I’ve been a little frustrated by some aspects of my job lately. Over the last couple of days, I’ve had some serious talks with my classes. Here, more or less, is what I have said:

Grades don’t matter. Let’s start there. I know, I know, they do matter in lots of practical ways like not getting grounded and getting into college and being able to play sports and all that. But, in terms of what I am trying to do with you, they do not matter at all. Grades tell me two things I already know. They tell me how hard you try and they tell me how well you understand what we’ve been doing in class. These two things are not unrelated.

But grades aren’t the point. The point is for you to know things and to be able to think. I had a professor in college who told us that his job was not to teach us what to think, but to teach us how to think. This is the philosophy I try to bring to the classroom every day. Nearly all of the people in the world with real power (I mean the capacity to influence how the world works, not people who are famous for being famous) know a lot of stuff. They certainly know the vocab words I have asked you to learn. They just as certainly have decent command of basic grammar and punctuation. On a deeper level, though they may not have read Things Fall Apart, if they were to read it, they would be able to explain what it’s about. They would be able to discuss the themes in a reasonably meaningful manner.

But there’s more to it than that.

You all know I am an enormous nerd. I don’t hide that. Sometimes, for fun, I read books on theoretical physics even though I am an English teacher. A few weeks ago I went to the wedding of a good friend. My friend is a lawyer. He also writes and illustrates children’s books. Another friend (my former college roommate) is a computer programmer. In his free time, he likes to read about ancient Rome and Greece. While some of us were making small talk, the Higgs Boson was brought up. In small talk. The Higgs Boson. This is a theoretical physics thing, but I didn’t bring it up. The point of this is not to illustrate how awesome my friends and I are. the point is to illustrate how great it is to have a rich intellectual life.

You don’t know what you’re missing.

You don’t know because, often, you refuse to challenge yourselves. Challenge is what makes life rewarding. Intellectual stimulation is part of what makes life rewarding. By not pushing yourselves intellectually, you are missing out and setting yourselves up for failure. High school sets up the rest of your life. If you come out of high school not knowing anything – not having any interests – you are not going to go many places in life.

I can, I know, be a grumpy teacher at times, but it doesn’t mean I don’t care. I do care. A lot. I get grumpy because it bothers me that you don’t try. Much of what I teach you is essential if you want to be a functional person. What isn’t absolutely essential is really neat. You’re missing out when you spend every evening screwing-off instead of working your brains. We all need a night off from time to time, but you can’t take every night off. It bothers me that so many of you want to. It bothers me because soon, you’re going to be grown up and you aren’t going to have any dreams and you aren’t going to care about anything. I wish you would wake up and try because what you are doing to yourselves makes me enormously sad.

Books I Love – Part One

September 20, 2011

Recently, I realized the absurdity of having a blog that is as focused on writing and reading as this one is without having written specifically about which books I would take with me if the house was burning down. I’m going to do this over several parts because I want to actually write a bit more about these books than a generic list-post would really allow. This is going to be part one. There will be several parts. I might never finish, but once I get to ten books. I’ll put a list up somewhere.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I have certainly mentioned Michael Chabon numerous times onĀ  his blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone into full detail about why I love this book so much. Kavalier and Clay, for those who don’t know, tells a story about two Jewish guys who write comic books in WWII-era New York. Thematically, all of those things factor heavily into the book. There’s a wonderful dose of quasi-supernatural Jewish mythology which informs the comics which are also informed by New York and WWII. It’s all tied together wonderfully, but none of that explains why I love this book.

Chabon is almost perfectly American in his writing. All of his books contain the wild-eyed optimism and lust for larger things that epitomizes America at its best and worse. This book takes that feeling to new extremes. The characters are extraordinarily and wonderfully human, but they have drive and determination. They certainly manage a measure of success, but – as is so often true of America – it isn’t always the kind of success they were trying for. This book perfectly captures the what it feels like on those days in your twenties when you wake up and feel yourself imbued with fantastic powers. You can do anything. No one can stop you. But, of course, often enough someone does, and that too is part of what it means to be American. We are all trod upon at some point, but we are, typically, a resilient people. This is a resilient, breathtaking, American book. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that it has the best ending I’ve ever read.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. This is the one book I make it a point to read every year. Stylistically, it is the polar opposite of Kavalier and Clay. The prose is usually spare. The setting is rural. The characters frequently lack ambition. That said, it is also an amazingly honest book. It is honest about youth and age and all the ways we are shaped by the expectations of those around us. Each story tells about a different person from the town, but they also nearly all interconnect so that it becomes almost like a novel about a place and a time rather than a collection of stories about different people.

More than any other book I’ve read, I owe my writing life to Winesburg, Ohio. I read this book at the exact right moment (I was nineteen and a sophomore in college), but even now, when I read it, Anderson’s voice feels like a carbon copy of my own in places. If Kavalier and Clay is about the brash ambition of urban America, this is its counterpoint. A meditative exploration of of what it means to be from a tiny spot in the vast expanse of America that is seen as nowhere by everyone except the smattering of people who live there.

A lot of people are writing about September Eleventh. This post is not unique in that way, but I feel like I need to write about why I am so glad it falls on a weekend this year.

Ten years ago, I had the same experience many Americans did. I was in college at the time with an early shift at my campus job. I rolled out of bed, showered, and left without checking the news, so I didn’t find out until I got to work. I thought my boss was joking until I went down the hall and found a TV.

September Eleventh did not directly affect me. I didn’t know anyone who died. I had friends from New York and, mercifully, none of them lost anyone. But, you know, that day is burned into my mind like it is for everyone else. No one did anything but watch TV for days. I went to class, but the teachers got it, and we just talked about what had happened. Two teachers – probably the two best teachers I had in college – put it in perspective for me.

Professor Milder was old enough to really remember the Kennedy assassination. He told us this would be like that for us. That we would remember it with a permanence that doesn’t apply to most days. That it would change how we looked at the world going forward. That it would, in some ways, shape our generation.

Paul Winner was not much older than we were. He had finished an MFA and stayed on to teach and write for a year under a fellowship. He talked about how relieving it was when Letterman came on. How it meant we could, in some way, move on a little bit. Start to remember the rest of the world and stop holding our breath. I had felt the same way and it was good to hear someone else say it. To feel that I hadn’t been wrong to be a little relieved at the reappearance of a TV show.

These are specific memories. They are meaningful memories. They are much different from the memories my students have.

This has been coming for several years. My students are always 14-16 years old. My first few years, they all remembered it. They had been young, but they really remembered. They were old enough to have felt much of what the rest of us felt that day. Now they aren’t. I have students who were barely four-years-old on September Eleventh. The oldest were six. Think about what you remember from those years. It isn’t much and what’s there is fuzzy.

For the last few years, students have been more and more awkward in their talk about it. They know that they are supposed to feel a certain way about it, but they don’t because they weren’t old enough to get it. Soon, they won’t even have been old enough to remember it.

It’s unavoidable, of course. I never really understood Kennedy or D-day. I understood the importance in an historical way, but that was it. There will, almost certainly, come a time in the lives of my students when something will happen. Something horrible. And they will get it. They will understand the way their elders talked about September Eleventh and President Kennedy and D-day and whatever else. But they don’t understand yet, and I am glad I won’t be teaching classes on Sunday because I can’t help them understand. Only experience can help you understand something like that. Experience is one thing a teacher can’t give you.

On Children’s Clothing

September 6, 2011

It’s been a while since something about society made me really angry on behalf of my daughter. As is always the case, I thought it best to vent via blog post.

Yesterday, Cate, Simone, and I went out to get Simone her fall wardrobe. Simone, you may have gathered, is a girl. That said, we do not, by any means, limit her to the “girl” section of clothing. If we did, I think we’d be bad people.

Simone is two. What does the world have to say about her clothing? It says that everything has to have some pink on it. It says that sports and trucks and dinosaurs are for boys. Girls get butterflies, cupcakes, and being pretty. Now Simone likes butterflies and cupcakes (so do I, for that matter), but she also likes trucks and dinosaurs. In fact, we pulled about half her clothes from the boy section, including a shirt with a big dinosaur on it. She is TWO. Why do her interests need to be gendered already?

All this is bad enough, but what absolutely killed me were the sweaters. The girl sweaters were entirely decorative. That is, they were only good for keeping you warm from the car to the door – if you’re lucky. Boy sweaters were thick and warm and clearly made for playing outside. This says that boys are expected to be outside playing while girls are supposed to be inside being frilly. There is nothing wrong with being frilly and there is nothing wrong with rolling around in the dirt. Shouldn’t kids have a choice that has to do with their personality instead of their gender? Why, when they are so young, is it necessary to paint them into such a tiny corner?

It makes me angry.

A few months ago, my parents moved to a new place. It is their dream home, 17 acres out in the country. They even have a three acre lake. It’s a pretty great place. This also means, however, that they moved away from the place where I grew up. In a few weeks, that place will belong to someone else.

Recently, when Cate, Simone, and I were heading out to visit my parents at their new place, we stopped by. I hadn’t really had a chance to take a last look around the old place. Recently, the county had redone the intersection by the old house to make it safer, and we were curious to see see the changes. It was shocking.

I had never been enthusiastic about living in the country, but over the years, I did come to love the place. Especially the yard. When I was growing up, our yard was amazingly cozy for somewhere as far from a real city or town as it was. It was bordered by woods on two sides. Another side had a line of trees and then a cow pasture. On the forth side were a few houses and then a steep hill. Effectively, then, it was enclosed in trees and rolling green hills. It wasn’t one of the anonymous, blank rural vistas that you see all the time. It was, if not unique, at least abnormal. At least a little different.

Now it isn’t.

I understand why they had to work on the road. My parents were the ones who lobbied for the change. Though no one died coming around that intersection over the last twenty years, a lot of people were seriously injured. Something needed to be done. The new intersection is undoubtedly safer, and I’m glad fewer people will be hurt, but the line of trees is gone. Part of the hill has been leveled. The view is anonymous. Dull.

My childhood home is gone.

I have read about this before. Usually from people older than I am now. Someone returns to where they were raised. They go looking for all the old places and find the familiarity is gone. The place they once called home is no longer recognizable.

When we are growing up, we tether ourselves to a place without ever meaning too. We may not even like the place, but somehow, we become attached to it. We identify with it. It comes with us when we leave. It sits beside us and reminds us who we are, even when we want to forget. Then, one day, we come back and it’s gone. All that remain are the ruins of the civilization of our youth. It is as dramatic as it sounds. Trees come down. A hill gets flattened. A house burns down. A store goes up. The place you grew up in – the place that your mind identifies as “home” whenever your thoughts wander to it – is gone.

It is a part of aging. A part of being a leaf, helplessly blown through a brief season. It is inevitable, but always, I think, surprising.