The Question of Character

22 01 2016

A few weeks ago, Kaherdin’s class was slated to go on a rather sadistic field trip to an old sailing ship, the Balclutha, in San Francisco. The ship was built in 1886 and now serves as an on-the-water classroom for children to learn about such ships and about the difficult ways of sea faring life. I say sadistic because Gwen had the same teacher, Mike, and went on this field trip when she was in fifth grade. Danae acted as a chaperone, so saw first hand the “character building” activities that took place.

Once on the ship, children are not allowed to speak to or make eye contact with the chaperones. Chaperones are there solely for the purpose of maintaining safety (according to Danae, this did not prevent two children from walking off the ship unattended and into a public restroom in a San Francisco parking lot without telling anyone where they were going). If your child gives you a hug or blows you a kiss, for instance, they must walk around carrying a heavy bucket of water repeating, “I will not break the rules.” The chaparones and the children are also awakened at all hours to swab the deck, prepare breakfast or hoist the main sail, while the teacher sleeps comfortably and quietly in his private room. Gwen’s detail, swabbing the deck, had she and her group up in the freezing cold, swabbing the deck at two in the morning, which meant Danae, too was up, standing around in the cold not making eye contact with our child.

Not only is this field trip sadistic and expensive, but I believe that some of the lessons it sets out to teach fall short. Namely, character building. Take a bunch of wealthy Palo Alto children away from their comfortable homes and video games for one night and what does it accomplish outside of suffering for the sake of novelty?

We opted Kaherdin out of the trip. My boy subsists on hugs. I cannot imagine sending my little sugar coated introvert into such an environment and expecting him to get anything positive out of it. That day he stayed home with me running errands and having lunch on the beach. At moments, I questioned my decision to keep him home. Was I giving him the easy way out? Or was I taking a stand, protecting his sensibilities.

We came home and I asked him to help carry wood from the wood pile up onto the deck to stack in the rack. He did so gladly. The effort he exerted to pick up those large, dense hunks of eucalyptus and bring them, step by step, up to the deck caught my notice.

Character is not something you gain from an overnight field trip, it is something built from a way of life, a way of being, a code that is learned and passed down. In my adult life I have struggled with my own lack of strong character. I was raised to worry about what other people think and this left me unsure of my own values. So much of my life has been lived in reaction to or in anticipation of the perception of others. The voices of these others in my head has often overshadowed my own voice and, in many cases, has even caused me to act in opposition to those voices — much like a naughty child — to the point of acting against my own conscience. It has only been recently (the past few years) that I have truly been able to separate the voices of others from my own to the point where I have been able to clearly define my own values and peel back the layers to reveal what it is that I am made of.

One of the motivating factors of moving here, to the Santa Cruz Mountains, came from a realization that I had last year, while watching my kids slack off on the sofa. Even asking them to break away from TV or video games to come to the table for dinner was asking too much. They only did chores if they named the price for which they would work, and if they felt they had enough money for themselves, they would flat out refuse to do what I asked of them. I stood in the kitchen looking at my kids and realized that they lacked structure and guidance much in the ways I lacked such things when I was their age. Don’t get me wrong, as a child my physical needs were accounted for, but my mother admits now that she thought we would all be self-motivated and take care of ourselves. She, too, needed to raise her voice and threaten to get any of us to help out around the house. History was repeating itself on my living room sofa. This was a moment I have never heard any of my peers speak about, the uh oh moment when you realize that you’ve screwed up your kids. This was going to take a lot of undoing. For all of us.

Around the same time, the rains started. Danae, the kids and I were headed out to Santa Cruz when we saw a truck stopped in the middle of our road. At first I thought the driver wanted me to pull over so he could pass, so I pulled into the nearest turnout and waited. He didn’t move.

Danae said, “I think he has hay in the back of his truck. Maybe he lost a bale.” She got out of the car and went to see what was going on.

It was our neighbor, Dave Roberts. A huge oak branch had fallen and was blocking the road. Another neighbor (Chris?) pulled up behind Dave’s truck. At this point I got out of the car, too. Dave had the branch attached to ropes and had dragged it a short distance to a place where the branch could be safely deposited. Dave, Danae, Chris and I gathered all of our strength and lifted the branch to the side of the road. It felt good to help.

Dave thanked us for our assistance, then filled us in on the work he’d done on the road. The private, dirt road portion of Love Creek operates informally. Each of the fifteen houses pays a yearly maintenance fee to Dave based on where they are situated and therefore how much of the road they actually use. We are the first house on the road, so we pay the least. Bradd has the last house on the road, so he pays the most. Dave has the tractor and the know-how and does an excellent job keeping the road in good shape.

“I wanted to talk to you about something,” Dave said. “There is a culvert beneath the seasonal creek next to your house. We are all counting on you to keep that clear so we don’t have any problems this winter.”

Danae and I both said, of course, we would stay on top of that.

Dave was polite, but I could tell he was not really trusting what we were saying.

“I notice the seasonal creek has a bunch of branches and leaves in it. It needs to be cleared out. If we get a lot of rain, that stuff will wash right down and block the culvert, flooding the road, and then we’ll have big problems.”

“OK,” Danae said, “we’ll clear it out and make sure it’s in good shape.”

We made our good byes and went on with our day. That afternoon it started to rain. Danae put on her mucking boots and went down to the culvert. When I came out to join her, she said it looked good. Nothing was blocking it and water was draining from the culvert down to Love Creek. We felt satisfied.

A couple of weeks went by, as did several rainy days, but now a big storm was coming. I was home and it was raining when the phone rang. It was Dave.

“First of all,” he said, “I want to wish you a happy new year.”

Suddenly I felt like I had been called to the principal’s office.

“Happy new year to you, as well,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Well,” Dave continued, “I wanted to see if maybe we had a misunderstanding.”

“About what,” I asked.

“Well, you said you would clean out that creek and I still see a bunch of branches and leaves.”

“Oh, no worries,” I said, “Danae went out and checked, the culvert is clear. Everything is fine.”

His voice became a little more frantic, “If we get six inches of rain, all of that will break loose and if that creek floods, it could wash out the road.”

I paused. “So you’re saying it needs to be cleared back quite a bit.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve never been on your property, but I can see a little bridge going across the creek. It should be cleared back to there.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, it looks as though that creek hasn’t been cleared out in decades.” Which was true. Beyond the bridge that he was speaking about, and beyond the second bridge up by our water tank, there is so much debris that you can’t even tell that there is a creek there. I had wondered if clearing this creek was something we should do. It was something I’ve wanted to do, if only because it would look nicer. It just hadn’t been on the priority list. Until now. I could hear myself trying to lay the blame on Joanne for a total lack of maintenance on the property.

Dave was silent.

“I have to go to the post office,” I said, “and when I get back I’ll start working on it.”

“I can help you,” he said. “I can come whenever I have time and we can work on it together…”

“That’s sweet of you to offer,” I said. “Dave, you have my word, I will do this today.”

There it was, laid out on the table, I had given my word. Never in my life have those words left my mouth. Sure, I’ve made promises and such, who doesn’t, but somehow giving my word felt serious, more formal. It felt amazing. A new way of being and perceiving. Personal responsibility.

I skipped the post office and went straight into the bedroom and changed into some work clothes. I put on a rain slicker and my waterproof hiking boots, gathered a pitch fork and a shovel and set to work. I had never been IN the seasonal creek. There were a lot of leaves and twigs, which I cleared and tossed over the banks of Love Creek (Dave said it was fine to do this as detritus builds over time to create land). I threw branches like javelins toward the road as I worked my way back in the creek. The bigger branches (oak mostly) I stacked in one of our parking spaces to break down into fire wood. I got back to the point where there was a pool of water beneath a waterfall where I dug up the brain case of a large animal. The work felt good, as did keeping my word. I found myself working harder, wanting to get the job done before the next time Dave drove by.

There are so many things we take for granted in the suburbs — road maintenance, natural gas lines, water (not only the supply of it being continuous, but also the filtration and treatment of it). Our biggest responsibility if a tree falls in the road in the suburbs is to call someone and tell them to come and take care of it. Here, our one lane road is private property, and therefore our responsibility. We all generate our own water through wells and springs. If we use propane, it is stored in tanks that need to be filled and maintained.

I had to get out of the creek and approach from behind the waterfall. I got the chainsaw, which I had never powered up cold on my own before, and fired it right up. It felt amazing. I walked down toward the creek and had a sudden overwhelming feeling of embarrassment when I realized that the branches Dave had been referring to were not from Joanne’s neglect, they were from the dead wooding of the redwoods that we’d had done a couple of months before. I began sawing the larger branches into smaller pieces that I stacked to dry out for next year’s firewood. I managed to clear all of the branches over the creek and cut wood until the chainsaw ran out of fuel. I had cleared the creek back to the first bridge. I was cold, wet and sore, but I felt great having gotten it done. I walked up higher to the second bridge to survey my work and to see what more could be done another day. With all the rain we had gotten I decided to put my ear up to the tank to hear if there was even a trickle coming from the spring, which had dried up days after we moved in. There was more than a trickle, the spring had sprung! I screamed out in delight and immediately texted Danae to let her know that our days of sucking 4-5 minutes out of the well 2-3 times a day were over. The water tank was literally overflowing into the seasonal creek. We would celebrate with long showers.

Kaherdin’s teacher, the one who takes the kids on the overnight field trip on the ship, is someone who places great emphasis on character and personal responsibility. This is, in part, due to the tenets of an Ohlone Education, but Mike has always taken it just a little bit farther, perhaps spending more time on the subject and broadening the kids’ mindfulness through exercises in conflict resolution (part of every day’s afternoon class meeting) and in teaching the kids to try and understand and be accepting of differing opinions. It is the depth of the social/emotional training that Kaherdin receives at Ohlone that made me not want to transfer him over to San Lorenzo Valley right away. We watched Gwen languish through elementary school with issues of bullying and being teased, only to take off like a rocket in middle school largely in part to Mike’s compassion and attention to her specific needs (both social and academic). If you were to ask me the first thing I admire about Mike, I would say his strength of character. That is why it was not only shocking, but heartbreaking last week to learn that he had been arrested for sexual assault on a child (stemming back to one particular child — his then girlfriend’s daughter — ten years ago). There are many pieces to the story that don’t add up to those of us who know, or think we know this man.

The allegations surfaced a year and a half ago, when the alleged victim told her story to her therapist, who then was obligated to report the story to authorities. I’m sure Mike was notified and questioned repeatedly during the past 18 months. I had commented to Danae at the beginning of the year that Mike looked weathered, older, burdened. He was struggling with the accusations privately, as was his way — never sharing too much of his personal life — up until the day he told the class he was going home sick at lunch before quietly driving himself to the police station to self-surrender.

The response from the community, as anyone can imagine, is mixed. Some are reserving judgment, understanding that false allegations are not uncommon, and are poised to wait and see what the justice system brings forth. Others have rushed to judgment out of fear (and likely fueled by the superintendent’s inappropriate and inflammatory personal editorials on the subject). The incident has only deepened my examination of the subject of character.

How we, as a community, treat this situation, sets the example for our children. Seeing some rush to the assumption of Mike’s guilt contradicts one of the tenets of our society’s legal system, innocent until proven guilty. Rushing to judgment due to the superintendent’s inflammatory e-mail and/or the media’s sinking it’s fangs into the story gives the illusion that real lives are not at stake here, that this is just a series of episodes in a low level reality TV show.

For those who are so quick to condemn, I ask this question, what if it were you who stood accused of the very same actions? I can hear the response, “But that’s ME. I would never do those types of things.”

As far as I can tell, neither would Mike.

And while the details and testimony remain to be seen, I still wonder what the point is in leading a life of integrity and leading children through the example of strong character and personal responsibility if, in a heartbeat, one person can point a finger and suddenly all of that is forgotten in favor of believing the worst.

I cannot control what others think or feel, but I can discuss this subject with my children, who are heartbroken and believe wholeheartedly in Mike’s innocence. Do I want to put two people in the world who are fearful and suspicious? Or do I want to put two people into the world who trust their instincts and judge a person based on what that person has shown them? I choose the latter. I would rather bet on the horse that I know. And I would rather my children be raised in an environment of compassion and not fear. If Mike were put back in the classroom tomorrow, I would put both my kids there without question. As the parent support counselor said, these allegations do not negate the relationship you or your children had with this man, nor do they negate the fact that he was an amazing teacher.

In a parent support meeting this week, there was one parent who talked of how her son has been repeatedly let down by the men in his life. This was just one more time. Another mother said her daughter has said she never wants anything to do with Mike ever again. This mother went so far as to say that the school should not put another male teacher in Mike’s place because it would be too traumatizing to her daughter. These women are prime examples of parents who have tainted their children’s world view. Did Mike let the first mother’s son down? If the accusation proves to be false, then no. But if she is flavoring this experience in that way, he stands to always feel let down and abandoned by Mike, regardless of the legal outcome. As for the second mother (who I think was in danger of getting jumped in the parking lot by several of us for her negative and inflammatory comments), the conclusions that she attributes to her daughter are, in fact, her own. No ten year old comes to that place without being coached that Mike is 100% guilty. I feel sorry for these kids. The entire class is in shock and mourning. We, as parents, should be helping them through this difficult time, leading them gently through examples of how to behave as a community and as a society.

The one mom who would have us avoid all males as teachers since, according to her, they may feel suspect to her daughter, fails to consider the message that might send to our sons. I almost feel as though it might be more important to put a male in the classroom in order to negate that way of thinking.

Unlike the Balclutha, this is not a field trip. This is not pretend, but it is an exercise in character. These are the moments that build a life. Fear and avoidance, anger and outcry. Compassion and patience, intuition and understanding. Which way would you choose?







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