28 January 2007

Notes, no scandal

Returning to the blog thinking I have to be profound. I’d rather be depressed. In this regard, I’m reading Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of the political genius of Abraham Lincoln. It is a wonderful read; I have been fascinated with Lincoln for much of my adult life. I recall reading Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln, and come to understand how Lincoln’s presidency defined the modern United States, if not in its politics then certainly in its existence. In my own focus on ethics and moral standing in education, I am drawn by what appears to be Lincoln’s ethical stance in the world. In comparison to every other politician I have ever studied, only Lincoln has virtue. Indeed, I read (in part) a book called Lincoln’s Virtues, much of what I (partly read) is reinforced by Kearns’ account. He was a great man.

On every page the reality of slavery in the United States assaults me. Imagining travel in the South where slaves could always be seen working the fields overseen by people who owned them, and who justified that inhuman unimaginable ownership with arguments absurd, I am overcome with revulsion for American character and history. I take comfort in the abolitionists, but abhor their necessity. This week’s parashah concerned the exodus from slavery in Egypt: Pharoh’s heart is so hard. Could it be that there is nothing new under the sun?

Saw another teacher movie: Notes of a Scandal. Not at all idealistic, Sheba enters the profession to escape her mundane and difficult life, and finds not rewards in teaching art, but in sexual passion. She begins an affair with a fifteen year old student for which she is punished by a lonely, vindictive and finally, predatory Barbara Covett. Then Sheba goes to jail for ten months for her seductions. There is no idealization in this film regarding the profession, but there is neither real critique either. The teachers seem burnt out, world- and school weary, but content to train their future plumbers and servants; the school is clean, the students sartorially uniformed, and the curriculum irrelevant, but in place. The center of the film is Sheba’s search for wild passion to escape her own burnt out life. She has a child with Down’s syndrome, an adolescent daughter acting out as adolescent daughters are wont to do (I have two of them, I know, I know!), and a husband who loves her but is twenty years older than she. Ironically, he was her professor years before, and must have been captured by her youth and beauty. I think finally he understands his wife, Sheba, because of his relationship with her. Sheba’s attraction to Stephen Connelly is comprehensible, and even free of our judgment, because too many of us live lives in which the passion has been crushed by the process of living our lives. Because so much that defeats us in our lives is out of our control, perhaps it is that the sexual passion which so powerfully suppresses all of our rational control holds some attraction as a positive alternative to the diurnal matter of our lives. Perhaps this is a film which on some level advocates our surrender to passionate embrace.

And to return to Lincoln: to study Lincoln and to return to the daily news only serves to highlight the decadence of our political landscapes and characters. We would not see his like again. It is our tragedy. And right now, this realization depresses me no end.

16 January 2007

Gang Aft Agley

Headlines in The New York Times reported today that “Second Iraq Hanging Also Went Awry.” Of course, this refers to the execution this week of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam Hussein’s half-brother. The first Iraq hanging that went awry was that of Saddam Hussein. In that absurdity, the former dictator experienced verbal abuse from members of the execution party and other witnesses as he waited with the noose around his neck. I saw the video. The room itself was taken from a bad set for a grade less-than-B horror film. The entire event was hideous. In the former, quoting the reporting of The Times’ John Burns, “the hangmen’s calculations of weight, gravity and the momentum needed to snap the neck of the victim — a grim science that has produced detailed “drop charts” used for decades in hangings around the world — appeared, in Mr. Ibrahim’s case, to have gone seriously awry.” Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti was decapitated during the hanging. There was, thankfully, no cell phone videos capturing this travesty.

But what I am thinking is that these two horrific events epitomize for me the entire travesty not only of the Iraq War, but of the entire Bush administration. These consecutively mishandled state executions were undertaken with absolutely no skill, no respect for human dignity, with no use of knowledge available, and with total misuse of whatever information was, indeed, available. These executions were impelled by an animus and contempt for acceptable human dignity. These executions represent for me everything that is wrong with our government: it is inept; it is sloppy; it is insensitive, if not cruel. This administration would be a laughingstock, if it were not so deadly.

07 January 2007

On the Mountaintops

Using heavy doses of antibiotics (and warehousing heavy doses of intestinal flora-producing substances), I am recovering from a serious sinus infection. For eighteen years I have been feeding amoxicillin to my children for various aches and maladies, and now I am taking it myself. It is not pink nor in liquid form, but it is amoxicillin nonetheless. And I love it for me as I did for them.

So this evening I stepped out and went with my daughter to see Freedom Writers tonight. It is the new movie with Hilary Swank, who plays a dedicated new teacher in a “voluntarily integrated school” which became (especially after the Rodney King fiasco) an “involuntarily segregated school.” This will not be a movie review. I hate reading reviews—no less after I’ve seen the movie, when I seek confirmation—as before, when I seek guidance. And I do like seeing movies about schools and teachers, because I need to know what ‘they’ are thinking about us. And so I would like to say two, maybe three things about the film.

One: I very much enjoyed Freedom Writers. Because it says about teaching what I have learned about the profession in my thirty five years engaged in it, and specifically over the past several years as I have, in my writing, come more and more to articulate the position: to teach is to assume an ethical position in an immoral world. To teach is to be a prophet in a degraded world. To teach is to not suffer silently, but to suffer nonetheless. To teach is to change the world paper by paper. Erin Gruwell was a wonderful teacher—I am not certain what she does presently, though the film suggested that she works now at California State University—because she was concerned with the lives of the children now, rather than their future lives which might never occur. Without ignoring the world outside the classroom, she attempted to create a safe-place within it, and to offer her adolescents robbed of their adolescence, some place of relative peace to make some sense of their lives outside this artificial and temporary haven. In this impossible situation, she did not change the world, but she did manage to affect not a few of her students. It is their writings (and lives) which inspired this film. I wonder then, if she ought to be less the focus—though she is the hero, she is not alone in her heroism. Her complexities are too known, and those of her students less revealed, perhaps. She is too often in the center of the screen image. And though her students are not flat stereotypes, they are less than full characters.

Two: Though the film suggested that Erin Gruwell was a wonderful teacher—depicted her as a incredibly effective, life-changing teacher, in all the best senses of that term—it was quite clear that there was nothing we could teach in our schools of education which could prepare our students to practice as did Ms. Gruwell. That is, how she was trained to be a teacher was never raised in the film as an issue: it was her own personality and particular circumstances in the classroom that made her a great teacher, defying the system as she did. That system must include her teacher education. But some of us in higher education (what ever that is) know that there is indeed, something we can do to prepare more Ms. Gruwells. But this curriculum will not sit well with neither administrators nor politicians. It may do for ‘the unteachables,’ but it will not do for those who are certainly college bound.

However, it is clear to me that if we do not do change our educational focus for preservice teachers, we will perpetuate the world the Ms. Gruwells of this world must defy. So, though the film will make a great deal of money, and columns will be written about the courage of such teachers, in fact, there is nothing in our society in place to support either the Ms Gruwells of this world or the educational structures which could produce more like her.

Three: For $27,000.00 salary, no one should have to forgo her life for so much effort and so little respect. The absolute nerve of a society to pay so little to those who care so well for their children.

I sense my anger rising. I’m going to stop now.

04 January 2007

Random Ramblings for the new year

I don’t handle illness well, especially when it’s my own maladies. I’ve been suffering through what I thought was a cold but has now revealed itself as a virus. Well, maybe a cold is a virus, but this current illness is a particularly unpleasant variety. Everything hurts—even the muscles of my face. I walk around; I drink tea; I nap. I await wellness. I’m not hungry but I eat. I don’t shower. No one comes near me. Thank goodness.

The year hasn’t started well, what with Saddam Hussein’s execution, the continuing deadly war in Iraq, and the global warming which has made January in Wisconsin feel like March. The past few years have been significantly milder, and I joked about the change of climate (climate, William James said, was what we call the weather over a series of days). Now, I grow concerned. I live on a hill, but the melting of the polar ice cap will certainly bring the waters to this height. I can’t build an ark—I haven’t been given either the order or the tools. Years ago I gave away my electric saw, drill and screwdriver.

And there is always the absurd presence of George Bush. How soon until history relegates him to the dustbins? Except for the death and destruction he has caused, what exactly has he accomplished?

Anyway, wanted to start the new year with a new posting. Its already the first week of the new year, and so my hello is a bit late. But it is sincere. And it brings us closer to the next election.