Monthly Archives: July 2010

Only Disconnect

A teaching colleague once gave me curious advice—don’t assign literature you love.

She said my mountainous expectations would be unscaleable.  She explained how students can find cracks to bring any perfect book, poem, or story down.  “You’re setting yourself up,” she said, “you won’t believe me until you kill your favorites, but I wish I could spare you.”

She was right I wouldn’t believe her.  Teachers learn energy is as important in a classroom as on stage, enthusiasm is contagious, and students smell insincerity a long way off.  How terrible can it be to praise works that moved you?  Don’t we want to share what we cherished?

But any advice is problematic, especially when it sounds wise yet seems counterintuitive. At 23 or 24, when I received this warning, I regarded most advice as invitation instead of prohibition.  Cautions and condemnations landed in an already long list of propositions to test.

I have thoroughly tested her advice, most recently this summer when I assigned one of my favorite books, Howards End, in a summer school class.  Though the class politely humored me through Forster’s novel, I could tell… they hated it.

And I won’t fight anymore.  I’m prepared, at last, to face my former colleague’s advice. I understand why teaching favorites is so troublesome…

  • No book is a universal hit.  If I remembered my own experience accurately, I might have recalled conversations with classmates who struggled with Howards End.  Forster didn’t speak to them, but—because he did to me, I saw their problem as inattention, not as variability. Forster says, “One is certain of nothing but the truth of one’s own emotions.”  Why wouldn’t a reader feel the same?
  • Mistaking affection for admiration is easy, especially with art. Admiration has a subjective component, but affection is invariably subjective.  Admiration is sometimes transferrable.  Affection is not. When I read Howards End the first time, I’d learned to put judgment aside in favor of understanding and congratulated myself for connecting with every character.  Reading the novel this summer, however, my affection seemed to have more to do with me than with Forster.  Students don’t feel ready sympathy.  Sometimes, they like no one.
  • Books are interesting for flaws and triumphs.  My colleague may have been urging me to examine literature’s distinctiveness instead of its value.  We study writing not because it’s good or bad but because it gets us somewhere.  Howards End contains lyrical passages I loved reading aloud and would have loved discussing, but those passages called crickets. The class wanted to examine Forster’s intentions, whether he knew what he was doing at all.  Burying my own defensiveness brought out the best in them.
  • Teachers should want a fight.  When a class believes I’m qualified, they qualify my texts, but they also ask me to substantiate my responses just as I ask them.  Discussions of art often trace individual responses to specific form and content.  Perhaps no universal response is possible, but you won’t discover anything without examining particulars. This time, I left Howards End with a more thorough and accurate sense of what’s in it.

Looking over my book lists for this fall, I see many works I love, an indication I haven’t entirely accepted my colleague’s advice. I want to teach what’s worthy and can’t always convince myself I’m wrong.  My cynicism has limits—hope trips me up every time.

How I teach these books may matter more than what I teach. I won’t wear my affections on my sleeve anymore.  I’ll prepare to see my beloved in an unflattering mirror…  because it’s true the beholder is boss in the end.

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Filed under Aging, Art, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Howards End, Humanities, Laments, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts

Waking, In Seven Fragments


Most days the alarm is part of sleep, a dream’s ramp into light… or dark. Most of the year, the alarm goes off before the sun does, and the sound’s fireworks are the color of night but many times louder.

I rise as if to shut a door against intrusion, stumbling from bed and listening, behind the noise, for my own footfall as if it were someone else’s.  My knee might be stiffer today or less stiff.  My calf may have unclenched at last or my shoulder quieted its own ancient reminder I’m no water-skier or shot-putter. Today mysterious energy might be in me, or I may be starting the long slog to dusk again.

These are the habits of the possessed.  Any will goes into regarding yourself from afar, to see if the creature lives and moves and how.

The desire to be upright waits on coffee.  The desire for coffee waits on nothing.  Coffee is my unshakable consort, the bitter mistress of consciousness.  Sometimes I fill the coffeemaker just before bedtime, set its alarm, and pray the smell and sound of brewing will be the next day’s first joy.  Many mornings it is, some days it’s just one nice note, playing evenly all day long, and sometimes coffee is friction louder than whatever is cranking, a base tone of resistance.

People tell me they wake up automatically without an alarm, but I would have to fall as the sun fell to achieve that.  Maybe someday, I think.  The road I’m on must go somewhere.


I’ve heard monks invented time.  The first mechanical clocks marked periods of prayer, a strange genesis if it’s true.  If prayer is security— self-soothing and reassuring claims of control, assertions of music in existence—the clock seems an unlikely instrument.

Wheels and cogs move invisibly, electricity arcs through transistors, particles or waves speed through silicoglyphs, and atoms strike plates.  Relentless restlessness prods the world again.

I’ve gotten used to it but haven’t gotten to like it.  The background fatigue of going to bed late and rising early can be measured, that’s all.


My first act most mornings is to write a haiku, my only concession to advice I once received: don’t make lists of requirements, make lists of desires.

One can become the other.

When I started writing a haiku a day some years ago, I believed in the transformative power of habits.  Most of the time I still believe, but sometimes a revelation breaks over me—what if invisibility is the essence of transformation?  What if the gradual drip drip of what we do keeps us from seeing the shape we’re taking?


Reliable sleep would help.


For my eleventh birthday, my parents bought my first clock radio, a rolodex model.  The digits of hours and minutes split into paddles, the seconds rolled around like an electric meter until, when the moment arrived, one half paddle loosed and slapped its predecessor.

Its incremental time brought new terror into life.  I fell asleep awaiting another drop and awoke to another, a recording playing just like yesterday.  In the rotation radio of 1969, I heard the same song for months.  Its lament was a soundtrack that crawled into me and accompanied the same daily ablution, the same daily breakfast, the same daily ride to school on the same bicycle, the first of many wearying routines disguised as invisible workings.


The intention to break patterns is my one regular resolution.  I know I don’t have to do today what I did yesterday and can decide to stop drinking so much coffee, to go to bed earlier and get up later because believing in “must” is my biggest issue.  I must step out of its shadow.

The same time that loops and cuts grooved paths in life also allows absolute invention, a new course.

And something operates quite apart from time, I’m sure of it.


This morning, like most mornings, I’m up before everyone else.  My haiku has been posted, and I’ve made my unwritten list for the day.

I know today’s necessities.

The house has a strange white quiet right now.  In the dark of everyone else’s sleep, ceiling fans spin and the refrigerator hums and the air conditioner stirs in a cycle dictated by degrees.  The corner of the computer tells me what time has passed since last I looked.  My coffee dwindles.  I may have time for another cup.

Soon I’ll move from this spot.  I never leave without thinking of returning. Ungatherable statistics of waking, living, and breathing will accompany me.  A ghost self is just out of step in this dance.  He moves to another pace.

Something will soon remind him no moment lasts.  And he won’t need reminding.

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Filed under Aging, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Haiku, Home Life, Hope, Laments, life, Prose Poems, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Work

Future School

This summer, I’ve been battling myself—the firebrand in me who sees education as a vital route of innovation and change versus the curmudgeon who, after 25 years in the classroom, thinks we’re well off the path, have got education all wrong, and are going to hell in a hefty.

My dilemma boils down to a pretty fundamental question, “What are schools for?” or, stated more colorfully by my inner curmudgeon, “What the hell are we doing?”  Five weeks remain to declare a winner, and the outcome determines the spirit I’ll carry into the new school year.

I’ve been teaching a summer school class on film adaptations of literature, and, as I was nearing the third week, it occurred to me that, in our post-literate world, I could be teaching a course of the future.  Movies can take the place of books as a way of teaching analysis—students seem more interested in watching than in reading and, after all, analysis is analysis regardless of its object.

My revelation isn’t at all far-fetched. Both books and movies invite a person to venture into the minds of makers, addressing how the form of the object communicates intentions and implications.  Both teach that precise and discerning  observation creates insight.  What a person needs to know to “read” movies is every bit as vast as what students apply to reading.  More importantly, extensive exposure allows students to approach cinema with well developed curiosity and expertise.  Compared to their reading skills, their viewing skills are much further along, and they could, as a result, get further with film studies than with literary criticism, now the fetishistic interest of a few scholars.

And, increasingly, students are less experienced with reading.  Most don’t do much reading outside class, and those who do often read novels specifically marketed to them and written on reading levels at or below their present capacity. Many of my students aren’t equipped—or, more accurately, trained—to absorb the complicated prose I foist on them.  And many haven’t the patience to develop the disciplined habit of reading closely.  They do enjoy movies, though.  They might be more willing to scrutinize them.

I just get rolling with this vision of Future School, however, when the word “surrender” crawls across my cerebral cortex, and my inner crisis rears.  What is the purpose of school, to meet the students where they live—and maybe even anticipate where they are headed—or to preserve what, over time, civilization values as essential?  It’s a quixotic question—do we tilt at windmills or face the reality that only we care about windmills at all?

Neil Postman asked similar questions in two books, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) and Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979).  In the first, he wanted students who try the relevance of every assignment and ask of every fact, “Whose fact are you?”

In Teaching as a Conserving Activity, however, Postman recanted a little.  Students need to be engaged, yes, because pursuing curiosities determines how much you learn and want to learn.  But can students understand what’s essential for them to know?  Who gets to decide that?

He replaced his school-as-laboratory with a school-as-thermostat.  The society at large is the first curriculum, he said, endowing students with most of what they know and understand.  Schools are the second curriculum.  They provide feedback to the first.  If the first curriculum rises or falls too much, the second curriculum regulates it—like a thermostat—keeping civilization at a safe level.  In other words, when society says “Watch movies and television, listen to iPods, surf the web, Facebook, and text,”  school says, “let’s not forget that reading is a gateway to all that preceded you.”

Writing in 1979, Postman recognizes “A generation being raised in an information environment that, on one hand, stresses visual imagery, discontinuity, immediacy, and alogicality. It is antihistorical, antiscientific, anticonceptual, antirational.”  That bias toward ephemeral and sensory media suggests a need for school that might “help conserve that which is both necessary to human survival and threatened by a furious and exhausting culture.”  School, Postman suggests,

…is one of our few remaining information systems firmly organized around preelectronic patterns of communication. School is old times and old biases. For that reason, it is more valuable to us than most people realize, but, in any case, provides a clear contrast to the newer system of perception and thought.

Postman reminds me of the historical view of middle ages monasteries.  They preserved culture against an onslaught of aliterality and rescued legacies of Greek, Roman, and Arabic civilization.

I get queasy identifying with medieval monks—like every teacher, I want to be relevant and current—and so I’m torn.  I could be retooled to teach film, just as I’ve been retooled to teach with computers, smart boards, websites, and all the proliferating forms of edutainment. I wonder sometimes, however, if I’m ready to give up on methods of study that taught me. My skepticism at seminars entitled “Teaching New Millennium Students” or “Reaching Digital Natives” feels justified. If my students are as good at digital media as everyone says they are—and presenters are always telling me I will never catch up with them—then the first curriculum doesn’t need me at all.

I acknowledge literary analysis may already be irrelevant, may become irrelevant or may be relevant in unexpected ways, but am I ready to say it’s not worth being able to read challenging literature closely and appreciatively?  No.

My father grew more and more conservative in his later years, and I learned to dismiss his views as rationalizing.  From my point of view, he was protecting what he understood and appreciated best.  But now I am my father, and I’m wondering who will win this battle, the hip teacher keen to be where students are or the curmudgeon all too ready to serve up gallons of fortifying elixir just to help them appreciate a spoonful of Shakespeare.

I really don’t know.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Humanities, Laments, Neil Postman, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

Transported There and Back

They say smell is the most evocative sense.  One whiff of wintergreen and I’m crouched on a hot track, my legs rubbed with Cramer’s Atomic Balm, awaiting the gun. Something Pavlovian happens, and my respiration and heart rate rise.

Yet we have no good word for the inability to smell.  You can be deaf or blind, but, if you can’t smell, you are “Olfactorily challenged” or a term no one knows. And smell earns no place as a learning modality either.  Visual and auditory and even tactile learners can look down on the kid who has to smell handouts to remember their contents.

Smell doesn’t rate.

Sniffing out prey isn’t necessary in the modern world, and we’re so beset by artificial fragrances our noses are too befuddled and fouled to smell a mate.  Smell’s association with taste can’t help its reputation much either. Smell and taste don’t work. They enjoy themselves too much and too often. They sit like slackers among the productive, useful, and sane.

Memory is another problem. When I try to recall the scent of wintergreen, a steel fish swims up.  No words can ensnare it.  As soon as I smell wintergreen, I’ll know it, but, in the meantime, it lives in the memory that recalls the next song just before it starts or gets me somewhere I remember but can’t map.  The action that recalls smells hides in shadowy unconsciousness—constant, seldom heard or seen.

Yesterday I walked into a strange aroma and jumped back to walking into the cafeteria at Highlands Elementary on my first day of school.  My madeleine was some special variety of frozen beef patty on a steam table, probably cheap, probably cooked badly, undoubtedly unhealthy.  Instantly I was the lonely boy who wished to go home and eat with his mom.  I was unsure how to make friends and how I’d answer if asked if I’d made one.  Some great space opened and filled with lost feelings.

It was magic, a time machine.  And then I thought, something must be wrong with our lives.  Where have our noses gone?


Filed under Buddhism, Essays, Gratitude, Laments, life, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts

My Friend Eeyore

I’m busy with summer school, so this week I’m reprising a post from my earlier blog:

Once my mother equated each of my brothers and sisters with Winnie the Pooh characters. She seemed to know the character for me right away… but paused before saying “Eeyore.” Maybe she meant to preserve my feelings.

You remember Eeyore.  After saying good morning, he added, “If it is a good morning, which I doubt.” He is relentlessly downbeat, depressed, and self-loathing. Seeing his reflection in the stream, he says, “Pathetic, that’s what it is, pathetic.”

I’ve heard people use Eeyore to chide someone for being sullen or complaining, for not going along with the high spirits of the moment. “Don’t be such an Eeyore!” they say, in exactly the same context as, “Don’t be such a party pooper!”

But I can’t help defending Eeyore. People forget Chapter Six of Winnie the Pooh when Eeyore reveals it’s his birthday. Pooh, being Pooh, realizes his friend needs something more than “Many happy returns” and enlists Piglet’s aid in gathering presents. Pooh chooses a pot of honey (what else?) and Piglet chooses a balloon. The honey gets eaten (what else?), and Piglet trips and pops the balloon.

And Eeyore? He couldn’t be more pleased. He’s grateful for Pooh’s “useful pot” because now he has somewhere to put the balloon, which—had it not popped—wouldn’t have fit.  You can’t argue Eeyore is great company, but he does support the theory of lowered expectations. When you expect nothing, everything pleases you. And in the story, it’s truly the thought that counts to Eeyore. He seems tickled the balloon was once his favorite color—red—and his favorite size—about as big as Piglet.

If I could only be so positive. The worst-case scenario occurs to me first, so I’m at my best when I pass by it to say something positive. It’s my duty to lift myself from gloom and disguise my hope-challenged state. I look to laugh but sometimes settle for accepting the way I am and invest in hoping something better lies ahead. I don’t always succeed, but sometimes.

Eeyore’s take on his own condition is that nothing is wrong except, “We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.” Eeyore says he has no “Bon-hommy… I’m not complaining, but there it is.”

We might suggest Prozac—but he recognizes his state and tries to work with it.

In the fourth chapter, when Eeyore loses his tail, he’s despondent—though he doesn’t know why yet. He’s particularly happy to see Pooh, for he was “very glad to be able to stop thinking a little in order to say ‘How do you do?’ in a gloomy manner to him.”

Eeyore isn’t companionable but craves companionship. He is ready to be consoled. When Pooh points out his tail is gone, Eeyore sees Pooh’s observation accounts for a great deal, and, in fact, “It explains everything.”

Nothing will ever explain everything for me—it’s tough to accept someone else’s answer to a question you ask yourself—but Eeyore celebrates unreservedly when, tail found, he “frisked about the forest, waving his tail so happily.” That sounds good.

It might be sad to look to Eeyore as a model—pathetic, that’s what it is, pathetic—but there’s much to admire in him. A. A. Milne writes, “Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, ‘Why?’ and sometimes he thought ‘Wherefore?’ and sometimes he thought ‘Inasmuch as which?’ and sometimes he didn’t know what he was thinking about.” I can identify.


Filed under Depression, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Home Life, Hope, life, Meditations, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts, Tributes