What Is Intelligence?

College Graduation

Dad, Mom, and Me at my College Graduation

An unimaginable luxury before I left the classroom to work as a content specialist, the past few days have given me a respite while most of my colleagues returned to work.  For the first time in 35 years, I worked between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and took a vacation as teachers were returning to the classroom to prepare their students for semester exams.

But I’m not sure anyone who feels called to be a teacher can ever stop thinking about kids.  Even after five years out of the classroom, I still have school dreams—where I’m late and on my way to school in my pajamas, where I can’t find my way to the room where kids await, or where I have no control over the students I’m supposed to be teaching.

And, in the same way, I’m not sure I’ll ever stop thinking about what I’ve taught my students or what they’ve taught me.  I began teaching 35 years ago this month.  A poor kid who went to college on an aid package of scholarships, grants, and work study, I finished college in 3 ½ years, anxious to earn money and find that better life my coal miner father assured me I’d have if I got a degree.  And though I’ve worked hard, I’ve had an easier life than my parents—able to offer my daughter more opportunities than my parents were ever able to offer me, though they wanted what was best for me.

Because of this, when I think about education, I’m bothered by a climate where the contributions of people who don’t have an education are sometimes not valued.  I believe that we should offer all students a course of study that prepares them for higher education if that is the path they choose.  But I also believe that the person who repairs my car and the person who comes to my house to unclog my drain have knowledge and skills that I don’t have—skills that should be equally valued, even though they chose not to get a college degree.

Not every person who has a college degree is wise.  And not every person who has only a high school diploma, or even the person who dropped out, is unintelligent.  My husband and I laugh about the time when our plumber, a father of two daughters, gave us a very practical lesson in parenting.  He had been my husband’s former student, never interested in school but always a hard worker out of school and the person we always had confidence in when we needed a plumber.  He sat on the floor, working deftly to replace cheap, faulty pipes installed by our builder that began to spring numerous pinhole leaks as the house aged.  He talked easily as his hands worked, and we chatted about the challenges of parenting teenage girls.  I mentioned that I wished I could get my daughter to stop slamming doors, and he told us a very funny story about removing his daughter’s bedroom door from the hinges and telling her he’d replace it when she convinced him she could stop slamming it.  She stalked off to the bathroom, her younger sister on her heels, begging her not to slam the bathroom door, lest it, too, should be removed.  The next time my daughter slammed the door, we told her that if she did it again, we would use our plumber’s solution.  I don’t think she ever slammed a door again.

While that’s just a humorous anecdote in our family, I could easily tell many more important things I’ve learned from people who haven’t had the opportunities for higher education that I’ve had.  Someone once told me that we have something to teach and something to learn from every person we meet.  I learned many lessons from my father, not the least of which was the value of a college degree, though he was far from perfect and had only a fifth grade education.  And while I parent differently from my mother, I learned from her, among many other things, what it means to love unconditionally and to be strong in the face of adversity.

So how do we find a way to honor each other’s intelligence?  I’ve thought about this a lot since the presidential primary, when our president was called an intellectual snob—a president who, like me, had to work hard for his degree.  I don’t believe that was a fair assessment of a leader who wants others to have the opportunities he’s had.  But while teaching in a highly charged academic environment in the Washington suburbs, I have encountered many intellectuals who have denigrated those who don’t place the same value on a PhD.

As with most things, the answer lies at neither extreme.  How do we find a balance?  I’m not sure.  But I believe we begin by telling the stories of people from all walks of life who defy the stereotypes of what it means to be intelligent in a world of different kinds of intelligence.

So tell me those stories.

Will You Be a Voice?

1.4.13 on Beach

Although we love the beach in every kind of weather, today was a perfect winter beach day.  The water, which has been gray but warmer than the air all week, today reflected back the crisp crystal blue of the sky, and dolphins played on the surface of the water just beyond where the waves began to crest.  As they leapt above the surface and dipped beneath the water again in an instant, I tried in vain to capture them with my camera in the seconds they appeared above the surface.

My husband, our dog, and I were the only other living creatures in sight, and we reveled in our last full day before returning home tomorrow.  North Carolina is the home we long for—the place we relax and keep in touch with the DC suburbs from a safe distance that allows us to feel a peace that’s harder to find in the hub of our nation’s capital.

But I love Maryland, too—for its beautiful parks and walking paths that encourage city dwellers to remember the earth, for its belief in human equality and social justice, for its closeness to museums that honor our nation’s history, for the way it connects the north and the south.  And I realized, not for the first time, how fortunate I am to call both worlds home.

Watching the perfect way that the sky and the water made each other more beautiful today, I thought, What if our people could work together in that same beautiful way?  And that reminded me of an article I read online in this morning’s Washington Post:  “Faith Leaders Want Americans to Pray for Collegiality.”  The article recounted how leaders of all faiths—from evangelicals to progressive Christians to Jews to Hindus to Muslims—have committed to come together and pray for our leaders between the first day Congress convened on January 3rd to President Obama’s inauguration on January 21st.

So when we finished our walk, I went back to the computer and searched for the group that has posted the pledge, a nonpartisan group called the Faith and Politics Institute, which began in the 1990s by bringing together elected officials from both parties who were interested in nurturing relationships and spirituality that crossed party lines.  I knew that I wasn’t the only one who longs for leaders who can work together.  But I was surprised to learn that there actually are groups that are making some inroads in quietly working directly with politicians to help them come together.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is not what we read about in the headlines.  This story was buried in the On Faith section of the newspaper, a section that appears in print only once a week, a section that is not updated online nearly as often as the stories about the partisan posturing and bickering.

And so I decided to sign the Call to Prayer with my own:

God of grace and peace, please help our leaders hear one another and work together to find solutions to our problems that are better than any party, advocacy group, or individual can address alone.  Help us, the American people, to pray sincere prayers, not just for our leaders who agree with us, but for those whose views are different from our own.  Help us to pray not that they would be converted to our point of view but that they might have your wisdom—a wisdom beyond our understanding or our ability to imagine.  Grant that we and our leaders may have courage for the living of these challenging days.  May it be so.  Amen.

Though I was only the 80th person to sign the pledge, when I read through the people who had signed it so far, I was thrilled to see that it has signatures from people of a wide variety of faith backgrounds, from leaders and private citizens.  And I was encouraged that our voices can come together in search of the common good.

I’m guessing that if you have enough interest to follow this blog, you, too, long for us to find our better angels.  So you may not feel comfortable signing on to a public pledge.  But will you be a voice—perhaps just a voice to God’s ear if not in the public forum?

Perhaps in being such a voice, we can help our leaders find the courage, even when they disagree, to look for the better angels that will help us be a better people.

And if you know of other groups that are working to nurture civility and to move beyond party and conflict, please respond with your own stories and links.

Just Another Resolution?

Walk on Beach

I made no resolutions this year.  Why?  Because I’ve never kept a single one past the first few weeks of the year.  Had I made a resolution, it would have been the same one that most Americans make—to exercise more, lose weight, and eat a more healthy diet.

The morning news today reported that people who are slightly overweight actually have a lower mortality rate than people whose weight is in the normal range.  Though the authors of the study have no data to suggest why this is the case, they speculate that it’s because people who are overweight but not obese probably see a doctor more often than people who are healthier.

Are you shaking your head yet that money has been spent on a study of the obvious?  Like a lot of us who struggle to keep our weight under control, I try very hard to keep myself out of the obesity range.  My mother, who weighed 98 pounds when she married my father, gave up trying to control her weight in favor of warning my siblings and me to work on losing weight while it was five pounds rather than 50.  She once looked at me and said, “If you ever do gain weight, your legs are going to look just like mine—like chicken drumsticks.”

With that warning in mind, I tried to balance work, parenthood, home-making, and time for myself, just as all of us do—whether we work inside or outside the home.  When I couldn’t manage all of them, guess which one got short shrift?  I love to cook, though I sometimes found myself turning to prepared foods after a challenging day at work.  But given the number of hours in a day, I often found during those years that getting exercise was the one thing I couldn’t get into my schedule.

Two things coincided to change that dynamic.  In the same year that I became an empty-nester, I received a diagnosis of cancer that forced me to see a doctor more frequently—every two weeks at first and now, nine years later, at least every six months, sometimes more often.  At one point during chemotherapy, I lost so much weight that I was wearing my daughter’s size 4 jeans.  Concerned about the weight loss, my doctor encouraged me to eat whatever I could eat until I finished chemotherapy.

And so I did.  And bread was the one thing I could eat consistently.  And as the nausea ended, I continued to eat bread…and chocolate…and…now…I’m back in that overweight range again.  Back in the fall, I decided to eliminate bread and chocolate and to limit wine to weekends.  I lost ten pounds.  But then the holidays approached, offering me lots of opportunities to make excuses to break my new routine.

But when the waistline of my skirt begins to fit more snugly, I start to hear my mother’s voice again, so in the nine years since cancer, my weight and dress size have remained more or less the same.  I have changed my diet—fewer red meats, less fat, more green vegetables.  I generally walk a couple of miles each morning at 5:30—even in the dark of winter—because even though I’m not a morning person, I’ve found that is the one time of day over which I have control.

I’ve also learned that I love the crisp air and the stars and the quiet, the silence broken only by the sound of my footsteps and the jingling of the dog’s tags against his leash.  And if there are a few days of rain or snow, I miss the walking that has now become habit.

So now that the holidays are over, I’ll try to get back to turning down that wine and bread and chocolate a little more often so that it becomes habit.  I’ll take it one day at a time, as I did in September and October.

I’ll laugh ruefully when my British friend posts an altered picture of Michelangelo’s David with a paunch and the caption, “David after being on tour in the United States.”  And I’ll try to keep myself from moving from being overweight to obese.

Is that a resolution?  Maybe.  But I refuse to call it a New Year’s resolution just because my resolve gets a little stronger again after the holidays. Let’s just call it a plan—one that involves a walk on the beach within the hour.  That I can do.

What about you?  What plans do you have for an optimistic new year?