Tuesday Teacher Fantasy

Fantastic thinking is in order this thundery, rainy, hail-ish, Tuesday afternoon. You know, the kind of thinking you do when you sit around building blocks with a little kid (or several) and talk about how great it would be if you could eat only cake (or ice cream, or froot loops) all the time, for breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner. Or that summer lasted for ten months and school only lasted for two. And, “wouldn’t it be the best thing?”

“I’d have chocolate every day.”

“No way. I’d have a different kind at every meal and I would never, in a million years, get bored.”

“Oh, I know! I will ALWAYS get the corner piece with the extra icing. Oh, yeah.”

Oh, yeah. It would be the best thing.

books...

books…

Today, I think, the best thing would be, once a week to pack my reusable grocery bag the night before with a couple of the books I’ve got going on at the moment; I’d grin in anticipation of the coming day. Load the coffee maker and fixin’s carefully in a separate bag. I get to school around 6:30, just like always, and I hang an appealing, artful sign on the door that says READING DAY! I grab a pillow from the reading corner and arrange it near my desk, a kind of cozy cubby there in the corner under my “Fan Club” sign and photos and love notes from former students. I’d set my books for the day next to the pillow to wait, while I set up and start the coffee.

By 6:45 I am settled on the floor with the coffee maker bubbling away comfortably on the other side of the room. Picking up the first book in the stack, I slide my finger behind the bookmark holding my place and fold the book open. I graze slowly among the words as the sun comes up behind the mountains east of campus.

Eventually, students begin to slip into the room. Because it’s READING DAY, they already know to mumble a good morning. Maybe some of them pour a cup of joe with the tiniest of splash and swirl. Maybe not. First hour students would be so lucky! They could swing by Starbucks on their way to school and get something extra special and it would still be hot, perfect, creamy coffee / tea / chai / chocolate. We’ve a routine on READING DAY! one long-established and cherished of muttered greetings and the shush shush of pages turning.

There is no studying and no one tries to. There is no last minute rush to homework, and I don’t have to check. We each have our space of floor, desk, or wall, our cushion and the book we are working on. Some of use ear buds, and some of us don’t. No devices are opened by anyone; everyone is reading an old-fashioned, paper, analog, book of their choice.

For forty-eight minutes, there are no phones, tweets, whatsapp, instagram, texts messages, emails, parents, principals, or teachers. Just twenty-five or so souls breathing across ink spilled in delightful patterns that dance across paper in story form. Our breath steams, filling the room with the vaporous forms of places and people, near and far, known and unknown, real and imagined.

The building’s bells do their thing, and students slip away reluctantly to physics, philosophy, or some other part of the curriculum, and another group of students slips in. Later, for a couple of hours I’m alone, and I refresh the coffee maker before I return to my quiet corner, where I’ve started the second book in my stack for the day.

Just as I start to feel a little restless and maybe even lonesome, the last group of the day cracks the door open and enters to complete the ritual for the week. They settle to read, until the sound of a waiting line of cars starts to ooze beneath the door, and the rattle and crash of the younger grades in the hallways begins to shiver our air. We all get a little wiggly, and maybe there are a few people talking quietly, but some stay focused until the absolute last gasp before the last bell rings to free us for the day. Students fold their books closed like hands suspended in prayer around a bookmark, before they put cushions back in their place and shoulder backpacks and book bags to make their way home.

And wouldn’t it be the best thing? Oh, yeah.

~LD

Parts of a letter: thinking out loud in the cold

The thing about art is, as Beethoven said (Is this true? Is this a myth someone told me to make a point when I was a youngling? I will look it up later. Anyway, in my head a grizzled, bitter Beethoven speaks) there is nothing new in music (or any art). There are seven basic notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, their sharps and flats, repeated at higher or lower pitches, but the combinations are essentially finite. Measurable. Maybe even predictable to an extent (enter math).

What varies infinitely (or seems to – maybe this depends, like so many things, on one’s take on God and creation) is the certain curve and weight and touch that imparts “feeling” to a piece. What varies infinitely is whether we hear the same stories that Maxim Vengerov does in an Ysaye piece (unlikely, unless we happen to have the good fortune of being one of his master class students), or some other story entirely. With good, solid study, the stories should come near to being the same, even among musicians who’ve never met, but are unlikely to be what Ysaye himself saw as he composed. (Insert Shakespeare and Harold Bloom as the expert here if you like. Same result.)

What this tells us about a text like, say, The Hunger Games is not that it’s bad, or even especially good, but rather that Collins’ perspective on things like feminism, survival, capitalism / socialism, the conflict between love and self are presented sufficiently intelligently and artistically to pull in readers who might not otherwise have considered such important ideas (if they were forced to read them, say, for class). Ideally such texts lead them to read and appreciate (if not always enjoy), other, more complex, more artful works on similar ideas.

Naturally, many young readers aren’t ready to go there (neuro-biology works against them), but sometimes readers go back to books (and other works of art) like an old friend after they’ve matured, and see the bigger ideas then. (And yes, there are more than a handful of knuckleheads who never get it. Still, my teacher brain insists there is hope for human enlightenment. ‘-)) Even Harry Potter has at least some artistic value for bringing the old Greek myth figures back to the front of people’s minds. Ok, maybe not the front, but not the pit of intellectual despair that was 9th grade lit class with Odysseus.

So reading those books has value to the extent that they open a door for readers to be intellectually warmed up for 1984, Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare, A Clockwork Orange, and the rest. I read “lesser” works because working with young intellects is part of what I’ve chosen to do with my life and I need to know how to talk to them with some authority about the big ideas in the little stories that get their attention. Sometimes such works even have the added bonus of being “fun”, which is too often undervalued.

Perhaps the fact that we read / enjoy / participate in mediocre and bad art eventually leads us to greater and greater feats of human imagination. At the very least, the mediocre and the bad may lead us to think differently than we did before.

I agree that the artist must create for him/herself. But it seems to me that the great value in art must go beyond the interior world. Visual image (dance, flat art (like painting), sculpture, film) and auditory image (music, speech / language) become ways of relating to the world and the experiences you live. Creating art is a way of making meaning out of the (sometimes) apparent meaninglessness of being human; I’d go so far as to suggest that art requires the artist to consider an audience, even an unreal one, to offer a serving of perspective (like a glass of wine on a tray) in order for the meaning to be, well, meaningful.

And yes, I know, I’ve just effectively destroyed all my reasons for not writing lately. I think sometimes that I work harder at not writing than I do at writing. ‘-) I’m pretty sure I’ll be cold and dead before I can really not write. Weaving language and words into meaning are my skin and heart, maybe even my soul. Only my ridiculous, flawed, grown-up human brain gets in the way. ‘-) Ego is a powerful dismotivator.

I loved what you wrote: “Art (in any form) is a gift from God … designed for … people who understand it to keep them happy even when everything else is shit. (I could not find a simpler and more complicated definition than that). Life is like running in the freezing cold in the middle of the woods, and art is like finding a nice cabin with a fireplace inside, to stay there forever. One who enjoys art should never have to quit [the cabin] ever again.”

Once in a while the only way to get to complexity is simply. I’d add that life is like running NAKED and BAREFOOT in the freezing cold. But I can’t help thinking that art need not be a consolation prize.

~LD

At the Feet of Las Noas (remembering Paris)

Photo courtesy of C. Patrick Neagle

Cristo de las Noas, Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico // Photo courtesy of C. Patrick Neagle

Today,
beneath a tree
at a sidewalk café
I sipped a glass of lime
and Topo Chico
sweetened with grenadine;
a waiter’s smile
made me blush,
while the sun set behind Jesus
on the hill.
Condensation gathered
on the clear glass,
drawing a concerto of tiny flyers.
A young Hemingway sat
smoking Delicados, drinking
a pale green frappé,
and reading El Laberinto de la Soledad
at the next table.
A meter away,
city folk bustled by in cars;
their countenances low-lit,
glanced our way,
before returning zombied eyes
to devices where they live and work.
A cream colored pit bull, leash dragging,
sniffed around the legs of our chairs,
and apparently satisfied,
returned to her person’s side.
Later, as I walked down the street
the stars came on
blink by blink, remarkably
outshining street lamps
and passing cars —
then, I remembered
other trips,
other cafés,
other Hemingways
other labyrinths.

~LD

Happiness will be found

One of my students wrote an essay about Raymond Carver’s poem “Happiness” for the literary analysis assignment this week. I didn’t even know that Carver wrote poetry, or maybe it’s among the many things I’ve forgotten. In any case, as I sat with my hot coffee (cream and 2 sugars) Saturday morning marking the student’s analysis, I decided to give the poem a quick read. In this case, the quick read, turned into an entire leisurely stroll down that lane known as Memory.

The last time I read any Carver it was for a class in post-modernism. We read some of his short stories, all of which I found resonant but disturbing. I’m sorry I don’t still have my notes to tell you what my 23-year-old self put down as reaction to his work. I do remember I didn’t like his stories. Resonant but disturbing was difficult to incorporate into my worldview back then. I was not surprised though that this little piece of poetic imagery brought to me by a student prompted memories of (again) the way images speak softly but clearly to our experience, reminding us to pay attention.

Reminding us, for example, of the parallel qualities of our lives.  Don’t we all have coffee (or tea, or juice) in the morning just at dawn, our minds full of “early morning stuff that passes for thought” (lines 3-4): what to wear, bills pending payment, the dog needing to be walked, the car washed, and the yard mowed. We collect up the leavings of responsibility, like the speaker in the poem, and erroneously call them thoughts.

Then the speaker looks out through a window, sees the boys, delivering the newspaper (in our world of digital instantaneity, how quaint the analog world looks where a person delivers the news written on paper). They are silent in their happiness. The boys are so utterly consumed with their happiness that there is nothing to say about it. I can imagine that they say nothing because, perhaps — like so many of us with our coffee in the morning — they don’t even realize that they are happy. For a moment, I wonder if the speaker is being wry, that perhaps these aren’t happy boys at all, but rather sleepy, burdened boys who have to get up to deliver the paper to help generate family income. But then the speaker suggests that he believes “if they could, they would take each other’s arm” (lines 12-13) and the human contact implied doesn’t seem to be seeking comfort in a time of need, just sharing “doing this thing together” (line 15) and doing it “slowly” (line 16), as if it needed attention and time to savor. I imagine them running off, later and faster, in afternoon sunlight to a record store to spend their early morning cash.

Our speaker, still at the window, looks out on a lovely but melancholy “pale” moon that persists even though “the sky is taking on light” (line 17-18). The sick, the tired, the worn are pallid, but happiness? How can this pale moon be part of a snapshot of supposed happiness? Our doubts about the speaker’s assertion are answered when he explains the sight of this pale moon as “Such beauty that for a minute / death and ambition, even love, / doesn’t enter into this” (lines 19-21). Sipping our own steaming cups, we know this feeling. It is a feeling so rare that it tends to escape us. A moment in which we forget the transitory nature of our own humanity, and the day-to-day struggles to make meaning slip away into the wave of happiness before we are washed back out to a sea of routine.

The speaker didn’t expect happiness to be delivering the paper as he took his morning coffee, and he knows, as we must, that “It comes on / unexpectedly” (line 22). I look out my kitchen window, washing my coffee cup, and think about how to talk to my student about her incomplete analysis, and the sun shines white through the glass. I am still considering happiness and the melancholy that comes with it, but there aren’t really words, because I guess I know that the experience of poetry is sometimes like the experience of happiness; it “goes beyond, really / any early morning talk about it” (lines 22-23). Maybe that’s what I’ll tell her.

~LD

Carver, Raymond. “Happiness.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. 2 June 2003.            Web. 8 Mar 2014.

Post script for my students: Yes, you CAN do this. Yes, it IS literary analysis. I’m sure there are many flaws in this piece, intellectually and compositionally. When you find them, let me know so that I can make the appropriate revisions and rewrite as needed. Notice that picky and petty things like the author and title in paragraph one, as well as in-text citations and bibliography are still present. The thesis is also present, although it is NOT in the first paragraph.

Post script for everyone else: I did this mainly to see if I still could. ‘-) Let me know what you think. If you don’t know the poem, click on the link in the bibliography to give it a look.

Athena talks with Khaos — NaPoWriMo day 27

Zeus-sized migrane.

Zeus-sized migrane. I found this illustration from D’Aulaire’s at annieandaunt.blogspot.com

Occasionally,
while light trickles
in perfect electronic
Rivulets
across the screen horizon —
Phone
Television
Notebook
Laptop
Desktop
— the images of
Thousands of miles
of cables and wires
Strung across naive,
Naked wilderness
and garroting naughty,
thoughtless cityscapes,
sweep mirage-like
before the mind’s eye,
laying all to waste
at the feet of
Future.

~LD

* * *
Recently, the school where I work offered to finance at no interest over ten months the purchase of Ipads for interested staff. I signed up for mine yesterday. This morning, I spent three hours in a workshop on Google drive. Plus there are all the hours I spend in front of electronic devices for both work and play. Between writing, teaching, playing video games and occasionally indulging in mindless crime shows, electronics take up more of my time than I care to admit.

If you’re wondering about the title, Khaos (Chaos) was believed by the Greeks to have existed before anything else (even before Gaia) and was the goddess of air (among other things — Wikipedia is helpful if you want the basics), and though Athena is warlike, she is also the goddess of wisdom and sprang fully formed from Zeus’s forehead (mind?). “Future” here had a physical, statue-like feel to me and because that’s the way my brain turns, I thought of my old D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and all the Greek ideas and beliefs that became so much fiction so quickly. Khaos isn’t in D’Aulaires’, but I guess I’m not six years-old anymore and may have read and thought one or two other things about Greek mythology since then. Thanks for stopping by! ~LD

Coming Soon / Proximamente

Over this first week of my spring vacation, I’ve spent an abundant amount of time thinking about writing (and reading). So much time, in fact, that I nearly (but didn’t) signed up for a coursera.org Writing I (college composition) class. I decided against not because I don’t think it would do me any good (all the contrary), but rather that by the time I found it, it was already 10 days underway, and I didn’t want to have missed a single thing.

That urge got me thinking about what I write, how I write, and my “voice.” I’m not sure it’s really my voice anymore. By which I mean, perhaps, that it’s not my main voice, or even the voice with which I have become most comfortable. Rather, it’s the voice that I know others in my long-standing, regular audience are used to and most comfortable with.

In an effort to get my blog readers to talk back to me (read: “be uncomfortable”), a few nights ago I wrote an annotated list of things I believe and why: right to bear arms, and contradictorily the right not to HAVE to bear arms, the right to marry whomever one pleases without legal hurdles impeding spousal rights in the case of illness or death, among other usually inflammatory topics. What I discovered as I wrote is not what I believe (which I’ve known for a long time), but rather that I don’t write about these topics well. Not even from my own experience (more vast than I care to let on – that may be part of the problem with the writing well, or not writing well). Writing well about those ideas, and all my ideas, is important to me, but I think as long as I’m trying to stay in the good graces of the imaginary people of my long-standing audience, I can only write about certain things well. Please note that the “beliefs” post never made the ether; its electrons remain safely stashed among the thousands of things that have never seen the light of day.

At the beginning of the school year, I started a graphic novel project with the help of the art teacher. The story line was to be based on an essay I wrote years ago about a girl I have been, a bowie knife, and a boy she knew. As the art began to come together, I realized that the original piece, a personal essay, was merely the background story to a larger, fictional, warrior-woman story. And I’ve not been able to get past the first scene of this new piece, in part I’d guess, because I’m terrified of what this unknown woman will do, now that she’s tearing away the fabric of what I thought she was, expected her to be. And in part because I see the faces of dismay in my accustomed audience when I write, and the words of her story come to a full stop. Still, her story needs to play out, and it’s up to me to give her that chance.

And so, I’m giving myself permission to return to my rebellious, free-wheeling twenty-year-old mind and voice, unhindered by the audience (that is, the one in my head) that is known to me, and that has certain expectations for correctness — or whatever it is they expect — that keeps my voice from changing. I need to throw open the theater doors and give the familiar faces with all their familiar reactions a chance to leave, open up the ticket booth, put out a new marquee and see who stays, and who comes in to give the ideas a once over. The shows have definitely changed, though I’m sure that in many ways this new voice will sound familiar, too.

All that’s left to say? Break a leg!
~LD

Not gonna lie…

Well, anyway, not today. I’m terribly out of touch. It happens sometimes to people. Since I don’t believe in “writer’s block” or that inspiration is necessary to write, I honestly have no good excuse. I’ve spent two perfectly good, perfectly free weekends doing essentially nothing. Well, I take that back; I’ve started and finished reading several good books. Among them, a collection of essays by Barbara Kingsolver (High Tide in Tucson), Allison Moore’s The Lighthouse, and the second and third books in James Dashner’s Maze Runner trilogy, and now making headway through Kevin Brooks’ Being. I also played some Skyrim and rested enough to kick the cough I’ve had since early December.

All the reading, gaming, cooking, keeping house, and going to my day job and keeping up with all that the day job requires, however, has not prevented me from feeling like a slug for not writing.

I swore to one of the sophomores in the early days of class that inspiration was not required to write well. She looked at me as if I had consumed the moon in one bite. Obviously, my credibility is less than stellar (pun intended).

Ok, fine. I’m here. I’m writing. I’m absolutely not inspired. That’s okay. Besides, it’s not as though I haven’t been writing, but I’ve not been writing things I’m ready to share with the blog. Pieces that I may never share with the blog: snippets of poetry in English and Spanish, lesson plans (I say they count, what will all the invention necessary), letters to beloved teachers, far far too many facebook status updates. I started keeping a regular journal again and have half a million writing ideas. What I want is TIME. Time to write. But if I don’t take the big chunks of time I’ve worked to clear out from underneath paper grading and administrative tasks, what else can I expect?

No, Barbara, writing does not require inspiration. Writing requires applying one’s backside to the chair in front of the page (whether paper or digital) and doing the writing. Re-reading the writing. Rewriting the writing. And then writing some more. Writing requires the patience to look inside, even if the writer is only looking inside to write about a crummy topic assigned by a blasted teacher who doesn’t ever write. Not ever. I write. I write a lot. Not as much as I should, most likely, but since I don’t make my living from these pixelated letters (yet) there is not always time or energy. But Neil Gaiman rule number one is “Write.” [please see http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/09/28/neil-gaiman-8-rules-of-writing/ for all eight rules]. I have not been keeping at it. But starting today, in spite of the stacks of essays to grade, in spite of Skyrim, in spite of the Superbowl, and every other life thing that must happen sooner or later, I will write. So that means you may be reading lots of bad writing, but you will be seeing writing of some kind.

Hope you guys haven’t been too lonely without me. [As if.] And I hope to drive you bonkers at least once a week again here on the inky highway.

Con cariño y abrazos ~LD

Building a fire…

Building a fire . . . in my head

After three days of meetings and classes and refreshers and precious little time in the classroom, I was beyond ready for the weekend. But in a weekend filled with obligatory fun, and the class I’ve been taking for my own development, Sunday was the only day left to submerge myself in the work of bringing my brain back around to thinking about something besides all those folders of writings I’ve been working on this summer.

I sat in the study and put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and looked at the computer screen.  I skimmed back through last year’s planning to remind myself of where to start and to look at my marginal notes so that I’d remember what I wanted to do differently. I closed my eyes to concentrate my breath with Waters, Gilmore and Wright reminding me to “Breathe.” In the darkened room of my mind, I reached over to my classroom “switch” and turned the yes voice on.

As I unknotted the step-by-step plan for the first two weeks of the sophomore composition course, sparks were flying down the millions of highways in my brain sweeping up stray threads for activities and retying together my “teacher” self. I will never get every little thing across, I know. Even if I could get it out there, most of it wouldn’t stick. Better to hit the big ideas and let them figure out little ideas on their own. The biggest big idea is to get them to turn on their “yes” voice. The second big idea is to convince them to keep it on.

I learned about the “yes” voice reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones way back when I started teaching (approximately 10,000 years ago).  I wish I had the book at hand because I’m sure what Goldberg said about it was exactly perfect. Since I don’t have the book at hand, let me give you my stewed down version. Back when we were little people, before the school system got its calloused, dirty hands on us, we used to get truly enthused about, well, stuff.

Your stuff was probably different from my stuff, but I want to give you an idea here; bear with me.  I remember lying on the white bedspread in Grammie and Pa’s guest bedroom looking at one of the books from the hall shelf before I fell asleep one Saturday night.  This particular book had articles with pictures about prehistoric animals.  My two favorites both had big teeth: the wooly mammoth and the saber tooth tiger, both recognizable, but still utterly foreign. I read and re-read the informational blurbs and studied the drawings. After that, any time I saw something related to wooly mammoths or saber tooth tigers, I would feel my belly go all fluttery (don’t pretend that this didn’t happen to you, you know it did) and I’d want to see every teensy piece of new information that presented itself.  “Wooly mammoths!”

That fluttery feeling is the feeling I need to pass to my students on day one. Day ONE. In previous years I’ve had inconsistent success with this lecture (one of the few talks I give all year), but last year was spectacularly successful.  I think what makes it work is the “fire” I bring.

Today was the day to start my fire.  Lay the coals out interspersed with newsprint and ocote sticks. The coals are the old, solid texts we always start with – Beowulf, Canterbury Tales and the ballads, Shakespeare. The texts I know and love so well make a good base for this fire, and we will be burning through them together all year long. I can’t help but get excited about them; they never fail to show me a new face, even after all these years. Newsprint and ocote sticks come in the form of these new facets, and in the planning.  Tuesday night I will sit around and rehearse what to say on day one — shredding newsprint.

Honestly, in rereading this entry, it doesn’t sound very fiery.  But it is.  And I know that sleep will be hard to come by on Tuesday night as I compulsively feed and fan the fire. Because that’s what we do in the face of a fickle flame, we watch and wait, and feed and fan.

This entry feels unfinished, as it should.  The finish of this entry will be the day after the fire is lit and begins to spread and takes on a life of its own out there in the masses of students who will come through my door on Wednesday.

Hope your week is as great as mine will be! I CAN’T WAIT!

~LD