A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Is the school culture that led to Atlanta’s cheating scandal uncommon?

Righton Johnson, a lawyer with Balch & Bingham who sat in on interviews, told me that it became clear that most teachers thought they were committing a victimless crime. “They didn’t see the value in the test, so they didn’t see that they were devaluing the kids by cheating,” she said. Unlike recent cheating scandals at Harvard and at Stuyvesant High School, where privileged students were concerned with their own advancement, those who cheated at Parks were never convinced of the importance of the tests; they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.

. . .

John Ewing, who served as the executive director of the American Mathematical Society for fifteen years, told me that he is perplexed by educators’ “infatuation with data,” their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell’s law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. “The end goal of education isn’t to get students to answer the right number of questions,” he said. “The goal is to have curious and creative students who can function in life.” In a 2011 paper in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, he warned that policymakers were using mathematics “to intimidate—to preëmpt debate about the goals of education and measures of success.”

From Rachel Aviv’s story in The New Yorker about the cheating scandal in Atlanta. Unfortunately, I’m sure teachers across America recognize many aspects of their own school districts and school culture in this article.

Reading The Road as a father, vulnerable to McCarthy’s probing tension

I remember enjoying Life Is Beautiful while in college: the quirky Roberto Benigni created a character I’d hope to be, and the peek into one story struck me as a poignant way to capture the tragedy of the broader genocide that was the Holcaust. At least, that’s how I remember thinking about it, and the positive memories are why I assigned my sophomores to watch it fifteen years later when I was out of class for some meetings.

They didn’t finish the film with the sub and I had to show the last 30 or 40 minutes or so when I returned. It did not go well for me. Within five minutes of hitting play my stomach was tied. When we finally reached the scene where little Joshua hides in the junction box and his father is taken away and shot, I left the room, afraid I’d throw up. What was different from my college experience? Becoming a father had made the movie unwatchable.

I wonder, as I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with my students, if they can comprehend this fatherly perspective, or are they as clueless to the gut-level connection as I was the first time I watched Life Is Beautiful? The first time I read The Road I withheld any positive acclaim until the end, muttering to McCarthy with every page, “Do not do this. If you do this, I will hate this book like no other.” I never had to utter to myself what “this” was any more than McCarthy’s narrator has to explain what is on the man’s mind: “He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?” (29). I knew with the first mention of “it” what McCarthy meant. The pit in my stomach, the one that drops into place the moment I read a sentence of The Road, told me what “it” was.

The pit, or whatever it is that leaves me on the edge of sickness and threatens to push me off it, arises particularly from the juxtaposition of the father’s knowing watchfulness and the boy’s sweet peacefulness, which we see immediately in the novel. For example, with the pistol out and ready, the man sees the same sweet sleeping idiosyncrasies any parent sees from their child: “He just sat watching the boy sleep. He’d pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets” (5). The boy’s sleep prevents him from seeing what consumes his father: “He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day” (5). And when the boy wakes the two elements crash:

The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.

I’m right here.

I know. (5)

The tender boy sees his father and greets him, a moment in which any father would want to bask and respond in reciprocal tenderness–that is to say, it’s a moment where I would, so I assume any father would as well–but instead he answers by assuring his son that he is watching, that he is here, because that is what consumes him and how he must express his love. It is sad that it must be this way, but it works, for the boy’s response acknowledges his understanding and trust in his father. He knows his father is there, he doesn’t have to be told.

What a pang such tension brings me as a father. I know what it is to watch over my sleeping son, his face relaxed, his body vulnerable. Yet the joy of my looking at him arises from the contrast of his sleeping self with the buoyant energy that fills our home when he’s awake. Like the father in The Road, I see him as my charge, my “warrant,” but to me this is a responsibility within my grasp. It’s a duty of character development and moral guidance, not a task of raw survival and violent protection. In my gut I know no extremes exist to my willingness to protect him, but I need not imagine such circumstances, let alone plan for them or expect them.

This book is a long metal pole McCarthy has probed inside me, and with it he is pressing the nerve endings of my fatherly spirit. That nerve is central to what it means, to what it feels, to be a father, and even when aware of the novel’s ending, I find myself muttering, “Don’t press me too hard, McCarthy. If you rupture that nerve, I’ll never forgive you.”

 

Briefly connecting literature, depth, education, and Steve Jobs

Paul Elie, at The American Scholar, describing his first book proposal experience:

I went into his office and waited for a phone call to end. He stood. A smile, a cock of the head, a pat on the shoulder. He liked it, he said—liked it a lot. Then: “Go deeper. You need to go deeper.”

I asked him what he meant, and he explained, roundabout but in such a way as to draw clear lines between the literary text and all the other kinds of writing that washed up against the pilings of our office. What I’d written was too journalistic. It made too much of superficial connections. It was boosterish in style—it was trying to put the idea of a “school” of American Catholic writing over on us instead of trusting the material. And (again, all this was conveyed indirectly) it didn’t get to the bottom of what made these people a school, or what made them Catholic writers, or what made them Catholics at all, or why what they believed mattered to them or us.

Roger Straus liked it too—and Jonathan and FSG signed up the book. And day and night for a thousand days and nights I sought to go deeper, starting by moving my point of entry into the story back nearly half a century—to the moments where those four writers themselves turned, in their different ways, to literature and to religious belief in their own efforts to go deeper. And somewhere in the middle of those thousand days and nights, I concluded that the experience of depth—intellectual, emotional, spiritual depth—is the central literary experience. It is what makes literature literature, and what makes us read literature, and write it.

“Go deeper.” It’s not advice a writer can outgrow or set aside as unnecessary. Augustine asked, “Who understands his sins?” Likewise, what writer can truly say, “I’ve gone deep enough”?

I originally saw this quote on Wesley Hill’s tumblr, where Hill added this:

I’m reminded of the (one suspects apocryphal but wishes not) story about the Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs at Yale. Asked by a student upset over his grade on an essay how he could improve the next time around, Childs replied, “Become a deeper person.”

It strikes me that this “become deeper/go deeper” thrust is why we make students read literature in school. It’s a challenge to help students realize that their answer isn’t good enough, that they need to push themselves to see more in a text (and thus, in life). They’ll point out that their answer is right, and it’s true, it is correct. The problem is that too often it’s also shallow, obvious, and uninspiring.

I was reading Walter Jacobson’s article in The Smithsonian about Steve Jobs, and it strikes me that Jobs is a good example of how depth can work outside the world of English class. Depth doesn’t make you a good person (Jacobson says frankly Jobs was a bit of a jerk) but it does give you an understanding of people that can guide your pursuits. Jobs’s depth, gained most prominently, it appears, through his study of Buddhism, is what pushed him to understand design and its importance with computing technology–thus, the simplicity and beauty of Apple’s products.

When the media know little and aren’t embarassed about it . . .

The real problem is the arrogance that goes with the ignorance. . . A few weeks ago, David Brat beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning upset. The media didn’t handle it well. You might say they freaked out. Among other things, reporters sounded the alarm about a phrase Brat used in his writings that, they said, suggested he was a dangerous extremist: “The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military.” As National Review‘s Charles C.W. Cooke noted:

“Unusual” and “eye-opening” was the New York Daily News’s petty verdict. In the Wall Street Journal, Reid Epstein insinuated darkly that the claim cast Brat as a modern-day fascist. And, for his part, Politico’s Ben White suggested that the candidate’s remarks “on Neitzsche and the government monopoly on violence don’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Unusual, eye-opening, and non-sensical, perhaps, to people who had never studied what government is. But that group shouldn’t include political reporters, who could reasonably be expected to have passing familiarity with German sociologist Max Weber’s claim that “the modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination. It has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory.”

Mollie Hemingway’s article at The Federalist is sobering for those of us who think the media has an important role to play in our culture and are aware of its influence upon others. It’s also a great apologetic for a disciplined education. It strikes me as I read it that reporters with this kind of selective expertise are the natural products of an educational system that worships at the alter of student choice and values rhetorical style above ideas (as timed writing tests inevitably show us).

Are the nuances of dying for one’s faith that nuanced?

Allen also explains convincingly why, when considering outcomes, there is not a great deal of difference between believers killed because they are Christians and believers killed because their Christian callings put them directly in harm’s way.

Yet their most enduring message concerns the character of Christian faith itself. In 2011 Shortt interviewed Afghans who after converting to evangelical forms of Christianity had been forced to flee for refuge to Europe or India. One of them, who had been taught to view all non-Muslims as satanic, was eventually drawn to Christian faith. For him the attraction was “God’s self-offering in Christ, the characteristically Christian notion that victory can be won through apparent defeat, and that Christians have the status of adoptive children through the Spirit of Jesus.” Shortt reports that despite ostracism, mortal threat, and forced immigration, this Afghan believer did not regret his conversion. Instead he affirmed that “the gospel had freed his conscience and imagination … especially in its emphasis on the core principle that forgiveness precedes repentance, not vice versa.”

Similarly moving were words that Shabbaz Bhatti recorded on video only weeks before he was killed for trying to help Aasiya Bibi, and after he had received many threats against his life: “I am living for my community and for suffering people and I will die to defend their rights… . I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know … the meaning of the Cross and I follow him on the Cross.”

Because of such testimonies, Christianophobia and The Global War on Christians are almost as inspiring as they are frightening. To read them is to weep. But it is also to grasp the wisdom of a slogan popularized by Catholic Action in the middle of the last century: Observe—Judge—Act.

Mark Noll, reviewing a pair of books about violence against Christians in Books and Culture.

Aaron Belz’s humorous verse tethers readers to reality

Aaron Belz is a funny poet. Consistently funny, not “he slipped a giggle-inducing verse into a broader collection” funny (ala Billy Collins) but funny in a way that his readers have come to expect. Funny as a primary vehicle for communicating what he has to say.

glitter bombYet he defies any attempt to banish him to the poetic land of Light Verse, a land from which no amount of verbal wit can break Ogden Nash free. True to form, in his latest collection, Glitter Bomb, Belz stares solemnly into our collective mirror and uses humor to explain what he sees. That humor is witty and full of word play, but Belz’s insightful observations betray his contemplative mind.

Of course with any humorist the first thing readers do is laugh, and Belz utilizes a variety of methods to make us grin. A classic technique he uses differently almost every time is the unexpected twist. See his redirecting of cliches, like in “Ice Cream”:

I scream, you scream, we all scream
when we get stabbed in the heart.

or his inversion of words’ normal pairings, like in “Interesting About You,” when what’s interesting is the ways “you fail to distinguish yourself.” Other times he plays upon our accustomed expectations, like in “Palindromes,” when the second half of each palindrome is not a sensible line but a strange garble of phonetic nonsense akin to the Swedish Chef’s monologues.

Belz’s word play draws particularly skillfully from contemporary idiom and colloquialisms, sometimes teasing the idiom, other times celebrating it. Using expressions anachronistically sounds silly and highlights how dependent upon cultural context our language is, as in a stanza of “Trois Poesies Antiques” called “Wack Kings”:

Watch out for the wack kings,
clanking their armor,
riding their dope horsies over the hill.

or in “Hambone,” where the poet thinks of his relationship “in a completely old way”:

“What has gotten into thee?”
you asked. “I’m boogying!”
said I. “Why don’t thou gettest

thy groove on, too?”

Other times Belz toys with the raw frequency of our idiomatic expressions, like in “No Vacancy,” where he strings together a series of disconnected nothings to make a conversation of sorts:

“Actually,” they say.
“Let’s be honest,” they begin.

“On the flip side,” I respond.
“As fate would have it,” you admit–

you confess. “It wasn’t your
fault,” you continue . . .

or in “So this is Thursday,” where he begins fourteen separate lines with “So this is . . . “

As readers laugh through a first perusal of Glitter Bomb, a few dark clouds form. At least, that’s the common imagery of the humorist-with-a-purpose. If a writer is notably intelligent or satirical we must say they have a dark sense of humor, a label applied since Twain and Bierce. A better image here might be to say that while Belz’s wit supplies buoyancy to our spirits, we notice after a time he has us tethered to something solid: reality.

This humorist has found some of the funniest parts of our lives are the parts we do not share or discuss with others. One such aspect is the ongoing battle we wage with what feels like our various selves. In a number of poems, like “Your Objective,” and “Song of Myself,” Belz splits these selves apart and toys with our denials of conflict and vice and our efforts and failures at virtue.

In “1-0,” for example, the speaker declares,

I’ve taken a vote among
myself and it’s unanimous
we’d like me to be slightly
less of a jerk if possible”

but by the end of the poem he concedes it might not happen. The verse operates subtly, teasing our lack of conviction in our demands of ourselves (“slightly” and “if possible”) and giggling at the oddity of a phrase like “among myself” even as it admits that 1) he’s a jerk and 2) he won’t be changing.

Such humor touches a reader close to the heart, and I get the sense that Belz is not only mocking others, but himself. How else could he discover the poignancy present in “Team”?

There’s no “I” in team,
but there’s one in bitterness
and one in failure.

Happily for Belz, his privacy is intact and I have no clue what might have inspired such verses. I do have a clue, however, about what parts of me connect so well to what Belz mocks, and I constantly laugh and pause, knowing I too may be the butt of the joke. As a sample, there is a part of me that, despite my best efforts to resist it, has succumbed to the promises of advertising. This version of me has begun to see myself in overblown, over-confident terms, like the speaker in “My Chosen Vocation,” who, though failing at his goals in life, is left “rather sexy-looking” with his messy hair that was “volumized / with Matrix Essentials / Foam Volumizer”; in his own mind, he is the picture of a modern day Walt Whitman, not a washed up, purposeless bum. I’d like to say I’m not that bad, but who am I fooling? Perhaps Belz is right.

E.B. White wrote of Mark Twain that he didn’t know that a humorist must always preach, as Twain claimed in one instance they should, but that they must always speak the truth. In this collection of poems Aaron Belz rebuffs for his poetry the label light verse and earns a better label, humorous verse, because he has tethered his playful wit to the noble satirical goal of speaking the truth.

He has succeeded, and readers of this volume can be confident their reading will begin in laughter and end in wisdom.

 

Charles Portis’s deadpan, eccentric humor

Most comic novels — think of anything by P. G. Wodehouse, say, or Ring Lardner — are fairly transparent: they unabashedly try to be funny and let the reader in on the joke. The trick of Mr. Portis’s books, especially the ones told in the first person, is that they pretend to be serious. They’re full of odd events and odd people with names like Norwood Pratt, Raymond Midge and Dr. Reo Symes, inventor of the underappreciated Brewster Method, a miracle cure for arthritis. But these are presented without a wink or a nudge, or any sense that slapstick touches like smooth-talking midgets, bread-fondling deliverymen or elderly gents wearing conical goatskin caps are at all unusual.

Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow.

Charles McGrath, capturing the strange comic angles of Charles Portis.

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