Ma Merveille

Years ago, I saw The New World on the recommendation of a friend. Here's a taste:

It was my first Malick film, and as much as I was awed by its external transcendence, its deeper substance really burrowed into me. I rented it, watched it, went to bed, and when I arose the next morning after a mostly-sleepless night, sat down to watch the whole thing again. I have tried to write about it, but could hardly even think about it except in waves of images and isolated thoughts, never coherent enough to string together. Though this is grossly over-simplistic, I will say that it is a story about hurt and healing. Healing triumphs, but in a devastatingly pyrrhic victory -- old wounds remain latent, sabotaging the future with poison from the past. Watching it uncovered deep layers of unsettled feelings, pain I had either forgotten or chosen to ignore.

I always come late to the most interesting conversations, especially where my friend Rod is concerned -- he who can create a niche market, document a paradigm shift and defend a worldview in the time it takes me to have one slightly original thought. But, in light of the above experience, I am finding the need to add to the dialogue of his recent musings (starting here, and continuing here and here) about Malick's latest film. To the Wonder.

I watched this one alone on a whim, and I liked it; especially the priest, who is the central character regardless of screentime. It didn't have the same effect right away. Some days later, I discovered my whole family was miffed at me because they had wanted to see it too. So we watched it together, and after the second viewing, we all started to think and talk about it -- a conversation that continued for several weeks. 

There is literally no way I can spoil the plot, because there is no plot, other than the general arc of a couple who falls in love in Paris and then tries to make their relationship last back in the United States. The ending is ambiguous and has already provoked several arguments. But this movie is not about the plot; it's about the details. There are three I keep coming back to.

Kinesis: as The Times reviewer mentioned, the female lead is constantly in motion. She spins, chases, flings her arms wide to embrace the heavens, all to an introspective French voiceover that sounds as italic as its subtitles look. She is lovely, and Malick's camerawork is masterful; every shot is frameable, every scene a living poem. It's surprising, then, that it rings so hollow. My mother pointed out that all the leaping and tumbling left the characters with nothing solid to hold on to -- searching for ground, they came up with only air. (Their house, which remains huge and unfurnished, is another indicator of their empty lives.)

Nature: like every other Malick film, this one shows a profound respect for, and unabashed adoration of, the natural world. Trees, beaches, gardens and fields all get the same breathless reverence. But this time, there is more: through the story of a priest who struggles with eternal questions, Malick shows us that even his own masterpieces are worthless to the extent that they don't acknowledge their ultimate creator. The tongues of men and angels, which few would argue he has mastered on film, are merely noise next to a heart of faith and a hand of mercy.

Place: A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are thousands of pictures in a film, so it stands to reason that there should be very little explanation necessary. Mercifully, Malick lets his shots speak for themselves. America is sun-kissed grass, Paris rain-dampened cobblestone. The Sonic drive-in glows just as the shimmering beaches of Mont-Saint-Michel do -- one wholesome, one exotic, both glorious. I was actually a little disappointed when I realized that La Merveille, The Wonder, is a physical place; I had first read that line as a metaphysical statement, about the power of love to transform a quotidian hour into an ethereal one.

It's this last idea that has stuck with me most since I saw the film. Without even meaning to, I often imagine my own life as Terrence Malick might see it. Entering my hushed classroom in the early morning, slowly raising the shades and looking out to the glorious fog-drenched expanse of trees below. Scattering grain to a feathery patchwork of black and gold. Standing in a darkened church, sweet harmony mingling with the dissonant cries of children. Entering the pantry to the pillowy-sweet scent of fresh apples, letting them cook in butter until the sugar runs a sticky amber. Climbing between clean, soft flannel sheets and yielding to the stillness of sleep.

Each day is full of moments like this. Sometimes I see them, and just as often I let them slip by unnoticed. But thanks to the magic of my own personal merveille, awakened by this lovely film, they are always there.

Becoming Lebanese

Last summer a group of friends at the SMI was staying up way, way too late drinking wine and unloading after a long day of teaching and learning.  They invited me to join, but no sooner had I settled in than one friend decided it was time for bed. He began saying goodbyes, and I began laying on the guilt: 

"You're leaving? I just got here!" (It was after midnight.)

"We never have any time to talk!" (Patently false.)

 "Why do you hate me?" (If your Middle Eastern do not habitually play this histrionic trump card, you must not really be friends. It's a staple of the culture, as common as "keep a stiff upper lip" to the British.)

This last line prompted an outburst of laughter from all the Arabs present, which was just about everyone but me; one of them dubbed me an honorary Lebanese on the spot.  Defeated, my tired friend stayed another half an hour and then asked for my permission to retire.

Of course my real attraction to the Lebanese culture is not the guilt but the food. Last Pascha Rob surprised* me with the gift of this incredible book, which contains over 500 (!) traditional recipes and modern updates. It's a work of art, full of gorgeous photographs, and I enjoyed leafing through it for several weeks until the summer began. Then we hit a whirlwind of travel: we were gone 6 weeks out of 8, with mere days at home between trips. We finally arrived home on the cusp of the Dormition Fast, ready to stay put for awhile, and I was itching to start cooking for myself again after gracing the interior of far too many good and bad restaurants.

Here's the thing about fasting: it should be simple. Eat less, give more -- to God, to the church, to others. That's it. Instead, it becomes a chore. Reading labels. Planning exit strategies for social events. Trying to think of an allowed meal that sounds appetizing and contains something healthful. I hit Fasting Fatigue early and often during Lent and Advent, and this usually leads to breaking the fast or resenting the fast, or both.

So on July 31, I picked out a few traditional Lebanese recipes I wanted to try. All were fast-friendly (vegan) and fairly easy to make, if a little time-consuming: the fresh ingredients meant that a lot of chopping and pureeing was involved, though each dish was elemental in its simplicity. 

I was overjoyed, as I finished each one, to find it tasted exactly as it did at the best Middle Eastern restaurants (of which none exists in this area, and believe me, I have tried them all.)  At the end of two days I had a fridge full of healthy meals that were easy to prepare and so delicious I wouldn't even think of straying. We ate dips made from eggplant, chickpeas and walnuts; salad with lemony garlic dressing and pita croutons; and olives and pickled turnips, twice a day for a week. Then it was gone and we had to make more, only this time we added falafel, fried cauliflower, tahini sauce, tabbouli, preserved-lemon dressing and semolina almond cake, and doubled everything in honor of my mother's birthday. Over a dozen people crowded my house, each one effusive in praise of the amazing food, and the recipes were so straightforward I couldn't even try to take credit.

I didn't miss meat, not once. As much as I wanted to try the grape leaves with cinnamon-laced beef, raw lamb with spices and thick, creamy yogurt dip, I was perfectly happy with what I had made, the other 80% of the Lebanese canon. And it got me thinking about fasting and community. Saydeh touched on this in her comments about Holy Week (buried midway through this piece -- good luck!) When everyone is eating the same things, there are no pins and needles about cooking for guests or choosing what to eat at a host's table. And when the food is naturally, wonderfully simple, fasting becomes the norm; days when meat or dairy is allowed seem like a luxury.

We noticed this about our friend who is a priest in Southeast Asia and also a fabulous cook; most of his favorite recipes are based on vegetables and tofu, seasoned with a wide variety of aromatics and spicy sauces. When he's eating meat, he might throw in some chicken or beef, but tofu alone is delicious because it's allowed to be tofu -- it's not trying to be a hamburger. American food is just stubbornly unadaptable: all our traditional favorites (hot dogs, sandwiches, ice cream, pizza) are not only generally unhealthy, but also unpalatable without cheese and meat. Ever tried a veggie sub? Bread and sliced raw vegetables. As asetic and pitiful as it sounds.

Last year I fell into the habit of grabbing something small to eat during the school day -- yogurt, fruit, a boiled egg -- and eating my main meal of the day in the afternoon when I returned home and had access to my whole kitchen and pantry. So on Friday I had some nuts and fruit at school and came home to fattoush, hummus and mahamra. Then Rob mixed up ground beef, rice and spices and we rolled over a hundred grape leaves. We brought a few to the house of some close friends to enjoy, nightfall bringing the start of a non-fasting day, and in our conversation they pointed out the crux of what I'm getting at here. Not that the whole world should convert to a Middle Eastern diet (I wish!) but that being part of a traditional community makes fasting not only doable but enjoyable. 

Next on my journey to becoming Lebanese: discovering what magic they can work with chicken. And a very pleasant Advent fast.

*I may have ordered and paid for it myself, but I promised to give him credit. That counts, right?

 

The Experience of Holy Week

Every so often, my habit of scrupulously proofreading my e-mails gets me into trouble. Last winter, when we were in the thick of planning this year's Sacred Music Institute, our director Paul asked for Holy Week pieces we use at our parishes. I ignored the first request, because I consider myself the low man on the totem pole in a field full of professional musicians and lifelong Orthodox. But when he started to shake the bushes again, I sent him a few of my favorites, along with a paragraph about each hymn explaining why it was significant to me.

He never responded, so I figured he had enough pieces and didn't need mine. But when the schedule came out months later, I was shocked to see my name next to the first General Session, called "The Experience of Holy Week." I asked him what in the world he wanted me to say. "Oh," he said, "Remember that great e-mail you wrote me a while back? I want to hear more of that." 

The journey from e-mail to lecture was a strange one. With every paragraph, I wondered whether what I had to say would be useful or even interesting to the highly-qualified audience of the SMI. Eventually I just had to say a prayer that God would use my words, and then re-read and re-edit it again. (the final edit took place on the drive there. Thanks, Mom!) 

Since I was hoping only not to embarrass myself and / or put my audience to sleep, I was surprised and humbled by the reaction to my story. It's not an amazing story, but I think that people were able to relate it to their own experiences of Holy Week -- family and friends, priests and choirs, struggles and joys -- and thus my story became theirs. Ours. Several of my friends asked for a copy, so I'm posting it below. Glory to God.

April, the Tender Month

By the end of Great Compline this evening, I was completely exhausted from getting angry with myself for continually failing to pay attention. As I closed up the books and put them away, wondering whether any of that hour of prayer had actually entered my heart, I threw a smile and what I thought was a goodbye nod to Margaret, but she held my gaze steadily for a full ten seconds before asking softly, "How is school going?"

She knows me well already, this new friend. And she knows teaching. I can't end this conversation with a simple "Great!" So I exhale slowly, pause, and say, "It's that mid-April slump."

She nods. She has been there.

"There's nothing really wrong," I say, thinking of all the crises that could be happening, but aren't. And then I think of all the learning that also could be happening, but isn't. My last period class today: three on a field trip, five watching every tick on the clock for  early sports dismissals. It was almost funny how, for the last twenty minutes, I actually tried to get the remaining six students to analyze the effect Mark Twain's personal correspondence had on the experience of reading his novel. Almost. But not quite.

"Well," says Margaret. "I'm going to pray that you find a way to get through to them, to wake them up enough to learn. April is -- "

" -- the cruelest month," I finish wryly.

" -- a tender month," she corrects me, her mouth smiling at the reference but her eyes full of sincerity and hope. "You will find just one little thing -- one tiny, inconsequential thing -- to do differently. Something that comes to you while you sleep, something simple, easy, but that makes them see everything in a different way, that opens them up to the experience of learning. I will pray for that, for you."

My eyes well with tears at this unexpected kindness. "Thank you."

She smiles. "Glory to God."

My Darkened Soul

Last Sunday marked the first of several steps into the Great Fast that is the center of the church year: the weeks when we will focus with intensity on the kind of life we should always be leading (but don't.) Popularly it's called Meatfare Sunday, because we stop eating meat. But to me Meatfare sounds like a buffet of questionable origin, so I prefer the more liturgical term "Judgment Sunday" -- so called because we read the Gospel in which Christ sends the sheep to heaven and the goats to hell.

You know the passage, so I won't repeat it here. There is much to say about seeing the face of Christ in everyone, not just the people who are easy to love. An eyeroll at a co-worker (whether inward or outward) is directed to the Lord. So is a note that makes your sister smile, or a comforting squeeze of the hand to an anxious child.

What really amazed me last Sunday, on the cusp of my seventeenth Lent, was the fact that, right at the outset, the Church tackles the most complex, and frightening, question of human history: What happens when we die?

The answer is, honestly, we don't know. Very few people have tasted death and returned to speak of it. In one of my favorite teachings of all time, the Fathers write that Lazarus, after being raised from four days in the tomb, never laughed until his death. Once, however, when he saw a man stealing a clay pot, he smiled and quipped, "Clay stealing clay." You might think that, like most people who have had near-death experiences, Lazarus would have re-entered life with zest and joy, but what he saw beyond the grave seems to have sobered him a great deal. 

What we do know is that God will require us to answer for every single one of our earthly actions, and that He will decide whether to send us to eternal reward or eternal punishment. We know that God is just, and yet we trust in His mercy. We hope and pray for salvation, but ultimately the decision is His to make. Hell may be our final destination, or it may be empty altogether.

This was the hardest thing I struggled with before joining the Orthodox Church. As a Protestant, I had been taught that salvation takes place instantly at the first conscious confession of faith and can never be revoked. Naturally, it frightened me to confront the possibility that one moment of surrender was not an airtight guarantee. Over the years, though, I began to see it differently. Consider two hypothetical "come to Jesus" moments: one is followed by a life of indulgence and sin, and the other by a steady, though slow, progress toward holiness. The logical conclusion is that only one confession was sincere, because it was followed by the fruits of faith. After that, you might dare to ask the question: does the confession itself, the first "I believe, save me," really matter? Or is each kind act, each prayer, itself a confession of faith and a step in the right direction? We know that our works will not save us, but are they not evidence of the faith that will? Ultimately, I believe both points of view are saying the same thing in different words.

Rob likes to say that children should always be a little afraid of their earthly fathers; if they do not fear punishment, their behavior will reflect that familiarity. This applies even more strongly to our relationship with our Heavenly Father: not because He is evil, but because He is good -- Goodness itself -- and we are, emphatically, not. A little fear is a healthy thing. God is not our drinking buddy; He is GOD. If we aren't overwhelmed at times with the depths of our sinfulness, we aren't being honest with ourselves; and if we aren't a little fearful of the day when we will be called to account, we haven't really considered what that means.

It was in the midst of some of these thoughts that, last Saturday night, I began chanting the Aposticha Hymn:

Woe to thee, O darkened soul! How long wilt thou continue in evil? How long wilt thou lie in idleness? Why dost thou not tremble at the dread judgment seat of the Savior? What defense wilt thou make, or what wilt thou answer? Thy works will be there to accuse thee: thine actions will reproach thee and condemn thee. O my soul, the time is near at hand; make haste, before it is too late, and cry aloud in faith: I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned against Thee; but I know Thy love for man and Thy compassion. O Good Shepherd, deprive me not of a place at Thy right hand in Thy great mercy.

If ever there were a call to repentance, this is it. God have mercy on me, a sinner.

Habits and Holiness

Eight posts in the last six months. My, how the wordy have fallen!

Sometime during these months of silence, I started thinking about my life, which is incredibly blessed in many ways and kind of a mess in others. Since it's much more depressing to think about the messy parts, that's what I've been doing -- and coming to some odd conclusions.

For instance: I don't have any habits.

Really. None. I don't get up at the same time every morning. I don't always brush my teeth before I go to bed. I don't eat regular meals, walk the dog, play with the cat or clean the house or read books on any kind of a regular basis. I do each of these things as the moment strikes me, or when they absolutely need to be done to avoid disease or debt or embarrassment or all three.

Now you know the sad truth. I laid it bare, along with many other sad and true facts about myself, in confession just before Christmas. I told my spiritual father that I wanted to have a more ordered life, and that I knew the first step in ordering my life was ordering my soul. I asked him to help me to really, actually start living like a Christian.

"Well," he said. "Do you want to get a pen and paper?"

These words thrilled my organizational heart of hearts, and eagerly I took notes as he reviewed the three main supports of a holy life. Prayer: morning, evening, intercessions, reading Scripture. Fasting: more time with God, which means less indulgence in food and television and, hopefully, sinful behavior. Almsgiving: donating money, but also time, energy and resources, to those in need. We talked about visiting monasteries, praying before and after Communion, taking time for silence. 

Of course I know I need to do these things. Christ speaks clearly about each one in the Gospels, and from my youth I have, not obeyed them, but fumbled in their direction. So what is stopping me from going deeper, from attaining what God Himself commands -- that I be perfect, as He is?

And so the last directive, though the simplest of all, was the most revelatory. My spiritual father encouraged me to return to confession soon, but also to confess often on a much smaller scale: examine each day's failings, ask forgiveness where necessary, and try again tomorrow. Examine each week as a whole before going, with a penitent heart, to Communion. Confronting my sins on a relentlessly regular basis, he explained, ensures they will return with less frequency.

In thinking about it later, I realized that to get better at anything (French, singing, throwing a Frisbee, making curry sauce) I need both practice and coaching. And so, to accomplish theosis -- to become like God -- I need to practice shedding my baser instincts and embracing the cross. So that, instead of two steps forward and one step back (or, as is more common, the other way around,) I can start to see real change in my soul, and in my life.

Why am I telling you all this? I guess so that you know I haven't really been silent all these months. I just haven't been ready to say this until now. So thank you, for waiting for me.

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?"

"Yeah."

"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.

Glory to God for All Things

What do you do when you lose your family, possessions and livelihood in one terrible day? If you're Job, you resist the impulse to write country music and instead give glory to God, who blesses you with even more than you lost.

Roughly two thousand years later, another dedicated servant of the Lord was dying in exile from the empire he had struggled to evangelize all his life. St. John Chrysostom, with his final breath, praised his creator: "Glory to God for All Things!"

Another millenium and a half after that, a Russian priest composed a beautiful Akathist, a sort of prayer poem, based upon those words:

When the lightning flash has lit up the camp dining hall, how feeble seems the light from the lamp. Thus dost Thou, like the lightning, unexpectedly light up my heart with flashes of intense joy. After Thy blinding light, how drab, how colourless, how illusory all else seems. My souls clings to Thee.

He knew whereof he spoke: the "camp dining hall" was at a Communist prison camp where Fr. Gregory Petrov, after numerous tortures, died in 1940. From hearing the hymn, you would never guess at the circumstances under which it was written. We sing it every year on the eve of Thanksgiving, and every year I find some new nugget of wisdom to treasure in my heart:

Glory to Thee for Thy goodness even in the time of darkness, when all the world is hidden from our eyes.
Glory to Thee, sending us failure and misfortune that we may understand the sorrows of others.
Glory to Thee for what Thou hast revealed to us in Thy mercy; Glory to Thee for what Thou hast hidden from us in Thy wisdom.
Glory to Thee, building Thy Church, a haven of peace in a tortured world.

Glory to Thee for the humbleness of the animals that serve me. (This one always makes me smile. Clearly, Fr. Gregory Petrov never owned a cat.)

This morning I am mindful of the "endless variety of colors, tastes and scents" as I assemble a salad, stuff a squash, cook down a whole bag of onions into a tiny caramelized pile (for transcendence, just add bacon, bourbon and brown sugar -- oh, Bittman!) and try not to eat ALL of the cookies I baked yesterday. It may seem small compared to what else is going [wrong] in the world, but our God gives beauty in abundance, even to the tiniest moments.

Most of all, I am mindful of the "love of parents, the faithfulness of friends." What friends you all are, especially for calling and writing and grabbing my arm to ask where I've been and why I haven't written. There is no reason besides the busy-ness of life. I thank God for this blog, one of the few relationships I have that doesn't inspire guilt when I let it go temporarily. When I pick it up again it feels just like an old friend. Just like you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the Classroom

One of the things I’ve been thinking about during my absence is something Rod comments on frequently: the modern phenomenon of “religulosity,” or quasi-religion, in the form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  The Wikipedia link includes the following definition, culled from interviews of thousands of American teenagers:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Why is this such a problem?  Rod points it out as an aside in this lengthy entry that’s actually about another topic:

This is why I’m always going on about the curse of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Whatever it is, it’s not authentic Christianity, not by the historical and doctrinal standards defining orthodox (small-o) Christian belief. If we Christians declare that tradition is not binding on us in any meaningful way, that we are free to believe about our faith whatever “works” for us, then we are theologically bankrupt. I find it easier in some ways to understand the atheist who believes it’s all nonsense than the self-described Christian who takes what he wants but ignores the rest, especially the hard stuff. To be clear, I don’t believe that only saints are authentically Christian. I sin. We all sin. I struggle to understand many of the teachings of the faith. But I don’t decide, on my own authority, that I don’t have to believe this thing or that thing, because it’s too difficult, or it doesn’t “work” for me. I am not a good Christian, but I can make that judgment because I have a clear standard of what a good Christian is — a standard that exists independent of my own preferences and moods.

Amen and amen. MTD is the Oprah of religions (this is part of what I loathe about Oprah.  She is NOT harmless; she advocates for a worldview in which the self is the measure of all things.)

Now, midway through Year 8 of teaching in classrooms at an extremely conservative Christian institution, I am shocked by how much of this mindset has crept into the thoughts and actions of my students.  Here are the biggest fallacies I’ve observed:

  1. Effort = achievement.  Over and over, students argue that they deserve an A on a paper because they worked really hard.  Once, after I explained that part of the grade was creativity, several students turned in papers written in colored ink and plastered with stickers.  When I expressed disbelief, they countered that they were trying to be “creative.”  This was one moment in which I despaired of ever being a good teacher.
  2. Prayer instead of effort.  We begin every class with prayer, and I am often touched by the number of students who remember the sick, the poor, the unborn and all who struggle.  But I also notice a growing number of students who pray almost as a substitute for their own efforts.  For instance, one of my students a number of years ago asked prayer for her grades at every single class, but almost never turned her work in on time.  Just about every student has prayed desperately for snow at some point in his life, but many of the students I encounter really seem to believe prayer is some sort of magic charm.
  3. Prayer as a shopping list.  In seven and a half years in the classroom, the only prayer of thanksgiving I’ve ever heard is after the birth of a family member — maybe two or three a year.  Thinking back to my own experience at a Christian school growing up, the requests always outumbered the thanksgivings (we are humans, after all, selfish by nature, and God knows I understand this!) but there were things for which we were grateful: time with friends, deliverance from sickness, and occasionally even good grades. (Aside: Most of my students are Catholic and refer to prayer requests as “intentions,” so it could be that that term is specifically intercessory, and that’s why they so seldom give thanks.  I’m not sure.)
  4. Struggle is bad.  Maybe this is an unfair expectation, since I only really learned to enjoy the struggle of learning in college (see any entry about Gussow!) But I do seem to remember understanding, as I wrestled with Geometry proofs or oil painting, that I might just have to accept that this was too difficult for me to fully understand right now. My students just can’t understand how struggling could be a good thing.  In their view, the best kind of assignment is easily completed and makes them feel good afterward — completely devoid of struggle — and the worst kind of assignment is one that requires wrestling and may not even result in a good grade (see “effort = achievement” above.)  Similarly, they argue increasingly that Hester Prynne was unfairly ostracized for her sin and had every right to abandon her life in Boston for a new one in which she could live unapologetically with a new husband and their illegitimate child.  They know premarital sex is a sin, but they have seen so much of it that they can’t see why it should have repercussions on the rest of an otherwise-virtuous life: “She’s a good person.  Who cares if she did one bad thing, especially if it was with someone she really loved?”
  5. Stress is struggle.  I’m sure I complained, as a teenager, about my stress level.  I’m also sure it was far less than what my students juggle: they are so overextended in so many areas that I could write a separate essay on the evils of extracurricular activities. What I want to point out here is the most common excuse for almost any academic infraction, which is “I’m so stressed out right now.” Somehow they have taken the work of learning and replaced it with activity — which becomes an excuse for not completing required tasks.
  6. It’s all about me.  My friend Terry, a journalist and educator, has been an unbelievable source of support in this area: students love to write about themselves, to the extent that they expect to use first-person narrative in most academic papers.  I had one student argue that she didn’t see how I could take points off her paper, since it was based on her opinion: “How can my opinion be wrong?”  Yeah.  It’s come to that. Curiously, they appear simultaneously self-conscious about their opinions: if I had a dollar for every time I’ve crossed out “I believe,” “I think,” or “I feel,” I would be writing this entry from French Polynesia.  They want to state their opinions and make sure you thow they’re their opinions.

What does all this mean for teachers?  I’m not sure yet.  For now, I’m just aware (and wary) of this philosophy’s pervasiveness.