This Syllabus is Not a Contract

It has become quite fashionable for educators and educational institutions to describe their offerings as contracts with their students. This is completely inaccurate, and misleading.

I think I know why it is happening, though. I believe there is evidence that the value of education generally, and higher education specifically, is being gradually rendered suspect by forces that would diminish any public interest, or investment, in it happening at all. As public investment decreases dramatically, public institutions are made to argue for their value in the marketplace to each other, and to the public, even as the means to deliver that value dry up. Even as within and among public institutions, we are increasingly asked to compete for what scant resources we’re afforded. “Fighting over scraps,” as a colleague describes it. If your goal were to diminish the power of an institution, reducing the resources available to the institution and leaving its constituents to compete with each other in order to get them would be a pretty effective strategy.

Which means that it is increasingly incumbent upon us, the faculty, to convince you, the student, of the value of what we do and what we teach: to affirm over and over again why we are here at all, why we are worth our salaries and our offices and (sometimes) our tenure. We go to “contract” language to make those arguments because we are compelled to convince you that what we offer is of value equal to or greater than the value you are investing to access it and participate in it: your means, your time. We especially quantify that value as skills and credentials that will enable you to become gainfully employed. Measuring gainful employment and assurances of value can certainly be important parts of making sure that an education institution is focusing on the right things and growing in the right ways. But they are not the only parts, or even the most important parts.

So when we talk about education as a transaction, and a syllabus as a contract that regulates it, we assert that you are a consumer buying something in the marketplace, and we are affirming that its value is manifest and worth the price. That’s what contracts regulate, as far as I can tell, being neither economist nor lawyer. The house I type this in was built as a result of a contract we signed with a builder. We promised to give the builder money; he promised to create a house with specific qualities in a specific timeframe. He delivered the house; we delivered the money; we went our separate ways, more or less satisfied with what we had negotiated but clear that what transpired had been more or less what was promised.

This encounter that you and I are about to embark upon is very different. One of the main reasons is that you know, to some degree, what I am “putting up” — you are about to read one way of describing it, in my syllabus — but I have no idea what you are. Putting up. I can quantify the expectation of what you SHOULD be putting up, in time you’re expected to spend preparing for class (and our institution does — read to the end), but that’s not much of a stand-in for “what you’re bringing to class,” is it. ASULearn, our content management system, can log what readings you access, when, and for how long, and it will — but it can’t say anything about what you do with those readings when they are open on your desktop.

Note the similarities between our situation and what clients, patients, and students do in relationships with caring professionals generally. Doctors, counselors, teachers, pastors, and others who care professionally have control over what they are putting out there, or trying to. They have no control over what is done with it. The physician can tell a patient to quit smoking every six months for decades, but cannot know if the patient does; the counselor can prescribe meditations and reflective writing, or the pastor daily scripture study and prayer, but have no knowledge over whether those suggestions are followed. There can be no “contract” when what one party is “putting in” is so variable, so obscured, so unknown.*

So we might say that the syllabus you are about to read isn’t a contract, because I can’t know what you’re bringing to it. I am building a house, but I don’t know how much you are willing to pay for it. Even though you have “bought” it anyway, from our institution, through your tuition payment — and you will reckon its value based on your perception of whether or not it is solid, whatever you actually “pay” for it.

And I acknowledge that this might be where the house contract metaphor breaks down, actually — because I’m not the only one building the house. We’re building it together: a core ingredient of every time I teach this course is the specific experiences and viewpoints of the students who help create it. Which is why it ends up so different, with every section, every semester. Its value is constant; its qualities are not.

Really, the whole notion of our work together being a transaction of different things of value is troublesome. But these are dominant terms we are given to understand what we’re about to do — and whatever their shortcomings, they do allow me to wonder a little about what students who gain “value” from their work here bring to it. So let me do that.

I assert that the most important quality to bring to this experience is an utter, unguarded willingness to take the readings, and the ideas they contain, on their own terms. To truly learn from them by letting them teach you.

It is a little odd that I should need to say this — because presumably we come to institutions of higher learning precisely to gain access to ideas and perspectives that we couldn’t get to in our homes or our hometowns. It costs a lot to be here; it costs a lot to maintain a separate space for learning, away from home, and to live and thrive here while we are experiencing it. Shouldn’t what we find here be strange, alienating, thrilling, terrifying? Different?

But many times students are frightened or otherwise off-put when a curriculum gives them something different from what they can get at home. It is threatening or disorienting, as all new experiences are, until we learn how it works and are changed by it.

I want to affirm that the ideas you’ll encounter here are going to be strange, and therefore challenging. I also want to affirm that they weren’t chosen just to frighten you. They were chosen because, in my best estimation, and that of other people like me who have similarly devoted their lives to making these determinations, they are Worth Your Time.

Learning these texts deeply, taking them all the way in, will transform you in highly productive ways. One of the constants of all students everywhere is that they do not know yet which ideas are most worth examining; where they should spend their finite time and energy most profitably. I have to ask you to trust me — and if not me personally (who of course you do not know yet), then my credentials; then the trust the institution has seen fit to put in me to choose wisely what you should attend to; then the existence of a scholarly tradition at all in this field, which you will understand better and be able to participate in after our time together, if you just accord it attention and willingness to regard it on its own terms.

Sometimes the ideas and perspectives you will encounter here will directly contradict the ones you have been raised with, or the ones that you have nurtured in your own value system, which I know many of you have already been cultivating deliberately and passionately as adults for some time now. (Higher education certainly did that for me: challenged what I was already sure I knew and had faith in.)

I want to affirm that the truths you hold which are worthy of your devotion will survive this experience, and be deepened by it. I base this assertion on my own journey, as well as those of many of the hundreds of students who have gone before you in this course. This doesn’t mean that some of what you currently believe won’t be changed as a result of the work. But what is worthy of you will remain, transformed into something better and more reliable. This course does not have a mandate to change your heart, only to broaden your mind. But many have found that one has followed from the other, in ways that make faith more integrally connected to action.

The kind of willingness to learn I am describing here is mostly unobservable and unknowable to me. I cannot assess it, quantify it, or otherwise grade you on it. But I know that students who bring this willingness will usually manifest other, observable behaviors: attendance, participation, engaged and respectful attitudes toward colleagues and me, energy and respect. It does not ALWAYS look like that: some of the students whose willingness is deepest say the least in class, and there are many ways of learning that I seek to respect and nurture. But generally, I’ll know it, in the ways I need to in order to teach well.

If I don’t know how you’re engaging, I may ask you. If I see evidence that you have missed something important, I may point it out to you. I may suggest a different way for you to use your language, or draw your attention to something I think you need to attend to more. If I do that, please know that I am doing what I was brought to this institution to do; if I ever do it in a way that discomforts you, I am happy to hear and discuss that. But I also understand that some of what we need to learn is uncomfortable, and that there is no way to learn it without being put out into the cold, so to speak, until we grow into other ways to be. I will not shirk from that part of the work — though a considerable part of both of us might want to — because I want to be the best teacher that I can possibly be. You deserve no less.

So before our time together starts, please understand that we’re not signing a contract here. We are not about to have a predictable, measurable value exchange. We can’t know what each other are bringing to the table thoroughly enough to call it that. Even though things of great value are about to be put into play. Our energy and our time, yes — but also our trust, our sense of what is of most worth and what is most sacred: ourselves.

It is perhaps better to say that we’re about to embark upon a shared journey, and I’ve been asked and trusted to guide you on it the absolute best I can. You’re on the journey too, and have a responsibility to shape what we do together, where to go. I have done my best here to outline what I think that usually looks like. I may have missed or misstated something; I am still learning how best to guide such journeys, and hope to for the rest of my life.

Thank you for joining me. I will do my best to be worthy of your trust, and your investment in learning and expanding yourself. I invite you to bring all you are to this work as well, so you may be similarly improved and, perhaps, transformed.

*This is one of the reasons that efforts by hospitals and insurance companies to quantify the effectiveness of doctors in the mortality rates of their patients has been so roundly rejected by the powerful associations of physicians that speak with one voice for them. It is also one of the reasons why the similar drive to talk about teachers’ effectiveness in terms of their student’s test scores is misplaced and harmful. Though note that the change to what a teacher’s “value-added” is has been almost completely accomplished, which says much about the relative power of teacher and doctors in the world to shape the realities of their work.

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The Grim Pedagogies of “Hereditary”

milly-shapiro-toni-collette-and-alex-wolff-in-hereditary

 

(Kinda spoilery, sorry – go see it!)

Believe it or not, the most memorable moment for me in horror movie of the year Hereditary is a relatively quiet one: a mom speaking to her son.

Annie looks hard at Peter, both in profile. And suddenly something true, but horrible, erupts from her lips: she says something a parent is never, ever, to say to her child. And she claps her hand over her mouth, lightning-fast, desperately trying to stuff it back in — but of course, she can’t. And then something else unspeakable comes out, and again she claps the lid back on. Mouths are supposed to say what we mean for them to say, but instead sometimes say what’s true. The performance might win Toni Collette an Oscar, so convincing is the impression that the truth wants out of her, despite her will in the matter. She is a woman possessed, in small ways long before large ones.

I read the film as a long meditation on who knows what about things that actually matter (not many), and who gets to have a say about it (no one we meet, in the film’s leisurely two hours). Many others have worked over, with remarkable speed, how aptly writer and director Ari Aster locates this meditation in a dysfunctional family drama; how it’s a relationship story almost before it is a horror story.  I am drawn to it as a meditation on how what matters to an older generation gets shared or not, with the younger. In a word, how it’s also a story about pedagogy.

Pedagogy is, after all, about relationship. The word derives from the ancient Greek paidogogos, the name given to the trusted slave in well-off homes whose role was “child leader.” An older one who guides the younger through the day, keeping them safe and indicating what is worth attending to and what should be avoided, bit by bit forming a new self through the million micro-decisions that characterize intimacy. Teaching is transmission. Hereditary is about what deserves to be transmitted and what does not, and the ways that decisions shape possibilities, or their lack, in long echoing succession down the generations.

Like so many films I am attracted to, Hereditary is an oblique “school movie,” in that some important stuff happens in and around school. School, per usual, is so overdetermined in our collective memory that barely any of the family’s two children’s experience there needs to be fleshed out. A droning teacher declaims to rows of bored students, some of whom enact a “discussion” while the rest zone out or daydream about sex and weed (nothing new there — with one exception, below), or do their own more important work until they get “busted”. The real action is under the bleachers at lunch. In an unimaginative expository touch, the text being taught in class that day is Homer’s Iphigenia, sacrificed in the Iliad to the gods for the greater good.

The peripheries of school are more interesting sites, where important action goes down. In at least two instances, a threat actually lurks outside the school’s perimeter, like a vampyr not yet invited in, waving or incanting at a distance with intent that ends up being sufficient to penetrate school’s containing membrane. And Charlie enacts one of the earliest cues that all is not right with her smack in the middle of school property, in one of the undersurveilled areas outside a classroom window that I understand school safety experts are beginning to refer to as “zones of negligent privacy.”

But perhaps the most powerful role that the formal pedagogical space plays in the film is how it allows itself to be finally violated. Some have noted how genre pictures, especially “elevated horror,” succeed by simultaneously honoring their tropes and audience expectations and subverting them. My own favorite example of this is the first Paranormal Activity film, where (spoiler alert) the unspoken promise that daylight has some marginal prophylactic effect against demons is violently smashed. What is supposed to only happen at night suddenly happens in plain daylight, mid-afternoon, the benign hour of stories on the TV and waiting for the kids to get home.

Similarly, in Hereditary, the presumed “safe space” of the classroom is progressively violated, until Peter’s possession occurs in full force at his desk, during a lecture, before his horrified classmates. Assaults on the boundary of the classroom start early. A bird smacks into the window, breaking its neck; a reflection in a cabinet window reveals someone else looking back (Oculus taught us how unsettling that can be).

But even It Follows, which also played with our expectations of safety in school, didn’t go full Grand Guignol right in the middle of third period. Peter’s transformation, and its timing, above all signals the most deeply disturbing aspect of possession films: the heedlessness with which malevolent forces take what they want, when they want it, from the humans they possess. Nothing in the world cannot be made to conform to the school schedule: but a demonic possession is not of this world. The horror of the possession story is that bodies will be broken and torn, used unspeakably, maybe right here, right now.

The deepest horror might be the helpless, aghast stare of the teacher in whose room — on whose watch — the transformation goes down. “Are you all right, Peter?” he impotently asks, his face contorting into the slow-burn “Spielberg face” of abject terror this movie so delights in. The class all turns and stares (the worst school nightmare, for all of us: Did I say something stupid? Have I wet my pants?) but can do nothing about what happens next. The teacher is revealed as just one of the gawkers, another looky-loo who never leaves his assigned spot in the front of his class, as rigidly his as each students’ desk is theirs.

School is a slow-motion horrorshow, after all, for many. For most. As Howard Nemerov wrote,

Each fall, the children must endure together
What each child also must endure alone:
Learning the the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That world invisible and visible
Bow down before it…

For an educator, there is special horror is seeing children brutalized by a force “arbitrary and peremptory.” The victims of Hereditary’s curse do not know why they have been picked to endure this, and there is no escaping their fate.

But is it too much for we teachers to understand ourselves as similar agents of inscrutable but demanding forces, requiring dreadful sacrifices of our students that are unknown to them, but delivered — as in the note Annie finds in one of her Mom’s occult books — with the promise that the reward will be worth the sacrifice?

I had my own “Annie moment” last week: a taboo truth sprung from my lips, and I couldn’t put it back in. Chatting with other faculty about how to respond to course evaluations, I observed, “The one thing that all students have in common is that they don’t know what they need.” (There was a long pause, and one of my colleagues ventured, “I think you may have been doing this too long.”)

While perhaps briskly expressed (student evals, after all, can give valuable feedback on how to improve as instructors, if regarded correctly), there is an inconvenient truth at the root of of my blurt. Good teachers (coaches, directors – all paidogogos) know what needs to be done next by students, and its relationship to discomfort and struggle. They know what can be done assisted, what can be done repetitively, and what should be expected to be done alone. All that ZPD stuff. And every coach I have ever worked with must explain to their athletes that there is a difference between hurting and being hurt. Hurting is training. Hurting is growing. Hurting is learning.

If our students, or other charges, are on an inexorable path toward learning — toward being irrevocably changed as a result of their time with us — then it seems nice to help them understand why this hurts now, why you can’t budge on that expectation. But not necessarily required. Ultimately, they have to trust us. They don’t know yet that we are right.

Hopefully we earn their trust in enough small ways that they let our judgment about bigger things – like their discomfort — carry the day. But at the end of the day, even if we don’t, that does not mean we are wrong. It is, after all, a school truism that the exact classroom practices that students complain most about (small group work and role play, first among them) are the exact practices that lead students to the most transformative learning experiences — a realization that sometimes shows up at the end of the semester on course evals, but often doesn’t.

Does that mean we should stop teaching that way? That we should only do the funny lectures, low expectations, and lots of movies that students rate highly? Of course not. Because we know what they need, not them.

But that’s a hell of a responsibility, and one that, if carried casually (as I think my colleagues suspected me of doing) teeters on the edge of abuse. Of course we must heed our students’ responses to our teaching — but because they tell us whether we have proved ourselves worthy of their trust when we ask them to suffer in the name of growth. Not because they know what they need better than we do.

Hard truths come out, and do their work. Hardness in and of itself, though, is not truth. In Hereditary, Annie is revealed to have been playing her role in a grand design that was set in motion long before she had a say in it. That truth is hard. Pedagogy, for all its claims to transformation — the high-modernist, social-engineering fever dream of a new world, calving out the next generation of adults when they are still children — is ultimately a game of reproduction. The best critical work in education now reveals how and where we remain complicit in a design for replicating existing power structures. We didn’t start the fire – “no man” did (thanks Odysseus) – but we still make it burn.

For an educator, then, the grimness of Hereditary feels familiar. Violence is wrought on young people we cannot protect, often right in front of us, in the spaces we promised would be safe. We enact rituals of subservience and catastrophe we didn’t even know were possible, let alone involved us. Those who seek to comfort us end up needing us for their own ends, and using us until we are all used up — and then, new vessels appear, to watch us be cast aside.

The horror is in the hideous truth, spoken plain, for once. We stand aghast, like so many characters in this film — horrified before we know what horrifies us.

But we will know soon enough. Deep down, we already know.

 

 

time to die

lionsgate-0d88-df85-571d-3c64-01c4-7-full-image_gallerybackground-us-us-1501867156609-_ri_sx940_I love horror films more than anything, and vampire and zombie horror most of all. Horror is a fever dream of possibility, an opportunity to try on the most extreme iterations of story and see what they might refract back upon the everyday humdrum. And vampires and zombies are such different tropes, but they have in common the opportunity to consider anew what it is to be human, or not, and what the space in-between might constitute.

That’s why The Girl With All the Gifts is consuming me right now. It is that rare horror movie that is about school, sort of. But it is also about how we choose to respond to a moment of apocalypse: how our deepest instincts for defense and self-preservation might actually hasten our end, and prevent our inevitable evolution.

If you think we are fin-de-siecle in public ed right now — well, you might want to have a look at it. You probably haven’t seen it, so some exposition is in order.

The movie opens with a bizarre school-morning ritual. Melanie, about thirteen, sits on her bed counting on her fingers. Suddenly the lights come up, revealing her to be dressed in orange institutional wear and living in a prison cell. She hides the two photos she’d tacked to the wall – a kitten, a forest – and pushes a wheelchair outfitted with wrist, ankle, and head straps into place before the door. Through which door come two fierce leathernecks, in full gear and pointing assault weapons at her. She cheerfully greets them, by name; one keeps the rifle trained on her head while the other locks her into the chair, and we see her wheeled in a line with twenty other similarly-secured children into a windowless, poorly-lit room, where their chairs are secured in rows facing a teacher’s desk. Class is about to start.

We learn subsequently, in a series of expert reveals, that Melanie is outside London, twenty years after a rampant fungal infection has transformed most of the population into lightning-fast, savage “hungries” whose only volition is to prowl the countryside for flesh to sustain them. Melanie, and her classmates, are also “hungries,” but a second-generation strain. They seem to retain human personalities — capacity for interaction and cognition — but also transform into ravenous monsters when they smell human flesh or wait too long between feedings. They are being subjected to research in a heavily-fortified military bunker by Dr. Caldwell, who believes their hybrid nature makes them a promising source for a cure. But her research requires their vivisection, and the reduction of their brains and spinal cords into a vaccine.

“School,” then, is nothing more than presentation and demanded recall of a series of “data pairs, just names and numbers. Content is not really relevant, is it?” It’s a probe into their minds to discover who and what they are by their capacity to respond. According to some obscure logic, their school performance relates to when and if they’ll be selected for slaughter.

The primary teacher for these sessions is Miss Gustineau. Another soldier, but young, pretty, compassionate. To see her interact with these students, to see her choose to offer them stories instead of the periodic table, is to hear echoes of a hundred “hero teacher” movies, where an ingenue armed only with love and energy enters a blackboard jungle and eventually transforms it, but not before she is punished by the old guard for her heresy. We feel like we’ve seen this movie before.

But we haven’t. Because even though Gustineau’s relationship with Melanie seems like warmed-over “Dead Poet’s Society”-style essentialism at first, the mystery of Melanie’s motivations won’t let it be. Yes, Melanie melts at Miss Gustineau’s loving hand on her head; yes, Melanie spins her own story about how she might protect Gustineau and spirit her away to a safe place far from here. (Gustineau reads the students the myth of Pandora – the way the gods, who “never forget,” unleash a curious woman on the world, who opens the box that unleashes all the evils and pains on the world that humankind endures. But Pandora also releases hope: the energy to persist in the face of annihilation. Which of “all the gifts” Melanie will ultimately embody is what we watch to discover.)

Gustineau loves Melanie. But she also comes to learn the essential ambivalence of what she is encountering in Melanie. In a midnight conversation with Parks (the leader of the soldiers), she confesses that she knows Melanie loves her as well, but that it was her fault for “not getting out of the way in time,” as one might a wild animal lunging to bite. She pulls on the scavenged liquor bottle and hands it back — weary, compromised, as in-between and damned as anyone else in this story.

Gustineau’s pedagogic liberties are deeply troubling to the ruling paradigm about “hungries.” Central to Dr. Caldwell’s understanding is that they are nothing but evolving parasites — capable of “exquisite mimicry of observed behaviors,” but still not people.

But she isn’t sure. She doesn’t know if she’s witnessing the devolution of humanity or its transformation in Melanie and her classmates (and therefore also doesn’t know if slaughtering them for research is murder or harvest). And Melanie, unique among the characters, seems aware that she lives on the cusp of something new.

That’s why Melanie prods Caldwell into this exchange:

I don’t want to be a hungry.
But that’s what you are. In dissection, it’s very clear. The fungus is wrapped around your brain like ivy around an oak tree.
But I can talk. I’m like you.
You’re not like anything that’s ever existed before.

Tellingly, she quizzes Melanie, the brightest among the children, with logic puzzles, including Schrodinger’s Cat. How those in-between worlds wish to belong to both. But they cannot be both. No one can.

From the jump then, the film is about the in-between places. Melanie, the doctor, everyone, has left one identity behind but has not yet fully assumed another. How each character deals with “something not like anything that has existed before” will be the crux of what plays out going forward. “All the gifts” will mean some that are agonizing to receive.

Girl is a different kind of zombie story. So much energy in this genre is usually spent on the horror of realization that former life is over, and detailing the gory forms that the transformation assumes. Zombie stories usually end with victory over the pathogen, or complete absorption of one world by the next. It’s a minority of films that try to explore what happens during the evolution of society that endures a zombie insult, let alone feint toward any hybridity in what will take its place. (Note that the 28 Days Later series has, as its second film, 28 WEEKS Later — though even that conceit of aftermath reveals itself to be a sequel in the truest form. They’re BAAAAACK…). How people understand the moment they are in — what struggles are still to be decided, and which are long since settled, and who knows — that’s the drama that unfolds.

The endgame of humanity is already in motion, we come to realize, and has been from the start. It’s crucial that the zombie infection in Girl is fungal, not viral: it seeks symbiosis with its human host, not annihilation and domination. While Girl, like so many zombie stories, is a little fuzzy on when humans are attacked for food and when they are colonized for transformation, none of the humans we come to know die of the pandemic itself. Dr. Caldwell has been the walking dead since five minutes after we met her: she sustains a deep cut on her hand when her lab is overrun early on, which leads eventually to the sepsis that as good as kills her. (We also discover at the end that another of Melanie’s skills is her capacity to hold her breath. That’s what the counting was at the beginning; that’s what enables her to survive Caldwell’s last-ditch effort to subdue her for science.) Parks is also infected at the end, but chooses death by pistol over transformation. The other humans are red-shirts, dispatched uninterestingly in the uneven second act.

So maybe there is a way to survive into the new reality — as long as you are willing to accept survival on different terms than may have occurred to you heretofore. Only Miss Gustineau survives, in her human form, into the new epoch. And she does so as a specimen in an aquarium (the airlock mobile lab where Dr. Caldwell planned to make a last attempt to find a cure). She is locked in carefully and deliberately by Melanie, to ensure she survives the spore release that infects the entire world.

But she is not silenced. Melanie rallies the feral second-gen children, including many from her first class, to sit on the ground in front of the class door as Miss Gustineau puts up a whiteboard and begins class over the loudspeaker. “We’re going to continue getting the new kids up to speed,” she says, as Melanie snarls at stragglers to sit and be still. “Everyone else, if you can just be patient while they catch up with us, okay?” “Can we have stories?” asks Melanie, from the back of the crowd. “Later, “ she answers — like Scheherazade spinning tales to ensure her own survival, like Peter Pan’s Wendy trapped to tell stories to the Lost Boys. “There’s time.”

“There will be lots of time,” agrees Melanie, smiling. fin. It’s an ending that is “startlingly humane, particularly for a film focused on the decidedly inhuman.”

But we are definitely left wondering which part of Melanie calculated to keep Miss Gustineau. Is she a pet? Or a future experiment, the tables turned? Or is she a human connection, an insistence on Melanie’s part to maintain her humanity through the love she feels for a dear teacher? The film leaves us fumbling; Melanie’s final smile is enigmatic, and bottomless.

— — —

Perhaps public school is dying. Perhaps it was mortally wounded by a cut sustained early in the struggle.

The Nation at Risk report, maybe, when the national psyche most vividly realized how easy and productive it was to punch down at schools for whatever ailed it. Or maybe it was NCLB in 2002, and the grinding fifteen-year war of attrition it waged on public schools by both defining what their success looked like and ensuring that they never could achieve it. Or maybe it was Waiting for Superman, which cemented in the public mind through top-notch production values and rhetorical massage that big public schools were money vampires that sought to pad teacher pensions at the expense of students, and that the only stake to drive through its heart were charter schools.

Last night my college screened Backpack Full of Cash, a terrific new documentary that landed powerful punches about the privatization of public school. It was a ripsnorter. People were *fired up.* But I couldn’t help think it was a seven-year-late rejoinder to Superman: the first counterpunch I’d seen that matched it pound for pound, but the crowd had already left the building.

And I feared that maybe the fight for hearts and minds has been over for years. The rhetoric of competition and meritocracy was too strong; the picture of fat-cat unions on the pubic teat too indelible, by now. Even as I small-group-discussed the film’s valid, factual points, and even as I plan to teach my future teachers next month about privatization and neoliberalism and vouchers and the whole megillah, I wondered in the back of my mind if we are not already dead. If we have not already sustained the cut that has killed us.

And so I watch The Girl With All the Gifts, and find myself asking difficult questions for a champion of public school. Especially one who believes in the promise of direct action; of the arc of justice bending; of the innate wholeness of our culture:

  • If public school is dead, what might its evolution look like?
  • Does holding on to old ideas about what victory must entail doom us to die by our own hand?
  • Is it worth surviving in a fishbowl, cut off from what we grew to expect as our future?
  • If that also means we get to keep the megaphone on, and get to keep teaching?

I don’t think this is accommodationist talk. I welcomed Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny into my classroom this month, and required attendance at his campus address. I believe that history holds lessons, and that we can resist and maintain a true relation to the elements of democracy that doublespeak and fascist muscle have historically obscured and eventually dismantled. I do.

But I also wonder if we’re sacrificing ourselves on our the altar of our own paucity of imagination about what a future might look like. If we are inevitably moving toward a hybridity – “something that’s not like anything that’s existed before” — are we well-served to pretend we are not? Or are we — especially we teacher educators — only preparing folks who, when the change comes, will elect their own death (burnout, walking wounded, attrition) over staying and thriving in the new reality, on its terms?

In that same conversation where Caldwell tells Melanie about the ivy wrapped around her brain, she also shares her horrific origin story:

Dr. Caldwell, what am I?
We don’t really have a term for it.
But…you know where I came from? Tell me, please.
Where all babies come from, but by a slightly eccentric route… (You and the other children) were found in a maternity hospital. The mothers were there too. They were empty. Cored. All their organs devoured. from the inside. the mothers were probably all infected at once in a single incident, then the embryos were infected as well. Through the placenta. They ate their way out.

Not the first chestburster to be described (though not depicted, mercifully) in film, but a wholly different one. This time it’s a human cycle interrupted and requisitioned to other ends. This time a sacrificed host is consumed on the very terms that it negotiated with its offspring since sexual reproduction began (“I will feed you with and through my body”). The violation, then, is one of degree and not of kind: the evolution requires one moment of disequilibrium in its growth cycle, in which a first-generation host is sacrificed so that the second-gen may leap into being more than anything before or since has ever been. Broken eggs to make an omelette.

I wonder if we, uniquely, are that generation. Those whose work, whose energy, whose very substance will ultimately be consumed on the way to our kind becoming something else. If we’re not part of a larger metabolism that demands all our victories be pyrrhic, in order to establish rich ground for something else to grow and thrive.

This is becoming even more fin-de-siecle than I had expected. I apologize. I hope it does not land as nihilistic.

But all the humans in Girl, save one, essentially perish from a lack of imagination. Dr. Caldwell breaks herself upon the single-minded, modernist quest for a cure. Parks breaks himself against an unwillingness to consider mutation as a viable option for survival. The only one who does come through, intact, is one who allows herself to imagine into the possibilities of connection with something (a hungry) that everyone else insisted was inhuman (a ‘friggin abortion,’ in the guards’ parlance).

One whose connection was tentative and filled with doubt, but who sustained it nonetheless; who read the stories to the children, even if it meant her own punishment. The one who held out hope that her unique voice and way of being in this strange and horrifying new world would be sufficient, in the last reckoning, is the only one for whom it was.

All Gustineau is afforded in this new balance is her voice, tremulous over a loudspeaker. Her voice, and an assembly of children who, to varying degrees, will attend to what she has to say. This isn’t the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus, with a literal standing ovation for a life in service to other people’s children. It’s the obverse, the bizarro. The teacher is rewarded for her teaching by the surgical excision of all aspects of her life except…her teaching.

And yet she will persist, and thrive, by all accounts. The last scene opens with her asleep on the floor. She wakes to Melanie’s knocking on the window — this is clearly not the first morning of the new regime. A tear trickles down her cheek.

What does she mourn? That which is lost and past on the way to becoming found, now? To quote another imagining of a cruel future, where we persist in different form:

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

And yet she does not die. Like the million teachers before her she gets up and pulls herself together, and goes out to meet her students. Class is always about to start.

Perhaps, then, we shall die. We who cry repentance at the end of times; we who champion the public and the pluralistic in a moment obsessed with privatization and fragmentation.

Or perhaps we will not — if and only if we can hold to what has brought us this far, while releasing so much else. Perhaps we are diminished in the terms of our survival, almost unrecognizably.

But we will still be around. And we will still raise a voice, to teach.

 

 

dance together, dance against

IMG_4563Power wants your body softening in a chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

– Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

Joanna and I went to a contra dance in rural eastern Tennessee last night, on a whim. Well, her whim, and thank God for it. She’s on a listserv and asked me to it. Don’t say no, she asked, like you always do. I didn’t — because she’s right, I always do. I am becoming someone who’s always tired at the end of the week, because oh the kids and oh the job. What’s on Netflix. But I want something else in our life, and to have something else you must do something else. So we did.

Hoedown’s the wrong word. Smackdown might be better. An entire weekend of dance: blues on Friday night, and waltzing on Sunday morning, but the whole of Saturday devoted to contra, the super-energetic, quite-American couples line tradition. Eleven AM to eleven PM: five or so dances, with a waltz at the end signaling a brief break for hydration and recomposure. Folks camped out or stayed in tiny cabins on the beautiful property. A potluck appeared while we were there. And bands and callers rotated in and out, astounding players who were nonetheless exhausted by the core of fifty or so dancers who had come to dance longer than you had come to play.

The evening was transporting. Like a Baz Luhrmann movie, I thought first: miles of twinkling lights crossed the roof of a hanger-sized open-air dance floor, with open walls overlooking pastures and one covered with enormous quilts. But then I thought of a fiesta in a Garcia Marquez novel; of the Festival of San Gennaro in Little Italy, two weeks ago; of the fair at Rome Catholic High in the upstate New York of my childhood, whose spinning midway could be heard and seen from my bedroom window and always signaled the end of school. All those places where night and light and occasion bring people out of their houses, down their stairs, to a new place that’s theirs and not theirs, to do a thing that’s alone and together all at once.

How can I capture the alone togetherness of the dance, the together aloneness. Robert Putnam used the phrase pejoratively, to describe our decaying social fabric; so did Phillip Jackson in 1968, about elementary school classrooms’ role in that decay. But I saw a celebration of individuals who came together to be in connection, but each autonomous and aloof in the ways they wished to be. Alone and together are both part of community.

Eye contact in contra is a tricky thing. My kind but firm teacher, a man in his sixties, told me the first rule was not to look down: there’s nowhere to go but your partner’s face, for a few seconds. There was exactly one person in attendance whose face I gaze upon comfortably at close quarters, and she tended to be elsewhere, by design (though she always came back, also by design). So I had to make do, with lots of new faces, one after the other.

There are so many ways to see someone you don’t know up close. Some opted for a formality and fixed smile, a presentation; some were flustered from the exertion and barely saw you, so engaged in their own experience; some joined in my instinctive laughing about my clumsiness and inexperience. But most didn’t do that last thing. We weren’t there to note my lack of skill, make me feel better by acknowledging and minimizing it. We were there for the dance, which was bigger than any one of us but needed our full attention to exist. It needed us to subsume ourselves into its exigencies and prerogatives. There isn’t time right now to make you feel better about how uncomfortable you are. We all need you to keep moving.

It became clear that you can’t learn by watching. And also that you can’t learn by doing — not in the sense of trying to practice a few basic moves, then put them together when called to. The only way I discern to learn the thing is to throw yourself in and be carried, until the way that life courses through the lines also carries you. Most of the forms did that: got metabolized into my body while there was still time to enjoy them before they changed. Some didn’t. But that was okay. Another one was coming, right now.

For any of this to work, a lot of other people had to be doing it. Had we all been neophyte as I, it would have been chaos. The system allowed some naive participation — but not much. It depended upon new folks coming back and getting better at it, so that they’d be part of the organism when more new folks arrived and needed a competently-held space for them to join too.

And oh, how those who knew what they were doing, did. Watching as much as I danced (well, a little more), I started to see all the ways that people were finding themselves, creating themselves, on the floor, in mutually-constituted connection with others. The flourishes, the dips, the spins. The claps and stomps at the outer rim of a turn, for no one but themselves. The ways that younger folks called older folks to passion, and older called younger to rectitude. (But not always: age, like gender and experience level, was amazingly fluid on this floor.) The ways connections became authentic precisely because they were mannered. The ways we are more than we are apart when we are together.

I didn’t think about Snyder’s book, and the quote that leads up top, until halfway through. But there’s so much to consider. The dance of democracy requires us to be out of our chairs and our houses, to meet each other. To be awkward at first, then practiced. Eventually, to be fully who we are within its structures. The night was freezing, but many of the dancers were bare-armed, barefoot, perhaps conceding to a fleece here or there. The heat wasn’t in the air or on the floor: it was in the movement. In the moment we made by showing up.

And finally the music stopped, and most of us repaired to a blazing bonfire under a three-fourths moon and cold stars. How interesting the conversations I overheard: familiar, but not anything like what you’d expect from folks who’d been as intimately connected as we’d been for hours. Reserve and apartness re-established, some. It was friendly, for sure, but different. This was a new space too. We’d been made more than we were by our willingness to be together. But there would still be work to do to sustain that connection out here in the real world.

As it must be, I think. It is always uncomfortable in community (“Be as courageous as you can,” Snyder’s last lesson) — but less so as we learn to be comfortable in the discomfort. Our connections to each other are sustained by our willingness to bring our energy to the forms we’ve inherited. Dance, school, voting, marching: we’re made more than we are by their potential to bring us together toward beautiful common purpose.

But eventually we go home, to ourselves. Where we can stay, if we wish. Only we can choose to keep returning. To find ourselves with each other. To grow less naive, more able to offer a hand to the newcomer. To sustain the pattern of civilization and democracy, for our own sakes and for others’, in every way we must against the insults that history predicts for us.

We are the change we wish to see in the world. Beneath the pavement, the beach. We must find the forms we love and trace them, embody them, make them part of who we are, with each other. Now more than ever. Enliven them with what only we can bring.

The tune begins again.

 

 

down to the bones

IMG_4355

The only work that matters, goes away. And only that which goes away, will stay.

This is the nut of my weekend, when I returned after more than thirty years to my elementary and junior high schools in upstate New York. My son’s college visits took me there for the first time since we moved away in 1984, and it felt important to go to them. As important as driving by the old house, the market, the church.

Until it became more important than any of those. The house I grew up in, after all, has been someone else’s house ever since we left it. It changed the locks, in every sense. I’ll never have reason or entitlement to enter it again, because it’s moved on. And of course, I left the church in nearly every way too — this one and all like it, long ago. None of these places are mine. They continued to move into their futures, without me.

The schools have moved on too, of course. But they remain mine. As public spaces — deeply charged with the lives we’ve lived in them, but still not ours — I had as much right to enter them yesterday as I did when I was seven, or ten, or twelve.

Public schools are everyone’s.

And they are no one’s. This is the note that was loudest.

I saw the band room where I became a singer. The very spot where the chorus teacher leaned across the piano and scared me into owning the sound I could make. We were one on one after school; I’d been cast in a big role in the musical; I didn’t think I could do it, scared senseless. Maybe she was too, afraid that rolling the dice on me was going to come up snake eyes, and the show was sunk. Or maybe she’d been swimming through junior high crazy for ten hours already that day, and it backed up on her and she let the frustration and exhaustion out.

In any case, she came up off the bench and across the upright piano at me, right up into my face. She let the edge into her voice and implored me for the tenth time to put some air behind it, to take a chance and really make a sound, to stop dithering and mewling. She ordered me to sing.

And shocked by the sudden grit from someone I was used to being gentle — by that sudden shift from teacher to frustrated human — I did. And I found my sound, the center from which I’ve sung ever since, the core from which every music I’ve made since has emanated.

There was the room, there was the spot. There was probably the same piano. New carpet and paint; new everything except the architectural bones that belie a sixty year-old building (once the state builds you a building, your going to live in it until it crumbles beneath you).

And no plaque, No X on the floor.

Here a life was transformed, in a throwaway moment between a tired, hungry teacher and a kid who doesn’t know what he is. No one remembers it but him. But from it came everything else — everyone he’s touched as a teacher and as a musician, a thousand people and a thousand more, a career in education and a life in music, both leaning into a future that believes that bread upon the waters is the only currency that will ever really spend.

Well, that wouldn’t have fit on a plaque, I guess.

Just as well. We would need so many plaques, were we to hang even one. Our schools’ walls would groan with their weight. There would be no room for the mission statements, for the safety protocols, for (still) the precious student paintings, the poems, the really good essays.

The whole of school is a private odyssey of unimaginable urgency. Every moment has the potential to lift, bend, or end some part of a future real person’s life.

Teacher, you don’t know which moment. You’ve already been part of hundreds of them, and you’ll never know.

I’ve got a dozen more stories I could tell right here, before my coffee’s done, but it’s better you think of your own right now. Mr. Foster. Mr. Gellar. Say their names, if only to yourself. Mrs. Earnshaw. Mr. Cowles. The teachers who might not remember you, but who made you what you are, took you down to the studs and built you again.

Mr. Back. Mrs. Barras. Mrs. Williams. Mr. Roth. Who showed up living their lives and offering slivers of themselves to you, so you could make up what yours might be. Showed you another way to be a grown up, not a parent but bearing traces of your first connection. The parents your parents couldn’t be.

Mr. Wilbur. My God, Mrs. Izzo. Mrs. Otis.

They touch us and make us, and then it’s spring and it’s hot and there’s final grades and shows and ceremonies and caps and gowns and we all escape into the summer, jettisoned into a pause, a punctuation, mercifully. (Year-round school misses this important part. We all need a space to breathe before the next sentence begins.)

And then we all start it again. None of us — students, much less teachers — know which moment mattered. The whole of the practice is putting up the harvest for later, storing it against the future. The students show up again on the first day in August, and so do we, both at the peak of readiness. The table overflows, the kitchen’s stifles with all the boiling, knives flying, everything sticky and sweet. We labor for the season we are offered, until the time to labor is past. We won’t be around when the jars get opened. When we find out what took.

I didn’t enter either school. That matters too. I couldn’t, in either sense. It was a Sunday. Locked up tight. And there won’t be a moment this morning to head back and sweet-talk a principal into letting me walk some halls, slam some lockers, reckon if the ropes in the gym were as high as I remember.

No, I just wandered the playgrounds and peeped in every window I could reach — not many, in these massive multistory buildings with their huge courtyards. Peeped and populated the rooms beneath their posters and under their tennis-ball-footed little chairs; populated them with who we were, what happened there, down to the bones.

The security footage they review today will be puzzling. Who is this guy casing our classrooms all Sunday afternoon, who we will never see again.

He’s just a guy who happened to come back. But you can’t come back. It’s the moment so many have tried to name.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Time held us green and dying, though we sang in our chains like the sea.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on.

My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form
Nor hope to know it.

Time to go wake up my son.

Boats against the current.

Begin again.

blessed unrest

indelible-Martha-Graham-ballet-631
teacher agonistes

5:00 AM on the first day of school and I can’t sleep. Some things never change. Even after a life in school, the night before the new year starts is different. It’s all possibility, all the way down. Everyone has an A, even me. All of the stories wait to be told again…or left in their boxes, so new stories can be heard for the first time.

I didn’t teach over the summer for the first time in eight years. I needed the time away. Needed the silence after so many days of feeling like my voice had to be heard, because I was scared of what would happen if it wasn’t. I had begun — again — to fall into the trap of thinking that if I hadn’t said it in front of a whiteboard, it hadn’t been taught. Forgetting — again — that teaching and learning might happen in the same space, but they aren’t connected causally, not always, not even usually. What I say isn’t the same as what you learn. Or if you learn. Forget that, o teacher, and become a sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal. That was me for a while there. Jingle jangle.

I know I’m being too hard on myself. That’s part of teaching too: it’s a prereq. Once you really start to know the stakes of what you get up each morning to go do, how can it not be. But the stakes — the investment student attention represents — the awesome responsibility of being listened to and trusted as having something worth learning to share — can make us shrill, wound tight, hoarse from barking over and over again what we know needs to be barked. And the more we bark, as any dog knows, the less we are heard.

So I have more voices in my curriculum this year than ever before. More opportunities for my students to hear from other perspectives. Readings from more diverse authors; expectations to show up for more of the plays and movies and speakers and conversations that my astoundingly rich university offers up, nearly every week. More requirements to go out and hear someone else’s life and bring it back to class so we can know what it says. Or don’t: treasure it in your heart, learn the thing no one else can, in a not-class moment when no one else will ever know you were listening.

It’s more important now than ever, student, that you be open. Important that when we read On Tyranny, and visit with its author in September, we open our eyes to the transformations that are moving under our feet. That we mind what we can accommodate, and decide with resolve what we never will, no matter what. This is not normal. We shall not let it be.

I have finally found a way to invite FARM Cafe into our classroom: our town’s wondrous pay-as-you-can restaurant (commitment in community-building, experiment in living what you believe about the way the world should work, utopian fever-dream that is somehow in the black). My students will eat there, volunteer there, lurk and loaf and think there. Listen to what they hope and fear about the people they meet there. Reflect on what it means about the stories they bring to their work with other peoples’ children.

Here’s another change: I’m not going to tell you what the last night’s reading said this year. I’m going to answer your questions about it, sure, and I’m going to hold a space for you to learn what others thought it meant. But I’m going to value your ability to figure it out for yourself more than ever before.

Because I understand that when I retell you what you worked your hardest last night to figure out, I am really telling you that I don’t trust you alone with your own mind. I am really telling you that until I say it, it’s not worth knowing. I am going to act on that understanding by letting you do what you came here to do: change. Grow. Develop new capacities, not just show off the ones you’ve had since grade school.

For that to happen, I’ve got to let you work as hard as you can. Let you be uncomfortable at the edge of your competence to work, and let myself be uncomfortable at the edge of mine (to let you).

I’m opening my classroom to my world this semester too. Inviting any of my faculty colleagues to join my class, whenever they wish, without notice, and asking if they’d consider extending me the same courtesy. As I wrote them last week:

This expressly isn’t for any evaluative purpose, or “professional development,” and certainly not to write peer observation or any such thing. I don’t promise to show you an exemplary class and don’t expect you to have one ready for me to see (I assume we’re already impressed with each other).

I have simply realized that I am energized and relaxed by witnessing other people do what I do too, and I think it’s pretty perverse that the first thing school does with competent teachers is ensure they never get to see each other work except to evaluate each other. So that stinks, and I’d love to change it, for my own well-being. I’d also like to start to create and model for my students the kind of teaching community that I think they will need to sustain themselves when they hit the schools. We need each other more than ever. (No one else is coming for us.)

I have always had a thing about closing the classroom door before class can happen. My students must think it odd. As if the door were some kind of airlock; as if we couldn’t do what we came to do until we got the pressure right. I talked game about the closed door reminding me of the responsibility I was entrusted with to make good decisions on their behalf. That was true, and remains so — but it’s not the truest part of it. I just hated the feeling of leaking into the hall, of being heard out of context, judged. Seen doing the thing I spend my life doing.

I have come to understand that I need it. I need other people in my teaching. Not just students. Especially not students: it’s not their job to do anything but learn, and whatever they might do to sustain my work is incidental to their reason for being. No, I need my teaching to leak, to be witnessed by those who do it too. And I need to be around others who do it, if only to taste that singular teacher luxury of inhabiting a learning space I’m not primarily responsible for maintaining. I don’t know how it works, I just know it does.

Yeah, it’s a lot. I didn’t need to do all of this to my curriculum this year. It was all in the can, and my student evals were sky high. Why mess with it? When you take into account how much those evals matter to my own professional well-being, it’s sort of foolish not to just push play again on the same jokes from last year, go to sleep, and wake up when it’s Christmas.

But I just can’t, and if you’re a teacher, I think neither can you. Doing that is a living death, for people like us. Because even if it gives us “more time to do research” (or watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), it removes us from what Doris Santoro wonderfully calls the “moral rewards” of teaching. The rewards of being present at the creation, or the uncovering, of something genuinely unexpected. Something precious that couldn’t happen without us showing up in that particular way on that particular day, then clearing the lane for the students to do what only they can do.

The unaccountable, the surprise, the peripheral, the jouissant: name it as fancy as you want, but it’s what we’re in the business of cultivating and honoring. If the curriculum is tight, it’s stale. If you’re positive that you know what you’re measuring and how to make it materialize, you’re not really teaching, because no one is really learning. It’s a drill, not live-fire. And if you’re not fully living into your part in it today, right in the place you stand, they can’t either.

Martha Graham gets quoted a lot on creativity, but the whole conversation doesn’t. Here it is – with Agnes deMille, while struggling over choreography of Oklahoma!:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

And I have to give Sondheim the last word:

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

Have a great year, y’all.

Image from Smithsonian Magazine, with thanks.

 

 

barns

Fodefaultr Natalia Kormeluk, master teacher, on the occasion of her retirement – and the rest of the extraordinary faculty of The Field School.

Probably two dozen on the way into campus from our house in the country, every day. Some still red but most bleached and desiccated, landlocked driftwood ships whose joints are giving way. Left for gravity and weather to finish their sentences. Tumbling down in slow motion in every field.

The wonder is how they’ll materialize anywhere, like mushrooms. Sometimes standing grandly in the middle of a wide meadow, their prominence celebrated by a quilt pattern on the side. But sometimes hidden up a holler, glimpsed from the road as you round the bend. Anywhere it was needed, there it was. No farm too small of course.

The big ones, for feed and livestock, you notice when you look. The little ones, the tobacco barns, you don’t as much. These are almost invariably square, and the size of a child’s bedroom. They are taller than their footprint would suggest, to make space inside for lateral poles on which to hang the tobacco to cure, with a flue at the top to draw the smoke up and out.

The one right by the road that its owner is restoring to use as a potting shed seems to be putting on airs. Its house wrap-covered plywood from Lowe’s jars with its hundred year-old stone foundation, like a cheap new hat worn with good old shoes. Leaving them be seems consonant with their greater purpose. Seems to be what is supposed to happen in the fields and meadows around here, where the small herds of cattle age and die and are born imperceptibly to all but their owners. They’re just cows being cows, around barns being barns, season in and season out the decades race by. Their beauty and majesty is in their invisibility.

The semester at the university is about to end: the one that seems like it just began. I think I felt this one even less than the thirteen that proceeded it. I have to be honest: the aspect of the teaching life I drive through every day that most arrests my attention is how little of it actually does.

To be sure, many students have said and written things in class that will make them memorable. I think I know something about who they are and what makes them tick, where they are excited and where they are scared, and what they are doing to focus on the first and ignore the last. I know their names now, and will probably be able to retrieve them when I see them next year in the hallways, bustling between the endless curriculum & instruction classes our accreditors will make them endure.

But many I don’t, and will not. And they’ll not acknowledge me, really, when they see me a year hence. Despite my funny last-day-of-class bit where I urge them to, both for their own sense of history in their experience here and my own existential affirmation.

It’s not like this in high school. At least not the one I taught in. The half-life of relationships with those students is much longer. I saw them way more, even when I wasn’t teaching them. Though given the number of non-grade-specific studio arts and athletic opportunities, I tended to teach them again in different settings, across different texts, over multiple years.

There’s something much saner about this arrangement. Maybe because it more honestly acknowledges the parental echoes of teaching work, even with older kids. While we specialize and compartmentalize knowledge and experiences as they age to get them ready for college, teaching high schoolers is still teaching children. They – and we – still thrive within a longer mutual holding of regard and attention. We still establish our depth of field through a longer perspective. I fear that a single semester, atomized and abandoned in its three-ring notebook on the shelf, does little for the long-term health of anyone involved. It just checks a box.

Maybe that’s why the semesters now pass largely unnoticed, racing by the car window. Look up and it’s snowing; turn your attention to the book in your lap for a moment, and when you look up again it’s sunny and warm and the birds are singing and kids are taking photos in caps and gowns by the iconic school gateway. Then it happens again in reverse, every fall.

I have known some of my original high school students for nearly twenty-five years now. I have been granted a place of care in their lives that you only grant to those you trusted before you learned not to trust. I love some of them almost as fiercely as I love my own, flesh-and-blood children, and thrill at their successes and ache at their pain on Facebook almost like I will my own when they inevitably leave and make their own uneven way in the world. How can this be.

Next week, a colleague from my first teaching days will retire after thirty-nine years of throwing pots with middle and high schoolers. Her celebration next Saturday will surely overflow with remembrances: thirty-nine years of grown adults made children again at the memory of the million gestures she lavished on them, the million hours across the wheel from her. Gratitude at being seen and held and shaped and lovingly handed back to yourself.

I remember sitting with her most mornings during the years I was fortunate to work in her department. Drinking coffee from the gorgeous little mugs decorated in the Ukrainian ceramic tradition she mastered. Most Christmases she’d make a whole run of them and present them to us as gifts. My dear friend and colleague, the painter, noted that eventually you’d have a whole shelf of them, if you just stayed around long enough. I maybe didn’t stay around long enough – but I do still have the ones I received today, arrayed proudly in my office like the wonders they are. Remnants of a life spent in ways that vanish, but at the same time become more enduring than any other artifact.

May we who teach learn and conform to Natalia’s great legacy. May we give care, reliable as the passing seasons, in perfect fulfillment of our nearly invisible, but timeless, purpose.

May we find the unique affordances of the medium we’ve been given to work with now, despite its apparent limits.

May we remember that we have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work – and then get to it, with perfect evenness of mind. 

May we continue to do what can only be done here, now, today.

I used to grieve because I could not make reliably a close-fitting lid for a canister, a teapot, a casserole. Sometimes the lid fitted, sometimes it didn’t. But I wanted it to fit. And I was full of aggravation.

Then a GI friend of mine who was stationed in Korea sent me an ancient Korean pot, about a thousand years old. I loved it at once, and then he wrote that he thought I might like it because it looked like something I might have made. Its lid didn’t fit at all! Yet it was a museum piece, so to speak.

Why, I mused, do I require of myself what I do not require of this pot? Its lid does not fit, but it inspires my soul when I look at it and handle it.

So I stopped worrying.

Now I have very little trouble making lids that fit.

– M.C. Richards, Centering, pp. 22-23

Image from NCSU Libraries, with thanks.

knuckleheads

GuysandDollsFlyerWell, I’m once again on the backside of a tremendous spring musical directed by the real-deal life-changing music and drama educators at Watauga High School, and once again thinking about why the arts experiences our students have in our schools matter So. Darn. Much.

This time, I got zinged by the traditional closing-night moment after the lights come up, when the seniors are recognized and a few of them say something about what the program has meant for them. Some of the speeches were hilarious. One affirmed, “When I came to Watauga High School as a freshman, I was sure of one thing: that I was going to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force.” And another: “When I was a freshman, I quit the musical halfway through to play volleyball. (Beat.) I don’t do that anymore.” And some were deeply moving, as students acknowledged the debt they owed the adults who invested in them and believed in them in moments when they could do neither for themselves.

Of course, the tributes from students to teachers – especially the one retiring at the end of this year – were the exact stuff that makes many of us who teach get up in the morning. Remembering hearing these things said, or hoping to hear them again soon, from the knuckleheads whose job it never is to say these things: whose job it is, after all, to be knuckleheads. But when they do – say them – they affirm and bless and sanctify this work we do, all at once. You wish you could bottle this stuff and put a dab behind each ear every Monday before you saddle up and wade back in to the reality of daily life with kids.

The truth though, I think, is that’s exactly the wrong way to think about it. Bottling and saving. We who teach can’t hoard our memories and affirmations, rationing them out to ourselves until the next shipment comes in next April. Because the shipment of student recognition and gratitude isn’t guaranteed. It’s not in the contract. It’s a windfall apple after the harvest is in, a sweet bonus to enjoy when the real work is done and submitted, bought (natch) at market price.

Instead, what we must do as teachers, and as those who teach teachers, is “lean into the kernel,” as Barbara McClintock phrased it. All the energy we need to do what we have dedicated our lives to do is right here, right now, not in a future moment of recognition or accomplishment. It’s here first period on Tuesday. It’s here after lunch. It comes in after school and asks for another letter of recommendation, more help preparing a monologue. It’s here in your email on Sunday night. The daily reality of the teaching life – like the corn that made McClintock’s career – is cheap and plentiful. It is enough to sustain our best work for a lifetime. If we really look at it. If we really see it and attend to it.

If we really honor the work, the music, the play, as these teachers tirelessly remind their students. We aren’t the point.

There is a way of knowing this that is not the martyrdom the culture seems to wish its best teachers to perform. A way of knowing this that actually fuels a year, a decade, a career of transforming thousands of lives AND thriving in the process. Policy won’t reach it, and couldn’t if it tried: sustaining is not what policy does. It’s an inside job, and it’s a community job, teaching like this. Leaning your life against the inexhaustible source that is possibility, having the good fortune of swimming in the river of people dedicated to becoming different, better people.

It’s so fragile, any interval in which you are trusted to do right by other people’s children. As grown-ups we know that a season, a year, is written in water on a wall in the sun. We have been around long enough to see the ironclad arithmetic of the American high school: right now is your time. Last year was not your time; next year you will be gone. Nothing can change either of those truths, just as nothing can take RIGHT NOW away from you. Older people who have seen a few cycles of the wheel know this. It makes us either cynical or more deeply attentive to our responsibilities right now, with you, the ones we’ve been trusted with this week, this semester, this show.

When the lights come back up, the performers who transported us are revealed to still be our children. But so green and so changing, caught in an instant of stillness that reveals the rush of their transformation. Just look at the alums one year out, or two, come back to see the show. Look how they’ve changed, deepened, broadened, if you need a reminder of how brief and perfect this moment is. (You probably don’t.)

When the lights come up, we see who they still are – but also, if we squint, who they were, and who they are on the way to becoming. Oh, it is so awesome.

This is my small tribute to the teachers touching my kids’ lives this weekend, and this year, all of them. And to those who touched mine, and to those students whose lives I’ve been part of, who are now wading in their own life-giving rivers and gazing into their own exhausting, sublime kernels. May we all be worthy of the trust, and tap into its deepest, truest wells to sustain both our own practices, and our own season upon the stage.

Scheherazade and the Axe: Narrative Medicine, the Apocalypse, and the Way Through

p58c59573c1ee5That’s the hefty title of a chapter I’ve got in the terrific new book Apocalyptic Leadership in Education, edited by my colleague Vachel Miller and just published by Information Age Publishing.

It draws heavily on some ideas about films  (Winter’s Bone, Pacific Rim, Let the Right One In) that I worked out on this blog over the years. Thanks so much for reading and responding along the way, gentle friends. If by chance you were linking to any of those posts, they’ve now been disabled in deference to the published versions. Feel free to email me directly if that’s an issue and I’ll work out a way to restore your access.

I really recommend the whole book: a dismal premise, in Vachel’s deft hands, becomes the taproot of a transformative hope. What could be more timely?

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.