A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: On Life

This school closure suggests our communal sense is lacking

My school district called school off today, Friday, for the third day in a row due to a blizzard that hit Wednesday night. The reason the district gave is understandable–large drifts are blocking doors in many schools and grounds crews have not been able to clear them away in time (ah–the budget cuts that slashed custodial crews hurt today!). But the sad part of this, it strikes me, is what this reveals about our community, or at least our assumptions about it.

What if our school district had sent out a note on our phone-dialer system at noon yesterday telling the community we were having trouble clearing drifts? That we might have to cancel school Friday unless people could come and help the schools dig out? Maybe no one would have responded, but in a town of more than 70,000 people, surely a few would have chipped in? Surely a few of the thousands of teenagers hanging out at home playing with their phones might have grabbed a shovel and donated an hour or two of their time?

And maybe we as a district would never have thought of doing such a thing.

And that’s too bad not only because we’re missing another day of school today, but because it suggests how little we sense the communal aspect of our community.

Pursuing the authentic self–explained by Gerson, captured by Belz

Michael Gerson is a smart guy–whether or not one agrees with his politics I would hope that is an uncontroversial observation–and in a recent column he waded into history to explain a concept of ethics he finds relevant to understanding President Trump.

Without intending it, Tlaib and Trump have wandered into an important moral debate. And not a new one. In any ethical system derived from Aristotle, human beings fulfill their nature by exercising their reason and habituating certain virtues, such as courage, temperance, honor, equanimity, truthfulness, justice and friendship. Authenticity — at least, authenticity defined as congruence with your unformed self — is not on the list. In fact, this view of ethics requires a kind of virtuous hypocrisy — modeling ourselves on a moral example, until, through action and habit, we come to embody that ideal. Ethical development is, in a certain way, theatrical. We play the role of someone we admire until we become someone worthy of admiration.

But there is a rival tradition. In any ethical tradition derived from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, authenticity is at the apex of the virtues. This view begins from the premise that man is born free but is everywhere in social chains. Being true to yourself, and expressing yourself freely, is seen as the chief requirement of a meaningful and happy life. In this system, the worst sin is hypocrisy — being untrue to your real self.

This approach to ethics is also theatrical, but in a different way. In Rousseau’s view, we are performers as ourselves, and life is a kind of transgressive art form. Being true to ourselves means being true to our eccentricities. Especially to our eccentricities.

(I cut his quote before explains the political implications, so if you want to hear those, you’ll have to read the column.)

This pursuit of the authentic self will tangle a person in knots, and Gerson’s explanation comes to life with Aaron Belz’s evocation of the tangle in “Your Objective,” a poem from his collection, Glitter BombParticularly effective is how Belz grasps the silliness and difficulty of where we find ourselves.  (I normally wouldn’t reproduce the poem in full, but I found it online already at Vandal Poem of the Day.)

In a given situation
Your objective should be
To act as much like yourself
As possible. Just imagine
How you would act
And act that way.
A good rule of thumb
Is, try to be similar
To who you really are.
But keep in mind
That there’s no way
To perfectly replicate
Yourself at all times.

Onward I trek,  then, wanting to act like the self I really want to be, but struggling because I can’t seem to replicate that self all the time. Alas! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Such a life.



History by osmosis and location

I am increasingly aware that growing up in New England had created an overconfidence in my sense of American history. Yeah, I know history, I always figured: I’ve walked on Old Iron Sides. Sure, I know my history: we’d drive past Bunker Hill all the time.

But this confidence was always misplaced. I knew we were at Bunker Hill because the building beside the Interstate said Bunker Hill Community College. And while my school was named after a Revolutionary war hero, to me John Stark’s greatest achievement was not a strategic stand at Bunker Hill but Gerry Healy’s cross-court, no-look pass to Charlie Chungu in double overtime to win the state title.

So my knowledge has been shallow.

Or maybe it’s just muddled. I mean, it was an amazing pass.

My Book Broke

I had a problem with the book I was reading over the break.

It broke.

So that was problematic. The night it happened I jumped online and bought another copy (used—$4) but it took a couple weeks to arrive. I’ve been milling about not wanting to start another book because I really want to read this one (it’s The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff). I had markings in it but now those are basically lost since this one is destined to be a decoration in my classroom (I use old books for decorations–I’ll talk about that another day perhaps).

I tried to read this copy last night in bed but I was having to hold the left pages at the top to pin them against the cover, while resting it on my chest. My right hand had a firm grip on the right side and cover. Turning pages was slow, but it got me through 1/2 a chapter.

Thankfully today the new copy arrived.

But my daughter got through the old copy for school and I read 1/2, so we got our $4 out of it. And with the new one, we’re still only $8 in the hole.

So goes the life of the used book connoisseur. There are bumps in the road, but it’s worth it.

Satire as a Narrowing Agent

“Does anyone know where my needle nose pliers are?”

I had not seen them since my children borrowed them. They had been making ornaments, I think–I don’t really know what they were doing but it involved wire and beads–and I hoped they hadn’t forgotten where they were.

“I put them away last time I used them,” my son declared with total confidence. He is eight-years-old and possesses an appetite for projects. I once walked into the garage to find wood and nails scattered across the ping pong table and my son far away, involved in something else. “This is not a work bench,” I explained after I caught up with him, speaking like a hotel clerk to a foreigner.

For this inquiry about the pliers, we were sitting at the dinner table, and in my disbelief at my son’s response my next words slipped from my lips as easily as unconscious thought. “Right. Like that’s ever happened.”

I mumbled the phrase quietly enough that he didn’t hear me, but his twelve-year-old sister did. She hears everything. And she remembers everything. And that is the problem.

Actually, the problem is multi-layered. The first problem is that my son is just like me. My primary difficulty with his taking and losing my things is that I am usually taking and losing my things; I don’t need his help at being foolish, and when he supplies it, I feel like I’m losing the game in a blow-out. Any frustration I harbor toward my son is frustration that, upon reflection, I harbor with myself. But even if I’m justified in my frustration toward him, even if I wasn’t carrying a log in my own eye, what does my comment accomplish? Does mocking my son motivate him to change?

So I’m ultimately wrong to complain and criticize him. But compounding my wrong is that while my son never even heard me criticize him, my daughter did. Thus, my complaint colored my daughter’s attitude toward her little brother, because she then knew he had frustrated Daddy, that his indifference about losing track of the pliers was Irresponsible.

I’ve been considering this exchange recently as I’ve contemplated the nature of criticism in our American moment, particularly our favorite style of criticism, satire.

It’s not possible to keep up with all the satirical barbs aimed at the current federal administration, though it looks like Americans are trying, since Stephen Colbert is riding his satirical wit to a resurgence, Trevor Noah is using Trump critiques to grow his audience, and The Atlantic is devoting repeated commentary to Saturday Night Live’s artistic choices for skewering the President and his administration.

It’s SNL that got me thinking, because Melissa McCarthy has begun portraying Sean Spicer. I know a bit about Spicer, but I have never watched him work with the press. I know lots of people have taken on watching news as a part-time job, as Tom Papa amusingly observes, but if I get to that point I will question what I’m doing with my life–what would Henry David Thoreau think of my watching a television with Sean Spicer on it? I’m not going to do it.

For me, therefore, SNL’s skits are coloring my perception of Spicer without my having engaged the real person. I’m consuming the satire without knowing thoroughly what is being mocked. And while the skit might also spur me to look into the man’s work, I admit it frames my view of him–will I ever see the real Spicer without feeling like he’s imitating SNL?

In his essay “On Satire,” Aaron Belz shares the insight of Henri Bergson, a French modernist philosopher, who points out that the context for comedy is “our ‘life in common.’”

What I wonder when watching McCarthy play Spicer or listening to Colbert’s live specials is how broad this common life is that I’m sharing. Is my absorbing the satirical version of reality without substantial reference to the original narrowing the breadth of my common reference? Am I cutting myself off from others via satire?

I’ve always been an apologist for satire, justifying Mark Twain’s work, for example, “as a corrective of human vice or folly” (to pull from M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms). In this sense, I realize I’ve portrayed satire as a tool for unity, describing satirical jabs as attempts to bring people back to a common and more virtuous vision.

I have therefore seen myself positively in Belz’s further explanation of Bergson’s idea: “One important way we know that we’re living life in common is that we laugh at the same things. We also recognize error together. The joke itself, the thing that causes laughter, is incongruous, but its very existence suggests deeper congruity and agreement.” In this way, the joke I share reveals my agreement with those laughing and those joking, so satirical jokes confirm our common vision and encourage unity.

But now I’m wondering what kind of unity it encourages. Is the satire I’m reading or watching reclaiming stray members through winsome persuasion or tightening the circle against infiltration?

Jordan Peele, a contemporary master of satire, suggests that the dark element inside humans gives us “the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.” What if our satire is, then, an act of sorting? Of setting borders of congruity and establishing the side of the mob? Are satirists encouraging wayward sheep to return to the fold or establishing which sheep are allowed in the flock?

While I admit satire makes me laugh, I need to ask if it is accomplishing good. Is it pushing me to love my neighbor, or is it pushing me to think he’s a moron?

With those needle nose pliers, I soon came to my senses and realized I should not be angry with my eight year old; I am sorry I was critical of him. My concern now is how my criticism affected the way my daughter thinks of her little brother. Have I encouraged her to love him? I don’t think so. Satire rarely accomplishes that.

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.

Politicians Should Say, and Mean,”War Is Terrible”

Two weeks ago in an interview, the libertarian party candidate for President, Gary Johnson, was asked what he would do about Aleppo. Perhaps he did not hear the question well in the context, perhaps his mind went blank, but the question caught him off guard so much he asked, “What is Aleppo?” in response.

Given he is running for President of the United States and that Aleppo has been in the news as a center point of humanitarian crises in the Syrian civil war, Johnson was lambasted in the media for his lack of awareness of foreign policy. Certainly Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would have known what Aleppo is and answered the question.

But Johnson’s gaffe hints at a bigger problem in American politics, a problem that encompasses all three candidates for President.

In a column in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan suggests that politicians’ attitudes toward war in general is alarming. “They have their heads all screwed up about war,” she writes. “They approach the subject cooly, as a political and geopolitical matter, and . . . they see it through prisms of personal political need and ideological gain.” Johnson, then, may be pitifully uninterested, but in Noonan’s view the broader trend is for every politician to view war as a talking point, a required subject for advancing their cause or building political credibility.

Noonan’s concern is that such an indifferent point of view misses the great truth of war: that “war is terrible.” Noonan affirms her point by telling the story of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy in Aleppo, Syria, who was pulled from the rubble of his bombed out home. By the time she describes a video of his rescue, where he “brings his left hand up to his head and touches around for the wound” and then “puts his hand down on his legs, as if not to call attention to his wounds,” any reader with a heart knows she is right: “You should hate war.”

Noonan’s theory of war as terrible is extremely useful in highlighting for us how politics are calculated and ultimately impersonal. She tells us how she asked a candidate for President if he hated war, and “He got the dart-eyed look politicians get when they sense a trick question.” It wasn’t a trick question, but any statement issuing from a candidate’s mouth is released only after considering how it will affect poll numbers—even Donald Trump’s seemingly say-what-I-want slips of the tongue aim to generate particular popular responses. Somehow, then, the nature of geopolitical conflicts has added so many layers for politicians to sift through that they’ve lost track of how to answer that simple question. They’ve exposed their calculations and missed the only right answer about war, that it is terrible.

Yet by focusing on the genuineness and humane feeling of a politician’s response, Noonan’s political test leaves us susceptible to the next talented politician. As Barton Swaim has pointed out, “Successful politicians are people who know how to make us think well of them without our realizing that that’s what they’re doing; they know how to make us admire and trust them.” In Swaim’s view, the most effective politicians have an almost instinctual knowledge of what people want them to say or do, which means that as soon as a few politicians understand how to project this humane response Noonan wants to hear, we are likely to trust them.

I agree with Noonan that “before the election is over it would be good if someone said [war is terrible].” It would certainly beat not knowing what Aleppo is. But wouldn’t it be best if the person who finally said it, actually meant it?