Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Making Cyber-Connections, All Summer Long

Writing-wise, I've had a strange and enlightening month, one that culminated in a free CD. And to think I owe it all to Kid Rock.

Let's back up a little, shall we?...

A few weeks ago now, I had a piece in the Hartford Courant about Kid Rock and his song "All Summer Long," which is a "mash-up" of two other songs, Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." In the article, I basically made the case that the song offends me because it rewards unoriginal thought.

Now, I don't have any problems with Kid Rock. (No one would ever accuse me of being a huge fan or anything, but I like two of his song, "Picture" and "Lonely Road of Faith," quite a bit.) Nor do I have any problems with sampling in general, as long as the new artist does something different with the borrowed material. I just don't see anything "different" about "All Summer Long."

The article ran on July 9th, in the Commentary section of the Courant; it also ran on the Courant's website, which allows readers to post comments about the articles. As it turns out, my simple Kid Rock piece ended up getting a whopping 54 comments.

Now, to be fair, that total is sort of misleading; three of those comments were made by my friend Mac, who posted several goofy comments under different pseudonyms; and a few people posted more than once-- e.g. "Southern Rock Girl," who posted nine times. Still, the degree of fuss conjured up by the article surprised me.

And these posts came from people from all over-- not just from Connecticut, not just from New England, but from Illinois, Canada, Georgia, Arizona, even Germany. How this piece ever came across their radar, I'll never know.

(Bizarre aside: I also found a link to the piece on al.com, the site for "Everything Alabama." Again, how did they even find it?)

And what did they all have to say about the piece? Well, the comments could be divided up into several categories:

Folks Who Are With Me. For example, Paul from Dover, NH said, "Very well said Mark. I knew this "song" made me angry and I couldn't quite put my finger on why, but you summed it up perfectly." Or Old Skool from Phoenix, who said, "All Summer Long is nothing more than Kid Rock singing over a Karoke-like mix of Zevon and Skynyrd. Oh, wait...he changed the lyrics. Big deal. What's next? A guitar player who rises to fame playing Guitar Hero? There's nothing original here. It's Karoke. It's the musical equivalent of paint-by-numbers."

Folks Who Are Against Kid Rock. These are people who didn't exactly agree with me; they just hate Kid Rock. Example: Jeff H from Haddam, CT, who proclaimed"Kid rock suks, and this song is a perfect example of how bad this no talent a$$ clown suks."

Folks Who Love Kid Rock. These people love anything Kid Rock does-- if he recorded an album of him hocking loogies, they'd buy it-- so naturally, they had to dis me.

Folks Who Think It's Just a Fun Song. I don't necessarily disagree with these people-- for example, the ubiquitous Southern Rock Girl, who professed, "I love the song it's all around fun as it's supposed to be so rock on kid rock." Thing is, I never said it wasn't a "fun" song; I just said it wasn't original. Why can't a song can be both?

Folks Who Say I Should Lighten Up. These are a more intense than the "It's Just a Fun Song" posters; these are the readers who think I'm way too full of myself. For example, texasgirl from Voss, Texas suggests, "maybe you should turn off the radio and try to attend some teacher's conference on being a more positive teacher. Or better yet, try to enjoy summer a little and catch one of his concerts."

Folks Who Have Branded Me an Elitist. This is where it started getting personal, because these posters basically called me a rotten teacher. For example, the poster from Maynard, MA who called himself "Not a pompous snob" (hmmmm... wonder what he's suggesting by that name?) posted three times, each one more full of rancor than the last.

"It's unfortunate that such elitist, empty folk are teaching our youth," he said in his first post. In another posting, he described my writing style as "dripping with arrogance and disdain for another's point of view." And in another, he seemed to be giving me advice: "Please, for your own happiness, crack open a beer, kick back, put the headphones on, and crank up the song once more. And, try to relax. Let the music take you away and stop being so full of yourself." (Somehow, he resisted signing off, "Love, Not a Pompous Snob.")

Folks Who Sort of Forgot About Me and Starting Responding to Each Other. After a while, some posters started responding to another, calling each other names instead of calling me names. That's always fun to watch.

I'd like to bring it back to the "Folks Who Branded Me an Elitist"-- specifically, the "Not a pompous snob" guy. In fact, I'm going to quote a larger section of one of his postings, from Wednesday, July 16th:

"I looked up some of your articles and your theme seems to be the same
throughout your writing; you sound like an angry, unfulfilled writer who is
upset that you haven't achieved the level of wide market success you feel
entitled to, and you're frustrated that so many people who are obviously less
intelligent than you are finding monetary success. Unfortunately, one senses
anger throughout your writing, such as in your essay on how superior you are in
intelligence to the moronic students you teach who simply parrot back what
they've heard of Robert Frost's classic poem "The Road Not Taken." Perhaps it is
you who is simply parroting the comments that the elitists, whom you surround
yourself with, mutter, and giggle at how you all know better."

I'll take the last part first, the part about my fellow elitist co-workers, which seemed particularly and unnecessarily nasty. I think if you walked into my workroom, you wouldn't find one single "elitist" among us. If anything, my co-workers don't give themselves enough credit for all their hard work.

(Is it just me, or do you think this guy has a beef against English teachers? In an earlier post, he said he "despised" his high school English teachers, for their tendency to "examine and re-examine books to death, often missing the fact that reading a book can be a simple act of enjoyment." I mean, talk about unresolved conflict... *sheeeesh*...)

As for me coming off "frustrated" and "angry" and "entitled" and "superior"... well, all I can say is, I don't think I'm like that, and I think anyone who knows me will tell you I'm not like that. And I'm sure my students will especially say I'm not like that. I always try to champion my students' comments; that's one of my trademarks. And to suggest otherwise, without ever seeing me "in action," seems unfair.

I guess "Not a pompous snob" is entitled to his opinion, of course... but deciding that my distaste for Kid Rock's "All Summer Long" means I'm an elitist and dismissive of my students' insights seems like an awful big leap.

But here's the real remarkable thing: all these people not only took the time to read the Kid Rock piece, but they took the time to respond in writing as well. And some responded multiple times. Heck, "Not a pompous snob" didn't just trash this one piece: he researched other pieces I wrote and then trashed them as well!

If you think about it, that's pretty amazing. Really, does it matter if they're cheering you, or they're booing you, as long as they're doing something? Even if the readers disagree, even if they call me names, at least I provoked a response. (Granted, maybe too much of a response in the case of "Not a pompous snob," who kinda hurt my feelings... but hey, I'll survive.)

Probably the best response to the piece arrived last week. I was popping into my school, and I saw that someone I didn't know had mailed me a package. As I opened the envelope, I found a CD, for a band called The New Intertia, along with some fliers and a letter, which read, "Thank you for your letter about Kid Rock. I hope you like my band better. I promise, for good or ill, we are original."

How cool!

So, what did I learn from all this, as the month comes to a close? Probably a lot, but I'll settle on four truisms:
  • The written word is powerful and has far reaching effects.
  • The written word backed by the Internet is even more powerful and far-reaching.
  • Self-promotion is essential to art. (The New Inertia guy was trying to promote his work, the same way I'm trying to promote my work on this blog. That's why I'm giving The New Interia a plug. Check them out: they have a cool, late-80s-"Cure"-thing going on.)
  • Finally... don't mess with Kid Rock fans. They fight back.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Why Graduation Parties Rock

Last night, I went to the graduation party of one my former students.

I usually go to one graduation party a summer. That is, I get invited to one per summer, and I usually go, and I’m honored to do so. I wouldn’t say it’s uncommon to invite teachers to a high school graduation party, but I don’t know if teachers typically rank high on the list of invitees, either. (Personally, when I was in high school, it didn’t even occur to me to invite one of my teachers.)

I should say, too, that these parties are not like the rager in Say Anything, where Eric Stolz dressed up as a rooster and Lili Taylor sang her 63 original songs to her ex-boyfriend, including the classic “Joe Lies.” Pretty much everyone at that party got loaded—even Ms. Evans, the guidance counselor played by Bebe Newirth, who smiles as she gives her keys to the Key Master, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack).

Suffice to say, the graduation parties I attend are nothing like that. They’re innocent affairs. Family affairs. The kind of party that features badminton and fruit salad and Great Aunt Barbaba.

Still, whenever I go to one of these parties, I always feel the tiniest pang of awkwardness right as I’m making that twelve second trek from my car to the front door. Mostly, I worry if my very presence, as “Mr. Dursin, Former Teacher,” will suck all the fun out of the room; maybe the kids will feel that they can’t act like themselves, or they’ll feel compelled to stop their “Pin the Tail on the Teacher” game.

Not only that, but as a male teacher, I always want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Thanks to the yahoos out there who play beer pong with their students (or worse), the rest of us normal teachers have to walk the thinnest of thin line, of connecting with our students without making it seem as if we want to be their BFFs. As my former director once said, “Caesar’s wife must be beyond reproach.” I guess, at these parties, I lean more toward Caesar’s Wife than Bebe Newirth.

And yet, when I walk in through that door and are greeted by the shrieks and the manly "one-handshake-hugs" from my former students, any lingering awkwardness or apprehension melts away and I’m reminded, once again, not only why I love going to graduation parties but why going to graduation parties is one of the coolest things a teacher can do. And since it seems Web readers prefer numbered lists, here are five reasons why:

(1) The Kid Is Awesome. It’s always the real special student that invites you to his or her party. Yes, as a teacher, you’re always making connections with students, but let's face it: some students you get to know better than others. Simply put, there are some kids that you just think are awesome. (This isn’t playing favorites or anything; it’s just the reality of human relationships.)

(2) The Parents Are Awesome. Awesome kids tend to come from awesome parents. They always thank you for coming to the party, thank you for helping out their child, thank you for being a good teacher. Their graciousness can actually humble you. Last night, as I was leaving, the mom gave me two containers of food to bring home and a gift—a book called Hamlet’s Dresser. I left thinking, "Wait: it’s your daughter’s party, and you’re giving me a gift?" Like I said, awesome.

(3) Awesome Kids Tend to Hang Out With Other Awesome Kids. For me, seeing these kids in all of their awesomeness outside of the classroom—in their “natural habitat,” so to speak—is always vindicating for me. Here’s what I mean: so often, when I tell people that I teach high school, they give me this “Oh, you poor thing” look or say something about how teens these days are out of control. Not only are they lazy, not only do they lack any respect for authority, but the throw parties reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Usually, the people who tell me this don’t know any teens personally; they just saw something on Dateline.

I almost want to videotape a graduation party like the one I went to last night, just so I can show it when folks go off on one of those rants and say, “Here they are, these so-called rotten kids, these purveyors of debauchery—eating finger rolls and fruit salad, playing badminton, talking about how they saw a Wall-E/ Get Smart double bill at the drive-in.”

Of course, I’m not so na├»ve to think they don’t throw Dateline-worthy parties, but seeing them outside the classroom at graduation parties somehow reinforces for me that it’s not an act; they’re not just good and pure and awesome students, but good and pure and awesome human beings.

(4) The “Shorts” Factor: One former student, who I’ve known for two years, commented to me that she never saw me in shorts before last night-- an innocuous observation, but one that speaks to a real phenomenon: teachers don’t always seem “real” to students. Functions like graduation parties allow students to glimpse behind the curtain to the “real” person beneath the teacher, the person who not only exists outside the walls of the school but actually-- *gasp!*-- wears shorts.

(5) The "Connection" Factor. I think as we get older, we tend to forget how significant high school graduation is. It really is an important milestone. And if you’re invited to celebrate this important day, that basically means you’re important too. I don’t want to get too mushy about this, but the person who sent you the invitation is basically saying, “Look, I met a ton of people in high school, but you really made a difference. You may not even know how you helped, but you did, and I want you here.” And that’s a pretty great thing, if you think about it

So, to the parents and students out there wondering if you should invite a teacher to your graduation party, I say go for it. And for the teachers out there who have ever found themselves on the fence about going to a graduation party, I say give it a shot. You won’t be sorry. Most likely, you’ll leave remembering why you chose teaching in the first place—and, if you’re really lucky, with some strawberry cheesecake as well.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Postscript: In Defense of Catcher

Last word on Catcher in the Rye (I swear)...

It may seem strange that I feel the need to defend one of the most widely read-- and widely loved-- books ever. But, over the years, I've talked to many academics who poo-poo Catcher for a bunch of reasons.

One colleague told me she zips through Catcher as quickly as she can, because she just can't stand Holden. Another said the more he reads Catcher, the less he sees in it. I even remember my own A.P. English teacher, twenty years ago, warning not to use Catcher as an example on the essay for the A. P. Test. (Apparently, the book isn't "acamedic" enough.)

Hey, these are smart folks who know their literature, and I'm not going to say they don't have legitimate reasons for losing interest in Salinger. But I wanted to respond to the three of the knocks I've heard over the years against Catcher in the Rye:

"It's all voice."

Even folks who have soured on the book will acknowledge that, in the character of Holden Caulfield, Salinger created one of the most identifiable and iconic "voices" in all of literature. But, they say, once you get beyond the "voice," there's not much to the book.

I'm not sure I agree with that. First of all, let's not discount the talent it takes to create that "voice"-- to capture the speech of this teenager so perfectly that you can actually hear the character in your mind as you read it on the page. Think that's easy?

Of course, Salinger's commitment to creating this iconic voice meant some things would go by the boards. You won't find in Catcher the same kind of lyrical passages that you can find in, say, Gatsby or Beloved. You just won't. It's not that kind of book.

Besides, dismissing the book is "all voice" doesn't take into account all of the great literary stuff going on in there. Symbolism, ambiguities, paradoxes, unrealiability-- oh, Catcher's got 'em, all right, in spades!

"I hate Holden."

Other teachers I've talked to like the voice but can't stand the person speaking. Holden Caulfield's depressing, they say. He's self-absorbed. He lies all the time. He does nothing to help himself. In short, he's a terrible role model. And he never changes throughout the course of the book.

In truth, they're right, mostly. He is depressing, because he's depressed: he still hasn't worked through the death of his brother Allie; he feels let down by his parents and teachers; and, as he says over and over, he's "lonesome as hell." He's terribly flawed, but he tries to mask all his pain with his snappy banter and wisecracks. To me, all this makes Holden totally compelling.

But I can't say Holden doesn't change. He absolutely does. In the penultimate chapter, when he sees Phoebe reaching for the gold ring but doesn't try to stop her, thus realizeing that sometimes you have to let kids learn form experience (I won't quote the passage here, because I just did in my last post)-- that shows that he did learn something. It's a small change, but a significant one, because he ackowledges to himself he can't be the "catcher in the rye."

"It's too simple."

This complaint, an offshoot of the "It's all voice" dig, is not about the plot exactly (even though some students have complained that nothing really "happens" in the book); it's about the fact that, in their eyes, the book lacks sufficient literary chomps. I've heard some teachers wonder what they can "do" with the book, beyond the obvious "catcher in the rye"/ "falling from innocence" symbolism.

I guess I have two responses to this. First, I think there's a lot you can "do" with the book, especially in terms of symbolism. In addition to the "catcher" symbol, Salinger includes many
separate yet inter-related symbolks throughout the text:

-- The big glass cases from Chapter 16 symbolize for Holden a place where you can capture in stasis the flux of life. (To me, that's as important a symbol as the "catcher in the rye." But who's going to buy a book called The Big Glass Case.)
-- The ice imagery (the fish Horwitz the cab driver talks about that are "frozen in ice," the fact that Holden always talks about how cold he is) relates to the same theme represented by the big glass cases: preservation. After all, when you put things in ice, you preserve them, and that's what Holden wants: he wants to preserve moments, so nothing changes.
-- Holden's game, when he's drunk in Cahpter 20, of hiding his imaginary wound suggests-- to me, anyway-- that he's concealing his pain. He doesn't want anyone else to see how much he's hurting.

Now, come on! How can you say there's nothing "to do" with this book?

Secondly, I don't know if I'd brush off the "falling" imagery so cavalierly. The "fall from grace" theme is one of the most essential themes in literature, and Salinger does such a great job weaving examples of "falling" throughout the text, besides the big "catcher in the rye" symbol: when Holden leaves Pencey Prep, he slips on peanut shells and nearly breaks his crazy neck; when he goes to see Sunny the prostitute, he trips over his own suitcase; when James Castle falls out the window, he's wearing Holden's sweater; even Mr. Antolini says Holden is on the verge of a "horrible fall."

These references underscore that Holden is still falling form grace; he's an adult, but he's definitely not a child. He's still in between.

The funny thing is, I wonder if the disinterest some of these teachers are feeling for Catcher may represent a bit of a "fall" as well. Maybe the symbols seem "obvious" to us because we've read it so many times. Maybe we feel we've exhausted the text. Somehow, we need to re-capture the innocence of reading for the first time. Maybe we need to remember when we were high school students ourselves, when we weren't experts in litarure, when the "fall from grace" theme still seemed new to us.

Maybe we're too good at this "English teacher" stuff. Maybe, as readers, we've lost a little of our innocence over the years as well.

One last thing: I read Catcher for the first time the summer before my junior year in high school. I can honestly say that reading that book, at that time, changed my life. I had never read a book like that ever. And it sparked in me the first inkling that I could maybe teach literature for a living. I'm an English teacher because of Catcher in the Rye. (And I hope my students think that's a good thing!)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Billy Collins, "The History Teacher," Catcher, and... a Poetic Debut!

Over a week ago now (sorry, been kinda busy), I went to see Billy Collins read some of his poetry.

For those of you who don't know Billy Collins, get to know him. A former two-time U.S. poet laureate (from 2001 to 2003), Collins is brilliant and creative while at the same time accessible and funny . Here's a sampling of his work:

The Lanyard



Don't fret if you're not a fan of poetry: Billy Collins is totally the Non-Fan-of-Poetry's Poet. First of all, as I mentioned above, his poems are funny-- and not "guy-in-a-beret-sipping-mochachino-while-smiling-smugly-at-the artist's-use-of-synecdoche" funny, but actually funny.

His humor contributes to his other cardinal virtue: his accessibility. Now this may sound like a slam-- like I'm calling him simplistic or something-- but I don't mean it that way at all. I mean that all great poetry works on several levels, one which is the purely literal level. And most people, even folks like my dad who know nothing about poetry, could "get" a Collins poem on a purely literal level. More than just "get" it: they can get something out of it.

One of my favorite Collins poems also happened to appear on the 2007 Advanced Placement Literature Exam (but I want credit for including it on my Freshman Final Exam two years before that). The poem also connects nicely to Catcher in the Rye, a topic I haven't quite finished milking the crap out of yet this summer. It's called "The History Teacher," which I will re-print below, with no permission from anyone whatsoever:

The History Teacher - Billy Collins

Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.
The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more

than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

To me, this is classic Collins. First of all, on a surface level, it's legitimately clever and funny. But if you want to go deeper than that (and I always do), the poem raises important questions about how much we coddle our children. Just think about those communities that don't keep score in youth soccer or little league games-- that way no one goes home with hurt feelings. Like the history teacher in the poem, the parents in those communities want to be Innocence-Protectors.

In that way, Collins' history teacher and those Concerned Little League Parents resemble Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, who likewise wants to preserve the innocence of children. That's what the title means, remember: Holden wants to stand in at the edge of a cliff and catch kids from falling from innocence into experience.

But unlike Collins' history teacher, Holden eventually figures out that his dream job is impossible. You can't keep kids from losing their innocence; you can't erase all the "F--- you"'s from the school stairwells. And even if you could, you probably shouldn't. As Holden says as the end of the novel, as he watches his little sister Phoebe ride the carousel:

"All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the goddam horse, but I didn't say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. if they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them."

Collins takes this idea one step further in "The History Teacher": you can't prevent kids from losing their innocence, because they're not really that innocent to begin with. Check out these lines: "The children would leave his classroom/for the playground to torment the weak/and the smart,/mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses." Despite the history teacher's attempts to "protect their innocence," these kids are just plain rotten.

Meanwhile, the teacher walks home past the proverbial white picket fences, completely ignorant to the violence on the playground. The way Collins juxtaposes the two, it's almost as if the teacher is the child, living in the naive and innocent world, while the kids are the jaded adults.

Now that's deep stuff. Or you could say I'm looking into it too much and just enjoy the "Chilly Age" and Spanish Inquisition stuff. That's what's great about Billy Collins.

In any case... I was so inspired by Collins' reading in general, and "The History Teacher" in particular, that I actually went out and wrote a poem myself, which I have given myself permission to debut here. It's nowhere near Billy Collins, of course, but hey, I'm a beginner:

Kids Those Days, by Mark Dursin

“Kids these days,” I hear them grumble.
“Plump and lumpy, violent and vacant,
Enslaved to shoot-‘em-up screens.
Brazen, back-talking bullies, all—
Oh, these kids these days.”

Fair point, I guess, but I’d like to know:
What about kids those days—
The ones who ate Sugar Smacks
And fake-smoked candy cigarettes?
They saw “Grease” in the theater, kids those days,
and all its naughty bits.
They waved Han Solo blasters at each other
And played “Kill the Man with the Ball.”
(That’s “kill”: not touch, not tackle,
Not attempt to detain. But kill.)

Don’t kid yourself:
Kids those days, like kids these days, watched too, too much TV.
These and those kids play “Tag”:
They label someone “It”—
The third-person objective pronoun—
Then run away.

They also belly-laugh and snort,
Those kids, these kids, and even yet-to-be kids.
They throw rocks in rivers
and jounce on alligator seesaws.
They find joy in churning Hoodsies into soup.

And they dress up as shepherds and angels in Christmas pageants,
Smiling shyly as they parade past proud parents,
Who’ve received special dispensation, just this once,
To use flash photography in church.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Field of Dreams/ Catcher in the Rye Connections

For eight summers now, I've been teaching Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and for eight summers, I've been showing the 1989 Field of Dreams along with it. And what does a film about spectral baseball players in an Iowa cornfield have to do with a depressed 1950s teenager wandeirng through New York? I'm glad you asked!

First off, the most obvious connection: for the three of you out there in Internet-land who may not know this,...
  • Field of Dreams, the film, is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella.
  • In the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella goes to Boston to find a reclusive novelist named Terrence Mann.
  • In the novel Shoeless Joe, Ray Kinsella goes to New Hampshire to find a reclusive novelist named J. D. Salinger.

That's right: Terrence Mann is loosely-based on J. D. Salinger. And I say "loosely-based," because Salinger is not a large, black man with a voice that sounds suspiciously like Mufasa. But like Terrence Mann, both the real-life J. D. Salinger and the character J. D. Salinger from the novel Shoeless Joe are hermits who stopped writing (or at least, stopped publishing their writing) at the peaks of their careers.

Incidentally, you really can't teach Catcher without talking about Salinger's biography; over the years, it seems more people are more interested in what Salinger hasn't written in the past forty years than anything he's ever has actually written. (You can find out more on Salinger's perculiar reclusiveness in the documentary, J. D. Salinger Does Not Want to Talk.) And the Terrence Mann character provides a way to segue into Salinger's infamous reclusiveness.

Beyond the Mann-Salinger connection, the film shares some thematic connections with Catcher. You can find the real biggie in Terrence Mann's famous climactic speech. (Come on: You know the words-- say it along with us!)

"People will come, Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces.

People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come."

The whole speech, and especially the parts I italicized, is about the biggest dream of them all: regaining childhood innocence. And Ray's field makes that impossibility possible. That's why those thousands of cars show up at the end: to get back to a time when there were no mortgages, no gambling scandals, no fallen heroes. That's childhood, essentially.

Holden desperately wants a place like Ray's field. He wants to be the "catcher in the rye," the guardian who keeps kids from losing their innocence, from falling from grace. He knows it can't happen in real life, but he wants it anyway. (Of course, a place like Ray's field can happen in the movies-- an artform which Holden claims to hate. If Holden actually saw Field of Dreams, he'd probably dismiss it as being "corny" or "phony." Or at least, he'd say those things, but who knows what he'd really feel deep down? )

Holden's desire to be a "catcher in the rye" relates to his fundamental fear of change. This seems odd to say, since he has been to four different high schools, but Holden can't deal with change and flux. This relates to one of the most important and most overlooked symbol in the book, for my money-- just as significant as the "catcher in the rye" symbol: the "big glass cases," which Holden talks about at the end of Chapter 16.

Holden marvels at how the "big glass cases" you find at museums preserve things: they keep objects and moments frozen in time. "Certain things they should stay the way they are," Holden says. "You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone."

Holden could probably really use a place like Ray's ballfield, a place where time stands still, where the flux of life is held in stasis. Basically, the Iowa ballfield is the equivalent of Holden's "big glass case."

Of course, if Holden heard a voice telling him to build a baseball field, he would never do it. For one thing, building the field takes work; Holden won't even pick up the phone to call Jane Gallagher. In addition, Holden, despite all his posturing, is too concerned with what everyone else thinks about him. (Remember, in the movie, all the locals think Ray Kinsella's crazy, the "biggest horse's ass in three counties.")

Finally, Holden is too self-absorbed to do something to help someone else. And that's really what the building of the field was for Ray. Just like he said to Shoeless Joe near the end of the film, "I never once asked what's in it for me." And his selflessness allowed Ray to realize his dream of playing catch with his dad. Holden's a lot of things, but you'd never really call him selfless.

There are other smaller connections too (Allie's baseball mitt with the poems on it, the name "Richard Kinsella" appears in Catcher), but the connections I detailed above get to the heart of both texts. Showing the movie in conjunction with the novel highlights the themes in both texts; plus, it's an excuse to show a timeless classic in class. And maybe, if you get "meta" with me for a moment, that timelessness can be a connection in itself.

Serendipity time: this past weekend, I was watching the Red Sox-Orioles game, and Kevin Costner was in the booth with Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy. (Some of Field of Dreams, remember, was shot at Fenway.) And Costner was saying that, while making millions at the box office is nice, he's more interested in making movies that stand tghe test of time. (I'm paraphrasing, but that was the general gist of it.)

Well, he may not have passed the "test of time" with Dragonfly, but he definitely did with Field of Dreams. The film has aged well-- so well, in fact, that it doesn't age. And in that sense, the film Field of Dreams is like the "field of dreams" it showcases. Maybe Holden's idea of the "big glass case" is not so impossible after all.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Free "Samplings"

I had a piece in the Hartford Courant today about Kid Rock's hit single, "All Summer Long"-- you know, the song that's a "mash-up" of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Basically, in the piece, I skewer Kid Rock for his laziness and lack of originality. You can read it here.

Thing is, I don't really have a problem with Kid Rock as a rule, just this song. Nor do I have a problem with the practice of sampling in general. In fact, in the original draft of the article, I listed some songs I enjoy that have ample samples. For example, back in the summer of 1990, I liked M.C. Hammer’s “Super Freak”-fueled “U Can’t Touch This” as much as the next guy—and possibly more than the next guy (...wait... did I just reveal too much..?).

My sample examples (OK, I'll stop the punning now) had to get cut from the original article for space reasons, but lest I come off as a complete Sample-Ogre, I wanted to offer up a few Sampling Songs I Enjoy:
  • Gym Class Heroes' "Cupid's Chokehold" (sample: Supertramp's "Breakfast in America"
  • Rihanna's "S.O.S." (sample: Soft Cell's "Tainted Love")
  • Jay Z's "Hard Knock Life" (sample: "It's a Hard Knock Life" from Annie)-- You know you're all that when you can make Annie cool.
  • Gwen Stefani's "Rich Girl" (sample: Fiddler on the Roof)
  • Robert Plant's "Tall Cool One" (sample: a bunch of Led Zeppelin songs)-- A rare artist indeed who samples himself
A great use of sampling, in my opinion, fires healthy nostalgia; you enjoy the new song while simultaneously remembering why you liked the original song in the first place. I just don't think "All Summer Long" accomplishes this. Then again, according to kidrock.com, the song is number one in Germany, so what the keck do I know?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Crucial Classics for the High School Reader

I thought I'd keep riding this Catcher in the Rye wave and re-post something I wrote for the Hartford Courant's (now defunct) Sunday supplement, Northeast Magazine, back on Sept 12, 2004.

The piece, which also ran under the "Crucial Classics for the High School Reader" title, weighs in on a debate among us English-teacher folk: Should we continue to have kids read works of "classic" literature (even if they don't like them), or should we offer more contemporary texts that are written specifically for a teen audience?

I've actually changed my feelings on this topic in the almost-four years since this piece ran. Now, I'm warming up to "young adult" literature, and I can how counter-productive it is to have kids read "classic" works that only serve to turn them off reading.
On the other hand, I still feel that some great works of literature should never leave the curriculum-- not only because they're great, but also because they have a certain cultural cachet.
In the piece, I name Catcher in the Rye as one of those keepers. In fact, I go one step further-- proposing that schools and Registries of Motor Vehicles "team up and issue teens a complimentary copy of Catcher in the Rye along with their driver's licenses." That's how fundamental I think the book is.
Anyway, here's the piece:

"You're still reading this?" a father may ask his daughter's English teacher on the night of Open House, after scanning the reading list. "Man, we were reading that when I was in high school ... " Implicit in this observation, of course, is the question: Do you mean to tell me no one has written anything decent in the past 20, 50, 100 years?

Many educators actually share this sentiment and have recommended purging the "classics" from high school curricula, for a host of legitimate reasons: kids don't really like these books; many of these texts don't have a great deal of relevance in today's world; and forcing kids to read irrelevant books that they despise turns them completely off the reading process -- which contradicts what we're supposed to accomplish as English teachers.

So, in place of the classics, many believe we should substitute "young adult" literature -- contemporary books written expressly for teenagers and dealing with teen issues. In many ways, this argument makes sense to me. And yet, I can't help but wonder if similar conversations take place in other disciplines.

Do math teachers say, "You know, the kids just aren't jazzed about addition. Maybe we should just skip it?"

Or chemistry teachers: "Must everything come back to the Periodic Table of Elements? Let's move on, people!"

English teachers don't assign the classics because we couldn't find anything else on the shelf. We assign these books because, like the Periodic Table, they are foundational. And just what are these "must-read" texts, ones that should never be removed from a high school curriculum? While many probably qualify, space limits me to the following five:

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee: Remember Robert Fulghum's "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? Someday, I'd like to counter with a book of my own: "All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Atticus Finch."

Never show off. Respect other people's privacy. Protect the things and people that work to make our lives better. Never give up. These are just a few of the life lessons that Atticus Finch, the lawyer-hero of Harper Lee's near-flawless novel, teaches us.

And Atticus' most memorable bit of advice -- "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it" -- may have more relevance today than ever.

Young adults still benefit from Atticus' wisdom, and for that reason alone, Mockingbird needs to stay. (And guess what? Students don't mind reading it, either.)

Death of a Salesman (1949) or The Crucible (1953), both by Arthur Miller: Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Arthur Miller's dramatic tag-team also teaches life lessons, this time by giving students examples of what not to do. Salesman's Willy Loman, the "hard-working drummer" who had "all the wrong dreams," is sort of an anti-Atticus, who teaches his sons that bragging about imagined accomplishments means more than pursuing your real talents.

And The Crucible's town fathers apparently didn't read Atticus' memo on "respecting others' privacy," so obsessed are they with exorcising Salem of witches that they become agents of evil themselves.

And, like Mockingbird, the fundamental issues fueling these two plays pack just as much punch today as they did 50 years ago. Willy Loman serves as a cautionary tale for teens that working so hard and so long at a job that you hate could literally drive you mad. Moreover, today's jaded students can definitely relate to The Crucible's take on hysteria, censorship and the "Big Lie" (the idea that "the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it").

Even beyond the “Big Lie,” Miller's knack for the "Big Speech" earns him a place on this list. If John Proctor's "Because it's my name!" soliloquy at the end of The Crucible doesn't move you ... well, be glad you weren't alive in Salem in the 1690s. They might have suspected a witch had possessed your soul.

The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Here's how important I believe this book is for adolescents: I propose that schools and the Registry of Motor Vehicles team up and issue teens a complimentary copy of The Catcher in the Rye along with their driver's licenses.

Teenagers have to face many hard truths: Good guys don't always prevail; the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist; and, despite what the envelope says, you may not have already won. No book, for my money, depicts this "let me get this straight" angst more accurately than Catcher.

Holden Caulfield, Salinger's "often imitated, never duplicated" teenage narrator, has fallen into adulthood, and he desperately wants to keep children from doing the same. Holden can't handle the flux of life; he wants to be able to preserve things, just as museums freeze time in those big glass cases. "Certain things they should stay the way they are," Holden laments. "You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway."

(While this may sound all doom-and-gloom, Holden keeps his teen audience looped in with some great observations, such as this gem from Chapter 2: "You don't have to think too hard when you talk to a teacher.")

Romeo and Juliet (1595-1596) by William Shakespeare: I have a favorite moment that always happens whenever I assign Romeo and Juliet to ninth-graders, and it actually happens before I even pass out the books. The students walk in, they see the books on the bookcart, and at least one student and I have the following exchange:

Student: "Romeo and Juliet?! Aw, man ... I hate Shakespeare!"

Me: "Well, how many Shakespeare plays have you read?"

Student: "None!"

And that, my friends, is why we need to keep reading Romeo and Juliet, if only to show students that a text isn't icky just because it includes the term "thou." Really, any Shakespeare play will do, but the "tale of star-crossed lovers" works with teenage students for several reasons:

(1) Teenagers themselves, Romeo and Juliet act recklessly, resent their parents and pledge their undying love for each other after only one conversation -- does this sound at all familiar?;

(2) The Leonardo DiCaprio version still carries with it some street cred; and

(3) Unlike Catcher in the Rye, a seemingly humorous book with a hauntingly sad core, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy sprinkled with some darn funny moments. For example, Mr. Capulet wants his daughter Juliet to get married on Wednesday; realizing he's acting hastily, he postpones the affair until Thursday. (Now, come on: That's at least a little funny!)

Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison: "What could this book teach me about slavery that I don't already know?" students may ask about Morrison's modern masterpiece, and in many ways, I see their point.

After all, students get their fill of slavery in U.S. history classes. Besides, many students I've taught (and I am referring mostly to the white students here) regard discrimination as something that happened "back then," in the past. I wouldn't call these students naive -- just accepting, colorblind and optimistic that everyone else feels the same way.

Does Beloved dwell on regrettable parts of our history? Does it depict acts of inhuman brutality? Is it just a hard book for teenagers to read, both in terms of its content and style? Yes, on all counts. Does that mean we shouldn't read it? No. That means we should read it.

We need to keep reading books about slavery -- just as we need to keep reading books about the Holocaust, or Vietnam, or the marginalization of Native Americans -- because these texts remind us that we need to keep working to make things better. Like the ghost in Beloved, slavery is a memory that refuses to die, and rightfully so. As a testament to our American nightmare, Beloved is (despite what the last gasps of the novel may suggest) a "story to pass on."

ltimately, we shouldn't keep reading these texts just because they are brilliantly written and have engaging plots -- because, really, many books are brilliantly written and have engaging plots. No, we should keep reading these books because when we're done with them, we are better for it -- better readers, better thinkers, better human beings. We need to preserve these books, but not by putting them in glass cases, as Holden Caulfield might suggest. We preserve by reading.

(Originally published in the Hartford Courant, Northeast Magazine, September 12, 2004)

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Lennon-Chapman-Salinger Connection

Since I'm starting Salinger's Catcher in the Rye this week in my summer school class, I thought I'd share with my English teacher brethren a can't-miss Catcher activity.

(Of course, I say this fully aware that "can't-miss" activities can, in fact, miss and frequently do. The same home-run lesson from Period 2 can stink up the joint Period 5. It happens. Still, this activity has legs. And, if you're not an English teacher but you are an aficionado of pop-culture, keep reading: I got some decent nuggets in here, in case you're at a cocktail party or on Jeopardy.)

I kick off this multimedia bonanza of a lesson by showing the students that famous Annie Liebowitz picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Don't know which one I mean? Well...

If you can put it up on a big screen, that's great. If not, just kick it old school and walk around the room with a copy of it.

Now, I don't identify the people at first but instead ask the students if they've ever seen the picture before. Probably at least one student in the group knows it's John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but maybe not. (Keep in mind: I've only taught this lesson to sophomores, many of whom are not steeped in Beatles lore, sad to say. Even kids who have heard the name "John Lennon" can't always link it back to the Beatles.)

Next, I ask them to analyze the photograph as a "text." What's going on in this picture? Naturally, the first thing they notice is, "Ewwww. The guy's naked." OK, let's go with that: not only is he naked, but he's in the fetal position. Why is that significant? Well, he's depicted as a child.

From there, we brainstorm about what it means to be a child. What qualities are associated with childhood? They'll probably say "innocence" without much prompting. See if you can get them to talk about "dependence" and "helplessness" and "idealism" as well.

Now you can move on to the other person in the picture, John's wife Yoko Ono. In the picture, she comes off as cold, distant, and unfeeling. He's kissing her, and she's looking away. If he's the "child" in the picture, then she is definitely pictured as the jaded "adult." (As it turns out, this "reading" of the picture actually fits the public perception of John and Yoko's marriage.)

Interestingly enough, the themes inherent in this picture show up throughout Lennon's career. Next up, Multimedia Bonanza, Part II: I play for them the Beatles song "Help!"

Now, you have to understand this about "Help!": Lennon and McCartney wrote this in 1965, when the Beatles were at the height of their popularity. They were the biggest band in the histroy of music. (Remember the "more popular than Jesus" line?) And yet, at this moment of extraordinary success, Lennon writes this song asking, quite blatantly, for "help." He's feeling down, he's not not so self-assured. And to bring it back to the picture, you could say his call for help is almost child-like.

Next, we move into John's solo career as I play for them "Imagine." For our purposes, "Imagine" works even more effectively than "Help!" in that the lyrics absolutely reveal a child-like view of the world. He talks about how the "world can live as one," in one global "brotherhood" and how we need to get rid of the things that divide us ("no religion" and "no possessions.")

You could say John's a dreamer, sure, but he's offering up an innocent and idealistic vision of the way the world could be. (Depending on the class, you could connect the song to other examples of utopian literature, such as Ovid's description of the "Golden Age.")

This is sort of an aside, but in 1999, a company started making baby clothes, bedding, and even mobiles based on pictures John drew for his son Sean. (The mobile even plays "Imagine.") Just another connection back to the idea of child-like innocence.

Let's re-group. We have the two songs that reinforce themes such as innocence, idealism, and dependence. Then we bring the students back to the Liebowitz picture, with the innocent man-child John juxtaposed with the jaded adult Yoko. Now, I hit them with this question: How is your reading of the picture affected if I tell you that this picture was taken the very day Lennon was assassinated?

It's true: Annie Liebowitz took this picture after lunch on December 8, 1980. Later than night, at about 10:50, Lennon was shot in front of his apartment, the Dakota, by a pudgy, baby-faced, 25-year-old former security guard named Mark David Chapman.

Chapman actually got Lennon's autograph earlier that day. Then he waited outside Lennon's apartment for him to come home.

After he shot Lennon five times (twice in the back, twice in the shoulder, one bullet missed), Chapman allegedly sat down on the sidewalk under a lantern, took out a book, and started reading. And that book was Catcher in the Rye.

Allegedly, Mark David Chapman read the book when he was 18 and the book eventually eventually inspred him to kill John Lennon. But why? What is it about the book that made him do it? Who knows? But one possible motive is that Chapman saw Lennon as a "phony." After all, here's a guy (Lennon) who sang about "no possessions," but he's a $150 million businessman. He talked about the world living as one, but he couldn't keep his own family together. he preached peace, but he was prone to fits of rage.

Salinger's Holden Caulfield hates "phonies," and maybe Chapman did as well. Perhaps Chapman saw Lennon as a "phony" who needs to be removed.

Of course, this is all conjecture. All we know is that inside the front cover of the copy of Catcher that Chapman had with him on December 8, 1980, were these four words: "This is my statement."

After you tell them the story, you need to bring it back to the idea of "innocence." The fact that the picture was taken the exact same day that he was assassinated is symbolic, I feel. It suggests that the innocence represented in that picture cannot last. As Robert Frost said, "nothing gold can stay."

Now, I started this post by calling this a "can't-miss" activity, and you have to admit, there's a lot of juicy stuff going on here: you have a visual text; you have music; you have a mysterious story about an assassination. If that doesn't get the students hooked into reading Catcher in the Rye, I don't know what else I can do. Plus, along the way, you've tricked them into doing some textual analysis. And you taught these young whippersnappers a little bit about the Beatles. Everyone's a winner.

Two more things:

(1) Later, as a follow-up to this activity, you can play Elton John's "Empty Garden," which is about Lennon's assassination. The song's a great vehicle to teach metaphor.

(2) After I tell them about Mark David Chapman, I try to say that the novel can affect people in positive ways as well. I know for a fact that Catcher has a lot to do with my being an English teacher. In the summer before my junior in high school, I read Catcher for the first time, and I remember thinking it was unlike any other book I had ever read up until that point. And I think the initial inspiration that I could teach literature for a living started there. (I guess that's a positive thing. You'll have to ask my students, I suppose.)

So, that's it: the "Lennon-Chapman-Liebowitz" introduction to Catcher in the Rye. Try it out, my English teacher brethren. Let me know what you think.

Friday, July 4, 2008

"America the Beautiful" vs. "The Star-Spangled Banner"

In honor of our Nation’s Birthday, I thought it appropriate to take time out to commemorate America’s greatest One-Hit Winder Poets, Katherine Lee Bates and Francis Scott Key.

It’s probably important to remember that Bates’ “America the Beautiful” and Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” were originally written as poems and thus could, and should, be analyzed as such. By looking at the actual language Bates and Key use-- and by stripping the works of their at-times distracting nationalistic associations and patriotic accoutrements-- we may be able to gain a better appreciation of what the authors intended. More importantly, juxtaposing the two poems can give us a more complete picture of the complex, conflicting entity that is America.

Ladies first.

Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) was a professor at Wellesley who traveled to Colorado in 1893 to teach a summer school class. While out in Colorado, she climbed to the top of Pike’s Peak; the view inspired her to compose four stanzas of “America the Beautiful.”

The poem, which originally appeared in a journal called The Congregationalist on July 4, 1895, was set to music that same year. The poem went through other incarnations: Bates tinkered with it in 1904 and again in 1913. My (limited) research uncovered t toal of eight stanzas (but to me, the first four are sufficient). You can read the "complete" poem here.

Bates, who wrote children’s books and travelogues as well as poetry, attributed the enduring success of “America the Beautiful” to the fact that “Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood.” And indeed, throughout the poem, she stresses the bond between Americans. Not only is there the famous “brotherhood from sea to shining sea,” but she also suggests a bond across time; those living in America today are liked to the “stern impassioned” pilgrims who first came to America and the fallen “heroes,” the soldiers who gave their lives in “liberating strife.”

Bates also describes America as divinely blessed. We all know the “God shed His grace on thee” line from the first stanza, but she also references “God” three more times throughout the poem. And because this God is really looking out for us—shedding grace, mending every flaw— we need to return the favor. In stanza three:

“America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.”

To me, these lines are saying that we should not seek material success for its own sake, but instead, we should strive for “nobleness” (if that’s even a word), to be good to one another. The fruits from your acts of kindness make up the divine gain, the refined gold.

One more thing: while the section we traditionally sing definitely emphasizes the natural beauty of America (remember, the view from Pike’s peak inspired her to compose the poem in the first place), she does admit, in the fourth stanza, that cities also have a certain charm:

“O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.”

Not exactly sure what she’s getting at here. To me, it seems that she’s saying that, while still praising God’s creations, humankind is capable of creating some pretty amazing things too. She recognizes both human suffering and imperfection (“human tears”) but also human achievement—namely, the cities that “gleam.” (Plus, she gets bonus points for getting the word “alabaster” in there.)

Next up: Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner”—or, its original title, “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” You probably know the story behind the poem, but here’s the quick-and-dirty version: It’s the War of 1812, and we’re fighting the British again. On September 13, 1814, a lawyer named Francis Scott Key visits the British fleet to negotiate the release of a American prisoner. During the night, the Brits began shelling Fort McHenry of Baltimore. Key awakes the next morning to find “our flag was still there.”

As with “America the Beautiful,” we only sing the first stanza of what was later called “The Star-Spangled Banner.” However, Key’s poem actually has four stanzas. You can read the complete text here.

(Aside: please don’t attempt to sing the “complete” versions of either of these songs this holiday weekend, as you will probably annoy your guests. I know I personally bristle when people sing the lesser-known verses of well-known hymns—like at Christmas time, when the chorus feels the need to sing the fourth verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Come on, people: now you;re just showing off.)

Obviously, the poem is one big metaphor for America’s strength and endurance: the flag survived the battle of Fort McHenry, and we can survive anything as well. Good stuff. But if you read the actual poem, you might notice two curious things:

(1) Nowhere in the text of the poem does Key explicitly mention the word “America.” Not that he has to—he’s going for a metaphor here, after all—but it is interesting.

(2) Three of the four sentences that make up the first stanza are questions. Now, when you see the words for the National Anthem the scoreboard at Fenway Park, they leave out the question marks, but Key wrote them as questions.

Why does this matter? Well, the question marks suggest doubt. At the end of that first stanza, the narrator is not proudly proclaiming that the flag is waving over the land of the free and the home of the brave. He’s actually asking, “Does the star-spangled banner yet wave?”

Now granted, as you go on through the poem, Key answers the question: yes, the flag does still wave. In fact, the last punctuation of the poem is a rousing exclamation point. But that’s not the part we sing. We only sing the first part. Our National Anthem ends with a question.

(To stir the irony pot a little more: Key apparently wrote the poem to the meter of a popular song at the time, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The song was a drinking song—a British song. The music to our National Anthem comes from a British drinking song—and the Brits were the guys we were fighting at the time of the song’s composition!)

In 1931, two years after Katharine Lee Bates died, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation that made Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States. But Congress didn’t arrive at this decision without a debate: “America the Beautiful” was definitely in the running. But I think the decision to go with “The Star-Spangled Banner” says a lot about our country’s core values.

If you juxtapose just the first stanzas of both texts—the lines we all know by heart—you see some interesting contrasts. “America the Beautiful” (written by a woman) is about beauty and brotherhood. “The Star-Spangled Banner” (written by a man) is about bullets and bombs and battles. “America the Beautiful” is set during the daytime; “The Star-Spangled Banner” is set during the night-time. “America the Beautiful” credits God; “The Star-Spangled Banner” only mentions God in the fourth stanza (which we don’t sing).

“America the Beautiful” mentions the “fruited plain,” the natural world that freely gives life; “The Star-Spangled Banner” talks about how human beings take life. It’s probably not popular to say, but it’s true: when you have “bombs bursting in air,” you have people losing their lives. Of course, the song doesn’t focus on this element, because that’s a turn-off we don’t need when we’re getting ready to watch a ballgame. But that underbelly is definitely there.

Even the colors mentioned in the song highlight the authors’ different agendas-- the “purple mountain majesty” versus the “rockets red glare.” Peace versus war.

Choosing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem sends the message that Americans are survivors, winners. Perhaps that’s why we sing it at sporting events; sports, after all, are about friendly competition, about winning and losing. You notice we don’t sing the National Anthem at other events where people get together, like movies and concerts. Why not? Perhaps because competition is a core value of this country—sometimes friendly, sometimes not so much. And “The Sat-Spangled Banner” reflects this strong, competitive, winning spirit more effectively than “America the Beautiful.”

But America isn’t just strong; it’s beautiful, too. Just because it’s one doesn’t mean it can’t be the other; you can probably say that the country’s beauty is its strength, or maybe that we need to be strong to protect our beauty. I can’t speak for all sporting events, but I know that at Fenway Park, they sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful”; Key’s song starts off the game, while Bates’ song comes during the seventh inning. Nice touch, I think—and a nod to the wonderful contradiction that is America.

(Note: This post was compiled from one of my old American Literature lesson plans. I’m not sure where I originally got all the facts and figures, but I do know it’s all pretty standard information you could find anywhere. Also, I should credit one of my former colleagues, Annie Lugthart, for pointing out to me the question marks in the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But, lest I'm mistaken, the rest of the insights are mine, all mine!)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Teaching, Year One, Revisited: Part II

When we last left... I had picked up a desk.

Once again, it was my first year teaching high school, my first day in front of the students by myself. I had a fourth period class of recalcitrant students who really put the "sophomoric" in "sophomore." Three minutes into this first class, with no one paying attention, I picked up a desk and let it drop-- you know, just to make a noise, to get the focus on me. In the process, an empty can Canada Dry ginger ale, resting inside the desk, fell on to the floor.

In a way, my plan worked: the kids stopped talking. But I knew, even then, I shouldn't have done it. A novice move, definitely. I was going for this "new sheriff in town" vibe, but I let them see me sweat.

Still, let's make one thing absolutely clear: at its maximum, the desk was maybe two inches off the floor.

That was November 2000. About a year later, I learned two things about that day, from a colleague who had talked to some of my former students:

(1) Time and spotty memory combined to make me stronger—and crazier—than I actually am. According to the student version of that day, I actually threw the desk. And I threw it across the room.

Now, I can assure everyone out there in Internet-land that in no way did that happen. I did not throw said desk. I picked up the desk. I dropped the desk. It fell maybe two inches. In the process, a Canada Dry can fell and went clink-clink-clink on the floor. That is it.

(2) In the brief seconds of silence following the Desk Incident, something happened, something that would color my entire first year of high school teaching. For it was during those seconds that about seven or eight students-- boys, for the most part-- decided they were going to make the rest of my year abso-freakin'-lutely miserable.

Now, some may say I’m exaggerating. In truth, they never threatened me or stalked me or assaulted me. They never stole anything from me, nor did they ever deface any of my personal property with illustrations of genitalia. They weren’t criminals, after all; they were just tenth graders.

So, over the next nine months, these tenth graders will talk. They’ll talk back, too, but mostly they’ll just talk. When I give them work, they’ll talk through the instructions and then accuse me of not telling them what they're supposed to do. They’ll talk as they do the assignments and finish the work as quickly as they can so they can get back to talking.

They'll talk about the weekend that just passed, and they'll talk about the weekend coming up. They'll talk in code, too, using slang and initials so I won't really know what they're talking about. They’ll talk about how stupid the stories we're reading are, how boring class is. They'll ask to see a movie; when I show one, they'll determine it's boring and talk right through it. ("This is stupid. Can we watch 'Dude, Where's My Car?'") But I honestly don’t think they think this insults me. It’s just talk, after all.

Oh, and they’ll laugh, too. A lot of loud and hearty laughter, mostly from the boys—all at inappropriate things, of course. For example, the boys will steal the scented lotions from the girls, squirt it on their own hands, and then laugh about how it looks like semen. They’ll make farting noises, and they’ll laugh about that. Even better: they’ll actually fart, and they’ll laugh about that even more. If something sexual comes up in the literature, that's comedic gold: they can stretch that material for about two weeks.

They’ll be smart about it, though; they’ll never do anything so egregious that it truly merits getting someone like the vice-principal involved. The purpose, see, is not to attract attention to themselves; the purpose is to break me down.

And they’ll just about do it, too. Over the next nine months, they’ll drive me just up to the brink. They’ll make me seriously consider flushing my whole dream of being a teacher—the one thing I knew I could do better than anything. They will just about break me down.

You have to know a few things: I have been teaching English for twelve years now; I’ve taught college, adult ed, and high school; I regard teaching as perhaps the most important and most noble profession that exists; and my first year teaching high school, I absolutely hated it.

Hated everything about it, as a matter of fact. I hated the hours: waking up inhumanly early after staying up late preparing the night before. I hated the never-ending paperload, and I really hated seeing how quickly the essays I spent a weekend correcting would end up in the trash can. I hated “re-creating the wheel” every day, trying to come up with ways to fill up the interminable forty-five minute class period. I hated watching a “can’t miss” activity, one that I painstakingly created, bomb before my eyes. Many, many times, I felt like a comedian, fumbling around on stage, dying—and I hated that feeling.

And to be honest, and I know this sounds horrible, but for most of that first year, I think a part of me—a really, really big part—actually hated that particular fourth period class. I don't think I hated the students as individuals-- that's pretty harsh, I know-- but I sure hated going into that classroom everyday. I sure hated how they wouldn’t stop talking and complaining about everything we did. I hated how I couldn’t get the kids to respect me, how I had no classroom management, and how every one in the room knew it.

I hated what the job was doing to me and my relationships. I hated hearing myself unload, once again, another “woe is me” speech on my wife. I hated seeing my general “Mr. Optimist Prime” personality rot away, as I slowly became someone I didn’t recognize, Sir Cynicism, complete with a new philosophy of “Why am I working harder than anyone else? Screw it!” I hated that guy. And I hated how, on more than one occasion, this job brought a thirty-year-old man to tears. (And I’m not waxing dramatically here; I’m talking about actual salty discharge coming out of my eyes.)

You get the idea. As I intimated earlier, hundreds of times that year, I thought about quitting. And if I didn’t have two small children to support, I probably would have.

But I didn't. I'm still here, doing my thing, and actually enjoying it now. Those fourth period kids didn't break me down after all. Not because I made some major breakthrough with them. The summer came, that's all. The class ended. And when I came back next year, with a brand new bunch, I was a savvier, calmer, more experienced. Just all-around better.

Yesterday, I began with a Shawshank Redemption reference, and I have another one now: at one point in the film, Red (Morgan Freeman) says that geology is the study of "pressure and time." Well, I could say the same about high school teaching: a lot of pressures come with the job, but in time, you figure out the strategies to deal with them. You get better. But it does take time.

You know, for the past hundred years or so, the unflappable Casey Kasem has signed off his broadcasts with the same advice: "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars." I actually have very similar advice for first-year teachers: "Keep your desks on the ground, and just hold on till next year."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Teaching, Year-One, Revisited: My Time in "The Shank"

In my previous post, I gloated about how teachers don’t have to work over the summer. But I forgot to mention one thing: no work translates into no money. So I actually have a summer job; I teach summer school four hours a day. But don’t cry for me, Argentina. This summer, I have a student-teacher to help me out.

When I think about it, the very notion that I am now mentoring a would-be teacher amazes me. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I absolutely hated my first year teaching high school. I wouldn’t have wished teaching on my worst enemy. Now here I am, eight years later, shepherding young neophytes into the profession.

Why’d I hate my first year so much? A lot of reasons, I suppose, but one particular class really took me to the brink. I thought I'd share a little bit of that story today. But first, some prefatory comments:

(1) I currently teach at Glastonbury High School in Glastonbury, Connecticut; this story, however, is from my two years teaching at South Windsor High School, also in Connecticut.

(2) I started teaching high school in November of 2000; someone had retired, and I took over his class. Now I know that taking over for someone else midstream is probably one of the toughest gigs in education. Let’s just say that I didn’t know that then

So here we go, the first glimpse into the Soul-Crushing Chaos that is Teaching, Year One:

I knew fourth period would be the toughest. I had been lingering in the background for about three or four days, watching, taking mental notes, and I knew who was naughty and who was nice. (Not too many of the latter.) And on the morning I took over for real, I knew I had to set the tone immediately. I knew everything—except that I was fresh fish.

You remember that scene from The Shawshank Redemption, right? It’s the first night in "The Shank" for Andy Dufresne and a bunch of other prisoners, and the seasoned cons are betting on which one of the new arrivals will break down and cry first. Just a little game they play, to pass the time at the expense of the newbies.

When the lights go out, the fishing begins. The cons start whispering, “Fresh fish! Fresh fish today! We’re reeling ‘em in!” or “Here fishy, fishy, fishy…” The taunt relentlessly, but they rarely exceed the level of whispering; the point, after all, is to break down the newcomers slowly, methodically, not to attract attention to themselves.

The fishing expedition ends when a new prisoner known only as “Fat-Ass” starts sobbing. Grizzled Shawshank vet Heywood, who pinpointed Fat Ass as the weakest of the litter from the start, wins the game. And Fat Ass? Well, for making noise after lights out, Fat Ass gets the beejesus beaten out of him by Officer Byron Hadley; we find out later that he doesn’t last the night.

That Fat Ass coda doesn’t really come into play here; no one gets clubbed to death in this story. And I don’t mean to compare (implicitly or otherwise) my students to “cons”; they weren’t criminals, after all—they were just sophomores.

No, I’m talking more about the taunting. The taunting of the fresh fish by these cons, who have nothing against these newcomers personally, who don’t even know them but decide to torment them anyway, not out of revenge but simply because they can, because it entertains them—keep that in mind as you picture me in front of that fourth period class. Let us join the descent into misery, already in progress.

OK, so what did you guys think about blah-bah-dee-blah.”

(Author’s note: we were going over some short story—I don’t remember which one. Forgive me for my lack of specifics: I’ve tried my best over the past eight years to drive the whole experience from my mind.)

If the students read the story at all, they didn’t seem interested in talking about it, or even acknowledging Mr. Dursin’s valiant attempts to talk about it. Doing so, after all, would interrupt their own private conversations.

Another pitch: “Well, what about the main character, Who-zit? Do you agree with when he blah-blah-blah-ed?”

Maybe two students have even looked up. The rest are just talking—to the person in the next seat, to the person across the room. They’re not picking fights, they’re not verbally assaulting each other. They’re having a great time, it seems. It’s really quite a community in that room—why can’t this new teacher see that?

A plea from Mr. Dursin: “Come on, folks, let’s get focused.”

Surprisingly, this doesn’t work.

Mr. Dursin knows he needs to get their attention, establish some authority. But how? Just then, his mind reels back to a story, something his wife told him just a few nights before:

“It was my freshman year history class. Our teacher is Ms. Othmarr—the definition of hapless. She has no control, and we had every jerk of a boy in this class. Well, about halfway through the year, Ms. Othmarr says she’s leaving—she must have retired, because she was getting up there—and a new teacher, Ms. Hartstone, was taking over for her. So Ms. Hartstone spent a few days in the background, watching, sort of like what you’re doing.

“Finally, it’s Mrs. Othmarr’s last day. We have a party for her in class—which, naturally, is just bedlam. Kids screaming, jumping on the desks. Food all over the place. Animal House for ninth graders. Halfway through the party, Mrs. Othmarr leaves, never to return. And after she’s out of earshot, Ms. Hartstone walks over to the door—SLAM! Picks up a pile of books—SLAM! Then she starts screaming. Railing into us, like she's the general from An Officer and a Gentleman: ‘That’s it! Who do you think you are? Things are going to change!’ I mean—wow. It took about four months before she even cracked a smile.

“The thing is, she was a really nice lady. I got to know her over the years, because my locker was right outside her classroom, and I really liked her. So a few years later, I remember asking her about our class. And she said, ‘I knew I had to take control right off the bat—you know, show that there was a new sheriff in town. It was a matter of survival.’”

Mr. Dursin keeps thinking of these words—“matter of survival,” “new sheriff in town”—as he looks at these kids not looking at him. Suddenly, he acts.

In front of the room, next to the teacher’s desk, is a vacant student desk, storage space for lined paper. Shouting “No one is paying attention!,” Mr. Dursin picks up this desk and lets it drop. At its peak, the desk is maybe two inches off the ground, just high enough for it to make a sound—one just loud enough to get their attention— when it hits the floor. As an added bonus, moving the desk dislodges an empty can of Canada Dry ginger ale that is hidden inside with the lined paper; when the desk drops, the can falls out and lands on the floor with a “clink-clink-clink.”

For a moment, after the Canada Dry can settles, it’s quiet.

For a moment, Mr. Dursin thinks he’s won. They’re listening. New sheriff in town, indeed.

But it’s only for a moment. See, they’re not actually listening. They’re plotting. During those moments of silence, about seven or eight students—totally independent of one another but unified by a common vision-- decided they were going to make the rest of my year absolute hell.

Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. In those silent seconds after I picked up the desk, I don’t know what’s going to happen over the next eight months. I just know that, for right now, I finally have their attention. I don’t realize that they’re only watching me because, in that moment, I had transformed, right before their eyes.

I was no longer Mr. Dursin, New Teacher.

I was Mr. Dursin, Fresh Fish.

“Here, fishy, fishy, fishy…!”

To Be Continued!!