Blake and the Purpose of School

Came back to work today after having a sub on Friday (actually 3 subs on Friday because of a sub shortage in the district). After reading the notes left by the subs I thought, “My god, what did my students do.” But once again after listening to the kids as they came in randomly telling me their side I thought, “My god, where do they get these people.” My classes run on a set pattern, that I can improvise on, it is flexible yet gives enough structure that the students know what to expect. My students work. They knew what to do, but the sub would not let them; they wanted complete silence and all of the seniors sitting in little rows. When a girl who was sitting on a bean bag paused in her reading the sub fussed at her for not doing as she was told. I hate being absent. Today we had a fairly good discussion on W. Blake’s “The Schoolboy.” I am trying hard to wait longer and longer before I say anything and that works. One period when no one voluteered, I said, “Cool, let’s read our books.” One boy said something under his breath about the poem. Another one added a comment, then they were off for about five minutes. All of the comments connected to the poem and the purpose/usefulness of school. It made it a good day.

bell hooks, Lortie and Change

Been reading bell hooks, “Teaching to Transgress,” most of the day today in between grocery shopping for the week, cleaning house, cooking and spending some face time with the children. I think I read too much, most of what hooks says does not seem all that radical. Yes, the banking model for teaching is still the main model in my school, but then things don’t change in education. In “Schoolteacher’ Lortie describes teachers from a sociologists perspective. What I found depressing about it was it was written in 1975, based on research done in the 60’s. Not a whole lot has changed. I recognized most of what he wrote about in the school where I work. But then one of the things he wrote about was how hard it is to cause change in the school system, because the very structure of the school makes it difficult to change. So, I guess even though I have read most of what hooks says in her book before, it is still considered radical because the schools are so conservative.


A long weekend. Yesterday I sat through a professional development day. I know it is hard to meet the needs of teachers ranging from no experience to thirty plus, but it would seem that more would be offered than how to set up a word wall, or a quick look at a computer program, photostory (a more user friendly powerpoint). As I read Ladson-Billings, Successful Teachers of African-American Students, I think: Yes, this is good teaching. I have seen people doing this for the last eighteen years, sometimes I even think that I manage to teach well; then I sit in the PD day and listen to so many of my collegues ooh and aah over simplistic activities that they can use to fill time. I shudder to think of the two and half days one of the presenters spent in the computer lab having her students (high school) make a photostory slide show about five vocabulary words. It seems that more could have been accomplished by having them simply read a book. Sigh.


It has been seven days now where my back has not been a major concern. It gives me hope. Now if I can just avoid doing stupid stuff like weed eat the yard, which I did four weeks ago, which caused this last spate of pain. Work is going well; I only have a couple of butt-headed children this year. Friday I had two, count them two, “sometimes a shining moment” moments. A girl whose first book was a box car children book, (keeping in mind these are seniors in high school) after reading her second book ( a book about abuse where she identified with the girl because she had been abused before she was put in a foster home), decided to try a book she thought would be too hard, but she was interested in it, and since she didn’t have to have another book read for five weeks, she thought she would give it a try. Letting the students pick the books they are reading does so much more than forcing them to read books they are not ready for. That girl, who wants to go to college, has done more for herself as far as college prep is concerned, by deciding on her own to read a harder book, than I could have done all year forcing them to read the usual Brit lit books seniors normally read. The second “moment” was another girl who made the deeper symbolic connections in Alice Hoffman’s “Green Angel” as she was talking to me about the book. The stereotype of a light going off in her head as she talked stunned me: her eyes became bigger and brighter she smiled, and said,”Oh, man, I get it. That’s wild.” All unprompted by me, except for a single question about the character’s tattoos. Sometimes my job is great.

And We’re Off

Work began and my attention to other things falls away. It is such an odd all consuming job; especially in the first few weeks as the routines and procedures are being taught to a new set of students who know you, at best, by reputation alone. A reputation relayed through the warped view of past students. “He’s cool.” “He’s mean.” “He’s hard; you have to read too much.” “He’s easy; you don’t do anything.”
During the passing period between first and second period, I said hello to a student I remembered from last year because he had been in the journalism class next door and I felt as if the intervening summer had not occurred. Even though I had had a long slow summer with back pain, physical therapy, no doctoral classes, and travel in New Mexico, it felt, as the cliché goes, as if I had not left. I think it is because, as I start my third year here at the high school, I finally feel comfortable. At least that is the positive spin I am putting on it for now.
Tomorrow (Monday) is open house, where the parents come to inspect the teachers. The more obnoxious, if there are any, will question me on grammar and research projects. But most will already be influenced by the opinions of their children, which, in all modesty, has been very positive for the last ten years or so. I have never taken compliments well, so I find much of their comments to be slightly embarrassing. It will be a long day.

Nietzsche/Zarathustra Part One

The opposites and paradoxes return as in the prologue, as do various characters with whom Zarathustra interacts. I think it would pay off to look at each section as a whole, rather than as a simple series of events that are interpreted on their own without regard to the order in which they are placed or the section that contains them. If as Mark, the organizer of this little book klatch, says and Zarathustra returns at the end of the book to speaking to the sun, bringing his interactions with “others” full circle, then it would seem to me that the book is structured in a purposeful manner. Again I return to the question of why Nietzsche chose to write this book as a “fictional” narrative? By doing so he opens up the text to even more levels of interpretations than if he simply maintained an authorial/authoritative voice. Using the mask of Zarathustra, and the “others” Z. speaks at allows a multitude of personae from behind which Nietzsche can speak. I wonder how much, if any, the play of masks in Greek Drama is in play in this little tragedy? I don’t have an answer to this, but each scenario seems to allow space for quite a distinct performance on Zarathustra’s part. I certainly don’t think one can read what happens simply on a surface level, or at face value, as one of the reading group’s members suggested when “Of Old and Young Women” was discussed. Nietzsche provides a context, the larger framework of the section of the book, placed within the larger framework of the text itself. Wheels within wheels, with an attempt to avoid, or at least obfuscate, a single “god” position from which to view or control the meaning?

“But you yourself will always be the worst enemy you can encounter; you yourself lie in wait for yourself in caves and forests…
You will be a heretic to yourself and a witch and a prophet and an evil-doer and a villain.
You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flames; how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?” (Zarathustra Penguin, Hollingsdale trans. p. 90)

Some thoughts after attending a book group’s first discussion of Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”

The fool, the prophet and the the saint: where is Fred in all of this? Why, he’s the author of course. The author is dead, or so say lit crits since the mid 60’s. Should we care that he went nuts soon after, does it matter now to how we read the book? Yes, no, both of course simultaneously and neither. It is a narrative, not a philosophical tract, yet it is, as is Plato’s construction of Socrates and his “talks” with his boys. I think a good question to ask is: what is afforded by writing Zarathustra the way it is written? Fred could have explicated his ideas in a standard philosophical treatise, no? Why a narrative that uses the genres and tropes of religion, tragedy, quest, parables, and riddles? In the prologue Zarathustra gripes that no one has the ears to hear what he is saying, perhaps Fred was trying to embed the need to interpret the world as one will in a book where “God” a prevailing world view “is dead.” When what one is saying is being interpreted in ways unintended, as Zarathustra to the crowd waiting for the tightrope walker, and one has already declared that an absolute meaning (god) does not exist, then isn’t the only path open one where any number of creative interpretations become legitimate. All ways are my way as the Queen told Alice. We are all the center of an infinite universe, as I have said before. All ways are one way: kind of like Joe Campbell and the Masks of God, I guess.

The freedom to do as one pleases with little restrictions on your time leads me to do less than I would if I had a busier schedule, one of the paradoxes of my life. During my first doc review I told the tribunal that I have never been busier in my entire life what with teaching full time and taking two graduate classes in the evening. I felt as if I didn’t have time to scratch myself if I had not scheduled it at least a week in advance. Now that the summer break from work is in full swing and I am not taking any classes I get very little accomplished. It is a big day if I drive the two miles to an H.E. B. to renew the tags on the van. I am sure that I will look back fondly on this summer when I am in the middle of an essay for class in the fall, but right now I kind of feel guilty that I have so much time to lay about. I suppose part of that is being an American, where even in our leisure time we have to be productive some how: the “if it is Tuesday this must be Belgium” mentality of our vacations. Another part, of course, is my own obsessive personality: for example, if I am not engaged fully or casually with fifteen to twenty books at the same time something must be wrong with what I am thinking. Periodically I will pick up the books on my bedside table, take them downstairs and shelve them. Within a couple of days I will have replaced them with another set, sometimes containing the same books I took down stairs a few days before.

I took my oldest son, 15, and his girlfriend to a bookstore the other afternoon. My son and his girlfriend both think going to a bookstore together is a great way to spend time with each other; I feel my wife and I have done something right. I wandered off to look at CD’s, philosophy and poetry. Every now and then I would see them in a different section of the store huddled before the shelves, looking at the back of a book and whispering together. It was cute. I eventually found a poetry anthology called, “Staying Alive: Real Poetry for Unreal Times,” found a chair and waited for them to finish their date. The book is a fairly conventional collection of what Charles Bernstein would call the dominant poetic culture, which I have decided can be translated as fairly conventional accessible poetry. I decided to buy it because within the first few pages I found several poems I could use in my class next year. Some I have read before, but had forgotten, not from any fault of theirs; some of the others are new to me. So a good mix overall.

The day school let out I was cleaning out my file cabinet; I filled a large trash can full of old lessons some from 15 years ago. I stupidly dragged the trash can out of my room, thereby pulling my lower back out yet again. However this time I seemed to have managed to pinch a nerve that runs down my leg. I have been incapacitated since then, either by pain which makes it very difficult to walk, or painkillers, which makes it very difficult to think, even more so than normal. I had an MRI of my lower back on Saturday. A procedure I had last year on my head after my stroke. An MRI is a very unpleasant and loud experience, not suitable for any with any smidgin of claustrophobic tendencies. The pain in my leg has forced me to sit a lot, which allows me the excuse to read. In a class on the Essay I took fifteen years ago, the prof made an off hand comment that has stayed with me: “Writing is a leisure activity.” So is reading; one must be of a certain economic class to have the luxury of doing nothing but reading or writing. I think this is one of the reasons for the disdain Americans have for intellectuals: their production, or work, is invisible and resembles doing nothing. So I have done very little so far this summer. I have read about half way through Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation.” Maybe I have read too much weirdness over the last twenty five years, but his ideas don’t really seem all that radical. I found myself underlining stuff that I have read somewhere else. It was the same when a lot of people were going on about the “cool” ideas of The Matrix. It just seemed like a lot of Plato: the Allegory of the Cave and the ideal versus the perceived with a little unacknowledged Hinduism through in for psychedelic fun. I have always seen much of philosophy simply moving between Plato’s big Ideals and Aristotle’s categories. At least western philosophy. From the east I get a Beatles line: “Nothing is real, Strawberry field’s forever.” Speaking of which, irreality that is: I’m also reading Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition” (about a third of the way), as well as a Charles Bukowski poetry collection (finished), an anthology of Ancient Egyptian Literature (a find at the UT Press book sale this spring), Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” (great hard boiled detective novel), Conjunction magazine’s essay issue, and Jack Kerouac’s “The Subterraneans.” I love summer and the time to read what I want. (As Deb mentioned on her list in her last blog). I just wish my leg would stop hurting. The worst part of it is my left foot is numb as if it fell asleep and won’t wake up, kind of the opposite of Neo in “The Matrix” who wakes up a lot, but never falls asleep. OOOOh I’m gettin’ deep. But then one can drown on the surface of the ocean as easily as 1000 feet under, can’t one?