identity now, identity tomorrow, identity forever

qu7sepvdMark Lilla’s New York Times op-ed on “The End of Identity Liberalism” is good on the tactical limits of identity politics (“the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan”). I also find him correct on the urgent need for all Americans to accept both the responsibilities and the rights of participating in democracy. But I find him dangerously wrong on the assertion that the election indicates we’re over-leveraged in identity, and that the reaction to violent opposition to “P.C.” culture should be stepping back from it.

He’s the historian, not me. But as I see it, we know what happens when the uncomfortable insistence of marginalized people to be heard is backed away from by polite, thoughtful people like this fellow. Even – especially? – after those groups achieve a policy victory. It’s one step forward, several steps back. Let’s see:

On race and ethnicity: start with federal emancipation, why not – which was followed by ten years of reconstruction (acting as if the victory meant something) and then violent overcorrection that ushered in state-level Jim Crow (affirming for almost another century that it didn’t).

Witness the groundswell of energy against systemic police brutality in Ferguson in 2014 as catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter movement, followed by the AllLivesMatter response and the casual agreement by many that some folks’ talking about systemic injustice and exploitation were making the rest of us uncomfortable.

On gender: I teach the terrific PBS documentary “The Makers” – feminism’s “Eyes on the Prize.” Heard of it? (No, no one has.) The third episode features a soul-searching sequence where prominent professional women of my generation articulate what “feminism” means to them, and doesn’t. Their discomfort with the word itself, the militancy; the notion that the real victory of second wave “so-called feminism” (Monica Crowley) was that women can now choose whether or not to be one. Could admit they want to make their husband’s lunch every morning (Michelle Rhee) and feel guilty about being at work instead of at home with the kids (Sheryl Sandberg).

Which is followed by a searing montage of the ongoing fight for equal pay and the escalating threat to reproductive rights, over a quote from Letty Cottin Pogrebin: “I don’t see that urge toward activism; the passion. I fear they’ll have to lose almost everything before they realize they have to fight back.” It teaches itself.

On LGBTQ folks: even in this essay, Lilla can’t pass up a sly joke about those silly trans pronoun activists: “How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?”

He shows his hand so clearly here: the contempt, the discomfort released with a dismissive laugh. Perhaps the inevitable response by one whose right to be called what he is has apparently never been threatened; perhaps from a man who enjoys an untroubled relationship with heteronormative society and has never known the existential erasure of having his expression of himself policed and violently normalized.

Yeah, it does role around to “privilege” talk again, doesn’t it? And here I know I am calling out someone else’s in a way Peggy McIntosh wouldn’t approve of, not any more. Privilege talk doesn’t open discourse if it’s used to shame. But it DOES open discourse when it points out that the choice of whether or not to foreground Who You Are in lockstep with What You Do as a member of a democratic citizenry is not open to everyone.

It is NOT a choice, whether or not to let oneself be erased, from history and from present negotiations. It is even MORE not a choice when the political stars have aligned to make people like you newly, extraordinarily vulnerable. Your body, your livelihood, your peace of mind, as well as your rights to a fair shake in this country.

And the dismissal of American perseveration on identity as something we should just be able to shake off and evolve past? Why can’t we be more like Europe? We can’t do that, sir. Our culture is built on exploitation, uniquely and terribly. Unless and until we reconcile with that legacy rather than trying AGAIN to pretend it’s time we outgrew it, we will have no chance of approaching anything like what you wish we’d turn into.

There is no way to healing but through honesty and pain and justice. I suggest you go read Between the World and Me like the rest of us and get schooled in the real damage that institutionalized racism does to identity. Coates is an expat in Europe too. Maybe you’ll listen to him.

And trying to connect younger folks’ insistence on having their identity expressed and acknowledged to their supposed narcissism would be silly – if it didn’t empower older generations to write off the younger as unserious.

Bottom line? This is emphatically NOT the time to back away from identity work. It’s time to double down on it, with renewed emphasis on how all our fates are connected. With renewed energy toward unleashing the power of fusion among our various issues and pains.

It’s time for coalition work that affirms difference and in difference finds common strength. It’s time for us to listen to Rev. Barber and Bryan Stevenson. It’s time to get real about identity and what it means now. It means everything now.

It’s time to get to work.

how thin the needle

img_3070I’ve nothing to say about the election this morning. But I do have something to say – and down deep, that’s all it’s about, terrifyingly.

I’ve been rereading Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me as I teach it. A book about so much – but this time for me, it’s a book about education. About how transformational school can be, but only under certain circumstances. Under anything other than those circumstances, it is the opposite of transformational. Monstrous, hideous.

Coates is talking about how he spent most of his time at Howard University  in the library, taking his own unique advantage of the largest collection of African and African-American thought in the country:

I followed a simple ritual. I would walk into the Moorland Reading Room and fill out three call slips for three different works. I would take a seat at one of these long tables. I would draw out my pen and one of my black-and-white composition books. I would open the books and read, while filling my composition books with notes on my reading, new vocabulary words, and sentences of my own invention. I would arrive in the morning and request, three call slips at a time, the works of every writer I had heard spoken of in classrooms or out on the Yard: Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez …

My two year-old stole my book out of my bag, so I can’t get the rest of the quote. But I think you get the picture: a solitary man at a reading room table, day after day, working his way through the complete intellectual history of his own identity.

There’s a few aspects of this that seem urgent to notice. Certainly for any teacher; probably for anyone trying to figure out how somebody becomes passionate and well-informed, rather than bored and ill-informed.

  • He is consumed with this topic. This study is not boring or tedious, though it becomes very challenging as he realizes that the ideas he discovers frequently contradict and discount and muddy each other. He keeps reading anyway.
  • He is not doing anything that any professor or curriculum told him to do. He is reading around the edges of the thing he is supposed to be learning about: “every writer I had heard spoken of in classrooms or out on the Yard.” The Yard is the broad lawn in the center of campus, filled every day with the widest range of expressions of African identity that he has ever encountered, a breadth and richness that challenges and eventually explodes his own upbringing in crack-scourged Baltimore as a self-described “Malcolmist” whose Dad owned an African bookstore.
  • His notes are his own; his notebooks won’t be read or graded by anybody. He doesn’t even say why he’s writing them. Except as an aid to discovering the master narrative that will thread all these ideas together as a coherent response to what he calls “The Dream”: the untroubled white version of life, barbecues on manicured lawns and strawberry shortcake and Cub Scout meetings, which seems so clearly built on the bodies of black labor and black exploitation and the definition of whiteness that can only exist with an accompanying blackness to abject from it.

That’s the question that drives him, and he eventually despairs of finding the coherent answer. He abandons his orthodox thinking (like Malcolm before him) – aided in this last, apparently, by a few professors, who were ready with patient Socratic probing that allowed him to temper his passion for absolutes into a reality-based despair that, truly, leads to the writing of this book. Not incidentally, he leaves Howard before finishing his degree (the professor and company man in me cringes). But he’d found what he’d come looking for. The degree didn’t matter. Time to dig somewhere else.

The class where we’re reading BTWAM is about how the stories of others can bring you into deeper contact with others’ experience and how it differs from yours – and, thereby, to a deeper and more expansive “final narrative” about how the world works and what your place is in it.

So I asked the students: when in your life have you caught fire about something, like this? When have you found yourself consumed with knowing, regardless of what school or teacher or family requires of you; regardless of other demands? When did learning become something you couldn’t choose not to do?

One told of the thirty-page paper he assembled in third-grade about snakes, copying and pasting all he could find about them into his own document that no one asked him to write and that he turned in nowhere for credit. He’s here studying zoology; he’s going to spend his life with animals.

Another told of her experience at camp working with an autistic child whose parents didn’t understand him. She became consumed with learning how best to work with student with special needs, so she could fill a void in his life that needed to be filled. She’s here to become a speech therapist now; she’ll spend her life giving insight and skills to those who don’t have them that enable them to engage and change their world through their disabilities.

I scribbled a drawing on the board. First a big circle, trying to represent the unimaginable landscape of bullshit we are asked to do in school: how utterly remote from our actual desires and motivations almost all of it is. Then a smaller circle within it, trying to represent those few moments when what school asked us to think about actually rhymes with what we really wanted to understand; then, at the core, a small, tight circle, representing who we actually are, who we are compelled to become. And I drew a ray, a needle, that pierced the outer two realms and penetrated the core, like a needle in a microscopic in-vitro fertilization. “Like this?” I asked. This is what it looks like when you actually find the thing that you have to know about it because you can’t imagine not knowing? The learning that isn’t learning anymore but just an extension of who you are going to be today, like breathing?

Yes, they said. It’s like that.

Look how vast the bullshit is. Look how thin the needle.

How did we come to this? How, on the day we’ll select the next leader of the most powerful country in the free world, did we come to a place where the majority of us are going into the voting booth unencumbered by facts? Where we’ve become incapable of acknowledging, let alone hearing, realities that trouble our deepest motivations, which as always are mostly rooted in fear and therefore manifest as anger – “Build the wall!” –  as sure as gravity?

How, in an age when we each carry a supercomputer in our pockets, have we created a generation more flamboyantly incurious than any that have entered the university? A generation I exhort daily to go online to read about anyone or anything they encounter in the assigned reading that they don’t recognize – at least glimpse a Wikipedia page – and they don’t, as a rule,  more concerned about how their grade will be calculated?

And my question, intimately connected to these others, like a tumor grown into a previously healthy organ: when were these students last asked what they really want to know about, and given time and space to go find out? When did it matter, really matter?

When did school last pierce their heart?

My own formulation to explain Coates’ education:

  1. He had a question, that he had to answer.
  2. He knew that the answers that were on offer weren’t satisfying.
  3. Continuing not to know was more painful than doing the work.

What would our schools be if we used these principles to form how we spend the precious, extravagantly inefficient time that we share space and air and hours with our students?

  • What do you want to know?
  • Where are the answers you’ve found so far unsatisfying?
  • What will happen if you don’t find out?

So my screed today, among the thousands that will be loosed on the internet in our collective ritual of fear and loathing, isn’t about politics.

It’s about curiosity – the real thing, not the pale version on offer in most classrooms this morning. How you feel about the thing you think about when you’re supposed to be thinking about something else. The thing you really give a damn about, out beyond your own fear you won’t have enough or your kid won’t get into a great college or your grocery bill or your 401K.

I wonder: if we had spent more of the unaccountable expense that’s gone into the electorate’s education letting them answer the questions they had to answer, instead of the ones we could measure and manage, how much smarter would we be today? How much less likely to respond to hate mongering, manipulation, fact-free emotional appeals, jingoism, exploitation? How more likely to use our supercomputer tiny televisions for reading and listening instead of “me too!”-ing our own worst impulses?

The work is done, today, for better or worse. Like everything in education, the real results of our labor are almost entirely hidden, wholly inaccessible to standardized desires to assess and verify it. We’ll see today if we’re capable of thoughtful action rather than reflexive destruction of that we don’t understand: whether we’ve done enough of our own working in ambiguity to find our way through it without blowing up the whole project.

I hope so – but like Coates, I am too conscious of reality to go back to hiding in fantasy. We have failed our children, inasmuch as we have surgically disconnected them from themselves through a million state-sanctioned hours of stultification. We must change, and our institutions aren’t coming to help us.

Those of us trusted today with the luxury of hours with the young: how shall we support them in connecting who they really are to what they do? How can we countenance the outcomes if we don’t?

“Dr. Osmond, do you offer any more classes? I like the way you teach.” So a student said to me after that class yesterday. Maybe he caught a glimpse of what I had glimpsed: the awful stakes of what we require our youth to do. Maybe his core had been pierced, and he left more determined to do the only thing that mattered to him. I hope so.

“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

God bless us everyone. See you on the other side.

waiting on a friend

roy battyWhat are you waiting on?

I have been considering this question off and on for the last weeks. The near cause is our toddler, whose waking schedule has been unpredictable. My usual morning habit (“coffee and contemplation”, as Stranger Things taught us) isn’t usual anymore, because whatever I am doing in the morning, I am also keeping an ear open for his stirring.

I’m not fully present in the task at hand, at least not the way I used to be. I’ve always got my figurative eye on the door, because I know something more important’s about to come through. It’s not like I’m NOT focused. But the focus is…different.

I wonder if we’re not all to some degree waiting on something. I’ve waited tables too, twice in my life. Both times I was pretty good at it, once I’d mastered some of the vicissitudes (don’t serve from the dessert tray, for example – pro tip). When things got busy, I remember being completely absorbed in what I was doing: no bandwidth left in active working memory for anything but who is having what and where they are in their meal.

I also remember that “waiting” has a companion word, “attending,” that trails its own attractive history. I learned a powerful meaning of the word at the med school. Everyone there knew exactly where they stood in the pecking order in any given room, from the lowly first-year student to the glorious attending physicians (medicine is like the Navy, without the gold braid). The “attending” physicians outranked the “residents,” terms left over from when junior physicians lived in the hospital for round-the-clock care and senior physicians lived off-site, but came in on announced rounds to check on what the residents were doing and teach from the patients. They literally “attended” the hospital, while the residents lived there.

Despite the history, those titles still impart the sense that the attending knows what to watch for in a way the residents don’t. The expert  will “pay attention,” as the overused phrase says. Experience has taught her to bring exactly the right focus to exactly the right things. She won’t miss what matters most because it isn’t in the place where you usually look for it. And she’ll grill the residents on what their attentions have missed, to ensure they never do that again.

The attending physician will pay attention to the patient, of course, but only as part of a larger pattern. I’ll always remember a senior physician telling me that a doc’s career is really a forty-year relationship with “the lesion.” Patients come and go, but the focus of a specialist – the tumor, the organ, the syndrome – is always present in each of them, ever mutating and concatenating and teaching the physician what else it can be. Docs care about patients, yes – but their attention is always divided, necessarily. They see more of us – and less – because their eye is always on the door, waiting.

If we are all waiting on something, I wonder how what we are waiting on forms us. My waiting on my toddler can form me into a frustrated, resentful mess (we’re being honest here), or it can call me into a new level of attending to the immediacy and in-the-moment joy that children bring. Up to me.

My Facebook feed teaches me, through a glass darkly, what my best friends from high school and college are waiting on. Some are waiting on relationships; others on new job opportunities; some on their next gig, or the next edition of their favorite comic, or the next chance to share a photo of how well they are eating. These are all great things to wait on. They show me the range of ways that the door we are watching affects the way we find our way through the day at hand: what we notice, what we miss, what we invent from whole cloth because we want so badly for it to be there.

Well, I wait on students, and I wonder what all this waiting-thought means for teachers. It’s the first week of classes, for me and so many others. A magical time, liminal and scary. And I’m once again wondering at the weird energy of this work we teachers do.

How in order to teach well, I need an abiding love for my subject and the dynamics of bringing the stuff I’ve spent decades with to folks encountering it for the first time. My students come and go, but my “lesion” (benign one, at that) remains: the daily work of connecting to ideas in ways that both sustain me and are accessible and relevant to new arrivals to the field.

How the work is not about identifying “little me’s” and teaching them the way I wish I’d been taught, even though desire for that kind of connection to students springs eternal. We always hope we are seeing the glimmer of potential brilliance in our students – mirrors of ourselves (because of course we are brilliant). But that’s a fool’s errand, and a speedy ticket to teaching in ways that don’t reach anyone but the (very scarce) “little you” out there.

The wonder of teaching – the nutritive core – is in the dazzling difference of people: how many ways there are to be a person before you show up to learn this curriculum, and its cascading, everchanging impact in everyone’s life as they learn it now.

Of course, if you see that difference in your class, you’re obligated to act on it, O master teacher. Perhaps your prep was for naught, because the students found something else in the reading and that’s where you need to go. This way of working isn’t for the teacher who thinks that the seventh year through a class means “the work is done” and the job is just pressing play on the stories and jokes that wowed ‘em last year. Use the experience, sure, but be ready to abandon it when it’s revealed as old news. As Roy Batty taught, Wake up: time to die.

So that’s what I’m waiting on as another semester begins (even as I wait on the baby stirring in the other room, right now). I’m waiting on the surprise that derails my prep and upends my certainty that I have a “good class” ready to go.

Stephen Sondheim isn’t a teacher, primarily, but he taught me this about what matters:

Something to sit in your chair and ruin your sleep,
And makes you aware of being alive.

Oh, and this:

Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see.

Let’s wait on what’s worth waiting for, today and every day we are privileged to teach. Have a great year, everyone.

Picture of Roy Batty from “Blade Runner” here, with thanks. I know I just mentioned him in passing, but he’s a lot more fun to look at than pictures of “waiting” (clocks, doors, ho hum) and might even pull in some of those Facebook friends, for whom “Blade Runner” is a sacred text.

familiar things

squirmWe finished Stranger Things last night, and my usual post-watch research uncovered dedicated articles that sought to catalog its many, many references to horror and sci-fi films of the late 70s and early 80s. I was surprised that I’d seen all of them, and that I saw most within a few years of their release. The fact showed the ubiquity of both Spielberg and splattery supernatural horror among men of a certain age, maybe, or just my determination to seek out their thrills while being raised in a family and faith that loved the former and nearly forbade the latter. VCRs and sleepovers with friends who had HBO filled in my gaps, and thank God for ’em. (I’m spoiler-free, from here on in.)

While I watched, I was thinking about “pastiche” as I read the idea in undergrad. It’s the indiscriminate pomo recombination of aspects of past art in the interest of creating something that both acknowledges the past’s contribution to the present while also disregarding it. Pastiche reveals the inadequacy of the past to speak to the present moment (leaving us a “field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm”). The resulting affect is both unhinged and over it, irony with all its who-cares glory and none of its revelatory juxtapositions. Custom made for the 80s, went the rap on it, when there was No Future anyway because we’d all be atom-dead before long.

Stranger Things borrows so liberally from the films it clearly adores it’s almost comical. We hollered the Spielberg references at the screen as they trotted by: Poltergeist, Stand By Me, E.T., Close Encounters. We despaired as to whether there was actually an idea in this movie at all, so fully did it use a vocabulary it had inherited, not invented. It was “pastiche” in ways my pomo prof back in the 80s would have plotzed over.

But I felt strangely satisfied watching it, strangely full – because all these referents were deeply charged with my own experience of them, and those experiences were among the richest and mostly deeply felt I’d ever had. I don’t mean the experience of wearing a Lands’ End striped rugby shirt and crushing on a girl in a pink oxford button-down with a Fair Isle sweater vest. I mean the experience of seeing, and reading, pulpy horror. How, when and where I found those stories are as powerful to me as what they told.

They usually came across my path when I was out of the house, on a sleepover or camping trip. The stories were usually the detritus of another family: someone else’s paperback left under the couch or in the glove compartment, or someone else’s cable package left on all night. This means that I would end up consuming them in a tightly-closed window. I wasn’t borrowing the book, so I needed to finish it before I went to sleep; I didn’t have cable, so I wasn’t going to get a chance to see this film again. All the intensity of being a good reader, and really wanting to find out what happens next, and being on the edge of falling asleep despite myself, rolled into one transgressive, sugar-rushed ball.

I found myself transported anew to those moments, and who I was in those moments, by the stories as well as by the BMX bikes (“kids treat those like Cadillacs,” someone says somewhere – oh boy, you have no idea), the dark wood paneling, the creativity of the D&D (I didn’t play, but my friends all did) and the impending Atari that would change what we all did in our basements forever. I was transported to who I was when I read them; the thrill of a story catching fire in my mind, more deeply felt than anything I’d read before, and the rush to consume it like a box of Twinkies before anyone else found them.

Cujo, Squirm, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, The Shining, The Wicker Man, It, Salem’s Lot, Carrie (thanks, Mr. King, for bending me permanently.) Videodrome, The Thing, Alien, The Fog. (Ditto, Mr. Carpenter.) Stranger Things understood that the minds of folks like me were shaped not just by the tentpole films we watched with our families, but also by the schlocky thrills we sought without them. It minces them both into a potent stew of referents and reminders that doesn’t ironically distance this viewer, at least, from their power, but intensifies it.

If this was the Duffer Brothers’ goal – this meta-whammy, this going around the horn of pastiche in order to drive home the originals’ aesthetic power, both through faithful reinscription and powerful reminder of who we were back in the day – well, bravo. But YMMV, as the kids say: maybe this show only nailed me because, as someone says somewhere, we never love anything the way we love the things we met when we were thirteen years old.

And that’s why there’s education here, especially for those who work with middle schoolers. Let us remember and honor how full our students’ lives are, even when they seem flat and distant. Let’s love all the texts, not just the ones the curriculum says you should – even theirs, the ones that don’t seem worthy, because they are, elevated by their readers’ love for them. Above all, let’s remain connected to who we were when we were young, the better to access some shred of that same intensity when we choose how and what to bring our students in the protected hours with them that school entrusts to us.

And maybe, I dunno – get The Shining out of the freezer and celebrate the summer’s end with another ride on the helltrain. What a way to go.

Image is the lobby card for Squirm, which novelization I am pretty sure was one of my late-night binge reads. Yuck. Awesome.

commencement

Ceremony PresentationAnother May. Collared shirts, once under polyester sport coats and now under polyester regalia, too hot. Lawn parties, everyone trying to say things all at once they thought they’d have a lot longer to say but now the car is idling, time to go. That sickening feeling of dislocation: everything is changing, right now, packing boxes in rooms you’ve lived in for months that feel like years.

I much prefer August, when we’re all arriving. Oh, much. New backpacks and books; move-in day and iffy parking with hazards blinking; orientations and (f)acebooks and mixers and assemblies. But we don’t get to choose where we are on the gyre, and right now we’re here.

Right now’s all about endings, whatever we call it. I am a fit for the university in a thousand ways, but not this one. I chafe in the short half-life of the college classroom. I chafe at packing up and ending just when we are learning each other’s names, just when it is starting to get good. I am much better fit for the year-long story of middle and high school, or preferably the multi-year arc. The one where we meet when you’re thirteen and can’t find your head with both hands or even know you have one, and we say good bye when you’re eighteen and brilliant and cocky and ready to eat the world, and proceed to do just that as I track your dazzling arc on (F)acebook for the rest of our lives.

I’ve begun asking my education students to write a letter to themselves five years hence, where they remind that early-career teacher what they thought mattered most when they were sophomores. It’s a hedge against the semester thundering to a close, a flail at the future that’s coming no matter how we feel about it. Like all time capsules, it’s an insistence that our relation to time is other than it is, and that who we are now will somehow stay. I rubberband them and archive them carefully in my office, with the send-by date affixed on a Post-It. And when the appointed year rolls around, I spring for postage – I’m a professor after all, I make the big bucks.

It’s a satisfying exercise for me, a fitting close to a semester’s work. It almost transcends the fifteen-week cage we work in, almost reaches into the future as resolutely as our multiple autobiographical reflections helps us reach into the past. It’s smart and defensible practice, this corralling and commanding of time. But really, it is the only way I can dig in my heels.

Because I want to, I need to. Because time moves so fast now. When I was in college, a week was a month, and a year was nearly a lifetime. Now, the semesters race by. Starting in the cold and ending in the heat, then starting in the sun and ending in the snow, round and round. I can barely track the passage of time by which jacket I am wearing. Maybe this acceleration as we age empowers our teaching: since we grownups know just how fast things go, maybe we’re more empowered to advise our students what to attend to and what to notice.

I don’t like where this story is heading, though, time speeding up like a Charlie Chaplin assembly line. Maybe when I’m older I’ll wish for these years when things seemed comparably manageable and breathable. (Does it slow down again, later? If we get a later?) Maybe the pain of ending makes precious the time we have. Maybe it pushes us forward, and even back, so we will more fully know what we know, and rejoice in it. (David Rakoff gives this valediction, forbidding mourning, so much more beautifully than I could, here.)

What’s clear is that I’m not getting better at endings. I’m probably getting worse. This week will be full of joy and sadness as I wear itchy clothes with my colleagues, sit in rows, and watch another class cross another stage, out of our lives and into theirs. Writing about this always stinks, because there’s only one thing to say: good bye, thank you, good luck.

August offers so much more. Hello. Welcome. Who are you?

I can’t wait. See you then.

just a little bit of a new one

ceuwr0muyaqwkfhThe only one who has the best thing ever is when you have to be a good day to be a good day to be a good day.

I love you so much fun and I was just a little bit of a new one is the best thing ever is when you have to be a good day to be a good day to be a good day.

My computer started this piece for me. Some freaky ghost in the program’s machine: when I hit “ESC” on a blank page, the cursor suddenly offered me up a cascading list of words, with the top one highlighted, auto-complete style. I hit Enter, accepting its first suggestion, then hit Space – and it did it again. Over and over again, ESC Enter Space, and suddenly the computer composed two lines for me.

It was eerie, seeing full sentences emerge of apparently their own volition in the predawn gloom I prefer for writing. Maybe a message, maybe an automatic writing comment on the proliferation of words and their meaninglessness before mute facts we can’t topple. Or maybe an oracle affirming the truth and ever-emerging possibility of the best thing ever: a good day, love, just a little bit of a new one.

I’ll take any of these options to get me started, because I don’t know another. I don’t know how to start writing about this week’s North Carolina General Assembly special session, where my state’s lawmakers gave lie to the story that government is slow and bloated and unresponsive by undoing a fifty-year arc of civility and humanity in eleven hours.

Just a little bit of a new one: what can we do with majorities in both Houses and the Governor’s Mansion that we couldn’t ever ever otherwise? What could we do if we responded right now, lickety-split, to our darkest unfounded suspicions about people we don’t understand and who they might be, who knows? What could we do if we took the inchoate fears of some and stoked them high enough to seem like a mandate?

I don’t want to descend into purple prose: I want to be clear. But I do want to communicate how fully we North Carolina citizens woke to a different world than the one we went to sleep in. “Well, I’m illegal again,” a dear friend in Charlotte posted on Facebook.

Have you ever been erased? Unfairly maligned, set aside, left to your own devices in a moment when you were completely unprepared to be?

This is deep, childhood stuff. That’s where someone like me has to go to begin to glimpse the experience of my friend, or that of the thousands of LGBT people whose human rights to dignity, safety, and inclusion in society were functionally erased on Wednesday.

I remember the first “It Gets Better” video, when Dan Savage’s husband Terry reports on the message he was given in school:

My school was pretty miserable. I lived in Spokane, Washington, which is a mid-sized town with a small-town mentality. And I was picked on mercilessly in school. People were really cruel to me. I was bullied, a lot, beat up; thrown against walls, and lockers, and windows, you know, stuffed into bathroom stalls; people shit on my car, people scratched my car, broke my windows.

And my parents went in once to talk to the school administrators about the harassment I was getting at school, and they basically said: if you look that way, talk that way, walk that way, act that way, then there’s nothing we can do to help your son.

I have the passage mostly memorized, because I teach the video each semester, to rooms of students who plan to teach in North Carolina public schools. I teach it because it rings with the simple power of specificity; the plain truth said, as it was lived by someone not you, in a place that you know well. He was thrown against walls, AND lockers, AND windows.

It tells us that the halls and parking lots and football games and locker rooms that some of us remember fondly, as places we belonged and could carry on with whoever we were trying to be when we inhabited them, were quite different places for others of us. That these school places were, and are, battlefields, where some of us could not – cannot – navigate a day of school without a constant, thrumming vigilance to where the next imagined threat might materialize, within an institutional world that asks some not to ask and not to tell and, when something happens, probably won’t do anything about it anyway but make you the problem.

I heard last month about a student who was called a racial epithet in the halls of the middle school (or maybe high school – I don’t remember, doesn’t matter, there’s plenty of these stories to go around). When the student went to the principal, she was told that in order for any step to be taken to protect her, affirm her safety, or achieve any redress, she would first have to produce three witnesses who would independently corroborate her story.

Let that sink in for a moment, if you would. Consider its echoes in our growing understanding of our cultural tendency to shift the burden of proof in cases of assault to their victims. Note if you will especially how manifestly common-sense such a solution feels, from the principal’s side: how can we possibly proceed unless we know what really happened? These are serious accusations, miss. Reputations are at stake. Note how sane and deliberate and okay this response is.

Note also how completely wrong, how worse-than-useless, since it returns the wounded to the place of the wound unhelped, unhealed, and, if anything, weakened as the world that created the wound is automatically, subtly affirmed.

This is the way power works in culture. Some responses just feel right, warm like bath water, and so are chosen by supposedly well-meaning school leaders who, let’s face it, have plenty else to do that day, other fires to put out.

This is how the status quo gets affirmed; this is how culture is created, in microdecisions that are measured out in coffee spoons by people who of COURSE aren’t racist, or misogynist, or homophobic. They just need to get along with it. (Lisa Delpit can explain this way better, if you don’t like how I’m talking about it. Also Peggy McIntosh. Also Ta-Nehesi Coates. Just look it up. It’s not a novel concept, by a damn sight.)

In 2009, our state passed the School Violence Protection Act, which explicitly included sexual orientation, gender identity, and physical appearance as categories of people protected in public schools from harassment and bullying. One completely-unremarked side effect of our legislature’s turning the table over this week is, apparently, its erasure.

For a few years there, those in our schools who sought to interrupt an institutional culture in which some were always unsafe (predictably, empirically unsafe) had the law on their side. Could backstop against the knowledge that, if they encountered an administrator who told them what Terry’s parents heard, the policy would strengthen them. Now, that’s gone – and in its place, the worse-than-zero affirmation of “biological sex” as a protected category (whatever that is, as knows anyone who knows anything about what a slippery characteristic gender really is).

Well, I’m fuming now, though I tried not to. I’ll have to take this energy and go do what so many of us will now do: teach, organize, vote. This law won’t stand. For all I know, it was never meant to. Maybe it’s just a feint in some legislative power game whose players and purposes will remain invisible. I’ll continue to believe the arc is long but bends toward justice.

But I hope I never forget the corrosive power of what so many legislators in that whirlwind session appealed to as “common sense.” Which, at core, is nothing more than the stupid, bovine belief that one’s gut check should supersede another’s, especially when what your gut says is, for the moment, in the majority.

What vast swaths of damage are done in a civilization by those who can’t imagine they are doing it. They can’t imagine because they are not working to imagine. What it might be like. To be behind another’s eyes, in another’s body; what it might be like if the thousands of voices trying to make the larger culture know what it feels like to be lesbian, gay, bi, trans…are right.

They can’t try to imagine what tiny steps those of us who don’t feel those things might take to allow a life more livable for those who do.

The people who did this sleep well. It feels OK to them. It’s just common sense. That’s the problem. We can do better. I have to believe we will. We have to.

Just a little bit of a new one is the best thing ever. When you have to be a good day. The only one who has the best thing ever. I love you so much. I love you. I love you.

before it’s a what, it’s a where

old-ads-from-the-watauga-democrat_1901-watauga-academyI was honored to share opening remarks this weekend at my College’s observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the integration of schools in North Carolina’s High Country. App State began as a teacher’s college, like many regional masters institutions. So what a fitting and spectacular occasion: a history lecture by Karl Campbell, a panel of folks who were in school during the integration years sharing their experiences, and a deeply moving performance by the Junaluska Gospel Choir.

Today we are sanctified and recommitted! Thanks to everyone who worked to make this wonderful event a reality.

 *     *     *

I teach future teachers, and my subject is social foundations of education, which I describe in one sentence as “the places where school meets the real world.” We seek to understand the impact of race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexuality on education; the several achievement gaps that plague our state, and what we each can do to close them. The challenges of developing a disposition that all students can learn in a national culture that is historically, inveterately racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic; in a nation where SAT scores are best predicted by household income and zip code predicts educational achievement; in a place where inequality and bias feel as comfortable as bathwater.

That is the things about culture: no one thinks they have one. How we come up – who our people are, and how they show us to be with other people, and how all those lessons prepare us for our place in the world – these aren’t parts of our lives that we usually see. They are just the way things are. So a great deal of my course seeks to help students dethrone themselves from their perches atop the individual sovereign worlds that we all occupy – the worlds in which we understand everything, and everything is as we expect it to be. And instead begin, if only tentatively, to really understand the world through another’s eyes. 

The most powerful way to do this, I believe, is through stories.  Through hearing how somebody else has gone through the same thing you did – “school” – but really had a different experience. You see, I believe that unless we make a conscious choice to do otherwise, we will all teach the way we were taught, or wish we had been. Unless we make a conscious choice to do otherwise, we will all assume that the students arrayed before us are, at core, little “us-ses.” And if – or better, when – they turn out not to be, we will be bereft, out of options, and even more tragically we probably won’t even realize it. We’ll just label those who didn’t respond the “right way” as deficient somehow, and blithely move along to the next batch of kids. 

That’s not good enough. We who teach need to know more. To teach, I submit that we need to be able, if only tentatively, to imaginatively feel the world through another’s eyes. This is a daily practice, hour-to-hour – this dethroning. this decentering, this admission that the majority of American teachers are white women, and the majority of American students a black and brown boys and girls, and that if learning is to happen we who teach must first unlearn a great deal. And that we will best begin that labor by hearing from others what it was like, and what it is like. And thereby coming to know our shared and individual history. For if we know our history, as Bob Marley sings, we will know where we’re comin’ from.

Stories and histories always happen in places. Just like school. School is always physical, located: it is always a question of bodies housed somewhere, inventoried and ordered, before it is anything else. Before it’s a what, it’s a where.

A year ago I became a little obsessed with the “where” of Boone, North Carolina – this beautiful mountain town my family and I moved to six years ago from Chapel Hill. What was this where, before we arrived? What was it twenty years ago, forty, fifty, a hundred – back when the roads were so bad that they used to sell a popular postcard on King Street that said “the best way to get here is to be born here?” Why do some folks call the stream that runs through campus “Cabbage Creek?” Was there always a Holiday Inn across from the Peddler Steak House? Where did the train run that finally made it possible to get here regularly, most months, until the hurricane blew it away? 

And above all: where were the children? 

Up too late at night on the internet, I discovered the remarkable digital collections of Belk Library and got lost in old photos. I discovered that only fifty years ago Appalachian High School occupied the stately stone WPA building on campus now called Chappell Wilson Hall; that the it looked out over a football field, where professors’ kids played and sunned themselves each spring like we do now a quarter mile east. That where Belk Library and the parking deck stand was once another education building and a laboratory elementary school, where the legacy of the Dougherty brothers was carried on for generations of teacher preparation – that the ed school at App was up here way before it was in Edwin Duncan, so our new building is actually a sort of homecoming. I found Appalachian High’s twin out in Cove Creek, and the other smaller high schools in Bethel and Blowing Rock. 

And I discovered the much smaller Watauga Consolidated School – its original building a five minute walk from the public library, and its newer and slightly grander one, occupied for less than five years, a little further up the mountain, deeper into the Junaluska community. And I noticed that these schools were dramatically repurposed, or closed, as the new Watauga High School opened in 1965, roughly concurrent, as in so many other places, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

What was it like, I wondered? What was it like for the black and white children of Watauga to share this narrow valley in the mountains for so many years, walking the same streets but having such different experiences of them? What was it like to live in a segregated community you could cross on foot in twenty minutes, but whose terrain was clearly welcoming to some and tricky to others? What was it like to have your body housed and cataloged for school in such a different place, and in such different circumstances, depending on who you were? And more than anything: what was it like when, fifty years ago this year, all of what had been normal for generations was changed in an instant, as the new integrated high school opened just over the hill behind the new Goodwill store, off 105?

That question – what was it like? – led to today’s event. We’ve worked to bring together people who can help us understand what it was like, and what that means for those of use who live and study here now. We’ve brought together people who can answer that question better than we can. By the end of the afternoon, I sincerely hope that we’ll all be a lot smarter and a lot more understanding of what it was like, and urgently, what that understanding needs to mean for us now.

I hope we will leave newly connected to our own lived experience. To understand better what it’s like, as Dorothy Allison says, to think that:

Entitlement is a matter of feeling like we rather than they. You think you have a right to things, a place in the world, and it is so intrinsically a part of you that you cannot imagine people like me, people who seem to live in your world, who don’t have it.

I hope we experience some of what Dr. King called “the constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth,” as many of us come to understand the realities of the world we enter to teach more vividly and more powerfully. 

And most of all, I hope we all come to understand what Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote, just last year:

But all of our phrasing — race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience…You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land with great violence upon the body. 

May our teaching be wiser and deeper and better for that understanding: to help those of us who teach, or hope to, understand that our care for children, and our desire to “love them up,” is only the beginning of what we must know and understand to truly change the world.

Image from the great Western NC history blog A Look Back at Watauga. A rabbit hole if ever there was one.

all you people are vampires

let-the-right-one-in-cover-3My last two film posts have been about children and the errors they make in gauging the distances of adulthood. Winter’s Bone tracks the mismatch between the child’s and adult’s understanding of time. Pacific Rim gives us the monstrous difference in scale between child’s and adult’s world. The tragedy of fitting oneself to the procrustean bed of the grownup world’s expectations is at each film’s heart. Each is a different angle on the inexorable last scene of the adolescent drama. We drop our child’s take on the world into the memory hole, the cost of admission to autonomy and maturity.

Let the Right One In is different. Its core message about the spaces and reaches of adolescence stunned me on first viewing, and I still can’t look away.

I should not have been surprised, maybe. What better primer for holding onto youth into age than a vampire film? Vampires explore plenty of archetypes by upending them, but none so powerfully as their defiance of the Faustian punishment. The vampire’s (frequently unwilling) deal with the devil renders him immortal but alone. Anne Rice helped us see how he’s afforded a view of time and scale that no human can know, and is therefore intensely lonely in all the most human aspects. His appetites must be sated furtively, in violation of human mores, and therefore the only real intimacy he can know is with others who share the twilight.

Keith Richards (perhaps part-vampire) famously sneered at the judge who held him for drug use, “We are not old men, and we are not subject to your petty morals.” That’s why we watch them, the night creatures – what would you do if you could do anything? The power of the Buffyverse to hold our popular and critical attention was always rooted in the relationship between Buffy and Angel, if and how their twinned statuses (neither fully human, neither fully monstrous) would allow them to find each other on the threshold. He drinks from the blood bank, not real people; she kicks lethal ass, and kind of likes it. He’s from the morning side of the mountain, she’s from the twilight side of the hill: how can they love each other? But then, how can they not?

Let the Right One In adds itself to a long exploration of vampires as category-crossers. What could this frame offer to those of us who seek to understand and empower regular human children as they navigate the crossing point between immaturity and adulthood? Plenty, it turns out.

The most startling aspect of Let the Right One In on first viewing is how it plays with our cultured expectations of distance and its supposed role in discretion. Eight minutes in, we inexplicably watch a middle-aged man trick a stranger into inhaling something that knocks him out, and in no time the victim is strung up like a kosher pig, bleeding out from his slit throat. The horror comes from the banality of the event: the killer must be a psychopath, because who else is familiar enough with the rhythms of death to know how little effort and time it takes to accost a stranger and kill them? It’s the last thing anyone would expect to happen – and so it can happen in minutes, if done by someone who lives outside of the rhythms of regular life.

But the deepest horror comes from where this all goes down: a suburban path in the woods, maybe fifty feet from a busy road. We see the headlights passing in the middle distance as the murder unfolds before us. Despite ourselves, we feel fear for the murderer. Can’t he see how close he is to civilization? Doesn’t he know such practices must be furtive, hidden away from the real world’s eyes? But apparently he doesn’t, and not knowing (or caring) gives him license to escalate the horror through his violation of our expectations not just of what one should do but, if one must do it, then where one should do it. The killer is interrupted mid-murder by a dog running ahead of two civilians out for a stroll. His surprise at the fact that others might be using this busy suburban path cues us to wonder if he is too engrossed in his task to notice his location, or if he is simply inept – a bad psychopath who hasn’t seen enough movies, maybe.

But when we first meet Eli, our vampire, her boundary crossing is clearly not out of ineptitude. The first scene bears rewatch over and over. Something like forty-five scenes in this supremely naturalistic film use CGI, usually subtly, to give the sickening impression of things being just a little out of joint. She interrupts Oskar, our protagonist, in a private moment of acting out a violent Travis Bickle revenge fantasy against his bully. She gets the drop on him, literally. Their first, halting conversation follows the awkward terror of any adolescent encounter between boy and girl, with sarcasm and denial snaking through.

But we are also ticking off everything else that is wrong, that disturbs our expectations, in a cavalcade of dawning horror. We barely hear the door squeak open, but there wasn’t time between the squeak and her appearance for her to have traveled that distance. She doesn’t quite move right. She is wearing a mens’ shirt, wrinkled and carelessly thrown on. She doesn’t have a coat against the cold – though her breath steams, confusingly (don’t we even know what a vampire is? Doesn’t even that rule hold here?). When she drops to the ground, she seems to have no weight; it’s a dancer’s drop, if the dancer weighed seventeen pounds. And her voice is off as it echoes over the snow in the empty courtyard. It is a young voice, but too low, lower than his, and not the sound someone who looks like her is supposed to make. (This, we discover on the internet, achieved by dubbing her lines with a boy’s voice, meant to hint at a subplot in the source material that she is a eunuch – another border crossing, another twilight status.)

The combined effect is supremely disquieting, discontinuous with a dozen expectations we have come to have of meet-cutes in movies in ways that are subliminal at first watch, managing only to put us off-center for what comes next. There has been no horror depicted in these two minutes, other than the horror of being spied upon by a girl in a private moment, and the stammering and futile effort to recover one’s sangfroid. But we are bent by the encounter, and shall remain so.

Except when we aren’t. Their third meeting (always at night, always on the jungle gym) is the closest we get to something unfolding the way its supposed to – “developmentally appropriate,” as we educators like to say. She’s dressed in something more like what a twelve year-old girl might wear. “Do I smell better?” she wonders, referencing his comment at the last meeting that she smelled funny (because she hadn’t fed, maybe, or because she is ancient, and hygiene concerns drop away over the centuries). We wonder what is going on – why this attachment, gentle looks and connections? In this scene we are given some of what we hope time’s march will give us: dawning love, stirring feelings (a bud in the snow lovingly depicted just before, natch), even a quiet piano motif rising behind. We know this isn’t right, and that whatever designs she has on him can’t be for his best interest. But we want them to find each other. We want what we can’t not want – the bargain none can escape, time holding us green and dying as we sing in our chains like the sea.

I’ll leave some of the film for your to discover on your own. Suffice it to say here that the adult world is shown to be incapable of truly reaching Oskar. The scenes of him losing himself in the spaces of the school really only show us the incapacity of overdetermined, grown-up structures to hold youth. We tick off the usual signs: the inelegance of the curriculum and its ill fit to his life; the hiding in the “negligently private” spaces of the restroom to escape his bully; the slipping out of the flat he shares with his Mom (where she never looks him full-on but rather glimpses him in mirrors, around corners), his happily agreeing to “stay in the courtyard where he’ll be safe” because that’s where he’ll find her. The boy pulls down his baseball cap, and covers up his eyes. Adulthood remains what it always has been: distant, dull, drunk, concerned with dinners and radio news and who the new neighbor is, whatever. The spaces of adulthood are too big to connect in, even when they are tiny and dingy and overheated as a Swedish apartment in winter.

The only space with proportions that make sense and feel right to him are the ones that, to us, are terrifyingly wrong: the ones he inhabits when he is with her. Of course, we witness the inevitable undoing of her former handler, and do the math on what led to his fate beneath the spell of his Lamia, but we do it at a remove. Our hearts are with the young lovers, as they always are. And Eli’s final deliverance of Oskar from his bullies is formal, Grand-Guignol, a set piece that reassures with its inevitability more than it shocks with its gore. We knew where we were heading: we only wondered how and when. The last scene is the deepest terror, as we see Oskar remit to his fate in thrall to his new master. But it’s simultaneously sweet and reassuring, love messages tapped through walls. We applaud Oskar even as we mourn him. We hope he’ll escape the clutches of development too. Even though we know he won’t, we thrill to his intention to. He’ll get to be something other than a grownup. Not immortal…but something else.

Adults cannot hold on to the proportions of youth. We can’t remember the way things looked when we first saw them. As adults, we can’t, given to the exigencies of a life where we need to recognize more than see, because we need to make the donuts and get to the church on time. And teachers, perhaps, even less so. We hold responsibility for fitting the child to the adult world, and school inexorably means disabusing the child of the notion that his version of the world is the one the rest of us hold, through the thousand natural shocks that school is heir to.

But we who teach perhaps must work to stay within touching distance of that world. We must maintain our capacity to see the world’s proportions as a child, even if we need to squint and strain to do it. Maybe so we can better translate those adult exigencies to their scale in ways that nurture rather than constrain. And those of us who are most skilled at that sleight-of-hand must respect the gift, because when children will follow you your responsibility of where to lead them is awesome. (Vampires are border-crossers too. Where do they lead those in thrall to them?)

Or maybe it’s the other way round: perhaps its better for us to maintain that contact with a child world in order to disabuse ourselves of our own.

There’s a scene early in the film of Oskar in his underwear, lying on his bed at night, gazing into the distance. Hands behind his head, naked in the indoor heat, his thoughts are his alone. We see him through the window. We feel the overwhelming cold of a Nordic winter pressing on the glass, and we wonder how he can be so vulnerable, so confident, with the threat of freezing right outside the window. We are outside the window too. We are in the threat; we understand it and wish to protect him from it.

But maybe we ARE the threat. We ARE the cold we wish to bundle our students against. There’s the teacher’s challenge: to know what we know and prepare our students for that knowledge too, while not becoming part of what would freeze them, chill them to the bone. Perhaps we are the vampires. We age in ageless teacherness, while our consorts come and go, always young. Our breath steams, even knowing what we know. May we connect benignly with those we nurture, and who nurture us. May we remain students of their energies and concerns and senses of scale, lest we, unwittingly, end up draining them of what they most need to survive.

Image from hackedofffilms.com, with thanks.

bags of meat

A couple of months ago, my College’s IT department invested in several “telepresence devices”: rolling robot-type gizmos with iPads on top, of the sort that most of us probably have only seen on a legendary episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” I dismissed the purchase as a curious end-of-year exuberance; nothing to do with me and my work.

But yesterday, I sat shooting the breeze with a few of our instructional technology types while they were setting up my new laptop. And I realized how this innovation might be used in the near future to supplant the weekly drives that many of my colleagues and I make “down the mountain” to teach the several off-campus graduate cohorts that have been a core part of our mission for years.

As in: you can earn an Ed.D. at my institution, in Boone NC, by attending classes at campuses in Winston-Salem or Hickory, 90 minutes away – classes that have heretofore been held by professors that showed up after making the drive both ways in one of the fleet cars the university maintains. A wildly inefficient way to do anything, especially in an age when Skype and virtual interactive spaces are pushing the questions of what it means to “learn something from someone.” It would be a heck of a lot cheaper, and save wear and tear on both the aging fleet cars and the aging faculty who drive them, if we could find a better way. So: isn’t it more efficient to tele-teach such seminars, rather than schlepping our bags of meat up and down route 421?

To be clear: I do not know for a fact that anyone upstairs is considering this nefarious scheme. Really, they would be foolish not to, since we are a public university in a state that seems to be leading the country in its redefinition of what it means to support a public university system. Doing more with less – and less and less – is the way we do business nowadays.

And I am not even sure the scheme would be nefarious, if it were being cooked up. I do not think technology in education is inherently nefarious. I am convinced that some of its innovations really move us into new and productive places – like the “flipped classroom” vogue we are currently experiencing, which is an excellent corrective to lazy, talk-at-the-room-because-they-can’t-leave pedagogy when implemented thoughtfully.

But the specter of a telepresence professor “teaching” a room full of flesh-and-blood students from an office eighty miles away demands consideration. It’s drone-pilot teaching – and we’re just starting to reckon with the implications of doing remotely what we previously could only do face-to-face.

If it makes us uncomfortable – why? If we feel we are losing something if we go this way – well, what? It’s incumbent upon those of us who feel something is being lost to articulate that “what,” as clearly as we can.

I wonder if my unease has something in common with music – particularly, the way that recorded and reproduced music remains the palest simulacrum of the performed-and-heard-live event. Donald Fagen’s memoir last year left a lot of folks befuddled, because of its tremendous, almost misanthropic crankiness (a taste of the critics: “Mr. Fagen has changed from an alienated suburban kid, a subterranean in gestation with a real nasty case of otherness, into somebody’s crabby Uncle Morty”). Everyone knew he was a perfectionist, but who anticipated passages like this?

By the way, I’m not posting this journal on the internet. Why should I let you lazy, spoiled TV Babies read it for nothing in the same way you download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record, not to mention the miserable, friendless childhoods we endured that left us with lifelong feelings of shame and reproach we were forced to countervail with a fragile grandiosity and a need to constantly prove our self-worth – in short, with the personality disorders that ultimately turned us into performing monkeys? (p. 89)

A lot of things really cheese Donald off: bad hotel pools, indifferent room service, and damp dressing rooms among them. But his most withering criticism is reserved for poor acoustics, in all its iterations.

The Orpheum in Vancouver is home to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. For all I know, the orchestra sounds spectacular in this place. But, as is the case with many old symphony halls, when you are playing electric music at pretty high volume, you might as well be playing in an airplane hanger. If there’s a sonic hell, the entrance is somewhere on the stage of the Orpheum in Vancouver (p. 109).

And there’s plenty more where that came from.

But it’s not like he doesn’t have a reason. He has played a lot of music, in a lot of rooms, “performing monkey” that he is. And his curse is he remembers what music sounds like when it’s live, and hot, and awesome – mostly from tons of weekends as a kid when he’d spend his lawn mowing money on a bus ride “up the New Jersey turnpike across the industrial wasteland that must be crossed before the island of Manhattan is won.”

He was heading for the jazz clubs, still cooking in his formative years, where he got a schooling in what it was to make music for real, live, right now. And no quantity of forced in-ear monitors or slapback from the far side of a basketball arena can blunt his still-keen memory of the experience.

I remember seeing the mighty Count Basie band at a matinee at Birdland, with the great Sonny Payne on drums. When the whole band pumped out one of those thirteenth chords, you could feel the breeze on your face (p. 48).

One of my favorites was bassist / composer Charles Mingus, who would always bring along his demonic drummer, Dannie Richmond. Every time Richmond started banging out that triple time, the vibration of his sizzle cymbal would move my glass towards the edge of the table and I would have to push it back to the center. (p. 49).

Having been around the real deal – having had the power of extraordinary live music pour into his heart, and stop it cold – he’s ruined for the mp3 compression, or crummy little earbuds, or blasting away at a keyboard in a music hall that might as well be a big coffee can. He’s been around real people doing this thing, and he can’t pretend that technologies that separate “the musician from his labor” do anything but unravel the alchemic synthesis of human and instrument and mind and heart that music really is.

Is it too much of a stretch to claim that a similar transaction is happening in a powerfully-taught classroom? That there is something ineffably somatic about learning; something about bodies sharing space and air and time in a live, never-repeated moment that is a crucial part of the experience? Maybe one that is not missed until it is gone, dissolved into a virtual experience that, for all its fidelity, still falls into an uncanny valley of being less and less like the real thing?

This lines up with my own experience, for sure:

  • I remember little about Mrs. Otis’ sixth-grade class at Ridge Mills Elementary except her monologues about her trip to then-Soviet Russia; how they affirmed her deep convictions that commitment to American democracy was the only defense against the tyranny of totalitarianism. As an adult, I can quibble with her politics; as a child, I was transfixed by the specter of how another adult – not my parents – looked and felt when she was deeply moved, deeply frightened, deeply hopeful. She was one of the first grown-ups I saw fully enthralled by something bigger than she was.
  • I remember Dean Edgar Beckham teaching me the Iliad as a freshman; the way he settled into the lines he had taught to forty years of new college students like they were a well-worn leather armchair. Showing us how Achilles’ strength was undermined by his childishness; how Agamemnon’s pride would end all he had worked for and served heretofore. Dean Beckham didn’t just teach me literature: he taught me how to live with literature, how it had seeped into his body and enriched and colored his engagement with his world.
  • I remember Dr. Enda Duffy talking quickly about something called “postmodernism” in his dancing Irish voice – and prisons, and television, and surveillance, and God knows what else. Right there, eight feet from me – I remember becoming aware how fast his mind was working with ideas and problems I barely knew existed, and discovering that if I just did the reading before class and listened as hard as I could something would begin to come together, even if only contours and shapes. Shapes that have contained everything I have learned since.

These weren’t Dead Poets’ Society-style performances: none of the teachers I am remembering were show people, intent on singing and dancing their curriculum into my heart. I am remembering more the unspoken lessons about how what we know changes us, and how our commitment to engaging worthy ideas and art give us something to live for.

I don’t think I could have had these experiences if any of these teachers were disembodied faces on an iPad above a set of wheels. It has nothing to do with the level or quality of their voices (I do not know, in fact, if one can mute a telepresence device if one is tired of listening to it). It has to do with witnessing someone’s consecration to something; the way that a great teacher’s relationship to ideas, or logics, or beauty or answers, makes that teacher more than she was without it.

And it’s a live performance. I learned so much more than “content” from my teachers: I learned a way of being in relation to myself, and to the world I was being prepared to join. Witnessing someone older and wiser than I share this sacred, life-giving relationship with me had to happen in the flesh. I might have missed it if it were just another feed on another screen that I could choose to minimize if something else seemed more interesting to me in the moment.

History teaches that the gatekeepers of culture are usually slow to acknowledge the value of technologies that threaten their place in the social order (mass-produced books threatened those who could read, etc). I am aware that my defense of face-to-face teaching, even at a cost, might just be self-serving. Or maybe I am subconsciously defending the tiny stipend I get to make that drive every week? Battle Royales in academia have been waged over less!

But I don’t think so. In age when the value of everything we do in schools is reckoned according to oversimplified, quantifiable, comparable outcomes, it becomes even more urgent to interrupt the common-sense way of talking about efficiency with truths that are still true. Scholarly curiosity matters; critical engagement matters; erudition matters. We learn the value of these things by witnessing others who have developed them, and some part of that learning is as mimetic as a baby’s learning to make faces, smile, and laugh by watching his caregiver.

When my son sleeps on my chest at night, he is learning how to have a body from mine. When we share space and time and air with our students, as scholars, in some way we are giving them a similar structure within which to grow and become who they are going to become.

And that’s all I can say about it right now: my seven month-old son’s body is demanding some physical – not virtual – presence. Love to hear what Gentle Reader thinks of all this! Albeit virtually, in the comments.

Note: my original post described the telepresence device purchase in the first paragraph as an “excess.” I misspoke: nothing about our University or College budget is excessive these days. 

Screen grab from “The Big Bang Theory” linked from Hizook, with gratitude.

What’s Next, What’s Done, What’s Good

little shopYou know, I am really getting to the point where I don’t care if what I have to say about school sounds smart, or even if it is particularly compelling or convincing. I only care that I know that what I say is true: the truest, truest true that it can be. Because if we are going to be in the business of Making Other People – of consciously, deliberately climbing into their lives, daily, with the express intent of changing who they are into something new – well, we had better be damn sure we think we know what we are doing, and be able to explain it. And it better make sense. Our reasons for doing what we do had better be the most excellent ones we can come up with, and they best be aimed at the absolutely most important outcomes we can aspire to.

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Tonight was closing night of “Oklahoma!”, Watauga High School’s spring musical. It was astounding: the leads all still had voices, the extras were all still in character, the jokes still landed and, incredibly, not a light or sound cue was dropped, that I could tell. I was a wreck through their opening night, sympathetically, because for a few years I directed the plays at The Field School, back when I was a full-time high school teacher, and still remember what it takes to bring together a big production like that. How many moving parts, most of which don’t become visible until you run the whole thing for the first time a week before you open and all the seams you didn’t know had to be there show themselves, unraveling.

Every spring at Field brought Studio Day in late April. Field believed that every student needed to develop “all three legs of the stool”, as our founder described it: academic, athletic, aesthetic. Which meant that every student, every year, carried a full course load, but also played a sport and participated in a studio or performing arts experience. So for the arts faculty – some of the finest artists and educators I have ever known – spring always meant bringing everybody’s work to its ending point, the point where it was ready to show. Everybody crashed boards in the last weeks: students were coming in early and staying late in the dark rooms, at the potters’ wheels, in the paint studio to finish their stuff. I helped found the jazz band my first year there, which always performed – and, as I mentioned, the musical would play at least once on Studio Day too, as I remember. So the amount of stuff to bring in on deadline was immense.

But the day itself was overwhelmingly beautiful – beauty to stop you dead where you stood, wherever you looked. Every inch of every wall of the place showed something gorgeous: paint, photo, poetry, clay. We mingled and drank punch and listened to the jazz band outside on the astroturf and wondered at how these kids could be so much, do so much – give us so much more to see.

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Among the truest things I know about education is that it is on us, as teachers, to help our students learn three things:

  • What they are to do next,
  • When their work is done, and
  • How their work is good.

I learned to talk about these three essential outcomes mostly from wonderful Elliot Eisner at Stanford, and could (should) footnote it as such, but have probably changed it up a little through my own experience. As it turns out, the arts are among the best realms in which to help students learn these three things, but they can be learned just about anywhere else as well. And, I regret to report, that students learning these three things in school nowadays is far more the exception than the rule – and where it’s happening, there works a teacher worth her weight in gold.

What are we to do next? To teach is to assert that this thing that I am about to draw your focus to is worth doing. On its own merits, and because of what else it will allow you to do; because of how knowing it has enriched my own life, and because as you learn it it will enrich yours too; because it will prepare you to better engage the experience that awaits you, to make sense of it, survive it, and thrive in it. This is the core assertion of making curriculum and embarking upon it with students: This Is Worth Doing Now.

The teacher rarely teaches this kind of discernment explicitly, but it is all over her practice. Amazing Ms. Miller, at Watauga, did it the moment she announced that the show that year was to be “Oklahoma!” She knew she had the four male and two female leads she’d need to pull it off; she knew she could open up the group numbers to include the hundred who would come out wanting to be part of it; she knew the show’s payoffs and anticipated how they would play to this town, in this county. As they worked the show up, she and her colleagues helped the students learn what to attend to first, and how: the lines, the songs, the character development.

Eisner notes that only in the arts do we develop the discernment to see how our last brushstroke on the canvas changed the overall work, and to let that discernment inform what we do next, all in the “absence of rule,” as he says (real painting is not paint by numbers). In putting on a show, students need to have the opportunity to feel the way their confidence grows by a master teacher supporting them in developing first just this skill, which leads to the capacity to do further things.

The whole experience of putting up a show – drama, musical, marching band, orchestra, ballet, improv comedy – is a process of engaging right-sized tasks, in the right order. Expert teachers facilitate the process so that students suddenly find themselves competent to do what the show asks of them; they accomplish this by asking them to stretch enough to feel it, enough to grow, but not so much as to break. Before we dismiss the extraordinary skill set a teacher must possess to pull this off, we can probably all remember a time in school when our teacher didn’t have it. When the expectations put upon us were unrealistic, or the project we were asked to work on was unworthy of our time and energy, or when the composite elements we needed to master weren’t adequately explained or staged out. The negative experience highlights the wonder of the positive one, doesn’t it?

When is our work done? This question seems a little nuts: the work is done when the show opens, right? Last Thursday night, for the Watauga cast. When Studio Day arrives. “It might not be done, but it is due!” Certainly working within external constraints of time and resources is a huge part of putting it together. The teacher must choose tasks that are doable with what is available to offer.

But it’s only part of what this principle means for teaching. Teachers must help students come to understand when their own work is done: when they have done all they can on a project, learned an aspect to the best of their ability. Sometimes it means pushing a student beyond what he considers good enough. (I’ll be forever grateful for the chorus teacher who cast me in a lead singing role in the middle school musical because she heard I had a voice, then hollered at me in practice to “sing already!” until I got enough air behind it to believe her.) Sometimes it means unwinding a perfectionist student so she can get out of her own way, silence the critic that tied her in knots before you met her and is still yammering away inside her head.

In either case, it’s about giving the student control over the work. Eisner notes that a painter must be able to judge when the work has achieved a desired effect (or an unanticipated effect that is more desirable than the one she set out to accomplish – another unique aspect of the arts is that goals can change is response to emerging opportunities). No one tells the painter, or the artist, when a work is done, ready to show or share. It’s a capacity that we must develop ourselves – and we learn how to by watching and hearing those more experienced do just that, for ourselves and for others. Ms. Miller had to help her actors come to understand when their work was as complete as it could be – which is not the same thing as giving yet another round of nitpicking notes about what could be better. Ceaselessly revealing faults doesn’t build capacity to create; it warps it, turns expression into a cautious composite creature that just wants to avoid being criticized ever again.

When is our work good? Is the painting good because it is praised by the famous critic? Is the play good because all the people who are not our parents laughed at its jokes and stood and applauded at the end? Well, yes – to begin with.

A sublime moment happens in education when work stops being a school thing and starts being a thing thing: an endeavor that has value outside the artificial world of assignments and grades, expectations and assessments and feedback loops that make us accountable to do better next time. Tonight’s play was not a school thing. It was enabled by school, supported by school – it even happened IN a school – but it was MORE than school. People came who did not have a kid in the cast. People came because they wanted to be moved by a true soprano singing beloved songs that were meaningful to some in the audience before the singer was born. People came to “Oklahoma!” because they wanted to root for Curly to get his girl in the end and survive Jud’s thuggery; even if they had seen the show a dozen times, they wanted to go on that trip with someone else. And in the first moments of “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning!” the crowd realized tonight’s Curly was rock solid, and they could stop worrying about him and believe him, make his struggles their own. I felt the room relax as they realized this was a real show, not a school show. They could laugh when something was funny and applaud when something was beautiful – not because they’d be embarrassed for the kids up there if they didn’t.

Kids smell phony. They know pity applause, and despise it. More to the point, they smell a phony teacher – they know when they are being turned out to make a teacher look good, to burnish a resume, and they hate it. That kind of teaching teaches cynicism and manipulation; it feeds off of fear and encourages abuse. Kids need teachers who are manifestly at peace with themselves, who live in joy, and whose joy is, in some way, linked to their choice to spend their lives negotiating connections between an endeavor they love and a constantly-rotating group of young people who are there to learn to love it too.

Kids need this deepest, most intimate lesson from their teachers, even if they never ask for it and teachers never plan to give it. They give it because it is the deepest and most vital lesson we ever teach: that “this is a way to be a happy adult.” We note that children see more of their teachers than their parents once they get to high school, but fail to remark on the real implications of this institutionalized fact. What are these adults showing them about adulthood? Are they dependent upon external validation to give their lives worth – their students’ grades, or their students’ approval? Or are they sourced in something deeper – something that is related to what they choose to teach, and how they choose to teach it? And THAT they choose to teach it? Are they whole adults who dedicate their lives to helping others find their own, and don’t count the cost – not because they are martyrs, but because extravagant giving and receiving is in fact the real economy of love, one that results in there always being plenty to go around?

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I am going to stop before enumerating the ways in which the path our public education system is currently on fails to make the truths I have affirmed here a priority. Even a casual student of contemporary american education reform can list some of the ways that teachers are, in fact, having the definition of their work constrained even as it needs to be growing; having their autonomy removed even as it needs to be enlarged. Can see how challenging, even impossible, it is for a contemporary public school teacher to find and strengthen her relation to her content, and to herself, that such a teaching requires, when so much of her energy is consumed by administrative overload and quantification of that which cannot be quantified. When the value of her work is increasingly reduced to a value-added test score that is taken to indicate whether or not she has exceeded, met, or failed to meet expectations. As I have heard said, you can’t fatten a pig by building a more expensive scale. Never could.

Rather, I want to thank and honor the teachers who pull off such remarkable moments: peak experiences where the students and those fortunate enough to witness them know that their work has transcended school, even as it makes school so much better than it “has to be.” I am so grateful I’ve been able to teach with such extraordinary colleagues, and been part of the journey of so many wonderful students so far. It’s such an honor and a privilege to have more to do.

Image taken backstage in 1997, closing night of The Field School’s production of Little Shop of Horrors. Shing-a-ling, what a creepy thing to be happening! I love you guys.