Friday, April 17, 2015

Eulogy

I have thought long and hard about where and whether to publish this piece. In many ways, it is so deeply personal, so familial, that to post it here on my (granted, near-desolate) blog seems scandalous. And yet, I feel that I am not only writing to my family, but to families writ large. However barbed my words are, here, they come from a place of love. I have learned, the hard way, that love is not just about comfort and soothing. Sometimes love is hard. Sometimes love has to speak hard truths. This is one of those times.

I may well alienate many members of my family by posting this. But the point is, I am already alienated. I am already excluded. And perhaps that is what I needed in order to be able to speak.

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When I was one, Patricia Scott – Grandma Pat – decided to retire after a foot injury because she wanted, among other things, to be able to spend time with her grandchildren. When I was in high school, commuting from Boulder to Denver and back, I not infrequently stayed at her house instead of making the long trek all the way home. In her quiet, but firm way she was an inspiration for me. In retrospect, the path I have followed mirrors hers: Like her, I attended Stanford; like her, I hold a degree in Education; like her, I teach English.

Pat Scott was caring and fiercely intelligent, and while I could never have articulated it as a child, now as an adult I can see why she must have been an incredible educator. She was organized, always, and had a strong sense of right and wrong. I can imagine her – perhaps I channel her myself, these days – saying “no” to an 8th grader in a way both that stops him from overstepping boundaries and still reminds him that she cares, that discipline is not for discipline’s sake, but in order to help students grow and to become disciplined.

I saw my grandmother for the last time less than a week before she died.  Her Alzheimer’s was about as advanced as it gets, her memory all but gone. Still, she had moments of recognition, and for a time she smiled and held my hand as she slept.

Of course, Alzheimer’s is a brutal disease precisely because it eats away the mind while leaving the body intact. Pat’s brilliance eroded over years. It’s hard to say exactly when she stopped being the woman she once was, but by the end she was unthinkably far removed from the Pat I remembered growing up, the larger than life grandmother who, despite being Colorado born and raised, was almost British in her comportment and dignity. Her family nickname – “The Baroness” – was well earned. Perhaps there was something mocking in calling her that, but there was also a great deal of respect.

Pat Scott lived a rich, full life. I cannot say that I am sad for her loss, exactly, as we all must die and Pat’s time had come. She experienced and achieved so much that it’s hard not to smile, when you think about it. In this case, at least, the universe was fair. A good woman, a dedicated educator, a brilliant thinker had her time on this earth and enjoyed it. She made the most out of her sisterhood, adored her grandchildren, and even rekindled her own mother’s passion for the piano in her later years. Hers was a life well-lived, a life worth celebrating, and I am honored to have her as a grandmother and an inspiration.

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This is where this piece of writing should end. But it can’t, because Patricia Scott’s death is not self-contained. You see, my grandmother’s funeral was two weeks ago, and I was not invited.

She would have wanted me to be there. She was my grandma, and I was her grandson, and although we weren’t always all that close, when we did spend time together we had a kinship – owing to our many similarities – which I only now understand.

And yet, I wasn’t told about my grandmother’s funeral, even though I visited her less than a week before her death. I wasn’t told even though it was on a weekend when I easily could – and would – have flown over from California to attend. I wasn’t told, and all of the reasons for why that I can imagine are, at best, stupid ones. In the grand scheme of things, my being left off of the invitation list for Grandma Pat’s funeral is a small thing. But it is so case-in-point, and so blatantly, obviously wrong, that it’s hard to ignore.

What’s the bigger story, here? Well, it involves all kinds of family drama. It involves my father’s suicide and his brother’s unwillingness to learn from that suicide. It involves a cynical assumption that my brother, my mother, and I are both far greedier and far wealthier than we actually are. It involves decades of unspoken family traumas, of burying conflict under the rug, of pretending to love instead of actually loving.

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It’s hard to tell any part of the story without telling the whole story, but I’ll do my best to keep it brief.

Robert Franz, my father, committed suicide just over two years ago. The story doesn’t start there, by a long shot, but it’s as good a focal point as any, because Bob’s death is still the fracture, the center of the spider web of broken glass which stretches out to his brother and cousins and children and all who knew him. There are many ways of telling the story of Bob’s suicide: he was an alcoholic who was so good at being an alcoholic that it cost him everything; or else, he was depressed by his closest friend’s losing battle with cancer; or else, he moved to Hawaii only to find that you cannot escape yourself.

There’s another way of telling the story of Bob’s death, however. Bob was an alcoholic his entire life, and his alcoholism was perpetually enabled – and often encouraged – by his family and friends. The ultimate responsibility for his actions lies with him, but with Bob’s death waves of guilt rippled through my extended family. “We didn’t know it was so much of a problem,” was a common refrain. “I wish I would have done more,” another.* The reality is, though, that no one could or would have done more. To do more would have been against the essence, the culture, the very being of our family. To confront Bob was unthinkable. To intervene was impossible.

* And yet others, still, stubbornly refused to see that there had been something wrong, that Bob’s death was something other than an unexpected and unimaginable tragedy when, in truth, it was a long time coming.

You see, Robert Franz was but one of many alcoholics and addicts in his extended family, and like so many families of addicts ours tries to brush the problem under the rug. Bob’s suicide made doing so, at least in his case, impossible, but my own unaccountable silence on the topic ever since – when I used to write so much more – owes in large part to my sense that we, collectively, as a family, we do not want to acknowledge that Bob was not alone, that Bob was not the only one who needed to ask for help, and that Bob was not even close to the origin of this problem. My own silence owes to the fact that I was taught, from a young age, not to be confrontational, to make peace rather than to tell the truth (at least when it came to family) because that’s what love is.

But that’s not what love is. Love is telling the truth, even when the truth hurts, and the truth is that the Franz / Scott / Lankford family is still a family of alcoholics and drug addicts, and those of us who are not addicts are terrified to call out those who are. “Terrified” isn’t even the right word. “Unable” is closer to the mark.

I do not think that drug use or drinking makes people into bad people. I do believe that there are some people who are able to drink and use drugs responsibly – at least to an extent – and that extremist prohibition is as unwise and unhealthy as extreme addiction. But within this family drugs and alcohol have done so much damage that we must be overly careful, overly conscious, and overly articulate. The truth is, we have been none of these things, so much so that drugs and alcohol have more say in who attends whose funeral than blood. My exclusion from my grandmother’s funeral owes, fundamentally, to this: I am clean and sober.

I’m beyond thinking my family – my extended family – can change. It is too wounded, too wrapped up in its drug-induced stupor, too permissive, too much in denial about its profound dysfunction, too concerned with the appearances of loving each other to actually do so. I would hope some of them, at least, have the decency to feel ashamed at not telling a grandson about his grandmother’s funeral. But I suspect, more likely, they’ll hide behind the lie – the insidious, twisted lie – that they were protecting me, my mother, and my brother from further heartache. Or else, they were avoiding – or postponing, and we are ever-postponing* – drumming up drama and trauma we mistakenly imagine to be best left undisturbed.

* We collectively postponed confronting my father until it was far, far too late.

The irony is that, in playing politics with my grandmother’s death, the deeper pathology of the Franz / Scott / Lankford world has surfaced. Drugs and alcohol, long the bane of the family, are but a symptom of something deeper: an inability to be true with and to each other. We would rather hide our diseases and discomforts, our predilections for addiction, our deep-seated distrust of each other, than acknowledge them with the understanding that it is precisely with family where our flaws, collective and individual, shouldn’t matter.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

October Haiku

A sampling of what passes for my best haiku from the last month. I've been writing a lot. A few aren't terrible.

Sitting on a chair
    the game
Of apologies

I remember finding everything
    hiding itself
In a single brick of a wall

Wind at the pier
    seagulls flapping
Just to stay still

Fishing lines
    and old fat men
Statues to Huntington Beach

Somewhere a girl cries
    her autumn boy
Didn't want her

The world is full
    of purple balloons
And red umbrellas

Sidewalks waiting
    in the grey dawn
For the runner's footfall

Sitting alone
    a queen bee
Without a hive

What do we want
    from our
iced teas?

Every cafe closes
    when the patrons
Run out of ink

His sunglasses
    protect his eyes
From being seen

Walking the pier
    so many young couples
Secretly fighting

An empty strip mall
    the decline
Of the West

The death of culture
    my notebook
And my pen

Sitting at his desk
    surrounded
By little infernos

She spoke, assured
    but secretly she
Boiled, insecure

A barista's glasses
    her coffee voice
And converse sneakers

Halloween in Los Angeles
    the people wore
Slightly different costumes

Friday, October 17, 2014

Kerouac then Me

Every cat in Kyoto
    can see through the fog.

We are the cats
    here is Kyoto
Ours is the fog

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A LePort Teacher's Weekend at Stanford

This weekend I drove up from Huntington Beach back to Palo Alto to work as a coach at the Challenge Success fall conference. It's a long drive, and I must admit it was somewhat surreal being back on Stanford's campus for the two days of the conference. Stanford is the kind of place that exists in a bubble, mostly out of time. The inside of the School of Education building, in particular, looks almost exactly as it did when I first arrived at Stanford in 2009, and it probably looked the same in 1979. My sense of awkward familiarity was aided, of course, by the presence of my picture on the "current doctoral students" wall and my still-extant mailbox in the basement (it even had mail in it). Since I'm technically "on leave" I shouldn't have been surprised, but I've become so invested in my new job at LePort that it's hard to remember that part of my identity which is, still, Paul Franz, Stanford PhD Student.

This dual identity was particularly in play while coaching. It is my Stanford background, not my teaching background, that brought me to Challenge Success. Being a teacher has made me a much better coach and facilitator, but it's my connection to educational research and best practice that makes me a quality - and indeed even minimally qualified - coach for CS sessions.

Challenge Success is a non-profit co-founded by Denise Pope, Madeline Levine, and Jim Lobdell. It grew out of what was at the time a very small but poignant strain of research which suggested that "successful" students around the country were actually stressed-out, unhealthy, and unhappy, and furthermore often engaged in manipulation and cheating. Denise's Doing School is an excellent ethnographic study that chronicles the problem. The goal of CS is to address this issue by coaching schools through a process which will help them implement research-based practices to reduce student stress and increase overall well being. At its core, this implies a culture shift away from a strict, zero-sum mentality in which success equals GPA and elite college enrollment to a more holistic view which includes honoring balance and non-academic (or non-traditional academic) achievements.

The suite of policy changes which Challenge Success schools have implemented over the past 10 years is expansive. For example, schools have switched to block schedules or added late days, implemented policies limiting homework, moved towards more authentic or project-based assessments, set aside more time for faculty collaboration (because it's not only successful students that can be over-stressed), started regular parent education programs, and countless other efforts.

It's truly inspiring to be even a small part of a conversation at a school trying to make radical cultural or structural change. The school I coached last year has been trying very hard to implement a test calendar and associated policies, and is now looking to start a series of regular teacher-to-teacher observations with a particular lens on how homework assignments are used in class, all in an effort to increase the quality of homework while decreasing its quantity. My new school this year already plans to pilot a block schedule, but their larger goals are deeply cultural: they want to take on the zero-sum culture of success that they feel has harmed their school community and taken the joy out of learning for their students.

Part of what is so effective about Challenge Success is that, as a coach, it is not my job to advocate wholesale restructuring on day one. Coaching is a process of gently guiding teams towards solutions that will most address their particular contexts, and which will have the largest impact while still remaining feasible in implementation. Tackling a deep-seated school culture problem starts with minor reforms, and with building a community of parents, teachers, students, and administrators who can work together to reach larger goals in the long term. Ultimately, it is the commitment of schools and the stakeholders therein (and, indeed, all of the stakeholders therein) that leads to the success of reform efforts.

As you might imagine, participating in this kind of conference required a pretty significant mind-shift for me after my first month teaching 8th graders. I was amused by how similar running a discussion with administrators, teachers, parents, and students was to running one of my literature discussions, but the content is so different, and the objectives so differently scaled. In my class, I'm trying to make a deep impact on each and every one of 13 students. As a coach, I'm trying to facilitate a process which will impact potentially hundreds (or thousands) of students, and many hundreds (or thousands) of adults, but my particular impact on any one person is immeasurably small. Both kinds of efforts - deep and narrow, and shallow and broad - are important, I think, and they are equally difficult to do well, but the concern with the individual that lies at the heart of teaching simply can't express itself in the same way in the coaching environment.

I'm satisfied that I get to experience both. I'm particularly satisfied because, after spending the weekend talking to people from schools other than LePort, I have an even deeper appreciation for how special my new employer is. Almost every significant, research-based solution that Challenge Success advocates is already in effect at LePort. We use a block schedule. Teachers have time to prepare and to plan, and are engaged in a culture of near-constant observation, feedback, and growth. Homework is minimal and always purposeful, and students have an hour-long homework period at the end of the day after classes are completed. Parent communication and education is one of LePort's greatest strengths. Above all, an emphasis on allowing each student to define their own success - rather than holding every student to the exact same, externally determined standard - is one of our core tenets. I may be the only person who has any kind of intimate knowledge of both Challenge Success and LePort, and it strikes me how much they share for two organizations with no contact. Then again, I likely wouldn't have ended up at LePort if it didn't embody the philosophies and employ the policies that I came to hold dear in my time at Stanford and with CS.

After even a month at LePort it has become easy for me to take for granted that LePort is how a school runs, but returning to the outside world - and returning, in particular, to Stanford at a conference attended by many of the best independent and public schools in California - I was reminded that, if LePort is not wholly unique, it's close. Even most elite schools still carry with them, at the end of the day, the legacy of "this is how education is done" and "this is what success means." I'm fortunate to teach somewhere that doesn't need to attend a Challenge Success conference because they got it right from the start.

On a personal note, I also took heart from a conversation I had in passing with Denise during the busy conference day. Often I felt somewhat out of place, this weekend, because I was no longer a researcher. Wandering around Stanford, it was easy to get caught up in Stanford's culture of success: high-quality, impactful, well-funded research leading to a tenure-track position at an elite institution. That's a path I've put aside, and however much I am satisfied with my choice, a part of me still wants to paint my decision to leave Stanford as a failure on my part, instead of as a healthy response to an untenable emotional situation. When I ran into Denise she sent me the message I needed to hear, surrounded as I was by the Academy writ large. In so many words, her message was that success isn't just about a degree from a prestigious university. She asked me how I felt about teaching, and I told her that I was having a blast, and loving it every day. "Good," she said, "I always knew you would. I'm so happy you found your place." I replied, with a smile, "Me too."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Flatter Me

A kindness, they would seem,
Your gentle words,
Convincing yet conniving.
I do not doubt you have no scheme,
and yet your speech
Is wholly undermining.
Perhaps I believe too little in myself?
Or perhaps you flatter me
Unto utter catastrophe.