What Are We Learning

  "We are so confused and ill-prepared for life when we're young.  Schools fail us so much.  

It's insane to me that I knew more about igneous rocks than I did about sexual consent 

or about depression or anxiety or how the world actually works." 

~ Jameela Jamil

This morning as I went about the business of waking up, brushing my teeth, flat ironing my hair, and dabbing on a smidgeon of makeup, I was listening to this week's episode of Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend and was fairly stunned by the beautiful truths shared by his guest, Jameela Jamil.  I mostly know her as the high-maintenance Tahani from the delightful show The Good Place, but was otherwise unfamiliar with her.  It turns out, she has quite a lot of thoughts about life and its meaning that made me stop and think -- and in the event of what I shared up-top, painstakingly rewind back through the episode to get her exact words.

Why is it that schools teach us these by-subject facts but shy so far away from issues related to social awareness or mental health?  Is there simply not enough time in the day to cover everything?  Should geology take precedence over public safety and mental health stigma?  Education isn't my field of expertise, so I'm not here with answers, but I'm certainly curious.  I often quote Pete Holmes misquoting that Jerry Seinfeld once said that we don't learn geometry because we will definitely need geometry in our adult lives -- we learn geometry so we can learn how to learn.  So if that's the case, then why don't we spend more time introducing students to Life Topics?  Where is the psycho-social education in the curriculum?

I wonder.

What made me go back and dig for this Jameela Jamil quote was work I was doing related to public safety.  As part of my internship this year, I am working on a committee that is exploring alternatives to the police in our communities.  This notion of abolishing police or defunding the police isn't new, but it's a movement that's been gaining traction in the wake of a slew or brutal murders by police of Black residents: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor's deaths being the back-to-back-to-back sparks that lit the fire.  Generally speaking, there's a lot of Words related to both sides of this issue and very little understanding of how this might work in a practical sense.  I am increasingly interested in learning more about this topic, so I was thrilled to be the intern assigned to this committee.  And as I read back through previous meeting notes, the complexity of how to create safety without the reliance on police bubbled up in my brain.  I'm not quite at the point of saying abolish the police, personally -- I think that argument is futile as the next step, at least.  There must be a way to step it down or define an intermediary -- a compromise, if you will.

But what.

Then I thought of Jameela Jamil's quote, which wasn't related to policing, but it was related to learning -- what our educational system taught us.  Our educational system is but one of many such standardized tools that our society has deemed "appropriate" for its selected population.  In school, we will teach you about rocks but not about rape, got it, check.  We will do it this way because we've always done it this way and we fear change.  Yep, ok, check check.  And what that made me do was think about how the issue was about our systems, of course -- and focusing on the actual police and what social services might pair well with them is absolutely a key discussion.

But isn't the other key discussion with the people?

Part of what makes abolishing or defunding the police scary is that it's not "normal" to us.  It seems impossible or incomprehensible because for all of our lives, there have been police.  You call 911 and they come and save you... (OK, I'm talking to the white people here), right?  Why'd we wanna mess with that?  It's how it always has been and, god willing, always will be.  We cannot see the picture a different way.

And that made me think of this meme I saw on Facebook the other day:

What I like about this is how instructional it is.  When it suggests it's a goat, all you see is a goat -- but when it says.....or bird? suddenly your brain must flicker between the two and decide.  Goat or bird...goat or bird...goat or bird....  Someone commented under my friend's post, "Let's cook it up and figure it out that way."  I mean, sure.  There are all kinds of ways to determine what something is.  But isn't it interesting that if we're told one thing and our brain says the data checks out, we easily move on unless it's challenged to consider something very different?

Could a goat and a bird be any more different????  Which one is this a picture of, anyway?????

This is basically how people feel about a number of social justice issues in this moment.  There are people who are very stubbornly clinging to the notion that it's a goat because that's what it said first and that's what it's always been and nothing will ever change that, not even these pesky Bird-Truthers who slid in there at the bottom and are maybe trying to push their way up to oust the goat people.  Conflict!  When really, if everyone took a step back and let their brain acknowledge that, wow, either of these things could be true, maybe we could investigate further to determine next steps.

Who's with me? Bleat or chirp your response.

Reading through past committee meeting notes, I saw some discussion about how police "make people feel safe" and that folks were encouraged to call the police when they felt unsafe.  It made me think of my many years of small business management where I had said this very thing to countless staff members.  If you feel unsafe, call the police.  In my 24-ish years of being a manager, I don't think a staff person ever actually called, unless a crime had been committed (a couple of thefts at the yoga studio come to mind along with the time two of my staff members were held up at knife-point at a retail store I managed) and I think that's because I also -- either directly or subliminally -- taught my staff how to maintain a safe environment.  To be most candid, the reason I insisted my staff members program the local police into their cell phones was twofold:

1) I wanted them to have the number in the event that they needed it -- that's not really a number you want to have to look up when you're feeling under pressure or super flustered


2) I wanted to give them permission to do something that most of them would find challenging to do -- knowing that they basically would never have to do it.

The idea was that I would train them well enough to know how to keep themselves safe without needing backup.  That didn't always work out, though. Here's an example.  At the yoga and wellness center I managed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, our Big Yoga Studio had some windows that ran along the back side of the building. A person wandering around out there could easily stumble upon them and finding themselves staring with their noses pressed against the windows at a class in progress.....and that could be very startling to students or the teacher, frankly.  We had blinds but they were sort of broken and this honestly wasn't a big enough deal to worry about it much until one night, a guy was out there during a night class and it spooked a few people.  The teacher then opted to instruct students to leave the studio in pairs, basically assuming this random dude was going to be waiting outside (allllllllll the way on the other side of the building) to, like, attack them at 7:30pm on the very bright and busy Massachusetts Avenue (hmmmm) and then this teacher sent a very ominous email out to staff about this "incident."


I wasn't thrilled that the teacher had handled it this way -- I wished she had come to me and let me know what happened so I could have dealt with it, but, well, it was too late, so all I could do was thank her (with a "reply all").  Of course, you know what happens next: paranoia about this surely murderous person starts to percolate, especially after the teacher the next night also reports seeing someone outside the same window during her night class.  She follows that up by saying she doesn't feel safe walking out to her car.

Double sigh.

Look, I am 100% here for my staff -- completely in support of them not only being safe but feeling safe....but this was snowballing out of control fast.  The truth is the guy was likely harmless.  There's no crime in standing outside.  Yes, it can be unnerving to see a person looking in through a window when you don't expect it, but I had practiced at the street-level Somerville studio where people have stood in the little huddle of our doorway and stared through the window there while I practiced inches away (only separated by glass) and not freaked out -- when that person has a much higher likelihood of, ya know, hanging around until after class and waiting for us to filter out.


Mountains out of mole hills.

So you want to know what I did the next day?  I COVERED THE WINDOW.  I used things that were readily available in the room to do so.  And then I ordered a tapestry to hang over the window for a more permanent fix.

Guess what.  Problem solved.

What struck me most in that particular circumstance was how quick those teachers and students were to respond with such fear without a) asking for help or b) trying to solve the issue themselves -- like, if someone is looking through the window, why isn't your first response to COVER THE WINDOW.  If a fire starts, you try to smother it, right?  You don't just stare at it and scream -- that's utterly useless. And, hey, I totally get that they are not the managers or whatever, but does it take a genius to thumb tack a cloth over a window?  I don't think so.  But if I'm wrong about that, then, hi, I'm a genius.

I share this example because it relates more broadly to our community response to police.  People call the police for a host of unnecessary reasons: someone's playing music too loud, the dog keeps running their yard, there's a homeless person walking around.  Do you need to call someone with a gun they're only sort of trained how to use to come and resolve this "issue" for you?  Probably not.  Some of these things could be solved with simple, human interactions that are completely related to, ya know, getting to know your neighbors.  Talking to them.  Developing relationships.  If you do that, then you don't have to call in unnecessary force to deal with your "problem."

In retail, we call this customer service.  The best way to prevent theft?  Talk to every person who comes through the door.  Ask them their name -- tell them yours.  Ask what brings them in.  Smile, be friendly, mention you like their shoes.  Whatever.  If you think they're trying to shop lift, chat with them even more.  If they really are up to no good, they will probably leave in a hurry -- they don't really want you to remember them or learn anything about them.  If they're not up to any trouble, you may form a bond with them and develop a good relationship.  Either way, win/win.

Now, I am not ever suggesting that someone put themselves in harm's way or try to "be a hero."  There are violent people with malicious intentions -- I am not suggesting you try to chat those people up, necessarily.  What I am suggesting is that most likely this person that you think fits a certain profile that your brain equates with "trouble" or "danger" might be totally fine and chill and great and wonderful, if you take your foot off the gas pedal for just a minute to figure it out.  If our first inclination was to try and make a connection with people who we find irritating or disturbing in a non-violent way instead of calling the cops, a number of things might start to change in a positive way.  That's what I'm suggesting.

So, when we talk about defunding the police, part of that goes back to our systems -- and systemic racism -- and the lens through which we view what is acceptable in our society.  Talking about rocks is OK but talking about sex is bad.  Clinging to our understanding that police are around to "protect and serve" all of us is normal but confronting the harsh reality that such a notion is dangerously false gets everyone in a tizzy.  It's a goat.  No, it's a bird.  Let's stare each other down while we refuse to give way on either side.

I don't think any of this stuff has an easy fix to it, but admitting that there is room for our minds to grow is a great first step. Just because this is how we've "always" done it doesn't mean that it's the only way it could or should be done.  Dismantling old frameworks is an immense social challenge, one that requires tetris-like skills and focus and strategy.  It will take a lot of committees like the one I'm on at my internship to continue to get brilliant minds in a collective to bounce ideas and talk through actionable plans.  Even in complexities, though, it's good to remind ourselves that sometimes the answer is quite simple: order a tapestry, problem solved, and, added bonus, a new pop of color in the studio, amiright??  It doesn't always have to be impossible, but it takes flexibility to make that happen.

Learning and the ability to learn is so crucial, yes, but it's also so necessary to be educated in realms that are practical and useful and relevant.  If we were spending a little more time teaching kids and teens about racial bias and normalizing mental illness and understanding gender or sexual identity or signs of emotional abuse alongside teaching them about how to open a bank account or how to fill out their taxes or how to get a mortgage, there might be better equipped young adults joining the "real world."  No shade to igneous rocks, but I don't need to know about you.  Learning how to change a flat tire would have been a better use of my time, that's all I'm saying.  Our education system should have these practical applications so students can answer the why am I learning this question easily and for themselves.  Leaning more into these topics allows for students not only to have hands-on experience with things they will likely have to deal with at some point along the way, it will also afford them the opportunity to ask questions and dialogue with others.

Conflict Management 101 would save a lot of people a lot of problems, so.... why isn't it required study for all of us?  Why are we taught to outsource things we really could handle ourselves?

Follow the dollars and that likely leads you to the answer to my question.  But, hey, what do I know.  I'm self-taught in a lot of #Adulting.

And, look, I don't know if it's a goat or a bird but I'm willing to hear arguments on both sides and share my thoughts, too.  Maybe the goal is just to be open to the conversation.  It's not a bad first step.  What comes next?  Why, we smash the patriarchy of course.  That's what got us in this mess in the first place.  I'm down for the rebuild.  Hope to see you there, too.


Originally posted in the I Spy in 2020 blog.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar


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