29 September 2010

Horse Hockey

Yesterday I brought to class for my students in Foundations of Education a blog, for lack of a better word, that came to me in my email last week. It was dated 23 September, 2010 and was headlined “Crybaby teachers in Virginia school district staging a childish, lazy protest.” The sub-head reads, “If they don’t get their raise, they’re not going to work any harder than they have to.” The graphic that covers about one-eighth of the page portrays a crying baby on the body of an adult male wearing a suit and a tie, though my aging eyesight spies ladies pointed shoes on the feet of the teacher.

The article concerns the decision of the teachers in Leesburg, Virginia to institute a work-to-rule condition until their contractual demands are negotiated. The article reports that, “The teachers in Leesburg, like many of their peers across the nation, are quite angry. They haven’t had a raise in three years and they’ve been stuck with a number of unpaid furlough days.” That is, they have not only not received a raise, but they have had money owed them removed from their salaries! Alas, I know the feeling. I work in Wisconsin!!

And then the article goes on to castigate the teachers for taking concerted action to protest their situation, and describes the actions of the teachers as a childish temper tantrum.

What is a work to rule action? The teachers have decided that they will do what they’re absolutely required to do “for the proper functioning of the school” and absolutely nothing else. “Extra duties, like volunteering at PTA events, providing student tutoring before or after school, or volunteering at school athletic events, are out of the question.” That is, the teachers will perform those duties they have been assigned by contract and for which they are being paid, albeit obviously not enough.

Union leader Kitty Boitnott declared that “Time has come for state and local legislators, and our citizens, to recognize they get what they pay for . . . They already know this, but they haven’t considered that by asking us to educate kids on the cheap. They are shortchanging the future of this country and this commonwealth.” The response of Educational Action Group: “Horse hockey.” The organization argues “Teaching is supposed to be a noble calling. Concern for the student comes first in all circumstances, and fights between adults over salary and benefits must be secondary concerns.” As a teacher for the past four decades, to this sentiment I say, “Horse hockey!” The organization does acknowledge that if workers in a factory call for a slow down if they feel they are underpaid may have justification, but the same right is not afforded to teachers!!

I can hardly bear to type these absurd accusations. And so I intend to stop. But when I presented this screed against teachers to the students in my Foundations of Education class who want to be teachers, they agreed with the sentiments presented in the article. They agreed that teachers ought to be selfless martyrs!!

And I want to know where they acquired this information?

22 September 2010

The Intimations Ode

I’ve been thinking about Wordsworth’s great Ode, subtitled, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I have myself been thinking about that subject; the last chapter of Ethics and Teaching concerns immortality.
In the ode Wordsworth recollects childhood as  moments when the Child experiences  absolute Oneness and joy, when everything was “appareled in celestial light.” But now, no longer a Child, it is not as it was then, and “the things which I have seen I now can see no more.” It is not that he does not experience happiness and even hear with joy, but something is missing—an intimation that there is more. “There’s a tree, of many, one,/A single field which I have looked upon” that speak of something gone. That somethingthat visionary gleam is gone. And the poet recognizes that the child still can see that visionary gleam, though inevitably that Child, by her own will and desire, will “grow into a life of endless imitation.” And there is in that reality a sadness for the poet.
The child, that Mighty Prophet, knows those truths the rest of us spend our lives toiling to find. But the remembrance of the joy of childhood—the ability to see not what the child sees but that the child sees brings the poet comfort: “O joy! That in our embers/Is something that doth live,/That nature yet remembers/What was so fugitive.” The thought of our past years in me doth breed/Perpetual benediction.” What the poet is thankful for is the intimations of immortality he sees in the childhood but that the child does not consider because it is a child.
And so the poet rejoices that though nothing can bring back that moment of splendour in the grass, “we will grieve not,” but rather, find comfort in “the soothing thoughts that spring Out of human suffering,: and “in the faith that looks through death/In years that bring the philosophic mind.” That is, as our experience inevitably causes suffering, we may think our way to happiness in our intimations of immortality. We can see the children play though we no longer can join them. Immortality is not perpetual life but life perpetual:
And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills and Groves
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
Now that beauty that can be loved must be so at a distance and from the perspective of experience. But it can be loved nonetheless: To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” It is in our thoughts that we comfort can attain. And we may experience joy in that reality.
And in light of this I’ve been thinking of Dylan. He says, “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea/Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me.” Intimations of Immortality.

16 September 2010

5771 Yom Kippur

I’ve been looking forward with relief and hope to Yom Kippur. This is the holiest day of the Jewish Year (aren’t all days holy?), but in the liturgy this day is called the Sabbath of Sabbaths (Shabbat Shabbaton); its occurrence trumps even the Sabbath. What is not permitted on the Sabbath is certainly not permitted on Yom Kippur, but some things permitted on the Sabbath are forbidden on Yom Kippur. And some things forbidden on the Sabbath are permitted on Yom Kippur. OnYom Kippur Jews refrain from eating and drinking, from all conjugal relations, from the wearing of leather or scents, and spend almost one full twenty-five hour period in shul immersed in prayer and study.

And so what I am anticipating is the enforced seclusion from the diurnal. For twenty five hours I am completely out of touch, and for the most part sit quietly and reflectively concerned about my positions in the world out there. Like a caterpillar, I weave about myself a cocoon, and within it spin, melt and coalesce, and when I am ready, I emerge (hopefully) reviewed and renewed.

13 September 2010

Ovation, Standing and Otherwise

I saw The Scottsboro Boys last evening at the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. Kander and Epp have taken one of the more heinous moments in 20th century American history—the legal lynching of nine innocent African American young men (though one of the boys was twelve when he was arrested) for a crime that never actually occurred. I call what transpired a legal lynching because the event in a very real sense veritably ended in different ways the lives of each of the nine individuals.

The play functioned on a number of ironic levels, one of the more interesting of them arising as a result of Kander and Ebb’s (books and lyrics) choice to employ the frame of the minstrel show to structure the play. The choice of this comedic frame deflated the sense of respectable indignation and moral superiority that the subject of this egregious example of American justice might inspire in a mostly white audience. There was just too much to laugh at in the production (though the laughter was often nervous and embarrassed) to leave much room for the development of a righteous anger. The Minstrel show has set form and stock characters and intends to entertain with comedy, song and dance. Indeed, the show, about one of the more repulsive events in American history, was created as a musical! Minstrel shows are traditionally identified with a virulent racism as whites performed in black face and ridiculed African-Americans as at least ignorant and lazy. Later, minstrel shows included Blacks in blackface, but the racist themes remained the same. The events portrayed in The Scottsboro Boys were shocking, and the minstrel show frame heightened the horror by placing these events in a farcical frame. I think also that the humor in The Scottsboro Boys prevented the appearance of any maudlin and cheap melodramatic sentiment that might creep in from the sympathy the audience might develop with the unspeakable situation suffered by the Scottsboro boys. Irony, I think, permitted the events to speak eloquently. Another irony in the play derived from the fact that all of the characters, except The Interlocutor (who also enacted the role of Judge and Governor), were played by Black males. Even the two white girls who (falsely and maliciously) accused the boys of rape, were played by the Black men. In the play African-americans were both victims and perpetrators, oppressors and oppressed. Operatic and comic, tragic and farcical. The play was all very well staged, designed, and performed.

At the end of the play at the curtain call (though there was no curtain, in fact) the audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation. I have grown weary of pro forma standing ovations, and I remained seated.

I have recently twice heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, and both times at the end of the fourth movement I was impelled out of my seat by the force of the music and its performance. I stood cheering. Probably in my memory there are other performances that pulled me up where I applauded the performance, though right now I can recall none.

In the present time, a standing ovation occurs after every performance, and for me the act has lost all meaning. Standing ovations have become something I have to do and not something I have been inspired to do. Ovations are no longer about the relationship between the performance and the audience, but about standardized response. I remember the spontaneous appearance of lit matches at the end of a concert—at Dylan’s 1974 tour with The Band in Washington D.C. People lit matches in an almost religious fervor to express the depths of their spiritual engagement with the evening’s performances. But now, at the end of a concert attendees turn on the lighter app on their cell phone. One was a spontaneous response and another the planned one.

It does a disservice to the performers to stand as an automatic response because there are different levels to their performance, and I think actors need to know the difference. It is an audience obligation to respond with honesty. I think that the standing ovation at the end of this play was at least in part an affirmation of the play’s politics and not a comment on the actor’s performance or even the quality of the play. It was a self-serving accolade in which the audience applauded itself for its sympathy with the subject matter.

I liked the play very much, and I applauded enthusiastically from my seat.

07 September 2010

Rosh Hashanah

The High Holidays season begins this week. Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah this Thursday and Friday; Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year occurs next Friday-Saturday, and the following week begins the festival of Sukkot. For me during these next several weeks time seems to stand frozen as each day brings a holiday and long periods of time in prayer and contemplation. The services vary but the structure stays the same and I seek the same seat. And yet time appears to rush forward as I proceed from holiday to holiday and from celebration to celebration. Each day impels me into the next and suddenly I know that Fall has begun. It used to be that the Holidays signaled the arrival of the World Series, but it is a long time since I concerned myself with baseball—not since the Mets won the World Series in 1969. This year Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of classes, and for the first time in forty years, I will not be in attendance.

In Bava Bathra, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, the Rabbis discuss the size and contents of the ark that the Israelites carried about in the wilderness. Now, we are told that the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai were placed in the ark and carried about the wilderness during the forty years of wandering, but I guess that the Rabbis wonder from where the Torah scroll so sacred to Judaism derived and was kept during the years of wandering. We know that Moses wrote the words down, but where were they kept? Obviously, the scroll must have been kept in the ark, though there is no explicit mention of its presence.

Since the tablets Moses returned from Sinai with were placed in the ark, and these tablets were said to be six handbreadths in length, six in breadth, and three in thickness, they must have been placed lengthwise in the ark, which was itself two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. A cubit is between 18-20 inches, and a hands-breadth about three inches. Regardless of the exact dimensions, there was room left in the ark after the tablets were placed there. Now, since there is no mention of the Torah scroll being in the ark, and yet the Rabbis insist that it existed, they have to discover its presence. And they do in a remarkable way: they go to I Kings VIII, 9 which reads, “There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone which Moses put there.”

The Rabbis say that 'nothing' is a limitation. This appears obvious: nothing declares that the ark was empty—the word classifies as a limitation because nothing announces an absence—if absence can, in fact, be a limitation, and then the Rabbis say that 'save' is a limitation because it announces that nothing was in the ark except the two tablets; I suppose this means that what was in the ark was limited by the word ‘save,’ and otherwise, in the ark there was nothing, the limitation already explicated. And the Rabbis argue that a limitation following a limitation intimates the presence of something that is not mentioned (!), and that something in this case is the scroll of the Law that was deposited in the ark.

No questions asked. Two limitations make a presence. Two absences make a presence. During these holidays, I will be absent from the diurnal and the academic world and I will seek my presence.

03 September 2010

Falling thoughts

The weather turns quickly here, and last night the quilt was necessary. Once, many years ago I walked into a copse of trees and thought that my entrance provoked the sudden outburst. But then I wondered if the singing had anything to do with me or whether I just happened to enter a conversation already in progress. It has rained heavily these past few days and the wind has blown strong, and today I note that the yard is filled with leaves torn from their branches and that the trail on which I run is softened with fallen leaves. And I wonder whether the rains and winds are meant to blow the leaves off of the trees and usher in Fall, or whether the leaves would have fallen off of the trees anyway, having reached the limits of their lives. I guess I’m wondering about intentionality.

The dream was difficult—a fight with the daughter—but the fight took place in exactly the wrong place, and so I knew that the daughter in the dream was not the daughter in life. Who was it? It was me. It was I. I think we are everyone in our dreams, but we choose different personalities to represent different aspects of our selves. Maybe this was a dream about forgiving myself. And what for exactly?

Fall brings politics, and politics brings upsetting and unpleasant rhetoric. This year, what with the Tea Party-ers and the Republican Party and the unacceptable number of bigots given sanction by the first listed two entities, I anticipate that the level of offensive language will sink to an historic and dangerous low. The hate and disrespect replete in the talk is evidence of contempt not only for those to whom they speak, but for the entire democratic process they mean to control. They practice a version of American fascism, and it terrifies me. I worry about our children’s future.

I will enter the classroom this Fall and caution students who would be teachers that these politicians will volubly and viciously accuse the schools and the teachers for the failure of American society, but I will tell my students that these politicians are themselves to blame for whatever failure they report, but that they are too cowardly to acknowledge their complicity or to do anything serious about improving education in the schools. Without a scapegoat they would be too visible in their perfidy. A doctor with a pen knife, no matter how skilled, cannot perform brain surgery. A public critically aware might not tolerate such empty and malicious speechifying.

No, I will not again rant: I go now to other affairs.