Category Archives: Opinion

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The Faults of the Brain

The air blows over my body and I feel at peace. It is neither too warm nor too cool. It is the same as me. It is a part of me.

These mid-autumn nights make me feel so peaceful, so perfect. In fact, today is the equinox, Mid-Autumn Day, so it’s appropriate that I should reflect like this. Though the equinox signals the inexorable coming of winter, I feel that, for now, things are still okay.

But now, the incessant pain and stiffness in my neck and shoulders is returning. It is always there. It is never gone, so call this a return is imprecise. But it does ebb and flow throughout the days and weeks, and the past few hours have been pain free, relatively. But this too, for now, is okay.

I can tell that I’m exhausted, that I’m ready to pass out and sleep a peaceful, yet dream-filled sleep in the perfection of an autumn’s evening. My left eye refuses to stay open. I can only close it by itself when I’m exhausted. When energetic, I can wink with my right eye, but my left cannot be closed independently, only as a pair with the right. But when exhausted, the left closes on its own and I know that it will take very little to send me away to that land of impossible things.

And it is a land of impossible things. The experiences I have therein are some of the most bizarre, unbelievable, yet strangely vivid and real that I’ve ever had. A mere dream, upon waking, fades over the first few minutes of consciousness as the brain returns from hibernation, and loads the day’s business into working memory. The dream, deemed unimportant, is overwritten, banished, not even sent to the circular file — it just disappears. But those are normal dreams.

These days, mine are different. They are vivid — more so than so-called real life — and they stay with me. The brain takes them and instead of nuking them like it should, throws them into long-term memory with dodgy timecodes. So while sitting at work, and my mind is wandering, a sharp image from one of these dreams will be flashed upon the screen of thought, and when I request a timecode, the brain always throws back that it’s first of all a memory and secondly that it was formed long ago when I actually experienced the thing.

My brain hasn’t categorized them as memorable dreams either. Only the metadata, which I can grep, can tell me, “nah leave it bruv, it’s a dream, it’s not real,” despite everything else saying that it is real and that it did happen.

I know this sounds weird, and it is. But I don’t know how better to explain it, and so I slip into metaphor and simile. Why, that’s what language is for, after all — to communicate what you want no matter how you have to do it. Lack the words to say directly and precisely what you mean? Speak around it and try to get to your point through a roundabout, if whimsical, route.

And now, sitting here writing this, the brain has thrown up another image on the screen of thought. The secret room in the large house (or miniature mansion), wherein the allegedly missing father is living a comfortable life with white walls and furniture and a big-screen TV. I’m not even sure who alleged him to be missing or why, because his son knew where he was and the room was hardly hidden — perhaps it was more that the house was too big and people forgot parts of it existed.

But it’s so vivid, it’s like it actually happened. Confusing things even more is that the brain, over time and after me throwing a goodly number of cycles at the problem of thinking about it, has linked that house with the house of a friend of a friend that I visited once in high school. I know that they are not strictly-speaking related, but the brain is a goddamned troll.

Yeah, I have a troll brain. You do, too. All brains are troll brains. Some are trollier than others and I will claim that mine is one of those extra-troll versions, but I may just be misunderstanding the everyday brain troubles others have.

Speaking of troll brains, it’s time to take the meds to whip the troll into behaving itself, at least more than it would otherwise. I fumble the packet, my fingers not working quite right. The troll has control of everything and will try to stop me from stopping it. It’s an insidious bastard, my brain.

Which I suppose also makes me sound mad. Most people (and, again, I may be misunderstanding the everyday lives of people-not-me) seem to say that every bit of themselves is, well, themselves. “Here is a picture of you, head to toe. Where are you?”

“Why, I’m here.” (They gesture to the entire picture.)

“Be more specific.”

“This is me, I am here. I don’t understand the question.”

“If you were to lose a leg, would you still be you?”

“… yes?”

“So you use your leg, but you’re not in your leg.”

“I suppose so. I can follow your reasoning.”

“So, given that mindset, where are you?”

The subject pauses and thinks for a moment. Then she points to the head. “I’m here. I’m in here.”

“You’re in your brain.”

“Well, the brain is me. Maybe I’m in it? It’s hard to say.”

But, for me, I very clearly see “me” as separate from “my brain”. Me may reside in My Brain, but My Brain is an asshole landlord and bullies Me and mistreats Me. Me would move out, but Me lacks the means to do that. So for now, Me is stuck inside My Brain, and has to put up with all My Brain’s bullshit.

Does that make any sense? It does to me. But then I may be a bit mental.

But isn’t it more fun that way?

As quickly at the stream of thought comes, it tapers off and is gone. Once again all that is left is the perfectly perfect air blowing over my body as I drift off to whatever adventure awaits me tonight.

Giving up on kids? Reprehensible.

I’ve taught in junior high schools (12-15 year olds) since I came here in summer 2004 (except for a brief period). As I’m just the foreign English teacher, often viewed as nothing more than a tourist by the “real” teachers, I don’t always get the voice I sometimes ought to when it comes to things that happen in classes I attend. Sometimes this is just down to how things work, but surely there are times when I could have stood up and done something.

In my old school, there was a kid, let’s call him Kouha. He came into JHS first grade. He wasn’t the best student, but he wasn’t the worst. He was good. From what I could tell, he made an effort, got pretty good marks, did his best. He wasn’t a bad kid either, fitting in to school life fairly easily.

Then, gradually, he lost interest. I don’t know why. I could say it was because of problems at home, or that he found the work too hard, or too easy, or he was fed up with the intractable amounts of homework or the arbitrary rules. I could say any of those things, but it would be speculation.

All I know is that he lost interest. He didn’t care about his school work as much, and his marks started to drop. He became average. There’s nothing wrong with that, it happens. What happened next is what bothers me still, all these years later.

As a teacher, our jobs are multifaceted, and it can be ruddy difficult to balance them. We have to teach our subject, of course, but we have to help the kids who aren’t as strong in our classes while still challenging the stronger kids; we have to properly socialize our kids, show them how they can fit into the world at large, and how they can make that world better in their own way. But never, ever should we discourage the kids in any way.

When Kouha started to lose interest, at first, no one really mentioned anything about it. First graders often lose their youthful spark as the rigors of junior high school break their spirits. It’s terrible, but it happens, and so when it happens, it usually happens un-remarked  upon, as it did with Kouha. But at some point, the teachers, en masse, and for reasons unknown to me, decided that every problem could be and should be attributed to him.

As with any class, there are kids speaking among themselves during class time, either about the material, or about other stuff. The teacher has to try to strike a balance between allowing it so that the kids feel comfortable and can learn from each other as well as from the teacher, and with keeping the kids on task and undistracted. So there are times during quiet work sessions when a teacher will gently point out, “Hey, it’s work time — no need to be chatting now.”

Except in Kouha’s class.

Whenever there was any chatter, valid or invalid, quiet or loud and distracting, the teachers would ALWAYS single him out to yell at. Whenever any group he was with, be it the soccer team, a group of his friends in the hall, a group of students late to something, whatever it happened to be, there was never any sort of collective, reasonable talking-to; it was always “Let’s ream Kouha, cuz he’s clearly at fault here.”

I didn’t say anything. I should have, but I didn’t. As I was only around during English class usually, I couldn’t really say, “Hey, you’re being unreasonably hard on him.” I assumed that he had done something legitimate to earn this level of bullying from the teacher. This was when I was in my early 20s and very inexperienced, you understand.

By the time he was in second grade, he hadn’t just lost interest, become average. He had given up on himself. Several times I’d suggest that he could do better, that he was smarter than he gave himself credit for. The reaction was usually something akin to “why bother? what’s the point? I can’t do anything right, so why try?” Terrible.

In the first term of his third year of junior high school, the constant persecution came to a head one day in English class. The main teacher was setting up a laptop to show us some boring photos of some trips she’d taken to England over the years (it was tangentially relevant, the textbook unit had the main character visiting London), and she was taking rather a lot of time, between a slow laptop and the projector acting up.

As with any group, students or teachers, children or adults, when left waiting for a long time, a low chatter will start. Everyone in that classroom was chatting quietly. Kouha was, too, but quietly, and not very much.

Suddenly, the teacher looked up from her technological faffing, glared at Kouha, and told him specifically, by name, to be quiet. I can still remember the look of disbelief and hurt on his face at that moment. To be singled out for verbal punishment for something (1) everyone was doing and (2) he was BARELY doing wasn’t fair, and he couldn’t believe it. I can remember the next look on his face, too. It was an angry resignation.

He stood up, shouted, “I don’t need this!”, stormed to the front of the classroom, closed the teacher’s laptop, and stormed out of class.  The kids were quiet, then. The teacher looked after him, “What’s his problem? He should have expected that.”

“He wasn’t talking. No more than anyone else, at any rate.”

“I clearly heard his voice! You heard him talking didn’t you?” and she looked to the other students to back her up. They just shook their heads.

“That was unfair, and you need to apologize to him,” I told her.  For the first time, she seemed aware of how she and everyone else had been treating him since he entered the school. She nodded and said she would after class.

She claimed she did, but Kouha rarely came to English class the rest of that year, and he never ever tried at all. I can’t blame him. The other teachers continued to treat him like shit, though.

Let’s back up to when Kouha was in second grade. I started teaching at the elementary school one afternoon a week around this time, and was teaching Kouha’s brother, Reo. He was in sixth grade of elementary school, so would have been 11 or so. He was energetic, rambunctious. He wasn’t the best at English, but his enthusiasm for it and everything else he did more than made up for lack of ability. He was a great kid.

But even then, I saw the warning signs that he’d suffer the same as his brother was. One afternoon, I showed up to his class during break time, before the teacher had returned from the staff room. Reo and I were chatting, surrounded by a few kids. When the teacher showed up, she said, “Reo, stop doing that! Bad! Sit down this instant!” The look on his face then was the same look I’d see his brother give in English class a year later, though this one was milder.

I asked the teacher what he’d done wrong, and she said, “Oh, you know.” No, I don’t. That’s why I asked.

We did class, and it went as normal, though Reo was more sullen than usual. After class, while the teacher was packing up the English materials, and as I was about to leave the room, he came up to me. “Tell her I’m innocent! I wasn’t doing anything wrong, right? We were just chatting right? I didn’t deserve to get yelled at. Tell her I’m innocent?” he pleaded with me.

I smiled, and nodded. “Of course, sure thing.” I told the teacher, explained, pointed out she must have been mistaken. She didn’t apologize to him, and suggested I didn’t know what I was talking about. After she’d left, I spoke to Reo. “Sorry. I tried.”

“Thanks anyway.”

Fast forward a year. Kouha’s just reached boiling point in English class, and Reo is in first grade. Just like Kouha before him, he’s a good student, fitting in well to school life, keeping up in his studies. But whereas Kouha got a few months before the systemic bullying by teachers began, for Reo it started right away. “Oh, you’re Kouha’s brother. Well, we’ve all given up on him, and chosen him as our scapegoat for our own failings as teachers. You’re his brother, you’re the same as him, so we’ll treat you the same,” is how it looked to me.

This was just about the time my contract was up, and I was job hunting, and then preparing to move. I don’t know how it ended up, but I assume roughly the same.

It’s utterly reprehensible that any kid should be treated so poorly in such an arbitrary and shitty manner. If a kid is actually “bad”, in the sense that he doesn’t follow the rules, is disruptive, is a troublemaker, then there is an argument for strict discipline; but even then, there’s a difference between discipline and bullying. What Kouha and Reo experienced was bullying, and it’s bullshit, and it’s terrible, and I couldn’t do anything for them, and I really hope they aren’t too fucked up by it.

Earlier this year, at my current school, due to a miscommunication, a misunderstanding, a group of kids thought I’d called them both stupid and worthless. I’d never do that, but I feel terrible that they thought I had. Kids should never be made to feel like that, full stop, but especially not at school.

One of those kids, when I see him, how the teachers treat him… I’m reminded of Kouha. This kid, he’s smart. Really smart. Doesn’t pay attention in class, doesn’t do homework, gets stellar marks on tests. But because he doesn’t do the heap of busywork the teachers assign; because he doesn’t fit into some sort of pattern they feel he should, they single him out for poor treatment. That, plus the way his home situation reminds me of my own when I was his age… I feel for him, and I wish there was something I could do to make his life, at least at school, just a little easier.

Look, I’m rambling. The point is, if you’re working with children, and you don’t encourage them — if you actively discourage them, set to make them feel worthless and persecuted, then you are a reprehensible excuse for a person and you should think long and hard about your choice of career.

Regarding Freddie the Leaf

I take issue with the story put out in this book.

In our 3rd grade textbook, an abridged version of this book appears as a final reading. I have taken the liberty of copying the textbook version below, so that you may read it, and then better see where I’m coming from.

Spring came. Freddie, the leaf, was born on a branch of a tall tree.

Hundreds of leaves were born on the tree. They were all friends. Together they danced in the breeze and played in the sun.

Daniel was the largest leaf and Freddie’s best friend. He knew many things. He explained that they were part of a tree in a park. He also explained about the birds, the sun, and the moon.

Freddie loved being a leaf. Summer was especially nice. Many people came to the park.

“Let’s get together and give them some shade,” said Daniel. “Giving shade is part of our purpose in life. Making people happy is a good reason for living.”

Old people sat under the tree and talked of old times. Children ran around and laughed. It was fun to watch them.

Summer passed and fall came. Soon the leaves changed their colors. Some turned red and others turned yellow. Freddie turned purple. They were all very beautiful.

One day a strange thing happened. Some of the leaves were blown off by a strong cold wind. The leaves became frightened. “What’s happening?” they said.

“It’s the time for leaves to change their home,” Daniel said. “Some people call it dying.”

“Will we all die?” Freddie asked.

“Yes,” Daniel answered. “Everything dies.”

“I won’t die!” said Freddie.

But his friends started to fall one after another. Soon the tree was almost bare.

“I’m afraid of dying,” Freddie told Daniel.

“We’re all afraid of things we don’t know,” Daniel said. “But you were not afraid when spring became summer, or when summer became fall. Changes are natural.”

“Will we return in spring? Freddie asked.

“I don’t know, but Life will. Life lasts forever and we’re part of it,” answered Daniel.

“We only fall and die. Why are we here?” Freddie asked again.

Daniel said, “For the friends, the sun and the shade. Remember the breeze, the people, and the colors in fall. Isn’t that enough?”

That afternoon, Daniel fell with a smile. Freddie was the only leaf left on his branch.

The first snow fell the next morning.

The wind came and took Freddie from his branch. It didn’t hurt at all.

As he fell, he saw the whole tree for the first time. He remembered Daniel’s words, “Life lasts forever.”

Freddie landed on the soft snow. he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

He did not know this. But, in the tree and the ground, there were already plans for new leaves in spring.

Right, what could I possibly have to complain about within such an innocuous story, I suppose you’re wondering.

First off, it has a bit of a creepy cult vibe. “Daniel was ever so smart, and taught us so many things.” “We all die, you’ll die too~”. And the in-the-original-but-changed-in-this-textbook-version, “You were not afraid when the spring changed to summer, or when summer turned to fall. You did not fear those seasons. Why, then, do you fear the season of death?” (emphasis mine) What the hell, get out.

Next, the entire purpose seems to be to get kids (as I reckon the original was aimed at children younger than my 15-year-old students) to accept death as a natural change that one oughtn’t be afraid of. I’ll return to the “natural” argument in a moment, but doesn’t it strike you as a little dodgy that it’s all EVERYTHING DIES, DEATH IS NATURAL, DIE DIE DIE, SEASON OF DEATH, and then they end with talking euphemistically about how Freddie “went to sleep”? If we’re trying to dispel fear, why have we returned to euphemism?

Finally, the “death is natural, so we should accept it” argument. I reject that. If we accept the argument that “death via aging is natural, and we should accept it and not fight it”, then we must also accept the following statements:

  • cancer is natural, so we should accept it and not fight it
  • the flu is natural, so we should accept it and not fight it
  • earthquakes are natural, and as human settlements are not natural, we shouldn’t bother building strong, quake-resistant buildings that will protect us, and should, rather, allow the natural quake to kill us in our unnaturalness
  • tsunami are natural, and as human settlements are not natural, we shouldn’t bother building our homes in places safe from tsunami or building tsunami defenses and creating evacuation plans in case of tsunami; nono, better to allow the natural tsunami to come and kill our unnaturalness

Now, I don’t know about you, but every reasonable person I know would reject those bullet points, especially in light of what happened in March 2011. Why, then, are we so accepting of the “death by aging is natural, let’s accept it” tenet? Death by aging is the single biggest preventable killer on this planet, but everyone just seems resigned to allowing it to happen. It’s madness, is what it is.

To better understand where I’m coming from, here is a TED talk by Aubrey de Grey, who has been researching aging, says it’s preventable, and argues that the first people who will live for 1000 years or more are already living among us. It’s about 20 minutes long, but do watch it, won’t you?

Furthermore, if we’re to believe author and futurist Ray Kurzweil says in his book The Singularity is Near (if you can get past his constant ranting against people who don’t agree with him) that we’re only about 20 years from the point where nanotechnology will assist us in achieving longer lives.

I understand that many of you will have bought into this “we all die, and we should accept it” idea long ago. I fully expect many of you will look at Kurzweil’s nanotech arguments and tell me that they’re pipe dreams, and if even possible, are still centuries off. I expect some of you will click through to de Grey’s Wikipedia page and see that his work isn’t recognized as being effective. Those are all valid criticisms, but smacks of “I don’t think it can be done, so why should anyone ever bother”-ism, which is terrible.

I then expect some of you will try to harp on about how “if we can live forever, what meaning does life have”. That’s another thing I reject. All we are are bundles of meat and fluids being used by genes trying to survive another generation. That, intrinsically, has no “meaning” in the deep sense implied. Any meaning we glean from our lives and the lives of others we create on our own using the meat in our skulls and the processes therein.  We create our own meaning in our own lives, and so having a long life need not be the “meaningless” trap these types of people claim it would be.

So yeah, from the creepy cult-vibe to the “let’s accept lots of terrible things and do nothing about them because they’re natural” bullshit, I find this story to be inappropriate for all ages in this day and age. Let’s stop acting like poor defenseless victims of fate and take control of our lives and our futures for a change. Let’s stop resigning ourselves to our terrible lots in life and do something about it.