The Unexpected Answer

This is one of my favorite things about classroom teaching. Sometimes students just miss the boat.

Teacher: So "equivocate" can be split into two Latin roots: "vocare," or "speak," and "equi," meaning --
Student: OH! Water!
And sometimes I miss it.
Teacher: In the first scene, we find Oberon and Titania engaged in a power struggle with disastrous consequences, bickering endlessly over trivialities. What does this behavior remind you of?
Student: High school!
(I had meant for her to say, "Greek Mythology," but had to admit I liked her answer better.)

Back Into the World

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

She stood perfectly still, her pale skin smooth except around her eyes, where she squinted up at the ceiling for a moment. "What motivates you?"

"Whoo!" I blew through pursed lips, laughed nervously, buying some time. "Like . . . in general?"


"When I'm dealing with my anxiety disorder? Or just all the time?"

Her hands found each other, fiddled for a moment. "It's just that you seem so . . . enthusiastic. All the time. How do you get out of bed every morning? What makes you do it?"

I looked at her and saw myself, the day she was born. The same curiosity tempered by a desire to fit in. The same searching look that scared away most of the boys I liked. The same deep-seated, unfounded fears. It wasn't so long ago.

"I love literature," I said. "I didn't study it much in college, but I've always loved to read, and I genuinely enjoy that part of my job -- talking about stories, getting into the hows and whys. And I think enthusiasm is contagious, so I try to be enthusiastic for my students because it makes learning more fun for them. Beyond that --"

I paused. Suddenly there was nothing to say, and way too much, all at once.

"I know I'm not the best teacher. But I think God has given me some gifts, and I want to use them as best I can. My vocation is to be a teacher and wife, just like yours is to be a student and daughter. Have you ever read Tolstoy?"

She shook her head.

"He has this great story called 'Three Questions.' This king spends his whole life looking for the answers to three questions: What is the most important thing? What is the most important person? What is the most important time?"

She nodded. She was listening.

"In the end, he finds out that it's all based on the present. The most important person is whomever God has placed in front of you, and the most important  thing is to do good for that person. And the most important time -- really, the only time -- is now. Do the best you can with now. If now is your brother sitting next to you in the back seat and he's driving you crazy --" 

Here she smiled. "I know," I said. "Your brother is only a baby."

"No, I have another one," she said. "In middle school."

"Okay, then. That brother in the car -- at that moment, God is calling you to be kind to him, to love him. That's your job. It's actually very simple. But we don't think about it that way often enough."

She nodded again. I realized how still she was, her hands at her sides, her face a little puffy with fatigue. I hoped I wasn't boring her. 

"You know," I said, extending my arms to encompass the desks, posters, walls, building, "All this is nothing. In the end, you won't remember any of it. Even your grades -- I know they are SO IMPORTANT to you right now -- you won't even remember what they were. But you will remember whether people treated you with kindness. And they will remember that about you. We just have to trust God that the hard stuff is there for a reason. Who knows: maybe the reason I struggled with anxiety for so many years was just so I could be here now, with you, to let you know it will get better and you will be a stronger person for it. Don't worry about the future: just trust God that whatever you have to do today is the exact right thing for you to do today. And that today is the only time to do it."

She was quiet, thinking. "How's that for a long answer?" I laughed. "Serves you right for asking an English teacher."

"Thank you," she said. "That helps."

"I'm glad." I gave her a hug -- and sent her back into the world.

The Picture of Adolescence

When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself.

I pause. "What's strange about the things Basil says here?"

An uncomfortable silence. Finally, one student clears her throat.

"Uh . . . he's talking about another dude."

They're not sure what to make of the slightly-more-than-bromances that fill the story with tearful sighs and long, brooding stares. And they've had enough of the drama. "Look," says one. "Here, 'He flung himself down on the couch . . . ' and before, 'She flung herself on her knees, sobbing . . .' Why are these people always flinging themselves everywhere?"

But they also say brilliant things: When Lord Henry walks with Dorian in the garden and plants the seed of vanity in his soul, it's like he's Satan speaking to Adam in the Garden of Eden, ruining him through temptation. Dorian is afraid to present himself to the world as he really is, the same way that we need to confess our sins before approaching God in Communion. There is something beautiful in the brokenness that Sibyl leaves behind in her suicide -- she had one glorious moment of unadulterated understanding just before her constructed reality implodes on itself.

I listen, laugh, shake my head in awe. I don't say very much. I don't have to.

Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est La Meme Chose

Those French. Always eloquent, always pessimistic, and almost always right. Listen to this:

“It was all so enchanting at first,” muses our protagonist. “They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

When was this written? Last week? No, fifty years ago, by Ray Bradbury.

Most of all, Mr. Bradbury knew how the future would feel: louder, faster, stupider, meaner, increasingly inane and violent. Collective cultural amnesia, anhedonia, isolation. The hysterical censoriousness of political correctness. Teenagers killing one another for kicks. Grown-ups reading comic books. A postliterate populace. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” says the fire captain in “Fahrenheit,” written in 1953. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” Civilization drowned out and obliterated by electronic chatter. The book’s protagonist, Guy Montag, secretly trying to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes on a train, finally leaps up screaming, maddened by an incessant jingle for “Denham’s Dentifrice.” A man is arrested for walking on a residential street. Everyone locked indoors at night, immersed in the social lives of imaginary friends and families on TV, while the government bombs someone on the other side of the planet. Does any of this sound familiar?

No? How about these:

  • "Today is August 4, 2026," said a second voice from the kitchen ceiling, "in the city of Allendale, California." It repeated the date three times for memory's sake. "Today is Mr. Featherstone's birthday. Today is the anniversary of Tilita's marriage. Insurance is payable, as are the water, gas, and light bills." Somewhere in the walls, relays clicked, memory tapes glided under electric eyes. (There Will Come Soft Rains, 1950)
  • "I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them." (Fahrenheit 451, 1953)
  • "The more I see of the mess we've put ourselves in, the more it sickens me. We've been contemplating our mechanical, electronic navels for too long. My God, how we need a breath of honest air!" (The Veldt, 1950)
  • "There sat all the tired commuters with their wrist radios, talking to their wives, saying 'Now I'm at Forty-third, now I'm at Forty-fourth, here I am at Forty-ninth, now turning at Sixty-first." (The Murderer, 1953)

Bradbury was known for his aversion to technology, refusing to use computers or fly in planes. But, in this excellent homage to his life's work, Tim Kreider explains that Bradbury was more than just a troglodyte.

But it was more complicated than that; his objections were not so much reactionary or political as they were aesthetic. He hated ugliness, noise and vulgarity. He opposed the kind of technology that deadened imagination, the modernity that would trash the past, the kind of intellectualism that tried to centrifuge out awe and beauty. 

I've been a Bradbury fan since reading The Illustrated Man in high school, but I only read his masterpiece a few years ago. He was such an inspiration, for his strong work ethic and idyllic family life as much as for his uncannily prophetic writing. I only hope that, as a society, we can start to take some of his lessons to heart.

The Last Test

In order to qualify for state certification in Maryland, prospective teachers must pass a series of tests called the PRAXIS exams.  They are loads of fun, as you might imagine.  The first one, a general-knowledge test, was embarassingly easy and I regretted every minute of studying; afterward, I was miffed to learn that I actually could have submitted my SAT scores instead.  The second, a content-area knowledge test, was more challenging but still easier than I’d thought it would be, and again I studied much too long and hard: it was a 2-hour exam and I finished in about 45 minutes.  (This wouldn’t have been so bad except that it was about fifty degrees in the exam room; I was dressed appropriately for the July weather.  The proctor said that if I left before the test was over, my score would be canceled, so I tucked all four limbs into my T-shirt and huddled in the corner for another hour, taking breaks to go outside and warm up every so often.)

This last exam was based on pedagogy.  From what I could gather online, in one hour I had to answer two multi-part questions: the first about a work of literature and how I would go about teaching it, and the other in response to a piece of student writing.  Although I thought I could probably pass without studying, I had an added incentive in that the system itself was changing; if I failed this one, I would have to conform to Maryland’s new state requirements, which would mean a different test that combined pedagogy with content knowledge.  So I dutifully reviewed, compiling a list of seven works I thought were likely to be on the list and main features of each one.

Because I had registered late, all the testing centers in Maryland were booked solid, so I registered for Howard University in DC, consoling myself with the fact that a good friend lives nearby and we’ll have lunch afterwards.  The rest of the story is most effective with a timeline format:

9:15 Leave home half an hour early just in case of traffic.

10:15 Arrive half an hour early.

10:16 Slight panic about the lack of change for parking meters.  Resolve this by paying remotely with my cell phone (score one for technology!) and then leave it in the car, heeding the warning on my ticket.

10:20 Enter the testing center.  No discernible order, proctor or instructions anywhere, just a crowd of college kids scarfing down bagels and texting.  Wonder whether they are stupid or smart for ignoring the warning.

10:45 Test time comes and goes.  Nothing.

10:55 Woman in sweats and a T-shirt enters the lobby and assigns groups of students to different testing rooms.

11:00 My group arrives at its room.  The proctor is at the door, checking IDs and assigning seats.

11:05 Chatting in line with another student, I hear that the format of the test is completely different as of December (she failed the last one and is hoping for better luck on the new test.)  Different how?  All multiple choice, with a lot of questions about psychology, she says.

11:06 Blind panic.  Well, it’s too late to do anything now.

11:10 I am seated.  The proctor reads instructions in a heavily island-accented voice that would be charming if my own pulse would quiet down.  I can’t understand her pronunciation of “pedagogy,” which she says “ped-DA-go-JI.”

11:15 Tests are distributed. I ask casually when we’ll begin.  “Around 11:30.”  I really, really regret my obedience to the cell phone rule, since no one else’s has been confiscated and I’d like to let my friend know I’ll be almost an hour late.  Also, I’m wondering if I have any chance of passing this new test.

11:30 We begin filling out all the paperwork associated with the test.  Student ID number, Social Security number, zip code, test center code, university code, linkage number, serial number and probably more I’ve blocked from my memory.

11:45 Everyone finally finishes the paperwork and the test begins at exactly the time I thought we would be finishing up.

11:46 I look at the first question and know my hapless new friend was wrong.  The format is unchanged, and what’s more, two of the seven works I prepared are on the list.  I choose Hamlet and prepare to wow the graders with my extensive mental catalogue of quotes (I watched the Kenneth Branagh version on a continuous loop for most of 11th grade.)

12:45 The exam finishes and we have to endure yet another set of instructions, this one about when we will receive our scores and how to cancel them if we want to.  I wonder idly if this couldn’t be accomplished some more efficient manner, perhaps by an instantaneous system of electronic communication in advance … 

12:55 I arrive back at my car, happy that I paid for the maximum number of hours, and call my friend.  Lunch with her and her adorable daughter, at this homey-chic pub, is perfect.

As the conclusion to my test-taking career, I’d like to offer this brief meditation, with which I now sympathize just a little more.  I think they concentrated on pedagogy LAHHHST year.

Getting Started is the Hardest Part

Student: Mrs. Lowe, I can’t do this outline.  It’s too hard!

Me: [looking at her screen] Um, Gina?

Student: What?

Me: You have ONE WORD written.

[Surrounding students giggle.]

Student: I know!  I told you it was too hard!

Me: And your one word is “Introduction.” 

[Surrounding students giggle more.]

Student: I just don’t know what to write!

Me: Okay.  So Roman Numeral I is your Introduction.  What comes next?

Student: … 

Me: What are the three sections of your paper?

Student: Author’s life and times, literary contributions and individual analysis.

Me: Good.  So that’s II, III and IV.  And V is your Conclusion.  Now, under II, what are some subheadings?

Student: Oh, I can fill those in.  That’s easy!

Sometimes it’s nice to look good even when you don’t really deserve it.

Dinner for Eight

Recently, Rod posted an interesting conundrum about a fantasy dinner party for you, your spouse, and six other well-known people (living or dead, but in separate groups.)  Here is my list, which took me a couple of days of hemming and hawing to complete and a couple of weeks to write about:

Rod noted that your list wouldn’t necessarily be the people you’d most like to meet or even the people you most admire; they should be people you really think would make good dinner guests.  I like diversity, so I tried for an even mix of occupations, religions and gender (classic dinner-party etiquette mandates boy-girl seating, anyway.)

The Living:

  1. Bono (Musician and Activist) He can make me weak-kneed with one soaring descant, and his occupation as a rock musician would certainly make for some interesting stories, but I’m actually most interested in his take on African politics and hearing about what it was like growing up under the specter of the IRA.
  2. Carla Bruni (Model and Musician) No fantasy dinner party is complete without a French presence. She’s stylish, talented and completely classy, and the fact that she’s married to the President of France helps lend an air of political importance to the gathering.  (The air is the important thing; actual politicians couldn’t possibly be interesting dinner companions.)
  3. Atom Egoyan (Filmmaker) I want to know where his ideas come from (I wrote my senior thesis on The Sweet Hereafter) and I want to hear about Armenia — what it means to him and what he thinks its future will be like.
  4. Peter Eisenman (Architect) Believe it or not, this pompous philosopher was one of the first on my list. Back in my undergraduate days, we’d all drag ourselves to Tuesday crit, sleep-deprived and nearly suicidal, only to hear about his latest dinner party. They included the most unusual guests (German philosophers and rock musicians) and he always had something interesting to say about the zeitgeist that inspired them. So I guess I’m taking a gamble that he’s more fun over a bottle of wine than in front of a wall full of blood, sweat and Rapidographs.
  5. Sharon Astyk (Writer, Activist, Mother) I respect Sharon more than almost any person I know [of.] Her deep faith, commitment to traditional ideals, and desire to create a better world for her children are amazing.  I also think she could hold her own against Eisenman in a debate (and could certainly make him feel like a bad Jew.)
  6. Mother Aemeliane (Scholar, Nun) I couldn’t feel right hosting a dinner party without at least one Orthodox Christian guest, and I can’t think of anyone else who would be a better addition to this one. You may have heard the story of her miraculous rescue from a collapsed building, but unless you have been in her presence you can’t understand the tremendous force of spirit, combined with an even greater humility, that enables her to guide so many people with such grace.

The Eternal:

  1. C. S. Lewis (Writer) He should be a required guest for any Christian taking part in this exercise. Brilliant, creative, thoughtful, funny, likes to smoke after dinner.  Yes, please!
  2. St. Brigid of Kildare (Nun) She’s my patron saint, a disciple of St. Patrick.  And she once turned an entire bathtub of water into beer, so she’d be a handy person to have around!
  3. Frederic Chopin (Musician) The token Frenchman: he lived a short life, filled with suffering, but bequeathed oceans of beauty to the generations that followed.
  4. Anne Frank (Martyr) Another short, painful life, but one which inspired many. I worried about her young age at first but then remembered: teenage girls always have plenty to say.
  5. e. e. cummings (Writer) Many poets are accused of being artists with words, but he really was one. The way he saw the world was truly unique.
  6. Hester Prynne (Seamstress, Outcast) I was really stuck on this last one until I remembered there had been no injunction against fictional characters.  Considering how thoughtful and introspective this group is, I think she would have a lot to add to the conversation.

Your lists, please!  Answer or link below.

They Said It

My crammed week led to a crammed weekend; I will have barely had a moment to breathe between Thursday and tomorrow. So, for now, enjoy these quips from student papers that made me smile:

  • Heroes are people who go through monstrumental challenges to protect others.
  • To revise my paper, I plan to go through and put in more comas.
  • When someone is a hero, you want to fallow in her footsteps and be a more kind, thoughtful person.
  • While still a young girl, her sister left to become a Caramel nun.
  • Hearing about his heroic deeds, she got all chocked up.

Oh, how I wish someone had saved all my mistakes as a student.  I’m sure they were much worse!


Five Happy Thoughts

Boy, what a week.  It began with, literally, hundreds of essays to grade; having lost so many days from the beginning of the year, I had no choice but to push everything to the last day possible (and even asked for an extension so I could finish marking them over the weekend and still get a little sleep.)  A deep breath and then we launched right into the second quarter: new lesson plans, new texts, new questions.

I laid down the law about absences and trips out of the classroom, both of which students have more control over than they’d like to admit.  (One student asked me first thing if she could use the bathroom; I asked her to wait. Once I’d outlined the new policy limiting everyone to four trips per quarter, it turned out she didn’t have to go after all.)  Discussing these things is awfully tedious for everyone, but when they’re not addressed, loads of tiny interruptions add up to a vaguely chaotic feeling in the classroom, and ultimately it distracts everyone from our real goal: teaching and learning about English and life.

But there were so many bits of happiness sprinkled throughout all this drudgery.  Here are the highlights:

  • ONE father called to thank me for tutoring his daughter, who has several rather severe learning disabilities. We’d been studying techniques for test-taking on the SAT, and when her newest scores came in, the guidance counselors were simply shocked she had done so well.  She was accepted to her school of choice within a day, where she’ll be able to play field hockey (her sport of choice) and get an education with the supports she needs.  “I have two more kids,” he said at the end of the conversation, “so you’ll be hearing from me soon.”
  • TWO former students flew at me for hugs and gushing greetings.  “Mrs. LOWE!  How ARE you?  I haven’t seen you in so long!”  A third thanked me for all my help preparing her for the SAT; it was even more of a gift to see how much she’d matured in the intervening years, from an awkward and slightly-sullen teenager into a glowing, self-possessed young woman.
  • THREE students who were struggling took the time to complete an extra-credit assignment (seeing a play and comparing it with the written work we’d studied in class.)  They enjoyed the experience and their grades rose along with their confidence.  
  • FOUR pianists are progressing by leaps and bounds because they get to work together.  It’s amazing to see how much more they learn from each other than from me.
  • FIVE minutes after the bell rang, I dashed into class (my first tardiness of the year; I was blindsided by a schedule change and sabotaged by an uncooperative copier.)  When I entered the classroom, breathless and on edge, every student was sitting in her desk with her book open.  “Oh, hello, Mrs. Lowe,” one called out.  “We’ve just been discussing what we think of Hester Prynne.”

So, you see, it wasn’t all bad.  It rarely is.