Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bi Bi Bi

We have every reason to think that as a nation we are still a united state. People are connecting and networking like never before. More opportunities to see how everybody you know and anybody you knew is doing from minute to minute. Given the rise and evolution of sites like Facebook over the last five years, there is every reason to believe previously unknown uses and benefits await. Just imagine where all these postings, photos and updates might take us. a nation, we are more polarized than ever.
The gap in wealth in this country is so great that our middle class is disappearing fast as an ice cube in Death Valley. In a recent study, 50% of the American people reported that they could not raise $2000. in a two week time period. Month to month is more the norm now. The 2% with most of the wealth just can't seem to fathom that. "Why aren't they saving any money?" some ask, ignorant of unemployment figures, outsourced jobs, sixty somethings that can't afford to retire and twenty somethings spilling off the college graduation conveyer belts and piling up before returning to their parents homes to re-group and figure it all out.
But that is only one dimension of this paradox. With the rise of cable TV and the proliferation of so-called "news media," preaching to the converted has reached new heights. Seems to me that most folks are choosing to receive the information they want, with the results they want, rather that considering accuracy, truth, documentation, journalistic ethics and talent. We shout at one another more often than not.
Comedy doesn't help because the fine line between satire and seriousness is nearly indistinguishable. Unbelievably, for some, political labels or positions on the spectrum have become tantamount to diseases. Recently a friend of mine was angrily called a "socialist" with all the distain of an 18th century fire and brimstone preacher. When did "liberal" become something to fear, someone to avoid, devalue, or dismiss?
When I wonder what all this adds up to, I think that maybe it's all not that difficult to figure out. Seems to me that at their core, people either are empathetic or they are not. They either want to help others when possible or want to help themselves. Through that lens, this bi-polar, bi-partisan binary we have makes perfect sense.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Every Distance Is Not Near

Rohinton Mistry writes, in his wonderful novel A Fine Balance, "Distance was a dangerous thing...Distance changed people." The context of that comment is a young man going off to school in a large city in India, but the fear of distance remains universal. I suppose we have all lost someone to distance. I can think of a few examples in my own life experience when distance unloosed it's dangers on someone close to me. But if change is to be embraced, maybe then distance need not be dangerous.
I see many examples of how distance changed someone for the good. The freedom to be is certainly part of that. But coupled with time, distance really achieves its potential.
I've been spending the weekend about 600 miles away from home. Re-living my life in the city where I previously lived. The changes are subtle and then all of a sudden something crashes down. Today as I drove my truck toward an intersection I used to see daily, I felt momentarily lost. Something was missing. How about a building! I lost my sense of balance because I suddenly looked up and saw the S.F. Bay in the distance. There used to be something on that corner. It's gone. Distance has changed my perception.
I've seen people too who I haven't seen or lived near for a number of years now. As I am muttering to myself how old they look, or how gray their hair is now, I wonder if they are doing the same when they see me?
Tonight, at an Indian restaurant, a beautiful young woman from Nepal was our waitress. My mother-in-law quickly engaged her in conversation by greeting her with "Namaste" and clasping her hands together as many Asian people do. She was so full of life and positive energy and so far from home. Next she wants to go to nursing school in New Mexico. Why there? Because it seems like an interesting place to be. I will probably never see her again, but then again I hope to see her every day.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Side Show

Last week I was sitting around with some folks from my writing group and the topic of carnivals came up. I sometimes think that thoroughbred horse racing, and the entire alternate universe that it supports, could just possibly be the last American carnival. If you go to any county fair with racing, the argument only gets stronger. But as we sat around, postponing our work momentarily, we got off on topics like the circus. The circus has definitely morphed in recent years, but it does retain much of original charm, if not it's strong aura of the underbelly of this culture. Of course it's politically incorrect in every dimension. (Read or see the film "Water for Elephants" for a glimpse)
Eventually I told my fellow writers that I have a strong early memory of being taken to a real circus side show when I was very young. It was some time in the 1950s. I must have been 5 or 6 years old. My sister and I were invited by an older couple that lived across the street form us. Being a poor kid with no chance to see Barnum and Baily's Greatest Show on Earth, our parents let us go with them. In a tent to the side (really off to the side) I saw a man with alligator skin on his back, a giant (he drank a 6 pack of 7-UP all at once) a sword swallower, and a woman with no arms or legs. Thee was a real bearded lady; I think she was the fat lady too. Those terms were thrown around back then.
When this conversation ended, it occurred to me that we really haven't lost the side show at all. Just this morning, while making the daily trek to my favorite coffee shop I saw plenty of folks that would survive in a side show. So many mentally ill people on the streets these days. So many people that could have been drown by "The Far Side" cartoonist, Gary Larson. And that's just going from here to there. When I look at just last week's news, the attractions get stronger. We get the sexting congressman, the homicidal mother who is both a pathological liar and a sociopath. A team loses a hockey game and cars are overturned, buildings burned, and another generation loses the sense of civility.
Seems to me the antidote to all these things might be ethics and empathy. If we felt what others felt, or even stopped to think about what another might feel like, if we stopped and thought about what might be the right thing to do when our emotions are raw, we might end the side show once and for all.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Open for Business

The great oral historian and humanitarian, Studs Terkel, once concluded, "Your work is your identity." Of course this nugget of wisdom came from his wonderful collection called Working where all kinds of people talk about what they do for a living. No surprise here, if you put your life into a career, an occupation, an avocation, it often becomes who you are.
When I stopped being a full-time teacher I naturally wondered how my identity would be impacted. "Who will I be when I am no longer "Mr. Greene." Truth is, I will always be Mr. Greene. This was recently evidenced by a brief meeting with a former student last week who seemed more comfortable not making the leap to informality. That's fine with me. Funny thing is though I introduced myself to her partner as Bruce. We left it at that.
Because my identity as a teacher is constant, I can't help reacting the way I do to the current attack on teachers and the institution of the public school. Last week my local newspaper ran an editorial accusing teachers of desiring the "status quo." The politics behind that ridiculous statement was simple. The governor and some large corporate and political interests are trying to ram through more "official " assessments, so when the teacher's union and other educators balk, we get accused of being in the way of progress. That's the way arguments are framed these days.
OK, I get that. Only thing is, it's not true. Why would any teacher in their right mind want to defend the status quo? Pretty neat tactic, isn't it? Just more proof that those who know the least about educating a human being, think they have viable arguments about school reform to offer. No, no, no. They are only interested in a good front, numerical data, profits from testing and assessment materials, and promoting a view of education that is hopelessly inadequate for a life that is changing so fast that it's impossible to keep up with the latest technology even if you had the resources to do so.
To this mess I will add another ugly player. Up here in Oregon we are treated to the rants of people who teacher bash about the Public Employees Retirement System. To hear them talk you'd think this huge teat was being sucked dry by a bunch of undeserving, 3 month vacationing, ineffective, whining, pseudo professionals. They really (I mean REALLY) resent the fact that teachers can put half their life into a profession and end up with a living wage when they retire.
This rage is so misdirected that it borders on the ludicrous, but no body's laughing. It's painful. True I am a retired California teacher living in Oregon. True, the California State Teacher's Retirement Association is in much better shape. What's not true is that it hurts just as much to hear teachers maligned no matter where they teach.
Of all the pain connected with being a veteran teacher, I've come to believe that this is the most hurtful. We can get over the physical pain from assault to illness, from the mental stress in the form of headaches, all manner of psycho-somatic diseases, and weight gain or poor diet. We can endure all those bad days. The student (s) who know how to get on that last nerve, and how to stomp on it. We get past the days when we uttered, "for this I went to college." We know how resilient students can be and we find that it's contagious. It's these public bullies who channel all their frustration and anger onto the teacher that turns the knife.
I've encountered them from time to time. They lurk on message boards, in editorial chat rooms, and sometimes pontificate in coffee shops. I try to invite them into a classroom. Urge them to experience a day in the life, but they'll have none of it. We both know that would put them out of business.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Uncivil War

This is the week when the school year ends. All over the country, it's time to grade the last papers, calculate, contemplate, and for some...graduate.
While there is often time to reflect, and congratulate, unfortunately, many educators will go home with no job for the fall. Huge layoffs continue, skimpy budgets in place. As if that isn't bad enough, the attacks and harangs on public schools and public school teachers continue.
In July a march on Washington will put thousands of educators in the street. A brief time in the sun. Hopefully the comparison between the fight for civil rights and the fight for teacher's rights will follow.
My hope for the summer is that millions more will join in the battle raging. A new civil war awaits.
I wrote this poem with that in mind.

A Civil War Address

Dark time, delicate days, for the teacher
Too much remains locked inside the school
Not the task that tortures or tempts the child.
But the top down weight called reform
That slithers with co-opted force
Making hostages of time and skill

We hone this craft, this subtle skill
Where intuition serves the natural-born teacher
To motivate with success,
Alone at very public school
Bloodied by philanthropists
Eager to please some inner child.

But real children, like rivers, break
They languish yet still survive,

Today I learned of a teacher
Who changed plans mid-stream
Abandoned test prep and invited her class to watch snow fall,
Making their own stories with better outcomes,
The unpredictable is what we remember.

Those who have taught decades do not surrender conscience,
Cannot function without morality,
It is the youngest of our number who must
Inspire, masking fear, innovate, wearing cloaks

If only a day in the life could force
Time through the eyes of a child
Out of office, into a school,
Use our names,
Talk to us about your own dilemmas,
Hear the ideas we punctuate with music, motion, and mystery

Measurable chunks of information mean nothing,
Concepts change the world,
A proctor, a score, a percentile,
Spell only fear

We have another vision; a community school
Based on research and welcome reform
Where we privilege learning and critical skill
A change equal in force
Adult and child
Both teachers

We see that school
Shaping reform
A fountain of skill

Of the teacher
By the teacher

For the teacher.

Shall not perish.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Gathering No Moss

So Bob Dylan has turned 70. Given his track record that is a cause for celebration. We almost lost Dylan literally and figuratively a few times over the last five decades so I for one am glad he's still around. I made my piece with Dylan and now take everything he offers with the same old sense of joy and awe as the old days. Hit and miss, but what isn't.
In honor of this occasion Rolling Stone Magazine has published a piece called The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs. The picks are described with detail in short paragraphs and some have rather well-known authors. Bono weighs in on the #1 pick "Like a Rolling Stone." (What else!) David Crosby and Mick Jagger have their say as well as Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow. Along the way of this 22 page feature are little tidbits and features. I especially like the sidebar called Dylan's Most Inscrutable Lyrics...Five cryptic classics that keep Dylanologists guessing. Relieved to find Gates of Eden at the top of the list.
Two things jump out at me from reading this piece. First, Rolling Stone has remained a constant source of excellent commentary and information over the years. As a publication that documents popular music and all its incarnations over the years, they really have done a wonderful job. Their production ethic is solid and the magazine has always been aesthetically pleasing with outstanding journalism.
The other thing that resonates is how many of the various Dylan songs, for me, are connected to specific times, events, places, and people in my life. They form a sort of chronicle of my youth. But make no mistake, I listen to this music today and have consistently done so over the years.
Like a Rolling Stone came out in 1965, the year I graduated high school. I remember going to a graduation party and touting the virtues of Dylan as the greatest poet of our time all night. Like a Rolling Stone played all night long much to the dismay of many Beatle fans. Of course, the anti-war songs of the 60s and early 70s take me to rallies and class discussions. I still see the kid putting out the trash with his transistor radio plugged in listening to The Times are Changin' because it only came on the radio when the top ten in England was played on my AM pop music station did that feature. Nashville Skyline came out when I lived in Houston, Texas as a 22 year old VISTA Volunteer.
Going through relationship drama? Have I got a Dylan song for you. From Just like a Woman to Tangled Up in Blue, those tunes could get you through the night. If there was anger, just did out Positively 4th Street.
In my classroom I used pieces that didn't make the top 70 but still hold strong memories. From Who Killed Davy More? to Hurricane, to the Ballad of George Jackson, Dylan was ever present in my curriculum. Not surprisingly, a few of the people who were given the privilege of making the selections chose older, lesser known songs. A real shocker is Keith Richards selection of Girl From the North Country for it's Anglo-Celtic roots and what Richards calls the "absence of Bob's later cutting edge. There is none of that resentment."
Sometimes when I think of Dylan over the years I see the album covers. The first few I easily recall in order. It gets foggy after that. I remember buying many, but over the years, especially after living in a few communal settings between 1969 and 74, a few albums just floated into my record box. Now and then I just like to look at the album covers. It brings it all back home.