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?