Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Garden of Courage

I've been working on a short piece for about a week now. It's got to be ready for a March 1st deadline, so I can't agonize over it for too much longer. First I had to pick a poem that I have used for inspiration with my students as well as myself. That wasn't too hard. The call for submissions is for the 3rd edition of an anthology of teacher writing. I've had good luck in the past with getting my ideas and experiences out there, but this one is a bit different. This new book is about courage and teaching. Rather timely in my view because jobs are scarce and pressures are escalating. The new collection seeks the kind of anecdotes that feature teachers reaching into their pockets for the crumpled copy of the poem they always carry with them. Not literally, but you get the picture. Reality check...maybe some folks really do keep a poem handy. I know many who keep a photograph to look at when things get tough.
I carry poems in my head. That's where my first obstacle comes in. I have decided to write about using and admiring the Rilke poem "The Carousel." I've used it for years in teaching The Catcher in the Rye, but the themes are so universal that it not only applies to that novel, but to my students, my student teachers and to myself. This wonderful little chunk of Rilke's wisdom is readily available, but the problem comes in the translation. I've read at least four different translations this past week and not one of them is the one I used. That means that there must be at least five versions out there. I've decided to go with the one by Edward Snow in a wonderful (and expensive) newer volume simply called The Poetry of Rilke. The line that is most problematic describes the faces of the various brightly colored animals on a old carousel in the Jardin du Luxemborg. Rilke apparently spent a good deal of time in this garden watching kids ride the merry-go-round there and musing about life and love. In the translation I'm using he writes that the animals are "hitched to carriages, yet all have courage in their faces." Some versions say they "have valor in their eyes." The one I originally read referred to "mettle in their mien." What's the difference between valor and courage anyway? I've decided it doesn't matter. What struck me as I was writing the little essay to accompany my submission is that this poem applies to both students and teachers. It worked well with the loss of innocence theme in my classroom and like a good jazz classic sung after many years, it works well in my life not. Courage is always in short supply.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Hear Me Roar

In between the increased clamor about the American right to own an assault rifle and the inauguration of a President, the Secretary of Defense this week announced he's lifting the ban on women in combat. So now gender equality applies to the right to kill other human beings under the "rules of war" and it's conduct.  I jest; but the ironies here are robust.
For women, (and men) this really is good news.  That's because all the discrimination making it impossible for women to hold certain decision-making ranks and positions is now gone.  We're not just talking about the right to be in harm's way, the trenches, or even engage in one on one combat.  This new regulation does not only apply to the infantry, but a host of other opportunities and long overdue careers.
Speaking to the press Panetta said:“Everyone is entitled to a chance." According to The New York Times, the Army is now creating gender-neutral standards for all their positions but will not be lowering the physical standards required just so that women can be admitted. That opens up the age old discussion of carrying a 250lb buddy to safety, much as a firefighter would. Yet women have previously been in combat zones and performed many of these roles without getting credit or recognition. So this week, all manner of women in the military have been courted by the media pundits in hopes of clarifying the issue.  Yesterday I heard a portion of an interview in which a young woman revealed she's applied and was rejected 17 times for one such combat related position.  On another station, a young female officer detailed her life's ambition to be a Ranger (guess that's Army Ranger not Power Ranger) because she was driven to become the best ever at that particular occupation.  The skill set needed wasn't mentioned but one can easily surmise what's involved.
     In all the press this story received, another quote by Secretary Leon Panetta latched on to me and wouldn't let go.  He said, among other remarks related to his decision to lift the ban, something to the effect that women will now be full participants in all this nation's wars.
     Ever so subtle, but the implication is plain that there will be future wars.  How can there not be future wars?   I was hoping by this time in our cultural evolution we'd have figured this one out. I'm not celebrating more combat eligible too much.

Monday, January 21, 2013 Seconds

This day is something special.  It's hard not to miss the connection between the Martin Luther King birthday holiday and the second inauguration of Barak Obama as President of the United States.  A great reminder that change is possible and that it often takes time.  Particularly incisive and poignant were the comments of Congressman John Lewis this day.  Having marched with Dr. King and laid his body on the line in the fight for civil rights, Lewis has a uniquely original reaction to all the events and media coverage.  While the pundits scramble for words and superlatives, Lewis need only draw on his personal experiences.  He need only marvel that he is here to take it all in.  When the widow of Medgar Evers, Merly Evers, delivered an invocation, one wonders what must be going through her mind. I wondered what Lewis' mind was doing too.
In the last week we've seen many other forms of truth winning out at the end of the day.  From Lance Armstrong's "confession," if that's what it can be called, to the refusal of the Baseball Hall of Fame to even consider the steroid tainted accomplishments of former major league stars like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, it's easy to catch yourself mumbling about how things have changed.  To put an exclamation point on the lack of ethics in sports, so prevalent today, we learn of the death of Stan Musial today.  "Stan the Man" was everything a ball player should be.  I don't see any more like him on the horizon.  I don't see any like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks either.  Baseball is so specialized now that we probably won't see the likes of Warren Spahn, or Satchel Paige, or  Jim Palmer again.
     Things change.  We can't go back to what was no matter how we might deceive ourselves or want to deceive ourselves.  We can only celebrate, and keep memories alive, and marvel, as Congressman Lewis does, at how fortunate we are at having seen and done what we have.
Lately I see change everywhere.  Tide rolls in and we either move or get wet.  No matter how I might long for the days where teachers were revered, and were able to use their creative skills without stepping on any one's vision of "reform," the profession today is definitely not the one I retired from a few years back down my road.    Kids write on laptops more often than not and they find information instantly by searching electronically.  Nobody goes to the library.  Or if they do it's because there is a computer there.  I'd love to see the book check out records of public high school students these days. It's possible that the books aren't there any more too.   Teachers use You Tube for videos.  Movie projectors do not exist in the mind of a student in 2013.  When not constantly battling with students to put their electrical devices away, teachers might even have a class discussion. But that can be like pulling wisdom teeth. Many kids don't like to talk in class these days.  Are they so uncertain of their ideas that it's easier to keep quiet?   And yet a strong case can be made that these students in the classes of 2012 and 2013 are more knowledgeable in many ways.  They may not be able to tell you the capital of Bulgaria, but they can find it in seconds.   By the way, it's Sofia.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Two Steps Back

Last night's 60 Minutes, the venerable CBS TV news magazine, featured a story which really got me thinking. In short, it was all about the use of robots in manufacturing these days. The segment showed small automated machines, about the size of a vacuum cleaner filling orders in a huge warehouse. The little creatures are so adept they can crawl under large shelving units and pick up stacks of merchandise in neatly stores crates and deliver them to shipping stations. No human labor involved. Of course that means greater profit and greater productivity for management. It means, too, fewer workers needed.
Some of the companies now using these robots are even returning to this country to manufacture here at home instead of outsourcing their jobs. By the end of the program the all important question of what happens to people in this country who depend on jobs like that emerged. Just the question, no answer. Hopefully some sort of leadership or vision will also surface by the time this matters. Immediately, I surmised that this won't affect my life or my income.  Guess I'm to old to worry about being around when millions more are out of work.  Yet I couldn't get past the notion that we're in for some dynamic and earth-shaking change in the decades to come. All around us the models of the previous century are disappearing. This is as it should be. It has to be. Technology is developing and changing everything so fast we have no choice but to adapt.  I wondered, however, if there comes a time in everyone's life when they make a conscious choice to let it all be and stay with what's comfortable and familiar rather than every new paradigm? A good friend of mine, an archeologist, is already concerned with young people who have no time to experience the world directly. He fears that social media may be developed and preferred to such a state that a simple attraction like having a wilderness experience or even a campout might be unheard of someday. Hard to believe. I look at the face of an I-phone lately and I see how easy it is to access all things electronic. I've even heard of fly fishermen who check changing weather conditions, insect hatch cycles, and river flow conditions while standing in a stream. About 50 years ago, when people began to wonder and predict the world to come they could only imagine how it would all go down. The Twilight Zone got some things right and missed others by light years. I recall a speaker at a friend's high school graduation back then quote an information specialist from MIT. The gist of the idea was that there are so many books with so much information coming out and at us so fast that even if we wanted to "stay current," it will be impossible. That we can get used to. I wonder, more often than not when will I or better yet have I reached my tipping point?  You can ask yourself the same question and view the 60 Minutes piece here:

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Grin and Bear Arms

Nobody doubts that we here in the USA have a culture of violence. We come by it naturally, born of violent revolution. In fact, if you do the math, we have managed to become involved in some sort of war every 20 years since our inception. Even if you don't count some of those semi-violent interventions in places like Grenada and Panama, it still totals every 20 years. So it is that the more violent components of our already violent culture are being forced under the microscope in the wake of recent school and shopping mall shootings. The NRA wants to investigate the entertainment and video game industry, who wants to investigate the mental illness angle. Politicians and most of the non-gun toting citizenry want to look at gun laws. It's a real whirling dervish these days. Of course, most everybody knows that any answer to what's currently happening involves all three. Still, I've yet to hear a logical explanation for why anyone needs an assault weapon with a magazine clip that holds 30 rounds.

Today I put a status update on Facebook that referenced the solution that suggests we arm teachers. I was joking, of course, but it might give someone pause that teachers will "teach what, when, and how they want," if they are carrying a gun in their classrooms. And even though my tongue is firmly in my cheek, there will be teachers who will purchase guns, take shooting classes, and make it known that they are armed. The research shows that unless that firearm is on your person, it's of little consequence in a real emergency. Teachers who pack heat are going to have to be ever vigilant when they bend down to help a student, go to the restroom, or attend contentious faculty meetings.
In Oregon recently we've seen the phenomena of people carrying automatic weapons in public "because they can." These legally registered weapons are displayed hanging off the shoulders of their owners as they stroll through the neighborhood. Under the guise of "exercising our 2nd Amendment rights," they seem to be smirking as concerned neighbors call the cops because armed men are walking through the neighborhood. Where's Mr. Rogers when we need him now?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Savings Account

50 or 60 years ago people had to deal with what was known as a "party line" on their home phones. No not that kind of party, the one that involves a gathering of people. And that's what they often were too: a gathering. Imagine picking up your home phone's receiver, (remember it's the middle of the last century now) and instead of a dial tome, you hear a voice...then two voices. That's right, you've stumbled upon someone else's conversation. The two engaged in chatting may or may not have heard the click when you first grabbed the receiver. If not, and you covered the mouthpiece, you could eavesdrop all you wanted. At your own risk of course. Most who had this experience would simply excuse themselves and hang up. They knew they shared a party line. Actually a two or three party line. That will no doubt never happen again. But I've noticed on some forms of social media there is something akin to it happening. On Facebook, for example, we can literally see the conversation that some folks have back and forth. Often heated, these exchanges resemble a huge party line from the days of Donna Reed and Lucille Ball.
On one such exchange the other day, I read about a fascinating notion beginning to take shape. Seed saving. People are beginning to save seeds as a response to companies like Monsanto and all manner of genetic engineering of food. These two future farmers I referenced were talking about saving Kale seeds and how they were easy to save and that the Kale plant produces large quantities of seeds. I did not know that. Just imagine, I reasoned, what if all the cynics and critics were right and that the only healthy food available was produced by those who had the foresight to save seeds that they knew to be healthy. A sort of Twilight Zone episode began to take shape in my mind. Let's see, we've already had Soylent Green, why not secret stashes of seeds. If not a novel, a good short story could emerge from this dim view of our world to come. Maybe it's not too late to get in on the burgeoning area of seed banks. We could begin to make deposits right now. Better start saving some land too.