And, honestly, expect me to be on hiatus for a while after this.
Sunday, October 11, 2020
Lately I’ve been trying to read the books of the High School Canon* that I missed during my own education (which isn’t really that much of an endeavor, the High School Canon is distressingly limited), so that I won’t have to do too much catch-up work once I get my first teaching job. Right now I’m on A Separate Peace by John Knowles, which I’ve heard quiet a lot of complaint about, but I like it a lot. Knowles only explores two characters and one very small and specific setting, but he describes them in such precise and sturdy detail, both physically and psychologically, that it all feels much more real than so many other things I’ve read. Sure, maybe we shouldn’t be teaching too many books like it, given that I’m halfway through and the only women who appear are the headmaster’s wife and a maid (both of whom disappear after less than a page), but so long as other texts in the curriculum show a different slice of experience, I think this one is a fine addition.
In the middle of the beginning, when Knowles is taking his time setting up the world as it is, the narrator, Gene, goes on a long reflection on how he remembers the United States during World War Two. In his recollection, everything was rationed, every young man is thought of as a future soldier, foreign travel is unimaginable for any purpose but war, and “There are just tiny fragments of pleasure and luxury in the world, and there is something unpatriotic about enjoying them.” It’s a very evocative passage, the kind that could never be written except by someone who lived through an era personally. And when I first read it, I couldn’t help comparing it to the present moment, beat by beat.
I’m probably not the first person to make this comparison, but a pandemic seems like both a natural parallel and opposite to a war. In each there is a looming threat of death hanging over certain parts of the population. In each a society’s resources suddenly concentrate in one specific area. In each we read the news obsessively, trusting experts to inform us on trends far too big for us to observe from home and instruct us on how best to protect ourselves and serve our community. But there are also clear points of contrast. While wars prey on the young and fit, the pandemic has attacked the old and most vulnerable. War drove us to all kinds of action, from military service to victory gardens, while the best defense against the pandemic seems to be lonely passivity. And I don’t see much of the patriotic unity in the fight against COVID that most sources recount from World War Two, though that’s less of an inherent part of the situation and more an effect of our dysfunctional government.
Being in a constant English teacher mindset these days, when I read this section, I immediately though that it would be a good assignment for students to write something in a similar style but about our current situation. And, even though I’ll never use that assignment (because by the time I start teaching there won’t be an international crisis anymore, I hope), I still tried it out myself to see how it would work.
The answer is: not well. Most of it was too vague to present any clear imagery or emotion. The only evocative sentences were pulled directly and awkwardly from the text: Knowles wrote “The prevailing color in American life is a dull, dark green called olive drab,” I wrote “The prevailing color in American life is the pale blue of a surgical mask” (which isn’t even true; most people who care enough to wear a mask care enough to wear a double-cloth one). But the real problem was that none of what I wrote could be certain. I wrote the death count I remembered hearing last, then looked it up and replaced it with the updated number, then took it out entirely because it was sure to climb much higher. In the same way, I flip-flopped over whether to put in anything about a national mask mandate, since Biden is sure to implement one if he wins the presidency, but that victory is far from certain. I couldn’t write anything about how long it would last, except that it was much longer than anyone would admit at first. I couldn’t even make any generalizations about how it changed people’s lives, because there are plenty of people who have refused to let it change their lives at all (to disastrous consequences, of course).
I guess World War Two is essentially different for Knowles and his narrator than COVID is for me. The novel came out in 1959 and the story is told by Gene fourteen years after the fact. Both are looking backward. And no one can remember or construct the past exactly as it was, because you can’t force yourself to forget how all the unresolved tensions finally settled. If the Americans had lost the war, would Gene have focused so much on the hardships of the time when describing the era? Personally, I think he would’ve focused more on the pain to come. It works on the personal level too: the nostalgic memory of Phineas is undoubtedly shaped by the tragedy that meets him later.
Maybe I was so fixated on applying that sort of detached view of the past to our present situation because I really want to have that kind of certainty. This is something I’ve written about before**, but what I find hardest about this situation is that no one can be certain about any part of it: how long it will last, how many will die or suffer, and if we can depend on a stable government to guide us through it at some point. But there’s no cure for this uncertainty, really. We can do our small parts to make the future we want to see, I guess, by voting and volunteering. But mostly, we just have to live and wait.
* Defined as any book you’re almost guaranteed to find at least a hundred well-worn copies of in any high school English Department storage closet.
** Sorry to post about this so often. I've just been thinking about it so obsessively lately that there isn't that much else I can write about.
Sunday, October 4, 2020
In Media Literacy, one of the classes I’m student teaching this semester, I open every class by asking students what media they’ve experienced lately. Usually I go through a few not-quite answers like “My brother wrecked his car last week” or “Is TikTok media?” Then I remind them what media is, and then there’s usually a considerable silence. But there have been a few major news stories lately that the students have been all too eager to bring up. The first was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Then the Trump-Biden debate. And, finally, Trump’s positive COVID test. In each of these, the students have asked me what I thought. And what am I supposed to say? Focusing on that last piece of news alone, I knew there were students in that classroom who wanted more than anything for the president to pull through his illness, and others who were hoping for his death.
Aside from justice Ginsburg’s death, in each case I played up my own inability to answer as a joke and tried to move the conversation along from there; something like, “Well, these are big issues you’re bringing up, and you can be sure that I have strong opinions on them, but I can’t exactly be spouting those off as a public school teacher, so… yeah.” And maybe that’s the best I can do in that situation, or at least something in the direction of the solution. But at this point in student teaching, I’m basically just a teacher who doesn’t get paid, and before the school year is over there will be plenty of other political situations where I can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, hide so well.
There are two approaches to politics in the classroom that I’ve heard so far, neither of which really solves much for me. The first is the one I saw most teachers engage in when I was a student: to simply keep politics out of it. Condemn common-sense issues like racism and sexism, of course. Keep bullying and threats out of the classroom as best you can. But when it comes to any topic that might appear on the presidential debate stage, let students develop their own opinion.
This worked okay for most of the time I went to school, which were the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century. But in 2015 Trump injected mocking and threats and blatant prejudice into the Republican primary, the kind of talk that could get a kid suspended. At first teachers were okay openly disparaging the candidate, since he seemed so fringe and radical that no one thought he’d go anywhere. But now, how can you teach students about carefully vetting their sources when the sitting president and much of the Republican party repeat inflammatory and baseless statements spawned somewhere on twitter? How can you teach the history of slavery, fascism, and eugenics as evil when some established conservatives have shown various levels of admiration for all three? How can you teach common decency and respect when our political landscape has shown that rejecting these will get you rewarded and praised?
Of course, since graduating high school I’ve learned that schooling was never politically neutral. Teaching European history up until 1492, then switching over to the Americas as though they snapped into existence just then (no word on the rest of the world either) subtly teaches that white people, mostly men, are the only active parties in civilization. Teaching overwhelmingly white and male-written literature spreads the same message. Just because something isn’t questioned in our society doesn’t mean that it’s true, right, or apolitical.
But the answer I learned to this situation (like a lot of answers I learned at Grinnell, honestly) doesn’t leave much room for the real world. When an angry parent emails you about the liberal nonsense you’ve been teaching their kids, saying “Actually, everything is political” is a pretty weak response. But, parents aside, one of the essential truths of teaching that I’ve learned in the past month is that it doesn’t matter what you teach unless the students understand and believe it. And sadly, the students who most need to hear liberal messages are also the ones most likely to reject them. When talking about stereotype threat in class (a well-defended psychological concept that argues women and people of color face extra cognitive burdens from the stereotypes they fear others will apply to them), I noticed that conservative students never spoke up, but passed sarcastic glances between each other throughout the discussion. The best solution I can come up with is to avoid buzzwords that might hint I’m teaching something liberal without changing the core content, but I also know that I can’t weaken my teaching just to appease certain students.
2020 was a bad year to start teaching. Not that I’d rather not be teaching, I want to get started with my life and career as soon as I can. But it would have been easier to do this any other year, because of politics and a load of other reasons. But easier doesn’t always mean better. Politics have always been a part of schools, but now they’re impossible to avoid. It’s a trial by fire, teaching critical thinking and empathy at a time when so many alternatives seem appealing. But maybe, hopefully, I can come out stronger by the end of this.
Sunday, September 27, 2020
I’ve developed two bad habits lately. Calling them addictions would be an overstatement, but it seems like they’re headed in that direction: compulsions I don’t enjoy, don’t want to continue at the same rate, but have difficulty stopping.
The first is playing video games, specifically Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s beautiful and engaging, maybe the closest thing to a video game masterpiece I’ve seen*. But I’ve been playing it for three years at this point. In that time I’ve beaten the main quest and either completed or intentionally abandoned just about everything else. So now I just hop from point to point on the map, fighting monsters that have died and risen too many times to count by now. There’s always some kind of thrill in the midst of a fight, even though death just means a quick reset and victory only yields a few more monster parts to sell. And once the fight is over and the thrill is gone, I go looking for another monster to start it all over.
My second compulsion is grading. I know that grading is something most teachers avoid and dread and only do out of duty, and I know my view on the matter will probably change once I have more than a few worksheets on my plate. But for me, for now, I find it deeply satisfying to scroll through answers, mark the wrong ones, leave a few critiques or compliments on the more open-ended sections, and add up the final score at the end. It’s so satisfying that when I’ve caught up on grading, I’ll look through Google Classroom, hoping that someone has turned in their assignment since I checked last.
On paper, these habits don’t seem like much to complain about. One is a wholesome and popular hobby that I usually don’t sink more than an hour into each day. The other is literally part of my job, and something I’m sure a lot of teachers wish they could enjoy as much as I do.
The problem isn’t so much with what I’m doing as it is with what I know I’m not doing in that time. On weekdays I only have a bit of free time, time I could spend reading or writing, chatting with my family or girlfriend or friends from high school, or even playing a video game I’m less familiar with. And during designated working time I have lessons to plan that I’ve barely begun to consider and a research project that looms ahead. So whenever I choose Breath of the Wild or grading, I’m disappointed with my decision.
But I still keep choosing them, and I think I choose them for similar reasons. For one, they’re both familiar: I’ve got loads of experience with Breath of the Wild and had the concepts on the worksheet mastered a long time ago. They’re also both pretty easy. But despite that ease, there’s always a distinct feeling of accomplishment at the end of each fight or worksheet. My continued enjoyment relies on a comforting myth: that I can keep on doing what I’ve already done, what I’m already good at, and that there’s nothing more to do.
I’m staring adulthood down the barrel right now, particularly the part of adulthood where the last of the comforting structure that guided me since birth disappears and I have to put your life together. It’s no wonder that I’ve found solace in routine and easy victories. Maybe it’s not even unhealthy, kept in moderation. But it’s something I need to try to keep away from.
* Regarding gameplay and graphics, at least.
Sunday, September 20, 2020
Our country has had a lot of bad weeks lately, but this probably ranks as one of the worst. The development that affects me most is Donald Trump creating the 1776 Commission by executive order, aimed at shifting public schools curriculum towards thoughtless jingoism and directly opposing the anti-racist 1619 Project (and it doesn’t take an English major to decipher what anti-anti-racism is). So far it seems mostly aimed at history curriculums, but there’s a potential leakage into English as well, and as a soon-to-be English teacher who hopes to give my students an honest and accurate education, this has me worried.
But honestly, that’s probably the week’s smallest disaster. News also broke this week that immigrant women in detention centers are being systematically sterilized. So far we only have an anonymous whistleblower account, but given how close our country has already come to eugenics, that’s enough to be terrified and ashamed.
And then there’s the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When I found out, I was at a socially distanced dinner with some teachers I’ve been working with. One of them got a notification on his phone, said he had some bad news, but then fell silent for a while. During that silence, I was certain that he’d gotten an email from the principal saying that there was a COVID outbreak at our school and we had all been exposed. As it turned out, though it wasn’t the immediate crisis I feared, the news was worse.
When we all found out, there was a little while when we shared the shocked silence, then we said a little about how much she’d done and what a tragedy her death was. But it didn’t take us long to get into the immediate implications. Could the Democrats convince enough moderate Republicans to hold off the vote until after the election? Would Joe Biden take the nuclear option and expand the Supreme Court? Would the Supreme Court stay reasonable enough to hold back the worst case scenarios? Though we didn’t answer any of these questions, anyone offering a hopeful take did so with a shakiness in their voice, and anyone assuming the worst had a grim certainty.
Pretty much every take I’ve seen, online or off, Democrat or Republican, has followed a similar pattern. There’s a respectful moment at the start to mourn her passing, and then an fast shift into what we can or should do about it. Even Donald Trump spent a tweet on her memory before gloating about how quickly he’d replace her, and even if others are more authentic in their grief, remembering her is still always a transition into what her death means politically. There’s something about that feels a little perverse to me. Especially after seeing the documentary RBG a few years ago, I’ve deeply admired Justice Ginsburg, and want to take a little time just to remember all that she’s done and mourn her passing. I want to treat her like any other public figure who led a heroic life, to linger on her memory before moving on.
But I can’t blame anyone else for zipping through the normal rituals because I do it too. I have to; we all do. That’s the problem with representative democracy: we get attached to our favorite leaders. We learn about their personalities, their histories, their families. We feel like we know them. But if they die before they’ve left office, we have to face the fact that who they were as a person matters less to the world than what they had the power to accomplish or prevent. The death of Justice Ginsburg is a tragedy, but only a single life. The threat her open seat poses to reproductive rights, to LGBT rights, to the rights of immigrants, and to so many other issues I can’t name, all go beyond any single life. I know that I’m falling for a fallacy whenever I think that her life was more important than all the lives that depended on her, that we should all slow down and mourn. I know that my desire to slow down comes from a place of privilege too, since I’m one of the least likely citizens to be put at immediate threat in her absence. Still, it’s hard to shake that feeling.
But I’ve found a bit of solace in the increasingly common responses to her death that don’t move from memory to action, but who honor her memory through action. Action is necessary in her death, there’s no doubt, but then again, she defined herself by action. She was a person who dedicated her life to protecting and uplifting the oppressed; doing the same in her name is the most fitting kind of mourning that there can be. It’s a good strategy too, since using her name might be the only way we can shame Republicans into following their own precedent and holding off on a new appointee until after the election. But most of all, I think this kind of remembrance is important because it shows that the attachment we have to our leaders isn’t a one-way street. We aren’t stuck admiring people we’ll never meet and moving on once they die. We can act in their names too, even after they’re gone.
Thursday, September 10, 2020
For the first few days of student teaching, I was routinely shocked by how student-like the teachers were. When no one below the age of eighteen is in the room, they swear and call each other by their first names and gossip and procrastinate. Maybe those aren’t distinctly student-like behaviors, though; they’re traits so common you’d find them in nearly any profession. Aside from my parents, teachers were the only grown-ups I interacted with daily, so I grew up subconsciously expecting that everyone grew into the kind of baseline formality that even the most open teacher has around students. Now that I’m grown up enough, I’m constantly surprised to see that it was an act all along. I’d heard that adults were human from countless sources, but I’d never really believed it.
With all these thoughts of teachers and high school and growing up, I keep returning to this one scene in the last episode of Freaks and Geeks, where the AV club teacher breaks down how growing up works to all the nerds. First he graphs the lives of their popular classmates with his hand: sports heroism and friends build to a high point around senior year, then wobble and crash once their charisma and strength can’t cover up their bad work ethics any longer. Next he graphs the years of isolation and sadness that the geeks will endure, all turning around in college where their intelligence wins them wealth and admiration. The dialogue, the score, and the subtle choreography of the teacher’s mimed graphs all make the scene intensely satisfying and hard to disbelieve.
Because it was set in the place and era when they went to high school, my parents waived their usual censorship and let my sister and I watch Freaks and Geeks in elementary school. I don’t remember much of that first watch-through and probably didn’t understand much to begin with, since I quickly gave up trying to decipher all the innuendos and archaic references embedded in the dialogue. But I understood every word of that scene one scene with the AV club, and took it as creed, because it put something to words that I’d been noticing throughout all sorts of my favorite stories: that the heroes were always despised and forgotten, and they always won everything in the end. Ergo, if I wanted to be the hero or win anything, the best place to start out was to be as miserable as possible.
I had a great childhood, but if you’d asked me about it at the time, I would’ve responded with loads of self-pity. Sometimes I passed the time just mentally repeating all the unfairnesses of my life: being the least popular kid in my class (not that it says much in a class of seven), being a weak and skinny boy (not that I had any interest in sports outside running), being bullied (which mostly meant being excluded from activities I didn’t really want to do anyway). And I would feel so joyful thinking this, because to me all this misery was proof that I’d have anything I ever wanted someday.
There’s an oddly religious tone to this idea of childhood suffering equaling adult happiness, a lot of it likely inspired by misinterpretations of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. What’s meant to be a comfort to sufferers becomes a celebration of suffering in this warped perspective, and salvation becomes adulthood. Which is stupid, both because adulthood is never certain and because the people who follow this train of logic usually don’t suffer much to begin with. Your stereotypical nerd is unpopular and unattractive, maybe, but also male, white, and either wealthy or well-educated enough to be wealthy soon. Despite all my self-pity, I had a loving family, a stable home, and more opportunities than I’d ever appreciate. From what I’ve seen, people who really suffer have either more dismal outlooks on the future or more active plans than just waiting for fate to take its course and even the scales.
The real irony is that I’m pretty sure the Freaks and Geeks scene that started it all is meant to be ironic. The teacher who tells them all this isn’t the fortune-five-hundred CEO that he guarantees they’ll all be. All we know about him, actually, is that he has a serious smoking addiction. The entire episode is actually about them learning to sympathize with burnout Daniel Disario, who believes he has no future to look forward to.
All this is to say that I’m starting to take a bit of a longer view on life. The freshmen I teach talk about college in hushed and awed tones. Maybe, if I find a chance to bring it up, I’ll point out that life continues well into college, and past it eventually, though I’m not sure they’ll listen. I sure didn’t.