Sunday, June 26, 2016

Building rasied beds... and confidence

"I've never been proud of anything I did in school before."

That's what one of our students said after he finished building and planting his raised bed full of herbs. It was part of new program we hope will help students learn self-confidence and science while earning credits so they can graduate on time. We call it the Depot Garden Project, and it is being funded in part by a grant from the E. O. Smith Foundation.

It started Wednesday at 9:00 am. I'd enrolled 9 students in the program, but I knew two were out of state, and I expected some no-shows. In fact, I would have considered it a success if only 3 had come the first day, so I was excited when 5 students showed up. They weren't quite sure about this whole learning-over-the-summer thing, and at least one student was just a little bit grumpy, but it's amazing what a little productive work can do!

We had to build the beds out of 2x12s, and that turned out to be tougher than expected. The decking screws went in hard, and the nails were not much easier, but students did most of the work. Amber and Kim worked together and built their own 4x8 foot box all by themselves, and Gabe built his own as well.

Meanwhile, the others had to move a few of the old beds, and I showed them how to dig them a bit below grade with an edging spade.

So far so good, but the real labor-intensive part was still ahead. Rick, the owner of Milrick Lawn Service and Garden Center and mentor to two of our students this year, had dropped off a big pile of beautiful, dark topsoil on Tuesday. All 3.5 yards were sitting there waiting to get moved into the beds, and it looked like our labor was about to get much more laborious. When we pulled out our wheelbarrows, they both had flat tires. I wasn't looking forward to moving all of the soil by the shovel-full, so while Ellen and I wrapped up the installations, Shannon took the students out to buy their plants... and a tire pump.

They returned, excited to get started planting their herbs, vegetables, and flowers, and hungry for lunch. There would be burgers and hot dogs on the grill, but not, we told them, until the boxes were all filled with soil. A friend of one of our students finished filling the tires with his compressor, they all grabbed shovels, and the boxes started filling up. There were a few times when I was the only one loading a wheel barrow, and I had to "encourage" them a bit, but by 12:30 or so, the boxes were all full to the brim. It was a great opportunity for learning some work ethic and perseverance.

After lunch and a quick lesson on planting and fertilizing, they each got to work planting their own raised bed. By the time they were done, you could see how proud they were.

I think that, built into our DNA, is a kind of biophilia--a love for living, growing things. There's something refreshing about tucking fresh green plants into the soil, but I also think there was more to their excitement than that. They had worked hard and had something to show for it--a real success, and a practical, beautiful, real product. Many of them called their parents over, when they arrived to pick them up at 2:00, to show off their work.

Next week, they'll design scientific experiments that they'll carry out on their gardens, and we'll learn more about fertilizer and lime. This will be the lab portion of their online biology course.

What better way to earn some credits: practising grit, doing science, growing  our own healthy food, and getting some confidence-building small wins under our belts?

And speaking of small wins: This was our first step toward what I hope will continue to grow in the future--rich summer programming for our students!

P.S.: We hope to produce some salsa and put up some veggies and herbs for use by the Depot Kitchen Crew next year. Stay tuned for a post dedicated to this year's awesome Kitchen Crew.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Coffee with Mara: Facing our feelings, failures, flaws and fears

In Buddhist tradition, there was this evil god named Mara who used to try to get Buddha caught up in negative thoughts, desires, and emotions, like shame and fear.

But Buddha knew fighting this guy was just falling into his trap. He knew the way to peace was radical acceptance--just accepting things as they are, without judgement, so he took a radical approach to Mara's attack. He said, "I see you, Mara," pulled up a cushion, and invited him to sit down for a cup of tea.

I've been having lots of encounters with Mara lately. He showed up this past Thursday, when I read over the end-of-the-year student surveys. Feelings of failure and inadequacy welled up inside me as I read some pretty nasty comments mixed in with hard-to-hear, but true, feedback. The last couple of days, the issues were different, but shame, judgement, and fear still swirled through my neurons, my whole body tensing up, ready for fight or flight. Millions of years of survival instinct bracing itself against imagined threats.

Lately, I've been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Harari. In his chapter on religion, he sums up Buddha's teaching about suffering: It's not the troublesome feelings or emotions themselves that are the suffering. Suffering occurs when we want painful emotions to stop or pleasant ones to continue. It's the craving, the discontentment, the tension between what is and what we feel should be. It's the lack of acceptance.

That's how I was. I was like one of my students earlier this year. She had come to my office, almost crying. She didn't want to tell me what was wrong. She said she didn't want me to think less of her. I told her that would never happen--nothing she could say would make me think she was any less than awesome. I could imagine the things she was harboring, and the shame she felt, but I felt such compassion for her and could honestly say I would love her unconditionally. That's what I need to do with myself at times like this, when Mara comes around.

Some of my most peaceful times are early in the morning, when I sit at my desk for some mindfulness meditation and a fresh cup of coffee. Looking out at the sun through the trees in the backyard, I feel at one with it all. But the other day, after a restless night of stewing, I woke up already tense.

Then I remembered the story of Mara, and I decided to just radically accept it all--what Eckhart Tolle calls "acceptance of the radically unacceptable." I imagined that everyone knew all about me, and that I was exposed just as I am... and that it was OK.

In that moment, the tension melted away.

Of course, it came back later, but that's OK, too. Whenever I accept myself with all of my feelings, failures and flaws, then fear melts away. Others might judge me, but that's OK. They're welcome for coffee, too.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Glittering out again

"Something I discovered was a new love for myself."

-A Depot senior in her valedictorian speech 

Yesterday was our little graduation ceremony at the Depot. We call it "Senior Celebration." Every senior gets to give a short valedictorian speech, and hearing their accounts of their high school experiences was powerful.

They are a diverse bunch, but every one of them overcame tremendous challenges to get there yesterday. Challenges in their pasts led to challenges in their habits, dispositions, and support structures, which led to difficulties in school, which  snowballed until they were too big to handle. "When I first came to the Depot," said one senior, "I was pretty much ready to give up."

But to focus on these disadvantages would not do these young warriors justice. All of us have deficiencies and weaknesses, scars and wounds, hurts and hangups, failures and mistakes. We can all decide to focus on those, stew and fret over them, or accept them and focus on improving. We can lie down in defeat, or courageously move forward.

We can all view ourselves as a static, fixed, permanent set of weaknesses and  collection of failures and mistakes, or we can see ourselves as always growing and changing, dissolving and reforming, every moment as a new beginning.

We can all focus on judging ourselves for our weaknesses and failures, which actually hinders progress, or we can accept ourselves, which opens the door to progress.

We can tell ourselves a story about weakness and injury and victimization, or we can be the heroes of our story.

What defines these students is not their pasts. It's not their failings. It's their victories over these obstacles. They've gained a new openness to admitting they are wrong and asking for help, the courage to face their deepest fears and anxieties head-on,  and the resilience to bounce back from disappointments and failures. They've grown in self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-efficacy. They've set high goals and gained academic skills they never expected to master.

It's not the failures that define them, but the constant growth and renewal, and this is an ongoing process. As I wrote my little speech for them this week, it really hit me: though we aim to get them ready for college and career or whatever's next, we can't really prepare them. I don't think we're ever really ready for what life has in store for us. At least, I'm not. Life has a way of serving up challenges I never imagined, and I'm certainly not always "ready" for them. That's why I need to always be learning. That's why I'm always a beginner.

That's what I told them, and that's why I shared my favorite poem with them at the end--Struggle, by Sidney Lanier:
My soul is like the oar that momently
Dies in a desperate stress beneath the wave,
Then glitters out again and sweeps the sea:
Each second I'm new-born from some new grave. 
When I finished, I said, "This is a new beginning for you all. May there be many more to come. I know there will be more struggles, but I know that every time you'll glitter out a again... and sweep the sea."

I caught one senior's eye as I said that last part. I swear her eyes glittered.

She will sweep the sea.

I hope they all will, again and again.

I hope we all will.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

We need a new narrative

Tristan showing off the urn he made at his internship.
What is the Depot? According to one of our students, it's "a place where you go and come back with blue hair and piercings."

That's an interesting description, and it has a grain of truth to it. At least 25% of our students have had colored hair at some point this year. But it is also false. Many of them already had it when they came, and 75% of them never color their hair or pierce their lips.

The problem is that stories like these change the way people see us, and more importantly, the way we see ourselves.

Not that colored hair is a bad thing, and though facial piercings may not help you get a job, that description of the Depot doesn't really bother me. The more common description of the Depot is much more damaging. It goes something like this: "The Depot is a place where you go when you fail."

This is the story we hear over and over again from our own students. It's the story they tell themselves about the Depot and about themselves. It's a story that shapes their beliefs and even their behaviour. And it's not true. And we need a new one.

Just like all cultures, nations, organizations, families and people, the Depot has a story that we tell about ourselves--a story that defines who we are. As Yuval Harari writes it in Sapiens, these stories are part of what makes human societies possible. According to Harari, the ability to make up such stories is what made homo sapiens so much more successful than the other homo species, like the Neanderthals. The stories that make up our religions and national histories bind us together in groups much larger than genes ever could. These stories are powerful, because they provide us with identities, guidance and justification for our actions.

For example, if you believe that humans are descended from peaceful, egalitarian, bonobo-like creatures that had sex freely with any and all members of their group, as suggested by Chris Ryan in Sex at Dawn, this will affect the way you view yourself as a human. It will provide an identity (humans are inherently peaceful, sharing and loving), and it will provide an explanation of why humans have a tendency to cheat on their spouses and why the divorce rate is so high. It will also suggest an answer to the problem.

But it will also fail to fit the data. Lynn Saxon, in her rebuttal of Sex at Dawn, called Sex at Dusk, shreds Ryan's analysis and makes a strong case that humans are naturally monogamous with a natural tendency to cheat on the side when they can. This is what is called the "standard narrative" of human sexual evolution, and it paints a very different picture of who we are and how we should live. Which story you believe will affect the way you view yourself and your world, and could affect your behavior.
The standard narrative of the Depot, that it's a place for students who "don't fit" the traditional model--a place for kids who fail, also has powerful implications. It suggests that there's something wrong with them, which suggests that they behave accordingly.

But what if it's not true? What if the Depot is just a different path to success, one where students can learn from mentors in real-world settings? What if it's a place where all students could thrive? Then we're not the Island of Misfit Toys, and they're not misfits. They're here, not because they are failures, but because we offer something that can help every student succeed, and they made an active choice to help themselves by taking advantage of it.

Just like societies and schools, we all have little stories about ourselves that we tell ourselves. As fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss put it, “It's like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

If your story is that you're a failure, victim, or misfit, that's going to shape you, and not in a good way. You may have baggage and challenges you've inherited from your history, but that doesn't have to be your story. Instead, your story can focus on the overcoming and the strengths and positives.

My own negative stories about inadequacy and fear and failure and rejection have hindered me at times throughout my life, and I know I'm not alone. I see my students struggle every day with the stories they tell themselves. Like the stories I tell myself, the standard narrative of the Depot gets propagated because it has elements of truth. Many of our students have failed at the main campus. Many feel they don't fit in. But the story is false. That's not who we are, and it's not what we're about. We need to change our narrative.

The truth is, we are all humans with tremendous potential and resilience, and that's much more encouraging than the fiction. The truth is, we can be what we want to be. We can write our own story.