All posts by ashleymcarmichael

What is lost/gained as cultural identity evolves?

One of the questions I ask my students every year is “What is lost and/or gained as cultures evolve?” The idea behind the question is to get them thinking about how cultural identity is constantly in flux, first of all, and second of all how even though a culture may be considered ancient, that doesn’t make it irrelevant.

Every year they surprise me with the depth of their insight. We don’t give the youth of today enough credit for their ability to think critically when given the opportunity. Yes, the digital age is severely handicapping our kids’ ability to communicate effectively, but as one of my students points out “an evolving culture can’t lose their identity without gaining a new one” and that is exactly what our digital age does for our students. It is providing them an opportunity to form a new identity for their culture. I hope they take this seriously, so as an educator it is my job to help them see past the “Mily Cyrus twerking and wrecking ball” farce of an era we are living in and help them create a future they can actually believe in.

So the question is: how do we teach our students how to build a future to believe in?

This goes back to my original question. Teenagers today need to know that many things are lost in a culture as it evolves so they can choose to retain the valuable, ditch the unreasonable and procure the resources necessary to build a brighter future for us all.

The first topic we discuss is inevitably technology. As products of a digital age, the symbol 2/3 of almost all my classes choose to represent the “typical American teenager” is always a cellular device (of course I have to mention my students who think outside of the box and want to represent teenagers with a “rock” or other symbol—but they wouldn’t be teenagers if one or two of them didn’t want to deviate from the accepted norm, right?).  In an age of phones that apparently are “smarter” than we are—my students are quick to recognize that we gain new technologies every year; they are just as quick to say that this gains us knowledge—until I question them on this point: does access to information actually gain you knowledge? And then crickets. With some perception shift, they begin to understand that “as [our] culture begins to grow we tend to drift, and every day we seem to lose more knowledge, as new technology comes out.” My point is then proved with a handwritten response to this question: “we seem to worry less, but on the down side we become to releint on contraptions that could mounfunction, and makes us hopless, we loose are level of indepence.” I leave the misspelled words in the response as I think it helps drive the point home—there is no spell check, so has this student lost his ability to sound out even basic words like independence and malfunction? In his own analysis, as a society we would rather let machines do the work for us, so we begin to lose our ability to think for ourselves.

At this point, I hope that “Danger, Will Robinson!” is beginning to flash in front of them (not that any of them actually get this allusion, but one can dream).

Unfortunately, this is not enough for students to completely change their generation. And sadly, we continue to give our upcoming generation mixed messages. On the one hand, we want to encourage them to think critically and more importantly for themselves. On the other, we keep shoving digital media in their hands and in front of their faces we begin to lose sight of what is really important in education: the mind.

I want my students to succeed, but in a world where success is mis-defined and quite frankly unappreciated, what will it take to turn that bus around? 

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My Voice

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of,” says Joss Whedon.

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Photo via buzzfeed.com 25 quotes that will inspire you to be a fearless writer

If you are cultured enough to know who Joss Whedon is, bravo. I on the other hand have to admit that I had to look him up after having read this beautiful and incredibly accurate quote, and am I ever glad I did. Joss Whedon is a screenwriter with some very notable and, if I may say so myself, kick ass screen plays. Some of his works include: The Avengers and Firefly, and my brother-in-law will even chime in to agree with my assertion of his works when I add Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel to his notable titles.

Regardless of your personal feelings for science fiction and supernatural drama, Whedon’s words resound deep in my journey to find my voice as a writer.

STRENGTH

Writing gives me strength in ways I can’t explain. I’ve always envied my siblings. Strength has come to them so naturally. Socially they fit in no matter where they go, and people just want to be their friend. They both have a natural charisma and strong personality that I admire in more ways than they will ever realize.

I have looked up to my sister since I was born; I truly believe that is what God designed big sisters for. She was born with a natural strength of self. To me, she is almost superhuman. When I need perspective or when I’m turning into a crazy person, she is usually the first person I call because she is so rock solid in her thinking and emotional outlook. Beyond that she has a strong faith that I can only hope to aspire to someday.

My brother is strong socially and mentally in ways that I will never be. He can think on his feet and react without having to weigh the pros and cons five hundred times. Taking risks and experiencing the fullness of what life has to offer is his speciality. His natural intelligence and wit, not to mention physical strengths, are character traits I lack, but wish I could cultivate.

When I write, I can.

I know this sounds like I’m whining about what I can’t do, but that isn’t my intention. I’m proud of who I am as a person and I have a lot of great qualities—my point is simply that writing gives me a chance to harness the strengths that I have longed for most of my life. It allows me to feel, to heal, and ultimately to be whomever I want to be.

TO BE CHARACTERS I AM NOT

I know who I am.

Writing gives me a chance to be who I am not.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t like who I am; on the contrary, I believe it gives me the chance to show just how much I love myself by exploring the different parts of my own reality and deep desires. And isn’t that what we are all trying to do in this crazy world anyway?

TO EXPLORE ALL THE THINGS I AM AFRAID OF

Because writing gives me strength and because it allows me to be someone I’m not, it allows me to explore worlds, things, and even emotions I am naturally afraid of.

And sadly, I’m afraid of a lot.

I’ve always wanted to take a hot air balloon ride; this shocks most people who know me well simply because I’m terrified of heights. And we’re talking I can barely climb a ladder. In my novel I wrote a scene where my character, also afraid of heights, overcomes this fear and experiences the hot air balloon with a spirit of adventure I’ve never had.

And in a way, that spirit of adventure becomes a part of me helping me to explore and reach to even deeper rooted fears than a physical distaste for heights. Deep within me, deep within most of us, is a fear of rejection. Does writing take away that fear? Of course not; in a lot of ways, it actually opens up it up to public scrutiny. So in that way, writing forces me to face the fear which is an exploration in and of itself.


 

So, today I am a writer, an artist, an explorer, an adventurer; I am who I am and I am who I am not—who could ask for more? 


What If…

The best part about being a writer is imagining how certain exchanges in life could be change if I were a different person.

Don’t get me wrong, most days I like who I am. I don’t believe in regrets. Every moment of every day shapes us into the people we are God ordained to be.

But sometimes I wonder….

What if I’d said this?

What if I’d done that?

What if I were more assertive, flirty, aggressive, competitive?

How would life be different?

Because it would be different.

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Robin Jones Gunn, wrote this in her best-selling Christy Miller series for teens:

“You can drive yourself crazy living in the ‘Land of If Only.’ […] I heard this lady talk once about how you could spend your whole life in the ‘Land of If Only’ by always looking back and saying, ‘If only I’d done this’ or ‘If only I hadn’t done that.’ It can really mess you up if you’re always wishing things were different than they are. She said that when things happen that you don’t understand, you have to believe God is still in control and nothing happens by mistake.”

 As a teenager, I took this advice to heart, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized something important about this message. There is a difference between the land of “If Only” and the land of “What If…” The basic premise of trusting God to be in control is sound theology. Whoever I am and whatever I do or don’t do is valuable and as it says in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Spending too much time in the land of ‘If Only’ questions the validity of God’s control over my life. This is the last thing I want to do.

But ‘what if’ is beautiful because it gives me a chance to explore different possibilities and build different scenarios to use a God given gift. 

An Actual Exchange:

 Person: “How are you doing?”

Me: “I’m doing okay. Or, I will be okay.”

Person: “I owe you big time.”

Me: Laughing a little, “No, no. It’s fine. Everything’s good.”

What If…

 Male Character: “How are you doing?”

Female Protagonist: “I’m okay I think.”

Male Character: “I owe you big time.”

Female Protagonist: “Well, maybe I’ll let you buy me dinner sometime and we’ll call it even.”

The tone of the exchange is completely altered with absolutely no description—the dialogue can change everything and the responses/directions are endless. 

The problem: there is a delicate line between ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ and once I cross it, I fall into the sin of ingratitude, which brings me back around to my Lent 2014 challenge of ditching the negative energy and focusing on blessings. The more I do this now, the more habitual it becomes, the thicker the line becomes, and ‘what if’ blossoms into what next.

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Am I Under Attack?

For the past few years, I’ve loved my job.

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I woke up early, excited for each new day because I was excited to see what the day would bring. I worked hard. I barely slept, and when I did I usually dreamed of new lessons I could use. I built my repertoire. I built my reputation.

 

I became a kick ass teacher.

That is until I came under attack. Not by my 33, 34, 35, sometimes 36 students (yes, 36) in one standard level class—scholars who have been in and out of prison, on and off drugs, pregnant or parenting, abused, neglected, and unloved in their homes. Students who have jobs, play two or three sports, are in clubs or youth groups, and raise money and food for the homeless and needy our communities and abroad. No, these are not the ones who attack me. These are the ones who respect me. I’m being attacked by those who should be supporting me. Those who are in power. Those who have the chance to improve the lives of my students, but choose rather to further their own political agendas.

They are attacking the public education system and imprisoning the teachers with their illogical policies and backward agendas. Worse yet, they are pitting educators against one another spitting out orders to collaborate in learning communities while proposing and passing laws that do nothing but promote a divisive culture.

It enrages and exhausts me.

 I’ve been a teacher for seven years. Three of those seven years I have been asked to train student teachers to enter this arena—without pay (though Wake Forest has offered courses as compensation; I haven’t had the time with all my school extracurricular duties—SIT committee/chair, Key Club Sponsor, IEP meetings, tutoring, etc.–to take them up on this offer and, let’s face it, this is not the same economic advantage). Nevertheless, I agreed to take on the extra responsibility of a student teacher, sharing my lesson plans, insights, discipline strategies and ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy having a student teacher–because I love teaching!

Now Governor McCrory proposes to give starting teachers a raise, bumping up their base pay to a whopping $35,000 in the next 2 years.

I make less than $35,000 

There was no mention of adjusting the base pay so mine would match starting teacher’s. Best case scenario—I, with 8-10 years’ experience, would make the same as a first year teacher. Worst case—I make less.

I just trained them.

I just gave them all MY lesson plans that I worked 7-10 years on.

 And my governor wants to pay them more than me.

Someone tell me what that does to a school culture?

North Carolina just passed a law that will remove tenure for teachers. Regardless of your views of the validity of tenure, the follow up legislature is appalling: over the next four years, all counties must identify the top 25% of their teachers and offer them a bonus of $500/year to surrender their tenure early.

Counties are alowed to choose how they are handling this legislation. Some are supporting it by coming up with plans, some are opposing them by breaking the law, and some are letting their teachers decide.

It’s a little like throwing the ‘steak’ into the dog’s cage and to watch the dogs duke it out (dog fighting, by the way, is illegal for a reason…).

How are we supposed to work together and collaborate if we’re all fighting with one another over politics and policy?

We’re under attack.

This is my plea. Stop attacking educators. All we want to do is teach; we want to educate and enrich your students. We want to collaborate. We want to be successful.

So why are we sabotaging our future?

 

In my frustration I wrote a short story. Here is a small selection…let me know what you think. 

[…] Everywhere I looked there were stacks of papers piled high. The trash was overflowing with takeout containers and unwashed dishes piled up in the sink.

            “What a slob,” I scoffed, thinking about how meticulously I organized everything in my life. I would never let my home get this disorganized.

            “You hate living like this,” future me spoke clearly, breaking into my thoughts like a shockwave. “But you never have time to cook or clean any more. You live alone because you don’t have time to go out and meet anyone and when you do have a rare moment of extracurricular entertainment your profession scares them off. You might as well announce you are the Bride of Chuckie—that’s just how quickly the

y run.”

            “I—you—what?” For a second time I was at a loss for words. I scanned the room in an absolute  panic. Finally the question I really wanted to ask bubbled to the top of my jumbled brain. “What about my writing?”

            I watched as my eyebrow raised.

            “You used it to line your bird’s cage.”

            “But I hate birds.”

            “It was cheaper than a dog—or a security system,” she said with a shrug. “You even trained it to bark.”

            “You’ve got to be joking.”

            “Sqwak! Arf, Arf! Sqwak!” The offensive animal spoke up from the corner.

            “I’m really not.”

            I stared at the depressing bird in the corner with nothing less than disgust on my face as the scene melted away and door number three loomed before us.

            When the final door opened, my brow wrinkled again. I wasn’t expecting the tal

l, dark haired man with an unattractive comb over.

            “Who is that?”

            “You’re real boss,” the bitterness in her tone shocked me  and I stared at my future self, waiting for the explanation. None came. I looked back at the man, who was talking incessantly on the phone about something political. The golden name plate glared back at me: Woody Dixon.

            “I work for Woody Dixon?” I tried not to choke on the ridiculous name. I looked at my future self and watched as a smile twisted up on my face.

            In the corner sat a presentation board which read:

You voted for me so I could take us back to basics with our ABCs…

-Abolishing tenure and equalizing teacher evaluations

-Balancing budgets across the state by cutting funding in schools

-Cutting educator pay based on standardized test scores

I turned back to my host and noticed a cigarette that had not been there before.

            “O my God! What are you doing?”

            “Oh don’t worry,” she replied, “These are healthy cigarettes; they’re supposed to relax and de-stress you. Of course, in ten years, they may find out that they lead to sterilization, decreasing IQ or even death, but no one seems to mind that right now. Senator Dixon helped pass a law so they use teachers instead of animals for all testing experiments now. We’re more expendable than the animals according to the most recent voter polls, so everyone is happy.” […]

 

Finding Purpose

What lie has been perpetuated throughout time, but carries with it connotative fear that can send even the most rational person to the edge of lunacy?

 Purposelessness.

No one wants to believe that we are here on the planet for no reason—further still, no one wants to believe that we are completely meaningless. Do people sometimes spot this as a philosophy? Yes. Do people believe this to be true? Yes. But I also believe that the philosophers and believers in this meaningless existence also fear that this ‘truth’ as they see it, is in fact true.

 And what if it is?

 The novella The Mysterious Stranger ends with the following statement:

“It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities” (68).

Nothing exists but you.

The center of a narcissistic world loves this idea. For a while. And then it sinks in.

Nothing exists but you.

Vagrant, homeless, wandering—Sure it’s all about you, but you have nowhere to belong to, so what is the point of you?

We scramble around from point A to point B constantly searching for a way to make ourselves stand out from the crowd, to create some kind of meaning for our lives. Then suddenly all that hope that we will someday be able to find a purpose is ripped out from under us with three small words: It is true.

So where does this lie originate?

Mark Twain’s novella pinpoints this perfectly through the mysteriously appearance, intrusion, insertion, interference, and manipulation of the mysterious stranger in his novella. Though the story is started by Twain and finished by a team of editors prior to publication, what the reader learns about the mysterious stranger is profoundly philosophical.

The only one who would profit from such a lie is the Father of Lies himself, and to perpetuate the greatest lie of all, he would have to build on a foundation of truth. And isn’t that what makes a lie great? That it is actually believable?

Take the Mysterious Stranger for example. Without spoiling the story, the stranger arrives in a tiny hamlet of a town and performs tricks and treats to excite some impressionable young boys. His good looks and smooth words give him the credibility that he needs establishing his ethos. The treats and tricks tap into the boys’ pathos. This makes the manipulation of the logos, some of which is based on truth, much easier for the boys to swallow, believe and ultimately follow.

In the same way, the Father of Lies wants us to believe that we are alone in this universe. That we are not only the center of the world but that our selfish attitudes are actually a part of a greater reality and truth. That we have NOTHING to be thankful for.

And if we believe that, we trap ourselves in an eternal misery separated from the joy that is our birthright as children of God.

I don’t want to live like that.

I want to be thankful for who I am, but more than that, I want to be thankful for who God is and who God created me to be. I am not alone. There is a world, a universe, a God, a loving savior.

I’m not saying the way is going to be easy; in fact, breaking free from the lies that have cocooned me for years is back breaking work. As Ann Voskamp says in her book One Thousand Gifts:

“I would never experience the fullness of my salvation until I expressed the fullness of my thanks every day, and eucharisteo is elemental to living the saved life […] This is why I sat all those years in church but my soul holes had never fully healed. Eucharisteo, the Greak word with the hard meaning and the harder meaning to live—this is the only way from empty to full” (40).

I’m ready to stop believing the lies and start living the eucharisteo—but I’m going to need all the help I can get.