Bend Like the Tomato Plant


Was just outside on the upstairs deck listening to some homilies by Fr. Richard Rohr.

I was watching our tomato plant, which is now big enough to have to cage (going out to get one in a few minutes), sway in the breeze.  I was thinking about some things: belief,unbelief, traditions, dogmas, etc. I then looked around at the trees in the alley (from the back, our house is about 3 stories, so it’s up in the tree tops, essentially) swaying in the blowing wind.

I started trying to internalize the image of the trees swaying.  I looked at my plant and started to fret:  “What if it breaks?  I should take it inside.”

But then I looked more closely.  Despite blowing leaves, and this goes for the trees too, the closer you got to the roots, the thick part of the main stem/trunk, there was little movement.  It didn’t signal impending breakage at all.  Perhaps I was being a bit too protective of it.

Then I looked more closely.  And thought more closely.

If the whole of the plant/tree was rigid, it would surely break in a stiff gust.  Especially with sustained gusts of wind.

The life of the tree depends upon flexibility. 

We often think of strength of belief as being rigid and immovable.  That, we often say, is the sign of true faith in something. “I shall not be moved,” and all that.  I’m not sure that’s true.  And I’ve learn from Lao Tzu that water, which is fluid and not rigid, is probably the strongest elemental force.  After all, it is water that carved out the Grand Canyon!

I believe that when we insist on the whole tree being stiff like the trunk — immovable, stubborn, hard — we are more susceptible to breaking when a truly strong wind comes. Like a house of cards, I’m mixing metaphors now, when one card is pulled, the whole of our faith falls apart. 

I’ve seen folks walk away from belief precisely because they were confronted with something that challenged one of their dearly held elements of faith or belief. Because their tree was inflexible, stiff, immovable…the gust burst their whole tree of faith apart.  They could not absorb the blow.  This is why so many lose belief in college. The exposure to cultural and religious difference, combined with an escalating study of science devoid of religious coddling, results in many broken trees.  These young trees had been taught from a young age to grow up sturdy, inflexible, and rigid.  The poor young ones never had a chance;they were practically destined to be snapped by gusts of wind that they were never prepared to absorb and adapt to.

(FYI, this goes not just for religious belief, but philosophy, politics, academia, etc.)

Sometimes, as with a tree, entire weaker branches and leaves, are blown entirely off, left to wither on the ground and die.  Perhaps, those dead leaves and branches will eventually be broken down and reabsorbed into the tree as nutrient, making the tree stronger anyway.  We should be thankful when useless branches are blown off of ourselves, not attempt to sew them back on.

Sometimes parts of the tree must be blown off by the wind.  Sometimes they don’t need tobe lost – they just need to be flexible and sway in the wind, absorbing the challenge of the gusts, adapting to circumstance.  This is not a lack of strength; it’s natural.  It’s necessary.  Once again, I think I’m calling on Lao Tzu here, and of course countless theologians.

Sometimes the entire plant/tree seems to be bending over in the wind.  It seems frightening,like all is in flux, all is in danger of being lost.  Take heart:  That’s where the trunk comes in; the core of the trunk, the part close to the earth.

So far, I suspect that readers with extremely liberal religious sensibilities (of which I can be one…in some ways) have enjoyed the image of a faith that has little rigidity, certainty, and with everything able to adapt to circumstance.

Well, here’s the thing: without the strong, thick,not-very-flexible, and virtually immovable trunk, nothing above makes any sense.  Without a trunk or main stem, a plant or tree might as well be a giant tumbleweed blowing rootless and aimless carried by whatever gust of wind happens to be blowing at the time.  Only the most dimwitted or shallow among us would find “faith as tumbleweed” to be desirable.

There must be some trunk to provide the stability by which the rest of the tree gets its ability to bend and sway. 

That trunk must be deeply held, immovable, and rooted so deep in your heart and mind that it’s inextricably connected.  To pull out of the root would be to pull yourself out of existence. The trunk cannot be something temporal or passing.  By definition, something temporal will be gone or changed in a few years or decades or centuries.  The trunk must be something that holds you down today, but also when you’re 98 years old.  Otherwise you’re as good as a tumbleweed.

The thing is this. A tree is not two-parted: trunk then flexible branches.  There are degrees of branches.  Thick branches that are like smaller trunks, but more flexible, but not very flexible.  Then there is every degree of trunk and branch that you can imagine, from strong and sturdy to as thin as a small twig.

Each bends and sways according to its placement near the trunk.

I am not going to get more specific than that, because you have ordered/are ordering your tree according to your belief. 

However, I think it’s important to look to the plants and trees as a means of living our beliefs, whatever they are.  I just looked back out at my tomato plant before finishing this little piece here.  It’s starting to bud. It’s still there alive and well and strong.  But it’s still blowing in the breeze, sometimes a little,sometimes at a strong angle.  Nonetheless, it’s no less a tomato plant when it’s blowing as it is when it’s still.  As long as it’s still rooted and has life in it and produces fruit, it’s a tomato plant.

May I continue to learn from it and continue to learn from the breeze that tests and prunes it.





Confucius — “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.'”

It’s on the Horizon

Well, I really thought I’d have had time to blog during BCTR.  I was wrong.  So, so wrong.  When they basically advertised it as an entire teaching degree shoved into a 1.5 month intensive training program, they weren’t lying.  Tough.  Challenging.  Nerve racking.  And totally rewarding.

Now, teachers and staff start reporting to district related stuff here real soon.  New Teacher Institute is next week.  I head to Douglass next week too.  Professional Development is in full swing and on the 26th, we get down to it.  The kids come to school.

I am nervous as hell, but excited.

Freire, Critical Pedagogy, and Teaching to “De-” and/or “Re-” (Part One)

Paulo Freire

I think I always assumed that I would be teaching to “de-.” Destabilize, demythologize, decenter, depose, deconstruct, etc. It’s sort of always been “my thing.” How can I call into question my students’ assumptions? How might I make them aware of the injustice of the prevailing order, the class war raging, the racism inherent in so many of our institutions, and – God forbid! – their (and my) possible complicity in the perpetuation of that order? This is all important work, to be sure. It’s classic “First World” critical pedagogy, awkwardly transplanted from South American awesomeguy Paulo Freire, to American academic situations. We had some fun debates in grad school about the merits and successes of translating Freirean pedagogy in a suburban school. The general consensus seemed to be that there does exist a tension in a translated pedagogy that treats upper-middle class white kids to see themselves as somehow subjected to an unjust system. In some ways, we acknowledged, they are. But not in the same way that Freire’s students were. Attempting to make a direct comparison between two drastically different political and social contexts does violence to both. In short, my study and practice of critical pedagogy has so far only been in a college setting. I’ve thus far had to read him through a particular lens — the lens that allowed me to translate from Freire’s historical-political particularity into something I could teach middle to upper-middle class students. It was my job to subtly prod my students to give up some of their privilege in the name of a just social order, to understand their position and work for a better, more just and radical democracy. Some of my favorite things to talk about in this regard? The “canon.” Patriarchal values as normative. The white European voice as default. Social construction. You get the idea. It’s fun stuff, and enlightening. It also serves a very real purpose. I believe that one of the great projects of critical pedagogy is the site at which it engages the privileged. Affluent private schools are the best places for this work. Students at Bryn Mawr, Roland Park Country, and Gilman (to name three in Baltimore City) ought to have teachers teaching through a critical lens. Why? Because, justly or not, (for now) these students stand in a position, by virtue of their privilege, to effect change one day. (That is not to say that other students don’t have that opportunity, too, but let’s be honest here — some of these private school kids already have jobs lined up at a law firm.) Their minds must be shaped in such a way as to ensure that they effect the right kind of change. They must be prepared to accept a more just distribution of wealth via tax policy, divest themselves of some degree of their privilege, and actively use their power to work for justice and equality. That preparation happens as part of a critical education. At one point, I thought I’d be doing that work. Instead, in my new setting, at a wonderful public high school that happens to be in a poor part of West Baltimore (we apparently have homeless students attending Douglass) and with an approx. 98% African American student body — with all the policy, funding, and social implications that come with that reality — I’m finding myself having to teach to “re-.” Restabilize, reenchant, recenter, re-impose, and reconstruct. It’s a bit of a scary proposition, and something I think (fear? hope?) will be a continuing investigation here at The WreckingLot. Tearing down in order to reveal has always come easy to me. Hell, the oldest email address I have (going back to my teenage years) is teardownwallsnow@*********.com. As I said before, it’s my thing. But how to pivot to building walls in order to lift up? That’s a daunting task. Alas, since it’s been so long since I’ve done heavy lifting, writing-wise, I think I’ll have to put off that piece until a bit later. Look for part 2.


Douglass has the best swag in the City!

Douglass has the best swag in the City!

The newest Douglass shirts. I was subbing at Douglass today and was fully prepared to spend the $10-15 on a shirt. I’m all ready to represent.

The gentleman, a large bodyguard type, whose name escapes me right now, told me I could have it for free. “These are the new ones,” he said. “The other teachers might be mad that the new guy is getting one first.”

We laughed. I insisted on paying. “Naw,” he protested. “You’re now a part of the ‘turnaround.'”

Aesthetically, I love the logo and the colors. I’m always struck by the seriousness of the school’s depiction of the great Frederick Douglass. It’s essentially a highly contrasted replication of a historical image. But the simplicity conveys such a grandeur and seriousness. It’s challenging to look at.

The WreckingLot…Reborn

So…forget everything I said before (and a long time ago) about The WreckingLot.  Luckily, I didn’t say much at all. 

Nonetheless, things have changed for me and so they will change for TWL.  This summer, I begin rigorous teacher certification training through a program called Baltimore City Teaching Residency.  You can think of it as Teach for America, but specifically for Baltimore City Public Schools.  Thankfully, I’ve already scored a job for the fall at Frederick Douglass High School, a historic school in West Baltimore just southwest of Druid Hill Park.  If you know the area — just across the street from Mondawmin Mall.  I’ve also been lucky enough to be hired as a substitute teacher by the district.  (My short tenure as an adjunct at the Community College of Baltimore County came to an end this past week as I entered students’ final grades for the semester.)  It’s a real blessing to be able to be at Douglass substituting.  It has given me the opportunity to “be around the school” before I’m officially teaching here full-time.

TWL, then, will become a lot of things.  It’s going to be a chronicle and a commentary.  I will chronicle my experiences in the Baltimore City Public School System, which may include BCTR related musings, but also allow posts to spin-off into any manner of subjects.  The mistake I made in my initial post was to try to be specific and focused.  That’s not how I roll.  I anticipate — should I be patient and dedicated enough — that TWL might end up being a dumping ground (or, you know, a wrecking lot) for the scraps of observations, rants, narratives, and stories, that develop in and around me.  That might mean BCPS related stuff, Douglass related stuff, or Baltimore City politics.  It could also mean the occasional in-depth, possibly academic, treatment of pedagogical or curriculum related matters.

Anyway.  I have no readers yet.  Frankly, even if I never have a single reader, TWL might serve to keep me sane.  If I do accumulate readers, I’ll appreciate your community.



The WreckingLot…

The WreckingLot is going to be a place for talk.  “Talk,” as in writing.  Initially, this talk is going to be, to a large extent, news aggregation (my journalist wife is going to want to kill me), editorializing, and in all likelihood cultural commentary and review.  TWL is going to start there because, well, it’s cheap and easy.  At the moment, this thing is just me.  I teach as a profession (at the moment as an English adjunct in the Baltimore area), which means I do not make a living as a blogger/writer.  As such, I will write what I have at my fingertips.  For now.

Eventually, I would love to branch out and write some unique stories, features, and the like.  Time will tell if interest, time, and skill, will allow that.