Friday, February 17, 2012

A Pilgrim's Progress or Lack Thereof

A film I saw recently did something to me that few films do these days: provoke an emotional response and several days’ worth of contemplation. The film was The Way (2010), starring Martin Sheen and written, produced and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez.

Truth is, I have been at a bit of a crossroads in my life these days. When friends and acquaintances have hit middle age, I watched as they dyed their hair, used Rogaine, and bought nifty little sports cars that screamed mid-life crisis. I knew that I would never succumb to such nonsense. My father’s hairline began receding just after high school; I still have my hair, but had the gene been passed to me, I would gladly shave my head entirely and be done with it. But middle age creeps into people’s lives in different ways.

I am most bothered by feeling old—the pain, stiff joints, mental fog especially in the early mornings. I tell people as I limp into my office that “An old football injury is bothering me, but the funny thing is, I never played football.” Usually good for a few laughs. I am also troubled by less physical deficiencies. I must accept that fact that I will never be a drummer in a rock and roll band. The stories I tell now sound a little frayed around the edges, a little too much “I remember when,” and I have begun to notice the drifting away of my students’ focus when I launch into a soliloquy. Too slow, old man; got to pick up the pace. Keep abreast. Remain dynamic. It seems grey hair and a few lines on a face are the signs of a growing insignificance. I don’t need a sports car, hair plugs, or a young girl on my arm to reaffirm that I’ve still got it. I am perfectly happy with my wife and a quiet evening with a book in front of the fire. I just want to escape irrelevancy.

Which brings me to the film. Sheen plays a doctor in California, a widower, set in his ways with a comfortable practice and golf game. His son, however, is thirsting to live, to “suck out all the marrow of life,” as Thoreau put it. He wants to experience everything before he grows old, but his father doesn’t get it; why not settle down? He decides, much to his father’s chagrin, to go on a pilgrimage to hike the Camino de Santiago trail, a roughly 500 mile journey that begins in France, moves through the Basque country of Spain, and concludes at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. One day into his journey, the son is killed in a storm, and Sheen’s character, Thomas Avery, travels to France to retrieve his boy’s remains. Once there, he decides to walk the pilgrimage himself for his son. It is a powerful, moving story, filled with wisdom and allusion.

In a flashback scene, we see Thomas driving his son to the airport for the start of the journey. They argue—Thomas is comfortable with his life, but his son challenges him to see the world, to take a chance, to live. He begs his father to come with him. “I am happy with the life I’ve chosen,” Thomas tells his son.

“You don’t choose a life, dad,” he replies. “You live one.”

As Thomas walks the trail scattering the ashes of his only child along the way, we see flashes of his son in the background and in other characters. His journey, the incredible scenery, and his fellow travelers, all make for an emotional catharsis. Filmed along the actual pilgrimage with a small crew, there is an intimacy and documentary feel to the story, and the film deserves more attention than it received in its theatrical release. It comes out on DVD February 21st.

In those lines quoted above, I find much resonance. As much as we attempt to control our life in the hope that it will go on forever, we try to live as best we can, but control is an illusion. There is no compass or sextant that can predict our course. Life takes us where it will, and we must live it. As I age, I have spent a lot of time trying to control my life. I am a dog relentlessly chasing his own tail. It is time to let go. In our youth-driven culture, it is a sin to grow old. Unlike other cultures, we do not value the mature; we erase the lines on our faces with Botox, and fight the paunch around the middle with liposuction. I, however, am not ashamed of my years. I relish them as a new phase in my life. Most importantly, I try never to become too comfortable, too set in my ways, because that is when we are blindsided. That is when fate or God or destiny steps in and smacks us one just to let us know who is boss.

Living for me is deeply entwined with writing, but a writer cannot force the issue. The greatest sin of a writer is to write when he has nothing to say. I try to avoid this sin but there are many days I awake and feel like I want to drift. Spend the day or week or month just reading, or living. For me, life is a trinity of writing, reading, and living, yet if this threesome is out of balance, I find myself deeply unhappy. I need to feel I am moving forward, gathering steam in the form of reading books, and capturing it all with the crude symbols of written language. I relish the sense of warmth and satisfaction that comes at the end of a day when I have lived well in the world, connected with the mind of another on the pages of a book, and written a good draft of an essay.

The danger in my three-pronged attack is self-absorption. When I pick up my pen, I need to feel my subject on a personal level to write coherently about it. Yet if done correctly, this is not narcissism, but a process of synthesizing and internalizing the insights of observation and reading. I try to keep in mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view that “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all man—that is genius.” In living, reading and writing, I want to stay connected to the universe. It is a pledge, a commitment that is difficult to achieve, but we try because that is the nature of living as art.

A teacher of mine once told me that to write or sculpt or paint is by its very nature arrogant and self-absorbed. “Look at this,” the artist demands. “This is important.” We ask an audience to pay attention; we insist that we have something important to say. Therefore, our arrogance demands that we fulfill that promise. We must always have something relevant to say, or we should shut up and leave the world alone.

It is the journey through this existence that I wish to document. Like the main character in The Way, I am a simple pilgrim traveling through the hills and valleys and treacherous terrain of this dimension. On many days, I am disheartened by my lack of progress. But like most travelers, we move forward in painfully slow steps, the proverbial one foot at a time. We are subject to the rough and curving road, the lay of the land, the storms that swirl along the jet stream in the remarkable sky over our heads. The storms, the frigid temperatures, the sun’s relentless heat, our aching muscles and feet—these must be endured. There will be days when we are lost, when it feels like we will never find our way home. Yet these are the moments when the adventure truly begins.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The School From Hell

What a quagmire for the Los Angeles Unified School District and Superintendent John Deasy! Three high profile arrests for lewd conduct with a child in two weeks. Two of those arrests at the same school, Miramonte in south Los Angeles, where the suspects taught for more than twenty and thirty years respectively. And in all that time, no one saw anything weird? And if they did, they either did nothing about it, or lacked the courage to take necessary action to protect kids.

Now, in a development that has angered some parents, all teachers and administrators at Miramonte have been removed from the school for the remainder of the school year. They will be replaced by teachers who were given reduction in force notices. Why did district officials feel this move was necessary? Are more arrests pending? What do district administrators know that we don’t?

What this unfolding aberration tells us is that test scores are not as important as classroom supervision when evaluating teachers. Administrators must be in their teachers’ classrooms multiple times a day. They must know what is happening in those rooms, and by watching and observing, they will know the worth of a particular teacher. It is that simple. Teacher observation should be the primary way we evaluate educators.

Teachers will tell us that being observed makes them nervous. Being in the classroom with 25 to 30 kids each day is stressful enough. To know that an administrator might wander in at any moment adds another layer of tension to an already difficult situation, but it is necessary. It is imperative.

Teachers cannot be allowed to operate in a vacuum. In the education of a child, every year, every day, every class period is important and inter-related. If one teacher isn’t teaching, the rest of the program falters. The weak link weakens the whole chain.

Contrary to appearances, the teacher is not the only one responsible for what happens in the classroom. The principal, historically known as the principal teacher, is also responsible for what happens there. An administrator is nothing more than the lead teacher, or at least that is what he or she should be. These days, the principal is more politician than teacher, a middle manager tasked with implementing district bureaucracy and pleasing the customer: parents and students.

A principal’s job is to make sure the educational needs of students are being met, and that teachers are teaching curriculum with clear objectives and goals for each and every lesson. In private schools, administrators have really moved away from this obligation to focus on boosting enrollment and endowments, serving as marketing directors, advertising executives, community and public relations officers, even financial managers and bookkeepers. Many principals will say, “Where is the time to go to every classroom multiple times a day?” Answer: the time must be made; the job of teacher and student supervision must be the first and primary priority of every administrator.

Therefore, the administration at Miramonte School should face consequences for dereliction of duty. They should have known what was happening in their classrooms. These were veteran teachers who spent decades at the school; how could administrators, or even other teachers, not know, or at least have some inkling that things were amiss? Blindfolding students, taping their mouths, feeding them treats laced with semen—these were not quick crimes; they took planning and time to execute. If these principals had simply looked in the window they might have noticed things were not right.

Yet, even in the recent talk of our failing education system and need for reform, teachers are blamed for failures based on test scores. Teachers are fired. But what about the administrators? If they allow teachers like these two suspects to continue to work with students decade after decade, should they not face criminal charges? Yes, a teacher executes the lesson plan. The teacher makes sure every student is on task and focused. The teacher is responsible for communicating with parents about the students’ progress or lack thereof. But it is the principal who oversees it all. If a teacher is not performing, or kids are not learning, the principal is responsible for removing the teacher and repairing the inadequacies. To remove the teacher without considering the role of the principal in the mess is shortsighted. In this instance, Deasy was right to remove teachers and administrators at Miramonte.

In this atrocity, I would include in the loop of incompetence and possible criminality the superintendent and his management team, as well as the administration of Miramonte School. I have been sickened by the situation, but also by Deasy’s belated outrage and blustering on the TV news each evening. As more evidence unfolds revealing a situation that has developed over years and not just in the last few weeks, it will be clear that others knew something was wrong in the classroom and did nothing to investigate and stop it. Of this, I am certain.

Teaching is different from other workplaces. Management techniques from the business and manufacturing worlds cannot be adapted to the classroom. Workers on an assembly line operate in plain sight of supervisors, for one, and teachers operate behind closed doors. To remedy this situation and prevent it from happening again, those classroom doors must be thrown open and administrators must be in the classroom observing the interaction between teacher and students. And both teacher and principal must be held accountable for what happens each day.

For now, the damage has been done. For those of us who are committed educators, who place the well-being and education of our students above our own needs, we have all been given a black eye. Teachers are already denigrated in this country, and this aberration will no doubt make the situation even worse. The school from hell has brought us all down—superintendents, administrators and teachers—and that is a tragedy with consequences we can only begin to ascertain.

Photo courtesy of Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times