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Disturbing the Universe

The musings of author Christina Knowles

Month

May 2015

Why I Still Do It by Christina Knowles

IMG_3551 With all the changes in the public education system, with all the increased time demand and responsibilities, with all the blame and disrespect aimed at educators today, some people ask me why I still teach, especially because I actively speak out about problems in the educational system. The truth is I continue to teach for a lot of reasons, but the simple answer is that it’s who I am. When I am in the classroom, I love it. I think I even need to do it. Even if I won the lottery, I would continue to teach at least one class. I don’t speak out because I hate teaching, I speak out because I love it, and I hate what people outside the classroom are trying to turn it in to. I speak out because somebody has to stop the damage before it is too late, too late for current students, and too late to stop good teachers who love teaching from leaving the profession. But this article isn’t about that. It’s about why I do it anyway. What is it about teaching that keeps me coming back for more, no matter what unreasonable working demands are placed on me by the state? I can’t speak for other teachers, but I suspect we have some of these things in common.

Surprisingly, I never intended to be a teacher. I went to college and majored in English Literature because I loved to critically read—everything, the classics, contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, political commentary, philosophy, everything . . . and I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t feel confident in my skills, so I thought I needed an education. In addition, I believe a well-rounded liberal arts education is good in general. A liberal arts education helps a person look at the world with new eyes, not only critical and informed eyes, but with appreciative eyes. I went on to earn my Master’s degree in Creative Writing with the intention of being a novelist and screenwriter.

IMG_3330  However, along the way, I sort of fell into teaching, looking for more “time” to write while still earning a living. That’s quite funny to me now. I’ve never worked so many hours in any other career. But anyway, I entered the classroom at a private school that did not require a state teaching license with zero experience teaching and not even one class in education under my belt. Nervously, I faced my students that first day with an idea in mind of what I wanted them to learn, and then I just started talking, talking about my favorite subject, English. I loved it! All of it—the literature, the grammar, the writing, the reading, the speeches, the debates, and the critical discussion. And I adored my students. I loved getting to know them, listening to their ideas, hearing their dreams, their problems, and inspiring them to learn. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to share what I was most passionate about all day, every day. I even enjoyed grading papers. I loved reading, encouraging, and advising students about how to make their work creative, interesting, organized, and purposeful. To this day, I have to force myself to limit my comments on work to realistically grade it all because, left to my own devices, I would write an essay on each essay.IMG_3320

Teaching seemed to come naturally to me. I think I am good at it. Like many good teachers I know, I frequently get comments from students that they understood something for the first time in in my class, or saw something in a completely new way. I keep in touch with a lot of former students, and I am always touched by comments from those who say I was a major influence in their lives, students who are now doctors, lawyers, grad students, writers and aspiring writers, and future politicians. This is the most rewarding thing about teaching.

So after a couple of years, I went back to school and majored in Education: Curriculum and Instruction, obtained my state licensure, and began teaching public school, which has been even more rewarding from the standpoint of reaching a more diverse population of students. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and don’t realistically see myself ever completely leaving the classroom, although I do wish I had more time to write—that will always be my first love. But this love of writing, I believe, makes me a better teacher as well.

American Lit  One thing that motivates me to continue to teach is that I am a serious academic at heart. I think about everything in excruciating detail. I analyze, deconstruct, reassemble, interpret, compare, contrast, and relate to my life and the world everything I read, hear, or see. I just can’t stop. I frequently get the question, “Can’t you just enjoy it [movies, books, art] without thinking about it so much?” The answer is that I do enjoy that; it’s why I enjoy watching movies, reading, and art, and because I’m married to a musician, I’m starting to do this with music as well. I hope that my enthusiasm for my subject helps my students to connect to literature on a deeper, more critical level, which in turn, will make them more critically thinking individuals in every aspect of their lives.IMG_3162

Teaching English is good me for another reason as well. I am somewhat introverted with people out in the “real” world, but teaching gives me the much needed intellectual conversation that I am often unable to attain in social situations. I know it sounds like a contradiction that someone who talks all day is actually an introvert, but it is quite common. Introverts spend a lot of time thinking and have trouble engaging with what they see as unimportant or trivial “small talk.” It takes a lot of energy to talk about nothing. However, talking about something deep and intellectual is energizing. The problem is that people don’t typically jump into these types of conversations, and by the time I’ve awkwardly engaged in several minutes of small talk, either I’m exhausted from the effort, or they are. Although I know they are just trying to be polite, I actually dread attending events where I know I will be asked the usual teacher questions: “How’s school going? Are you ready for break? How are the kids this year?” I don’t think they really want to know, and I certainly don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think they realize how many times a day I have to answer these same questions.Prom

Conversely, intellectual conversation fuels my thought-life. Discussing literature and writing organizes and clarifies my own thoughts as well as sparking new ideas. I learn things and get new ideas from my students all the time. I get to have important conversations that many people don’t seem to want to engage in outside of the classroom. I get to have interesting conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds and interests, from different races, cultures, and life-experiences. This excites me.

It’s true, I have numerous friends and family, including my husband and my book club friends, who are always up for some meaningful and intellectual conversation, but as a teacher, I get to engage in this all day long! I love this so much that teaching alone is not enough. I am involved in several discussion groups with adults from book clubs to philosophical discussion groups, the Diversity Forum to cultured interest groups. My new favorite thing is teaching at the community college, where we take diversity of experience and worldview to a new level. After teaching high school all day long, I teach night classes at the community college—two in a row, and it actually gives me more energy. If my entire job consisted of nothing but time in the classroom, no one would ever hear me complain.

So when you hear a teacher complaining once again about how difficult his job is, or how he must deal with increasing pressures from every direction when all he really wants to focus on are his students and their needs, don’t assume he hates teaching or think he’s a bad teacher.Rachel and Sierra

And if you run into me, please, don’t ask me how school is going, or you may get one of two responses: the stock “fine,” or a tirade on the evils of Common Core testing twice in two months. Instead, ask me what I’m reading, what I think of Nietzschian philosophy, or my thoughts on whether or not The Patriot Act should be renewed, but only if you really want to hear the answer. But most of all, please don’t tell me that “dealing with all those teenagers must be horrible” because that is the best part of teaching. And if I deteriorate into complaints about the Department of Education, lack of funding, or having 500 papers to grade by Monday, don’t assume I take it out on my students. I wouldn’t dream of it. They make all the bad stuff go away, one fabulous paper, one sincere thank you, one inspired dream, and one great discussion at a time.—Christina Knowles

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“A Caress from the Wind on the Sea” by Christina Knowles

To my husband, my wind on the sea.

“A Caress from the Wind on the Sea”

starfish on a beach sandA caress from the wind on the sea

Gentle and warm on a sandy shore

Softly, it sweeps across me

Drawing me deeper, it’s more

Than I imagine I need

This caress from the wind on the sea

Lightly,

Sand peppers my skin

Its synchronicity

Exists in the whim

In the air surrounding me

A caress from the wind on the sea

Awakening,

To its embrace

The scent of salt lingering

Leaving its gentle trace

Breathing life into me

My caress from the wind on the sea

Languorously,

Dreaming on a sandy shore

The wind stirring attentively

I would not ask for more

When you come to me

A caress from the wind on the sea

—Christina Knowles (2015)

Photo snagged from laurenrbake.files

How to Be Happy, Part 2 by Christina Knowles

HappyEveryone wants to be happy, right? Well, at least most of us do. A few months ago, I published a blog called, “How to Be Happy,” which has been something I’ve really been considering lately. When I first decided to write a blog about being happy, I just went with my own life experiences and gut feelings, but recently I’ve been reading books, articles, research studies, and watching lots of documentaries on the subject, and I’ve learned about some things that make a lot of sense.

In my last article, I mentioned things like being part of a community, being grateful, not getting angry over insignificant things, doing meaningful work, being humble, laughing, being honest and thoughtful, enjoying time alone, eating right, spending time in nature, enjoying the arts, giving to charity, loving animals, and cultivating relationships. After studying the subject in more depth, I found that many of these things I noticed that made me happy were found to be true in cultures around the world, but there were also some things I didn’t mention that I think are quite profound. For one thing, things like our job, income, and life situations have little to do with how happy we are. As long as we have enough to eat, a warm shelter in which to live, and have moderate security, external sources have little lasting effect on happiness. But there are some things that we can do, in addition to what I wrote in my last article, that can have a great impact on our happiness. Here is what I found:

Do something different—Studies show that people, even the ones who think they like routine (like me), benefit from changing things up and doing something completely outside what they normally do (Happy). Novelty and experiences make us happy, and are often the source of our best memories. I really do need to work on this one.

Help people—In my last blog on this subject, I mentioned giving to charity, which does make you happy, but now I am talking about doing something more tangible. Instead of merely giving money, which is helpful, physically do something to help someone. I think it makes a person even more happy because giving money is too easy, but getting your hands dirty feels like you did something bigger, something personal. Helping people always makes you feel good, but only if you don’t expect anything in return. Expectations lead to disappointment and bitterness. But knowing how you made someone feel because you were willing to give up actual time to help him always leads to happiness.

Do things that create flow—Flow is that elated mental state caused by letting go of the mind and just experiencing an almost unconscious state of action that seems effortless (Happy). It’s that feeling of being in “the zone.” Runners experience this as “runner’s high” when they reach a point where they feel they can’t go on, and then endorphins kick in, and they feel like they could go on forever. I’ve experienced runner’s high and a similar feeling while figure skating. I also felt this while writing my novel. After hours of writing, it seemed like the book began writing itself. It was effortless. I’ve heard chefs on the line experience this flow. Anything that you enjoy and do for an extended period of uninterrupted time can become like a zero-point focus, totally absorbing, and all worries and conscious thoughts seem to let go, and you become completely at peace. Apparently, many people achieve this through meditation, but I’ve never been able to properly meditate. Maybe someday.

Exercise—Exercising releases endorphins, making us healthier and happier over all. Exercise often leads to experiencing flow. It makes us healthier, which also adds to contentment, and it can be fun—at least, I’m trying to convince myself.

Sleep—Everyone knows that lack of sleep makes you irritable and unhealthy, but getting enough rest makes you mentally healthier. Some psychologists believe that dreaming is necessary to sanity, but it is commonly known that a lack of sleep can cause depression, weight gain, emotional instability, and an inability to think clearly. Having enough sleep is important to maintain health and happiness. I could definitely use more sleep.

Don’t work too much–This is the hardest thing for most of us, I think. I know I work almost all the time–days, nights, weekends. There have been numerous studies that show countries whose people work 30 hours or less per week, have the most happy citizens, or Gross National Happiness. According to the latest studies, Japan is now the least happiest country due to overwork. They are literally working themselves to death (Happy). I’m sure Americans are not far behind. If you think about it, this one issue can affect all the rest. If we are busy working, trying to pay to keep up a lifestyle that will never make us happy, then we don’t have time for community, volunteering, exercise, sleep, relationships, etc. We won’t have time to do the things that will actually make us happy. But we have to work 40 hours just to survive. For many of us, our jobs require unpaid hours at home just to keep up. It’s a conundrum.

Realize that everything and everyone is connected—Whether we believe we are connected transcendentally, spiritually, or just through energy and commonality as Einstein realized, we affect each other and everything around us (I Am). When we war with each other, hate, steal, treat animals with cruelty, destroy our environment, we are doing this to ourselves. The same is true when we do good. If we realize this connection, we are less likely to harm each other. This makes everyone happier.

Don’t believe in artificial constructs—like the economy, success, and competition. I mean really, what is the “economy?” It’s something we created that seems to enslave most people and elevates a few. Money, the stock market–it only exists because we made it important for survival. It is completely artificial in itself. Success is defined by marketing companies, television and movies, corporations, and school boards. And competition? Isn’t it natural? Doesn’t it provide motivation? Make us feel happy when we win? Not really. Don’t buy into the idea that these constructs are natural and good, and that these are the things we should be most concerned with. People who do, often live with regret and waste most of their lives. Sure, we have to live in the world in which we were born, we have to survive in this system, but we don’t have to buy into the idea that these are the primary areas in which to strive. These things never lead to happiness.

Don’t compete—Human beings are always better off sharing, cooperating, and quite often, compromising. It makes us happier, so why are we so competitive? Our personal selfishness is always reinforced in our culture, as is standing out, being number one, and crushing the competition. But competition leads to stress and disappointment most of the time. It always leaves someone feeling bad.

But standing out—or better put, feeling special, is usually pleasant. Well, the best way to feel special is to be loved, and competition is not good for loving relationships. According to Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, in Aboriginal and indigenous cultures, cooperation is given a much higher value than competition and “competition beyond certain boundaries is considered mental illness” (I Am). He studies cultures and animals to determine what is natural to us and what is a societal construct. He asks if democracies or hierarchies are more natural. He found that not only do animals rely on cooperation to survive, nature never takes more than it needs, or it dies off, as Darwin also realized. I think there is certainly a lesson for us in this. Even Darwin talked more about love and cooperation among mammals than “survival of the fittest.” Often the fittest is the one who will cooperate. Darwin also said that sympathy is one of the strongest impulses of humans (I Am).

Be empathetic and compassionate—We all share the ability for empathy. When we witness heroism, something touching, or empathize with someone going through something particularly emotional, we experience “elation” (I Am). We recognize this feeling of innate compassion for fellow beings as love and as good. This feeling makes us happy even while at the same time, we may be sad. This altruistic impulse is natural and inborn in every human, and the evidence overwhelmingly shows this tendency in other mammals as well within their own social groups, and sometimes even outside it. I prefer this “human nature” to that of the ruthless competitive “nature” that began as a flaw in childhood and was reinforced by our society. Compassion even makes us healthier, while competitiveness makes us sicker in the form of stress-related illness.

Think and be positive, and act positively—I’ve always scoffed at “positive thinkers.” I’ve never believed that we could change physical matter merely by thinking it into existence; however, more and more scientists are exploring this as a potentiality. I’ll wait for the evidence, but even if positive thinking cannot alter a physical situation, it certainly has an effect on how we perceive it—whether we take it as good or bad, and of course, our emotions in dealing with it. Acting positively will affect how others act toward us, which can positively alter our circumstances as well.

Finally, live in a way that causes the least harm to anyone or anything—If, every day, in every interaction, we consider what harm we may cause and choose the least harmful, the whole world would be a better place. We cannot avoid harm—just by existing, we cause harm to our environment. We eat plants and some of us eat animals, we live in houses, we drive cars, and produce waste. We get careless, and we say hurtful things or treat others with unkindness. However, we can choose the least harmful in every interaction with our world. We can plant gardens and use natural ways to keep pests away, we can refuse to consume meat that was raised inhumanely, we can use environmentally friendly materials and not take more than we need, we can conserve, and not waste. We can be responsible and kind. If we lived like this, how could we not be happy?Purpose

I’ve heard that our purpose, if we have one, on this planet is not to “be happy” and maybe it’s not, but it seems that we are driven to pursue it. What if being responsible, kind, and loving human beings was our purpose, and precisely because it is our purpose, it also makes us happy? Not the fleeting excitement of a new toy-kind of happiness, but joy, the deep, soul-contentment of being who we should be, who we are capable of becoming. —Christina Knowles

Sources

  • Happy. Wadi Rum Films, 2012. Film.
  • Happy Photo. yhponline.com. Web.15 May 2015.
  • Purpose Photo. Hippie Peace Freaks. Facebook. Web.15 May 2015.
  • I Am. Tom Shadyac. Flying Eye Productions, Homemade Canvas Production, and Shady Acres Films, 2010. Film.

“I Grieve” by Christina Knowles

“I Grieve”

BRITTANY_ALLEN_SCREAM1

Lost and faltering

Floundering in the sea

Of my indispensable need

Need that intensifies in the darkness

Unlimited and unending

How can I describe

The hollowness of loss?

Do I speak?

Will I risk the words

That once released

Continue out of control

Throughout the breath of eternity?

Shall I know the result

Of these intemperate thoughts?

Or slumber in the oblivion of the dead?

O, tranquil are the deaf

To the choruses of loss

For to speak, to give voice

To that which is in reality

A scream

Would spin this wheel interminably

Or if it be little more than a squeak

Choked and muffled by grief

Stutter and trip

to a premature conclusion

How then do I proceed

When lost and faltering, I grieve?

—Christina Knowles (2015)

Photo snagged from trulynet.com

“An Ocean of Possibility” by Christina Knowles

“An Ocean of Possibility”

fishes-underwater-on-a-tropical-beach-wallpaper_3960

Language in a thousand pieces

Inadequate to express

An ocean in a million directions

Overwhelmed but not afraid

The obvious creates meaning

Without limitations

Another recognizes the idea

As my mind reconsiders beauty

A jungle of first impressions

I dream of the possibility

I compose it

This silhouette

From my desires

The passion in me

Turns my reality into

Dreams

—Christina Knowles (2006)

Photo courtesy of Bing Images.

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