One of the words you hear early and often when you get into the education reform game is ‘data.’ We all know there are big problems in our highest-need schools– systemic problems that leave many of our students years behind in basic thinking skills. When I taught with Teach For America in Tulsa Public Schools back in 2009-2012, I believe the data suggested that less than 7% of TPS high school graduates were “4-year-college-ready.” This was an incredibly powerful data point for me. I never forgot learning it and thought of it at least once per week for all three of my years in TPS. Mind you, these were the GRADUATES. This data did not account for the large numbers of students who never made it to graduation. The cold, hard fact revealed by the study that had produced this data point left no room for sugarcoating or delusion.
Data can be an important spur for change. But we need to be careful with the conclusions we draw from it. In this “post-truth” society, people too often see what they already want to believe in data, impose an already-set worldview on it, and draw their “action” conclusions accordingly. Alternatively, they can implement and persist in completely ineffective solutions because they are seemingly backed by “the numbers.” This is a really huge subject, but I’d like to discuss an example of each of these problems drawn from my experience as a TFA corps member and KIPP teacher.
In the former case, I often think of the data (quoted by many friends of mine) that shows quite conclusively on a nation-wide basis that black students lag behind white students in reading comprehension and math skills. Given our nation’s troubled racial history, many people outside of the education field ‘put two and two together’ and conclude “THE SYSTEM IS RACIST.”
Zoom in on Tulsa in particular, compare the comprehension levels of my former middle school (95 percent black population) with one of the suburban middle schools (90 percent white population), and you’ll see a similar gap.
Racism? It’s a good question.
But while it would be really great to narrow the problems for my former students down to one social evil we could attack and destroy, and while I can’t claim that the vast American education system is free from racism, my individual experience taught me that this would have been a wrong-headed conclusion to draw at best. My school had several black teachers; there were two on my grade-level team of four “core class” instructors. My students measurably learned from their black social studies teacher and measurably did NOT learn from their black math teacher. My school’s Dean of Students, Vice Principal, and security officer were all black and grew up locally. This had no effect on the many problems my school had with its learning environment: problems that led to its closure after my second year.
And then there were my 4-5 percent white students. For as much as the word “white privilege” gets thrown around by completely ignorant people, you’d think those students must have had it made. Aside from being the frequent target of racially-motivated and violent bullying, those students were by and large just as behind (if not more so) than their peers. I keep in touch with many of my former students from all 8 of my previous teaching years, and can say for a disturbing fact that not a single one of my white students from my first year of teaching graduated high school. This system supposedly rigged in their favor failed them entirely. My kids of all skin colors faced problems in broken or criminalized families, gang-infested neighborhoods, constantly shifting living circumstances, indifferent teachers and administrators of all types. Abuse, neglect, and tragedy were the “normal” for their lives. Irrespective of data showing that white students at a suburban school were far ahead of black students at my school, “racism” is foolish and fantastical scapegoating.
Then there are the conclusions that lead to ineffective action and persist because THE DATA SAYS THIS WORKS. Case in point: my original KIPP school leader was a hard fighter for student achievement and built a culture that (while problematic in many respects) drove that achievement in a measurable way for our kids. In tested thinking skills, they were outperforming their peers from the same neighborhoods in public schools by a wide margin. But as far as action drawn from data-backed conclusions, we were throwing literally everything at the wall to see what stuck, and sticking with some things for far too long.
Take these three data points: 1. Students generally fare better in charter schools with longer school days. 2. Data suggests that eating breakfast every morning leads to better school performance. 3. Dedicated reading time of 20-30 minutes per day raises reading comprehension. All three of these conclusions seem solid enough, although the science behind number 2 has been questioned recently for (whattaya know?) being used to support the wrong conclusion. Leave that aside for a moment, though, and let’s just assume there is good enough reason to believe all three of these data-backed conclusions.
In the four years prior to my arrival at the school and for the first three years of my tenure there, teaching staff had a massive school day by regular standards: required arrival by 6:55 AM and departure no earlier than 5 PM. Teachers were “on-duty” supervising lunch (in a cacophonous and chaotic lunch room) and limited to a single “plan” period of about 70 minutes. At least 8 hours and 45 minutes per day was spent imposing a fairly rigid interpretation of KIPP culture on rooms full of students, including passing periods, in which all students (5-8th grade) were required to walk in straight, silent lines from class to class. As you can imagine, these duties imposed a tremendous psychological strain on the classroom teacher.
Somewhat ironically, one of the greatest causes of strain for the least amount of reward was a period that attempted to combine all three of those previously-listed data points. Students arrived by bus from 7:05-7:15, were required as per our qualification for federally-funded breakfast to ALL proceed to the cafeteria and pick up free breakfast trays, then travel to their “homeroom” classrooms to eat breakfast and (ideally) read books until first period began at 8. Everyone eats breakfast, everyone has a longer school day, and everyone reads 20-30 minutes. Awesome, right?
As it turned out empirically, not at all. The vast majority of students either did not like the breakfast food or would skip eating entirely. Teachers watched that (taxpayer-funded) food go straight into the trash can. Meanwhile, duty insisted that silence reined in the classroom for reading time, during which many of our 7th and 8th grade kids, resentful of a school day that had them on the bus by 6:20 in the morning and finally off the bus past 5PM at night, barely pretended to read. During this time, our teachers who already struggled with classroom management and student behavior problems, would be put through the ringer. On top of this, teachers themselves were often poor models of the reading habits we were supposed to encourage the students to embrace. “Do as I say, not as I do”– hardly a recipe for success with 12-14 year olds.
The result: complete failure in all three objectives for most of our staff, combined with a living nightmare in behavior management. By 8AM, instruction had not even begun and our rookie teachers were ready for the day to be over. Only nine more hours to go! There were teachers who facilitated genuine reading time for some students and a small handful of kids who needed the breakfast and got it, but by and large, “advisory time” as this opening time period was called, was an abject failure by every tangible and intangible measure. Even worse, far from being an addition to school culture, it actively destroyed school culture. This remained true from before my first day in the fall of 2012 until we finally made real adjustments in the spring of 2016.
Finally, after years of negative feedback and teacher burnout, my local KIPP network looked at ways to shorten the school day. It wasn’t long before “advisory” was targeted (along with some other additional non-instructional teacher duties) and we chopped a full half hour off of the school day and almost an hour off of teacher duty time. Our new school leader and the executives of my local network did an awesome job on combined problem-solving. But anybody actually in classrooms and observing from a detached perspective could have concluded after the first two months of the original “advisory” plan that it was a fruitless and pointless disaster. How could we have stuck with it for so long? The question was asked many times from 2012-2015 and the answer always revolved around the dogged belief in THE DATA SAYS THIS WORKS. Once again– all context removed from the equation, well-meaning and high-minded people gather around the wrong tree and bark all day long.
Data, especially “big” data on a large scale, has an important place in diagnosing our problems. But in our pursuit of “rock-solid,” impersonal math and science to prove our conclusions beyond all emotional human error, I’ve seen (far too many times) how we can make our greatest errors and (far more egregiously) fail to learn from them.
Ever since my beautiful, curious son was born, it’s been hard for me to sit with the thought of people killing children. I’m aware of how cliche that is to say, but it’s been so true for me that any talk about guns, especially “assault-style” weapons, inevitably makes me think of it in the wake of these mass killings over the last few years. It’s not just the mass killings, either: the uncounted incidents in which people unsafely store guns and little kids pay with their lives bother me just as much. In my desire to protect my happy little toddler, I feel a desire to do a better job protecting all of our children from the bullets of the idiotic or the murderous. It is for that reason especially that I think a great deal of change is required.
This is somewhat new for me as a supporter of the Second Amendment and the general interpretation of it that gives the citizen wide latitude to arm his-or-herself. For the record, I’m also not a fan of “top-down” universal legal fixes for what are essentially cultural problems. Responsible gun ownership should be an issue our culture can handle: hence organizations like the NRA (a member of which did an excellent job training me in the right attitude to have about firearms in addition to what little skill I have in gun safety and shooting). But our culture (and the NRA in particular) has miserably failed on this issue. As in the past, when individual freedom was irresponsibly exploited to infringe on the freedoms of others, including future generations– I’m referring here to the sweeping labor laws, environmental regulation, food purity laws, etc of the 20th century, we need some new laws with teeth.
These laws, however, do NOT begin with the banning of guns or even “assault weapons” in particular. I have a view that seems to put me (in the eyes of others, maybe) on the “lunatic fringe” of the right wing: that the Second Amendment exists in part to protect us not from criminals alone, but from our own government. While there are loads of fake quotes attributed to the Founding Fathers and paraded around the internet by gun nuts on this issue, there are enough real ones in support of an armed citizenry to keep government in check to give us a clear idea of what they supported:
“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Constitution, Draft 1, 1776
“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.”
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, January 30, 1787
“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms.”
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787
“The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to to John Cartwright, 5 June 1824
“To disarm the people…[i]s the most effectual way to enslave them.”
– George Mason, referencing advice given to the British Parliament by Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adooption of the Federal Constitution, June 14, 1788
“Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every country in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops.”
– Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, October 10, 1787
“Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined…. The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able might have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry, Speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 5, 1778
“[I]f circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”
– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28, January 10, 1788
You get the idea.
Some of my friends object that “they had flintlock muskets that could only fire twice per minute and weren’t accurate.” This is true, but I’m not sure how it’s relevant to the discussion. The implied point seems to be that our Fathers would never have allowed the AR-15 with a high-capacity magazine. Aside from being impossible to prove, I’m skeptical of this idea. Our government in their time was also using muskets. If the idea was to be able to keep the government in check, are we to have hope in flintlocks against our modern professional army? Insomuch as their intentions matter at all, clearly the citizens are intended to be on a somewhat level playing field technologically.
I know the next objection: what about artillery? Helicopters? Tanks? Bombers? Etc. etc. etc. Yes, these toys are for professionals only. That’s where the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment comes in. This is assuming of course that any group of regular citizens could pool the resources to purchase, maintain, and operate equipment of this kind. “No, you idiot– I’m talking about the practical reality of fighting a professional military that has this stuff. Are you honestly saying we can resist a force like that, whatever weapons we have?” I can hear people saying already. I see this objection a lot. It’s nonsensical on two fronts: first, so because a government has access to high tech violence, the principles of fighting (and dying) for freedom go out the window? I don’t follow. Either basic human rights are worth fighting for or they’re not. Fascists possessing helicopters does not mean we give up. Secondly: Are you implying that low-tech guerrillas armed with basic assault rifles can’t resist the armed might of a world superpower? Google Vietcong, the war in Afghanistan, and the First Chechen War, for starters. When an armed people are unified in their resistance to unwanted rule, they are extremely difficult for any professional military to defeat, even assuming the complete disregard for human life (as shown by the Russians in the case of the First Chechen War). The great lesson for the imperial powers of the 20th century was that you cannot simply bomb and rocket your way to victory unless you are pursuing a war of total extermination– nearly impossible in a civil conflict.
If you are already rolling your eyes at the ‘paranoid’ idea of war with fascists here in the United States, I will come right out and say: I fear fascism. It’s always closer than you think. Ancient Athens and ancient Rome both found this out the hard way, seeing democratic and/or republican institutions slip into tyranny. Some of my friends that would sneer the hardest at me speaking ‘like a gun-toting militia right wing fanatic’ are the ones freaking out right now about the indifference of our current President to basic democratic institutions– who were freaking out 16 years ago about the Patriot Act and government surveillance. These same friends speak with passionate conviction about how corporations run the country, pay off politicians, and care little or nothing for the life of the working person.
If these elements take the next step and officially hijack our government, who will fight them? How will those elements be fought? I see so many objections to “assault rifles” as inappropriate for the citizen, due to their express purpose for combat. This is exactly the kind of gun that SHOULD be in the hands of a trained, capable, and responsible citizen. There is a massive difference between a handgun and a rifle in combat. If the citizen is to combat tyranny, that citizen requires a rifle.
This also does not mean that any idiot who wants to buy or sell a gun can or should be able to do so. Gun ownership is not just a right, but an important responsibility. The NRA should be at the forefront of this philosophy. My own instructor’s countenance would turn dour at the mere hint of improper gun safety on my part. Every small facet of every part of my instruction reinforced the idea that guns required respect and careful use– that neither the idiot, the tough guy, nor the enraged had any business handling a firearm. I would love to see the NRA leadership extend this attitude toward the ownership and handling of guns nationwide. The “gun culture” some of my friends denounce should not be erased; rather elevated to the status of real culture, with certain traditions and attitudes etched in stone for all to follow.
To achieve this, responsible gun owners and real American patriots should not object to some basic regulations about who can sell guns and under what circumstances. I think we can keep the right to own and carry guns and ammunition while introducing some regulation (“well-regulated militia”-style as per the Second Amendment) to make it more difficult for the idiot, tough guy, or enraged person to buy and keep guns. Some ‘common sense’ regulations already in place (e.g. criminal background checks and wait times) are fine, but as many “gun rights” advocates point out, would have been powerless to stop most of the famous mass shooters of the last several years. I have a few in mind specifically to deter these lost souls.
‘Assault rifles’ and their trappings remain the right of a free people to acquire, however, all such purchases should require the furnishing of certain proofs that correctly reflect the solemn responsibilities of owning such weapons:
I do not claim that these proposals are perfect: dialog starts with ideas and open minds. But the famous General George S. Patton once said that a good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan next week. We are a representative democracy after all, and can tweak or change things as we go along. I think my plan protects and elevates the true patriots, protectors of their communities, and freedom advocates while placing targeted layers in the way of the people who cannot handle weapons responsibly or worse, intend to handle them murderously.
What do you think?
One of the primary criticisms of Teach For America and (to a lesser extent) charter networks is that they hire people with little or no formal education coursework. TFA in particular is (in)famous for taking any college degree as a baseline and then only six weeks of intensive training over the summer before beginning work in the toughest classrooms in the country by fall.
HOW FIT FOR A CLASSROOM CAN THEY POSSIBLY BE?!! people say. And I get it. I’m not saying formal education courses don’t matter at all. But here’s the thing: some of the best teachers I’ve ever met fall into this category. That’s hardly a subjective assessment I’m making. Whatever measure you like for teacher performance: test scores, administrative evaluations, good relationships with kids, good team players– these people are/were getting it done.
Not right away, maybe. But I have yet to see anybody in their first year getting it done fabulously without an awful lot of support at different levels. Teaching is made up of multiple skill sets that require lots of repetitions and refinement to get right. Even taking that into account, there have been a few studies from the last few years that first-year TFA people in high-needs schools don’t perform any worse than their seasoned and formally certified peers, and in some cases, they perform better. (for example: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2017/07/teaching_fellows_no_better_or_worse_i3_study.html) I can attest to this: as a corps member, I sucked in both of my first two years and failed to make a truly positive academic impact for more than a small handful of students. The truly scary thing, however, was that none of my vastly more experienced and trained peers could say differently. In fact, one of my TFA colleagues in the math department quickly developed a reputation as the school’s finest math teacher.
I slowly became even more convinced of this as a KIPP teacher. We had a sixth grade math instructor with us for a period of years that was such an uber-ace, she won a Harriet Ball prize– one of the highest honors KIPP’s national network of thousands of teachers can bestow. She had no formal education degree or even a math degree. Two of my colleagues in the 8th grade have their students greatly outperforming their peers in Austin public schools at large. Both are loved by students in and out of the classroom for the work they’ve done and the relationships they’ve built. Both are two of the finest people I’ve ever worked with. Neither were formally certified or majored in their taught subject in college.
Conversely, I’ve seen plenty of formally trained and experienced people fail and fail hard, especially in difficult environments. Experience and training can breed complacency and arrogance. When you’re taught “the way” to do something and go ahead doing it for a few years, it can be hard to adjust course when it’s clearly not working. It’s easy to blame circumstances, the kids, the community, or just young people in general. Now, I’ve met PLENTY of conventionally trained teachers that are killing it in the classroom every day. I’m NOT knocking education coursework– just putting out there that it is not at all necessarily a predictor of success. I think that should be something to chew on for people mulling whether or not to spend the tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds/thousands of hours of time it takes complete formal education training.
So what are the predictors of success? I’ve seen people crush the teacher game in tough classrooms and I’ve seen people flame out. Aside from a genuine love of kids, which is not a skill, per se, rather a prerequisite (seriously, if you don’t love kids or don’t love them anymore, get the hell out of the business) when I think of things successful teachers have in common, I think of this list:
Each of these items could probably be a blog entry all by themselves. For now, I can say that the great teachers I’ve met could do all of these things over a long period of time. Good teachers could do most of them. Bad teachers struggled with most or all. Previous preparation for teaching just doesn’t seem to matter as much as these skills when the grind of the school year sets in. Experience matters, but only for people who are using that experience to get better at these things.
On the subject of experience: for me, there seems to be something about year 3– teachers who are going about their business the right way seem to hit a stride. I certainly did. That’s anecdotal, I know (as is most of this writing), but I still feel it’s relevant. Unless you’ve got a really supportive environment, it can be so difficult to feel successful your first two years. You know there’s a lot to learn and it will only come with time. Be optimistic, keep doing the right things, and it’ll come along.
Many things matter when it comes to student success, but as far as teaching skill goes, I think the general public (and the education system itself) has a lot to learn about what matters most, especially in districts with the highest needs. Formal coursework can be the perfect start, but the bottom line is it doesn’t have to be.
As a teacher, it can be hard to have a conversation about “education reform” and everything associated with it: charter schools, ‘accountability’ measures, leadership, funding, space, etc. For a lot of people, it’s become yet another quasi-religious issue that defines whether you are one of the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys.’ It requires loads of guarded speech, full of qualifiers and reassurances, lest you get accused of being anti-kids, anti-teachers, anti-unions, anti-freedom, and so on. It’s infuriating.
I spent 8 years as what I like to think of as an education front-liner– teaching in high-poverty, difficult school districts with what I also like to think of as a mission-based mindset– a goal-focused determination to help the students in these districts measurably exceed the low levels of academic achievement typical in their environment. The first two years were in north Tulsa as an initiate in the notorious Teach For America, a group that takes college graduates with no education experience (or even coursework in most cases) and places them in high-needs classrooms around the country for 2 years. Afterwards, I stuck around in north Tulsa for a year before joining the (also notorious) KIPP charter network in east Austin, Texas.
It was a crazy 8 years with a career’s-worth of extraordinary experiences. I made loads of mistakes, hit important milestones, worked on my craft and achieved measurable victories in ways I had doubted were possible. As an intense dude who too often wears his heart right on his sleeve and too seldom considers the ramifications of his words, I forged deep and lasting relationships with students and colleagues; I also was occasionally a lightning rod for controversy and alienated people. Only now that I’ve moved to a much more low-key rural district in a public school have I truly begun to process my experiences and their lasting impact.
In short: I learned a lot. I think I’m going to occasionally begin using this space to think out loud about my experiences and what I’ve learned. It might be useful for some people because while I will never stop improving my craft, I got shit done in a real way. By my third year, my students were far outperforming district averages in reading comprehension growth, language usage, state test results– whatever marker you want to use. That never ceased. My students in Texas scored in the top ten percent of all Texas kids, irrespective of district, in three different subject areas over my five years as a KIPP teacher. I’m not one of those teachers who can be written off as a lazy coaster, a bitter failure, or someone who doesn’t have the success to back up their method. I feel like I learned real things about how to effectively run a tough classroom and (after a rough start) put those things into action.
I also stuck around long enough to see a lot: that counts for something. Most TFA and KIPP people don’t last in the classroom. 2 or 3 years and they’re off to law school, grad school, or a promotion up the administrative ladder. While I have PLENTY of thoughts on that, for now I’ll just say that 2-3 years in high-poverty classrooms is not a very long time in the game, especially if we want to start drawing big policy conclusions/coach people on teaching/run schools/generalize about students. Maybe I’ve got some observations that are at least worthy of debate.
I also don’t have a horse in the race, ideologically speaking. Although I love TFA for giving me the opportunity to teach that my local NJ schools would not, which in turn led to some definite positive impact on students, I’m not a TFA ambassador. The organization was not helpful to me in the slightest after my two years with it were finished and in some respects it was an active impediment to my continued teaching career. Neither am I one of those contemptible TFA quitters: people who broke their two-year commitment pledge and now justify their betrayal of their students with a blog trashing the organization.
I am also neither “pro” nor “anti” charter school as a matter of principle. Different districts need different things. The very nature of charter schools means that they will vary wildly in setup and execution, sometimes even within the same network. I do shake my head at a lot of the stuff people (especially anti-charter people) say about charter schools, the work they do, and the teachers they have. It’s stuff only an ignorant loudmouth who has never worked in a high-needs district would say. I achieved my greatest successes, met and learned from my best colleagues, and got my very best coaching as a KIPP teacher. At the same time, it took a lot out of me– more than it should have. My KIPP experience showed me just how much charters burn through people, often in the pursuit of what are really just yearly numbers on a balance sheet (test scores/suspension rates). In the pursuit of their goals, they will often thoughtlessly (and sometimes ruthlessly) use people as cannon fodder.
I hope my writing is useful. Maybe it will make some people mad; maybe hardly anybody at all will read it. Who knows? I’d like to get some of my lessons learned out there before the acute memories start to fade, in the hopes that someone will get something out of it. If you’re interested, stay tuned.
I love the deadlift. It’s gone from the one big lift I neglected in high school to my all-time favorite. I have many thoughts and opinions on this classic exercise and like a nice room-clearing shotgun blast, they seem to fly apart in a disparate spray while all generally hitting the same wide target.
When I think of the most basic and brutal strength lifts that can be done in the gym, the squat and the deadlift stand next to each other as titans. There are many awesome lifts, but these two are on the short list for combining the greatest number of muscles in a full-range movement that serves as a true test of absolute strength.
The squat was formerly my favorite of the two. It’s such a classic lift, and done properly (more on that later) it has an incredible and punishing range of motion. Stand up with a load on your shoulders: killer! But there is debate and bullshittery that swirls around the squat. Did you get to full depth? What IS full depth? How wide is your stance? When I saw squat videos as a high school kid, it struck me as a lift that separates the wheat from the chaff in the weight room, and this is true if we’re being honest. Unfortunately, I see far too many guys using the squat as a vanity lift– trying to look and feel badass without actually attempting to BE badass.
You know who I’m talking about: the guys with way too much weight on the bar, dropping to half or even quarter depth to parallel (parallel meaning their upper legs parallel to the floor– rightly considered the minimum distance for a valid squat lift), leaning their bodies over. What is the point of this? To have a bigger weight on the bar? To anyone who truly appreciates the squat, these half-lifts look foolish. To anyone who doesn’t know the difference– most of them don’t know or care how much weight is on the bar anyway. Your larger weight numbers are fool’s gold, gentlemen.
Powerlifting, one of the only sports even on the athletic fringe to feature squatting as an event unto itself, does a poor job setting an example in this regard, also. Competitive powerlifters are crazy strong and crazy dedicated dudes, which makes the appearance of their event squats (especially in the heavy weight classes) a sad letdown for me. These guys penguin-walk to the rack trussed up in a ridiculous suit in which they can barely move, set their legs as wide as they possibly can, and lean far over as they push their hips back. To the casual observer, the bar looks like it barely moves. Check out this “world record” to see what I’m talking about:
Take a lighter athlete and put them in a squat rack where they stand with shoulder-width feet and go all the way down to “rock bottom”– the rep looks like it takes forever. It’s awesome! To my mind, it’s stronger-looking than that super-wide stance in that crazy suit. Former 1,000 pound squatter Jim Wendler said it best when he casually dismissed his competition days by saying he “wasn’t strong.” (!) “Sure, I could waddle up to the monolift and squat, but I couldn’t do anything else. Really, all I could do was squat, bench, and deadlift. Today I have different aspirations.” I think I know what he’s getting at. The point of all this strength work is to be something more capable, heroic, and inspiring: not less. Yes, I’m aware it works differently in “raw” meets and for lower weight classes– but that dilutes it even further. What does a truly inspiring squat look like? There are many different answers.
Deadlift, by contrast, is beautifully simple: did you pick the weight up off the ground and stand up? Ultra wide or narrow stances will make the lift more difficult, not less. You can execute with poor form if you like: on a max attempt, it will probably result in horrific back injury. Yes, there is support gear: belts, wraps, straps, suits, etc: you know what? The bar still has to travel from the ground to your waist in a standing position. Did you pick up the weight? At the end of the day, the answer is a simple yes or no that everyone (even the casual observer) can see. The strongest deadlifts all look the same.
On support gear: dudes, cool it.
I see too many belts being used in gym deadlifts. If you need a belt to complete an attempt, much less a simple work set, aren’t you just guaranteeing a weak link in the chain? What’s the point of strength if it’s useless without a belt on? I can understand for very high weights and/or max attempts, it’s a good “just in case” measure to support the vulnerable lower back, although even then, if you’re thinking your back has a high chance of being injured without the belt on, I don’t understand the desire to deadlift the weight in the first place. I think it’s another case of getting numbers on a weight bar confused with actual strength. Again, if you’re pulling several hundred pounds, I totally get it– but shouldn’t us more regular, non-lifting-competition folks be strengthening our backs enough to pull the weight? Anyone who needs a weight belt to pull 315 pounds needs to take the belt off, drop the weight down to 135, and work their way up.
The same is true for straps. For those unfamiliar, straps basically connect your hand to the bar on a deadlift attempt. The rationale is that the true weakest link in the chain is the hand with all its tiny little muscles. We don’t necessarily want to hold back the massive potential of our back and hamstrings with the relative weakness of our hands. For a 900 pound deadlift, this is all but essential. But 300 pounds? 400 pounds? Remove the straps and strengthen your grip. I see guys with 315 pounds on the bar carefully putting their straps on and they just look foolish– like a kid bringing out a really awesome mountain bike and then putting training wheels on it. Who do you think you’re impressing/fooling, gentlemen? If you’re deadlifting less than 500 pounds, you have absolutely no business wearing straps.
Failure does not look cool.
Another fine specimen I see from time to time is the guy who loads a deadlift bar to 500 pounds, stands around talking and “looking cool” for about 15 minutes, then finally settles into his attempt. By now, of course, everyone is watching out of the corners of their eyes to see how it goes. The bar moves about two inches and comes right back down. Invariably, there’s some “har-har, I guess it’s not my day, bro” nonsense, and then he spends the next ten minutes laboriously unloading all 465 pounds worth of plates.
I don’t know what inspires someone to attempt a lift they don’t have a chance in hell of completing. If you have any awareness at all of what your body is capable of doing, you know within yourself if you’ve got a shot at that 1 rep max you’re trying to hit. Any very basic heavy work in low repetition ranges will do a lot to give you an idea. The guys who do this (and I’ve seen it three times in the last couple of months) have to know it ain’t happening.
I know what you’re thinking: they think it looks badass to attempt a 500 pound deadlift.
No. No, it does not. It looks idiotic, delusional, and dangerous. Not “cool BASE jumper dangerous” but dipshit-in-a-youtube-fail-video dangerous.
And that, finally, is what I also love about the deadlift. With the various machines and dumbbells, it can be easy to put on a show– to play the vanity game with popcorn arm muscles and lots of huffing and puffing. “Look at me! I’m badass!” The deadlift does not allow this. It is, for lack of a better term, a “real” lift. No one has a defining “strength” moment with a large stack of weights on the tricep pulldown attachment. The deadlift bar is something else entirely: loaded heavy, it will teach you something about yourself, and that something will be unmistakably and coldly measurable.
It was December 24, 2008: my first (and only) Christmas Eve alone and my first (and only) with absolutely no idea what the future would bring. As I shut the door to my little two-room cottage in Highlands, New Jersey, I felt the despair that had been growing on me settle in a final, dark cloud.
Ten months earlier, I’d lost the person I had thought was the love of my life and I still felt the grief every day. More than that, I had completely lost my sense of myself. Two years earlier I had felt confident about so many things: I was the guy who had married his high school sweetheart and stayed with her for a decade, who had been the Cornell underdog, then the grad school underdog, had succeeded at both and was on his way to teaching. I had three guys I called best friends, all of whom had been groomsmen at my beautiful wedding.
By Christmas Eve 2008, I was just another dude working at a car wash. Divorced, approaching my thirtieth birthday, barely getting my bills paid with no healthcare– and I didn’t know it completely yet, but two of those guys I thought were great friends would be out of my life entirely within a year. I had tried and failed to get a teaching job for two years running, taking mornings off to drive through traffic and personally turn over my resume to countless school administrators. Despite my Cornell degree, my Masters, and my work as a Teaching Assistant, I rarely got so much as an interview. I was crushed, it was going to get worse before it got better, and I knew it.
Needless to say, it had not left me in a terribly festive mood. There were people who cared about me and who would have gladly spent time with me on Christmas Eve– even the good dudes with whom I worked at the car wash. It wasn’t like I had to spend Christmas Eve by myself. I just didn’t want to be a wet blanket at anyone else’s holiday, especially since nobody stood much chance of truly distracting me from my many failures. I wanted to bite the bullet and do some thinking.
I turned my little laptop on and streamed some music from KMFA, my favorite Austin Texas radio station and one of the only 100% classical music stations left in the country. They were doing a live broadcasting of “Christmas at the Carolan,” a yearly choral classic performance by a local choir known as Conspirare. It was hauntingly beautiful. As the sounds of those people singing moved softly through my kitchen, I turned my lights off and went to one of my small windows, looking into the darkness outside, thinking, “What’s next?”
I had asked that question of myself many times over the preceding months, but never with a truly broad scope of possibility. I had toyed with the idea of Officer Candidate school, even enlistment, but had never visualized the research of service branches and the walk to a recruiter. I had wondered about the door-kickers with the FBI and ATF, but had not even begun an application. I had applied with Teach For America, a big step for me (and one that I had completely rejected in 2006) but I had not truly considered an assignment that would take me far from home (possibly forever) and put me on an entirely new path in life.
I knew as I looked through that window glass into the night that I would soon be taking some or all of those steps. A storm had passed through my life and turned it upside down. It wasn’t until then that I truly knew there would have to be another storm, different in events but similar in effect, sweeping away all of my old plans and quite a bit of who I thought I would be.
And so there was– and it was every bit as difficult and permanent as I imagined it would be.
Nine years later, however, with the storm long passed, I look with an incredible sense of satisfaction on the intervening time between then and now. I learned to date and love once more. I challenged myself repeatedly, acquired new skills, and honed them to execute important and fulfilling work. I found a true sense of adventure and a love for the wide and crazy beauty of this country. It is now strange to imagine that I had considered suicide at a few different points. I look back now and it’s as if I’m remembering the despair of another person.
Except it wasn’t another person. It’s moments like these in so many stories that the cliched metaphors about rebirths and phoenixes come out. I haven’t got one of those; So many things about the man I was still remain. No one who knew me twenty years ago says “Wow, you’ve changed.” I feel like I hear of far too many people who, when backed into a miserable corner from which there is no escape, simply put their heads down and accept the misery, maybe because they fear losing not only everything they have if they want to make a change, but losing themselves in the process– that the changes would be so great, they’d have to be a totally different person to bring them about. This simply isn’t true, and as an excuse to continue wasting days of this far-too-short-life on misery, it’s terrible.
That isn’t to say I haven’t changed. I’m harder, for one– and I mean that in both positive and negative ways. I’m less of a limitless dreamer, more of a diligent worker, less immersed in beautiful moments while somehow being more aware of how precious they are. I could go on. There are many ways in which I am definitively NOT who I was in 2006 when I left grad school at age 27. How I think about things is very different.
But it’s cool to look back to that Christmas Eve in 2008 and realize that the basics are all there and still intact. Deep passion, love, joy in good work, a penchant for Viking/raider/guerrilla rebel excess, and appreciation for great stories have stayed right where they are on my short list of what truly makes me who I am. I have no doubt the same would be true for many other folks on the brink of despair. Embrace the storm! There’s no “phoenix moment” necessary, after all.
It’s certainly true what they say about the challenge of being a parent– although my idea of what that challenge truly is has changed a lot.
The tasks of taking care of a baby that sounded (at first) gross or difficult actually become routine and easy fairly quickly. Dirty diapers? Washing a grubby baby? Dealing with a child throwing a tantrum? These were all on the list of things I found intimidating when my kid was born and there was an adjustment period– but adjust I did. Aside: any dad who “can’t deal” with dirty diaper changes or screaming kids needs to man up. I actually laughed today when I had to snatch my 14-month-old kid out of the road and, his face nearly scarlet with rage, (hahaha daddy’s boy, alright) he repeatedly attempted to head-butt my jaw while he struggled and screamed. 8 months ago I would have needed a half-hour walk by myself after an episode like that. Now it’s just the cost of doing business when you absent-mindedly let the outside play get too close to the street.
The truly enduring challenge, then, has been something else entirely– the loss of time to indulge in a lot of the things I find fun to do. For one thing: good times spent with good people. I see my wife all the time but not in the awesome way we had come to take for granted. Quiet time together is so important to us and there’s almost none of that while our sweet little chubster is awake. We’ve had to completely alter the way in which we have fun both in and out of the house and be very mindful of the time we get. This is a little easier on us because we love our kiddo so much, but we’ve spoken wistfully more than once about the time when we could just run out of the house on whatever adventure we liked. I’m thankful we have each other and him, and at least we can work together on offsetting what we miss.
But there’s other folks, too. People interest me enough that I’ve always enjoyed hours of conversation with just about anybody! Having a toddler makes interacting with people difficult. Most people without kids don’t “get it” and have to make an effort to put up with an inquisitive toddler. Even when they’re trying their best, it can get uncomfortable. Many people who do have kids understand, but it can be hard to put hang-out times together. Between your kid(s) and their kid(s), there’s a lot of naps, appointments, routines, tasks, and worries that are all happening at different times. I can’t tell you how often considering my kid’s schedule has kept me from picking up the phone to make plans– and I only have ONE fifteen-month-old! I can’t imagine what this is going be like if we have four or five like we’re planning to do.
Aside from that, I have LOADS of other interests. I love literature, historical research, strength training, conditioning, learning new skills, cooking, you name it. I didn’t have anywhere near enough time for all of this stuff even BEFORE we had our kid, and now I have a lot less…
And there you have it. I’ve used “we” a few times in the last couple of paragraphs, but I’ve used “I” even more. When I reflected on this over the last few days, I discovered that so many of even my “quality” pursuits were profoundly self-centered. It’s to be understood, of course; I’m only human. Still, isn’t there an opportunity for improvement in this problem?
Speak to many people about their most fulfilling pursuits, and they involve service to others. It feels good to be of help to people who need it. Generations of soldiers and volunteers describe this feeling when asked why they do what they do. There’s even something for the self-centered and vainglorious in it: you get to leave a legacy through your actions. Isn’t that something most of us want? When presented with the choice between a long, happy life in obscurity or a short, violent, glorious one, the ancient hero of heroes Achilles chose the latter without a moment’s hesitation. To leave the world better or more badass than we found it: that’s the sort of thing we can feel good about on our deathbeds. I’ve often taken pride in my teaching job and the idea that I’m helping kids to a better outcome or understanding of the world through my work. I hope to make a difference every year.
Kids. And what about my kid? I look into the eyes of my beautiful son and I begin to question a lot of the dissatisfaction with lost time that I have. Isn’t a lot of it inherently selfish? It is good for me but if I were doing it living as a hermit in the desert, I suspect there would be a bit of an empty feeling about it. To push oneself to improve is far more rewarding when we can experience camaraderie with others in the process or leave a legacy through the example we set. I’ve happily poured thousands of hours into my young teaching career to experience this with my colleagues and students. Isn’t this now a shift to an even greater form of the same labor, with my awesome wife for the camaraderie and my own kids for the legacy?
This does not mean sacrificing all of my true passions at the altar of “raising kids.” Too often I’ve heard parents (bitterly) muttering that sentiment. It’s a frequent excuse for becoming a sad-sack shell of one’s former self. On the contrary, I think if I’m going to raise badass kids, they need to see how passion for life is lived, and learn by watching. Rather than give up my interests, I just have “shave close” and get to the marrow, as Thoreau envisioned– to decide what is truly a passion vs. what is more properly called a hobby(and can therefore wait until my kiddos are grown up enough that they require less time).
As a result, I can tell you I’ve spent a LOT less time on the phone, reading the internet, and consuming information on affairs that do not truly concern me and/or I can do very little to change, to say nothing of sports news(a truly frivolous way to spend time if there ever was one). This has made me a less-informed citizen on current news, although I keep tabs on the basics and the big stuff. In crisis over whether to give up this habit or my physical training and deep reading, I cut this out– and I don’t regret it for one minute.
In my general disapproval of people staring into their phones all the time, I had never truly considered how much time I was doing it until I suddenly had far less time in general. This forced a reduction. I think many folks would have allowed the training or the deep reading to lapse and I’m very glad I haven’t. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s funny to think that what was such a massive form of frustration– “LESS TIME!!” has actually improved the usage of the time I have. In the end, the decision was simple (though again, not ‘easy’). When I ask myself which of these things I’d like my son to see me give up, I know I need to put the phone down and go train or go read. History, training, and literature are passions for me in the realest sense– I feel good modeling them for my son. In the big picture of my family’s life, these are trifling sacrifices in a (comparatively) brief season.
And that’s been the biggest lesson so far– the transition from today’s individual small concerns to the long game of life– the big picture. It’s been hard blazing that path for myself. But in cutting out those instant gratifications and self-indulgences while trying to balance who I want to be for my son, I’ve found that I’ve focused more keenly on who I want to be, period, because really, they both come out to the same man.
I dig it.