Another farewell

Every year we farewell the year 12s with a valedictory dinner and a whole host of other celebrations. Because I teach at a senior secondary school we only have them for 3 years, and I don’t take year 12 classes, so I only ever teach them for 2 years at the most.

But they’re formative, those years. They lay the foundation for an almost unimaginable future. For growth, and change, and becoming someone new. Someone better. Those years together are the start of something significant. For me, at least.

Every class teaches me more than I thought possible. Every student changes me, and helps me grow into a richer, more complex human being.

We are all the sum of our experiences. Of our interactions. The people around us shape us every day.

How lucky am I, then, to be shaped by these extraordinary young people?

From the ones I travelled with, who made me so proud, and looked after me at least as much as I looked after them. To the ones who wrote every program in the craziest way possible.

From the ones who spoke up constantly in class with great enthusiasm, with amazing ideas and fresh perspectives, to the ones who spoke rarely but had extraordinary things to say.

From the one who nailed the subject without ever being able to come to class, to the one who made every function recursive, just to see if he could.

From the ones who pushed me to find a better explanation, to the ones who explained new things to me.

From the one who gave me a sonic screwdriver because he thought I’d looked down lately, to the one who gave me a Dr Who cookbook “because you just had to have it.”

From the ones who coded like maniacs before they ever took my class, to the ones who were meeting code for the first time and rose to the challenge with bravery and brilliance.

From the one who built drones to the one who built amazing websites.

Every one of them changed me, shaped me, and gave me the precious gifts of their attention, their enthusiasm, and their hard work.

We did amazing things together, and they will do far more amazing things without me.

They may not technically have been my students this year, but in my heart they’ll be my students forever. Some will stay in touch, some won’t, but I’ll always remember them. And some day, not too far away, I’ll hear what they’ve achieved and I’ll be as proud then as I am now to say “They are my students, and they’re extraordinary.”

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A place to stand

There’s a thing called the Holmes Rahe stress scale. It’s a list of life events – both positive and negative – and associated scores that gives you an idea of how much stress you are currently dealing with, and therefore how likely you are to get sick. Naturally it doesn’t include everything that could possibly be a cause of stress, but it’s an interesting exercise nonetheless. The associated research suggests that a score of over 300 leads to an 80% chance of getting sick in the near future. Last night I  calculated just the big stuff going on in my life at the moment, and found I scored 420.

When you factor in all of the things that aren’t listed on that scale – like lying awake at 4am trying to work out how you will persuade your demented, no-longer coping Mum into residential care when she has spent her entire life determined to avoid such a fate – my score should probably be a lot higher.

All that tension means that my temper is on a hair trigger. It’s easy to blow up over stuff that I know really doesn’t matter, though it drives me over the edge in a heartbeat. It’s important to remember that the reason I am so close to the edge may not be related to the thing – or person – that threatens to tip me over it.

The interesting thing about finding myself in this whirl of incredible stress is that it concentrates my mind wonderfully. I have no choice but to prioritise, and focus on what really matters. I can’t afford to be darting about, so I need to find the right place to stand.

I don’t want to waste time and energy on things that don’t matter.  Reasoned debate, and having my perspective challenged, is more important to me than ever, because when I get stressed I have a tendency towards tunnel vision. I value the friends who will challenge my views immensely.  But I’m finding that more and more debates, especially online, are not reasoned.

It’s hard to put my finger one exactly why, but there are “debates” that make my skin crawl. I find myself pushed into defending things that I did not, in fact, say, and lambasted over positions that other people are hypothesized to have taken. I get setup as the fall guy for whole segments of society with whom I am not actually associated, and who often don’t even exist. My words get twisted, and my ideas ridiculed. The goal is to win – to assert dominance – rather than to honestly debate ideas. We’ve all seen it. And we’ve all stood by and let it happen.

I recently complained privately about this behaviour on a mailing list, saying it was disappointing that the group didn’t call it out and make the mailing list a safer space. And even as I hit send, I realised that the group was merely a collection of individuals, and if I was going to complain about nobody calling it out, I didn’t have a leg to stand on unless I called it out myself. So I did.

It wasn’t easy. I was already under extreme stress, so the idea of picking another fight was literally sickening. After I sent my response I fretted that I was opening myself to more abuse at a time when my resilience was already at rock bottom. What I got, though, was an outpouring of support and measures to make the group less toxic in future. I wasn’t the first person this guy had bullied on this mailing list, but because I found my place to stand, I will be the last. I wish I had called his behaviour out earlier, when he was targeting others. There have been many times, I am ashamed to say, when I have stood by, shifting uncomfortably, unsure how to help without making things worse, while people have been rude, hectoring, aggressive, and unfair, towards others.

It’s hard, because if you challenge this behaviour, you become a target yourself. You get accused of being unable to handle debate, of being unwilling to hear a point of view that’s different to your own. You get called a snowflake, or politically correct, or fragile. And in a particularly brutal twist, you wind up accused of exactly the kind of behaviour you are standing against. You get told you are shutting down debate, overly aggressive, and horribly unfair.

The hard part is that it’s really hard to judge and quantify this stuff, and when your words are twisted you wind up fighting accusations based on things you didn’t even say. So you have to work hard to keep your eye on the ball, and not get distracted by the flying red herrings. You have to take a deep breath, get a sanity check, and make sure that everything you are saying is true to your own values. If you stay true to your values, you may misstep at times, but you need never be ashamed.

The greatest thing that can happen at this point is that someone backs you up, either publicly or privately, and calls bullshit on the slippery, manipulative twisting of your words. That twisting is a form of gaslighting, and can easily make you doubt yourself. So if you’re not keen to engage publicly, lest you become a target, the next best thing you can do is to support someone privately. When you’re being accused of all kinds of nastiness, to have an objective voice go “nope. you’re on the money!” can make all the difference in the world.

Edmund Burke is famously quoted as writing “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” When we ignore, excuse, or dismiss bad behaviour of any kind, we tacitly approve it. Whether privately or publicly, I think we need to take a stand. To draw a line and say “You don’t get to be rude or aggressive here. Debate ideas all you want, but only if you treat everyone with respect.”

I’m trying to be the change I want to see in the world. I fail a lot, but at least I know where I need to stand.

It’s not me, it’s you

We tend to think it’s easy to spot a bully, because bullies are big, evil-looking people who loom over you, shout at you, and flush your lunch down the toilet.

But sometimes, in the real world, bullies are softly spoken, reasonable sounding people who “really are only telling you this for your own good”. When someone takes you aside privately to offer you feedback, is it because they are offering you an opportunity to improve without publicly pointing out your faults, or is it because any discerning, impartial audience would instantly detect their words as the poisonously corrosive barbs they are, in fact, intended to be?

Sometimes bullies even feel like friends, at first. Right up until you become a little too outspoken, a little too successful, or the bully just has a bad day.

So that’s the conundrum: How is it possible to learn to differentiate between genuine constructive feedback, and criticism that is both false and malicious? That is, in fact, bullying?

I wish I had the answer to this one. The one, definitive answer that makes all the pain, all the self doubt go away once and for all. (Although, of course, with no self doubt at all we’d be ravening, arrogant, destructive monsters. A little balance would be a fine thing.)

Sadly I don’t think there is one definitive answer. I think that those of us who care about trying to be the best we can be are always going to be easy targets for the kind of people who want to defuse us by persuading us we’re not good enough.

But maybe there are tricks we can use to fight back. Not by bullying back – that’s a losing game from any perspective – but by choosing who we listen to rather more wisely. We all have people in our corner. But it’s easy to discount it when they tell you that you’re awesome. We can be too quick to say “She’s just being nice.” or “He doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.”

It’s easy to dismiss your supporters as being biased, while somehow accepting your bully as perfectly accurate. But here’s an important question: Who do you trust? If your bully and your best friend were each telling you the safest path to walk to get through a minefield, who would you believe?

Ultimately, that’s exactly what they are doing. Life can be a real minefield. And sometimes you need someone to guide your steps. Who do you trust to do that? Because those are the people we should be listening to. Not the bullies, the doubters, and the people who would feel much more comfortable in themselves if we were a little less successful. A little less irritatingly good at what we do. A little less of a threat to their self-esteem.

Here’s another way to look at it: How would it make your friend feel, to know that you don’t believe him? How will your bestie react if you tell her you think she’s lying to you? Ahah! Got you by the short and curlies now, haven’t I? What you won’t do for your own good, you will do for someone else’s sake. It’s a fair point though. Those people who are truly in your corner need you to be in theirs, too. Trust goes both ways.

So next time the turkeys are getting you down, ask yourself this: where does your faith belong? In the hands of those who would take you down, or in the arms of those who want to help you rebuild? Who do you really trust? And what would you tell them if the tables were turned?

The day the front fell off

I can’t bear the idea that John Clarke is gone. Goodness knows there is plenty in the world to be disturbed by, and I have been closing my eyes and breathing deeply and, I admit it, turning my face away from the news. But this – this death of a 68 year old I never met – this is what broke me.

John Clarke and Bryan Dawe had a way of taking our lives, our politics, our society, and lampooning them – with straight faces and the driest of wit – so that even the most rabid fan of a policy or faction could see its absurdity, its unfairness, or its incompetence.

I will never forget the hundred metre track from The Games. When we don’t want to answer a question around here, we always say “Not that I recall,” “not to my knowledge,”, or “can I have a glass of water?” They’ve made me laugh until I couldn’t breathe more times than I can possibly recount.

When world events were more horrendous than I could bear, Clarke and Dawe always gave me hope, because not only did they get it,  they could communicate it so clearly, so eloquently, and so incredibly wittily, that it seemed that it had to be obvious now, even to politicians.

Death and I are old foes. He has come too close too often. I have railed against him through long and desolate nights. I have been shattered by him unexpectedly, and I have seen him coming and been unable to dodge him. He has taken people close to my heart, and who knew me inside out. John Clarke didn’t even know I existed, but his death comes surprisingly close, because he meant more to me than I even realised until this moment.

Isn’t that the cruel irony of death? That sometimes in losing someone you suddenly know how much they meant – too late to let them know. I wish I had emailed, or tweeted, or written to him somehow. I suspect I’m not alone in knowing now, in this moment, sharply and painfully, how priceless he was, and how grievous a loss this is to our public life, and our understanding of the world.

John Clarke made the world a happier, more bearable, more intelligible place. He helped us understand it. He made us laugh. He made us think. He made us better.

Who could ask anyone for more?

 

 

 

When life hits back

On Friday morning I was excited to be heading to Geelong for a workshop on Diversity in Computing, as part of the Australasian Computing in Education Conference. I have dear friends in the Computing Education Research field, so stealing away from work to brainstorm how to increase awareness of, and interest in, Computer Science was great in itself – especially because I had huge respect for the stars running the workshop – but I was also going to catch up with friends. I was all set for a great day.

I’m not a fan of driving, for the most part. It’s a necessary evil, it seems to me, but since we got a hybrid driving has been much more fun, so I wasn’t even worried about the relatively tedious drive down the Geelong road. But as I cruised over the Westgate, having left early to make sure I beat the peak hour traffic, I suddenly realised that this was my first trip to Geelong since the day my Dad died, over four years ago.

God knows my dad and I had a complex relationship. By the time he died I would go so far as to say it was quite dysfunctional. His death was mingled relief and pain: relief that he was no longer suffering (his long deterioration from cancer had already been traumatic for years), pain that so much went unsaid. The day he died was pure shock.

My sister and I picked Mum up from Ocean Grove, where they had been when he died. He had gone for a walk and died in the street. Mum, who doesn’t drive, was stranded. So we gathered ourselves together, faced the practicalities, and raced towards her, where she sat comforted by a generous and kindly neighbour. I remember Tina Arena, Songs of Love and Loss, coincidentally on the car stereo as we drove down. I remember stopping for coffee at a really odd little drive-through coffee booth near Geelong station. I had chai tea, thinking I had had enough caffeine that day. I remember tears. Worries about the future, especially Mum’s future, and shock. So much shock. I don’t really remember much about arriving at Ocean Grove. I’m pretty sure we didn’t stay long, although I had packed an overnight bag just in case. In truth “packed” suggests a level of thought and planning that wasn’t possible. I had thrown some things into a bag that may or may not have been adequate.

I haven’t been to Ocean Grove since that day. I haven’t even been through Geelong. And even though much has changed – Geelong seems to have grown up somewhat, it is shinier, and more glamorous than I remembered – being there was a shock that I was completely unprepared for.

The morning was fine. I was catching up with friends, talking about work, brainstorming projects. A dear friend who, it turns out, believes in revenge gifting, gave me two very fine bottles of wine to take home with me. I was planning lunch with other friends, before a really great workshop.

But after lunch I felt ill. I thought maybe I had been glutened, but it was different somehow. I went to the workshop and halfway through felt an unbearable urge to burst into tears. For a moment there I was lost. I messaged a friend, scraped myself together, and it was ok.

But it was weird. I haven’t cried for my dad in years. In many ways the trauma of his passing was eclipsed by the trauma of the year before his death, which was truly horrendous. I cried for him. I miss him. But in many ways I miss the father I wished he could have been, rather than the father he actually was.

After the workshop I dropped two friends at the station, and in the middle of light and happy conversation we drove past that coffee place. By this time I was wise to what my confused brain was doing to me, so I was ok. But it was still a shock.

I was in the present, but I was unexpectedly back in that dreadful day at the same time. It’s probably just as well my car didn’t choose to play me any Tina Arena on the way home, or I’d likely have had to pull over and cry. I’m crying now.

Grief has a way of leaping out at you at unexpected moments. I try to be kind to myself when it happens, but the middle of a workshop isn’t really the right time. Sometimes it’s necessary to suck it up, and then write about it the next day with a divine glass of wine, as a form of therapy.

These are scary times. The scariest I can remember. But life goes on. And sometimes it gives you an unexpected beating. But there are workshops, passionate and dedicated people, and good friends with divine wine. There are people to hold you when you fall, and people who will come looking for you if you fall silent. There is hope all around, even when grief seems to be taking you down.

Some days life pushes us over, but we always have the option of pushing back. Push back. Hug your friends. And be kind to yourselves.

 

***this has been posted unedited, not even proof read, as a stream of consciousness grief reaction. It is as real as it can be. I hope it speaks to you. It helped me. You helped me, by being along for the ride.

Every single valedictory

Monday marks my sixth valedictory dinner. The sixth class of year twelves who will take a piece of my heart with them as they fly free into their amazing futures.

For my first valedictory dinner as a High School teacher I sang in a choir of people who felt more like friends than students. I couldn’t wrap my head around saying goodbye to them, even as I dwelt on their extraordinary potential.

It was impossible to imagine feeling that way about another class. They taught me everything about becoming a teacher, a huge amount about being human, and quite a lot about computer science – PhD or no.

Yet every year a new class enmeshes itself in my heart – winning my admiration, my trust, and my affection. I know teachers are supposed to be dispassionate – calmly objective observers of studentkind – but I can’t operate that way. Each new class has a claim on my heart like no other.

I don’t teach year twelve classes, but my year elevens are profoundly special to me, and I love seeing them around the corridors once they move on into year twelve, and finding out what they are up to. I always get teary when they leave. With any luck next year I will see them around Facebook, or when they come back and visit, so that I don’t really have to say goodbye.

Last year’s year elevens taught and challenged me in a host of new ways. They took on extraordinary challenges and produced amazing results. From the ones who were outspoken and passionate during class discussions to the ones who sat quietly, and when pressed would add just one well chosen but deeply insightful comment that sealed the debate.

From the ones who had been programming for years and took on the craziest problems, to the ones meeting programming for the first time who came away with astounding skills. Not to mention the one who wasn’t actually in the class but aced it anyway.

From the shy ones to the ones who are still seeking me out to talk to me about their projects. From start to finish, pass to high distinction, these are my people.

We shared insights into the nature of intelligence, and the need for privacy. We solved problems and questioned orthodoxy. We evaluated some amazingly unusable websites, and learnt new approaches to user centered design. We tackled real problems in computational science with some very bizarre data sets. And we gave variables some truly inexplicable names.

We stretched and challenged each other, and we laughed quite a lot. We searched, sorted, and danced our way through Computer Science and out into a wider understanding of ourselves, computation, science, and the world.

In just a few short days they will be done with school, and face the relentless barrage of those daunting exams, but whatever the outcome each and every one of them is a searingly bright star in the firmament of the world. Each and every one of them will light up the world in their own unique way.

Some of them will no doubt go on into Computer Science, and some won’t. But if they learnt as much from me as I learnt from them, they’ll have a great foundation for whatever they choose to do.

 

 

How much health can you afford?

Australians tend to be rather contemptuous of the US health system. We brag about universal healthcare, and deride a system that only provides care to those who can afford it. But our universal healthcare is being steadily eroded, as people are pushed into private healthcare.

I have a minor heart condition. For the most part it’s not an issue, but it has escalated over the past week or so and I felt pretty ordinary this morning. I called the Nurse on Call advice line, described my history and my symptoms and she calmly told me that I needed to get myself to an Emergency department. Now. She said if I couldn’t get there within 45 minutes I should call an ambulance. She was quite forceful about it. Unnervingly so.

So I told my husband and we scuttled off to the nearest public hospital. Where I stood in a queue around 6 people deep and waited for 20 minutes before even telling anyone why I was there. They took my history, checked the oxygenation of my blood, and then told me to talk to the clerk and give my details, and then sit down and someone would come and get me to do an ECG.

So I did all that. And I sat. And I waited. And I looked at all the people who had been there before me, who weren’t being taken in. And I reminded myself that clearly the oxygenation of my blood must have been ok, or they’d have rushed, right? (Although they hadn’t actually told me what it was…)

So I sat.

And I waited.

After one and a half hours I asked them if they had any idea how long it would be. They said “hopefully not long, now that we’ve got some more staff on. But we don’t know how long it will be before you actually see a doctor.” They looked harassed.

So I sat.

And I waited.

Meanwhile I was getting dizzy, and nauseous, as well as very aware that my heart was doing funky things. My heart.

So I bailed. I called the two nearest private hospitals with emergency departments and asked about their queues. One had a queue of 2 (there’d been a “bit of a rush in the last half an hour” apparently). One had no queue at all. So we went there.

Two hours later I had been tested, treated, fed, and sent home. Not two hours of sitting in the waiting room. Two hours of active treatment, compassionate care, and several interactions with nurses and a doctor.

Had I not been able to afford the private hospital, I have no doubt I would still be waiting in that public hospital 8 hours later. Likely in a bed in the emergency ward by now, but maybe not even having seen a doctor.

I was lucky. I am fine. But that whole scenario could have ended very badly.

My bank account determined my level of care.

Apparently being financially secure means I am worth looking after.

No.

My bank account does not determine my intrinsic worth as a human being.

The quality of my healthcare should NEVER be determined by my ability to pay.

People are worthy of compassion. Quality healthcare. Timely healthcare. And dignity. All people. Bank account status just should never appear in this context. We already have an education system that allocates opportunity and resources based on wealth. And it is so many levels of wrong I can’t even begin to cover it. But we are now moving faster and faster towards a health system that does the same.

We have to stop. Now. Malcolm Turnbull with his millions is worth no more as a human being then a homeless woman without a penny to her name.

Money should not determine the worth of a human life. Not now. Not ever.