Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Kind of Idiot Becomes A Teacher?

She sat on the other side of my desk, well dressed, perfectly made up. The sunlight slanted through the blinds on a late fall afternoon. Parent-teacher conferences. “Your daughter’s doing well,” I started. “She needs to keep up her effort and study, and she should continue to do well.”

“Yeah, but, I’m concerned about her future. I want her to do something that will make me proud.”

“Doing well in an Advanced Placement course is something to be proud of.”

“No, I want her to do something in the future so I don’t have to hang my head in shame.”

“What would she ever do to shame you?” I asked quietly.

“She wants to be a teacher.”

“What’s wrong with being a teacher?”

The woman smiled nervously.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” she sighed, “but what kind of person wants to be a teacher? I mean you work for peanuts, no respect, no prestige, you deal with kids all day, everyone hates you because you assign homework and grade them hard. I always thought people who teach did so because they failed at other things.” I stared at her, my face as hot as the sun. “I mean, I don’t know if that is the case with you.” She let the words trail off with what I thought was a smirk.

I thought of all the clich├ęs: teachers touch the future; if you can read this, thank a teacher; teaching is a noble profession; teachers become teachers because someone took the time to teach them; teachers become teachers to give something back.

None of that would do.

“Teachers teach because it’s life-affirming, important work, and in a materialistic, facile, empty society like the one we live in, people like you cannot understand why someone like me would choose this life. But there is nothing like watching a child grow and think and feel, and ultimately, come to understand and appreciate his world. All things intertwine, connect. Teaching is a spiritual experience.”

“Right,” she blushed. “I just want her to have a career where she can support a family and put some money in the bank.”

“And not shame you.”

“And not shame me.”

“Hopefully, your daughter is not forced into a life of disappointment because of your narrow-minded parenting.”

The smirk became a cold stare.

She stood to go. “By the way, next year, she needs a letter of recommendation for the university. Would you write one for her?”

I guess teachers are good for something.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Hope Is A Thing With Feathers"

Why did we become teachers?

Sure there are days when it feels like I am hitting my head against a wall. Students haven’t done their homework, the administration is bothering me because my grades have not been uploaded yet. I have yard duty in the school cafeteria.

There are days when I go home exhausted and I still have hours of work ahead of me. Parents and students challenge me, the papers keep coming in, I need to prep my lessons for tomorrow. Summers mean classes and workshops. I can never learn enough, and there are always new methods and classroom ideas to come up with and try out. The time is never my own, even on the weekends.

But every Monday, I show up for more. Why?

I have hope. I do not believe in a lost cause. Yes, the world seems mired in darkness, students read less and less, and no one seems to know how to get things back on track. But I know my presence in the classroom is a blow against all that. The odds are overwhelming, and the learning I facilitate may not have any effect for a long time, but I believe in what I do.

In my moments of depression, I am often discouraged. I have had to stop the car on my commute to throw up. There are moments when I think I cannot go on, or that I’ll someday drop dead in front of the class. But that’s just drama. When I walk in that room, see my students, launch into the lesson, everything lifts. This is where I was born to be, pure and simple.

And that is why I know that if you do not feel that, the classroom is not for you. Sure, we can look at test scores, and successful schools, and effective administrators, but it all boils down to the teacher. Why are you a teacher? The answer to that question is everything.

We teach for the moment, as we should live. I have hope that if I teach the children well, somehow the balance will shift. Light will come out of dark. Reason will triumph over nonsense. Someone will wake up one morning deep in the future and say, “I understand. That is what he was trying to teach me. I understand.”

It happened to me, so I know it can happen to my students.

Once I went to a local farmers’ market in my neighborhood, and while walking through the stalls and booths, a voice called my name. I turned to see a beautiful young woman motioning for me to come to her stand. “Do I know you?” I asked. I am always embarrassed when I do not recognize or remember the names of former students.

“Yes, I was in your class at Chaminade.” Her face was familiar. “I’m helping out here to earn money for grad school,” she said.

We exchanged pleasantries; I asked what she majored in and what she would be studying in the future. She was a biological sciences major. “Wow,” I replied. “I guess all that literature and grammar won’t be much help with cell division.” It was a weak joke.

“Actually, you know what I remember about your class? You always told us to write what we feel, that if we did not believe what we wrote ourselves, no reader would either. I did that for every paper I ever wrote in college—sociology, history, and literature. It made a huge difference, although you probably would not have known that when I was in your class.”

We do not know the ripples we make in the pond, the effect our teaching has on our students in their lives. They wander through the halls, class to class, they dream of getting out, of seizing the world by the throat, of life and love and the mystery of it all.

Every day when I stand up and begin a class, I am acting on hope. We send these kids out into the world, and we can only hope that they will be happy in their lives, that they will be good friends, lovers, parents, people. I cannot determine their fates; I can only help them in this one moment on the journey, and I can hope.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Failure and Finding Our Way Home

I have a confession to make: I ran away from the first grade.

I had a deep and passionate love affair with the seven year old girl across the aisle from me. She did not know I was alive. Still, there I was, trying to talk to her instead of paying attention in class, and dear, rotund Mrs. Babineau marched down the row of tiny desks and taped my mouth closed with masking tape. Only, she did not stop there. She wrapped layers of tape around my head, up one side and down the other and under my chin, and then tangled me in several strips fastening me securely to my desk. I sat immobile like a sticky mummy until lunch, when she unwrapped me and told me to go out and play.

I was done with Humiliation 101 for the day. The teacher always left the room unlocked when she went off to eat what I thought would be a prodigious lunch, given her size. I crept into the empty classroom, packed my things, grabbed my Hot Wheels lunch box, and hit the road. The crossing guard in front of the school did not bat an eye. “Where you going?” he asked.

“Home for lunch.”

He looked down at my Hot Wheels lunch box. “What’s in the box?”


“Okay.” He crossed me over to the other side, and off I went.

The worst thing happened when I was making my way up my driveway thirty minutes later. My mom was chasing my two year old brother out of the house with a broom because he tried to eat a pound of uncooked spaghetti.

Then she saw me.

Suffice to say, she yelled until my ears bled, then she called the school. I was marched back up to the campus, ushered into the principal’s office, and endured another round of censure and ridicule. Then I was escorted to Mrs. Babineau’s room, who, God rest her soul, had no idea I was missing. She and my mother then took turns chastising me in front of the class, and the whole sordid ordeal with the masking tape was revealed. “That’s a good idea, that tape,” my mother said with admiration. “I should try that at home when he won’t shut up.”

In my day, parents and teachers were on the same team. They expected me to take care of business, and they backed each other up in every occurrence of misbehavior or failure. It was always my fault, my responsibility.

Nowadays, parents lie for their kids. When a child gets busted in my class, the parent shows up to be the lawyer, and F. Lee Bailey can’t hold a candle to these parents, some of whom happen to be real lawyers.

Nowhere is this parent advocacy more apparent than with homework. I get papers that were written by parents, researched by parents, purchased by parents. Kids buy them from term paper services with their parents’ credit cards. When a student forgets his homework, mom will fax it into me, or email it as a Microsoft Word attachment. “Do you need it in Word 2003, or 2007?” they ask me over my classroom phone as I stand in front of the class.

I thought I was the only one with this problem until my wife and fellow teacher pointed me to an article in Woman’s Day magazine, November 3, 2009. In a column with the rather nausea-inducing title of “Live Well: Momfidence,” Paula Spencer harangues parents to stop doing the kid’s homework. Spencer writes about how parents at her children’s school are too involved in the homework process. She believes the responsibility should rest with a parent simply asking the kid, “Did you do your homework?”

“Better they learn responsibility for their own behavior,” Spencer says. “That includes tracking assignments and handing them in on time…” This is a refreshing attitude that I have rarely encountered in the last few years.

I thought parents were so diligent about completing their kids’ work because they were shelling out big bucks for private school. Now, I am not so sure. I believe that it has more to do with parent ego. Parents today cannot accept the fact that the kid might fail. But failure is an important tool for learning. Spencer’s experiences tell her that parents today simply have expectations beyond all reason for their kids, and if the kid fails to follow the parent’s dream, look out.

Spencer writes of a conversation with a fellow parent: “If she tanks in this class it’ll crash her GPA, and goodbye pre-med program,” the father tells her. This was the reason he stepped in and wrote his tenth grader’s English paper. “She’s no good with words,” he says. Great, and dad writing her paper will really help her improve! Good luck with medical school!

Parents, stop doing your kids’ homework! My mom had a saying: “Let go, let God.” Now I am less religious than my parents, but there is a secular way of translating this phrase. Do the best you are capable of, and learn to live with it. Mistakes are a part of life. Failure is a learning opportunity. Yeah, it is a rough world out there, but what kind of mealy-mouthed, weak, ineffectual, stupid people are we turning out if we do everything for them?

Sure, I once got taped to a desk and lost a few chunks of hair, but I learned I should not talk in class. And I discovered that left to my own devices, I could find my way home again.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Grading Writing

For English teachers, this is our Vietnam: grading student writing. And for me, almost every assignment I make in my classes is a writing assignment. Oh, how I envy my math and science colleagues, shoving Scantron sheets through the machine in a haze of clicks, a whole set of twenty-two tests in a matter of minutes, finished and graded. A class of twenty-two students and their thousand-word essays takes me five hours on a good day with a large bottle of Excedrin.

So it was with great pleasure that I stumbled upon an essay in Harper’s by Lynn Freed entitled, “Doing Time,” about her work as a college writing instructor. The essay is included in her memoir, Reading, Writing and Leaving Home: Life on the Page.

Freed takes on the daunting task of teaching writing in order to have the resources to spend part of the year writing full time and traveling, twin passions that she refuses to surrender. The plan backfires, to an extent. She finds that it is nearly impossible to write while teaching writing. “Every time I switched on the computer,” she complains, “I remembered the student stories I had to grade. And then, once they were read, it was as if all the vigour had dropped out of my own desire to write.”

Freed goes on to talk about returning those corrected drafts to the students, which is its own hell after the grading is done. “…I was in transports of exasperation myself,” she writes, “subject to the assaults and imprecations of students every time I handed back a set of graded stories.” I can validate this statement. Never has such a deathly air settled over a classroom as when I am handing back papers. The students know that they took less time to write the essay than I did to grade it. They are simply hoping against hope that by some miracle, they get an “A.”

Freed is clear and concise with her advice to writers and student-writers alike. “A writer,” she says, “must not only have a story to tell, but a story that he must tell…the writer must be in love with language, with the words themselves, the sound of the words on the page, the music they make in meaning. He must love them not so much in order to express the self as to discover a self, and, through it, his province, his territory, the territory of his story.”

Look, writing is hard work; it is a painstaking process, sentence by sentence, to create meaning and resonance. One cannot throw something down at midnight the night before the paper is due and expect brilliance. What’s more, people need to understand how the correction process works. I must read it several times over: once to become acquainted with it; a second time for logic and reasoning; a third time for grammar and mechanical problems. Then I must compose some clear, concise comments to guide the writer, hopefully, toward improvement. I must respond to the essay. Tell me how much individual response is in a multiple-choice, Scantron test. “Gosh, I love the way you fill in those bubbles!” Scantron scoring: quick turnaround. Grading writing: an entirely different skill set.

Students complain: “When are we going to get our tests back? How can we have another test when you haven’t graded the last one? How are we supposed to know what we did wrong?”

“You will get your tests back as soon as I have finished grading them. God knows, I do not want them on my desk any longer than necessary, mainly because I need room for the new stacks coming in tomorrow. Second, you need to be writing all the time, every day, as much as possible. If we wait until each assignment is returned, you will continue to be deficient. Writing is like working out: muscles develop through constant repetition and work, and so does writing. Third, you know how much time you spent on the paper, how confident you felt writing it, so that is a good indication how you did. In addition, look at your previous papers. I write the same thing over and over again, paper after paper. The mistakes rarely change.”

To the administrators who badger us about returning papers “in a timely manner,” you do not understand the process. I am peddling as fast as I can, given the uphill slope and the rusted bike with flat tires. Any time you want to step in, be my guest, and if you can find another sucker to read such pabulum until blindness and nausea kick in, I will gladly surrender my red pen (which I do not use anymore because a student complained that his paper was “covered in blood.” It was: mine! I accidentally slit my wrists while reading. Quite a large paper cut. So sorry.)

And to those classy students who actually take pen, or computer keyboard in hand, and try to write something that makes a statement, that has meaning, that says what they are thinking as clearly as they can make it, God bless you! May you get everything you want in life! As long as you try to write well, I will be your reader, and I will devour your ink-and-tear-stained pages that you slaved over, draft after draft, from here to forever.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What Haiti and Journalism Have To Teach Us

The morning after the earthquake in Haiti, I ask several of my classes to tell me what they knew about that nation. Some were unaware an earthquake had occurred there. Others knew of the country, but little else. And a number of them knew quite a lot about the political structure, geography, history, and current crisis situation on the island.

America is a country mired in narcissism. We see world events only as they impact us. This is a result of our myopic world view and our obsession with the cult of celebrity. We are much more interested in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Tiger Woods and his harem, and the gun-toting antics of Gilbert Arenas than what happens in Africa, the Caribbean, or at the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

We must see ourselves as a global community: not individual countries with individual agendas, but as a whole fabric of humanity. In that pastel-colored rubble under a blindingly blue sky, our futures are as much at stake as the Haitian people. A crisis in their country puts our entire world in jeopardy. Haitians are already fleeing into the Dominican Republic in hopes of somehow getting off the island. There is nothing left in the capitol. This will increase the burden on America and neighboring nations as we use our resources to aid earthquake victims. It is in our best interests to help the people of Haiti. We could easily be in the same dire straits with our own fault-crossed landscape.

This is why journalism is so important, especially in the classroom. I want my students to read and respond to the world and current events, even when no disaster has occurred. The poorest nation in our hemisphere, possibly in the world? Why does it take an earthquake for us to care? In addition to the nations in the news all the time like Afghanistan and Iraq, what do my students know about Bosnia, or current Russian politics, or China?

People need journalism. The art of factual reporting makes for an enlightened society, which is why newspapers and journalism have always been important to our world. To be effective, though, journalism must rise above the cult of celebrity, the easy, sometimes politically-engineered report. We must be willing to read with depth and analysis. As newspapers and networks dummy down their writing and broadcasting, we should be demanding reporting with insight and intelligence, and we need the patience to examine the details to form our opinions.

When I first started teaching, I was given a sophomore English class with the imperative to teach grammar and writing skills. There was a grammar textbook loaded with all of the rules of the language and copious exercises. I could have walked into the room, assigned several exercises in subject-verb agreement and had the whole period to sit at my desk while the students slaved away. Teaching grammar in a vacuum, without any connection to writing, is a recipe for disaster. I asked the department chair if there were any books—novels, plays, poetry—that the students had to read for the class. No. Just do grammar, every day, every period.

I noticed on my way into campus a coin box of newspapers on the corner. I stopped, fed quarters into the slots, and purchased five copies of the daily newspaper. I distributed them a section at a time to the students until every kid had a part of the newspaper. Then I assigned them to find a story that interested them and write about it in their journals. The kids were not used to reading the newspaper every day. Once they were into it, the class was dead quiet as everyone read the newspaper. Then the writing began. When it came time to discuss some of the things people had written, I had to make time to do the day’s grammar lesson. The informal journal writing became organized essays. When I read the students’ work, I would make note of common grammar errors and other problems, type them up on a sheet of paper and distribute them to the students. First they would look up the error in their grammar textbook, then they would fix it and rewrite the problem.

At the end of the year, the department chair asked me how much of the grammar textbook I had covered. I really hit only the mistakes the students made on their papers. She was disappointed with this, but the kids not only practiced writing daily and covered the common mistakes people make in writing, they also knew about their world. The real triumph? Everyone read the newspaper, and became addicted to reading it every morning.

Journalism can teach us many things. That is why I feel so passionate about reading, listening and watching the news. But to be effective, journalism must be of the highest quality. With papers and television news cutting staff and resources, how can the end product continue to be a quality source of information? The decline of journalism means the end of awareness, of knowledge, of understanding. We must not allow this to happen.

The reporting from Haiti has been heartfelt, gut-wrenching, and a clear call for action, but such stories are not just relegated to times of crisis. Much is happening in this world, and we need to know about it. If journalism fails to report, or worse, we are not exposed to good writing and reporting, we will be a culture of darkness. In some ways, we are already there.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bear Witness

Everyone has a story.

Everyone loves to hear a good story.

In teaching, simply telling a student what she needs to know is probably the worst instructional methodology. The best method is to put the student in a position to learn by doing. A good way to facilitate this kind of learning is by helping students find a story to tell. I want my students to learn the craft of stringing together words to form coherent sentences, paragraphs, and essays. I want them to learn to write by writing, by telling stories. To that end, I have been using two websites for inspiration for my students.

In the 1950s, journalist Edward R. Murrow created a radio program that broadcast essays by prominent Americans and ordinary citizens alike. He called the program This I Believe, and featured voices as diverse as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, and Harry Truman. The only requirement was that the essayists be able “to distill into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived.”

National Public Radio revived the series in 2005 with a specific idea in mind, according to producer Dan Gediman. “The goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, the hope is to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.” The resulting online archive is a treasure featuring thousands of essays.

I print out several of the roughly 500 word essays for my students. Then I play the audio files in class featuring the authors’ voices reading their pieces. The essays usually evoke strong emotions in the students, and they listen with rapt attention. After hearing several selections, I have the students write their own versions. Inevitably, the results are heartfelt, intense, and profound. Like the originals, my students’ work can be sad, humorous, philosophical, religious, and surprising. When final drafts are in, I have several read them aloud for the class.

NPR has a website devoted to the series complete with teaching materials, information about the series and its predecessor, and the archive of submissions by people from all walks of life. It is well worth spending the time to explore this valuable resource.

The other excellent catalyst to inspire young writers is The New York Times project called One In 8 Million. This site is a collection of fifty-four pieces published in 2009. Each is a photo essay in black and white, a series of slides accompanied by the subject’s own voice explaining his or her life in New York City. The profiled people are average citizens, sometimes doing something as ordinary as walking the streets of Manhattan, or sometimes doing something more eccentric, like the jury clerk who must say “Good morning” two hundred times a day and sound convincing.

I approach this writing exercise in two ways. I always begin by pulling up the site on my overhead projector linked to the computer and playing several selections. From there, I can have students go and interview someone about his job or favorite activity. I ask the students to take a single photograph of the person using a creative approach that goes beyond a simple head shot.

The other option is to have the students do a series of photographs and make an audio recording of the interview. I add to the project a brief 500 word essay from the student explaining why she chose that particular person to profile. Then we have a day in class when we play the slide shows and audio files. Each photo essay is introduced by the writer with the brief essay.

The students are very creative with the photography, and that is the most surprising part of the project for me. The slick black and white photos on the website are done by professionals, but many of my students can do excellent work even with a simple cell phone camera.

In the future, I would like to expand the project from still photography and audio to a full-blown digital short film. Of course, this project offers opportunities for students to use several skills necessary for visual composition utilizing words and pictures.

Whatever methods a writing teacher employs to inspire students, the journalistic idea that “There are eight million stories in the Naked City,” should instill in young writers the idea that even the most ordinary person can have an extraordinary story. It is amazing what students can do when they catch the wind in their sails and set off to tell the story of a person’s life.

In the film, The Legend of 1900, Max the trumpet player and narrator says “You’re never really done for, as long as you’ve got a good story and someone to tell it to.” This is sage advice. I know the importance of mechanics and syntax, but if I can get my students fired up about the story, inspire them to seek out and write about other lives, I will broaden their perspectives and help them discover the world for themselves. They will learn to write by writing and telling stories. Education does not get much better than that.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Steve Lopez and the Importance of Newspapers

It has been one year since I cancelled my subscriptions to The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. In that time, I continued to read both publications online. My assessment of this experiment is that reading newspapers and journalism online is vastly inferior to the hard copy thrown on my porch each morning. So I restarted my subscription to the Los Angeles Times and I have made it a point to buy The New York Times as often as I pass one of those coin boxes or my local news stand.

The catalyst for this re-evaluation resulted from catching the film, The Soloist on cable last week. I liked the movie, although the scenes I found most interesting were the ones that showed columnist Steve Lopez at work. I realized the book was sitting in my “to-read” stack, so I pulled it and began reading.

The book, as I expected, is better than the film. Lopez clearly addresses the revolution occurring in journalism, and worries about his future with the paper even as he researches and writes about Nathaniel Ayers, the down-on-his-luck, mentally ill musician whom Lopez finds playing a decrepit violin in Pershing Square. He considers moving into public relations, corporate communications, in fact, any job that might be open to a man who has spent three decades writing for print publication. He comes to the realization that he belongs nowhere else but at his desk cranking out columns for as long as the job holds. Journalism is in Lopez’s blood; he models his work on the great newspaper writers of the twentieth century like Jimmy Breslin. He cannot leave the work behind, because everyone has a story to tell, and as long as stories are out there, that is where Lopez belongs.

What the book made me realize is that if newspapers fold, or worse, journalism disappears into the sham of celebrity and superficial gossip, we will lose a great chunk of our culture. Newspapers have told the story of this country since the Revolution, informing citizens, offering a discussion of issues, and influencing culture. The recent decline of journalism, the shuttering of both bureaus and whole papers across the globe, says much about our decaying culture.

When I read Lopez’s book, I felt like I was coming home. His journalistic writing is clear, direct, to the point, often letting the sights, sounds and dialogue speak the story to the reader. This is in the best tradition of newspaper reporting, often giving us characters and places that are off the beaten track, detailing lives we know virtually nothing about but in the process of reading about them, we come to understand.

Towards the end of the book, Lopez tells us why he has decided to ride the journalism train to the end of the line. “…I thought seriously about leaving an industry in the throes of revolution, and [Nathaniel Ayers] is the reason I’ve decided I’ll never be happy doing anything other than telling stories.”

If we are ever to return to a culture of intellectual depth, if we are ever able to recapture the original spirit of democracy, we must return journalistic writing to the center of the discussion. Newspapers bring people together and create an informed populace.

In an article in the January-February 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, Peter Osnos writes that one way this might happen is to classify newspapers and journalism as “nonprofit media,” like public television and radio. “National Public Radio (NPR)…has emerged in recent years as one of the United States’ most significant sources of quality news, with more correspondents stationed abroad than all of the broadcast networks put together…” This idea is one worth examining. Newspapers should not be about profit, and they are not an average business. The desire to increase profitability has led to pressure on newspapers to increase revenue. Big corporations demand growing profit margins, and when newspaper do not produce, the problems begin. The internet also changed everything. Why would a reader pay for something that is free online? The same problem has plagued a number of industries.

So why did I decide to resume paying for a newspaper? Most of the papers I accessed online listed the top stories on the front page. They usually included a list of the most-viewed stories. But if I wanted to scan through the entire newspaper, I needed to take time to click on a number of links and follow through and look at each article. With the physical newspaper, I scan through the entire edition page by page, section by section. This kind of browsing is awkward for me online but feels natural with print.

In short, reading the newspaper each day is much more thorough for me than rocketing down the home page selecting articles. Re-subscribing was also a matter of protest, a vote for journalism and its importance to our culture.

Already, in just a few days, I feel like I am rediscovering the world. Even though the Los Angeles Times is struggling still, and newspapers as we have known them will probably disappear, I will hold on until I find a new model that equals the old. Newspapers may be a part of the “dead tree media,” but I miss that forest. Even in difficult times, or maybe because of the uncertainty in the world today, I want to re-commit to that “dead tree” a little longer.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Why We Need War Stories

Over the break I have been rereading Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. I am struck by the writer’s ability to capture the heat of battle on the page when he had never experienced a war in his life. His work is so descriptive and impressionistic, utilizing the contrasts between nature and war, cowardice and redemption, innocence and maturity.

Henry Fielding reacts to battle much like we might react if thrust into such a situation. He runs away. His subsequent encounters with Jim Conklin, a soldier dead on his feet, the dead body in the clearing, and the deserter who smashes his head giving him the much sought “red badge” that later marks him erroneously as a hero, all demonstrate different aspects of soldiering and the horrors of war. Henry’s redemption shows us that courage and cowardice are not easily defined.

Ultimately, Crane was a journalist, and although his work is fictional, he wanted to get to the element of truth. What is it like to be in the heat of battle? What is heroism and cowardice?

Why do we need these books? The answer might seem obvious: we need them because we must know and understand what war means, and what our soldiers do when we ask them to go to far off lands and fight in the name of our country.

And not only do we need to know how a war is fought today, we need to know how they have been fought in the past, and what consequences each endeavor has left us with as a nation.

A few days before the break, our school counselors came into my senior English class to perform a short skit about registering for the Selective Service. The skit was done in a humorous tone, and most of the kids were left with a “what the hell was that?” look on their faces. I tried to explain that registering meant that in the case of a draft, the government would know where to begin to locate them. Most of them did not blink at this. I explained that if this were forty-some years ago, they would be just a few months away from service eligibility, meaning they could be drafted.

My generation and the ones that I have taught over the years, have no idea what a war or being a soldier is like. Thankfully, we have been relatively unscathed by recent military actions, but there is a deep divide between the American soldier and the average young American. For many of us, this war on terror is nothing like the experiences of those who lived through Vietnam or the Second World War.

That is why we need to continue to read war books, and it is why we need more books in the tradition of The Red Badge of Courage. If we are ever to evolve into a state where war is obsolete, and human beings do not solve their differences with guns and bombs, we need to remember what it is like to fight for our lives, the sheer terror, destruction, and annihilation of life and property inherent in a war.

For this reason, we need war stories.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Louis L'Amour: Education of a Wandering Man

Education of a Wandering Man: A Memoir
By Louis L’Amour
Bantam Books; $25.00, cloth
ISBN 978-0-553-05703-4

My generation is most likely the last one to idolize cowboys. Television shows like Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, Big Valley and The Rifleman were must-see programs. I strapped on my six gun and copied what I saw on the old black and white TV set in the living room.

As I grew older, I became uncomfortable acting out such childhood fantasies. I ditched the western wear for Louis L’Amour novels. I read at the rate of ten books a week, plowing through a veritable forest of paper, soaking up the lore of the west at the hands of one of the most prolific writers. L’Amour died in 1988, yet his novels, short fiction, and poetry continue to hit the book store shelves. He said that he could write anywhere with his typewriter balanced on his knees. He did not understand the concept of writer’s block. His novels were usually short with lots of action, sometimes a rather clumsy love story, and often a plethora of historical detail that L’Amour researched and often lived through himself.

So it was with great anticipation that I stumbled upon his memoirs in hardback. Education of a Wandering Man details L’Amour’s autodidactic pursuits and his reading was deep and broad. He left school in the tenth grade to wander the world, working a variety of jobs that would later furnish important details for his stories. L’Amour recounts how he collected many of the books that most influenced his life, books he once borrowed from libraries or found during his travels.

L’Amour’s work is a treasure. His writing displays the kind of storytelling that infuses his novels, but here he explains what made him a reader and writer. Whereas the stories of the west once fueled my imagination, the life of the writer now interests me more, so reading L’Amour’s book was like visiting a candy store or getting drunk on the sweetest wine.

L’Amour discusses not only his own work, but the writers who most influenced him. In fact, the majority of this book is about his reading life. He believes that a good writer begins life as an avid reader, and that to read broadly is what makes someone a good storyteller.

The book also details the research that L’Amour did. Literally, he immersed himself in the west. He lived his stories, and whenever possible, he trekked across the United States following his characters’ lives as they would have lived them. Along the way, he amassed tons of facts and stories. His meticulous research adds veracity to his work. L’Amour is an historian wrapped in the cloak of a pulp fiction writer.

Included in this cloth edition is Daniel Boorstin’s introduction and a variety of photographs from L’Amour’s archives, as well as his reading lists from his journals and notebooks. This makes for a valuable bibliography for writing students.

Many of the writers I read as a kid do not hold up to rereading. I have purchased many of those books simply to have them on my shelves, testimony to where I began as a reader. It is unusual to find writers from childhood offering something to an adult reader. I will leaf through a Louis L’Amour western now and again in my attic, but Education of a Wandering Man will take its place on my shelf in the study.

As a young boy, I read through those hot summer nights with Louis L’Amour westerns. I dreamed of six guns and wild west adventures. Now as a middle-aged writer, I can appreciate the origins of the story, the writer as reader and student of life, offering me another perspective on an author I once loved in another time.