Fan Conventions and Disabilities

First, just sharing some of my own experiences.

I have a wide range of convention experience, although I don’t attend them particularly often. I have attended tiny science fiction conventions with fewer than 500 people. I have attended anime conventions with over 30,000. I have attended conventions in cosplay, dressed as myself, dressed formally, as a human chess player on stage, as a program participant, as a featured singer, as nobody in particular. I have been attending conventions for fourteen years now. And it’s been great to see the experience change for a person with limited mobility.

Fourteen years ago, a person who didn’t have to use some kind of external aid every second of every day, couldn’t register at the Special Needs desk of most conventions, because we couldn’t “prove” our disabilities. It was assumed that a walking cane was part of a costume, even if either a)I wasn’t wearing a costume, or b)the character I was cosplaying didn’t use a cane. It was considered acceptable for not only participants but also dealers and convention staff to ask a person with a visible disability to move faster in the dealers’ room at a convention to avoid inconvenience to “the rest of us.” When I got shoved down an escalator at an anime convention ten years ago, it was treated by staff as being my fault because I was in the way of other participants and they had a panel to get to, and I should be walking, not standing, on the escalator.

Much of this has changed. I still hang a small handicapped sign on my cane when I use it, but I am no longer questioned when I walk, unaided, to the special needs desk and ask for a sticker to put on my nametag. There are still thoughtless people with tunnel vision at conventions, but staff now treat incidents such as the one I experienced correctly – as I found out a few years ago at the same anime convention.

It interests me that conduct of participants at conventions of all kinds is progressing faster concerning people with disabilities than it is concerning women. In most circumstances, in my opinion, this is not the case, even inside fandom.

Some tips for the able-bodied, when dealing with persons with disabilities at fan events – because it’s not always obvious how to handle certain situations.

Disabled cosplayers are just like any other kind of cosplayer. Treat them as such. And for gods’ sake, please don’t ask them to put a wheelchair aside for a photo. If they can, they often will. If they don’t do it when the photo is requested, it probably means it’s not possible, so don’t push it.

If you notice that a cosplayer has deliberately worked their aid into their costume (example from my own history: I cosplayed MS Gundam’s Char Aznable as wounded war veteran, since I was using a cane at the time), that’s perfectly okay to comment on.

It is courteous to make sure that someone with a mobility aid gets a seat at the start of events. It is also reasonable to expect that someone with a mobility aid will arrive at or very close to the start of said event, and not walk in at the midpoint and expect a seat. Most conventions actually have a policy that persons with the special needs sticker on their badge are to be given seats within the first five (quantity varies, check your convention’s policy before you go) minutes of any event, but not after that unless you feel moved to do so.

Watch where you’re going in crowded spaces. This should be obvious, but huge numbers of people don’t. You don’t have to treat us as though we’re made of porcelain, but where a fairly basic bump against someone able-bodied isn’t a big deal, it can throw off the balance of someone with a cane because we can’t necessarily catch ourselves. One big example of this which a lot of people don’t follow: do not move directly backward in a dealers’ room; turn around and move forward, then turn again.

Let disabled people have space on the elevator. Some conventions – and some facilities – actually have a policy about this, so check it to make sure you don’t end up in trouble. And once on the elevator, let a person with a mobility aid move to within reach of the edge. If the elevator jerks at the end, it’s important that the person be able to support their balance.

If you see someone acting “different” due to a disability, keep your commentary to yourself, unless you think someone might actually need your help. If I’m walking a little funny, or limping, please don’t draw the attention of everyone nearby to it, thanks. But if I actually fall down, I appreciate the hand up. Especially if escalators are involved.

Be aware that disabled women may be a little more skittish than most women at conventions, and don’t take it personally, just give us a minute to calm down if we’re startled. Almost all women who attend conventions have either experienced or witnessed some sort of harassment, and we’re constantly aware of potential danger. Disabled women are often aware that in dangerous situations, we have metaphorical targets painted on our foreheads.

We’re here for the same reason you are: because we share an interest of some kind. Whether it’s Star Trek or classical literature, we’re here because we love it. In that, we’re just like you. Treat us as such. And if you misstep a little, no biggie. We get that you’re trying. Just try to be understanding, and we’ll return the favor by being as clear and as patient as we can.

Some tips for safety and fun, for people with disabilities when attending fan events – because while it is not our obligation to make ourselves “normal” for others, it is our obligation to take an effort to keep ourselves safe, and be watchful and to be clear about our needs.

That’s a big one: be clear about your needs. If you need something from staff, ask for it. Often staff are volunteers who are there because they share your interest, not because they’re trained disability advocates. They are more than willing to help, but need your guidance to know how. Also, you can’t expect someone to give up their seat to you if you don’t ask for it.

Make it clear with a sign or orange tape or some such that your cane or whatever isn’t part of your costume. Not everyone will know your character, and so not everyone will be able to distinguish someone who is in a wheelchair due to a disability from someone who has borrowed one from a friend for costuming.

Make sure you are noticed. Make noise to let someone know if you’re behind them, if them backing into you would be a problem. Make sure you have something that extends over your head, like a small flag, if you’re in a wheelchair. Have something brightly colored with you or on you. It makes it just that much less likely that someone will crash into you on an escalator (it’s obviously not your fault if someone shoves you down an escalator, just like it wasn’t mine, but it’s so much better if it doesn’t happen at all).

Keep aware of things around you. You know to look both ways before crossing a street. At a convention, you’re always in a street. It may not be a busy street, but it’s at the very least a bike path, and there are potential hazards that you should be on the lookout for. Simple awareness will go a long way to keep you from getting injured.

Have a little patience with your fellow fans. I’m not talking here about the idiots at conventions who say insulting and bigoted things about people with disabilities – I’m talking about people who clearly have no experience with these issues, and may be varying degrees of socially inept, but who are trying, and are nervous about seeming like one of the other group. They’re here because they have interests in common with you, and that should go some way toward drawing you together. Our culture is a precious thing, and it’s worth a little patience.

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Why I Love Mordred in the Arthurian Legend

I have loved the legends of King Arthur since I was a small child watching The Sword in the Stone, and eventually reading the full novel of The Once and Future King, but it wasn’t until high school that I really began to understand the sheer extent of the tapestry of Arthurian canon. The complexity of the legends can be mind-boggling, even as some of the renditions and individual stories are very basic and simple, even sweet. The work that really set me on the journey of becoming an Arthuriana enthusiast and scholar was Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, in particular the author’s experiments with viewpoint. I had never realized that viewpoint could be such a pivotal concept in retellings of the legend, and I immediately set out to devour all versions of the legend I could find, the more different the better.

The first “different” version I read was, of course, the direct follow-up to the Merlin Trilogy, Mary Stewart’s own novel The Wicked Day, which retells much of the last book in the trilogy from Mordred’s viewpoint, before adding events to the end which go beyond the scope of The Last Enchantment, the last novel in the trilogy. From that point on, I was fascinated with the character of Mordred, and his history in the Arthurian canon.

At Bryn Mawr College, I took a course on the legends of Arthur. One of the big assignments was a large paper on a character, chosen from the list, and we were to research the canonical history of that character, his or her first appearances, later development through the different Arthurian sources, and the way she or he is interpreted by modern fiction. The professor, after discussing the expectations with the class, asked how many of us had already picked our character; most of us had. She asked how many were planning to write about Morgan. Almost a third of the seventy-five or so students in the class raised their hands. This being Bryn Mawr, this was not tremendously surprising. She then asked, curiously, if anyone was planning to write about Mordred. My hand shot up at the back of the room. I was the only one. The professor laughed. “Ah yes,” she said. “The Mordred people. There’s one in every class. Good to know which one you are. You guys keep us honest.”

That comment struck me, as did the assumption that a bunch of scholars discussing the Arthurian legend would need someone to keep them honest. As it turned out, the prediction was quite correct, and I learned why: the sources, from medieval to modern, generally espouse a certain moral code, and take for granted certain concepts. One of Mordred’s roles in the legend, and therefore one of my roles in the class, was to constantly call those concepts into question, often playing devil’s advocate (I don’t normally do this, but for some reason this class really brought it out in me). It made people angry with me, just as it made people angry with Mordred in the legend. Fortunately, in a modern liberal arts college, there was a much greater expectation of open-mindedness than would be found in a medieval court.

One can tell so much about the purpose of any piece of Arthuriana by watching how Mordred is portrayed. The reason for this is that Mordred is key to how Arthur himself is portrayed: they are nemeses. In the same way that Batman would not be as brilliant without the presence of the Joker to oppose him, or Superman without Lex Luthor, the list goes on, Arthur needs his Mordred for contrast. The difference between this pair and those others, though, is that Mordred can be just about anything the author wants — which means that Mordred becomes a vehicle for making Arthur anything the author wants. It is very revealing of the portrayal of Arthur, to view his opposite, or sometimes just a foil, or even just a tragic circumstance, in Mordred.

When I first read Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day, and read up on the character, much of the critique I saw of the novel mentioned her “new” take on the character. This seemed odd to me, as Stewart specifically mentions in her author’s notes that Mordred was not originally a villain. He is barely a footnote in the first source in which he is mentioned (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), and we cannot even tell on which side he fought in the battle of Camlann. When I did my research in college, I discovered there are numerous other old sources which have a complex or even sympathetic portrayal of the character. I think my favorite is the Alliterative Morte Arthur, which portrays Mordred as fighting against Arthur for reasons he believes valid, and refusing to back down from his own honor and convictions. The two are set against each other in a conflict that cannot be resolved except through death, and everyone, including both Arthur and Mordred, recognizes the tragic waste. The moment that gave me chills, though, was when I read about Mordred, having just killed Gawain, weeping over the body, realizing that at this point there is no going back even if they should find some way to resolve all of their other issues, and fully understanding the waste of all the brilliant men and ideas that will perish in the battle. This, from a piece written in the late 1300’s. The idea of a sympathetic character in Mordred is definitely not “new.” If anything, the sneering madman of The Once and Future King is the new interpretation. Even Thomas Malory portrays him as bitter and treacherous, but sane and practical.

If you read my earlier post about Game of Thrones and why I love Jaime Lannister, it should come as no surprise that I love Mordred to pieces, and for many of the same reasons. I love characters who call everyone’s assumptions into question. I love complex characters.

Mordred may be one of the most complex characters in all of literature. This comes in part from the sheer number of versions: the evil wizard counterpart to Merlin; the disgruntled brat prince; the smooth-talking madman; the dangerously charismatic and treacherous rebel leader; the misguided and bitter youth; the abused boy manipulated by his vindictive mother; the terrified knight caught up in a destiny he cannot escape; the politician who makes hard decisions; the nobleman who is a victim of circumstance; the leader of a resistance against a regime that has outgrown its usefulness to its kingdom. These are just a few of the thousands of versions of this character that now exist. There’s even gay erotica about Mordred (it was brilliant Arthuriana, actually).

Fun piece of trivia: If you watch Monty Python’s Quest for The Holy Grail, it is possible to determine the identify of Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. He is Mordred. The proof is two-fold, beyond the fact that Mordred does not in fact appear in the film: 1) He is a baby in the image, and Mordred is the youngest of Arthur’s knights in most of the Grail legends. 2) He is wrapped in swaddling that is green, with embroidered dragons. Green signifies Lothian, the realm of Arthur’s sister; the dragon signifies Arthur himself. The child of Arthur and his sister? Mordred. QED. The Python crew has confirmed this analysis.

Politics Post: Colorblindness in High-Stakes Testing and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

I have read a lot of articles recently about the evils of high-stakes testing, and I agree with almost all of them. There’s just one aspect of the problem I feel has been massively under-addressed: racial justice in standardized testing.
First, a couple of choice quotations to share. These have been working their way around the internet for a couple of years now, and I’d like to put them together in this post.
“If we’re encouraged to differentiate our instruction, why are we suddenly standardizing everything about education?”
“Fairness in education isn’t every student getting the same thing. It’s every student getting what they need.”
A few years ago, my school had a guest speaker come to talk to the teachers about racial equality in our classrooms. We were all ready to be defensive, sure that we were going to be accused of deliberate discrimination, prejudice, racism, you name it. This defensive attitude existed for two reasons. The first is that, as teachers, we were already seeing the pattern of accusatory speakers at educational events, and it was in fact a reasonable conclusion to come to, that anybody coming to talk to us about improving our practices would take that particular tone. The second, though, was that most of the teachers who were present that day are White. And we were reacting out of a knee-jerk fear of being called on our own privilege. (For a great link on White and other kinds of privilege, and why it isn’t something we have to apologize for or be ashamed of, but is something we have to acknowledge and account for, check out John Scalzi’s brilliant remarks.)
Which, as it turned out, was totally unfounded anyway. Both of our fears were. The guest speaker, Ivory Toldson, was brilliant in every way, and one of the first things he did was point out that most of the inequalities in an individual classroom are not based on deliberate discrimination: they’re based on simple lack of knowledge of the background from which our students come, and based on a simple ignorance born of our own backgrounds – backgrounds we don’t have to be ashamed of or sorry for, but whose results we do have to do something about. His recommendation was not that we suddenly start giving out free passes to students of color, or any such thing that some of us expected to hear. He asked us, plainly and with passion, to get to know our students and their cultures, and to understand their individual needs in order to better meet them. Just as we would with students whose needs differed in any other way. I spoke with Dr. Toldson individually later, and he gave me some tips on reaching out to students, which have been incredibly helpful throughout my career since then.
He was the first person I heard say the second of the above quotations, by the way.
Since that day, which was about four years ago, the education field has become more and more about high-stakes testing, in ways that are increasingly destructive, and disproportionately destructive to our students of color.
How are these things related, you ask? Take a look at that first quotation again.
High-stakes testing works on the basic premise that all students are essentially the same, and that it makes sense to “handle” them all in the same ways. In racial terms, this is referred to as “colorblindness.” At first glance, this might seem like a good thing: not seeing race means seeing everyone as equal, right? Except, no, it doesn’t – it fails to acknowledge important differences in background, racial history, institutional discrimination, and numerous other things, including, yes, the existence of White privilege. For more on colorblindness and its deleterious effects, check this excellent article.
Now take that concept, and funnel it into the creation of a test with stakes that determine how we further label our students. Students who do well on these tests are labelled “successful,” and all sorts of opportunities come their way. Students who do poorly on these tests are labeled “failures,” and they find all kinds of new obstacles placed in their paths – as if they needed that, given that these students clearly already face numerous challenges. In particular, it is due to historical and institutional racism that students of color tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods that are already struggling, and have struggling schools.
This fuels another awful concept, one that makes me sad that we even need a term for: the school-to-prison pipeline. The ACLU’s page (here) on this defines this concept as the “disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The ACLU files this concept under their Racial Justice heading for a reason: it disproportionately affects students of color, in particular black and Hispanic students, and this inequality is only getting worse due to high-stakes testing.
What’s the connection here? The fact that the failure to account for diversity in our school systems punishes students of color for their differing backgrounds, and labels them “failures” through the mechanism of high-stakes testing. This label then places them in a position to be shunted straight into the prison system through decreased funding to those students’ schools, which further stigmatizes their backgrounds… and the cycle continues.
This is absolutely unacceptable, and is a failure on the part of education reform. High-stakes testing has been touted as “the great equalizer,” when in fact it has become the reverse.

Miles Vorkosigan and Physical Disability in Science Fiction

CONTENT ADVISORY: While this post isn’t particularly disturbing, in my opinion, there are aspects of the book series which may come up in discussion that are. Read the comments at your own risk.

I will never forget meeting Lois McMaster Bujold at the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention some years back, when she was the year’s Guest of Honor. I stood in line for a long time to get books signed and shake her hand, and thank her for the way she writes disabled people. There were probably about two hundred people in line, grand total, and about half were using some kind of visible aid: canes for the blind, walking canes of different types, wheelchairs, hearing aids, ASL interpreters, aid dogs of various kinds, were just some of the different assistive accommodations I saw in line that day, (Brief note: for those who don’t know me, I am an on-and-off user of some of these myself; my mobility level ranges from “I require a wheelchair” up to “I can walk without assistance as long as it’s not too far or too steep.” At the time, I was using a walking cane and a number of braces on both arms and legs.) I spent most of the wait time talking with the women directly in front of and behind me, and we shared our reading experiences and why the books had really hit home to us:

“I bet you had athletics trainers who were just about that understanding, didn’t you… yeah, me too.”
“That pressure, not to disappoint people by the things you can’t do. That, yes, I know that one. She really nailed that.”
“The moment when your health makes you watch your career flash before your eyes and vanish. God. That was painful to read because I recognized it so thoroughly.”

If you aren’t familiar with the books, the protagonist of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is Miles Vorkosigan, eldest son of a noble and powerful family, third in line for his planet’s seat of power… and severely physically disabled, in a culture with a military-nobility caste. He’s also a hyperactive and bipolar genius with an amazing capacity for getting into trouble… and, fortunately, for getting out of it again, though not entirely unscathed. The books start out mostly fun romps through a cool sci-fi space opera mystery, unless you happen to identify just a little too closely with the main character (let me tell you, it was a spectacular experience, reading that first book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, while laid up wearing leg braces from ankle to hip, but probably not the best life choice I’ve ever made, and not one I would have made had I known just what I was letting myself in for). Later books are harder to take, and a few, such as her novel Memory, are frankly a kick in the teeth, though also brilliant – there’s a reason this book won pretty much every award for which it was eligible. I’ve never forgotten the exact words of the description I heard that day: “Reading Memory was like having my world torn apart and put back together again from tiny shreds, and realizing it was bigger than I’d realized.” Brilliant, yes, but also extraordinarily painful to read. Every time I reread the series, I ask myself whether I should skip this one… but I never do.

A large part of this experience, for me, is the compassion and respect with which the author handles the main character’s disabilities. They are crucial to his decision-making processes, and to the mechanisms of his daily life. They affect parts of his life ranging from simple self-care to romance to long-term career planning. The physical and mental are intertwined as well; while his disabilities are primarily physical in nature, there are major psychological and psychiatric issues that result directly from them. At the same time, his disabilities do not define him, as much as his society would really like them to. He is tremendously successful, though not without difficulty – but then, nobody in this series accomplishes anything that’s both really major and really worth doing without some challenge, kind of like in real life. Miles’ disabilities just give him a different set of challenges from those faced by others in his world, and often they are a set of challenges that others have trouble understanding because they are so far beyond the realm of their own experiences. But, and this is also key, there are wonderful people who make the effort to try. They don’t always succeed, but if there is one thing that Bujold captures better than any other author I’ve ever seen, it’s the importance of having those around you try to understand the challenges you face.

Politics Post: The Flaw in “Competitive School Reform” Logic

CONTENT ADVISORY: It saddens me greatly that I feel the need to put a content advisory on a post about education policy, but the fact is, education policy is killing people. This post discusses some of those mechanisms.

I originally posted most of this on my Facebook back in 2011. I am updating it now in the aftermath of the Vergara v. California decision, because I believe that the recent push to take away the last vestige of teacher rights is an extension of the same problems seen in the administration then – though it was early enough in the Obama administration that many of us were only beginning to realize the depth of the problem. Now that more of the effect has become visible, the Race to the Top initiative has also become an even clearer example of why pitting schools against each other in competition isn’t the right recipe for “reforming” the system.
First, some background on the initiative, since it’s been a while. Race to the Top was part of the education funding package which itself was part of the federal stimulus program. Some of the stimulus funding for education went toward prevention of massive layoffs in the public schools across the country, some of it went to renovations of school buildings to keep them structurally safe and make many old buildings asbestos-free for the first time. The rest went toward a program conceived by the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, called Race to the Top.
By the rules of the Race to the Top program, schools – including private and charter schools – would institute new reforms and practices to improve themselves, and submit the results for what amounts to a federal contest, with massive amounts of school funding as the prize. Schools across the country put resources toward self-improvement and reform, hoping to recoup the money later by winning extra funding.
The theory behind Race to the Top is roughly this: if schools are encouraged to self-improve by having a direct financial incentive, then more schools will discover new practices and products that work, which can then be replicated in programs across the country, thus improving all of the schools. Also, by putting the schools in competition against each other, it will further encourage the risk-taking that always accompanies any kind of reform.
It’s a good theory. It works. But what people don’t always realize is that it works because those schools were willing to put tremendous resources into their reforms. Everything comes at a cost, in any industry, and education is no exception. The money for everything has to come from somewhere. And the schools that instituted those reforms and improvements recorded very impressive results.
Then it comes time for the next step: replicating those innovations, and hopefully those results, across the country. That’s the point where our education system finds itself right now. Schools are attempting to implement those same reforms, because that’s the federal mandate: now we know some things that work, so do it. Immediately. Because it’s what our students need. As far as that goes, it’s correct. But the schools that are receiving these mandates don’t necessarily have the resources to put toward those innovations, and the result is that the employees just have to come up with it, somehow. Somewhere.
Schools in my area have been implementing some of the new practices and such that came out of Race to the Top. Some of them even work. I’ve seen huge improvements in our school. It’s great. Scores are getting higher, gaps are closing. It’s awesome. Others are not helping in the slightest, and it’s just making us all – students, teachers, administrators, and support staff – busier for no good reason. Reality check: just because something works beautifully at one school, does not mean it will work at all schools.
But since there’s no money being put into it, the cost has to come from somewhere else. And where it’s currently coming from is other things that make schools work. We’ve bought ourselves curricular reform by sacrificing the idea that teachers and students both have other things in their lives. We’ve bought school reform by sacrificing actual physical supplies (actual example: a few years ago, my school got all sorts of shiny new science equipment, but in mid-February completely ran out of copy paper for the rest of the year, and teachers had to purchase their own paper to make class materials for the remainder of the year). We’ve bought school reform by sacrificing class size (the average class size in my department was 36 for years after this initiative). We’ve bought school reform by requiring students and teachers both to spend hours of after school time picking up the slack left in the supports that used to exist. The improvements based on the Race to the Top program, while very real and significant, are being implemented as if they exist in a vacuum. Our schools are less safe, both physically and otherwise, for every person in them, employees and students alike.
Parents are angrier at the system than ever before, because they perceive – quite correctly – that their children are not being treated as human beings by the current administration. They’re being treated as test scores that happen to be walking around in an incarnation that resembles a teenage human. Students are turning to their teachers for help, but that’s not working either – because teachers are explicitly being told that we are not allowed to make accommodations for the stresses students are experiencing. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. I wish I could help,” is becoming a refrain in our schools. Since 2011, there has been an epidemic of student suicides in my area, due to stress. And teachers can’t give any more time to work than we already do – because, under the pressure of these expectations, many of us have now given up almost everything else in our lives beyond basic obligations, and still don’t have enough time in the day.
This isn’t about teacher pay, which is the argument most people seem to be using against it. It’s about the ways in which Race to the Top has failed the very people we are supposed to be serving with our schools: the students.
Teacher pay is an issue, of course, for a number of reasons. Teacher benefits are an issue. And there is a basic issue of equity for school employees that is coming to a head in states like Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, and now California. Teachers have already compromised, giving up potential salary increases to maintain benefits, things of that nature. If those bargaining rights are stripped away, those teachers will lose the things they have already sacrificed to keep. They will have more work, under worse conditions. The average length of time someone stays in the teaching profession is five years. That number is way too low, but it can still go down. There will be fewer and fewer experienced teachers in this country.
But the most important thing that so many people are failing to realize, is that unless the teachers are put in conditions where they can work productively, the people who bear the final cost of that are our citizens of the next generation. The way educational reform is being implemented in our country is taking away the adult support these kids need. When teachers are abused by the system, the results are passed on to the students.
Those results, ranging from student test scores dropping to students committing suicide, are absolutely unacceptable.
And with the recent decision in California, teachers’ ability to help students, and to ask schools for the help they need, and to advocate for their children – for our students really are like our children, if you haven’t seen the movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips, go out and watch it right now – because we could be fired without due process for causing administrators inconvenience. Again, this isn’t about teacher pay or teacher tenure. This is about our students and our ability to help them in the ways that they need in order to be successful learners.
Much of the so-called “school reform” movement is based on a single, deeply flawed premise: the reason the schools aren’t better is that they don’t actually want to be better. This isn’t the surface rhetoric, but it is the assumption that underlies the entire basis of the competition-based funding and evaluations and high-stakes testing that have come to dominate the educational environment under the current administration.
Work with my logic a minute. “School reform” policy starts with the idea that all the resources really are there in the schools, it’s just a matter of how they are used, and if we put schools in competition with each other, they’ll all get better because they’ll be motivated. This implies that the schools aren’t motivated already, and that pay and funding are the only things that will motivate schools to improve – in other words, that schools aren’t actually motivated by positive results in their students. The same is true of the idea of merit pay: if one assumes that teachers will naturally improve if they are in competition with each other to improve, this assumes that they aren’t sufficiently motivated already by a desire to serve their students and to do well as professionals. This is insulting in the extreme, as well as untrue for the vast majority of us. So much for the campaign promises to “respect teachers.”
Spring is always a rough time for teachers, and this isn’t going to change even if some of these problems are fixed. But I am disturbed by the number of great teachers I know who are either leaving the profession or strongly considering it, because the environment has become so hostile not just to them but to their students. I know the same thought has crossed my mind numerous times this year.

This post is made in honor of all those educators in all positions, and all those students, who have been so relentlessly overloaded by the current environment in education that they have destroyed themselves, deliberately or otherwise, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

House Words and Bannermen in A Song of Ice and Fire

So this was suggested by the comments on my last post, plus another idea that had been marinating in my brain, and the two combined and grew teeth and started chewing on me in the middle of the night. Result: my second post on A Song of Ice and Fire. There won’t be too many of these, I promise, but neither will this be the last.

First, I have to give some credit to my source: I spent a ridiculously long time clicking links starting from the “House Words” article at A Wiki of Ice and Fire. They have a somewhat terrifyingly complete alphabetic listing of House Words by House. I have reorganized them by banner allegiance, below, with analysis.

The reason for this exercise was the question asked in the comments to my other post, roughly, “What is the effect of House Words on our moral views of a given House?” I had also been thinking of a different – but related – question: how do a Lord’s associations with certain bannermen affect the reader’s views of his House’s morals? And I thought, why not combine the two? And here we are.

Keep in mind as we go through this list, that there are many Houses not listed here. They are those whose Words have not been listed in the books, the appendices, or any related media, or for that matter any interviews with GRRM, which were apparently the sources for a couple of these. So, for example, I don’t think we are meant to assume that House Greyjoy only has one vassal House.

Also, with one exception, clearly marked, each minor House is listed only under the Great House whom they serve when they first actively appear in the series. Unless the first action they are seen to take in the series is betraying their rulers and switching sides, they are listed with their original allegiances.

House Martell – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. Bannermen: House Allyrion – No Foe May Pass. House Fowler – Let Me Soar. House Jordayne – Let It Be Written. House Yronwood – We Guard the Way.

House Martell’s legacy of independence, which is the main thing readers and viewers hear about Dorne other than its wine for quite some time into the series, is strongly portrayed in the House Words of both its ruling House and those of Martell’s bannermen. The small number of them whose Words are actually given makes this easier to keep consistent, but consistent it certainly is. Audience members will find their views on House Martell bolstered by the bannermen, I think, whatever those views might be. If one is sympathetic to Dorne’s views and aims, the bannermen are sufficiently in line with those to be affirming. If one assumes that Dorne is a danger and a threat to Westeros and needs to be subjugated, the bannermen certainly lend credence to that as well. In terms of character, we don’t get much in the way of information about the bannermen of Dorne other than this.

House Tyrell – Growing Strong. Bannermen: House Ambrose – Never Resting. House Ashford – Our Sun Shines Bright. House Beesbury – Beware Our Sting (Vassals Via Hightower). House Bulwer – Death Before Disgrace (Vassals Via Hightower). House Footly – Tread Lightly Here. House Fossoway of Cider Hall – A Taste of Glory. House Graceford – Work Her Will. House Hastwyck – None So Dutiful. House Hightower – We Light the Way. House Merryweather – Behold Our Bounty. House Oakheart – Our Roots Go Deep. House Tarly – First in Battle.

That’s… a lot of sweetness and light and nature metaphors and awful puns. Excuse me while I go vomit in a corner… Back now, and ready to put aside my dislike of House Tyrell’s Words (I actually quite like the people in it, with the exception of Loras and even he’s growing on me a bit) for the sake of analysis. The nature metaphors and the almost idyllic quality of so many of these Houses’ Words are a beautifully subtle way of bringing home the message that Tyrell is just full of bountiful resources. They may not shit gold, but they’ve laid in stocks for the Long Winter, and a few years in, they’ll outlast everyone else. And so will all of their bannermen! What a great deal, if you swear loyalty! Doesn’t that just make them useful allies and dangerous enemies, though… and all while seeming so sweet about the whole thing. In addition to being advertising, though, it’s also a lovely bit of snide and superiority, actually, which is borne out in the characters’ interactions with just about everybody, but which is easy to overlook if you aren’t watching for it – or if you really want to see the best in people (in which case, I feel bad for you as a reader of this series, I really do). Again, we don’t get much on their bannermen beyond this.

House Arryn – As High as Honor. Bannermen: House Royce – We Remember. House Wydman – Right Conquers Might. House Waxley – Light in Darkness.

Well that’s mighty morally upright of you, House Arryn. And traditional. One gets the impression that these are people with some kind of legacy to uphold. The Eyrie would make a great lighthouse, and it makes just as good a metaphor. In all seriousness, I think we can see why Lysa Arryn fixated so much on “The seed is strong,” when surrounded by these bits of propaganda. There’s a whole other analysis to be done of House Words there: the effect they might have on a person growing up around them, or on a person with severe mental illness (which Lysa certainly is) who is constantly surrounded by them. House Words are indoctrination in its finest form, and this is a brilliant example of how that can play out.

House Baratheon – Ours Is the Fury. Bannermen: House Buckwell – Pride and Purpose. House Caron – No Song So Sweet. House Follard – None so Wise. House Grandison – Rouse Me Not. House Lonmouth – The Choice Is Yours. House Penrose – Set Down Our Deeds. House Stokeworth – Proud to Be Faithful. House Swygert – Truth Conquers. House Toyne – Fly High, Fly Far. House Trant – So End Our Foes. House Velaryon – The Old, the True, the Brave. House Wensington – Sound the Charge. House Wendwater – For All Seasons.

House Baratheon’s Words have always interested me: Ours Is the Fury. This is very much a battle-oriented phrase, and brings to mind the (somewhat tragic) fact that the audience only gets to meet Robert Baratheon years after the Rebellion is over and his years of greatness have passed. Based on what we hear, he must really have been amazing back then, possibly he and Stannis both (remember that Stannis supposedly took Storm’s End and Dragonstone, which were previously considered impregnable). We don’t get to see House Baratheon in its most comfortable milieu: war. The House Words of not only Baratheon but all of its bannermen speak to this, and are a fairly consistent reminder, not to put too fine a point on it, Do Not Fuck with Us or You Will Not Be Happy with the Result (I hereby propose these as alternative House Words for Baratheon). One gets the impression that House Baratheon has always been around, will always be around, and it’s pointless to try and get rid of them. Which is probably a good impression for the Words of a warlike House to give, really. In terms of bannermen, there are only a handful of characters from these minor Houses, and they aren’t directly associated with the Baratheons. I didn’t know until I looked it up that House Trant were their vassals, for example.

House Stark – Winter is Coming. Bannermen:. House Bolton – Our Blades Are Sharp. House Cerwyn – Honed and Ready (Vassals via Bolton). House Flint of Widow’s Watch – Ever Vigilant (Vassals via Bolton). House Hornwood – Righteous in Wrath (Vassals via Bolton). House Karstark – The Sun of Winter. House Mormont – Here We Stand. House Tallhart – Proud and Free (Vassals via Bolton).

As much as I dislike the Starks, I really, really hope they have more bannermen than are listed here, and that those bannermen have direct loyalty. If not, the Boltons are actually intermediary lords to more than half the Starks’ bannermen. I would like to think that the Starks are not quite so stupid as to let that come to pass (if I’m wrong, they deserve what’s coming to them, if Westeros has a version of Darwin). Also, the Boltons are scary, and are shockingly unexpected bannermen for the Starks, especially after how the Starks are portrayed from Ned’s perspective. With that kind of cold dispassion and countenance for torture, one would expect them to work for the Lannisters.

The Stark Words are grim, but some of the most compelling in the series, and have a variety of meanings. They speak to the hardness of the North, and the inevitability of death, and the necessity of preparation for disaster, and all sorts of pragmatic things… which makes it particularly interesting that the Starks are the House who most consistently have their heads in the clouds when it comes to pragmatism. It also reminds us of the House’s ancient bonds with the Night’s Watch, which show up in some of their vassals’ Words as well. They give us the impression of the Starks that the Starks like to give of themselves to others, which is why this was one of the examples that started off my thinking on this topic to begin with.

House Greyjoy – We Do Not Sow. Bannermen: House Codd – Though All Men Do Despise Us.

Given that Greyjoy is one of the Great Houses, I think we can take this as proof that there are more Houses than are known as having House Words, even if some of the missing names from the list weren’t enough.

One of my favorite moments in the series is the point when Theon Greyjoy goes home for the first time in years, after spending time among the Starks, and is looked at by pretty much everyone as having “gone soft.” Up until this point, the Starks have been the “hard Northerners,” Westeros’ prime example of harshness and living with the wildness of the surrounding elements, and suddenly this is called into question. Up until this point, when Theon has bragged about his homeland and its harshness, the reader has been left to assume that he is lying or at least exaggerating, and the reader has been left to be wrong. Their House Words are delightfully chilling. Those of their sole bannermen to have House Words of their own? Remind us that this lifestyle can really, really suck. If one reacts to the Starks’ Words with “Well, that’s grim,” one can legitimately react to the Greyjoys’ with “Well, that’s even more grim.”

House Lannister – Hear Me Roar! Bannermen: House Crakehall – None so Fierce. House Marbrand – Burning Bright. House Peckledon – Unflinching. House Plumm – Come Try Me. House Sarsfield – True to the Mark. House Serrett – I Have No Rival. House Swyft – Awake! Awake!. House Westerling – Honor, not Honors.

House Lannister is my favorite, with the possible exception of Martell; I’ve made no secret of this. But I admit, their House Words are really, really silly. Fortunately, the whole family seems to know it, and every time the Words are quoted it’s with tongue lodged firmly in cheek, which makes me like them even more. (This also explains, now that I think about it, why they say “A Lannister always pays his debts” so often, in an attempt to make everyone forget their actual Words.) Their bannermen all have House Words which are pretentiously fierce (except possibly Peckledon, who scored big time on “cool and to the point” by sounding more like Martell than Lannister), but maybe a little less fierce and a little less pretentious – okay, a lot less pretentious – than their ruling House. The Lannisters were the first, in contrast with the Starks and the Boltons, to make me think about the bannermen and how they make us think about the whole House. Specifically, the Lannisters employ the Cleganes, who sadly appear not to have any Words of their own (I nominate “Kill, Kill, Kill”), who are the first truly distasteful bannermen to whom the audience is introduced. This, in my opinion, is a masterful piece of writing on Martin’s part, as he rapidly manipulates our opinions of the Lannisters as a whole, if we’re not extra careful. I covered this in my previous post, so I won’t do too much more on it here.

House Tully – Family, Duty, Honor. Bannermen: House Mallister – Above the Rest. House Mooton – Wisdom and Strength. House Piper – Brave and Beautiful. House Smallwood – From These Beginnings (Vassals via Vance). House Wode – Touch Me Not (later to Baelish, creepy).

With the exception of Wode, which I will deal with in a minute, these are all extremely self-satisfied, which is the impression I’ve always had of the Tullys as well. The Tullys’ House Words, and their order, were the other set that prompted this analysis in the first place, because of the questions of situational morality and resulting issues of moral relativism that they evoke. This is one of my favorite examples of a set of House Words that indicate a set of priorities which may or may not be a good idea in any given scenario, and may or may not have any moral standing whatsoever. “Family first” sounds nice, but as House Tyrell does such a lovely job of showing, what sounds nice isn’t necessarily so, and vice versa.

So let’s talk about House Wode for a second. This one just struck me because it’s one of the few Houses to completely change hands involuntarily over the course of the series. There are some Houses who betray their ruling Lords and switch sides, but this is one which is conquered and forced to change sides. They go from House Tully to House Baelish, and with that set of House Words. Am I the only one thinking sympathetically about Sansa Stark here?

House Targaryen – Fire and Blood

Ah, House Targaryen, last but not least, and with no bannermen of their own anymore. I tried to find a comprehensive list of which Houses had fought for them during Robert’s Rebellion, but couldn’t find one. Even with the House removed from power in Westeros, their Words definitely remind us of the old legend of House Targaryen, that whenever a baby is born, the gods toss a coin in the air, with greatness on one side and madness on the other. This set of Words could apply to either. One can see them applying to Daenerys at her best, or Aerys at his worst. One can hate them, one can fear them, one can love them, one can worship them… the one thing one can’t really do is ignore them. This is another of those sets, though, that I wonder what it would do to a child, growing up with it.

So what’s your point?

Well, I definitely found the first thing I was looking for: evidence in one direction or another to answer for myself a single question: if one groups all the Houses by banner allegiance, is it clear whether the author deliberately grouped sets of House Words? I think there’s a definitive “Yes” here. The sets are just too consistent to think otherwise, and the series as a whole is too precisely written to assume it’s anything approaching accidental. My second question was: if it was deliberate, is it part of how the author has subtly manipulated our views of each House? I think, again, Yes, in ways I hadn’t even realized until I wrote this.

Okay, we knew he was a good writer. So what’s your point?

Does this change the way we should see the Houses? Not necessarily. But one of the things this series – in both its versions – is so good for, is increasing our own self-awareness as audience members. If nothing else, compiling this has helped me with that. And maybe it was a little ridiculous to spend about four hours in the middle of the night putting this together. (Maybe I have a bit of a fangirl problem here.) But it sure got my brain working, in a way that just reading the books, or just watching the show, didn’t, even though those do engage my brain to a degree that most fiction just doesn’t. And for that alone, the effort was worth it to me. And if it sparks some thought or discussion somewhere, even more so.

“Bad Guys” and “Worse Guys” in Game of Thrones

DISTURBING CONTENT ADVISORY: If you haven’t seen Game of Thrones or read Song of Ice and Fire, both contain large amounts of sexually disturbing and violent material, which will be under discussion in this post and probably in any comments as well.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post will discuss both the HBO series and the original books by George R.R. Martin. This post and the comments will likely be rife with spoilers for both.

These two related works – the HBO hit Game of Thrones and the George R.R. Martin fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire – are wonderful fodder for those who, like me, tend to prefer complex characters over simple ones. In my experience, at least, villains are often painted with greater nuance than heroes, as if the author assume that we will automatically “sign on” with the causes of the “good guys,” but they have to explain the reasoning of the “bad guys” to us. The result, to me, is that villains are almost always more interesting, more attractive, and more sympathetic than heroes in speculative fiction genres.

George R.R. Martin seems to have circumvented the problem by foregoing heroes altogether, at least in the “present day” of his world. There may be heroes of the past, but even they are turning up more ambiguous than one usually finds in epic fantasy. The real brilliance of this move, though, lies in the fact that the author managed to manipulate the majority of his audience into thinking that wasn’t his intention for the entirety of the first book (a feat which the showrunners of the televised version replicated with season one on HBO).

I have had a very frustrating repeated experience when discussing these two works with people. Allow me to describe it here. And please note, this has happened even with people who normally are able to discuss literature and film with me in a rational manner. It’s pretty quick to describe. At some point, someone asks the question, “Who is your favorite character?” And I answer, honestly, “Jaime Lannister.” At this point, the conversation goes one of two ways. If the person has read or viewed past a certain point, they say, “Ah, after he lost his hand, you started liking him.” And I protest, “No, he’s been my favorite since the beginning.” At which point we get the same result as if the person hasn’t seen Jaime lose his hand at all, which is that the person promptly explodes with “You’re a horrible person!” Not “I disagree,” not “He’s a horrible person, how could you like him,” but “You’re a horrible person.”

You see, Jaime became my favorite character in the books the instant he was introduced simultaneously as “The Lion of Lannister” and “the Kingslayer,” when he first enters the feasting hall at Winterfell. Before he threw Bran out of a window, before it became apparent that he was sleeping with his sister – not that either of those was inconsistent with the portrait painted in that first snapshot. It became apparent then that this was going to be the character who would be the standard-bearer for moral neutrality and complexity, which has certainly been borne out in later revelations and events. Most readers noticed the other two events much more, due to their spectacular nature, and when I ask people why they don’t like Jaime, those are always the items they bring up. Then they bring up the issue of him having murdered his king, which is of course far more complex than the title of “Kingslayer” would grant.

So let’s talk about that particular event for a bit, because there’s one piece of information that almost everyone overlooks, and is never brought up in conjunction with it in either the show or the books. Jaime makes the snap decision to murder the Mad King Aerys, to prevent him from immolating the capital and everyone in it. Not the job of the Kingsguard, certainly, quite the opposite, but one has to wonder what the world would look like today if one of Hitler’s bodyguards had done the same thing. Would we condemn them? Probably, since we would have no way of knowing what might have been. But let’s get to that missing piece, which wouldn’t have been the case for that hypothetical German: Jaime was only seventeen years old when he made the decision to take that action and never explain his reasoning to anyone, to prevent a panic and instead take everyone’s judgment on himself.

Let’s get to the judgment side of things now. In the first book and first season, Jaime appears to be squarely on the side of the “villains,” along with the vast majority of the cast. The lines are drawn clearly, Starks versus Lannisters, good versus evil, straightforward versus backstabbing, swordsmen versus poisoners (not that this was true either, of course, but it was so easy to believe), you name it. In my opinion, Eddard Stark was the worst thing to happen to Westeros since Aerys. He’s a lousy King’s Hand, and a hypocrite who takes far too much pleasure and comfort in passing moral judgment on others to be a reasonable administrator in a complex world. (This opinion is just about as popular as loving Jaime.) He has his own moral compass, to be sure, but it isn’t what he claims it is. He works for his own honor, his own ideas of right and wrong, and places those above the good of the realm… while claiming that his greatest motivation is service to the Crown. Eddard Stark, in this, is as treacherous as the Lannisters could ever be. Robert Baratheon’s own good, the realm’s own good, were never Ned’s priorities.

The Lannisters are far better rulers. Not that this makes them “good.” Or even “good rulers.” They certainly aren’t that either. And Joffrey is a special case – there’s a reason he was possibly the most hated character on TV, and that there’s an online campaign to erect a statue of him in New Zealand for the sole purpose of publicly tearing it down in celebration. But the rest aren’t anywhere near the sadistic psychopaths that Joffrey turned out to be. Cold, calculating, manipulative, broken: these are all apt descriptions. But those aren’t necessarily all bad qualities in a ruler, which after all is the end prize of the titular “game of thrones.”

The concept of “house words” is also used beautifully to manipulate our ideas of morality in this fantasy world. An apt example is House Tully, with their words of “Family, Duty, Honor.” There’s a great scene in the show reminding us that to members of this family, it should always be “family first,” and this is portrayed as a positive quality. In a family member, it probably is – but not in the ruler of a country.

At their hearts, none of these characters are perfect rulers. None of them may even be good rulers. Quite a few might make competent rulers. But the moral rules and the logistical rules don’t necessarily match up… which is probably a good thing, since there are no “good guys” to be found, only “bad guys” and “worse guys.”