Thursday, May 18, 2017

I'm starting to think that maybe children aren't universally terrifying after all.

I don’t really know what to do with small children. I didn’t have to acquire much experience in this department growing up—my brother is only three years younger than I am, all of our cousins are older than that, and by the time I reached babysitting age it was already firmly established that I was not the right teenage girl to ask to help out in the nursery.

Despite having known this fact about myself since elementary school, I managed to forget it entirely in my senior year of college. That’s when I encountered the attractive whirlwind of powerful marketing and well-meaning hubris that is Teach For America.

For anyone unfamiliar with the organization, Teach For America (TFA) is a program that recruits brand-new, maximally idealistic college graduates and enlists them to teach for two years in severely underperforming schools. TFA specifically seeks graduates who did not study education in college, because the organization prefers a fresh receptacle for its own systems and values without interference from clutter such as “years of training” or “classroom experience.”

After acceptance into the program, TFA teachers undergo a five-week summer training called “Institute,” which is obviously sufficient to cover all of the skills a 22-year-old could need in order to manage and serve a classroom of academically disadvantaged students. The TFA website calls Institute “a rigorous and intensive experience,” which is presumably the result of the public relations team reworking their original slogan.

From Institute (where I learned that showers are so your roommates can’t hear you cry), I went on to my very own classroom of first graders in rural southern Louisiana. There it quickly became clear that those hours of instruction and practice in lesson planning had not addressed my extreme lack of experience with six-year-olds. My determination to eliminate educational inequity did not prepare me for the child who brought a pocketful of playground gravel back to class to throw at me...

... or the child with surprisingly good spelling and penmanship for a first-grader.

I want to be very clear on this point: These problems sprang from my extreme lack of confidence and ability in classroom management, and not from any fundamental fault with these children. They are almost definitely not evil in their cores at all. And they certainly didn’t ask to be subjected to the authority of that shouty white lady who kind of sounds like she might cry.

After a couple of months, it was obvious to everyone that my ability to explain subtraction was no match for my inability to get anyone to sit still, keep their shoes on, and stop spitting sunflower seeds at each other long enough to listen. I left the program early and came home with more than a little psychological baggage.

 Fortunately, there have been a few changes over time. For one thing, it’s been eight and a half years since I left Teach For America, so I almost never have the nightmares anymore.

For another, I have recently gotten to know a few little kids who seem not to mean me any physical or emotional harm! This experience is distinctly preferable, and in fact I have found that it can even be fun. For instance, several months ago I had a graduation party at which the first guests to arrive included friends of mine with their 5-year-old twins, Lucy and Batman. Also in attendance was a large and delicious-looking cake. I let the kids know that there were not enough people present yet to cut the cake, and we would have to wait until some more arrived. Lucy spent the intervening time making sure that the presence of a cake in the room remained at the front of my mind.

By the middle of the party (during which Lucy got plenty of frosting on her cake), there were four children under the age of six in my house. I am proud to report that I did not find this situation even a little bit harrowing.

Funny how context can change your experience. It’s almost as though Teach For America has significant organizational failings that should not be interpreted as a direct indictment of children’s character or my worth as a person. Huh.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hi. Hey. Hi. Hi. Hello. Hey.

Hi there. So, I went to grad school for three years and just finished in December. Let’s say that’s the only reason I haven’t been writing at all, and that sloth and inertia didn’t play any part. Cool? Cool.


A few years ago, my roommate Petunia gave in to her grandma’s repeated suggestions and signed up for an online dating site. I decided to do it too, for moral support—though the buddy system doesn’t really work on the internet. Unlike when you persuade your friend to come with you to a party, you can’t just stand in a corner and talk only to each other.

Petunia was willing to pay for a membership to one of the classier sites. I was not, and I ended up on Plenty of Fish for free. I can affirm that this is not the skeeviest dating site possible, though. I know this because of the other sites that advertise in its sidebar. Here are some helpful screenshots to prove that I am not making these up:

For some reason these sites do not advertise the number of lasting relationships they have enabled.

Plenty of Fish allows you to craft a description of yourself, thoughtfully answer questions and prompts about your personality, provide information on your interests and the qualities you are seeking in a match, and then receive insistent messages from people who have read none of these things.

I was not prepared for this attention, and at first I applied the same flawed strategy I had used for college mail. After taking the PSAT in high school, I received mail from a number of colleges that had no immediate appeal or connection to my future plans.

They all included a tear-off postcard to send in for further information, and it seemed reasonable to collect as much information as possible before making such a big decision. Even if the initial pamphlet looked unpromising, how could I be sure from first impressions that I wasn’t passing up the perfect opportunity?

I eventually compared notes with friends and realized my mistake. Unfortunately, I did not learn the lesson in a lasting way.

When it came to online dating, I initially assumed that it was only proper to reply to everyone who sent me a message—especially those who wrote more than just “Hi.” That’s how I got myself into the following mess:

This sounded to me like a reasonable and fairly self-aware request. Also, I had one clear reason in mind, and it was something he should be able to fix pretty easily in order to improve his future prospects. Providing this sort of advice—when someone specifically asks for it—is clearly the kindest and most helpful thing to do, right?

To my surprise, he did not appear to consider this a helpful response.

By this point, I still had not begun to suspect that he was not actually interested in my suggestions for improving his approach. I helpfully tried to explain.

Having learned a lot about the norms of online dating messages from this exchange, I then wisely…repeated almost exactly the same conversation with a different guy the next week. Optimism and stupidity often share surface characteristics.

In the end, I deleted my profile after reaching my limit for people coming on way, way too strong.

Whatever approach Petunia took worked noticeably better. She steered clear of Well-Meaning Pedantry traps and managed to avoid the fecally inclined, and I got to be part of her wedding last summer.

As for me, I'm thinking of starting my own site:

Extra credit:

Friday, December 27, 2013


Astute readers will have noticed that I haven’t posted anything recently. I haven’t posted anything not-all-that-recently, either. It’s all part of my demanding new routine:

I do not have a dramatic explanation for this lapse. I have not been traveling to Antarctica. I have not been stricken with Ebola SARS. I have not been starring in a play, composing a symphony, or writing a book. I’ve barely been reading a book, for that matter. I have been sort of regularly practicing becoming a small amount less bad at playing guitar, but that isn’t exactly an all-consuming pursuit.

The thing is, once you put off doing something long enough, it is just so easy to keep on not doing it.

It’s the justifications that cause the real trouble, though—that thick layer of self-deception assuring me that slacking off is really the more responsible thing to do.

What I’m trying to say is…I don’t know. Maybe ’90s TV should stop being so enjoyable?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Hooray, it’s another story with barfing in it!

Taboo, in addition to being the vehement objection of a society to a forbidden behavior, is a word game that you probably have in your closet. Either one can be fun at parties, depending on the guest list.

In the version less likely to involve grave-robbing or ritual banishment, the object of Taboo is to get your teammates to guess the top word on a card by giving verbal hints. You have to do it without saying any of the other words on the card, though, which leads to sounding like you’ve recently discovered how to use a thesaurus.

One really sound way to succeed at this game is to own an older copy that has not taken into account the last fifteen years of pop culture and technological innovation.

Probably the most effective method, though, is just to have a lot of inside references and shared knowledge with your teammates. It doesn’t take a lot of rounds to figure out which couples, siblings, and roommates shouldn’t be allowed to play on the same team.

Shortly before we fine-tuned the separation rules, one of my friends pulled off an impressive play with her roommates that ended up derailing the game while the rest of us demanded to hear the full story.

It seems that she had recently experienced an unfortunate run-in with the kitchen hygiene hazards of communal living.

The roommates in question agreed that they had not harbored any plans for sponge-sniffing escapades, but it was thoughtful of her to take that risk so selflessly on their behalf.

Of course, success in Taboo is all about personal context. Depending on your lifestyle, that same clue could potentially work for at least half the deck.