30 July 2011

Evolution Sucks

Back when we were all Neanderthals, our diets consisted of a lot of caustic food. The lack of cooking meant that much of our food was damaging to our teeth. In fact, by the time Neanderthal was roughly 16 years old, his back molars would already be damaged and shrinking from his diet. If Neanderthal couldn't eat, Neanderthal would die, so evolution kicked in to make sure his broad jaw could continue to grind up that raw meat and all those nuts. Evolution thought: "If you're going to wear away those molars I gave you, I shall provide you with new ones!"

And bam. Third molars (also known as wisdom teeth) began to grow. Neanderthal was saved. Evolution rocked.

Fast forward thousands of years. Fire is discovered. People cook food. Our jaws shrink. Now, third molars are no longer necessary, as our back molars have ceased to rot out of our heads by the age of 16. People learn to make money off these "third molars" by calling themselves oral surgeons and ripping them out of innocent teenagers' heads. Evolution laughs.

And now, at 27 years old, I can no longer hope that I am one of those evolutionarily advanced ten percent of humans born without wisdom teeth. In three days, an oral surgeon will make thousands off me by removing my wisdom teeth, despite the fact that evolution saw fit to give them to me (along with my useless appendix and coccyx, neither of which doctors seem to think should be surgically removed, despite being deemed unnecessary at this point in evolution). Oral surgeons owe a lot to evolution.

And sadism, most likely.

So at this point, despite my love of opposable thumbs, moral reasoning, speech, and high level cognitive functioning, I say, quite emphatically:

Evolution sucks.

19 July 2011

The Lottery--A Must-See Documentary

Tonight I watched the documentary, The Lottery, which follows four young children who are attempting to navigate through the confusing labyrinth of the NYC educational lottery system. The children in question were trying to get into a public charter school in Harlem called Harlem Success Academy. I found myself simultaneously enraged and sympathetic to the message of the film.

I'll start with the rage-inducing factor--the founder and mouthpiece of the academy, Eva Moskowitz is (there is no other way to say this) a horrible, grating person. While I respect her desire to educate all children at higher levels and her refusal to accept that poor economic status and background will mean academic failure, I find her deplorable for her constant vilification of teachers and unions.Do not misunderstand me; I do sympathize with her struggle and frustration with poorly performing schools. I do, however, reject her notion that failing schools are the fault of the AFL, NEA, or the teachers who work in them. Yes, radical changes need to be made, but as a supporter of public education, I believe these changes can and must be made at all public schools, not just those run independently by charter organizations like those Ms. Moskowitz runs. I was frustrated by her constant complaining and finger-pointing. If she has found something that works in her schools, why not help put those practices into place in all schools, rather than berating others who are attempting to do their best in a bad situation? Help fix the problem for all students, Ms. Moskowitz, not just those who win the lottery for a position at your school. Only then can I respect you as a true educator.

What I loved about this documentary, and what I found so profoundly affecting about watching it, was the clear message that all children can learn. And all children can learn at exceptionally high levels. I won't lie, I have at times blamed background and tough circumstances for students' struggles. But what I have come to realize--and what this video so eloquently shows us--is that when we allow those things to become excuses or "explanations" for failure, we send a message to those students that they cannot rise above their place in society. We send the message that the circumstances you are born into will determine what you are allowed/able to achieve. More than a tad disturbing, right? Of course a person's upbringing impacts their future, but how dare we allow that to determine their future? By following four children who came from tough circumstances--all are from  working-class families--we realize that all these children deserve the absolute best future society can give them. And education is the way to do that.

While it was heartbreaking to watch the actual lottery--3,000 students vying for only 20 positions--I believe it provides a powerful impetus to us all to do more for the 2,800 students who didn't make it. I shed tears as I watched the faces of those students and parents who were not accepted. We owe our children more than many are giving them. We owe our children the undying belief that every single student can learn at high levels, that every single student can and should be able to accomplish amazing things. Regardless of anything else. While I vehemently disagree with Ms. Moskowitz on many things, I agree with her about that.

Watch The Lottery. It's a moving (if infuriating) look at education not just in Harlem or New York City, but in America in general. You can watch it free at Hulu (The Lottery). It'll break your heart. But I've come to realize that--concerning many things--sometimes we need to be a little broken in order to move forward.

16 July 2011

When Words Just Aren't Enough...

For the past two weeks, I've been trying to decide how to best write about the death of my uncle on July 1st. It was sudden--he went to the doctor for stomach pains, discovered he had tumors on his liver caused by untreated terminal colon cancer, and passed away less than a week later. He asked that there not be a funeral or a memorial service. He passed away about 12 hours before my husband and my planned visit to say goodbye. In lieu of services, there seems to be a lot left unsaid.

But for the first time in my life, words seemed to fail me. I am a reader and a writer, so this failure confounded me. Unable to say something eloquent, I said nothing.

This past week, my husband I took my nieces to Lake Nebagamon in Wisconsin with his family and very close family friends. For me, it seemed eerily reminiscent of the previous year at the lake, when we were all mourning the death of one of the members of the family with whom we share the week. But somehow, a quiet lake in Northern Wisconsin on a balmy summer evening seems like the perfect place to find peace.

For those of you unfamiliar with Northern Minnesota/Wisconsin in the summer, the lies of this being the tundra dissolve. The days turn hot, hazy and humid. Life (and indeed, time itself) seems to slow down in a pleasant way. And daylight stretches until long past dinnertime. The sun sets in a pale orange sky sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 at night. The quiet and solitude of a lake at 9:30--as the sky blazes orange, pink, and gold--is unparalleled in its beauty and tranquility.

As I sat at the shore, watching the sun lower itself into the tree tops, listening to the leaves rustle around me, I heard another sound every Minnesotan automatically associates with summer--the call of a loon. It is impossible to precisely describe the haunting trill of this bird. Native American beliefs held that the loon call--perhaps because of its impossible to describe otherworldliness--was the voice of the recently departed as they attempted to find their paths into the ether. When I heard this call across the vast lake as darkness began to wrapped around me, I smiled. And I felt some semblance of peace approaching.

Sometimes, no matter how eloquent we are, words cannot say what we feel. Sometimes words just aren't enough. They feel hollow, empty, impotent.

In those times--like the time I sat on the dock listening to the loon call waft across the water--nature sometimes says it for us.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Ron.

Always, always we will hear you calling.