Sunday, October 12, 2008

After Basho

In the dark of night
our narrow path is lit up
by the rising moon.

Process Reflection: Went to a friend's wedding last night in Waiahole Valley. We were asked to park our cars in a field about a quarter mile from the actual grounds of the wedding. Walking back at the end of the night on a narrow road with no streetlights, our way was lit by the moon, which was bright enough for us to be able to watch the moonshadows of the people walking ahead of us. Which reminded me of this photo I took last weekend while I was walking around the campus of my school, more or less pointing and shooting. Just outside the cafeteria there's a macadam road with some fissures and paint spills. I was just moving my camera around and framing segments of the road and when this came into view I thought immediately of Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior, which is a sort of narrative essay about his travels on foot throughout Japan, "illlustrated" by the poems he wrote along the way, many of which make reference to the moon. As soon as I took the picture I thought I might try to write something to accompany it, as perhaps the first in a series.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Gap

Scenario One:
The other day I was having sort of working lunch wth a colleague on the lanai outside the teachers’ lunchroom. We had met partially because we enjoy talking with one another and partially because my colleague has a proposal for a learning fellowship in the works and was looking for feedback. The lanai overlooks middle field, one of the three athletic fields on our campus. It’s a pleasant place to eat and to watch the junior school students on recess chase each other around or play tag or touch football. While we were eating and talking, there were three junior high students fooling around underneath a plumeria tree about 50 or sixty yards away. I wasn’t paying much attention to them until I heard a crack and looked over to see the three students sprinting away from the tree and a large branch perhaps five or six feet long, lying on the ground. The three students ran across the softball field and behind the backstop, where they tried to hide behind a sign, laughing. There was one playground supervisor over near the basketball courts who had apparently been looking the other way and was not aware of the broken branch. That left my friend and me as the sole witnesses. I briefly considered getting up and walking downstairs to speak with the students, but I did not know them, and even as I was turning it over in my mind they were already heading over toward the classroom building. There was a good chance I wasn’t going to find them anyway, so I decided to let it go and continue with my lunch and conversation.

A few minutes later, another boy, perhaps a seventh grader, came over with a few of his friends, picked the branch up off the ground, and began chasing his friends around with it, swiping it dramatically through the air and smashing it on the ground behind them. Each time he did so, small branches and clusters of leaves were breaking off. He continued the chase for perhaps 30 or 40 seconds, and then dropped the branch and walked away with his friends, leaving the broken branches behind.

This incident weighed on my mind for the rest of the day, and is still occupying turf in my brain two days later. From one perspective, I suppose it’s no big deal. None of these kids were being actively malicious. They were just being kids, just fooling around. Within fifteen minutes one of the grounds crew had showed up, collected the broken branches, and put them in the dumpster, which I should mention was all of about 25 feet from the scene of the incident. So it might be argued that there was no harm done (except to the tree itself). It was the kind of incident that might have happened on any day, at any school, and given the range of possible incidents that might happen on any day, at any school, of comparatively minor concern.

So why does it bother me? Why does it bother me that the reaction of the orignal kids was to run away, and then to laugh about it? Why does it bother me that the second group of kids felt no compunction about creating a mess and then walking away from it? Why does it bother me that I did not put myself far enough out of my way to go down and address either group?

We have tried as hard as perhaps any school I am familiar with to create an environment which encourages responsibility and ethical awareness. We have a character education program that has been emulated nationwide. The last three words in our mission statement are “develop social responsibility.” We have a chapel program and a Center for Public Service and a variety of service-learning programs and a graduation requirement in Spiritual, Ethical, and Community Responsibility. Despite all of this, we have kids, as I imagine all schools do, who just don’t get it.

Scenario Two: At a meeting of academy supervisors the very next day one of the department heads made note of the fact that the word “rape” is now becoming a popular slang term in a variety of situations, as in “That test raped me” or “If you don’t give his book back Bobby’s gonna rape you.” In the time honored fashion following the similar entry of words like “suck” and “bitch” and “gay,” (not to mention the now omnipresent f-word) a word which has a broad range of denotative meanings is being pressed into service by kids precisely because of its shock value. It’s a way of being emphatic, dramatic, colorful. But isn’t the effect of the proliferation of the term is to deaden and devalue and commoditize both the language we are using and the very real denotation of the original word. What is humorous about rape? What is the effect of that word becoming common parlance on the sensibilities and sensitivities of the kids who literally think nothing of it?

So what are we to make of the gap between our aspirations and the behaviors of at least some of our students? What is to be done? Experience teaches that it doesn’t do much good to lecture kids about responsiblity or about vocabulary. If kids know who you are, and are willing to respect your personal preferences, they will usually listen if you tell them that the words they are using or the behaviors you are witnessing are offensive to you, and they will refrain from those behaviors for exactly as long as they know you are present. Over the course of my career I’ve tried to make use of the “teachable moments” when they have occurred in my classroom, but I have found it difficult to figure out what to do when I observe either at a distance or in passing bad behavior or bad language involving kids I don’t know. I know that on those occasions when I have chosen to talk with groups of kids who have, for example, strewn litter around and tried to walk away from it, that I have often been met with stony-faced resistance or complete disregard. At which point I have to make the choice to escalate the interaction into a full-blown confrontation or just give them a warning and walk away.

I’m not sure if there is an answer. The obvious answer is that you can change behaviors if the expectations are clear and everyone is willing to take on responsibility for enforcement. But I’m not sure that is ever the case anywhere, and it’s certainly not the case anywhere I’ve ever taught. So for now, I guess I’m going to continue living in the gap. But I’ll tell you what, the next time a branch goes down, I’m going after the kid.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


I begin
in blankness
in desire
in the wish to body forth
with which first
to clarify
for myself the nature
of this moment, this gesture,
this need
and, second, to shape
a sequence of sounds, of syllables,
of sentences which might serve
to capture some slight essence
of what it means to be,
to be here, to be here writing,
to be here breathing and thinking
and trying to write:

The sun came up today. The birds
outside my bedroom window
once again rescued me,
as they do on every ordinary morning,
from my fitful dreams, back
into the half-light of another day,
in the face of which I lay
until I found the strength to swing
my legs to the floor, and stand,
and walk half awake into the living room
and begin my morning ritual:
Stretch. Breathe. Center. Wash. Eat. Chant.
Then off to work.

The sun came up today. For me, at least.
For me, again, the chance
to make something, to make something
happen, to be a presence, to be present,
to present myself,
to re-present something, this, something
else, something that will stand for
what I stand for
for as long as I am still standing,
and having begun,
am able
to continue.

Process Reflection: I haven’t been writing as much lately. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it or that I don’t have plenty of things to write about, I just haven’t been making the time. My attention has been elsewhere, but even as I have been consciously choosing to spend my time doing other things, there’s been this voice in the back of my head reminding me, “You need to write.” I do have a physical journal that I keep in addition to the several blogs I try to maintain and the writing I do for work. The most regular writing I do in that journal is on Saturday mornings, because on Saturdays have the time after I wake and before I move into the rest of the day to sit down and write. This morning I found myself thinking and writing about the routine that I have allowed myself to fall into so far this school year, and I decided that today at least I’d make an effort to change it.

The poem above is a product of that decision, facilitated by several stimuli. I’ve been working my way through Best American Poetry 2008, and this morning, after having breakfast and doing the Saturday crossword puzzle (one of my avoidance mechanisms for getting real work done), I picked it up and started reading. The second or third poem I came to was a poem by Susan Mitchell called “Ritual” which begins

as one who casts the word bread upon the word water, testing

as one who not believing something will rise up from
those waters, but not disbelieving either
casts out her voice

as one curious or hungry or filled with longing breaks
off just the crust of a word, throwing
the way she threw as a girl when everyone

told her that was not the way
to throw and expecting little or nothing
looks into the blackness...

I was taken by the poem, by the intentional tentativeness and the patterned repetitions of syntax which give it tonality which is not exactly conversational but explorational, and by its meditative-ness.

So when I sat down to write just now, I did not in fact know what I was going to write, only that I wanted to write, and I had the rhythms of that poem in my head, I knew I was working in territory Susan Mitchell had modeled for me. That led me, in a way I had not planned, to the middle section, which is actually a verbatim transcription of some lines I wrote in my pocket notebook last week in a meditative frame of mind after getting some sobering news about a close friend whose health has taken a turn for the worse.

I wouldn’t put up much of an argument for this poem in terms of its craft. It’s basically a zero draft, and it’s loose and it’s slack in ways that perhaps I will be able to improve over time. But it is at least preliminarily what it set out to be.

I’m very much aware of the speed with which time is passing. I am now, as best I can determine, just slightly older than my father was when he died of his third heart attack. I’m three months into a new job in which it may take five years or more before I am able to have much of an impact. I’m hoping to have that time, but I’m not counting on it. I’m trying to cultivate a frame of mind which is is realistic, optimistic, and grateful. And that’s where I am, today.