An Intellectualization of a Religious Experience

This week I picked up William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. I’ve been thinking about this book for several months now — not necessarily the subject of the book, but the title. The reason is because, over the past few months, I have had my own religious experiences and I am trying to process my understanding of them.

This isn’t the time or the place to go into the details of my experiences. They were mine, and for now, they will remain mine (though if you know me in person, I’m completely willing to share my experiences face to face). But I do think this is the place to process my intellectualization of those experiences (whether it’s the right time or not is completely up to you).

I’ve come to the conclusion that the terms “God” and “gods” are a misunderstanding of a real experience in which human beings commune with a transcendent intelligence. The concepts of the monotheistic “God” and the polytheistic “gods” are concepts that derive from different states of civilization, monotheism from an absolutist desert milieu and polytheism from a more diverse and yet still openly hierarchic milieu. But in a milieu that values (in its ideal state) equality, open dialogue, and diverse participation, the same religious experience can be felt not as a command from an Absolute God, nor as an interaction with a more powerful and yet whimsical bully, but as someone of equal value reaching out — not to conquer or cajole — but to talk and play.

The upshot is that, despite having had rich and rewarding religious experiences whose validity as objective experiences are beyond my doubt, I do not think it is necessary to catalogue these experiences within the categories of religion.

The best way I’ve come up with to describe what I am talking about is “a foreign intelligence.”

Human beings have communicated with foreign intelligences throughout our history. You might even be able to define the development of consciousness as the struggle between an inner intelligence and a foreign one, with the growth of that consciousness measured against its exposure to new (i.e., foreign) ideas (i.e., understandings of reality). As a baby begins to recognize its difference from its mother, its consciousness begins to grow, turning its experience of reality into a new and definite understanding: “I am not her” (though for many human beings this primary understanding often takes decades to work itself out, and even still, some of us never get there). This understanding changes the baby’s experience of reality, causing it to seek out new things (“What else am I not?”). This impulse eventually leads to crawling, to walking, to running, to reading, to travel, to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to rock and roll…

What is life, after all, except a journey into the unknown of spacetime, where the future is dark and you never know what’s around the corner?

But then, why couldn’t those dark spaces open onto a foreign intelligence, perhaps in the form of a hunter from an unknown tribe, perhaps in the form of a transcendent entity who speaks a language we can somehow understand (even if not aurally)?

Can we deny that such a foreign intelligence is possible? In a universe as vast in possibilities as it is in spacetime, would we deny the potential existence of a foreign intelligence whose physical form is so different from our own that it might only be said to exist in a different dimension?

Seriously, in a universe where the quantum reality can only be defined in terms of potentialities and hyperdimensionalities, and on a planet where technologies continue to open our consciousnesses to foreign understandings and experiences, we’d deny the possibility that, even now, on this planet, we may not be the sole possessors of a transcendent consciousness?

If we’re willing to grant some of that potential, would we then limit ourselves to a foreign intelligence that walks and talks and acts (relatively) just like us? I mean, just how foreign might we imagine this foreign intelligence to be? Could it not be separated from a physical container, just as we imagine ourselves to be separated from our physical container (what, after all, is the concept of the soul if not a rationalization of the feeling that we are not our bodies)?

From just an intellectual standpoint, I’m willing to grant that possibility. And because I’m willing to grant that possibility, I don’t think we need to raise a foreign intelligence to the level of a God or god, nor is there a need to interpret it as an alien, as something foreign to our Earth.

Among Romantics, there is the concept of communing with nature. For some, this is meant in a religious way: as Catholics take communion with Christ through the ingestion of his body, so the Romantic breathes in, takes in nature. When done right — and despite its difficulty, there truly is a way (of many ways) to commune with nature — but when done right, we, as human beings, feel — i.e., experience being — at one with nature: it is in us as we are in it, and the animals of the forest are our brothers, together with us, as one family, all of us connected through the tree of life, plants as cousins, parameciums as elders, breathe it in, breathe it out…

…and now breathe it in again — what’s doing the breathing that can’t also be described in the same language as the chemicals that are being breathed; where does the oxygen in the air differ from the oxygen in our cells; which oxygen is inside and which oxygen is outside; and why do we have to think that way…

…now breathe it out, not that oxygen, but that carbon, that seed of life, that dust of death, that carbon…but where did the oxygen go, and where did it come from; it’s all on the wind. Breathe it in, that breath of life, created by the trees, shared with the wolves, stolen from the sun…

Breathe it out.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, there’s an intelligence there in nature. We are part of it as the baby is part of the mother, but it is also there, as different from us as the mother is from the baby. That’s what the transcendentalists wanted us to know. There’s a foreign intelligence in nature and its possible to experience being with and through it.

I don’t disagree. But the foreign intelligence in nature is not the foreign intelligence that spoke to me. Mine was a religious experience (well, experiences actually; it’s happened a few times), but I don’t want to confine my understanding of it to the language of religion.

This was not a god. This was something different. It didn’t want to share a message. It didn’t want to make commands. It just wanted to talk and play, and somehow, it found me.

I think I’m okay with that.

Something Important Has Occurred

Four teenagers sit around a kitchen table at 10:30 on a Friday night. No one quite knows how, but over time, their conversation deepens, and before the night ends, they feel as if something important has occurred.

I tell people who ask that I became a writer to get the girls, and while that is definitely true (after all, it’s the only way I ever have), I also became a writer because I wanted to capture the conversations I had with my friends around that kitchen table, not their content, per se, but their feeling, the feeling that something important has occurred.

I sometimes feel bad about calling myself a writer. Yes, most of my jobs came to me because of my writing, but I have yet to publish a book or an article (outside of some reviews for a now-defunct website three or four years ago), and my fiction has never been published by a reputable source. Without a published credit to my name, what right do I have to call myself a writer?

I’m 40 years old today. I’ve been calling myself a writer for at least 27 of those years — from the moment an attractive girl told me she liked my writing. Boom. Done. You like my writing? That’s what I’ll do with my life then. Boom. I’m a writer. Done.

The first job I ever earned on my own was as a copywriter for a small recruitment-advertising agency on the outskirts of Boston. True, my brother got me the original job (as a receptionist), but I earned the right to call myself a copywriter.

The second job I earned was as a member of the adjunct faculty at a small liberal arts college, where I was responsible for teaching younger students the art and craft of writing. Between landing the first job and the second, I’d earned a Bachelor’s degree in Theories of Writing and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing.

I’d also landed my wife thanks in no small part to my writing. We fell in love studying writing, literature, and philosophy together, and we exchanged some of our most loving looks over the keyboards of our computers. I didn’t write her love letters as much as I wrote her love papers, turned in for a grade, but written for her.

I call myself a writer not because I publish novels or have my byline over long think-pieces in a variety of influential magazines. I call myself a writer because that’s how I engage with the world. The “me on the keyboard” is the best version of me that I know, the one who genuinely wants to reach out and take your hand, and sit, and talk, and before the text ends, have both of us feel that something important has occurred.

Writing isn’t a hobby for me, something I do late at night after everyone has gone to bed. Writing is who I am.

I spoke recently with a friend about my urge to become a professional writer. Right now, I am a professional teacher (as well as a builder of an ideal school), and while I love virtually every minute of it, I still have this urge to become a professional writer, to have someone pay me to write pretty much whatever I want, whether it comes in the form of a novel, a children’s book, a political op-ed, a research-based article, or something else entirely, chosen by me, written by me, and published at someone else’s expense, with some of that expense coming back to me in the form of a paid bill (ideally, my student loans).

But becoming a professional writer requires a lot of hustle, and I’ve never been accused of being the most hard-working person on the planet. That’s why, despite the urge, I have never truly pursued that goal.

So, if I don’t have a credit to my name, what kind of a writer am I? That’s easy: I’m a self-published one, hanging out here on the Internet, for free, just waiting for someone to happen by, and sit, and talk, and feel (with me) that something important has occurred.

You know what feels nice? The idea that some day, my now four-year-old daughter will sit down read all of this — this little blog of mine — and she’ll know me in a way that few children ever get to know their parents. She’ll have access to my day-in and day-out and essentially unvarnished tangle of thoughts.

She’ll know I was dumb enough to convince myself that the Celtics could defeat Lebron James in his prime; and that when our society was challenged by climate change and the political ineptitude of Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was to argue, both verbally and in writing, with anyone who supported their administrations’ corrupt and disastrous policies; and that when our country was forced to choose between security and liberty, I always came down on the side of liberty; and that I valued art and dynamism over money and the status quo; and that I believed Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing deserved to be categorized next to the teachings of Lao-Tzu; and so much more.

This blog won’t be the only way she’ll know her father, but years from now, when, for whatever reason, she’s missing me, she’ll have this, my voice and my spirit, telling her for all time that I love her.

And once again, something important will have occurred. And the most important girl who ever entered my world will read something I wrote, and love me.

Because this is who I am, and someday, this text will be all that is left. And even then, when my body is gone, I’ll still be here, my voice and my spirit, telling you, whoever you are, that I love you too.

“Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

I find imagining the future difficult. The mind reels with possibilities: climate change, global-nuclear war, the eradication of the bees, a nonviolent message received from outer space, unheard of diseases unleashed from the jungles of Africa or the Amazon, peak oil, clones, fundamentalist revivals, race wars, alien attacks, food shortages, the violent revolt of the wage slaves, messiahs, media whores, stray asteroids, scientifically engendered black holes, zombies, multidimensional visitors, the rise of the machine, genderless children, pets that can talk, casual space travel, downloadable talents, the rediscovery of wizardry, the Kraken, virtual realities, the return of the gods, bioengineered immortality, the descent of the nation-state, water wars, microchips implanted by corporate overlords, anarchy in the U.K.

Understanding the present isn’t much better. We learn narratives from the media — terrorism, Trump, and trade, with an ever-increasing side of racial tension — and we ignore whatever doesn’t belong in the narrative. We imbue ourselves in the present dynamic, find our place, our space, and our pace in the fluidity of local time, connecting ourselves to the world as best we can but always and forever remaining local to our moment and blocked from a global sense of truth.

And the past is no treat either, with revisionism and rediscovered records changing what we thought we knew. Diminishing power structures reveal more detail or more shades of perspective on whatever historic event catches our attention: Indians becoming Native Americans becoming indigenous people, revelations of homosexuality and transgenderism all throughout history, post-colonial truths critiquing the received mythologies of empire after empire, the continued disclosure of millennias of male-dominated incompetence, minor skirmishes and hitherto unknown strategic blunders attaining their rightful places in the narratives of long-ago.

There’s no singular place on which to focus, no foundation on which to build: the future is a mystery, the present is chaotic, and the past is a mythologized power play. Where does one turn for hope?

I mow my lawn. I listen to the birds sing. I see my neighbors pack into their cars and drive off for a day of errands, and I smile and wave as they pass me by.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Leveling Up: Madden 15 & One Man’s Look At 40

I just lost a pre-season game in Madden 15. I play as the Kansas City Chiefs, a football team I know nothing about, and what’s more, I’m six seasons in on Franchise Mode, which means that, due to six seasons of retirements, injuries, failed contract negotiations, and 35 rounds of drafts, I also know nothing about most of the league’s players — Tom Brady does not exist in my game; instead, most of the players are computer-generated results of Madden‘s pre-programmed algorithm, each team filled with truly fictional characters.

As I said, I know nothing about the Kansas City Chiefs, but after five seasons, I have just about memorized their playbook (or at least, the playbook as defined by the creators of Madden 15). I have also set the ticket prices for their stadium, upgraded their parking lot and concession booths, adjusted the discounts on their team jerseys, and experimented with the prices on their commemorative footballs. I’ve done just about everything to this franchise that the game of Madden 15 has allowed.

All of which is to say that I play it lot. It’s the only console game I’ve played for almost a year, and I play a console game at the end of almost every night.

Last season, I won the Super Bowl on the All-Pro Level. I had to replay the AFC Divisional round three times before I finally won, but I destroyed the opposing team in the AFC Conference Championship and won a solidly fought game in the Super Bowl. It was my first Super Bowl on the All Pro Level in five seasons, and I felt like I actually earned something.

So this season, I switched to the All Madden Level.

About 15 or 16 years ago, after playing every season’s release since Madden 92 (originally for Sega Genesis), I quit playing Madden video games. I had never been a great player of Madden, but I could hold my own against most human players and play well against the computer (provided it wasn’t on the All Madden Level).

But then, about 15 or 16 years ago, Madden just got too hard for me. With the strength of third and fourth generation consoles and over a decade of intellectual property behind it, Madden made the leap from being a fun video game to becoming a football simulator. Each iteration brought some new mechanical complexity, some new graphical upgrade, some new strategic depth, and each edition pushed the game deeper and deeper into the nitty gritty details of football. It wasn’t fun anymore. It was work.

There were too many other video games to play, and no real interest in work, so years of Madden video games passed me by.

Two years ago, with twenty seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX and the opposing team about to score the go-ahead touchdown from the one-yard line, Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass, sealing the victory for the New England Patriots, and in my excitement, I bought Madden 15 for Xbox 360 (a used copy of the previous year’s version). In the glow of my team’s Super Bowl win, I played the game for a little while, but when summer came and I started playing basketball again, I put it down and returned to the other game I’d been playing, NBA2k14.

Then, with this year’s Patriots season and the drama of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, I found myself paying more attention to football than I usually do, and at some point during the season, I switched NBA2K for Madden, except this time, instead of just diving into a game, I invested my daily allotted console time to Madden‘s training mode. Instead of playing a simulated football game for 45 minutes, I played with a simulated football-training simulator for 45 minutes.

The simulator taught me about Cover-1, Cover-2, and Cover-3 defenses, how to play them and how to attack them. It made me practice a wide variety of running moves, each of which I had to execute with split-second precision on the game’s 10-button controller. It taught me how to adjust the assignments of the offensive linemen to pick up a blitz. It introduced me to the concept of the key defender, taught me to spot him before I snapped the ball, and trained me to to key my read of the coverage based on that one defender’s movements. I learned when to lob the ball and when to throw a bullet, and how and when to throw behind or to the opposite side of the receiver. It introduced me to various tackling strategies and taught me how to increase the tackler’s aggression or desperation level as necessary.

After completing over sixty different tutorials and drills, I finally felt ready to play the game, so I set the level to All Pro, and had at it. Five seasons later, I won the Super Bowl — though as I said above, I had to replay the AFC Divisional round three times (I forced the replays because, earlier in the season, my star wide-receiver rejected my offer to extend his contract and my star running-back was getting old and his skills were declining; if I wanted to win the Super Bowl anytime soon, it had to be with last season’s team, so even though I lost twice in a row in the Divisional round, I wasn’t going to stop until I beat the computer, fair and square, which I eventually did after my third try). After 15 years, five seasons, and only two extra replays, as my imaginary players stood on the field celebrating their victory, I felt as if I actually accomplished something.

I turn 40 years old in one week’s time.

I rewarded myself by increasing the level of the video game. It’s now set to All Madden, the highest level possible. The game isn’t merciful anymore; it doesn’t forgive mistakes. Hesitate too long, and it’ll score a touchdown. Overrun the ball carrier, and it’ll score a touchdown. Misread the coverage, and it’ll intercept your pass or sack you for a 12-yard loss. Nothing is forgiven.

But it plays honestly as well. Time your throw right, and it’ll give you the first down. Follow the right run blocker, and it’ll give you twenty yards more. Read the right defender, and it’ll let you take the ball deep, but — and this is important — it will force you to catch the ball on your own — because everything is earned at the All Madden Level and nothing is given.

In my last two pre-season games, Madden 15 destroyed me. In the first game, my first at the All Madden Level, the computer forced me to endure a 48-7 loss. It ran for 206 yards, threw for 176 more, had zero turnovers (while forcing four on me), and required just one third-down conversion on its way to complete domination on both sides of the field.

The second game I played (just now) ended in a 27-14 loss. The computer ran for 207 yards, threw for 110, had zero turnovers (while forcing three on me), and required three third-down conversions on its way to complete domination on both sides of the field.

As the players shook hands on the field and the replays of the various highlights played across the screen, I thought to myself, Shit, maybe I’m not ready to play at this level.

But just as I thought it, the Madden announcer said, “That’s why you play at this level.”

And I thought, He’s absolutely right. I moved from All Pro to All Madden because I wanted a new challenge, and if something is going to challenge me, it’s going to begin with my failure. As I tell my students every day, failure is not a bad thing; failure is how we learn.

Yes, Madden 15 kicked my ass these last two nights. But I went from scoring one touchdown to scoring two; from allowing 48 points to allowing 27; from giving up 176 passing yards to giving up 110. The end result might be the same (I lost), but I know I played the game better. And I know I’ll play the next one even better than that.

I put a lot of effort into getting here — five hard-earned seasons — and I’ll be damned if I’m going to slink back to All Pro just because I lost two games in the pre-season. I might not be winning right away, but I’m going to stick with it.

I’m 40 years old in one week’s time, and it’s time to level up.

There’s More To Sex Ed Than Just Sex

How do you teach 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys not to objectify women?

I suspect the answer lies in empathy. You have to get them to understand what it feels like to become an object. That’s the only thing that would work. They’d have to step outside of their own lust and imagine being the unwilling object of that lust.

But you couldn’t approach something like that head on; they’d  laugh you out of the room. You couldn’t approach it from a perspective of media criticism either, because the concept would be too abstract for them to grasp it. You’d have to come at it on the sly, sneak it in under the cover of something else.

The something else couldn’t be academic, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones whose ignorant state of objectifying women could eventually lead to the criminal stage of assaulting them.

An easy answer is literature and film, since the best lessons are often communicated in the language of story — but again, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones who don’t read and who can’t sit still long enough to watch a whole movie.

So what is the hard answer? How do you teach 14, 15, and 16 year old boys not to objectify women?

Is it the kind of job that requires a woman to lead it, or maybe two women in tandem, or maybe a combination of the sexes, one to speak from the experience of the object and the other from the experience of the objectifier?

And if, for want of the students’ maturity, you can’t approach it head on, then how best to approach it?

Or maybe, in this instance, you just have to push past the maturity question and treat the subject as honestly as you’d treat math. Not by hiding it in something else, but by saying, straight up, “We’re going to talk about objectifying women,” and let the conversation go as it may, immaturity and all, until you finally get enough buy in on the seriousness of the topic that even a 14, 15, or 16-year-old boy will know enough to pay attention.

One out of every six women in America will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Nearly one in every two women will be the victim of some kind of sexual assault other than rape in her lifetime. Nearly 25% of rape perpetrators are under the age of 20.

This part of a young man’s education matters. And because it affects the way the person treats 50% of the world’s population, maybe it matters more than most other elements of their education.

If we’re to stop the violence on women, we need to do it by curing the systemic causes in our 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys. They are tomorrow’s college students and criminals, and they need to understand the difference between biological lust and the interpersonal violence that comes from sexual objectification.

It’s too important to leave out.

Donald Trump is a Thug

I picture Donald Trump in a hotel room somewhere in Eastern Europe. The lighting is dim, and smoke burns from the tip of a lit cigarette, filling the room. One man sits at a skinny, wooden desk, the cigarette resting on the lip of the thin, glass ashtray sitting in front of him. Two other men, and Donald, stand near the center of the room. Donald has just arrived, and he flashes a smile that is both confident and cordial, but behind his eyes, the men see a scared tiger. There’s a lot of money in a bag on the bed.

I’ve never been in that room, and I’m guessing neither have you. It takes balls to be in that room. The kind of balls it takes to do business with thugs.

I picture Donald Trump under a bridge in New Jersey. Two men, both of whom he pays in return for their loyalty, stand strong and nearby. Three other men, only one of whom talks, stand opposite Donald. Together, they discuss building contracts and union dues, and at all times they both underline their words with a variety of subtle (and not so subtle) threats. Four of the men present carry a gun. There’s another man concealed but not doubted, seated in the passenger seat of Donald’s car.

This is the man we’ve watched for the past 100+ days. A man who engages in handshake competitions with rival strangers who aspire to be his equal or his better. A man who shoves aside anyone he deems lower than himself in importance. A man who can drive once mortal enemies into each others’ arms (note the handshake, by the way) and force a century’s worth of alliances into disarray.

I’m reading Paris 1919, a book about the personalities and politics of the Treaty of Versailles. For those who don’t know, the Treaty of Versailles is the peace treaty from World War I, where Great Britain, France, the United States, and (to a more limited extent) Italy and Japan created the conditions whereby many of the horrors of the 20th and 21st century found purchase. The book lays out in incredible detail the singular reality that governs our entire world, namely, that our biggest issues rarely exceed the infantile drives of adult male primates meeting in small spaces. Many of these primates desire, more than anything else, more power than their competitors — sometimes for defensive reasons, sometimes for offensive ones, but always and only for more power.

Us liberals like to think the civilized world has moved beyond power politics, but it drives everything that distracts us from our self-fulfillment as a species. It belittles our drive for equality; it impugns our desire for a healthy habitat; and it reacts violently to our calls for mercy.

Donald Trump is the man in our White House. He is not an idiot. He is not a dupe. He is a thug. He rose to power not because he inherited millions of dollars (millions of people inherit millions of dollars), but because he knows how to stand in a dimly lit room or under a rainy night bridge and wield actual and real power.

He stands as a challenge to all civilized people. How will we respond? As Democrats with a capital D? Or as small-d democrats, the inheritors of an idea that too was formed in a small and dimly lit smoke-filled room, an idea of rebellion and resistance, not in the dark shadows of assassins or the cowering masks of terrorists, but en masse and in the streets, on the pulpit and in the press, in our businesses and in our homes, resistance, rebellion, resistance. Resistance, rebellion, resistance. Resistance, rebellion, resist…

I picture Donald Trump sitting in a tall chair in the Oval Office. A young black woman arrives dressed in a blue pantsuit and wearing dark glasses. Her pants are almost too short for her chubby legs, revealing — more than they’re supposed to — her feet in blue flats. There is nothing pretty about her, nothing powerful. She walks from the door to the desk, where Donald Trump sits alone. He makes eye contact with her as she crosses the room, but she knows he doesn’t see her, his mind still trying to ferret out some small hole he can slip through. She reaches the desk, and instantly, she knows it: he sees her now, sees the light and the person in her eyes. With everything she can muster, she projects with her mind’s eye a vision of millions of Americans standing strong in a nighttime rainstorm, quiet and dignified, solemn and righteous. She wants him to see it in her eyes, to see them, the people whose power she now represents, a power whose like he has never faced, the power of the demos.

She reaches across the desk. He reaches up, and she places the paper in his visibly shaken hand. She stands and waits. It is he, not she, who has been dismissed.

Freedom Isn’t Easy

I could tell you a lot of cool things about my school, but yesterday, the sheriff’s department escorted one of our students out of our school in handcuffs; and earlier this year, one of our former students (who had dropped out) was shot in the head while sitting in a parked car at two in the morning; and one of the people in the car when the gun went off was also a former student, and he went to prison soon after because, by being in the car that night, he violated his parole; and earlier last year, two other former students were accused (though not convicted) of stealing from their employers, with each incident independent from the other.

No matter how cool our school might be, the truth is that we attract some difficult kids, and while we try to provide them with every opportunity to take control of their education and, in the process, gain control of their lives, too many of them find the freedom too difficult to handle.

One of my students told me yesterday that they feel like they’re living in a role-playing game because even for the simplest of decisions, they sometimes roll a die to decide what they should do. When the student told me this, they were thinking of episodes in their life where they actually, physically rolled a six-sided die, but they were not connecting this anecdote to their immediate reality, wherein they were seated on the floor, consulting a new-age ripoff of Tarot cards for insight into their current predicament. They honestly didn’t see a connection between their inability to make simple decisions and their desire to seek out answers to life’s problems in a deck of commercially produced and professionally marketed cards.

Earlier in the class, for reasons I don’t need to go into, I found myself having to explain to this same student the market forces that lead to SPAM phone calls and emails, a conversation that resulted in the student returning a SPAM phone call they had received earlier in the day to demand an answer from the telemarketer as to how her company acquired the student’s phone number. The conversation did not go well; my student was being earnest and the telemarketer refused to budge from her script, leading me to have to provide explicit instructions as to how and why my student should simply hang up the phone, regardless of whether the telemarketer was done speaking on the other end.

All of which is to say that most of the students who come to my school have difficulty with the simplest things. It’s not that they are dumb — in fact, most of the kids I work with are incredibly bright — it’s that some simple but important things about living in society do not click into place for them like they do for you and me. They just don’t get it, and unfortunately, some of them never will.

We designed our school for one mission: to provide every student, regardless of their abilities, with the opportunity to be interested and engaged in their own education (including their social-emotional education). But so many of our students come to us without being interested or engaged in anything beyond their own drama, or what’s worse, their own trauma, which makes them unable to stay out of their own way.

Our tactic to overcome this is both simple and incredibly hard: We try to make them feel safe. At bottom, that means safe not just from something, but also to become something. The kids who come to us have rarely heard an encouraging word; they’ve been told they are worthless, and in some cases, they’ve been abandoned by their dearest family members, literally left alone in the world with no one to protect or care for them.

It’s no wonder they have trouble making decisions. They have zero self-confidence, and so they don’t trust themselves. Every decision they’ve ever made has led them to where they are now: kicked out of almost every school they’ve ever attended — some residential, some not, some institutional, some not — told that they don’t belong, told to get out, told that they’re a freak of some kind. Their parents, if they’re around, are rarely worth much, and what they are worth is often compounded with negative interest in their kids, which can often mean verbal, physical, or sometimes even sexual abuse, resulting in the child experiencing incredible pain and suffering at the hands of the people society tells them are supposed to love them more than anyone.

Why would they trust themselves? Why would they trust anyone?

And then we come along, offering these students with incredibly acute social-emotional needs a true progressive model of education — one that is student-centered and student-driven, where they’re asked not to do as they’re told but, instead, to do as they think they ought to.

What do we expect will happen? That they’ll all start singing kumbaya, and butterflies will descend from the heavens, and within days, they’ll each be as happy and as engaged as the students on a college brochure?

No. What we expect to happen is what happened today. One student will be escorted from the building in handcuffs. Another will have such an emotional crisis that they will collapse to the ground shaking and in tears. Another will scream so loud on the drive to school that their driver will have an actual panic attack in the car and be unable to feel her hands and feet. Another will refuse to comply with even the simplest of requests, choosing instead to physically wrestle with their teacher. Still others will actively avoid your best advice and refuse to work on the projects they need to exhibit publicly in just over two weeks.

Trying to give kids conscious and moral control over their freedom is a struggle. It’s a real struggle.

Thankfully, I’ve had enough days that were the complete opposite of yesterday to know that, with most kids, the struggle is worth it.

And so while I should expect days like today, I should also be ready to celebrate success whenever I can find it. Like the fact that yesterday two of my students donated their time to complete the duties of a staff member who had to leave early due to a family emergency. Or the fact that the day before, one of my students consulted with a professional in the student’s field of interest to verify the quality of their homework, and the student did so with only the most minimal of supports. Or the fact that, earlier in the week, another of my students, despite being incredibly tired and out of sorts and despite having a history of verbal diarrhea, found enough self-control to be respectful with their peers, their teachers, and the public for longer than I thought possible.

All of them did those things not because they were told to, but because, as free thinkers, it was what they thought they ought to do.

Some days are a struggle. But the struggle really is worth it.