Friday, August 31, 2007
I loved that car, even as it began, over the years, to decay. First the emergency brake went (I had to carry a cinder block around with me in case I had to park on a slope), then the knob off the gear shift, then the latches holding down the soft-top roof. Eventually I sold it to one of my students who was eager to have something she could work on and play with.
One day, when I had the car parked somewhere around the Medium Sized Southern School from which I had recently graduated, I returned to find the car slashed. I never left anything valuable in the car--nor did I ever lock the doors. When I bought the Rabbit, the dealer let me know that the top, which was insulated and multi-layered, was probably more expensive to replace than anything else. So I didn't want to give anyone incentives for tearing into it. Take the car--just don't rip the roof.
Well, some idiot came along and slashed the roof anyway--and not even all the way through. A big gash on the outside that didn't cut all the way to the inside. And nothing else taken or disturbed.
Being the kind of person who Dwells on Things (maybe even Broods, on occasion), I thought a lot about the meaning of it all. Why cut through a car's roof if not to get into the car? What was the point? Was it really just to prove to me that there was someone out there in the world capable of wreaking havoc? Was he just trying to let me know that he could break things faster than I could keep them in repair?
That wasn't exactly news. I mean, I was well aware of the fact. There are two kind of people in the world (yes: people who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and people who don't. But seriously, folks): people who use their energy and power to create, and people who use their energy and power to destroy. This is not cultural--there have been mound builders and ziggurat erectors and city planners and artists and sculptors and composers from the dawn of human time, and in every corner of the earth. And just as there have been Builders, there have been Wreckers. Sometimes the Wreckers have come from outside the wall and sometimes they have been homegrown. No one has a monopoly on creativity...or destruction.
But what a strange urge! Why is it so important to prove to someone that you are capable of destruction? Why is that warning shot across the bow of civilization important for some people? Is it because the opposite urge--the urge to create and build--seems intimidating and dangerous to those incapable of it? Does it smack of hubris--something requiring a take-down, a stiff dose of reality, whether in the form of graffiti, vandalism, or Semtex?
Obviously, these ruminations back in the late 80s would have taken on a very different hue had the incident happened after 9/11/01. Because, let's face it, the obliteration of the World Trade Center was the ultimate expression of the destructive urge, undertaken by people utterly incapable of building such towers, and using as their destructive weapons airplanes that they were likewise incapable of building.
But remembering all of this again today, I think back--as I did when my roof was slashed--to something from my own past. And suddenly, again--now as then--I don't feel so smug. Because I'm wrong: there no Them and Us. There is only Us.
Back when I was in middle school, I went to a summer camp in Massachusetts. I had spent my early years in day camps because my parents had a summer house up in the mountains, and that was "away" enough for all of us. But as I got older, my parents thought it would be good for me to try sleep away camp at least once or twice. So I began my sleep away camp experience at 12 or 13.
In this particular camp--a boy's camp--we slept in three-sided lean-tos--shacks, really--that were humid and moldy and smelly at all times. There were three sets of bunk beds against the three walls, and six boys per cabin. One kid in our cabin was a genuine pain in the ass. He complained all the time. He was spoiled. When we went on a hike and someone got hurt and needed a bandage, he refused to give up his bandanna--because it was expensive and he didn't want it to be ruined. We all hated him.
And was I relieved that we all hated him--that he got to be the goat instead of me? You bet I was.
Well, one lazy afternoon we were all sitting around the cabin--all of us except the Goat. And it occurred to us, in the way that terrible ideas seem to drift in on the breeze and take over everything like a strong odor, that it would be fun to cut holes in the Goat's underwear. Why this particular idea occurred to us, I don't know. He had underwear; we had Swiss Army Knives. Apparently that was all that was necessary. So we opened up his trunk, took out all his briefs, and cut big holes in all the crotches. We laughed and laughed. Then we cut his soap in half. That was also pretty funny. Then we cut up his letters from home. Then we threw his transistor radio in the woods. Then we ruined his tennis racket. Then...
Well, you get the idea. When we finally looked up and caught our breaths and...came to...we realized that we had utterly destroyed everything this boy had brought with him to camp. Hundreds of dollars worth of stuff. And no one could exactly remember having decided to do all that. We had decided to embarrass him with some holes in his shorts. And then we just got... carried away.
Carried away. It's a very interesting turn of phrase, isn't it? What is it, exactly, that we think has lifted and carried us? What force external to us do we blame for moving us away from where we intended to be and who we thought we were?
Obviously, we did the only thing that honorable pre-teens could do--we lied like hell about what had happened, and told our counselors that we had seen some Strange Adult lurking around the cabin. I don't think it occurred to any of us how ludicrous the story was, since only one boy's possessions had been touched.
The counselors made it clear to us that the police would have to be called in if, indeed, an outsider were involved. They interviewed us separately and worked each of us over until we broke. In the end, we all gave each other up. Amazingly, we didn't get kicked out of camp. We just had to pay to replace the Goat's things.
I remember this particular incident because it was rare and strange for me. Perhaps it isn't for lots of guys, but it is for me. I don't tend to think of myself as having much a destructive urge. I take no great joy in wrecking things or seeing things wrecked. Some people find carnage fun; I just don't. I'm a creator, after all--a writer, a team-builder, a developer of programs, blah blah blah. What happened to me back then? Was I possessed?
Whatever it was, I'll tell you one thing: It was fun. There was joy in that moment, at that moment. I don't think I credited it at the time--I was too afraid of it. But there was tremendous glee and fun and...euphoria, really. Complete Dionysian release.
There is something freeing (if a little apocalyptic) in letting that urge loose upon the world. It's awful in the real, original meaning of the world. You stand in awe of what you can do. From the outside, we see that as juvenile: "Nyah, nyah--look what I can do." But perhaps, sometimes, there's something intoxicating and frightening in it, as well: "Holy shit--look what I can do."
Sometimes we take our creative urge for granted and forget to celebrate our potential. Obviously we should pay respect to that urge and its products, and cultivate it in ourselves. We can do great things, and each of us is capable of imagining and bringing into reality something wonderful. But we need to pay homage to our destructive urge as well--to note it, and be aware of it, and pay it a kind of grim respect. To pretend it isn't there is to ruled by it--in secret, in silence, unaware, and from a very dark place. One day, all of a sudden, it erupts--and we look around in horror, saying "What happened?" Saying, "I got carried away." Saying "It was the devil!"
The old Greeks knew how dangerous it was to serve one god to the exclusion of others. To them, nothing was more important than balance. Feed all of the Powers that rule the universe (within us and without us) and avoid having any one of them possess you utterly. Obviously, our more advanced culture knows that this is nonsense. The very idea of balance is old and stodgy and stale and foolish. It's boring, really. The ideal, for us, is the extreme (sorry: Xtreme).
But maybe that makes sense. After all, we aren't aiming for the Good Life; we're aiming for the Afterlife. The sooner, the better.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Day Two of our professional development segued from information downloading and resource organizing to more of a work session—the teachers finally got to dig in to the curriculum materials and begin doing some planning.
My room was focused on a Grade 9 civics course, custom developed to focus on local history and issues as a way to engage kids as they transition to high school and help them feel a part of something larger than themselves. The course is titled “Be the Change,” from Gandhi’s quote, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”
As the teachers began to put the pieces together and see how traditional civics was being married to project-based learning and supported by a number of supplemental resources supplied by interesting and interested non-profit organizations, they began to get excited. Suddenly, yesterday’s affectless and self-involved drones became animated and committed teachers again. They began to plan, and share, and argue. But instead of arguing about accountability or assessment or being forced to change, they were arguing about the right things:
“This project about revising the student code of conduct--what are they really supposed to do with it? I mean, be honest.”
“Look at page two—they’re supposed to submit their proposed changes to the school board.”
“But that’s ridiculous; no one’s going to take them seriously.”
“You don’t know that.”
“The district really wants this course to work—they’re going to support it. It’s our job to make them support it..”
“But listen—look—every single ninth grader in the city is going to be submitting proposals? That’s crazy.”
“And hard to ignore.”
“Even if the board cared, which they won’t, it takes years to get anything changed around here. They’ll be seniors by the time anything they asked for gets adopted. It’s just going to make the kids cynical.”
“It doesn’t have to. It’s actually a great teachable moment, if that happens—it helps show that change is slow out in the real world—that not everything is instant gratification, but that slow doesn’t mean non-existent.”
“And even if none of the changes are adopted—hell, that’s real world too. Maybe it will discourage some of the kids, but at least it’s honest.”
“And then…and then...you know what else we could do? Listen…”
And then there was this exchange:
“You’re asking us to teach [Famous Local Labor Strike X] in the fourth week, using Internet resources, but I’ve never taught U.S. History—I’m not sure I know enough, and it’s coming up so soon…”
“Hey, I teach right down the hall, and I’ve taught U.S. History for years. Buy me a coffee some day after school, I’ll get you up to speed.”
“That would be great. But you know what would be even better? You come teach my class that day.”
“I’ll do that if you help me set up the debate next week, because I’ve never done of those that worked, and I know you do Model U.N.”
“I can do that.”
Which was followed quickly by:
“You know what we ought to do? We ought to set up a Yahoo Group or something. Now that we’re all going to be doing the same thing, it’s crazy not to be talking to each other.”
“Yeah, I’m hearing all all these great ideas today, but we don’t get to see each other all that often. I don’t want to lose this.”
“It’ll make it easy to post comments or suggestions, or questions for each other.”
“Share lesson plans…”
“Ideas for field trips…”
And on and on it went.
I tell you, it filled my little heart with joy. No lie. It’s worth all the crap we go through, all the negativity, all the politics, all the defeatism. It really is. To see just this much change—just this much engagement and collaboration and…hope—to see just one teacher move from a world-weary “My kids can’t do this” to an excited “I think this will work,” and to know that something great is going to be happening in the classroom.
Ah, that blasted hope. Just when you’re ready to give up, a single taste is enough to lift you up and keep you going.
It’s a curse.
Monday, August 27, 2007
The public school population has plummeted in recent years (I think "plummet" is the only fair word here), and parents have made it clear to the Supe, in community meetings he has held, that they have no interest in putting their kids back in to the district without some pretty Radical Action. The message is clear, from parents, from test data, from independent surveys: the district is failing its children.
The district has just entered Corrective Action Stage II, which means that the state could take them over and do whatever they feel is necessary. They have not done so, and have put their faith in the Supe and the Board and their plan for Radical Action. The Supe apologizes to the teachers for the rapid pace of change, but says, "to be perfectly blunt, I feel like if we don't move quickly, we may not have a district left to work in."
Meanwhile, working conditions are not bad, compared to other similar districts in the state and across the country. Class size is not bad, resources are plentiful, and salaries are comparatively healthy.
But, he warns, none of those things will hold if the population keeps dropping. Kids are leaving the system in droves--either being pulled out by parents or dropping out as soon as they hit high school. If we care about this district, if we care about our children, we need to pull together and work together and be willing to change what we're doing. Something Needs To Be Done, and he is determined to do it.
And now he will take questions. Here they are:
1. What about our raises?
2. What about my seniority?
3. What about my job protection?
4. What are you going to do if there's a teacher strike (which could happen any day)?
5. Happy workers are hard workers, and we are not happy workers.
(yes, I know that's not a question, but that seldom stops teachers)
6. I don't feel like I'm being respected.
7. You say most class sizes are small, but my classes are too big. What are you gonna do about that?
On and on it goes. The Supe does his best to answer all of their questions openly and honestly, without recrimination or bitterness, all the while appealing to the crowd to think of this as a shared burden and a shared challenge, for which they will have to find shared answers.
To put it simply, they are not interested.
It goes on for an hour. Not once--I'm not exaggerating: not once--does anyone talk about the students, and what they need in order to succeed, or the district as a whole, and what it needs in order to survive. Never once is there an acknowledgement that they are part of a school community or a city community, and that the problems are large and complex. Not once is there an acknowledgment that people are trying hard to make things better. The entire hour is just one long shriek of "WHAT ABOUT ME?"
I love teachers. I am a teacher. My parents were teachers. My wife is a teacher. Her parents are teachers. Believe me, I do not like bashing teachers.
But good GOD. How can people charged with instilling wisdom and insight in our young be so wildly deaf and blind?
Friday, August 24, 2007
I tried to paste it in here, but I can't get it sized right and legible. So go see for your own self.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
From the AP:
BELOIT, Wis. - Most of the students entering college this fall, members of the class of 2011, were born in 1989. For them, Alvin Ailey, Andrei Sakharov, Huey Newton, Emperor Hirohito, Ted Bundy and Abbie Hoffman have always been dead.Go read the entire list of horrors at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20378610/
I've written about the subject before (http://agathon-sbh.blogspot.com/2007/07/accountability.html and http://agathon-sbh.blogspot.com/2007/04/professionals.html most explicitly), but it's a thorny issue that isn't moving any closer to resolution.
Why thorny? Wouldn't you assume that most grown-ups are willing to be held accountable for the jobs they do? I mean, most grown-ups not involved in politics?
I mentioned once before that a major difference between the worlds of business and education is that in the former world, when you perform well and accomplish things, you tend to get rewarded--with a bonus, a raise, a promotion, something like that. In the latter world, you get nothing. If you are a more innovative teacher than your neighbor, you get nothing. If you are a more beloved teacher than your neighbor, you get nothing. If your kids' test scores are higher than those of your neighbors', you get nothing. The only way to earn more than your neighbor is to outlast her. And the only way to advance in the profession is to leave it and go into administration.
This means that the only incentive for working harder that is built into the system is our expectation of their sainthood. That is, we assume they'll bust their asses because they Love The Kids. And after all, it's All About The Kids.
Hell, even doctors aren't expected to work solely for the Greater Good of saving lives. But teachers are another matter.
This got me to thinking, today, about my experiences teaching behind what had just stopped being the Iron Curtain, in 1993. I got to see, up close and personal, the remnants of a system where virtually no one was rewarded for innovation, initiative, or hard work (in fact, people were viewed with deep suspicion if they exhibited any of these traits). Whatever people's salaries were determined by, it wasn't performance. In groceries and other stores, it didn't even seem to be connected to sales. Stores shut down for hours in the middle of the day; salespeople were rude beyond belief and seemed to find it personally humiliating to have to serve customers; no one did the slightest thing to make stores or displays or products look enticing or desirable, or even very clean.
At one point while I was Over There, Kmart came to town, having bought out one of the major department store chains. They sent trainers to work with the employees. I heard rumors of the near-riot that occurred when the Americans began insisting that floorwalkers and salespeople start saying things like. "May I help you?"
All of which is only to say this: it is a very small minority of the human population that does its work purely and solely for the love of that work and the private, personal satisfaction they derive from doing it. The rest of us, sorry to say, need to get paid.
And payment can come in many forms. When I was a schoolteacher in New York City, I would have happily traded a raise in pay for an improvement in the physical conditions in which I had to work. Promise me you'll sweep and mop the floors, cover the peeling paint, and provide me with decent and accessible bathrooms, and I'm a Happy Worker. Or how about this one: instead of a raise this year, give me the right to throw a kid out of school after three Major Incidents. I mean, really out--as in, he has to petition to come back, and prove that he values and desires an education. What would that be worth to most teachers?
So...accountability. In a situation where an employer provides the incentives and rewards for work, from base pay through potential perks, it seems pretty reasonable to me that the employer would want to put in place some system of accountability, to make sure the work is getting done properly and correctly. Fair is fair.
And maybe this is where it all falls apart in K12 education. The teachers do get paid--but there is virtually no management of them as employees. Whoever signs the checks doesn't know them from Adam. They're not paid as individuals; they're paid as a class of employees. And since the rate of pay, and the dearth of potential perks, is completely un-influence-able by the quality or quantity of work the teachers do, it's easy for teachers to feel un-beholden to their employers and therefore unaccountable. I do what I do for the love of doing it, and to help The Kids. Therefore, I'm accountable to no one but myself and my view of what the kids need.
And I can tell you from personal experience, in the work I've been doing for the past few years, that it's damned hard to convince people who live in such a situation that:
- while we understand why you feel the way they do, and
- while you are historically justified in feeling the way you do, and
- while it is true that what you do is incredibly difficult and demanding...
Even given all these things... notwithstanding... regardless... anyway...there is something you must see and believe and deal with, which is this:
The way you are doing your job is ineffective and incorrect, and must change.
But because teachers are accountable to no one, and beholden to no one, and feel as though, really, they work for no one except themselves, the response in every district where I've worked, in every subject area, at every grade level, is pretty much the same:
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
In case you missed it, here's Jon Stewart having the kind of conversation--about both books and politics--that you can't find anywhere on the so-called real news.
Why is it that only our comedians feel compelled to hold our public servants accountable for what they do in our name?
Friday, August 17, 2007
And may the art be with you.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
It’s a rerun of a rerun, which is too bad, because what I need are mere reruns, to catch up on what I’ve missed—since I’m a recent convert. On this particular episode, Omar Epps stops by a hotel to see his visiting parents. His mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, but when he first sees her, she is lively and exuberant and full of love. And for some reason, out of the blue (it is always out of the blue), I miss my mom.
Maybe it’s because it’s mid-August, and she died at the end of August. Maybe there’s something about it being eight years now. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just seeing another tough and lively woman fighting disease—even a fictional woman.
There are times when I feel at peace with it all—where her absence is simply a Fact in my life, and an old fact at that. Bad but understandable. Digested and dealt with long ago.
And then, all of a sudden, for some reason, there’s nothing old or factual about it anymore, and I am angry and at a loss, filled with loss—her loss. Something reminds me of her in the full force of her life, and I’m enraged that I’ve been denied the full force of her life—that I don’t get to have her voice on my phone anymore, or her face at my door. And her face would have been at my door—of that, I have no doubt. There to see us, there to see her grandchildren, there to…relish it all, in her sixties and beyond. There would have been great richness and joy in that part of her life—of that, too, I have no doubt.
Instead what I have is distance and void—the idea of family but rarely the reality of it, the presence of it. We are blown apart, all in different parts of the country and off in our own worlds. And when we are present, when we're all together, the three of us who have been left behind, it is merely polite and merely friendly. We are cordial. We get along. It’s fine. We speak of politics and movies and other trivia. We enjoy each other’s company. But it is all just…mere.
The heart has gone out of the whole operation.
Monday, August 13, 2007
Sitting behind me is a charming young French woman who is talking with a beefy young American man. Or it’s a charming French girl and a beefy American boy. They are tiptoeing precariously on that perilous ledge between the end of kid-dom and the beginning of person-hood—that ledge you don’t notice until you’re well on the other side of it, looking back.
She has been doing most of the talking—some of it about herself, some of it about America, some of it, most charmingly, about English. She says all French-speakers have trouble differentiating between sheet and shit when they speak. Earnest Beefy Boy tries his best to teach her.
All in all, the conversation is banal and not worth eavesdropping on. But at one point, when I become bored with my book and lean back in my seat, watching New Jersey pass by, I think of these two and their more glamorous counterparts in film, as played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. And I say to myself, Look—here is a perfect movie moment happening right before your eyes. Or, rather, behind your back. Because, while it seems banal to me, it is clear that Earnest Beefy Boy is finding the moment exhilarating and magical and once-in-a-lifetime…even if he’s not in Vienna...and even if she eventually does get off the train without him. And I say to myself, Isn’t that interesting—how movies can externalize and make visible to observers what is truly magical only to those who live it themselves. And then I say to myself, And I am the observer here, not the live-r.
It’s a melancholy thought for a summer afternoon, but perhaps an appropriate thought. Here I am in my mid-forties, on a business trip, wearing a suit, with a cell phone earpiece wedged in my ear. I was never the Earnest Beefy Boy, but I am certainly no longer the Whatever-Kind-Of-Boy I was. There may be other Perfect Movie Moments waiting for me in my future, but this particular genre—the exhilarating romance of meeting strangers on a train—is not something for which I can send in my headshot and resume. I am no longer What They Are Looking For in the role. In fact, perhaps with a touch more grey in my hair to help sell it, I could be cast, now, as the Earnest Beefy Boy’s father.
And this is only a melancholy thought because we do not make movies about the Romances of life beyond being EBB’s. For us, nothing but dullness and drudgery lie beyond First Love. Our entire culture is Romeo and Juliet: young love is exciting, but let’s kill them off before they settle down and raise kids. If there is a Romance of raising children, it is not a story we know how to tell. If there is a Romance of being someone’s life partner, we can’t see it.
Pop Quiz: name a sexy married couple in movies or on TV. I can reach back to Nick and Nora Charles, and then…I’m not sure. Perhaps the TV show Hart to Hart, though I never watched it. We all know that on TV shows, a couple actually getting together is the kiss of death. Flirtation keeps a show going; consummation kills it. It is The End of everything we’re interested in. The rest of it—the making a life with someone, growing with them, compromising with them, celebrating their victories and mourning their defeats—all of that—is massively uninteresting to us, though it is what most of us spend most of our adult lives doing. We ignore it in our dramas and simply mock it in our comedies—and even when we mock adulthood, we do it from a remove. The fat, bald dad and the sexy, frustrated mom are just that—dad and mom to the kids, not particularly interesting in themselves. If plots do focus on their trials and tribulations, they focus either on the adults’ problems with their own parents, or on trivia—like whether goofy dad gets to play golf with his idiot friends.
At the front end—the people embarking on adulthood—we have some occasional focus. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy made it abundantly clear that men in their 20s didn’t know how to act or dress like grown-ups. Movies like Knocked Up focus on the challenge—and need—to step up and “act like a man.” Interestingly, though, the minute someone does “man up,” as they say, we lose interest. Grow up—we insist…but pssst: if you do, you’ll become invisible.
And so we keep our eyes firmly on our past, and wonder why we’re not still there. And we work out feverishly and dye our hair and get liposuction and god-knows-what-else to make a desperate case that we are still there. We are! We should be! The Charming French Girl should talk to me!
Well, I’m sure I didn’t have as many Perfect Movie Moments as some did in their 20s or 30s, but I surely did have some. And those Perfect Moments haven’t gone away in my 40s. They’ve just changed.
Last weekend, we took the kids to a minor league baseball game in honor of their uncle, my brother, visiting. It was a perfect night for a ball game—cool and clear. The kids were well behaved and had a lot of fun. At the very end, after the fireworks, the kids were allowed to run the bases. I stood in the stands and watched Thing 1, age seven, take off and run—an unbroken, open-field sprint, of the kind he doesn’t often have space or inspiration for. And as I watched him discover his long and lanky legs, stretching them out and pushing them forward and really running, I started cheering absurdly and waving my arms around like an idiot, as though it were the Big Race and he was Saving the Team or something. It was a completely inconsequential moment. It changed nothing. It led to nothing. It probably, in the great scheme of things, meant nothing, even to him. And yet, there he was, my boy, discovering some sliver of some part of his potential and living purely and ecstatically in the moment. And there I was, his dad, beaming with pride and cheering him on.
In a movie, I’m sure such a scene would be used to show the dad as a fool. But in my actual life, the life I'm living right now, day to day, I wouldn’t trade the moment for all the strangers on all the trains in the world.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Here's me: The Mastermind Rational (iNTj)
And another analysis here: