Monday, January 31, 2011

The Movie That Changed My Life, And May Change The World

The Movie That Changed My Life, And May Change The World
If you plan for one year, plant rice.
If you plan for ten years, plant trees.If you plan for 100 years, educate mankind.
- Chinese proverb

1967 proved a banner year for young movie star Sidney Poitier, with three major films in a single year to his credit. The least popular movie at the time was the British school flick To Sir, With Love. The song of the same name, sung by Scottish actor/singer Lulu hit number 1 on the US pop Billboard charts and was rated the best pop single of 1967 by billboard.
While the music of the song was spectacular (I could have lived in Dreamland with that song), its lyrics may have ruined the extremely important message made by the film. "How can you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume" made parents believe the movie was about a lovesick teenage girl who had a crush on her teacher, and who needed another one of those? Are teachers really teaching about perfume in school?
The movie took place in an East London high school where the senior class wanted nothing more than to get out of school and find jobs. The curriculum had so little bearing on their future (Denham: "I've me own barra when I'm finished here") that disruption of class became their primary objective in life. New teacher Mark Thackeray (Poitier) had no more success than his predecessors. Those kids were more misbehaved than any teacher deserves. They took in nothing of the lessons anyone taught.
Then Thackeray had an inspiration. Denham needed to know more about life than just how to conduct business from a fruit and vegetable stand (barrow). They needed life skills. When he changed his teaching from "This is the grammar and arithmetic the school wants me to teach you" to a "This is what you need to know to get through each day of your life" style, he had their attention. The misbehaviour stopped like magic. Of course it worked out beautifully, it was a movie. But its message was critically important for me then and it's critically important for each of us today. (I became a teacher and studied the sociology of education.)
No child starts out life wanting to be antisocial, to be a misfit. Before anything else, they want to know what they need to get through their lives. They want to know what problems they will face as they get older and how to cope with them. They want to know how to make friends, how to patch up broken friendships, how to find a mate, how to act with a boyfriend or girlfriend, what skills they need to know in their heads in order to survive the working world. They need to know the survival skills of adulthood.
To most kids, social and emotional needs take precedence over intellectual needs and sports. If they can't find answers to their questions on these subjects, they can't bring themselves to care about the school curriculum. They don't care much about learning to read if their parents fight at home every night. Sometimes they know inherently that they need something, but don't know what. They expect their parents or teachers to provide that information without their having to ask. When it doesn't come, they object. They misbehave. They bully. They steal. They take drugs. They do whatever they can to make up for the lack that has turned into a permanent hurt.
They are broken. Why try to fix broken people if you can prevent them from breaking in the first place?
To Sir, With Love
Still, in most school jurisdictions, curriculum remains mired in the 19th century. Discipline is worse than ever before. The admonishment to "return to the basics" has failed. The basics of life are not reading, writing and arithmetic, but life skills. If you don't know how to cope with your problems, what good will it do to know the rules of grammar or how to do trigonometry? What good is a job with high pay if half or more of it goes to the spouse you couldn't manage to live with because you didn't know how?
The students who were in high school in the late 1960s and succeeding decades have become adults and now constitute the main constituency that operate our companies, that elect our political leaders, that make decisions that affect our lives. When the most common medical prescription in the USA is Prozac and use of marijuana and alcohol has become so pervasive that they can't be evaded at parties and social gatherings of all sorts, we must wonder if our schools are teaching what the future adults who run everything really need. When we examine the politics of the USA, Egypt, Israel, Sudan, Russia, China, Indonesia and many other countries, we must ask ourselves if we are teaching what kids really need. If we taught what they need, they wouldn't mess up their lives so badly.
The world is indeed a messy place to live. At this time we have little choice but to live in the mess. But it doesn't have to remain a mess.
The means and opportunities to correct our problems are in our schools. We elect the people who set school curriculum. We can make changes if we speak up about them.
As always, if we leave it to others to make decisions for us, they will make decisions that will benefit them more than the rest of us. Change happens at the ballot box. That kind of change can only happen when we all help to inform others about what is needed. Spread the word.
Education is your affair, not something you leave to leaders of industry and political parties.
Speak up. Talk to others. Forward this article to other people you believe might care.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for changing school curriculum and teaching by parents that will help make the 21st century the one that finally gets it right. Kids matter and this book teaches us how to make that work for all of us.
Learn more at
was far from the last attempt the film industry made to try to turn school curriculum away from traditional lessons that kids know they will never use to material that every one can and will use in their lives. Why Shoot the Teacher?, The Principal, Conrack, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Teachers, Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland's Opus, Music of the Heart, Take the Lead, Freedom Writers, The Ron Clark Story and Sister Act 2 picked up on the same theme.
Turning It Around makes clear proposals that will prevent kids from breaking, from becoming social problems for their communities and heartaches for their parents. The book has answers, solutions that are virtually without cost, but require some changes in what teachers are allowed to teach, what they are allowed to tell the kids whose futures are in their hands.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I Could Have Killed Someone

I Could Have Killed Someone

If you want to know your past, examine your present conditions. 
If you want to know your future, examine your present actions.
- Buddhist saying

I woke up this morning ready for a fight. The slightest provocation might have set me off. More than that may have resulted in such rage that I would not have hesitated to do anything--absolutely anything--to end the irritation. I felt ready with every fibre of my being. I was in control of my emotions, or so I thought, but only because nothing came along to provoke me.

Not long after, I had fed our cats, made coffee and was sitting sipping and chatting with my wife when my strange mood vanished as quickly as it had come.

My life testifies to my devotion to non-violence, even to the extent of allowing myself to be beaten up psychologically and emotionally sometimes because I refused to fight back. I won't even fight back with words because: (a) you can never win an argument with an irrational person; and (b) I will never have a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent. In this case, I didn't have an opponent, to my great relief, after the fact.

Why, I wondered, had I experienced this sudden rage with the potential for violence? As a student of human behaviour, I required some introspection. Does a devil hide within me, as some religions might claim? Did I experience a moment of temporary insanity, a defence argument used in some murder cases in courts in the USA? I didn't care for either explanation. Something else was going on inside me.

Something had made me, in effect, a different person for a short period of time. What could do that? And why? As I pride myself in my ability at mind control (over my own body), why had that ability failed me when I needed it most? I really didn't like that other person. That other person would have been a social pariah. That person was dangerous. That other person was me, but not me. I was, briefly, my own anti-me.

The explanation for my temporary antisocial behaviour revolves around imbalances in brain chemistry. In my case, perhaps in untold others who are behind bars or in psychological confinement facilities today, has to do with my adjustment to a new level of thyroxine supplement for my hypothyroidism. Under the careful watch of an endocrinologist (a specialist in hormones), I hasten to add. (Those inside institutions may not have been so lucky.)

Each of us has a thyroid gland which produces a hormone that somehow affects (gives orders to) almost every organ of the body, even including the skin and the brain. As a thyroid ages, it may produce less hormone than it used to, or it may produce more if it gets out of whack. Producing too much hormone is called hyperthyroidism, which is not pretty, not comfortable, in fact it can be terrifying.

Family doctors have an "average" range of acceptability (as "normal") in results of blood tests of the thyroid stimulating hormone. In general, a patient's TSH level may be brought within range by prescription medication. Low thyroid prescription is nothing more than a supplement of what the thyroid should produce itself.

What I learned the hard way is that a supplement that brings my TSH level into the normal range causes my body to react as if I am hyperthyroid, the opposite of what I am naturally. As I said, that's terrifying because it messes with brain chemistry. My family doctors for years had said "You must test within the normal range, if I give you a supplement that is too low my medical certificate could be at risk."

When I could no longer stand the symptoms of hyperthyroidism (Google it to see what they are, grit your teeth and hang on when you find out) and my doctor refused to back off my prescription, I refused to take any supplement. I quit cold turkey. A few weeks later my doctor became so upset (this guy's going to kill himself this way) that she hurriedly secured me an appointment with the specialist.

The specialist said "It's okay to not be normal." The heavens rumbled, the earth moved, the sun finally dawned. Not being normal is okay? Every doctor I had met before this said that I must be made (with medication) to conform to the norms. Now this expert was telling me it was okay to not be normal, that we are each different in how we react to things such as medications.

The specialist started me on a low dose of thyroxine supplement and raised it each week for a month, then let it level off. It was still well below what a family doctor would have prescribed. Adjusting to a new level of thyroid medication can take from six to eight weeks because so many parts of the body have to agree to not misbehave, to react inappropriately. That includes the brain, which counts on signals from the thyroid before secreting its own proteins which affect many parts of the body.

The brain also controls itself. My "not normal chemically" brain has fought the change in thyroid messages kicking and screaming. In practice that meant the equivalent of waking nightmares or anxiety attacks in the second half of my time in bed each night. By morning my wife might have coffee with the normal sweet husband she knows or she might wish I was still a bachelor in transit to Mars. Neither of us had any way to know what I would be like each morning.

In my bad state I had a hair-trigger temper, flying into a rage over the most insignificant matters. They even included errors or oversights I had made myself. My "stupidity" at something insignificant I had done caused me to be angry with myself (and none too quiet about it either). Sometimes I wished I would not have to live out the rest of my day. That's serious.

I won't bore you (or over-excite you) with details that deserve to be confidential. Let's just say I never became physically aggressive or violent, nor did I become verbally abusive. Loud and nasty, yes. Let's also say that the bad moods never lasted more than a few hours at most. Let's add that I hated myself every second I suffered with the bad mood because I was incapable of acting like the me I knew myself to be. I knew I was out of control, but lacked any ability to change myself.

People with faulty thyroids do not carry around flags advertising the fact so others can see them and recognize a person with a problem. Many with a thyroid problem may know nothing about their problem. What's worse, even a person whose blood tests show their thyroid level to be in the average or normal range may be anything but, in the real world. Medical tests are guides, not laws by which we all must live.

As my endocrinologist said, "We will find the right level for you, for your life." Good. The adjustment was hard. Too bad it didn't come 20 years ago when I was first identified as hypothyroid.

Norms and averages in medicine are for textbooks, not for people. In real flesh-and-blood cases such as you and me and those we know and love, each of us is very different. "Unique" would not be an out-of-place descriptor.

If you believe you are different from the norm from a health standpoint, speak up to your doctor. You don't live in a textbook. You live inside your own skin (your doctor doesn't). You want to continue to do so for as long as possible.

That may mean you have to tell your doctor you believe he is wrong, that you need different diagnosis and treatment. The doctor may need to see the same things, but differently. It may mean seeking other medical opinions. It may make you somewhat unpopular with your doctors, who have their own biases to cherish and dogma to follow. Too bad for them, not you.

Remember, your doctor does not live inside your skin. You do. Try to keep it that way.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to grow children who develop socially and emotionally in healthy ways, as schools rarely address those developmental needs.
Learn more at