Observing Lent

On Tuesday I had a conversation with a coworker about what she was going to do for Lent this year.  Lent’s a season of the liturgical calendar leading up to Easter that’s typically observed by Catholics by way of different forms of fasting, most commonly through temporary dietary restrictions.  In recent decades the practice has spilled over into Protestant observance with the twist that participants in Lent fast in a variety of ways that may or may not have to do with diet.  The purpose, broadly speaking, is to go through a season of privation as a means of enhancing one’s spiritual practice.

Anyway, my coworker was discussing what she should “give up” for Lent; it was the end of the day and we were all just decompressing from being with students, so we were being a little silly.  My coworker suggested giving up things like not cursing in front of students or eating Mexican food (she was not excited by the prospect of having Mexican for dinner).  I told her that’s not how Lent works to which she laughed and said that she was glad I was acting as her conscience.

We didn’t really settle the question of what she should give up for Lent before we left work (when it’s time to go, we go), but the conversation got me thinking about my own relationship with Lent.

I’ve observed Lent a handful of times in my life with varying levels of difficulty.  The first time, before I even converted to Christianity, I gave up watching anime.  This was when I was in college and I was really interested in anime; it ended up not being terribly difficult because my interest in the medium had been waning anyway (it’s easy to give up a thing you don’t prioritize in your life already).  The second time was after I converted; I gave up playing video games that time, and I found it to be really difficult.  I was still really immature at that point, and I don’t know that I got much out of the practice beyond being able to say that I had done it.

A few years later, when I was doing my student teaching, I did Lent again, but I put a different spin on it.  I’m one of those people who apparently has a young looking face; I get mistaken for a teenager with some frequency, especially since I work in a high school environment.  One of the ways I manage this problem is that I maintain a perpetual stubble; lots of teenage boys can grow decent facial hair, but not as many as who can’t.  My student teaching year I was really sensitive about being mistaken for a high schooler, and at the time I viewed this sensitivity as a sort of pride that I had to overcome.  So for that year of Lent, I decided to shave every day (I really dislike taking time to shave).  In hindsight, I’m not sure I took anything from that experience either, besides a satisfaction in my commitment to do a thing I didn’t like doing for a set period of time.  I guess it also helped me get over my sensitivity to being viewed as younger, but that’s also been helped simply by my getting older (though I have been mistaken for a student a few times this year at my new school, and those incidents haven’t bothered me nearly as much as they used to).

All that’s just prologue, really.  Since the conversation with my coworker, I spent some time thinking about whether I should give Lent another shot.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, my faith has felt pretty torn up as of late.  Jumping back into a practice that has a definite period on it seems like a good, small, step towards figuring out what to do about my spiritual life.  Pretty much as soon as the subject of Lent was brought up, I felt an inclination to do it.  I just had to figure out how I’d like to observe it.

I think the most interesting innovation on Lenten observance that I’ve seen is the addition of some kind of task rather than a specific type of fast.  It doesn’t do much for me to give up certain foods or pastimes (most of my free time these days is spent either writing for the blog, knitting, or engaging in small bits of political activism; I feel like I have a very full routine without much that could be considered wasteful or indulgent), so I’ve decided instead that I’m going to spend Lent doing something I haven’t done regularly in a couple of years: read the Bible.

My plan at this point is to set aside fifteen minutes a day to read and reflect.  Ideally I’ll be able to convert my reflections into some kind of blog post, but I’m resolved to not go into this exercise with the intent of mining specifically for topics for discussion.  Lent is supposed to be a time when you devote a greater part of yourself to meditating on God and Christ’s nature and love.

I’ve started with the Gospel of John, and from there I’ll probably flip around a bit (I haven’t figured out a concrete reading plan for the forty days); I’d like to hit some of the prophets and revisit a few of the epistles.  It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this after a prolonged break and a significant shift in worldview.

Reading “Two Riders Were Approaching…”

There’s one major revelation in this issue and a whole mess of good character development for Rorschach and Nite Owl.  We learn here that Adrian Veidt, who’s been only a marginal presence since the beginning of the series (he might actually have appeared less at this point than Edward Blake, and he’s dead) is the mastermind behind the mask killer plot, and that there’s a whole lot more of something going on.  Veidt’s absence throughout has felt somewhat conspicuous given his dramatic introduction in the series’s first issue (he gets equal space with the other five main characters).  Veidt’s remained mostly a mystery; all we’re really told about him is that he got into the superhero scene at a young age and then somehow leveraged his success there into creating a massive business empire.  In comparison to the rest of the cast of Watchmen, he seems on the outside to be a generally well-adjusted individual.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious that he would end up being the “villain” of the story.  The entire mask killer plot, as Rorschach and Nite Owl discuss in this issue, is a bizarre and highly theatrical conspiracy that doesn’t make a lot of sense unless it’s being executed by someone who has long been part of the superhero community.  We’re still not yet privy to precisely why Veidt has orchestrated everything (that will be clarified in the next issue), but what we can ascertain so far is that he absolutely has a flair for the grandiose.  The machinations hinted at here with a brief scene showing all the missing scientists and artists who were mentioned in the copy from the New Frontiersman included at the end of issue #8 meeting their end in a fiery explosion at sea suggest something far more elaborate than simple revenge.  That all of Veidt’s time on panel here is devoted to him analyzing the global trends in order to figure out how to invest his money in the future shows that he’s thinking on a very complex level (though it also betrays the possibility that there’s a profit motive involved here as well).  Whatever the case, we now know who the antagonist is, and it’s just a matter of time before Moore and Gibbons lay all their cards on the table.

More important than Adrian Veidt is the impending sense of doom that this issue is meant to convey.  The issue opens with a sequence of President Nixon and Vice President Ford retreating to a secure location where they can monitor the movements of the Soviets in anticipation of nuclear war, and it maintains that tone of barely contained panic with frequent cuts back to the now familiar street corner where the news vendor is fretting over things far beyond his control while the young boy closes in on the end of the pirate story that has echoed themes of the primary story since its introduction in issue #3.  Things are spiraling into chaos, and everyone is aware of it even if they want desperately to deny it (this feeling is most sharply captured when the news vendor berates a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are out proselytizing in anticipation of an apocalypse; their Watchtower magazine is a nice subtle nod to the inspiration of the issue’s title and themes, “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan).  Things look bad, and everyone knows it.

Of Rorschach and Nite Owl, Nite Owl is the optimist. Also, take some time to peruse the graffiti and posters in the background; Gibbons packs all kinds of fun stuff in his panels. (Artwork and letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Rorschach’s one moment of pity. Also, because I don’t say it enough, but Dave Gibbons does the best faces. (Artwork by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

The focus characters for this issue are Nite Owl and Rorschach, and we get to see them carry out an investigation over two days that leads them to figure out that Veidt is the person they need to go see to get to the bottom of everything.  In the whole of Watchmen, this issue probably feels the most like a traditional superhero story.  Rorschach and Nite Owl do some detective work, bicker over how one should best go about doing detective work, and bond over mutual nostalgia for their younger days.  If you don’t look too closely at the seams of the scenario, it feels like a really fun bit of adventure; naturally that doesn’t last too long since you have details like Rorschach’s reveling in brutality to gather information and Nite Owl’s abuse of an innocent barfly upon hearing of Hollis Mason’s murder.  These men are engaging in a grand fantasy against the backdrop of a world that has bigger problems than some supervillain’s revenge plot, and the way they both casually wreck the lives of the people that get in their way is jarring.  The only saving grace for both men is that they do have moments of self awareness as they go about their adventure.  Nite Owl notes the absurdity of pursuing the mask killer plot while everyone else waits on World War III, and Rorschach has one fleeting moment of mercy when he chooses to skip humiliating his landlady in front of her children who are unaware that she is doing sex work to earn money.  It’s reassuring, however briefly, that our heroes are aware their work is most likely a farce.  Like everyone else we see in this issue, they’re ultimately just trying to fill the time with anything that will take their mind off how powerless they are.

In our penultimate issue, we’ll finally get to know more about Adrian Veidt and his master plan.  It’s a doozy.

(Artwork and letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

So School Choice (Part IV: Parent Capability)

There’s one last point that I want to make in considering the problems with the school choice movement.  This particular complication isn’t one that I thought of myself; it was first pointed out to me by one of my co-teachers.

The school where I’m currently working is relatively small.  I’ve moved into a very rural district neighboring the Athens area, and one of the defining characteristics of this district is that it isn’t big enough to justify having more than one middle and high school.  This means that for children living in the district, once they get to sixth grade (that’s when kids typically start middle school in Georgia), they get bused to the middle school campus located just down the road from the county seat.  Three years later, when they start ninth grade, they continue to be bused to the high school campus, just across the street.

That’s it for local school options in my district.  For half of our students’ academic careers, they have only one choice inside the district.  The nearest private school is located twenty minutes away by car.  This isn’t a big deal if you have a working car and can afford the cost of gas to make that commute every day, but that’s not necessarily a tenable situation for a lot of the families that we serve.  Our district is classified as a Title I district because, surprise, over half of the student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch due to their families’ low income level.

This is not an uncommon picture of rural school districts in Georgia and elsewhere.

In the event of a national voucher program, the overwhelming majority of families in our school district would be de facto unable to make use of such a program.  They need the busing that the district provides to get their kids to and from school; a private school may not offer transportation to children who live too far away.  It’s unlikely a new private school would pop up within the district to serve the population that doesn’t want to use the public school; the startup costs would be prohibitively expensive for getting a slice of an already small population to buy in to a new program.

Keep in mind that because it’s a rural district, the majority of families who would be left in the lurch by pushing a school voucher system lean conservative.  Vouchers are a policy that get advocated by conservatives who want to diminish government under the auspices of an ideology that purports the superiority of free markets over communal cohesion.  This whole idea doesn’t quite manage to come together in a way that would serve the people that school choice advocates claim it would serve.


Further Reading:

Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins – New York Times

So School Choice (Part III: Parent Motivation)

In the first entry of this series I noted that I was going to look broadly at issues underlying the two major agents in any school choice decision: private schools themselves, and the parents who would move their children.  The first two parts focused on the schools, and now I want to turn my attention towards the parents.

There is a simple, noble assumption that supports the notion that parents should be able to choose somewhere outside of public education for their children to go to school: parents will always act in the best interests of their children to the extent which they are capable.  We build up a cultural myth that being put in charge of the care and raising of a child imbues a person with the unshakeable drive to do right by that child.

This is not the case.

People tend to be remarkably selfish creatures, and the drive to help one’s descendants live better often gets confounded by more immediate needs and motivations.  These confounding factors range from thoroughly understandable (the needs of one’s personal health outweighing the needs of one’s children) to self-serving (wanting to replicate one’s own harmful values in one’s children for the sake of cultural preservation).  Parents don’t get an exemption from these same motivators, no matter how much we may like to imagine that the fact of their progeny instills some kind of inherent virtue in their decision-making.

Let’s speak, briefly, about a kind of parent which doesn’t get much attention in conversations about school choice.  I’ve worked in special education for five years now, and I’ve observed that on the spectrum of parental quality, you have a pretty clear divide between parents who are invested in the well being of their children and parents who aren’t.  This divide is usually found along socioeconomic lines; working class parents tend not to invest as much attention in their child’s education as middle and upper class parents.  Some of that’s understandable because being poor makes life more difficult on a lot of different axes; I have nothing but sympathy for parents who are just trying to make sure their families get by, and I’ll discuss them in more depth in the next post in this series.  At the same time, there are also a number of parents who just can’t be bothered to give their children the support they need.  These are the most frustrating parents to deal with on a professional level, because it often becomes clear from interacting with their children that there are things going on home outside the child’s control that do immense harm to their potential for academic success.  It’s these interactions that leave educators frustrated and shouting at the rest of the country about the importance of stable homes in determining student success.  For those parents, school choice is a laughable idea because they can’t be bothered to put in the effort to make an informed decision about their kids.  The children of those parents would be left in the same rut where they currently exist: locked out of a better option by virtue of being supervised by an irresponsible caretaker.

Keep in mind that this former category of parents is, in my experience, remarkably small.  Most home instability that I’ve seen stems from factors outside the family’s control.

The category that I want to focus more closely on here is the one of parents who are involved in their children’s education.  Specifically, let’s look at the kind of parents who would be most readily able to take advantage of school choice.  Many of these parents are going to be middle class; they have enough socioeconomic power to understand the importance of quality education in building an upwardly mobile life for their children, but they lack the resources necessary to put their kids in those vaunted private schools.  We see this sort of narrative frequently in popular culture; the example that sticks out in my mind is Lorelai Gilmore trying to pay for her daughter’s tuition to attend Chilton.  In Gilmore Girls, that problem’s solved by Lorelai going into debt to her wealthy parents; it’s the access to wealth that opens up Rory’s options for the future.  Parents wanting vouchers imagine themselves like Lorelai in that scenario but without the rich relatives.  The thinking goes that if you just have the government give these folks the money allotted for their children’s education, they’ll use it to send their kids to Chilton.

A lot of them will.

What’s ignored in this equation (and on Gilmore Girls for that matter) is the intersection of race and class going on here.  White parents want to get their kids into “better” schools, which we read as more white and more affluent.  Black parents who have the available resources to worry over their children’s education do the same thing, but typically with less success (it’s funny how we overlook class and cultural factors when we assess kids for potential to succeed in more rigorous educational environments).  School choice ends up being a smokescreen for white parents who can’t afford to pay for it themselves wanting to segregate their white kids from the rest of the populace.  It’s no longer socially acceptable to explicitly not want to send your kids to school with Black and brown children, so you get around that ingrown prejudice by hiding it behind “just wanting the best possible opportunities for your child.”  Never mind that it’s better for the social fabric of our communities if our children spend time around people from different backgrounds and learn how to get along with each other.

I get that this argument is likely to fall on deaf ears when it comes to the pro-school choice crowd.  Folks who are invested in protecting white supremacy always get touchy when you point it out to them.  Still, it’s there, and it needs to be pointed out.  The last entry in this series will move back towards questions more closely concerned with class and the problems school choice imposes on families who simply can’t pick a “better” option for their children’s schooling.

Reading “Curse of the Replacement Supermen”

Okay, I’ve poo-pooed on a few of the middle issues of All-Star Superman (the more I think about it, the more I dislike the Bizarro two-parter), but I have to say that I actually found myself remarkably taken with issue #9 “Curse of the Replacement Supermen.”  Its antagonists, Bar-El and Lilo (I don’t know enough about the Superman mythos to explain why Lilo doesn’t have a house name) are total heels who espouse a blatant form of cultural imperialism.  They’re not supposed to be sympathetic at all but their circumstances leave you feeling some empathy in contrast with Zibarro from the previous issue whom Morrison and Quitely want us to like but who only annoys me.

This issue starts up two months after Superman disappeared into the Underverse while fighting off the Bizarro planet.  In that time, two Kryptonian astronauts who were thought lost in space have arrived on Earth and taken over Superman’s duties as protector of the planet.  Their motivations aren’t quite so pure (we see right away that they’re very intent on imposing Kryptonian culture on humanity by fiat if necessary), but they do seem to recognize the value of protecting human life, even if they think Earth’s inhabitants are inferior to Kryptonians.  Superman initially tries to reason with Bar-El and Lilo, but he quickly realizes that they hold him in contempt and they are stronger than him (it’s so soon after being trapped in the Underverse that Superman’s still getting his full powers back).  He’s forced to retreat, but Bar-El and Lilo track him down to the Daily Planet where they almost out him as Clark Kent before they become grossly ill from kryptonite that has formed in their bloodstream.  Superman finds that he isn’t able to cure them, so he sends them to the Phantom Zone where they can beat up Kryptonian criminals all day in perpetuity until he can maybe find a way to heal them.

There are two strains of fun in this issue that I want to highlight.  The first is, once again, Morrison’s ridiculous love of the Silver Age.  Sometimes it’s overdone and obnoxious, but this issue seems to hit just the right balance for me.  Here’s my favorite panel demonstrating this idea:

(Artwork by Frank Quitely, inks & colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

Superman’s totally befuddled by the Kryptonian spires because they’re so obviously out of place in Metropolis, but he has the wherewithal to exposit in a complete sentence for the reader.  Where a more contemporary comic might condense Superman’s utterance to something like, “Kryptonian architecture?” Morrison just goes all in on the hokey Silver Age dialogue.  The phrase, “my native planet, Krypton,” sells it the hardest, as it communicates to the reader information about Superman’s origin that Morrison has previously dispensed with explaining in detail (his and Quitely’s “four panels, eight words” opening from issue #1 is a relatively famous treatment of Superman’s origin that works because it assumes readers already know the important details about Superman, including his home planet of Krypton); Silver Age comics are infamous for reiterating core character concepts over and over again on the assumption that any comic could be a reader’s first encounter with its hero.

Besides all of that condensed awesome silliness, you also have to accept that the issue’s premise (a couple more Kryptonians just drop onto Earth from space and make Superman’s life complicated) is pure Silver Age absurdity (really it’s pretty much superhero absurdity in general, but DC tried to step away from the whole “Superman runs into a bunch of other Kryptonians who survived the planet’s destruction” angle when they realized it was getting out of hand).  Also, the fact that Bar-El and Lilo show up at the Daily Planet, basically call Clark Kent Superman in front of his coworkers, and they still don’t make the connection is utterly bonkers; in any other book I’d hate it, but for some reason I find it charming here–probably because I have such a low opinion of the Daily Planet‘s staff that I’m not at all surprised by their obtuseness.

The other thing that I like about this issue is that it gets back to the core thesis of the series (which took some weird turns in those middle issues): that Superman is an essentially good person who tries to do right by everyone he meets.  This concept expresses itself here in ways that are imminently admirable; Superman explains to Bar-El and Lilo that he has no right to impose his own values on others, particularly when it would supplant other equally valid values.  When Bar-El describes Superman’s love of Earth cultures as going “native,” you can’t help but recognize that there’s a postcolonial critique happening, even if it’s only on a very basic level.

(Artwork by Frank Quitely, inks & colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

Superman’s conflict with the Kryptonians culminates with a sequence where they beat him handily and put a fissure in the moon, all while calling him a “soft wee scientists’s son.”  This moment crystallizes in my mind the idea that Bar-El and Lilo are supposed to be obnoxious bullies from space while Superman is the sensitive, nerdy kid.  It’s a funny setup, particularly since Superman is portrayed as so physically in control of himself and his surroundings in all other scenarios, but it rings true as an extension of what Superman values from the heritage his parents left him.

I like the disordered panel borders here; they do a nice job of highlighting how jarring this beating must be for Superman. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, inks & colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

That the issue ends with Superman choosing to actively try to help Bar-El and Lilo with their illness after they essentially declared their intent to colonize Earth as New Krypton is pretty moving.  I’m not sure if the Kryptonians actually would change their tune if they were to get better, but the fact that they’re at least not genocidal (unlike another villain that Superman might have been a little too easy on back in issue #5) suggests that there’s hope to reach them.  Still, it’s probably for the best that they’re trapped in the Phantom Zone and it’s not within the purview of this series to explore what Bar-El and Lilo would do if released.

Learning to Knit

This is one of those posts where I’m basically filling for time since I have had to declare blogruptcy after a couple weeks of being too busy to get ahead on my writing schedule.

So, here’s a picture of what I’ve been doing with some of my free time over the past couple weeks.

I made that one goofy looking cord in the middle before I got the hang of knitting.

I picked up knitting because Rachael started doing it as a way to help manage general anxiety about the state of the world, and she suggested it to me as a nice pastime that also has the added benefit of allowing you to actually have something to show for it afterwards.  She also wanted to knit a brain cap for the March for Science coming up in about a month or so, and when she saw the instructions said she needed seventeen feet of I-cord, she turned to me and said, “You would really enjoy knitting if you got into it, Jason.”

After about a week of struggling to understand the basic concept (I wanted to learn how to do it left handed, which added a further layer of complication to everything), I finally figured out the basics and got to it.  Lo and behold, I’ve knitted nearly seventeen feet of I-cord and have begun knitting the cap as well.  Go me.

So School Choice (Part II: School Ideology)

In the first part of this series I noted briefly that private schools may or may not be religiously affiliated, and that, generally speaking, this affiliation is a value neutral characteristic.  The major critique in that part was over the problem of school funding, though, particularly how moving students from public schools to private ones would most severely impact the economy of scale that allows public schools to effectively serve low socioeconomic status students and students with special needs.

Let’s get back to the question of religious affiliation and its larger umbrella, school ideology.

The school choice movement is based primarily in the American white evangelical community.  The people advocating for this model, like Betsy DeVos, subscribe to a system of belief that’s saturated with the idea of being counter cultural (that white evangelicals make up a large plurality of the American populace doesn’t seem to ever occur to them as a reason why they can’t actually be counter cultural).  The idea comes, of course, from the white evangelical reading of the New Testament where Paul encourages Christians to be “in the world, but not of the world.”  This idea’s the foundation of the culture wars.  One of the major tenets of the culture wars, as they’re viewed from the white evangelical side, is that the separation between church and state is a monstrously bad thing because it leads to people losing faith in (their version of) God.  Pushing to weaken that barrier is one of the ways white evangelicals try to fulfill the mission of their sect (never mind that conversion by fiat is a terrible model for lasting religious engagement).

The thinking generally goes that while you can’t force religion into public schools (that pesky First Amendment, y’know), there’s nothing wrong with working it into private institutions; with school choice, one of the underlying motivations is to divert federal money away from agencies that are restricted by the First Amendment to organizations that have no such reservations.  If you chip away at public education by diverting that money to other schools, eventually public schools will be undermined enough that private education becomes the only viable game in town (for those students that private schools will accept).  It’s an attempt at creating de facto government sponsorship of religious education under the umbrella of “religious freedom” (and more specifically, government sponsorship of Christian education; I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the Satanic Temple establishes an elementary school to test the universality of the religious freedom argument).

The reason for all this sleight of hand is to replace the civics education that’s supposed to be the bedrock of American public education with a system that allows families to place their children in environments that sustain and replicate the epistemic closure that pops up in insular religious communities.  A common cry heard from conservatives is that public schools in America try to indoctrinate children into a liberal agenda, which is only true insofar as the values of mutual respect for others’ humanity and desire to understand objective truth are values that many conservatives have ceded as belonging solely to liberal ideology.  They see schools engaging in cultural indoctrination and come to the conclusion that it’s only fair they have their own spaces to provide competing indoctrination (and that with enough social engineering, the thinking goes, they can drive the competitors into irrelevance).

Besides the religious motivation, which I’m inclined to find highly suspect but not innately perpetrated by bad actors, there is the more clearly concerning profit motive of private and charter schools.  Charter schools are a weird category that I haven’t discussed much up to this point, so let me break down what they are in brief.  In a charter school, the local and state education agencies have suspended direct oversight and handed it over to a private organization for management and administration.  The stated goal of this model is to allow for more flexibility in school modeling so that schools can try to tailor their environments to better fit the needs of their students free of a lot of cumbersome regulations.  The problem with this model comes with the fact that you establish a system where regulations are minimized for an organization that is operating from a profit motive.  The goal of the administrations in these charter schools is often to make money rather than to deliver a high quality education to their students, and these circumstances, absent effective oversight, lead to situations where schools will try to cut costs in order to make more money off their students.  John Oliver did a good in-depth story on the subject of charter schools last year that’s available on Youtube (it’s embedded at the bottom of this post for anyone who wishes to view it).

For the sake of discussion here, I’m lumping charter schools in with nonreligious private schools.  The level of government oversight varies somewhat between these categories, but it’s significantly diminished in both cases in comparison with public schools.  There are certainly good actors in this category, schools that treat their fiduciary responsibility to their students with the gravity it deserves, but they all ultimately treat education as a business rather than a public service.  There is always a bottom line that must be weighed against the needs of students, and in private institutions, that bottom line doesn’t go nearly as deep as in public schools.


Further Reading:

Libby Anne: “On Calls for Homeschooling in Response to DeVos”

Also from Libby Anne: “Inequalities Abound: Betsy DeVos and School Closures”