Sunday, October 28, 2007

Library Violence

I am dreaming again that I am flying. It is a late afternoon, may be fall or spring, the weather warm with promise. I am pedaling furiously through the streets where I grew up to the library. The public library was one of the few places in the city my parents did not try to keep me from visiting. I could just say the magic words: “I have a report to do,” and off I would go through the streets and avenues to the public library, situated on a small patch of asphalt behind the supermarket next to a vacant lot where the town’s only homeless person slept at night.

Libraries equaled freedom in my universe. I would start at the paperback rack near the door. I wanted novelizations of movie titles, or books that had been turned into movies. My parents did not allow me to see PG rated movies. They did not care, or even notice, if I read the book version. So my first introduction to, say, the Star Wars universe was through the novelization. I later did see the movie, but I think this is where I developed the idea that the movies were never as good as the books. It is why today, I refuse to see movie versions of my favorite reads. They never hold up to the printed versions.

After the paperback racks, I would move on to scan the shelves in the adult section for writers I had heard about from my teachers. My eighth grade teacher recommended Alistair MacLean, so I picked up Circus and The Guns of Navarone. I also grabbed a few titles by my favorite western writer, Louis L’Amour. A teacher in sixth grade suggested G.K. Chesterton. I found him in fiction and nonfiction both, but decided to read The Man Who Was Thursday, a fiction selection, first.

Then, I just browsed the aisles, up and down, like a supermarket shopper looking for bargains, or in this case, interesting covers. Often I had my fourteen-book limit within minutes. I carefully balanced the stack as I walked to the checkout counter. I took my glorious time pedaling home.

In later years, the college library was my bookstore. I would go to the first class meeting, grab the syllabus, and dart to the library to check out the books. I could not afford tuition and textbooks, so if I was quick, I could gather most of the volumes I needed and simply keep them for the semester. If I renewed my checkout in two weeks, another student would have inevitably put a hold on my books. The simplest way was just to keep them for the semester, or until I was sure I did not need them anymore. I would return them right before my records were put on hold and pay the miniscule fines. A one hundred dollar book might cost me five-fifty for the semester.

Another favorite activity during my college years was to enter the library when I had a few hours to kill and simply pick a shelf and start reading. Often I could carry this out over several visits in bouts of serial reading. In this way, I could exhaust an author or a subject, and literally, I would never run out of subjects. One day, I might read all the Paris Review interviews with writers. The next time, I might look through the portfolios of the major painters of the twentieth century.

The last time I spent an enormous amount of time in the library was more than ten years ago. My wife took some weekend graduate classes at a small college, and I would go along and spend the entire weekend in the library. The stacks were kept on lower basement floors in dank shelving that needed better lighting. I would search through the books and bring my finds to the first floor reading room, an area with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the canyons and hills surrounding the campus. Again, I was in heaven.

On other floors of this particular library were reading rooms that were dedicated to local authors who had donated their books and papers to the library. Often, these were small rooms with huge reading tables surrounded by shelves and file cabinets. I could close the door and be undisturbed in my study for eight hours or more. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes, even now, across the years of memory.

Therefore, it was with great trepidation that amongst the numerous articles and pictures of the wildfires in the newspaper this week, I read about the growing violence in public libraries in Los Angeles. At the Mark Twain branch in south Los Angeles, six men punched and stomped a man until he was “bloody, shirtless and barely conscious,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “His blood was splattered on the wall and floor. A discarded razor blade was found nearby.”

Library officials are now in the position of asking city law enforcement for help. The Mark Twain attack was not the only crime in the library. “At the Jefferson branch, six windows were smashed this month by gang members seeking a man inside,” according to the article. “At the Exposition branch, an August shooting outside the library’s main door prevented patrons from leaving until security arrived.” The worst part of this is the impact on young people, children whose only source for books is the public library. The article talks about “a principal at a charter school [who] sent a letter to parents, urging students not to go to the Hyde Park-Miriam Matthews Public Library because children were being ‘taunted, harassed and intimidated’” by other children. Firecrackers and incendiary devices have also been used at several branches, and a man overdosed on drugs at the Central Library downtown. Now, plans are underway to beef up security at all branches.

Recently, I went to my local branch of the public library system. Monday through Thursday, the library opens between 10:00 AM and noon, and closes at 8:00 PM. Friday and Saturday, the hours are from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Sunday, the library is closed. I think the library should stay open until nine or even ten in the evening. Definitely, the place should be open on Sundays. That is the day most people have free to pursue reading.

Inside the library, I was surprised to find that computers had replaced shelving. Internet access seemed to be what patrons demanded these days in the libraries, and books were no longer a priority.

“Today’s libraries…are experiencing an increased level of tension because they have become places where people gather to use computers,” according to the Times article. The librarians say that there are not enough staff members to monitor computer use and still do traditional library activities with books. “Computers have helped fuel an explosion in library usage,” said John L. Mitchell, the author of the Times piece. He goes on to catalogue more of the recent troubles. “In the North Hollywood branch, two people were discovered having sex on the floor in the women’s restroom. At the Cahuenga branch in Hollywood, a patron said he saw a man masturbating. Patrons at the Westchester-Loyola branch said they saw a man viewing nude pictures of underage boys on the Internet. Empty syringes were found in the restroom at the Venice branch…A bench outside the Mark Twain branch was removed after it became a hangout for prostitutes.”

Clearly, libraries can be added to the list of things that are no longer what they once were. I was not impressed with my local branch. The books were outdated and in poor condition. The entire library, with the exception of the computers, seemed in need of an upgrade. However, even in the library of my youth, the resources were limited. I remember hearing that this was because of the Proposition 13 property tax initiative that cut homeowners’ taxes at the expense of city services. This is why I made the jump to college libraries and never looked back. I outgrew the public entity.

The last time I was in a college library, I was under whelmed as well. There were more books and resources, but the place was not the cleanest, and a number of student-patrons were sleeping, talking loudly, or at the least, seemed unaware of library etiquette.

I even journeyed back to that small college in the canyons where I had enjoyed so many pleasant weekend reading sojourns. The place had been completely remodeled. The reading room remained, but the smaller rooms had been demolished for one huge open floor of computers with Internet access. The stacks were now hinged shelves that collapsed against the wall. One could page through them like some kind of huge book. The lighting was still insufficient. The majority of the collection was placed in storage and could be retrieved upon request. Most students seemed to be focused on the computers, however, and several signs encouraged students to seek texts and references online.

These days, I no longer pedal my bicycle anywhere, which might account for my weight problem. As for books, I buy them now, and I have filled my house to the breaking point. Any time a nonreader comes to visit, he inevitably asks if I have read all of the books that line the walls and every available space in my home. No, I tell him. I have far more books than I will be able to read in a lifetime, and although I miss those library days, that is the way I like it.

As for the library violence, may be it is the inevitable evolution of our declining society. It is definitely a sign that American culture is moving in the wrong direction.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Today, it appears that southern California is exploding in fire. One of the casualties is this structure in Malibu known as Castle Kashan, home of philanthropist Lilly Lawrence. I took this photo a year ago in October of 2006 from the Serra Retreat facility across the canyon from the castle.

In recent years, no area of the world has been spared natural disasters. Fires and earthquakes are the realities of living in California. Still, it is devastating to watch homes burn, human beings in jeopardy, and even animals fleeing for their lives. It is just one more reminder of the fragility of our existence.

Thoughts On The PSAT

This weekend, my eleventh grade students took the PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. Most of them were very nervous. Some realized that this is only the beginning for crucial standardized testing that will determine their futures. PSAT leads to SAT. Then there are the AP tests, the subject SAT tests, and before they take their first college courses, there will be placement tests in English and mathematics. No wonder many of them are depressed and anxious with fatigue.

In the Los Angeles Times dated October 18, 2007. Seema Mehta examined the test and the hysteria. According to her article, “After The First Try, Put Those Pencils Down,” “the SAT is viewed by guidance counselors and college admissions officials as a vital step on students’ paths to college. And for the students who achieve the highest scores, doing well on the PSAT can lead to tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships—in this year’s freshman class at USC, 140 students each received nearly $18,000 in annual scholarships from the university based largely on their PSAT scores.”

So the PSAT does not really count towards admissions to college. In fact, admissions officials will not even see the scores. The PSAT is about National Merit Scholarships. For most students, the exam will be a first practice for the SAT. To a few, it may mean some money.

“‘The main importance of the PSAT is really to give students a dry run before they take the SAT,’ said Heather Keddie, director of college counseling at Sage Hill, a private school.” Mehta quotes extensively from Ms. Keddie throughout the article.

The article really addresses a growing phenomenon in education regarding the PSAT: taking the test repeatedly and using test preparation courses and tutors to get ready for it. Evidently, it is now common for students to take the PSAT numerous times. This really is not necessary, as colleges do not see the scores. The SAT is the test students should take multiple times, not the PSAT.

Mehta quotes Keddie again: “Test prep is big business and I think a lot of our students do it. We urge them to take the PSAT and the SAT one time before going into any kind of test prep, and we suggest they do [test prep] in the summer before their senior year so it doesn’t interfere with classes or having an actual life.”

Mehta also seeks out Timothy Brunold, director of admissions to USC for his thoughts on the situation. He makes it clear that there is no point in students making a career out of taking and retaking the exams. He would rather the students engage in “some meaningful activity” instead.

I do hope my students do well on the exam. These days, college is so expensive that even a student with resources feels the pinch. Therefore, if the PSAT leads to financial aid for college, this is even more reason why I hope my students do well.

Realistically, however, this is just one more gear in the mechanization leading to college and a profession. The bottom line is that the test never ends. We must always demonstrate our worthiness to have that job, to get that scholarship, to achieve that degree. Unfortunately, many of these steps in life come with tests.

Although I think my students are placed under too much stress, and that even worse, the wrong things are being stressed, I recognize the necessity of these hurdles in life. I do wish the PSAT and SAT could be abolished for more meaningful ways of assessing college readiness. Written essays demonstrate critical and analytical thinking. A personal interview could reveal a student’s maturity. A resume and letters of recommendation often indicate a student’s past achievement and ability.

In the end, it will all boil down to a test, a performance. No matter how much work I put my students through, no matter how demanding my class might be, I cannot take the test for them, nor can I guarantee success. I can only prepare them for what is to come, and stand behind them, win or lose. In this way, teachers are like parents. It is wrong to try to do the work for them. All we can do is offer our support and hope they do well.

This weekend, my thoughts are with my students. I am also contemplating the long road ahead of us. Right now it seems that road never ends.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Tangent

In my classes, I sometimes get off on a tangent. It is easy to do in literature and writing class because one major aspect of analysis is trying to connect what is being read to contemporary culture, our lives and experiences, or to the history of the author and the historical period during which she created the work.

This year, I am trying to allow for tangents while simultaneously being aware of the through-line in the lesson. I believe my students are still sometimes a bit unclear as to what will be important later on the test. Some will ask me if the story I told relating to my own road in life in response to Robert Frost’s “Two Roads” will be part of the test. I am using my story as a way of connecting to the poem, I tell them. They must find their own stories in their lives that allow them to connect with Frost’s insights.

Tangents come from two distinct places for me. One, I like story. I find that a mere stating of facts does not make the subject real for me as a learner. A story seems to cement the point for me. If someone can construct a narrative that illustrates that the means determines the end rather than the end justifies the means, I am hooked. I actually believe that human beings crave stories. We are addicted to them. Even now, in an age when fiction has lost a little luster, and more nonfiction books are being published than ever before, the facts are most often published as a narrative. If you ask someone on the street what is most interesting, the facts of the Vietnam war—casualties, major battles, dates, significant players, political background—or a narrative of what it was like to be present at the fall of Saigon, I believe most people would opt for the man-on-the-streets-of-Saigon piece. This is why the teaching of history now includes cultural, literary, and personal elements alongside facts and figures. If the writers of history textbooks begin their research with diaries, letters, journals, and source documents, why is the result so dry and dull? If we get out of the textbooks and read I.F. Stone, David McCullough, William Manchester and David Halberstam, I think history would have a much broader appeal. Why? Because these writers write history as a narrative, not as a recitation of dry facts.

The second source of tangents in my teaching comes from Robert Chianese. Chianese taught English at my college. I took two or three course from him, and all of them changed my life. To look at my grades, one would not know this. At the time, I was working a full time job and attending school with a full load of units. I worked Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from eight in the morning to five or six in the evening. Tuesday and Thursday, as well as at night, I went to school. In the remaining few free hours, I studied, read, wrote papers, and tried to keep the apartment picked up. I burned the candle at both ends, and in the middle. I caught pneumonia, bronchitis, ringworm, stomach flu, and assorted viral and bacterial infections. I could never get enough sleep. As a result, my grades were miserable Cs and to anyone who witnessed my educational performances, I seemed like a real dunce.

I sat in the back of Chianese’s class near the heater, because I was always cold. Often during the class, I struggled to stay awake, and usually lost the battle. Once, my head tilted back so far that I struck a solid blow to the metal heater grate immediately behind me resulting in a loud gong that echoed throughout the classroom and brought everyone’s attention. Chianese just glared at me.

Even though his class was literature—Victorian and nineteenth century—after we analyzed the text, Chianese would take us off into tangential areas of culture and history. He had this remarkable was of connecting something written 150 years ago to current events happening, quite often, that very day. It was in his class that I recognized the inter-connectedness of all things. Art is not created in a vacuum; critics who believe the work is all that matters are missing key details. History, personal stories, cultural events, current situations all matter within the context of literature. I learned that from Chianese.

I could not see a film, go to a museum, pick up a newspaper, without hearing his voice connecting what I saw with Charles Dickens, or Kate Chopin, or Emily Dickinson. His work in the classroom was a revelation, and even though I appeared to be half-asleep, he changed my world. He made me a teacher, long before I knew I was.

There is a happy ending to this story. In education, the good you do often becomes apparent years later. Some of my teachers are dead now. They have no idea that the sleepy kid in the back of the room turned out to be a passionate teacher. Chianese got a chance to know the good he did all those years ago.

I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities one summer, and I needed a mentor or guide for my study. Since I would be studying utopias and their presence in literature, and Chianese had written extensively about them, I contacted him to ask him to be my mentor. He was quite surprised when I walked into his office one afternoon. I could tell when he put my face to the name on his answering machine, that I was the last person he expected to see. We had a good talk, and I was finally able to tell him why my performance in his class was underwhelming all those years ago. I did not get the grant, but I was very happy to be able to set the record straight for him and tell him that I had followed in his footsteps and become a teacher.

Therefore, I allow myself the tangents. I believe in the power of the tangent. If we get off track, if we do not finish the lesson in the time allotted, I no longer sweat it. My mentor teacher, a nun, in a Catholic school twenty-one years ago, used to tell me “We teach children, not curriculum.” Experience has demonstrated the truth of her statements.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote. I would add that we tell ourselves stories in order to learn, to appreciate, to feel, to make real. In the classroom, I follow a plan, a curriculum, and I try to do the plan justice. Nevertheless, if a tangent invites me, like the road less traveled, I am likely to take it. One never knows where it my lead, or the connections we might stumble upon, and that might make all the difference.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Our Children, Ourselves

What are we doing?

In the last few weeks, there have been a number of articles about school and college that have moved me from anger to sadness.

In The New York Times, dated September 19, 2007, writer Patrick Cohen detailed the debate in American colleges about ending the SAT, the test students take to determine acceptance to, or rejection from universities. Social scientist Charles Murray is in the middle of the fray, authoring an article advocating abolishing the test. Murray is the co-author, with Richard J. Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve (1994).

“Unlike other critics of the SAT, Mr. Murray does not see the test as flawed, nor does he think that the wealthy have an unfair advantage because they can buy expensive coaching,” Cohen writes. But he does believe the test “is rigged to favor the rich.”

Murray’s article was first published in the conservative magazine, The American. He claims this view is just an extension of ideas he espoused in his earlier book.

Murray’s ideas are not so far fetched. Many college admissions departments will rank high school grades and standardized subject test scores as better predicators of success in college, according to the Times article.

My students nearly all take some kind of SAT prep course in the eleventh grade year, and even into senior year, to achieve the highest score possible on the exam. This is in addition to Advanced Placement exams, application writing workshops, and even special individual college counseling coaches. The expense must be enormous, and God pity the poor student who cannot afford such amenities. Does anyone get into college the old fashioned way—by earning a seat through study and hard work without the expensive payout for resources and individual coaching? Not that these students are not working hard, but they also have access to resources most economically poor students only dream about.

Murray has broken down the higher education situation in this country to four, what he calls, simple truths: “ability varies; half of all children are below average; too many people go to college; and the future depends on how the gifted are educated.”

I agree that student ability varies. Recognizing the different strengths of students in a classroom is one of the joys of teaching. Realizing the various limitations of students in the classroom and trying to help overcome them is the job of the teacher.

Grades are inflated. C is the new F. B is a C, and an A is still gold. It’s graduate school in fifth grade. I must send home a deficiency notice if a student has a C- or less. C by definition is average, so a C- means slightly below average. In any crowd, there is a large group in the center—the average—and a few on the top and bottom. Nowadays, we are placing the majority up in the B range, so most students are told they are above average. If a student is a C-, she is deficient.

Based on the inflated grades, too many people might get into college when they should not. But I would argue that in a democracy, the opportunity to receive an education should be given to everyone. I do not think we should even charge tuition. Now if a student cannot make the grade in the class, then that is the end of the road. The opportunity might be granted to everyone, but one must meet the standard to keep that opportunity.

As for number four, I believe the future of our country depends not on how well the gifted are educated, but how well we educate everyone. Gifted kids excel whether I am present as a teacher or not. They are driven. They are motivated. Often, I just have to get out of the way and let them run with it and they learn. The challenge is to get the kid who is average, or even below average, and get him to rise above. I tell my principal often: the best teachers should work with average or below average students. They need the inspiration, the encouragement, the expertise of the veteran teacher.

Although Murray seems like a bit of an outsider with some of his points, I believe there is good reason to look at the successes and failures of the SAT.

The next series of articles made me mad.

First there was the College Issue of The New York Times Magazine, published on September 30, 2007. There are many highlights and lowlights in that issue, so here are just a few.

An interview with the Education Conservancy’s Lloyd Thacker reveals that schools now “want more applicants so they can turn down more applicants. Selectivity is a factor in the rankings.” Thacker is referring to college and university rankings as listed in U.S. News & World Report. Thacker goes on to say that colleges now follow the “business model,” which means “trying to get as many people as possible interested in a product and only selling it to a few.” So colleges can sit back and collect those application fees and the more students they reject, the more prestigious they become in the rankings.

Another piece by Rick Perlstein compares college students of the 1960s with those of today. He interviews a first year student who tells him that people in his class “are so insanely uncreative, and they are proud of it.” It is as if they have “had to spend their entire high school experience studying for the SATs or something and didn’t really get a chance to live life or experience things.”

I find that my students now, in high school, lack creativity. It is not their fault. They are given little time for creative thinking. Everything is about numbers—G.P.A., SAT scores, AP scores—there is not a moment left. We make a lot of noise about “thinking outside the box,” a cliché almost the first time it was uttered, but how much of this creative thinking is really required or utilized in the classroom?

Susan Dominus profiles two students who are preparing their application materials for college. The pressure on both and their parents is remarkable. One is “quiet and formal when she’s feeling shy,” but is “quick and witty…when in the right company—her family, for instance, or anyone else who will catch her Oscar Wilde quotes and P.G. Wodehouse jokes and Shakespeare references.”

The other has a 4.0 average or better, is co-editor of the newspaper, scored a 2200 on the SAT, was co-captain of the cross-country team, and took college courses in German.

Who are these people? Are they kids? Were they ever kids?

I have great respect for their accomplishments, but I am wondering what the cost will be. There must be a cost for all this perfectionism, perfect scores, perfect grade point averages, perfect application letters, flawless essays, all night study sessions, the tight wire lifestyle of knowing that you are one screw-up, one low grade, from cascade failure. What are we doing to our children? Everyone makes mistakes. What’s more, everyone is allowed a mistake occasionally. We are only human, unless we are applying for college in a few years.

I blame parents. Every day for twenty years, I have seen it. Parents live their lives vicariously through their children. They will be the success the parent was not. The child will play baseball better, get better grades, become a virtuoso pianist, go to the best college, marry the perfect spouse, have perfect children, and then start the process all over again.

Life is going to deal us setbacks. It will force us into a hole. Life is hard, and it is even harder, in life, to be perfect. Again and again and again, it is how you recover from mistakes, from failure, from the obstacles life gives you, that determines who you are—your character. If you never fail, what do you learn? I can safely say I have never learned anything from an A grade. May be, I learned how to keep getting the A for a while. But I learned volumes from failure. It is a great teacher.

Yeah, your kid didn’t go to Harvard. He had to go to junior college and claw his way to the top of the class in order to claim the seat at that decent state university where he had to excel and fight and struggle to become third in his class in order to get into that graduate school on the east coast, not Harvard, but that school that sits across the river from Harvard and receive a Masters in order to get that mid-level job at the moderate-sized firm in New Jersey. What a disappointment!

But he lived a good life. He had friends. He raised children. Made a good marriage, brought joy to others, read some good books, danced with his wife at his high school reunion, loved others, including his parents. Hey, the kid will turn out all right. Let him live.

Our children are not us. They have their own lives to discover. You cannot give them yours to do over. You can give them everything, or give them nothing. Who they become is for them to find. I have seen parents give their children everything. I have seen parents abandon their children. We can only hope. It is all up to the child and the road she decides to take.

The final article was from the Los Angeles Times, dateline October 9, 2007. It is called “All Dressed Up and Ready For School.” It begins: “After waiting at the corner of 4th Street and Towne Avenue for 96 hours and five minutes, Quentella Robinson and her two children were among the first to enter when the gates opened Monday morning—while behind them stood about 4500 people in a line stretching three blocks.”

Ms. Robinson, her children, and 4500 others were in line to receive donated clothing and school supplies given away, as they are each year, by the Fred Jordan Mission. She drove three hours from Bakersfield for the giveaway.

These kids most certainly won’t have money for special SAT training, or workbooks to drill AP mandated skills, nor will they be able to employ individual college counselors to help them get into the college of their choice. But I am positive beyond all reason, that in that three block line were future graduates of some of the magnificent universities of this great country, doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, teachers, captains of business and industry, lovers, parents, friends, and yes, decent human beings. And that last one is the lost and unappreciated reason why we hunger to learn in the first place. We did not seek knowledge to score a perfect 2400 on the SAT. That is just stupid.

Friday, October 5, 2007

"Find Your Tree"

“How do you write? My answer is that I start with the trees and keep right on straight ahead.”William Saroyan

This is a story about the bloodline of wisdom. It comes, down through the generations, from William Saroyan to Mark Arax to my students. “Writing can give you many things,” Arax told the class on Wednesday morning. “There is a power to the written word, especially in the Armenian culture.”

With these words, Mark Arax began his two-day writing seminar with some eager high school journalists led by a resourceful band of senior girls. Day one would be dedicated to journalism; day two was reserved for Arax’s “Essay Masters” seminar.

“Essay Masters” is a workshop Arax runs for high school seniors who are writing application essays for college. He helps them brainstorm and begin composing this often-difficult piece of writing to help them make a good impression on the various admissions committees at colleges across the country.

These days, schools use holistic admissions criteria, meaning that all facets of a student’s application are given equal weight: grade point average, SAT scores, extra or co-curricular activities, hobbies, jobs, volunteer efforts, and the application essay. Therefore, none of these areas can be overlooked in its importance to the whole package. Students take great pains to build their resumes and application packets to reflect their achievements during the high school years. My school decided to help the students in this endeavor by bringing in a high-caliber journalist like Mark Arax to help. We are not the only ones doing this; several schools in the Fresno area are hosting Arax as well, and he also works with students individually. His website offers dates and other information at

The first day was devoted to journalism. Arax began with a discussion of his conflict and resignation from The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. Managing editor Douglas Frantz pulled Arax’s story on the Armenian Genocide, scheduled to run April 24 to commemorate this dark day in history when Turkey targeted Armenians for annihilation. Frantz claimed that as an Armenian, Arax could not be objective in his reporting.

Even though no one, including Frantz, found fault with the piece, Arax’s work never saw publication. He left the Times shortly after, ending twenty years of memorable and brilliant journalism with the paper. A few months later, Frantz left as well. His heavy-handed hatchet job was not without its own stain of bias: Frantz had been bureau chief in Turkey for two papers, The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Frantz had close ties with the Turkish embassy in Los Angeles, and made no secret where his loyalties were placed.

In this first session, Arax immediately revealed himself to be a natural teacher. He discussed how to take notes, how to approach a story without preconceived notions, and offered his take on the state of journalism today. “In the midst of a war, we are fixated on trailer trash,” he said, referring to the media’s current preoccupation with Britney Spears. “It is a privilege to run a newspaper,” he told them, and they should never take it for granted.

He told them about his adventures in high school journalism, how he was kicked off his paper for reporting the shenanigans of the faculty at a party where they trashed students. Arax had a source at the party who reported, word for word, what the teachers said. He went underground, developing a mimeographed rag to be distributed secretly to students when he could not write for the official school paper.

Probably the most important thing he told the young journalists was not to think only about issues on campus, but address the wider world outside the school. He described how students might approach politicians and local officials. The students’ affiliation with the school newspaper gives them an entry to speak with people in the outside world. No one will turn down an interview request from a high school kid, he told them, which translates into access and the chance to ask questions. However, to do this successfully, they have to put on “outsider’s eyes.” They must see the world as observers.

Although he cautioned the students always to take an objective approach, he also admitted that a reporter could not be entirely objective. Who we are, we bring to every story, he told them. He explained how a selection of facts could color the writing, and shift people’s perception. “You have to be smart; you have to be clever how you do it,” he said.

He ended the day by brainstorming with students for story ideas. He prodded them to fill in the angles and avenues they would pursue on each one. He made valuable suggestions and clarifications. He energized the students; many hung around after the session to continue the discussion with the journalist.

Day two of the conference began with a piece by William Saroyan, a writer who influenced Arax when he was young. He met the author at an influential point in his own development, and he related the story to the students. Arax gave the students an essay by Saroyan called “Starting With A Tree and Finally Getting to the Death of a Brother.” It is from this essay that Arax draws his tagline for “Essay Masters”: “Find your tree.”

Saroyan uses a variety of metaphors in the piece, including “the old English walnut tree with every year literally thousands of the magnificent hard fruit, which, when you removed the black casing, which dried and could be made to crumble away to the grooved shell, which then you could break with a hammer and then behold as a design of intricate engineering, of art, of construction, the hardwood slick and light brown in its convolutions in which the meat of the nut, as it is called, had ripened to a substance with the most subtle and satisfying flavor implanted into anything that creatures including human beings and small boys, like Henry and Willie, as my brother and I were referred to be other members of the family and neighborhood, and still are, thank God, could remove from the shell and put into the mouth and taste and chew and swallow and never suspect that indeed that is how we do, how we live, how we die, how we write, and how we read.” Surely a perfect example of a run-on sentence used to its maximum descriptive potential.

Saroyan’s wisdom, on display throughout the piece, reaches a climax at the end: “If you practice an art faithfully, it will make you wise, and most writers could use a little wising up.”

Then Arax took over—“What is your tree?” he asked them.

In many ways, the second session differed from the journalistic focus of the previous day; in many ways, day two continued the thoughts and ideas of day one. Writing is writing. The things Arax advised them to do could apply to any kind of writing—fiction, journalism, poetry, even literary analysis. He encouraged them to put in their unique Armenian point-of-view, and to show, not tell.

He also offered insights into the recently added SAT writing portion. The prompt often involved one of three areas: education, current events, or personal experience. “Read the newspaper,” he commanded them. “Your I.Q. points will go up if you read the paper.” Being cognizant of current events from reading newspapers would help them be better writers on the SAT, he assured them.

The session then became about the act of writing itself: lead paragraphs, the meat of the middle, the bang of a sentence at the end. It is about the details, he told them. Linger on them. “When dealing with a heavy subject,” he said, “it is not necessary to bring a lot of adjectives to it.” Arax channeling Hemingway. Do not be too maudlin, he warned, or too purple.

He ended the session by going student to student and brainstorming ideas. Many began by saying they did not know what to write. Within three minutes with Arax’s probing and questioning, they “found their tree” and were off and running. It was intense, provocative, and ultimately draining for all the participants and the teacher. Yet, many stayed after for almost forty-five minutes to continue the discussion with Arax.

After the students left, we went to lunch in the cafeteria. Fatigue from the intensity of the two days hung on Arax like a heavy coat. I told him he had a big future in education, and that if he ever needed a steady job, just give me a call. For this, I got an ironic chuckle from him. He admitted that he had thought about teaching after the fiasco at the Times, but the writing life was all he knew, and he did not want to give it up. We talked about his upcoming projects: articles for Los Angeles Magazine, a piece he is currently working on about Armenians in Glendale and the Zankou Chicken Restaurant chain, familiar themes of family, murder, history, California. He had interviews scheduled around the sessions at our school. He was, is, will always be a journalist. There are book ideas, article ideas, the writing life, always waiting for him just over the next metaphorical hill. It was a bittersweet moment: I had spent enough time with this man to recognize him as a born educator, a brilliant teacher, a passionate advocate for students and learning. I have read enough of his work to see his brilliance as a writer, a man who could focus the power of the written word to move people, make them think and feel and understand. Good writers are good teachers. Mark Arax’s place would always be behind the keyboard, not the teacher’s podium. The classroom would always be his second choice. I knew, inside, that was how it should be, but it made me sad anyways. There are too few gifted classroom teachers in this world.

I walked Mark Arax to the parking lot on this mild autumn afternoon. We promised to keep in touch, do this again next year, do dinner some time. I wished him well and safe journey home to Fresno, and watched him walk heavily toward his car, the fatigue of the two days and the cold he was fighting evident in his gait.