Tuesday, January 31, 2006

sofa memories

Today at school we had tacos for lunch. They were fantastic, better than I remember them being. Maybe I'm just so grateful for a good cafeteria again. There were many things I loved about Douglass, but the cafeteria food was not one of them. It kept everyone lean and mean. At lunch time at Douglass, the kids congregated in the hall outside the cafeteria, not eating (though almost all were on free/reduced lunch), intimidating and playing everybody who pushed through the crowd. It was a prime time for 8th ward 9th ward fights. It was an ordeal every day, which is one reason, besides the quality of the food, that I didn't eat in the cafeteria very often. I don't know if the kids didn't eat because the food was dreck or if the food was dreck because they didn't eat and so the cafeteria ladies didn't care, or if it was another subtle way the system dissed the poor.
Teachers got double helpings of it. The dreck, I mean.
But Mandeville High has a great cafeteria, and I'm glad. I'm a little infamous in the teacher's lounge for loving the lunch. This afternoon after school I washed the dishes in my kitchen and see it's almost only cups and glasses and cat dishes. No pots. No measuring cups. Once again, I'm taking my main meal at school. (But I'm definitely keeping up with my high blood pressure medicine.)
The two senior classes are writing essays now, and it's fun. I was trying to help them come up with ideas for subjects today and I said "sofas" is a good subject to essay. They laughed of course. I reminded them about the memories associated with the living room sofas, etc., and then, in the middle of me saying these things, I remembered that there's a girl in one of the classes (more than one kid, but this one sticks out in my mind because she wrote something to me about the state of her psyche and emotions these days, which isn't calm) who lived in Chalmette and I realized that the sofa she grew up on was gone and I wanted to stop myself. In fact, I did, sort of, by telling them to imagine their sofas gone, but I didn't go too far with it because I feared it was too much for the one girl. After, I took her out in the hall and we had a cry together and I told her what had occurred to me while I was suggesting the essay subject, and she told me that she's going to write her story (we're going to probably write two essays a week until school is over), and she was smiling about it. So it was good. But it humbled me, and it, she, keeps me conscious and real.
One more thing is that every time I see African-American students in the hall I just want to hug them, even if they're not from New Orleans. I miss the African-American community. It would be a travesty (though that suggests blame but, really, who's to blame?) if New Orleans lost that community. I miss them so much. Before when I was at Mandeville I didn't understand about the community. They were all just Mandeville kids. But at Douglass I learned about their separate soul. Assimilation is not complete. And it makes me think about everybody else, and how assimilation is probably not complete for any of us. We just try to make it be. In the end, we all have our separate connections to our cultures. Mine was a father whose family was (and spoke) Croatian and how can that not have informed my life? Or my mother whose mother was from Scotland. How can her culture not have informed my life? I wonder, if everyone had the same skin color, would everyone appear to assimilate more completely (even though it could only be on the surface)?
I love this world.

Friday, January 27, 2006

take these broken wings

Random things from the past three days:
Wednesday a red-shouldered Hawk landed on a light standard next to my truck. The number 10 was printed on the light.
We're reading Romeo and Juliet in my three freshmen classes. Yesterday we came to Benvolio's description of the sunrise, the "golden window of the east" from which Romeo fled in his depression.
This morning, driving down the still trash-strewn Elysian Fields Avenue, I saw a dump truck with stuffed animals strapped to its side and it occurred to me that the driver was saving stuffed animals he found in the storm detritus. Then ten minutes later, crossing the Causeway, I saw "...the worshipped sun peer forth the golden window of the East." During first period, a student who used to live in Chalmette, who had his guitar with him, played "Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night" by the Beatles. A little while later, during fourth period, I saw two bluebirds. This afternoon I saw a FEMA trailer being pulled by a red truck on the interstate as it passed the neighborhood of a friend of mine's house that flooded. He raised exotic birds, kept them in room-sized cages, and loved them. Yesterday I found out that all his birds drowned.
There's a little bitty part in the play in which a servant, who cannot read, bumps into Romeo on the street and asks him to read something for him. The something Romeo reads for the servant is the invitation list to the party Juliet's father is throwing that night, the party, as we know, where the star crossed Romeo and Juliet are fated to meet. One of my students said, "I think the servant's the cause of all the trouble that's going to come because he's the one who let Romeo know about the party." It made me think that perhaps I could make a list of if onlys, and have the students fill in the rest: If only Juliet had not..., If only the nurse had..., If only Lord Capulet were not..., If only Romeo were..., if only, if only, if only. So we could find out that nothing's that easy.
A lot of things struck me today.

Monday, January 23, 2006

living in the isthmus

Today was my fifth day at Mandeville High School. There was a bad case of fog on the Causeway (looked like we were streaking through milk) so drivers were forced to use only the right lane and to drive at 45 MPH, so I was five minutes late for school. A teacher was looking for me a minute before I got to school and came to my room and the kids told her I was "out making copies."
First period. Friday we read an excerpt from Alexander Pope's piece about the nature of man, about the dichotomous, paradoxical nature of man, and they loved it. Here's the piece:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

I haven't gotten myself together yet, though the first moment I was face to face with the students, on my first day back, I felt the groove, and I was happy again. But I haven't put together any lesson plans or even know what I'm doing from one day to the next. I keep finding poems to discuss with them and we're then writing, and they're so willing. It's glorious. However, I need a bigger picture, and I need to find my stapler and such things in the stuff I brought from Douglass. I had a box full of twenty years worth of essays I'd clipped out of various publications, which I use to show students what a good essay looks like (rather than attempt to "teach" them how to write) and that has been lost somewhere at Douglass. That's the only thing I'm sad to have lost.
I've been thinking non-stop about being there at MHS again, about having been at Douglass, about kids, about society, but haven't yet had the moment to stop and pull my thoughts together. But I will. And when I do, I'll be rolling more consistently on the blog again. But I can say this: I did not make the wrong decision.


Saturday, January 14, 2006

preparing to paint

Things have been coming to a head. I’ve more than lost my mirth. I turned off the lights and lit a candle and stared into it. It has been a very long time since I’ve done such a thing. The storm has dulled me, caused me to seek out whatever can numb me, and I spend hours every day engaging in numbing activities. I have to change. I am tired of quieting myself. I am tired of relenting. I am tired of the easier path of sadness. I am tired of being mindless. I want to live again.
I decided to paint. I’ve never painted. I went to David Art Supply on Veterans Highway in the dreaded Metairie and bought $60 worth of stuff – eight tubes of acrylic paint (including "hooker green"), two long-handled paint brushes with fat bushes of white bristles, a pack of disposable palettes, and a piece of un-stretched canvas, three by six feet, and I nailed it to the wall. I went through my photographs, which in and of itself was an event and revelatory, and picked several to consider – two of Penny, one of my old dog, Maggie, one of a spider. Is it best to work my way up or down a canvas? Will the painting develop best from the top down or from the bottom up? I think I’m a one who works from the top down, though that seems too obvious to me. An artist would probably tell me to pin the damned canvas up and see where it feels right to start. And isn’t that part of why I’m doing this? To try something I don’t understand at all?
It’s this or math. Math is next.
It’s not that I wish to accomplish some kind of reward. It’s that I wish to delve into what I don’t understand. That’s where the life is. It’s the mystery I love, the unknown. It’s what I love about being human, that we just fucking keep on striving toward the black unknown. I live for that. It is perhaps why I have not the proclivity toward settling in with another human. I love being always on the edge, going toward someone, something, somewhere. It’s perhaps why I cannot ever align myself with a group. I’m not as interested in the solution as I am in the question. I love looking. I don’t love finding. That’s I guess relative to why I write.
I picked the photo of me and Penny galloping on the levee. Painting is different from drawing. I think painting involves a sense of the subject, not a picture or an idea. This photo is all about movement and Penny’s distended nostrils. She’s on a left lead and my body is leaning into her lead. I look wide-eyed ecstatic and she looks solidly alive and thriving. It’s like we’re riding through a magic door and entering into something. We look like we’re completely in the moment and headed straight into the next one, which is really this one. Like we’re the center of energy.
And now I realize something about myself: I love writing about processes. The book I wrote about traveling in Europe is about the process of one person figuring herself out as she’s figuring the world out. The book about Douglass is the same thing. Everything I write is about discovery. Now I want to paint and I’m writing, attempting to discover the meaning of what I’m about to paint. So I wonder if painting will be the same experience, of attempting to discover meaning? It seems not to be. It seems that a painting is the being there, even if the "there" is just a moment in the process. It’s like taking a word and illuminating it. Catching a moment and depicting it and it seems that a good painting will make the moment be representative of something larger. Like that photo of me and Penny. The lake is on our right. The barn is on our left. It feels like we’re riding forward into the future. And we’re both joyful, each in our own way. I am exuberant. She is resolute and moving. I am happy. She is not "happy" exactly. She is alive and doing what her nature tells her to do. My nature doesn’t tell me to do anything. My brain, my feelings, they direct me. And I guess me and Penny connected. Her nature told her I was hers. Maybe my nature did direct me because I know she was mine, that we were complete together. It was not my mind or my heart. My mind and my heart responded to what was in front of me: her.
Again I say it; I have yet to put that relationship between me and Penny into perspective. I can’t quite place her. She’s more than a mother to me. She’s my life force. She made me able to live. She brought the forces of the universe together into a form for me. She was a gift, a perfect collection, a manifestation, a creature with breath and blood who also held somehow the mystery and who also was a higher form the chaos made. She became a port, a point of light, the place where I felt my heart beat. She was the center, the focus, the collector of energy. It was to Penny I went for recognition. She affirmed my existence. She reflected me and made me know I was real. Even in the flat brown of winter her eyes shone and I could literally see my face in her eyes. But under the sheen of me was the darkest deepest depth of life to its origin, and she was there and I was there because she brought me there. I think maybe she was the manifestation of God for me.
And so here it is, the beginning of the new year, after a hurricane that almost killed my home, after a life’s worth of work and questions and joys and toils, and the one who points me toward home is a short brown horse with the world in her eyes. She’s not a Buddha or a saint or a child or any kind of human love. She’s a horse.
And all of this started because I was watching Orange washing his face and I thought about how that is a way the cat retrieves himself from chaos. And I’d been thinking about how the candle flame erupts into too much air where it breaks up but then falls back into itself and flames on, still and bright and quiet and fat, a drop of fat fire. And all that because I haven’t looked at a candle in a long time.

Friday, January 13, 2006

back to the future

I believe fear is at the bottom of sadness, and I and pretty much everyone around here feels it. But Wednesday morning I woke up with a pointed, specific fear, for the first time since the storm. I woke up realizing that the likelihood of me getting a teaching job before August is practically nil, and I have no insurance. My teeth were hurting, and my throat, and I’m almost out of blood pressure medicine, and I was conscious of how I’ve been living as though in a state of emergency and that five months of it has affected my face and my clothes and my diet and my eyes and my smile. I woke up thinking I had to do something and that working part time at Central Grocery and receiving unemployment would only keep me where I am. An hour later the telephone rang and it was Mandeville High School calling, offering me a job.
It’s not the first time they’ve offered, but it’s the first time I’ve said yes.
My gut told me immediately that it’s the right thing to do. On the surface it seems so strange, so incongruous with the path I’ve been on. Here came Katrina, the cleanser, the changer, the instrument of awakening, and now I’m going back to the physical place of my life pre-Katrina and pre-Douglass, as if nothing ever happened.
So I’ve been thinking about what, besides the fact that it’s a chance for me to rise again, this could really mean. I was thinking how it’s an incredible opportunity for me to go back and study a school I knew, but this time with new eyes. It will also be an opportunity to study my new eyes. One of the biggest issues I’ve attempted to grapple with after the experience at Douglass is what have I learned? I ask myself that a lot. Now I’ll be able to address the question. I have also developed a new appreciation for the fact that, rich or poor, white or black, privileged or poverty-stricken, every human being has a mind full of potential ideas – native genius, I’m more inclined to say – and that my job is to help them find themselves out.
I committed myself to stay through this semester, even if another school here at home calls. But in August I expect to again be in a Room 219 somewhere in this city, ready to welcome New Orleans back.
And so here I go. And so the blog lives again.

Monday, January 02, 2006

closing the door

On the 19th Douglass teachers were "allowed" into the school to retrieve our things. I'd been to school in October, when I found the door busted open. A week after that visit I went back and found the door was boarded up. On the 19th the door was busted open again and the school was trashed. When I arrived there was only one other person there, the school nurse. No police, no administrators, no other teachers. No electricity. It was eerie. The nurse and I agreed to check on each other periodically because besides being eerie, it was scary. And it was sad.
I didn't handle it very well. My resolve went by the wayside. I had to call a friend to help me. The last two times I'd been to Douglass the fate of the teachers and the schools was still in the air so there was, you know, foolish as it might have been, a little hope. But by the 19th we'd been told that on 31 January the teachers were all to be officially fired, so this was really it, and time to empty myself out of Room 219 and out of Frederick Douglass High School.
I took my encyclopedias, my poetry books, my few little supplies, my 16 years worth of files on writing and teaching. Some books. All the journals and notebooks my students had left before the storm. Some journals and writings that students had left last year. I don't know what I'm going to do with all those journals, but I knew I couldn't leave them there. I couldn't find my box I'd collected with stuff for teaching Shakespeare's plays, or the box of essays that I'd been cutting out of newspapers for twenty years, or my box of poems and recordings of students reading poems. The room was still neat and "For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid" was still on the board. Eventually a few other teachers arrived and one of them, who had been there before today also, told me he thinks the school got trashed on purpose to make the possibility of Douglass re-opening even more unlikely. If so, somebody's despicable, because that beautiful old school was desecrated. Not overwhelmingly so. Not axed or torched or anything like that. Just trashed. Things strewn around. Doors busted out. Classrooms looted. Maps and wall hangings torn down. Windows broken. Feces on the floor. Mold crawling up the walls. The green terrazzo stairs chipped and layered with some kind of filthy dust. Stink. Cough-inducing air. I should have worn a face mask.
While I was putting things in my truck a police officer arrived to monitor who went in and out of the building and we had to sign our names on a sheet.
I don't feel finished with Douglass.