Thursday, December 31, 2009

Trust In The Future

It has not been a good year. Economic troubles, second thoughts, regrets, reconsidering my life—all part of reaching mid-life, I guess, although I have always been a person edged in melancholy, harder on myself than any parent, teacher or boss could ever be. The questions persist: what does this all mean? Where are things headed? Am I doing all I can do with my life? I keep hearing Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.” I find that once I leave the classroom for the day, I do not want to speak. I want to revel in silence, in thinking. More and more, I want to withdraw, to retreat.

The values I hold dear, the parts of life I find most important—the life of the mind—reading, writing, thinking, are things unimportant today in a culture mired in ignorance and materialism. I am at odds with most people I meet, many of my students and their parents, people I used to consider friends. In my forty-sixth year I find that I am inarticulate. When I open my mouth, nothing I say sounds right. So why speak at all. Instead, I should say nothing whenever possible. Or, I have one mouth and two ears; therefore I should listen twice as much as I speak.

Whatever the formula, 2009 is a year that did not work for me. But that is good, and part of being. Imperfection must be embraced, and its companion, impermanence must be welcomed. Yin and Yang, black and white, good and evil—the paradox inherent in everyday living means that there will be good years and bad years. In the end, everything changes, indeed, must change, or die. Even death is a transfiguration. We move on.

I tell stories in the classroom. I teach by two methods, mainly: storytelling and questioning. Often, I use humor. I believe that learning is not an act of drudgery, or shouldn’t be. I believe discovery can be fun, and that by laughing at ourselves we can learn much about the human condition. But the humor masks a deeper pain. Comedians are the saddest people, sometimes. I fight with depression. I am too connected, too invested, too caught up.

Sometimes, we must take a step back and look at our lives. Take stock. Reconsider. In writing, this is revision. Put the story away in a drawer for a day or so. Come back to it with fresh eyes. This is also how we must live.

Passion is a double-edged sword. Stoicism tells us to not let our passions rule our behavior. I struggle with this concept, although I deeply admire it. Emotional control is an act of great effort for me, requiring strength I often do not possess in abundance. But there it is: things are going to go wrong; disappointments will come; and darkness shares equal space with the light.

So here we are on the cusp of a new decade. I feel in my heart that some change is coming, but then change is always coming. Not much of a prediction on my part. There is never a moment when we are fully grown up. We are always considering Frost’s diverging paths in the woods. We will always have “miles to go before we sleep, and miles to go before we sleep,” until we die and pass on to whatever is to come.

I hope 2010 brings new opportunities, moments of clarity, love, peace. In my darkest times, I must remember to trust in the future and let things come. The lessons of The Art of War by Sun Tzu are clear: a warrior waits for his moment, in rain, snow, heat, pain, suffering, disappointment, a warrior waits. And when the time comes, he is ready for whatever life brings. That is the way we must live. That is the only way to proceed.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition
By Bill Bryson
HarperCollins; $29.99, cloth
ISBN 978-0-06-196532-6

Let’s face it, we do not have much documentary evidence of William Shakespeare’s life, and where evidence fails us, legend takes hold.

Bill Bryson discusses what we know, what we speculate, and what has been misconstrued in his updated edition of the great writer’s biography, Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition. The book itself is a work of art, with heavy paper and loads of drawings, illustrations, and a significant bibliography. Still, the ground Bryson tills has been planted and harvested before, yet one gets the feeling that this is an up-to-the-minute biography, and Bryson himself admits in the preface that “For somebody who has been dead for nearly four hundred years, William Shakespeare remains awfully active.” He refers, of course, to the endless reams of scholarship and investigation published each year about the man, the myth and the legend.

Bryson sets off with the three revisions discovered since the volume was first published. The first is Shakespeare’s likeness, a subject of much speculation over the years. Everyone has seen the folio engraving of him, but Bryson reveals that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon has given us a definitive portrait of Shakespeare, and it is not the one we know. This image is known as the Cobbe portrait because for many years it has been displayed in the Cobbe family’s ancestral home.

The other two noteworthy events are the discovery of the foundation of “London’s first purpose-built theatre on the site of a disused warehouse in Shoreditch” dating from 1576 and the recovery of yet another folio of plays stolen from the Durham University library.

Bryson takes us through Shakespeare’s life and times. The biography is well-researched, and covers the major points of interest. What really wins the day, however, are the illustrations. Bryson draws from a plethora of sources, and the art definitely enhances the history, and makes purchasing the book worth the rather steep cover price.

The book is a good overview of Shakespeare’s life. Certainly there are other more scholarly and detailed approaches, but this is a good place to begin a study of his works and history. The book’s value is really more decorative than studious, as other writers have delved more deeply into a critical analysis of the plays and sonnets. I would use this volume as an illustrated teaching tool. Bryson also does a good job of updating what we know with the latest ideas about Shakespeare’s life and times.

It is amazing to me that someone who wrote almost a half of millennium ago could still be read in classrooms across the world today. And the performances of Shakespeare’s work continue, in almost every language and on every continent. Part of my class study of Romeo and Juliet includes a recitation of the balcony scene in Armenian. I even remember a line in one of the Star Trek films that extols the virtue of Shakespeare’s words in Klingon, demonstrating that in a science fiction future, Shakespeare’s plays would spread to other planets throughout the galaxy. One can only hope this will come true some day. Until then, Shakespeare remains an enigma as well as a box office draw. And that makes him a truly remarkable artist.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

I wish everyone:

Peace and tranquility this holiday season. And some good books and a warm fire!

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Break

Today begins our Christmas break, so the entire middle and high school student body gathered at St. Peter’s Church for a service. The weather was cold and windy, but the day was also bright with sunshine and blue sky.

I am struck by the quiet hope of the season, the solemnity of it all, and the power of winter, even here in southern California. After finishing at school for the day, I went to a local shopping mall. Big mistake! I felt like I was assaulted by the crowds, the cars and traffic, the frantic nervousness of it all.

To me, the dream of Christmas is a reflective time. The year has been difficult, what with the economy tanking and the increasing stress of simply being. I enjoyed the pause of church this morning, the calm before the over-heated nonsense of the mall. This is the time to think of where we are in our lives, what is important to us, and the meaning of love and friendship. It seems more and more difficult to connect with people these days. Everyone exists in his own universe. I include myself in this assessment.

On the wall over my desk in the classroom, I have a quote that I put up every year as a reminder. “Listen to the silences that you are unaware of,” it reads. Grammar is awkward, and the literal meaning might be paradoxical, but I love it nonetheless. That is what I will spend this break doing: listening to the silences. It is a noble pursuit. I will also grade some papers, read, hopefully get some rest, and get back to taking some walks in the brisk weather.

I will try to figure out where I am in my life, what will come next, and how to live better.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Eating Animals

Eating Animals
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown and Company; $25.99, cloth
ISBN 978-0-316-06990-8

Jonathan Safran Foer’s departure from fiction has caused quite a stir among American readers. The author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has chosen the meat industry as his target in his latest nonfiction work. The book is exactly what one might expect: a somewhat shrill screed decrying the eating of animals. As I was reading, I could not help but compare Foer’s work with other landmark book-length investigations of various industries: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a work of fiction that instigated the formation of the Food and Drug Administration with its expose of the secretive meat industry of the early twentieth century; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, one of the first books to discuss our destruction of the environment; and The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford’s examination of the funeral industry.

Foer’s work was inspired by the birth of his son and his desire to feed him a healthy diet. The meat industry is still guarded, and Foer recounts his difficulty getting access to factory farms and a look at what happens there. He is forced to sneak in at night, and what he sees is revealing and disgusting. However, I do not think his revelations will be a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to our relationship with food over the last few decades here in America.

One would think a book of this nature is an argument for vegetarianism. Foer is a vegetarian, and he believes this is the only healthy choice of diet, but that is not the goal of the book. He takes on the philosophy of eating meat, specifically, the way we grow, produce, and slaughter animals for food. In scenes right out of Dante’s Inferno, Foer takes us inside the lives of these animals with the argument that such disregard for life, such abusive and violent behavior against another creature, cannot be good for human karma.

In fact, Foer makes the point that simply swearing off the eating of animals is not enough. The demand is still high. The fraction of the population that holds to vegetarianism is so small that the factory farms continue unabated. And many of the dwindling number of individual or family farms face economic ruin and sell out to the larger conglomerates. If they do survive, they are forced to contract slaughterhouses to prepare their animals for market, and the abuse happens most prevalently there. So whether or not a chicken is free-range, natural, grain-fed, et cetera, means nothing if they are slaughtered inhumanely in the end.

Foer also takes exception with those terms. He writes, “To be considered free-range, chickens raised for meat must have ‘access to the outdoors,’ which, if you take those words literally, means nothing. (Imagine a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch—and the door is closed all but occasionally.)”

Another term Foer blasts is “fresh.” “More bullshit,” he writes. “According to the USDA, ‘fresh’ poultry has never had an internal temperature below 26 degrees or above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Fresh chicken can be frozen (thus the oxymoron ‘fresh frozen’), and there is no time component to food freshness. Pathogen-infested, feces-splattered chicken can technically be fresh, cage-free, and free-range, and sold in the supermarket legally (the shit does need to be rinsed off first).”

Foer tells us that “more than ten billion land animals [are] slaughtered for food every year in America,” but he does not leave out the “chicken of the sea,” to use a popular canned tuna slogan. He details the way fish are captured, how they are farmed, and in what conditions they live up until slaughter. Many people mistakenly believe eating fish is an acceptable solution to our overindulgence in red meat. Wrong. Fish often contain higher levels of mercury and other chemicals, and the factory fish farms are no better than their landlocked counterparts.

Who are the biggest violators both of ethics and health concerns? Foer singles out Tyson Foods and KFC—no surprises there. Does anyone out there believe healthy eating begins with fast food? As for Tyson, I feed my dog from their bags of chicken breasts due to his irritable bowel disease. I boil the breasts in a pot. What I see there makes me fight the gag reflex: hunks of grey-colored meat, slimy white streams in the water, globs of gristle and sometimes bone, and often an ammonia smell to the entire pot. I worry about my dog, but this meat is for human consumption. I feel nothing but trepidation for the people who purchase these discount bags of flash frozen chicken. Foer only confirms my worst fears when he discusses Tyson’s procedures for delivering food to the table. Tyson, according to Foer, is the main supplier to KFC restaurants. “An investigation at one large Tyson facility found some workers regularly ripped off the heads of fully conscious birds…” he writes, “urinated in the live-hang area (including on the conveyer belt carrying the birds), and let shoddy automated slaughter equipment that cut birds’ bodies rather than their necks go unrepaired…” At another site, “fully conscious chickens were kicked, stomped on, slammed into walls, had chewing tobacco spit in their eyes, literally had the shit squeezed out of them, and had their beaks ripped off.”

Foer presents a grim and horrific picture. There is some of the cutesy typeface tricks of his novels, but his message is clear. We are doing a disservice to our world with our out-of-control demand for meat. His book is a good beginning for those who wish to know more about what happens before that turkey, pig, chicken, or cow comes to the table. The information Foer presents is available elsewhere, including some interesting images and film clips posted on the internet. However, he presents our problem as a moral issue, not just a dietary preference, or a way to eat more healthy.

Jonathan Safran Foer believes we are committing atrocities, demonstrating our rampant disregard for our fellow creatures, and by not mending our ways, we are tempting the hand of God. And this reason alone should be enough for us to rethink our dietary choices.

Friday, December 11, 2009

How To Study For English Class

In a sort of follow-up to yesterday’s entry, excuse a bit of teacher business. There will be a quiz on this material Monday :). Here are some tips to develop good study habits for English:

Motivation: if you have a definite purpose or goal, you will find it easier to learn the habits and skills of effective studying. The study of humanities (history, English, philosophy, art, literature, et cetera.) will help you to become an educated person. Courses in these subjects develop skills in critical reading, writing, and thinking. Therefore, these course are important and deserve your effort and attention, no matter what your career plans may involve.

Study at the same time, at the same place, on a regular schedule every night. Plan on spending at least 30 minutes per academic subject each night, but also realize that some courses may require more time than others. Give more time to the subjects that you find most difficult. During your study periods, do nothing but studying. Have a separate time for relaxation and rest.

Take good lecture notes. Questioning and listening are basic skills required when taking notes for lecture courses. Listen for key phrases the teacher uses to emphasize such as: "the main point is..., remember this..., et cetera." Listen for repeated statements and emphasized words and concepts. Do not attempt to copy down every word given in a lecture. Learn to extract the essential information by identifying the major points the teacher makes. If you do not understand something, ask a question.

Keeping good lecture notes is not the same as taking good notes. After lecture notes have been taken down, review them and reduce to key terms and concepts in a clearly defined order. Review everything, and if needed, rewrite and reorganize.

There is a method to studying written work for notes, and it is called SQ3R. Here it is: (S) survey the material, reading carefully; (Q) question everything you don't understand and try to find or develop answers for each question; (R) reread the work again, looking for missed facts and details; (R) rewrite the major points in your own words in detailed, analytical terms; (R) review the major points before class.

Date your notes and keep them neat and organized. Separate each class into its own section in your notebook.

Sit at a desk or table and read the piece through. Do not lay in bed or have the TV or radio playing while reading. These things distract you and lessen your concentration.

Read the book through, underlining key material, marking whole key passages and pages where the most important material is found.

Reread the book by reading the marked places and take careful, brief notes on the significance of the material. Work through the piece again asking yourself these questions: Who are the characters? What happens in the piece? What do you think the author means in this piece? What is his or her message?

Read through the questions at the end of the selection. If you have been assigned the questions, do them. If not, try to answer them in your head as you go along. Any uncertainties, look up the answers in the selection.

Keep a reader’s journal. Write down your thoughts, impressions and feelings regarding what you read. If you hated the selection, give concrete reasons why you disliked it. (Unrealistic characters, confusing plot, etc.)

Remember, reading is an active process. You have to work at it and not just expect the work to jump at you off of the page. How much you learn is directly related to how hard you concentrate.

Study your notes and then circle the most important notes you have taken which lead you to a conclusion about a possible theme.

Write a paragraph or two in your notebook summarizing the action, character, plot and theme of the work. Include as much detail as possible.

When taking exams, look for critical words and know their meanings: compare, contrast, criticize, define, describe, diagram, discuss, evaluate, explain, illustrate, interpret, justify, list, outline, prove, relate, review, summarize, and trace.

You should consider this a standard homework assignment to be done every night in addition to whatever else is assigned that day in class.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Taking Notes

The bank that owns the property next door to me is preparing to sell it. So yesterday, the entire contents of the former occupants’ lives were dumped on the sidewalk for everyone to pick through and take away. I walked over to see what the hullabaloo was all about and found a first edition cloth bound copy of William Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness. I stood there for a moment in the gathering twilight thinking what were the chances that I would find that book—one I reviewed a while back, and written by my current obsession, the historian Manchester—in the midst of all the rubble.

As I continued looking through the junk, I found a box of notebooks. “Northwestern” was embossed on the covers. Someone had written “Microbiology” underneath the college logo in black marker. There were maybe ten notebooks in all. I took one up and began paging through it. There, in the neatest handwriting I had ever seen, were someone’s notes for her study. Things were labeled, diagrammed, cross-referenced. Chapters were delineated, outlined, organized. I could write a book with those notes, maybe several books.

And so I was thinking of note-taking.

I have become a compulsive note-taker. I took notes in school, like any student, but the notebooks I kept were messy, revealing someone who had yet to decide what his handwriting would look like, or if he would eschew handwriting altogether and be a printer, like his father. There were notes in cursive following the best my Catholic school teachers could do. Other pages were mere scrawls—disorganized, unclear, containing huge gaps when I probably tuned out in class.

After I became a teacher, my handwriting and my note-taking skills improved. My biggest problem was my left-hand writing: I suffered tremendous writer’s cramp if I had to write more than a page continuously. Years ago, I taught myself to type, and I have always found myself a quicker typist than a handwritten note-taker. I have settled on a procedure that works well for me. I write notes in handwriting in either a reporter’s notebook, or a Moleskin notebook. The notes tend to be bullet points, short, brief ideas or lines, sometimes quotes. Later I transcribe them to the computer when time allows. Typed or rewritten on legal pads, I gather the pages in file folders and place them in a cabinet near my desk. This is how I build my teaching and writing.

Notes to me are everything. Which was why I was so sad to find those notebooks. A whole study, it would seem, regarded as trash.

My students take notes as I teach, and I often ask them what they are noting. I am interested in how they process the information, how they determine what to note and what to leave out. For the younger classes, I am responsible to teach them how to note. I tell them not to try to write down everything the teacher says, especially if the material is covered in a textbook or set of readings. Teachers come in two flavors, many times: the one that lectures strictly by the book, and the other that uses the book as a jumping off point for additional learning. If the teacher sticks to material in the book, the student has two opportunities to note. If something is missed in the lecture or discussion, then by reading the chapter or section, the missing pieces can be filled in. If the teacher uses the text as a beginning, then taking notes during the class is a necessity, and to miss the readings and the lectures is to miss two different things.

In high school today, I think the move is away from lecture and more toward cooperative learning, group projects, presentations, seminar approaches. I see my students glaze over when the lecture goes on too long, however, the Socratic method is my best tool. It takes patience and resilience to keep hammering at them with questions to lead them to the answers, but if I do it right the entire class is involved. On my less perfect days, I wind up cutting corners and giving away the answers, not the best way to teach. Student involvement is key.

For me, one guide when teaching is to remember how I learned. Even now, how do I learn new material? The most important difference between me as a student and me as a teacher is that the teacher wants to learn, has questions he wants answered, and loves to research. Not so the student of yester-year. My students are being put through the paces, as I was at their age. Therefore, the questions are the teacher’s not the students’. The trick is to get the students to want to know, to ask the questions. The questions are far more important than the answers.

So notes, highlighting and annotating texts, how do we sort it all out? Some is intuitive. You can feel when something is important. Maybe the teacher repeats it several times, or it comes up repeatedly in the material. When I read, the sentence seems to jump out at me, especially when reading history or science. Literature is a bit trickier. There, repeated readings are a must. I cannot figure out where a poem or chapter or short story is going until I have read it through once. Then I can work through it again and find what is important. Literature calls for repeated readings.

All in all, note-taking is a personal skill; students must find a system that works best for them. That is another reason why I found those notebooks, left in the cold and darkness at the curb, so sad, indeed. They are the product of someone’s thinking, considering, living with a subject. They are a record of what that person found interesting, and placed enough value in that time was spent gathering the information. Sure, it could have been just a class, but it was learning, nonetheless, and an indication of a mind-life. Now, in the midst of widespread foreclosures and a difficult economy, the notebooks are rubbish.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Better Heart: The Search For School Library Funding

The following is an essay I wrote for a contest where the prize is a "library makeover." Granted, the prizes are computers not books, but at this point, I'll take what I can get. Our school library is small, and really needs to break into two libraries: one for elementary school students and one devoted to the needs of the middle/high school. If anyone out there has some money they wish to donate in this tough economy, we can put your name on the building. It will be our library, and yours, too! We will even let you check out as many books as you want for as long as you live. As for the contest, I had 2000 characters, including spaces and punctuation, to make my case.

The library is the heart of the school. Our heart is insufficient for our student body.

We are a pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade school of 650 students located in Canoga Park, California, founded in 1976 by the Armenian General Benevolent Union, an organization providing a cultural education for Armenians who were dispersed around the world following the genocide of 1917. This was the first mass killing in the twentieth century, and a model for the horrors of the Holocaust twenty-three years later. We know this because Hitler told us in his own words, haunting us for generations: “Who remembers the Armenians?”

The teachers, the principals, the librarians, the counselors, the students, parents, even the maintenance staff, battle daily to prove Hitler wrong, to insure that one and a half million Armenians buried in the landslide of history did not die in vain.

But we need your help.

We need a stronger heart.

We have a small library that must service all students, toddlers to young adults. We want to build, to expand, to become a force in education, and we feel this process cannot move forward unless we have a better library. Having Acer technology would allow us to maximize our space and offer students more opportunities to discover their world. Research projects, internet connections, worldwide communication possibilities, graphic arts, writing, history, literature, languages, all can be accessed and enhanced using technology. Our parents have donated money, we have reached out to the community, we have begged, borrowed, and pleaded, but we need more.

Books are sacred to us. Libraries are our cathedrals. Like the phoenix in the ancient legend, we wish to soar from the ashes of destruction to create a better world. We need help to gather the tools to make a difference.

We have a good heart, and we are willing to push beyond our boundaries. With your help we can strengthen our resources and endeavor to discover our future. We can build a better, stronger heart.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Laundry Room Libraries

Great article in today’s The New York Times. Writer Susan Dominus talks about “saving the planet and expanding the mind.” How, you might ask? Her neighbors in Washington Heights piled all of their used books in the common laundry room in the basement where others might have a crack at them.

“At my former home…I read the narrative of some unidentified young couple through the titles that accumulated in our makeshift laundry room library,” she writes. “First The Fertility Diet, then several months later, What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and finally a slew of baby-naming books…A glance through the laundry room stacks provides a point of entry into lives that sometimes seem opaque, for all proximity.”

Dominus goes on to say that “Originally just a pile of books like those in so many other building basements, the library became a library about six years ago, when a superintendent put in some shelves.”

I marveled at this ad hoc common person’s library. I lived in an apartment for almost eighteen years; never saw a book in our laundry room, however, the manager did horde all the cast-off furniture, regardless of value, every time a tenant moved out.

At my school last year, a parent donated a grocery bag stuffed with thrillers, mysteries, and detective fiction. I do not spend much time in the faculty room, so it took a few months before I noticed the bag in the corner. The generous student was one of mine, and he asked me why the books were thrown in the corner of the faculty room. “Couldn’t we put them in the library?” he asked. Evidently, that is where the family thought they would be going. “Since the library does not want them,” he said, “why don’t we put them in the classroom shelves?”

Good idea! So there they are, along with other books I have collected, purchased, found over the years. Only a few students take advantage, however, and I wonder why.

It seems my students only want to borrow books when they need them for class. “Mr. Martin, do you have any extra copies of Hamlet? Sure kid. It’s on the shelf. They are reluctant to buy unless we will use the book for several weeks running. Some do check them out of the public or school library. Last year, I was asked if they could download the book on their iPhones. A larger number are lucky enough to have parents who take them regularly to the local chain book store.

I think the laundry room library is a good thing, but I like to buy fresh copies of my books. I love cracking one open, highlighting text, marking up the margins. If the book is rare or difficult to find, I refrain from marking and use post-it notes. Having grown up in the public library near my childhood home, now that I can, I buy fresh from the store whenever possible.

I also wonder about the culture of a laundry room library. It seems people in other cities value books more. Every time it comes up here in Los Angeles, someone always reminds me that we do have a book culture, as evidenced by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA every April. Yeah, I guess that counts for something. Still, in other cities, people read on the subway to and from work. They read in the parks at break, on lunch hour, or on Sunday afternoons. New York has news stands on corners throughout Manhattan. In L.A. books are important for movie sales. It is more important to be seen reading, I think, then it is to read. And the last time I was in a Border’s several weeks ago, I was appalled at the collection of freaks and weirdoes inhabiting the aisles. Some were speaking aloud to themselves, others were singing, rehearsing scripts, acting out. One guy was dressed in a shabby tuxedo with a top hat and cane, I kid you not. Most of them were reading books and magazines only to throw them on the floor or back onto any random shelf. Then some serious buyer can come along and pay full price for a used book.

No, Los Angeles has a way to go before we start setting up lending libraries down in the laundry room. It’s too bad. I think we’re missing something.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Painting of You*

The Painting of You
By William Michaelian
Author’s Press Series Volume 1; $10.00, paper
ISBN 978-0-557-12874-7
Ordering Information

Long before we knew the term “Alzheimer’s Disease” we knew the signs. We called it senility, dementia, forgetfulness. I remember going to see my great-grandmother, then in her eighties, and finding half-eaten hamburgers in her cupboards with the clean plates. I remember another great-grandparent who spent all of her time in a single twin bed, staring at the ceiling, her lips gently moving as if speaking to someone up there. Her eyes were twin vacant holes, the pupils large and black, nearly blotting out the colored iris. Sometimes she would turn her head and stare directly into my six year old face, and it scared me, the emptiness, the lack of anything there, the body still animated, but the mind vanished, or vanquished by an invisible disease.

Alois Alzheimer gave us the technical name for how we lose our loved ones, piece by piece, to a disintegrating mind. He was a German neurologist who lived 1864-1915, and it is for him the disease was named in 1907. But names and pathologies do not help us when faced with loss. They do not mitigate the grief of the family, and the stress and crushing weight of caring for one whose mind has fragmented and floated away.

William Michaelian, in his new book, The Painting of You, takes us on a journey as he cares for his mother who suffers from the disease. His mixture of poetry and prose is rich and evocative, the kind of writing that does not lose itself in sentimentality but nevertheless inspires a deeply emotional response in the reader.

The book is organized chronologically, like a journal, and begins as Michaelian must spend more and more time each day at his mother’s home, amongst family heirlooms, photographs, and artifacts of his history. It is a poignant irony that even as she remembers less, Michaelian must remember more, realizing that memory can be handed down from one generation to another, and that part of his responsibility is not only to care for his parent, but become the guardian of her memories.

“Now she is eighty-three,” he writes in the opening entry, “and the sunlight on her face remembers me. / It remembers the boy I have been and will never be again, caresses the lines / and fences with eyes blind to my disgrace, inscribes a message on the wind, / seeks, blesses, grieves, attends, ceaseless in its toil, eager to begin…” The light is fading on her, and the son finds he must bear witness to the decline and watch over her gradual dissolution.

Mixed in with his poetic ruminations, Michaelian includes memories and reflections on his own half century on earth. He describes his origins as a writer, his days in the fertile soil of central California, the powerful symbolism of the vineyard, the farmlands, the heat and dust. We see “pumpkins and a field of corn, / Melons, apples, gourds, an ancient wooden trailer / With buckets of bright chrysanthemums.”

Entries include poetry, journal writing, dream reflection, and much of it has appeared in the writer’s other books, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, and on his websites and Recently Banned Literature. (I have written previously about his work on this blog.)

Michaelian brings us to new realizations and revelations, often about the commonplace and ordinary, but he makes us see the world differently. This is a writer who always makes even the mundane poetic. His writing is haunting and sensory, addressing simple things in a profound way.

One such entry in this book is “From Common Objects, Hidden Dreams: A Daily Journal,” where he writes of his mother’s dish towels that were a gift from Michaelian’s grandmother to her daughter just after his parents’ marriage in 1943. “In other words,” he writes, “my mother is using sixty-two-year-old towels.” He goes on to catalogue the other things she has from that time: measuring cups, bread pans, clocks, canning implements, tea sets, tables, and pictures. He calls her house a museum, and his mother, in more lucid moments, asks him if she has too many pictures on the walls. When he suggests she remove some and asks which he should take down, she smiles. “None of them, of course,” he writes. “None of them, forever and ever, as long as the two of us shall live.” This launches Michaelian into the poetry of reflection: “Generations watch and listen from their places on the wall. Armenians, Swedes, lunatics. Farmers, poets, revolutionaries. Angry, happy, surprised, proud. In the dark of night, their remembered spirits leave the frames and drift about the rooms.”

The book builds to a breaking point: Michaelian finds himself exhausted with the demands of caring for her. His sleep-deprived body aches, his family suffers, the stress begins to threaten his health. His mother is aware of the progression of her disease, and one morning at breakfast tells him: “You know, I just realized something. It dawned on me that I’m never going to get better, and that I’m really just dying—and too slowly.” It is a heart-rending moment between mother and son. “Such sudden logic,” he writes, “from someone who almost always has difficulty telling the time.”

So the ending is inevitable, and Michaelian must seek care for his mother in a facility that can deal with her degenerative state. “I’ll never forget my mother’s face / at the window as I drove away / from the nursing home.” After all the days, we reach the end, and nothing can soothe the departure. From his final entries in The Painting of You, we see that this decision and his eventual taking-over of his mother’s home as his own were difficult days for the writer. He is the keeper of the museum now until the day comes when he must pass the torch to his children and grandchildren.

In The Painting of You, he speaks of what is lost, the joy of living, the pain of regret, the desperation of fading memories. Michaelian describes how memory is a fluid thing, passed from parent to child. It is in this transmission, this thread that runs through the ages, that we discover who we are, what led to this moment, and life is reduced to its most important elements: family, love, the joy and heartbreak of being alive. This is the moment we hear the whispers of history, when the ghosts sit down with us and tell us stories. In the immense darkness of a winter’s night, he evokes the disappearing world of his mother, memories of life and family, the delicate smoke of dreams. His words are profound, rich, elemental, the poetry of history, the sepia-toned mystery of who we are, what we have lost, and what we must never forget.


Addendum: Thanks to sanjeev for adding on as a follower to The Teacher's View.


*Update: William Michaelian's second book in the Author's Press Series has now been released. You can order the book here. The specifics are as follows:

No Time To Cut My Hair
By: William Michaelian
Author's Press Series Volume 2; $12.00, paper
ISBN: 978-0-557-20222-5
Also available as an e-book

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Goodbye, Darkness

Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University

Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War
By William Manchester
Little, Brown/Back Bay Books; $16.95, paper
ISBN 978-0-316-50111-5

Late in William Manchester’s superb memoir of soldiering in the Pacific during World War II, he clarifies why no other generation since could do what they did. “To fight World War II,” he writes, “you had to have been tempered and strengthened in the 1930s Depression by a struggle for survival…And you had to know that your whole generation, unlike the Vietnam generation, was in this together…You needed nationalism, the absolute conviction that the United States was the envy of all other nations, a country which had never done anything infamous, in which nothing was insuperable, whose ingenuity could solve anything by inventing something. You felt sure that all lands, given our democracy and our know-how, could shine as radiantly as we did.”

Do we long for those days of absolute evil on our doorstep? No, we long for that fortitude, lost forever to the ages.

When I was in high school, we were required to read Manchester’s excellent narrative history of the United States, The Glory and the Dream, a history book like none I had ever read in school. Years later, while combing through someone’s junk at a garage sale, I found a perfectly good cloth first edition of that book. I purchased it, and thus began a mania for Manchester. I have since found almost every thing the man wrote, most of it, unfortunately out of print. He died in 2004.

Goodbye, Darkness is simply the most poetic memoir I have ever read. Part history, part recollection of a Marine’s life in the Pacific, the book reads like a novel. I finished it on Veterans’ Day, and I do not think I fully understood that holiday until I read this book.

Manchester begins with the first man he killed in war, a Japanese sniper, who was shooting down Marines and G.I.s alike. A man diametrically opposed to violence all his life who suffered greatly at the hands of bullies, Manchester finds himself pinned down by this enemy. If he remains in his foxhole, the sniper will eventually kill him, of that he is certain. He has one opportunity to rush the fisherman’s shack where the sniper is hidden. He takes his .45 and rushes up the hill, boots in the door, and finds an empty room. Another door awaits within, and he realizes that the sniper now knows he is coming. He smashes through the second door expecting to be killed in his tracks, except the sniper is tangled in his gun harness. Manchester squeezes off a round, missing the soldier. His second shot finds its target, shredding the enemy’s thigh and mutilating the femoral artery. “A wave of blood gushed from the wound,” he writes. “Then another boiled out, sheeting across his legs, pooling on the earthen floor.” The soldier sinks down, bleeding to death in minutes. Manchester vomits his C-ration beans and urinates on himself. He has killed a man and wonders: “Is this what they mean by ‘conspicuous gallantry?’”

From here, Manchester takes us through his life and history, but also the history of America and the great wars of the twentieth century. We see his father in the Great War, badly wounded by an exploding shell that kills a comrade instantly. On All Souls’ Day, the elder Manchester is carried on a litter into a tent “reserved for the doomed” and left there to die, a hopeless case. Gangrene infects his shoulder, and “He lay there in his blood and corrupt flesh for five days, unattended, his death certificate already signed.” He survives. His right arm becomes useless, “a rigid length of bone scarcely covered by flesh, with a claw of clenched fingers at the end.” He cannot sign his name to his discharge papers because of this injury, so he makes an X, “like an illiterate.”

We see the younger Manchester growing up in New England, a somewhat sickly child who takes early to books, and writes his own stories “derivative of Poe, on the Underwood” typewriter his father uses in his job as a social worker. “I cannot remember a time in my life,” he writes, “when I was not deep in a book.” His calling is clear, even though he is not a stellar student. His is an intellectual life, one that leads on naturally to his oeuvre of a few novels and a great number of history books, all written in a fluid and engrossing style that defies conventional history textbook writing.

Goodbye, Darkness becomes a journey. Manchester retraces the battles and skirmishes in which he participated during the war in the Pacific. The book jumps back and forth between his late 1970s return to the fields and atolls of the Pacific theater and the days of the war. He details the fighting and dying that went on, and then shows us the decaying monuments and rusting junk on the field upon his return. Many of the memorials are damaged by time, or worse, by vandals. We learn about the costs of war, the impact on one man’s life, and the heartbreaking moment when he realizes that all of it will one day be forgotten. There is bitterness and thanksgiving, the grace of a good death and the turning point of a young man’ life exposed.

The book ends as it begins, with Manchester killing a man, again a sniper, this time behind a boulder. The writer takes an action that is now second nature: he prepares to die to save lives. For one who has been bullied all his life, the Marine Manchester is a crack shot, and he puts his skill to the test by diving into the open, sighting in on the enemy, and preparing to fire. A mortar explodes in front of him, and he is showered with debris, but as the dust clears, he sees his target and fires, striking the man in the face. He pumps several more rounds into the body, and the soldier is down. He returns to his partner nearby to find his comrade’s face blown away. Another soldier dies. Manchester continues on, and as he passes the dead Japanese sniper, he gives the head a swift kick.

The war officially ends for Manchester when he is badly injured by a mortar round that vaporizes two fellow soldiers and leaves pieces of their bones inside Manchester’s body as shrapnel. He suffers a brain injury. He is sent to a series of hospitals, and in San Francisco, the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima reaches him. The days of war are done. Japan surrenders shortly thereafter, and Manchester returns to civilian life. He lists the men he knew before the war who accompanied him into battle. Many are dead, and Manchester gives a litany of names and their fates. It is a literal lost generation.

I found a picture of William Manchester from the archives of Wesleyan University where he was a writer-in-residence, teacher, and scholar for most of his career. It is the desktop background on my home and classroom computers. I greet him each morning. He stares at me, pipe in mouth, as if wondering why I have disturbed him at his work. I gaze back at him, thinking about that long ago senior history class at my high school. I kept my paperback copy of The Glory and the Dream all these years, bound in duct tape, the pages torn, highlighted, annotated.

Could we today ever accomplish what the men and women of Manchester’s generation did? I think not. The world has changed, the concept of war has changed, and America is no longer the country of right and good. Guantanamo, water-boarding, Dick Cheney, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have changed all that.

Manchester wrote his book to say goodbye to the darkness, the nightmarish days of war where smoke obliterated the sun, and blood ran into the sea. It is a different world today. Manchester has gone, but the darkness remains.

Addendum: I would like to thank Gabriel for joining The Teacher's View as a follower.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Our Place In The World

“…but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.”Sandra Cisneros
The House On Mango Street

I am blessed with some great ninth grade English students. Sure, they are struggling to achieve in their first English Honors course, but we have some great discussions. They have things to say, opinions to share, and they think. There is not enough of that going on in the world anymore.

We are reading Sandra Cisneros’ The House On Mango Street, a slim volume that is more poetry than prose, and is actually below their reading level, but rich in content and insight into what it is like to be different, to be in the early teenage years, and to witness the emptiness and desolation of difficult circumstances, to be filled with regret for missed opportunities, or worse, opportunities that never materialize.

Cisneros’ characters are trapped, and her voice in the novel is Esperanza, a fiercely brave young girl who wants more from life than her circumstances offer and has a ringside seat for the disappointments and tragedies of failed dreams.

Esperanza tells us that she wants “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” After living her life in the crowded house on Mango Street, she dreams of a home of her own, where she can be an individual, where no one will mess with her, or take her things, and she can write and read and think. Esperanza is a different character from her friends and family. Over and over again in the novel we see the futility of empty lives.

There is Marin whose boyfriend is in Puerto Rico. She is more worldly and experienced than Esperanza and “knows lots of things.” The things Marin knows are about sex, and what a girl must do to get attention from boys. She smokes cigarettes and wears short skirts. But the real heartbreak comes in the last lines. “Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.”

There is her father “who wakes up tired in the dark” for another day of work. But today, Esperanza’s grandfather has died. It is the first time she has seen her papa cry.

The last chapter always nails me in the heart. “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes.” Esperanza talks of leaving Mango Street, of getting out and into the world, leaving the past behind. “I like to tell stories,” she says. “I tell them inside my head. I tell them after the mailman says, Here’s your mail. Here’s your mail he said.” Cisneros has the lilting rhythms of Dr. Seuss, of children’s poetry. “I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn’t want to belong.”

We are all the people we have ever been. Wordsworth’s great line: “The child is the father of the man.” All the places we have lived, all the disappointments, the triumphs, the days of bearing witness, and the nights of fevered dreams, they are what make us. Esperanza speaks of this theme. She traces the litany of all the places she has lived. “I put it down on paper,” she tells us, “and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.”

My students are Armenian-American. They are searching for a way to remain Armenian while also becoming part of American society. They have, quite literally, a foot in each world, split like a compass straddling a circle. Many of their relatives and their Armenian teachers tell them to remember: culture, food, language, history and values. But the pull of America is strong, the pressure of peers, the desire to fit in, even stronger. I feel for them and empathize with their plight. To assimilate is to fail their elders; to remain isolated from American culture is self-defeating. Which way to go?

So they connect with Esperanza. They see their own future journeys in her desire to escape from Mango Street to find her home in the world. I share with them my own conundrum: I had to sever the ties with my family in order to find myself. The cost is loneliness, guilt, regret. But to not break away is to remain trapped, like so many characters in the novel.

Cisneros says it best in the closing lines of the book: “They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.”

We are all looking for our place in the world. I watch my students struggle with this, make mistakes, suffer the pangs of anger and disappointment. They push back against the forces that try to hold them close. They must leave, if only to gain some distance, some perspective. It is only by leaving that one can have any hope of finding a way back.

We must, in the end, be fearless. We must trust the journey to bring us home.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Thank You*

Just a quick note to thank Amber Johnson from Online for listing The Teacher's View in her blog post, "100 Blogs Every New Teacher Should Read." Ms. Johnson has sent me several links to her work and continually reads my writing, so thanks and praise to her are long overdue. In addition, her site features many blogposts, lists and resources for teachers. It is a valuable tool to bookmark.

Also, thanks to all who read and comment or send me email. I appreciate the feedback. J.D. and ALeks, thank you for adding on as followers for The Teacher's View. Your readership is appreciated.

Finally, William Michaelian has a new book out, which I will be reviewing shortly, about caring for his mother who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. The book is an artful blend of poetry and prose, and is part of his Author's Press Series. Information on the book and ordering can be found here.

*Update: I would also like to thank Jim and Gary for adding on today, October 23, as followers. Welcome aboard and thanks for reading.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Ghost of John Proctor

The sky is the color of slate, the wind blows icily through my soul, and the Atlantic boils in cold foam around my feet. Massachusetts quickly moving toward winter. Dawn of a new day that looks suspiciously like millions of others, and I am walking. The scrub grass pokes through the white sand, and seagulls scream overhead. Where am I going? I do not know.

I am not alone. A tall, gaunt figure accompanies me. His clothes are in tatters, his face streaked with dirt and pain. A frayed circle of rope hangs from his neck. I know him through the pages of hundreds of years.

“John Proctor?”


“What of Salem?” he asks.

“You would not recognize it.”

“Oh, I believe I would. And who are you?”

“I am a teacher.”

“A noble and true calling.”

“It is also how I know you,” I say. “Your story is familiar to history, and to the stage. Arthur Miller wrote about you and those events.”

“My story is real,” he says bitterly. “It is not fit subject for pretend, for actors. My story is a warning, a presentiment of the danger of living the truth.”

“All the more reason why it is a fit subject for theatre,” I tell him. “Because things have not changed. Because they never will.”

The wind whips our hair as the waves crash all around. We are on some kind of coastal plain, the aquamarine swirling and smashing around the rocky coast on one side, and hills of scrub grass and low trees on the other. The sky has gone red and orange.

“Red sky in the morning, the sailor has his warning,” I recite.

“Aye, winter is coming,” John Proctor says. “So teacher, where do you teach?”

“I teach the young at a school across the country from here.”

“Harvard still exists?”

“Yes, but it is very difficult to go there. It is one of the best schools in the country.”

“There are more schools than Harvard?”


“And why is it so hard to go there?”

“Because there are too many people.”

He contemplates my words for a moment. “Decent learning is a valuable thing.”

“It is not valued now,” I say. He stops and turns to face me, his eyes bore into me. “The people of this country do not value education,” I explain. “They value the piece of paper that comes at the end of education, or they value the name of the university they attend, but few value the learning itself.”

“This makes no sense.”

I search for a metaphor he would understand. “It is like farming,” I say. “A field must be cleared of stumps and rocks, spread with manure in the early spring with the plowing, seeded, watered, allowed to grow, so that the crop will be good for the harvest in the fall. Today, people are only interested in the outcome, the crop yield. They are not interested in the preparation for growing, the work that must be done during the other parts of the year. And if the crop is not sufficient, they condemn the farmer: the teacher.”

“This is illogical.”

“This is ignorance,” I tell him. “America is a nation of ignorance now. Children are neglected, abused. People cannot make enough money to put bread on the table. And those in power at every level are cowards without vision, without imagination, without ideas.” We resume our walk. “This is why your story is important. You stood up for the individual. You died for the right to think differently.”

“I did not,” he sighs. “I simply would not give in to the hypocrisy. I wanted to save my wife, preserve my family, keep my name so my children could be proud of who they were.”

You died for something,” I insist. The words hang in the misty air. “You died for something.”

“Ah, but what matter is that now?” he replies.

“It is everything. Will always be everything. The right to think, to believe, to determine your own destiny, that is the bedrock of what the country you colonized was founded upon. But we are losing the battle.”

“Teacher, you have the power to stop this error. You can teach the children to hold fast to their ideas. You can encourage them to think differently.”

“I am speaking into the wind,” I reply. “Those that run the schools, who should safeguard the system, they are often the most ignorant.”

“Teachers do not run the schools?”

“No, and if they did, the system might be saved.”

He turns to me, stopping our progress down the beach. He places his palm on my shoulder. “Teacher, you must not give up. You must not back down. You cannot surrender your name. You are the teacher.”

“I may not be able to go on,” I choke.

His eyes well with tears. “Like me, you have no choice. These are the wars we must fight.”

“Everyone dies,” I tell him. “Maybe this fight is not my destiny.”

“Wherever you go, whatever you do, you will always be the teacher. You have no choice. You are helpless in the face of your own nature.”

“What will happen?” I ask him. “What is to come?”

He looks out over the roaring sea, the golden light of the autumn sun. “I cannot tell you, nor could you imagine.”

“Is it bad?”

“It is neither bad nor good. Those words have no meaning. There is only what is. And what is will be beyond your ability to dream.”

“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” I recite to him.

“Time is the fire in which we burn,” he replies. “Wisdom transcends death.” He smiles at me. “All the words of the wise, the wise themselves, they continue on after. Wisdom does not die.” He grabs me by both shoulders. “Teacher, you must go on. The only way wisdom dies is if it is ignored. One cannot force someone to be wise; one must embrace the lesson, the process to learn, to discover, to understand.”

“Keep spreading the manure each spring, clearing the stumps and rocks, seeding the soil?”

“It is what you do.”

He turns from me and continues walking down the beach. The waves crash, the gulls scream. I am alone in the frigid daylight.

I watch him walk away, moving down the beach, a solitary man striding purposely into the future, until the fog swallows him up, and winter descends.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies: 50th Anniversary Edition
By William Golding
Berkley Publishing Group; $22.95, cloth
ISBN 978-0-399-52920-9

I first read Lord of the Flies by William Golding in ninth grade. I remember being horrified because I could recognize the decline of civilized human behavior in the novel, to a lesser degree, in the high school I attended. The personalities were clear: jock, nerd, leader corresponding to Jack, Piggy, and Ralph. And although we never killed anyone, the athlete-hunters picked on the thinker-nerds. Leader-politicians had already established themselves and learned to play the game, keeping their student constituencies happy while staying on the good side of the administration.

I was riveted by the book then, and as I prepare to teach it to my classes now, I am amazed at how William Golding captures the microcosm of a society gone horribly wrong, the classic dystopian world of the island in the ocean where marooned British schoolboys degenerate into animals only to be saved at the last minute by the Royal Navy. I find the book even more relevant today, with the rash of school shootings in the last two decades. The school society is every bit as dangerous as that deserted island world upon which the boys find themselves.

Many critics see Lord of the Flies as a retelling of the Eden story in Genesis, how nature and beauty and childhood can all be corrupted by the darkness within mankind. This is indeed a dark and evil story, and the ending spells out clearly which way Golding thinks mankind is headed. Evil will, as evidenced by the novel, triumph over the intellect and the good, unless some force intercedes. In the novel, that force is much too late to save our protagonists, Ralph and Piggy. Ralph barely escapes with his life, and Piggy meets the most poetic fate for the intellectual: his brains are bashed out on a rock and his body is given up to the sea. Adam and Eve do not literally die in Genesis, but they realize through the Tree of Knowledge that evil exists in the world, that there is pain and suffering, and that they will one day cease to exist. These are the realizations of Ralph as he and the remaining survivors are rescued.

Golding is a bit light on some details. It seems the boys were being evacuated in a time of war. How they managed to be on the island, safe and sound and uninjured, is a bit of a mystery. The plane jettisoned the passenger compartment, and they crashed on the island leaving a visible scar in the jungle terrain. Several boys believe the plane crashed after they were hurled to the island. There is no wreckage to speak of, no resources to draw from for the boys. They must build their shelters and find food. The latter comes immediately from the island’s abundance of fruit trees, although the fruit is rather generically described. Its effect on the boys is clear: they suffer from diarrhea and must evacuate their bowels in an around their camp. Later, they turn to slaughtering wild pigs for meat.

The symbol of an organized society is embodied in the conch, a large sea shell that the leaders blow into when they want to summon the others for a meeting. The one who holds the shell is allowed to speak. The others must listen. It is this shell that shatters along with Piggy at the end, symbolizing the destruction of the rules of organized society.

Along the way, innocence, as demonstrated by Simon and others, is killed off. Simon discovers a dead parachutist on the mountain that the others mistake for a beast. When he stumbles back to camp with that knowledge, he happens upon a frenzy of orgiastic behavior, with the hunters led by Jack chanting: “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! Do him in!” The animal-boys mistakenly seize the intruder—Simon—and in an orgy of violence, kill him, spilling his blood on the sand.

I find the novel similar to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The theme of human society corrupted by evil and turning to violence and incoherent destruction is readily apparent in both books. The twentieth century is rife with novels of Man’s inhumanity to Man, as is the history of that period. Genocides, wars, weapons of mass destruction, all make our recent history steeped in blood and violence. Of course, human history in total is botched with blood and war, but what these novels do is portray civilization as the root of violence and evil. Man claims to be more like God, made in His image and likeness, yet that same Man has an overwhelming capacity to destroy himself, his fellow man, and the world around him. Animals kill for food, to protect their young, to secure their territory. Man kills for sport, for enjoyment, as an expression of power; few animals share such bloodlust.

The fiftieth anniversary edition of the book contains essays by E.M. Forster from the 1962 edition, as well as a variety of critics weighing in on the power of Golding’s work. According to the notes, the novel was ignored when it was published, but became more recognized as the years went on, building to Golding’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Although the dialogue is a bit stilted, and the culture is decidedly English, the novel resonates. We live in a violent, inhumane world filled with jealousy, corruption, desire for power and control, and bloodshed. We are all, in a way, civilized school children marooned on this island earth and our future is in doubt. The Lord of the Flies—Beelzebub, Lucifer, Satan, the true embodiment of evil—lurks in the darkness of the human heart. Writers such as William Golding believe our end is inevitable, our destiny is clear, and nothing can save us from our own destructive and terrible impulses.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Gutenberg: How One Man Remade The World With WordsBy John Man
MJF Books; $24.95, cloth
ISBN 978-1-56731-743-5

Oh, the things one can find in the remainders section of the local chain bookstore!

Can one really remake the world with words? This past summer, we heard how one man remade the world, allegedly, with music—Michael Jackson. Walter Cronkite remade the world of journalism with his work for CBS. Marlon Brando, Normal Mailer, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Pope John Paul II—pick a subject and one can find a pioneer, a king of pop, the greatest writer, artist, financier, technology guru of his or her generation. Hyperbole goes hand in hand with death. Upon the funeral pyre, we heap the praise, but history may not be so caught up in the hysteria.

Shakespeare, Dante, Homer—now we are getting close to the immortals. If one’s work is still around after half of millennium, we can conclude that the writer, artist, actor is a revolutionary.

In the list of revolutionaries, we must include Johann Gutenberg, and it is most important that we single him out now, when every talking head on the news channels, in books, magazines, and think tanks proclaims the death of the written word. Just last week, we heard how electronic reading devices might soon include snippets of video and pictures mixed in with text. Books are dead, we are told; “dead tree media” is so yesterday.

“In the beginning was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God,” begins the Gospel of John. To a writer, equating the Word with God is a no-brainer. In the hierarchy of saints, we must include Gutenberg, the inventor of moveable type, the creator of the modern book. Those of us who love the written word, worship the smell of leather binding, glue, and paper, cannot get enough of the biblio-mania, we commit the sin of idolatry when it comes to Gutenberg.

So it was that in browsing the bargain bin I came across John Man’s biography of the man who remade the world with words. Like Shakespeare and his biographers, Man must piece together Gutenberg’s life from fragments of documentation and legal paperwork. He is forced to fall back on speculation at times, but he manages to give us a picture of the man himself, and more importantly, the times in which he lived.

The invention of moveable type—the printing press, which was based on the process used to create coins—occurred 550 years ago, about a century before Shakespeare waltzed his way across the Elizabethan stage. This was the English Renaissance, a time of explosions in humanistic rejuvenation, an orgasm of art and culture. According to Man, in the space of a single year, published books went from taking two months to produce a single copy, to a production schedule of 500 copies in a week. In 1455, all of the published books in Europe could be carried in a single, horse-drawn wagon. Fifty years later, 10,000 plus titles overwhelmed the shelves. Today, we publish “10,000 million a year,” according to Man.

In his story of the age of Gutenberg, Man also includes some neat historical detail. He explains how the Bubonic Plague was spread by marmots and fleas, and how in the lungs, the disease was ninety percent fatal and one hundred percent deadly in the bloodstream. He tells us that Mongols threw plague victims’ bodies over the walls of Italian cities to infest the populace and make them easier to conquer.

Gutenberg actually based his invention on a number of other developments in printing. In fact, Man tells us, if Gutenberg had not invented the press, somebody else would have, and there is the possibility that someone did beat him to the punch, but Gutenberg gets the credit in history. The real story is that he had three partners—Hans Riff, Andreas Dritzehn, and Andreas Heilmann—and the invention forced Gutenberg into litigation and legal wrangling to control the explosion that followed.

Leading up to the printing press, thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa were writing and producing works of political thought and philosophy. Books were in demand, and the only way to make copies was by hand. The Brothers of the Quill, a group of laymen who printed and copied early manuscripts, worked in concert with the monks and religious figures who labored night and day to produce the Bibles, prayer books, and devotional texts that the Church and other organizations demanded. The first public library originated in Florence, Italy in 1441, according to Man, and the fires of man’s quest for knowledge engulfed all of Europe.

The details of the press are fascinating. Man presents a flow chart explaining the process from metal punch to hand mould to type to forme and press. Ink, he tells us, was composed of vermilion crystals once believed to be the blood of dragons, and the intensely blue stone lapis lazuli.

Gutenberg’s most well-known printing was the Bible. Twelve copies of the edition on vellum survive today out of thirty or thirty-five originally printed. He also printed some 150 paper copies of which thirty-nine survive. Gutenberg was obsessed with quality control, and Man tells us this obsession bordered on “the fringes of sanity.” Margin justifications, indentions, hyphens and punctuation, all had to be worked out in minute detail in advance, and in some cases, Man tells us, the average reader would not have noticed this detail. Gutenberg simply “yearned for perfection, not only because this was the culmination of his life’s work, but also because only perfection beyond the reach of any mortal scribe would persuade a prince or archbishop to buy.”

Man includes appendices in his book that explain the economics of printing. We see balance sheets for his business. He also lists the printers down through the ages who capitalized on Gutenberg’s work. Of course, he adds an extensive bibliography for further reading.

The book is an interesting read, especially for those who love the book. This is the meat of bibliographic history. I simply marveled at the staying power of Gutenberg’s technology. When we hear talk of disappearing books, newspapers, all kinds of printed matter to be replaced by electronics, diodes, digitalized content, I am skeptical. The book has existed for at least a millennium in one form or another—papyrus, parchment, animal skins, paper, hand-copied, printed on a press, cloth binding, and paperback. I am convinced such longevity of the printed word will not be so easily preempted. We may do more reading on our Kindles, Sony Readers, and the internet, but the weight and heft of the book, that marvel of old school, dead tree technology, will not be so casually vanquished. Come what may, for most of us lovers, the book is still the king.

Additions: I want to express my appreciation for those who have recently added themselves to the list of followers for this blog, including Shantello, Jamie Mitchell, Troy.Holm, Amanda, Tim Wilkins, NEFrost, and DWalls31. The appreciation is long overdue.
And of course, there is the man who was there from nearly the start: William Michaelian, hero and dragon-slayer.
Thanks to all for reading my words.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


We were building Central America in my classroom. That tiny slip of countries between Mexico and South America was the subject of my unit in sixth grade social studies, so I asked for volunteers, and parents and students chipped in to buy us a plywood platform that covered eight desks, modeling clay, miniature trees, vegetation and other model pieces from a father’s architect firm, chicken wire, and paint.

The kids could have worked all day on the project, and thrown the other subjects out the window. Students arrived an hour before school, stayed in at lunch, and remained until dark in the evening, all to work on Central America. One night, I found myself with five boys working on various areas of the board. Gary was one of them.

He had transferred to the school that year. I never saw his transcripts from his other schools, and his parents did not attend Back-to-School Night. From the start, he struggled. He was smaller than the other boys, painfully thin, with a yellow cast to his skin. I had tried to call his parents to discuss his lack of progress in my classes, but there was no answering machine and notes I sent home went unreturned. Mostly, Gary slept in class and turned in blank tests. Central America gave him a reason to live. He loved working on the project, and would take meticulous care crafting mountain ranges and rainforests. He told me he wanted to go there someday.

So there we were, five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun long since disappeared from the late autumn sky. Gary was painting his mountains with cans of spray paint, and we were all a little high from the fumes. “Mr. Martin, can we get extra credit for helping so late?” Carlos asked. I told him I was keeping track.

“My mom was really mad at my last report card,” Steve offered.

“My dad gave me the rice and beans,” Gary said.

“Rice and beans?” Carlos laughed. “You mean that’s all he gave you to eat because of bad grades? That’s messed up.” They all laughed, even Gary.

“No, he made me kneel on the rice and beans, not eat them.”

We all put down our tools, glue, and paint cans. “Gary,” I said as evenly as I could, “what do you mean?”

“When I get bad grades, my dad puts a tray on the floor and dumps in rice and beans before they’re cooked, when they are really hard. Then I have to kneel on them while holding a half a bucket of water, sometimes for an hour.”

“What does that do?” one boy asked.

“You should see my knees,” Gary said. “They look like pizza when I’m finished, and sometimes, the blood soaks through and my mom has to throw the pants away.”

After I dismissed the boys, I found the principal, a nun named Sister Maria, and I told her what Gary said. She picked up the phone and dialed the 800 number for Child Services. She gave the information to the operator—Gary’s name, address, the school name, the reporting teacher (she used her own name for this, telling me she would take the responsibility), and other pertinent information. After she hung up the phone, she told me I did the right thing for Gary.

I was nervous the next day. Gary was unfazed, his usual self in class, staying in at lunch to work on the project. I kept waiting for the authorities to descend on the school, but it was an ordinary day.

The next day, Gary slept through reading class, and came alive for Central America. No storm troopers landed, and no helicopters hovered over the building. After school, I stood out on the second floor landing and watched over the playground as the kids went to their carpools and walked home. The playground was still busy when I heard a piercing scream, inhuman, like an animal being torn apart. I looked around the area beneath my perch, trying to find the source of the sound. Kids were running, mothers were herding their children away. Then I saw him. Gary stood at the fence, his hands gripping the mesh. He was screaming, long, wordless, blood-curdling shafts of sound.

I ran, down the stairs, across the playground to the fence. When I reached the boy, he began flailing at me. “Noooo! Nooo!” he shrieked. He pointed up the street. I looked in that direction and saw a battered car pulled at an angle to the curb with police cars behind. Two figures were out of the car, lying face down in the street. The cops had their guns drawn and were gingerly approaching the figures. “They have my mommy!” Gary screamed. “They are taking them, nooo!”

I grabbed Gary around the body and pulled him from the fence. I wanted to get him inside, out of sight of the incident down the street. Maybe I could settle him down. Outside the fence, an unmarked police car pulled to the curb. Two men in suits with guns in holsters at their waists got out of the car. One opened the back door, and a woman with a briefcase got out. They looked at me through the fence, and then glanced up the street. Gary was kicking and screaming. All the parents and students stood open-mouthed, staring at the spectacle.

In a few moments, the woman and Sister Maria came out on the playground and over to where I struggled with Gary. Sister Maria tried to quiet the boy. “Gary, this woman needs to speak with you.” He would have none of it.

“Come with me, Gary,” the woman said.

“They are taking my daddy,” he screamed in her face.

Suddenly, the two plainclothes police officers were next to us. They bundled Gary up and carried him away. I was stunned. I was only vaguely aware of the car screeching away from the curb. In seconds, it was all over. Gary was gone. One cop car remained down the street while his parents’ battered vehicle was towed away.

I went back to the classroom. The sun slanted through the windows, and I could smell the ocean just a few miles away. Sister Maria was suddenly in my doorway. “You did the right thing,” she said without prompting.

“I did not expect that to happen.”

“No, no!” she fired at me. “Do not think that way! You did the right thing. What his father was doing to him was abusive.”

“Maybe, but Gary did not seemed bothered by it. He was very matter-of-fact about it. Now I’ve destroyed a family.”

“You did nothing of the sort. It is not right to make your kid kneel on rice and beans until his kneecaps bleed. You did the right thing.”

After she left, I slumped at my desk. The sun flooded the room with late afternoon light. Central America sat in one corner, nearly completed, towering mountain ranges, rivers, rainforests. I pulled out a large magnifying glass that some teacher before me had left in the desk. I focused the rays of light on my desk blotter, and one by one, burned tiny holes in the felt. I wanted to destroy the model. It was all I could do not to smash the plywood into slivers and fragments, to annihilate Central America. I didn’t. I packed up and left the building.

The next day, I let one of the students take the whole project home in his father’s truck. Sister Maria told me she finally got answers from the watch commander at the police station. Gary’s father had felony warrants for his arrest. That was the reason for the major league take-down in the street. “You did the right thing,” she kept insisting.

I never saw Gary again.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Saroyan's Ghost

“What future have you mapped out for yourself?”

“Future?” Homer said. He was a little embarrassed because all his life, from day to day, he had been busy mapping out a future, even if it was only a future for the next day. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know for sure, but I guess I’d like to be somebody some day.”
(from The Human Comedy by William Saroyan)

I am trying to get my students to write with present tense, active voice verbs. “The work may have been written a hundred years ago,” I tell them, “but your reaction to it is in the here and now. You want your writing to have a sense of urgency, a feeling of forward motion and immediacy.”

So we practice what we preach. We write, rewrite, revise, restate, and shape the truth to a sharp and decisive point. We will write with our blood and leave bits of flesh in the inkwell when we are finished. But most important, we will share what we write. We will publish. Then, let the discussion begin. Take no prisoners, leave nothing standing, scorch the earth, find the beauty in the everyday, sing the song of history. This is real.

In twenty-three years in the classroom, I have learned how to teach writing, and it is not about comments and grades, grammar and spelling, red pens and syntax. The best way to teach writing is to write for publication. Get it out there. Let the world have it and chew on it. Nothing motivates like someone pulling you aside to say your latest piece made them mad, made them think, made them laugh, cry, jump up and down, swear at the moon. When the audience roars, the grade becomes secondary. Someone read what you wrote, and it did things to them. That is what writing is all about.

So I started a blog for my students. And since they are American-Armenians, there is only one person whose name I could evoke: William Saroyan. We will publish under the name, Saroyan’s Ghost, because he haunts us, he urges us forward, he sets the example. We can trace our lineage from Saroyan to Kherdian to Bojahlian to Arax to Janigian to Michaelian to a growing multitude of which I hope my students will some day be members.

The blog will publish the best writing from our school, focusing mainly on nonfiction. This is the second step in the process of making the school a focal point for writing and publishing of student work. We started a school newspaper two years ago, and students assumed control of creating the yearbook. This year, we are adding several blogs of which Saroyan’s Ghost is the first. From here, the sky is the limit. I want to publish an end of the year “best of” anthology. We would like to have a school magazine, an alumni publication, podcasts and video feeds, indeed, all forms of media involving writing and publishing. I want students to swim in ink, revel in words, love and worship books and pens and paper.

So, we need readers. Please hop over and take a look. I will publish new writing at least once a week, maybe more often. Offer up a comment, let us know what you think.

Have you seen the ghost? Saroyan lives on.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Teachers Or Students: Who Decides What We Should Read?

The debate erupted in the pages of The New York Times a few weeks ago: is it time to allow students to pick the books they should read for English class?

The article, written by book critic Motoko Rich, details how several schools and districts across the country allow students in a variety of grade levels from elementary to high school to make up their own book lists for literature class. The students select a book and read it. When finished with the reading, the child meets one-on-one with the teacher, or in small groups to discuss the reading. He must also keep a journal about the book and his response to it. All of this “is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools,” according to Rich.

How prevalent is this wave of new reading? This month, “students in Seattle’s public middle schools will…begin choosing most of their own books,” Rich reports. “And in Chicago the public school district has had a pilot program in place since 2006 in 31 of its 483 elementary schools to give students in grades 6, 7 and 8 more control over what they read.”

As one would expect, the debate quickly became heated. Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York University is quoted in the article as being strongly against this method of curriculum development. “Kids will pick up things that are trendy and popular,” she says. “But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

Letters that came into the paper following the article’s publication seem to be evenly divided. “Preparing students to read for 21st-century success requires that all educators rethink traditional approaches,” writes Michael L. Shaw, professor of literacy education at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

“As all English teachers know, getting students to read for both comprehension and enjoyment is a daunting task,” writes Walt Gardner, a teacher both at public schools and UCLA. “But because the accountability movement, as embodied by No Child Left Behind, ignores noncognitive outcomes, teachers will continue to ignore the attitudes of students. Too often this leads to teachers’ teaching the material in the curriculum while teaching students to hate the material in the process.”

Another writer comments that, “As a student and avid reader, I find it slightly insulting that teachers are giving up on class novels.”

Still another says, “Books of the students’ own choices should certainly be a part of the curriculum, but not at the expense of the classics, which often surprise and delight even the most unwilling reader.”

For me, the issue is not black and white. It is not about surrendering complete control over the direction of the English curriculum and allowing students to make up their own reading lists, nor is it about imposing only the classical canon on them in a way that simply bores and stultifies what should be an enjoyable and interesting experience.

The canon, the so-called “dead white males,” might seem dated here in the 21st century, but I would argue otherwise. Many of those books have been read for a long time, and contain many truths about human existence and the way the world works. They have stimulated human minds to think, consider, reflect, and understand complex ideas and difficult situations. Those books have enlightened and entertained us, even given us the opportunity to expand our narrow view of the world. It would be heresy to dump them because we live in different century, or for what I suspect is the real reason, they are too difficult to teach and read because they challenge teacher and student to think and they do not offer easy or concrete answers.

There is also a need for students to learn to love and enjoy reading. To do this, they should have every opportunity to select their own books. My ideal would be to place the student in the book store and allow her to wander the aisle following her own instincts and interests. Let her read whatever she wants.

My perfect place of equilibrium in this debate would be my sixth grade classroom when I was a child. The teacher had the requisite basal reader, the English book. We might have slogged through a novel or two as well in this curriculum. In addition, my teacher made literally hundreds of books available to us in the form of a reading list with a brief summary of each title. We were required to select so many titles from the list to read on our own each quarter. I believe she gave us a quick test to make sure we had read. She made it very clear that if we did not like our choice, we should return it to the library and select another. This was reading for enjoyment. She also made it a habit to read to us every day from C.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, a sort of priestly Sherlock Holmes for Catholics. I remember being surrounded by books, and we read, often silently, or were read to, all the time. My teacher modeled what a life for a reader should be. She told us how she loved the cold, rainy Saturdays when she would bake fresh bread in her oven and spend the day reading and listening to the rain on the roof of her apartment. She told us how she read books about the places she traveled to in the summer, and visited the sites mentioned in the novels and stories. She carried books with her everywhere she went.

Guess what? I, and many others in the class, became readers. She changed my life, and without that experience, I do not know how I would have found my way.

This should not be a debate. We cannot just let kids pick whatever they want to read. “Would we be so eager to embrace a ‘choose your own math’ or ‘choose your own history’ class?” Times reader Lisa Dunick asks. What she says makes much sense. “We expect that students learn the curriculum in those courses whether or not they are ‘into it.’ Literature is no different, and literature courses shouldn’t be treated as glorified book clubs. By allowing students to bypass difficult texts or texts that don’t seem to relate to their contemporary lives in favor of ‘Captain Underpants,’ teachers miss a valuable opportunity to teach them that real scholastic and intellectual growth often comes when we are most challenged and least comfortable.”

We cannot abdicate our authority as teachers because students fight us over reading assignments. We cannot surrender the classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby because they are challenging and force us to rethink our lives. Left to their own devices, students will lose their way and possibly miss some life changing books. We must guide them. We select the books in the curriculum based on a variety of factors, but one real consideration is age. There are certain books that make a difference in students’ lives at particularly tender ages. I am thinking of The Outsiders and Flowers for Algernon in the eighth grade. I am thinking of The Catcher In The Rye in high school, and Lord of the Flies.

But students can also be reading Stephen King, James Patterson, and Nicholas Sparks. They can follow the adventures of that mouse on the motorcycle, Charlie as he explores the chocolate factory, and the sagas of vampires and teenagers in the Twilight series.

In short, there is room in the world for all books. Reading, both of classics and trash and everything in between, is always a good thing.