Field notes: A pay-it-forward economy


Motorcycles are everywhere here, and the majority of them are business vehicles.  Every medium-size business- grocery stores, pharmacies, schools, McDonald’s- has a delivery guy and courier, a necessity since there’s no postal service.  Add to that the motoconchos that serve as mid-range public transportation and you have probably a third of the vehicles on the roads.

They’re all men, by the way.  The reason they’re all men is that there are gangs entirely funded by motorcycle theft.  It’s as easy as walking up to a motorcyclist at a red light and holding a gun to his head.  Women drive enclosed vehicles or, sometimes, dinky scooters.

It’s not infrequent to find two motorcycles driving quite close to each other.  Since the delivery guys are frequently young men, they engage in exactly the kind of heart-attack-inducing pedestrian-threatening insurance-rate-doubling behavior you might expect, and some that you wouldn’t.  Racing up and down the street doing wheelies? Swerving around little old ladies on their way to church? Launching themselves airborne over speed bumps and potholes? Going Evil Knievel without helmets on the public highway? Check, check, check, por supuesto.  As the kids say, YOLO.

But there’s a fraternity among these chaps.  They’re all colleagues, more or less.  They’ll cruise alongside each other for a chat.  They’ll hold up twenty cars at a green light to shout hello to a guy on the opposite corner.

And sometimes, if one of them is running low on gas or struggling to get up a hill or having trouble getting his motor started, another guy will give him a push.

This works kind of like an inverse V of geese.  Instead of drafting off the front rider, the pusher gets behind him at an angle, his front wheel lined up to the left of the other guy’s rear tire.  Then he sticks out his right foot behind the guy’s passenger footrest and accelerates.

The two drive together like that for a while, locked in perfect formation, until the front motorcycle is up to a good speed.  Then his helper hollers out a goodbye and speeds off.

It’s one instance of a broader kind of generosity that’s built into the culture here.  If I have three bunches of bananas, I’ll give a sack-full to whoever’s passing by, and all the neighbors will eat well.  If I need 100 pesos, you give it as a gift, not a loan.  There’s an understanding of interdependence: I’ll help you out when you need it, knowing that my turn will come around some day.  It’s a kind of pay-it-forward economy, an informal market of favors and goodwill, that ties communities together.


I have an issue

Forgive me.  I have to get political.

There’s this phrase, “single-issue voter”.  There are people who decide who to vote for based on a candidate’s position on one particular topic.  Sometimes they’re simply deciding who to vote against, without considering who and what they’re actually voting for.  That’s true to a historic degree in this presidential election, when we have the two most disliked major party candidates ever.

I’m not naming names- yet.  My problem with this approach is more general.  People who call themselves single-issue voters are one of two things:

They’re lazy.

If there is anyone out there who really looks only at a candidate’s position on one particular issue, then they’re just being lazy.  More than that, they’re being foolish.

God put this brain in our heads that’s capable of doing computations far more complex than any computers we have built, and He means for us to use it.  We ought to weigh all sides, take many variables into consideration, and judge wisely.  If we try to avoid the work of exercising sound judgment by redefining the problem to a single issue, preferably one that’s most convenient or interesting or beneficial to ourselves, we are being inexcusably lazy.

The only other explanation is

They’re not single-issue.

If you reduce the problem of choice to one criterion, you are taking a position about every other issue: namely, that they don’t matter.  You’ve taken a glance at a candidate’s stance on other issues and decided they’re not wrong enough to make you a two-or-more-issue voter.

But it’s possible to prioritize an issue more than it deserves.   If you can listen to a candidate promise genocide or nuclear winter and still make, say, NAFTA your single issue, you have some really messed up priorities.  If you care more about defending a particular tax break than about children dying, you should seriously consider the condition of your soul.

Of course the choices are more complicated than that.  But if you know that there would be a line somewhere where you would no longer be a single-issue voter, then you never were a single-issue voter.  You were simply saying that the other issues were not as important to you.

Our priorities are not neutral.

The issues we prioritize are not morally neutral.  Some things really are more important than others.  I’m just going to boil this down to the elementary Sunday school level.  This is the order:




First, you obey God.  Then, you care for your neighbor.  Last, you look out for your own welfare.  You can argue about the relative importance of issues within a category, and you can even see an issue as falling on more than one level.  But if you’re ambivalent about religious liberty or racial discrimination and make the estate tax your single issue?  I seriously doubt Jesus is cool with that set of priorities.

Disagree wisely

I have seen some truly awful justifications, by professing Christians, for their voting choices.  I obviously have some opinions.  You do, too.  Christian liberty means that we might disagree.

But for heaven’s sake, family, let’s be honest and not be lazy.  Let’s do our duty as dual citizens of this world as well as the one to come.  Do your research.  Be honest about how you’re weighing your options.  Reason faithfully about what you make your priorities.  Have good reasons.

Because my heart

I can’t write.  My heart hurts.

I must write. My heart hurts.

I don’t know if all writing lives on the corner of these two streets, but I suspect it’s true of the writing that matters.  Writing is surgery, the kind of have to perform on yourself without anesthetic in the most drastic of circumstances, the kind you have to get through or die.  There’s a reason so many writers say writing fast is the only way to write.

I have not been writing fast.  I have not been writing at all. The little daily hurts, the news,  the mundane disappointments, the spiritual paper cuts, build up and fester without writing.  They mildew like the spoons that get tossed one by one into the office sink.  I skip writing for one day, and four months later, I find myself going mad.

Then I remember that the only way out is through.  I have to write.

I have to write because my heart is full of the names of the murdered, all the hashtags that should never have been.

I have to write because my heart is longing for my students who suffer because their parents will not see them.

I have to write because my heart is glad in the moments of laughter I want to share.

I have to write because my heart is an unfinished thing.

I have to write because my heart is aching to connect.

I have to write.

American educational reform: A dialogue

The “failing public schools” narrative is literally older than I am.  It never dies.  Sometimes it gets a boost from clueless billionaires in Silicon Valley who think they can pay to make the world fit their conception of reality.

Quick summary: The US is not falling behind Finland or China or Estonia in any meaningful sense.  The PISA test is just a test.  And when you correct for childhood poverty, the US hops right back up into the top of the rankings.

What we actually have is an equity problem.  We have a system that adds to the disadvantages poor and minority students face rather than compensating for them. “IT’S POVERTY AND RACISM, STUPID” would be my campaign slogan when I run to replace John King as Ed Secretary. (Yes, I know that isn’t how it works.)  There’s a whole lot of evidence for that.  Actual research from people who know what they’re talking about.

But reformers don’t like that message. They also resent the implication that money and good intentions doesn’t qualify them to override the professional opinions of, well, professionals.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Teachers aren’t considered professionals, and teaching isn’t regarded as a profession – that is, a bundle of knowledge and skills that are not innate or common to everyone but which take work to acquire and can be expanded with study.  And although the comparison is tired, it’s true: doctors don’t get treated this way.

For example:

Doctor: You are experiencing these symptoms because you have cancer.  You need chemo and radiation.

Patient: I have heard antibiotics are good.  Give me antibiotics.

Doctor: Antibiotics are not going to do anything to help. You have cancer.  You need chemo and radiation.

Patient: Chemo and radiation are expensive. Antibiotics are cheap.  Give me antibiotics.

Doctor: It would be malpractice for me to give you antibiotics.  You do not have a problem that antibiotics will help.  Your problem is cancer.  You need chemo and radiation.

Patient: I will pay you extra if you cure me with antibiotics.

Doctor: You can’t bribe me to change how medicine works.

Patient: Give me antibiotics or I will get you fired.

Doctor: Threatening me isn’t going to change the diagnosis or the treatment.

Patient: You’re a lazy doctor and a parasite on society.

Doctor: And you still have cancer.  I’m just rapidly losing interest in continuing to try to help you with that.

Patient: Stop making excuses and fix my illness.

Doctor: My treatment plan is chemo and radiation.

Patient: A good doctor would be able to cure me with antibiotics.

Doctor: (leaves medicine to work a cubicle job where she never has to deal with people)

Faith, Hope, and Grit

I listened to an episode of Radiolab about American football (the only real football). In the back half of the episode, they examined the declining enrollment in youth sports. In calling up coaches, they heard a recurring theme:

“You can’t just hit reset.”

Coaches were saying that kids won’t play if they can’t win. It’s not like a video game, they said, where if you’re losing, you can start over. Teams that don’t win have a hard time getting and keeping kids.

I felt like I had heard this story somewhere before. Kids don’t stick it out when things get hard. Hmm. I swear there’s an educationish reformy word for this.

There was also an interview with an 8-year-old kid, who rejected the entire model of winning and losing. Playing is for fun, he said. Winning and trophies was just for people to be bullies.

I started considering whether this growing mindset is really a bad thing. Do we still live in a world where sticking it out when you’re losing is an important lesson? Continue reading

I don’t believe in Superman

Most of the teachers in our school are trying something new this week.  Some of our teachers are new to our school, so everything seems new.  Some of our teachers were members of our senior class two months ago, which is alternately exciting and terrifying.  (ESL instructors with basic English fluency are really, really hard to come by.)  Many of us are dealing with brand new curriculum, books that only just arrived or that may not arrive until a few weeks after class starts.

We’ve only been back for four days, but it seems like a lot of people are at some stage of this script:

Act I: “I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Act II: “It’s going to work.  I think.”

Act III: “It’s going to work!”

Continue reading


“I knew he meant us!” cried Demi, clapping his hands. “You are the man, and we are the little gardens; aren’t we, Uncle Fritz?”

-Little Men, Louisa May Alcott

I left the Dominican Republic for three weeks this summer.  Before I left, I tried to set my affairs in order.  I prepared the church musicians, cleaned my room for anyone who needed my bed, and handed my garden over to Aneudy, who works the cassava and plantains and fruit trees in the same field.

“There are a lot of tomatoes,” I said.  “You’ll probably have to pick them every other day.”

When I got back, a basket full of bright red fruit attested to Aneudy’s faithfulness.  “Aneudy was out picking tomatoes every day,” my host mom informed me, adding, “and he kept asking, ‘When is Rebecca coming back?'”

Assured of the health of my little plot, I waited another day before I went to check on it.

There were tomatoes.  There was pruning to be done. And there was also an 8-foot dead plantain tree lying across the entire row of tomato plants.

* * * * *

After nine months of cultivation, I sent my students out into summer vacation in June.  I’m getting them back in a little more than two weeks.  I’m nervous about what I’m going to find.

A large proportion of my students went to homes with physical comforts.  Few of them will be worried about hunger.  I’m not likely to lose any to violence, deportation, or serious diseases.  They will be physically safe.

But I also know some of them will be, more or less, left in the care of the internet or their gaming consoles.  Some of them will be left in the charge of nannies and won’t see much of their parents.  Some of them are going back full-time to families where there are significant tensions between relatives, unstable relationships, no clear authority, and no real emotional security.

Many of them are going back to environments where there are few books besides a Bible and no opportunities to use English.  They may not have enough paper to “waste” on mere expressive writing or drawing that isn’t for an assignment- it simply isn’t a spending priority.  They probably do not have parents who read voluntarily in any language, and probably not to them.

My little garden of readers and writers is going to need some TLC when I get it back.

* * * * *

God seems to like the garden metaphor.  He put Adam and Eve in the middle of one and told them to tend it.  Turns out, rebellious humanity doesn’t make good gardeners.

Jesus, seeing a crowd of Samaritans coming through the fields to see him, tells his disciples, “Look, the fields are white for the harvest.”

Jesus tells us that God is a gardener who prunes the Vine’s branches.  Paul shows us how we Gentiles have been grafted into God’s people, and how the Spirit makes the branches bear fruit.

The command that keeps coming up, over and over, in this season of my life is the prayer Jesus told us to pray: Ask the Lord of the harvest to send more workers.

I’m delighted to see my little church, not so little now, gaining momentum in sending out workers.  While I was back in Illinois, I got to meet brothers and sisters with their eyes set on secular Europe, Latin America, and Asia- and the little villages and neighborhoods closer to home.  So I keep praying: Send more gardeners.  Send more people who will love and tend your plot faithfully.  Bring in the harvest Jesus died to purchase.

Change of seasons; season of changes

I go back to work in two more days.  That is to say, I go back to working in the school building during prescribed hours.  I don’t think I’ve stopped working for more than a few waking hours at a stretch during the entire summer (not even on days I resolved to Take A Break).  I can’t seem to help it; my brain goes there.  Teaching is what I love to think about.

I’m excited to go back.  I’m itching to go back.  I considered calling the building to see if the groundskeeper would let me in a few days early, but that seemed excessive, so I’m still working from home: reading, planning, creating documents, designing posters…

I know not every teacher feels like this.  I know I may not always feel like this.  This will be my second year of classroom teaching, which makes it the first time I get to come back from summer vacation since I was a student myself.  The novelty might wear off.  The annual chance to start fresh might start to blend with all the other years.

But right now, I’m pumped.  Psyched.  Enthusiastic beyond all reason.  Here’s why.

Continue reading

Because of #ILA15: Takeaways and Bringbacks

I acquired a lot of new information at the ILA convention.  I acquired approximately five metric tons of books at ILA, too.  My heart was fed and my enthusiasm rekindled.

And if I were content with that, ILA would not be complete.  It’s great to get inputs; I’m a fan of Twitter chats, nerd camps, good books, coffee klatches, and research.  We need those.  We need to take in information from other people.

But rather than recap my ILA takeaways, I want to give some of my ILA bring-backs.  I want to talk about some changes I’ll make in my practice because of what I experienced at ILA. Continue reading