Monthly Archives: May 2013

Off to Work

depression-van-goghShe puts her cup down too hard, and the coffee inside gathers up and spits onto the tabletop. He rips a paper towel from the roll, hands it to her, and sits back down.

His interlaced fingers form a knot. As he stares into the hole created by his thumbs and index fingers, she continues to speak, and he half-listens. He’s heard the gist—cheer up, damn you—and sympathizes, though he struggles to comply. He’d like to save himself as she wishes but pretends instead.

The birds are already up, and cool, damp air seeps in from the open window. It will be another warm day, bearable in the morning—pleasant even—but still and heavy with sun by mid-afternoon.

The summer he was ten, he spent days like this with neighborhood boys. They collected personnel for baseball games at the backstop down the street or played capture-the-flag or hide-and-seek. They played like soldiers, occupying maps larger than their block. Sometimes, he hid among honeysuckles—though he knew he’d be found there—just to linger in the shadow and scent. If someone begged a ride, they’d go to the pool, and he’d return home in late afternoon cool, clean, and sated by sun. After TV, after supper, after another hour of play on the block, after more TV, after a few pages of a boys’ book, he slept.

Memory is dangerous. It makes one perfect summer day into a condition, what “would” happen every day. Then it rewrites the past altogether. He tells these stories so often their gilded nostalgia wears thin and reveals gray metal beneath. These tales were once solace, but he over-handles them, relying on bright imagination that never quite saves him.

She’s right to expect more. Because she loves him and he loves her, he tries and, for long stretches, rouses himself to cut vegetables, do the dishes, change the light bulb burned out upstairs, make and follow through on intentions. It’s all intention. He wants to believe in fresh pleasures and new stories but soon leaves cabinets open and forgets to set the timer for the potatoes. He crawls in bed early, unable to do one more thing, though he’s done much less than planned. He awakes to familiar rituals and gestures.

In school he learned about entropy, the heat death of the universe. Mr. Clements spread spaghetti-thin arms and said, “Everything will average. Hot will cool and cool will heat up. The whole universe will level out.” Sitting in the third row—as he did in every class—he pictured the universe as one bucket of tepid water.

Mr. Clements sat back down beside the overhead projector and rolled the notes forward. “Copy these,” he said. His eyes dropped to the page again.

She must be exhausted with restarting. A heavy sled without dogs, he dreams of hitting a frictionless patch with favorable gravity, a place motion will take. He wants to redeem her hope. He’s not sure what hope is.

He was ambitious once. In high school, he wrote his 400 meter times on a pad in his locker, noting each tenth gained as he approached the school record. He squeezed like a spring into the blocks and, at the gun, became pure will.

She reaches across the table, places her hand over his, and calls him back. There are practical matters, tasks to accomplish, obligations to fulfill. Another day of work awaits, and his mind leaps forward to take in all the time between now and returning. He prays, “Oh Lord, get me through.”

And he smiles. Some days, the only kindness he marshals is playing this role.

The birds chatter, and today’s humidity gathers in the kitchen. He loves this time of day and wants it to pass. He remembers joy and settles on survival. He takes a deep breath of morning air and sighs.

Throwing on his backpack, he heads toward the door. “Good bye,” he says, “have a great day.”


Filed under Ambition, Depression, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Nostalgia, Thoughts, Work

Real Talk

DSCN7536“Graduates, thank you for the honor of asking me to speak today.”

Nearly every address begins with some variation on that statement, and, often, speakers joke what a dubious honor—slash—anxious burden the invitation is.

If I were speaking (I’m not) I’d sidestep the cliché and say,

“Thanks… I mean it.”

However, given my late-May exhaustion, it’d likely be the last sidestepping I’d do. I might remind graduates to double-space their papers and put the punctuation inside the quotation marks. I might threaten them with another year of high school if they can’t recite, “’I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” and seven exceptions.

Though teachers stand in front of classes every day, opportunities for uninterrupted public commentary are rare. It makes news when graduation speakers succumb to the temptation to critique the current generation, but I understand. One sign of love, after all, is sincerity. Students should want honesty. They’re a captive audience—what better time to say, “Yes, you’re wonderful, but…”?

When I was a young parent, I attended a number of junior versions of graduation with kindergarteners or lower schoolers or camp attendees or participants in a rainbow of other activities. These graduation parodies are cute—like making a dog wear a snood and sunglasses. Yet, sometimes, so are our solemn and serious commencements. The elevation of the occasion insists on congratulatory platitudes and sugared inspiration, and graduation slips into bombast or, worse, announces its artifice by stepping gingerly around realities.

How courageous then are people who can mine their own post-grad experience to speak plainly about students’ future. “Life will be dull and only an active mind will relieve it” they say, or “If you really want to succeed, don’t believe your own press,” or “Everyone says you are the hope for the future and barely mean it, but, sorry, it’s true. Don’t screw up.”

Three times I’ve stood at that podium and said something less than I might have. I could have offered subtler, more insightful advice, confessed more doubt, and grappled more vigorously with the troublesome inevitability of disappointment.

So I’ve written the speech I never will (and never would) deliver:

Graduates, it’s an honor to speak today. Thank you… I mean it. I’m humbled standing here, overwhelmed by your faith I have a valuable message to impart. I’m not so sure, however, and this address will be shorter than you imagined. It requires attention perhaps impossible on such an exciting day. Nonetheless, here I go.

You should be proud of the accomplishment we’re celebrating today… but don’t be too proud. Ambition and personal progress aren’t everything. Watching you these four years has inspired hope… but also frustration. Sometimes I worry you don’t see this beautiful world as clearly as you should, and that, if you don’t lift your eyes from screens and start looking soon, you may spend a lifetime wandering among the clutter of possessions, degrees, school names, and job titles you laud as life’s treasure. I worry you may look up from amusements and discover the world spoiled… or gone.

I’ve heard you use the expression “Being real.” In our time, nothing is harder. I’ve lost my way enough to believe landmarks proffered by society are unreliable. Marketers advertise days like this as milestones when, really, your ordinary hours count more. With every petty triumph and mishap you fashion the internal compass to guide you. You are your habits.

My colleagues and I have such deep hopes for you. You may have cursed us at times, but our affection explains why we’ve asked so much of you. We wanted to teach you to think, and some of you have learned well. Others act the part, swinging between doing what looks good and what’s sincere and earnest. That’s okay. I act too. We have to sometimes, and, in dark moments, everyone wonders what’s real and true.

Everything real and meaningful to me started with asking, “What matters?” I’ve occasionally wanted to hand you the list I’ve compiled, but you will create your own.

I request  just one more thing before you leave. Make your list deliberately and thoughtfully and with the highest purpose. The world doesn’t need more lazy opinion, more pretense, more snarky irony, more secret contempt, more misanthropy, more hollow love or name-only friendship. It doesn’t need more aloofness, more consumption for consumption’s sake, more self-absorption or self-congratulation.

It needs us awake and alive, grateful and caring, modest and sensitive. It needs real attention, affection, and aspiration. Graduates, what’s ahead isn’t easy, but, if you lift your head and open your eyes, I promise life will be more glorious than you can imagine even on this, a most glorious day.

I know one of our graduates really well—my daughter. I’m sure she’s happy I won’t be troubling her class with my worries. And I’m happy to leave the day to her… generally. I feel only the slightest twinge of regret, the usual fed-up end-of-the-year urge to issue one last challenge.

But instead I’ll just say, “Godspeed, all.”


Filed under Ambition, Criticism, Doubt, Education, Essays, Experiments, Gratitude, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Parenting, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Work

Caffeine Nation

w-Giant-Coffee-Cup75917Some years ago, my brother went to Disneyland with his family and described morning like a science fiction movie. Each resort hotel sells a “bottomless mug” and, at dawn, as the children shake off sleep, the adults drift toward the cafeteria as if it were an alien mothership, clutching their mugs, stupefied, but compelled by something greater than themselves.

In the words of Neil Young in “After the Gold Rush,” “The loading had begun.”

The average American spends $14.40 a week on coffee and coffee products, and according to the National Coffee Organization, more than 300,000 Americans consume at least ten cups of coffee a day. I think I might vibrate through walls at that dosage, but in Chicago proper, you are never more than a quarter of a mile from a Starbucks. When I put my own address into the Starbucks Locator, I’m limited to 50 locations but I can easily reach that. Sometimes, I wonder whether some caffeine-induced hallucination imagines a Starbucks on every corner and if rubbing my eyes will get the Starbucks out of them. When my children were small, watching the second Shrek movie, I noticed people fleeing a soon-to-be crushed Farbucks during some mayhem—firmly gripping Ventis in hand—and running into another soon-to-be crushed Farbucks across the street.

Across the street from my school you will find—surprise—a Starbucks. All day, two or three desperate colleagues inch forward as if Starbucks served air. I know this because I’m with them. I too need a wake-up cup, or the one that focuses the start the day, or the quick cup to stave off lulls during the day, or the cup I sip even when it grows cold.

I’m not ready to repudiate my habit, so, if you’re expecting a hair-yanking rejection of the devil’s juice, I wish I were your man, but I’m a devotee. That warm feeling in my back pocket is my Starbucks card ionized by use. I cling to every jot of evidence of caffeine’s benefits—it’s an excellent training drug for athletes, it improves concentration and learning, it contains anti-oxidants, it may help you stay slim.

So what if cigarette makers once made similar claims? Coffee is the true opiate of the masses.

I’d say I’m in denial, but how can you be in denial and know it? Truth is, I meant to quit out of pure orneriness—I’m no corporate dupe—but always have too much to do. It’s just a bad time, I tell myself, for a caffeine withdrawal headache… or a three-day nap. I’ve been caffeinated almost constantly for the last thirty years.

Someone is going to have to stage an intervention, no coffee allowed. Starbucks, if your spies are out watching cyberspace, listen to my plea. Start closing stores now—diversify into ‘shrooms or peyote—and save us from ourselves.


Filed under America, Chicago, Coffee, Essays, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

The Latest

imagesYearly, we teachers hear the “Digital Natives” in our classrooms need something more and different. New technologies, programs, and applications will improve our instruction, we’re told, and each fall the push begins to integrate new methods into our classes. The old ways have passed away, and the message is clear: keep up or risk irrelevance and invisibility. Resisting progress is announcing your mental arthritis, your denial of newer realities.

I do the best I can but have an ugly confession: I love the throw-backs, the students who don’t need the enticement and excitement of innovative technology or techniques, who rely instead on their own inquisitiveness and the computers they carry within them. They appreciate learning whether it’s technologically advanced or not. Everything new is old again, and vice versa.

A teacher’s biggest challenge is convincing students to care—in my case, to value books increasingly regarded as passé, dull, or irrelevant; to embrace reading accurately, thoughtfully, and discerningly; to accept the useful torture of writing; to enjoy rumination that questions (even undermines) original answers. You have to want hard work to do it well, and, while easier paths lead to quicker results, they often sidestep the labor that improves you.

Some students flog themselves through school because they see it as a means to status or professional success, but most need intrinsic motives, curiosity, a feeling labor rewards itself. Technology is supposed to motivate and sometimes does, but the students who want to learn hear real people speaking from every and any source. Those who don’t wish to listen regard all words, electronic or ink, as noise interrupting what they’d rather be doing. My job is to assert authors’ voices are valuable. Insisting may not be enough, but elaborate, stimulating, and entertaining technology often does little better and distracts students as much as it entices them.

They grow rare, these students who accept low-tech education, who look past apparatus to the stuff of learning. My eyes sting with tears when I meet a student who expects struggle and wants it, who loves the frustrating play of writing, who smiles encountering the delicate expression of deep truth, who occupies a character’s mind with his or her own, who hears ancient ideas echoing in the present, who leaps like a spark between unlikely poles, who tunnels like a blind mole immune to diversion, who finds splendor in faintly etched messages, who laughs, or cries, or angers, or warms, or cools, or gasps when encountering another mind. Of course, all these traits exist in technophiles too, but does technology assure sound scholarship, does it guarantee interest?

When I started teaching, I poked the ground with a straw and oil bubbled out. Perhaps that had more to do with youthful enthusiasm, but every effort produced more than enough response to sustain me. I don’t begrudge the effort of preparing lessons or dreaming up new and different ways to engage students. I like my students. But lately the ground appears to yield less. The proportion of effort to return has changed. For my students, life outside school is so much more exciting than anything I can serve up. Students race ahead. Keeping up seems more and more taxing, the gained learning less and less fulfilling. Style trumps substance.

Perhaps I’ve become the teacher who has passed the age of being cool and, now older than his students’ parents, is part of the place, another desk or chair. I’d rather not be. Who wants to be the person colleagues regard deferentially, the one whose antique experience inspires the sort of love generally reserved for decaying uncles? Who wants to be the genial holdover whose eccentricities must be borne? I want to be hip.

But I’m tired and wonder how the latest novelty will help.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Dissent, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry

Instant Success

Holy_GrailSo, the story goes a talent agent spotted film actress Lana Turner when she ditched a typing class for a coke at Schwab’s Drug Store in Hollywood. It was really the Top Hat Café, but the name of the place matters little. She was nothing and, in less than a moment, something. In another decade or two, few people will remember Lana Turner, much less the roller-coaster life she led from that point on, but other stories will certainly supplant hers.

American mythology swims in discovery stories. The slightest eventuality can make us—the friction between one numbered ping-pong ball and another, a brother-in-law who has a cousin who has a friend who has a cousin who has a brother-in-law who has an idea, the unaccountable impulse to shine a flashlight into the darkest corner of an attic just when you decide it’s too hot to stay, the bizarre eventuality that puts you in the seat next to a famous power broker in an unusually receptive mood.

The best American success stories involve work only incidentally, just twirling tumblers of a safe until it softly and inevitably clicks open. If the door of opportunity swings for a minute, an hour, a year, or forever, nothing can surpass that instant when you are free for life. That miracle.

At my age, the door of discovery seems welded, and I’ve never had the gumption for the savvy networking and clever positioning that lands people in just the right places when attention sweeps their way. Yet, as no effective solution prevents dreaming, I’m susceptible. My modest successes as a teacher, writer, and artist ought to be enough (and mostly are), but I still imagine being found.

When I meet with students about essays, they sometimes slump deeper as our conversation goes on and on and suggestions accumulate. They hoped for so much and thought this essay—at last—might make their undeniable writing talent clear and propel them to reliable success forever more. Sometimes, I’m tempted to say what one of my MFA teachers once said to me, “You didn’t really expect me to say, ‘I love it. Don’t change a word!’ did you?”

The obvious answer, for me and for my students, is “Yes.” The fantasy of discovery begins with the world recognizing how deserving you have always been. For once in your miserable life, others will see you just as you wish to see yourself and marvel at how you’ve gone unnoticed so long.

At this stage I tell myself that my being discovered might be more like finding a sock under the washing machine when it’s replaced. As surprising as it might be—a mystery solved!—it’s rather academic. I abandoned the sock’s mate long ago, the mourning period passed long ago. The dream of fame, status, and repute as an instantaneous serendipitous confluence of fateful events suits younger people better.

I wish my little measure of acceptance was enough, but when others experience success—as they inevitably will—believing in your own deserving seems so much easier than believing in theirs. Hope, the feeling Emily Dickinson called “The thing with feathers,” still wants to fly, and against the stiffest winter wind. The little voice saying “Why not me?” never really quiets.

Some people will say that voice is crucial, that, to an American especially, the promise of success is akin to the promise of sunrise, another assurance of good things ahead if we ready ourselves for chance. “What would we do without our ambition?” they ask, “What would we say, after all, if we couldn’t say, ‘It might happen’?”

Maybe. More welcome, however, would be feeling you have success enough. These stories may be the sole means to make discontent tolerable or the greatest source of discontent. I’m not sure. But waking up one morning accepting my own worth—feeling it’s real without ratification or verification—could be the greatest discovery of all.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, America, Art, Buddhism, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Essays, Fame, Hope, Identity, life, Modern Life, Seymour Krim, Thoughts, Worry

15 Thoughts About Things (9-15)

022thumbThe second half of the lyric essay posted on Wednesday 5/7.


Embarrassing Moments sting most. Earlier this year, I was reading a passage from Huck Finn depicting a character named Sherburn who spews vitriol about mobs and vigilante justice. A student asked, “Does Huck say anything about Sherburn’s speech?” and, I said, “No,” trotting out my pet thoughts about Twain’s depiction of Huck as dispassionate and the strategy behind Twain’s approach. But another student raised her hand immediately and held it aloft as I held forth. When I called on her she said, “But what about…” and read Huck’s commentary on Sherburn.

In those moments I feel verdict-stricken. My eyes flit from face to face searching for signs of my humiliation. It adds proof.


We started many math classes with sets. The set of apples gave way to the contents of an imaginary person’s trunk or suitcase, which gave way in turn to sets of real numbers, of integers, of ordinals, of cardinals, of natural numbers.

In one class, we briefly discussed sets themselves, how they corral mathematical objects—which, typically, were not objects—and how “naïve set theory” led to axioms. One dimly remembered axiom dealt in an infinite collection of shoes and how choosing just the left was different from choosing among sets of socks so similar as to indistinguishable.

I must be getting it wrong. Others understood it perfectly or professed to. I felt lost in a museum crowded with objets d’art never neat enough to call a collection. Collections possess order you feel.

The absence of that feeling is chaos.


Do other animals create sets? Does a gorilla group plants he might eat?

The finite items animals know—humans included—amass like drops of mercury in one puddle, but I wonder how well other animals remember the parts as ever being separate, whether they conceive of anything beyond what they presently perceive. Does a cheetah know which creatures have the least chance of escape or does the urge to chase rise like a message from elsewhere, a visitation of a singular order dictating that moment?

Other animals can’t see outside what they are. If they do not know the borders of the bubble they’re in, at least they can’t aspire to find it and pass through it. They can’t wish to be elsewhere. They want as we do, but want nothing more.


I think sometimes about how hard and fast categories are to others and suspect theirs have more resolute and sharp edges. They contain things better. Some feel no need to move emotions between containers, and they worry less about where each belongs.

If there is a “belongs.”


My older brother owned a hinged wooden box—he may have it still—where he saved objects he liked—a particularly good sand dollar, a lens from a microscope, a mermaid’s purse, a wooden nickel, some shark teeth, and some of his own teeth.

He can tell me what in this list is wrong. It comes from what, knowing him then, makes sense. That box held other things that have migrated from my picture of him, and I’ll bet he could tell me those too.

I have no such box, though I have notebooks from fifth grade to graduate school, and fragments of writing from the time between then and now. I look at them so infrequently I recall motive better than their content.

If I got things down, I thought, they might stay. I thought, if I got things down, I might leave those things behind.


The exact number eludes me, but less than one hundred copies of my book The Lost Work of Wasps exist in the world. I can’t know, of course, where they are at this exact moment, but often I imagine calling them back. I’ve heard little from their owners and assume some wincing reluctance prevents anyone saying much. I worry I’ve embarrassed myself again, and no one wants to alert me.

But that’s supposition. Perhaps the embarrassment is the owners’—they never opened the cover (though they meant to) or fear the contents will compromise the version of me they prefer. “Too serious” or “Too much information,” they may be thinking.

Or it could be the book has already become a forgotten satellite zipping around me, broken so there’s no talking to it and no purpose in its assembly of parts.

I try to categorize the book, placing it in “Things To Be Proud Of,” but I put it there by publishing it myself… the classification won’t stick. It will only ever truly fit in “Things Unsettled,” a set stuffed to bulging.


One of the preparations linked to “That last Onset” in Emily Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” is the speaker’s having “willed my Keepsakes—Signed away / What portions of me be assignable.” The arrival of the fly, another presence is what seemed a complete and finite scene, calls every “portion… assignable” into question.

Even without the added fly, the moment relies on faith. Sorting matters doesn’t change them, and our neatest piles lay inert. Their only heat—the thoughts and feelings in the hands that arranged them—cools quickly.

Some order belongs only to the maker.

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Filed under Aging, Anxiety, Doubt, Education, Ego, Emily Dickinson, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Words, Worry, Writing

15 Thoughts About Things (1-8)

800px-WLA_vanda_Netsuke_4I’ve written another long lyric essay this week, so I’m posting it in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention. Ultimately the second half will land on top of the first half because that’s how blogs lay out. I’m sorry about that, but my excuse is that lyric essays are meant to be rearranged.


In the 1970’s, a game show called “The Pyramid” (in various dollar amounts) asked contestants to label a category by offering items from it. For instance, you might say “hammer, square, tape measure, drill, screwdriver” and I’d guess “Carpenters’ Tools.”

In the big prize round, the categories reached strange dimensions, and the contestant or a celebrity helper would lead his or her partner to guess “Things A Mother Says,” “Things You Do To Escape Prison,” or “Things You Accidentally Leave Behind on Vacation.”

Watching a team climb the pyramid excited me, but the reorganization of reality opened my young brain to see everything as part of categories, simple ones like “Things To Do Before Going to Sleep,” and “Things I Want to Study” but also darker ones—“Things I Wish I Could Forget” and “Things That Lead to Overpowering Feelings of Personal Futility and Worthlessness.”


Thoreau says, “Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” The “Chopping sea of civilized life” he says, requires a “a great calculator” to navigate fully. We can’t trust to any innate sense of direction because, having abandoned it so long ago, we’ve lost it.

Out walking in a city you see so many people engrossed by smart phones, and, on a crowed L car with no seats remaining and most people standing, you find only one or two passengers not using some device.

I think sometimes of all those devises hold. Were they books, tape recorders, short wave radios or primitive mainframes, pedestrians might be dragging overburdened carts behind them, and every L train would sink on its tracks, paralyzed by friction.


Recently I said that, if I could choose a religion, I’d pick Buddhism, and someone laughed. “You know Buddhists are supposed to live in the moment, right? You know they don’t believe in guilt?”

Maybe she’s right, maybe I carry too much to exist immediately.


Being part of “People Who Create Categories” means you live between giant blocks of experience. It’s never just one thing you’re looking at or thinking about. It’s a condition. You can feel squished.


As the utility of memory fades, our searches become more complicated, though easier. Finding the virtual storage site of an individual detail through Google requires knowing how to call it forth, and, having called it, we let it slip back into smoke. In grade school, my teachers advised me to use a dictionary to check the spelling of words, but sometimes I couldn’t spell the word well enough to find it quickly. When I did locate the word, it became another of many similar searches, each difficult to distinguish and remember.


Only feelings persist, a vague sense of familiarity as words move from pile to pile, useful for what they are and where they lay in an ocean of associations.


Having a middle school girlfriend meant gathering conversation in advance. Though I had no literal notecards, I’d have a pocketful if I’d written everything down. She might lose interest, I thought, if I didn’t always know what to say, and so I spent time between meetings mentally rehearsing. All the back of the class witticism, the cafeteria gaffs, the teachers’ lunacy became filed away bits.

And if she said anything outside my store, I would look to others: “Stories About Misidentification,” “Stories About Parents,” “Stories About the Unfair Nature of the World,”

“Stories Explaining the Source and Strength of My Desperation.”


This is that too.

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Filed under Aging, Anxiety, Blogging, Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Urban Life, Worry


haters-gonna-hateOne of my former colleagues used to teach The Great Gatsby as one of the most overrated books in history. When I asked whether he worried about spoiling the book for students, he said one shouldn’t kowtow to others’ opinions, and teachers need to regard books as whetting stones to sharpen students’ evaluative skills. If he sincerely hated the book, he asked, wouldn’t it be dishonest to insist on their appreciating it?

Sometimes students ask which books I hate, and I say my job depends on people liking books—it doesn’t pay to put down anything anyone else might enjoy. They roll their eyes. Other English teachers aren’t so diplomatic, they say. A student always names some teacher who doesn’t like any of the assigned texts and tells them so.

Okay, so my answer is self-serving. I’m trying to tell the truth, though. Even great books contain clumsy moments, and some parade tiresome characters that—especially the fourth or fifth or fifteenth time around—wear readers’ patience. Some works colleagues and students enjoy don’t do much for me. Our tastes are different, I figure, or they see what I can’t.

I don’t enjoy conversations about “bad books” the way others do. Incisive observations are wonderful, but it’s hard for me to love sneering, especially in young people. Students who insist this or that literary masterpiece is worthless launch into well-rehearsed tirades, and I listen patiently—I agree with some of their critique—but some can’t seem to find anything else to discuss. I fight the temptation to turn the equation around and ask where the trouble lies, in the book or in the reader?

Academic legend has it a literature professor asked just one question on a semester final: “Which book in this course did you dislike, and what personal failing in you does your answer reflect?” I’ve wanted to re-enact that final.

Our culture’s pathological addiction to judgment complicates my job. Creating rheostats from my students’ on-off switches (or like-unlike buttons) may be my biggest challenge. We express feelings of comfort or discomfort—that’s natural—but I hope reading is more than thumbs up or down. You should know a book well and interpret its contents in light of the author’s aims as you criticize it. Your response should be as ranging as it is penetrating.

A few years ago a colleague and I taught two sections of the same course containing the same book. He was open about not having read the novel before the other teacher (me) proposed it, and he didn’t disguise his disappointment in it. His class loathed it, railing against it with particular glee until their locker conversations poisoned my discussions. I started playing desperate games of “Now you see me now you don’t.” Since the characters were flat, I’d try to teach the book as a parable; since the plot wasn’t exciting enough, I’d stress how unconventional its structure was; since the ideas were too obvious, I’d address the genre of which the book was a part; since nothing in it was worth writing about, I’d approach it through fun activities only peripherally connected to analyzing the book’s content. I was, in other words, a complete apologist, begging them to examine something they’d already rejected.

I failed. Miserably.

The experience was so exhausting, in fact, I became determined never to teach the novel again. But, as students before seemed to enjoy it, and as its themes and approach seemed tailored to a course I teach, I decided—reluctantly—to try. The class showed the same sensitivity to the book’s flaws, and I encouraged them to identify and discuss its problems. At one point a student even reported how much my colleague hates the book, and I tried to examine those objections without compromising the 50 pages remaining. At every stage, I stemmed their negativity, stopped them short of dismissal.

Perhaps that’s not fair. Discouraging independent thinking is the last thing I teacher should want to do, and dislike is a legitimate response to literature.  In this case, my teaching was also dishonest. Having been alerted to the book’s problems, I see little else now. My justification, however, is that many students are too good at censure and need to practice appreciation more.

Appreciating isn’t at all the same thing as liking, nor is enjoyment the same as enlightenment. I could consider myself a success if my students appreciate books that aren’t their taste or, for that matter, my taste. From my perspective, if you can see what others value, it’s possible to understand your objections and learn something about the book… and you. Maybe I’m pretending, but I like being a diplomat. My disguise will be worth it if, hiding my opinions, students feel free to develop their own.


Filed under Arguments, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Opinion, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing