Sunday, June 14, 2015

American Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism: 1. the condition of being exceptional; uniqueness; 2. the study of the unique and exceptional; 3. a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm (

I dedicate this post to (or blame it on) my friend @BlueCerealEduc. He recently shared an article from The Washington Post: “Historians Blast Advanced Placement U.S. History Framework” (

To summarize the article, a group of academics “Scholars Concerned About Advanced Placement History” (doesn’t really inspire a snappy acronym) have published an open letter (oooooo, scary) decrying the new AP U.S. History framework because it presents a “’grave new risk’ to the study of America’s past, in large part because it ignores American exceptionalism.” They are upset because College Board seeks to introduce a wider interpretation of American history (because isn’t all history an interpretation, usually dictated by those in power), a version that doesn’t shy away from our ugly chapters (you know: slavery, continued systemic oppression and discrimination, imperialism, lying, cheating, murdering, swindling) so students can LEARN from their history and maybe stop repeating it. The SCAAPH group (see, it’s just not catchy) fears the new framework “downplays American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective.” They want policymakers (those people who actually teach and know about education…oh wait, I meant the opposite) to find alternatives to the monster called “College Board” who has a “current domination” of AP testing—of course they do; it’s their test. Ironically, the letter was published by a group “united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.” I can’t make this up, folks. The Post includes a copy of the letter. I shan’t bore you, but I must quote a few tidbits:

1. They want a history taught that is “alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.”

2. They seem pissed the new framework doesn’t allow students to simply gain “extensive factual knowledge of American history.”

3. They are also upset teachers may no longer bore students with lengthy forays into “elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict.” The framework “reduces history to an [sic] bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces.”

4.  Holy crap: “Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through…toward the more perfect realization of professed ideals.”

5. They are offended by the decentralization of the American nation identity, claiming the new framework chooses to grant “far more extensive attention to ‘how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities’ The new framework makes a shift from ‘identity’ to ‘identities.’”

So, let’s blow this apart, point by point.
1. Just a glance at the signers shows us 88 men and 12 women—only 3 are actual HS AP History teachers. No, men are not inherently evil (I’m married to an incredibly wonderful one), but as men currently hold America’s power, they, generally speaking, have the most to lose by a "revised" history.

2. “downplays American citizenship and American world leadership”: America has really only been a world leader since the last century. It took two world wars to put us on the top, mainly because several other leading countries were devastated by the wars.

3. “in favor of a more global and transnational perspective”: Aren’t we made up of a diverse grouping of races, cultures, religions, beliefs? Wouldn’t it make sense to look at how those diverse perspectives have come together (disharmoniously and harmoniously)? Wouldn’t it also make sense to look at how America fits into the world’s scope—you know, since we are all part of Earth? Since other countries are really not viewing us favorably, wouldn’t it also make sense to explore how to work with the world and not against it? Oh, that’s right, we spend more on defense than education. I’m sure we’re fine. But, what happens when we cease creating a military smart enough to defend us…? I’m sure we’ll be fine. Isn’t God on our side—no matter how stupid or misguided we are?

4. SCAAPH wants a curriculum that does discuss the ways we’ve “disagreed” and “fallen short of our ideals.” Is that what slavery was? A disagreement? Silly me. I thought it was a widespread and systemic subjugation of a group of people. Guess the Civil Rights Movement was also a disagreement. How about the Trail of Tears and many other accounts of America’s quest for Manifest Destiny. We just had a disagreement with those Native Americans. Or, maybe they disagreed with our “ideals,” so we murdered and uprooted them—oh, and gave them smallpox. Hey, don’t disagree with our ideals. Those are just historical disagreements; I'm not even listing more recent ones….

5. SCAAPH also wants the curriculum to emphasize how we’ve “remained one nation with common ideals and a shared story.” Whose story and ideals are we using? Are we using a Native American’s ideals and stories? Are we including a slaves ideals and stories? Are we talking to Blacks during Jim Crow? How about recent immigrants who’ve been tarred with a rather large brush? How about Muslims who have been asked to renounce parts of the Qur’an because legislators don’t like it? How about the Black people who’ve recently become famous because they’ve been killed with impunity? I’m not seeing a “shared story” or “common ideals” here. Anyone else? There’s been a recent louder outcry for more diversity in literature—could it be because there is more than one story to tell?

6. "Extensive factual knowledge”: I’m snorting in derision. Do we just want dates, people, and places memorized? That seems to be the only real “facts” we could give students. Just as with literary interpretation, history is as varied as the number of eyewitnesses because people have terrible memories and see what they want to see. So what would it hurt to look at Wounded Knee from a couple different perspectives and then distill the information? That’s called “critical thinking” instead of indoctrination.

7. I don’t even know what to say about quote #3. I’d much rather study the whys and hows than the dates, people, and places. Why did Thomas Paine write the pamphlet Common Sense? What was going on that spurred him to pen this? Why did Malcolm X choose to embrace Islam and later repudiate it? What was driving Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Looky there—I worked in people, places, events, and some depth! Wait, is that what effective teachers do? Why don’t we trust them to do their jobs and EDUCATE children?

8. Did you know it was history’s job to provide us with “compelling stories about exemplary people and events”? What exemplary people are we looking at? Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the beautiful and powerful Declaration of Independence, but was a man who also owned slaves and fathered children by one of them? Benjamin Franklin, who invented so many useful tools, served as a diplomat, wrote numerous amazing works—and had affairs with a LOT of women? (I stuck with the white Founding Fathers since we’ve come to worship them for some reason—like Shakespeare.) Why is it harmful to show the whole person? Wouldn’t I, a flawed person, strive for greater things if I see how other flawed people achieve greatness? Wouldn't a person of color also benefit from seeing how other people of color struggles and persevered? Sorry, now I'm messing with history again.

9. SCAAPH wants stories of “citizens [who] have striven…toward the more perfect realization of professed ideals.” Sounds like we’re putting forth stories of people who’ve maintained status quo like good little citizens. Well, there goes the entire unit on Civil Rights. That word “professed” really bothers me; I’m more familiar with the negative connotation of the word: “alleged; pretended” ( If we use that, then yes, America does have “professed” ideals. I’d prefer we actually work toward a realization of actual ideals: equity for all, freedom for all, liberty for all, justice for all….

10. As to quote #5, isn’t part of what makes this country so “exceptional,” so unique is the coming together of people from all over the world, who want to work together to create something greater—a sum larger than our individual parts? That can only happen if we recognize the contribution (and sufferings) of those individual parts.

No matter how many times parts of America have discriminated against other American parts, those oppressed parts have not given up and moved elsewhere. Those oppressed parts have fought and cried and bled and died to try to push America past its weaknesses and ignorance, to take America out of the cave and into the sunlight, to spur OUR country into something truly exceptional. That coming together of many different perspectives and narratives, that refusal to give up in the face of institutional oppression, that restlessness and search for something higher and better, that is what makes America exceptional.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Facing My Mortality & Limitations

I was not sure why I started a blog. Mostly I want to focus on education, as that is my passion; however, from time to time, I may foray into a little self-indulgence by writing about personal issues. I do not look for pity or sympathy (I know others are much worse off than I), but sometimes writing and pushing it into the ether can be cathartic.

In my almost forty years, I have dealt with three autoimmune diseases: psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, and lupus. I had psoriasis as a child. It mostly went away, except for a few spots, after about a year. When those spots would appear, I used lye soap directly on them for a few days, and they went away. Mostly, psoriasis was a disease that affected my vanity: it could be embarrassing, but wasn’t life-threatening. That almost completely went away in 2004, the year I was diagnosed with Crohn’s.

Crohn’s disease is your immune system attacking your digestive system. It can be debilitating and life-threatening. I have had stress-related stomach issues for much of my life, but in 2004, I hit a new low. My weight hovers around the 115-125 range, but that summer, I lost 18 lbs. and went down to 97. Over the course of the summer, I was tested for Lyme’s, West Nile, Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever…everything but the plague. I was finally admitted to the hospital after two days when I couldn’t even keep down water. As I lay on the table in the doctor’s office, I felt myself floating above my body (probably because I was so weak and tired). I really believed I was going to die. My only regret was not being able to finish raising my daughter, who was six at the time). I wanted to give up, but hung on for her. Several tests later, after a phone conversation with my father (a nurse), he mentioned they should test me for Crohn’s. Yes, my father was correct. I credit him with saving my life because we were getting nowhere with other tests.

I unsuccessfully lived with Crohn’s for a couple years before I found a fantastic gastroenterologist. I was cutting increasingly more food/beverages from my diet and not improving—while continuing to teach. He told me there were medications and a possibility of remission. Finally, a spark of hope! I kept a few foods out of my diet, but began returning to normal. My last colonoscopy was in 2013, where my doctor told me I was about 90ish% in remission.

Sadly, I was already dealing with some weird symptoms (that I had no idea were part of a larger issue) from about spring 2012. I was getting red spots around my eyes and my voice would get husky off and on. My general doctor thought it was allergies and gave me steroid cream and pills. Those helped some, but not really. Throughout the 2012-13 school year, my hands and wrists began bothering me—usually just a “perk” of being an English teacher who grades piles of papers and types a lot. I worried about carpal tunnel, but (like all other health issues when you’re a teacher) that would have to wait till summer. J Summer 2013, I also began having shoulder pain, sometimes so bad I couldn’t sleep or drive. My doctor basically gave me a standing prescription for Prednisone and trusted me to self-medicate. As I HATE taking medicine, this was a good idea on his part and saved me money on co-pays.

Through 2013-2014 school year, my hands and other joints continued to worsen. I finally saw a rheumatologist. She first bet me I had a wheat allergy (I won that bet), then moved to arthritis, for which I always tested “negative.” She started me on methotrexate, which barely worked for me. I even got to do injections for a few months. For someone who used to have nightmares about needles as a child, this was an act of courage. Yes, I made myself do my own injections. I have always fought being a “burden” to my family.

When my rheumatologist left her clinic, I chose to find a new one. I found a wonderful doctor at the Oklahoma Center for Arthritis and Research. Thank you, Dr. Z! She has worked with me to find what’s wrong and to treat it. She also told me when someone has one autoimmune disease, s/he is more likely to get another one. She got my records and decided to run some more tests. I still dread needles, but I am getting good at letting people poke me (especially when I usually have 5-9 vials of blood taken at a time J). I think it was my second appointment when told me I’d tested positive for lupus. I wasn’t sure how to react: I’d heard of it, but I knew little about it. I immediately began educating myself, including all the horror and success stories. She and I have tried several paths, including many natural treatments, and have settled on Plaquenil (medication for malaria, which carries its own toxicity risks) and Benlysta (a once a month infusion which suppresses my immune system, leaving me open to other illnesses). I just started Benlysta in January 2015.

I finished off 2013-2014. Thank God for my students. For a while, my feet were too painful to do much walking and my hands were so swollen and painful I couldn’t hold a pen, making grading nearly impossible. They helped me come up with creative solutions for grading and feedback. They were patient when I took months to return research papers—something I normally grade extensively with copious feedback. They wrote notes for me when I couldn’t. When I was so tired and in pain I couldn’t walk around the room as I normally do, they came to me. They forgave me for my limitations—not that they thought I needed forgiveness, but I sure apologized anyway. My students are such beautiful and amazing people. They worked and met my every expectation even when I had to miss class. I could not have made it through this without them and the community of Sperry.

We relocated to Oklahoma City in June for my husband’s job. Thankfully, I was able to take a year off to deal with this crappy disease. I didn’t want time off, but I had to. I have found new strengths, but I have also discovered new weaknesses—dark places to which I don’t like to admit. I am a driven person, a person who was born to educate. Not fulfilling that role or earning money or positively contributing to society was a major blow. I have done some type of work since I was ten. I am a horrible sick person, plus I deal with depression, which can be exacerbated by lupus. Yes, it hit me like a ton of bricks this winter. Insomnia coupled with depression is an ugly place to find oneself. I have some ugly thoughts scribbled on scraps of paper hidden in my dresser. Thankfully, I wasn’t suicidal, but I did flirt with the monster.

I believe God found me a job at Piedmont. How often to AP positions open up, especially at such a competitive school? I am so excited to head back to the classroom (now Oklahoma has 799 positions open instead of 800—sorry, bad joke). If God provided this job, He will help me, but I cannot help looking at my mortality again. Lupus has so many possible symptoms: crippling fatigue and “arthritis” are my nemeses (I have also had to embrace a vampire lifestyle since I’m hyper-sensitive to the sun, and the sun can cause flair-ups). Fatigue is especially frustrating to someone like me. For example, I was busy with meetings from 9-noon today. By the time I got home, I wanted a nap. How in the hell am I going to be able to teach? I am also an introvert who already has to have alone time after spending the day with people. How am I going to cope? But, how can I cope if I don’t go back into the classroom? I worry I will have to use so much energy and effort to simply get through the day that I will not have enough left to give my students what each of them needs and deserves.

I have to be real and look at myself in the mirror and admit I am not a superhero, I am simply a human being working to overcome the seemingly insurmountable in order to better society. Now, does someone have a radioactive spider or toxic waste I could use? Maybe I’ll discover those superpowers…