The Choice

Brian and Kevin were my neighborhood friends. They were also my neighborhood tormentors. Childhood relationships were complex on my small street. We played together on a regular basis. They kicked my ass on a regular basis. Well, that is, whenever my sister Amber was not around. Amber was only one year older than me.  However, in my defense, girls mature more rapidly than boys at this age. And, she had the “do not hit a girl” social constraint working in her favor. Even Brian and Kevin had to adhere to that rule.

On one occasion, in Amber’s absence, Brian and Kevin got the best of me. Well, they always got the best of me. However, this occasion would turn out to be the last occasion.

After receiving my regular ass-kicking, I scurried home in tears. I feverishly yanked on the handle to the screen door. It was locked. My mom was standing on the other side. She looked down at me and said “Don’t ever come back to this house crying again.”

For years, I would reflect on that moment and think of how harsh it was. This is no longer the case. It turns out that my mother was a student of Sun Tzu. Without an escape route, she knew that I would “fight with the courage of desperation.”

Soon after, things would play out to justify this strategic move. I was in my front yard playing when Brian and Kevin approached. Amber was nowhere in sight. I turned to the house to retreat. My mom appeared in the screen door. She had her hands on her hips and no emotions on her face.  At that moment I had a choice: face Brian and Kevin or face my mother. Anyone who knows my mother knows that this was a false choice. I was desperate. Having no retreat, I turned toward my tormentors and let loose a flurry of punches, kicks, bites, scratches, and guttural screams.  The neighbors came running out of their homes. My mother stayed behind the screen door. No one tried to stop me. They cheered me on. We exchanged high-fives as Brian and Kevin limped home. Brian and Kevin never bothered me again.

Tribal Teaching engineers similar showdowns for my students.

For every student, there comes a time when the project calls her forth. She possesses a particular bit of expertise, knowledge, or understanding that we need. Only she can do what needs to be done. We step back. She steps forward, leaves our surrounding presence, and moves to the center of the arena where she has a choice: execute her part of the project or exit the arena.

What will she do?

We are asking her to do something none of us do naturally. So, as you can imagine, this moment animates all her demons (self-doubt, self-sabotage, and self-reproach).  They want her to exit the arena. And, they are powerful. But, so is our Tribe.

Where does our Tribe draw its power?

The exclusive stance we take in the world.

The screening process, the rituals, the shared experiences, and the sixteen weeks of training are designed to set us apart from others.

It creates an US versus THEM mentality.

There are insiders. There are outsiders.

We are who we are. They are who they are.

The articulation of our 11 Promises, the inculcation of our culture, and the telling and retelling of stories of alumni who have gotten sick, thrown up and gotten back to work are intended to create a set of behavioral expectations.

This is who we are. This is what we are about. This is how we act. This is how we react. This is what it means to be one of US. Not everyone can be one of US. You want to be one of US.

This US versus THEM dichotomy is the key pedagogical tool of Tribal Teaching.

It is what she needs while she stands in the center of the arena.

It is in there that the US versus THEM dichotomy transforms into US (Her Tribe) versus THEM (Her Demons). Her demons are the real THEM. Not others outside the Tribe. The same goes for all of us. We wage our struggle for freedom against THEM. Our demons are the only THEM that matter.

Her choice is a choice between US or THEM (Her Demons).

By choosing US, she chooses to execute. Executing is not easy. It’s downright costly. She puts herself at risk. She exposes herself to critique. And, she opens herself up to failure.

She can avoid these costs by exiting the arena. However, this choice is not without cost either. She is one of US. She made a set of promises. She internalized our culture. This choice to exit the arena breaks those promises. It contravenes our culture. She cannot make this choice without feeling guilty.

She is also part of a deeply connected community of like-minded individuals whom she respects. She desires respect in turn. However, this choice will diminish her standing in the eyes of the Tribe.

So, let me speak plainly.

Guilt and Shame wait for her if she exits the arena. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with that conclusion. I despise shame. I was a victim of shame (a lot of us were and are). But, I am also a student of Sun Tzu. Sometimes some of us need the door to our escape route barred, locked and welded shut.

One of the reasons she will choose to execute her part of the project is because it is too costly not to.

Yet, Tribal Teaching is much more than the creation of costs that push her forward.

It is also about creating loving, trusting communities of imperfect individuals who know what it’s like to fail. On the other side of her demons, she will find love, encouragement, cheering and the exchanging of high fives pulling her through.

Looking back, I can only image how hard it was for my mom to play that strategic move. But, she knew what I needed. I needed to face up to Brian and Kevin. Win or lose. I needed to know that I could hold my ground. My students need to learn the same thing.

We are all here to create, construct and call for the future. We used to know how to do these things. They came to us naturally when we were young. However, we were educated to forget those abilities by those in power. Indeed, I think its fair to say that those in power have at times conspired with our demons to keep us from exercising our creative potential.

Its time to give our demons a long overdue smack on the nose.

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)
Connect with me on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/blucollarprof

PS I will have a blog dedicated to the role of shame in Tribal Teaching. But, let me say that our use of shame is neither overt nor explicit. There is no public defrocking or discommendation. There is no finger wagging or name calling. It comes down to the fact that the project compels us to move forward without those who choose not to work.

PSS I have never hit another living creature since Brian and Kevin (outside of football, that is). I’ve been hit. But, that’s another story involving Angela Kim, an insult, and a crass young fellow’s unfulfilled promise to walk away upon releasing him from my headlock.

 

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (www.shawnhumphrey.com)

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4 Responses to “The Choice

  • The psychology of shame and Us/them is powerful. It is an effective tool because it works – at one level. As you know it also builds resistance and scar tissue at other levels.
    The question I have is – in using these techniques to accomplish your goals with the students what alignments (or misalignments) do you create in the teachings and impact you seek with the world? You have an interesting and unusual Petri dish where the games you and your students play ripples out into the lives of others. What lessons get propagated? Are they the lessons you seek most to share? Tribalism is powerful but one could argue that the world has enough of it and it’s time to expand our notion of tribe a bit.
    I look forward to learning more about your revision of the shame game.

    • BluCollarProf
      2 years ago

      Hey Dana! Thank you for this comment. Yes. The world has had enough tribalism. I am uneasy about using the word. And, as I dig deeper into my pedagogy and trying to understand its nuances and mechanisms, I see that is it populated with paradoxes, which I am learning to love. For example, we use the Tribal concept of US/THEM to nudge students to realize that there is a different way to live, they do not have to accept the status quo, that they can discard the expectations that others have for them. Without the Tribe and the use of shame, it is too easy for students to run away from having to confront the challenges that lead to that realization. And, in the end, if they embrace that realization then they should (if they want) turn around, look at the Tribe, and say “To hell with Tribe and the Tribe’s expectations.” In a sense, we create a Tribe so that its members can if they choose leave the Tribe.

      • Ah…. I see more clearly how your tribal teaching metaphore is shaped. You are creating a tribe which is a bridge from one of origin to one of independent agency. It’s true that tribes have at their centers gravity that in some ways are inescapable until one chooses to leave. Stepping from dock to boat often requires a gravitational pull. Perhaps Shame can be part of that pull indeed.

        My question about shame as a mechanism has more to do with ends and means I suppose, than function within a tribal context. Tribes are fraught with rules of the how. How we do things and how we don’t. The how informs the nature of the victorious What and Why.

        Shame is of the how.

        • BluCollarProf
          2 years ago

          Hey Dana. As many already know “shame” is a fundamental hindrance that keeps many of us from being who we are supposed to be. In the context of Tribal Teaching, we create a culture that compels each of its members to actively reflect upon and take on their shame. To be part of our Tribe – really be one of us – you must be willing to take on your shame. And, if you choose not to take on this difficult (sometimes monumental) task we will know. We know because your work on the project suffers. It will not be of the same caliber (infused with love and commitment) as the work of those around who have chosen to take on their shame (they may not beat their shame but they laying down some punches). We will be moving forward. You will be stuck. In the end, the work we do (the project we work one) compels us to move ahead without you. We work in reality. Reality does not wait for those are stuck. It is through leaving you behind that you may feel a sense of shame. And, herein lies one of the many paradoxes of Tribal Teaching: you may feel shame for not taking on your shame.

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