26 December 2006

No More Trenches

I was at a lovely party the other evening. Actually, it was a Christmas Eve Party for Jews. I think I remember that the title of the party was something to the effect of “Hey, he was a Jew.” As I said, it was a lovely party: the food and drink were delicious, the home elegant and comfortable, and the hosts and guests amiable, voluble and articulate. I would have stayed longer, but the twelve year old was baby-sitting and needed to be relieved. I commented to someone who would listen that when my children are all grown, I will be too old to enjoy such gatherings. But I was roundly contradicted, and I accepted the critique with pleasure.

One conversation in which I engaged with interest developed over the use of the term ‘in the trenches’ when referring to the position of teachers in the schools. I said, almost apologetically, that teachers often use the term ‘in the trenches’ with a certain degree of pride, and that I hated the place of that pride. “In the trenches” is superior to being, well, in the offices, being in the administration building, being in the ivory towered Universities. I could not fathom why teachers (and I am a teacher) would want to consider themselves as somehow superior for adopting such a pose? How does such a position portray our work, our students, ourselves? How does it define our work? I objected strongly to the metaphor. I still object. The image concerns a position in war, and I do not want to consider that we teachers exist in a deadly combat zone, with bombs and bullets whizzing over our heads as we huddle down safely out of range. Or it is that that we periodically from the trenches raise our heads (and weapons—ah, what would those be, texts and lectures and learnings?) to fire ammunition at the enemy in our attempt to defeat them. And would those enemies be the students in our classes, or the world in which the school and our classrooms are nested? I think in these times one can get arrested for such behavior.

The image “in the trenches” suggests that the occupants of the school in a precarious and hostile position, and positions the teacher as engaged in deadly battle. Who would such fardels bear?

I suggested that teachers ought to assume the moral high ground: that what the teacher does is to stand ethically in the world hardly hiding in the trenches, but standing proudly as a model for the degraded world. The teacher should think of herself as standing as the prophet might stand in the midst of a corrupt and corrupting society serving as its moral exemplar and harsh critic. Yes, indeed, I said. As a prophet. Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “The prophet’s word is a scream of the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.” Now, this is a metaphor appropriate to the image of the teacher: the moral exemplar for the degraded society and the classroom as the place of ethics and life. Here let the teacher stand tall and create the seeds of a better world. Heschel again: [T]o be a prophet means to challenge and to defy and to cast out fear.” To be teacher is to be prophet. Yes, indeed.

As I said, the party was lovely.

20 December 2006

Random Ramblings

As I have repeatedly said, I have been listening almost daily to Modern Times, Bob Dylan’s new album. I try to listen to other things, but soon the shallowness of most of what I hear sends me back to this incredible work. I have much to consider about the album and its appeal to me, but that will wait for a more academic treatment. The first paper I ever wrote was an attempt at a scholarly treatment of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” I still like that essay. And love the song still.

Anyway, last week I set out on my regular Sunday run—alas, about six or seven miles these days—and I strapped the iPod to my arm. I had placed about a dozen new songs atop Dylan’s Modern Times; I figured that about thirty minutes or so into the run I’d need to be charged by the sound of the opening notes of “Thunder on the Mountain.” But when I clicked the device on, it clicked right through the first dozen songs and began playing Dylan. I pushed the menu button and started again the playlist-of-the-day, “running songs.” The iPod clicked itself past the first dozen songs and again started playing “Thunder on the Mountain.” Now on this particularly colder morning I had placed the iPod underneath my gore-tex,; somehow, in the cold, the battery loses power, and so getting at the iPod this morning was not an easy feat. I stopped running. I took the gloves and the jacket off, unstrapped it from my arm, and turned the wheel again to begin the ‘running song’ playlist. And once again, the iPod clicked its way through the first dozen songs and urgently began “Thunder on the Mountain.” So be it, I said. It was a great run. Who says devices can’t learn.

The Rabbis say that whoever ascends the scaffold, if that person has great advocates he is saved, but if he doesn’t have great advocates, well, then he is not saved. What are our great advocates, the Rabbis ask? Repentance and good deeds. I can accept that. As Dylan says, “Gonna forget about myself for awhile, gonna go out and see what others need.” Yes.

But, the Rabbis continue: even if 999 persons argue for a man or woman’s guilt, if there be one who will argue in her/his favor, that person is saved. As proof text the Rabbis go to Job 33:23. Elihu, trying to comfort Job, says, “If there will be for someone but a single defending angel out of a thousand to declare a man’s uprightness on his behalf, then [God] will be gracious to him and say, Redeem him . . .” Forget the context: this is not a disquisition on Job. The Rabbi’s use of Elihu’s statement fits my theme perfectly, and though I can’t be that forgiving, I can yet aspire to it. If we are to be Holy by modeling God’s holiness, then this is certainly an attribute which will make me a better human being.

But then the Rabbis go even a step further. They quote Rabbi Jose, the Galilean. This scholar says that if 999 parts of the single defending angel are against the man, and only one part is for him, then still he is saved: “an advocate, one part of a thousand.” Of course, the presence of the argument in Talmud indicates that forgiveness is an issue in the society, but what a remarkable standard the Rabbis set. It’s a standard to which I can aspire.

Admittedly, even Hitler would find an advocate, and I can not think that the Rabbis are exonerating the devil. What they are asking is that we aspire toward a holiness we can never attain. Would Hitler had sought such holiness! And George Bush, too, I suppose!

07 December 2006

Two days past the full moon

The semester crashes to a close. It has always been a curious time for me, who has spent his life in schools. Students suddenly appear at every class meeting, though some don’t quite know where their place in the classroom might be. I am besieged by students wondering if they have turned in all of their assignments, and what else they might do to improve their grades. I become obsessed with all that I have not taught or taught well, and I fret that I have miserably failed. I bemoan the papers I have yet to read and turn the radio louder.

I’ve thought for a while that finals are irrelevant: if teachers must wait until the semester’s end to know what students have learned, then somehow the classroom has failed. If students have to wait until the end of the semester to learn anything, then the classroom has failed. Rather than oppressive, the end of semester ought to be festive, a celebration of learning and intellectual growth. But too often the semester’s end is approached with dread, and students early start packing to get out of town. Teachers sharpen their pencils and hide behind closed doors.

The weather has turned bitter cold. I used to mind the change, but over the years I have come to expect the frigidity, and have even come to enjoy it. What I enjoy, I think, is the shift in consciousness from a Fall outlook to a winter perspective, and the resultant change in my body feel and postures. The winter tests me in ways that no other season does; when the Spring finally arrives, sometimes in six months time, it is a visceral response I experience. Ah, I have survived the minus thirty degree temperatures, and the wind chills which defy imagination, and the darknesses even in the midst of day. I do not sleep like the bear, but I do hibernate a bit, and think too much of the world as a cave.

Do I sound a bit depressed today? So be it! Next week is Chanukah, and with the winter solstice before us, we light the candles which represent resistance to oppression, resistance to assimilation, resistance to darkness and despair. I’m going to buy my children music this year to help them through the winter—it will brighten my own.

I’ve finished almost the full sixth season of The Sopranos. I’ve seen it all on DVD over the past several years, though I now subscribe to DirectTV and will watch the show’s conclusions in real time. I’ve grown to feel about each of the characters a high degree of disgust: they are each so cruel and selfish. Though they speak of love and loyalty, they display none of either. It is one of the first times that in a long running series TV has not inspired sympathy for a repulsive character. Archie Bunker is a case in point: he became cute and cuddly as he spewed hate. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes is another example: we laughed at his behaviors as he guarded those who we know were suffering. And these were the POW camps where the killings were not as methodical as in the Death Camps. Even Redd Foxx’s Sanford became adorable. But there is nothing appealing about any of the Sopranos. Even Tony’s shrink seems to be vicariously enjoying the violence and criminality which is part of the daily lives of the characters. And those in the story that do not practice violence, like Carmella and Tony’s own children, certainly tolerate it and enjoy the fruits derived from it.
Why do I watch? It is a well written and acted show, and like reading The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby, the fascination at the repulsive nature of the characters draws me in. Ugliness is often as attractive as beauty—didn’t Milton know that when he created Satan?