“To fight aloud, is very brave”

30 05 2009

There is nothing more irresistible to me than a bookstore on Saturday morning. I spent the better part of an hour at Books A Million this morning, roving the shelves, armed with a cup of coffee. I get lost in the titles and the covers and the sheer number of books. Getting lost is something I’ve been very keen on this past year. I can’t ever quite tell what will make me lose myself until I’m doing it. I positively swam through the store, hanging on as many words (that were not mine) as I could. It was a relief, to read and not to write or to think of writing. For the past year, I’ve thought of nothing but writing, but I have written virtually nothing. Meandering through that space crowded with words meant to incite, capture, invoke me, the reader, I could feel my shoulders loosen and my stance shift. My knees grew bendier and I rested on my joints. My face became open, and I began to craft some writing in my mind. While I would normally rush somewhere to put it on the paper before the words left me, I tried to relax into the words, repeating them over and over. And then I came across the Dickinson poem that is the title of this post, and the words became cemented in my mind. I left with six books and the resolve to write. Something. Today.

I came home, put on some music, then decided against it and opened the windows, and began reading my earlier posts. I didn’t realize I began this venture two years ago, when Ruthie was only 18 months old. My third or fourth post (Taking the Long Way) speaks to the way I feel now. And it occurred to me that my life is terribly, wonderfully recursive. I keep coming back to the same places, and each time I revisit them, I am a little stronger, a little braver, a little older. I am trying now, even as I type this, to be okay with the possibility of coming off as a complete fool. I am also trying not to write what might be considered a bit of an over-share without compromising any of the truth of what has led me to the key board today. The truth is that I am exactly where I was two years ago, only less afraid and more alone. Scared and alone are two of the shittiest aspects of the human condition, if you ask me. And I am always both. But today, as I sifted through those titles and browsed the books I had selected, it occurred to me that everyone is scared and everyone feels alone (which, of course, is why it’s a part of the human condition and not the Whitney condition). All of my favorite things–- books, films, music, art –-capture those two features of what it means to be human. It is a painful condition, the human one. Which is why I found myself in the bookstore today, seeking a connection, through language, to humanity. Which is why I am writing today, seeking to establish my own connection, in my own words, to humanity. 

I’m finally reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, as per Emma Bolden’s recommendation. At the very beginning, Anna, the person who keeps the notebooks that she (unsuccessfully) divides herself into, has an insight that I can’t stop thinking about. It is during a conversation with her best friend that Anna has this sort of epiphany:

But now, sitting with Molly talking, as they had so many hundreds of times before, Anna was saying to herself: Why do I always have this awful need to make other people see things as I do? It’s childish, why should they? What it amounts to is that I’m scared of being alone in what I feel. (Lessing, 10)

It is this thought that has kept me from writing through the past year. When I write, my thoughts are permanent and vulnerable, pulsing under the lens of my readers’ discerning eyes. If I simply think my thoughts, then they are mine, and mine alone, and I have no way of knowing whether or not I am alone in those thoughts. When I put my ideas and experiences into writing, then I risk knowing that I am alone in my thinking. But with that risk comes the possibility of being affirmed and understood. It is with hope and trepidation that I continue to write, even now, when there is so much at stake (namely, myself).





Something Missing

6 12 2008

"Schoolhouse on the Hill" by Diana Dignonis

 

Lately, I have felt ambushed. As a public educator, I am unesteemed in the world of the Academie, I am held hostage by standards that do not measure understanding, I am stretched across achievement gaps, I am passionate, I am outraged, I am desperate for social justice in my classroom, in the communities where I work and live. I am longing for a rhetoric about education that is not caustic, accusing, and defensive. I am frustrated, but not hopeless. 

A few months ago, I attended a cocktail party at the University. A Research Fellow, who had helped himself to a few drinks by the time of my arrival, had some suggestions for me as a public educator. “If you could just get these kids to write a sent-ence,” he spat. “You know, a subject, a verb, and a DOT on the end. I mean, a simple sentence. I mean, how hard could it be?” I was the only teacher at this gathering, and this sneering (supposed) intellectual’s remarks did not make me feel any less alien. Unfortunately, this is only one example of my instances where I have been on the receiving end of feedback like this about my professional field all the time. Teachers are criticized by everyone: parents, students, administrators, politicians, mechanics, engineers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, husbands and wives. The quality these critiques share is the smug arrogance of their delivery. I suppose that since nearly everyone has been a student at some time or another, the general public feels as though they have enough knowledge of the field to believe that they are themselves experts. 

And we are teaching their children. John Taylor Gatto, New York’s Teacher of the Year, says that we (schools) “adopt” students, we are “entrusted” to take on a parenting role for other people’s children. Passion does often override reason, especially when it comes to parenting. When parents argue with me about the way that my classroom operates, I try to remember the many occasions when I have (tentatively) argued with my child’s doctor over a diagnosis, informed by my feverish midnight reading of Web M.D. 

Despite my (attempted) understanding, I can’t help but yearn for a time when educators might be treated as professional experts in their field. The mountains of meaningless paperwork alone is insulting, but the even worse are the public’s unsolicited knee-jerk reactions to the educational system and the complex dilemmas, issues, problems it faces. Everyone thinks s/he’s got the answer. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. There is a wide range of possibilities for improving the complex and diverse set of problems with education. 

So where to begin?

Last week, I stumbled across this reading for the Composition class I’ve been taking this fall. In 1996, Mike Rose wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about School.” You can find this article in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week. After a heated “conversation” about education around the Thanksgiving dinner table that left me reeling, I was relieved to read Rose’s perspectives on the issue(s) facing public education and the rhetoric we use to discuss them. 

For three years in the early  90s, Mike Rose travelled across the country, visiting successful public school classrooms in an attempt to “fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, [Rose] believed, had gone terribly wrong.” He analyzes the rhetoric of the conversation about public education, which he describes as being “flooded… with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy.” 

When asked about standardized test scores and school failures, he admits the problems with public education, but he also recognizes “the problem with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures.” Ultimately, he claims that “we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.” Of course, he was received with “vehemence,” a response that he describes as “angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset.”

What follows is his vision of “what’s missing” in our thinking about schools, schooling, and what we can expect from public education:

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and teh economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create sage public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects – the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space – this should be our public vocabulary of schooling – for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in an democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings. 

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year [spent “documenting excellence” in American classrooms for his book Possible Lives] has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom – that miniature civic space – to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with Rose’s depiction of public education in a democracy. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t want her child in a classroom like the ones Rose documented. What is perhaps the most frustrating piece to this puzzling puzzle is that we all, everyone–rich, poor, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American– we all want this for our children. And we want it so badly, and so desperately, that we have to cling to oversimplified solutions in order to believe the possibility of “the good classroom.” Unfortunately, the solution is not singular and it is not simple. 

Frustrated with public education in America? Your name is Legion. For God’s sake, please have a bit of compassion on those of us who are sweating it out on the front lines. Just like our students, we need patience, understanding, open-mindedness, and support. 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mike Rose’s stuff, check out his blog

Antique School House Room Box & Antique Bisque Dolls, circa 1900