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.


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.

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.


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.

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