Role Models and the Spiritual Self

Last weekend on the violinist.com website where I keep my violin blog, there was a poll: “Who is your musical role model?” The choices were: a teacher, a superstar, a fellow student, a colleague, or I have no role model. I had a hard time choosing between my violin teacher and a friend/colleague who passed away a few years ago. But, I went ahead and picked “a teacher,” which both then and today was narrowly the most popular choice, picked by ~40% of the respondents.

It no longer surprises me, but it still puzzles me, that “a superstar” comes in a close second. I have never really understood how superstars are supposed to work as role models: people one doesn’t know, probably will never know, and, unless one is uniquely gifted (I’m not), cannot reasonably hope to emulate. As a spectator or consumer, one can taste and enjoy what they bring to the world on special occasions, but my day-to-day life, at least, flows on without many ripples from superstardom.

Music is “just” a hobby for me though. I didn’t go to music school, and I don’t usually make money at music. I had industrial-strength performance anxiety until at least my mid-20s, and while it has gradually waned since then–after much effort to combat it on my part—it has never fully gone away. To me, performing on the violin, especially solo, is rather like eating quinoa, or like vigorous exercise. I know it’s good for me, and I’m always glad to have done it. But that’s only if you ask me after it’s over.

So maybe I just don’t get the appeal of the superstar role model on the violin because violin isn’t my passion and my everything. By profession, I am a PhD scientist and science educator. I care deeply about STEM education and about a scientifically literate public, and I want to see all students succeed, including students from diverse genders and cultural and economic backgrounds. So, what was my reaction when I saw this article this morning?

“Virginia student earns admission to all eight Ivy League schools, and others”

After reading and mentally processing the article, I am filled with admiration for this young woman. It’s a short article, but in it she appears to be gifted, hard-working, and humble. A woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, she has made the most of her opportunities, and she demonstrates an uncommon level of maturity and generosity. She’s clearly a superstar, and deserves admission to any top college in the country or in the world.

But my first reaction was still, “yikes!”

The yikes don’t have to do with this brilliant young woman herself, but rather specifically with the idea of her as a role model. Her principal calls her a “STEM superwoman.” Her guidance counselor is quoted as saying that the senior is “dedicated to pushing herself in the classroom . . . ‘she’s taking the hardest courses, the most challenging we offer’ . . .” And, her decision to apply to all 8 Ivy League schools is “not typically what we advise.” Some commenters say that we “need more” of students like this. Others want to know “how she did it.” Either way the implication is that others should read this article and emulate its subject. This superstar can be their role model.

Yet, I already know entire high schools worth of kids, kids from all different backgrounds and cultures, some privileged and some less so, who want, and who try, to be like the student described in this article. Who overload themselves with too many AP classes and too little sleep in order to gain that precious Ivy League acceptance. I have a teenager in one of these high schools now. Thirty or so years ago, I was one of them too (but back then the acceptance rate at my alma mater, Princeton University, was around 17%, not the 6.99% it was in 2015). There isn’t a shortage of teenagers trying as hard as they can, to be super. It’s just that most of them don’t succeed, at least not by this definition.

A few spaces in my Facebook feed down from the article about the Ivy League-bound student, I saw this one: Why kids who believe in something are happier and healthier. A little put off by the title at first, I read it anyway when a friend summarized the contents. The author, Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist, sees a lot of unhappy teens. She claims that over the past decade, up to 65% of teens have been shown to struggle with intrusive depression symptoms at some point, and often with anxiety and substance abuse as well. And this is especially a problem for the kids who should, theoretically, have the easiest chance for happiness: those who are economically well-off and whose parents provide them with opportunities and choices.

Her theory to explain this paradox is that “an increasingly narcissistic culture and the constant reward for achievement, whether on the playing field, the music stage or the math test, creates what I call in my book the unbalanced “performance self” of the child; a child who feels his or her worth is founded on ability and accomplishment.”

Her antidote to the unbalanced “performance self” is the development of the “spiritual self,” which she says is neglected in our culture. The spiritual self is not connected to any specific religion, or even to religion, per se. It is measured as a deep spiritual connection with a sense of a sacred world. It can be encouraged and fostered by steps such as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature, and modeled by such traits as caring for others, empathy, and optimism.

“In contrast to the performance self, the spiritual self is sturdy and resilient, happy at a win, but not dependent on it to feel worthy as a human being.”

Miller is writing generally here; this is her life’s work, and she has book coming out. But I couldn’t help but think specifically about music, the violin, and the role of the performance self vs. the spiritual self. Historically people came to music through the church, and music served a spiritual function, first and foremost. This is especially true for what we call “classical music” today, and for large parts of the violin, symphonic, and choral repertoire. Personally, its spiritual meaning is what drew me to this music, and is why I play the violin in the first place. Although I have been through several marked changes in religious and spiritual path along the way, the constant thread has been music. Music still makes me cry in embarrassing moments, mortifying my performance self.

It has actually taken me a long time to develop any kind of real performance self at all, and that which I do have is still fragile and easily injured. I regularly like to give the performance self a rest. Maybe it’s the introvert in me. I feel pretty content in this approach, at least for myself. But I still wonder, especially as I look at the suffering this imbalance between personal and performance selves seems to create in our culture, how music can help it heal.

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Cache Maintenance

The first geocache I ever placed was with my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop, back in the fall of 2009. Our family was kind of new to geocaching then, and our daughter, then in 5th grade, was still more or less excited about caching too. When I looked online for resources to share with the troop, I found that Boy Scouts at least were already into caching in a big way. They even had a geocaching merit badge, which we did not. Nowadays, I’m happy to report, there is a whole program called Geoscouting, and there is a Girl Scout merit badge too.

Trefoil Travel Bug
Trefoil Travel Bug

Back then, though, most of our Girl Scouts had never heard of the activity of geocaching before. But they brought GPSs to the meeting and all gamely traipsed around in the woods, which were kind of muddy that day. We started a trackable from that cache as well. It was a chain of trefoils, one made by each girl scout, and we hoped it could reach Girl Scout Founder Juliette Low’s home in Savannah, GA.

Five-and-a-half years later, the troop members are in high school, pursuing other interests. The trackable made it to North Carolina and then went missing somewhere in New Hampshire, but the cache lives on. Even it has had to move once because the original location turned out to be too near someone’s private property.

The American Girl Place log book. All wet.
The American Girl Place log book. All wet.

I read in the geocaching forums that a lot of scout-related caches are poorly maintained because both the scouts and the troop leaders move on to other things. This, however, is not one of those caches! It has 214 logged visits: some of them have been other scout troops, and recently it served as somebody’s first-ever geocache find. But people had started reporting the container was in bad shape, its lid was no longer latchable, and worst of all, the log book was wet. (I have to say, one of the things I hate most in geocaching is a wet, slimy, unsignable log book).

So, yesterday, my husband and I went out to fix the cache. At a geocaching event raffle a couple years ago, I won a cache container that I never used. Someone put a lot of work into making it camo and cache-ready. It had a fresh logbook, a nice ziploc bag, and even some new swag. I don’t usually launch real geocoins anymore; too many of them go missing, like the trefoils did. But I made a proxy for my 1000 finds geocoin, and launched that in this cache too. If you’re ever in the Boston area, come find it!

A new container for the GirlScoutTroop71915 cache
A new container for the GirlScoutTroop71915 cache

Talent Show Preparation

I was never in a talent show as a child. I’d heard about them, and even attended a handful, but overall I had a rather negative impression of talent shows. What I believed was that either the performances weren’t very good (if you were in the audience), or the experience was anxiety-provoking (if you were one of the performers). Why would anyone want to do that?

Read more at violinist.com

Feedback Fatigue

Bowen-knot-in-rope

There is something I don’t know
that I am supposed to know.
I don’t know what it is I don’t know,
     and I am supposed to know,
and I feel I look stupid 
     if I seem both not to know it
          and not know what it is I don’t know.

—Psychologist R.D. Liang, Knots

At the educational conference I attended this past weekend, we received lots of feedback. We gave feedback. There were handouts about how to do so in our binders. There was written daily feedback, oral feedback sessions, feedback on the feedback, and an online survey I still have to complete.

Well, here’s my feedback: I’ve got feedback fatigue.

Although my formal student days are in the past, I know I was a good student, and reasonably compliant in class. I have an Ivy League degree and a PhD. But I also know that underneath the placid exterior, I was not the happy little learning sponge that seems to be how good students are conceptualized these days. And I know I was never asked for this much feedback back then.

I think a renewed appreciation for feedback is mostly a good thing. As an educator, I don’t want to go along, blithely repeating errors or poor practices class after class, harming student learning without even realizing it. I think this happened too frequently in the past. For example, my science teacher in 7th grade spent most of his time sitting at his desk, while we students struggled alone through an incomprehensible student-directed learning workbook. Where was the feedback then? I think we all could have used some.

But these days it goes too far the other way. I can’t even get an oil change without being asked whether the cleanliness of the dealership where I took my car “exceeded my expectations.”

And, for me, there’s the rub: the expectation that I will have expectations.

Therefore I pretend to know it.
     This is nerve-wracking
     since I don’t know what I must pretend to know.
Therefore I pretend to know everything.

The last day of the conference involved the attendees dividing into groups and each group facilitating a shortened practice lesson for 30 minutes. I felt more nervous than everyone else looked, or acted, except for one other person (out of about 25 total), who was the only one who admitted out loud to being nervous. And the fact that we had to not only give each other feedback on our facilitations but also be self-reflective, aloud, about our own performance in the exercise, just increased that nervousness.

When we were not presenting, we sat in the audience, pretending to be the adolescents who will be our students when we go back home to teach the course on our own. Like my real adolescent self, I didn’t do anything very inspired to test the other facilitators’ classroom management skills. I just took out my phone once or twice and played a game on it until the facilitator asked me to put it away. But it was remarkable how quickly I slipped back into my old student mindset anyway. Back then I was a little anxious, usually, about how classes were going to go. I could almost always follow the teacher, and the main lesson, but the student social behavior tended to move too fast for me. Other students would be giggling or laughing or interacting behind the teacher’s back and I wouldn’t understand what was going on. This happened again, even in the present. I started to disengage a bit, as the words started to wash by and around me, too fast, and I had to bring myself back. To my delight, in this time and this place, I could.

I feel you know what I am supposed to know
          but you can’t tell me what it is
          because you don’t know that I don’t know what it is.
You may know what I don’t know, but not
          that I don’t know it,
and I can’t tell you. So you will have to tell me everything.

As a student, I was much like Liang’s narrator, insisting that someone “tell me everything.” But at this point in my life, much of my learning process involves trying to untie one or another of Liang’s knots. Rather than expectations, what I usually have are questions. What am I supposed to know here? Do I know it? Can I know it? If not, can I cope anyway?

The hard truth is that I will never know everything I don’t know. And you won’t either. I’m glad I did this workshop, because it helped me embrace this discomfort.

Looking forward to OWL Training

I’ve been teaching middle school science for about 2 years now, in non-traditional settings. I sort of fell into teaching the age group after applying for a high school AP Biology tutoring position and finding out that they needed someone to teach the middle school ages instead (roughly ages 11-14). Since then, I’ve not looked back.

But it is a remarkable, and unexpected, place to find myself at this point in my life. Even when I made a conscious career change out of research administration and into K-12 teaching, I was expecting to teach high school. I wasn’t sure of the subject–biology or chemistry, or both–but it would high school, preferably Advanced Placement.

And when I was middle school age, I was not particularly enamored of school. (Actually, that’s an understatement.) Based on my experiences, I had written off middle school science as a waste not worth further exploration. It was my wonderful high school teacher, Mr. Webb, who had turned me on to biology. I was ahead in school, and two years younger than my peer group. They were going through puberty and I wasn’t. At least that’s a short, easy, believable explanation of what the problem was. But as I talk to adults now, I have yet to find one who really liked middle school and felt comfortable there. Even in my misery, which seemed so unique and poignant at the time, I wasn’t unusual. Reading about the subject of middle school education can be a little harrowing: this interesting article about middle schools quotes one teacher calling middle school “The Bermuda Triangle of Education.”

While I have to admit, I have had students both break-dancing in the corner and climbing under tables (not at the same time), I haven’t been as daunted as I feared, or as given to hyperbole, even in private moments. I think maybe the fact that I remember that time so well in my own life gives me a little window into what’s going on in that of my students.

It’s in that spirit that I’m approaching OWL training this weekend. In this case, OWL stands for “Our Whole Lives,” it is a sexuality and decision-making program created and run by the Unitarian-Universalist Association.  I will be training to be a teacher of these classes at my UU church.

It’s a long way from science education in some ways, but not in others. My daughter went through it at our church a couple of years ago. I don’t if “enjoyed” is quite the right word for her experience, but I have seen her grow in maturity and thoughtfulness around all those issues. Parents aren’t allowed to teach their own children OWL, which is a good policy. I’m looking forward to being able to help the growth and maturation of other kids in the congregation.

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My first Thousand Finds

Recently my husband and I went on a geocaching trip to Washington, D.C. While I was there, I found my one-thousandth geocache. This got lost in the shuffle a bit, because the main event was my husband finding his ten-thousandth cache, and completing the Cache Across America series. That was the whole purpose of the trip, the reason we went. My husband ranks among the top ten geocachers in the state of Massachusetts.

The occasion made me think back to when we both started geocaching, back in late 2008. Back then it was just kind of a fun thing to do with the family, a way to get outside and see some local flora and fauna, and to hike with a purpose. We shared an account. And we helped our daughter’s Girl Scout Troop, Troop 71915, find and hide a cache of their own.

At the time he and I were more equal in our interest. I even sometimes found caches that he didn’t. I particularly remember one at an airport in Germany, where the rest of the family, following their geosense, were going to give up. But I followed the GPS, and, most importantly, looked at where we’d all been, unsuccessfully. And went a different way. I found it myself on the road less travelled.

In the intervening years, though, he’s gotten more serious about the hobby, and I’ve gotten less so. He started keeping statistics and lists, and completing challenges and goals. He didn’t let wasp stings, aliens, or his GPS ending up at the bottom of a river, deter him from these goals. But I did. For me, what had started out as fun became an unpleasant chore and a source of stress and even strife. I would occasionally tag along, grumbling, but then neglect to log my finds, deeming that a waste of time.

What I decided, on this trip, on the occasion of my thousandth geocaching find, was to try to change all that. I’d already given up anxiety for Lent, and decided I was going to shed this stress as well. Instead, I would embrace geocaching my way, without heavy-duty lists, challenges, goals, or stress. But what would be different this time? What would make the next thousand geocache finds better than the first?

I got the idea to blog from the last time I picked up a long-term project again after burning out. I re-started playing the violin several years ago as an adult, after not having played for a long time. It was hard to come back to it as an adult student, especially in an instrument learning culture that values an early start and has an obsession with prodigies. No cute little “Twinkler” on a fractional-sized instrument, I. But somehow, in writing about it, I was able to keep going, and enjoy the journey. Everywhere I looked, I found something new that helped me become a better violinist.

So that is my overarching goal for this blog: Geocaching as a metaphor for life. There are many ways to find what you seek. Just keep looking.

CAAMDKLA