Part of the system

I’m using Andew’s post from the other week to call myself out; since returning from the Salmon to a world newly convulsed by protest and riots I have checked out and tried to go about business as usual, at least to the greatest extent possible.  Normalcy has been a fleeting ideal for some time, since Friday March 13th, the last day we had on-site school in Montana.  As a school-based psychotherapist, I’ve been chasing flat certitude ever since.  How to use Zoom, or do therapy over the phone (that is, once our Governor changes the rules and allowed state-based insurance to cover virtual sessions, and after most private insurance companies moved to do the same).  How to track down clients now at home all the time, without internet or a working mobile phone.  As April moved closer to May those questions were mostly answered, replaced with things like how I could work virtually with 12 year olds just being able to name their childhood trauma; and then as May turned to June and Montana reopened and I started seeing clients face-to-face again, questions pivoted yet again: How do teens just working into adulthood make sense of a social landscape that will be tinged, perhaps for years, with suspicion?

My baseline this whole time has been uncertainty, which quickly tried to fill its emptiness with anger.  Anger at the world for such a curveball.  Anger at our government for its ineffectual response.  Anger at our educational officials and institutions, for the failure to make a point of all how minor a part academics play in the grand theatre of US public education.  I’ve seen my clients flail at adapting to online platforms and a world in which they must pull an assignment from one platform, turn it in on another, and tune in to ask or guidance on a third.  I’ve seen those without internet give up, and then vanish.  I’ve seen them turn nocturnal, not leave their certain chair for weeks on end save to eat and visit the toilet, seeking the socialization their unconscience requires in the chat of Fortnite and Star Stables.  Public school has been revealed as the compulsory, dark constant in their lives; middle school as the rough tool for society to take them into adulthood when and where their guardians cannot.

Never before has my role as mediator between Socialization and reality been so naked.

Essential reading for this moment in history is Coates’ The Case for Reparations, in which among many things he makes the pragmatic case for paying the ancestors of slaves.  In his essay the coherent and pervasive impacts of slavery and racism are historical trauma, and the generalized psychological, familial, social, educational, and economic impacts which are the inevitable accompaniment.  As Coates’ puts it  “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”  I don’t think it is too controversial to say that the current Black Lives Matter protests are only in the minority about police violence and racism.  The largest part of that alternative majority is anger at Trumpism, at this last grasp of uncomplicated white hegemony trying to retain its influence, at those who out of generational necessity and the structural racism their daily habits create would virulently prefer that the world not change.  The smaller part of that majority is for me the crux of the issue, that American meritocracy remains in denial about both the historical dimensions of social change and how addressing these entrenched biases will benefit our country as a whole.

To whit; a remarkable conversation with one of my now-9th grade clients, someone whose anxiety and avoidance saw him hiding in bathrooms on a daily basis back when the school building was available.  Online schooling was his future savior, just as online socialization had been his (safe, and palatable) entree into teenagehood.  Running that experiment has given him a newfound appreciation for both traditional school and seeing peers face to face, and in our first in person session in months his newly hatched motivation for high school was quickly followed with a revelation which brought the past 8 months and more than 4000 minutes in my office into focus, a lake of confusion frozen into clarity by crisis.  No one in his nuclear or extended family had graduated high school.  20 minutes of genealogy could not turn up a single example, even amongst tertiary and quaternary uncles and cousins.  In that moment the weight of history, what we might dramatically call fate, was as obvious as my own privilege and bias, which over all those many potent minutes had never thought to ask if his making it through school had any personal precedent.

The reasons an extended family could make it through to the third decade of the 21st century without a diploma amongst them has more to do with ineffable, sticky factors than it does with more encapsulatable things like teen pregnancy, substance use, and poverty.  In the case mentioned above, poor anxiety management is as much a pointless chicken/egg nature/nurture question when it comes to treatment as when it comes to policy.  The concern is that mental illness is both inherited and taught, and without remarkable efforts and circumstances is as likely to torpedo my clients aspirations as it is those of his children and then, grandchildren.  It is in the interest of society to have my client graduate high school for reasons of economic potential, and because of what being able to achieve that mark entails on the level of life skills.  Both skills and money being heritable, this is the kind of change which pays interest over generations, and this in turn explains why the 20-21 school year is the question, beyond even the November election, which disturbs my sleep most.

4 thoughts on “Part of the system

  1. Good one Dave. I always enjoy your social commentary.

    America truly befuddles me at times, and having grown up in it, and even learning to miss and appreciate it for all it’s problems while living abroad, that feels weird to say.

    Still I don’t understand so many confuse “liberty” with selfishness and an obsession with consumerism. Or how we can pretend that the American dream of “self-realization” is in any way possible when we severely socially handicap so many groups, asking them to thrive once they turn 18 even though we nearly deprived them of even basic physiologic needs for the first 18 years, not to mention all the higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid.

    Oh well. I do wish public education received more attention. Any presidential candidate capable of not being racist (or at least not being ok with his own racism and willing to improve) and willing to run on a platform of strengthening education would have my vote.

    Even a small improvements in education (like a basic synopsis of the ACEs study in high school) could go a long way to pulling America out of it’s obsession with deifying a history built on white people mostly just being able to take advantage (of course often at the expense of other groups) of all the advantages geographical and environmental situations afforded them (I’m thinking Jared Diamond’s take on why distinct societies developed different levels of global power).

  2. great quote by Coates regarding an outstanding credit card balance with interest accruing. We applaud the Germans for acknowledging their mistaken ways during WWII. In contrast, our country has not fully acknowledged our sins with respect to the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans. They are in many respects still treated like second class citizens. Reparations would be just a start. We paid reparations for the internment of Japanese but how can we not do so to those we mistreated the most? We also need full scale education; we need government sponsored museums (i.e., free) acknowledging our past and history classes that dedicate a significant amount of time to these truths. Until we reconcile with our past, our debt will never be repaid and the repo man will repeatedly come calling.

  3. When it comes to education, both academic and as life skills, I would never think of schools, anywhere in the world, as a place to get either. Schools are a place kids are sent so the parents can do something else. The goals seems containment, with hopefully the least problems, and causing the least problems, with education — of whatever kind — as a ‘nice to have’ goal.

    From my external standpoint, I suspect that schools in the US are expected to provide so many fixes to so many problems that it is hardly surprising they entrench social divisions, rather than smooth them over. The wildly different life outcomes in US society also seem to be a potent incentive for those parents who can to invest the most in their own kids and the least in the communal welfare.

    I also see that many commentaries, no matter how good, suffer from the US specific problem of myopia, whereby nothing outside the US is happening, or has happened, that is understood as having had an effect on the US and its society (in fact most commentaries, some of which would need a very articulate discussion of historical and geo-political event, totally ignore anything that is not extremely parochial). Since we, like or not, have always lived in a world where things are connected, I have little faith that a country that is so inward looking, so desperate to find simple and clear solutions to messy problems, will come up with any solution that is anything but some form of Trumpism, no matter the paint applied to it.

    The same is happening in more and more countries, but those countries are, in general, on a different trajectory anyway due to their own histories (what happens in Finland is less likely to cause the geopolitical destabilisation as what happens in the US).

  4. Before Obama’s election, Coates said the idea of a black president was unimaginable. He also said he had no hope reparations would ever be on the political table, but mainstream Democrats now tout them as part of their platform. This is to underscore the following point: Coates writes (and the woke crowd behaves) as though we’ve made no progress on race since the Civil Rights Movement, as if racism were as entrenched as ever, when in fact life for black Americans has improved dramatically in recent decades, and continues to. Polls show that white liberals are significantly more likely to think racism is a barrier to success even than black Democrats.

    There is of course a long way to go, but the idea that the “daily habits” of white people are a significant obstacle to racial progress is one of the many baseless assertions of critical race theory.

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