By Laura Moore

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Throughout my life, I've wasted so much energy arguing. 

And I don't mean on the good kind of arguments: the ones where two parties tackle open issues--thousand sided issues--in an effort to sway back and forth across various shades of gray. 

I mean black and white arguments that fail to follow any sort of protocol. The kind where each side talks loudly from behind pre-drawn lines in the sand.  The sorts of exchanges where decisions have already been made, and the owners of those decisions are not willing to revisit them, to roll them over or to cut them open. 

For a while, I entered those debates with a false sense of valiancy. I felt responsible for educating my opponents about my position on an issue, and if I neglected to do so--or to do so adequately enough--then the other person would walk away without hearing both sides, without seeing the full picture. 

Oh how righteous I felt.

Oh what a jerk I was.

See that mindset--and the behavior resulting from that mindset--is toxic. It eats away at individuals and relationships. It inspires a feigned sense of empowerment, and it screams and yells and edges out those who are less aggressive, even when--and especially when--the less aggressive people have something important to say. 

When someone takes the opposing side to issues tugging at my heart strings, I can feel my blood pressure rise and my stomach churn. My thoughts spray like semi-automatic weapons, and in truth, I probably only listen to one in every three things the other person shouts. Lodged in a defensive state, I take the one thing I hear and I twist it and I turn it and I beat it like a fragile yolk. I search for rhetorical grenades. I try to present the other side as ridiculous. I strive to make my views so appealing no one could possibly disagree. 

But the other person does the exact same thing, and the noise we create in our pointless war makes it impossible to hear, makes it impossible to think, makes it impossible to move our feet in any direction whatsoever--any direction, except back.

Our discussion is not productive or valiant. We are not persuasive game changers; we're narcissistic pontificators. We're both waiting for contradictions, for over-stepping stereotypes, for hypocrisies. We're each looking for the chance to site articles or interviews or research so we can be right.  And when the wake subsides, regardless of where it trailed along the shore, deep down, both of us probably feel horrible about every single part of our interaction. 

At least, I know I do.

Don't get me wrong, I think it is important for one to stand up for his/her interpretation of truth and justice, but I think it is equally important for us to know how to do that. Issuing a round of verbal crossfire does not yield unilateral results. Spouting off the longest list of "facts" does not necessarily denote a victory, and tossing pseudo-intellectual quips toward someone who does not understand the sarcasm, does not make one unequivocally more right than their vulnerable opponent. 

It just makes that person feistier (and insufferably more arrogant).

And it often inspires a deeper trench between people. It does not bring anyone closer. It does not make anyone's point clearer. It does not increase the troops fighting for any one cause.

It just divides.

It makes the world louder and angrier. It raises walls capped with barbed wire spikes. It inspires shields and muffles ears and perpetuates toxic narratives. It gets attention, but it doesn't make people change.

If we want true change, we need to open ears and eyes and minds. We need to listen to one another: even if we disagree, even if we hate the other side, even if we think we know the answers.  We need to listen to the words, to the stories, to the subtext, to the ideas, to the emotions, to the feelings, to the fears, to the hopes, to the dreams, to the frustrations, to the obstacles. We need to share our ideas, but once we do, we need to sit down, zip our mouths, and listen. We need to temporarily halt our selfish whims so we can think about how our actions impact others. We need to make an effort to empathize with experiences, we need to consider other narratives, we need to accept the fact that the world might not be what we think it is.

Because maybe if we open up, maybe if we try to find common ground, maybe if we step outside of our own experiences, maybe if we let people speak even if they don't have all of the right words, maybe if we think about how our version of justice impacts theirs, maybe if we think about the consequences of both action and inaction, we might find a way to tear down the seemingly insurmountable barriers between us. 

See despite our differences, most of us just want what we perceive to be fair. We want what we think is right. And because we all have slightly different opinions about what that means, if we want to move forward, away from all of the noise, we need to consider a variety of interpretations of what right entails. 

We need to listen to both traditional and nontraditional voices. Really listen--not so we can trounce on stories, experiences or ideas by calling one another names--so we can learn why people feel the way they do. So we can escape flying fingers, cruel euphemisms, and glass shattering decibels, and actually arrive in a reasonable space where we can not just coexist but co-thrive. So we can feel safe enough to admit we have much to learn. So we can help our loud monologues evolve into constructive dialogues. So we can give our ideas a chance to inspire epiphanies and partnership and progress. So we can help our children find a way to begin smearing lines.

I don't know about you, but this is my goal for the final weeks of the year....and all the ones that follow.

 
 

By Laura Moore

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Instead of enjoying a cup of coffee, or a few extra moments with my husband and son Monday morning, I rushed through my routine and darted across town at 7:15 am, in an effort to retrieve my wallet (which unfortunately, I, as the last customer of the night, left at a battery store Sunday evening).

I realized I had forgotten it as soon as I double checked my purse prior to picking up the pizza, and that realization led to a flurry of searching on behalf of my husband and myself: in the diaper bag, the stroller, the carseat, under the seats in my car, anywhere we could possibly think to look. 

But the minute I realized it wasn't in my purse, deep down, I knew I left it there, at the store; I could picture exactly where I set it down, and--because I felt guilty for being the jerk who came in ten minutes before close--I knew I left it in that spot because I was mindlessly hurrying out of the store so the employees could log out and enjoy the night.

Despite knowing no one would be there when I returned, I rushed back to the store just in case, hoping that maybe someone was waiting for a ride, or got a last minute phone call, or had some other reason to remain well beyond closing time. When I pulled into to the empty parking lot though, I knew it was hopeless. Nevertheless, I gazed through the window anyway--just to see if it was there--and sure enough, propped up on the counter exactly where I left it, I saw my wallet, sticking out like a butterfly on asphalt.

I wanted to vomit. 

Why didn't anyone see it and lock it in the register? I wondered

Then I proceeded to scare myself: Someone is going to break in. My wallet is so OBVIOUSLY there. The window doesn't seem that thick. The lights are so bright. 

My abandoned billfold looked terribly tempting, bulging with the thickness of my life, hovering beneath spot lights, ripe with a vulnerable identity waiting to be stolen. Frantic to retrieve it, I knocked on every window. I left a message for the manager.  Heck, I even called the emergency door line listed on a sticker at the top of the door.  Nothing I did, however, produced results, and so I sat there, defeated. 

Before giving up entirely though, I called the police.

The non-emergency line operator told me to wait in the parking lot and she would dispatch an officer. Relieved and hopeful, I sat there, staring through my windshield into the store window, focused painfully on what I left behind. I sat there praying that the police officer would have the solution. I sat there inventing a thousand scenarios where authorities would arrive with a skeleton key, or a manager or some other magical means of opening the door and handing me back the container that allowed me to conduct the business of life.

It took about ten minutes for the officer to arrive, and while I waited and invented my stories, I looked around. Observing my surroundings, I sized up the risk of my wallet camping out in plain sight. And when I spotted an over-served man with a blonde, scraggly beard, unkempt clothes, and ruddy red cheeks stumbling back and forth behind me in the parking lot, for the first time, I grew afraid. I watched him lumber in uneven strides, falling one way and then jerking back to correct his movements, and when he neared my car and split his gaze between my rearview window and the well-lit store containing my wallet, I grew terribly suspicious. 

Was this man dangerous? Did he want to get into my car? Would he break into the store and steal my wallet? Was he going to ask me for money?

I turned the key in my ignition and placed my hands on the gear shift. A slight wave of ease came over me as I realized I could dash off if he approached my car. With my adrenaline on high alert, I cued 911 on my iPhone, and I kept checking my mirrors, studying him, eyeing him, waiting to see what he would do.

Moments later, he passed me, and as he wandered north up High Street, I rewrote his narrative in my mind. My fear now gone, I was free to be rational. And from a safe distance, I no longer saw him as a singular creature of suspicion--he was no longer a dangerous drunk who was looking for the chance to threaten some part of my life--he was just a man, with a thousand possible reasons for why he just so happened to stumble through a parking lot at the same time my personal crisis (that in the grand scheme of life was not a big deal at all) happened to unfold.

Maybe he was looking at me because he wondered if I was in trouble.

Maybe he self-medicates because he can't afford medical care.

Maybe he wasn't impaired, and just suffers from vertigo.

Maybe he is taking care of his sick wife and didn't have time to shower.

Maybe he was helping a friend with yard work and had one too many celebratory drinks.

Maybe he isn't well, and is forcing himself outside to find food.

Maybe...

Of course, since I had idle time to think, the maybes continued. And the more they continued, the worse I felt about my initial read, about my gut instinct to start the car, cue the authorities, and plan my escape on account of the way he looked to me. 

My train of thinking broke seconds later when the police arrived, and I turned my energy to the situation that called me there to begin with. The officer who was dispatched to my location greeted me with a smile, and when I explained my dilemma, she peered through the store window at my wallet and then searched her records for emergency numbers. Even though she didn't have to, she took the time to call the contacts she had. Unfortunately, they didn't answer, but her response helped me feel better about the circumstances. She wrote notes about our interaction, and told me that if anything happened to my wallet, there would now be a police record. 

The officer and I parted ways once our exchange was complete, and I spent the entire ride home thinking about both the man in the parking lot and my pleasant encounter with the officer. I wondered what the man's real story was. I wondered how he perceived the distant intersection of our lives. Despite thinking that he was looking at me, perhaps he didn't even notice me there, perhaps he didn't give me a second thought, but perhaps my presence made him just as nervous as his presence made me. Perhaps my presence caused him to fear an altercation with the police, or with whomever he imagined was meeting me. 

Despite giving him the benefit of the doubt later, I wondered why my initial gut reaction was fear. What was it about that man that made me afraid? Would have I been afraid under different circumstances? Or was there something about him that would have always triggered a high alert setting? And if there is something about seeing certain people that triggers an innate, survivalist response, where does that response come from? Is our fear the byproduct of a deeply ingrained instinct toward self-preservation or is it something we learn, something culture teaches us over time? Perhaps it is some combination of the two, and if so, when is fear good and when is it bad? And how do we draw the line in such a way that we can keep both ourselves and our respect for humanity safe?

The police, of course, were on their way, so in my situation Sunday evening, the promise of seeing blue and red lights calmed me. If anything happens, they will arrive and stop it, I thought.  And the mere fact that my view of them as an ally, as a helper, as a beacon of justice made me wonder about all of the people who would never think to call authorities when they were scared, or desperate, or in need of a small outpouring of help. It seemed so natural to me to pick up the phone because that's what my narrative tells me to do: Call 911 when you're in trouble. The police will help you. When cop cars pull onto the scene, you can relax. 

But this isn't a natural response for everyone.

As I drove home from the battery store Sunday night, I thought about how different my narrative looks from the narratives of those who have been raised to avoid authorities, from those who have seen or experienced police brutality, from those who have endured tension, violence, profiling and fear. I thought about those who spend each day hoping to avoid conflict, because they have learned that there are few voices standing up for them, standing up for all forms of justice. 

I wondered how many other narratives were out there: not just with our justice system, but with every facet of life. Narratives that are not only shaped through a lens influenced by race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation, but also through lenses influenced by drug addiction, physical impairments or mental illness. Lenses that alter the way human beings experience and are experienced in the world. Lenses like the one I looked through when I feared an unkempt, middle-aged white man stumbling through the parking lot behind me.

Monday morning, I went back to the store, got my wallet and headed home. Everything resolved itself in a fairly uneventful way, but my brain was still alive with thoughts when I sat down at my computer. Uncertain how to make sense of them all, I smiled when I opened an email from my brother: "Here's your Monday morning writing inspiration," he wrote, and within the body of the email, he sent me David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. Of course since my brother knows me well, he sent the transcript rather than the video, and when I read Wallace's words, I found myself stopped dead in my tracks.

Fully aware of his liberal arts audience, Wallace discusses the value of a liberal arts education (and not the typical "it teaches you how to think" defense, but a meaty defense that explores the idea of losing your arrogance, of learning how to be aware). He talks about how two human beings can experience the same story and derive different truths. He discusses how a true education takes a lifetime, that we will always be working to sharpen our mind and open our eyes. And he talks about the routine of daily life, what we worship and the options we have for how we choose to see our world.  

If you're in need of thought about thought, I fully recommend reading the whole thing, but in the interest of time, one idea in particular stuck with me. One idea brought me back to the man in the parking lot, to the idea that we all have a choice about what choose to see or not to see, about what sort of narratives we write. Wallace talks about how we instantly judge the people around us, but that true freedom is taking a step back from our initial read and being open to alternatives. True freedom is about accepting that our view of the world is not absolute, that the things that happen around us are not always about us. True freedom is deciding not to accept the mindless default, and instead it is about choosing to be thoughtful, aware and conscious.

In other words, true freedom is about deciding to give people the benefit of the doubt, and in so doing, releasing ourselves from the grip of negative assumptions, from being absolutely positive that our world is miserable and ill-intentioned, and deciding instead, to see it as multifaceted, to see it as having a variety of truths, a variety of complexities, and a variety of narratives. 
 
My brother had no idea what I was thinking about Monday morning when he sent me that speech, but reading through Wallace's thoughts helped me sort through my own. It framed the way I reflected on my experience, on the questions and curiosities, on the line between instinctual self preservation and irrational fear. I have no answers about any of things I pondered or saw or felt. I still don't know if it was good street-smarts that led me to judge the man who walked behind me, or if my fear suggests a form of calloused cruelty, but I do know that the experience made me think. It made me stop. It made me see value in the process of considering why my default setting was to issue judgement. It made me take a step back and consider various narratives, realizing that though I might see the world one way, that man might see it differently. That while my lens shows me one side of the world, it is no clearer and no better than anyone else's lens; it's just different.

Of course the idealist in me hopes that one day we can arrive at a place where fear isn't so rampant, where more of us can can hear and accept the various narratives around us, and where the police-as-protectors concept is accessible to all people, but I don't want to sound naive. I'm not sure how such change can happen, but I do know that before it is possible, we must first see and admit a need for progress. We must first open our eyes and recognize that we all have different lines of sight. We must choose to dislodge ourselves from the default, and instead, decide to be open to the multiplicities of life.

 
 

By Laura Moore

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The thing I love most about teaching has nothing to do with my subject matter. While I enjoy discussing rhetorical devices, narrative voice and characterization, I cherish my life conversations above and beyond anything imbedded in the curriculum.  

This year, I'm taking a year off of teaching and devoting myself to writing. Unfortunately, that means I will miss out on the privileged opportunity to engage with a new group of kids and play some small part in their growth as human beings.  Since I won't be there to pass along my advice, I wanted to share it with you. 

Here are my top nine tips for cultivating happy, independent and successful kids:

1. Encourage Your Child to Get Involved
Extra curricular involvement often opens a thousand new doors for students. It boosts confidence, it exposes kids to new friendships, it gives them purpose, it teaches them life skills and it often makes for happier kids.  That all said, it's important for students to find balance in their lives. They shouldn't get so involved that they don't have time to fulfill their commitments, do their homework or sleep, but they need to be involved enough that they learn time management skills. If your son or daughter isn't interested in athletics, music or the arts, encourage him or her to join clubs, to volunteer in the community, to get a job or to participate in a cause he or she cares about. As an English teacher, I'd like to believe reading and writing skills will make the biggest difference in their lives, but I know that outside experiences often shake them up, fill them up and lift them up more than anything else.

2. Support Your Child as He or She Takes Risks
School is the perfect place for kids to learn how to take good risks, the kind of risks that expose them to healthy activities they never knew existed, talents they never knew they had and/or people they never knew went to school with them. Good risks are empowering because they require students to face insecurities, fear or doubt head on, and this confrontation teaches them that they are capable of overcoming challenges throughout their lives.  Encourage your son or daughter to submit artwork, publish his/her writing, audition for plays, try out for teams, run for office or advocate for an important cause. Challenge him or her to push boundaries, but be sure to create a safe place for your child to retreat if plans go awry or efforts fall a bit short of success. No matter how tough teenagers might seem, they all want to know their parents are still proud of them regardless of what they do or do not achieve (I know this because I read their journals!).

3. Help Your Child Develop Responsibility
While it is important for us to support our kids, we need to make sure we are not enabling them. Now that I have my own child, I understand how tempting it is to swoop in and tidy up problems in an effort to minimize drama, but the kids who seem to be the most successful in school are the ones who have embraced some level of autonomy. These kids have learned how to advocate for themselves, and they assume responsibility for their commitments, actions and words. They know Mom and Dad will not come swooping in to fix things, so they tend to make better decisions to avoid the problems in the first place. When they do make a mistake, they own it, and because of that, many teachers tend to cut them some slack.  When kids constantly get bailouts, they never learn why responsibility is important, and by persistently denying them the chance to learn, we are setting them up for failure later.

4. Ensure Your Child Honors His or Her Commitments
I try my best every year to talk to kids about the importance of honoring their commitments. If kids are part of a group they need to complete their portion of the work. If kids sign up to do something, they need to follow through. If they schedule a meeting with a teacher, it is important for them to show up. When they don't, their disregard makes every one else's life difficult.  When they do, the world just seems to work a little bit better.

5. Facilitate Discussions That Promote Resourcefulness
As a society, we no longer have the patience to sit and figure things out. We want immediate gratification, and we find it easier to move on, buy something quicker, ask someone else to fix our problem, or make an excuse about why we couldn't accomplish our goal. These tendencies have trickled down to our kids. Year after year, I notice a large concentration of students who hit a wall when their Plan A goes awry.  Instead of thinking through backup solutions, a lot of kids ask their parents to write notes and many times, parents write them without giving it a second thought. 

We all have busy lives, and I realize it is so much faster for adults to fix problems rather than facilitate discussions, but when we persistently solve dilemmas ourselves, we deny our children the opportunity to learn how to problem solve on their own.  With a little bit of prodding, most students can easily develop perfectly acceptable Plans B, C or D. And figuring out how to navigate game-time, adrenaline pumping moments when they're faced with an impending consequence teaches them how to respond and improvise under pressure. This will not only benefit them throughout their school years, it will come in handy when they're out in the work force and have a boss who will not find a parent note laden with excuses as an acceptable substitute for a job well done. 

6. Choose Positive Positive Language
This is hard. No matter how good any of us try to be, we are bound to run into people who like to pick fights, who are passionately against our beliefs, or who respond to situations in ways that do not mesh with how we think human beings should respond. We need to remember that the same is true for our kids. 

It is easy to bad mouth those who have wronged us or our kids, those who are unnecessarily difficult, or those who have created obstacles, but negative words tend to stick around a lot longer than positive ones. Kids learn how to talk to others, and how to talk about others, by listening to people they respect. If they hear loved ones badmouthing bosses, neighbors, relatives, teachers, classmates or coaches, they will feel entitled to do the same. While venting can sometimes be therapeutic, doing it in front of kids--even if those kids are in high school--carries long term consequences:  kids learn that they only need to be respectful to some people. As hard as it might be, the more we can model appropriate ways to respond to difficult people, the easier it will be for our children to learn language that will help them overcome and not exacerbate problems in their lives. 

7. Encourage Your Child to Embrace Kindness and Respect
It is easy to get caught up in gossip and drama, but the kids who rise above it seem to be the happiest. They respect adults, they empathize with peers and they see the best in people. They consistently treat others with respect and they generally err on the side of kindness.  When life ushers in a challenge, they are level-headed in their analysis, they are proactive in finding solutions, and regardless of the temptation to do otherwise, they are unwavering in their determination to maintain integrity.  This tends to inspire less regret, and often helps to avoid he-said/she-said banter intended to cast them in the center of an enormous controversy.  High school drama is inevitable, but learning how to rise above the pettiness tends to make that drama much less destructive.

8. Look for Opportunities to Learn
No matter how boring a teacher might seem or how pointless a class might appear, students have the opportunity to learn every time they take a seat, every time they open a book, and every time they put their thoughts on paper. School, just like life, is as interesting as we decide to make it. While teachers try to light their subject matter on fire, even the most engaging educators have off days, or days when they must tackle curriculum that is not quite as exciting. When this happens, challenge kids to find some nugget in the blob of boringness.  In an ideal world, the school day would teem with excitement, but even if we could pull that off, eventually, our kids would enter the real world, a space where they will have to do things they don't want to do, and endure interactions they don't want to have. At some point, successful people decide to bare down, make the most of their situation and do what they need to do so they can have the opportunity to do what they want to do later.

9. Get to Know Your Teacher
Encourage your child to get to know his or her teacher. Despite the fact that educators have a variety of methods for gauging where are kids are academically, emotionally and socially, they can sometimes miss the discreet struggles that hover beneath the surface. It is much harder to know the student who dashes toward his seat the second the starting bell rings, or runs out of the room the moment the ending bell sounds. The students who engage with us between classes, during office hours, before or after school or during lunch tend to get much more out of our classes than the kids we track down during our planning period every couple of weeks when we have a few spare minutes. Teachers love helping kids, so encourage your sons and daughters to take advantage of the opportunity to get extra help, advice or support. 

The same goes for parents. If you ever have a concern about your child, please reach out and communicate with teachers. After all, we have the same goal: to help your son or daughter grow into the best human being he or she can be.