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


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

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.




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.

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