Why People are Shitty Drivers, or The Problems of Governance in a Multicultural Society

I was driving home today, and I thought,

That person is the worst driver.

And then I thought–Sooooo many people are bad drivers.

And then I thought, People think I am a bad driver.

 (I actually am a bad driver; in my life, I have totalled an absurd amount of cars, though I seem to have aged into accidentally (or possibly circumstantially) being a “good” driver…  At least, according to my insurance discount…. As opposed to being according to the smunched (that’s smooshed and crunched) front end of my car.)

Parentheticals aside, I started thinking about my experiences of bad driving as a concept. I drove in London recently, and it was terrifying. I am rather excessively United Statesian, so to my thinking, the streets were insanely narrow, and of course I was also on the “wrong” side of the car, and the car itself was on the “wrong” side of the road. And, yes, I was TERRIBLE at driving. I even sideswiped a parked car, smashing the side view mirror of my rental, and I was so confused by everything that was happening so fast that I couldn’t even find my way back to where I had been to find the car I had hit to leave a note. I never even saw it–I just heard it.

Okay, truthfully, I probably wouldn’t have left the note, anyhow.

One cannot always be a good person.

Anyhow, driving in London was terrifying, but I did notice one thing. The other people–the London people–were really good at it. They drove super fast, with incredible accuracy. They were extremely polite as far as letting other drivers into their lanes, taking turns, etc. Their speed and precision was dizzying to me, but I grew in the few days I was visiting to love the way they drove. When one has utter certainty about other drivers not breaking rules, it becomes extremely safe. Driving in London was great once I got used to used it because I understood how it was done.

The next thing I thought about was how, a year or two earlier, I had started driving in the corner of the South/East Bronx where I work. Similarly to London, the speed can be terrifying, but most similarities to London end there. Cars are large, there seems to be an anarchistic sense of law, and I realized right away that I could not expect people to drive in the previously identified parameters of politeness. It is every driver for themselves. But after some terrifying mornings, driving in the Bronx, once I really started paying attention, felt very safe to me, largely in the way that driving in London would start to feel safe. Bronx drivers aren’t assholes (necessarily); they follow an unspoken social code. And while the social driving code in London feels extremely… regulated… and the social driving code of the Bronx feels extremely… autonomous… in truth, both places, in dissimilar ways, feel very safe to drive in because I feel like I understand the rules. When I commited to those social conventions instead of attempting to work against them, a sort of freedom developed. The every-driver-for-themselves rules of Bronx driving culture actually created safety for me once I stopped thinking people needed to be more polite. And the more days I drove on my morning route, the more I realized that there ARE distinct rules that are always followed; they just are not necessarily reflective of the laws I learned while growing up in the driving mecca of Los Angeles. Driving here exists for me in the same mental framework as the basis for theories of mutual aid-focused anarchism–in part, that people naturally create for themselves and their communities things that work without being forced to do so, and that this lack of force by a larger governance actually creates authentic safety.  Now the Bronx is actually my favorite place to drive because I understand how it is done. And how it is done existed culturally long before I got there. When I got to London, I was a Bronx driver. I was terrified.

I want to be really clear about something here–in either case, whether London or the Bronx, the most dangerous person on the road was me. And the reason I was dangerous was because I was a cultural outsider. Or rather, not because I was a cultural outside, but rather because I did nto believe my own cultural leanings were an issue. We think of driving (indeed, of most things) as weighted. We think of “good” driving as a term of factual, not cultural, significance. Even if I am someone who works hard at divorcing myself from cultural arrogance, the truth is it takes practice to adopt a style of doing something… and that’s only if you decide to adopt said style. That’s only if you  notice that interpretation is different from observation, and that even observation carries cultural bias. My morning drive is the shared activity of a cultural group of thousands of people who NEVER TALK TO ONE ANOTHER. So it seems sensible that most of the people–people with whom I may not otherwise share a driving culture–are going to be shitty drivers.

So my thinking arrived then at a big Aha! moment. The United States is a multicultural environment. Even though neighborhoods or even some small cities might exhibit a distinct lack of ethnic or cultural diversity, people who drive cars, pretty much without exception, do leave their neighborhoods and/or cities. At that point, their relationship to their own cultural understanding then determines who the good drivers are. It is also true that even within a ethnic or otherwise cultural context that seems consistent, if a person is blind to the shared practiced that have developed, they will be extremely frustrated. And in the case of driving–of moving a giant machine around at high speeds–this is mortally dangerous.

So.

Cultural diversity = you are a bad driver.

Yippee.

Now I feel like I understand why everyone thinks everyone else is a shitty driver–it’s because, well, they are. Everything is about context.

So again, as with all things, I arrive back at education. You knew it was coming.

We wonder often how it is that a superpower such as the US could be embroiled in such a heady and heart-heavy crisis of education, and in particular, we attempt to address the impact of poverty and its seemingly cyclical relationship to lack of academic achievement. This is a very real issue, and one to which I am passionately devoted. But if education is traffic, then educators and students are the drivers. We can blame the systems–and I would honestly say, in most cases, rightfully so: The Department of Education by which I am employed, for example, is a bureaucratic mess, often nonsensical,  and full of indecent decision-making–but it’s not the laws or even violation of the laws that make people shitty drivers. It’s the idea that we don’t need to make decisions because there are laws in place.

Truthfully, laws do not contain people–socially agreed-upon conventions contain people. And the conventions of education are created and reinforced every day by its drivers. The problem is, we most often don’t create this context consciously, and THAT is an extreme issue. Because if educators are not conscious about what they are creating with their habits, then students cannot learn to be conscious about theirs. And since all of education seems to be in agreement that metacognition is a critical aspect of learning, it follows that if students cannot learn to be conscious about their educational context, they cannot learn.

Multiculturalism is a tricky thing. I deeply value the aspect of living in the US that means  I interact with different cultures every day. And when I say cultures, I hope it is clear that I don’t just mean ethnicity–although I do, in part, mean ethnicity–I mean diversity of family structures, of economic stati, of gender identifications, of neighborhood affiliations. I mean the way ordering a cup of  coffee in one establishment means employing a different vocabulary than in another establishment.  I mean the cultures of shared personal moralities, of political ideals, of what constitutes a delicious dinner…. or a good drivers.

My experience is this: Drop a California driver in the Bronx, and they will be terrified. Drop a Bronx driver in London, and they will be terrified.

But drop someone who focuses on their own driving and how it works best with what’s around them, and well… they can go anywhere. When life is less terrifying, it is much easier to learn. It is much easier to drive. When we learn more, life is less terrifying.

It may actually be true that the real way to create substantial change in education is for government to quit creating mandates in education, and let the communities of caring, vibrant, community-invested educators drive… because education, much like my beloved smunched-fronted Buttercup,  is certainly a heavy machine that can be mortally dangerous.

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it begins.

In December, a tragedy occurred. In the United States at large, and in social media in particular, our world exploded about gun legislation  About mental health. Oh, and also about grief. I found the situation overwhelming… in particular because I felt overwhelmed before it even happened.

Five days before the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the school at which I work in the Bronx had experienced what we call a lock-down–a preventive measure that has been incorporated into our routines in the form of drills–shelter in, hard lock-down, soft lock-down (not dissimilar to a fire drill or earthquake in many communities). Except in this case, it was not a drill. And we didn’t know why it was happening. We locked our classroom doors, we kept students out of sight. The next day, the students would inform me that there were an excessive amount of police officers downstairs when they went downstairs to lunch after the lock-down was over. Rumours flared. Some of them seemed to make sense. There were no explanations.

Later that day, a colleague confided in me that an adult (not a stranger–someone who was employed in the school building) had brought a gun into the school and threatened to shoot another employee and then turn the gun on himself. Luckily for him, luckily for the intended victim, and luckily for every other adult and child in the building and the neighborhood, no one was shot. That afternoon, we had continued to go about our business.

I was profoundly affected that day. The man who brought the gun into the school was someone I worked with and thought well of. He was a member of the community. I had called on his help many times. He was, I was told, heartbroken and angry with this other person. His reaction to those feelings was to threaten this other person’s life and his own.

The thing that kept bouncing around my brain was not the problem of my own safety, of schools, of security, of gun legislation. It was not the problem of profound mental illness. The thought I couldn’t get out of my head is that I work in a community in which the chronic and generally acceptable response to disappointment, fear, frustrations, and anger is violence. And all I could think about on that topic was the children–not that they might get shot, and not even in a concrete way that they might be destined to become shooters.

Now, obviously I know that responding to discomfort with violence is not only a problem of my current community.   But that I was worried about was in a deep, deep way, no matter what interventions, was that these particular children have very little chance of growing up with a healthy relationship to their own fear and disappointments. This man’s actions really drove this home for me. And because I love them, because I respect their right to live full lives, this overwhelmed and terrified me. It had finally started to seem that no matter what I do as an educator and community member, nothing would help them.

I could not stop crying.

A few days later,  the tragedy in Connecticut happened. Still there was no official communication in the school about what had occurred at our school, and there was no media coverage. I addressed the issue with the Principal directly, as the rumour mill was brewing and we had no good answers for the students’ questions, and I was basically told that her hands were tied until she got the go-ahead to share information. The relationship between these two events astounded me as all media worlds–including social media–exploded.

I am not implying that a near-tragedy at my school and the very real tragedy that occurred in Newtown that day are the same or even similar. What I do hope to express is that we have a sociological problem that has to do with experiencing the world emotionally. And as I had many thoughts roaming through my head, I did a very rare thing for me the week of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy:

I didn’t post about it on social media.

Not for many days. I tried to sit with my feelings and thoughts and take in what was happening around me. My social circle is diverse, and although I lean heavily towards developing relationships with people who are socially/artistically/politically/professionally engaged in social issues, where they stand on those issues is sometimes all over the map… especially given the existence of  that magically libertarian place where extreme left and extreme right meet up and share some middle ground. And in all honestly (real talk, we call it), there is a certain amount of gratitude I experienced (and do experience  daily) knowing  that–thus far–it’s really only white kids who shoot up children’s schools. We only have two white students at our school, and neither show any indication of being particularly dangerous. Although the thought carries a very complicated sort of sadness, I feel safe at my school in part because of its lack of affluence. And then I got angry.  I thought about the lack of attention daily violence receives. I thought about how weird we are in not teaching healthy ways to deal with feelings of aggression. And like so many others, MY fear, MY grief, turned to something akin to rage.

When I told them about the shooting in Connecticut, the only thing the students with whom I work  wanted to know was what town, what school. They wanted to be sure they hadn’t lost yet another friend or relative. Their concept of death is in no way abstract, in a way that, not unironically, protected them from this tragedy, even as the move from abstract to concrete for the people of Newtown did exactly the opposite.

I could go on and on about my emotional experiences of that week and the one that followed. Even today, it is difficult for me to discuss it with real coherency, which I have to simply hope is not evidenced in a way that is too distracting in this blog. But what happened was that eventually, the gun control v. mental health care debate that overtook everything made me feel, well… murderous. The idea even of the either-or structure of that thinking in combination with the idea that once people are driven crazy by a society that doesn’t teach skills at, well, not being driven crazy, we need to offer help–that THAT, THEN is the issue– struck me as… insane.

I was finally inspired to rant a bit on social media. So I wrote a post.

A good friend of mine, another educator and social justice activist and who is also a parent, read my posting and in response asked me directly why I haven’t created a blog. I thought she was being complimentary (which was great, as– like most–I love being complimented). She said quite clearly that she was not; she reminded me that we have a long history of dialogue and that she simply felt that, on this topic and others) other people need to hear what I have to say.

I am not certain I agree with her. I have always found blogs pretentious, and frankly, I am not sure I need the help on that front. I already ride a pretty arrogant line a lot of the time. I am, however, certain of one thing–I have a lot to say, and what I have to say, however aggressive at points, is rooted in love. I am deeply, deeply invested in what I call educational equity, which encompasses the problematics of so, so much more than school. So now, a few months later, I am taking her advice and I have created this blog. My hope is that it will encourage dialogue. We shall see how it goes.

Below is the original posting I wrote a week or two after what we simply seem to term now, “Sandy Hook,” when I just couldn’t take it any more. I fear, as I did then, that it rants. There are portions I would love to edit for clarity, typos I’d love to fix. But I won’t.

In hopes of dialogue that facilitates real change, here goes.

Thank you for reading.

ORIGINAL POST:

Mental health is NOT a distinct aspect of health from physical health. that means that cultivated teaching of life skills, preventative care, and an understanding about how humans fit into the webwork of the world are the key to a healthy life. It means we need to be able to acknowledge when we are more and less healthy and seek care at times… for EVERYONE, not for “crazy people.” why isn’t anyone talking about how the issue is that our culture teaches (both implicitly and explicitly) dysfunctional methods of dealing with emotion and feelings of aggression? In my opinion, the best thing we could do to limit violence is to reintroduce healthy expressions of aggression, especially for boys. Boxing, wrestling, martial arts, highly cardiovascular sports–including DANCE, running, etc.–can serve as natural, healthy, NECESSARY expressions of what we now limit as a society because we have an excessively strange relationship with masculinity and an even stranger, severely dissociated relationship with the natural world and aggression’s healthy place within it.

Hunting–BEFORE guns– was an extremely powerful way to channel this sort of energy when humankind was younger; I believe advanced weaponry limits a person’s ability to be healthfully aggressive and replaces it with an unnatural sensation of power and control. It makes sense that we need that, that it feels good and exciting and fun–in a world where we are trained not to be physical, we ARE powerless and controlled. It is also true that it helps those of us who are highly aware that in many communities, “protective” forces (such as the police) are DANGEROUS to us. When this is the case, who wouldn’t want to be armed?

I don’t care if you own a gun. I don’t care how many guns you own. But I care very deeply about the fact that I seem to be the only person I know who will concede that under the correct correct set of circumstances and frustrations, I could shoot up anything. As such, I care whether IIIIIIII own a gun. And I don’t. And I care whether the children I teach and love and support and laugh with and cry over every day know how to react to disappointment without either acting out inappropriately violently (verses positively aggressively) or trying to shut down their feelings without expressing them because they don’t know how to talk about them in a useful way.
They don’t. Not yet.

However, you won’t hear about my kids on the news when they shoot or get shot, because it will happen in their own neighborhoods, and they will kill one another. So no one cares. But this is the thing–more of them die EVERY DAY than the children we’ve been taking about on the news for a week.

Children. All people start as children.

Well, been holding that all week. This is the only post I am making on this topic, and then I am back to my french onion soup quest. Also, I am going running.