Songs

This is how I feel about a lot of people right now.

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This is how I’m afraid I’ll feel one day. I don’t yet, but someday I may.

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I like helping people, especially people I care about. It makes me feel better, for a variety of reasons: My friends’ happiness makes me happy; it reassures me that I’m a good person; I no longer feel like I’m trapped in my castle, unable to feel the rest of the world, unable to understand or sympathize or make a difference. Every time I’m able to make someone smile when they’re sad, it erases a little of the frustrated rage at never being able to protect anyone. Every time I help someone keep going, even if I only make the tiniest difference, the world becomes brighter. The future becomes brighter. My hope for my friends becomes brighter.

It wears me down. Of course it does; how could it not? Life wears you down, one way or another. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. My life is filled with joy and ease and peace. I’m lucky. I have options for my future and love in my present. I have so much. I’ve had my issues, like everyone else, but I was lucky to have them all be inside my head. The world wasn’t actually attacking me; I just had to learn to deal with the harsh, dangerous, crazy thing we call living. I do recognize that my life is blessed – well near perfect – and I do know that I don’t have anything ‘real’ to complain about. I’m not trying to belittle myself, don’t worry. I’m just.. apologizing, sort of, for all the fuss I’ve made over little things. They felt big to me.

I’m grateful for all I have. Truly I am. And all my life, my parents have taught me that when you have something in any abundance, you have to give it to others. Good fortune isn’t meant to be jealously hoarded, but shared with as many people as you can reach. Finally I’m old enough to try, and I’m trying as hard as I can.

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This song used to make me cry.

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My mom doesn’t get it. Or maybe she does, but she can’t stand seeing me in pain any more than I can stand seeing it in my friends, and it makes it hard for her to see why I need to do what I’m trying to do. She doesn’t want me to give of myself so much that I don’t have enough left of me to live my own life. I agree with her, but I don’t want to stop giving of myself. I have to find the balance, yes, the lines I need to draw between my life and other people’s so that my life won’t drown; but I don’t want to draw lines that are too thick just because I don’t know yet what I’m doing. I’d rather draw lines that are too thin.

Pain is a lesson, if you let yourself learn it. It’s like falling down. When you’re little, you run around at top speed, tiny legs hurtling you forward as fast as you can go, until you fall down and skin your knee. Then you wail at the top of your lungs as if your whole world had ended, because you’re not used to the pain. Fast forward a few years: now when you fall and skin your knee, you get up and keep running. You’ve learned to cope with the pain.

Parents want to protect their children from every pain in the world. They all have different ideas on how to do that, but most of them are forced to recognize that sometimes you have to let your children fall down and get hurt. A lot of knowledge and wisdom can be passed on from parent to child, but some lessons need to be learned from falling down.

I’ve stopped telling my mom about my friends’ problems unless they’re so big that I need to get them out immediately. I’ve stopped telling my sister. I never told my dad much, but now I say even less. It’s an automatic response, I guess: if sharing what’s going through my head makes them and me more unhappy than happy, then stop.  It feels like a very teenage thing to do, though I don’t know if it is. It leaves me with fewer people than ever to talk to.

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Sometimes it feels like this song takes what I’m feeling and wraps it up, like thread wrapped round a bobbin, so it’s no longer messy and confusing and impossible to deal with.

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I don’t want to be rescued. I don’t want to be saved. I’m not in any danger, and I’m not trapped. I’m not suffering any more than I choose to. I just want someone – someone who knows, who understands – to give me a hug. To hold me while I shake with held-back sobs, just for a little bit. Not give any advice, not tell me what I need to do or how far I can go or that I have to stop. Just hold me. I just want someone I can go to who believes I can do this, that I’m strong enough and smart enough to do this right, and who will give me a hug. That’s all I need right now. A hug.

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Sometimes this song calms me.

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Death

 
 
If I die young
Bury me in satin
Lay me down on a bed of roses
Sink me in the river at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song
 

The first time I heard this song was in the car. I was rather sleepy, and the only thought I had was “If I die young? How morbid.”

The second time I really listened, and I started thinking about death. I don’t want to die. I have so much left to do. I don’t know what comes next, so I don’t fear it – I’ll figure that out when I get there – but I fear leaving. I’m not ready.

The third time I heard this song I thought about the bit toward the end where she says, “Penny for your thoughts – oh no; I’ll sell them for a dollar. They’re worth so much more after I’m a goner.” A while ago Squiggle and I had a conversation about just that: she remarked on how unreasonable it really is that a person’s words carry so much more weight once they’re dead. If this person’s opinions matter so much to you, you should have been paying attention already. I realize that there are emotional reasons – guilt, sorrow, etc. – for taking a person’s words to heart when you suddenly lose them. But I resolved that if a person was important to me, I was going to listen to their advice while they were still around to give it. I hope I manage to stand by that.

Squiggle once told me that one of the saddest things about death, to her, was being forgotten. If she could, she said, she’d be immortal, so that none of her friends would ever be forgotten. At the time I answered that I don’t need to be remembered by my name, my face, or even my actions; I just want to leave my mark in people’s lives, make them happier somehow, teach them something. That way whenever they follow through on that lesson, whenever they pass it on to someone else, however long it lasts – I won’t be completely gone.

It’s still true. I still want to remain in the world through good deeds that people do for each other. If I get to have a legacy, I want that to be it.

But if I die now – if I die young – then all my friends, my family, everyone I know will move on with life without me. I won’t be forgotten, but I’ll be gone. I’ll fade away, until I’m just a story people tell their kids, and not even a very long story. I didn’t expect that to bother me, but it does. I don’t want to be gone. I haven’t had “just enough time”. I’m still here, I still have so much to do, to see, to learn. I don’t want to leave the people I love.

The fourth time I heard this song, I thought about how, when it comes to death (and most other things), my life has been pretty sheltered. Not very many people I know have died, and most of them I wasn’t too close to and hadn’t seen in a while anyway. None of them were young, either – except one.

I tell people he was my cousin, because it’s simpler, but he wasn’t actually. I have a friend in Brazil whom I’ve known pretty much my entire life. Her mother and mine are best friends; her grandparents and mine are best friends; our great-grandparents used to go to each other’s houses for tea. He was her cousin, her uncle’s son. My sister, my friend and I spent nearly every waking moment of every summer together, but I never played much with him. I didn’t really see him much at all. All I do remember is him laughing and beating me at everything. I was a year younger than he and very competitive, and if he weren’t there I’d have been the oldest. It infuriated me that he always won, and that he sometimes cheated to do so, and that he laughed at me; but that laughter is what I best remember, and the reason I did actually like him even when I was busy being righteously indignant. He was fun – he was hilarious – and he was, sort of, family.

I hadn’t seen him for two years when, one spring, he put a gun to his head and shot himself. I’ve tried to understand how that laughing face could be so tormented that he would do such a thing, but I can’t hold the two pictures in my head together. I guess two years is a long time.

I was fourteen. I cried so much. I don’t remember much of it – my mind has erased a lot of the memories – but I remember lying on the couch in the living room with the door closed, my face stuffed into a pillow as I bawled as silently as I possibly could, because if my parents heard they would only be upset and there was nothing they could do. This happened… quite a few times. It hurt so much, and for once I didn’t even have the words to say why it hurt. It just did, even though I barely knew him, even though he probably hadn’t even spared me a second thought since the last time we’d seen each other, even though of all the people he meant to hurt, I wasn’t even on the list.

I thought that was why he’d done it – to hurt his parents. He shot himself right after a fight with them. I have to admit I never thought about it too much beyond that – I think because I couldn’t comprehend a burden so great that death would sound like a good idea. Not for a fifteen-year-old kid. Not someone real, someone I knew, someone whose dad had played hide-and-seek with my mom when they were little. What could possibly be happening to him that was so awful?

To this day I don’t know. I doubt I ever will. At the time, though, the effect of all this was that I hated him, and that my vague disapproval of suicide turned to avid loathing. For many years, that was how things stood.

Now I have a friend whose life is so horrible that she has, multiple times, considered ending it. At first she told me that she had, in the past tense, wanted to kill herself. But slowly, before my very eyes, it got worse, and there was nothing I could do. She said once – in writing, to our whole group of friends – that she wanted to die, “and if you will hate me for that, then you are not good friends because this isn’t living. So why live?”

It felt like she’d stabbed me through the heart. Because in a way, she was absolutely right. Hating her would be selfish. I still don’t want her to die, but this forced me to think about why. I know why it’s important to me that she live. Why is it important to her?

She still has so much time. There’s still so much to do, and so much time to do it in. The world is huge, and life is long. If she ends her life now, her whole life will have been full of pain. If she waits – if she gives herself time, and fights on – she can fill it with joy. Maybe she’s right when she says that the wounds inside her will never go away, that the scars will never leave her. Maybe they won’t. But scars heal. She may never be the same, but that doesn’t mean she’ll never be happy.

That’s the best I can do. I don’t know enough to say why living is worth it for someone who doesn’t feel that way themselves. I’m not wise enough, I’m not old enough – I don’t know.

I used to worry that when someone walked out the door – my mother, my sister, my father, whoever – they might never come back. I didn’t have any logical reason for this worry, and I don’t have a Freudian excuse. I don’t remember when it started plaguing me, the terrible knowledge that anyone can die, at any moment in time. Life isn’t a story: people don’t just die at the most intense parts of the narration. Somewhere along the way this must have hit home for me, and suddenly every time my mother went out for groceries a spike of panic would lance through me.

I was never magically cured of this. I just learned to suppress the feeling, to tell myself that I was being silly. Besides, there’s nothing I can do. If a meteor falls on my mother while she’s buying broccoli, then that’ll be that. I learned to deal with my fear so well that I’d almost forgotten about it altogether.

When I moved back from Denmark, I was morbidly afraid that the plane would fall. Then I was morbidly afraid that Europe would be struck by the apocalypse and all my friends would die while I was over here. Then I calmed down, got over it, and moved on. Until Midnight said she wanted to kill herself. If she died, if I just turned off the computer one day and never heard from her again–

There were days when I nearly screamed with the panic, the frustration, the terror of knowing that I was too far away and there was nothing I could do and no matter what I said I wasn’t helping. There were days when I’d log off of facebook and curl up on the floor, shaking with fear and quiet sobs, praying that she’d still be there the next time I logged on. At one point she told Flip that she wanted to take a break from Mao, from us, from our group, and I nearly lost it. I’d been dreading for weeks that she might just not be there one day, and here she said she was going to do exactly that. She wouldn’t be dead, so it wouldn’t be permanent, but still I pretty much went crazy when I saw she’d deactivated her facebook account. She hadn’t even said goodbye! A short while later she reactivated it, and we had the biggest fight we’d ever had – the only real fight we’ve ever had. At the end of it she swore she wouldn’t ever do that to me, that she’d never just vanish like that.

She’s promised that she won’t kill herself. She’s said a few times that there were moments when she wanted to, when she was so close, but she didn’t. She stayed. She says she won’t do it. I have to believe her, I have to, because if I don’t–

I have to.

I do. She promised. She’ll stay. I don’t know what strength it is she finds to keep living when she wants so much not to, but I’m glad she has it.

Being Badass

I wrote this months ago and never posted it, because I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or not. I still can’t tell – I’ll leave it up to you.

A while ago Midnight and I were joking around, and she asked me what my secret was – “How can you be so badass?” Needless to say, I cracked up immediately. But I did start thinking about it, and I realized that I actually do know the rules.

There are two Cardinal Laws of Badassery, and you only need to follow one. (If you are truly spectacular, you may even be able to pull off both.)
1) Be so frickin scary no one messes with you
2) Know how to laugh at yourself

Then there are two . . . sublaws, not quite as important but still useful:
3) No situation is awkward unless you say so
4) Be yourself – or at least be consistent

So. Here we go:

1) Be so frickin scary no one messes with you
This is definitely the easiest way to go for fictional characters, but in real life (and frequently in fiction), it is nigh impossible to pull this off properly. You end up just being a jerk, and no one likes a jerk. Part of being badass is that you are cool. People Brutalmay hate you a little, or even a lot, but they admire and respect you as well. No one respects a playground bully. However, if you adhere to a strict code of honor and are rigorously fair and all that jazz, it will often work, and you can be Shogun. The main problem is that you can always be outclassed by someone badder than you. There is no exception.

2) Know how to laugh at yourself
This one is much harder, because laughing at yourself is a hard skill to acquire. (Note that I do not mean laughing at your own jokes.) Once you’ve got it, though, and if you can maintain it, you are bulletproof for all time. Your detractors can mock you as much as they want; if you mock right along with them, they look stupid and you look like the bigger man. Everyone in the room can be laughing at you, but if you laugh with them the joke is suddenly on the mockers. This will often gain you respect, as people realize you are stronger – and cooler – than they expected. Bonus points if the mockers get all flustered and start shouting, because then all you have to do is keep grinning. Even more bonus points if you’re polite and sympathetic (and maybe just the tiniest bit patronizing – don’t overdo it) as they turn apoplectic and incoherent. (Make sure you actually are in a public place with some sort of authority to stop things if it gets physical, or else make sure you know karate.)

In other words, the main point is to keep your cool. Cutting wit is a definite advantage, but should be used carefully as it can make you just as much of a bully. This Cardinal Law is much more practical in everyday life, as it’s more conducive to actually having friends and such and doesn’t require Mad Ninja Skills. It’s also much harder to be outclassed by someone who’s badder than you, because you’ll probably just end up grinning at each other and going out for ice cream – especially if you follow the rule of Do Not Do Unto Others Until They Have Done Unto You, also known as Don’t Be the One Who Started It.

3) No situation is awkward unless you say so
Basically, refuse to be fazed by anything that should be embarrassing. This is easier if you haven’t actually done anything to be embarrassed about – if it looks worse than it actually is – but all it really requires is the confidence that anything can be fixed by a dazzling smile and/or that anyone who insists on misunderstanding the situation, especially after you’ve explained, is not worth getting worked up over. If you have done something to be embarrassed over, then just shrug, accept the consequences and move on. It is rarely that big a deal. This law also applies to awkward silences, where the rule is that if you don’t want the silence to be awkward, it’s not. End of story. Just turn on your Inner Contentedness and watch the clouds go by or something.

4) Be yourself – or at least be consistent
We’ve all heard this one before: just be yourself, and the world will fall madly in love with you. Birds will sing when you pass. Anything you want will be half-price. Traffic jams will never happen when you’re in a hurry. Flowers will blossom in your footsteps, sometimes through solid asphalt. Basically, Be Yourself and your life is one long happy Disney movie.

Obviously, that’s not the way real life works. But it is true that if you refuse to bend to social pressure in regards to what is the ‘correct’ way of acting, speaking or thinking, people will be impressed. (It may take time. It may also never happen, particularly if you don’t draw much attention to begin with. People are not all that observant.) Thing is, this doesn’t just apply to Being Yourself. It also applies to projecting an Image and sticking to it. Whether the Image you project to the world is the ‘real you’ or not, you ought to be consistent in projecting it.

This is where my own personal values come into conflict with my Laws of Badassery: I believe that you should do your best to Be the Person You Want To Be (by which I mean you should take care to acquire virtues and strengths that you consider important, such as patience or empathy, and make them part of yourself and not just a mask you wear). Being Badass, Badasshowever, is frequently subject to popular opinion of you, so you may wish to watch out with this one. It may be more useful to project an Image that fits you well enough that upholding it won’t be a trial. This can lead to its own problems, especially if you’re still in the process of growing as a person (teenagers, beware), but it’s a safer way to public acceptance, particularly because you can tailor your Image to suit the society you’re living in.

There are other rules, but they’re all circumstantial, depending on who you are and whom you’re trying to impress. For some people it’s things like appearance, wealth, lots of friends/followers and so on; for others it’s having a particular talent or skill at which they excel, often sports but really just anything; for others it’s standing up to authority, being a rebel, being outside of what’s mainstream. That can be important – how important depends on the society you’re in – but what really matters is how you deal with friends and acquaintances, face down challenges, and handle the world you live in.

A Slowly Kindled Light

An old diary entry, probably from April:

“You don’t have to be nice all of the time.”

I was Crash who said it. I don’t remember when; I dont’ remember what I said to prompt it. I just remember his voice saying it, and the force with which the answer rose from within me: Yes I do! Yes I do, or I might forget.”

I didn’t say it, though. I didn’t know him well enough at the time, and even now I don’t know if I would have. No point ruining a cheerful moment, and I suppose it would be a bit selfish – kind of making it all about me, and forcing everyone to deal with my issues without any warning. Not very fair.

I wanted to. It didn’t just rise up within me; it boiled up, scalding and bubbling and fluidly unstoppable. It’s been a part of me for so long, the knowledge that I have to be nice, that I don’t even notice it anymore. I’m not sure why it erupted just then, so violent and anguished. Perhaps because I’d started daring to believe that with them, I wouldn’t have to. Perhaps it was before I dared believe it. I don’t remember when it was, so it’s hard to say.

When seeking a name for my recent troubles, I once called them ‘a crisis of identity’. That’s not what they are, but it’s a decent name. In a way, what’s been happening has forced me to reevaluate the way I view myself. I don’t know if I’ve changed a lot, or if I’ve changed a little but only now noticed changes that have been happening for years; one way or another, I have to redefine the way I build my relationships and the way I protect myself.

A few weeks ago – maybe less – all this got me thinking about the last time I had what could be called a crisis of identity. At first it was just for comparison: “I haven’t been this confused and upset since I was twelve!” (Later, “I haven’t been this upset since I was twelve, and now I have even more in my head confusing me.”) But then (I should have seen it coming), I started worrying about the things that worried me then.

Or, well, not quite. Some of it really is settled and done. Back then I’d decided – or come to believe – or something like that – that all people are born with a certain amount of good and evil in their souls and, based on evidence, been forced to conclude that I was born more dark than light. By nature I am selfish, proud, vain, condescending, inconsiderate, egotistical, lazy, irresponsible, forgetful (even when it’s important), suspicious, bossy, unforgiving, arrogant, and apt to think that everyone should adapt to me, especially when I am having problems. This is not indicative of an abundance of goodness, and well I knew it (and still do). Indeed, a lot of the anguish and confusion I was feeling at the time left me when I finally admitted it to myself: I am not, by nature, a good person.

I don’t remember how I came to the next conclusion, the one that eventually saved me: I may not have been born bright, but I can strengthen the light within me. Nurture it gently, teach it to shine, hold back the darkness with all of my might. One thing I do remember clearly is a day on which I was walking a lap for P.E. and musing on this. I was disturbed by the realizations I was only just coming to. I was thinking on Septimus Heap – I don’t remember the connection exactly – and on how, if I hadn’t been raised by the family I have, I could easily have turned into a terrible person. I have the potential for good, which they have managed to bring out in me, but I have the predisposition to be very, very bad.

I distinctly remember the thought, curling through my mind, wrapped ’round a story as so many of my thoughts were (and sometimes still are).  I remember the frightening and inescapable weight of it. How hard it was to face.

I don’t remember any attempt to run away from it – I think once it had manifested itself so clearly in my conscious mind, I could never pretend it didn’t exist. I don’t remember it even being an option. I suppose the weight of its inevitability was so great that I knew it was true.  All evidence backed it, and so did my gut feeling. It hurt and it scared me, but it was true.

So I was born dark. Undeniably, irrefutably. Fine. I didn’t have to stay dark. If my family had changed me this much, then they would likely continue to do so, and I could further the process myself. I knew what I wanted to be: good. I had read enough books to know what that meant: compassionate, respectful, selfless, understanding, not a burden to others, and appreciative of the abilities of everyone. All I had to do, then, was work at it.

I did. It was hard. No surprise there, really.

I had to keep a tight clamp on any feelings of superiority, which half of my erstwhile classmates were making rather difficult. The real problem, though, was my mom, who had responded to all of their teasing by, basically, telling me I was awesome. When she realized how sarcastically I received this praise, or perhaps for some other reason that I just dont’ know, she started telling me in earnest that I am smarter than most people my age. More intelligent. A better brain, or at least more efficiently used. And all this while I was trying to be a better person and not look down on anyone.

I eventually realized/decided that I might be more intelligent than most, but that didn’t make me better because everyone had some talent or skill at which they excelled – everyone was better than me in some way, so it was okay for me to be better than them in this way. And besides, ‘most’ didn’t mean ‘everyone’. There were and are plenty of people at least as intelligent as I am and often more; if I kept that in mind, it kept me humble.

I learned to keep down my darker tendencies; to be constantly in control. Sometimes I would start feeling comfortable around someone and forget. Luckily, I only felt that comfortable around people I liked and respected, so I was never (as far as I know) accidentally nasty to someone; but sometimes I would catch myself being condescending, and sometimes I’d notice some deeply selfish thing I was doing or assuming or saying and not know how to stop myself.

Time is the greatest teacher. I eventually figured it out. I learned to think of others, to not say anything unless I was sure it was safe, and to not look down on people. I’m far from perfect, though. I still act selfishly, even if I’ve learned to think more kindly. I recently discovered that the reason I think so well of everyone is that I just don’t hold them to the same standards as I hold myself. That is hardly non-condescending, and it limits my pool of friends back to what it’s always been, because I can’t truly be friends with someone I hold to lower standards than myself.

This doesn’t actually bother me too much, even if it should, so I’ll deal with it when I’m not so preoccupied with so many other things. But it is proof positive that I’m not as good a person even as I thought I was. I have to keep at it.

So until I’ve become good, or until I’ve found another way I want to be, or maybe forever – God, I hope not forever – then yes, I do have to be nice all the time.

Belief

The Second World War was pretty hard on the British people. Alone on their islands, they suffered through rations and bombings. Their men were sent to war and their children to the countryside. NeverThere were no street lights at night – their cars barely had headlights. They had to make do with far less than they were used to eating, wearing, living with. Every day they lost more. Every day could be their last.

I’ve never heard of a riot in that time. I’ve never heard of public protests against the war. I’ve certainly never heard of people fleeing the country. I suppose this is due in part, perhaps in large part, to selective teaching. Yet it is impressive, isn’t it? A whole nation bearing such hardships for a cause they believed in.

I don’t know if it would have worked so well today. People don’t believe in things today, not like they used to. Not like that. I think that when the time comes to break under pressure or adapt and survive, most people surprise themselves. But still I wonder – if this happened today, if we had to fight Nazis today – if we had to open the newspaper every day dreading the names we would find there – how would we take it?

Sound SystemsIs that what’s happening with the war in Afghanistan? I know there are families out there that live in dread of a letter on their doorstep, or whatever it is the Army uses to deliver such news in these modern times. But we’re not living it as a nation. We don’t have to worry about blackout curtains and rationed meals. We don’t live in fear, every day, of hearing the awful sirens that mean we must abandon everything – and everyone – and run for shelter.

People used to believe in things. In the government, in justice. We used to believe that there was Good and there was Bad, and all you Rock Climbinghad to do was stay on the right side. They used to believe that the Nazis ate babies, too. When everything is black and white, propaganda can be as liberal as it likes with the truth.

I was listening to a song once – “Shades of Gray” by the Monkees – and my mom said she had always thought that song was about the Vietnam War. She said that that was when America lost that view of things, that perception of Good and Evil as easily defined things. That innocence.

Do Not QuestionNow we are jaded and cynical. Propaganda doesn’t fool us! We don’t fall for those old tricks. We don’t believe in the government. We don’t believe in authority. We don’t believe in justice, in honor. We don’t believe in kindness. We don’t believe in Good. We don’t believe in anything. We don’t believe in belief.

We don’t believe in ourselves. In humanity. In people. In strangers we see on the street. In children we screen for guns. In little old ladies who want to cross our borders. In charities who knock on our door, asking for our money.

How are we supposed to believe when the children carry guns, little old ladies carry drugs, and the people at our door want to take our life savings? What is there to believe in?

We have to believe in something. We’re human. Living without belief just doesn’t work. So what do we turn to? Anonymous hackers who claim to fight for freedom? A government that was made to stand for freedom? Organisations that promise to protect our freedom?

What is freedom, anyway?

Do any of us know? Do you?

If you know, do you have it? Are you fighting for it? Freedom is a privilege, you know. Anyone with power can take it away from you. Can you take it back? Can you do it and not lose yourself in the process?Stand Up

Can we – jaded, cynical, cautious and defensive – can we choose to believe in people? Can we decide that what we’ve been calling common sense is just paranoia and really believe in other people? In strangers we see on the street, in children we screen for guns, in little old ladies and people at our door? Do we want to? Can we afford to? Can we afford not to?

What do you believe?

The Myriad Wonders of Danish Education

Last year, 357 Danish graduates took the EU civil service exam. All 357 of them failed. This* article in the Copenhagen Post comments on the situation, and on why it might have come to pass. Apparently the Danish education system is not teaching people properly.

Forgive me if I’m not surprised. I’ve been complaining about this for ages now. I don’t usually complain in public, because my parents taught me that guests should be polite to their hosts, and we are guests here in Denmark. Instead I keep my trap shut and politely put up with all the self-satisfied commentary on the fallacies of standardized testing and how America’s educational system relies far too heavily on such faulty methods. I even politely agree with them a little, because they do have a point.

I politely refrain from mentioning the fact that Danish schools spend nine solid years preparing students for one final exam which doesn’t even count for a thing, with nothing that even resembles qualifying exams at the end of each year. After this they have three years of gymnasium with exams at the end of each year. Their GPA at the end of these three years decides their entire future.

In other words, after nine years of no real consequences for academic laziness, they are suddenly expected to be responsible, disciplined students. This when they’re teenagers finally being hit by the realization that they don’t have a clue what they want from their lives, and by the panic that comes of seeing that there isn’t much time left to choose.

Furthermore, the last few of those nine years are treated as enormously important despite the fact that they’re really not. Students are expected to care about their studies for no real reason, and because this is the way it’s always been, they do. They stress out completely, especially being unused to discipline, and especially because this happens just as they’re turning thirteen or fourteen, which the whole world knows is not a very disciplined age. By the time they turn sixteen or seventeen and go to gymnasium, they’re exhausted from the unaccustomed stress and ready for a break.

And now, after they’re already tired and (in some cases) disillusioned, their grades are exponentially more important.

As for the evils of standardized testing, at least it is standardized. Danish grades depend entirely on the teacher: I have several friends who have been given terrible grades by the French Teacher from the Black Lagoon. (She’s known school-wide as the worst thing that could happen to you within those walls. Students who have had her, upon hearing you share the same fate, shake their heads in pity and earnestly wish you luck, because luck is just about the only thing that can save you.) There is pretty much nothing they can do about this. It will affect their GPA forever more, which may considerably affect their future. Even with the more human teachers, sometimes a student is simply neglected or overlooked, through no fault of their own and no fault of the teachers but being a bit too distracted to notice everyone. Tests, which Danish teachers rarely use, could at least give such students a chance to shine.

Exams at the end of the year are for only some subjects. If you have an exam in a subject, the grade you get from it will replace whatever grade you might have gotten from the teacher. This is great if you are good at exams; not so much otherwise. I don’t know how the American system works in this regard so I can’t compare, but I’m not sure I like this method so much.

Then there is the question of special attention for those who need it. Danish schools are finally starting to provide special education for those who fall below the average, which is a grand thing. I’ve heard it’s not nearly good enough, but at least it’s progress. There is hope for the future.

However, those who fall below the grade are not the only ones who need help. Some children are quicker to grasp things than their peers, and they sit there in class bored out of their clever little minds as the teacher repeats something for the eighth time. Denmark doesn’t even recognize this as a problem, let alone do anything about it. So you end up with people like Indigo, who is absolutely brilliant but has trouble believing it, or people like Crash, who knows he can get top grades if he tries but is too lazy to do so, because he’s never had to try before.

I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in America; I’m sure it happens all the time. But when I was in second grade, I took the standardized tests at the end of the year and they showed that I was far, far above average. So I was offered a place in a special program which endeavored to collect as many such kids as possible in one class and keep them together for two years. Fourth and fifth grade were awesome for me, because I actually learned things at a decent pace and was surrounded by interesting people. In middle school they place you in math classes according to your level of proficiency, not your age; in high school you can take AP courses and so on for most classes. Most of my teachers made an effort to provide a challenge for those students who were up to it. They didn’t all succeed, but at least they tried.

Perhaps this is just the story of one lucky kid who lived in a privileged area. But we’re in the capital of Denmark, for pete’s sakes! Not even – we’re in the particularly prosperous city ensconced within the capital of Denmark. They should be able to deal with the possibility of particularly clever students, and the fact that such people are rarely good at motivating themselves, usually because they’ve never really had to before. There are a few teachers who try to cater to the needs of every student in the class, but they are few, and it is not easy for them. Most teachers just try to get everyone through the assigned syllabus. This means they take care with those who might fall behind, but not so much with those who are already miles ahead and waiting impatiently for everyone else to catch up.

I’m sure the evils of standardized testing are manifold. But, ironically, the society that employs it makes at least some attempt to educate those whose needs are not quite average; the Danish society, which scoffs at it so self-righteously, fails to see that not everyone fits the standard.


*The third paragraph in the English version of this article contains a small mistake: ‘unacceptable’ instead of ‘acceptable’.