After my first semester at college I jumped into a car with a bunch of guys and drove to a state park a half hour away. I can’t remember if I knew what the mission was, but it was late at night and I was likely just going with the flow. The park was closed so we hopped the fence and walked by moonlight to the edge of this very steep, very high cliff. There was probably a dozen of us, and the driver of the car I was in had a book bag full of this semesters text books. With the glee and fervor that must have been felt around Jack’s Lord of the Flies banquet fire, he threw the books one by one over the cliff as we all whooped and danced on the stone wall; it’s a wonder none of us fell to our deaths.
Seventeen years later, I give serious thought about that night. At the time, it seemed so logical. Of course he would want to destroy his text books. They were torturous and those classes sucked. I would have done the same thing, except I needed to sell mine, and besides, I don’t think I knew what we were doing when I first got in the car. Classes were over, we didn’t need the books, and screw that school…we’d throw it down the cliff if we could.
I’ve never thrown my power tools down a cliff after finishing a project. I’ve never destroyed any books that I’ve acquired of my own volition, or sold them…in fact, I have boxes of books in my garage and basement that I should get rid of, but can’t bring myself to do it. I’ve never had any ill feelings towards my garden. I’ve never had the urge to sell, throw away, or destroy anything that helped me complete something I intentionally, mindfully chose to do. And I never once thought it was weird that I should feel excited, drunken joy in watching someone throw books over a cliff, or strange that I was anxious to see how much money I could get for my college textbooks. It never occurred to me that that was odd.
Things I haven’t thought about in years seep into my consciousness like Jello through silk. I had standing rules in High School: I didn’t do homework that I couldn’t finish in homeroom or on the bus (I did all my homework at home once, and missed a tackle football game outside, and never made that mistake again); on principle I never read a novel assigned by an English teacher, even though I spent most of my early childhood in the library…I’d pick up enough in class discussion to do whatever assigned work, assuming I could finish the assignment in homeroom; since I got to school early, I would climb through windows and open teachers’ doors to confuse them; I would take the building physically apart, whenever possible. I have no clear memory of any class, but many memories of the weight room and football, lunch, and the bus ride back and forth, the only parts of school I enjoyed. I wanted to care about what the teachers cared about, not to mention my grades, but physically couldn’t bring myself to do it.
This was the reason I wanted to become a teacher. As much as my feelings for school vacillated between indifference and hatred, I didn’t see that anyone had any other options, and so I figured I could dedicate my life to lessening the suffering of our nation’s adolescence. I would do only fun things with interesting material and change the face of school. The problem I failed to anticipate was, when I do fun and interesting things, I’m actually doing the things that I find fun and interesting, and while I can act like a clown and “engage” eighty five to ninety percent of my students, ultimately I’m only useful content-wise to students who were already interested in the content, and merely entertaining to some of the rest. For a small percentage each year, my class will be torture; who that percentage is will depend on the fun and interesting things I choose to do, but it’s inevitable. I will torture some kids every year.
It doesn’t need to be this way. There is a better way to approach education and life, which are essentially the same things. My thoughts are in no way absolute, and these following qualities aren’t meant to be prescriptive or preachy. It’s just how I feel.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 1Corinthians 13:13
I’m not a biblical scholar. However, chapter 13 in 1Corinthians is so beautiful, empowering, and Zen-like, I strive to weave it into everything I do. If I were better at doing daily intentions, I would often begin with this chapter. When this chapter talks about and personifies love, it is referring to an internalized sense of love that an adult chooses to feel. It (love) is not boastful or jealous, etc. because those are emotions that react to external things. We look ourselves in the mirror, see ourselves for who we are, and choose love, and in choosing love we can never fail.
The Zen philosopher Alan Watts posed it this way: “You must regard yourself as a cloud. Have you ever seen a cloud that is misshaped? Have you ever seen a badly designed wave?” When we live in a state of internalized love, we become a cloud or a wave; we become more in sync with the universe, and while we will always at times feel anger, jealousy, and shame, and we will always make mistakes in the material world, if we live in love then we have the foundation to be able to grow internally as a result of the external. The mystic Sadhguru Vasudev teaches that when you choose internal love, you will love no matter what people do to you, your relationship to them, or whether or not you even know them. You will love villagers in China who haven’t even been born yet! How? Because your love for mankind has, or should have, nothing to do with the external. You love your spouse because of what is inside you; your love begins and ends in your being. She doesn’t feed you love; she can’t stop feeding you and cause you to hate. You choose love.
We best live and learn having cultivated an internalized sense of love. In schools, we emphasize the external. We reward and punish. We grade and rank. We emphasize job-training such as “college and career readiness.” There is another biblical verse that comes to mind: For the love of money is the root of all evil (1Timothy6:10). People will often say money is the root of all evil. That’s absurd. The love of money. What are grades but a kind of fiat currency? How many students would do a teacher’s work if it didn’t count as a grade? What grades do is turn “learning” into a task you complete in return for a reward, which instills a dependency on external stimuli. It robs opportunity for an internalized sense of love for what the student is doing. It makes the student want to throw their shit over a cliff as soon as the assigned task is completed.
Real responsibility is an absolutely necessary component to learning. The difference between real responsibility and fake responsibility is the difference between walking a tightrope without a net or with one. You don’t typically get much real responsibility in High School, except in sports and extracurricular activities where it is expected you prepare on your own. Choice is implicit in real responsibility. Homework is your responsibility the same way it was the slaves’ responsibility to pick cotton. I know, nobody can argue for very long about anything without bringing up slavery or the holocaust, but what do you call it when a stranger makes you do work you didn’t agree to in order to benefit a system you’re compelled by law to belong to? You behave differently when you are engaged in an activity you love and where there are actual consequences to everything you do or fail to do. In this way, caring for a pet hamster for a month offers more opportunity for personal growth than an entire year of “required classes” that a combination of state and school district strangers decided was your responsibility.
Your mind and heart are the only things that can’t be imprisoned by other people unless you allow them to be. If you allow yourself to be manipulated by people or things, and you love them for what they say or do, then you become a slave to them. The same goes for responsibility; you don’t grow without having choice in your intellectual and emotional responsibilities.
The opposite of independence is dependence. So long as we have our minds, freedom can never be taken from us, but we can relinquish it, usually bit by bit without ever realizing. Here’s the real danger…when you allow others to plan your life long enough, you grow accustomed to it and you become dependent. You allow yourself to be subservient to the machine, and not the other way around. You need to be able to make mindful conscious decisions or else you’re simply plodding blindly along towards someone else’s goal.
We all have more freedom than we think. There are options. You have choices. Choose love. Take responsibility. You’re a cloud. You can’t fail.