Category Archives: Hope

School, The Place

Amanda-Fire-Alarms-768x1024As I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ll be missing the opening day of school for the first time since 1962 when I was three and not yet old enough.

Because I’ve been through 32 school starts as a teacher, I know what will happen. Students will lope down auditorium steps, dressed in new clothes to fit their continually new bodies. They will talk excitedly without being obvious… or at least only to the point of being properly obvious. Some will look left and right for the safety of faces that will beam back recognition, then wave.

Teachers, they’ll largely ignore. Teachers will line up somewhere seen, maybe along the sides, or will shepherd students as they’ve been instructed and pretend to be unbothered by another year of conspicuous invisibility.

The hubbub will resist a few attempts at quiet, but the initial syllable of the initial solitary voice will assert that all these minds and hearts and hands and bodies are actually one school. Every opening day is a new start and reunion. At some point, the gears will catch and the machine will seem to have been in constant operation, but, for a few minutes, possibility reigns.

School is a strange place, a part of the world and also apart from it. Even the most unconventional school follows basic conventions. There are teachers—however overtly or covertly they’re involved in educating students—and classrooms—whether they take recognizable form or not. There are some students who want each teacher’s knowledge and can’t contain or hide the pleasure of learning, and some students who, though at the center of it all, watch the clock, and the whole process, with impotence, confusion, and fear.

Though school starts and ends and is only in session so long, the regular schoolhouse rhythm of hour, day, term, season, and year—no matter how it’s divided—takes over as if it were reality itself.

Doing any job for a long time defines you, but a school’s structure can become a second skeleton. When each year superimposes over the last, you see ghosts as well as human beings in your classroom. Those who once occupied this space are gone—you hear news they’ve grown up to study and work in faraway places—but they’re in the building too, in the hopes and horrors of the ones arriving… who are never so different. It’s easy for a teacher to begin believing school is the world or, at least, a concentrated version of it.

Of course it isn’t. School is also a rare enclave where people still trust unlikely outcomes and bet on personal and intellectual progress. That’s the excitement—a new year and a new day and a new class can really be new. Each year begins with hope. Though sometimes the wider world undermines and discourages teachers—telling them they’re lazy part-timers or cast-offs stupider than those they’re hired to teach or misguided dinosaurs hiding from real life behind yellowed notecards—no teacher without faith lasts long. I still have faith.

My experience tells me the first day will be exhausting. My colleagues will go home feeling as if they’ve survived a prizefight, but they’ll be restless as well, already attending to the next day. I won’t miss the relentless pace of my school, the snow of papers falling from September to December, January to June, or the constant news from outside that teachers aren’t good enough.

Clearly, I need a rest, but I’ll miss the aspirational DNA of school, the ambition that is mortar to the bricks. My uncrowded life will certainly be quieter and less frantic, which is quite okay, but maybe lonely too. I’m over the idea I’m affecting eternity, but I’ll miss students who, amid the hubbub, hope their teachers will have something important to say.

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Filed under Aging, America, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Place, Sabbaticals, Solitude, Teaching, Thoughts, Time, Uncategorized, Work

Knowing Where I Am

080823-N-9818V-375Dean Reese’s tight smile conveyed success—yes, I could drop Macroeconomic Theory though drop-add had long passed. No, it wouldn’t appear on my transcript. Yet his smile spoke. “All of us have weaknesses,” he said, “it makes us humble.” The scolding followed.

He said he wouldn’t rescue me again because I was meant to learn from experience. You expect trouble. You try harder. You compensate. And if none of that works, you accept failure and move on, wiser about what’s reasonable to demand from yourself. You can’t always escape from the trouble you find.

I thought I knew that.

The year before, I’d enrolled in calculus, and despite endless hours doing and redoing practice problems and a deep determination to prove I could learn anything, I failed the first two tests. Any math class would have satisfied my requirement, but I wanted to learn calculus and believed no subject could be beyond me if I tried harder than anyone else ever had before.

My calculus teacher, a stuttering graduate student from Scotland, knew his subject well and worked hard to help me, but my eyes danced over every page of numbers and variables. They would no more land there than my feet would settle on hotplates. I resigned myself to blotting my academic record and decided to study hard enough to eke out a “Gentleman’s C.”

You discover who you are by failing, I told myself. It’s unfortunate, but bumping against the ceiling of your abilities or unveiling how wrong you were or seeing the familiar transformed by a new understanding or blushing with deep embarrassment and error and realizing, “I’m not what I seem”—that’s what matters ultimately.

In calculus, finally free from anxiety and my overblown drive, I caught up with the algebra everyone else already knew, relaxed, and started doing well. Then amazingly well. Maybe my professor gave me a gift, but I received a B at the end of the term. It felt like escape—a triumphant one—and I learned nothing.

So I landed in Macroeconomic theory the next year, doomed to trip into the same situation again, again, and again.

Dean Reese’s message never sticks for long, which some would say is good, but not really.

When I was running and racing a lot, I’d stand in the crowd at the starting line reviewing my training, reassuring myself I’d done all I needed to prepare. “The money is in the bank,” I’d say. Yet, looking around, the runners in my area looked equally fit, and some—I could tell just by assessing their physiques and demeanor—would run much faster that day. They were what I’d like to be and more blessed with lung capacity plus slow and fast twitch fiber I’d never possess no matter how I trained. It was liberating to admire them, and I’m not sure why, but seeing how much more limited I was comforted me as much as patting myself on the back for working hard.

The challenge of balancing ambition and acceptance seems endless. I want so much and want to know how much I can reasonably want. It’s good to strive. We’ve told so from birth. But wouldn’t it be nice to know where striving ends and living with your actual self begins?

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Thoughts of a Struggling Diarist

photo 1-33Lists of famous diarists run many pages, going on so long you begin to believe anyone who desires merit must keep a diary. I know I’m confusing correlation and causation, but journal writing has been urged upon me so many times, there must be something to it… that so far eludes me.

In my backpack I keep a notebook where I occasionally jot ideas. It includes recommended books and movies, sentences revised and re-revised, odd overheard statements, and strange sights. My attempts at a daily journal, however, typically fail. A few days in, I ask why I’m telling myself what I already know or why it’s vital to describe in tiresome detail events that just occurred and hardly seem worth remembering. Writers laud journals as practice, which certainly makes sense, but my skepticism rears. What kind of practice? My audience, myself, will accept any old thing, and, though he’s unimpressed with the familiar, gets little else. If I perform the way I rehearse—which most people do—journaling won’t create brilliance. Quite the opposite.

I never re-read. Though writing-to-think is a valuable process, my journals meander in the dark, prodded by obligation, trying one direction and another and hoping, half-heartedly, to trip over treasure.

If you’re a journal-er, you’ll say my problem is the author. I do wonder—if I can commit, will I discover how life changes when I record it? Since school ended, I’ve been trying again, scheduling a regular visit to a blank sketchbook filling up with scrawl and doodles. The secret, I tell myself, is to think of this journal as a savings bank where investments in self-examination will grow.

According to Susan Sontag, it’s “Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate.” For her, the journal is not a place to “Express myself more openly than I could to any person,” but a place where, “I create myself.”

“People who keep journals have life twice,” Jessamyn West said, and Anaïs Nin called her diary “My kief, hashish, and opium pipe… my drug and my vice.”

One of my former colleagues kept journals and, during one of his free periods each day, covered exactly one page. I watched, without reading, as he somehow spent thoughts to die out on the last line. He didn’t share his entries with me or anyone and said he had shelves of journals dating back to the sixties that he never, never, never revisited.

His writing was, I’m guessing, a continual reshoring, a levee preserving his sense of himself. Without reading a single entry, I picture him reassuring, encouraging, redesigning. In my imagination, he plans how to be, his range and domain.

But my experience so far tells me I’m romanticizing. My entries are dull, larded with worries about productivity and self-worth… which, it turns out, are often the same thing.

Virginia Woolf said she’d like her journal to:

Resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art.

I’d like that too. But how do I become Virginia Woolf? How do you ask so much so regularly? How do you battle the relentless, regular tide of personality? How can you try so hard when no one watches or cares?

These mysteries I can only settle over time, I tell myself. Right now, my journal feels like investment, pretty in its script and drawings… but vapid. I have almost no interest in history, being able to say on such and such a day such and such happened, but then what am I interested in, what steady voice emerges?

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one,” Joan Didion says, “inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

Maybe my journal writing will only become important as it approaches compulsion, as it embraces no justification beyond blind obsession.

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Doing and Being

office-art-mindset1Today I travel to a Literary Hybrid workshop at Kenyon College that combines writing and visual art. The program promises to “Blend techniques of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual arts to generate creative writing through the art of the book.” It appeals to, “A writer curious to write in more genres, or an artist wishing to deepen engagement with text.”

So I’m in those descriptions somewhere, and what I want is to put my two abiding creative outlets in the same room and see what they have to say to each other. Whatever else comes out of the experience will be a bonus, but I’d like to see my work a little differently, whether this label “literary hybrid” fits.

I generally don’t call myself a visual artist. It’s presumptuous to do so because I stand in awe of people who hold and deserve the title. If they are citizens of that country, then I’m standing at its border staring in. Oh I know there’s no fence, no river, no guard keeping me out. People tell me part of belonging is striding over the line with a smile on your face.

I’m just hesitant to transgress. I do art, but does doing make being? Unsure.

As part of my sabbatical project, I’ve been reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and it has me thinking about the difference between activity and identity. Dweck argues that humans fall into two broad categories, those with an open mindset and those whose mindsets are closed. You don’t want to be on the closed side. Those people take everything they do as contributing to their identity, some measure of who they are and what they’re worth. They are “A Students” because they make A’s. They are athletes because they once excelled at athletics. They make nouns of life’s verbs.

The price is high. Closed mindset people may become inflexible and timid, afraid to risk how they see themselves. They may choose not to run a race they can’t win, and they’re far more sensitive to setbacks. Trouble compromises self-images they’ve cultivated. In fact, they’re prone to call setbacks “failure” and mistakes “failure” and shortcomings “failure.”

On the other side are the open mindsets who see half-full glasses everywhere. A low score on an essay—even if it’s unexpected—is an opportunity to learn and grow. A flat tire on the way to a job interview is an unfortunate episode and not a judgment from the gods. People with open mindsets enjoy struggling because they see themselves growing. They don’t care about what they’re growing toward as long as they’re creeping upward.

Sounds great—let me be an open mindset person too!—but something in the idea (and the hype-y, self-help-y voice Dweck deploys in her book) rankles me. I’ll pass by the contradiction of a label-based division that makes being one identity good and another bad. Dweck wants to create a clear division, and that’s fine. And she’s right we ought not to think so much about ends. But my question is more fundamental: Is it so terrible to wish for achievement, mastery, and an assurance you’ve reached an accepted level of competence?

If all it takes to be an artist is doing art, for instance, how meaningful is the distinction? If labels weren’t so desirable, we all could just have fun, but humans generally seek affirmation. I know I do.

My motivation to attend the workshop at Kenyon comes mostly from an open mindset. My clumsy art won’t bother me as much because I don’t consider myself an visual artist, and perhaps my struggles as a writer will bother me more for the opposite reason. I’ll deal with that. Ultimately, however, I want both to do and to be and also to understand where I am. I don’t need a grade—I’m against those—but I need honest appraisal beyond “Thanks for trying!”

I want to know: was I selected from applicants of more than the 15 participants or was I one of the first 15 to apply? Dweck may call that a bad question, but respect motivates. The possibility of being makes me want to do.

A good time will be had by all—I certainly intend to have a good time— and we’ll all get trophies, I’m sure. Yet I also hope someone will let me know where I am. I don’t mind waiting at the border of Artistia—I’m comfortable there—but I’d love to be invited over, and, if I’m not, well, I need to deal with that.

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Big Big Plans

KING LEAR by ShakespeareYesterday I woke with the idea of adapting a one-person version of King Lear for security cameras. I debated whether I had to include the Edgar-Gloucester-Edmund plot, then chose scenes, then determined how to split myself into the daughters, then considered what might be lost without Shakespeare’s actual text and if placards would help or distract. My thoughts ran to ground somewhere between a scheme to stage it all in one place (and thus hope someone in security would piece the event together) or staging it many places (and thus be satisfied with knowing I’d done it).

Idle thoughts have that power—absurd plans occupy me for hours, and I sort through the finest minutia as if I were plotting an invasion of Sicily (which I did plot, last Wednesday afternoon). I begin with “what if” and stay there. The walk to work is long enough to blueprint coming out with a line of shower curtains. On the way to the grocery I conceive a few rudimentary designs for barware no one yet knows they need. Waiting for the bus, I arrange a mental list of illustrated parables I’ll compose for adults. I weigh likely publishers.

And perhaps it’s the influence of a Catholic upbringing, but acknowledging ambition is enough. Once I reach work, or pull the grocery list from my back pocket, or climb on the bus, I’m finished. I’ve as good as done Lear.

It was brilliant, in my mind, mad and hilarious and yet, in some hard-to-define way, said exactly what Shakespeare meant. Finally, someone understands Lear as it’s meant to be understood. That someone is me… in my mind.

Unfortunately, even my semi-serious and serious plans occupy the magical land of Whatif (which is also the location for a fantasy novel I’ve been outlining on the elliptical at the gym). My aspirations come with ready-made mental timelines and freshly self-disciplined routines and inevitably stunning outcomes. They involve, in other words, someone I’m not. Each is more impressive in its initial stages than in its execution. True accomplishment is in follow-through, and follow-through isn’t my specialty.

Some misinformed people may marvel at my productivity. They ask me how I’ve managed so much output, but you have to understand I complete about one-third of what I dream. Scrutinize this blog, for instance, and you’ll discover efforts to sell my art online, resolutions to submit my work for publication, determination to start a podcast, whims of all sorts, and convictions I can make various physical and metaphysical changes in my life. Few come to pass.

The slog of living stamps them out and so does determination’s life-cycle, which begins in possibility and ends in delusion. It’s all just so challenging, especially when conception is easy and execution complicated.

What I need is a staff, some crowd of interns (you don’t think I’d pay people, do you?) waiting at the kitchen table each morning, jotting my fancies down, elbowing each other to impress me with the alacrity of their fruition. They ask what I want, and I say. They ask how, and I say how. They ask, “Will this do?” and I say, “It isn’t quite what I pictured. Keep trying.”

This staff, of course, is another fiction, another visit from desire that barely lasts beyond its expression. Since breakfast, I’ve have seven such dreams. Tomorrow I have more time. Maybe I’ll reach 20.

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Seeing Surprises

WheIannmen my son was very young, he told me he’d drawn a dragon on his play table. They weren’t his first marks there, so I needed to know what color he’d used to find this dragon amid the commotion of his earlier flailing. He held up a green marker, the color of new moss. I saw shapes in green, unclosed boxes, drunken circles, sinuous lines attached at one end.

Then I recognized what he meant. The shape was the first real, perceptible thing he’d drawn. The dragon was there, its eyes and scales and a second color—a lurid red—fanning from its mouth. They were flames, he said. I saw that.

Next week, my son graduates from college and a similar revelation lurks—funny how individual days amount to something recognizable at last. All the evenings at the kitchen table sighing over math problems or another wacky paragraph of The American Pageant or an online physics quiz led to something too, his graduation from high school four years ago.

But that I witnessed. Now I only see college pictures—he’s dressed up, standing with friends at a party, or hidden in sunglasses attending some sunny celebration. I don’t see him work or study, don’t experience the marks of knowledge and understanding amassing and something forming in the mess.

Over the phone, he sometimes tells me about a class, paper, or lecture but usually impatiently, always assuming—rightly—my limited comprehension. I like to think he believes me capable of understanding, but I’d have to be there to truly get it. Not being there sometimes seems the central quality of our new relationship, and, of course, I miss him.

And, thinking about his graduation is a little like realizing every mark on his play table is one unnoted image. When children are born, no one says you’ll discover they’re strangers. No one mentions the alien things they do and make and think on their own, quite apart from anything you give experientially or genetically. No one says they will surprise you or that, ultimately, it’s all surprise, a cascade of shock starting with the first identifiable word.

I know my son is anxious about what’s next, and in these times I don’t blame him. His mom and I are nervous too, but mostly we’re proud, happy to accept whatever credit people want to give us for who he’s become, but well aware he’s responsible. His voracious curiosity began the moment he opened his eyes and has hardly paused since. He and his sister are the brilliant lights of our lives.

Once he learned to speak he talked all day, from the moment he woke to the moment he slipped into sleep mid-sentence. Like any parent I still see that little boy when I look at him in tie or tux, but I also know everything he’s made himself. I’m sure he worries it isn’t enough, and some employer will ask for more. I hope he can put his apprehension aside and pause to celebrate his accomplishment. My wife and I care less about what others might want from him and more about what he wants, his continuing desire to learn and do and play and work and feel.

We are in awe of our beautiful stranger.

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Then Silence

two_shadows“Silence propagates itself,” Samuel Johnson said, “and the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find anything to say.”

When I’m sleepless in the middle of the night, I think about lost friends and wince over unreturned phone calls, emails, and letters, all the thank you notes, flowers, and thoughtful gestures I meant to make to show affection. Most of the people who haunt my insomnia have likely forgotten me or think no less of me for drifting on, but life would be richer with their continuing company. I find plenty of time to work, to engage in activity I forget a few days later. I put tasks before people, and, if I could reverse that, I might sleep better.

I enjoy company and find sympathetic souls everywhere. Only recently, though, have I tried to cultivate and keep friends. Carl Jung said the meeting of personalities is like a chemical reaction—both personalities are transformed by contact. His statement only makes sense if you and the other personality are reactive, if you’re willing to venture outside yourself. Most of my life I haven’t been willing. It’s easy to converse, to slot in personal stories your listener doesn’t yet know. You rifle through relevant and appropriate remarks and, like a good raconteur, offer your most skillful talk. Or you can take the more secure stance of bouncing everything back to the speaker. Now you see. I’m well-practiced at the familiar and accepted steps of civil discourse.

But careful and polished steps aren’t dancing. Dancing is chemical and requires more than keeping up.

One of my first real friends welcomed me to his lunch table after I’d been exiled from another. Middle school cool failed me, and my usual companions froze me out. My new friend barely knew me, knew only that I had nowhere to sit and invited me over, but vulnerability proved a good place for us to start. His kindness endeared him to me, but hurt created our relationship. No purpose in pretense, we began with honesty instead.

His family invited me on vacation, he ate over my house whenever I could make him stay, and, even after I moved away, we exchanged antic letters full of imaginary schemes for becoming treasure hunters or famous tag-team auctioneers or dueling butter sculptors or engineers specializing in converting schools to bumper cars. We laughed, I think, because we knew we needed to. We were seldom comfortable except in the company of the other.

Some people believe no true friendship can ever cease, that, even after years of neglect, friends feel the same old understanding and affection. That thought consoles me at 3 am—though, in most cases, I can’t verify it. I wouldn’t know how to start looking for many of the people I’ve lost. In some cases, I remember how I felt with them and not their names. And though we might achieve familiar rapport if we were thrown together, what I’ve missed would be just as telling.

Next weekend my younger brother is going on a golf outing, and some of the people are part of a group of friends he sees frequently, old friends from high school and college he’s seen through every stage of life. I don’t care about golf—it’d be horrifying to even try playing—but I’m jealous. My oldest and best friends are, right this second, elsewhere, expecting and accepting the usual distance between us. We will talk when we talk. His friends wouldn’t let him neglect them. He wouldn’t allow it either.

After receiving a commission to West Point, my friend came home in three weeks. He wrote a letter that was meant to be funny but threw me. I wasn’t sure how I felt, how to console him or whether he wanted consolation and can’t recall now what I did say to him, if I did. Some nights I can’t convince myself I wrote back. I continued to hear reports of him—he went to college locally and then law school, he excelled in moot court and sang in his church choir. He married and had a daughter.

But by the time I looked for him—finding him was why I joined Facebook—someone told me he was gone, killed in a traffic accident a couple of weeks before. I read the obituary and thought again and again of writing his widow, his daughter, his mom. Perhaps he mentioned me. They donated a bench in Central Park because he liked to visit New York, and I could find it and sit on it.

I didn’t. I haven’t. It isn’t just that my right to speak seems lost, and that every day pushes him and our history further into the past. I’m beginning to think the best way—the only way—to honor him is to try harder to be an actual friend, the sort he was to me.

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