Our Gladiator Culture: On “Grit,” Competition, and Saving Future Generations

my father moved through griefs of joy;…
his shoulders marched against the dark

“my father moved through dooms of love,” e.e. cummings

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

“Good Bones,” Maggie Smith

While sitting in the ER with my father a few nights ago before he was admitted into the hospitals’ heart center—a few days after my mother’s stroke sending her to another, larger hospital 40-minutes away—I was reminded of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, a novel, among other things, about the abusive power imbalance between men and women.

Late in the novel, Celie explains to her sister Nettie: “Take off they pants, I say, and men look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss ’em, as far as I’m concern, frogs is what they stay.”

The most powerful and imposing man in my life, my father, sat in the ER—stooped, shrunken, pot-bellied, tongue hanging out of his mouth and bowed head like an aged human-sized toad somehow in a wheelchair. My father has always been my physical and athletic superior, despite my being in my mid-50s and quite successful in my career and my athletic hobby; he has always cast a shadow, darkening my lingering insecurities and anxieties.

This morning, Father’s Day 2017, I visited my father still in the heart center after spending almost all my time at my mother’s side as the number of family members able to help has dwindled as the day-count grows. Although improved, frog-like and frail, my father declared to me: “Nothing is wrong with me. I need to go home.”

For some time now, his heart has been working at only about 33%, wearing him and his pacemaker out at an accelerated rate.

In times of great medical stress, when families are brought together, stories spring forth to stabilize the chaos and restore our delusion that we have some sort of control.

One of the many myths of my father: In high school, because of fights and sports (my father was a four-sport letterman and captain of his high school’s first state championship football team in the 1950s), by age 18, my father had a full set of false teeth. So many teeth had been knocked out, his dentist eventually pulled the remaining 10 or 12 one day.

After the procedure, my father played in a baseball game, prompting his father to track him down, trying to make him come home to rest.

Like him, my mother is a gendered twin of the fanatic 1950s template for self-sacrifice, rugged individualism, and blind faith in the whitewashed American Dream—the racialized lie about hard work paying off and good guys winning.

I believe I am not being hyperbolic to recognize that my parents lie now in hospitals, broken and frail, because they bought the hokum, the hard-work hokum that makes people define their dignity in how fervently they sacrifice themselves, in how they work moment by moment to prove they are not lazy, soft, or in any way dependent on others.

My parents passed onto me a neurotic work ethic; my father instilled in me an incredibly unhealthy obsession with being athletic as proof of my manhood.

Although I have been trying to ween myself off sports fandom, I remain often connected to the sports fanaticism of the U.S.—one most solidly grounded in college and pro football, the perfect metaphor for the gladiator culture that defines us.

Dragged kicking and screaming, college football and the NFL have begun paying lip-service to acknowledging that [gasp!] the sport is cruelly violent, that football players are turning their brains into mush because of the relentless concussions that are simply part of the game.

The stories linked to the concussion debate in football are powerful and disturbing because they reveal a subtext that also came to mind as I sat with each of my parents: pro football players, many retired, admit that they have and would continue to lie about concussion symptoms to remain on the field.

The gladiator culture of the U.S. is replicated exponentially in the NFL [1]—toxic and hyper-masculinity, anything necessary including sacrificing health and even life.

And while the NFL and football mania of the U.S. are disturbing, the most troubling reality is that our neo-work-ethic of the twenty-first century targets children, specifically black and brown children from impoverished backgrounds.

The “grit” and growth mindset movements have become (mainstream) socially acceptable ways to wink-wink-nod-nod that black, brown, and poor people are simply too lazy, unwilling to work themselves, like my dad and mom, into decrepitude for the 1%.

Frantic—we are a nation with a ruling class snowblinded by their own privilege and terrified they won’t have a servant class—the whitewashed American Dream for black, brown, and poor children.

The U.S. has devolved into a perverse and inverted gladiator culture with the 1% in the stands and the rest of us reduced to a dog-eat-dog existence, an artificial and unnecessary dog-eat-dog existence.

Visit the elderly of this country, worn down by the demands that they work hard and depend on no one.

Look into their faces and if you can their eyes.

This is the future we are demanding of “other people’s children.”

But it is also a future we can reject, choosing instead an ethic of community and compassion.

As I look at my parents—discardable white working class Americans—I think that they deserved better, despite their own culpability in our whitewashed American Dream.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I would prefer above all else to be on the couch with my granddaughter, who yesterday kept imploring me “Wake up, Papa!” as I tried to doze between sessions with my mother, as she snuggled against me, her futon.

I know she deserves better—as does every single child having come to this planet and country by no choice of their own.

“This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful”—a haunting image of everything that I wish for this world in a poem by Maggie Smith that confesses:

The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I have kept much from my father and my mother in ways substantial and indirect.

But there is no way to justify the lies we tell children—that they fail to work hard enough, that they are somehow not good enough unless they act as if they do not matter, that they should shut up and suck it up.

Few things are worth fighting for, but one is to keep every child from the gladiator’s ring, to promise every child if not a beautiful world, at least the possibility of one.


[1] In the same way the NFL promotes the great lie that the U.S. is a meritocracy:

Despite this, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell rejected on Friday the idea that any kind of blackballing was taking place. He called the NFL “a meritocracy,” saying, “If they see an opportunity to get better as a football team, they’re going to do it. They’re going to do whatever it takes to make their football team better. So, those are football decisions. They’re made all the time. I believe that if a football team feels that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, is going to improve that team, they’re going to do it.”

Intimacy, Privacy, and Consent

Tom. Look—I’ve got no thing, no single thing—

Amanda. Lower your voice!

Tom. In my life here that I can call my own!

The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams

I am in high school, junior or senior year, I think, playing pick-up basketball on the concrete court in my yard with several friends and my father.

At some point, I say something wrong to my father as the game heats up, and he slaps me hard across the face—bringing the game to a sudden stop and silence.

I had—as I did more and more often as a late teen—breached the respect line due all adults engrained in me by my father. I had been slapped before walking down the street when I failed to say “yes, sir” to someone we had spoken with in our hometown.

To this day, as reflex, I say “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” to almost everyone, from my students to my peers and always those older than me. To most people, it seems quaint, I am sure, and yet another marker of my very Southern Self.

On balance, however, my father was unflinchingly wonderful to me; my childhood, nearly idyllic—although I have had to cast aside many of the beliefs and practices my father passed onto me.

The iron-fisted authoritarianism of my childhood and teen years harvested the opposite effect intended. To this day, I bristle at all authority, mostly because I recognize in it such crass hypocrisy that I can barely hold my tongue—just as I often could not hold my tongue with my father triggering him to throw me across my bedroom and into the wall even though I was an inch taller then he, triggering him to wrestle me to the ground, pinning me down and demanding that I just not say one more word.

Straining against his weight and strength, I would add: “Word.”

In the wake of the four decades between then and now, I often think about that day I was slapped in front of all my friends. I do not recall it, and cannot make some dramatic claim that the slap still burns on my cheek.

I think about it, often.

During just under thirty years as a father, more than thirty as a teacher, and almost three as a grandfather, I think about that slap as I work moment by moment to be a kinder and more patient human, especially to children, young people, and anyone in my care.

“All we gotta do is be brave/And be kind,” guides me along with “I’m so sorry for everything.”

I urge my teacher candidates to say “please” and “thank you” to their students; I beg them to have higher standards for themselves than for the students in their care—always to walk the walk instead of or before talking the talk.

It is ours to be that which we expect in others, to earn and deserve the respect that my father demanded by default.

And without fail, my teacher candidates report to me that teachers in the field tell them to stop the “please,” stop the “thank you” because children don’t work that way, and often this is code for “those children”—black, brown, poor unlike the teachers embodying the same sort of stoic harshness of my father.

I was well on my way in this journey before the birth of my granddaughter almost three years ago, but that tiny human has accelerated my efforts, and sharpened my resolve.

I have helped with daycare with my granddaughter, Skylar, and now also my grandson, at least once a week throughout her life.

As a toddler, Skylar on those days when we were alone would often take my finger and guide me to the floor. I sat cross-legged, and she would use me as a chair; she would also just as often pull me next to her just to be touching as she played.

She still climbs onto the couch just to be close, taking my hand and guiding it to hold her foot or leaning into my hand as I scratch her tiny head beneath that wild flourish we call her hair.

I am now very conscious that she needs but is also learning about what healthy and promised intimacy means, how it looks and feels.

My granddaughter is also learning about this in the context of how men and women interact. It will be an ongoing journey for her—one about which I am terrified because the world remains a horrible and violent place for children and women.

Skylar, approaching three, also seeks from time to time her privacy, becoming aware that some of human behavior is ours alone, and not the loneliness alone, but the privacy alone.

We know when she hides around the corner or goes to another room, we need to change her diaper, which has also become a delicate matter between her and the people who love her, care for her.

I ask her gently for permission to change her diaper because she hates this necessary act; she is aware of its encroachment on her privacy, her emerging awareness of her physical privacy, her physical spaces that are hers to share or not.

I seek her consent, her understanding that I am a caregiver and simply fulfilling a duty she will be able to do on her own someday.

As I change her, especially as I wipe her, I say over and over, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Skylar has embraced this as well; her sweet refrain, “I’m sorry,” lacing any time she feels she has somehow breached expectations—prompting my always: “It’s ok.”

We talk softly to each other in these exchanges.

Because making mistakes is being a child, being fully human. Who among us is above that?

My dear Skylar, unlike me, has never been and will never be hit by me as a caretaker because this is something unlike my upbringing I have brought to my family, to my daughter’s family.

And so, this becoming fully human child, Skylar, rudders me, will not allow me to ignore the sanctity of intimacy, privacy, and consent.

These, I am resolute, shall not be breached; these remain inviolate.

Because “I’m so sorry for everything.”

“[T]o embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else”

If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence.

Bayard Rustin

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” explains the narrator in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” adding:

Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

A people aware, complicit, of the necessity to sacrifice a child—but this isn’t just some fantastic allegory of the ends justifying the means, utilitarianism.

This is the U.S., now.

Last night, between my wife and me in bed, my nearly three-year-old granddaughter lay restlessly asleep, burning up with a fever. My 6-month-old grandson was home with my daughter suffering his first infection.

As I worry about these children closest in my life: Teacher, boy die when husband opens fire in California class.

And we may add “again.”

Or “while the country continues not to give a good goddamn.”

Or “[but] [t]hey all know that it has to be there.”

Or “in the wake of political leaders of multiple countries killing children while pretending to be distraught over the slaughter of children.”

Or “while Syrian children are sacrificed and children in Detroit are just callously ignored.”

We are a disappointing and awful people. Squandering our potential through selfishness and greed. We have no moral authority or purpose.

We cannot justify our violence. A hand raised, a gun, a bomb. Violence is the lowest act of any human. It is always failure.

A people is defined by how they prioritize the weakest among them, children.

“But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else,” Le Guin’s narrator warns.

By that metric, we are a disappointing and awful people.

See Also

Suffer the Children, Jen Sorensen, Truthout | Cartoon

 

Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. Redux: A Reader

We were in Rye, passing the First Church, and the breeze from the ocean was already strong. A man with a great stack of roofing shingles in a wheelbarrow was having difficulty keeping the shingles from blowing away; the ladder, leaning against the vestry roof, was also in danger of being blown over. The man seemed in need of a co-worker—or, at least, of another pair of hands.

“WE SHOULD STOP AND HELP THAT MAN,” Owen observed, but my mother was pursuing a theme and, therefore, she’d noticed nothing unusual out the window….

“WE MISSED DOING A GOOD DEED,” Owen said morosely, “THAT MAN SHINGLING THE CHURCH—HE NEEDED HELP.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

I wrote Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. to reject the decades-long focus on education reform targeted in-school only accountability driven by ever-new standards and high-stakes testing.

But that work also reveals the incredible power of stereotypes about adults and children living in poverty in the U.S. Despite our cultural myths about rugged individualism and boot-straps success, the impoverished in the U.S. are overwhelmingly vulnerable populations.

whoispoor1

Consider the following sobering statistics, illustrated in the figure above:

  • More than a third of those who live in poverty are children. More than 15.5 million children lived in poverty in 2014.
  • About 13 percent of those living in poverty are senior citizens or retired.
  • A quarter of those who live in poverty are in the labor force—that is, working or seeking employment.
  • A tenth of those in poverty are disabled.
  • Eight percent of those living in poverty are caregivers, meaning that they report caring for children or family.
  • Students, either full- or part-time, make up another seven percent of those living in poverty.
  • Just three percent of those living in poverty are working-age adults who do not fall into one of these categories—that is, they are not in the labor force, not disabled, and not a student, caregiver, or retired.

vulnerableopm

Stereotype 2: Poor People Are Lazy

Another common stereotype about poor people, and particularly poor people of color (Cleaveland, 2008; Seccombe, 2002), is that they are lazy or have weak work ethics (Kelly, 2010). Unfortunately, despite its inaccuracy, the “laziness” image of people in poverty and the stigma attached to it has particularly devastating effects on the morale of poor communities (Cleaveland, 2008).

The truth is, there is no indication that poor people are lazier or have weaker work ethics than people from other socioeconomic groups (Iversen & Farber, 1996; Wilson, 1997). To the contrary, all indications are that poor people work just as hard as, and perhaps harder than, people from higher socioeconomic brackets (Reamer, Waldron, Hatcher, & Hayes, 2008). In fact, poor working adults work, on average, 2,500 hours per year, the rough equivalent of 1.2 full time jobs (Waldron, Roberts, & Reamer, 2004), often patching together several part-time jobs in order to support their families. People living in poverty who are working part-time are more likely than people from other socioeconomic conditions to be doing so involuntarily, despite seeking full-time work (Kim, 1999).

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

A decade ago, I was confronted with an incredibly uncomfortable situation when my first-year English class overwhelmingly believed the Duke lacrosse team was innocent and the woman accusing them of sexual assault was fraudulent.

There was a significant mixture of irony in the tension resulting from my trusting that the class—atypically majority male at a university consisting of mostly privileged and white students—was biased by their collective and individual privilege as that conflicted with the eventual revealing that the Duke lacrosse team was in most ways innocent (although I would argue that is a simplistic conclusion supported by technicalities of law): the irony, of course, being that I—white, male, and privileged—was proven wrong about my claims of the U.S. being, in the language of today, a country in which white male lives matter most.

Just this May, another class included, again atypically, about a third black students, some of whom were eager to argue for corporal punishment and then several of the black male students felt compelled to speak up for males wrongly accused of sexual assault.

At that, I asserted that in the U.S. today it remains easier to be a male wrongly accused of sexual assault than to be a woman actually raped or sexually assaulted.

But I could not have anticipated both the Baylor University scandal and then the Brock Turner rape judgment and sentence, which has been followed by a disturbing pair of commentaries by Turner’s father and a female childhood friend.

The light sentence of Turner, by a judge who like Turner attended Stanford University, was justified because of the consequences this rape would have on Turner’s life. Turner’s victim has rebuked this decision in her own statement.

Both the Turner sentence and the Baylor scandal returned me to my examination of The Martian, an unintended allegory of the hyperbolic concern in the U.S. for the white male at the expense of women and people of color.

Having been raised in the sexist and racist South, I have spent my adult life—going on four decades—working against my privilege and learned bigotries.

I am aware of and fearful of whitesplaining and mansplaining, the white gaze and the male gaze in every interaction I have in both the real and virtual worlds. I shudder to think, on social media especially, how often I creep toward the line crossed by vicious male trolls, how often women and people of color see in my words the very things I abhor.

As a writer, I am hyper-aware that my one-more-white-man’s voice is crowding out space for women and people of color; we simply do not need more white male perspectives.

As a scholar and academic, now full professor and tenured with a significant body of published works, I am equally hyper-aware I continue to do the same in academia.

Much of my work has been devoted to calling out racism, but I have also addressed misogyny and mansplaining often. In both cases, I have tried to confront the inevitable “yes, but” from men and whites.

But I look at the one picture of Turner, and I see me—white male. I think about the judge in the case, and I am among the disproportionate number of white males in power in the U.S.

What woman would trust me, especially from a distance? Why would black and brown people believe my solidarity?

And while I am writing about me, this is not about me; this is about the daily doubling down in the U.S., proving that white male lives matter most—and the corrosive consequences for everyone.

That fact—the light sentence for Turner, the failure to hold police officers accountable for taking black lives—sustains a hostile world for everyone; we are pitted daily against each other because the greatest threat to power is solidarity.

I will continue to name misogynyracism, and child abuse—even as that work pushes my voice farther the margins.

As a privileged white male, I am insulated enough that I can offer these observations that remain mostly about my own minor inconveniences that are devastating realities for vulnerable populations and people oppressed because of race, gender, sexuality, or age. As a privileged white male, I seek to use my privilege to eradicate privilege.

But most of all, my greatest act of solidarity remains my role as a student—I listen, I read, I heed.

And even then, I fall short.

I have failed enough women, children, and people of color to last a dozen life times—and “I’m sorry” seems trivial against that.

White male privilege has created a vicious world that needs to be dismantled, and in its place, we must imagine something better, a world brought forth from the mouths and minds of those rendered less human and thus more aware of the beauty and grandeur of being human.

As Adrienne Rich offers, “the sea is another story/ the sea is not a question of power.”

Most people know “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but the Turner verdict and sentencing remind us of what Lord Acton offered next: “Great men are almost always bad men.”

Daily, this is proven true as we watch white males double down again and again on white male lives mattering most.

Outliers Never Evidence of Normal in Education

In Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares, the NYT, like most of mainstream media, is begrudgingly coming to admit that race and class inequity in the U.S. has a profound impact on the education of children—and that simply tinkering (badly) with school policy is not enough to change that reality:

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

But then there is this:

The data was [sic] not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.

“There are some outliers, and trying to figure out what’s making them more successful is worth looking at,” said Mr. Reardon, a professor of education and lead author of the analysis.

Well, no, if we find outliers—and virtually all data have outliers in research—we should not waste our time trying to figure out how we can make outliers the norm.

The norm is where we should put our efforts in order to confront what is, in fact, not “puzzling” (used earlier in the article) at all; the data are very clear:

What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.

Our great education reform failure is one of failing to rethink our questions and our goals.

Let’s stop trying to find the “miracle” in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.

And while we are making efforts at social policy, let’s end the in-school policies that we know “exacerbate” inequity: tracking, teacher assignments (and TFA), high-stakes testing, grade retention, discipline policies grounded in zero tolerance and “no excuses,” and segregation through school choice (including charter schools).

Education reform, as was highlighted in the original court case examined in the South Carolina documentary The Corridor of Shame, is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river.

And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to “make” all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream.

But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.

Life and learning do not need to be something children survive—and we must confront that we have decided that this is exactly what we are willing to accept for “other people’s children.”

It would not be so if we believed and acted upon that “they’re all our children.”


The Allegory of the River

Meditation 512: The you in the space we call awake

[NOTE: I typically post my poetry only at my poetry blog, and I typically refrain from profanity on my professional blog here. However, I am posting my newest poem below because it is primarily continuing a few threads of thought I have been pursuing about poetry as well as about how we treat children. Hope you enjoy my risking a prose poem and posting it here.]

You know I dreamed about you
For twenty-nine years before I saw you
You know I dreamed about you
I missed you for, for twenty-nine years
“Slow Show,” The National

To risk something real as a writer is to risk making a fool of oneself.
“Learning to Be Embarrassed on the Page,” Idra Novey

I am standing outside, smoking & wasting time. I know this is a dream because I would never smoke & I never waste time. But that isn’t true. I didn’t have that dream. This is the making shit up we call poetry. I knew this is how the poem will start & then I realized how the poem will end so I had to write the rest of it. I had to risk writing a prose poem even though I don’t write prose poetry.

This did happen.

I find “Let It Go” from Frozen on YouTube to play on my iPhone for my granddaughter who is not yet two years old. When she hears it & realizes what the song is, she grabs the phone, running&dancing through the livingroom&kitchen. She raises her arms & ballerinas on her toes, singing along that is mostly humming because she cannot really talk yet. Only words here&there. She knows “go” & she knows rhyme. She already loves music&words, she already loves poetry, she dances to poetry. Although she cannot yet talk or read.

I sit on the couch, watching her & crying. I cry during the drive to work the next morning thinking about her singing&dancing. I cry while writing this poem that includes her.

Tears are poetry.

The world is here to beat that out of her because we are self-loathing creatures who deserve hell if there is one. That isn’t true because we have manufactured hell right here&now in fact: To take this away from the youngest of us because we have abandoned it ourselves. We do not deserve these children yet we are allowed to bring them here&now in these times of sleeping&awake.

This happened as well.

I dreamed about the you who was not you. We were in Washington DC together with so many people from each of our lives & I came to your hotel to be with you but you were always doing something else. I woke up several times because of this dream about the you who was not you but I went back into it each time I fell asleep again. Each time you continued to avoid me & I felt sad&ridiculous for trying so hard to be near you.

Now: This is how the poem ends.

About the you who is you. The you in the space we call awake. The you with fingernails the color of the darkest red wine. You would do anything.

The you who is you would do anything.

—P.L. Thomas