Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Mansion of Happiness

Jill Lepore’s The Mansion of Happiness:  A History of Life and Death (Vintage Books, $16) should really be called “The History of Everything.”  She moves digression to the realm of art.  These essays, many appearing first on the pages of The New Yorker, provide an interesting and exhilarating journey for the reader who dares to follow Lepore’s blazing trail of prose through the meanderings of human history and experience.

“This book is a history of ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave,” Lepore writes in her Preface.  We should forgive the clichĂ©.  It may be history, but the book also has a free-associative quality that keeps surprising the reader at every turn.  There are intricate connections and themes that link figures and events, and Lepore obviously finds joy in her work because it is present on every page.  Her prose is often humorous and barbed as she explores her subjects.  She is a story teller, and therefore, the best kind of teacher.  In fact, it is her stated mission to make history an argument with story; story, history, argument:  a trinity well worth its weight in gold.

Lepore begins with The Checkered Game of Life.  Literally, she examines board games, many created by entrepreneur Milton Bradley.  Through games like Life and chess, players “learn foresight, circumspection, caution and perseverance,” she writes.  She tells the fascinating history of Bradley’s ancestors, probably the best stories in the book.  Indians murdered Daniel Bradley.  The wife of Daniel’s son was kidnapped twice, forcing her husband to travel hundreds of miles to ransom her from the Indians.  “To be rescued from captivity was to be redeemed,” Lapore writes.  Joseph’s wife was no wallflower when it came to her own redemption.  While eight months’ pregnant, she scalded one attacker and killed him with boiling water.  On her trek with her kidnappers, “she lived on nuts, bark, and wild onions.”  When she gave birth, she squatted and expelled the child in the snow right there on the trail.  The Indians killed the infant.  After two stints as a prisoner, the next Indian who came to her door faced an angry woman with a blazing gun barrel.  “She lived to be ninety,” writes Lepore.

The book has a loose-limbed structure tied to the rambling framework of life and death.  She tells us about the human discovery of our own origins, linking Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s iconic pictures in Life magazine to the work of William Harvey and later, to the film-maker Stanley Kubrick.  She dissects the art and history of breastfeeding.  In another chapter, we follow the odyssey of E.B. White as he writes and publishes Stuart Little.  White is antagonized by the woman who invented the children’s section in the public library, Anne Carroll Moore, according to Lepore.  Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood, and forced sterilization take center stage in another chapter.  Lepore ends her book in a warehouse of cryogenically frozen human popsicles hanging upside down in sleeping bags floating in tanks of liquid nitrogen at 320 degrees below zero.  They are waiting to be defrosted and resurrected somewhere beyond the horizon of history in a time not yet made.  Heady stuff, and that’s only a pie slice of Lepore’s scope in the book.

Endings of chapters offer a kick to the gut; Lepore excels at tying disparate subjects together in a hangman’s noose—deadly and decisive.  At the end of “All About Erections,” her son asks if one needs a “conundrum” for oral sex,” obviously mistaking one word for another.  “I put down my newspaper,” Lepore tells us, “And then, carrying on an ancient and honorable family tradition, I whiffed the bejeezus out of that one.”  There is no corner too dark, a subject too ribald or character too eccentric for Lepore’s laser analysis and observation.  In her chapter on birth control, she bemoans that a century after Sanger, “in the United States, one set of ideas about parenthood [exists] for the poor and another for the wealthy.”

Jill Lepore ends her book by circling back to the beginning.  “I have come to believe that what people make of the relationship between life and death has got a good deal to do with how they think about the present and the past,” she writes.  “If history is the art of making an argument by telling a story about the dead, which is how I see it, the dead never die; they are merely forgotten or, especially if they are loved, remembered, quick as ever.”  She reaffirms, on the pages of The Mansion of Happiness, that the past tells us what the present means, and if we pay attention, what the future holds far away beyond the curve of the horizon in a time to come.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Speaking Truth To Power

Noa Rosinplotz from Facebook and other websites

The following is a letter written a while back by a sixth grader to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It has appeared in many places since its first publication. I got it from Diane Ravitch's blog.

The writer is a student in Washington D.C. named Noa Rosinplotz. Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews was able to verify that Noa is the daughter of Slate editor-in-chief, David Plotz, and former Post reporter Hanna Rosin. Although her parents read her letter before she published it, they did not write it for her. Noa is a gifted student. She nails the problem with standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, and Race To The Top. For that reason, this piece must be shared. Here is Noa Rosinplotz's letter:

Dear Mr. Duncan,

I’m writing you because I got my DC CAS results in the mail.

See, I thought you might want to know what they were. I certainly don’t. I mean, the first thing I noticed in that packet was the paper. It’s fancy and green-a pretty light green, which sort of fades out when it gets to the end of the paper.

I thought you might want to know, Mr. Duncan. Your system paid for my thick pastel green paper, and for all the ink that goes into telling me that I got a 91% on Reading Literary Text. Oh-I forgot to introduce myself. No need-I got Advanced, which is what you’re wondering.

I bet you’re also wondering how I feel about that. Am I happy, relieved, perhaps surprised? But I forgot-you don’t have to know, Mr. Duncan, because all that matters is I got Advanced.

But I’ll tell you anyway. You can’t know every child in this country and their reactions to the pretty green paper. But at least you can know me, just one datapoint, one spot on the chart. When I saw that green paper, I didn’t hold it up to the light or smile or show it to my parents. I tossed it back on the table and went to eat an August nectarine.

Let me tell you what’s on my sheet, Mr. Duncan. It says my name, student ID, teacher, birthday (ours are barely a month apart, Mr. Duncan), and the city I live in, Washington, DC. You live here too. I wonder if you’ve ever seen me on the street, riding my bike or walking with friends. Your eyes probably went right over me and you forgot me milliseconds after remembering.

You might know me, though, in the back of your brain, as Advanced. Let’s get back to the sheet, though. Want to hear what I can do? I can read sixth grade informational and literary texts and analyze author’s purpose and supporting evidence. I can use and analyze diverse organizational structures to locate information, interpret and paraphrase information, interpret subtle language, analyze relevance of setting to the events and mood of a narrative, and use stated words, actions, and descriptions of characters to determine their feelings and relationships to other characters.

But that’s not all! I can use tables to compare ratios! I can solve problems involving finding the whole when given a part and the percent! I can multiply slash divide multi digit decimals! I can use order of operations to evaluate expressions with multiple variables and whole-number exponents, solve an inequality that represents a real-world math problem, analyze relationships of ordered pairs in graphs slash tables!

Aren’t you proud of me, Mr. Duncan? I can see you, in my head, reading this and thinking: “That girl sounds like a real charmer. I mean, how many girls who can describe overall pattern with reference to the context in which data were gathered are there out there?”

But I don’t care, Mr. Duncan, I don’t care. I can fill in bubbles and I can write my name nice and neat up in the line on my answer sheet where it tells me to do so. I can use scrap paper efficiently and check whether a pencil is #2 with a single glance. I know the testing procedures, I know my testing seat, and I know how to leave adequate time for BCRs.

Aren’t you proud of me, Mr. Duncan?

Because this is what I have learned. This is what No Child Left Behind has taught me. I have learned to be a puppet and take their tests and get a fancy green paper every year in the mail, except for when it’s just a gray photocopy. I am twelve years old and I know as well as anybody that standardized tests do nothing but cause pain and stress for everybody involved. And oh, have I learned. I’ve learned more than I ever thought possible.

School has taught me things, and tests have taught me other things. I can speak Spanish fluently and find palindromic numbers and write letters to education officials and formulate a hypothesis and everything in between. But on test days, none of that matters.

All that matters is the busy work in front of me, the math problems and confusing passages that swim beneath my vacant gaze and leave me thinking of anything, everything but what lies ahead in the next two hours. And after all this is done, after we drink water and use the bathroom and return to our daily lives, what happens?

Fancy green papers are released and people’s fates are decided. But we, the students, we, the people, are never consulted. We care and we take the tests and we don’t like it. Do you want facts, Mr. Duncan? I’ve got plenty. Oh, and by the way, I looked for a student survey to show you here. There were none.

For my science experiment last year, I gave our 5th grade citywide benchmark, the Paced Interim Assessment, or PIA, to a group of English professors at various universities across the country. Their average was a meager 89%, much lower than one would expect from some of the experts on the English language in the US. Nobody got a perfect score. According to a survey of Indiana teachers, 85.7% of teachers disagree or strongly disagree that standardized testing is an accurate measure of student achievement.

A mere 22% of Americans “believe increased testing has helped the performance of local public schools,” according to a poll released by PDK/Gallup After the implementation of NCLB, students fared no better on the PISA, dropping from 18th place to 31st place in mathematics internationally. · A New Mexico high school teacher, citing his students’ impatience with standardized tests, revealed that the kids had started drawing designs on their bubble sheets instead of taking the actual tests: “Christmas tree designs were popular. So were battleships and hearts.”

I was going to put a test question here, but that’s making it too easy for you. Look at one yourself. And you know the rest, Mr. Duncan. Ask Google. Google will tell you more. I’m not asking for you to stop these tests, Mr. Duncan. I know it isn’t your fault. I just want you to hear a student’s opinion. You have kids-they can tell you. Nobody listens to the datapoints, so we must make ourselves heard.
Your job is to support us, Mr. Duncan. Please, do so, the best you can.

Listen, and look out for me on the streets of the nation’s capital. I’ll do the same. Maybe on the basketball court, maybe in a cafĂ© or a diner. You might be downtown, taking your kids to the movies or boating on the Potomac. You might be on the same bus as me, or waiting at the same stoplight. We’re both people, Mr. Duncan, and you know that.

So listen and read this. Maybe it’ll make you think, change your mind on all this. And if you do end up reading this, I’m the Advanced kid with a purple bracelet on her right wrist and long curly hair. Smile at me if you see me, but I won’t smile back. Not until the fancy green paper stops arriving at my doorstep in August.

Advanced with a purple bracelet on her right wrist

Monday, September 9, 2013

Change Is Gonna Come

The Conversion of St. Paul

“It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”
                                                                                    -Sam Cooke

What makes us change our minds?  What makes us change our lives?  Henry David Thoreau writes that, “Things do not change; we change.”  Yet change can be the thing we fear most.  To change, we must first let go of what was, of the way things used to be, of the people we once were.  We must free-fall into the unmapped chasm of the future.  We must leap and embrace the fall.

Saint Paul, the man after whom I am named, had a major conversion experience in his life.  He was Saul, a Pharisee, an observant Jew who studied Mosaic Law and considered himself a zealot for the Chosen People.  He hated the reformers who took their cues from Jesus Christ, and actively persecuted them with murderous, predatory fervor.

According to Luke in Acts of the Apostles, Saul’s life changed in an instant on a road in Damascus.  He was struck down by a blinding light, and a booming voice of thunder called out to him:  “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, sir?” Saul responded.

“I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting…”

His traveling companions witnessed the event, and when they rushed to help Saul, they found him weakened and blind.  For three days he lived in darkness, unable to eat or drink.

In another part of the city lived a Jesus-disciple named Ananias who had a vision from God that told him to help Saul, but Ananias was scared.  Saul was well known for his cruelty and persecution of Jews who embraced Jesus.  However, Ananias did what he was called to do.  He put hands on Saul, and “Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.”  He was baptized and became Paul, and thus began a most intense mission to spread the good news of Jesus.

It is a great story full of tension and excitement, but it raises issues.  Paul might have been an epileptic—there is some indication he was in both Acts of the Apostles and in his epistles.  Could his blindness have been the result of a Grand mal seizure?  This does not explain what his fellow travelers witnessed with the light and thunderous words.

Could he have actually been struck by lightning?  This is intriguing, because he had trouble swallowing food after being hit.  A victim of a lightning strike often has difficulty with muscle coordination as well as blindness, amnesia, and speaking.  But in many accounts, Paul could speak and he remembered the moment he was stricken.

There is a deeper, more human issue with Paul’s conversion.  People rarely change their lives in an instant.  Sure, it does happen—a heart attack, an accident, the death of a loved one—but mostly people change over time, or they resist and never change at all.  The process is long, reflective in nature, and fraught with missteps, false starts, and a myriad of setbacks.  There is fear, uncertainty, trepidation.  We don’t wake up one day and change our names, our beliefs, the very foundation of our lives, unless something momentous happens.  If we believe Luke, something momentous did happen, but his is not the only account of the conversion experience.

Paul, himself, talks about his conversion as being a quieter, more internal, and therefore a bit more believable change.  By all accounts, Jesus was a revolutionary figure who changed the world.  He offered Jews a whole new way to live, and the ripples he caused spread throughout the Roman Empire.  Over time, Paul had a gradual realization.  He grew up with Hellenistic philosophy in a multi-cultural society.  He studied the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Cynics.  He stood outside and inside Judaism, and his experiences must have opened his mind to the Messianic ideas presented by Jesus, even though the two never met.

A third global religion was born, and Paul helped with the delivery.  It would be years before the word, “Christian,” entered the lexicon, but Paul became a voice in the burgeoning movement within traditional Judaism.  Saul of Tarses disappeared.  A man named Paul took his place.

So, I was reading Paul’s words and thinking about a conversion experience.  Rilke writes, “You must change your life.”  But how does a person do that?  Is it a dramatic fire in the sky and the booming voice of a god?  Is it the dawn’s early light sneaking over the horizon in the east waking us up to the gradual recognition that we must live differently now?

For me, it is subtle, a long ripening to fruition.  It is a tentative process after much heartache and disappointment.  I am the dog who chases his own tail.  I slash and burn and torture myself.  I sit in the eye of the storm and try to sweep away the clouds.  I forget the lesson that clouds and storms are necessary.  Only through the wind and rain can new life begin and we can be transformed from the people we once were to the people we wish to become.

Sometimes, the blinding light comes in an instant.  Sometimes it takes a lifetime.  But come it will, on the road to somewhere or in the middle of the darkest of nights.  The change will come.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

August Has Slipped Away

I have spent the waning days of August reading, or in some cases, rereading, essays.  Not student essays.  Not yet.  Professional essays—Montaigne, Emerson, Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Stuart Dybek, and a host of others.  It is my yearly tune up for fall classes and student writers.  The definition of the word “essay” comes from a French word, essai, meaning “attempt.”  When I sit down to read an essay, or to write one, I expect an attempt, not an absolute.

Essays begin with questions, and it is the questions that lead us home, both as writers and readers.  Once we have questioned, we learn, we formulate opinions, we comment upon, and we relate what we have learned to our lives.  That is the complete equation, and the source of all learning.  Therefore, I changed the subtitle of the blog to:  “Questions.  Comments.  True Stories of Adventure.”  It is a phrase I have used in all of my classes for 26 years.  When we wrap up a lesson, I look out over the classroom into the eyes of my students and say, “Questions, comments, true stories of adventure?”  The question mark means I want their thoughts, their input, their stories.

The essayists I’ve read this week all started out with questions they needed answered.  Many were written years, decades, centuries ago, and even though the answers may have changed in the revelations and experiences of history, in that moment, that is what a particular writer thought.  This is what he or she came to know and understand.  Because knowledge and experience are transitory and we may often travel the same river twice, the way the light falls may be different each time.  We learn something new every day, even if it is a day like the one before it.  That is what I love about the essay:  it is often a work in progress, a dialogue between selves weeks, months, years apart.  And even better, a reader deep in the heart of an essay is also in dialogue with the writer across the space of time and distance.

One book I read recently attempts to bring some innovation to the essay.  Blurring the Boundaries:  Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (University of Nebraska Press, $30) edited by B.J. Hollars, gathers some current working essayists together in a collection of pieces that often break the rules of the formal, standard essay.  Hollars places the essay and follows it with a second essay from the same writer explaining the creative process.  At the end of the book, he also includes writing exercises for students to use to create their own essays.  It is a nifty little book, but in many of the pieces, the experimentation slides into abstract cleverness.  The writer breaks the rules because he can, not to service the essay or the point made.

For instance, Ander Monson writes his essay, “Outline toward a Theory of the Mine versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline” in outline form.  The piece reads like an essay, but all the Roman numerals and indentions simply confuse the issue.  Michael Martone justifies the right margin of his essay and structures his piece like a poem.  Interesting, but not exacly earth-shattering.  Then there are the magical pieces, the ones that utilize the breaking of rules to soar.  I am thinking of Beth Ann Fennelly’s piece, “Salvos into the World of Hummers,” which manages to extract beauty and elegance out of research into every aspect of hummingbirds.  I was left astounded.  The after-essays are insightful on their own.  Susan Neville writes after her moving piece on a man facing Alzheimer’s, “It’s all in the process, in the way you can get closer to what feels true…”  She goes on to say that writers often argue “that there is no such thing as an objective truth.”  She wishes to explore that assertion in her essays.

I want to write about learning to live in the world, and I want to inspire my students to do the same.  “The days run away like wild horses over the hills,” Charles Bukowski wrote.  There is thunder and lightning, heat and dust, clouds and rain.  Through it all, the questions remain.  I wish to continue to try, to make the attempt, to essay what it means to learn and to live.

I think I’m ready for the new school year.  Just in time, because here comes fall.