Saturday, October 29, 2011

Personal Matters

I spend my days working with individual writers on papers for their college classes. For the most part, these papers are research-based analysis of topics within the disciplines of sociology, medicine, and psychology. I spend time reading through the essays, marking them up, correcting grammar and format, and making suggestions on how to bring out the strengths and minimize the weaknesses in the writer’s work. I have, however, learned to go easy on one aspect I always find missing from scientific research and analysis: the first person pronoun “I.” Most teachers do not allow the use of “I.” “You must be objective,” they tell the students. “Only the facts and your analysis.”

Some of the papers this semester focused on the film, Mysterious Skin (2004), a rather intense and graphic depiction of child sexual abuse and its effects on the lives of two boys. Many of the students found the film disturbing on many levels, and a few struggled to even write about it with any kind of depth or discussion, subconsciously trying to avoid confronting the horrific acts depicted in the film. The startling realization I came to when speaking with each writer is that many of them had experienced or witnessed some kind of abusive situation, either sexual, physical, or verbal, and the movie served to dredge up those memories and refresh the trauma.

When it came to writing an analysis, the students were asked to take on the case of the two leads and discuss how they would approach the situation as social workers. In their essays, the students were to write in third person—“a therapist should…”—and avoid reacting on a purely visceral, personal level. To show anger or any emotional reaction could make the patient shut down, or feel as if some kind of judgment was being rendered.

But here, I have a problem. I understand the need for an academic approach, an objective scientific stance when observing a case. However, as a writer, this goes against the grain. The personal is always important, even when it is subconscious.

A journalistic essay requires the who, what, where, when why, and how, the solid lead, the salient facts, the descriptive details. In true third person objective journalism, personal feelings about the events must be left out. Yet, is this practically possible? A writer can choose which facts to emphasize, which, in a way, can evoke emotions in the reader. Through an objective, carefully organized telling of the facts, the journalist can subtly influence the effect on the reader of the writing.

Readers of journalism are seeing the story through the writer’s eyes. It is the world “as seen by,” and even reaction to a film clip of a news event can be influenced by the editing of the tape. Often, journalists will say, “I want to be a fly on the wall, a neutral observer of the story.” By his very presence in the space, the journalist alters the scene.

Writing is a personal act. Even a “just-the-facts” rendering has strands of the personal buried in it, and the personal matters. If the writer removes herself from the page, if the writing is merely an academic exercise, readers will turn away. So, how does one bring in the personal, and how much “personal response” should be allowed onto the page before objectivity is corrupted?

Writers are entitled to an opinion if they have done the homework—read the text in question, read articles and research about the subject, witnessed the event, and/or thought about it and considered all points of view. Too many teachers tell students, “You have no right to an opinion. You need to listen to me because I am the expert, and you are only a”—insert here: child, amateur, etc.—and thus begins the “expert lecture” where students tune out and check their Facebook page while the sage on the stage drones on and on.

Good writers find a way to write from the personal to the world. A good personal essayist resonates with readers. The writing strikes a chord. A narcissist resonates only with himself. He whines and complains, but in the end, doesn’t give a shit about the rest of the world. He’s only interested in airing his grievances and showing how smart he is.

Joan Didion, one of my writing heroes, was taught that she was the least important person in the room, and she believes this role serves her well in her job as a journalist. It is okay to be unobtrusive, but a writer is always present. The writer’s eyes see the world for us. She is the witness. That is the success of the writing—the reader feels the experience as if he were present. That’s not narcissism; that’s good writing. Didion also insists that she writes to find out what she thinks. Writing is always about self-discovery. The additional obligation is to bend that revelation so that readers discover something as well. Good writing must resonate. That, in the end, is the only criteria that matters.

We are all on a journey—separate and together—and that journey has a finite end. We are singular in the way we live as part of the plurality. It is a paradox. Therefore, writing is not about the “me” or the “other.” It is the singular “I” or “eye.”

For example, the student writing about theories of hospice care for her nursing course should not avoid the experiences she had while interning as a hospice nurse. This could make for a fascinating essay as well. How can she bring in the “I,” (eye) to her research essay? It will take a bit of slight of hand, and a clever disguise, but her direct experiences with the theories in practice are too valuable to leave out. So, the writer must work to bring some of what she saw into the essay without compromising the third person objective research.

In the end, writing in a vacuum without the “I” (eye) is pounding sand. It is mental masturbation, the ultimate narcissism. It’s showing off. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Leaving out the “I” can actually be narcissistic. But it is true. That kind of writing is stillborn, vapid, mere facts without context. Like a masturbatory experience, it has a beginning, middle and climax, but the writer still wakes up alone, bereft of the communal experience of being alive. In the end, it is the personal that fosters the connections to the readers. Good writing is the solitary tone that is universal, the sacred sound that resonates with all existence. In the end, it is the personal that matters most.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Selling (And Saving) Catholic Schools

According to Monsignor Charles Pope, writing from the Archdiocese of Washington this past summer, “over 6,000 [Catholic] schools have closed since 1970.”

Andy Smarick, in National Affairs (Issue Number 7, Spring, 2011) tells us that the decade of the 1970s saw 1,700 schools close. He goes on to say that Catholic schools are as American as George Washington, and were here before the Revolution began. In fact, he says, “these schools long pre-date the American founding.” The first Catholic school, started by Franciscans, opened in Florida, circa 1606. The Jesuits “founded a preparatory school for boys in Newton, Maryland” in 1677. “In the early 1800s, parochial schools—those affiliated with parishes—emerged and became the foundation for Catholic elementary schools.”

Across the country and around the world, millions of students have been educated in Catholic institutions. They have gone on to give back to the world as doctors, lawyers, artists, thinkers, and business leaders. A Catholic education is synonymous with higher test scores, greater achievement, and effective learning. And all of this was done on a shoe string budget, and with none of the bloated bureaucracy of public education. These teachers taught values, ethics, moral codes, as well as Latin, mathematics, literature, English grammar, government, history, biology, and all the sciences. Students graduated from Catholic high schools prepared for the rigors of college.

Today however, Catholic schools are in trouble. “Dwindling enrollment and other challenges have decimated urban Catholic schools nationwide…” writes Carla Rivera in the September 27, 2011 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The days of classrooms staffed by underpaid nuns are over. Now schools come with lay teaching faculty, men and women who must be paid a decent salary and receive basic benefits like health care and retirement. The cost per pupil is also on the rise. Education costs are climbing, and the reasonable tuition of most parish schools is not so reasonable anymore, especially if one or both parents are out of work, like many Americans across the country. There is competition from Charter schools and non-religious private institutions. So-called “helicopter parents” examine every facet of their child’s education, and are quick to jump ship if they think the school across town might offer the key to the Ivy League. So education is a competitive market, and Catholic schools can no longer afford to rest on their laurels.

So it is with that in mind that a crowd of Catholic school teachers, administrators, parents, and support staff gathered at Bishop Alemany High School in Los Angeles this past weekend to participate in a marketing think tank led by Dennis Polito and Caron Willits. The facilitators were part of a program called MAX LA, or Marketing Archdiocese Excellence in Los Angeles. These men and women who worked a long week teaching kids, grading papers, planning lessons, and running schools became Mad Men, marketing their schools in an effort to boost enrollment and grab the brass ring of financial stability.

Saturday’s topic was preschool outreach. How do we bring in more students? How do we keep the students we have? How do we get the word out about the quality education we offer? With a lot of energy and no cynicism, every school representative in the room focused on finding answers to these and other questions.

Participants willingly shared ideas and strategies: updated websites help, and teachers, even with all their other duties, should have class pages that are refreshed weekly with news items and pictures. Social media now plays a greater role: if a school is not on Facebook or Twitter, someone better get on it.

People who normally talk about books and papers and lesson plans spoke succinctly about “branding” and community outreach. Some spoke of unique and clever strategies to recruit students, like visiting local mommy hangouts and selling DVDs of school activities to parents in the hope that they will pass along copies to extended family members. Never under-estimate word-of-mouth.

One principal advised participants to make creative payment arrangements with parents who struggle financially. “Just get them in the door,” she urged. Some schools stay open during the holidays as a way of offering extended day care. Another principal said she opened the doors to her school at six in the morning and did not close them until six at night so children could stay until parents finished work. One school offered incentives to students to plan news-worthy events, and when the local channel sent a reporter, the kids got free dress.

The high point came when Archdiocese Chancellor of Schools, Sister Mary Elizabeth Galt, B.V.M., announced that for the first time in ten years, enrollment in diocese schools was up. “We were losing a thousand students a year,” she said. But the marketing efforts begun last year seemed to be making a difference. Sister then drew a name from a hat and sent one educator home with a $250 gift card to an office supply store.

In an age of failing schools and deep concerns about the future of American education, these participants were willing to devote weekends and additional hours to writing ad slogans, creating brochures, and formulating grant proposals. That is the new paradigm of teaching today, and even though a Catholic education has been the gold standard for decades and should need no huckstering to save a school from closure, teachers, administrators, parents and staff are more than willing to step to the plate and sell. It may be the only way to save their schools.

Logo courtesy of National Catholic Education Association website.

For additional articles about this subject, see the post here.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Blue Mornings

This piece was written for the Daily News in Los Angeles on the occasion of the paper’s centennial.

I will never forget flying through the dawn. In many ways, those mornings in the eastern San Fernando Valley delivering the Daily News shaped my entire life.

I started my delivery service when the paper published on selected days of the week. By the end of my time, the Daily News was a seven-day-a-week publication with a unique valley slant. There were no mornings off for us carriers. I pedaled my ten-speed furiously through the neighborhood, racing the sun to get all my papers delivered and get back home to get ready for school. My salary helped pay for my Catholic school education and relieve the financial burden on my working class parents.

My daily journey was an adventure, fraught with a hint of danger and full of hidden secrets in the darkness.

There was the vicious mutt that stalked me. He ran loose in the neighborhood and would lie in wait to launch himself out of the dark shrubbery to attack me with gleaming fangs and horrible snarl. His teeth nipped at my frantic legs, and once he had a hold of my jean cuff, he tried to tear me off my bike. As a twelve year old who had just read about Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, I feared being torn apart by this beast. In a last ditch effort to survive, I loaded a plastic squirt gun with ammonia, and when the dog leaped at me the next morning, I managed to nail him in the face. He slid away into the darkness, never to harass me again.

There was the body on the sidewalk. I nearly ran over him and thought he was dead. Staring down at him, my chest heaving, I heard him moan and realized, as my nose registered the stench, that he was only drunk.

There were the mishaps, mostly due to my bad aim and weak throwing arm. The guy who demanded his paper on his porch or he wouldn’t pay me received a slamming wake-up call every 5 AM as I furiously hurled his paper against his screen door. Until I developed some skill, papers landed on roofs, in flower beds, and one time, through an open window with a crash of broken dishes and who knows what else.

Little did I know, when I returned home smeared with ink and smelling of newsprint, those days of delivery, in rain, cold, heat, and dust would lead me to a life centered on words as a writer and English teacher. But they did, and I would not trade the memories for anything.

I’d like to think that somewhere in another dimension of time and space, that twelve year old boy is still pedaling his way through another blue morning. In that place, people still read newspapers, children feel safe at school and on the streets of their neighborhoods, and a child flies through the dawn’s early light, launching a bundle of newsprint through the air to land on the front porch to inform the world.

Photo: Getty Images