Tag Archives: education

It’s Just A Piece Of Paper

13 Jul

I’ve been thinking a lot about my education, or lack thereof, lately.

I’m sure that a lot of this is because of my book; I’ve been editing the shit out of it this week, and it feels like it’s sort of taken over my life. Most of the book takes place in 2003, right around the time that I had to drop out of university. That personal failure, combined with a bunch of other stuff, made that autumn one of the lowest points in my life. In fact, leaving school was a huge part of the reason that I ended up being hospitalized for depression that year.

I’d always known that I’d go to university; there was never any question about that. My father was a lawyer, and my mother spent most of my childhood finishing her Bachelor of Arts in night school, graduating when I was sixteen. I can still remember what I wore to her graduation – a long, sort of shiny black skirt with pinky-purple flowers on it, and a pink tank top with spaghetti straps. Fuck, I can even remember what I had on when my father was called to the bar. I was four years old, and my mother insisted I wear this red flowered dress with a huge white, lacy collar. I hated that dress, because that damn collar made me feel like a clown. After the ceremony, my father took me to meet a supreme court judge. Trying to think up something suitably grownup to say, I shyly said to her, “I certainly admire these burgundy carpets.”

So education was always a big part of my life, and I grew up with the understanding that I would earn at the very least an undergraduate degree. And considering the fact that, after earning her BA, my mother took a leave of absence from her job in order to earn her Master’s of Social Work, I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to say that my parents hoped I would go on to complete a graduate degree or two as well.

Look, before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way now: I’m smart. I know that. I’m not trying to be vain or conceited; I honestly don’t think there’s anything vain about knowing your strong points. And for a long time, “smart” was the only thing I had – I wasn’t pretty, or popular, or especially talented in any of the ways that I wanted to be talented. The funny thing is, back then I would’ve given up being smart in a heartbeat if that meant that I could have been any of the other things on that list, especially the oh-so-desirable “pretty.” But I couldn’t, so I stuck with being the brainy geek.

In my final year of high school, I applied to a bunch of universities, all of them at least a couple of hours away from home. I knew that there was no fucking way that I was sticking around Kitchener; I’d been waiting pretty much my entire life to get out of there. I was thrilled when I got into my top pick, Dalhousie, and I moved to Halifax in August of 2001.

I was a good student. I got As or Bs in all of my classes, even Astronomy which, by the way, was technically a physics class (although, to be fair, it was a physics class geared specifically towards arts students). I’d thought that I wanted to study English, but in first year I fell in love with Latin and that class, along with Ancient History, was my favourite that year. In my second year, I officially declared Classics as my major, and settled in for the four year slog towards a Bachelor of Arts with honours. And you know what? I loved every fucking minute of that slog. I loved my classes, I loved my profs, I loved the other students, I loved the stupid wine and cheese events my department had, I loved all the nerdy Classics jokes, I even loved studying and writing papers. I loved all of it. Most of all, I loved learning.

Unfortunately, sometime during my second year, things started to fall apart for me financially. My government loan suffered at the hands of a bureaucratic fuck up, and I couldn’t get a student line of credit because I had no one to co-sign for me. I ended up somehow doing a full year of classes without paying for them and Dalhousie, needless to say, was pretty pissed. Then, when I tried to figure out how to register for my third year, I discovered something tricky: you can’t register for classes if you owe the school money, but you can’t get a government student loan if you’re not a registered student.

Can anyone say Catch-22?

So, after spending a month enduring a ridiculous circle-jerk involving various student services employees (with a couple of useless assists from the student aid office), I realized that I had to quit. Finishing my degree just wasn’t going to happen. Not then. Probably not ever, if I’m being totally honest with myself.

That moment, when I went from thinking of myself as a student to realizing that I was now one of the working poor, was one of the most shameful in my life. I can’t think of anything else in my life that embarrasses me as much as the fact that I had to leave school. Even now, it makes me fucking heartsick to think about; in fact, when I was talking about it with a friend today, I started crying. Ten fucking years later, and the memory of having to leave my degree unfinished still turns me into a stupid, mascara-smeared mess.

I guess I’d thought that I would’ve been over this whole lack-of-education thing by now, but I’m not. Oh boy, am I ever not. When I meet someone new, I’ll mention that I went to Dal, and that I took Classics, but unless I absolutely have to, I will never, ever admit that I didn’t finish my degree. If, somehow, it does come up, I will always carefully point out that I had to leave for financial reasons, and not because I failed any of my classes. When faced with well-educated people, I have a borderline pathetic need to prove how smart I am, to the point of being obnoxious about it.

The funny thing is, when I tell people that I wasn’t able to finish my degree, they’ll often laugh and say, “Oh, it’s just a piece of paper.” Which is easy to say when you’ve come out the other side with that piece of paper clutched firmly in your hands. But to dismiss it as being just a piece of paper is to ignore the fact that it’s a very, very expensive piece of paper that has the ability to magically gain respect and open doors. I get that saying that is an attempt to put me at ease, to make me feel like the playing field has been levelled, but let’s be honest: the field will never be level. You and your degree will always been on the higher ground, and I will always, always be down here, feeling small and stupid and mean.

We talk a lot in our society about how education is pretty much a cure-all for all kinds of social ills. Poverty, neglect, abuse, poor health and hygiene: you name it, and a bunch of people will tell you that education is the key. But what we don’t talk about is how fucking unattainable post-secondary education is to a huge part of our population. Oh, sure, there are government loans, but they can be hard to get, and they often fall short. Student lines of credit aren’t available to kids who don’t have someone to co-sign, and working full time over the summer just isn’t enough to cover tuition anymore. And all of that doesn’t even touch on the fact that tuition fees are rising at an alarming rate; I don’t even want to think about what they’ll be like by the time my son graduates from high school.

Higher education is a business, and don’t you ever forget it. We may like to have these misty-eyed ideas that we live in an egalitarian country where everyone has an equal opportunity for success, but anyone who honestly believes that is seriously fucking kidding themselves. Universities and colleges want your money, and if you can’t find a way to pay them, well, they’re not interested in educating you. You could be the smartest kid in the world, but if you’re poor – well, I’m not going to say that post-secondary school is impossible, but I will say that you’ve got a way harder road ahead of you than most. What makes all this even more difficult is the fact that most people who’ve earned university degrees don’t seem to be aware of the luck or privilege that helped them along; they truly believe that it was all their own hard work and sacrifice.

Which is really just another way of saying that poor people don’t work as hard or sacrifice enough.

Whenever I talk about my half-finished degree, someone will inevitably tell me that I’ll finish it someday. But the truth is that I probably won’t. What’s the point? Why shovel tens of thousands of dollars into that hole when all that I’ll get out of it is a piece of paper that says that I’m pretty good at translating things into Latin? I mean, sure, I would love to someday earn my BA, but if I’m being honest with myself, I know that there are so many other things that I would need to spend that money on before I wasted it on myself.

My kid, though? My kid is going to earn that piece of paper. We started an education fund for him when he was born, and we’ve asked our family to contribute to it in lieu of presents. My kid is never going to have to quit school because he doesn’t have enough money. My kid is never going to have to sit through two months of classes without a textbook because his loan hasn’t come in and he can’t afford them. My kid will never have to live off of one crappy cafeteria dinner a day because he had to cancel part of his meal plan in order to pay his phone bill. My kid is going to accomplish what I was never able to.

And once he has his degree, I will never, ever refer to it as just a piece of paper.

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An Open Letter to Margaret Wente (please stop perpetuating gender stereotypes)

23 Nov

Margaret Wente wants me to know that I don’t care about my son.

Well, not my son, specifically; she thinks that I don’t care about any boys. Or, at least, any “real boys”, whatever that might mean.

See, Ms. Wente recently wrote this lovely and super-balanced article for the Globe and Mail about the gender gap in education. For this piece, she interviewed the principal of Upper Canada College (one of our country’s most prestigious boys’s schools), two of his colleagues, and the executive director of the International Boys’ School Coalition (a not-for-profit coalition of schools that promote the “education and development of boys world-wide”) – so, all people who have a vested, financial interest in promoting the idea that boys need to be educated separately or differently from girls. She did not interview anyone who does not make money from boys-only education. See what I mean? Balanced.

It’s a fairly well-known fact that, percentage-wise, less boys are entering university than girls, and that more boys are dropping out of high school. Margaret Wente, and others like her, argue that this is because Canadian education today favours the learning styles of girls over that of boys. However, I find it interesting to note that the percentage of males obtaining a university degree has, in fact, increased by 5% since 1991 (though admittedly the percentage of females has increased by twice that amount), and the high school drop out rate for both males and females has been steadily declining for the past 20 years. Also interesting to note is that the gender gap is much smaller for those enrolled in college – there is only a 2% difference between the number of male and female college students. So what, exactly, am I trying to prove with all these numbers? That things maybe aren’t so dire as Margaret Wente makes them out to be, because according to her the situation is pretty dire. See, Margaret Wente thinks that we’ve reached some kind of boy-ocalypse that will certainly end with the extinction of males in academia.

Ms. Wente wants us to believe that women have “stormed the gates of medicine and law” (which may or may not be true – it’s hard to say, because she provides absolutely no sources for any of her claims), but interestingly she neglects to mention that a heavy and persistent bias against women in science still exists, or that most law firms are little more than old boys’ clubs. Ms. Wente wants us to know that,”In the most prestigious programs at some of our leading universities, the gender ratio has reached 70:30″, although she totally neglects to tell us what those prestigious programs are, and which leading universities offer them. It’s kind of hard to argue with someone who provides you with no reference for her “facts”, but I will say that my department at university (Classics) was overwhelmingly male. It’s possible that my program just wasn’t prestigious enough, or that Ms. Wente doesn’t consider Dalhousie to be a “leading” university. Who can say? I mean, other than Ms. Wente, that is.

Anyway, after a whole bunch of hyperbole, Margaret Wente finally gets down to brass tacks and explains what, exactly, she’s trying to get at: she feels that our school are not addressing boys’ needs in the classroom. Fair enough! So, what, according to Ms. Wente, are those needs?

Let’s take look, shall we?

“Boys’ existential issues are different from girls’. For a boy, the two most important life questions are: Will I find work that’s significant? And will I be worthy of my parents?”

Huh. That’s funny, because those things are both really important to me, too! Ms. Wente neglects to mention what the two most important “life questions” are for girls, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she believes they have something to do with marriage and babies.

“When boys themselves are asked what they need, they say: I need purpose. I need to make a difference. I need to know I measure up. I need challenge. Above all, I need a meaningful vocation.”

Well, that makes sense, because those are all things that are definitely not very important to girls. I mean, except for the fact that I would say that most of these are the driving forces in my life.

‘Boys also need to imagine themselves in heroic situations. When girls are asked about Vimy Ridge, they say, “Whew, it must have been horrific.” When boys are asked, they imagine what they would have done if they’d been there. “Our most powerful assembly is on Remembrance Day,” says Mr. Power. “Every boy is thinking to himself: How would I have measured up?”’

Well, I’m sure that that has nothing to do with the fact that we live in a culture that glorifies violence and war, right? Also, and this might just be my vagina talking, I tend to think that “horrific” is a pretty accurate description of Vimy Ridge.

Boys love rituals, trophies and tradition. Those also make them feel part of something bigger than themselves.

None of those are things that girls like. Ever. Girls hate working to achieve something, and if they do somehow manage to stumble upon an achievement, they definitely don’t want a trophy for it.

So far, I’m kind of having a hard time seeing what Ms. Wente is getting at, but then she decides to really lay it out for us. The problem with boys and education is that we’re not allowing them to be manly enough.

Many commentators – men as well as women – blame male culture itself for the problems with boys. In their view, what we need to do is destroy the death star of masculinity and all the evil that goes with it. What we need to do is put boys in touch with their emotions and teach them to behave more like girls.

This argument might make some sense – if you’re someone who believes that masculinity is nothing but a social construct. But people who care about real boys know that’s not true.

See? I told you that Margaret Wente doesn’t think that I care about real boys!

Time to get real, you guys. I’ve been pretty flippant up until now, but I have to tell you, it makes me pretty fucking angry that Margaret Wente likens understanding and acknowledging your feelings to behaving like a girl. First of all, I don’t think that there is any way to behave “like a girl”. Second of all, I think being “in touch” with your emotions is an excellent idea for anybody, regardless of their gender. Third of all, I am so fucking sick of people equating breaking down gender barriers with making boys “behave more like girls”. How about we just stop insisting that people fit into narrowly-defined gender roles?

The funny thing is, it’s those gender roles that are responsible for so many of the issues that Margaret Wente is complaining about.

Here are some examples:

The dominant narrative around difficult boys – at least in the public school system – is that they’re unteachable, unreachable, disruptive and threatening.”

But why doesn’t she question the fact that we live in a culture that puts value in boys behaving in a threatening way? Why doesn’t she wonder how, in our fucked-up view of masculinity, we equate violence with power?

[Women have] all but taken over pharmacy and veterinary work.

Gee, do you think that’s maybe because those career paths have come to be seen as more typically feminine? Do you think that there’s a chance that less boys are entering those fields because they’re afraid of compromising the masculinity that Ms. Wente praises so much?

Before the Industrial Revolution, boys spent their time with fathers and uncles, often engaged in strenuous physical activity. Now they spend their time in the world of women, sitting behind desks. If schools threw out the desks, they’d probably be a lot happier.

It’s interesting to note here that Ms. Wente fails to mention that before the Industrial Revolution it was only boys who permitted to attend school. And guess what? Schools back then included desks as well. In fact, I would argue that, in the past, formal education involved far more sitting at a desk than it does today. And you know what? If we’ve come to equate the idea of school as being part of “the world of women”, then that gender stereotype is likely one of the reasons boys aren’t thrilled with being in school.

Look, I’m not here to argue with the idea that boys are lagging behind in our educational system. I’m not here to say that things don’t need to be changed, or that I don’t believe that boys develop differently from girls; having watched my son and his peers I know that, for example, girls tend to have an easier time with language, whereas boys excel at spatial awareness. I’m not even against the idea of educating boys and girls separately (although I would be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns about the equality of the education they would receive). What I am saying is that I don’t think that re-inforcing gender stereotypes is what is going to fix this. In fact, I think that those gender stereotype are what got us into this mess.

What if, instead of having this be a battle of boys vs. girls, we use this as an opportunity to find a way to meet each student where they are. Can’t we engage our students as individuals, rather than saying that the whole curriculum has to be rejiggered to benefit one or the other? Is there any way to find a curriculum that will be the perfect middle ground? Or will we constantly be going back and forth between uh oh now the girls are doing better, no wait now it’s the boys, no wait the girls without ever finding a balanced way to address the subject?

I hope that when Theo starts school, his strengths and weaknesses aren’t treated as being boys’ strengths or boys’ weaknesses; I hope that they are treated as his own individual issues, his own successes and failures, and that his teachers are able to see past his gender and appreciate him for himself.

That’s what we all want, isn’t it?

On Childbirth And Bodily Autonomy

29 Oct

A friend of mine recently gave birth. She’d planned on have a natural, drug-free childbirth, but instead wound up having an emergency c-section. After 30 hours of labour, her son’s head still wouldn’t (or couldn’t) engage, and his heart rate started to plummet frighteningly low. After a few minutes of discussing their options with her midwife and the on-call OB, they decided that a caesarean was her best option.

Her son was born not long after that, a whopping 9 pounds 5 ounces, with a full head of dark hair. He was beautiful and healthy, but instead of feeling as if she’d made a decision that could potentially have saved his life, she felt as though it had been her fault that she’d had to have a c-section. She thought that if she’d just somehow tried harder, or prepared better, she could have had the birth she’d wanted.

I talked to her a few days after her son’s birth, and, of course, asked how she was feeling. “I feel like I failed,” she said, sounding as if she was about to cry. “My son is only a few days old and I’ve already failed him.”

I knew what she meant, because I’d been there. When I’d found out that I would have to have a caesarean, I also, irrationally, had felt as if it was my fault, as if I was already failing my son. I still feel weird about my son’s birth, even now, nearly two years later, or rather I feel like other people are weird about it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone ask about my childbirth experience, only to shut down the whole conversation when I tell them I had a planned c-section. I often get the sense that other people think that I haven’t really given birth, or that I’ve taken the easy way out.

If you don’t have kids and/or haven’t spent a billion hours on the internet debating all things baby, you might be wondering why natural childbirth is such a big deal. Why does anyone even care?

For starters, giving birth without drugs or interventions means that you and your child will not have to experience the side effects of sedation or the potential harm from invasive procedures. Babies born naturally are more alert, which will make bonding and breastfeeding easier. Plus, not having an epidural means that you can get up and walk around during labour, or find the position that works best for you when it’s time to push. Without drugs, the mother’s recovery will be faster, and she can often leave the hospital the same day, if she wants to. And, of course, there’s the persistent idea that childbirth is more of a “real” experience if you are able to feel every sensation associated with it.

Many people advocate for natural births these days; even the nurse who taught our prenatal class was pretty anti-epidural. Part of this comes as a backlash against the medical model of childbirth, which, not that long ago, saw women in labour being put into a Twilight Sleep, a drug-induced state in which women were conscious but not lucid, and, though these women still experienced pain, were not able to remember it afterwards. In many ways, natural childbirth is an attempt to reassert control over our own bodies; to tell the doctors (most of whom were and are still men) that pregnancy is not a disease, and should not be pathologized. Another part of  the desire for drug-free childbirth comes from the assumption that “natural” is better, or from the idea that our bodies are designed to give birth without the aid of drugs or interventions.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to have a natural birth, and I don’t just mean the physical pain and exertion associated with drug-free childbirth. Hospitals make many people anxious, and trying to give birth while surrounded by beeping machines and scary-looking medical equipment is challenging, to put it mildly. On top of that, you have a regular rotation of people coming in and out of your room, wanting to check how far you’ve dilated, what your heart rate is, what the baby’s heart rate is, and a whole laundry list of other stuff. So giving birth in a hospital setting isn’t exactly conducive to that whole Mother Earth Goddess ideal that many of us hold.

So why not give birth at home? Good question. The answers range from being worried about not making it to the hospital in time if there are complications to not want to have to be bothered cleaning up the mess afterwards, and everything in between. One response that I hear very frequently form Ontario women is that they weren’t able to find a midwife; this was my experience as well.

When I had my first prenatal visit with my family doctor, I was eight weeks pregnant. She asked if I’d thought about how I wanted to give birth, and I told her that I wanted a midwife rather than an OB. She looked at me like I was crazy, and said that there was no way I would be able to find a midwife this far into my pregnancy. But I’m only eight weeks! I said. Technically I’ve only been pregnant for six weeks, if you take into account the fact that the first two weeks of  a 40 week pregnancy happen before a woman ovulates.

My doctor just shrugged and said that there weren’t enough midwives in Ontario, then asked what hospital I wanted to deliver at. When I told her, she frowned and said, Oh, I don’t know if we’ll be able to get you into Mount Sinai this far into your pregnancy. I honestly thought that she was exaggerating, but it took three referrals before we were able to find an OB at Mount Sinai who was still taking patients for my due date.

That was how I learned how insanely competitive giving birth is in Toronto.

There are 540 registered midwives in Ontario, serving a total population of 12,851,821. 1 in 10 births in this province are attended by midwives; 4 out of 10 pregnant women in Ontario would like a midwife but can’t get one. That obviously makes having a midwife-assisted birth in general, and a home birth in particular, pretty challenging. Which, as I said above, can make having a natural birth difficult or even impossible.

That being said, you would think that the natural birth community would be pretty understanding of the fact that most women still end up using the medical model of childbirth. While I would say that the majority of us are pretty chill no matter how your kid comes into the world, there seem to be a lot of people passing judgment on how women give birth.

It’s bad enough that some proponents of natural childbirth make women feel as if they’ve “failed” if they end up having unplanned interventions, but that’s nothing compared to their treatment of women who know ahead of time that they want an epidural, or those who choose to have a planned c-section. The funny thing is that these are often the same women who are very pro-choice and will throw around the phrase “my body, my choice”.

Well, is it our choice, or isn’t it?

It’s different, they’ll argue, when there’s a wanted child involved. It’s not your body anymore. You need to act in the child’s best interests. They’ll send you scary news articles, like this one, which references a study showing that children born before 37 weeks are 5 times as likely to have autism. That particular article is one that someone sent me when they found out I was going to have a planned c-section at 36 weeks; when I told her that the article had upset me, she said that she wasn’t trying to be mean, just giving me the “facts”.

Here are the facts: if I had had a natural childbirth, my son could have died. If my pregnancy had progressed past 36 weeks, my doctor felt that there was a good chance that my water would break, which could have lead to an umbilical cord prolapse, which would have meant death or brain damage to my son.

The thing is, no matter whether or not you are carrying a child, it’s still your body. You still have bodily autonomy. I’m not saying pregnant women should go out and do lines of coke chased by vodka shots, but I do think that we need to allow women to make choices regarding childbirth without judging them.

The argument that I hear most from people decrying women who choose the medical model of childbirth is that they’re selfish. They want an epidural because it’s easier for them. They want a c-section because they don’t want to have to go through labour. They’re planning to be induced at 39 weeks because they want to skip out on the last week of pregnancy. If these are thoughts that you enjoy thinking, here’s something I really, really want you to keep in mind: you do not know the whole story.

You don’t know why someone wants an epidural, I mean, not really. You don’t know why they might want a c-section. Sure, they might give you a reason, but what they tell you may not necessarily be the whole truth. They might have a medical condition that indicates a c-section, or they might be a survivor of sexual abuse and feel triggered by the idea of a vaginal birth. Or they might just not want to have a natural birth, and that’s okay too. Know why? Because bodily autonomy, that’s why.

The thing that frustrates me the most about this judgmental behaviour is how purely anti-woman it is. It stems from the idea that most women aren’t capable of making decisions regarding how they want to give birth. It assumes that a woman who chooses to have a planned c-section hasn’t done her research, has been brainwashed by the medical establishment, or is uneducated when it comes to birth options. It plays into the idea that women are irrational, thoughtless and downright selfish. It promotes the idea that, being left to our own devices, we will make choices that are harmful to us and our children.

These are the same ideas that lead to the body policing that many pregnant women have to endure. We’re told to eat more, but not gain too much weight. We’re cautioned not to exercise too hard, but also to stay fit and healthy. We have people watching every bite we eat, and I even know someone who was denied service at Starbucks because the barista didn’t think that she should have caffeine. When are we going to let women be responsible for their own bodies?

Look, I’m all for natural childbirth. That was what I wanted when I was pregnant with Theo, and if I ever have another child, I would like to try for an unmedicated VBAC. But that’s my choice, based on research that I’ve done and what I’ve heard from friends. If another woman makes a different choice, then I’m sure as hell not going to tell her she’s wrong. Your child’s birth is one of the most important days in your life (I mean, probably, right?), so why would you want to make someone feel bad about how theirs went down? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that we all went through hell, in one way or another, to bring our children into this world?

I think a big part of the problem is that we still haven’t really figured this childbirth stuff out. We still don’t know what works best for us, both as individuals and as a society. The medical model of childbirth has seen the infant mortality rate decline 90% in the last hundred years, and the maternal mortality rate has declined by 99% in that time. On the other hand, within that medical model women still feel as if they are being bullied into interventions and procedures that they don’t want, and often come out of childbirth feeling as if they were coerced into accepting “help” that they felt they didn’t need.

I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. More midwives, for a start. Better education about birth options and the possible complications of interventions would also be good. Above all, though, I think we need to put more trust in women. I think we need to allow women to make more of their own choices, and we need to believe that they are capable of making the right choices, not just for themselves, but for their children.