A personal essay is a non-fiction creative writing essay in which the author utilizes the perspective of personal experience to articulate larger themes (in traditional literary criticism, such themes were once termed “universal”). A personal essay focuses on the perceptions and feelings of the author and uses these to reflect upon subjects such as nature, politics, history, culture, and literature. The personal essay derives its impact from the integration of individual and universal considerations. This integration allows the reader to explore the unity of human experience.
Educators have spent a good deal of time over the past few years thinking about (and wringing their hands over) the future of schools and education. We’ve focused mostly on technology, on the distribution of scarce economic resources, and on the changes wrought by an increasingly strategic and business-like approach to teaching and learning. We now have innumerable educational startups, alternative funding models, and methods of supporting or subverting (depending on your point of view) corporate interests. We’ve wrangled with these issues online, in our communities of scholarship, and in the public sphere. And we all agree on one thing: education is due for serious renewal and reinvigoration. But what that looks like is anyone’s guess. We just don’t know how the changes that lie before us will play themselves out, and this fundamental uncertainty has us either grappling toward a vision of total transformation or reaching back toward vanishing modes and practices (depending on your point of view). We are well and truly at sea.
Addictions are pervasive. They are perhaps the most common human frailty. My work involves helping people navigate the complex landscape of addictions, helping them find pathways forward by finding what lies behind addictions (mental health or developmental challenges, typically). Much of this work involves organizational and community development: schools, social service agencies, and community organizations are all grappling with new and scary addictive behaviors and consequences.
I spend a great deal of time with two kinds of people: teachers and students. In some ways, these two groups are at opposite ends of the continuum of learning. Sure, teachers and students co-create and share the environment of learning; but what I hear from each group is different. Students (of all ages) talk about the many ways in which the learning environment fails to meet their needs. Teachers, on the other hand, tend to talk more about how to preserve and nurture that learning environment. In this sense, both groups are working toward the same goal: to make the learning environment useful and purposeful. But I find that they have radically different notions about how to accomplish this goal. Students want to deconstruct and rebuild the system; teachers want to preserve and enhance it. Students want more autonomy and service from teachers and institutions; teachers want more commitment and loyalty from students. Students demand new technologies; teachers are (or they tend to be) anxious and suspicious about new technologies. Students yearn for more intensity and risk in their learning; teachers seek more safety and structure. Sometimes I wonder if these various impulses and aims are inherently complementary or fundamentally contradictory.
After a public presentation on addictions, a mother approached me, in that familiar way — hushed, conspiratorial, a sliver of shame buried in the hopefulness of her manner — and asked me what she can do about her son. Her boy is fifteen, plays online games for countless hours each week, hides himself in his locked room, screams at her when she tries to enter, seldom attends school, and seems to be sliding ever farther from her. She is terrified that he will simply forget everything and everyone, will become a ghost, and will disappear. She has heard these stories, and the many others that twist within her. And she is terrified. But she knows that most people will blame her for what has happened — her parenting must be at fault, they will say — so she downplays, even to herself, the seriousness of her son’s predicament. She tells me about her family coming here from abroad, when her son was seven, and his subsequent struggles at school. She wonders if this might have played a role in what has happened. Possibly it has. Not only the exodus itself, which must have been terrifying for them all, but what came before and after: the tension and suspicion and hiding, then a long and uncertain journey, then a new culture, clashing values, poverty. Yet if they had not come, if they had not fled on motorcycles at night across the mountains, into a safer country and then across the sea, that boy would now be dead, or in prison with the rest of the family, or an expert, by now, in the firing of rocket propelled grenades.