Monthly Archives: May 2009

Ugly Emotion

For me, the end of the school year is a season for envy—seniors choose colleagues to speak at functions like graduation, and other teachers receive dedications and prizes and travel grants and fellowships.  They are lauded as exceptionally hard-working, as friends to their students, as dedicated to the broader school community, as warm and comic and challenging but fun.

I like to think I’m some of those things, and, as the year comes to a close, a few of my students do quietly express gratitude.  A couple ask me to sign their yearbooks.  Yet I find myself wishing for more affirmation and can’t seem to escape my envy.

When students throw surprise parties or show dramatic affection for other teachers, I try to feel good for them—they deserve it—but that little voice won’t shut up, “Why not me?”

Envy is my ugliest emotion.  Some feelings I rationalize as momentary, negative only in context, or—as long as I can keep them secret—motivating.  But envy isn’t easy.  In The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell describes envy as doubly devastating—harmful to you and the object of your envy.  The envier feels inadequate and begins to hope for someone else’s misfortune. When someone receives praise I think I deserve, my feelings of inadequacy grow until—if I don’t exactly wish others ill—I begin to resent their success.  Why them?

This confession is unbecoming, I know.  I try to be Buddhist, recognize I’m craving. The root of my issue is—what else?—attachment, living too vividly in the material world. Buddhists represent envy as a horse because, when horses feel another horse at their shoulder, they can’t bear it.  I try to bear it.  I don’t want to be a horse or, more accurately, a horse’s ass, so I attempt to celebrate now without thoughts of gain or perceived needs.

Yet, emotions are irrational.  Not wanting them doesn’t help.

Western philosophers make a distinction between jealousy and envy, in that jealousy focuses on the beloved—desiring exclusive love, you can’t bear another stealing your lover.  In contrast, envy is about the rival.  He or she possesses something you feel ought to be yours.

Still, there’s a problem. These interesting intellectual distinctions don’t matter much.  Both terms will do.  I want students to love me particularly and that means they can’t love rivals more.  It’s about the beloved and the rival.

And, as if I’m not confused enough already, I also feel guilty.  What sort of teacher insists on being loved—could such a teacher be lovable?  No wonder honors land elsewhere—just dividing the world into lovers and rivals makes me unworthy.  Teaching should be altruistic, and here I am wishing for credit. No one enters teaching for credit… or money.

If only I could live in the now, I might string an otherworldly necklace of teachable moments until it wound around me like an endless garland of blossoms… with me, the happy Buddha, sitting with a silly grin in the middle of adoring acolytes.

But you see where I’m going—every rational response leads me in ever decreasing circles until I fly up my own ass with a resounding “fwhump.”

It comes down to not ever feeling I have enough—enough respect, enough gratitude, enough love, enough praise, enough honor.  It’s a matter of desire, and I want to know…

How can I live without that?

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The Final Final

Next week my school holds final examinations. I used to be a big believer in finals, but my students regard them—nearly universally—with disgust. I don’t blame them. At their age, I may have felt as persecuted. However, their hatred of exams often gets in the way of their performing well on them. They have trouble approaching challenges with spirit and determination when they feel so put upon. Their responses are sometimes perfunctory, more indicative of exhaustive diligence than curiosity or sincere interest. And, to me, that’s a shame. Call me a foolish idealist, but I don’t think exams HAVE to be horrible. Like most things in school, they are what we make them.

This morning, the anticipation of giving (and grading) exams brought out something impish in me. I started thinking about the exam I’d like to give them, one that would challenge and exercise their beliefs about education and why they are in school at all.

Then I decided to write that exam. Here it is:

Literature Final Examination: May 26, 2009

GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS

  1. You will have no time limit on this exam—take as much time as you think is necessary to complete it to your satisfaction. As far as I’m concerned, you have the rest of your life if you’d like.
  2. No question on this test has a correct answer. I’ll assess the thoughtfulness of your responses, including (but hardly limited to) their focus, substance, and good sense. Answers offering new thinking and insight will receive the highest scores. Ones that don’t attempt these attributes won’t score well at all.
  3. Read the instructions for each section carefully and complete the tasks required. If at some point during this examination, however, you see alternate approaches or alternate requirements that are just as challenging—perhaps more interesting to you—amend or modify this test. Explain your changes thoroughly. Bear in mind that your changes will also be assessed.

I. True-False (20%)—Indicate whether each of the following statements is true or false by placing a T or F in the space provided. You will receive two points for each response evident in your behavior, as determined by my observation all year. You may receive partial credit.

_____1. The study of literature is a valuable aspect of education.

_____2. Everyone has some curiosity.

_____3. If learning results, any motive for studying is acceptable.

_____4. All learning depends on having an effective teacher.

_____5. Empathy is the most important trait of a careful reader.

_____6. All forms of writing make similar demands of a writer.

_____7. Exposing the intentions and reasoning of an author is the only aim of studying literature.

_____8. No one work will please or displease all readers.

_____9. The authority of an author rests more with the reader than with the writer.

_____10. Schooling is not, ultimately, for students but for some broader social purpose.

II. Short Essay (40%)—Choose two of the statements in section I (one true and one false) and, for each, write a short essay that justifies and explains your answer. Where relevant and effective, include specific references to the material we studied this year and your personal experience in this class. Each answer is twenty points and will receive some suitable percentage of that total based on its clarity, honesty, and sincerity.

III. Personal Response (15%)—Find a way to impart a moment you learned something important in this class. An essay is acceptable, but you are certainly not limited to that means of communication. You will find paper, paints, markers, and a mini-keyboard under your desk. Whatever your choice, however, be sure your work is focused, vivid, and moving in some way. You will receive up to ten points for your response, and another five points will be set aside for how well you matched your message and your means of expressing it.

IV. Final Essay (25%)—Write a fully developed essay in reply to ONE of the prompts below. Forget everything you’ve been taught or told about proper essay form. Your work will be assessed by how illuminating and interesting it is, period.

1. Scholars and critics revere nearly all the literature we’ve encountered this year. Choose a work you did NOT appreciate and account for your reaction to it. Why didn’t it reach you and where did the problem lie, with you or with the work itself?

2. Discuss a classmate whose responses to literature you particularly admire. What is it about his or her ideas and interpretations that strike you as exciting and interesting? What have you learned about reading—and studying literature—from this classmate?

3. Write an essay that reveals something important your teacher doesn’t know. This “something important” can take many forms—it could be vital information, a misunderstanding of a text, or something more personal to yourself—just be specific and forthright and explain why that deficit is significant.

4. Out of all the literature we’ve read this year, what is the one line, passage, image, etc. you think you will remember forever? Explore the meaning, implication, consequence, and worth of your choice and account for its effect on you. What in the combination of this item, this year, and your personal evolution makes it so significant?

I really rather doubt this examination would make any of my students feel better about taking finals, but I might learn more about them than I do on my real final exams.

And I feel better having gotten it out of my system!

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A Writer in Our Midst

Occasionally, I meet students who have no room for instructions.  They’ve got it down, the machine runs smoothly, and, besides, where would they put another part?  They worry I’ll disrupt their rhythm or, worse, make them my machine.

But they needn’t worry.  Though we sometimes treat elements of writing like holy law, effective thesis statements, clear topic sentences, and the proper way to integrate quotations don’t exist in nature and shouldn’t be mistaken for universal truths.  I may urge students to pay attention to writing conventions—and add a few fixations of my own, like “Avoid the naked this (or that)”—but, if they return to their old ways when they walk out the door, who cares?  No disruption in the cosmic order.  No grand violation of verities.

Believe me, it’s occurred to me that I might be full of shit.  I have do’s and don’ts and maybes from my own teachers.  I didn’t accept everything because some of what my teachers said made sense and some didn’t.  Some made sense later.  Ideally, my students total the best of all their teachers’ discoveries.  Their synthesis makes them unique.  They find their own way.  I inwardly frown when students complain, “I don’t know what you want!”  I want something, it’s true—I have what I think are good lessons to impart—but what I want most is for them to understand my instruction and develop their own voices.

I never get very far with students who are fans of their own prose and regard my advice as arbitrary or fetishistic. I try to reason with them because I don’t want to turn to my authority as a capital-W Writer.  Most people write.  “I’m a writer too,” they protest, “and what makes you so special?”

To those students, I say, “Nothing.”  We are all journeymen, and, if no more discoveries awaited us, no more fun would await us either.

We have one published writer in our department, and he is always—jokingly—reminding us of his status.  But the truth is that all the English teachers at my school are writers who have years of practice, not status or affirmation or degrees, as their greatest ally.  I wish I were a published writer, but would it make me a better teacher?  For me, self-promotion is tiresome and embarrassing.  I’d rather share writing with my students than play strongman, expert, or hero.

Of course I’d like them to respect my experience—because only a listener can learn—but my number one writing rule is always having something to uncover.  Every rule is temporary.

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On Young Love

In the seventh grade, Annette Wasner sent me a 17 page note, and a number of those pages she filled with “I love David Marshall,” repeated over and over as if saying so was punishment.

I had no idea I was lovable or sought-after, and, according to seventh grade convention, had to like her back.  In a week, however, we were the old couple of the bicycle rack, alternately sniping and sullen… and thoroughly bored with each other.  I threw the 17 pages away.

Then I received a note from Terry Long.  She’d scrawled her thoughts on real stationery as she sat in the backseat of her family’s station wagon on a weekend trip.  She meant to outdo Annette and completed 23 pages, but Terry included not a single profession of middle school love.  Instead, she wrote about whatever—her feelings about her sisters and parents, her thoughts about Mr. Voltatori, her impressions of which classmates were really nice and which really two-faced.

She said I was nice, which was nice, but Terry’s letter wasn’t meant to flatter or flirt.  She offered her mind’s operation, generously letting me into her seventh grade meditations and daydreams.  If I had the note to read now, I’d probably find it newsy, silly, and dull, but, at the time, her unfiltered thoughts were more intimate than anything I’d known.  It was seductive to be in another mind.  Her letter was in no way erotic but might as well have been… especially given what I knew about sex then.

At the end of her 23 pages, she said she liked thinking about my reading what she’d written, and I knew that confession meant more than Annette’s reiterations.

After that, every day, all day, I walked around filling mental notecards about scenes I’d observed or witticisms I’d heard or invented, stacking them up against the next time we’d be face to face. Each bit of gossip was a gambit for conversation, and I revised the missives I slipped her at least three times.  I wondered endlessly whether we might kiss when I walked her home and knew I’d satisfy for holding hands.  I spent my savings on an ID bracelet so I could give it to her.

Her smile or laugh or look into my eyes was new currency.  I’d never gathered anything so valuable and learned to spend what I got.  In a pattern that became all too familiar in my later romantic life, I was soon spending more than I received.

When Terry grew bored with my ardor—I hope she lasted longer than Annette but can’t remember—it was the first time affection hurt.  Our break-up is still vivid in its understatement.  She asked me if I could be her friend instead of her boyfriend and—to preserve whatever cool I had left—I said I’d like that better.  Of course, we weren’t friends after that.

We all have these memories floating up like triangles in our eight balls, and some people turn to Facebook to make contact again.  But some shake the ball again… because real and present people replace those they remember.  I have no desire to find Terry—and certainly not Annette!  I’ve changed their names.  But it’s not that they’re unimportant.  I’m keeping my memory of Terry safe.  In our little time together, she taught me part of what love is.

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Changing for the Better

In college, one of my housemates—a theater major—had a closet of costumes and racks of hats.  Monday, he’d be Hoss from Bonanza.  Tuesday he’d go Arab. Wednesday, he’d dress as a flame in red shoes, orange pants, yellow shirt, and the smokiest beret in his collection. At the time, I thought his protean life took courage, but now his flickering appearance looks like desperation. Something steady made him inescapably himself in every role.  He wanted out.  He sought some deep change costumes couldn’t effect.

When I have laryngitis, I can’t shut up.  The novelty of a new voice overtakes me, and I listen to its grinding gears and squeaking axles with secret fascination.  I use my new instrument until no sound emerges at all.  In a couple of days, the familiar signature returns, and I’m back to being myself… reluctantly.

In the New York Times this week, David Brooks wrote a column about research on genius.  Two books, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle; and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, suggest that genius isn’t as flashy as we think.  We like to believe geniuses are genetic freaks we weren’t born to be, but scientists suggest brilliant figures like Mozart and Ben Franklin resulted from practice rather than providence.  As Brooks explains it, Mozart put in the requisite 10,000 hours at the piano at an earlier age and Franklin dissected, then imitated, the prose of writers he considered his betters. Like athletes, their continual training at a high level raised them to unbelievable heights.

Other vital ingredients, Brooks says, are “A profound sense of insecurity… fueling a desperate need for success,” and being, “error-focused.”  In other words, to be a genius, you shouldn’t be too impressed with yourself.  IQ is a poor predictor of success even in chess, Brook reports, and genius takes a relentless effort not to become automatic in your thinking or working:

The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

Turns out being less able (and thus needing to be methodical) has long-term rewards. Part of me crows over this news because it confirms what I see as a teacher—the best learners practice, practice, practice. They satisfy slowest and welcome new demands and challenges. Over my career, I’ve seen hundreds of diligent students pass their more genetically talented classmates, yet the “overachievers”—and what a terrible term that is—get so little credit for what they’ve made of themselves.  They have my greatest respect and admiration.  They’re inspiring.  Yet more naturally gifted students sometimes look down on them… as if scholastic achievement doesn’t count if you must work for it.

Brooks’s report on genius-as-habit isn’t all good news, however.  How does someone my age, so worn in familiar paths, keep the automatic at bay?  How do I do more than change my clothes… and change myself?

Desire is a start—specifically a perverse desire to suspect success.  Anyone who has found a way ought to be looking for another way and might even look in the opposite direction. There’s genius in forgetting everything you’ve ever done.  There’s genius in true reinvention.

Throughout his column, Brooks returns to a hypothetical budding novelist to illustrate his thinking.  This novelist has lost her parents at a young age, but she has also met an established writer of similar background who helpfully identifies her missteps, someone to stand at her side challenging her.  Maybe this someone offers hard-earned praise too, but the goading helps more because success is a moving horizon and you have to keep moving.

I’d love to have a task-master in my life.  For someone my age—someone tired—the realization that genius is practice can be as intimidating as born genius.  Yet, it’s a better way of seeing things.  I’ll never be a genius—it seems I’d know by now if I were one—but, then again, maybe not knowing, disbelieving, is a hopeful beginning.

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