Archive | February, 2012

Judging Amy (and Whitney)

26 Feb

The first thing people do when a person dies of drug or alcohol addiction is to start making “I told you so” jokes. During my senior prom, the DJ dedicated “Another One Bites the Dust” to Kurt Cobain, who had just committed suicide after battling depression and addiction for years. Instead of scoffing at such a tasteless gesture, I laughed.

As a teenager, I didn’t appreciate the complexity of the disease of addiction. I saw it as people making bad choices, choices I could avoid. As an adult, I’m not comfortable defining people solely by their disease. I’m much more interested in the humanity underneath.

When 27-year-old talent Amy Winehouse died in July, rehab jokes littered my Twitter and Facebook feed. While some of them were clever, it made me sad that people’s wit outweighed their human empathy.

The reaction to Whitney Houston’s death took longer to descend into judgment and cruelty. I think that’s because at 48, she had a larger number of people who remembered her before drugs claimed her dignity.

Lately, I find myself humming a nameless tune that morphs into “I Will Always Love You” every time! I haven’t thought about that song since 1992, 1993, 1994, or whenever it finally stopped. But I was for it before I was against it.

What makes Whitney’s cover so unforgettable is not her voice but her vulnerability. Those initial a cappella notes made us shiver in the 90’s (mostly because it’s before the saxaphone solo). While later she retreats into the controlled power of the drum-beat punctuated second chorus, it’s the those slightly shaky words “If I should stay, I would only be in your way” that propelled the goose bumps. It’s the first few moments that keep you hanging on for the dramatic ballad it turns into.

I’m not sure what surprises me more, Whitney Houston’s insecurity or that I’m about to quote Kevin Costner, but here goes. He said in his eulogy that Whitney feared the on-set makeup during the filming of The Bodyguard wasn’t sufficient and added the thicker music video makeup she was accustomed to. As the hot set lights melted her mask, she approached Costner with foundation running down her face, only she didn’t know it until Costner turned her around to face the mirror. She was horrified.

Costner painted Whitney as the talent who constantly asked: “Am I good enough? Will people like me?”

“It was the burden that made her great, and the part that made her stumble in the end,” Costner said.

Chasing Amy

Most of the world didn’t hear the sultry soul of Amy Winehouse’s voice until “Rehab” became so popular that the irony was screaming at us. So the public, famous face of Amy became that of drunken live performances on a drug-riddled frame. The beehive hairdo and extreme eyeliner were only add-ons. The fresh-faced girl who auditioned for Island Records in 2002 was largely unknown. We only knew the masked Amy. In and out of rehab for years, she tried to live clean and sober, but the pain ate away at her young soul and she eventually reached for the solace of a temporary fix. The last time she reached too far.

Flannery O’ Connor was right: we resist grace because it means change and the change is painful. It continues to be painful. I am still just as neurologically geared toward the fix, the hit, the conflagration as I ever was; just as prone to be ruled by fear, just as driven by the need for approval, for adulation, to feel better.

–Heather King, NPR commentator and author, writing after 18 years of sobriety in her memoir Parched

Amy, like Whitney, struggled to accept herself. As quoted in The Guardian UK, Amy said:  “The more insecure I feel, the more I drink,”  and when asked about her rapid weight loss, added: “And the more insecure I feel, the bigger my beehive gets.”

In the last year of her life, Amy tried spending time in St. Lucia away from London to work on a new album. This geographic cure made people hopeful she could pull herself out of “the abyss.” But as the saying goes, “no matter where you go, there you are.” The demons inside her would follow her wherever she went. She laid her lot out in her lyrics:

And I tread a troubled track, my odds are stacked

I’ll go back to black

–Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black”

In the end, after giving up hard drugs, she died of alcohol poisoning. Her disease was stronger than her will to fight it.

Whitney Houston’s long battle with drug addiction finally ended in a hotel bathtub in Beverly Hills, after consuming a mix of prescription drugs and alcohol. This was just eight months after her voluntary entrance into an outpatient rehab in May of 2011. Other reports say she was planning to “deal with her addiction” by going to rehab again after the Grammys (held the night after she died). She wanted to put off grace for one more day, only her disease wouldn’t give her more time.

Beneath the tabloid photos that show the ugly face of addiction were two visionaries who influenced the next generation of talent. Whitney Houston paved the way for Mariah Carey and Jennifer Hudson; Amy Winehouse forged a path for Adele and Duffy. To reduce the tragedy of their deaths to crackhead and rehab jokes is heartless. If you haven’t lost someone to this disease, be grateful instead of cruel. If you haven’t personally struggled with addiction, read deeply about it before you start measuring a person’s worth by the symptoms of their disease.

Alcoholism and addiction are diseases of the mind, body, and soul. All three must be healed before a person can maintain sobriety, and that process is gradual and life-long. In 2007, Late Night comedian Craig Ferguson, now 20 years sober, dedicated his monologue to this very issue. He explained the fallacy that 28 days in rehab could cure a person of a “thinking problem.” It’s a disease that requires lifetime maintenance; it cannot be cured with wealth or influence. Amy and Whitney are just the latest examples.

Someone in Amy’s entourage referred to her as “Just a sweet tiny thing with a huge great voice.” What a beautiful summation.

It reminds me of those videos of Whitney signing in church with her mother. Whitney once said that music was love; she advocated music education in schools because it was the easiest way to spread love to our children. She first learned that when she was a “sweet tiny thing” singing about God’s love at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ. At her funeral at that same church, CeCe Winans invited the world to sing “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” with her.

Even a crackhead deserves that.

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You have to live it to get it

15 Feb

I live in South Florida, bad driving capital of the South. Conventional wisdom says it’s because of the influx of drivers from other places who’ve all learned to drive under different rules. Or sometimes no rules at all. Despite its dangers, I walk places as frequently as possible, including the grocery store across the street. The other day I was doing my daily cross-the-street maneuver with permission from the “walking man” street sign. As I walked in front of impatient drivers stuck at red, three different cars turning right into to my path (with “green” lights) attempted to run me over. They gave me “the NERVE of YOU!” looks as they slowed down to avoid vehicular manslaughter. I gestured at the pedestrian walking man to prove my rights. They were not concerned. It was all about them getting where they’re going as fast as possible. The only thing that would change that is if they were in that crosswalk with me as 1500 lb. boxes of metal lunged at them with no apologies.

But they likely never walk anywhere, so that perspective shift may never happen. And thus the cycle of impatience and blame will continue.

Nothing truly matters to us until if affects us personally. We might think we empathize with others, but we don’t actually get it until it lives with us every day. This is the strange position politicians are in–trying to solve problems they don’t fully understand.

I know how expensive healthcare is for small businesses because my dad owns a small business of himself and two employees. I also know how grateful he is to finally be on Medicare. For the period of time I had a “pre-existing condition” and paid insurance out-of-pocket while in graduate school, I realized how high the burden would be if I had a family to support as well. But since knowing and living with my type I diabetic husband, I finally GET IT. Even though he works for a major university with group health insurance, he still battles with the  insurance company every six months to maintain his insulin supply. Every time he bargains over how the insulin will be delivered, and how much they will or will not cover, I cringe. I also realize that I’ve been sheltered from the reality of our healthcare crisis. I’ve never had a permanent disease that will result in death if I don’t get medication. It’s one thing to read about it–it’s quite another to watch the love of your life stress over whether or not he’ll have to pay $250 more per month to NOT DIE.

In a similar vein, I recently learned that merit pay for teachers (at least the way the state of Florida is going to implement it) is purely a political move. The “reward good teachers” promise made at the stump is great lip service for politicians making deals with education specialists and testing companies. The way our pay scale was presented to us through a district training is that 6%-89% of teachers will be rated “Effective.” So only those in the 90-99th percentile are even eligible to earn the coveted rating of “Highly Effective,” the only rating that earns you a raise. How that raise is determined is based on 60% teacher instructional practices (as determined by a model sponsored by a paid education consultant) and 40% student achievement. It’s how the 40% is determined that will make your head spin. My district is going to implement this plan before they have standardized tests for every subject. This means that if you teach a subject or grade level that doesn’t have a state test yet, then your 40% will be determined by the school grade (in Florida we get graded A-F based on test scores, attendance, enrollment in upper level classes, etc.)

Yes, you read that correctly. You could be a highly effective theater or Spanish teacher who doesn’t get a raise because you teach in a high-needs school whose grade is a C or lower. Where’s your incentive to teach in a high-needs school? Where’s your incentive to look out for anyone but yourself?

I’ve been coping with a lot of guilt over not wanting to teach anymore. When I got laid off I was a little relieved because it forced me to find out my new path. Then the fear of not having a job took me over and when I was offered a position a few months later, I was temporarily excited. You know, “grateful to have a job.”

Only after several weeks, I wasn’t so grateful. Hello, guilty, my old friend…

It wasn’t until this year that I experienced real burn out with classroom teaching. This is my second year of all-classroom teaching and no advising. Deep down I knew the advising (although with its own stress) kept me from cascading into the reality that as much as I tried to convince myself that public school education is my lifetime calling, I’m not sure that it is. I think it was for a decade, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. And I’m not even saying I’ll never go back.

In addition to lacking a creative outlet at work, this year I ended up with a schedule of mostly low-level freshmen during a year when class sizes went through the roof. Everything going out, and very little coming in. Ending your day with 38 boisterous ninth graders who are only in your “journalism” class because they didn’t sign up for history feels more like corralling than teaching. That wasn’t even my worst class last semester.

Fight or Leave

If I knew I wanted be a classroom teacher for 19 more years, I’d be much more prepared for the fight that will likely continue for another five years (or however long it takes people to realize one-size fits all standardized testing is not the answer). Instead I’m battling a serious ultimatum, because teachers who stay will have to fight. And fighting for what you’re not sure you want to do anymore feels awkward. And it’s not fair to my colleagues who know this is their life’s work, the ones who deserve more money and better treatment. Instead this War on Teachers will give them uncertain, irregular pay that is determined by too many factors they can’t control. Don’t believe the hype that merit pay will allow us to fire bad teachers and keep good ones in the profession in order to boost student achievement. This is something I once would have agreed with because the kids motivated me. However, after all the research I’ve read and especially now that I’ve seen how the fourth largest state plans to implement merit pay, I see it for the political ruse that it is. I laugh now when I think how Michelle Rhee was on to something when she said that the problem with education isn’t the kids, it’s the adults.

The kids are always going to make it hard on teachers: that’s their job. When the adults decide it’s their job to make it even harder by micromanaging the minutia of their classrooms, it leaves many teachers with little left to give to the kids. It’s like drinking hot coffee with a perpetual burnt tongue and then being asked to smile as the district and state pour an entire pot into your face. “Teach on!”

When people try to dissect your craft into too many pieces, it stops feeling like it’s yours anymore. It feels more like a Skeksie draining a Gelfling of its essence. And this Gelfling is in a Dr. Seuss-esque slump.

“And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.”

–Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go