Champing at the Bit

The school calendar has dominated my life for the last twenty years; small changes disturb the pattern. We have an extended summer because of the Texas legislature’s decision to start school as close to September as possible. (Some push from the vacation lobby I never understood). As a result I am at the point in my summer when I am ready to go up to the school and set up my room. This normally happens a couple of weeks before we are to go back. I know, I am only getting antsy a week or so early, so it is not that big of a deal. I just find it interesting how structured and automatic our patterns become over time. Tomorrow I plan on going up to my classroom and setting up the room. They held summer school classes at my school, and my room was used. I had to take down all of my stuff, so tomorrow I will be sticking posters up and arranging desks. They normally give us a day and a half to prep for the beginning of the school year, the rest of the week is taken up by meet and greet activities and rah-rah professional development.

Incremental

there once was a shape
made of wet sand
it doesn’t matter what shape
just that it was there
and now it is not
different people in different times
saw different shapes
yet still spoke as if it were
the same shape contiguously
now it is not except it is
more so than previously
because it holds its shape
true to each who speak of it
the past maintains the present
the present invents the past
to better to become itself
together the mean of meaning
is shaped then reshaped again
so much sand in our hands

(summer 2007)

Now What?

I turned in my last test for Ed. Psych earlier today. So now, except for reading ten more adolescent novels, I am through with grad school for the summer. Perhaps for good. While I love the readings and the class discussions, for the most part, I am still caught up in the question I had after my first semester: Why am I doing this? Every semester since I have started this, I go through this same questioning: why am I doing this? Perhaps my inability to come up with an answer is reason enough not to finish. The tests and papers, where I have to perform in order to prove myself, create stress because I am such an over achiever and obsess over my “failures” if I make a B. Then when I make my A, I wonder if I really deserved the grade and criticize the work I did do. What kind of sick psychology is in play there? I feel as if I am missing my children’s adolescence by spending my time reading the reams of articles required for each class. ( I was stunned when someone in class last week admitted to not having read one of the two articles we were supposed to read. This in a relatively light reading load.) It was interesting taking two classes this summer, because it seemed as if I had lots of time because I was not working full time teaching high school. Yet I had more than one classmate looked shocked that I was taking two classes in one summer session. I am acquiring debt at an alarming rate, just as my oldest child is beginning to apply to colleges, none of which are cheap, and all of which I will do whatever I can to help him go to if he gets accepted, which it looks like he will based on their student demographics. I don’t see a lot of benefits to finishing, other than I hate quitting anything. I like the idea of being able to say I am working on a Ph.D., and the idea that I will get one if I continue, but is that just my egotistic vanity that is at stake; my insecurity in my intellectual ability trying to justify itself with yet another piece of paper? One of the four truths of Buddhism is that suffering is caused by desire: perhaps I should rethink my desires? OM.

flux

are you the you you are
when you change how much
of any given time are you
what you are or are becoming

an amoeba absorbs
what it moves through
changing its surroundings
and its self into itself

reduction

the onslaught of random thoughts
which crush past during the span
of time it takes this sentence to end
would take a life to document
if only i could recall them all

to gather them at pen’s nib as they occur
like athene fully formed from zeus’s head
would be to write the world in a word
the chaos compacted into a syllable
with no ambiguity to slip over my horizon

(summer 2007)

horizon’s edge

sense lives outside
along a perimeter

an inability to maintain
within articulated bounds

what worlds words open
as many unsaid close

on approach it grows no nearer
a reproachment to hubristic control

in possibility extant only in
ossified remains of meaning

(summer 2006)

Waiting on the Rain

I’m sitting in the PCL waiting for the rain to stop so I can head over to the Erwin Center to participate in the graduation ceremony of my students. I like doing this, the kids are excited and proud. They are oddly happy that I am there which makes me feel oddly happy. I guess we all want to feel wanted and loved. I have been reading lately entries on the blog’ “Rate Your Students.” I think I will stop however because it is the equivalent of listening to my fellow teachers gripe about the students at lunch. Yes, there is a need for venting to someone who has a clue what it means to teach; yet there is something to the old saying : “You are what you talk about.” It is easy at this time of year as the semester is coming to a close to be bitter, to focus on what went wrong; after all teaching is emotionally and mentally draining work. So, I go to watch my students “walk” as they call it. It ends my teaching year on a positive note and sends me off in a happier mood to recover my own positive attitude about the world, teaching, and the importance of public education in the building of a better world.

Get Your Story Staight, part II

The real battle is not about the facts, facts as the band Talking Heads sang, “all come with points of view, facts won’t do what you want them to.” The real struggle is which story will become the one through which we see our world. “What I have to say does not answer the question, ‘This is how things are,’ but rather, ‘ This is how they are to be understood,” wrote Leo Frobenius.
Which story line we come to believe is not merely a difference of opinion. The centuries of religious wars sparked by the Reformation, as well as the philosophical and very real blood letting between various religious sects from the Shia and Sunni in the Middle East, to the more benign Baptist and Episcopalian squabbles here at home, have hinged on which version should win out of the same story one group espouses over another. My mother and oldest sister have not spoken to one another for twenty years because of differing versions of the same story: their life and relationship together. Neither one will surrender control of their version of the narrative to the other, nor accept the difference. Another sister and I argued several years ago over how we treated each other. “Then there was that time you… and then you. . .” Followed quickly with, “No, that is when you did. . .” We have not gotten along since then. No one likes an editor.
When my students spin their stories off of each others stories and the stories we read, they bring a divergent set of tales and beliefs. Rather than relying on their own narrative to determine the meaning of a text they begin to welcome the deepening of their own stories brought by others in the class telling their tales. The divergent personal narratives bring a universality to the common text; while the “canonized” text gives a significance in return to their personal stories which the students did not recognize before. When something one has to say is similiar to what one finds in Shakespeare more than a boost to one’s self-esteem occurs, one takes part in a conversation, as Mortimer Adler remarks, that has been going on for centuries.
In a graduate class, which ostensively was a survey course of Medieval English Literature, called English Identity and Cultural Formation, the professor tried to make us ask the question: Why these texts? What did the canonization of these texts create? Being a simplistic person I said they are the stories we tell each other. They are the stories we share. I once heard a story about the philospher, George Santayana. At the turn of the last century, Harvard was re-evaluating the literature they were having the boys of the American elite read. They came to Santayana and asked him what the students should read. He told them it didn’t matter as long as they all read the same books. By reading the same texts, no matter what they were studying or what they went on to accomplish in their later lives the students would have a base from which to conduct the conversation required of a democracy. Daphne Key quotes Robert Scholes, “What students need from us now is the kind of knowledge and skill that will enable them to make sense of their worlds, to determine their own interests, both individual and collective, to see through the manipulations of all sorts of texts in all sorts of media, and to express their own views in some appropriate manner.” The skills they learn from making connections between the stories the students read and the stories the students tell are a means to this end. The students own stories allow them access to the techniques and manipulations which authors use to tell their tales. Or as Richard Rorty writes, “ What a human being is . . is largely a matter of how he or she describes himself or herself. We have to take seriously the idea that what you experience yourself to be is largely a function of what it makes sense to describe yourself as in the languages you are able to use.”

End of Year

My students concluded their performances of Macbeth today. For the last two weeks, after working through the play using the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Shakespeare Set Free,” and other stuff I have made up, my students break into self-selected groups and choose a scene from the play. Earlier in the week I video taped their “dress rehearsals;” they were terrible. Each year, they always are. Three days later after seeing themselves on tape, they performed in front of 40-60 peers in my classroom. They were nervous and pissed at me, but they were great. They did it all: blocking, interpretation, how to say the lines and react to what was said. They knew their characters, the motivations from line to line, even the minor characters. The audience applauded, and my students finished the year with the feeling that they had done something difficult successfully. Maybe I am deluding myself, but for the last decade I have ended my year with my students doing, really doing, Shakespeare, and it works. They are engaged to the last day they are in my class, and they are thinking through a difficult text making meaning in a social context. What more can an English teacher want to happen in her class? Success on a standardized test? Affirmation from some outside testing service? Are we, after years of being good students ourselves, such grade whores, that we as teachers willingly sell our students as commodities so we look good when they come back with good AP scores?

Two Haiku

1

With what word will I
wake, walking into the world?
The wind whispers, “Why?”

2

The fog dissipates;
trees in the creek refocus,
momentarily.

(summer 2006)