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.