Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Lineup

Last Summer


On Deck

Monday, August 27, 2007


On the first day of class with the seniors, I decided to share with the students several poems in which the authors were exploring identity issues. One of these poems was this one called "Creed" by Meg Kearney from her book An Unkindness of Ravens:


I believe the chicken before the egg
though I believe in the egg. I believe
eating is a form of touch carried
to the bitter end; I believe chocolate
is good for you; I believe I'm a lefty
in a right-handed world, which does not
make me gauche, or abnormal, or sinister.
I believe "normal" is just a cycle on
the washing machine; I believe the touch
of hands has the power to heal, though
nothing will ever fill this immeasurable
hole in the center of my chest. I believe
in kissing; I believe in mail; I believe
in salt over the shoulder, a watched
pot never boils, and if I sit by my
mailbox waiting for the letter I want
it will never arrive—not because of
superstition, but because that's not
how life works. I believe in work:
phone calls, typing, multiplying,
black coffee, write write write, dig
dig dig, sweep sweep. I believe in
a slow, tortuous sweep of tongue
down the lover's belly; I believe I've
been swept off my feet more than once
and it's a good idea not to name names.
Digging for names is part of my work,
but that's a different poem. I believe
there's a difference between men and
women and I thank God for it. I believe
in God, and if you hold the door
and carry my books, I'll be sure to ask
for your name. What is your name? Do
you believe in ghosts? I believe
the morning my father died I heard him
whistling "Danny Boy" in the bathroom,
and a week later saw him standing in
the living room with a suitcase in his
hand. We never got to say good-bye, he
said, and I said I don't believe in
good-byes. I believe that's why I have
this hole in my chest; sometimes it's
rabid; sometimes it's incoherent. I
believe I'll survive. I believe that
"early to bed and early to rise" is
a boring way to live. I believe good
poets borrow, great poets steal, and
if only we'd stop trying to be happy
we could have a pretty good time. I
believe time doesn't heal all wounds;
I believe in getting flowers for no
reason; I believe "Give a Hoot, Don't
Pollute," "Reading is Fundamental,"
Yankee Stadium belongs in the Bronx,

and the best bagels in New York are
boiled and baked on the corner of First
and 21st. I believe in Santa
Claus, Jimmy Stewart, ZuZu's petals,
Arbor Day, and that ugly baby I keep
dreaming about—she lives inside me
opening and closing her wide mouth.
I believe she will never taste her
mother's milk; she will never be
beautiful; she will always wonder what
it's like to be born; and if you hold
your hand right here—touch me right
here, as if this is all that matters,
this is all you ever wanted, I believe
something might move inside me,
and it would be more than I could stand.

One of the things I like about this poem is its looseness, the way Kearney gives herself permission to move about freely from the large to the small, from the general to the specific, from the topographical to the psychological. After we read this poem and two others ("I Want to Say" by Natalie Goldberg and "Self-Portrait" by Adam Zagajewski), I asked the students, for their first written assignment of the semester, to play around with the idea of writing something—whether it be a poem on the lines of this one, a reflective essay, or merely a series of notes—which would articulate what something they believe or think to be true about themselves. This morning as I was working in my journal I found myself beginning a list of my own, and I've gone back to it several times since then. With apologies to Ms. Kearney for swiping her idea, here's mine:


I believe in fairness. I believe you should be able to get through your day,
your week, without being conned, lied to, or taken advantage of.
I believe in equal opportunity. I am against prejudice
in any of its manifestations: chauvinism, racism, sexism, ageism.
I’m in favor of long term solutions. I’m suspicious of quick fixes
and fast talkers. I believe in having some pride. Take care of your body.
Take care of your house. Take care of your yard, your family, your friends.
Your mind. I don’t believe that anybody can do everything. Make choices,
and what you choose to do, do well. I believe in withholding judgment.
I believe in asking questions. I believe that people are essentially good
and will do the right thing if they can. But there are also Very Bad People out there,
and I find it hard to muster up much sympathy for them. They’ve made choices too,
for which the law of karma will, with justice, provide unpleasant consequences.
I believe in Karma. I believe that we each have a Buddha nature, that lies within us
if we can only find the means to bring it forward. I believe in simple pleasures:
peanut butter and jelly, walking, taking naps, playing chess with friends,
inking the last number into the grid in sudoku. Breathing is good. Being in the thrall
of a Great Read. I believe that American popular culture is a mess.

I believe in Quality. I admire Dylan, Picasso, Shakespeare, and Rembrandt,
but wouldn’t want to trade lives with any of them. I believe in alternative energy,
in conservation, in stewardship. I believe we should make an effort to live in harmony
with nature, and not consume more than we create. I believe in creativity.
I am grateful for art, for literature, for music. I believe technology has the power
to make our lives better, but the potential to make our lives worse.
I believe in education. But not always in schools. I’m in favor of assessment,
but have no use for testing. I believe it’s more important to be a good learner
than to have a good teacher.

I don’t believe in war. There’s no excuse, no reason, no cause that can justify
slaughter and misery and mangled families and mangled lives. And yet history shows
that war is inevitable, inexorable. There is always more than enough stupidity and brutality
to go around, and the bullies and the tyrants have the advantage, since the only way
to combat them is on their own terms, and good people don’t want to go there,
to become what they are fighting. I’m an optimist in the short run
and a pessimist in the long. I love my life. I love the world, I love the human race.
But I see no real reason to believe humans have even a hundred years left.
All the more reason to value this day, this moment.

I don’t believe the rules are all that many, or all that hard to follow.
Pay attention. Say please and thank you. Work hard. Don’t make excuses
when you screw up. Fall down seven times; get up eight. Be thoughtful.
One way to be thoughtful is to write. So write. Reflect. Pray if it helps.
Try to understand, to make something that speaks what truth you know.
Find your voice. Know who you are. Don’t try to be somebody else.
Pay attention to your intuitions. When all is said and done, trust yourself.

Yeah, I know. Great poetry it ain't. And if I were to start it over again, it might read entirely differently. But it's all pretty much on target, as far as it goes.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Self-Interview, Part I

Author's note: I was trying here to follow up on an idea that I sketched out in an earlier post. The result is still a little wet. I found myself heading in one direction and then winding up going in another. Think of it as an experiment. If any of you have followup questions or observations, let me know and I'll fold them into the next installment, coming eventually.

Q: So you’re beginning another school year.

A: That’s true.

Q: How long have you been at it?

A: I started teaching in 1969. This will be my 38th year in the classroom.

Q: Have you had any time off?

A: I’ve taught continuously. No sabbaticals, no special leaves. I’ve even taught during the summer, most years.

Q: How has that worked out for you?

A: It’s been fine. Over my lifetime I’ve learned that I am much more productive and much more settled in my mind when I’m working regularly. I always look forward to vacations, but when they arrive sooner or later I find myself at loose ends. I start the vacation with lots of plans and wind up not getting much done and then feeling guilty about it. I like the start of the school year. I’m grateful for the chance to be back in the classroom. I feel that I’m fortunate in that I can still wake up each morning and look forward to going to school.

Q: Is there anything different about this school year?

A: Yeah, I think so. There are some new initiatives at school that I think look promising. Our freshman class is arriving for the first time with laptops, and there is going to be a lot of interesting exploration taking place in all of our freshman classes about how to make use of the technology to enhance student learning. We also have, for the first time, a writer-in-residence at our school for the entire semester, and he’s going to working with students to help them think well about writing and with teachers to help them think well about how to teach it. So we're looking forward to that.

Q: Do you see any long-term trends in student capabilities that concern you?

A: Well, it’s hard to look at long-term trends in any area—educational, environmental, political, cultural, you name it—and not find yourself somewhere on the continuum running from concern, through apprehension and dread, to panic. I’m not by nature inclined toward the more extreme right end of that continuum. But there’s ample evidence that things are very bad and getting worse.

Q: Well, that doesn’t sound too cheery.

A: True enough.

Q: What concerns you with regard to your students?

A: Don’t get me wrong, I think my students are terrific. They’re cooperative and thoughtful and willing to work, and they haven’t given up on the idea of becoming thoughtful, moral adults. But I am concerned that so many of them, certainly a greater proportion that would have been the case, say, 20 years ago, do what reading they can bring themselves to do with some reluctance. I teach in a private school in which most of the students do in fact have some sort of personal and familial commitment to getting a good education, and yet by and large they do not seem to have the sense that reading broadly and deeply is an important part of becoming an educated person. Most of them will complete what reading assignments they are given, but it is a rare student who will go beyond and pursue related readings independently. I’m not saying that there aren’t any; I have a few every year. But they are they are the truly exceptional ones: they stand out.

Q: Hasn’t that always been the case?

A: To some degree, I suppose so. But at times I feel somewhat overwhelmed by how much the students have not read, and how narrow their frames of reference are.

Q: Why does it matter? There are a lot of people who are neither well-read nor broadly informed, but they get along okay. They go to college, get good jobs, make a good salary.

A: Well, yes. But there ought to be more to life than that, than getting by and taking care of yourself.

Q: Why?

A: Well, for one thing, because the structure of our society, the democratic experiment, depends to a certain degree on an informed electorate. And if we consider that electorate today, once again the news is not good. Here is Louis Menand, writing in the July 9 New Yorker magazine:

The political knowledge of the average voter has been tested repeatedly, and the scores are impressively low. In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does. Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty per cent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty per cent cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid consumes twenty-four per cent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one per cent.

Even apart from ignorance of the basic facts, most people simply do not think politically. They cannot see, for example, that the opinion that taxes should be lower is incompatible with the opinion that there should be more government programs. Their grasp of terms such as “affirmative action” and “welfare” is perilously uncertain: if you ask people whether they favor spending more on welfare, most say no; if you ask whether they favor spending more on assistance to the poor, most say yes. And, over time, individuals give different answers to the same questions about their political opinions. People simply do not spend much time learning about political issues or thinking through their own positions. They may have opinions—if asked whether they are in favor of capital punishment or free-trade agreements, most people will give an answer—but the opinions are not based on information or derived from a coherent political philosophy. They are largely attitudinal and ad hoc.

Menand makes these observations as part of a review of a book in which the author, Bryan Caplan, makes a serious argument that political decisions are too important to be left in the hands of the voting population.

Q: So what’s the solution?

A: Well, Caplan’s solution seems to be to simply let the economists, who claim to know what they are doing, take over. I haven’t read his book, and I’m probably oversimplifying his case, but the key point is that either we as citizens have to be both informed and engaged in the decisionmaking that goes on around us, or someone else will make those decisions, whether it be the economists or the Neocons or the party hacks. And in all likelihood those people will have an agenda which is not oriented toward our own best interests. David Foster Wallace, in his essay “Up, Simba” from his recent book, Consider the Lobster, makes the point this way:

If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.

Q: So how does this relate to reading and teaching?

A: Well, I guess it has something to do with how I see my mission as a teacher, to do my little one-man stand against complacency. I tell my students, if your aspiration is to grow up to be a thoughtless, self-centered adult, there are a million ways to get there and a million models to be seen everywhere. If, on the other hand, you aspire to become a thoughtful, well-informed, effective citizen as an adult, the way is harder. And it starts by cultivating certain habits of mind, including the habits of reading and writing.

Q: Do the students buy it?

A: Not all of them, not all of the time. But I try to get the message out to as many of them as I can. It’s a job I enjoy, because I think it’s a job worth doing. It’s not easy, but it’s always interesting.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Right Field

Our school principal kicked off the year with a discussion about his own history as a baseball player, and about the experience he had, and we all have had, of being relegated to right field. Which he then developed into a metaphor for the relationship that we might have as teachers with at least a few students who are the ones chosen last, the ones who aren't yet quite ready, the ones who feel themselves to be on the periphery. His encouragement to us was to make a special effort to make a connection with these students, and help them to find a way to success. And by way of illustration, he shared this video, starring many of my colleagues. It helps to know the cast, but it still is a funny video, and a good way to start off the year.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Preface to a Self-Interview

Well, I'm back again (again). I've been in vacation mode. I've been doing a lot of reading but not much writing at all, but school starts for real on Monday and I'm trying to work my way back into productivity mode. For me, the hard part about writing is not the writing itself, it's finding a regular time to write so that I can establish some sort of rhythm and continuity. So I began slowly, starting at the end of last week to do handwritten essays in my physical commonplace book, which had also been enjoying an extended period of benign neglect. After about a week of maintaining that rhythm, I was ready for the next step, so this morning I set up a template in Word to allow me to type my CPB entries. That way I can paste them into my physical commonplace book, but also port them over to Google docs and then post them to Throughlines. My original intention was to begin a self-interview, but I wound up going off on a tangent of sorts by way of providing context. So maybe I'll get to the interview tomorrow. What follows is what I wound up writing this morning:

I was reading a pretty feisty interview with Marjorie Greene, “the great grandmother of philosophy,” in a back issue (March ’05) of The Believer yesterday and the thought occurred to me that it might be fun to try a self-interview. So I’m going to attempt that soon, maybe tomorrow. But first, some introductory remarks.

There’s a sequence I go through with my students several times each year. Sometimes the interview topic will be a common assigned subject, a reading perhaps, or an issue that has come up in class discussion. It is also sometimes a good get-to-know you activity.

I first ask them to pair up assign one of them to be the interviewer and the other to be the interviewee. I tell them that it is the job of the interviewer to keep the other person talking for seven minutes by simply asking good questions. It’s the job of the interviewee to be accommodating and forthcoming and willing to wing it. After seven minutes, I have them switch roles and continue for another seven minutes.

The followup activity is usually to have the students, for homework, type a dialogue based loosely on the classroom experience. Some students stick pretty close to the their actual conversation and basically re-create on paper the key elements of the dialogue that actually took place. Others invent entirely new interlocutors and have them do something interesting based in some part on the conversation that the students actually had in class.

I’m always pleasantly surprised by the writing that results from this exercise. There’s something about the dialogue frame that seems to free students up. The writing is more natural, more fresh, more spontaneous, than what I often get in response to other directed assignments. Many of the students wind up attempting interesting experiments with voice and exploring conflicts in point of view that arise from differences in the character of the speaker. There are some samples of student dialogues here and here and here.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


A student sent me a link to this video. It's two hours long, but it's fascinating. It starts with a detailed look at the origins of Christianity in astrology and Egyptian mythology, and then goes on to present, rather compellingly, interlocking conspiracy theories in regard to the 9/11 incident, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the major armed conflicts of the twentieth century. I've only watched it once, and I do not know how much of it is truth and how much is hogwash, but it's sure worth watching. You can view it in a larger format here.