Monday, February 20, 2017

a theoretical particle named after a laundry detergent

photos I took of my mother, 2012

I remember sitting in classes with her as a child, that we were at the Community College. I know as an adult that my mother was probably getting her AA in either child development or ornamental horticulture. I don't know how far she got in either. I remember vaguely her being involved in my earliest education, but am not sure in what capacity. There is just a clear picture in my mind of a day spent washing all of the dolls, a group activity for a roomful of post-toddlers, and how proud she was about that activity she had come up with because she still mentions it sometimes. Later, she helped run a preschool out of a church facility, since it wasn't in use during the week, and my little brother, the youngest of us, was one of those preschoolers. I remember the smell of graham crackers and apple juice, two things I can't bring myself to eat because of how strongly I associate them with the gummy residue on faces and hands that I helped clean up. Rubbing backs during naptime and thinking about my own preschool traumas. The flow of moms at the end of the day, questions they asked us about their children's behavior and eating habits. And so much sunshine, in all of those memories.

In high school I went with her sometimes when she taught classes on child development to child care providers looking for basic certifications. Most of these women were running daycare out of their homes, in trailer park neighborhoods and stripped down forgotten about parts of town, the rambling extremities close to the prairie, far past the shadow of the university that ran most of the town. We drove forever it always felt like, past the cornfield that did haunted rides every Halloween, to be in this lonely little class of women who didn't understand why hitting children was a bad thing. I was the silent witness in the room, the brevity of my mother's countenance held in my own awareness - there was a wooden spoon we were spanked with when I was little, I remember the year before starting my period, my stepfather making me pull down my pants so he could lay the force of his hand against my flesh. I suspect the child development courses she took shifted something in her perspective that my younger siblings didn't have to experience so much, and I do think that she had a very specific understanding of where these women were coming from. I watched her face as she listened to their responses to the material, accidental confessions from the 'students' that were often deeply disconcerting, to know that people left children in their care. But in some of these poor, far flung places, what other choice did they have?

Once, when my mother got to the section on breastfeeding, one woman who was hugely pregnant defensively informed the room that her 18 year old son wasn't breastfed and he was just fine, that breastfeeding was gross, was something animals did. I never saw judgement in my mother's face, she let them confess their fears and remarks about how children were viewed and handled. She merely rolled along, describing colostrum, the thin early milk rich in antibodies for helping construct the baby's immune system, then, a week later fats and vitamins come in, calories to support their ceaseless growth... by the time she finished telling the story of how our bodies adapt to the growing, shifting needs of our young, that same woman spoke up again. 'I had no idea', she said. 'This baby will be breastfed' she told us, with her hand on the broad expanse of her ripening body.

The education system was created in the wake of child labor laws, suddenly the working class needed somewhere to put their children while they filled the factories in the urban areas that exploded during the industrial revolution. It was designed to turn out the future workers to fill a rapidly standardized assembly line structure of production. After my time in public education, I have racked up countless hours studying for standardized tests, memorizing dates and facts that were disjointed, not connected to the history or circumstances they have evolved out of, and I have witnessed and fought with teachers who have brought my classmates to tears from deep condescension whose source I cannot know, but whose boundaries were limitless in the container of those classrooms where no one is around to see how hard we fought, as teenagers, to convince anyone that we existed. All I remember from economics are graphs and formulas that I didn't bother learning, since they were so far removed from my own experience of having been raised on welfare. While I struggle getting my head around adult finances, after having been raised by adults with no idea about their personal finances, I can't believe what we learn in economics has little to no connection to our place inside of the economy, or the agency we might find within it. We learn how to have sex, the hardening of parts and the hormonal responses in our bodies in sex ed, how genes interact to give us our mother's eyes or our father's eyebrows in biology... but never what comes afterwards - not how we grew inside of someone else's body, or how specifically our bodies adapt to such a massive event - like producing its own form of nourishment. I wish we learned about Pythagoras' arrival to his theorems, alongside wrestling with its product. What is the point of a class on current events without any frame of reference for what is happening in our very local government - something that both impacts us, and that we can impact as well? What an opportunity being missed, to build not just a richer community fabric by embedding its constituents more deeply into its awareness and expression, but also give a quickly maturing demographic a sense of where we belong inside of that vast, vague, overwhelming potential of the world, of the hopeless/hopeful statement 'You can be anything'? How do we learn about our relationship to the global community if not in the place we spend so much of our childhood?

How do we take the education of our children back? Like the asbestos and other chemicals I have had to wade through while renovating schools - we send them off, with so little awareness of what they will be taking in and how it will manifest later in their lives. While these generalizations may not apply to everyone's experience, I know I am not alone in having them, and feel very strongly that I can see now the threads that got lost in forming my sense of self, as well as the threads that got strengthened around my particular circumstances.

There were heroes and saints too. My favorite teacher my senior year, Mrs. Bergeron, had a quote over her door from Dante's Inferno: 'Abandon all hope, Ye who enter here' . I believe she went to Harvard, and wore tweed suits with skirts, and talked sometimes about how hard it was to teach us important things around what was required of them to teach to fit inside of those standardized tests. She was cold and serious, but when she told you that your writing was good... it meant more than Christmas ever has.

'It is not by coincidence that archaeologists find weaving tools and weapons side by side.'

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