This is an article I published in Teacher Magazine (under the title “Mission Possible”) some years ago. I was reminded of it while reading this piece by Jill Jenkins.
After the shooting, I asked people about Abel, but nobody knew much. He took his dog with him everywhere he went, a mongrel that looked to be part border collie. He worked at the school for a while, filling in on temporary jobs. His dog followed him through the building, waiting patientlly while Abel scraped paint off the stage floor or put new paint on a door. When I tried to call up an image of him, I drew a blank. He’d been invisible to me.
My classes at school were full of students who came from a world more like Abel’s than like those of their middle-class teachers. The intelligence of orderly families embedded in an orderly tribe had been weakened a century before when proud hunters lost their way and became unimportant in the economic life of folks restricted to a reservation. Many Salish men turned to alcohol. Many children grew up without parents at all, in boarding schools.
Abel lived in a rented room on the top floor of the Mission Hotel. That was its official name. People who lived there were having a hard time of it, and they called it the Heartbreak Hotel.
When it was built early in the century, it had been the largest building in town, except for the brick church at the Jesuit Mission. The hotel was three stories tall, square and vertical. The builders made no attempt to blend it into its surroundings. It had that erect Victorian readiness to impose its grandeur, like a man in white spats refusing to acknowledge muddy streets.
Unfortunately, St. Ignatius never lived up to expectations. People who came seldom had money for lodging. They stayed with relatives or friends. By the time I became director of the valley’s volunteer ambulance, the hotel had become a low rent apartment. It was just up the hill from the bridge across Mission Creek. In his book The Triggering Town the poet Richard Hugo discusses revision using a poem about boys throwing a dog off that bridge. “Can you imagine the intellectual poverty of living in a place like St. Ignatius?” he asked once in a workshop. It made me laugh, but it also made me wonder, “Could I?”
One evening just before Christmas, Abel closed his door and began drinking. A little past midnight, the tenants next door heard a gunshot, then voices, then another gunshot. They called 911. The town cop followed a county deputy as he unholstered his .44 and stepped into the back door of the hotel. He worked his way slowly up the narrow stairs, freezing at each creek, studying each doorway, holding his gun ready.
When the officers reached the third floor, they stepped into the bathroom across the banister from Abel’s room. “Abel, this is the police,” the county deputy called loudly. “What’s going on?”
Silence. Then the door opened. Suddenly the hall exploded with the roar of gunfire. The deputy shot back.
The silence continued roaring for minutes after the shots. The air smelled of powder. A man was dead.
I arrived a few minutes later. I used scissors to bare Abel’s chest, being careful not to cut through the bullet holes, which the crime lab would want intact. I listened through the stethoscope to nothing. Then I closed his fixed, lightless eyes.
I walked back into the hall where a growing crowd of police officers was gathering from all over the county, with cameras, tape measures, and memo pads. The scene needed to be left intact–shell casings where they had fallen, Abel’s empty pistol where he had dropped it.
“He’s dead,” I said to the officers. I walked downstairs, slipped through the crowd that had gathered outside. Many of them were children. I got into the ambulance, which I’d left running with the heater on. It was warm and four other crew members were there. They had waited to see if I needed help because the police wanted to minimize traffic inside. Nobody felt like talking.
Our Habits become our Habitat
When I got home, I couldn’t sleep. I thought about Abel’s apartment. His habitat had been small, cluttered, disorderly–like his life. So it is with us all–our habitat is made of our habits. We develop habits, our second nature, and these habits create an environment. For teachers, the important point is that which habits we get, like which language we speak, depends on those around us. If we are surrounded by intelligent folk who practice all the little habits that encourage happiness, we tend to become more intelligent ourselves. We get up in the morning, put things away, brush our teeth. If we are especially fortunate, we grow up among folk who practice the harder habits of kindness, reliability, cheerfulness, diligence, and honesty.
Most teachers learn quickly the astonishing power family habits have over children. Of course, everyone who grows up surrounded by an order where such habits as patience and compassion are practiced and taught doesn’t automatically learn them. That would be too easy, too destructive of our freedom. But it’s just as true that children who live every day with harshness, fickleness, pessimism, and rage would have to be unusually gifted to see past these to something better.
A few nights before Abel was killed, a man down the street had jerked his former wife’s arm hard enough to dislocate her shoulder. While the police cuffed him and put him in their car, we loaded her on our cot to take her to the hospital. He arched his back in the gentle night air, proud and unsubmissive, a warrior, his head thrown back and his long hair free in the red glare of light, his wrists bound but his spirit wild.
His woman sat on the couch crying. Three children–the youngest was about six and the oldest about ten–begged to go with us, excited by all the commotion. The man and the woman yelled at each other about a set of keys, which he said were for his car and she said were for her trailer. It was Tuesday. If the kids were at school in the morning which was only five or six hours away, I doubted they would be with teachers who knew much about their lives.
What those kids need, more than information, is an invitation to join a community, a moral order, enacted and clarified daily by adults who, with full knowledge of how the world goes wrong, stay committed nonetheless to making things right.
Thinking about Folkways
In 1906, William Graham Sumner in his seminal work Folkways said what I was learning through experience eighty some years later: “The education which forms character and produces faith in sound principles of life. . .is borne on the mores. It is taken in from the habits and atmosphere of the school, not from the school text-books.”
He further noted that though “we apply schooling as a remedy for every social phenomenon which we do not like,” the efficacy of information to change behavior is only “the superstition of education.” In fact, “book learning is addressed to the intellect, not to the feelings, but the feelings are the spring of action.”
Though “folkways” is usually used as a benign term to refer to such activities as quilting or fiddle-playing or dancing, Sumner uses it to refer to the traditions by which a society shapes its people, and in addition to celebrations and arts he also examines as examples of folklife such institutions as slavery, infanticide, torture, harlotry, and gladiator sports. He reminds us of the sheer educative power of what we celebrate, tolerate, pursue and repeat.
The ordinary stories that people tell along the way to all else they do exert a tremendous shaping influence on people. The way this happens can be deceptively simple. Here’s Bud Cheff, Sr., a seventy-eight-year-old rancher from the Mission Valley in western Montana, chatting about his early life:
Whenever Adelle and I went somewhere, or when we were returning home, I always put the money I had left into a big jar I kept buried. When I got a chance to buy the land where the ranch now sits, I dug out my money cache, and got out the jug that I had buried. I poured it all out on a tarp and counted it; I had just enough money to pay cash for that piece of land, 160 acres. There were pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, dollar bills, five, ten and twenty dollar bills.
I went into the house and had Adelle and all the kids come out to my shed to see what I had on my tarp, and they all just stared at it. Adelle knew I’d been saving money, but had no idea it amounted to that much and the kids were so excited because they had never seen that much money at one time. I let them each take a handful of small change and then I gathered it up, went to the courthouse in Polson, and paid for my land.
I can testify from personal experience that a person who listens to this man tell his ordinary stories about raising a family and building a ranch will feel tugs of desire to become a better person: to laugh more, work harder, have more friends. Children who grow up immersed in such everyday narratives probably do not notice the effortless way they encode a host of values–in this example, perseverance, postponement of gratification, affection for spouse and children, delight in the chance to struggle for a dream. It is through such stories that young people learn what the rules of life are, what roles are available to them, how to react to crises, what is worth wanting. In a way that comes to them so naturally it’s easy to miss seeing, they learn all the little secrets of being human. It is at this level of daily narrating, which goes on among us without pause, that a people shapes its morality and that of the next generation.
Through the folkways, Sumner points out, a person learns “what conduct is approved or disapproved; what kind of man is admired most; how he ought to behave in all kinds of cases; and what he ought to believe and respect.” He reminds us that “all this constitutes. . .the most essential and important education.”
Many schools today, reflecting community mores, are becoming scenes of increasing moral disorder. When I finished a presentation at a recent education conference, a teacher came to me crying. Only a couple of months before, a student had come to her middle school in a small rural community in Washington, and shot and killed a teacher and two other students. Such stories are no longer rare. Though the notion that we respond to depression or anger by getting gun and shooting people is probably taught by movies and song lyrics more often than by families and communities, its is inescapable that our schools now serve thousands of young people who have been left to find their mores in media culture.
The Schools We’ve Built
What do such youth learn when they get to school? Many teachers and administrators have had their own mores shaped within impersonal bureaucracies where the folkways that develop tend to support the success ethic. Even in the absence of corruption (which is rarely absent), our work in large organizations by its very division into small pieces tends to frustrate our hopes and divide us from our fellows, creating an environment where self-interest flourishes. Self-interest is often followed by selfishness, which is always followed by pessimism. As workers become adept at hearing information at the scale of their specialty and at filtering out other information, what makes us powerful, our ability to organize, ironically also deafens us to what we would better hear.
For example, the superintendent of a school district who is doing her job often thinks in time frames of years or decades, trying to hear the slow-moving information of demographic shifts and legislative trends that will change enrollments and budgets and community expectations, monitoring the deterioration of buildings and buses, anticipating shifts in social values. Though the superintendent might be aware that a particular teacher is weak, she’s probably more interested in changing hiring practices or training programs than she is in changing that one teacher’s performance this afternoon.
A good teacher, on the other hand, will tend to be more attentive to faster-moving information, such as what happened with a particular student this morning and what adjustments the staff can make this week.
Though both the superintendent and the teacher may share the same ultimate goals which require each of them to do their part at their level, when they meet to discuss problems, they sometimes don’t quite hear one another. Too often, they even feel pitted against one another. It becomes easy to become cyncial, looking out for one’s own best interests. It becomes easy, without constant refreshing at the springs of shared hope and constant reminders of the virtues we need to practice to realize those hopes, for self-interested careerism to prevail over shared community purpose and the striving for moral clarity. Unconstrained careerism is simply old-fashioned lust dressed up in the fashion of our age.
For the dedicated careerist, there is little to resist sliding into other forms of self-indulgence, and it should a frightening fact that many citizens of the modern age have become, like Romans of the late empire who craved ever bloodier arena sports, addicts of the wares of corporate entertainers who lace their products with lusts more toxic than nicotine. By adopting savage entertainments into their folkways, the Romans transformed themselves into a people who took their greatest pleasure in watching pain and bloodshed. Children amused themselves by torturing animals. The planet was ransacked for beasts that were allowed to tear apart convicts or slaves for Sunday entertainment. Forms of human torture to amuse the masses became ever more ingenious and perverse.
Though for us such entertainments are most often “only” simulated by movie companies rather than happening in actuality, to the human imagination such a distinction matters little. As the Vandals began detroying Carthage, the cries of those being slaughtered in the streets mingled with the cries of victims in the arena. The death throes of a civilization became indistinguishable from its entertainments. In some American cities today, the carnage that awaits theater audiences inside is not much different than what may be witnessed at any instant on the streets outside.
We already have among us thousands of young people who are more entertained than horrified by films of the Holocaust shown to them by teachers who, desperately, still believe that such scenes have to be horrifying. We no longer need to guess where it leads. We can read about it in the paper nearly every week.
Living in Possible Worlds
Despite the problems teachers face today one thing that never changes is that the best teaching remains committed not simply to preparing young people for the world that surrounds them, but to bringing better worlds into being. To do that, the best teachers must be willing to live by the rules of a world that could be and ought to be rather than by the rules of the world as it is. Though contemporary debates about goodness often descend into arguments about jurisdiction—which groups will control the debate—our only hope for unity nonetheless lies in the possibility that each one of us, from whatever cultural or ethnic group, can conclude that some things are good, and that we can refresh and rejuvenate our folkways and build into our ways of living what Sumner called “monuments, festivals, mottoes, oratory, and poetry” that teach that it’s good to help other folks get something they need, that it’s good to be moved by the plight of our neighbors, that it’s good to be gentle, and that it’s good to practice the patience and selflessness necessary to have friends.
The alternative is moral anarchy, in which, Sumner warns us, we can all lose our way. When all stories have equal legitimacy, people’s “notions, desires, purposes, and means become untrue.” Only the willfully blind don’t see that large groups of people today are moving into such a condition. Much of popular culture seems intent on fostering cultural suicide. Without vision, the people perish.
If we don’t like where we are headed, the solution, open to any of us, is to change directions. We can identify and act on “correct notions of virtue” in matters big and small, making them our habits. We can, for example, refuse to attend “R” movies, we can give money to agencies that help the poor, we can be honest in paying our taxes. People who take such actions soon see that it is the “only success policy.” They soon find themselves becoming more prosperous or less anxioius, soon find their towns becoming beautiful and safe, find their farmlands becoming bountiful and sustainable. A few such people can create a community that neglected children can join.
Fortunately for my little town, the Salish culture was never completely destroyed. Though the tribe has its share of politicians who have learned from oppression to imitate the oppressors in ruthless and dishonest pursuit of wealth and power, it also has a large number of quiet folk who have struggled for years to keep alive their belief in a better way. In recent years, some tribal leaders have emerged strong from their long history of hardship. More or less ignoring those leaders who are too bitter and distrustful to move forward, they are rebuilding a living moral order, and they are reaching out to lost children to join a real community, to remember better ways. Though they face enormous problems, their faith is strong. Teachers can learn much from them.
They know that when we’ve strayed from a good path, our lives often take on a momentum that carries us father than we meant to go. It becomes harder and harder to believe we can stop or go back. We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught, and we need to be given courage more often than we need to be given information.
Twenty minutes after I got home from examining Abel, my radio went off again. Mission Ambulance, please return to the Mission Hotel. An officer is down.
When I got there, the deputy who had shot Abel was writhing on the floor, gasping for air. His forehead glistened with sweat. He had trouble hearing or answering questions. His hands and feet were numb. He felt sharp pains in his chest.
Hyperventilation. It begins when a person breathes too quickly, but the feeling is that he can’t get enough air. The faster he breathes, the more he feels air hunger. It’s a common pattern in our lives: we do the wrong thing, and the more we do it the worse things get and the more we feel we need to keep doing it. It was a pattern Abel knew.
A good coach can help, standing outside the problem, staying calm, reminding the person of what he knows but, at the moment, feels wrong. It’s as simple as standing close to the person, speaking into his ear, convincing him that he can breathe normally, reminding him how to do it. It is possible for one person to infect another with calm, with faith, and maybe even with goodness.
Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and lose faith that our small contributions will make enough difference. One spring after being caught up in a particularly nasty and futile political war, I visited a lake in the Mission Mountains. It was a calm day, and I tossed a rock into the water, then watched. I followed the ripples as far as I could. Eventually, at the edge of my eyesight, the ripples merged into riffles caused by wind and other disturbances, becoming part of an endless dance. It was a half-hour before I lost completely the pattern of my stone amid the endlessly changing patterns of the lake’s surface.
I lost sight of it, but I never saw it stop.