The Story, Transcribed...
Updated: Mar 11
Season 1, Episode 2
Welcome. This is “Beauty and Mr. B,” and I’m Mr. B! Today, I'd like to share my first full episode of this podcast. It's meant to be introductory. First, I’ll break down the podcast’s title, and then I’ll talk just a little, but enough, hopefully, about how I intend to go about podcasting this first season, “Beauty Introduced!” I’ll consider questions such as, “Who’s the audience?” and “How will we move forward in this adventure together?” Let's start by breaking down the title: “Beauty & Mr. B.”
I guess I'll have to talk a bit, reluctantly, about myself. My age: I’m 64. I don't, however, look a day over 63 (I think)! But I do know this, that today, right now, this moment, I’m the oldest I've ever been. If you take a look at yourself, today, yes, right now, this moment is the oldest that you, too, have ever been. We're all in the same place! I live just outside Chicago, actually just west of the city, in Oak Park. My wife Nancy and I are in now the process of moving into a townhome, farther west, in Westchester. We'll be upsizing, not downsizing. I'm guessing that once we're moved in, we might actually need to host a little open house, call it a podcast party, if and when the plague of this Covid-19 outbreak finally passes.
What about my past? I’ve undergone a fair amount of formal education. By formal I mean “institutional” education, beyond high school. To date I've completed about 11 years of “higher” education, and along the way I’ve collected a few credentials to show for all the time, effort, and money spent. In 1978, I was awarded an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. I’ve also earned a graduate degree as a “Juris Doctor,” J.D. for short. In common terms, this means that I did successfully graduate from law school. And last, but definitely not least, as we will see, I hold two national coaching licenses in my all-time favorite sport, soccer.
I've also received an informal education. Informal? That's education experienced outside the formal institutional structures of school. As a teacher, I sometimes asked my students where they learn more, inside or outside school? Almost invariably students answered, “outside school,” and I agree: More real learning, for me, has usually taken place outside the walls of any classroom. I guess that in this respect my experience is not really all that different from most other people. I possess certain attributes, innate human qualities, that lend themselves in particular ways to informal learning. I’m genuinely curious … a quality that has served me well over the years. I'm also in the habit of questioning. I love to question, yes, pretty much just about everything. It can get a little annoying! Third, and probably not least, is this quality: I tend to feel comfortable within the uncomfortable, in ambivalence and ambiguity, the gray areas, digging for what I don’t know. For some reason, this digging, this reaching beyond my present knowledge, has always provided me with a genuine source of energy.
In any case, since my formal education ended, I’ve pursued a few different careers. My first career involved the practice of law. That took place over about a twenty-year period, first as a student and then in private practice. I worked as an employee in law firms. I worked in law firms as a partner. I organized my own law firm. I felt that I had tried everything in the law, yet none of it ever seemed to have much real meaning for me. After law, I went into teaching. That career spanned more than twenty years. I just retired at the end of the last school year. I taught social studies, a variety of subjects. Some of these subjects I'll be discussing as this podcast unfolds, so it’s probably worth mentioning a few here. One subject involved the structural organization of privately-owned corporate media, specifically, “establishment” mass media. I spent twelve years doing my best to teach high school students the subtle nuances of Criminal Law and Procedure, my favorite subjects in the law. During the last several years of my career, I taught regular “U.S. Government & Politics.” For just about my entire career. I taught World History, mostly at the honors level, as well as modern European history, for about 15 years, at the level of “AP,” “Advanced Placement.” Still, the most important experience of my professional life was probably the least likely,… youth soccer coach. I coached soccer for almost 30 years, both boys and girls, at virtually at every age -- from first grade through college, Men's NCAA Division I -- but most of my coaching was focused at high school varsity. That's where I seemed to have felt most comfortable, where I devoted most of my time and effort as a coach.
How did I get into soccer coaching?
It's funny, I played soccer in high school, had some success. I also played some soccer in college. But when my oldest child, Sarah, became eligible to play youth soccer, I gave strict orders to my then wife, Michele, “Do not tell anyone, please, that I've ever played soccer.” I understood: If anybody knew that I had played, I would definitely be recruited to coach, and coaching youth soccer was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do. I resisted, and (I think) my playing experience did successfully remain a secret. Then, just before she began her second season of soccer, now in first grade, it was Sarah herself who asked me, directly, if I would agree to be the head coach of her team. (She knew, of course, that I still played soccer.) I could resist no longer. I broke down and agreed to become her team’s coach. It’s ironic, looking back, how, after all my resistance, coaching soccer turned out to be the most important of all my careers. Once I began to coach, as fate would have it, I fell head over heels. I loved studying the various techniques of coaching, devoting more and more time to coaching and less, and less, time to my law practice. I involved myself in various aspects of teaching the sport, and, over time, I made myself into a fairly accomplished coach.
Why did this career become so important for me? Well, it's what allowed for my transition from one career to another, from the practice of law to the teaching of high school social studies. I look back now, after all these years, and say to myself, what a mystery this life is! Exactly why I love soccer – specifically, why I love coaching soccer -- remains to a very real extent a mystery for me. After a couple years, I began to consciously wonder what it was about coaching that I loved. I had played soccer for much of my life. I assumed that I loved coaching so much because all these years I had loved playing soccer. Coaching allowed me to stay “in” the game: Through it, I told myself, I was able to continue my love affair with soccer, right? Yet, as it turns out, my love for coaching was never really about soccer. What I loved most about soccer – coaching soccer -- were the endless challenges that came with communicating well, with taking my knowledge (whatever that might be), and gifting it to another, many others in fact, watching a whole team execute this knowledge under game pressure. It was gratifying, to say the least. The experience of coaching taught me that what I really loved, much more than soccer, were the challenges associated with teaching.
Now, retired, I’m entering into career number four. I’m no longer imprisoned by the institutional constraints of public education. I'm free to study whatever … and study I do, in fact, for hours every day. I'm also writing about what forces naturally, and best, serve to motivate us, the human being (a fascinating and relevant topic in education these days, when student apathy seems to have become the new norm!). And here I am, in this moment, podcasting. Who knows where this will go? Certainly not me!
This discussion of “Mr. B” brings me to the second aspect of the title, beauty: What exactly does beauty have to do with my podcast? To understand the “beauty” of this title, I must return to the story of the podcast. Everybody loves a story, I think. So, let's travel back in time to my last full year of teaching. The idea of podcasting was first raised by students, and it came up during one particular class period. How? One student wrote a question on a white board posted in my classroom. It was the “First Amendment Board,” velcroed to a closet near the entrance to Room 203. Maybe the only way to understand this board is to share with you what I told students when introducing the “First Amendment Board” to them in class. I would say something like, “I understand that school is oppressive. You're run by a bell schedule, ushered from class to class all day, virtually every day. You’re forced to sit passively and comply, blindly, without question, to authority after authority. After just a few periods in the typical day, I know, you usually begin to feel suffocated: obey, or else! So, by the time you make it to my room, I want to do whatever I can to make sure that you regain at least a glimmer of your genuine, authentic self: When you enter, here’s the “First Amendment Board.” This white board is meant to provide you with the freedom to openly express who you are, I mean, who you really are. I would like Room 203 to be a place where you feel free to be yourself.” That, in a nutshell, is the “First Amendment Board.” Got it?
One day in the fall of the 2018-19 school year, one student (honestly, I don’t recall who) posted a survey on the First Amendment Board. The question was, “Should Mr. Blecher start a podcast?” Two columns appeared, yes and no. Before the period started, I counted the “yes” and “no” votes. In fact, I took a picture of that first board: 34 “yes,” zero “no.” Oddly enough, only 29 people attended class that day! (By the way, my picture of that first survey, so instrumental in this, my fourth career, is posted on the website that accompanies this podcast. Please, check it out, … “beautymrb.org”.) My first question for the class = “What’s a podcast?” Honestly, I didn’t know. Anyway, you should now have a better sense of what a steep learning curve this whole enterprise has been for me! As that class period ended, I erased all the votes but left the survey question, the whole school day, for each of my classes. I needed to see whether or not this vote represented a one-class phenomenon, which was a real possibility … if podcasting was an idea that other students also endorsed: The results were virtually identical, every period. Every class pretty much said, “Yes, Mr. B, we'd like you to podcast,” and, yes, the “yes” votes were almost unanimous.
The rest of that school year, my last, the subject of podcasting would come up now and then, and I did my best to downplay the whole idea. I had to keep on teaching, and that's (more than) a full-time job! In response to a minority of vocal students, who continued to insist on this idea, I told them that in the coming summer, “I'm off,” which meant, “Hey, I'm old. I need time to rest. I need some time to recharge. And then, only then, will I begin to think about what I might like to do in retirement.” Summer came and went and, magically, my batteries did recharge! In the fall, I decided that it was time, as promised, to consider the possibility of podcasting. I arranged a meeting, using contacts on an Instagram account that my students had set up for this purpose, and I issued an invitation to meet at a local Panera Bread on the Saturday morning of a three-day weekend. Fifteen or so students showed up, and we talked through the idea of podcasting for more than two hours. I asked lots of questions, but, in the end, my questions really boiled down to two. My first: “If I went ahead with this idea, what exactly would I podcast about?” I mean, I'm retired. I don't want to talk anymore about European History, World History, or U.S. Government & Politics (the three courses I taught during my final school year). And, certainly, I will no longer be confined to a curriculum. Definitely, I’m past all that! My second question was more personal: “Why me?” On whatever subject, why would you want me, Mr. B – as opposed to someone, indeed, anyone else – to start a podcast? I listened, and learned.
I learned that these students perceived the world to be within a state of freefall. For them, our public education system appeared to be a mess, a mess that seems only to worsen day by day. And society? It's dysfunctional, more and more dysfunctional. The leaders of society demonstrate very little concern, these students shared, for the people they’re supposed to represent. Plus, they continued, most public discourse has been reduced to a chronic state of gridlock, conflict and division so extreme that real progress in our society has become virtually impossible. When it came to the world as a whole, these students were pretty definite: Humanity was already deep within the process of destroying the planet. Even worse, my students observed, no one in power seemed really to care all that much!
A second set of insights I gleaned from this discussion involved the psychological effects that naturally follow for my students from these understandings. I asked how they felt about a world that, as they said, was engaged in the state of freefall. My students tried hard to put these effects into words, words such as “stressed,” “anxious,” “tense,” “depressed,” even “afraid.” I inquired about how frequently they felt in these ways. It’s “chronic,” “every day,” “all the time,” I was told. I went further, asking about what this whole experience felt like, in the everyday of their lives? “It disables us.” “I feel paralyzed.” “I’m so exhausted, all the time.” “I just want to stay in bed all day.” I stopped here and thanked them. I mean, they were so open with each other, and with me. I was so absolutely impressed by how well these students had put into words their views of the world and how these views had impacted their experience of life. Still, for me, the question remained, Why me? “Why,” I asked, “would you want ME to podcast?” I just didn’t get it…
I guess I'm a little dense. They started with something like, “Well, Mr. B, you tend to see the world as it is. Like us, you seem to understand that the present world order is beginning to disintegrate.” I responded with something like, “Well, yeah, I guess so” … but, still, I wasn't sure, “Why me?” These students then shared something like, “and Mr. B, hey, you've always been honest with us. In your class, you tell us the truth about what's really going on at school. You've been honest about how dysfunctional the world can be. You've even been honest with us about how you see the future, that the world must continue to deteriorate, becoming much worse, before, once again, there can be genuine and sustained progress.” Initially, I replied with something to this effect: “Well, you know, if you really want to learn how to investigate what is true for yourself, I’d be glad to share whatever sources of knowledge I have with you.” Still, I didn’t feel that, as yet, they had responded directly to my question, and so I pressed on, asking one more time, “Why me?” There was, now, a more extended pause. Eye contact momentarily ceased. It became just that slightest bit uncomfortable…
“Well?” More silence. Finally, one student offered: “Well, none of this seems to bother you, Mr. B.” Hmm… Now I paused, a long moment, before resuming, “Is this how the rest of you feel?” They all nodded in agreement. I asked for an explanation. Here’s a summation of what I heard: “We, us students, as we’ve come to know these realities, we feel anxious, we feel depressed. Sometimes all this can become scary. This stress is every day. Our worries leave us tired, most of the time. It can all become too much, paralyzing. But you, Mr. B, you seem to see the same reality that we do, and you're honest about it, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to affect you as it affects us. You seem calm, Mr. B, relaxed. You actually seem happy to be here, and to be with us. This positivity happens all the time, every day. While we're overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, usually suffering in a chronic state of exhaustion, while we've lost all of our energy, well, … the worse it seems to become in the world, the more motivated and purposeful you seem to be. The disintegrative state of the world, believe it or not, appears to energize you.” Well, all this gave me lots (and lots) to think on. I joked with them a bit about the fact that, despite my conscientious efforts to teach them course content and advanced skills in analysis, what these students had really remembered – and needed – was a consistent presence in the classroom who nurtured their lives, every day, with knowledge and love.
After this meeting I needed some time, actually quite some time, to process all that I’d received that morning in Panera. I considered two fundamental sets of questions. The first concerned the truth of what students had shared with me: “How true was it that I actually saw reality?” “How true was it that I was completely honest with my students?” “How true was it that our reactions to reality were so different, opposed so diametrically?” Hmm … when it came to reality, I concluded, my students were mostly right: I always did try to understand and then embrace what is real. My habit is to dig for truth every day. When it came to honesty, well, I just don't know any other way to live. It’s true, my commitment to truth wasn’t always appreciated by our school administration. Still, I did my best to be as honest as the system allowed. When it came to what students described as the world in freefall, it’s also true: I’m not really bothered that our world has entered into a state of decline, and at a pace which seems only to accelerate. Yes, it’s also true, my levels of energy and motivation have risen, markedly, as the established world order continues to disintegrate. This decline, in fact, fuels me, continues to fuel me, with an immense sense of meaning and purpose. These students were pretty much right, I concluded.
I therefore proceeded to the second, more difficult inquiry, which involved the question of why: “Why, exactly, was it that my students and I could see reality in much the same way, yet our reactions to reality were so entirely different, theirs negative and mine exceedingly positive?” Coming to this answer took me some time, lots of time in fact, before I truly began to understand why it was that we had reacted so differently to our shared reality. And my discovery of this answer, believe me, has everything to do with the title, and thematic idea, of this podcast….
This, my friends, is where the idea of “beauty” starts to become relevant. It appears that students picture reality very narrowly, as if the whole of reality could fit within a telephoto camera lens. This lens they have narrowed to such an extent that what increasing numbers perceive as reality is now little more than “me, myself and I,”… what “I” feel in this moment, what “I” think right now, and how I might accumulate more -- popularity, money, status, etc. -- for “myself,” “me” alone. Well, … what about “me,” meaning, Mr. B: At this point, now in his mid-60’s, how does Mr. B understand reality? I cultivate a view of reality that seems, for me, to be much more inclusive than that of my students. Yes, “me, myself, and I” do have a place, a definite place, within the frame of my reality. But my view remains deeper, higher, and wider, including more of what in the world is true. I try to see the whole, all of reality, through what might be imagined as a wide-angle camera lens. Please, understand, I do not consider this ability as a quality inborn within me. I understand this capacity -- to step back and see more of the whole picture -- as a spiritual quality which, with disciplined practice, can gradually be developed. Over time, with perseverance and patience, I've learned to open the lens of my being in order for my heart to receive more, and more, of what is real. This widening of perception constitutes a process I'm engaged in, always engaged in, yes, here and now, as I do what I can to place what I see within the broadest possible context, … a whole that runs wide, deep, and high enough to encompass the inexpressible, magical, the unfathomable and infinite beauty of both spiritual and material existence. That is why I'm so motivated, I think. That’s why, despite my age, I’m brimming with more energy than ever, … why I consider my life to be so full. Why? My frame of reality, unlike that of many, presents me with a picture large enough to include more (and more) of what, in truth, is beautiful.
How can these differences in our reactions be better understood? Let's take “feeling” first. When an emotion surfaces, I do what I can to step back and away from that feeling, trying to place it within the broadest possible context of understanding. How far?... to the point where I begin to know and appreciate, again, that, simply by feeling, I'm the recipient of precious gifts: the capacities to see, smell, touch, hear, and, yes, to feel emotions! When it comes to what I “think,” I'm reminded of a verse written by the Muslim medieval mystic poet Rumi:
“Be empty of worrying.
Think of who created thought!”
Rumi reminds me that, here too, I've received yet another gift, the ability, itself, to think for myself. Our capacity for thought, indeed, rationality itself, constitutes a thing of beauty! And what about the pursuit of my own self-interest? Yes, even in retirement I've got lots to do, tasks “I” feel the need to accomplish and check off “my” list. The fact I have a to-do list, however, means that I have graciously been provided with opportunity after opportunity to act constructively in the world. This capacity for action provides another chance for my own intellectual growth and spiritual development to continue. My to-do list, in reality, can be what allows me to contribute to the betterment of the world.
Another way of saying this might be, the beauty of this life includes our capacities to act in the world, to think rationally for ourselves, and to feel the vast range of human emotions. What's so beautiful about all this? This provides us with opportunities to live with genuine meaning, and I’m not sure if there's anything more beautiful than living with a sense of true purpose. Albert Einstein once said, “no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it in the first place.” The key, what ignites this transformation, lies in beginning to see reality differently, moving away from the narrow lens of self and toward viewing reality through a wide-angle lens, with both sets of eyes – outer and inner – wide open to the incredible beauty that exists within ourselves, in the lives of others, and within creation itself. Beauty comes first! That, my friends, is why I’ve called this podcast, “Beauty and Mr. B.”
Before we start into the substance of this podcast’s first season, one more item, I feel, needs to be addressed openly … the scope of this podcast. I did some research prior to launching this whole project, and what most struck me was this: I honestly haven’t seen any podcasts (not one!) explicitly directed toward youth/young adults in transition. That's one reason why I’d like to start with my former students and soccer player as the core of this audience, those who, beginning in adolescence, have gradually become enmeshed within the challenges of life’s transitions. Such a core might seem narrow, but, really, it turns out to be an audience much broader than might first appear. I mean, I taught for over 20 years … all at the same high school. Some of my former students and players are now as young as 15 years old, while others – lots in fact -- approach their late ‘30s. Plus, once we move beyond the narrow idea that this is podcast is meant solely for my own students, that is, students who I personally taught in my classroom -- but that this podcast is, in actually, meant for teenagers and young adults, more generally – such an audience constitutes a fairly broad starting point.
Because this audience must start with my former students, I think a few words of heartfelt thanks are definitely in order. I don't know of a better time to convey my gratitude than now. So, here, I want to thank my students and players for being so open to what substance I had to share and for always being so honest with me. It’s true, this podcast could never have been launched but for the honesty and openness of so many students. Thank you! I also want to thank you for being so patient with me. You showed patience waiting for this podcast, but you were also always incredibly patient with me in class. I want to thank my students for truly wanting to learn something of value. This demand constantly pushed me, challenging me to know something worth conveying to students whenever, each morning, I stepped up to that podium at the front of my classroom. Last, and maybe most important, I want to thank my students for being so forgiving. I was that teacher who was willing to stretch toward reality and share whatever knowledge I might gain with students. This meant that I needed to take chances and make mistakes, lots and lots of mistakes. Despite my countless miscues in class and on the field, players and students of mine always remained incredibly encouraging. Yes, thank you again.
Before I go on, I actually have written a short dedication -- because this podcast really only exists because of you, my dear students:
“I want to dedicate this podcast to the thousands of students and soccer players who I had the tremendous privilege and honor of knowing and working with at Glenbard South High School, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. All of you, yes, all of you have been a source of my own growth and development as a person. Even today, you, yes, you, my students, still provide me with the inspiration to continue moving forward with my life! What can I say? except, … ‘you're the best!!’”
Is this podcast, then, only for my own students and players? Absolutely not!... What I need to impress upon listeners, as I conclude today’s episode, is the rest of my thinking on the scope of this podcast. Let’s start with how I approach the subject of retirement. I love retirement. I recommend it, and highly. As soon as possible, yes, please, retire! And why? Well,… I'm no longer confined within the oppression that continues to suffocate the public education systems today: I’m now free to extend the reach of my knowledge – whatever love I have to offer the world – past the four walls of a classroom. Still, extending the reach of my knowledge requires that I actually know content of substantive value, and within this process I must continually seek guidance. We all need guidance. I've already shared with you some of the guidance I've received from the mystic poet, Rumi, as well as from Albert Einstein, the great physicist. Another who’s truly been a guide for me is the late German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. In his Book of Hours Rilke wrote a poem that I keep with me, on my person, all the time, and the first verse of this poem, “I,2,” is now appropriate to share:
“I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.”
What I ask is that you please join me as, together, our understandings of the infinite beauty of reality starts to naturally unfold before our hearts, opening wider and wider, as we join hands in reaching out toward unity across the world. Until next time, dear listeners, I have one and only one wish and prayer for us all, and that, my dear friends, is this … Peace!