Friday, December 24, 2010

Mother and Daughter: Reading Each Other's Lives

"This is not about you, Mother," I say but of course I know it is. "Didn't you see the title of this blog? I call it "her own terms" for a reason."

I had been writing this blog for over two years and for all of this time, somehow, I'd been able to keep it from my mother. After all, at a healthy and active 81 years of age, she'd managed to live her life without computers or the Internet. This, despite the fact that my sister and I had bought her a computer when her husband died six years ago, with the promise that she could be in regular contact with her grandchildren via email.

That wasn't enough of a motivation and she sold the computer along with much of the other contents of her home when she remarried and moved into the house of her new husband, a very hearty octogenarian, who is actively engaged in the world- including cyberspace -- which he visits regularly.

So I'd been writing about my life, my family, my childhood, with little concern that my mother would ever see what I'd written. Her using the Internet seemed as unlikely as her suddenly swimming or riding a bike - two things that she'd never learned how to do during her Depression era childhood.

It was at the family Hannukah party where my seventeen year old niece announced, "Aunt Marsha, I have been reading your blog and I really like it. It's very enlightening."

I was totally shocked that Sunni, a pre-med major and freshman in college would have found anything of interest in my writing. But she told me she was most interested in the pieces about teaching and writing and that were she not studying to be a doctor, her next choice for a major would have been English.

I was gratified by this conversation, happy that my niece would find something of value in my blog, but it was my mother whose ears had perked up.

"How can I read this blog?" she asked and I got a queasy feeling inside. For the past few months, I had been writing pieces about making peace with my childhood and the impact of my parents' painful divorce on the trajectory of my life. Most recently, I had written about the devastating effect my mother's brief yet harmful addiction to prescription drugs, during the period immediately following my father's abadonnment of his family for another woman had had on my life.

I had written other pieces too, more positive ones about transition and change, the life lessons I had learned from her as well as other pieces about my grandmother and great grandmother and the impact their lives have had on mine.

"Next time Irving's at his computer, ask him to type in and you'll get to it," I said.

"Why did you do that?" my husband asked later. "You know what's going to happen." And sure enough, two days after the party, the phone rang.

"How could you do that?" she screamed into the phone. "How could you shame me like that on your blog??"

I knew exactly which line in which entry she was referring to.

"It wasn't you," I said. "Did you read the whole thing? The villain in that piece was the doctor who presribed the valium to you as if it were candy."

"How can you say I didn't love you? I was doing all that I could to keep a roof over your head and food in your mouth."

"I know that," I replied. "But it doesn't change the way I experienced what was happening as a loss of love. I was eleven years old."

"You know, a psychiatrist at the time told me that you would always blame me for your loss of a father. That you would always see it as my fault," she said, softening a bit and becoming more reflective than defensive. "You're fifty eight years old, when are you going to get over it?"

"It's always been less significant to you than it is to me. For you it was a lifetime ago. He was your first husband. You've had others - good marriages and you've had a good life. But he was my father. My only one."

There was silence on the line for a bit and then I heard my mother say, "I read the other one too. The one you called Chasing a Dead Man's Story."

In that piece I had written about how I'd finally been able to see my father's refusal to tell me why he'd left as a gift that fueled my mightly need to know, my insatiable desire to get to the bottom of things and how that had helped me in my professional and personal lives.

"You know, he told me," she said.

"Told you what??"

"He told me why he left."

"He did?? When"

"Sometime before the divorce, when Arline had broken up with him, before she took him back and they got married."


"He said it wasn't me. It was him. That he just couldn't live as an imposter any more. That he was tired of trying to live up to the expectations I had of him. That he was never the man I thought he was."

"He said THAT?? Did you understand what he was telling you? Did you believe him?"

"Not at the time. I was just too hurt."

"And now?"

"Well now I realize that I could have gotten over the betrayal a whole lot faster... I could have moved on with my life. It was the poverty that destroyed me. The worry about money and survival. How I was going to take care of you three kids on my own."

"Tell me more. I need to know."

"He bragged to me about how when he went to court for the child support hearing, he wore old clothes and didn't shave so he'd look like a bum and the judge would believe he didn't have any money. And after it was over, when he'd won and had the support reduced, he laughed in my face and told me how he got his boss to pay him under the table."

There was silence on the line again, as I let her words sink in.

"That's just another thing I will never know. How could he do this to his own children?? Trick the judge. And brag about it!!!"

I couldn't get the image of my father , wearing baggy pants, and a torn flannel shirt with two days' growth and a self satisfied smirk on his face, out of my mind.

"What kind of man does this? God, I'm fifty eight and this still hurts."

"I'm sorry," she said and in that moment, something happened between mother and daughther that had never happened before.

The conversation sparked by my mother's foray into cyberspace and the story of my life on my terms lead us both to a place where we were tentatively if only momentarily on the same page.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Before I posted this, I asked my daughter Ali to read it. I wanted her to know the story but more importantly, I wanted to ask her if it seemed fair. This blog works both ways, I know. Mothers and daughters from different generations, reading each others' lives without shame - with love and understanding.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Terra Bound and the Poetics of Space

Last night in writing group, the prompt was to write a fifteen line “mirror” poem in which the first seven lines are repeated in reverse order. Here is what I wrote:

Her celestial husband is not terra bound
as he makes his home in the sky.
Each night, she climbs the stairway of trees
entering their bed of secrets in the clouds.
They do not always find themselves there.
Sometimes they bounce from sirius to cumulus,
adrift in the intimate expanse of the heavens.
Adrift in the intimate expanse of the heavens,
sometimes they bounce from sirius to cumulus.
They do not always find themselves there
entering their bed of secrets in the clouds.
Each night, she climbs the stairway of trees.
As he makes his home in the sky,
Her celestial husband is not terra bound.

I spent the entire day reading The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, losing myself in his meditations on the ways poets daydream through, within and beyond the spaces they inhabit.

Most intriguing to me was the distinction between metaphor and image. The metaphor, he writes, comes into being after the idea has been formulated. The poet dresses her idea in imagistic language, to enhance the concept she wants to convey.

The image presupposes nothing. It just is.

Bubbling up from the depths of the unconscious, the image arrives unheralded in moments when the poet allows the walls between her conscious and unconscious to lower so what lies beneath can be seen.

Once when I was having terrible writer’s block, I asked my friend Tobi, a painter, if she'd ever experienced a similar phenomenon. She said yes, but she’d recently developed an antidote.

She’d stand before the white canvas and ask it questions waiting patiently for the answers. She might inquire, “What would it look like if I painted a hand coming through a wall?” or “What would happen if I coiled lines of purple and green around on another right here?”

And she’d wait in wonder, while the canvas would tell her what it needed to see next or what story it needed her to tell. Then she and the canvas would engage in a reciprocal dialogue until before she knew it, she was deep inside of her own creative process, bringing images to light.

I tried the same thing recently. Just sat in front of my computer screen and asked it what it was seeing and what else it wanted to see. That’s when a stone house at the edge of the forest appeared inhabited by the woman with a stone fetus inside of her body, looking and longing for a girl named Ephemera.

The image of the celestial husband came to me while I was reading the Poetics of Space in Borders yesterday, and last night I wrote of a home in the sky with no roof and only the wind for walls enclosing a welcoming bed of soft, warm clouds sitting beneath prattling stars inhabited by two people with no bodies, only voices, singing a home of their own.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Inside the Composition Book: The Stories We Tell

The summer before I entered 7th grade I wrote a book. I wrote it in one of those ubiquitous marble copy books that all American adults of a certain age will forever associate with school. But instead of writing my name, grade and subject on the appropriate box on the front cover in the spaces provided, I wrote “The Blind Love of Kirk and Ellen: A Love Story of Courage and Hope” by Marsha Rosenzweig.
If you opened the first page you would have seen a Table of Contents, the chapter titles written in ink in several different styles of handwriting. At twelve, I was shaping my identity as much as I was crafting my script, experimenting with flourishes and loops on the empty lined paper just as I would play with the thickness of black eyeliner and shades of lipstick on my blank face. Through all of the shape-shifting, there was one part of my identity that was a constant. I was a writer. Even before I had learned to write my letters, my mother told me that I would take a pencil and scrawl inscrutable symbols on whatever paper I could find, then “read” her the “stories” I had written. “The Blind Love of Kirk and Ellen” was just one of many books I wrote during my childhood and early adolescence.
Kirk and Ellen were both seventeen years old when they fell in love. They had known each other all their lives, living across the street from one another in almost identical split level semi-suburban shingle roofed homes, not a whole lot different from the one I lived in. Ellen’s bedroom, where she would talk to Kirk for hours on the telephone, hiding under the covers so her mother wouldn’t hear, was painted the same lavender color as mine and her bed spread resembled the flowered comforter I had wanted my mother to buy for me instead of the white chenille cover that didn’t provide nearly enough privacy when I would call my girlfriend Jackie on the phone and read to her by flashlight the latest chapter of my burgeoning oeuvre.
I don’t remember whether it was my idea or Jackie’s to send my manuscript to Berkeley-Highland. All of the books we owned at that time were published by Berkeley Highland Books. With authors like Rosamond du Jardin and Betty Cavannah and titles like Trish, A Date for Diane, Showboat Summer and Class Ring, these books with their signature scotch paid symbol in the upper left hand corner offered their twelve year old readers glimpses into the romance-filled world of their popular boy-crazy older sisters. What I do remember is that with Jackie’s encouragement, I bought a large envelope and lots of stamps, looked up the publisher’s address inside my copy of “A Girl Like Me” and placed my entire marble copy book inside. Along with the marble manuscript, I wrote a letter that said something like the following:

Dear Publishers:
I have been reading Berkeley Highland books for many years and I think it is about time for you to publish books for teenage girls written by teenage girls. We are better able to write about what our lives are REALLY like…. Enclosed is my book….etc.etc.
Marsha Rosenzweig, a REAL teenage girl.

Never mind that this realistic teenage novel was a love story between young adults whose love is tested when the young woman Ellen is blinded after being hit by a car and the young man Kirk tracks down the man driving the car who just so happened to have been Ellen’s estranged father who is then brought to justice, serves jail time, escapes, tries to run down Kirk who ends up paralyzed. The book ends on their wedding day as a brave Ellen pledges to be Kirk’s legs, while a courageous Kirk promises to be Ellen’s eyes forever.

Seventh grade began several weeks after I sent my novel off to be considered for publication (the first and last time I ever sent an unsolicited manuscript to anyone) and I soon forgot about my authorial aspirations, instead caught up in the exigencies of the junior high school social scene. So it came as quite a surprise when several months later, a package arrived for me from Berkeley Highland Publishing Company. I opened it hopefully until I saw the tell-tale black and white markings of my copy book attached by a paper clip to my very first rejection letter.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Vanity of Memory

Somewhere deep in my memory, there is a carved mahogany vanity.

Do they even make vanities anymore? I wonder.

The name of the furniture presupposes its use and describes one of the attributes of all of the women who’ve sat before it, gazing into beveled mirrors, rubbing their faces gently, trying to erase lines real and imagined.

There are always other vain items on a vanity: a mother of pearl comb, brush and mirror set - the comb standing erect, its teeth tucked between the brushes bristles, carefully placed next to the oval mirror always face down, showing off the beauty of the delicately carved edges and graceful handle.

And no vanity would be complete without the silver filigree tray, filled with crystal perfume atomizers of varied shapes and sizes, ready to be squeezed gently into the air by perfectly manicured fingers.

In this memory I can see my mother -- no – look again, it’s my grandmother - before her gums became diseased, her teeth rotted, her jowls sagged, before her breasts dropped to meet her navel, before she developed an allergy to dye and could no longer restore the bright red luster to the beautiful hair of her youth – before she was Bubby. Before she was old.

When I knew her, she was already Rae, but before that she was Rebecca. She had changed her name herself, Americanized it, sometime after 8th grade, which was the highest level of school she’d attended. And the only reason I know that is because I once found her 8th grade diploma while rooting through the bottom drawers of her vanity. There it was – her name in proud black calligraphy: Rebecca Feinstein.

If it’s hard for a child to imagine her mother as a girl, it is even harder to conjure the image of her grandmother, brimming with life and possibility, bouncing on the knee of a man she once lovingly called Papa, known to me only as a name on the family tree - an ancestor for whom I was named.

In this memory, I tentatively take hold of the pearl hand mirror and turn it on an angle towards the one before me atop the vanity. A line of reflections appear, starting with me and stretching back to Shirley my mother, to Rae, hers, to Fanny, hers - before history stop us cold in our tracks.

“You look just like Aunt Rae,” my mother’s cousin Jerry tells me every time he sees me.

And I wonder. What does he see in my face that looks to him like hers? No matter how we fight it, our genes will hold sway on our faces. One day, we turn towards the mirror and we’re startled to catch a glimpse of a strange version of ourselves - noses thickened, eyes down turned, chins gone slack.

I wonder what Jerry sees in my face that recalls my long deceased grandmother, his favorite aunt from his youth. She was always an old woman to me, though she must have only been in her late forties when I was a child.

Today, I am fifty-eight.

So another memory.

When I was a girl, I would sit before my Bubby’s vanity. I would try on all of her costume jewelry, brush my hair with her mother of pearl brush, and if I were sure she wouldn’t catch me, smear my face with her pancake and rim my mouth with her bright red lipstick. At age 6 or 7, I was searching for the resemblance that today I try so hard not to see.

I think I remember a photograph - maybe it was in the same drawer as Bubby’s diploma, or maybe it was in my mother’s old cedar chest, another place I would spend hours rummaging through yellowing letters, and photo albums searching for my family history, my life story.

Four generations of women: Fanny, large, grey, solid and foreboding in her broadcloth coat; Rebecca, now Rae, her hair still red, her breasts still high in her wool gabardine dress, and her teeth askew as she smiles unabashedly into the camera; Shirley, beaming with black lustrous hair and Bette Davis eyes wearing a tight-fitting white cardigan with rhinestone button, holding a round faced chubby infant in her arms.



I am nothing if not linked to these women whether I want to be or not. Their stories intertwine with mine, and at times provide the counter- narrative for the one I try to compose of my life .

That picture is gone, if it ever existed outside of my memory. I have another, this one sans Fanny, three generations, the fourth one already gone.

Sitting here, holding up the mirror to the vanity of memory, I see the lines on their faces, working their way right through the blood onto my own.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Making Amends: Ringing the Bells That Still Can Ring

Amends, he wrote. Please let me make amends to you. My program requires it. The 9th step says that we must make direct amends to people we have harmed except where to do so would injure them or others.

I didn’t understand, though later I would spend hours upon hours googling AA sites learning all I could about steps, colored chips, acceptance and giving oneself over to one’s higher power.

When he wrote that he had become an alcoholic, that he had never married, never had a family, never been as successful as he had hoped he might be, I felt my heart start to burn. When he wrote that he had been well on the way to becoming that alcoholic when we were together in college, I couldn’t take my eyes off the words as they appeared on the screen. It was as if they were written in a secret code I had seen my entire life but only now, in this instant, could I decipher.

Who knew from alcoholism at 18 in 1970? Who knew that it was possible for a sweet fun loving boy to be drinking and getting high to numb himself and to keep from feeling anything – including the intense love that I felt for him – that thin wiry boy with the shaggy brown hair, dancing blue eyes and enough charisma to fill an entire dining hall. Who knew that as he lay with me on my dorm room cot atop the comforter I had brought to college from my childhood bed that he would only remember fragments of my first time - this memory blown from his head along with so many others by years of drinking and getting high.

So he asked me if he could make amends and I said yes, not knowing about dry drunks and 13th stepping and the uncanny ability alcoholics have of lying to themselves. I’m present now, he wrote. I’m whole. I’m here. Tell me our story.

I can’t say why I assented, why I went back into my memory and wrote to him about my heartbreak and humiliation any more than I could say why I looked him up on the Internet in the first place and sent that first terse and tentative message. How are you these days?

I had not been prepared for his answer.

I have a picture of you, said the latest email. I will send it to you . I cringed at the prospect and had to brace myself before opening the file. I was shocked that he even had a picture of me. I had been an ugly girl and hadn’t let many photographs be taken. I was terrified to see that pathetic image again – the one I had worked so hard my entire adult life to transform.

When the email came, I shook as I opened the attachment then quickly turned away from the computer without looking. Slowly I worked up the courage to glance back at the screen and there, in an instant, saw before me the image of myself at 18 – the soft curly black hair framing a heart shaped face – the glowing white skin with pink cheeks, the deep black eyes and pink lips bowed into a tentative smile.

I wanted to embrace this young girl who hadn’t even realized what the doctors had done to her mother. Didn’t know it because back then in the 60’s who knew of addiction to prescription drugs, the kind the doctors kept writing for her after my father betrayed and abandonned her, the kind that numbed her and made her emotionally unavailable, unpredictable, and completely incapable of loving anyone while under the influence, especially her ugly, angry and difficult daughter.

So when I was 18, barely out of my unstable childhood, I went seeking a lover I could love with fierce desperation - one who couldn’t love me back.

All of those years, I’d seen my younger self as totally unlovable and unworthy of anyone’s affections, rejected by my first lover who eventually made his way into the beds of so many of the other girls in my dorm.

It wasn’t you, he wrote. It was me. I wasn’t capable of loving anyone at that time in my life. You were standing in the light and I was standing in the darkness.

Ah, I breathed, rereading his emails, holding myself tight and loving for the first time the girl in the photograph.

When I finally saw him in person, months later, after nearly forty years, he took both of my hands in his, looked me straight in the eye and said two words I had been wanting to hear from so many people my entire life.

I’m sorry.

That’s what he said. Followed by,

I’m sorry I hurt you.

In that instant, I felt something shift inside of me.

Leonard Cohen sings, “Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

It wasn't until much later that I realized how hard that was for him -- how much courage it took to reach out to me in this way. But he must have known the impact it would have on me and I will always be grateful to him for taking that step.

His simple but heartfelt apology opened up a tiny fissure in the thick defenses I had erected around my bruised and broken heart for nearly fifty years - a wall I had plastered with anger, and fortified with self righteousness and regret.

And with the sliver of light coming through the crack serving as my guide, I saw all of the possibilities for healing, love and forgiveness that could be mine.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dreaming: The Shadow

I have always been afraid of my shadow. And yes, I mean it in both senses of the word – the Jungian shadow buried deep in my unconscious containing all of the psychic material I had long ago stuffed there like old childhood clothes crammed into a trunk with a metal lock threaded into a brass hasp, the key swallowed – and my physical shadow, that substance-less absence that only shows itself in the light.

Pure mind is how I like to describe myself, and I have so subsumed my sensory function, pushed it so far down the well of my unconscious, that I had a terrible time learning how to drive, can't line edit to save my life, and have to pinch myself sometimes during sex to remember that yes, this act is indeed a sensory, not intellectual experience.

So in the dream, I am standing before the entrance to an attic, and I cannot remember how I got there. I recall nothing before the creaking sounds my boots make as they press into the loose planks of the wooden staircase that is leading me to this place.

It feels like it might be my grandmother’s house, though it can't be really, because Bubby never had a house - only a series of drafty apartments in sub-divided brownstones where she lived alone except for when she rented out a room or two to borders - strange lonely men from Russia or Poland with no children and no place to go on the Jewish holidays.

I’d had nightmares about Bubby’s apartment before, decades ago, when my mother had left me there from time to time to spend the night.

“The man upstairs is going to get you,” Bubby would snap, whenever I’d misbehave, which usually meant I’d spoken too loud or scrunched up on my knees instead of sitting properly at the dining room table.

And just as Bubby would utter her warning, as if on cue, the building would start to creak or moan, and I was certain that as soon as I was alone in the dark, lying on the cold narrow cot that Bubby had unfolded in the back room, the man upstairs would come into my bed, smelling, as old men do, of stale smoke, onions, and tooth decay - and suffocate me.

Years later, I realized that perhaps Bubby was talking about God, which thinking about it now was just as, if not more, frightening than a smelly border living on the third floor, given the way God was known to write people’s names in the Book of Life or Book of Death.

God had come for Bubby almost forty years ago, but somehow, in my fifty plus years of life, I had eluded Him.

Or had HE eluded me?

The failure of God to appear in my life is as awe-full to me as the absence of light in my shadow.

But now, in this dream, as a fleeting wisp of darkness floats across the attic’s entrance way, I let my body enter.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dreaming: Herself

So it happened again last night - the big dream - the recurring one I have had in various iterations since the first terrifying time when I was eleven years old.
In each of these dreams, which have haunted me for over forty-five years, there is a baby and this baby is in my care and somehow, I fail to keep this baby safe and it dies.

Sometimes, like the first time I had the dream, the baby is an actual child. Randy is a little girl I used to babysit and in the dream she (three or so) and I (eleven) are walking along the curb on the cul de sac where we both live. I am playing with a bob-a link, my favorite toy from that time. It has a red plastic ball around 4 inches in diameter with a 1 inch hole on the bottom. The ball is attached by a string to a short wooden pole. As I am walking, I let go of Randy's hand to flip the ball in the air, and maneuver the stick to try to get the ball's hole to land precisely atop the pole.

It's a perfect fit.

When I look over at Randy, I become very frightened. It appears as if she is beginning to shrink. She gets smaller and smaller until she's only about six inches tall. As I bend down to pick her up, it starts to rain hard - torrents of water blind me and before the Nooooooo! can escape from my throat, the little girl is swept into the teeming gutter and disappears down the sewer.

I awake, guilty, terrified and utterly ashamed.

Another time, years later, I am a new mother and this time the child in the dream looks like it could be mine. It has the same chubby round cherubic look of my daughter. In the dream, I sit her upon the granite countertop in the kitchen and watch in horror as she turns all blue and pink and shiny like a ceramic cookie jar.

I make no move to support her and like Humpty Dumpty she falls to the tile floor, breaking into pieces.

There have been other babies over the years turning into balloons then slipping through my fingers. Still others have been dragged off and eaten by wild animals, their bones buried beneath my feet.

In a particularly devastating one, an intruder enters her bedroom, steals my baby from her crib and places her beneath the wheel of my car in my garage. I awaken in terror just as I am about to get into the car, turn the key in the ignition and hear the motor rev.

In last night's dream, the baby speaks to me.

She is only six months old, but has the deep sultry voice of a grown woman who has smoked too many cigarettes. When I look at her, I can tell that she understands everything that is going on around her. She is just too helpless to take care of her own physical needs.

In the dream, I forget about her. I don’t feed her or change her diaper and when darkness comes, I leave her lying cold and alone on the family room floor as I go upstairs to sleep.

In the morning, when I wake up (still dreaming) I sheepishly creep downstairs to the room where she lies cold, wet, hungry and helpless on the floor.

It's her painful, knowing tone that punches me in my gut.

"You forgot about me," she accuses. "What kind of woman forgets to take care of a baby?"

And with that, this resilient little baby's eyes become mirrors.

Over the years, decades actually, I have tried to make sense of this recurring nightmare. And for years, I thought the image of the baby was to be taken literally - that it expressed my unconscious fear of being responsible for the lives of others.

But during those years, I managed to raise two healthy children and launch them into adulthood and I successfully taught thousands of other people's children over the past thirty five years.

So now I am thinking that perhaps I need a different approach to this recurring dream - one that sees each image in the dreams as aspects of my own psyche - the dreamer dreaming herself.

Through this lens, the image of the baby becomes the neglected, wildly unmothered part of myself. And if this is the case ( and why shouldn't it be?) last night's dream is a hopeful one.

For this baby, unlike all of the other babies of my dreams, though left alone in the dark without food or care, is still here in the morning.

She survives the neglect and looks at herself as if to say, "I am Marsha, and I am here."

And the dreamer, dreaming herself replies, "Welcome."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Finishing the Hat: Following the Urge to Create

There's a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat...
Starting on a hat..
Finishing a hat...
Look, I made a hat...
Where there never was a hat

Finishing the Hat. This is the title of a new book by Stephen Sondheim, a collection of his lyrics replete with his personal reflections of the process of songwriting. ( The complete title of the book is "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.)

Finishing the Hat is also the title of a song from Sunday in the Park with George, a musical about the neo-impressionist painter Georges Seurat. The actor playing Seurat sings this song after completing his most famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The stage becomes graced with live actors perfectly still behind a translucent scrim, wearing the exact clothing and standing in the precise positions as the figures in the painting. The actor re-enacts the moment when the artist is "finishing the hat" putting the final details onto the masterpiece, in the last orgasmic thrust of creative energy propelling the artist to push forth the painting, like a baby bursting from a womb. The masterpiece is delivered to the world, alive and complete.

In the song, he laments losing the lover who wouldn't wait for him through this process. He'd hoped she would have understood, suspected that she might not yet despite this, he knows that he is powerless. Once in the grip of this generative force, he has no choice but to succumb to the surging waves of labor that will not be denied its completion.

I've been feeling a bit of this lately -- the heady, almost giddy elation of creation as I learn how to make mosaics and experiment with photography. I become enrapt in the artistic process and I dream of the feel of cool pieces of broken glass on my fingertips, and I see familiar images in new and surprising ways.

Playing with the possible. It's how I once thought about teaching, for me, also a very creative endeavor. If I ever would have written my dissertation, that would have been the title. "Playing with the possible," or perhaps, its mirror image, "imagining the real.

Somewhere there is a place that exists between the conscious and unconscious mind - a wild borderland on the margin of sanity where images rise up from some deep ancient place and merge with shapes and patterns; where words heavy with the symbols they carry intersect with rational thought.

This is a captivating place to live, where there is no map other than the one you make with your own traversing of the territory, a place you must go to with abandon.

Stephen Sondheim was my friend Adele Magner's favorite lyricist and composer. Sometimes we'd talk to each other in Sondheim lyrics. "Send in the clowns," she'd say and I'd answer with a Jewish accent in the form of a question, "There's got to be clowns?"

Or she'd sing, "Careful the things you say," and I'd sing back, "Children will listen."

And I will never forget her favorite line from her favorite Sondheim play, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - from the ironically titled "Impossible" - "The situation's fraught, fraughter than I thought, with horrible, impossible possibilities."

Adele created a program that enabled young people to feel the power of their own impossible possibilities -- to imagine the real and play with the possibilities of their lives, by introducing them to the process of play writing. These adolescents, my students and thousands of others, were invited to give voice to their inner visions and outer conflicts and through the process of creating their plays, their very lives were transformed.

She was my teacher, my mentor and my friend and she taught me how to listen closely to what my students weren't saying, to follow their steps in this complex dance, then lead them gently back to themselves.

Adele had cervical cancer and she suffered with it for three years before it took her. The horrible impossible possibility that lies deep in the dark and terrifying woods reared its head and swallowed her whole.

It was she who told me I could invent what I desire. It's taken me ten long years since her death to finally get it -- not just intellectually or as an academic concept but to fully GET IT. It isn't just about cutting and reassembling glass, nor capturing surprising images in the shutter of a camera or juxtaposing words in unexpected ways. It's about giving yourself over completely to the process of invention and committing to it fully.

And it's about loving not the finished product but reveling in the pure joy of finishing the hat.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Opening Doors: Chasing a Dead Man's Story

Walking through the National Gardens adjacent to Syntagma Square in Athens, I came upon a mysterious sculpture. If I hadn't taken a picture of it, I may have been inclined to believe I'd imagned it, as I could find no mention of it in any of the tour books or web sites about this beautiful park.

Seemingly floating in the air, arms and legs outstretched to the sides, a bronze cast of the body of a woman straddled above a wooden structure made up of eight identical doors, hinged and connected to each other in the shape of an octagon.

Right before stumbling upon this, I had been obsessed with taking photographs of doorways --- houses, churches, restaurants, abandonned buildings, portals of ruins.
In all of those photographs, there was only one door, one threshold.

This had EIGHT doors, and the woman stretched across them seemed to be embracing them all.

In a workshop this week-end, I found myself retelling my childhood stories to a small group of people. I had told these stories more times than I could ever possibly count but for some reason this time, they were starting to bore me. I was feeling pretty tired of the anger, the cruelty, the despair. And while I wasn't quite in the mood for forgiveness, I was readier than I had ever been to lay it all down once and for all.

Later, we were asked to write a letter to our parents and read it aloud to our small group. Drained of anger, and anxious to be done with it, I addressed my letter to "Shirley and Bill," not "Mom and Dad." ( I never called either of them those names. My mother went from "Mommy" straight to "Mother" and he, though long dead, I only ever called "Daddy" - our relationship ended before I could outgrow that name.

I wrote my letter about stories. Tired of the one I had always told about being the victim of their anger, selfishness and hatred, the carrier of their fury and bitterness, ( "You tell your father he's a good for nothing cheating, lying bastard!" "You tell your mother that she needs to get her lazy ass out of that bed and go to work!) I wanted to write a different kind of letter in which I would try to understand my mother's plight and my father's silence.

After I read it aloud, one of the men in the group looked at me with very kind, open and compassionate eyes and said, "Oh my Marsha! How sad. What does it feel like to spend your life chasing a dead man's story?"

Of course he hadn't been dead my whole life. He died at age 71 in 1997, but he had been missing from my life since 1963 when he left his wife and children (with no apparant warning - at least to me) and proceeded to sue my mother for a divorce ( there was no such thing as no-fault back then) so he could marry another woman.

The only version of this story that I have ever heard is my mother's. And even though she was the victim in this tale, it was a story that she had authored and that she got to tell her chidren. He was the immoral one, the evil man who broke his vows before God, the adulterer who sacrificed his babies on the altar of his selfishness, who left us penniless and did mean and vindictive things to his family, destroyed the mother of his three chidren, who'd done nothing but be the best loving and faithful chicken soup wife she could possibly be.

There is a real danger in a single story. When there is only one story, it becomes the official narrative which cannot be challenged without dire consequences. If you contest it, you become branded as a traitor. If you argue it, you get shot down. There are no spaces in a single story to pry open - no places to look for nuance, contradictions or other possibilities.

My father never told his story. He remained silent except for these words: "I'll tell you when you're old enough to hear," which of course wasn't when I was 16 or 18 or 21 or 25 or right through my thirties and forties, when silence became the only language between us.

Something happened though this week-end. When I was asked what it has been like to spend my life chasing a dead man's story, I turned the question sideways. Took the whole damned story of my awful childhood and shifted it slightly, just enough to know for the very first time that my father had given me a gift.

By not telling me his story, by leaving me in the dark and wondering, my father gave me the motivation to make up thousands of stories of my own, devising complex reasons for why he did what he did to his family. Sometimes I'd imagine it was because he was his father's favorite which made his mother hate him and that made him unstable. Other times, I'd think about his years in the war and would make up stories about how some old war injury caused him to temporarily lose his memory and one day he'd find it again and come home. Other times, I'd make up fantastic versions, like the one where he was possesssed by a she-demon who sucked his soul from him in the dead of night, or that he'd been bewitched by the tweak of a nose and just needed another tweak for the spell to be broken.

As the years progressed, it was my mother's single story that did the most damage to my soul with the insistance that there was no other way to see my childhood but hers which cast us all as helpless victims.

My father's silence awakened in me a fierce need to know - an unrelenting drive to figure things out, to solve problems, look for patterns, search out clues, and create meaning. It led me to want to understand people, their complexities, and their motivations. I pushed me to develop skills that I used in my professional life, learning how to support young people in telling their stories, and in knowing what questions to ask to help them pull the fragments of their narratives together in ways that brought meaning to their lives.

The older I get, the better I understand that everything includes its opposite.

Without death, there is no life.

Without endings there are no beginnings.

And here in my life at this moment, I now know that silence contains voice and every wound contains the power to heal itself.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Teach, Tony Danza, Teach

I watched Teach Tony Danza three times.

I must admit. The first time I watched it, I cried like a baby, right along with the 59 year old actor who is facing his mortality and wanting to travel down the “road not taken” by becoming a teacher. Being close to this age myself, recently retired from 34 years as a teacher and staring down my own roads not taken, I found myself cheering for him. I cringed as he sweated through his shirt in front of the unrelenting eyes of his 10th grade students and I cried with him as he let his insecurities be seen by a very unflattering camera.

I’m not a big fan of reality shows and I especially dislike ones that claim to be “real” yet are so obviously staged and edited to make a particular point.

While this series does seem to have an agenda (though I haven’t quite figured it out), even in the first episode, I see how it might be a welcome addition to the public conversation about urban public education as its cameras begin to reveal some of the hidden humiliations and personal challenges that urban teachers face. Yes, Danza is nervous, but it is probably close to 100 degrees in that classroom in early September. Even as a comedian, he has a hard time answering the blunt, personal questions posed by his students. (My favorite: "Do you think teaching English is funny?")

And while the scene at the sign-in counter was clearly staged, there’s not a teacher in the School District who has not been on the other end of that kind of infantilizing dress-down from a power-hungry assistant principal, a dyspeptic head secretary or a vindictive roster chairperson. It’s one of those ironic realities about public education: while schools cannot run without teachers, the people whose very jobs exist to support teachers’ work often treat them with the least amount of respect. No exaggeration.

So this series has the potential to tell an important and very human story about teaching and urban education. But one thing needs to be made clear up front.

Tony Danza is NOT teaching English at Northeast High School.

His experience only remotely resembles that of first year teachers in Philadelphia. (See the story in the Philadelphia Weekly about the reactions of first year teachers to this show.)

Face it. Most first year teachers are met with far more difficult circumstances. While we do see Danza struggling, take his struggles, add unwelcoming, unsupportive principals who are terrified about test scores and losing their jobs, throw in angry students who have not been pre-selected, subtract the ubiquitous teaching coach, the books, and supplies (Did Danza go to Beckers to buy those classroom decorations with his own money? Did he have to stop at Kinko’s the night before to make copies of his hand-outs for his one class?) Then multiply it all by 5 - the number of classes that most high school teachers have to teach. Plus a homeroom. And this only scratches the surface of the challenges faced by first year teachers.

If anything, what Danza’s doing approximates student- teaching – the apprenticeship required by traditional teacher certification programs. Even so, the comparison is a stretch, because student-teachers are responsible for planning and teaching three classes (to Danza’s one) while concurrently enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs, taking courses in the evenings after teaching all day. Not only do student-teachers not get paid, they must pay tuition to their universities for the privilege of completing this mandatory apprenticeship.

For me, the most telling line in the episode is when Danza says that it’s hubris for him to think he can do this. Indeed. This hubris should be shared by all of those non educators who think they know enough to wrest control of our public schools.

Later after being corrected by his student Monte about omniscient narrators in short stories, Danza laments to the camera that there is so much he doesn’t know.

For good reason.

He took his education course work forty years ago and he’s a former History major trying to teach English. My bet is he doesn’t have a clue about WHY he’s teaching the aspects of plot, types of narrators and the other elements of literature in short stories other than the fact that it’s in the curriculum and pacing schedule for the month of September. Nor does he know how to organize that information in ways that will engage the students in their own learning.

If Danza were truly a first year teacher (or even a student-teacher as I suggest he is,) he would have taken (or be in the process of taking) courses in Curriculum Theory, Adolescent Psychology, Educational Philosophy, Technology in Education, Special Edcuation, and discipline-specific Methods courses. He would have written lesson plans and developed his own curricular units and had them reviewed and evaluated by his professors and his peers. Additionally, he would have taken dozens of content courses in American and World Literature, Shakespeare and Chaucer, African American, Latino and Asian American Literature, Grammar, Linguistics and Composition, just to name a few.

No wonder that he feels he doesn’t know enough.

To their credit, the makers of Teach Tony Danza do not seem to be playing “Gotcha!” with the students, teachers, parents and administration of Northeast High School. The teaching coach seems level-headed and knowledgeable, the other teachers smart and caring, the parents involved and concerned, and the students themselves alive and engaging. In the first episode, it’s Linda Carrol the pincipal who comes off the best, showing the right combination of toughness and support.

And Danza seems sincerely eager to learn from them.

The most enlightening segments (something I hope will continue in future episodes) are the small group discussions the students have after class, in which they smartly deconstruct Danza’s teaching. They know. After all, they’ve had ten years of practice reading (and shaping!) their teachers. They are very aware of the ways in which their actions can impact the kinds of choices Danza will make in the future. And we get to listen to them plot.

This is what the other teachers keep trying to tell Danza. His greatest resources for learning how to teach are sitting right in front of him. By the end of the fist episode, he seems to understand.

So for now, at least, I am going to accept this series' good intentions and view it as a true inquiry into what it takes for this one man to become a teacher.

As a retired teacher, I hope that this series will complicate and deepen the public conversation about fixing the public schools that Waiting for Superman has engendered. As a teacher educator, I want this series to shed some light on why good teacher preparation programs and supported apprenticeships are imperative.

But as a person of a certain age, I want to see Tony Danza stare down his demons, accept with humility what he doesn’t know, seek the knowledge he’s lacking, then build on his life experiences to learn how to teach.

Danza, says it himself about his students: "At the end of the day, there has to be some learning."

Theirs and his.

Monday, October 4, 2010

On Silence, Stories, Sons and Mad Mad Men

I love imagistic writers. I want to be one. I want to write about the silver sliver of a moon that hangs like a machete over ripened stars in the Dominican sky, like Julia Alvarez in In the Time of the Butterflies.

Or that silly (and lovely) moment in The Owl and the Pussycat where Barbra Steisand plays a call girl and George Segal a writer and he reads her a line from his book, "The sun spit morning in Julian's face," and she laughs at him, not getting the metaphor immediately, until a few days later, she comes to him while he's in bed, kneals on the floor beside him then slowly lifts her head like the sun rise while reciting his line. And as she utters the word "spit", her whole face lights up with sunshine.

I read somewhere that good metaphors come to us like coincidences - juxtapositions that startle us into seeing things yet unseen. On the brink of visibility metaphors are prodded into the light of day with the scribble of a pen.

There are many things I need to write tonight- none of which I will. The words will remain inside stones, trapped like mica glinting in the sun.

There are words that will never be able to leave the place inside of my throat where they are fixed between my vocal chords - the sympathetic vibrations of a forced silence humming through my tightly pressed lips.

I need to peel the bark off the trunks of stories that have grown thick and stalwart and still. I need to carve away the rings of silence and enter the crying center where the words still hurt.

I am having a hard time writing what I need to tonight. Difficult to accept the invitation.

Can stories awaken the dead? Do they reanimate the past?

After Episode 9 of Mad Men ended two weeks ago, my thirty year old son called me.

"Are you alright, Mom?" he asked, knowing that I'd be upset after watching that episode.

In it, Sally, Don's twelve year old daughter runs away from her mother's house and boards a train to the city with no money to go to see her daddy. He is angry with her but has no choice but to keep her with him at work. Then he has his new girlfriend take her back to his bachelor apartment.

Watching this, I am Sally Draper - that twelve year old girl whose parents separated the same week-end as Kennedy was assasinated, the one who resents her mother and misses her daddy, who tries on different identities to please her father and in the most poignant and awful of moments falls flat on her face trying to escape her father's anger while avoiding returning to her mother's house.

And as Sally falls, I begin weeping for her and for me- connecting to the center of my long buried story.

"Are you okay, Mom?" he asks again. "I knew you were watching and I was worried about you."

When he was a baby, I would hold him for hours every day. I'd take him in my arms and press him upright against my chest and pat his little back gently, over and over again.

I did this for months and months, again and again. Countless times. I can still feel the sweet smell of his milky breath inside my neck. It was was a lovey ritual, as calming to me as it was to him.

Then one day - out of nowhere - there it was - the tiny pat pat pat on my shoulder.

"Yeah, Mike," I said. "I'm fine. It's all good."

Love, returning love.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Documentary Daze: Waiting for Waiting for Superman

I have to admit. I had never really been a big fan of documentaries. Until recently, I had only seen two of them in the theater – Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom – and I can’t remember ever renting one.

That all changed when I reconnected with Barry, my friend from college who turned out to be a cinema-phile extraordinaire. Not only would he recommend all different kinds of films for me to watch, he would challenge me to drop my pre-existing opinions, loosen up my prejudices and watch his suggestions with fresh and non-judgmental eyes.

This proved daunting for me at first, especially when I would watch movies as Swept Away, Requiem for a Dream, American Beauty or Deer Hunter - films that I had actively avoided in the past, fearful of the violence and degradation I thought that I would encounter. But Barry urged me to view each film on its own terms and see each character through the lens of his or her experiences – not mine. Fond of saying, “What one man can do, any man can,” he showed me how to watch movies as windows into the deepest recesses of the human heart, teaching me gently to shove my subjective frameworks aside.

I had a much easier time entering into documentaries on their own terms than feature films. There were dozens of documentaries on his list and as I started to watch them one by one, I became enamored with the genre and would eagerly ask for more.

In the best documentaries, I found myself taken along on a quest with the filmmakers.
Like true inquiries, the documentaries would begin with an open ended question that did not have an easy answer and often lead to other questions. Some tried to explain a life. Who was Ray Johnson? asked How to Draw a Bunny. Or what motivated Phillipe Petit in Man on Wire. Others probed deep and painful questions like what really happened in Arnold Friedman’s basement?

The true crime documentaries, like Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills , The Thin Blue Line and my all time favorite in this genre, Talhotblond ( a MUST SEE!!!) make us question our own sense of reality and ask whether it is even possible for humans to ever know “the truth.”

Then there are the ones that border on propaganda -- documentaries that arrange information in a such a compelling manner as to persuade the viewers to believe a particular idea, demand justice and/or to take some kind of action. American Blackout. The Art of the Steal. Who Killed the Electric Car? Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Which brings me to where I am right now - waiting to watch Waiting for Superman, the new documentary which follows five students through the process of a charter school admissions lottery while make a scathing indictment of teachers and teachers unions as the scourge of public education.

This all makes me wonder. What does it mean to watch propaganda with an open mind? While watching this film about education which does not include the experience of teachers can I ignore and negate my 34 years experience as a classroom teacher and all of the knowledge that that entails?

Is it possible to watch a film like this, one which is unabashedly making an argument and hoping that the argument leads to social change, with an “open mind” when opening my mind would entail denying my own lived experiences?

When I was watching The Business of Being Born, I was already convinced that something is terribly wrong with the way women give birth in the country, given my own experience 30 years ago when I was pushed to have an unnecessary C-section. Or while watching King Corn, I already believed that altered and processed foods are making corporations rich and ruining our health. It didn’t take very much to convince me of the evils of fast foods or global warming in Super Size Me or An Inconvenient Truth. These films served to solidify my already established beliefs.

Exactly how open was my mind to counter arguments, missing perspectives, shoddily drawn connections when I was already inclined to believe the points the filmmakers were trying to make?

Waiting for Superman is different for me. Yes I know that our education system in broken. I know that children’s lives depend on which school they get to go to. And I believe that Davis Guggenhem really cares about children and education. But, I fear that this film will become THE Film about education, that the examples cited will become THE models for change, and that teachers and our unions will be further demonized in American popular culture.

So .. sometime in the next week or two, when I finally go see Waiting for Superman, I will be watching my own reactions and responses to it as well as watching the film itself. And I will be asking - is it possible to watch a film like this, one which has a specific argument to make, with an open mind when I have decades of lived experience relating to the film’s content. Can I set my frameworks aside and check my experiences at the door?

Is it even a good idea to do so?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Let the Stones Speak

Sometimes the words don't come.
They get stuck deep inside the gap
between the pieces of your divided heart.

When that happens,
it's best to let the stones speak
and tell their long lost stories.

Put your ear to my heart and


Monday, September 27, 2010

Breaking Glass

I am taking a mosaics class. I don't know if I consciously chose this class because I am in the process of falling apart, or, if as unconsciouses are want to do, mine selected it for me from a random list of classes at Main Line Art Center.

When I was a girl, I made things - pretty objects out of clay or yarn or fabric. I molded beads and pots, knitted sweaters and knotted macrame necklaces, I batiked pillows, and wove blankets and wall-hangings.

Then, one day, I stopped. No longer using my hands, I ceased living in my body and began spending all of my time in my head.

Pure mind is how I saw myself. Cool, crystal clear thought and theory. I could think my way out of my body, not feeling or sensing the concrete world around me.

Jung says that in the process of building our persona in the first half of our lives, the version of ourselves we create to interact with the outside world, if we ignore particular aspects of our psyche, say our sensory perception or our emotions, we do so at great peril. The shadow craves the light, he says, and that which we keep in the darkness of our unconscious will one day come to us as fate.

When I entered the mosaics class that first morning, I was still feeling a bit shaky. This fall marked the first semsester in thirty-six years that I wasn't teaching and it was the first time I had been in an art studio. There were three long tables lined up in a U and women were unpacking large canvas bags and laying their tools, materials and works in progress out in front of them.

One woman invited me to sit beside her and another took me out into the hallway to show me the large boxes of tiles, dishes, cups, bowls, vases, mirrors that were available for us to use.

The women continued to greet each other as they entered, catching up about their children, their families, their summers. I was the only newcomer to the class, but the others all made me feel welcome, eager to share the variety of projects they were working on and the interesting materials they were using like broken tiles, beads, fused glass, ceramics, bone china. Some worked small reassembling delicate pieces of shattered china; others worked large piecing together huge shards of colorful smashed pottery. Some were making useful objects like flower pots and bird houses; others were creating intricate pictures as detailed as a fine water color painting.

"I've been doing this for three years," the woman to my right said. "I've been doing it for five," said the woman to my left. She moved in and said a little more softly, "It's my therapy."

I was starting to relax, feeling like I'd made a good decision in selecting this course, but my anxiety returned when the teacher called roll and got all they way to the end without saying my name.

"Who are you?" she asked, looking at me with not unkind eyes.

"Marsha Pincus," I replied just as she was saying, "Oh! You're registered for the 1 o'clock class."

I panicked. It was just like this newly broken down fragmented version of my self to screw up the schedule -- I had been doing this a lot lately --- missing appointments, mixing up times -- my not so unconscious rebellion against decades of rostered structure: 8:09 to 8:54, first period; 10:13 to 11:01, lunch; 3:03,dismissal.

I was about to start walking towards the door when I heard her musical voice say, "They must have made a mistake in the office. I'll tell them you're in this class. I see you already feel at home with this group. Stay."

The process of individuation which one can experience in mid or post mid-life involves the total breakdown of the persona. It cracks and crumbles, no longer able to contain all that is going on in the psyche. And presumably, or so I have read, after the breakdown and fragmentation, one becomes whole.

I wonder how this happens. Will there be a soft whoosh one day followed by a ka-chung when all of the pieces fall into place? Or will it be more gradual and painful, like the knitting together of broken bones?

The teacher, Carol, has us go around the room and introduce ourselves, each woman saying what brings her here, what she is working on in her mosaics and where she is in her life. When it is my turn, I say my name and start to tell my story --- the one I have been telling lately about my life --- how I taught writing for 36 years, how I spent most of my adult life supporting and inspiring others, how this class is going to be a turning point for me, an new begining, but before I could finish, the friendly woman who'd offered me a seat beside her exclaimed, "You're that famous English teacher who taught all of those kids to write plays!!!"

"I used to be," I managed to say starting to shake.

Later, she told me her name is Judy and that she taught for 39 years at Community College and that she knew my friend Adele Magner- the founder and director of Phildelphia Young Playwrights. Before her death on January 6, 2000, Adele had been my closest friend, mentor and advisor. Ten years older than I, she was my guide and I could always count on her to show me the way through whatever was coming next in my life.

I reached over to touch Judy's arm after sharing our stories and memories of Adele. A warm current pulsed through me as I felt Adele's loving presence beyond the grave.

In the Jewish tradition, a groom breaks a glass beneath his foot, right before the couple's marriage is officially declared. There are lots of interpretations for this ritual, but the one I like the best goes like this - the breaking of a glass marks an end to what was and points simultaneously to a new beginning. After the breaking of the glass, the crowd erupts in joyous cheers. "L'Chaim!" To Life!"

After the class was settled in, after all of the announcements and introductions were completed, I went into the hall and gathered dishes from the bins of offerings on the shelves. I stacked them neatly at my spot on the work table.

And Carol, with the kind eyes and musical voice, came up beside me, put a dish in one of my hands, and a pair of tile nippers in the other, then holding me steady she said,
"Okay Marsha! Let's break some glass!!!!"


Still Moving

Our faces blur as we whirl past each other, like beams of light in caves of darkness -

Moving too quickly for an eye to take shape, a mouth to form words, or a kiss.

Sometimes a sweet scent of another wafts past us like a soft touch we must have imagined.

We're startled awake for but an instant, until the swirl reclaims us.

Not a long lost memory; still[ness] busy being born.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Just Sayin’!….. But Who’s Listening??

“I just want to be heard!” my students would yell, when the discussions in class got hot and contentious. Their voices would get louder, the tension in the room would mount.

“I want to be heard too!”

“Me too!”

“And what about me?”

Often, these discussions were about race and/or gender, sometimes in response to the literature we were reading, like Beloved or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Others were sparked by current events --- those moments that erupt in our culture from time to time – exposing the raw underbelly of our divisiveness - the O.J. Simpson trial, the Clarence Thomas hearings, or the Mike Tyson’s rape conviction, the Rodney King verdict.

One time, in the midst of one of these cacophonies, in desperation I did an experiment.

“Okay,” I said. "I get it. You all want to be heard. Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to think what you need to say. What words you need to have heard. Then close your eyes and wait for the next instruction.”

I waited a few moments, letting the energy that had been set loose in the room settle back inside of the students. It took some longer to become still, to stop looking at others. But soon all of them had settled into themselves and appeared to have gathered their thoughts.

“When I say, 'okay, now,' I want you all to keep your eyes closed then yell at the top of your lungs all of the things that you want to say about this issue. All of those things you NEED other people to hear.”

"Ready? Go!”

What followed was a thunderstorm of sounds, a torrent of emotion, words rising and falling, bumping into each other, banging off walls, exploding in mid air.

What a roaring!

After it reached its crescendo, an eerie calm filled the room.

We all sat in stunned and profound silence - spent and a little bit ashamed.

It was hard, but I resisted the didactic urge to explain what had just happened and how it connected to what I was hoping they’d learn about creating the spaces for real dialogue across our differences.

But I didn’t have to explain anything. They got it.

In the quiet moments that followed, we had a very different kind of discussion than the one we were having before. When the time felt right, I asked, “What just happened here?”

And this time, when they answered, their words were softer, more measured. They were careful to make sure no one else was speaking before beginning to speak. They apologized when their words collided, when two people started to speak at the same time.
And they remained on the edge of their seats, listening intently to what each person had to say.

The traditional English curriculum is divided into 4 parts: reading, writing, speaking and listening. I am not going to go into whether I think we do a good job with the first three. All I will say here is that at least we are trying to teach them.

We do not teach children how to listen, unless of course we are using the word synonymously with obey. We do not teach them how to attend to the words of others, or how to hear the meaning that others are trying to make. We do not teach them how to engage with others in a way that allows for everyone’s tentativeness, everyone’s uncertainty and unfinishedness, even the teacher’s.

In the years that followed, I learned and created new ways of structuring my classroom to encourage different ways for students to learn how to listen to each other, raise questions together and explore answers collaboratively.

This meant taking a very different stance taken towards classroom discourse than the two which dominate the American classroom: recitation and debate. In recitation, the teacher asks the question and the students answer. The teacher says whether the answer is right or wrong.

Debate is more complicated and while it seems to empower the students to express their voices on a particular issue, it does not teach them to listen to the points of view of others -except to try to discern weaknesses in their arguments for the purpose of counter-attack. And while I can see the benefits of debate, e.g. the research involved in preparation, the public speaking skills that get honed, the engagement with important issues, what I find most objectionable is that the goal of debate is to vanquish one’s opponent and to win.

Truth, real meaning, multiple perspectives, new ideas and points of view all get lost in the fray.

Recently, I wrote two blog entries about a controversial topic – President Obama’s choice to deliver his back to school address to the nation from Masterman, a high performing magnet school in Philadelphia where I spent the final ten years of my teaching career.

In Part I of the blog, I was very passionate about the hypocrisy of School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in taking credit for Obama’s choice to come to Philadelphia because of her reform policies – the irony being that Masterman is successful because it is exempt from the District's oppressive curricula. That blog, picked up by the Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook and quoted in a Philadelphia Daily News column touched a nerve and incited dozens of responses, including personal attacks, defenses, and revealing many of the fissures and fault lines present in our city and schools. Very little thoughtful dialogue occurred, and I felt that many of the people posting comments missed the major point I was trying to make about equity in educational curricula and programming.

Subsequent to the President’s speech, I wrote a follow up blog, in which I laid out my arguments for being upset with Ackerman, researched former speeches Obama had made about education that I thought were more on point, shared my philosophy of teaching and learning and urged for a multiplicity of voices, complexity, and nuance in a sustained dialogue about public education.

That post received three comments.

The blogosphere has made it possible for everyone with access to the Internet to have their voices heard.

But who’s listening?? And how are we hearing each other’s words?

Just sayin’.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Masterman, Obama and Ackerman: Part II - Looking for Nuance

In a wonderful talk posted on, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the “danger of a single story.” “Show a people as one thing over and over again, and that is what they become,” she says, talking about her own experiences growing up in Nigeria and reading Western accounts of Africa. “You cannot talk about the single story without talking about power,” she goes on to say. The single story creates stereotypes and "the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

It was my graduate student, Neena Pathak, a former Teach for America Corps member and English teacher at Martin Luther King High School, who first made the connection for me between this talk and the way we think about schools in her brilliant Master's Thesis entiled "The Pedagogy of Nuance."

So I listened to this lecture again this week in the wake of the responses I received, public and private, to my recent blog post about President Obama’s choice to give his Back-to-School address at Masterman, as a way to help me make sense of the ensuing discussion and to look for nuance.

Personal attacks and defenses aside, I was struck by the deep schisms, passions and misunderstandings evident in the range of positions this event evoked.

Last week, I was prompted to write this blog, not because I had any animus about the President’s choice of Masterman. It IS a remarkable school, and I enjoyed my many years teaching there and the relationships I established with colleagues and students. It was Arlene Ackerman’s claiming credit for that choice that sparked my (and my colleagues’) ire - stoked by the fact that despite the proximity of the school to her office, Tuesday marked the first time she’d set foot into the building.

It is interesting to note how few of the responses addressed what was the key point in the blog - the question of equity in access to excellent curriculum - and my concern that the students in the schools where Ackerman has a iron hold on the curriculum are not being offered the same kinds of respectful, complex and exciting learning experiences as the students at Masterman.

I know some will respond by saying that the students in other schools aren’t ready to write their own plays, develop their own experiments for science fairs, create school-wide political campaigns and mock presidential elections. They will say most students in our neighborhood schools lack the skills necessary to express their own thoughts and opinions about historical and contemporary events,prepare multimedia presentations, or conduct original research - to name a few of the projects that Masterman students of all ages are able to do in their academic classes.

This doesn’t even include all of the co- and extracurricular activities available to Masterman students, subjects and activities such as art, instrumental and vocal music, theater, a student-run newspaper, a literary magazine, a chess team, and a full array of sports including swimming. Because so many of the students are identified as “mentally gifted,” they are entitled by state law to a wide range of excellent and exciting enrichment classes and activities as well.

The dangerous "single story" being told here is that students must first master basic literacy and math skills before being able to think critically about themselves or the world. That learning occurs neatly and sequentially, and one must “master” certain skills before being introduced to complex content. That thinking is comprised of hierarchical processes, and one must show that one “comprehends” before one is given a chance to analyze, synthesize, evaluate or create. That only those students who have proven themselves through their performance on a standardized test can and should have the opportunity to make meaning for themselves. And that the ones who have not yet proven themselves do not want to learn or have had poor teachers and disinterested parents.

What if we told another story? One that posits that students can learn basic skills in the context of exciting real world learning experiences. One that has faith that the students will become motivated to master the skills in the process of reaching beyond their current grasp because they feel an intrinsic need to do so.

I saw this for myself when my Simon Gratz students participated in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights program and paid attention to ( some for the first time) capitalization and punctuation in their writing, worried about the points they were making about life or the ways they were representing their families and communities in writing because they knew that their words were being read by others, and as such, had to be comprehensible. Think about your own learning experiences and how you struggle when you are learning something new. Don’t novice athletes get to practice fouls shots AND play a full court game while they are learning to play basketball?

I wonder how many other of our single stories go unquestioned?

When I was a very young teacher in the 1970’s, I believed what some of the older teachers told me. “You can’t save everyone,” I was told. “You’ll burn yourself out if you try. Just pick one or two of the really talented and motivated students and help them get out.” This advice became my “single story,” and I am sad to say that unquestioned, it shaped my teaching for a long time. It was not until I had been teaching at Simon Gratz for a number of years that I had a life-changing conversation with a student – a young man who was at the top of his class – who sensed that he had been selected to be “saved.” He told me that while, of course, he wanted to go to college, he did not want to “get out” of his North Philadelphia community. He wanted to remain there, where his entire family resided, and he wanted to make it a better place. And then he asked the question that has stayed with me ever since. “And why should there even be places in this city that people need to get out from?”

With this one question, this young man sparked a change in my approach to teaching and proffered a challenge to me that has guided my thinking ever since. How would the picture look if we approached education with the belief that ALL students are capable of learning? What would it mean to create a system in which there are NO schools from which anyone needs to “get out?”

Would such an approach be called “Race to the Top?”

Which brings me to my disappointment with the content of the President’s address. Yes, it was inspirational. And yes, it was down to earth and personal. It was like listening to the “First Dad” and in that sense, it was comforting and reassuring. But he only told a “single story” - the one that promises success as the pay off for personal responsibility and individual commitment to hard work and sacrifice.

I was hoping to hear at least some of the complexity which he expressed in his 2005 speech as a senator, where he urged the public to abandon our either-or thinking about school reform and adopt one that embraces a “both-and” approach. I was hoping he’d mention how important writing had been to him in his life, and how keeping a journal enabled him to get to know himself well enough to tell his story in his first book, Dreams From My Father, as he did when he addressed a group of Virginia Writing Project teachers while on the campaign trail.

By not acknowledging the systemic inequities, the President served to reinforce the “single story” which dominates much of our collective thinking about urban schools - kids don’t want to learn, teachers are burned out, parents don’t care, more money won’t help.

Asking why other students do not get the same kinds of challenging and engaging programs or why teachers in other schools are not free to deviate from scripted materials (or given the professional support to better challenge and engage their students) does not diminish nor devalue the talents and efforts of Masterman students, parents and teachers. Praising those students without acknowledging the school’s privileged position in the District serves to reify a single story which by nature is polarizing. When there is no room for multiple stories, people feel compelled to take a stand on either side of the dominant one.

In this fast- paced age of 24 hour news cycles, events like this one come and go very quickly. This Presidential visit will soon be forgotten by all except those who witnessed it in person; but, perhaps the issues it raised and the public conversation it sparked will lead to the kind of constructive dialogue that’s at the heart of systemic change.

Here's hoping.