Poem-A-Day: Elizabeth Sewell

I’ve always been struck by the fact that the name we use for someone who suffers mightily, unjustly, and beyond all sense or reason is the same name for the work we do in order to earn payment that we might gainfully live.

I teach, and sometimes — like around this time of year — the beckoning breath of a break — in this case, summer — magnifies the stress of the workload I and most of my colleagues are laboring under. I’m lucky in that my administrators understand that “every ask is still an ask,” but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still a basketful of asks awaiting each of us — teachers, students, and administrators alike — around every turn. The weight of it is like stones piling on my chest, and like old Giles Corey, I keep coming back.

Case in point: here is my current grading stack.

This giant mug holds 20 ounces of tea and is nearly the size of my face. You know, for reference.

 

And here is an ekphrastic poem by Elizabeth Sewell. Note the rhyme scheme and rhythm, how they mimic orderliness, how they taunt. You know, like the act of grading papers.

Persist, my friends, persist.

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Poem-A-Day: e.e. cummings

I don’t remember whether I’ve posted this poem before, but even if I have, I don’t care. It’s one of my absolute all-time favorites, “Me up at does” by e.e. cummings. It would be redundant to say that cummings plays with language conventions in ways that are conspicuous and interesting. So did Emily Dickinson, whose work I also love. (So does Marie Marshall — but more on her poetry tomorrow.)

“Me up at does” is one of those poems that I like to splash up on the board in class when we’ve got fifteen or twenty minutes to fill and want to do a little analysis work that can be contained and stretchy and fun, and that can make my high school students feel perhaps a little more accomplished after they’ve done it. (If anyone wants the lesson plan for this assignment, let me know.)

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Me up at does

 

Me up at does

out of the floor
quietly Stare

a poisoned mouse

still who alive

is asking What
have i done that

You wouldn’t have

 

 

Thanksgiving 2016

Black Friday. Small Business Saturday. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday.

Worn-out Wednesday. (Okay, I might have made that one up.)

It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? Yet sometimes the banality of life’s daily routine can shock us out of our paralysis.

Even in a year which I will be glad to see the end of, I have more than enough to be thankful for, and I am. I hold those things in my heart when I could easily rail against the unfairness of the world, the moral decrepitude of society, the crumbling state of…well, basically lots of things, including our environment, both literal and figurative.

I had been hoping to make this post on Facebook on November 9th:

30 Days of Gratitude: I’m standing here, with my daughter, in a field of broken glass, staring at the beautiful sky. There is no limit.

But that’s not a post I had the opportunity to make, no matter how many days, weeks, months, years I’d been looking forward to its being a reality.

I reminded my students, when they came to me that day seeking guidance, that culture is not always top-down. It also radiates outward from each person’s choices. It rises from the ground up when we lay its foundation through our actions and voices.

Our school adheres to four core values: honesty, respect, responsibility, and kindness. And even when we don’t see these values modeled for us in the public sphere — and oh, my goodness, we don’t see them there nearly enough — we have the ability to be honest and respectful and responsible and kind. We have countless opportunities every day to choose to adhere to those values, and we must.

If we treat others in every daily interaction, be it in person or online, with those four values, and if we do it consistently, then we can and will change the toxic culture around us.

It will radiate outward.

It will rise from the ground up.

It will shatter what holds us down.

What I’ve Been Reading: Student Edition

I asked all the students in my sophomore English classes to recommend a book they’d read for pleasure — one not assigned for school — in the last five years. It had to be a book they liked enough to recommend it to someone — in particular, their classmates, as we embarked on the new free choice reading unit in my curriculum.

Here’s what they came up with! Any books here you’re interested in? Any you’ve read? Please leave a comment below.

 

sophomore recommendations 2016

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P.S. — The subtext of this post (and its chronological distance from the last one) should indicate to you I’ve been really busy getting the new school year off the ground. You would be correct in that assumption.

P.P.S. — I shamelessly gathered the inspiration for this post from John Scalzi’s New Books and ARCs posts, which I find interesting, that he puts on his own blog Whatever, which I find marvelous. I hope he doesn’t mind.

Is It August Already?

I go back to school this Friday. After the last five weeks, I am more than ready. I’ve been on three trips, yes, but we’ve also had quite a few crazy things happen in between them, and I’m eager to get back to a consistent routine which includes my children being in school.

I have not done enough writing, or reading, to satisfy myself, though I concede I’ve done quite a lot of both. And with the way I’m revamping my curriculum this year, I’m hoping to have more time to do both even when the semester is in session. We shall see. (More on that later, perhaps.)

Last week, a short piece I wrote about how what I do in my personal time informs my teaching career came out in my school’s magazine. I was thrilled to be asked to contribute it in the first place, but even more so when I saw the illustrious company I was somehow included in — which was comprised of some of the most talented colleagues I’ve ever worked with.

Because I’m headed back into my classroom at the end of this week, I thought I’d repost (with permission) the piece I wrote for the school’s magazine. I hope you enjoy it, but even more, I hope you enjoy what’s left of your summer (if you still have some).

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The first time I ever read one of my short stories to an audience, I was in fourth grade. It was a character-building experience.

Even though very few of my classmates had gone on that fantastical narrative journey with me — and my teacher looked at me sideways while trying to figure the story, and probably me, out — my love of writing could not be dampened. By the time I hit middle school, my path to becoming a writer had been paved.

From there, teaching was an easy choice. The ability to share my love of writing with others, to teach them how to do it and to appreciate its value, contributes to my sense of purpose. Through literature we more clearly understand our humanity and our place in the world. The enjoyment and creation of literature is something I hope to instill in my students, and it’s one way I spend my personal time as well.

How can one teach something that one does not also do? If I didn’t need sleep, I would keep reading past my bedtime all through the quiet hours every night. And each break from school finds me writing, writing, writing. This pursuit feeds my creative, thinking self, yes, but also feeds my teaching self. The more I explore different forms and genres in my own work, the better I’m able to teach my students how to do it — and hopefully how to love it as much as I do (though I’ll settle for mastery of skills).

Literature — reading it, creating it, teaching it — guides me always. It gets me out of bed way too early on Saturday mornings to meet other writers and stay on word count. It makes my summer breaks a little hectic, heavy with deadlines. And when school starts up again each August, it motivates me to share with my students everything I’ve learned, too.

 

A Graduation Message and The Fundamental Lies of Our Culture

Last night was commencement. This is always a bittersweet night for me. On the one hand, I’m so happy to be getting to the end of the school year and embarking on summer, the time when I can devote myself more fully to writing more than just remarks on students’ papers. On the other, I’m usually sad to see our seniors leave. They are going off to figure out their way in the world, and while quite a few will keep in touch, commencement is, as last night’s student speaker reminded us, the last time all 139 of them will be together. Watching them leave, these children-turned-young-adults whom we as teachers have poured ourselves into through mentoring and tough love, is a pale precursor — at least for me — to what I expect I will feel in seven years, in nine years, when the Fairy Princess Badass and Tiny Beowulf graduate, too. At my school, seniors’ parents who work at the school come up and present their diplomas to them along with the headmaster, the head of the Board of Trustees, and the commencement speaker, and every year as this happens, I imagine myself doing this with my own children.

I’m a writer. My imagination is deep and vivid. This foreshadowing is profound.

But that’s not actually the subject of today’s blog post. Rather, I want to tell you about last night’s commencement address.

I have experienced more than any person’s fair share of commencement speeches. Not only have I had more than a few graduations of my own, being fairly well-educated, but I have taught high school for almost seventeen years. I have also read and heard and watched commencement speeches from other schools’ ceremonies that people have shared with me in one form or another. And so when I say that a particular speech is one of the worst or one of the best I’ve ever heard, I feel like I can make that judgment with at least a modicum of authority.

Among the best speeches I’ve ever encountered is, of course, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address at Kenyon, “This Is Water.” The entire speech is excellent, but some really smart people excerpted the highlights so we could get the gist is under ten minutes and then made a movie of it. Watch the video here.

Last night our speaker was Joe Ehrmann, who (among other accomplishments) started Coach for America, a division of Building Men and Women for Others, an initiative he began with his wife, Paula Peach Ehrmann. His remarks were intelligent, important, insightful, and just the right length. And something very interesting happened: a few minutes into his speech, I saw a rare and marvelous phenomenon, which was that nearly all the graduates had turned to give him their full attention. They had stopped fidgeting and chatting amongst themselves behind their programs and looking around them. They were focused on what Ehrmann had to tell them.

And while he spoke about character and the origin of the word and what it meant in ancient Greece versus what it means now, while he spoke about moral courage and one’s moral compass and what those things are actually about and for, the most impactful part of his comments, the part where he had everyone’s intent focus, was the part where he explained the great, damaging myths our culture foists upon boys and girls, to everyone’s detriment. I want to share those with you now, as best as I can sum them up from memory, because they are dear to my own moral compass and some of the things I advocate passionately for in my own life.

First, he explained that there are three fundamental lies our culture tells to boys, some of which they learn as young as four or five years old and some of which they encounter in adolescence. The first one is that athletic ability has something to do with what it means to be a man. Young boys learn early on that being a “real” man has to do with physical strength or prowess on the field or court, but he explained that this is absolutely not true. He also said that boys are taught that manhood is full of what not to do: commands that demand boys not show emotion (“Stop that crying!” — “Don’t be a sissy.” — “Never show your emotions.”) are fundamentally wrong and damaging. Another lie boys learn from our culture is that their manhood is formed by sexual conquest. He explained in no uncertain terms that there is a significant difference between being a man and being someone who uses people, and that a culture of conquest falls into the unfortunate latter camp. He explained that boys are taught that manhood is dependent upon socio-economic status and the acquisition of wealth and material possessions. Lies, all lies.

Next, he explained that our culture tells girls three fundamental lies as well. The first one comes by the time girls are four or five years old: the myth of Prince Charming. There is an understanding that girls must be rescued by some man, and that being rescued by a man is a function of their worth as people: is she pretty enough? is she worth being rescued? This, he explained, is wrong. The second fundamental lie girls are taught by our culture is ingrained by the time they’re twelve or thirteen years old, and it is that a woman’s worth and value as a person are determined by her physical beauty and body type. This is another myth, one perpetuated by the media, by culture, and by entertainment of all types. The third fundamental lie girls are taught, by late adolescence and early adulthood, is that to be a woman is to deny or hide your true, authentic self. This is yet more damaging nonsense. As he put it, when you start believing that lie, you begin to lose your moral compass.

All of these things he told us last night about the fundamental lies our culture teaches boys and girls about what it means to be a man or a woman were not just well received. During his speech, members of the audience clapped or voiced enthusiasm for particular points, and at the end of it he received a sustained standing ovation from everyone in attendance.

Believe me when I tell you this doesn’t happen that often.

So what can I say about all of this? I don’t want this post to be just reportage.

Frequently in my AP Gothic Lit. class, when we would discuss social issues as they arose in the context of our course material, I would encourage my seniors to “go out and fix the world.” I said this glibly, and it made them smile, but I know at least some of them took it to heart, because they would say it back to me, in the context of their charge in life. These are good kids. These are good young men and women. If anyone can make this world a genuinely better, more respectful, more peaceful, more intelligent, more sustainable place, I think they can. They are well positioned because of their privilege and their education to fulfill the old unexplained cliché, to “make a difference and give back.” They have the power and the ability to give that trite expression some teeth, to actually effect change on a meaningful scale.

It will be hard, and they will encounter difficulty on a similarly meaningful scale.

But they can do it. I know them, and I believe most of them will try.

Dear seniors — no.

Dear graduates, go out and fix the world. I’m working on it with you, from the corner of my classroom with a new group of young people every year. It’s a tough slog, I have to tell you, but sometimes I look at what you’ve become and I begin to think it’s all worth it. My optimism gets the better of me, and I start to feel really good about what might be ahead.

I look forward to seeing how well you will do. Keep in touch.

And one more thing: now that you have a diploma in your hands, you can call me by my first name. If you want to. (Some of you will do this immediately, some of you never will. And those are both okay.)

Have a good summer.

National Poetry Month — Day 24

For Shakespeare’s birthday, I’m sharing a fragment from Romeo and Juliet that never ceases to amaze me. It’s from that glorious balcony scene — no, I’m not a romantic at all, why do you ask? — the scene that made me want to take up acting when I was very young.

Also, this fragment is one that gives me fits, as an English teacher and general lover of language, because people get its meaning wrong all the time. Here’s a hint to help this fragment make actual, logical sense: “wherefore” means “why,” not “where.” If it meant “where,” that would suggest Juliet knows Romeo is out in the garden, and part of the point of the start of this scene is that she does not. He completely surprises her when he climbs up that trellis.

Also, if “wherefore” meant “where,” the rest of the lines would be a somewhat confusing non sequitur.

 

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

 

Notice the lack of direct-address comma after “thou” in the first line? Yeah, me too. Its absence means she isn’t addressing him a third time in that sentence, but that his name here is a direct object of “art” (“are” in modern parlance).

As it turns out, Juliet is musing on the misfortune of the boy she likes being a Montague, and thus a member of the family her own family is feuding with and sworn to hate. This moment of pre-rebellious reverie is important, too, because she’s deciding that if Romeo won’t renounce his family, then all he has to do is swear his love to her, and she’ll give up her family, to be with him.

Hijinks ensue.

 

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And just for fun, here’s an amazeballs flow chart from goodticklebrain.com to help you decide which of Sheakespeare’s plays you might want to watch to commemorate his birth- and deathday.