How the new principal conducted a systems-based health analysis of his school.

It was during my first year as a full principal, (no longer teaching principal) that I worked on my MA in Education at a local university. I loved reading, thinking and writing about the purposes of Education and schooling, about the curriculum, teaching strategies, supervising teachers and matching learning goals for students with actual funding priorities. These topics continue to make up much of MA work and continue to be fascinating.

Yet none of these topics fully prepared me for the actual work of managing a school in rural poverty. It was early winter, November, when the rains came in buckets, that a first Grade teacher noticed that a couple of her white boys, Tommy and Jason were turning a decided light shade of yellow. It wasn’t a reflection of their bright yellow rain slickers, as she first imagined, because they didn’t have any rain slickers. She reported this to me immediately. Since we had no full time nurse due to the Prop 13 cutbacks, I called the county office of education where we contracted for nurse services. Of course, this nurse, Molly Smith, like every school nurse I ever knew in education was heroic. She showed up in a very short time, took one look at the kids and said, “Likely hepatitis.”

“What should we do? “ I asked very concerned.

“Wash hands, “ she replied matter of factly. “Everyone needs to wash hands a lot. Also, you and I are going to make a home visit and you are going to send a note home to all the parents telling them about the hepatitis and to advise their kids to be extra cautious and wash hands.”

About that time, another first grade teacher showed up at the office with two yellowing white boys Pete and Amos, for the nurse to check out. After a quick address check, the nurse saw that all four of the boys impacted were next-door neighbors, so to speak in this rural area. This meant they lived in single-wide trailers within sight of each other.

We jumped in my car and headed for the kids’ homes since they had no phones. My old Ford slipped and spun tires all the way up the steep muddy hill and over the crest to the trailers. They were hidden on a gentle hillside and up skinny red dirt driveways amid 10 ft Manzanita bushes and a few digger pines* (as they were called by the locals in those days).

The cleared out area in front was littered with an old broken down car, trash, old soup cans, motor oil cans and cardboard showing the effects of the big rains that had recently passed through. We were greeted as we knew we would be, by some variety of dogs that comprised numerous cantankerous breeds. They barked and growled trying to bite the tires. The nurse opened her door first and yelled at the dog, “Hush big boy, Hush.” And to my amazement, the dog hushed. By this time the mother of the yellowing white boys had come to the door and looked out at us. I introduced myself following the rules of engagement with which I had been raised.

“Hello, how do you do? I’m Mr. Rich, principal over at Tommy’s school. And this is Nurse Smith.” The mother stared at me and didn’t say anything.

“Did you notice Tommy is yellow?” asked Molly in a firm way.

“ I seen it,” said the mother.

“Jesus,” I thought to myself. “I’m in some kind of Grapes of Wrath remake.” I decided to shut up and let Molly handle this.

“It means he is sick,” said Molly. “Do you use a toilet in the trailer or a privy?” she asked with the same sense of command that she quieted the rowdy dogs.

“Toilet don’t work no more so we use the privy,” said the mother.

“So this means your pump is out and you can’t get well water either,” said Molly.

The mother remained silent and stared as if this were an accusation that could get her in trouble.

“Is that right?” demanded Molly.

“No,” said the mother. “The well pump works fine. We got clean water. We just busted the toilet so we use the privy.

“Well your privy washed out with the big rains and all your old shit ran into the backyard and down to the creek where you let your kids play in the water. Your backyard is probably like a cesspool. That’s what made Tommy and Jason sick and you and the rest of the family will be sick soon. The neighbor kids, Pete and Amos are sick too.”

“Damn!” said the mother angrily.

“You need to get both your boys to the county clinic today.”

“I’ll do it right when their dad gets home at two,” said the mother.

“I’ll check with the doctor at the clinic and see the boys at school tomorrow,” said Molly. “Don’t keep them home.”

It seemed like a mistake to let the kids come to school but Molly was simply adding a bit of accountability for this mother who didn’t want us to come back.

The mother stared at us as we got back into the car, dogs following us and headed to the next trailer where the same setting greeted us, along with an amazingly similar dialogue. On our drive back to school, I let Molly know how thrilled I was at the way she handled this issue. She had real control of information and people and probably saved a real epidemic. The problem was solved.

Except it wasn’t.

As the week progressed, more cases popped up among the first grade boys. We had instituted hand washing in classrooms and the custodian cleaned the restrooms and toilets on a double schedule. So I wasn’t sure what to do. Maggie said the kids had probably already been infected so just trust the new level of sanitation the school was demanding and trust her to get the parents to take the kids to the clinic.

But I felt there was something deeper going on. I knew the hepatitis was transferred through fecal matter and possibly urine and I knew there was something in the behavior of the little boys we were missing. There is a wellspring of knowledge a man possesses, knowledge that comes from being a young boy and the joy of taking a piss with your friends. Hand washing held no part in such boyhood rituals. I had a hunch that something like this was going on without our knowledge.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about marvelous memories. They are almost dreams, but I remember I walked to school as a second grader with several of my friends who lived in apartments near the diary like my mother and sister and me.

Our school was up the hill where the nice houses were. So on our route, we had to walk along the sidewalk and then turn uphill through the music bowl, a lovely concert setting and up a winding trail through tall scrub brush and eucalyptus trees, climbing up towards the school. We came home this way as well.

One can imagine that a troop of young boys would become distracted on such a daily journey, and we were proof of this idea. We chased and caught lizards (alligator and blue-belly) by the dozens. We also stopped to pee along the way, usually making a simple contest to determine who could pee the farthest. We would either stand on a fallen eucalyptus log and pee off the side, or we would stand on the top most step of the music bowl, a wonderful hillside amphitheater dedicated to the arts, and pee down into the steps below. The bowl offered clear markings of pee distance while the log gave access to dirt and scrub brush that were much harder to use for measurement. The rain always washed any trace of our pee away so we felt no guilt, nor would we have felt any guilt if the rain didn’t wash it away.

As I grew through elementary school, the pee for distance event became a near Olympic event. Targets became as important as distance at one point and we progressed from leaves, to flowers to moving targets such as unlucky bugs or flies.

As I remembered this part of my youth, hidden well from our principal and teachers at school, I thought of the wonderful custodian now serving at my school where I also served as principal. Without direction from the hierarchy he had remodeled the Kindergarten boys’ bathroom. This room had a small, low toilet but the custodian had added a linoleum wainscoting that covered the floor and went up the wall to a height of about 6 feet, well above the peeing distance capacity of a normal 5 year old boy. Even the kids who tried sincerely and honestly to pee in the little toilet always missed from time to time, so the wainscoting allowed the custodian to simply hose, mop and sanitize the restroom very efficiently. No cases of hepatitis were coming from Kindergarten.

But the boys’ restroom for grades 1-6 was an entirely different matter. There were half a dozen urinals that were built into the floor and ran 4 feet up the wall. Opposite was a set of stalls for actual toilets. The walls of the stall were rusted and rotted out in various places. The floor was covered with thousands of 1 by 1 inch tiles and the grout was stained a permanent brownish yellow. It remained stained no matter how much bleach or Lysol was applied.

In order to manage the situation, I began to observe the primary grade boys on the playground and also dropped in to see what was going on in the rest room.

“Do your business and then wash your hands and go back to the playground,” I commanded on a regular basis.

First, I noticed that they brought all manner of playground balls into the restroom: teatherballs and rope tied on, foursquare balls, basketballs and softballs. They didn’t want to lose control of this equipment so they kept it with them. But they couldn’t pee and hold the playground balls at the same time, so they put the balls down on the floor of the restroom. I watched one day as a couple of balls rolled into the urinals and were picked up by the boys after they washed their hands. This was good information because I knew the boys would often grab a recess snack from the free lunch cinnamon roll bar after they exited the restroom. Voila! Hepatitis!

I added a rule that all balls had to be stored in a new ball box outside the restroom and could be picked up again after the kids finished and washed up.

But the final solution, the coup de gras of my systems diagnosis efforts at disease control in my burgeoning principal career came when I entered the boys room and found all four, Tommy, Jason, Pete and Amos all standing six feet back from the urinals in what to my eyes was obviously a peeing contest. Naturally, none of them had enough pee power to carry their urine to the urinal. “What are you doing?” I yelled. “Why are you doing that?” I yelled even louder, as if I didn’t know about the joy of a pee contest.

Pete looked up at me and said in a kind of righteous outrage worthy of any budding politician, “ I can’t stand up there. There’s pee all over the floor.”

There was a certain admirable logic to this statement; and understanding that logic is what led me to swift action. I gave Pete his logic and withheld punishment. Next, I unilaterally added a yard duty station for teacher aides that included the boys’ restroom. The aide needed to be taken from Reading support for primary grades because there was no money for bathroom supervision in the standard budget. I made some changes to the instructional funding source rationale such as “Aides will support students in health and sanitation education.” In this way, the funding was legal, and a rotten disease was stamped out at my school. Molly Smith also offered words of admiration once I explained what I had done. To my surprise, she knew all about pee contests and said I had done a good job taking care of the situation. I’ll admire her for the rest of my life.

*Digger pines are also known as ghost pines, foothill pines, bull pines and nut pines. Since the wood was worthless for building purposes, it was called “digger” in the 1800’s, named after the native Indians who were also called “digger Indians” and were also thought of as worthless.


Freedoms in Thailand and the United States

I had a long talk with a Thai colleague the other day about the nature of freedom. She is convinced that Thailand is freer than the United States, and has visited the United States many times. She, and other Thai I’ve met always point to all the rules that govern behavior in the United States. How you can build, where you can park, what you can do, what you can buy, what you can sell, where you can sell, and on and on.  She asked, “why do you Americans always want to control what others do? Why can’t you just try to control yourselves?” She used the word “mai pen rai” to describe the Thai attitude toward such tolerance. Just let the others do what they want, then “mai pen rai,” meaning don’t let it bother you.  Don’t try to control others! And certainly do not come to Thailand offering advice about how we should run our country!

I’ve though a lot about what she said—and know that it is a general attitude of people who have travelled. So for the last two days while  I’ve been in Chiangmai,, I’ve  focusing on the mai pen rai attitudes of how things are ordered here in Thailand.  Things that bother my American sensibilities, but do not seem to bother Thai people.  here are some of the questions I’ve come up with.

Why are the streets so narrow? Because people park where they want, and there is no idea of “eminent domain” and the greater good when they build a road–which is why the curb is built around important trees.  Mai pen rai.

Why is the neighbor allowed to have such noisy geese which might interrupt my sleep? Mai pen rai.

Why can motorcycles wend their way through traffic, catching me unawares? Mai pen rai.

Why are all the sidewalks full of potted plants, restaurant seating, and stuff in general? Mai pen rai, and just walk around it.

Why do so many people make illegal U-turns? Mai pen rai—there are typically no police cars around anyway, mai pen rai.

Why do people make it so easy to push into traffic, even when it is at a standstill, and I am in a hurry? No worries, mai pen rai, let them in.

Why can drunk tourists wander around inappropriately dressed for the conservative Thai culture? Mai pen rai.

Why is the incarceration rate so much lower in Thailand than the US? Who knows? Why worry?

Why do so many Thais ride their many motorcycles without helmets, risking the occasional fine? No worries, nothing a small “tip” to the police officer cannot solve. Mai pen rai.

Why are so many motorcycles carrying three or four people?  Mai pen rai, no my problem.

And it goes on, I guess.

Years ago I read a book called “Mai Pen Rai means never mind” by Carol Hollinger which was published in the early 1960s. She wrote a whole chapter about the lecture she got from someone about the lack of freedom in the United States. “There is no freedom to spit,” she was told!

The funny thing is that Americans of course think that Thailand is not a very free country, and that the United States is the freest country on earth. There was a military coup a couple of years ago, and sometimes web sites are blocked. I get the National Censorship “blocked” notice come up every once in awhile. The note informs you that reading that particular website is a waste of time and not appropriate. Quite often they are right, but it is still an affront to any American definition of “freedom.” For example, a story was published in the New York Times today (February 22, 2016) about Thailand’s military government which to my surprise is so far is not blocked. If you are outside the country and want to have a look, go Google it after reading this blog, and see if it is still up on the NY Times website. It is written by the New York Times reporter who was based in Bangkok for ten years, and is a long complaint about autocracy and controls on freedom of the press in this part of the world. I’m actually not all that sure it will be—but we shall see.

Anyway, most Americans would also very much disagree with my Thai friend’s definition of freedom regarding doing what you want. They want the focus of “freedom” to be on issues like freedom of the press, free elections, and so forth. How would my Thai colleague’s definition of freedom square with the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003? After all that invasion was called Operation Iraqi Freedom.  But it was also about controlling another country’s affair.  No Mai Pen Rai for the Iraqi government of 2003!

That brings me back to the article published in the New York Times today. Whether it is censored or not in coming days is not of that much interest to my Thai colleague. She is well-aware of what is happening in her country. At the seam time she is also convinced of is that it is freer than the United States.There is an old song “Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign” which sums up her view, I think.

The American Dream in a Nail Salon

“I left my country when I was 14,” he said.

“What city were born in?” I asked.

“I lived in Hue (pronounced ‘weigh’); it’s in the middle of Vietnam. Hanoi is in the top. Saigon is in the south. That’s where the American troops were. Hue is in the middle. The king? Long ago. The king lived there; the king’s houses are still there.”

I watch as he trims the cuticles of my finger nails.

“You want Pink Lemonade again?” He asks me.

“Yes, I like that color.”

“You need something new! You need red. Something hot. You always get Pink Lemonade,” he chides as he reaches for the Pink Lemonade.

“Pink lemonade was my dad’s favorite drink,” I explain. “Whenever I see my nails in Pink Lemonade, I think of my dad.”

“Oh,” he draws out, “your dad like your nails?”

“He died three years ago,” I tell him.

“Okay,” he says, “Pink Lemonade.”

“I lived in the refugee camp in Hong Kong for six years,” he said.

“Were your parents with you?”

“No. I went with my uncle. My mother, she die while I in the camp. I didn’t find out for 5 months. We didn’t have telephones or the internet,” he wiped a faint smudge of Pink Lemonade from the side of my finger with his nail.

“Did you go to school in the camp? Did you learn English there?” I asked.

“Well…they had English class. ESL? but it was slow. They talked slow. They said, ‘repeat after me: What’s your name?’ so I repeat after the teacher, ‘what’s your name?’ but I didn’t know what meant. I came here to Sacramento. I didn’t understand what you say. I went to school for three years and I learn American English. It so fast!”

“How old were you when you got to Sacramento,” I asked.

“Oh…I was 23, 24,” he shook his head, remembering.

“I thought you left your country when you were 14?” I asked.

“Yea! 14. I live in refugee camp in Hong Kong, then took a boat. I was on a boat in the ocean for 19 days,” he pauses, looks up from my hands, locks eyes with me. “No food. I had no food for 19 days. I was so hungry when I get to the beach, I see a crab.” he makes a scurrying motion with his hand…the crab…”I was so hungry I catch the crab, and just eat! I didn’t cook it. I was so hungry.”

“You must have been starving…” I say, because I can’t think of anything else. I think back to what I was doing when I was 20 years old.

“Yes. But I went to a new refugee camp in Philippines,” he looks at me again. “Phillippines?” he wants to make sure I know the Philippines. I nod my head. “I was in the Philippines for two and a half years. Then I come to Sacramento.”

“Almost ten years?” I ask.

“Yes, ten years. Just…” he makes a waving motion in the air with his hand; he wipes his eyes with the back of one hand. “Ten years…just gone…”

“How did you start doing nails?” I ask him.

“My friend. She do nails; she said I can go to school and do nails. I was working in a convenient store,” he shakes his head as he meticulously paints my nail.

“That’s a dangerous job,” I say.

“I worked the night shift. But I gotta work. I need money. So I work in the store. I have to work.”

“I understand that,” I tell him. But I don’t think I do, at least not how he understands it.

He’s 46 this year, born in Vietnam in 1970. He fled his home country in 1984; he arrived in the U.S. in 1993. He’s owned his own business doing nails for 8 years now.

We compare lives a bit. I tell him I’m 43; I was born in 1972.

“That was the bad year,” he tells me. “That the year when all the buildings destroyed.”

“That was the year when the U.S. had the most troops in Vietnam,” I tell him.

“Yes.” he says, “you 43?” I nod. “You call me your older brother.”


For more information about why many nail technicians in California are Vietnamese, click here: The Fascinating Story Behind Why So Many Nail Technicians Are Vietnamese

Good Blogs and Stories Need Conclusions, Don’t They?

I thought that our move to Thailand at the beginning of January would provide me with much blog material. Much is different here, of course, and difference and contrast can lead to an awareness of the wonders of cross-cultural experiences.. I already wrote about the driving and traffic habits, but of course the differences go much further. The university hierarchy is different (why does Bangkok and the central government get involved in classes we offer?), there was a snake out in front of our apartment the other day (didn’t hurt us), the students at the university all wear uniforms, and I only have six students in my statistics class, and they are from four different countries (Thailand, Finland, France, USA, and two from Myanmar). What are the stories of the bar girls we walk past, and is it true that most are from neighboring poorer countries like Myanmar/Burma? And then this morning, I dealt with they guys installing screens in our house—something that our landlord didn’t want to pay for, even though  our apartment building is located in the middle of a swamp. All kind of mixed observations, without conclusions.

And then today, I was sent to the Labor Office with a think sheaf of papers, and directions to a “warehouse” out in the middle of nowhere.  I went there so that I could file for my Work Permit. A Work Permit is something that all foreigners need to file within 90 days of arrival, and it is of course a reminder that we are different, and here only with the permission of the Thai government. The paperwork has to do with my employer demonstrating that they are making efforts to find Thai people to fill my position. Thailand has millions of immigrants–most of the from Myanmar and Cambodia who work in factories, construction, and the sex trade.  All of them must deal with the bureaucracy of the Labor office, too by either ignoring it and going underground, or by dealing with the paperwork and fees that my employer does.

As with many immigration facilities around the world, the immigration office was poorly marked. This one was also up on the third floor of a warehouse which otherwise had nothing to do with immigration. I trudged up there and was confronted with a crowded roomful of people, all with a slip of paper patiently waiting their turn for a turn with the clerks at the desk. The Thai official organizing the room, without examining my passport, noticed that I am um, white. And he motioned me toward a back room. I dutifully walked past all the Burmese, Khmer, and followed his order. This after all is what you do in an immigration situation—do what you’re told, after all you are not in charge! Anyway I rounded the corner, and there they were—five clerks all waiting patiently for people to bring them labor forms, proving that they were needed in Thailand’s labor force. I dutifully handed the clerk my forms, he smiled, and we ended up chatting a bit while he thumbed through my forms to make sure they were complete. He then charged me three dollars for the process,provided me a receipt for the money, and instructed me to come back in a week to pick up my Work Permit.

And this is how my days in Thailand are going. There are stories to tell, but so far few conclusions to be drawn, which makes writing blogs difficult. What conclusions are there to be drawn? I don’t know—which is of course what organizes a good blog. What is the significance of having only six students in my statistics class? I don’t know. Are there going to be more snakes to see? I don’t know. Is our landlord being unusually cheap by not providing us with screens? I don’t know. And why did I get some much privilege (if being required to go to the Labor Office in the first place can be called privilege) at the labor office? And what about all those Burmese and Khmer, who are they? To be honest, I don’t even know who they were or why they were there–are they construction, agricultural or even sex workers looking for a Work Permit to?. I’m just kind of muddling through—without conclusions, at least yet. And as conclusions are drawn, and stories begin to have endings, I will be writing more.

Bill’s Theory of Why the Didactism Taught in Medical School is that of a Piss Ant

As I continue to write stories about my professional world over the last 44 years, I want to understand the theories that emerge about the world I describe. In other words, what is really going on in schools? What generalizations can we make about learning? Poverty? Race? Social Hierarchy? Pedantic doctors? I used to suspect the things we see and are directed to see by our culture are a simply a socially induced veneer over our glasses, the proverbial filter that covers our perceptions. Telling my students about this though always seemed to draw yawns.

In fact, few “on the ground”really want to talk about such theories. When I was a Professor or Education teaching aspiring teachers or administrators, they told me that they hated theory. “We need practical help, not some weird theoretical ideas from some professor,” they might have said. Actually, some did say this.

Yet, this complaint was nothing new. I heard it long before I joined the university faculty back when I was teaching 8th graders. Those gangly kids possessed no end of disdain for ambiguity when I tried to teach them about American History. They demanded concrete and practical lessons. So I devised a manipulative strategy that hoisted them on their own petard(s) so to speak. As with all 8th graders, they hated to have anyone tell them what to do.  In response I always tried to capitalize on this trait with a simple sell-job.

“The government will take over your life and take away all your freedom unless you know how to control it and get the best from it,” I told them.

“They will draft you into some war you disagree with, they will tax your money for all kinds of stupid projects and they will tell you where you can go and can’t go, and what you have to do and are not allowed to do.”

Positing the curriculum as a secret path for early adolescent freedom fighters always helped motivate those students to read the material and get involved with the class. And it was not a huge leap to transfer the same, or nearly the same strategy to the graduate students later in my career.

“So you don’t want to waste time on theory?” I asked baiting the trap.

“That’s right!” they would cry. “We need to know what to do on the job! We want practical skills, not some ambiguous, theoretical ideas! The new state standards even stipulate that Leadership Preparation Programs need to make us future principals and vice principals ‘Job Ready.’”

“Then you might want to understand,” I replied blithely, “ that you are now being controlled by the theories you don’t see. In fact you are slaves, pawns to the state and culturally constructed ideas about who you are and what you are doing every day. In fact you are merely functionaries in a great machine that is invisible to you.” (cue Pink Floyd’s anthem, “Another Brick in the Wall”).

I then followed this up with an assignment I called “J’accuse!” (and took the opportunity to mention Zola as a freebie, outside the reach of the program). I accused them of being simply unthinking followers, cogs in the machine, functionaries who didn’t need to think or use judgment because the hidden theories that actually controlled them had already taught them how to act in school. They were going to be just like the principal they disdained so much!!

This kind of provocation was my favorite kind of assignment. Many were insulted at first. Others already knew that something was amiss at school when they were ordered to provide scripted curriculum at a pre-determined pace to students who didn’t or couldn’t engage. When the graduate students turned in their assignments, they always contained a fair number of confessions, realizations that they were indeed, simply functionaries, just another brick in the wall. The course could then be re-constructed in a way that incorporated the students’ own challenges and issues within the framework of the content.

I’ve been collecting examples of this kind of jolting dissonance: examples of acceptance of the veneer of the culturally transmitted definition of schools, teachers and leaders turned upside down in ways that create a fuller understanding. And sometimes, I would find my own misconceptions about students were slammed against the schoolhouse wall as well. For example the middle-aged and slightly chubby math teacher from a rural school turned out to be a brilliant and insightful teacher, a radical thinker whose students learned in highly unusual ways. The quiet pre-school teacher morphed into a dominant, forceful class leader who out-read and out-thought the entire class; and was of course being courted by recruiters to sell pharmaceuticals. Exploring theory worked for all of us, students and professor alike.

But there is one example of jolting dissonance I’ll write about today, on my 67th birthday that is the most meaningful to me. I was 32 and a school principal, happily married to my lovely wife with two beautiful sons when I got the call from my mother. She mumbled and stammered on the phone and I could barely understand her. Her doctor then took the phone. He let me know she was in University of California, San Francisco hospital and I should come immediately. I called my wife and took off from work for the 4 hour drive into the big city. When I got to my mother’s bedside, I learned that she had just had a brain scan and had a significant tumor. The doctor explained that specialists would meet to make a specific diagnosis but this was a very serious situation. He told me she had been typing on her typewriter and only strings of letters came out, no real words. She had driven to his office and he got her in an ambulance to UCSF. I cried with my mother and waited at her bedside, holding her hand until the specialist arrived.

In the context of his role as a Medical School Professor, he arrived with a team of residents and announced, “This is a very interesting case. Here is a schoolteacher with a brain tumor. The tumor has swollen the brain so that she can’t speak. Are you a relative?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said with trepidation, “I’m her son.”

“Fine,” said the doctor. “What kind of teacher is she?”

“She teaches English and History in a high school,” I replied.

“Good,” he replied. “Now, Mrs. Rich, as a History teacher, perhaps you could recite the Gettysburg Address for us.”

My mother held up her hand and tried to speak but only garble came out.

“What a fine example of the effects of this tumor, “ the doctor said.“You see, doctors, this teacher is unable to recite what must be one of her standard assignments due to the effects of the brain tumor.”

With that, he guided the other residents out the door and left my mother and me stunned, tearful and very angry.

An hour later the Dilantin prescribed to my mother kicked in and the swelling in her brain dramatically reduced. As her speech returned she looked at me and struggled to talk. This was the woman who was top in her class and recommended for doctoral programs in History by faculty at the University of California; but also advised not to waste her time since no university History faculty would accept a woman, no matter how committed or talented or productive. Barbara Tuchman would not have made it so how could she expect to be accepted? Still, words were my mother’s medium of love and tools for battle. When her speech returned she gave the following order,

“You go find that pompous son of a bitch and tell him I would never have been so didactic and unimaginative to give such a narrow and stupid assignment like reciting the Gettysburg Address to my students, who are much more open minded and most certainly brighter than he in his high status ignorance could ever hope to become. And then bring me a bottle of Scotch.”

“Yes mother,” I said, now a most obedient son.

I searched the halls of the hospital, asking for this doctor and hoping his gaggle of sycophants would be with him. I was now not stunned and not crying. I was a young man who often confronted bikers and drug dealers, child abusers, and drunks as a school principal in a public school deep in the heart of poverty territory of rural northern California. This piss ant of a doctor did not impress me.

As luck would have it, I found him in another patient’s room conducting a similar series of insults in the name of instruction. When he and the residents came out of the room, I stepped in front of him and said, “Excuse me. “ I have a message for you from my mother, Mrs. Rich.”

“Yes?” he acknowledged me.

“My mother has asked me to tell you that you are a pompous, stupid son of a bitch and that in her teaching she would never have been so narrow, unimaginative or pedantic as to assign the memorization of the Gettysburg Address to her students who are, to the last one, brighter and more open minded than you, in your high status ignorance could ever hope to become.”

I didn’t tell him about the Scotch. He and his troop stared at me for what seemed a long time but was most likely just an instant. I thought I should grab him by the throat but decided that would be a big mistake. Then, I turned and went out of the hospital looking for a fine bottle of Scotch.

I have long since forgiven this man who was no doubt a fine doctor if a poor clinician, and forgiven myself for attacking him in this way. He had been trained to see himself, his patients and teachers in the ways he exhibited. As far as I know he saved thousands of lives in his University Hospital practice, although not my mother’s. What was sadly not unusual was the fact that his shallow understanding of teachers and theories of teaching was only surpassed by his theories of communicating with patients. Medical school missed that part.

In future years when parents at my schools became upset or unreasonably angry, I told them my story about almost strangling a doctor, the man who was there to help my mother. So I understood their desire to strangle a teacher or me when things weren’t going well or when one of us school folk were insensitive. We were also there to help but sometimes missed the mark. This usually calmed them down.

At the same time, I wish teachers, principals and I had the courage my mother displayed on that day. Perhaps we wouldn’t be suffering from such state domination in education at this pass.

Ultimately the misconception of teaching and teachers that the specialist exemplified carries over to teachers themselves. And it is such misconceptions that I wish to confront, explore, interrogate and understand more deeply in my writing through Ethnography.




Why I Like Boring Driving: Learning to Drive in Thailand

Last month we moved to Thailand, and one of the first things we did was buy a car to get around Chiangmai. The Chiangmai area has something over 1 million people. The middle of the city is a tourist hub organized within the crooked streets of “the old city,” many of which are one-way. These are surrounded by an actual moat which forms a square. Outside the moat are massive “ring roads” near one of which I know live. Ring roads of course go in circles. So it is crooked one-way streets, symmetrical moat, and rings of streets all in one.  The point I guess is that irrespective of whether it is crooked inner city streets hemmed in by a moat, or massive superhighways that go in circles, Chiangmai does not fit my mental map of northern California where streets tend to be straight and go in two directions, on both of which you drive on the right side, not on the left!

Chiangmai has a rudimentary public transport system, but it make up for it there is a large population of motorcycles and automobiles to clog up the streets with non-stop traffic (actually it does stop during rush hours, I guess). The local roads department has done much to try to keep up with what I guess is the burgeoning prosperity that large number of vehicles reflect—after all who wants to walk across a city of 1 million when you can drive? Out of this has emerged a vigorous driving culture on the local roads which has developed local norms to deal with the vehicles, the heat, and the needs of a large number of people to get around. Much of this driving culture is unwritten—it exists between the cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles who dance around each other somehow, bustling off in different directions, rarely hitting each other. It seems to work for them, I guess, since I see a lot of bored drivers darting about, looking for openings through which they can legitimately squeeze. The operative term for them is bored. It must be nice to be bored and accustomed to Chiangmai traffic patterns, meaning a condition in which reflexes are reflexive and automatic, as you are acknowledged through all those unspoken communicative signals that flash back and for between vehicles which share the road.

But bored is not the operative term for me, though. I am instead on edge all the time while driving in Chiangmai. To Chiangmai, I bring my northern California driving habits. These do not work! I normally drive in California bored—I know the culture, highway design is predictable for me, and every auto I’ve driven in California is organized like the others. Meaning that turn signals are with the left hand, windows are clear . Not so in Thailand, and auto design is only part of it.

First days were dominated by the fact that Thailand drives on the left side of the road. Thus my reactions start out being backwards. Some of this results in predictable buffoonery. Walking to the driver’s side rather than the passenger side. Using my left hand to turn on the signal indicator—which instead turns on the windshield wiper on a perfectly dry day. Looking over the wrong should for traffic comes up too. Not a good situation. Fortunately though in about two weeks my hands, feet, and heads are beginning to adjust.

More confusing is the external engineering, though. By my California sensibilities, on ramps are short, and street signs in strange places—they are both too early for me to plan a turn, and too late. Parking habits are odd, too, and then there are all the motorcycles. Motorcycles on my right, on my left, and in-between. Stop signs do not seem to work the accustomed way, too—particularly the ones at the end of the short on ramps which seem to work more like “Yield signs” in California. Then there are the merging lanes themselves which are just—different.

How do I know all this? The dent in my car from a tree growing in the parking lot of the Thai Department of Motor Vehicles reminds me that things are different, really different, here. My door has a new creak as a result to remind me of this every time I get in the driver’s side.

What is becoming the most amusing thing though is the art of the U-turn in Thailand. The Thai road engineers have developed the U-Turn to an elevated art. There are special U-Turn lanes in the most unexpected places, like just before you make a right turn to cross traffic (i.e. like a left turn works in right-hand drive countries).

Less amusing is all the window tinting used in Thailand. Ostensibly to control heat, it blocks me from making eye contact with my fellow drivers—something I suddenly realize I do regularly in the United States where such dark tinting is not allowed. Replacing this some type of language between cars which seems gracious. People let people merge in and out fairly easily, even if you do not make eye contact. Such is the nature of much of culture, i.e. what E. T. Hall called “The Dance of Life.”   Dancing is what I do in northern California, I guess. As for Thailand for now I am a very awkward and timid dancer, as the dent always reminds me.

So, as the psychologists say, my “fight or flight” instinct is always on when driving in Thailand, which makes me jumpy and “hyper-vigilant.” So, I do indeed look forward to the day when I too can be bored in Chiangmai traffic, like all the other bored driver zipping around me on roads, even if I do occasionally still drive on the wrong side!

We’ve Always Done It This Way

I wrote the post below during my last semester as an adjunct instructor at a rural community college. I resurrect it here because Warren Waren over at Racism Review just published “Institutional Racism: Comparing Oscar Nominations with Higher Education Faculty.” It’s a must-read, especially for anti-racist White academics serving on hiring committees, as faculty and EEO representatives at PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions). Inspired by the recent hashtag campaigns #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsStillSoWhite, Waren draws deft comparison between the Oscars academy (94% white) and academe (“15% of the enrolled student population at America’s colleges, but only 5.5% of all full-time faculty are black.”).

While serving at my college, I was on the “Diversifying Hiring Committee” a campus committee whose mission was in part, dedicated to increasing faculty of color at our campus. I learned much about hiring practices in higher education and the harsh truth of social reproduction among White academics. I agree with Waren when he says, “Ultimately, I feel that both the Oscars and the academy will have to look a lot more like the people they serve or they will be replaced by institutions that do.”



Originally Published by The Adjunct Project Spring 2012

This is gonna be hard to write, maybe even harder for you to read. But, I’m tired of the silence; tired of all the things I haven’t said out loud because I’m scared of what will happen to me or what people will say. Well hell, it’s time to speak out.

I have served as an elected part-time faculty representative on my college’s academic senate since spring 2008. The academic senate is the faculty organization that serves as oversight for all things involving instruction at a college…including curriculum, grading policies, faculty professional development, and policies regarding student preparation and success (to name a few). I like serving on the senate, enjoy advocating for my part-time colleagues and knowing “how things work” (e.g., the big picture) at my organization. But, the last semester and this one have been pure hell for me; I’m being bullied by several members of the senate, including a few that occupy the senate executive positions.

On February 1st, the organizations two Diversifying Hiring Committee chairs gave a presentation at the academic senate, asking for approval to change an aspect of our hiring policy; a change that would increase the potential for diversifying our faculty, which is not representative of our service area. The change the two chairs requested would result in the Equal Employment Opportunity representative position being separate from the Hiring committee chair position, which would result in less “group think” and an empowered equal employment opportunity representative. The current literature from the Human Resources field supports this view because organizations, especially college’s, tend to “reproduce themselves” through their hiring practices…people hire people who they are comfortable with and who look like them…at my college this is called “a good fit.” This restricts opportunities for other academics and it limits (controls) who teaches our students.

The discussion was disheartening. Now mind you, I’m the only faculty on the senate who identifies with a specific culture and ethnic heritage (I’m working class culturally and mixed race ethically). The comments from members of the senate were that it was “too hard” to reorganize hiring committees (although 7 had already separated the positions to maximize the equal employment opportunity policies we are required to uphold as an entity of the state and federal government). Additionally, there were comments from full-time faculty that “we’d always done it this way” (quoted from our faculty professional development coordinator) and that it would be “too hard” to find faculty to serve on hiring committees under the pressure of time. A part-time colleague brought up the fact that part-time faculty can serve on hiring committees, opening up the current pool of available faculty to serve on hiring committees from around 165 to nearly 700. What was deeply disheartening is that one of the chairs of the diversifying hiring committee (a Dean) told me himself (when I’d previously asked to serve as an EEO rep) that I was not eligible because I am part-time; a blatant lie, which I found out about that day.

**The moment that resulted in the letter I’m posting with this note however, came when I questioned a statement from the academic senate vice-president that “‘they’ don’t like living in rural areas.” Who is “they?” If you are one of “them,” then you know that they are talking about people of color…again, the composition of our faculty is not reflective of our service area, nor does it uphold the organization’s mission of equal employment opportunities. People who get the job look like the people hiring them; they must “fit.” At any rate, I disagreed and said that they (my white colleagues) were not going to like what I was about to say and then I said it. It is a white assumption that people of color do not like living in rural areas. Rural areas themselves, trees and dirt, are not especially threatening. It is the hostility and rejection, the history of “Sundown Towns” and knowing that one cannot be their real self. That one must leave their true self at the door and act “appropriate” and “professional” according to standards dictated by white, upper-middle class educators

After the meeting, four white, upper-middle class people held a meeting and agreed that my pointing out a “white assumption” about hiring “…was indeed offensive and therefore inappropriate and unprofessional.” The senate executive has been trying to give me the boot for a while and I imagine that they thought they had me with this, that I would shut up at last. Instead, I’m pissed off and fed up with keeping the secret of the racism, prejudice, and ethnocentrism I observe amongst colleagues and in academic senate meetings (FYI: International students you are part of this too. It’s been said that you all are “taking something away” from our local students and that you don’t stay in the U.S. and go back to your home country, it’s been implied that international students are “using” the college, which is xenophobic, to say the least). Do I fear getting fired, yes. Do I care, yes. Do I care more about exposing racism, prejudice, and ethnocentric viewpoints at my organization than I do my career, yes.



**I cannot publish the letter here lest I get my colleagues in hot water with my former employer. What I can do is describe receiving a letter marked confidential in my department mailbox the week after the academic senate meeting and opening it with shaking hands. How I knew what it would say, that I had no right to feel as I did and that somehow by bringing up race in the context of hiring during a senate meeting I would pay dearly, and I did. I was never spoken to again but that is nothing compared to the ongoing damage of systemic racism in institutions and implicit bias on academic hiring committees.