School Days

A school teacher lashing a boy student over a desk, Menomonie, Wisconsin, 1905

“Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.” Gandhi

Can Education Change The World? (or is it all in our heads?)

“I’ll keep having babies until they stop taking them away.”

Yes, that’s what a mentally challenged young woman told the social services workers outside family court. She’d lost five or six children to the system already. A talk on birth control would have made little difference.

I heard about this case from our foster daughter’s lawyer after I asked her if M could possibly get some baby pictures of herself that her mother “Tracy” used to have. The lawyer shook her head in sad disgust.

“I doubt Tracy would have kept the pictures. She’s never in one place for long, but when I see her at court next I’ll ask.”

“Court? Again?”

“Yes, she’s had two more kids in the last two years—both of them are already in the system,” the lawyer replied from behind the heaps of documents on her desk.

No one’s told M that not only does she have two sisters (adopted locally) and a stepbrother living with M’s scary father but also two new baby siblings—in the court system.

So I ask, “Is Tracy mentally deficient like the other woman you just told me about?”

The lawyer thinks a moment. “No, she’s just evil.”

I’m sort of shocked by her honest appraisal and inclusion of a moral take on the woman. Knowing M’s history I’d have to say the stuff that was done to her was evil.

What would phrenologists of the 19th century say? Phrenology is the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities.

Walt Whitman wrote in his 1870 sexual-eugenic essay Democratic Vistas that America’s youth lacked sexually. They were “puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe, and characterized by an abnormal libidinousness and a diminished capacity for good motherhood.”

Whitman’s remedy: “crops of fine youth planted” to become America’s best breeders.*

As a gardener and foster parent of a girl with “delays”  I’m troubled by the analogy. How are we to be rid of the weeds that grow among the fine youth?

To be pro-life is a radical idea in the history of the world where weeds, misfits and mistakes are gotten rid of. Slavery, body parts for sale, war and thousands of cast off orphans are the consequences of the human proclivity to get rid of weak and uncomfortable things.

How often do we hear now from “civilized” and “compassionate” people that this or that leader should be assassinated?

We hear of new procedures that may one day eradicate unacceptable or messy human misfits—a pipe dream at best but chilling when taking into account the many ways we find fault with each other.

George Combe, the Scottish phrenologist in his The Application of Phrenology to the Present and Prospective Conditions of the United States (1840) had this to say: The enlightened classes “raise the mental condition of the people . . . which will enable them to understand the moral and political principles on which the welfare of nations is founded.”

Combe predicted “an uncontrolled development of the faculties of Acquisitiveness (greed), Self-Esteem (excessive self-confidence), and Love of Approbation (vanity), in which could destroy the Union.” If something wasn’t done. *

We mustn’t judge the Victorians too harshly when we find that many embraced the idea of social and moral uplift through education and selective breeding. If we are honest we will see ourselves in the historical mirror.

vaughts-practical-character-reader-1902-2Studying bumps on someone’s head may seem silly to us. Frat parties and pussy hats would probably have seemed “funny” to them. We judge our Victorian ancestors harshly for bringing “civilization” to “less civilized” people (but if we’re being honest not many of us want to live the Rousseau dream in a buggy forest with no air-conditioning (see the movie The Mission).

How much moral uplift has come from the public school system (or the Ivy League colleges—many of which were founded as Christian seminaries?).

How many less unwanted children have come into the world because of legal abortion?

Yes, I had to make the terrible choice to terminate a pregnancy (after seeing the baby’s perfect body on an ultrasound). My very flawed and very human doctor dismissed my concerns about a blood clot in my leg for weeks. A vascular surgeon saved my life at the very last minute, but the doctors refused me treatment until the baby was gone.

I hadn’t really wanted another child, but until this very day I suffer from a profound sense of loss. Funny how the heart works.

The 19th century perfectionist idea that we can, through science and education, bring heaven to earth was an illusion. It still is.

It’s easier to be rid of things, to divide the skull into seemingly rational sections that tell us our fate, to abort babies who have low IQs or the “gay gene.”

We must be careful in labeling someone we disagree with a fool or someone to be gotten rid of. We so rarely see the evil in ourselves and gladly kill the other for reminding us of our own weakness.

Judges 6:24 says: “The Lord is peace.”

What are we?

* From Pseudo-Science & Society in 19th Century America, Arthur Wrobel, Editor


In THE DEW THAT GOES EARLY AWAY Buck Crenshaw stumbles into a selective breeding program with mixed results.

“I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me.” John Deere

Hey, teacher! Don't mess with a kid on his tractor. courtesy John Deere Co.
Hey, teacher! Don’t mess with a kid on his tractor.
courtesy John Deere Co.

Here’s what happened when I taught school one day: A teacher assigns the now completely boring and overdone 4th grade project of doing a history report on a famous American. The “fun” part is coming in dressed like the figure. (Okay, I think George Washington Carver was kinda cool, but every year there’s like 20 kids dressed as him–couldn’t the teacher open the kids’ minds a little?).

One kid who normally has zero interest in school runs to the teacher’s desk all excited. “I’m gonna do John Deere!”

The teacher barely lifts her head to acknowledge the less-than-stellar student. “Who?”

“John Deere. My father has this great tractor and I started looking him up on-line–John Deere, I mean– and I’m gonna do him.”

The teacher shakes her head. She looks over her list. “Hmm. Well, he’s not really famous, is he?”

The kid shoves his hands in his pockets, thinking. “I know him–and there’s stuff on the computer about him.” The kid’s 4’6.” The teacher’s a goddess.

She moves her pencil down the list. “Let’s see what the other children are doing. Jane is being Harriet Tubman. Matt is doing George Washington Carver and Lucy is doing Brittney Spears. Does that give you a better idea what I’m looking for?”  (This really happened!)

The brief elation on the kid’s face, the one glimmer of excitement he has for school disappears. He doesn’t answer, just goes back to his seat.

His mother talks to me about it the next day. This kid despite his teacher’s suggestion and his mother’s misguided pleading decides that he’s going to do John Deere NO MATTER WHAT. This kid receives a star next to his name in my head. His sweet mother worries that he’ll cause trouble and she depends on a substitute job at the school to get by when milk prices and ridiculous regulations threaten to kill her husband’s farm livelihood.

“You’re kid’s a future leader,” I say. “They can’t fire you because your son thinks John Deere is cool. Half of Hollywood wears the company’s gear.”

I see that she loves her kid and doesn’t want him labeled a troublemaker. She a good mother. I tell her that. “You should go talk to the teacher. I’m sure she doesn’t realize she’s putting nails in your son’s educational coffin. You know your kid is right.”

I don’t know if the kid ever presented his project. I didn’t want to know because I suspect the mother was too afraid of the teacher. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that kid stayed brave. He’s a non-famous hero of mine.

courtesy John Deere
courtesy John Deere

Now here’s the history: Until I moved to Upstate New York I thought John Deere was a hipster fashion designer, but John has a history. It’s not as bold and crazy as Bruce Jenner’s history, but for the men who talk tractors up here Mr. Deere’s equipment is the stuff of romance. You have your International Harvester devotees and the old Ford machines set some men’s hearts thumping under their flannels (my husband), but John Deere is the man.

Young John was apprenticed out to a respected Vermont blacksmith at the age of 17 in 1821. He opened shop, failed at it and escaped west to Illinois with his wife to start over. John had a lot of sex with said wife–they produced nine kids. During a lull between sparking he invented a high polished steel plow to replace the cast iron and wood models that sod-busters were using with little success on the tough prairie soil.

The farmers LOVED it. The demand was great. John realized that if he manufactured extras customers could stop in and leave with the product in hand (not like in the old days when you had to put in your order and wait).

John took on a partner who didn’t like railroads. Mr. Deere wanted a railroad track right through town to send his plows to their new homes. This partner had questionable bookkeeping practices so John washed his hands of the partnership.

The company went on to do great things as we all know. Even Hollywood wears the gear.


The Other Deere

John Deere History and Values

Famous Vermont Residents

Be Like Audubon And Fly

Common American Swan
Common American Swan

John James Audubon’s father wanted his son to be a navy guy, but luckily for us he flunked the officers’ qualification test and  happily went back to studying birds, traipsing around America and drawing what he saw. Back then some birds were so unused to humans that they had no fear and sometimes would alight upon a person’s shoulder in curiosity. Enormous flocks of birds could cloud a sky for hours on their travels and John James was there to witness it.

audubon-vii-showy-birds-nocturnal-hunters-and-superb-aerialists-mourning-dove-aka-carolina-turtle-dove-or-carolina-pigeonHe came to stay with the Blackwell family, fell in love with the daughter,  fell into a river and came out with a fever–his future wife Lucy at his side. To please Lucy’s father he went into the import/export business and was married a few months later to the girl who shared his passion for the natural world. In fact Lucy so admired John’s work she supported him by working as a teacher when times were lean. I wonder now if she ever felt annoyed at not getting enough credit. As humans we’re quite obsessed with getting credit, aren’t we?

audubon-viii-gleaners-of-forest-and-meadow-eastern-phoebe-aka-pewit-flycatcherI like it when people without advanced degrees set up their own museums and conduct experiments just because they want to–what joy! John banded Eastern Phoebes and proved they returned to the same nesting spots year after year. What a nice thing to prove and how many of us like to investigate things and wait a year for answers?

School makes us ask permission. May I draw? Can I go to the bathroom? Of course you can–hahaha–yawn. Teachers are so amusing. Can I–I mean may I think my own thoughts, investigate things teachers don’t care about, correct the teacher? No. Not now, it’s time for another assembly about turning in your friends for bullying.

Columbia-Jay-001The theme this week seems to be  that you don’t need money or permission to do stuff. Band your birds, investigate your options, thumb your nose at the culture and the counter culture and every other social grouping that clips your wings.

Link to his pretty pictures

“People with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem.” Lauren Slater

Riding high on self.
Riding high on self.

So the news is out. After years of study experts have discovered that it’s high self-esteem that poses a bigger threat to society than low. In fact low self-esteem seems to pose very little real threat to civilization. On some level didn’t we already know this? The insufferably self-assured student asking the dumbest questions and wasting everyone’s time in school, the politician who thinks his stories are funny and the jock who  sneers at all of his weak underlings come to mind.

For the writer the highly egotistical, pushy jerk is incredibly fun to write about. People with no humility, brimming with blind ambition screw over everyone. Their dazzling lack of boundaries keeps the other characters off kilter but strangely attracted to the whirlwind of hubris. My husband asked recently if my character Fred Crenshaw (Buck’s volatile brother) would ever be redeemed. I laughed. No way in hell.

People like him very rarely change. They have high regard for themselves. They love themselves and have great pride in their accomplishments, but if we think about it we see that this regard is really the root of all bad behavior.

Do you have high self-esteem? Are you a danger? Please report yourself to the authorities.