Monday, January 31, 2011

Teaching Literature Ain't For Wimps

     I just spent the day at a professional development meeting with my entire thirteen-school organization.  There were well over a hundred teachers present, all of us trying to figure out how to become better teachers.  I went to a workshop on teaching writing. 
     While the workshop I went to wasn't entirely riveting (it was actually pretty dry), it did get me thinking about how and why we bother teaching literature and reading.  Why does it matter what happened in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, or in The Giver.  I mean really - is it essential to the development and job readiness of these children that they know the details of plot and setting? 
     No, maybe not, but literature is about far more than learning stories.  It's about learning to think, learning to analyze and synthesize information.  In an age when information is readily accessible by a million and a half venues, some credible, many not, we have to find a way to teach students how to analyze information critically.  And that process starts in literature.  We learn and teach how to see and express the big ideas, how to find and support with evidential details.  And those aren't skills that get lost once students leave the classroom - critical analysis (not just literary) is a life skill.  The responsibility is daunting, but the necessity is irrefutable.

Not One Crumb Shall Go To Waste

     Uncharacteristically I made a rather impulsive buying decision last week.  Only about an hour after learning from one of my roommates that Amos Lee was playing at The Music Box, I walked the half a block and bought myself a ticket.  Now I'm not usually one to spend money unplanned, but I couldn't pass this concert up. 
     I went alone, and stood by myself as note after note floated from the stage and drenched the room in American-sounding harmonies.  His newly released album called Mission Bell made up the majority of the songs during the night.  I was surprised that so many of the songs were about God.  One song is even unabashedly called "Jesus."  I was even more surprised when the entire audience got into it.  It's got a strong beat and sounds something like an African spiritual.  And people danced.  They loved it.     
     I don't really have anything profound to say about the concert experience except that I found it refreshing that new music can be both creative and spiritual.  Recently it has seemed like you have to sacrifice one or the other - musical innovation or spirituality.  I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to find that they are not mutually exclusive. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

America's Heart

     I sat in with some of my 8th graders in their history class, and I discovered this gem from the past in their history textbook: 
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [America's] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
John Quincy Adams Fourth of July Oration 1821
     Is Mr. Adams right?  Did America become the dictatress of the world, at the loss of ruling her own spirit?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bleeding Hearts and Iron Fists

       Looking around Hollywood you get a fairly decent picture of everything that is wrong with this country.  Not that I want to pin America's social ills on the entertainment industry, but Hollywood is a grotesque (as in distorted) microcosm of American culture.  You've got the glitz and the glamor of the walk of fame and the Kodak theater (home of the Academy Awards) next to the shamelessly prevalent strip joints, night clubs, and liquor advertisements.  The billboards are gigantic.  The lights flash constantly. 
     And the people - well you've got the girls who dress in 7 inch heels with 7 inch skirts, the guys who wander around boisterously yelling at the girls; you've got the drug addicts and sellers surreptitiously lurking in sketchy allies; you've got homeless men and women trying to rest their tired bones on cracked concrete sidewalks; and you've got the concerned believers trying to save them all with fear of damnation. 
     It's easy to look around and feel terrible for all the social injustice in the world, to feel sorry for the drunks and the drug addicts, to feel pity for the homeless.  It can also be easy to look at all the social wrongs and get angry, to get frustrated with the prominence of sexuality in advertising, to get aggravated with the people who seemingly won't take control of their own lives. 
     No matter your reaction, the question remains - can we fix America?  Which reaction is better?  A bleeding heart or an iron fist?  Do we seek mercy or justice? 
     The answer, of course, is a balance of the two.  We cannot look at them as opposite impulses.
Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; and justice without mercy is cruelty.
St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas basically summed it up in this system of equations: 
     Mercy - Justice = Dissolution
     Justice - Mercy = Cruelty
What do you get when you add them together, though?  In my humble estimation,
     Mercy + Justice = Love
     The best way to begin thinking about America's, and the world's, social wrongs is with love.  Love is constructive instead of destructive; it builds up rather than degrades.  And not only do we need to think about people with love, but also our country if it is to change.  I love America.  I love our tradition and our ideals, but I am not blind to the cracks in our bells of liberty.
     For more about the coextensive nature of justice and mercy, check this article out: Justice and Mercy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jack Kerouac, The Virgil to My Dante

This was written shortly before graduation last May:
So here I sit, thinking of Jack, my friend, who knows my heart better than anyone here.  Thinking in French, longing to curve my lips around la langue francais.  It is so beautiful, amorous. Compassion drips in the cave of my heart.  Drip drip drop stop.  Oh God.  I don’t know where I’m going and it’s scary a little, to sit and feel the heat against my skin.  I want to live again. Please God I want to live again. To scream tonight. At the top of my lungs if only you would hear my broken voice. I used to sing of you, and now I find that I have to remember the notes, struggle to push them from my throat until it’s raw.  Unnatural.  It is too much.  This life. These times when bombs go off and the world might end at any second.  Are we ready? We who sit in awe of natural creation. We who wander around this earth, with our shopping bags full of useless trash, on to the next thing already. We forget so quickly.  Haiti. Chile.  Turkey. China. We forget you.  You are gone. Only us. Only me. Only me.  Here we are, we humans, are we ready? For the end? Maybe. Together we will wait, and only together can we be ready.  We were made for each other.  Oh God, show us how to love.  Teach us how to comfort each other and teach us how to live, for life is precious and every moment holy.  Jack said that once.  He was right, that sage who drank himself to death.  But, God, how he loved life.  To the bitter end.  He savored it.  Not just tasted here and there.  God, he knew every nuanced flavor, and he savored them all.  Life is, God.  Life is good.  Life is.  Life is beautiful and tragic and we are here to feel it all and feel each other and give each other our lives.  I love.  I love you.  I love. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

We Can Never Be Satisfied

     Last Friday I showed Dr. King's Dream speech to my new after school theatre club.  They paid attention in varying degrees.  Some were entranced; some tapped their fingers in boredom; some couldn't get into it at all.  To be fair, these kids are at varying degrees of literacy - ranging from 2nd grade to 7th grade - and the speech's rhetoric goes over the heads of many adults.  And I showed them the whole fifteen minute speech, not just the iconic ending. 
     They knew though, the minute Dr. King began to say "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama..." the tone had changed.  Fingers stopped tapping; eyes stopped wandering.  One girl even emphatically said "Amen!" when Dr. King began saying "Let freedom ring..." 
     It was pretty moving to see my students, all of whom come from immigrant families, perform the speech after having watched it.  These kids deal with discrimination on a daily basis.  They live in an area of Los Angeles that is known as the Mexican barrio - its neighborhoods are ridden with poverty and gang activity - and their socioeconomic position puts them in a place never to overcome the challenges they face.  Many of their peers at other schools will drop out of high school (if they make it there at all), and very few of them will enter college.  My students have something of a better chance - our school demands a huge commitment from our students and their families.  Our charter organization is committed, in its very name, to uplifting the whole community.  We ask for involvement on all levels.  The idea is to foster an awareness of and appreciation for the good things that the Mexican barrio has to offer in order to help nurture students who will go on to college educations and then return to help change the community for the better. 
     I know these aspirations for our students are very difficult to achieve, and that kind of awareness does not come from one lesson, taught in one day, but instead from years of encouragement and motivated teaching.  I am hopeful however as I look around at my fellow teachers who all share my impassioned concern for not only our students, but also for our community and for our country.  These are the young people who will go on to make the next great American speeches that will change the country for the better, and make it a more welcoming, accepting, and loving land where freedom truly does ring from every hillside and mountaintop.  And we can never be satisfied, as Dr. King said, until that day comes. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Those Who Persecute You

     Last Sunday we had an intern gathering at the Hollywood house.  My roomies and I were each asked to lead a small Bible study with the others in attendance.  Having led a million of these in the past thanks to four years spent in the BU Catholic Center community, I of course had no qualms about it.  My group had a great discussion.  All four interns participated and shared views despite our differences.  We were practically finishing each other's sentences by the end of the short 25 minutes that we had.  I was super impressed with my fellow interns - this being the first real discussion I've had with anyone out here who seems to put as much thought and effort into their relationship with God as I do.
     The small group closed on a pretty awkward note however.  One of the members of the group, not one of the interns I should say, chose that particular moment to share some pretty negative sentiments toward the Catholic Church (ok, I've heard it before... this didn't surprise me too much), but she also had some rather negative things to say about Catholics in general.  These comments did surprise me - actually, "surprise" may be too light a word; "shock" may be more suitable.  She claimed that Catholics are not faithful like other Christian denominations and that we are close-minded because our Church does not accept homosexuality.  I didn't know whether to laugh at the absurdity of the claims (when is it ever valid to make such broad-sweeping generalizations?) or to defend myself and my faith (it hardly seemed like the moment or the place to get into an argument).  I took the middle ground and poked fun at her comments, to which she fired back some more antagonizing statements.  I let it go because we were running out of time, and I had to go play hostess.
     After having thought about all that transpired, I've found a bit of resentment, no... sadness, maybe even pity for this person.  Here she was claiming to be as Anglican and open-minded as they come, and yet she could not find it in herself to open her heart to her Catholic brothers and sisters.  To her, we don't know God.  To her, we prance around doing a lot of rituals, but don't understand their meanings.  And to some extent maybe she's right.  I read a study recently from the Pew Center that said that something like 70% of Catholics don't know that the eucharist is actually, truly God.  But I hardly think that these problems are limited to the Catholic Church.  I know people of all sorts of Christian denominations, some of whom talk to God on a daily basis, and some of whom look at me like I should be locked up in the crazyhouse when I start talking about the Holy Spirit.  The point is, Catholic or Anglican, Baptist or Methodist (I'm limiting myself to Christianity for now), we're all at different stages on our faith journey.  We're here to learn from each other and grow together, and I found it terribly ironic that this woman has such strong prejudices against some of her fellow Christians.  I suppose it fitting that the passage we had just read was the one from Matthew in which Jesus dispenses advice for dealing with adversity.  "Love your enemies," He says, "and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 4:44).

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Giver

     I've been thinking quite a bit recently about the idea of giving (in many different senses and for various reasons), and then it occurred to me that I should perhaps pick up a copy of The Giver since my students have to read it this year anyway.  Apparently I made it through American public schools never having read it.  How bizarre.
     It's rather different than John Steinbeck - no extravagant prose, no broad sweeping biblical themes, just simple, straightforward storyline that makes you question everything you know.  It's a quick read - I read for maybe an hour and am almost halfway through it - but it obliges concerted thought about how society functions.
     Pick up a copy and reread it if you get a chance.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

One Nation Free From Poverty

      This morning I woke up super early (my body still thinks it's on the East coast) and went for a run around Hollywood.  Almost immediately I passed a man who was curled up under the 101 overpass.  I nearly stopped to offer to run back home and bring him food, but he was sleeping.  I spent the rest of my run contemplating poverty in the United States.  How many people passed this man and didn't give him a second thought?  How many of those same well-adjusted citizens pat themselves on the back for donating to charities that send aid to third world countries?
     Not that tremendous need doesn't exist in places outside the US, but we Americans are very quick to turn a blind eye to the injustice that runs rampant in our beloved country. 1 out of 10 Americans lives below the poverty line.  The rate is higher in cities.  1 out of 3 people in Detroit lives below the poverty line.  The numbers are staggering.  And embarrassing.  We claim to be a nation of abundance, a country of hard work and innovation, a land of hope, yet a tenth of our citizens cannot make enough money to support decent lives.  
     Something is amiss, America, when a person who works full time for all 52 weeks of the year on minimum wage only makes about $14,000 a year, which puts them just above the poverty line... before taxes.  I don't claim to have the answers.  But I think the first step in beginning to resolve this problem is recognizing that it exists. 
One In Six

Thursday, January 6, 2011

City of Angels

     Upon my return to southern California, and reluctantly to work, I was greeted excitedly by the wonderful people who have become yet another family to me.  I had almost begrudgingly left Pittsburgh behind, and in fact gotten awfully sentimental about leaving my high school friends and family again.  It was something of a new experience for me, always the go-getter off on some kind of wild and crazy adventure, to feel a twinge of regret at leaving home. 
     There was a bit of apprehension building as well surrounding the notion of returning to hours upon hours of work with children who half the time pay next to no attention to a word I say.  Could I handle it again?  Did I want to handle it again?  Was I wasting my time?  Lots of these types of questions floated around my head as I sat on three different planes to get between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. 
     However, immediately upon arrival, I was picked up by a friend who made no resentful remarks about driving the 45 minutes out of her way to come and get me after a long day at work.  In fact, the car ride was a good way for both of us to catch up and decompress from stressful days.  Shortly thereafter, I returned home and was greeted by my roommates, one of whom actually made dinner for me.  Thanks Al!  What a lovely gesture that made my heart smile.  I was frazzled and had a million things on my mind as always, and the last thing I wanted to think about was scrounging up something tasty to eat.  I was perfectly ready to settle for bagged baby carrots and some Ramen noodles, but instead I was treated to a yummy poached egg in marinara sauce. 
     Today I reluctantly returned to work.  Right off the bat, even before I got there, one of my coworkers had to come and give me a ride, which she did without hesitation.  She was happy to see me, she said at 5:45 this morning.  One friendly face asked me if I was excited to be back at work, and I chuckled and said, "Debatable. Ask me at the end of the day."  Everyone laughed.  Throughout the day I was greeted by several coworkers with cries of "Welcome back!" or "Good to see you!"  One of my students walked into the classroom, flung her arms around me, and yelled, "Ms. D!  I missed you!  How was your break?!"  Later in the day, several students came to me to share stories about break and to rehash our inside jokes.  I was somewhat shocked that they were genuinely happy to see me.  Oh God, I thought at the end of the day, I may actually love my job.  Despite the day-to-day crazy and the ridiculous hours, this many good vibes just don't happen in every workplace. 
     Another coworker turned real friend gave me a ride home, and we ended up sitting in the car for another forty minutes catching up from the break.  You know, I had heard that people call LA the city of angels, but I hadn't figured out until now that the moniker doesn't refer to any superabundance of golden cherubs that flit about the city.  I have only to look to the wonderful people who surround me to find that this city really is full of angels. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

On Commodities and Language

I woke up early a few days ago and picked up a book of Emerson that sat next to my bed.  I had forgotten how much I used to love him. 
The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favoring gales, but by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Aeolus's bag, and carries the two and thirty winds in the boiler of his boat. To diminish friction, he paves the road with iron bars, and, mounting a coach with a ship-load of men, animals, and merchandise behind him, he darts through the country, from town to town, like an eagle or a swallow through the air. By the aggregate of these aids, how is the face of the world changed, from the era of Noah to that of Napoleon! The private poor man hath cities, ships, canals, bridges, built for him. He goes to the post-office, and the human race run on his errands; to the book-shop, and the human race read and write of all that happens, for him; to the court-house, and nations repair his wrongs. He sets his house upon the road, and the human race go forth every morning, and shovel out the snow, and cut a path for him.
The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, -- and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, and make others believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature. But wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it, is a man in alliance with truth and God.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dear 2010,

(This may be a bit belated, but I think it may still be worth while to post.)

     You were an extraordinarily eventful year, one from which I learned and grew more than I ever realized was possible.  You filled my plate constantly, 2010, with opportunities for leadership, service, travel, and love.  You started off not with a whimper, but with a bang in Chicago with the wonderful Sam Smith and Leo and Mary Gameng.  Mary and I made a list of resolutions for you, my dear 2010, that I don't think either of us entirely kept.
     Then, despite the wearying work that came in January and February, you afforded me the beautiful opportunity to help lead a community in reigniting their passion for prayer on the Get in the Game retreat, a retreat that I reluctantly agreed to direct and in which I subsequently invested my whole heart.  My team members, Rich, Elise, Rochelle, Gabby, and Matt, and their dedication and tireless work were etched on my heart.
     March and April brought about the last InnerStrength Gospel Choir concert and the final production of Everyman, two performances drenched in very different memories.  With these shows, 2010, you brought me into contact with some of the hardest-working and fastest-trusting people I have ever known.  You taught me a deeper appreciation of the value in perseverance, trust, and honesty with each rehearsal.
     2010, in May you drew a four-year odyssey at Boston University to a close.  I said "so long," but not "goodbye" I hope, to many professors and to many friends.  You saw me bind and present my senior thesis, the culmination of years of the study of religion and literature.  I finished work at Orientation amid roars of laughter and counted the many blessings my coworkers had been to me.  And, in May, you brought a truly terrific group of friends to Montreal for a few celebratory days that I don't think any of us will soon forget.
     In June and July you allowed me to stay in Boston to spend time with some wonderful people who stood with me, sat with me, cried with me, and mostly laughed with me as I struggled through numerous sets of life-plans.  As it turns out, my best friend for the summer, the irrepressible Jonny Snow, became a best friend for... well, more than the summer.  Just can't seem to get rid of him (lucky me).  I spent our nation's birthday in historical Philadelphia and reconnected with other best friends, Genna, Emily, and Jason.  You brought me also to Walden Pond twice, with Sam and Erin, there to "live deliberately" and read my dear friends Whitman and Thoreau.  Summer 2010, you were a lesson in simplicity and joy.
     You filled my heart with hope in August, 2010, though you probably laughed when you saw me scream as I got a tattoo.  You told me that my future road lay in Los Angeles, and I prepared to say "so long" to my beloved Boston, the city I had called home for four years.  In August, you also brought me to my heart-home in Pittsburgh to celebrate with Kelly and Ryan as they said their marriage vows, and allowed me to travel to a farm in the mountains of West Virginia to visit an old friend and meet many new ones.  And then, 2010, you saw me pack my life in a few cardboard boxes and fly 3,000 miles into the golden American West to begin a new adventure.
     2010, in September you provided me with work and with a community that has definitely been "getting things done for America."  You saw me learn that I could teach as you threw me headfirst into a gang-ridden Los Angeles school.  You also saw me learn fitfully to drive a stick shift on the LA freeways.  And, 2010, you opened my heart in a new way to ecumenism by allowing me to live at St. Stephen's with three beautiful new sisters, Lucy, Allison, and Megan.
     In October, 2010, you brought me to San Jose to celebrate the wedding of my dear friends, Floyd and Rochelle.  You also blessed me immensely, 2010, by bringing my Sister Olga to Los Angeles.  You continued to teach me about steadfast dedication, since our school year is a marathon and not a sprint, and you watched me run my first 5K in seven years at the end of October, 2010.
     November brought me to Joshua Tree National Park for a weekend of hiking, climbing, running, and camping under the desert stars, and home to Boston to visit many wonderful friends.  You smiled on me and sent me to Santa Barbara for a community retreat on my birthday, 2010, where I learned a new way of looking at my faith and discovered a new reason for my year of service.  Then you afforded me the opportunity to give thanks with a bunch of hippies at Slab City, and Amy Donnelly of course, for health, for friends, and for life.  You brought Colleen to LA at the end of November, and reminded me to take a chill pill and frolic at the beach every once in a while.
     And then, 2010, in your old age, you continued to teach me about community and the value of simple conversation.  December saw me have several thousand "Catholic moments" throughout my favorite season of the year, Advent.  We lit our candles and prayed together, and knitted together, and cooked together, and laughed together, and the heart of our community grew several sizes that way.  You watched me adventure another 2,000 miles west to Hawaii with my dear friend Shelysa to spend Christmas with a wonderful adoptive family.  And finally, in your last days, 2010, you again brought me to my beloved Pittsburgh to reconnect with family and old friends, to reminisce about where life has brought us thus far, and to look forward with great hope to the adventures that lie ahead.
     2011, you have some big shoes to fill, but I think you are up for the task.
          With a grateful heart,