Wednesday, February 22, 2006

the human condition

I went to Douglass again Saturday, looking for my boxes of essays and poems and had no luck. I have a few essays I'd made copies of so I've been using those these last some days. It has been wonderful. I give them each a copy of the essay and I read it aloud and they highlight words, sentences, paragraphs, etc., that they find good and compelling, for whatever reason, aspects of the essay we respect, aspects of the essays that make us want to keep reading. Then we're talking about what makes the essays good and also about their content. And then, when they're all stirred up with ideas, we do freewriting first drafts on something that came into our minds during the discussion. They're loving it and so am I. Yesterday we read one essay about the boorishness of our society and one girl, Shelley from Chalmette, said, "they got a lot of boorish customers at Burger King," and I told the class about Ronnie, a Mandeville High student I had two years ago, who was pregnant and working at Burger King and how some woman customer got in her face and that Ronnie climbed over the counter and punched the woman in the face and knocked her down. Yes, there is much boorish behavior in the world.
Another one we read was an essay from Time Magazine called The PG-Rated War, about how government does not want the media to show photographs of war dead. We had a fantastic discussion about whether war casualties and executions should be made public. Arguments were wonderful on both sides. Ammy made it personal by asking how we'd feel if it was our own childrens' deaths photographed. Someone said that if the mother's child died in war we should respect his/her right to die for her country and that we should be proud for her. We talked about capital punishment and about the controversy sometime back over whether Timothy McVey's execution should be televised. And I told them about a revelation I'd had some years ago about hunting, about how my ex-husband was a hunter and I hated it until one day when I was at the grocery buying a nice rump roast, a piece of flesh wrapped neat with no big brown eyes, I realized I was a hypocrite.
Another one we read was by Leonard Pitts, about a video game called JFK Reloaded, a game in which the player is in the shoes of Lee Harvey Oswald and must assassinate the president. Again, the discussion went all over the place. Arguments for and against the game came up that had never occurred to me. Danny said it's telling that the game was made out of the country. Mandy said she thinks the impulse that causes humans to create such things like JFK Reloaded stems from that same something in us that causes us to look at a car wreck, that everyone has the instinct or curiousity to view death. Fran said she thinks we want to be scared.
In the end the question was, what does this say about the human condition? The human race? Us? Me? That's the point after all.
I'm two and a half weeks behind on my reading of the Times-Picayune. That's good because now my purpose in catching up is to gather more essays. Chris Rose has become a fabulous writer since the storm. For example.
On the Romeo and Juliet front, I saw today what I always end up seeing when I read Shakespeare with students, that they balk and they balk and they balk and then, by Act V, they're almost suddenly not balking any longer and they're getting it and LIKING it and I'm able to point out the more subtle aspects of the text. And they're asking a lot of great questions, some I don't know the answers to. It thrills me. I'm having them make note of certain passages, significant for different reasons, and tomorrow we're going to go back and study the passages. I think the only way to "teach" Shakespeare (hahaha, here I go again, realizing I'm not giving them anything except an open door) is to hold their hands while they muddle through until we realize they don't need my hand so much anymore. I would now like to read another play with them. It would blow their minds to realize how much they know already that they don't know they know. I'm thinking Hamlet. Or maybe a comedy? I imagine it would be fun to read a comedy and make note of where the comedy could have turned tragic and then where Romeo and Juliet could have turned comic (in the classical sense of tragedy and comedy).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Yesterday was Valentine's Day. I had my little plan in the back of my mind about what I wanted to do with my classes but when I got to school there was a red rose on my keyboard and all thoughts of essaying flew my head. It didn't help that I'd listened to Annie Lennox, LOUD, all the way across the Causeway and I was in an altered state. So I got to school and there was the rose and I flipped through the few little folders of poems I have and found William Stafford's poem, "You Reading This, Be Ready," and I decided we'd read the poem and pay attention to the moment and ready ourselves for its place in our lives. Here's the poem:

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?

How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this

new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life -
What can anyone give you greater than now,

starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
-- William Stafford

They dug it and the discussion was wonderful. No one in the room, including me, fears trying out ideas aloud. They've (we've) embraced the notion that there are layers and layers of the truth. We kept flittering around into subjects seemingly unrelated (like Waffle House) and one girl in the room, SS, gently returned us to sanity by saying, "and now, back to the poem." Also, I used the word "magnanimous" and someone in the class asked me to give them a cool word every day. Today I gave them "disenfranchised," and I told them about Douglass High School.
Second period I was still unwilling to return to my plan so I dug around again and found a piece, I have no idea what to call it, wherein a page-length paragraph contains nothing but numbers of things: Number of times I've been kissed: 23,300. Like that. One of the kids just started reading it aloud and then people were interjecting their own numbers of things, like "number of times I've seen my drunk uncle get into a boat without a paddle:" So I got the idea of writing down the things they were saying and I typed it, copied it for all of them, and today we had THE most relevant and true lesson on revision that I have ever known. And in the midst of it I asked them to write a reflection of the process they were going through in the revision. Tomorrow we're rewriting the things, each in our own way. I will let you know how it turns out.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

breaking down the walls

We are now in our 4th week. It's interim time already. As usual in every beginning quarter, my grades are crazy. People have either 100's or 40's. It's too soon to grade things, in my humble opinion.
I have a new student from the 7th ward and it soothes me to be around her. I feel like an alien in my classes except around people like her. I guess it's obvious that I'm still in the throes of intensely being a New Orleanian and that we have that shared experience makes me feel at home with them.
The trash is still on the ground here. Houses are still unlit and melting. Nature is taking back what was originally hers. The impulse that I had since the storm to come back, just so my house could be lived in, that by sheer force of will and also my heat and heartbeat I could keep the walls up, is the thing that's missing in the rest of the city that is languoring. There's little life. I am fast losing my optimism. And I'm disheartened. I had a dream yesterday that I was in a place where the walls were weakened and I leaned against one and it came down and wild animals teemed in. The first animal was a horse.
Today two classes complained that we haven't been writing enough. So I let them. In one class, freshmen, when the 10 minutes was up, I announced it and a boy said, "crap." I told him to keep on writing, and he did, as did over half the class (I looked) for another two minutes. It was beautiful. I wonder if the thing I do for them in the end is simply this, that I help them over their fear of the pen and the blank page, and over the fear that they have nothing to say.
Now I have a TEST to write. Hahaha! No, but really...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

wherefore art thou?

The sun was hard this morning. I mean hard bright yellow. Stunning in its intensity. It occurs on the right side of my consciousness, rising up from the lake as I travel north. It blinds me as it illuminates me.
I made it to school before the first bell of the day. This is the first day in the twelve days so far this has happened. Usually I straggle in a moment after the students have arrived, during the principal's morning announcements. I am not proud of this. It is just a fact so far. A year ago I was riding my bicycle to school, leaving the house at 8, locking my bike up to the fence between Douglass and Charmaine Neville's house at 8:15.
Today my senior students wrote a second first draft and tomorrow I will pass back to them everything they've written so far in these twelve days. They will then choose one of their writings that has heat and revise it. I'm shocked at how able they are, and willing, and interested, and all so immediately. There has been little need for me to woo them, though I continue to express my energy toward that. I think they're hungry to be invited to think. In first period I, off the cuff, gave the guy who played Blackbird for us an opportunity to get credit for a 25 point first draft, without having to write it, if he would only play his guitar one whole hour for us, for our inspiration. The inspiration for this idea came because he came in twenty minutes before our period ended this morning, and he took his guitar out and played, and he's so good. I would require silence in the class and we could use him to direct us. Unwittingly.
I brought boxes of kleenex to all the classes I float into today and was surprised to note that all the classes already had tissue. At Douglass almost no teachers had tissue. And neither did the bathrooms. No toilet tissue. So at Douglass I kept a big stock of tissue for the children. I also kept a big bottle of lotion for when they were ashy, and hand cleaner for when they felt dirty. Kids I didn't even know came to my class for the stuff all day long.
I intervened in a semi-fight yesterday. The only part I saw was a big blond older boy crossing the gym and punching a brunette freshman from behind. I held the blond by the elbow then ran out for an administrator, who arrived immediately, and the situation was contained.
We had super salad/baked potatoes on the hot lunch side and hot dogs on the other side. I chose the hot dog but got a little chili from the hot lunch line to add to it, even though it was outside the rules. Afterwards, I served my duty, which is to keep un-officially sanctioned students out of a certain hall. I'm not very good at it. I tend to believe everybody who walks through with an explanation. And the truth be told, they're usually telling the truth. I can usually feel it.
We're watching the Zefferelli rendering of Romeo and Juliet in my freshman classes right now. This perhaps explains my romantic attitude.