A Teacher's Writes

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

Artists need to live modestly

It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

– from Rebecca Solnit’s tips on how to be a writer. Many of them are good, but this one is the one I haven’t heard elsewhere. And she’s right.

The act of writing as a shaper of complicated thinking

One of the wonderful things about writing, for me, is the ways in which the world becomes more complicated once it starts coming together on a screen, on paper. Actually most times I write by hand first, and then type after, for a variety of reasons. One of which is there is something very tactile about the experience, the act of holding something in hand, and moving across a page, the actual movement in which I’m more intimately bound rather than just typing away. That does something to me creatively in terms of ideas coming, in terms of even the architecture of a project. But also it gets me away from perfectionism or the self-loathing that too often hovers over and hinders and even smothers my work. The screen brings the constant illusion of perfection. I have notes on concert programs, napkins, restaurant menus, scraps of paper, newspapers . . . I always date them and I love looking through them. Partially it’s to protect myself, so if I stumble on a piece of writing where it’s echoed I know I haven’t taken it, or if I have I would have to give acknowledgment.

With the act of writing, the world can sometimes become so complicated that many times I’m not sure what I believe about something. Time and time again, my beliefs will change as I begin writing. For instance, when the election happened, I quickly said, “Oh these are the reasons for Trump’s win,” and as I began writing—just writing to a writer friend or friends who asked me to explain to them what happened—as I began writing, I began to recognize that it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. And people are more complicated than I thought. Suddenly, the pen outpaces the emotions or the mood. I feel that so often that my immediate response to something is a mood, whereas once I begin writing my response becomes more than mood. It becomes, in a thought, more engaged emotions. So writing becomes a way to remind myself that human beings are irreducibly complex and that they’re deserving of much more than the reductionisms that are often given to them.

Garnette Cadogan

Alan Jacobs’s reflection on election reactions

After a few days, or weeks, I hope self-reflection will kick in, and my friends on the left will get beyond simplistic denunciations — they hate women, they’re racists — and start to own some of their own responsibility, not just for Trump, but for a government that’s now entirely run by the GOP. They mocked people they didn’t have to mock; they supported policies that ran roughshod over people’s most deeply held beliefs; many of them treated everyone who disagreed with them with undisguised contempt. And they did all this because they felt that they stood for #Reason and #Data and #History — they were “on the right side of history” — they thought hashtags and cheap slogans were tools sufficient for the job of transforming America. Their smugness was titanic.

This morning my internet friend Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is a supremely decent person, remembers how troubled she was by George Bush’s election in 2004 — and, interestingly, shared that with her students, who I suppose all (all?) shared her politics — and reflects on how different this election feels: “In 2004, I felt that I might have a lot that I could teach. Today, I cannot help but feel like I have much, much more to learn.” If the majority of the people on the left take this attitude, then there will be a good chance for the renewal of their hopes, and for them to win over politically complicated people like me … should they want to.

Alan Jacobs

Shredding decency without paying a price

But this year Donald Trump has decimated the codes of basic decency without paying a price. With his constant, flagrant and unapologetic lying, he has shredded the standards of intellectual virtue — the normal respect for facts and truth that makes conversation possible. With his penchant for cruelty, bigotry, narcissism, selfishness and even his primitive primate dominance displays, he has shredded the accepted understandings of personal morality that prevent the strong from preying on the weak.

Most disturbing, all of this has been greeted with moral numbness. The truest thing Trump said all year is that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes. We learned this year that millions of Americans are incapable of being morally offended, or of putting virtue above partisanship.

David Brooks

The Coolest Cycling Poster

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I want this in my classroom. And on a t-shirt. I guess I’ll have to settle for the background on my computer desktop.

Miles believed in the Cubs

I believe in the Cubs. I love the people who hate the Cubs. It makes my team feel that much more special to me. I love having faith in my team and watching every game, the good and bad all the way through. I believe in the Cubs because it’s what my grandpa believed in.

from “I believe in the Cubs

In 2010 Miles Toledo, a student of mine, wrote this piece about the Cubs and his grandpa for sophomore English. It made me cry, and I kept it, wanting to publish it in our school newspaper, the Pine Needle. Miles moved the next year–I heard back to the Chicago area, but it was at least second hand information–so I never ran it. I thought in light of last night’s amazing ball game, the time had come to publish his work. So please, take a brief moment to read an essay that captures why last night was such an amazing night for baseball and families and American traditions.

Bill Bilichick shows innovation isn’t always an upgrade

While I am conscious that, on principle, seeing others suffer should not bring me joy, it is difficult at times not to find solace in the suffering of those who are notably privileged. If they’re having problems with that too, the thought runs, at least I know it’s a universal experience.

Such is my thinking today in learning that Bill Belichick has given up using a tablet on the sidelines of NFL football games. An Associated Press story explains that Belichick has found the devices “just too undependable,” and observes how “Belichick was caught on camera slamming down a sideline tablet following a Bills touchdown.”The slam is a beaut: he’s not going full ballistic, but he causes the most damage possible, letting the tablet land on its corner. If it didn’t break the manufacturer of the case should use this clip in an ad campaign.

From my own experience in the classroom, I could have written the rest of the AP story. Belichick curses the undependability, swearing to go back to his old ways (in this case case, paper and printer); the tech folks defend the system, explaining they’re doing the best they can to improve its reliability; somewhere, a colleague declares he really likes the technology and it’s working great for him.

It would make sense that the NFL, which drips money, would utilize communications devices almost on par with the Navy’s, so when they can’t make this stuff work the way they want, I feel a whole lot better about the class periods I’ve wasted waiting for half of my students’ laptops to log on to the school’s wireless network.

But mostly, I think Belichick is exactly right on this. He is no luddite: he was open to the technology and its possibilities and he’s clearly using anything that will give him an advantage. But this innovation was not effective, so he’s dumping it (literally).

Each technology has to be evaluated against what it is replacing. If we have something that is working for us–say, occasionally asking students to write essays on paper, with pens, or maybe a landline with  no cell phone–then we shouldn’t feel pressured to move past it. Not every innovation is an upgrade.