned coalmine across the river full of strange machinery and black water—a primitive world with nobody around to tell me to be careful. I learned to take knocks without running away, to watch hard men and women reveal themselves through their choices. I cleaned Pappy’s printing office daily, after closing, for a silver St. Gaudens walking-goddess-Liberty fifty-cent piece, the most beautiful American coin ever made. I sold Sun-Telegraphs and Post-Gazettes on the corner of Second and Main for a profit of a penny a paper. I had a Kool-Aid stand on Main and Fourth on hot summer days.

    Shouldn’t you ask why your boy or girl needs to know anything about Iraq or about computer language before they can tell you the name of every tree, plant, and bird outside your window? What will happen to them with their high standardized test scores when they discover they can’t fry an egg, sew a button, join things, build a house, sail a boat, ride a horse, gut a fish, pound a nail, or bring forth life and nurture it? Do you believe having those things done for you is the same? You fool, then. Why do you cooperate in the game of compulsion schooling when it makes children useless to themselves as adults, hardly able to tie their own shoes?

    [From The Underground History of American Education]

    How does he know that?

    I was setting up a PC yesterday and it wouldn't recognise the hard disk as a master - it persisted in seeing it as a slave instead. I've set up a lot of PCs: I know this problem is fixed by changing the jumper settings, but I can never remember what they are or how you change them.

    Here it is:

    Do you see what I see? A LOT of little metal prongs and a tiny white plastic thing. Well, the plastic thing is the jumper, for some reason, and the prongs are, erm.. prongs, and the position of the jumper on the prongs magically determines whether the computer sees this as a master or a slave drive.

    All this, after years of practice, I finally know. But I don't think I'll ever remember from one six months to the next, which position is which. There's just no way of telling, or remembering. No clues, and any one of 50 positions could be it. I even vaguely remembered thinking that you take the jumper off for a master drive and leave it on for a slave drive. Or was that the other way around?

    I tried a few positions, got exasperated very quickly, admitted defeat and took it down to Tom.

    "Can you make that into a master drive please?"

    He never even looked away from his computer screen. Just held out his hand for the drive, did half a second's fiddling with it and handed it back to me.

    He can't know that without even looking it up, or checking somewhere somehow, I was thinking as I stomped back upstairs. How can he know that? How does he remember from one time to the next?

    But I installed it and it worked.

    Later on I was struggling with another problem with the same computer. I'd been puzzling for about 20 minutes and was still clueless. Tom walked past on his way to the kettle, glanced at the screen and said in passing: "It needs a different removable media drive."

    "A what?"

    "DVD or CD drive."

    "No no," I said, "I'm sure it's nothing to do with that."

    But he just went and got one for me anyway. After twenty more fruitless minutes of trying other things I very irritably installed the other DVD drive and sure enough, it solved the problem.

    Tom had the nerve to gloat, later. "Removable media drive?"

    "Hmph. Might have been."

    And he laughed.

    I just thought I'd post this as a warning to anyone embarking on autonomous home ed with their children: be prepared to feel very, very stupid ;-)

    Sunday, February 04, 2007

    It's going to be a good year :-)

    I can just tell, don't ask me how.