The Art Teacher Was a Lady

March 2, 2017

Art Lady, you saved me.

It was big thrill when we got out of our usual elementary school routine to go to art class. It may have been for only one hour once a week, but it gave the kids a chance to use a different part of their brains. The teacher was usually a lady with crazy make-up and funky clothes (a big deal in 1970s Georgia), but we were happy to be unleashed. I seem to remember making a lot of crappy ashtrays for my parents who didn’t smoke. But whoever she was, Ms. Art Teacher always let us do our own thing. And I don’t ever remember any Mr. Art Teachers.

There was a coded message that art was feminine. Men taught math, even football coaches, and women “let you” do art. History (as the history of wars) was necessary, but art was extracurricular. When President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002, public schools saw a dramatic defunding of “non-essential” arts and music programs (as well as history and language classes) to shift resources to math and English. Once again the feminine was devalued. So the millennials got even less time with the Art Lady then we did. Gee, what could go wrong?

There are a truckload of studies that show the benefits of exposing kids to arts in school. Students that have arts, music, and dance in school score better in reading, writing, and math and have higher graduation rates. Kids with an art background become better citizens and add to community cohesion. Schools with art programs have fewer disciplinary problems. Students who take art classes even have healthier brains. And the findings go on and on. But why waste our time with artsy fartsy arts when we could be teaching our youth to find the value of x?

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-12-08-20-pm

I’ve been reflecting on my own arts education, or lack of it. The elementary school arts teacher didn’t follow us into high school. (There was no middle school in Georgia in the 1970s). There was a small arts club at our school but not much beyond that. (The Industrial Arts Club had more members.) Certainly if you showed any affinity for the arts you were called a “fag.” This was especially true for boys. I’ve written about my short tenure playing high school football as simply a performance of the narrow definition of high school masculinity. I was riding the bench when I would have rather been reading and listening to records. It wasn’t until the arrival of punk rock to rural Georgia that I found righteousness in being bullied. Iggy Pop saved me from a life as a half-assed jock.

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-12-30-30-pm

I was one of the lucky ones. My parents were from Cleveland, not Stone Mountain. My mom played saxophone in a jazz band and got to hang out with Louis Armstrong. Her mother was a globe trotter and brought us musical instruments from all over the planet. (I used the balalaika to mime to Kiss songs.) My dad traveled for business and brought the outside world back with him. We had a baby grand piano in the house and regularly gathered around and sang the songs of old. I liked to act in school plays. (I was Mr. Grumpy in Mr. Grumpy’s Toy Shop, dammit!) My great love of literature was nurtured at home, so while my friends were off getting drunk in a field, I was reading George Orwell, Jim Carroll and barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard, while listening to Blue Oyster Cult albums. My cohort seemed to reject anything connected expression, by themselves or others. (Although there was a brief moment in 1980 when it seemed that half of Redan High School was reading Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire.) The mission, as it is in every high school, was to manage conformity. And anyone a few steps outside of normal had to be punished.

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-12-32-26-pm

By my senior year there was a small group of us punk kids and it was brutal. We’d get physically attacked by boys who demand that we stop listening to “fag rock” and “go buy some Nugent.” Gender conformity extended to even music. (I actually had Ted Nugent in my LP collection, between the New York Dolls and Gary Numan.) Thanks to rock magazines, like Creem and Circus, I got into the Australian band AC/DC long before they broke in the US. But I knew if I wore my AC/DC t-shirt to to RHS in the 70s, the reaction from the rednecks was like the drool of Pavlov’s dogs. “Hey, Gayzak! AC/DC? That means you’re a fucking faggot! Ha, ha!” Two years later they would worship this band, but they had to make it to the overground first. Anything from the underground was associated with “fairies.”

Of course, for me, the underground is where I wanted to be. I wanted to escape to the Lower East Side of NYC and hang out with Patti Smith and the Ramones. Or San Francisco and sip cappuccinos with the bastard children of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Or the Sunset Strip in LA where I could have a funny haircut and hang out with actors. There was one store at Lennox Square Mall in Atlanta called Rain that sold “new wave clothes,” and once I got my drivers license I was a regular customer, fully knowing that identifying myself as “other” would lead to more beat downs from the boys. Saint Iggy, protect us.

51y3fzktt5l

The world of art was my escape. I was never told by the people that mattered to me, including parents, teachers, and rock stars interviewed in the sacred pages of Rolling Stone, that I should not search for my own voice. When you’re a kid, it’s mostly consuming to find the idiom that most speaks to you. Am I a realist, surrealist, goth, or mod? And then you start, in bits and pieces, and five-line poems and napkin sketchings, to externalize your own internal chaos. For me it was discovering the teenage poetry of Liverpool writers, like Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, that got my #2 pencil moving. “In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living and you will tell me you love me, tonight at noon.” They opened the door to bebop jazz and the world of bohemia. My mind was gone and my body soon followed. Out, out, out of Stone Mountain.

I’m reflecting on all this because the strange world of Facebook has given me a fascinating (and totally unscientific) longitudinal data set. It’s allowed me to reconnect with my high school peers and peek in on their trajectories over the last 30+ years. Those of us who hung out on the fringes of conformity, the formerly despised “art fags,” generally ended up in some pretty cool places and are still rooted in a cultural defiance that others never got to enjoy. The Nugent-crowd still has a vested interest in the status quo. (“Give Trump a chance. Get rid of those illegals. Religious freedom of cake bakers to discriminate!”) There are certainly exceptions to this, but the art-averse climate of my little Georgia Klan town is not that dissimilar to the defunded arts program world that gave us Trump and the “mandate” to not offer protection to transgender kids who need to use the goddam bathroom.

6142c455fd7b59742de4c87b929c623d

At what point did we become truly human? One could argue that it was when Paleolithic people first began making art. Artifacts dating as far back as 50,000 years show our attempt to translate our experience for others. The 10,000 year-old cave paintings in France are vivid depictions of not only the real but the spiritual. What is life? There is a direct link from a cave dweller banging out a new rhythm on a hollow log to the latest Ed Sheeran song. (Well, I’m guessing cave drummer didn’t see the beat as “product,” but you get what I mean.) The arts tell us we are unique and have our own voice. You don’t need Ted Nugent to speak for you.

It’s funny how the arts are framed as feminine. All the most famous artists are male. Name one female painter other than Frida Kahlo. Meanwhile girls and women are creating amazing works because it is an innately human act. It’s like how cooking is a “feminine art,” but all the highest paid chefs are men. Casting the wide world of the arts, whether it’s playing a cello or writing a memoir, as a feminine world allows it to be marginalized. Artists are in touch with their feminine side and soldiers are in touch with their masculine side. And we wonder why ISIS blows up libraries and Donald Trump wants to defund the National Endowment for the Arts to help pay for record build up of the military.

Our future as humans depends on fostering the arts among our youth. I bet the Art Lady would agree.

ted-nugent-cat-scratch-fever

My Unintended Gap Year: The humility of looking for work

Sept. 1, 2016

1924042_42131584306_2350_n

I had my dream job. For twenty years I was an award winning sociology professor at Portland State University. My research on hate groups made me an internationally recognized expert on the subject and I did countless media appearances, from The O’Reilly Factor to Al Jazeera. I published and presented and diligently worked my way up the ranks: the young Assistant Professor, the tenured Associate Professor, and finally the stately Full Professor. Most importantly, I would walk out of every single class and feel privileged that I got to impact so many lives on crucial issues like race, gender, and power dynamics. Occasionally, I felt it was like a huge mistake that a punk like me ended up with such a wonderful career.

Then this career that meant something to the world was taken away from me because I fell in love.

In what seemed like a David Mamet play, a small group of powerful administrators teamed up with a racist skinhead incarcerated in an Oregon prison to purge me from campus. I was an officer in the faculty union and we had recently voted to go on strike so there were already battle lines drawn. My crime? My wife was taking an online Women’s Studies class at PSU. After numerous accusations generated by the inmate, all of which fell flat, they asked me, “Are you sleeping with any students at this university?” I responded, “Yes, I sleep with one every night. My wife.” Our child was in her carrier set next to me when I said it. And that was that. They had their technical violation.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 9.01.11 AM

Andrea had been a student in one of my huge Intro Sociology classes and I never really even spoke to her during the class. After the class was over I ran into her at Dante’s bar and she bought me a shot of tequila and asked if I’d like to go out sometime. I told her I didn’t date students. She bought me another shot of tequila and I said maybe we could be friends. It wasn’t long after that that we fell madly in love, became travel companions, got married and had a beautiful daughter. Not once in this drama did I ever regret choosing to be with Andrea. She is the partner I’ve waited for all my life. Any regret is reserved for the trust I placed in university administrators to recognize that love is a gift to be celebrated, not punished.

The whole thing was pointless, yet emotionally devastating. I can’t speak to their true motives. I have my suspicions. They had discretion to weigh my contribution to the university against this supposed offense, so it’s hard for me to see their response as a rational action. Perhaps they saw my unconventionality as a liability. My only real regret in the matter is that I let the lawyers make all the decisions after that point. I should have fought harder against the rumor mongers and for my place at the school that I loved. But we had a new baby and I was afraid if I didn’t accept the settlement, I would have a hard time finding work in my field again.

So I walked away from my dream job.

I wanted to write and be a stay-at-home dad for a bit. I hoped I could land in something quickly, a visiting professorship, a publishing advance, an invitation to be on Dancing with the Stars. Turns out the market for full professors is pretty slim. Shrinking academic budgets have departments looking for cheap Assistant Professors just out of grad school. “I’ve already been through the tenure process,” I said to myself. “I’m not going through that hell again.” With my experience couldn’t I just hop over to Reed College or the University of Portland? I had guest lectured at both.

525c6996f042b_preview-300_thumb

In the meantime, the great health benefits I had at PSU ended and our baby needed health care. We went on to the Oregon Health Plan and signed up for WIC. These services for “poor people” I had lectured about since my grad school days at Emory were now a vital part of keeping my family going. I would take Cozy to the dental services with the other low income parents and thank the universe that Obamacare was actually a thing. But going to the bank to take out my unemployment funds or using the WIC vouchers to purchase milk and government cheese for my child was the first lesson in humility. “This is just temporary,” I would promise myself. My wife, who actually had a job would laugh. “You’re a white man with a PhD,” she’d say. “You’re gonna be fine.”

12240101_10154338801679307_4900852557656292409_n

I had plenty of irons in the fire. I was happy to have time to work on a new novel, partially inspired by what happened. Friends and fans of my last book fully funded a $10,000 Kickstarter project to back it. I developed a reality show about teachers that might have some legs. I sent off applications for jobs I seemed to be cut out for, including at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. I was flown out to interview for a professorship at a great university in NYC and then flown out again to meet with the Provost. When she asked me what salary I’d require, I answered with my last salary at PSU and hoped that would be enough to move my family to the very expensive Big Apple. They ended up giving the job to some kid straight out of Harvard who probably said he would work for half that,

All the money I had banked away over the years started to thin out. Andrea got a great job at a law firm but I had to start selling off my beloved comic book collection. My summer teaching position in Isla Mujeres meant we could live on pesos and stretch it out for a while. I had fashioned myself as a bohemian stay-at-home dad, writing, pouring wine while Andrea painted, and presenting on Portland’s civil rights history with the baby on my hip. As long as the mortgage was covered I got less and less interested in looking for a job that didn’t suit me. (Although, I worried I might end up working weekends at the Foot Locker.)

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 9.13.23 AM

I’ve had a great detour for the last year-and-a-half, away from regular work. I desperately miss my students and colleagues at PSU, but I’ve continued to teach classes at the University of Oregon and on Isla Mujeres. I’ve done dozens of important tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, worked as a grant evaluator at the National Institute of Justice in DC, and written a pretty damn good book that will be out in a month. But it’s time to get back to work. Cozy is 2 and Andrea has her eyes on law school.  I need to step back into the provider role.

The second stage of humility is the asking for help finding a job. My Pisces brain thought someone would just hand me a plum gig because I’m just so fabulous. I don’t think it works that way in the real world. It’s time to put myself out there and get my foot in a few doors. That might include swallowing my pride and taking a few steps back so I can compete with those kids right out of grad school. A friend messaged me, “Don’t be afraid to backtrack with teaching in Higher Ed. There is no need to be prideful. You had a great run in education and maybe you could have another great run.”

There are so many philosophies to job-seeking. Some think you should wait for the job you envision yourself in. I just want to be able to take care of my family and the world they live in. Also, I know Excel.

I’ve worked steadily since I was 15. I got a job putting up Christmas decorations at Northlake Mall. At 16, I was the youngest person hired at Turtles Records, a great local Atlanta music chain that is long gone. I’ve loved work all my life, making this “gap year” a strange experience. But raising a child is a full time job in itself and I think Cozy is a better person for hiring me.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 9.13.48 AM

So here I am, passionate about seeing the human race evolve into a kinder species. Sometimes my sense of humor is questionable. I’m obsessed with music I haven’t heard yet. I’m completely devoted to my wife and child and making their dreams come true. I love to teach and write and sometimes forget where the comma goes. I have a lifetime of community involvement and thousands of former students that hopefully learned a thing or two about how the world works. I’m paper trained and I need a job.

PSU