Monday, May 26, 2008

The List

After weeks of late nights spent contemplating my book shelves, I have come to a decision regarding the books I will teach next year. Nearly all of the selections I have taught before, and all appear on one list or another for what students should have read before the end of high school. The only one I haven’t taught before is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. This one came off of a recent list of newly published books that just might become classics. Of course, the book is not that new; it was first published in paperback April, 2006.

So, without further ado, here is the list for 2008-2009:

English I Honors (Grade 9)
Fahrenheit 451 (Summer Reading Assignment)
Ray Bradbury
Del Rey ISBN: 0345342968

Prentice Hall Literature (Gold California Edition)
Prentice Hall ISBN: 0130548057

Inherit The Wind
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Ballantine Books ISBN: 0345466276

The Man Who Was Thursday
G.K. Chesterton
Modern Library ISBN: 0375757910

Hard Times
Charles Dickens
Signet Classics ISBN: 0451526724

To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee
Warner Books ISBN: 0446310786

English II Honors (Grade 10)The Stranger (Summer Reading Assignment)
Albert Camus
Vintage International ISBN: 0679720200

Immortal Poems Of The English Language
Oscar Williams (Editor)
Pocket Books ISBN: 0671496107

Hermann Hesse
Bantam Classics ISBN: 0553149563

Julius Caesar
William Shakespeare
Washington Square Press ISBN: 0743482743

A Separate Peace
John Knowles
Scribner Books ISBN: 0743253973

Prentice Hall Writing And Grammar (Platinum Level)
Prentice Hall ISBN: 0131166344

AP Language and Composition (Grade 11)Einstein’s Dreams (Summer Reading Assignment)
Alan Lightman
Warner Books ISBN: 0446670111

The Road (Summer Reading Assignment)
Cormac Mc Carthy
Vintage International ISBN: 9780307387899

The Norton Reader (12th Edition)
Linda Peterson And John Brereton (Editors)
W.W. Norton Co. ISBN: 978-0-393-92948-5

Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain
Bantam Classics ISBN: 0553210793

The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Scribner Books ISBN: 0684801523

Selected Poetry Of T.S. Eliot (Copies From Instructor)

The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath
Harper Perennial Modern Classics ISBN: 978-0061148514

AP Literature and Composition (Grade 12)The Kite Runner (Summer Reading Assignment)
Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead Books ISBN: 159448001

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close (Summer Reading Assignment)
Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin Co. ISBN: 9780618711659

The Portable Dante
Mark Musa (Translator)
Penguin Books ISBN: 0142437549

Major British Poets
Oscar Williams (Editor)
Mentor Books ISBN: 0451626370

HamletWilliam Shakespeare
Washington Square Press ISBN: 0-7434-7712-X

FrankensteinMary Shelley
Penguin Classics ISBN: 0141439475

Crime And Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Bantam Classics ISBN: 0553211757

1984George Orwell
Signet Books ISBN: 0451524934

Composition (Grade 11)
Prentice Hall Writing And Grammar (Ruby Level)
Prentice Hall ISBN: 0134369696

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Day Dreams

The approach of summer always makes me feel unsettled and disturbed. I know the rhythm of my days is about to change, and I am a person who likes an established rhythm.

This is also the time of year to think about signing another contract for another year of teaching. Always I wonder, is there something else out there? I feel poised on the precipice, tottering on the edge of something. Most likely, it is the beginning of another year, nothing more. Still, I wonder. Is this my life? Is this my destiny?

More and more, as I approach middle age, I realize that life is made up of doing the job, finding the rhythm, keeping on keeping on. It is not like when I was a kid, looking forward to Christmas, or summer vacation. Life is a journey and we are in it for the long haul, until we are not in it anymore.

Today, I am thinking, distractedly thinking about two things, even as I argue with my eleventh graders over the nature of poetry. It is most difficult for me to stay focused, and then I face class after class of unfocused students. I try to keep them in line as I feel myself falling away. Where am I falling to? These two day dreams are haunting me.

One involves the child I once was, pedaling furiously through the streets of my neighborhood to the public library. It is summer, and I am free to read whatever I want. My parents do not care, as long as my chores are done. I tend, during the summer months, to stay up through the night in manic bouts of reading, book after book. My reading betrays the solidly second rate student I try to be in the Catholic school classroom during the year. If my teachers saw me consuming books like a boy on fire, they would suspect demonic possession.

I miss those days. I miss losing myself in a book, not as a defense mechanism such as that employed by misfits and poseurs. No, my immersion in literature is like breathing. I crave the story, the sweet stories of my youth. Reading helps me with my loneliness, surely, but it also brings me life, because I cannot yet journey out to seize it. I am only in sixth, seventh, eighth grade. Reading is my only escape, my only salvation. Even on my parents’ long, dismal camping trips, reading saves me. It is my journey within the journey.

So as summer approaches now in my forty-fourth year, I dream of those days of endless reading, when everything was the book. Endless heat—and the only relief came late at night with a box fan and a Tarzan novel, or a western by Louis L’Amour.

My second day dream is not a vision of the past. It is an alternate present, or maybe a future. I am walking the steaming streets of New York, dressed in black despite the heat. I wander the southern edge of Central Park, go down Fifth Avenue, wind up near Rockefeller Center. I walk publishers’ row, maybe visiting my own publisher? Like Romeo in Juliet’s garden, I am too bold. South down the island to Wall Street, the Sacred Place, Battery Park looking out to the Statue of Liberty.

In this life, I have a 650 square foot apartment that costs way too much in the Village. Or, a multi-million dollar apartment on the Upper East Side near the Met. I find myself back at the start, Columbus Circle, again moving across the southern edge of the Park, where Holden Caufield once roamed in another parallel universe.

New York life is a hard life, and I would need a lot of money, more than I could make as a poor teacher. But I can dream, and dreams cost so little.

So it is the edge of summer, and I am dreaming again. It has been a habit since I was small. I used to go out into the back yard of my parents’ first rental, an entire acre of land in a suburb of Los Angeles that the city had not corrupted yet. I would play away the summer, day by day, in serial stories, breaking only for lunch and dinner. Then I would watch Gunsmoke with my father on television and be in bed before the theme music finished for The Lucy Show. Once in bed, I would twist and turn in the hot sheets and listen to the rain bird sputter across the front lawn. Eventually, dreams would come. Tomorrow, I would pick up my make believe story out in the back yard exactly where I left off.

I am thinking about all of this today, while trying to pull my students through the last books of the school year. They have their own dreams to tend. We make for a distracted group. Like everything else, this too shall pass. Some day, these days will be memories. We will dream them alive again, when we are older, closer to that other more permanent edge, the darkness that brings sleep to all our days, and hopefully, peace to our dreams. Until then, onward.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Two Views of a Weekend

When I reflect on this weekend, I see two events that bookend living in Los Angeles today. One is the picture of a writer in a library reading from his work and discussing literature, art, and culture as part of a school festival. The second is a school festival where people ran for their lives and the heroism of a couple of parents prevented further loss of life and destruction.

Aram Saroyan was everything I expected when he visited our campus Sunday. He is eccentric, insightful, thought-provoking, playful, all while suffering through a head cold. He read a number of his Minimal Poems, and they were as weird and obtuse as ever. Saroyan even admitted after reading one, “Crickets,” that the poem usually worked on people’s nerves. The poem consisted of the word, “crickets” repeated over and over again at one or two second intervals.

He discussed the 1960s, the Vietnam War, and the public perception of his work. He also addressed the strong connections between current events and art, how cubism and other post-modern movements played out in literature, and the impact artists such as Andy Warhol and the recently departed Robert Rauschenberg had on his own writing.

And yes, he did talk about his father, William Saroyan, saying that having such a famous writer as a father is, in some ways, a curse.

My students made me proud. Two sophomore girls asked questions, and both received what I thought were sharp answers, yet they persisted. I do not think Saroyan really answered the questions, but I was proud that my students were not intimidated by him. Other students from my tenth grade class participated in a choreographed introduction involving the reading of some of his poetry. Still others simply came to support the cause of literature. Two boys manned the book table, selling Saroyan’s books for participants to have signed. These boys missed the presentation entirely, as the table was outside the library. They did not complain and like my other sophomores, did their jobs in the heat.

We drew a good crowd of adults as well. Several of my fellow teachers attended and asked Saroyan for comments, and I appreciated their interest and support.

I did want Saroyan to be more specific about what defines art and what constitutes poetry? He mentioned John Cage’s 4’33”, the three movement composition Cage premiered in the 1950s where a pianist plays nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I ask Saroyan, does Cage’s piece mean that the absence of music is music? He did not really address the question per se, but basically said that a reader, a listener, a viewer of a work of art must decide what that work is about for himself. The author can explain his intentions, but the individual determines what the work means to him.

According to Saroyan, when someone reads one of his poems, he hopes to make the person see the world differently. Art should make us reconsider our world. So his poem, lighght, consisting of that one word, makes us reconsider what makes up light.

Art is responsible for questions, not answers. I like that. Too much of what passes for art these days, especially in cinema, answers all the questions, leaves nothing to imagination. We need to wonder. We need to be engaged. Telling us is never as effective as making us think for ourselves and arrive at our own conclusions.

In the end, that is the message of a book like Minimal Poems and an artist like Aram Saroyan. Even if a reader does not see this work as art, or poetry, it has still made the reader consider how she defines art and poetry.

I did not get much opportunity to wander around the school grounds to the other events of the festival because the heat was simply too much. From what I did see, I know that the community came together for food, culture, art, music and fun. So it was with great sadness that I heard on the news and read in the paper the accounts of a much more chilling incident that took place only a few miles from my school.

Saint John the Baptist de la Salle Catholic Church and school in Granada Hills narrowly avoided a tragedy this weekend. On Saturday, during the school festival, Fernando Diaz Jr., embroiled in a bitter custody fight with his ex-girlfriend, kissed his nine year-old son goodbye and then opened fire on his former lover, wounding her and two other men before parishioners Charles Sternberg and Jeff Sempelsz tackled him to the ground.

For Catholic schools, the annual festivals raise valuable funds to keep the schools going financially throughout the year. I remember attending my school’s festivals, or fiestas, every October from second to eighth grade. Of course, I remember them as safe, fun-filled days with family and friends. There were booths, raffles, food, games, rides—everything that makes the day fun for kids and adults. This was not the case at de la Salle on Saturday. Still, the festival went on as scheduled. Volunteer crisis counselors provided by the city and state, roamed the grounds offering their services to traumatized parents and children. Police officers increased patrols of the school grounds, adding increased security.

The shooter in this case is another example of a terrorist. For those seconds when he was firing into the crowds, he created terror. It is the goal of terrorists to make us alter our lives out of fear. Even if bloodshed does not occur, if events are cancelled out of fear of the possibility of violence, the terrorists have won. So it was good to hear that the Saint John the Baptist de la Salle School festival went on as planned Sunday.

It is, however, a sad state of affairs when organizers of a church carnival for children must be wary of bullets, bloodshed, and the unreasonable actions of one man bent on violence.

In a year of increased murders and gang violence on our streets, I guess this was just another hot weekend in Los Angeles. Two schools, two festivals, two very different perspectives, all just a few miles apart.

Friday, May 16, 2008

So Many Books

It has been a nebulous time, these last two weeks.

My students are finishing up their Advanced Placement exams and I am planning next year. Meanwhile, the school community prepares for Sunday’s open house and festival which includes Aram Saroyan’s visit and book signing.

Usually, teachers and students function like Pavlov’s dog during an ordinary school day. The bell rings, and we move. The entire day is organized around bells. But this week, the bells are often irrelevant. They ring, signifying the end or beginning of a class, but there are still students in the hallways. Students and teachers rehearse programs and performances; artists paint banners and posters on the floor in classrooms and hallways; janitors hang banners and bunting around the quad and playground. In short, it is chaos, a cacophony of busy work and artistic endeavor, occurring during the time of year when everyone, teacher and student alike, struggles to maintain focus. Final exams begin in fifteen days.

One of my many tasks this week is determining what books I will teach next fall. I have spent more time than usual on this process this year. I feel more and more that my students do not read enough, and therefore I need to bolster the text lists in my classes. However, I also feel they do not read carefully enough, nor deep enough, and therefore I have spent this year feeling like we are rushing through material. I keep hearing my mentor teacher’s voice from all those years ago: “ We teach children, not curriculum.”

How do we best serve our students? How do we get them to read broadly while also digging into the books and reading with depth and critical thinking?

So I have spent the week cutting down the text lists for each class to the bare minimum, thinking that I would dig more deeply into the works I teach. More close reading. More intensity. More background. More projects that reveal the nuances of text and writing.

Then I read an AP article, or examine a released exam, and realize by cutting the list, I am limiting my students’ experience with a variety of texts. So I start adding books back to the list. I go crazy, adding this book or that book, things I taught last year, or five years ago.

I also think about themes. I like organizing my reading lists for courses by theme. For the seniors, I am thinking of picking books that illustrate the philosophical questions of good and evil. Heart of Darkness. Crime and Punishment. Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Dante’s Inferno. For sophomores, I think of Existentialism and Eastern philosophy—Siddhartha, The Stranger. And since they purchase a separate writing and grammar text, I would like to devote a semester to that book alone. Research writing—they should do a major paper. Or, I could assign several shorter assignments that cover a variety of research techniques. Juniors hate Huckleberry Finn, yet it is on every major course list from the state and the College Board. Who does not read Huckleberry Finn in high school? The same group loves The Catcher In The Rye, yet I find the language dated, and I wonder at the value of the book. Are there others that might serve the same purpose and offer a richer experience? Why do they respond so well to Salinger’s writing? There must be something there.

I come to the conclusion that to lessen the number of texts is to cut the blood flow, so to speak. I need to push hard through the books. I cannot let the current trends in our American society to read less discourage me from making my students read more. As hard as it is this year with all the distractions, I must carve out the time next year to make my students read broadly and deeply.

In all of this, I must admit, there is the flutter in the stomach, the excitement. Yes, I get butterflies thinking about the teaching, the assignments, the work. I love this. I think about reading these books for the first time when I was in school, and the smells, the tastes, the intensity come flooding back. I start thinking about how I can recreate this experience for my students. How can I get them to feel the things I felt in ninth grade, tenth grade, senior year, when I read 1984, Romeo and Juliet, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I have already decided that this summer I need to refresh my notes and materials. I will work through each text, even the ones I have taught a hundred times, and re-prepare to teach them once again. I will research new websites, new articles, new project possibilities, new directions. I do this every few years. Freshness is important when you are a classroom teacher. I cannot wait to reread the books, to spend the summer weeks rethinking the writers I love, the books I cherish.

Meanwhile, I must finish this year. We have Monday off since we must spend Sunday on campus at the open house. Tuesday begins the final fifteen days of 2007-2008. I must still finish teaching Fahrenheit 451, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, The Bell Jar. I need to write some final exams, finalize the Summer Reading List, distribute the final draft of my text list for 2008-2009. Final, finalize, finish. But the work of a teacher is never finished. There are always more books to read, more learning to absorb, more thinking to do.

Summer is a time of fireworks and picnics, swimming and playing, of youth and beauty. I will be the one on the blanket with his back against the tree, face buried in a book, dreaming of autumn and so many books.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexBy Mary Roach
W.W. Norton, $24.95 cloth
ISBN 978-0-393-06464-3

Mary Roach is the journalist of the taboo, and that is what I like about her. One can count on her to explore the topics people always want to know more about but are afraid to ask. Previously, she wrote a book about human cadavers and another about the afterlife. They are both riveting works of inquiry. However, the books go into great detail about subjects that most people question only in the darkness of their quieter hours. In fact, that is the value of books like her latest, Bonk: they clearly address, with grace and humor, the taboos in human life.

Bonk concerns itself with sex research. All the star players are given their due credit: Kinsey, Masters and Johnson and Freud; she also brings in some lesser known players in the sex research game like Aristotle and Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s grand niece.

Roach writes with fluidity, understanding, and most important for this topic, a sense of humor.

Consider some of the facts she brings us: One, “Victorian physicians practiced gynecology and urology on women without looking.” Imagine visiting the doctor for something so intimate that the poor physician cannot look at you or your body part while conducting the examination.

Two, during medieval times, people believed “that breast milk was formed from…diverted menstrual blood.” The logical fallacies inherent in this assumption are clear.

Third, “Nasal congestion is an erection inside your nose.” Yes, evidently, the same erectile tissue in the genitalia is also present in the nose.

Fourth, “Homo sapiens is one of the few species on earth that care if they’re seen having sex.” Evidently, the rest of the animal kingdom just does the deed and who cares if the monkeys want to watch?

These are just the less racy facts. Let’s just say that the book is packed with trivia and insights about a subject that has only been vigorously researched for a little more than a century. Roach traces the entire history, from Robert Latou Dickinson to modern scientific papers from the last few years with the seemingly prurient titles of “Wet and Dry Sex—The Impact of Cultural Influence in Modifying Vaginal Function” (2005) and “Does Semen Have Antidepressant Properties” (2002).

Of course, what makes reading a book like this so uncomfortable are the implications. Roach, herself, makes it clear that the subject of sex and sex research makes people leap to conclusions, both about the researchers and those interested in the results. “With sex research, unlike, say, engineering or genome research, almost everything a scientist does can appear—to the uninformed or close-minded outsider—to be motivated by a perverse fascination with the subject.” A sex researcher risks being labeled a deviant, a pervert. To gather information, ask questions, investigate the mysteries of sex are all activities best not mentioned in polite society.

However, this is a book to recommend not only because it contains humor and insight into human behavior, but because Roach unmasks us in our most intimate moments. She details for us exactly what happens, anatomically and intellectually, when we have sex. But this is not a book for young people, those just learning about sex. This is a book that extends knowledge of human sexuality. Therefore, it is truly a book for adults.

The book also takes into account our modern world with its myriad cultures. In a chapter titled, “What Would Allah Say?” Roach discusses one of the few sex researchers operating in an Islamic country. His name is Ahmed Shafik, and his work is quite extraordinary. Even more incredible is that he has subjects upon which to conduct research, given the strictures of the Muslim faith.

“Shafik has published papers on a total of eighty-two anatomical reflexes that he has discovered and named,” Roach writes. His weirdest project? Dressing seventy-five rats in polyester pants for one year to see if the material influenced their sex lives. It did. The rats in polyester had sex less often than the rats who wore cotton pants. Shafik’s theory? The polyester created electrostatic fields in and around the mice’s genitals, damaging their sex drives. This is why all the fashion-conscious mice are wearing cotton Bermuda shorts for summer 2008.

Mary Roach combines good research with education, insight and fun in her book. Her writing does not constitute a literary masterpiece. I do not think that was her goal. She is writing to inform, to amuse, to enlighten. In this way, she is successful.

Like her previous work, Roach has written extensively about a secret in such a way as to illuminate the humanity of the act—in this case human sexuality—managing to entertain and enlighten us without resorting to lewdness or clinical jargon. We read her work even as we might blush and look away, and that is refreshing.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Aram Saroyan's Complete Minimal Poems

Complete Minimal Poems
By Aram Saroyan
Ugly Duckling Presse, $20.00 paper
ISBN 978-1-933254-25-8

Aram Saroyan, son of William Saroyan, and a well-known author, will be visiting my school on May 18 to speak with students about the fine art of writing. So it was with the interest of preparing my students for Saroyan’s visit that I introduced them to Ugly Duckling Presse’s recent publication of his Complete Minimal Poems. Then the controversy in the classroom began.

First, some background. Aram Saroyan has written a great number of books—novels, biographies, memoir, poetry, essays, photographs and words. This book, Complete Minimal Poems, “collects nearly all the poems Aram Saroyan wrote in the 1960s, when he was in his early 20s,” according to a recent review in The New York Times written by Richard Hell (April 27, 2008).

The genesis of these minimal or “concrete” poems began when Saroyan lived in New York City and decided to submit a piece to The American Literary Anthology edited by George Plimpton and to be published by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The piece was a poem of a single word:


One, tiny misspelled word, a $500 award from a government arts council, and the House of Representatives and Congress recoiled. The American people seemed to agree with the politicians—awarding this poem anything was outrageous. Yet, there it was, and more would follow.

From the distance of history, Saroyan’s poem does not seem very controversial when placed in context with the uproar over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a plastic crucifix in a bottle of urine. That work, too, was sponsored by the NEA. Or, we could place Saroyan’s work next to that of Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer who specialized in erotic and homoerotic images of nudes, and often had NEA backing.

In any case, Saroyan challenged contemporary notions of what constitutes poetry. His was not the only challenge to conventional forms of art. According to an article written by Ian Daly on the Poetry Foundation website (, Saroyan was influenced by Dadaists and the poet, Robert Creeley. They were playing with words on a page. “Lighght is something you see rather than read,” writes Daly. “Look at lighght as a poem and you might not get it. Look at it as a kind of photograph and you’ll be closer.”

Daly’s article also includes Saroyan’s take on the controversy. “All of this was a little hard to take seriously…at a time when 500 Americans a week were dying in Vietnam, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated.”

Beyond all the cultural and political discussion of his poems, Saroyan had other matters to contend with, namely being the writer-son of a famous writer. In his published memoir of the last months of his father’s life, Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan, he wrote, “What am I describing here, after all, but the continuing skirmish of my very life itself, with my father in front of me, the great writer, bigger than I, or more famous, and no matter where I go, no matter how I struggle to get past him, he is still there in front of me…” Their relationship was extremely difficult at best. “My father never liked me or my sister, and he never liked our mother either…” the younger Saroyan wrote, “he never liked anyone at all after an hour or two…no one except a stooge, someone he could depend on to be a lackey, a nitwit he could make fun of behind his back, someone he could control completely by whatever means he could make work—fear, intimidation, or, because he was a famous and admired man, blind worshipfulness.” All of this acrimony was aired out publicly in his memoir and the resulting review in The New York Times (August 1, 1982). He wanted to distinguish himself as a writer and artist separate from his lineage. He wanted to become his own man. He succeeded.

Aram Saroyan was born in 1943. His mother, Carol Marcus, married William Saroyan twice, but later divorced him to marry the actor, Walter Matthau. Although Saroyan attended several colleges and universities, including Columbia University, he never completed a degree. He wanted the career of a writer, and according to one report, turned down the role of Benjamin Braddock, the Dustin Hoffman character in the 1967 film, The Graduate, in order to focus on his writing.

So the son of a great writer has himself become a most important figure of literary pursuits, bringing us to his upcoming visit with my students. Their initial reaction to Complete Minimal Poems was vocal and energetic.

“Couldn’t he spell ‘light’?” one asked.

“I’m sure he could.”

“So what was he thinking when he wrote it that way?”

I struggled to explain to them that a poet’s, an artist’s job, is to make us see the world differently. By writing a common, simple word that way, did we not think about the word differently? Did he mean “light”? What constitutes the word “light”? Is there some meaning behind the misspelling? And by asking these questions, are we not thinking about light differently, as a word and as a concept?

“Still,” my student persisted, “I want to ask him what he was thinking when he wrote these poems.” I urged them to keep an open mind.

“Anyone could have written these poems,” another student said. “I could have written these poems.”

“Yes, you could have,” I replied, “but you didn’t.” Does art have to take every ounce of talent from the artist? What about some of the more modern art pieces, a white canvas, let’s say, with a red dot in the center? Could you have painted that? Yes, but the artist was trying to say something about the human condition, maybe. In a symphony orchestra, should the individual parts come close to exceeding the abilities of the players? Many times simplicity is best; less is more.

“I do not think it’s art,” a student insisted. “It’s just words on a page.”

“Is not all writing just words on a page? It is up to us, the readers, to invest it with meaning.”

I reminded them how adults often view teenagers’ music. How many times has someone told them their music is noise? They were closing their minds to the poetry the way adults often close their minds to teenagers’ music.

Then, I had an epiphany. My students were vigorously discussing the nature of art. They were debating what constitutes poetry. They were engaged. They had always been a good discussion group—they are only tenth grade students and yet, we had some good philosophical discussions. Now, they were asking the questions of each other. These were not my made up questions, but inquiries driven by their desire to know, to figure things out for themselves.

If Aram Saroyan’s concrete poetry could cause this kind of debate, a critical discussion among fifteen and sixteen year olds in the crucible of the classroom, I can hardly wait until he comes on May 18 to join the discussion. Let the fireworks begin.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Take Flight

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
E.M. Forster Howards End (1910)

“Our final experience, like our first, is conjectural. We move between two darknesses.”
E.M. Forster Aspects of the Novel (1927)

I said goodbye to my senior class today. It was an emotional end to a stressful week. We held elections for Student Council, not without considerable controversy. And we were ramping up to AP exams next week. The seniors will now take those exams, plus their finals in other subjects, and then high school is over for them. Many of them have been on our campus, pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade, for fourteen years.

It was an emotional day, and when the final bell rang there were tears all around, both teachers and students. These young people have been my students for four years in five courses. I taught them, teased them, joked with them, disciplined them, wrote them letters of recommendation, letters of appeal, watched them succeed and fail, fly and fall. I witnessed them do extraordinary things, wrong things, right things. I saw them be determined and incredibly lazy. I watched friendships and love affairs begin, and often end. I listened to their stories, and they listened to mine. Some buried grandparents; at least one buried a parent. During high school, I know they experimented with alcohol and drugs. They explored darkness on the edge of adulthood. They often behaved like the children they once were, and in so many ways, still are.

Among my students, I can count artists, musicians, scientists, scholars, writers, editors, leaders, caregivers, teachers, playground lawyers, athletes, thespians, journalists, visionaries, and yes, sometimes failures, miscreants, delinquents, posers, wannabes, derelicts, sinners and saints. Occasionally, they displayed wisdom uncommon in someone their age. Ignorance, too, burbled forth.

They frustrated me. They challenged me. They made me a better human being, a better teacher. At least once a week, they made me proud.

I fell in love with them, I made friends, I was humbled. Secretly, they made me long for the days when I was young, but I also remembered why I would never want to relive my teenage years again. They reminded me what I have lost to age, what I regret, what I missed. Oh, the lost opportunities, the false steps, the dead ends. I can feel the disappointments, the emptiness, the loneliness, the feeling that the pain in my heart would never end. I remembered what it was like to be at the mercy of adults, to be trapped, to yearn to be free, to chart my own course, to reach out to my destiny.

To be a senior in high school is to work through your last best year of childhood. Tomorrow it is gone; you have grown up, and you are thirty years old with a mortgage and a car payment and a dead-end job that makes you wonder where you derailed your life.

Or, you are forty-four, remembering when you figured out how old you would be in the year 2008, and thinking that time was your friend. “Time is the fire in which we burn,” a poet once wrote, and today, my students and I felt the heat.

They can vote, go to war, get married, obtain credit, and sign away their lives. They can seize the day or let it slide. This is the death—childhood is dead, long live the children! “Oh the places you’ll go,” said Dr. Seuss.

“Good night, Moon.”

“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.” But we all know that childhood dies. The lockers stand empty in the deserted hallways of the abandoned school. A breeze blows papers around the school yard. I hear the echoes. I hear the voices. Ghosts of who we once were, a long way off down the long dark hall.

And so, they fly away. Only I remain behind, to begin again with a new group of students, in the quiet time of year, the autumn. My tears today were selfish. I am jealous of my seniors. They are off to find their futures, to slay some dragons, to continue their journeys. My journey keeps me here in this classroom, studying words and stories, finding the poetry in the living, urging a new group—“Find the connections. Only connect. Search for the meaning, the relevance.” My seniors are no longer my students; hopefully, they become my friends, but I do not expect that because I do not want them to look back. They must go forward while time and tide are in their favor.

They explode into flight like birds, ever traveling, ever searching. I send my prayers with them, and I wish them Godspeed on their journeys. They will never travel alone, for my hopes and dreams fly with them.

In the end, it is the truth of poetry: “Time goes, you say? Ah, no! Alas, time stays, we go.”

Farewell, men and women of 2008.