Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies

“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.
Nobody that matters, that is.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am haunted by the face of Rigoberto Ruelas Jr. People who choose to take their own lives do so for a number of reasons. There may be an inciting incident, something that pushes them over the edge, but it is too easy to point to that one event and say, that is why they did it.

I do not know Ruelas, his family, or what transpired in the thirty-nine-year old’s mind that led him to that bridge in the forest. What we do know from friends, family, and colleagues is that he was tremendously disturbed about the publication of his name and “value-added” score as a teacher in the Los Angeles Times.

People outside of education wonder what the fuss is about. It’s time we exposed the inept and deficient teachers clogging our schools, some might say.

Teachers take great pride in their work. They put their hearts, souls, and personalities into the classroom to reach those students. No one shows up to teach kids every day without being deeply, intrinsically committed to the children in their care. Ruelas was a fourteen year veteran, having started out as a teacher’s aide at Miramonte Elementary School. In his career, he had almost perfect attendance; quite a feat when you realize how many colds and flu teachers are exposed to every year in addition to the fatigue and sleep deprivation that come with the job.

According to an article on, Ruelas was “a dedicated teacher who cared deeply about the children at Miramonte. Parents and students said he often stayed after school to tutor struggling kids and offer counseling so they stayed on the straight and narrow.”

In this debate over education reform, we must be careful. To bash those who have given so much to kids is unacceptable and wrong. Teachers want their students to succeed; they want to be successful in the classroom. No one wants to be a failure on the job, and in teaching, if you are not on top of your game, your students will remind you and repay you for you incompetence. Kids know when they are not being taught anything.

Let’s not forget that only a small fraction of teachers are not performing adequately. The majority show up, day in and day out. They go home at night exhausted and spent only to face more hours of preparation and grading for the next day. They are not looking for sympathy. This is the life they chose, and they love their work. They go to sleep at night knowing that however bad the day was, in spite of the lesson that misfired, that frustrating parent meeting, the endless bureaucracy that must be tolerated, they have done something to make the world better: one child, one life, one hope for the future.

To publish test scores that indicate, to some extent, that our schools and teachers are not getting the job done, especially when the district and unions try to hide those statistics, that is good, and what journalism is required to do. They bring the power of the press to represent us, and we should applaud them for doing more than following Lindsay Lohan around.

To place teachers’ names in the paper and brand them “less effective” based solely on those scores without any other evidence or testimony, that is wrong—ethically and morally.

Don’t bash teachers. Bash the districts, the unions, the inept school administrations, but leave teachers alone. Confront the issue of school reform, but do not reduce the fight to a personal attack. If someone is failing in the classroom, principals and administrators should suggest they explore another career option, but we do not publish their names in the paper and hold them up for public scorn like Hester Prynne. More importantly, we must protect and treasure the good teachers.

And please, consider the test scores a fraction of the larger picture. Teachers do many jobs every day—instructor, counselor, supervisor, mediator, expert, problem-solver, public relations manager—the list is endless. You cannot effectively evaluate a teacher on only one criteria. That is why good administrators get into their teachers’ classrooms every day. They know the successful teachers because they’ve seen them in action on a daily basis. They can tell who is doing the job and who is failing, and it is their responsibility to weed out the problem teachers. That is why districts, administrators and unions should be on the hot seat in this talk of reform. Who is responsible for rehiring these teachers every year? Who has allowed this situation to continue to exist year after year? Who tried to hide the “value-added” scores from even the teachers, themselves?

Rigoberto Ruelas Jr. was there for his kids every day for fourteen years. Too bad someone wasn’t there to talk him down from that bridge in the forest.

We know that teachers are heroes. We are now reminded that they are also mortal.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Waiting For "Superman"

Waiting For “Superman”
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Paramount Vantage / Participant Media / Walden Media
Select Theaters September 24, 2010; Rated PG

Davis Guggenheim, Academy award winning director of An Inconvenient Truth, has made a sad and disturbing new film. It is timely and necessary, a polemic that must be seen by every American.

I first became aware of Guggenheim’s work with his 2001 documentary on education called The First Year. In that film, he portrayed the heroism of a group of new teachers as they made their way through their first school year. At the end of the documentary, when one of the new teachers goes home for a visit and sees the playground equipment and resources the local school has in comparison to the school where he works, his emotional breakdown had me in tears.

In his latest film, I found myself moved again by Guggenheim’s ability to tell an intensely important and emotional story. For me, the anger and sadness of the film comes from watching kids and parents who want a decent education and future be deprived of what they so desire because of chance. Why, in a first world nation like America, should any kid be denied an education because of bad luck, lack of funding, or residing in the wrong neighborhood? The students are the emotional core of the film, and Guggenheim hooks the viewer from the beginning with their stories.

Francisco is a first grader from the Bronx with a love of math and some wild hair that he insists on styling himself in the morning. His mother is the driving force behind his education, and throughout the film she is seen making phone calls and sending notes to her son’s teacher without response.

Emily is a high school student from central California. She wants to transfer from her public school in an affluent area to a charter school that has a better reputation and college acceptance rate.

Anthony is a fifth grader from D.C. who is being raised by his grandmother. He carries his father’s picture around with him, and is profoundly affected by his dad’s death from the consequences of drug addiction. He has struggled in school, and was held back in the second grade.

Bianca, a kindergartener in Harlem, wants to transfer from a Catholic school to Harlem Success Academy, a highly ranked charter school. Her mother is underemployed, and has trouble paying the tuition at Bianca’s current school; the charter would solve two problems: it is free, and the child will receive a top-notch education.

Finally, there is Daisy, a mature and focused fifth grader from East Los Angeles who tells us she wants to be a nurse, doctor or veterinarian. Her mother works cleaning hospitals, and her father is unemployed. She is remarkably driven for a kid her age, and has already written to the college of her choice asking for admission. She wants to transfer to KIPP LA Prep, an excellent charter school with a demanding academic program.

The film contains all the voices in the discussion: the union president, the education reformer, the controversial school chancellor, the parents and students. I would have liked to hear some teachers’ voices, but Guggenheim did cover that area exclusively in his first film. In Waiting For “Superman”, we do see teachers, some effectively teaching their classes and some being the very picture of failure. One particularly effective montage shows a room where teachers who are facing disciplinary action must report every day while awaiting adjudication of their cases. The film shows these teachers sleeping, eating, playing cards, and reading the newspapers, all while collecting their full salaries to the tune of millions of dollars a year. And what purpose does this serve in educating kids?

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, will undoubtedly have an answer to that question. As a representative of teachers’ unions, she comes off as the villain in the film, and rightly so. Unions have been the substantial roadblock to school reform for decades. It is Weingarten’s organization that tries to cap successful charter schools so that their successes cannot be replicated elsewhere. If we are all so concerned about the education of children, as Weingarten claims her members are, why do unions lobby against success? And why do they fight to remove education reformers like Michelle Rhee, the embattled chancellor of the Washington D.C. school district? That group of schools in particular has one of the worst rankings of students in math and science in the country, right in the heart of the nation’s capitol, and yet Rhee, who has made substantial headway in firing tenured, miserably deficient teachers and principals, will probably lose her job when the new mayor takes over, a candidate who was given a million dollars in campaign donations by the teachers’ union.

Davis Guggenheim has opened a door for us with his film. He has inspired a discussion and lit a fire that I hope rages through the country. He tells us that although our students have dropped behind many other countries in math, science, and reading proficiency, American students still rank first in confidence. The only thing we have done successfully in schools is encourage unearned self-esteem.

Geoffrey Canada, CEO of The Harlem Children’s Zone, makes a profound statement at the start of the Waiting For “Superman” that gives us not only the title of the film, but also a metaphor for the educational situation at hand. There is no Superman coming to save the day. If we are to save American education, we will have to do it ourselves. We will have to be our own superheroes to safeguard our future. That is our only way forward.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I recently started working with Mount St. Mary’s College students on their writing. The experience has already proven to be gratifying. The work is important and necessary, and the students, faculty and staff of the college are incredibly welcoming and warm. There is, however, something that makes this experience even more powerful for me.

Yesterday, I started my day on campus attending the Mass of the Holy Spirit, an annual liturgy celebrating the start of another school year. The chapel on campus was filled to capacity, and most everyone wore the color red. There was a full choir with a band, as well as elaborate rituals throughout the ceremony incorporating various cultures and traditions. It was a lively service, nothing like Masses at my Catholic parish church. There was a palpable joy in the audience, and I felt a part of the community.

At some point in the service, I began thinking of my grandmother who attended the Mount in the 1930s. A long time ago, she wanted me to attend the college as a music student. But I had other plans. I knew she was disappointed. I attended alumnae events with her over the years, and she often told me stories about what the school meant to her. My grandmother was unique for her time; few women sought professional degrees in the early twentieth century, and I admired her for sticking it out to receive her dietetics degree.

My grandmother passed in 2003. She was such a strong presence in my life and the lives of others. She lived on her own for twenty-three years after the death of my grandfather, enduring the deaths of two of her children, and countless challenges to her faith. She remained a good Catholic to the end.

We had a running argument, my grandmother and I. She told me once that the greatest gift my parents gave me was my Catholic faith. I argued that life was the greatest gift a parent gives a child. It was a kind of “chicken or the egg” discussion. If my parents did not have faith in Christ, they would not have brought children into the world. Therefore, she reasoned, faith begat having children and predated the gift of life. I did not buy her reasoning. Life is a gift allowing one to believe in many things, and if one never has life, there is no faith or hope, or anything else. Without life, there is nothing.

So there I was in the Mount St. Mary’s College chapel, and suddenly, I felt my grandmother’s presence. I had the realization in that moment that she was joyfully present. The confluence of time and dimension met, and she knew that my life had arrived at a point to which it had been building for quite some time.

After Mass, I went on to The Learning Center to work with students on their writing. Although I have spent my career in the classroom, I have always enjoyed working with students individually rather than in a large group. Trying to work with a class of twenty to twenty-five writers forces me to resort to generalities and broad concepts. When I mark papers, the student considers my comments alone and rarely asks me what I mean. Lots of ink on the page from me, they think, means a lower grade. They take a “Well, that’s that” kind of attitude. When I work with a student individually, there is ample opportunity for clarification and discussion, for praise, for questioning. I see the student internalize what I say, revising and sharpening the piece as we go along.

In my work with Mount students, I was immediately moved by the truth of their writing. One wrote a personal essay about being driven out of her state college as a sophomore because of threats of violence and racism. She made me feel what she felt in the situation, returning to find the word, “nigger” carved on her dorm door one evening. When her innocent actions led to another student being arrested for drug possession with the intent to sell, she began to get death threats. She stuck it out to the end of the semester, and then transferred. To her, Mount St. Mary’s was an oasis of safety, a refuge from the trauma of her experience.

Other students I worked with were writing thank you letters to benefactors who donated scholarship funds to assist with tuition and expenses. Many of the letters contained moving stories of adversity and perseverance.

Here was a student who had to drop out of college to have a child. Now she was pursuing a degree in social work and raising her son alone.

Another was one of nine children, and had spent her life taking care of her brothers and sisters while her parents worked long hours.

Many students were the first ones in their families to go to college, or leave home to pursue their education. I was also surprised to find how many wanted to go into service professions, like nursing and social work. One young man planned to become an army medical technician and serve in combat zones. Another hoped to open health care centers in poor countries. All the students I worked with, every one, expressed the hope to one day sponsor another Mount student in the quest to get an education.

I realized why my grandmother would find joy in my new endeavor at the Mount. I was at a school she loved, an institution that made a huge difference in her life, and I was doing good work. She knew that at the heart of the matter, that is why I became a teacher. Given the right environment, one based on faith and values, I could help others and fulfill my purpose in life. My grandmother, child of the dust bowl and the Great Depression, a survivor, finally got her wish for me. I was at the Mount. I know that in her mind, I had come home. Now, I felt that way as well.

I finished up with my last student and walked to my car with the smell of the sea in the air. I was tired in a good way, the way one feels after a hard day of exhilarating and important work. I drove down the steep roads from the hilltop in Brentwood, already looking forward to next week and more students and their writing. The world is not perfect, but sometimes, if one is open to it, an uncommon grace pours into the soul to light the hours. My grandmother knew a lot about faith and grace and making it through difficult times. In this season of autumn, I had found faith and grace and truth, and I knew my grandmother would be happy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time To Reform

Time Magazine
September 20, 2010
$49.00 for one year subscription

Time Magazine devoted its September 20 National Service Issue to a sixteen-page report on education. Managing editor Richard Stengel says they threw two reporters at the subject, Amanda Ripley and John Cloud. The results are two articles that offer a thumbnail sketch of the national discussion about education currently in progress.

Amanda Ripley’s article is about the Davis Guggenheim documentary that will be released on September 24 entitled Waiting For “Superman.” Guggenheim is the Academy Award-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth. The movie sounds interesting, moving, and absolutely necessary to further the discussion of American education in the twenty-first century. The article also comes with sidebars containing statistics regarding the state of education in this country. Ripley focuses on how the project came about, the challenges faced during production, and what the possible effects the work might have on American public education.

John Cloud’s piece pinpoints a recurring issue directly. Teacher recruitment and retention are facets discussed quite frequently when the subject of school reform is broached. His lead caption is: There aren’t enough good educators to fill the toughest—and even the not-so-tough—classrooms. Pay and prestige are part of the problem. Here’s a fix.”

The “fix” means that several successful programs are profiled, including Teach For America (TFA) and the New York City entity called New Teacher Project (TNTP). The thrust of the article is that education schools are failing, and more innovative and creative ways of preparing teachers for the classroom are necessary. What these two programs do is encourage recent college graduates, many from Ivy League schools, and working professionals who have proven themselves in industry and the corporate world, to become teachers as a service to the country. Cloud tells us that TNTP was recently handed the recruitment chores for new teachers in the Memphis school district. Cloud says these organizations have come under fire from teachers’ unions and education colleges for placing candidates in classrooms with only “five to seven weeks of boot-camp training.” The programs offer strong support for these new teachers, and Cloud profiles several successful schools and teachers who have utilized the program.

At the end of the articles, the editors include a section on how people can get involved with public education. They break down the categories from “recent high school graduate,” to “senior citizen.” There is a sidebar listing ways to donate money and have a voice in the current discussion about where American education should go from here.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Education in America will be the main topic of national debate for the foreseeable future because we cannot move forward as a nation without a stronger and more successful education for our children. That being said, every American must take part in this discussion; it is a national responsibility and a prime determiner of our future. We cannot be a first world nation with a third world school system, and unfortunately, that is what we have in many areas of the country right now.

In my own backyard, LAUSD schools finally got underway last week. We have shortened the school year to save money, but we cannot slash our way to success. We should be increasing the number of school days to at least 200, and may be as high as 250. We are playing “catch-up” here, and to do that we must do more than the 180-day U.S. standard school year. According to a 1991 report on the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Educational Sciences website, Chinese students attend school 251 days per year, English kids for 192 days, the Japanese for 220 days, and Germans for 219 days.

When the future is at stake, drastic steps must be taken. I applaud Time for wading into the discussion, but we must go further. The Los Angeles Times took a bold, albeit controversial step recently when it published the database of “value-added” performance evaluations of LAUSD teachers. Test scores are not the only measure of success in the classroom, but the district did nothing with these results except file them away somewhere out of public sight. The Times pushed the issue out into the open, and the resulting intense discussion was and is necessary if we are to mount a credible reform of our education system.

We all must be involved. We must look at the success of private and charter schools. We must examine in minute detail every philosophy and idea to educate students for the future. Only when we truly examine our successes and failures can we adopt strategies and goals to create positive, tangible change in American education.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mental Floss

Mental Floss Magazine
Published bimonthly, 6 issues per year, $21.97 (U.S.)
Digital subscriptions are available

A good magazine should follow the rule to leave the reader smarter. That is what Mental Floss Magazine does under the tagline, “Feel smart again.” Can one return to smartness? Nah. Smart people enjoy smart reading, and Mental Floss simply enhances smartness and gives us stuff to talk about with other smart people. If one knows no smart people, there are plenty of ads for MENSA in every issue.

I found this magazine several years ago on my news stand racks, and I have been hooked ever since. A usual assignment in my writing classes is to have students each take a magazine—think New Yorker, Atlantic, and Harper’s, not People—and do a presentation on the publication for the class, detailing subscription rates, content, number of ads, history, submission policies, and include a sample article or feature.

The first time out, the results were predictable: the boys did car and sports magazines (Playboy was off-limits at the private school), and the girls tortured the males right back with a parade of Vogue, Seventeen, and every fashion magazine in the western world. I was left longing for something that was not cliché.

The next time I assigned the project, I pushed the students’ boundaries by politely requiring them to cover certain less well-known and accessible markets. I was able to direct them to these magazines and the trick worked. Great presentations led to long-term readers.

Mental Floss was a particular favorite. The magazine includes a feature story that, as the website notes, never fails to deliver. Tongue-in-cheek samples include “whether a pregnant woman can drive in the carpool lane, and how much wood a woodchuck can actually chuck.”

The most current issue, (Sept.-Oct. 2010) includes a cover story entitled “Real Americans: 13 Heroes, Villains, and Legends Who Defined the American Spirit.” If one ever wanted to know what Blackbeard the pirate was like, or dip into the history of the woman who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, then this is the issue to read.

But as they say in those annoying commercials for really sharp knives and ultimate cleaning cloths on television, “wait, there’s more!” There are sections for Right Brain, Left Brain, and the ever-popular category, Scattered Brain. This issue includes articles on the well-known musical, Cabaret and its history, small books that made a difference, the origin of decaf coffee, and a number of short pieces on the Beatles.

Each issue also comes complete with some nifty other features, like “Spinning The Globe,” an article about a particular place in the world, a pop quiz, little known facts on “The Lists,” and a rather amazing connect-the-dots piece called “6° Of Ken Jennings,” where the noted Jeopardy kingpin attempts, always successfully, to link up two disparate terms or ideas within six moves. He works on chai tea and tai chi in this issue.

I particularly like a feature that runs along the bottom of most pages called “The Bottom Line,” featuring trivia and facts regarding the stories and people on the pages. Television should have such devices, sort of like the old “Pop-Up Videos” on MTV and VH1, only for magazine readers.

Mental Floss is perfect for young people, even though it is not fashion-conscious or about online gaming. My students become addicted to the magazine every other month after the class presentations are finished. They enjoy challenging each other with the facts and trivia they learn, and the magazine offers them mental stimulation without the kids being aware that their brains are being stretched.

For adults, the magazine offers enough material to enlighten the mind without making the reader feel stupid or out of touch. It is a publication that improves the mind rather than talking down to its readers.

I remember a line from the film, The Big Chill, where one of the characters, a writer for People Magazine, talks about how he cannot write an article longer than what someone could read in an average trip to the bathroom. Mental Floss has short articles aimed at the brain. Feel free to take it into the bathroom or anywhere else. Even if one is not a candidate for MENSA, we can all share in the glory of a little stimulating reading.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Fire Rages On

In the ramp up to this weekend’s anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, two issues preoccupied the country. One was the desire of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan. The second was a Gainesville, Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who threatened to have his congregation of approximately fifty members burn the Koran as his commemoration of the attacks.

My question has always been, should anything be built at ground zero except a monument to those who died there? Of the 2752 people who died at the World Trade Center site, only about 1600 were positively identified, leaving “10,000 bone and tissue fragments that cannot be matched to the list of dead,” according to CBS News. This means that the remains of the victims cannot be separated from the site. They are now part of the soil, concrete, dust, and physical material present at the location, meaning the only appropriate building that should be allowed there is a monument. No mosques, churches, temples, or shrines, no new trade center buildings, no commercial real estate period. Of course, this is unacceptable to the capitalists who say lower Manhattan real estate is simply too valuable to devote to a reflective park or monument. But to build anything other than a monument is sacrilege, and erecting new buildings on the site and throwing in a few trees and footprint-sized reflective pools in an attempt to satisfy the victims’ families is unacceptable.

Having said that, should the Imam be allowed to build his mosque?

This was not an attack by Muslims on the American way of life. Muslims died there, too, and in a recent story in The New York Times, it is clear a Muslim prayer room existed in the Trade Center buildings before they were destroyed. The room was located on the 17th floor of the south tower. The article goes on to state that “About three dozen Muslim staff members of Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the north tower, used a stairwell between the 106th and 107th floors for their daily prayers.” The hijackers were extremists who perverted some aspects of Islam to service their own hatred for America. America includes Muslims, and these men killed members of their own religion in the attacks.

The World Trade Center site should avoid all religious affiliations and remain a sacred secular monument. All of the victims, whatever their nationalities, home cultures, religious beliefs, and lifestyles, were Americans. Those hijackers did attack the American way of life, and they targeted Americans, therefore, the site is in the same category as other monuments to events of American history, like Civil War battlefields and Pearl Harbor. Would we consider building large commercial high-rise buildings or Buddhist temples at Manassas, Virginia where the Battle of Bull Run took place? Those structures would be out of place there as they are also out of place at ground zero.

As for Mr. Jones and his gun-toting pathetic congregation, why are we giving this guy any publicity? Have we not learned that people like him crave attention?

Burning books proves nothing. How many people went out and bought the Koran this week because of the attention generated by Jones?

And unlike the reverend, I have actually read the book. It is a compilation of beautifully written, poetic literature. Yes, it is a sacred text, like the Bible and the Talmud, but it is also literature. Since the invention of the printing press and the rise of technology, burning books means nothing. We can make more. The Koran is published in multiple editions for study, worship, recreational reading, et cetera. Terry Jones simply promoted the Koran onto the bestseller list, I am sure.

But what I find disgusting is that he showed the world the worst of America, the red-necked, white trash ignorance that has so infected this country in its brief history. Yes, we elected the first black man as president, but the stain of racism, bigotry, and ignorance on the fabric of America remains.

We must stop falling into the trap of diversion—Muslims at ground zero are not a threat to national security, burning books is stupid, and President Obama might be a secret advocate of Islam, but who cares? What is he doing to get us out of this economic mess? What can we do to improve our schools, besides spending nearly 600 million dollars to build one school while firing thousands of teachers and cutting programs?

We have more important things to worry about right now, and an ignoramus like Terry Jones, when ignored, will slither back into the hole he crawled out of once CNN turns off the lights and camera and goes home.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Following Chuang Tzu With Thomas Merton

The Way of Chuang Tzu
By Thomas Merton
New Directions, $11.95 paper
ISBN: 978-0-8112-1851-1

What does it mean to listen? His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, writes in a tribute to Thomas Merton, well known Trappist monk, Catholic philosopher and author of The Way of Chuang Tzu, that the qualities of hearing included study, contemplation, thinking about the teachings, and meditation. Thomas Merton did all of these things.

Merton is best known for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. He was a prolific writer, composing more than seventy books on philosophy, social justice, war and peace, and the spiritual life.

Born in 1915 in France to a Quaker mother and an artist father, Merton lost his mother early on from cancer. His father moved in and out of young Thomas’ life, leaving him in the custody of family members and boarding schools. He learned quite early on to fend for himself.

Merton was an inconsistently religious person in his early life. At one point, he even professed to be an agnostic. Throughout his quest to find the true way, one constant was his burning desire to learn. He attended many different schools in his formative years, and had many experiences with a number of religious and spiritual groups, but nothing seemed to stick. Losing his mother made him paranoid about his father’s health, and his worst fears were realized at the age of sixteen when his father died of a brain tumor. The next year, Thomas himself nearly died from blood poisoning.

The transformative moment for Merton occurred on a trip to Rome in 1933. He found himself drawn to churches, cathedrals, and basilicas, and had several mystical experiences while traveling. He decided to become a Trappist monk of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. His dedication was short-lived. He left the order to continue his restless search for answers.

While attending Columbia University, Merton had an epiphany that reignited his interest in Catholicism. After much thought and deliberation, he rejoined the Trappists and adopted the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky as his home base

Merton’s interest in philosophy extended beyond western and Catholic ideals. He was deeply interested in Eastern thought, and studied Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions and schools of philosophy extensively during his lifetime.

This slim volume contains Merton’s translation of the fourth century Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. Merton explains in his introduction that the work is “the result of five years of reading, study, annotation, and meditation.” He goes on to make clear that his work is not a literal translation, but “free, interpretive readings” of this most spiritual of Chinese philosophers.

Chuang Tzu is part of the classical period of Chinese philosophy taking place between 550-250 B.C. Merton tells us that his life can be “verified,” unlike that of Lao Tzu, a more famous philosopher and contemporary of Chuang Tzu. The values outlined in the text demonstrate a witty and moral writer. Chuang Tzu is concerned about love for others and the plight of his fellow humans. He writes about justice, responsibility, and obligation to others. Merton explains that “The mark of the ‘Noble Minded Man’ is that he does not do things simply because they are pleasing or profitable to himself, but because they flow from an unconditional moral imperative.” Embodied in the teachings of Chuang Tzu are the vows taken by those in Catholic religious orders. “The life of riches, ambition, pleasure,” Merton writes, “is in reality an intolerable servitude in which one ‘lives for what is always out of reach,’ thirsting ‘for survival in the future,’ and ‘incapable of living in the present.’” It is clear that Merton finds common ground with this ancient writer.

Merton takes great pains to validate his reading, which according to pre-Vatican II theology, would be considered pagan literature by the Catholic Church. “If St. Augustine could read Plotinus,” he writes, “if St. Thomas could read Aristotle and Averroes…I think I may be pardoned for consorting with a Chinese recluse…” It is clear that Thomas Merton had a sense of humor and a clear vision of the overlapping morals, values, and theology between Buddhism and Catholicism.

In his other work and writing, Merton can often be a difficult writer, forcing the reader to parse apart the twisting philosophical strands in his thinking. That is not the case in this book. He captures the clarity and simplicity of Chuang Tzu’s voice, and the message rings through loud and clear:

“Pleasure and rage
Sadness and joy
Hopes and regrets
Change and stability
Weakness and decision
Impatience and sloth
All are sounds from the same flute…”

Duality and contradiction inhabit all philosophies and world religions. Merton revels in them here. These dualities, the holding of two divergent ideas, this is what many of us struggle with each day. We seek clarity of mind through absolutes and concrete answers, yet impermanence is the only certainty. There are no absolutes in life, and often truth is illusive. Merton plays with this paradox: “The possible becomes impossible; the impossible become possible…the flow of life alters circumstances and thus things themselves are altered in their turn.”

Merton includes an excellent essay at the start of the book that delves into the nuances and history of Chuang Tzu’s life and work. He places the philosopher in the pantheon of Chinese thinkers, and fills in the philosophical lineage of the work. When appropriate, he connects Chuang Tzu’s ideas to Western thinking and allows readers to make connections between Judeo-Christian ideals and Eastern philosophy. He closes the book with a glossary of terms, a bibliography, and notes offering additional reading and study.

Thomas Merton does an excellent job of translating and explaining Chuang Tzu’s work. The book serves as a good sampler of the philosophy, and therefore the volume will serve to introduce the West to the great writer’s thinking. The book is by no means a full study. Rather, it is a doorway connecting two rich worlds, two vibrant cultures, exposing the shared mystery of human existence.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Labor Day, 2010

I have taught Marge Piercy’s poem for many years to my ninth grade students. I think it speaks to the sentiments of this end-of-summer, American holiday. I hope in the months ahead, many unemployed Americans find “work that is real.”

The photograph above of American journalist H. L. Mencken at his writing desk is taken from a
Wall Street Journal article on a new collection of his essays and criticism. The copyright belongs to Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

To be of use
By Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

“To be of use” by Marge Piercy © 1973, 1982.
From Circles on the Water © 1982 Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Middlemarsh, Inc.
First published in Lunch magazine. Used by permission of Wallace Literary Agency

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

These Days*

So it begins, another school year, and for the first time in more than two decades, I’m not there.

In June, I was quite startled to discover my job being advertised on a teacher employment website. Fifteen years at the school, and the administration did not have the decency to tell me face to face that I would not be asked back. No reason was given when I confronted the powers that be, because as the vice principal told me, “It’s a one year contract and we do not have to give a reason for non-renewal.”


My suspicion is that after fifteen years, the financially-troubled school wanted to divest itself of my salary. A clearly clueless vice principal and school board were icing on the cake. It was time for a change.

I have been steadily employed since freshman year of high school. I paid my own tuition for my Catholic secondary education and my university degree. For my high school, I picked up trash around campus in the morning before school, shelved books in the library, and taught the drummers in the marching band how to play a double-stroke roll on a snare drum. I also put in time stuffing envelopes at a travel agency during the summers.

In college, I filled parts requests for an aerospace firm until the shop closed. My girlfriend put up with the manure smell of my clothing when I worked at Target’s lawn and garden department. That job ended when I got pneumonia selling Christmas trees in the parking lot. Next, I worked security for a department store. Luckily, I landed in my teaching job before I got myself killed by a miscreant on a mission.

I have done my time.

But in this economy, jobs are hard to find, so I am not surprised to discover it is September, and I am pursuing freelance writing projects and contemplating a return to a graduate program or MFA.

Not being employed has its drawbacks. Two areas most acutely affected are my self-esteem and lifestyle. It is hard for me not to take unemployment as a personal affront. Books and articles I read tell me losing my job is not personal. It is just a fact of life in a recession. And now, when a potential employer gets hundreds of resumes for a single position, there is no rhyme or reason to the rejection. As William Saroyan wrote in The Human Comedy, “…every man in the world is better than someone else. And not as good as someone else.” I am often left scratching my head as to which I am in this crazy job market.

As for lifestyle, I have been hearing Henry David Thoreau in my head for quite some time now: “Simplify, simplify.” I have more books than I can read in my lifetime. I have a wife who loves me. What else do I need? Cut down, cut back, live simply, simply live.

We hurtle through life at such a breakneck pace that it is a blessing to be forced into taking some time to reflect. Teaching is a giving profession. You are there for others to help them reach their goals, maximize their potential, become better writers, realize their dreams. Teachers often have to put off their own questions and quests to give full attention to their students. You just push on, planning lessons, grading papers, counseling, consoling, encouraging.

I am finding a lot of solace in reconnecting with my deeper soul, reading philosophy, and considering where I want to go next. There is so much depth and texture to life when we look for it and allow ourselves time to sink into living fully each day. Will I go back to teaching? Sister Doris, my mentor, used to tell me that real teachers always find their way back.

For now, I’m writing, studying, reading, continuing to learn. I rise in the morning to the wind chimes on my neighbor’s porch. I feel the seasons changing, and at night, I hear the final baseball games of a dying summer played out at the park up the street. My days and nights have a rhythm of their own.

Sometimes, darkness overwhelms me, and I worry about the future. What secrets does it hold, what challenges, what successes, disappointments, tragedies? Where am I going?

Life is the journey, say the authors I read. We do not know what will come next, but it will come.

I am consoled by Galileo staring up at the vastness of the universe, wondering what it would be like to journey among the stars. Or Magellan, gazing across the wine-dark sea, dreaming of possible riches in a brave, new world. This is a time for considering the possibilities. It is not the end, but the beginning. We do not know what lies ahead on the journey, but we will find our way.

*Update: Check out William Michaelian's piece connected to my post on his excellent blog, Recently Banned Literature. His main site containing an archive of his writing is also a literary feast.