Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chiropractus Absurdus: The Road to Wellness

“Do you know what happens when two dogs fight? No wait, or is it, do you know what happens when you have two dogs living inside of you. No wait. Do you know what happens when you have two dogs living inside of you and they’re fighting with each other?”

“Why are they fighting?” I ask.

“They just are. So. Do you know what happens when there are two dogs inside of you and one is good and one is evil? Which one wins?”

I’m lying on my stomach, face down on the chiropractor’s chair, which , when I first saw it, just kind of sitting out there in the middle of what appears to be the living room of a shabby brownstone, but passes for a treatment room, a waiting room and a receptionist’s office rolled into one, I thought I was looking at some kind of torture device from the Dark Ages.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! I hear in quick succession as I feel the throbbing pressure pulse through my spine. I can’t see what he’s doing, but I picture him in a fedora and trench coat, holding a Tommy gun and emptying the barrel into the back of my neck.

“Well,” he says. “Who wins?”

And I say, with my mouth squashed between the green vinyl face pads, “Ummmm, No one? They fight to the finish and kill each other?”

Without answering my questions, he says, “You’re going to hear a snap. Don’t be alarmed.” And before I can blink my eyes, he proceeds to press down on my neck as if he’s the Boston Strangler and I hear a crack so loud it makes me jump.

“The dogs,” he says. “You didn’t answer my question about the dogs. No wait. You did answer. Your answer was thoughtful.”

“Thoughtful, as in wrong?”

“Sit up,” he says stepping away from the chair.

“Which way should I face?” I ask, hoping he says towards the window with my back to the waiting room and the persons-in-waiting and the receptionist cheerily chatting on the phone.

“Any way you’d like,” he says as I turn to face the window – French doors actually looking out onto an urban garden.

“You get to enjoy the bicycle sculptures,” he says, pleasantly and I look out on a scene of broken wheels, tattered seats and rusted frames hanging from trees in what someone must have thought was an artful fashion.

“The dogs,” he repeats and I think, oh no, he’s back to that. “Do you know which dog wins?”

I’ve given up after he rejected my last best answer. I no longer give a fuck about which dog wins even if I did a minute ago and then he says, “Lie on your stomach again,” and I do and as I am adjusting my face between the vinyl rollers, he puts all of his weight behind the heal of his hand, places it squarely on my 9th vertebrae and presses down with the force of a jackhammer.

“The one you feed,” he says.

“The what?” I say still breathless from that last maneuver.

“The dog you feed. That’s who wins.”

I sit up slowly and turn to look at his face for the first time. It’s kind and earnest.

“You’ve been feeding the wrong dog, Marsha. You’ve been feeding the dog of disease. Today, you begin feeding the dog of wellness.”

“Woof Woof!” I say as I stand up, shaking out my back.

“Arf Arf!” he replies, kissing me on my forehead.

I pay the receptionist, make my next appointment and walk out the door on my way to wellness.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On Scholarship and Vegetables

In writing group last night, the prompt was, "Write a story about buying lettuce." Of course, I knew immediately that in order for me to write about buying lettuce, I would eventually have to get to the embarrassing fact that I don’t really eat lettuce, only really tasted it a couple of times and could never figure out the appeal. Maybe that's because I've only tried the most boring and declasse type of lettuce, the bland and unappealing iceberg, and maybe it was because it tasted like -- -NOTHING.

But, that’s not what this story is about. Not eating iceberg lettuce is understandable. What’s harder to explain is that I am fifty-seven years old and I have never voluntarily or knowingly eaten any vegetable raw or cooked. This fact certainly makes it hard for me to follow any of the fashionable diets --- and at this stage of my life, this is one of my deepest, darkest, most shameful secrets.

Whenever I attend professional functions where I have to sit down for meals with colleagues, I dread that moment when the waiter comes to the table serving the first course and I have to say, “No thank you” and pray that nobody at the table will call the waiter back to tell him he forgot to give me my salad.

I have a few pat responses when people ask me why I didn’t take the salad. “Oh my stomach is a little queasy today” is a good excuse when I am only going to be eating with these people for one meal. “I have a stomach ulcer and it’s hard for me to digest raw vegetables” is another and although it borders on too much information, it is useful to keep the same people from asking the same questions every time I refuse a salad if we are going to be eating several meals together over the course of a week-long seminar or workshop.

Once, when I was selected to go to the Carnegie Foundation in Palo Alto for three weeks to work with world renown educational researchers about how master teachers can share their knowledge with others and generate new knowledge in the field, it became impossible for me to keep my peculiar food preferences secret.

One of the leaders of the event, a woman whom I idolized, whom I would clamor to sit with any chance I could get, happened to notice what was ( or rather, wasn’t) on my plate, and she, a researcher, trained to observe anomalies and discern patterns of human behavior turned to me during lunch on the third day and said loud enough for everyone at the table to hear, “Marsha, don’t you eat salad?”

I had just presented my work about the implications of teaching drama and playwriting for the literacy learning and personal empowerment of urban adolescents and it was one of the most triumphant moments in my life. I had shared my teaching experiences, let myself be vulnerable in front of this group revealing my questions, my doubts and ultimately my successes and at the end of my presentation, as the entire group broke into rousing applause, the executive director of the foundation, stood up and declared, “Pincus, you’re a genius!”

The glow and affirmation that I had been feeling only minutes before, dissipated as the nine other people at the table, who suddenly found my food preferences more fascinating than my scholarship, shifted forward slightly in their seats, and awaited my answer.

I hesitated and weighed my usual replies. In my mind, I tried on, “I’m not feeling that well today” but that didn’t ring true because I had just delivered a rousing and energetic presentation. Then I almost gave them the “I have an ulcer and can’t digest raw vegetables all that well” but that felt disingenuous and so much of what we were doing together in this intellectual community was predicated on honesty, risk-taking and the willingness for everyone to let themselves be vulnerable.

So I said, “I really don’t like vegetables. I don’t eat them all that much.”

I felt all of the air leave the area around the table and the woman who had asked me if I ate salad, this woman whom I adored, idolized wanted to emulate, looked at me with shock and surprise and declared, “I never met an adult who doesn’t eat vegetables. You remind me of my 9 year old granddaughter. I keep telling her mother that she’ll outgrow her picky eating habits. Looks like I might be wrong!” She laughed then stuffed a sheath of lettuce into her mouth and chewed gustily.

This story still hurts to write. It hurts too when I remember that my daughter didn’t always make good choices about food. Despite the fact that her father and brother eat everything, she refused to eat any vegetables that were placed before her. It was hard to watch my healthy, beautiful little girl develop food habits and preferences like my own. Why is it that our children find our worse qualities to emulate?

When she was in college, we finally talked about it. I apologized for the role that I had played in her limited diet and shared with her my anguish, shame and struggle. Then I told her that while her food issues may be my fault, they were now her problem and that she would have to find a way to address them herself so that she could become a healthy adult.

She’s twenty-seven, now and I am happy to say that she’s truly trying. Last week-end when we went out to dinner, she ordered a salad and when I looked up at her from across the table, I smiled as I watched her bring a forkful of lettuce to her lips.

I’m glad she’s making these changes in her diet. For her health, yes, but also so she’ll never know the humiliation I felt that day when my maturity, judgment and character were publicly called into question by the lack of lettuce on my plate.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering 9-11 : Dust to Dust

Septmeber 11, 2001 began in Philadelphia as a beautiful late summer day. I remember thinking how beautiful the Center City skyline looked against the clear blue sky as I was driving to school along the river drive. I was feeling particularly blessed, loving my job as an English and Drama teacher at Masterman High School, and looking forward to an intellectually challenging year with my 11th and 12th grade students.

First period began and we had a stimulating discussion about the purpose of education and Salinger's critique of school and "phonies" and what it meant to fall and who was the metaphorical catcher in the rye. When the bell rang, I stepped out into the hallway to greet my second period class when a colleague, Bill Synder told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

When my class entered, I was faced with a choice. Do I teach the same lesson about phonies, unreliable narrators and metaphors, or do I turn on the television and find out what had happened in New York. I chose the latter. Later, the students told me that they were grateful that I had done that. They spoke with disdain about the teachers who had continued teaching through the morning as if nothing were going on. Together we sat there, gazing up in shock at the old tv mounted to the wall and watched in real time as the second plane slammed into the other tower.

Of course I was terrified, confused, and uncertain of what to do or say. I knew even as I was standing there that these young people would remember how I reacted, what I did, what I said to them in these moments, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

I don't know where it came from but I found the words. Perhaps it came from Mr. Rose, my 6th grade teacher who on November 22, 1963, another crystal clear beautiful day, told his class of disbelieving 11 year olds that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. The word assassinated had yet to enter our vocabulary. He also told us that when we got home, we might see our parents crying. He told us that they would be upset but that we shouldn't be frightened -- that our lives were still intact and that our parents were still there to protect us. Those words helped me that afternoon when just as Mr. Rose had said, I got off of the school bus and saw my mother and all of the other mothers, waiting for us on the corner, their eyes still wet with tears.

As the announcement cam over the loud speaker, telling the students that they would be dismissed early and to go right home, I felt all of their eyes on me. I took a deep breath and I said, "When you go home this afternoon, I want you to watch television. And you're going to see something you've never seen before. You're going to see people reaching out and helping each other. You're going to see acts of bravery and kindness that will inspire you. These terrible disasters bring out the best in people. You'll see."

I'm not sure if I even believed these words myself as I uttered them. But they seemed to help my students as they gathered their books, ready to leave school at noon to return home in a world that was totally different from the way it was when they entered school that morning.

In the days and weeks that followed, I worked with my Drama and Inquiry Class to create the theater piece that is excerpted here. Each of the students interviewed a person about their experiences on September 11th. Some interviewed their parents. Others interviewed neighbors, friends, teachers. From the interviews, they created monologues then performed the monologues as the person they had interviewed. The most moving stories came from the students who had interviewed their siblings who were eyewitnesses to the attacks in New York and Washington. And as they performed their words in class, I could see the bonding that had taken place between them as sister listened to brother, brother became witness for sister then took their words deep inside themselves and made their siblings words breathe with life and witness.

For years, while I was still teaching, if September 11th happened to fall on a school day, I would begin each class by playing Bruce Springsteen's Into the Fire.
And as the song was playing and the words were resonating in the silence, I would hand the class copies of "Dust to Dust," the script of the theater piece their predecessors had created. They would read the words while the song played and as the music stopped, they would spontaneously take turns reading the words.

I imagine that during that time, each student was recalling where he or she was the moment they learned of the plane crash, the images of the buildings crumpling to the ground, and the people of New York City, lining the streets to offer water, food and shoes to the hundreds of thousands making the long and frightening trip back home.

So it's eight years later. I am not teaching today, but I am remembering...

Dust to Dust – Living Through September 11, 2001
By the Masterman Drama and Inquiry Class

Part I – Mundane

Eyewitness AISLING September 11th - I wake up and go to my 8 o’clock class.

Eyewitness BEN - Well, I remember, I was sleeping on, in my bed, on the futon uh in the living room and uuuhh, I felt the building shake…

Young Man MARQUES - I’ll be honest though. I was sorta excited. Like it’s something out of the ordinary. I mean that’s not to disrespect anyone you know, the situation in any way, but you know, sometimes daily life gets kinda mundane.

Eyewitness BEN - .. and I kinda thought at first it was a sonic boom, but then I kinda figured what would they be testing jets over Lower Manhattan at ya know, 8:30 in the morning on a Tuesday. Uuuhm and I wasn’t quite awake yet either to really give it too much thought so I sorta fell back to sleep and whatever the e3xact time interval, I don’t remember from the news, but the second plane hit and the impact actually threw me off of my bed.

Little Boy NIRVANA -- Cause, when I first heard about it, I didn’t really know much about it. Soooo, I really wasn’t that scared..

Woman JULIA - A workman stopped me and said, “Did you hear about it? A plane crashed into the World Trade towers.” I sort of blocked it out of my mind and went about my business.

Eyewitness AISLING - Twenty minutes after seeing the broadcasts, I had to leave for my next class. The entire time I was wondering if terrorists would hit something next. Living in Washington, three blacks away from the White House I was nervous. I have never been more scared than I was right after Washington was attacked. Seeing people running in every direction from federal buildings was crazy. If the government is telling all federal workers to leave Washington and I’m stuck in the middle of Washington in my dorm room, of course I am going to be scared. I felt as though I was sitting in the bull’s eye of a giant dartboard.

Little Boy NIRVANA - First we heard when I was in the bathroom, people from the other class saying “Yeah, we have a half day cause of a plane cra… a plane crashing. I was actually in Science. We had been hearing fibs like “a plane crashed into the Statue of Liberty, it’s about to fall.” That kind of stuff. My teacher finally stopped us talking about it and she started talking about it and I just thought it was awful. Cause who would do something like that? It’s just… unthinkable.

Part II – Chaos

Eyewitness JILL - Everything was totally chaos on Tuesday. Everyone was running around not knowing what to do. When the second building fell down, cries came out, that like, it would break your heart if you had to hear. Everyone was screaming and running, It sounded like New York herself was crying. I don’t think anyone knew where they were running. They just were. Seemed like they were trying to race back into time, you know, before this ever happened.

Eyewitness BEN - But I kinda got a sense from them that they didn’t even have a clear idea of what was going on and they were more concerned with ushering the ..the fire department and rescue squads that were already being deployed into the zone. Umm and at that point, ya know, no body was figuring that they were gonna collapse uhhh,,, so it was quite ya know ( beat) upsetting ( beat) afterwards to realize that ( beat) during those few moments, we were literally watching guys, ya know, sort of run towards their graves.

Young Woman - (JULIA) And they kept showing the same scene over and over and over and over. It got really annoying. It’s okay for them to have it on regular tv, because it’s free, but if I’m paying for cable then I should be able to get what I’m paying for.

Woman ( CATHLEEN.) - I would love to deport all of the Arab nationals who are over here on illegal visas or have illegal immigration papers and even those who have legal papers. I would put a waiver on a lot of civil rights that people carrying green cards have in this country. I don’t know what else to do.

Man ANTHONY - Thank God I’m not in a position to have to come up with the solution. We have to stand by our government. We have to make sure we are all in line with what the President says and does.

Young Man MARQUES - WHAT??? So like we don’t have to follow along the rules of decency and like it just doesn’t I dunno, we just do what we please with no regard to any other nation? I don’t mean to say we have it coming. I think it’s a tragedy a grand tragedy for all the people that died. But I think that’s where the tragedy stops. I mean we have the right to attack people, but they don’t have the right to attack us?

Part III – Too Philosophical

Eyewitness JILL - That night, everything got so weird. It was like silent. It was like New York was asleep, for the first time ever. I was walking around taking pictures today. You know you’re used to seeing missing dog posters on every corner or so, but now it’s missing people signs every couple of feet. Pictures of these smiling faces - faces that are lost.

Man DAVE. - At Rosh Hashanah services the tragedy was on everyone’s mind. I think it set the background for all of the prayers that we were saying that day. It’s like all the prayers had a tinge to them now that they never had before.. and when I was ummmm leading the part of the service and when I came to the prayer for peace, I just felt very very emotional and at the end of the uhhhh section of prayers the last prayer is a prayer for peace. Every word just seemed so vitally important to me.

Young Man LAMAR – What they don’t realize is that this is a holy war. In my opinion, God is on the side of the believers, the Muslims. These cats think they just gonna wipe out the Afghans. Nah, man, nah. Not if it’s the will of God. We gonna be the ones wiped out. People gonna see how corrupt they are, ya know. I hope they uhhh turn to God, ya know. If they don’t, they gotta pay.

Young Man ANTHONY - You know, I think what we are facing here is a war against a belief system. That means we are facing an intellectual enemy, not one of brick or mortar. The “enemy” theoretically could be your neighbor, best friend or the person standing behind you in the store. We are “fighting” something that is not tangible. Thought has no body. No headquarters to bomb. Thought is liquid. ( 2 beats) Was that too philosophical?

Part IV – Dust to Dust

Eyewitness JILL - On Wednesday, the air changed and the wind blew towards us. It was like a really dense fog, the dust and asbestos were everywhere. I just walked around a lot, but I had to wear a wet paper towel on my face. Everything I wore was covered with dust.

Young Woman JULIA - I think that all those people are dead now, so they need to stop looking for people. What they need to do is just dump all the debris in the ocean and have one big mass funeral and memorial service. That would be a lot easier. Because they’re not going to find any more people alive so it’s a waste of time to keep looking for people. And they want you to send clothes and money and stuff up there, but for what? What they need to do is just dump all the debris in the ocean.

Eyewitness BRONWEN - There were people lined up cheering for the workers as we passed by. People were crowded along the street to thank the rescue workers. They had water and food and all this stuff to give to the rescue workers on the bus. There were people of all ages and all races out cheering.

Man ANTHONY - The main thing right now, people have to get on with their lives which is hard to say and hard to do considering what happened. But I guess that’s why we’re the United States of America. Heal we will.

Eyewitness JILL - It’s weird. I am a passive person who doesn’t believe in war and never did I think I would be for murder, but sometimes I catch myself wanting those sons of bitches to die. You know what I keep wishin? I mean I keep thinking about when my friend first told me, I mean man, I wish, I just wish, wish I could go back to that one second when I just, I just didn’t believe him.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Peripheral Vision

          I can’t say which I see first – his eyes or his smile but they are connected. He has blue eyes that are so deep set that they look like two portals in a ships cabin looking out on the sea.

          The fluidity of his eyes is in stark contrast to the solidity of the rest of his face- the straight nose and teeth, the square chin, the strong cheekbones. Unlike other men his age, whose faces have expanded with age, my husband Nate’s has thinned. All of the fat has been drained from beneath his skin and sometimes, when he’s not smiling, his face and neck can appear slack, his eye sockets darkening and he can look for an instant like the head atop a Halloween skeleton, prompting people to ask him if he’s lost a lot of weight lately.

          He used to be fatter, it’s true and since his father died of a heart attack in 1997 and his younger brother had by pass surgery before he was 40, Nate’s changed his life style and those changes have become evident on his body and face.

         He has these really strong legs and he’s quick, though not as quick as he once was. And he plays basketball – sometimes up to 4 times a week.

          It’s been a while since I’ve seen him play. I remember when we were young, I would feel a thrill watching how he was transformed on the court. The sweat dripping from his thin brow to his full beard, his hair wild and his blue eyes gleaming with the intensity of total immersion in the moment – the play – the shot, springing up on his haunches, making the foul shot, slamming his smaller body into the larger ones surrounding him with abandon, then waiting, bouncing from foot to foot, alert, taking it all in.

          It is his eyes, of course, that I come back to – the window to his soul - how they appeared to me then when I watched him. He had the most astounding peripheral vision; he could fake and feint --- the ease of these moves belying the years and years of practice. He could look straight ahead, dribble the ball and without moving his gaze or his body, pass the ball to the man who was circling behind him to his left.

          When I met him that night in Doc Watson’s pub 35 years ago, he must have been noticing me from the corner of his eye. He appeared next to me, after sidling up to the bar to order a “gingah ale.” I turned to him and said, “Say my name. I love how people from New York say my name. It’s Marsha.”

          It was then that he turned his full gaze on me and I saw those eyes for the very first time –cool and clear as ice water but bestoying upon me a warmth and light I had never felt before.

          “Ah, Mah-sha,” he said, renaming me and claiming me as his right there on that bar stool.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

September Approaching -- The Time for Teacher Dreams Redux

Anyone who has ever taught school for more than a year has had this dream. It usually arrives mid August, though in some especially stressful years, it can come as early as July, virtually ruining the rest of the summer. There is always a teacher in the dream and the teacher is always the person dreaming. Sometimes, when I have this dream, the teacher in the dream looks like me. Sometimes, she is physically unfamiliar – I don’t know exactly who she is but I do know that I am the person feeling the physical effects of the emotions she is experiencing in the dream – embarrassment, fear, frustration, despair.

The common element in all of these dreams is that no one (and there are usually dozens of people in the dream’s hallways, lunchrooms, school yards gymnasiums) seems to see or hear the teacher. Maybe there are no words coming out of the teacher’s mouth though in the dream the dreamer feels herself strain to speak. Her throat tightens and the sweat begins to form on her forehead, her hands turn cold and wet and in her sleep she reaches towards her face and clamps both of her cheeks with her fingers as her nails dig into the clammy skin.

In the morning she will see the scratches on her face and vaguely remember…

Sometimes she is in the wrong room. There is someone else's handwriting on the board, someone else’s books on the shelves, a periodic chart or a large map of India on the wall instead of her portraits of Shakespeare and the Globe Theater.

Once she was in a gymnasium, the only teacher in a room filled with five hundred students all milling about, forming and reforming tight circles while screaming their greetings to each other across the hot room. There are no windows in this gym though the ceiling is high. She is the one who is supposed to bring this group to order, get them under control. She is shorter than most of them and she feels herself shrinking, becoming smaller and smaller the hotter it gets. The voices in the gym swell to a thunderous roar that engulfs her and lifts her high above the shiny wooden floor and carries her through the ceiling which has just opened up to reveal the grey skies. As the noise subsides, she freezes high above the school, hangs suspended in mid air until she feels herself hurtling through space.

She awakens before she can hit the ground…

What we are suffering from here is a failure to communicate.

Disinterested students who ignore you.

Smart students who excoriate you publicly, flaying you with their questions and serving your organs up raw to the bloodthirsty class.

Teaching as a blood sport.

On a good day, though, I see this work as a sacred trust.

There are souls in the classroom.

And I don’t say this lightly or without deep careful thought. The whole concept of Soul is one of a mystical connectedness that comes from a kabbalistic belief in tikkun olam - the understanding that we are all pieces of the ONE that split apart after creation, and that we must each work to repair the world to reconnect all of the pieces of the Soul. So each time a teacher walks into a classroom, the possibility exists for disconnection and alienation or for tikkun olam.

This kind of connection is thwarted by Ego -- the overwhelming urge of the individual psyche to assert itself over others. A teacher’s ego may make her chase after power, both petty and grand; a student may be craving attention, wanting to aggrandize himself at the expense of others.

Here then is a theory of practice that comes from the Soul where the driving force behind every word or deed in the classroom comes from the need to connect with others in a meaningful way.

These teacher dreams, night terrors that begin as early as July and don’t let up until September really expose our fear of being alone – alienated – isolated – invisible – frantically trying to make the connection… to encounter and be encountered by the Soul..

To teach with integrity is to teach with all parts of you….and to be humble in the face of other people’s lives… their journeys… their struggles to connect.

People who cannot see beyond their own needs and thoughts are struggling with a handicap. Weighted down by their own ego, constrained by their own selfish desires, they are missing out on the awesome apprehension of the majestic complexity of the universe. When we see that – when we get it -- when we can hear the music and know our song and how it reverberates with others’ … or wake up to sound of our voice singing in concert with the voices of others… step into our body moving and swelling – joyful in the knowledge that what makes us unique – those very things that we have cherished as ours and ours alone – are felt by others too.

So when I write or share my experiences and send them out into the universe, they reverberate for someone else. Yes, you might say. This is what it feels like to… This is what it looks like to.. Your words have shown me… Your words have touched me… Your words have moved me out of myself into a new and initially frightening place…Your words have taken me somewhere I needed to go then led me right back to myself.

As teachers we need to embrace the night terrors that come to us in the summer and welcome them into our lives, grateful for the reminder that there is still so much work that needs to be done to keep the Ego in check – to banish it to our sleep where our dreams remind us of the primordial rule of teaching – of all human interaction – only connect.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Of Moon Walks and Broken Dreams: Rendering a Distant Memory

I have been trying to write about the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 since last week. I wanted to write a piece that talked about where I was on that historic evening during the summer of 1969. The summer was tumultuous for all sorts of reasons - political, historical and personal. It was one of those touchstone moments in my life where everything was changing and falling apart around me, and I wouldn’t understand the significance of the confluence of events until much much later. This is one of the reasons I was having such a hard time writing about it from my adult perspective – I couldn’t find the narrative voice of a younger self who could tell the story with immediacy and honestly.

Last night in writers’ group, for our writing prompt, Alison Hicks placed dozens of visual images on the floor and asked us to find one that called to us. I found a surrealistic landscape with a haunting moon hanging low in the sky. I wrote July 20 1969 on the top of a clean page, then made a decision that helped me get inside of the narrator’s mind.
I created a third person limited narrator that was telling the story from the perspective of a 17 year old girl. Here’s what I wrote:

July 20, 1969

It is early evening and she doesn’t remember how she got here or which one of her girlfriends gave her a ride in their father’s Chevvy. She knows one of them did, Randy or Andie, maybe because she doesn’t drive. She’s been here for hours, and the tweed fabric of the orange sofa chafes against the skin behind her knees as she leans forward, still staring at the large black and white TV – an RCA floor model in a maple cabinet, console type with shiny metallic woven cloth covering the speakers on either side of the flickering screen.

She’s not alone, but she sure feels like she is. She hasn’t spoken to anyone since Randy, or was it Andie, left after seeing what was going on here. There is nothing more boring than a bunch of scagged out boys in front of a television set in the unairconditioned living room of a semi-detached brick box in Northeast Philadelphia. She felt the same way, about the boredom that is, but what kept her here was Dock – the boy whose house it was, the boy whose parents left him alone for two weeks while they drank mai tais and attended luaus in Honolulu, and the boy she had been madly in love with since she was fourteen.

It was the summer of 69, the summer before 12th grade, and less than a month before Woodstock and her planned getaway with Dock, though she hadn’t quite figured out what to tell her mother, or even how she was going to convince Dock to take her along with him and the boys when they went to the rock festival.

She let her eyes stray from the television set and wander around the room. The shades were drawn and the volume on the TV had been turned off and the stereo turned up – Walter Cronkite replaced by Jim Morrison. A quick furtive glance at Dock, and she saw that he hadn’t moved from where he’d been for the past hour – lying back, leaning against the wall, face towards the TV, but with his eyes closed.

She shivered slightly though the room was warm and still. She spotted the spoons with their burned bottoms, tiny pieces of cotton still in the center. She looked back at Dock and her eyes drifted up to see a splatter of blood on the wall and the pole lamp. For a moment, she had the urge to go into the kitchen and find some cleanser or bleach and scrub the evidence from the wall, but was stopped by the sight of a girl she had never seen before leaning languidly against the archway between the living room and kitchen, a needle still dangling from her veins. She had never seen a girl shoot up and this girl’s eyes were closed and she was shifting her weight and her hips were moving slowly back and forth. A soft noise like a purr was coming from deep inside her.

Dock had gotten up, and was standing beside the moaning girl as she leaned into his body.

“Damn!” Dock said slowly, as he matter of factly removed the needle from her bruised arm. “Can you fuckin’ believe it? One day we can tell our kids that we watched the men on the fuckin’ moon scagged outta our brains!”

With that, he returned to his spot against the wall, closed his eyes and turned back towards the TV.

Of course there’s more to the story. Of course I never got to Woodstock. It was all in my head anyway. Besides, one week before Woodstock, Dock’s best friend Steve died of an overdose and all of our lives were changed forever. Dock lived to be 50, I understand. Heard he moved to Florida, got married, had children even. I wonder what he told his children about where he was when the men walked on the moon.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Fifty Six and Counting

I once heard someone say that if you make it out of your fifties, you have a good chance of living past eighty. I first heard this when I was in my forties, so it felt academic and not particularly ominous. But now, at age fifty-six, I am haunted by these words.

Another friend died on Saturday. Another woman, in her fifties. The third one. All died from cancer that started somewhere else – the womb, the colon, the liver, but ended in the lungs. All died within months of the diagnosis, after brutal surgery, massive chemotherapy and blistering radiation.

I am fifty-six.

My husband is fifty-eight.

He too will be happy to make it out of his fifties without having a heart attack. While the women I know have died from painful, decaying and horrific cancer, the men I know who have not made it to sixty have had massive heart attacks – the kind the doctors call “widow makers.” Sudden and massive and complete. My father in law had a heart attack at age fifty nine, while playing cards. My husband’s best friend’s brother was struck down at fifty-eight while playing golf. And his look-alike and basketball teammate collapsed after running full court ball in the over 45 league at the JCC. He too was in his fifties.

I do not know what to make of this.

I am fifty six.

My husband is fifty-eight.

At Sharon’s funeral today, her husband railed against the oncologists that had caused her so much pain near the end of her life. He eulogized her by reciting Byron’s To Thyzra: And Thou Art Dead

I know not if I could have borne
To see thy beauties fade;
The night that followed such a morn
Had worn a deeper shade:
Thy day without a cloud hath past,
And thou wert lovely to the last -
Extinguished, not decayed,
As stars that shoot along the sky
Shine brightest as they fall from high.

Her husband and children will never see her grow old. She will never know the grandchildren who will be named in her blessed memory.

Meanwhile, I wait and count.

Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine………………………….

Living in the In-Between: Rethinking Borders and Personal Identity

Re-thinking Borders and Personal Identity: Living in the In-Between

It’s taken me over a year since my retirement from teaching school after 34 years to realize that for this past year, I have been living in what Gloria Anzaldua calls “la frontera” or the borderlands. Such places are characterized by transitions, multiplicities, shifting identities and contradictions. They are places which can be debilitating or, if experienced in a positive way, very generative.

For me, this border runs through much of my life’s geography. Passing through menopause, seeing my children become independent adults, walking my son down the aisle and finishing my 34 year teaching career, all within a relatively short time has left me staggering in the dark and questioning my raison d’etre.

In short – I guess I am having a post mid-life existential crisis.

And it’s been a pretty wild one, complete with disatrous missteps, renewed connections, emotional highs and lows, spiritual crises, and way too much time to think about it all.

Funny, though, with all of the time and thinking I have done, it wasn’t until yesterday that it all came together for me - the epiphany I have been waiting for.

My teacher self, formerly known as Mrs. Pincus has ceased to be. At least as someone who exists in the here and now. She is a memory -- for me and for the thousands of students she had the privilege of teaching in Philadelphia. And she did some good work – some really good work and the impact of that work lives on in the lives that she touched. But she will never do that work again. Mrs. Pincus is dead. Long live Mrs. Pincus.

I am in a borderland right now, in a state of “in-between” – a place, philosopher Maxine Greene has said, where people can achieve their full humanity with one another – a place that “emerges through a web of relationships, woven through authentic disclosures.”

Recognizing this has given me some peace and brought an internal calm to what had been up to this point a very unsettling year. It's helped me understand what I have been seeking this year - why I have craved deep emotional connection while veering away from it at the same time. Now, I can slow down and observe the landscape, much like I would do if I were entering a new country for the first time. I can listen to the sounds of the language, savor the new tastes, hear the new music, see the nuances of color and light, try to get to know the people, read the history and literature, find the landmarks, enjoy the possibilities and the beauty of this fertile place on the border. I can open myself up to the wonder, be enervated by not knowing what’s coming next and let myself be amused, astonished even, by all of the changes going on inside of me. I can try to know others and let myself be truly known.

I do not have to hurry to leave this place, this frontera, this borderland. I can love, linger and learn in the in-between.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Homo Narratus: On Stories and Freedom

In Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson writes about the empowering nature of multiple narratives that people sometimes construct for our lives. The ability to construct different versions of the same major events or turning points in our lives enables us to see the power we have in making meaning for ourselves. And in CHOOSING which of these narratives will ultimately give meaning to our experiences, we discover our own agency, our freedom.

In what Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot calls “The Third Chapter” of our lives, men and women between the ages of 50 and 75 have the opportunity to reassess their lives, look back into the past in order to make a new future. We get to rethink, reassess and retell in new ways the stories of our childhood that we once thought were set in stone. During times of transition, when all of our foundations are crumbling, we get to rebuild the edifice of our lives with the same bricks, but different mortar and structure.

We can look at the people who hurt us or left us and forgive them because we have hurt or left or left others ourselves and we know what compelled us to do so. We can go back and look at our childhood and see our parents with softer, kinder, less judgmental eyes, now that we are older than they were when they raised us and aware of all of the mistakes we made along the way. And we can reassess the stories we have told our children about themselves.

I have always been over-protective of my daughter Allison. When she was 3 days old, she was diagnosed with a heart defect. During a routine check, the pediatrician heard a murmur which indicated a ventricular septal defect. (VSD) This meant that during the first eight weeks of fetal development, when her heart was being formed, something occurred which left an opening in the ventricular septum, or dividing wall between the two lower chambers.

In the months that followed, we watched over her every breath and took her monthly to a pediatric cardiologist who performed an echo cardiogram, ran an EKG and listened intently to her heart beat. We were told to be patient, that there were three possible scenarios that could happen: she might be able to live with the defect and manage it by modifying her behavior, she might need open heart surgery, or the hole could close and resolve itself.

On our eighth visit, when Allison was eight months old, my husband and I sat anxiously watching as the cardiologist listened to her heart for what seemed like a longer time than usual. Finally, he looked up at us with a huge smile on his face.

“I don’t hear anything,” he said, somewhat cautiously.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Well there’s no murmur. It may be that the heart healed itself.”

An echo cardiogram confirmed this. My little baby girl’s heart had developed on its own and autonomously closed the hole between the two chambers. She would suffer no effects from this and from that moment on, had a perfectly healthy heart. I did however, always watched over her very closely. The first months of her life, when we worried about her survival, when we had to keep her from other children for fear she'd catch a cold, when I didn't return to work until she was three because I was too scared to leave her with anyone else set the pattern of over-protection for me
that was very difficult to overcome.

One day when she was five years old, I overheard Allison say to a playmate, “I was born with a hole in my little heart. I had a heart defect.” It always made me wonder how she had internalized her VSD story and how she may have connected it to my need to keep her close to me at all times.

This morning while writing and thinking about narratives and the roles they play in our lives, the phone rang and it was Allison, 26 years old, walking to work in Boston after working out at the gym. An independent woman with a great job and enrolled in an MBA program at night, Ali and I have grown closer now that we live apart.

“I’m writing about you today, Ali,” I told her. “You remember that when you were a little girl you had a heart defect?"

"Sure," she said. "I was born with a hole in my heart."

"Yes, but that’s not the important part of the story. What matters, Ali, is that you healed yourself. You closed the hole, you made your body do what it needed to do.”

“But, Ma, I was only an infant,” she said dismissively
“Yes,” I said. “You were an infant. A strong, beautiful infant with a will to live. And you found the power to heal yourself. Always remember that. That’s who you are.”

I don’t know whether Ali ever consciously thinks about the fact that she had a heart defect 26 years ago. I don’t know if she’s ever connected it to my over-protection which she resented during her teen-age years. By re-framing the heart defect narrative, I am recasting my daughter not as the victim of a random occurrence in the womb, as someone I need to shelter and protect, but as a strong,powerful woman who is an agent of her own growth and healing. I hope she will choose this version of her heart defect story and that will use it as she composes the rest of her life.

And maybe even more poignant, is the way this version of the story re-frames me and how I see myself as Ali's mother -- not as someone who needs to protect her but as someone who can help her see her own inner resources.

We can break free from old narrative structures that have imprisoned our minds and stifled our spirits and limited the possibilities for relating to others in our lives – the victim narrative, the invalid narrative, the addiction narrative, the hero on a white horse coming the rescue narrative, the lone ranger narrative, the I don’t need anybody but myself narrative - and recast ourselves in different more life affirming roles in complex and gloriously diverse and dynamic relationships with one another.

Homo narratus. That’s what we human beings are. The ability to reassemble our random experiences into stories is what separates us from animals. We tell stories in order to live. There are some who believe that we can’t help but tell stories – that we are hard-wired that way.

But what we can control is what stories we tell about our lives, and in the very act of choosing from the multiple narratives, we can discover our freedom.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Of Birthdays and L'entr'actes

We celebrated my mother’s 80th birthday yesterday by dancing. And right there in the middle of the floor for the entire 4 hours was my mother Shirley, in her 80 year old glory, shaking her booty, and shimmying up to her 86 year old fourth and fabulous husband, Irving. The party was held at Irving’s country club and if anyone had told me 40 years ago that my mother would be spending her platinum years dancing her life away with a genuine prince charming, I would not have believed it.

My mother, like most of the woman of her generation (or maybe all of us – though I don’t quite have this perspective on my own life just yet) has forged a life for herself that is deeply rooted in the social and cultural upheavals of her age. Born months before the stock market crash, growing up poor, the only child of a single mother during the Depression, marrying a WW II veteran recently returned from Europe, giving birth to three children in quick succession in the fifties, becoming a Donna Reed housewife, only to be abandoned by her husband in the beginning of the sixties, Shirley went through more metamorphoses before she was forty than most people go through in a life time.

A single mother (like her own)during the early 60s, long before it was a life style choice of the terminally hip, Shirley was fueled by pure adrenaline and guided only by her survival instinct. After a sixteen month interval in which she suffered what some might have called a nervous breakdown after my father left, she lifted herself up, found a full time job with the school district and at age 39, entered college and began the education she had forsaken (at the urging of her mother who warned her about becoming too smart to get a man.) She then proceeded to work the system to ensure that all three of her children were able to receive college educations; at one point during the 1970s, all four of us were in college paid for by every possible grant and loan available at the time.

It was also during the 70s that my mother married her second husband. A manic depressive (of course she met him during a manic phase and was completely swept off her feet by his charisma, charm and sexual energy) he took my mother on a wild ride to the heights of pleasure during their whirlwind courtship, sliding soon after their wedding into the depths of despair. I can still see my mother at this time of her life writing her master’s thesis at the kitchen table while he railed at her and wailed at the universe (he refused to take his lithium and shot himself in the head years later). She ignored him until her thesis was completed, then allowed herself the luxury of falling part.

There’s more of course. The 80s when she became an independent career woman, using her newly earned Masters degree to work her way up the ladder at a social work agency, while dating the man who was to become her third husband, love of her life and soul mate.

In the 90s, she lived the American Dream of retirement, traveling the world with her husband, wintering in Marco Island and going out dancing three, four nights a week. She used to say that they were “joined at the hip” so how tragic and ironic that he died from complications of a hip fracture he suffered while they were in Florida in 2005.

After he died, she took to her bed once again, this time keeping company with her late husband’s ghost. It was her gardener who saved her, introducing her to Irving, the nice widower around the corner, the man who was to become her fourth husband, her new dance partner and the host of the wonderful celebration we had for her 80th birthday yesterday.

Last summer, at the Irving's insistence, my mother had knee replacement surgery. For years, she had been having difficulty walking and by last summer the pain had pretty much sidelined her from life. Irving, who at 85 is still vital and who had nursed his wife of nearly 50 years through years of debilitating illness had been looking forward to enjoying his life with his new wife Shirley. He insisted that she have the surgery.

My mother is not a good patient. She has a very low tolerance for pain and knee replacement is one of the more brutal and painful elective surgeries in modern medicine. Throughout the ordeal and it was quite an ordeal, replete with all manner of emotional traumas, Irving remained calm and continued to encourage his wife to do what she needed to do as she spent long months in painful rehabilitation.

It’s funny, looking back over my mother’s life, seeking out the patterns, that it’s the entr'actes that catch my attention right now- the times of transition: the sixteen months after my father left her when she had a nervous breakdown; the ravages caused by her tumultuous second marriage; the months between being a widow and a new bride; her recovery and rehabilitation from brutal surgery.

Maybe it’s because I am in the midst of my own l'entr'acte. At age 56, I am still young and vibrant and thankfully strong and healthy. Finished raising my children, retired from my teaching career, struggling to figure out what comes next, I find myself looking back over my mother’s life searching for signposts or secret messages.

Yesterday, in her tribute to our mother, my sister Janet spoke of alchemy – how my mother has always been able to turn base metal into gold – crisis and struggle into opportunity.

I still need more time to think about what my mother’s alchemical process looks like – to understand her secret formula for making a life..

The only thing that I am sure of right now is that it has something to do with dancing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Searching for a New Vocabulary

Searching for a New Vocabulary

I joined a writers’ group last night. Run by a local woman trained by Pat Schneider and the Amherst Writers and Artists Methodology, my new writers group consists of twelve people of varying ages and backgrounds, including some who are published writers.

It’s hard for me to think of myself as a published writer, though I have three chapters included in books about education edited by prominent people in the field. All three of my chapters are similar: all are pieces of practitioner research; long analyses of and ruminations on my work of 34 years as an English and Drama teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. They are written in the 1st person, they tell a story about my challenges and struggles in the classroom to make my work real and meaningful to my students and they connect to and build on the work of others in the field, most notably Paulo Freire and Maxine Greene.

But I am no longer a teacher. I retired one year ago last week. And during this year of transition, I have been desperate to write. I have been planning books in my head and cornering anyone who will listen to tell them the details. Yet, throughout this year whenever I would sit down at the computer, with no distractions and all of the time in the world, I couldn’t write a word.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I could write long emails to cherished friends. I could write angsty journals exploring every aspect of my troubled psyche. What I couldn’t do was write anything that I thought would be of interest to an audience outside of my small circle of friends. I couldn’t find the words.

I need a new vocabulary.

I have lived cloistered inside of the classroom for my entire adult life. I know it intimately – its smells (the slightly acrid scent of moldy books and the whiff of a fine dry dusting of chalk) its colors ( beige walls tinted the color of corpses, burnished wood floors with dents and scratches, and splashes of rainbow colored cut out letters tacked on the walls) its sounds (chalk clicking on the slate, fire alarms exploding through silence, the roar of laughter, following the sound of a dish breaking in the cafeteria).

The world looks different from outside of the classroom. As alive as I felt as a teacher, as deeply committed as I was to my work, as thoroughly engaged as I was in the lives of my students, in many ways I was hiding from the wider world in school.

Wendy Wasserstein, in her final play Third writes about the third act that women in their fifties and beyond can have. We have the opportunity to remake ourselves after we have raised our children, attended to our partners, created and maintained our homes. How sad and ironic that she died of cancer before she could have her own. In her new book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, Sarah Lightfoot Lawrence writes of men and women engaged in creative and purposeful learning in what she calls the third chapter of their lives. It is in the process of learning something new that people are able to live through upheaval and transitions in their lives.

One quote that she includes at the opening of the chapter “Loss and Liberation” helps me understand what has been happening to me this year:

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” ( Anatole France)

I have only begun reading Lightfoot Lawrence’s book and already it is comforting me.
After a long and dark year of leaving behind my teacher self, the self I had been developing for almost four decades, I have begun to take the steps towards the birth of a new self.

I am engaging in the process of learning. And in that process I trust that I will find the new vocabulary I need to express myself to others.

I have resumed ballroom dance lessons and yesterday my teacher John lead me through a tango for the very first time. In rumba, we worked on cross-overs, spins and swivels --- new words and phrases for my body’s vocabulary.

Tomorrow, I will begin jazz piano lessons with a young teacher. I hope to learn notes and scales and rhythms that I have never known before – a new vocabulary of sounds for my mind’s ear.

And last night in my writers group, inspired by the group leader’s prompt, I wrote a wry piece about a dyspeptic talking squirrel who confronts a tequila soaked troubled middle aged man on a motor cycle and offers him a few words of wisdom that help him unlock the meaning of his past.

The beginning of a new vocabulary?

Here's hoping.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Childhood Idyll in Pine Valley, PA

The summer the locusts came we made them our pets. The endless July days would begin the way they ended – with the resonant song of the insects. Jackie, Jennifer and I, then ten would capture the cicadas, carefully remove their wings then gently loop the colorful finger-knitted leashes around their necks. First we’d name them. Then we’d walk them like dogs and race them too. Soon we’d watch them die. They were so easily replaced by the millions of others who, like rainfall, landed daily upon our Pine Valley lawns. This memory of three girls playing together outside of our split level homes is one of my most vivid recollections from this time of wonder in the summer of 1962 – the last season of innocence in my soon to be tumultuous childhood.

My parents purchased their piece of the American Dream on a semi-suburban cul de sac in 1960 for $1995.00, trading up from a brick and mortar post World War II rowhouse to a three bedroom two and a half bath aluminum sided shingle roofed split level. There were two models being marketed in this development of former farm land on the outer fringes of Northeast Philadelphia: the Debutante which sported a front to back design and the Suburban whose living room and dining room were placed side to side. My parents selected a 3 bedroom Debutante with white siding and red shutters, situated on a quarter acre of gently rolling hills. The summer before we moved in, each Sunday, we would take a drive to this emerging neighborhood and watch the progress of our new home being erected. My sister, brother and I would lay claims to rooms or spots in the yard as my mother and father inspected the quality of the carpentry and the installation of their upgraded appliances.

Our house was on Grace Lane, a stretched out horseshoe of a street, which connected at each end to the more linear Darlington Road. The rear of the houses on both streets faced each other, their back yards blending one into the next. With newly minted cement patios, (perfect for roller skating and playing hop scotch), above ground swimming pools, basketball backboards, volley ball nets, sand boxes and swing sets, this expanse of land contained all of the equipment for a summer day camp with none of the supervision or regimen. We children who lived here were free to plan our own days, play with whom we pleased and make use of everyone else’s property.

Jackie lived directly across the back from me and sometimes at night we could talk to each other through our tin cup and string “telephones” that we ran from our bedrooms. Jennifer lived further down on Darlington and was often the first one outside in the morning, appearing on the side of Jackie’s house where we housed the locusts in jelly jars with holes drilled in the lids and leaves and water placed inside to keep our pets alive for as long as we could.

You can go back and visit the site of our summer idyll. But it’s really not there. You can look out the window of my mother’s house, the place where I grew up and see no further than the end of her property line. My mother never built a fence nor planted a single tree between her and her neighbors. Yet, her yard too became defined – surrounded on all sides by her neighbor’s border markers. This one stopped talking to that one, so the spruces went in. This one’s son hit that one’s daughter so wooden spikes were hammered into the ground. This one didn’t want that one coming to swim in their pool because she was wild and splashed the other children, so another and another line of trees was planted until the world of my childhood was completely cleaved.

There is little in the lawn’s current landscape to recall its past sumptuousness. Nothing to suggest the fertile glory of the expanse of the Eden-like greenery that once comprised our collective playground. From the Weiss’ white shuttered house on the corner of Grace to the Polakoff’s house with the red roof on the other end of Darlington, our lawns, like our lives were connected, each to the other and adding up to something greater than all of us alone. The size of three football fields, this communal backyard made up our entire world. And in 1962, the season of the 17 year locusts, the summer before the British invasion, the end of Camelot and the dissolution of my parents’ marriage, it was all the world that we needed.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Knitting Myself Anew

I can tell you about myself through my knitting -- stitching together pieces of myself as I would an afghan or sweater. If you were to examine all of the garments I have created, you would know me. Each scarf, mitten, vest of slipper is a chapter in the complex novel of my life.

We women can know each other by the stories we tell about the objects we have created. We can learn from the knitters who have come before us, the women whose histories we share.

Sadly, I have learned from my grandmother, who wracked by countless electric shock treatments, sat in the chair of her lonely room at Eastern Psychiatric Hospital, knitting one grey square over and over again. It was the one shape she still remembered how to make in the only color yarn they would give her. She never bothered to bind off; she just ripped out her handiwork when she reached the end of the yarn, rolling it once again into a ball. Then like a tireless Sisyphus, she would cast on the stitches anew and begin again the task which had come to represent her life. The shock treatments had burned from her her memory and her imagination. With no history to attach it to and no story for it to tell, her knitting was useless, her life meaningless.

Then there was my mother, who stopped knitting just as suddenly as she stopped believing in my father. One day she woke up to discover that she had been knitting with nothing. She had yoke the yarn of her heart into an invisible cloak which couldn't keep her nor her children safe and warm. My mother created her husband out of the very thin air into which he vanished. The day she learned of his infidelities, she laid down the double pointed needles which held the argyle socks with their interlocking diamonds and counterpoint stitching and carefully turned heals. She never knitted again.

I am not my mother nor my grandmother, though they were my teachers. Their knitting stories instruct me, but they do not define me. For me, it is the process of knitting which nourishes me. Knitting provides the thin string which forms a bridge across a canyon of needs I cannot name. It becomes the thread which darns me together when I have been ripped apart. Knitting has been like meditation: knit one, purl one, a mantra takes me to a trance-like state of total concentration and utter peace. Knitting is the union of opposites I am constantly seeking; the yarn in my hand holds the tension between process and product, between subject and object, between mind and body, between imagination and manifestation.

Knitting helps me de-tangle myself. I can use the raw materials of my life, the colors and textures of my abilities, emotions and experiences to create something singular. I am a work in progress. I can change shape. I can unravel and re-stitch the rows of my existence. I can knit myself anew.

L'dor va dor --- From one generation to the next.  Tyler, wearing a sweater knit my me, his Bubbie.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Embracing the Dissonance ( Again... and again)

There is a picture in an old psychology text-book which has haunted me since I was a very young woman. In a square, in black and white, appears what seems to be the outline of a young woman. The caption beneath the picture informs me that if I look at this image in a different way, I will see an old woman. What I see when I look at this image is supposed to reveal something about my psychological make-up. I recall, as a freshman in college, spending hours gazing at this picture, sometimes finding myself face to face with the maiden and at other times staring at the crone. What I could never do not matter how hard I tried was to see both images clearly and simultaneously.

It is the struggle to bring opposing forces into a clear and harmonious vision that has spurred me on in much of my inquiry about life, teaching and learning. Questions about duality and paradox have always captivated me. My greatest need in life has been to wrest from opposites a tenuous agreement to co-exist. Whether contemplating different aspects of myself or trying to understand my relationship with others, I have found that I must constantly remind myself not to limit my perception to one point of view. This takes constant practice, persistent vigilance and enormous energy.

Such persistence and vigilance has been necessary for my survival during my first year of retirement. It has been incredibly difficult for me to forge a new identity for myself outside of the classroom after having been a classroom teacher for my entire adult life. Who am I as a person and an educator? What knowledge do I have that is valuable to others? What kinds of relationships should I forge with my former colleagues, with my former students? What kind of work can I continue to do in the world that will allow me to continue to engage in tikkun olam -- work that transforms society and aims to heal the world?

Years ago, during my first sabbatical when I entered the doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, I learned the lessons of inquiry and reflective practice. I learned how to find the points of intersection between the theory I was reading and my practice. From Nel Noddings, I learned a new language - the language of ethical caring to describe the stance I took towards my students. From Sarah Lightfoot Lawrence, I learned a new way of thinking about respect in the classroom -- the kind of egalitarian and democratic respect that existed outside of hierarchical positions of power; one that was derived from teachers and students shared humanity. From Maxine Greene, I learned about the unfinishedness of each individual, how each of us is her own existential project and from Paulo Freire, I learned to stop thinking of knowledge as something I had to deposit into my students, but rather as something we, teacher and students could co-construct through our mutual inquiry.

Outside of the classroom fifteen years ago, rooted in a research university, I was able to connect the work of my classroom to broader issues of educational reform and social justice, which in turn, fostered for me a new set of difficult questions.

What is the responsibility of teacher once recognize injustice? What are the ways in which we can and should act as advocates for our students? Should we be agents of change? What positions do we take vis a vis out students and "the public?" Do we engage in a deadly game of high stakes educational triage, "saving" the "salvageable"
and leaving the mortally wounded behind? Do we work to help a select few "get out" of poverty and "overcome" racism leaving the mortally wounded behind? Or do we join forces with others to ERADICATE poverty and racial injustice for everyone and to make sure that there are no communities in America that people should need to "get out" of.

When I was younger I used to believe that the answers to complex questions could be found through the compromise of opposing ideas. For the past fifteen years, I have been learning that such a compromise is not only unattainable; it's undesirable. The lesson I must continue to learn is to accept the presence of contradictions as part of a larger truth. The questions that I brought back to the classroom after my year in graduate school fueled my learning and kept pushing me deeper into the context of my own classroom and wider to the outer reaches of public policy and school reform. But in the process, I kept bumping into more and more paradoxes. And like the young woman I used to be, taking on the optical challenge presented in my psychology text, I found myself still asking: can a teacher be what Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel has called a "tragic optimist" or what Derrick Bell has described as a "pessimist without despair?" As teachers can we continue to struggle against overwhelming obstacles while finding joy in the moments of individual triumph?

Throughout the years, my classroom and my students, like my home and my family have kept me grounded. Books, filled with theories and grand ideas have allowed me to soar high above the small spaces I occupy. It has been inquiry, with its constant questioning and searching for meaning which has provided the ballast. Just as thoughtful reflection has kept me from being mired down in the muck of daily minutiae, it also prevents me from flying off into some distant place, where ideas exist in a vacuum and theories crystallize into icy ideology.

During my sabbatical year, fifteen years ago, I relearned the lessons I have been learning all of my life. I returned to the classroom and continued to learn and to grow and to provide fertile and generative spaces for my students to do the same. Now, as I near the end of my first year out of the classroom and officially in retirement, I have new questions. What is the relationship between theory and practice when one no longer has a classroom? How can a retired classroom teacher fashion a practice in which she can do good work, continue to learn with and from others, build new relationships, practice respect and an ethic of care? What will keep me grounded now that my children are grown and I have no students?

I am not sure I have the answer to those questions just yet. But now at age 56, more crone than maiden, I am able to do something I could never do before: I can stare at that picture and see BOTH women at the same time. I can hold the tensions of opposites; I can see the bigger picture; and I can trust that I will find/make a way to embrace the dissonance again and again as I continue to figure out how to do good work in the world.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reading the Writing on The Wall: Troubling Community and Identity in an Urban Magnet School


I’d like to begin with an excerpt from my teaching journal dated January 6, 2000

On a cold January morning, teachers, and students arrive at school to find the building covered in graffiti. On the back wall, by the door and visible to teachers coming from the parking lot or parents dropping students off from car pools are the words $ Kill Suckers, $ kill j(w/skill)! free your mind, free mumia, stop slavery now. As I approach the building, I see a uniformed police officer who says, “You should see what’s on the front of the building.” Upon entering, I walk through the hallway to the doors which opened into a large courtyard where the middle schoolers play before entering the building for advisory. Large red and black spray painted letters cover the lower perimeter of the building on every wall. The messages read: Say no to U.S. $ in Ecuador. U.S loan $mil to Russian murder Chechnya $100 million by world bank, star strangled freedom. learn for college win debt/forget the truth; history repeats itself until learned. Then along a small vertical wall near the entrance: War is Peace, Slavery is Freedom, Ignorance is Streghtn (sic) I watch the middle schoolers react, some staring at it and others yelling, “We’re all gonna die! They’re gonna blow up the school”


Last year, I taught at an urban magnet school located on the fringes of center city in Philadelphia. Approximately 1200 students attend the school: 800 in the middle school and 400 in the high school. All of the students are required to have excellent grades and superior standardized test scores; many are classified as mentally gifted and entitled to gifted support as required by the state of Pennsylvania. I teach English in the high school which is even more selective than the middle school. The student population is diverse; students come from virtually every neighborhood in the city. I transferred to this school a year and a half ago after spending nearly 20 years at a comprehensive neighborhood high school in the heart of North Philadelphia, an African American community.
On the morning that the graffiti appeared on the school’s outside walls, I had been teaching there for a year and a half and I still felt like an outsider. In order to understand the values and culture of this school, I had been spending a great deal of time listening to the students.
As I was walking through the hallways that January morning, and listening to students speak about this graffiti before class, and I was struck by the profoundly different “readings” I was hearing. Some admitted to being frightened by the sudden appearance of these scary looking words. “Violated,” I heard one say. Others laughed it off as meaningless, and still others took a sense of pride: I heard at least 5 times that morning that it was “smart graffiti for a smart school.” The fact that every senior in the past 5 years had been required to read Orwell’s 1984 as their summer reading fueled speculation that whoever did it had specifically targeted this school building. Few believed it to be random.
These students’ multiple readings of the text on the wall connected to questions which were emerging for me in my English classroom. The school has a diverse population, but students’ differences were seldom part of the school discourse. It was their similarities of high standardized test scores, innate intelligence and competitive spirits which were most often emphasized. When differences did arise in classroom conversation, they were often met with a type of unengaged relativism: “Well, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion,” was a daily response to any possible disagreement.
I saw students’ different responses to this very public text written on the walls of the school building as an opportunity to explore and address the implications of difference within the school and classroom community. How do students read texts within and across their differences? What are the complex relationships among their knowledge of each other, themselves and the world?

Looking Closely

When the 9th graders arrived in my class that morning, I asked them to arrange their desks in a circle and to take out a sheet of paper. Following procedures adapted from one of Pat Carini’s documentary processes, the reflective conversation, I asked the students to think about the writing on the walls and to write down all of the different thoughts, ideas, feelings they had about the graffiti. After students spent ten minutes writing, we began the sharing, going around the circle with each student reading what he/she had written. This was Round 1. As they were listening, I asked them to jot down themes, patterns contradictions they heard their classmates say. These words they shared in Round 2.
Audre Lorde has written, “We teach others what we need to know ourselves.” I needed to know what my students were thinking about this text on our walls to offer me a better understanding of how they were making sense of all of the texts that we were reading in class together. Our collaborative reading of the writing on the wall was at once a pedagogical strategy – a teaching moment -- and a site of critical inquiry for me into the nature of knowledge, identity and community in my classroom..

There were many responses which addressed the meaning or purpose of the graffiti and others which were concerned with safety. But the most striking different responses were related to people’s individual locations, races and identities.
From a white student:
When I walked in, people said, “Are you Russian?” ( and I’m not Russian) But that made me think. Hey people are going to be accused of this.

From a Latino student:
At first, I didn’t notice the graffiti because it’s all over my neighborhood. But then Nate pointed it out to me. I’m not really taking this seriously.

And from two African American students:
Why is everyone worrying about it being this school anyway? My old school had graffiti and no one cared. My old school was in North Philly.

As I walked on my way to school this morning, I heard the shrill of anxious children screaming, “There’s graffiti on the wall! There’s graffiti at our school!” I shrugged and proceeded to read Chapter 6 in my Biology book. All I could hear were the little mumbles of “Did you see?” and I screamed inside. By the time I heard the principal’s announcement, I was highly disgusted. I thought to myself, This school is a building made of bricks, wood, etc. What makes people think this can’t happen to us? And why disturb my studies with such a dumb story?”

And from two white students:
I don’t know why. I was very disturbed because this is the first time it happened to my school. It made it seem dirty.

It does bother me that someone would do something like this, probably more so because I lead a relatively sheltered life. From 1st- to 6th grade, I attended a suburban private school. Coming from a relatively crime-free environment, and this background, I was probably more sensitive to these types of things than other people.

Students listened intently to one another, hearing perhaps for the very first time publicly, the wide range of perspectives on the meaning, purpose, and consequences of this text. In Round 2, students were asked to think about what they had heard, what patterns, contradictions they noticed and what they might mean for us as a community of learners in this school. Some samples:

I thought talking about it was a good exercise, because normally when something happens, we shrug it off.

It seemed different races had different feelings on the graffiti. Like L and M and I thought that it was just graffiti and get over it, but S who was raised in a totally different environment thought the graffiti was just appalling!

J, a white boy added a dimension which is seldom discussed in this school: social class.
One issue that related to me was what M. said. I also live in a lower class area in which graffiti is visible on every block. That might be another reason why this had no effect on me and why I didn’t give two hoots. I mean, I see more substantial messages on the sides of houses and school around my block.

The graffiti was removed from the building by the mayor’s Anti-Graffiti Network later that night. By the time students, parents and teachers arrived at school the following day, all that was left of the text on the walls were the traces where the paint had been sandblasted. However, the our reflective conversation and the perspectives it has opened remained in the minds of my students. As the year progressed, we came back to it as a point of reference as we shared our multiple readings of other texts together in the classroom.
My over arching pedagogical goal that year was to create an inquiry driven participatory learning community which was interactive, cooperative, dialogic, incomplete and uncertain. One of the major obstacles to the formation of such a learning community was that the students had seen no model for this kind of dialogue. In fact, the very nature of the school as a high performing highly competitive magnet school made the formation of such a community even more daunting. A school which valued high test scores promulgated a pedagogy which required uniform correct answers. A school which valued competition promoted debate and argument as the primary forms of classroom discourse.

Searching Broadly

For me the questions mounted. What are the implications of doing this kind of work at a school which is in a position of relative privilege? It is clear that the students who come to this school from working class, poor or minority communities have a clearer sense of the this school as a site of privilege and power. White, middle class students seem to expect the school to be a continuation of their home neighborhood environment. I am reminded here of Adrienne Rich’s (1986) “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” and James Joyce’s (1916) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where adolescents like the young Adrienne and the young Stephen Dedalus each draw themselves in the center of the universe.
In creating conversations in which students read not only the texts of the classroom, but each others’ multiple readings of the texts, how did they feel de-centered at a times in their in their lives when they might not want to be? When is it too destabilizing or threatening? Wendy Hesford (1999) in Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy writes that “we must constantly work to comprehend our own and our students social and political locations and how institutional relations are shaped by historical understandings and personal and generational biographies.” ( p.17) What are the implications for teaching and learning when ALL students not just the minority students are made to look at themselves through others’ eyes, in Hesford’s words, turn the “othering gaze” on themselves. Can they too develop the kind of “double consciousness” described by W.E. B. DuBois?

Making Sense

Issues of community and identity were not resolved in this incident --- rather they were made visible and problematic – as teacher and students confronted the nature of difference in the classroom. This event troubles notions of community. Whose community? The classroom community? The school community? The many neighborhoods from which the students come? The school’s reputation and position within the larger Philadelphia community?
While this incident represents one isolated event – the reading of one particular text – some of the differences and the significance of these differences revealed through this event can offer important insights for what happens whenever students and teacher read any text together in the classroom.

Taking Action

As the year progressed, and students became more familiar with the pedagogical strategies enacted in a critical inquiry classroom, their willingness to engage in collaborative inquiry grew. Reflective conversations and Quaker style meetings replaced debates. Group journals in which students read and responded to each others’ reactions to books, stories and plays replaced individual literature journals. Collaborative dramatic re-enactments of texts replaced individual oral presentations. Students began to see that learning was more than mere knowledge consumption: it was a joint project of knowledge construction. And as they engaged in these interactive forms of discourse, they came to see that inquiry was more than a teaching strategy or a classroom activity: it represented a conception of knowledge which was individual AND social, one in which difference mattered and in which multiple perspectives could not be ignored.
My original questions generated new questions. Is it possible to reconfigure the classroom as a community based on multiple perspectives and democratic practices? What are the particular challenges of trying to do this work at a magnet school for academically talented and mentally gifted students from across the city? In a multicultural classroom, how do the students read the texts, read the school, read each others’ readings of the texts and the school, read each others' readings of each other? Is it possible to allow for individual growth within a diverse community which respects and honors (not just tolerates) difference?
I share the view of critical educators who believe that engaging a full range of perspectives is not an argument for a particular position or ideology, but rather it leads us to recognize that there are multiple audiences and demands a willingness to strive to understand and make ourselves understood in speaking and acting across our differences.

Coda: The Writing Re-appears
I hadn’t heard any conversation about the graffiti incident for several months when suddenly it resurfaced. In the spring issue of the school newspaper, an editorial appeared which criticized the principal for cleaning up the graffiti instead of tending to other building maintenance issues. They accused her of only worrying about how the school would appear to the outside community. On the spring issue of the school literary magazine, there was a drawing of the school building on the cover. And written on that drawing was the text of the graffiti as it appeared on the building in January – right below the words emblazoned on the cover --“The Results of Public Education.” The dialogue continues as the students read and re-read the writing on the wall.

Works Cited

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Modern Library Edition. New York: Random House. 2003.
Hesford. W. Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1999.
Joyce, J. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: Penguin Ltd. 1916.
Rich. A. “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread and Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986

Where We're From: A Collaborative Poem, by students from the School District of Philadelphia

This is a disclaimer.

A What?

A disclaimer.

For What?

To let them know.



This is a disclaimer to let everyone here know they will not see a poem about Philly being the cradle of Liberty

And by the time this poem is done you won’t hear anyone say “ The Liberty Bell is wher I’m from.”

This is a disclaimer to warn everyone that we, the performers will not talk about our experiences at the Kimmel Center.

Because I was only in the lobby the one time I entered.

We will not talk about the constitution center or independence mall

Or William Penn who stands tall on City Hall

And though we have nice flow

None of us grew up in the house of Edgar Allen Poe

Or Besty Ross – Yo!

You want to know why we talk about any of those places???

Because nobody lives there.

I am from hopscotch and jailbreak.

The Good Humor man and Tastycake

I’m from penny candy from the corner store

And bike rides through the park

I’m from capture the flag

From puppet shows and porch sales

I am from summers at the Jersey shore

I am from fire sprinklers and block parties in the summer

I am from skateboarding in Love Park to
Running full court ball till after dark.

I’m from Phillies’ games and \
Sixers! and
E-A-G-L-E-S- Eagles!!!

I am from visa papers

I am from Hong Kong
Not the ‘New York” of China” Hong Kong
But Hong Kong fading off of the mountain’s feet.

I am from summer visits to see family in Martinique
From the blue oceans of the Caribbean clean and clear for miles.

I am from beautiful Soeul Korea

I am from Ethiopia,
from Afghanistan,

I am from Europe,
from Ireland,
and Poland
From Germany

From Sweden and the white cold north

I am from Celts and
and Slavs

I’m from Lithuania,
and the Ukraine

I am from the darkest bayous in the Deep South
to the biggest houses in the far northeast
And I am from everywhere in-between

I am from the departure from the West Indian soil
To the land of opportunity

I am from all over the world.
From South Carolina
to Jersey
and Honduras
And back to Puerto Rico.

I am from Columbia
and Guyana

I am from the hood
where the baws wear they jeans sagged low
and the girls they shirts tight

I am from the hood where you get used to gunshots
And often let them sing you to sleep.

I am from the Mummer’s Parade,
2 street, whiskey and steins of beer

I am from Aspen Farms Community Garden
From tall sunflowers and peach trees

I am from the weeds growing out of the sidewalk

I’m from playing hockey in the driveway till they noticed I was a girl.

I am from the “white trash” part of the city

I am from one way streets full of one way minds.

I am from U-city
West Philly
Grey’s Ferry
Mount Airy
Center City
West Oak Lane
North Side
South Philly

I am from good southern home soul food cooking

I am from Irish potatoes and gefilte fish

I am from ham and cabbage

Rice and beans

Curried goat and fried chiken

Humentashen and rye bread

Spagehetti and pizza

I am from tofu

I am from jerk chicken and curried goat

I am from empanadas and noki

from buryani and samosas to


I am from Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, AC/DC

I am from Lauryn Hill, India.Arie, Floetry

I am from pushto,
and disco
from salsa,
Hip hop
and R&B.

I am from rhythmic latin beats
And the sweet west Indian soul

I am from spirituals and gospel and

I am from a place where I have to dumb down my language

I am from New Life Baptist Church and Sunday dinners

I am from onsies and booties, pampers and pull ups

I am from Similac and back hand slaps

I am from Sunday morning pancakes,
flowered dresses and little cups of grape juice once a month

I am from hot combs in the kitchen

I am from a strong black man and an independent black woman

I am from Grandma Vidella

And her delicious cookies and her soft quilts

And her husband who was shot by that white man

And her son who blames himself.

I am from cereal and orange juice every morning

I am from Batman and Spiderman

Action figures and remote control cars

I am from T-ball practice and American Legion games

I am from a seder every year and
Getting up in the morning to Easter baskets
Judah Maccabee on a Christmas tree

I am from prayers and God and Catholic school

I am from South America and the Catholic culture and the Spanish language

I am from fancy cigars and failed businesses

I am from my grandfather, the man in the casket I never knew

I am from the Black woman who doesn’t braid hair
and can’t fry chicken to save her life
( But makes great candied sweet potatoes)

I am from new cars and Negro League calendars

I am from the first African American homecoming queen

to yet another high school drop out.

I am from a world where everything is smoke and mirrors
From broken glass
to broken fingers
From broken families
to broken promises
From broken dreams
to broken hearts

I am from daddy’s little girls

To mamma’s biggest problem.

I am from the dinner table

Where these stories and more


I am from “Reading opens up a while new world.”

I am from “turn the damned TV off and read a book.”

I am from the “ I can’t believe they would do that’s
To the “girl, guess what I just heard!.”

I’m from “don’t this” and “don’t do that”
And “go clean your room now.”

I am from “Speak your mind”

I am from “Act like a lady.”

I’m from “Boys don’t cry”.

I am from Good Night Moon and the Runaway Bunny.

I am from Wonderland and Middle Earth
Oz and Fantasia

I am from the world of Harry Potter
From Quidditch games to chocolate frogs.

I’m from Grimm’s fairy tales
A princess who can keep from being rescued

I am from Roald Dahl and Stephen King

I’m from Alice Walker and Toni Morrison

I am from the library that wouldn’t let my mom take out
The diary of Anne frank

Because she was TOO YOUNG!

We are
from a place where flowers grow from cracks in the ground

We are
from people who made a way for us

We are
from fitting in and wanting out

We are
from all the things we believe

We are
From all the things that have happened to us.

We are
from the people that we meet

We are
from the teachers who have taught us.

We are
from peace.

We are
from war.

We are
from the streets that were once run by children
To a city that mourns the deaths of 24
No – 25 school children
to violence

( whisper – silence!)

We are from “been there, done that.”

We are from looking forward to getting away.

We are from different parts of the world.

We are from different frames of mind

We are from “ you can take the kid out of Philly
but you can’t take the Philly out of the kid…

We are from here.