Monday, June 29, 2009

So, What Do You Do?

“Hello, ladies,” says a man’s voice. I look up from my menu to see the manager sliding up to our table. I guess that excludes me; at least I hope it does.

I am the only man in the middle of four women at this table, which is not necessarily a bad place to be. And as an elementary teacher, I’m certainly used to this. The manager puts his hand on the edge of the C-shaped booth behind Katie’s head and begins to make small talk with the other teachers, but I can’t stop thinking about the conversation he interrupted.

We had been talking about Kristen’s civil engineering husband. “Josh said the other day that he might like to get into education,” Kristen had said. To me, Josh seems like an extra character in a movie, and I think this is because I have no idea what a civil engineer does.

“Where are you from,” the manager asks.

“Chattanooga, Tennessee,” Heidi says.

The manager, a white-haired man with a goatee that spreads along his jowls like the pointed wings of a jet plane, steps closer and takes a drink of water. “I used to own a restaurant near Atlanta, Georgia. Back in the ‘70’s. Lost a lot of money there.”

I cannot imagine what it is like to have or lose a lot of money. How do you lose a lot of money?

The manager goes to do whatever it is that restaurant managers do, and Katie continues the conversation by mentioning her husband, who is also a civil engineer. “Thomas’s job isn’t what he thought it was going to be, either.” I ask Katie what Thomas’s job is like and how it isn’t what he expected. “Well,” she says, “He works for a wind power company, and it’s turning out to be a lot more construction.”

This does nothing for me, since I don’t know what I would do for eight hours at a wind power company, let alone eight months. What happens, though, is that I get a mental picture of a big, burly man with his sleeves rolled up and a hard hat tilted back; his gigantic Toyota truck is just off center in the background, gleaming in front of a skyscraper. No, wait; not a skyscraper. A skeletal Don Quixote windmill. He’s pointing at something and calling something out.

“Move that thing! …And that other thing!” And it takes me a minute to realize that these words, this construction-worker civil-engineer monologue is really a voice over from The Princess Bride, because I don’t really know what a civil engineer would shout out. “No more rhymes now, I mean it!” Thomas says, and Josh calls back, “Anybody wanna peanut?”

We leave the restaurant and walk back to the hotel. Since we’re going to attend a Lucy Calkins workshop on writing in the morning, I decide to go to bed early. With the lights out, I flip on the TV to the History channel to drown out some of the city noises, and I watch a dramatized version of people groups migrating to North America over the past 3,000 years. When it shows the sophisticated techniques Native Americans used to hunt buffalo, it tells it through a little story scenario. A 15-year-old boy gets to hunt with the men for the first time, but he gets spooked by a rattlesnake that slithers up under his wolf skin cloak. He freaks out and sends the buffalo running, ruining months of planning for this hunt. His punishment is that he must go back and work with the women and children.

I sit up in bed. I can’t believe it. My job in an elementary school is equivalent to Native American emasculation!? What does this say about me? What does it mean that I chose to work with the minds of children, Post-It Notes, and highlighters in a job dominated by women instead of power tools, power lunches, or wind power in a world of men? What does it mean that I love the decision that I’ve made?

In the dramatization, the boy earns back his manhood when he saves some children from a runaway buffalo by killing it at the last possible second. He goes off to hunt with the men; I go to the writing conference and listen to a gut-wrenching story about a mother that makes her eleven-year-old daughter wear a bra on the outside of her clothes to remind her to wear it at all.

But I hear something else, too. Lucy Calkins quotes, “What we do with our time is what we do with our lives,” and I think back to that fork in the road when I turned towards education. How I wanted a job that would make a difference in the lives of people. But I think of people like my colleagues, their spouses, and my own beautiful wife, and I realize that it isn’t the job that makes a difference in people’s lives—it’s the people. People that are truly awake and compassionate and intentional.

And it’s not until this moment—this very moment in which I am writing this out and wondering how I am going to tie up the ending "with a little bow"—this moment when I scan back to the beginning to see if I can connect to it full circle—when I realize what Kristen really said. Josh, the civil engineer, the man who took a manly job, is thinking about being an educator.

I’ve got just one thing to tell him: Using the basal reader is for wimps.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Impromptu Laundry Day

Everett, our two year old, gets up at 5:30. He pads down the hallway to our room and climbs in bed with us. Usually, I scratch his back for a while to keep him still so my wife can keep sleeping. Yesterday, I was too tired to scratch his back. So he scratched mine.

Sort of.

He'd scratch for two seconds and take a ten-second break. Then two more scratches followed by another break. Repeat for several minutes.

After a while, I said, "Hey, Everett. Watcha doin'?"

"Pickin' my nose," came the reply. Ten seconds. Two scratches. Ten seconds. Two scratches.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Think About It

It came to my attention that one girl in my class advised another girl in my class that she could be more popular if she wouldn’t act as smart as she is. I don’t even know where to begin.

How in the world did the slacker image become something to aspire to? Surely it is some backlash against some generational work ethic, but still. In Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, he describes an event he attended in China several years ago. The event was in a sports arena, I think, and the crowd was going wild. The crowd was not excited over some sports play or rock star; Bill Gates had just come on a stage to address the throng. Friedman realized that in China, Bill Gates is Brittany Spears; in America, Brittany Spears is Brittany Spears.

How is it not cool to think? How did intellect and social status become mutually exclusive in the minds of our kids? And that’s not even the right question. How did we get to a point where we would rather not be thought of as thinkers if it costs us the perception of being socially relevant?

I mentioned John Stonestreet in my previous post. He talked about a book that I would like to read: Amusing Ourselves to Death. In the book, the author delineates the differences between the prophetic writing of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Both seemed to believe that technology would create a non-thinking society and not a utopian state. Orwell predicted that people would be oppressed externally—by Big Brother. Huxley predicted the oppression would come from within the culture. Orwell predicted that government would control and limit the information that people would have access to. Huxley believed we’d have a glut of information, an onslaught of news so entertaining, non-stop, and overwhelming that people would not have time to think about any of it. In Huxley’s version, society is so healthy, comfortable, and care-free that no one would risk challenging any of it.

Sounds like Huxley was closer.

And that’s not all. Carl Bernstein wrote “The lowest form of popular culture -- lack of information, misinformation, misinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people's lives -- has overrun real journalism. Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage.” Our low culture has become pop culture.

Rainbow Dreams—a blog I enjoy—posted some of the new Dove commercials about beauty. While I question their motives (they didn’t seem to have such a broad definition of beauty when the Baby Boomers were in their twenties and thirties), they do address the caustic nature of beauty thrust upon women and girls. You can even download their self-esteem kit for young girls so that you can help prevent them from swallowing the beauty industry’s kool-aid. Is that really going to work? If we’re not thinking and we’re not teaching our children to think, is a self-esteem kit going to do the trick?

How do we then live? …to borrow from Francis Schaffer. Paul writes in Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Stonestreet used several authors to suggest that as we approach culture, we approach it this way. We should use our minds as we appreciate art that is excellent and well-done; that we look for art that speaks truth; that we hold art that is noble. This is, of course, only the beginning of a great conversation.

I use a lot of poetry with my third graders. A couple weeks ago, we were talking about the difference between poetry and songs. On a whim, I offered a quote I heard. (Is this Mark Twain? I’ll have to look it up.) “Anything too stupid to be said is sung.” They thought that was funny and tried it out on some songs. They stood up and with great oratorical presence began to speak Hannah Montana lyrics. It really was hilarious. I asked the kids what the songs were really saying. The response: We never thought about it before.

I hope I never hear that again.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The New Agora

So I’m blogging again. I say that with a present participle as if I am now back in a constant state of blogging. The thing is, blogging began to feel a little too much like navel gazing. I mean, I just talk about myself, which I find to be a dull topic.

A week or so ago, the staff at NPR’s Morning Edition were trying to get Daniel Schorr to sign up for a Twitter account. He said, "It really is another generation. I'm agape as I learn about how people can communicate with the outside world. It somehow reminds me ... of something in ancient Greece, the agora, the marketplace. You come out and you say things at the marketplace and everyone can hear. And every person now seems to be a network."

However, he was quite resistant to it. He asked why people can’t just sit and listen to a President speak anymore without letting their thumbs fly over phone keypads the entire time. He asked why people twitter. Tweets came back within seconds.

bdmckeown: I tweet to circumvent the usual obstacles to staying in touch.

susanellingburg: I tweet for the same reason I read — to know I'm not alone.

mat: No offense, but that's kind of a dumb question. Rephrase as: Why do you communicate at all? Just one more method of doing so.

ultrafastx: because talking to oneself is generally frowned upon these days.

thc1972: why do you go to a good cocktail party? Conversation, viewpoints, gossip, jokes, interaction

MarilynM: for conversation, community and connection. (there's also a lot of humor here.) :)

ckuns: Twitter is the new "water cooler" ... where you read the things you have to know but wouldn't find out otherwise

dirkfitzgerald: I tweet because I am might be missing out on the largest (and possibly) most interesting conversation ever.

EvaCatHerder sent in this tweet: "Given Dan Schorr's long history w/the evolution of news media, what does he think we are losing in web-based media? Gaining?"

"What we are losing is editing," Schorr said. "I grew up and nothing could be communicated to the outside world that didn't go through an editor to make sure you had your facts right, spelling right and so on. Now, every person is his or her own publisher and/or her own editor or her own reporter. And the world is full of people who are sending out what they consider to be news. It may be, it may not be, it may be made up and it doesn't matter anymore. That, to me, is the worst part of this. The discipline that should go with being able to communicate is gone." (NPR)

It reminded me of a comment my beautiful wife made back when we were dating in college. She had just been witness to a long, drawn out circular argument among several communication majors in her dorm. As we walked to dinner, she said, “Communication majors must spend all of their time learning to communicate and none of it learning to listen.”

And this past week, I was trying to convince about 100 teachers to sign up for classroom blogs because of the success I was having in my classroom with them. Many were not even sure what a blog was. “The word ‘blog’,” I said, “is short for ‘Web log’. It’s like a journal; a diary. But instead of writing in it at night and locking it up and hiding it in the night stand, you publish it on the internet for the whole world to see and you let them write in it.”

To which one teacher said, “And why do I want to do this?”

Daniel Schorr and I don’t agree on a whole lot, but I think I agree with him on this. His view was fairly balanced. Sure, it’s amazing that the right to publish now rests in anyone’s hands. But now we’re shouting our heads off. We’re all going out in the marketplace and yelling our stories, and our thoughts, and our ideas, and our vulgarities, and our insults, and what we think is news, and who is listening?

My wife and I were at a nice restaurant a couple years ago and a group of teenagers occupied the table next to us. They all had earbuds in their ears and were hooked up to iPods. One person pulled out the cord from the iPod and say, “Listen to this: I love this song.” Ten seconds of the song would play before the amateur DJ would switch to another song and then another and another. Soon they were all doing it at about the same time. No song got more than 10 seconds of air time. Who’s listening?

Watching these teens, my thought was “They don’t have the capacity to pay attention!” I remember buying a CD and bringing it home. Some aunts and uncles and cousins were there, and they were curious about my purchase. I put it in, and we all sat in the living room and listened to the entire album. Can that happen anymore? Should it?

John Stonestreet—a man that graduated from Bryan College with Marcy and I—came from Colorado to speak to our church this morning. He talked about culture and how Christians have a responsibility to be active in understanding culture, to uphold art that is excellent (not low culture) and true and noble. He referenced William Jennings Bryan, the man whom Bryan College is named for. Bryan was a three time presidential nominee, though he never won. He was a skillful orator who would talk for three hours without amplification to crowds of 5,000. Tell me that would happen today! John told us something that surprised me, though. He said, “Attention span is a choice.” Pay attention.

I wrote in an earlier blog that I often don’t know how I feel about something until I write about it. Writing is reflective and it is helpful to me. I wrote in another blog that I am writing for myself, not for others. (If that’s true, why am I publishing online?) There is something about the formatting and the published-look of blogging that makes it fun to write. And I do like it that I know of five people who check this blog, one of whom I am related to, two who are friends in real life, and (wildly) one in the U.K. that I’ve never met (Hi, Katie!) So I am guilty of adding to the shouting-in-the-marketplace noise. And to be fair, I love reading the blogs of these people. I like to hear their thoughts and their ideas and their fears and their hopes. When I check their blog each week, I am disappointed when nothing new is up.

Perhaps I should have started with a present perfect : “So, I have blogged again” instead, because I have. And, I will again. But it might not be this week.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Drums at Coolidge Park

The downtown park—the one next to the river,
The once abandoned shipping yard—has metal drums.
Discarded drums from some dump truck or tractor trailer,
Brake drums tempered by heat and service and abuse
Turned percussion by an artist, arrayed in two tiers.
Find a twig (if you can)
Or use the heel of a shoe and tap-ting-tong a song;
They, too, sing America,
Like this park, this city, the people here.
Today, a complicated polyrhythmic beat
Performed by an octopus of adolescents;
Later, a simple phrase of Bach
Worked out incrementally by my dad
While my children played welding bells cut from gas cylinders.
The phoenix’s blaze and birth have nothing on these
Reticent triumphs of endurance and transformation
And value.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Beautiful Changes

Have you noticed the beauty of the earth this week? Did you take it in today? It is brilliant in every sense of the word.

Today, I led a school-wide assembly of Kindergarten through fifth grade students right after a breathtaking drive up Signal Mountain in the flush of autumn. It was like a rainbow fell from the sky. I could smell the rain that would come within a few minutes, and I felt overpowered by my own senses. The idea that I would have to go inside a building for the next seven hours had the same effect on my face as if gravity had just increased seven fold. The first person to see me in the school building asked me what was wrong; her concern was so great, she thought a close relative of mine had died.

The cafetorium—which makes neither an adequate cafeteria or auditorium—in which our assembly would be held is in the center of the school. It has no windows and only those hideous bluish lights that drain the color right out of clothes and skin. I set up the microphones and the CD player and the podium. I seriously thought of urging the teachers to take their children for a walk in the woods for 40 minutes instead of subjecting them to an assembly. It didn’t matter to me that it was raining, or that an author was coming to tell the children stories, or that we were supposed to be launching our book fair.

I did the only thing I could. I ran to the library and googled three poems to read to the children and faculty.

Once the assembly started, I could tell the kids were restless. They probably wouldn’t want to hear poetry while sitting on the cold linoleum floor under the miserable lighting. Maybe a story would be better.

I started by asking the two questions I asked you at the beginning of this post, and the response came back as an overwhelming “No.” Who could not notice this? The afternoon before when I walked to my car, I stepped out of the building and suddenly became incapable of movement. My nostrils flared, my eyes dilated, my heart raced, my mouth slacked. Something as beautiful as summer was now transformed into something else beautiful, and while nothing had really changed, everything had changed. One of my students wrote about a time that she was watching a horse over a fence and her father leaned over and whispered, “She’s yours”, and when she looked back at the horse, everything was different. The horse was different somehow, just like the acreage surrounding my school. And the people, the students, the parents, the teachers around me were talking about dogs and video games and new clothes and there was an argument, even. How could anyone be talking? I thought of this when the children in assembly said they had not seen the beauty of the earth, and I thought of a story I read in third grade, a science fiction story of a colony of people that lived on Jupiter, and so I told it to this wiggling audience.

The story takes place in an elementary school room on Jupiter, and everyone is excited because this is the day that they will see the sun. With the atmosphere being what it is on Jupiter, the colonists only see the sun for a few hours every seven years. As a prank, the students lock one girl in the closet for a few minutes, but then the sun comes out. The students forget about the girl and race outside and stare at the sun until it disappears. And while I didn’t say it, I felt like the girl locked inside by the students, except that these students weren’t even going out to look at the sun, either.

So, I read them a poem that my first grade teacher, Mrs. Martin, read to me. I don’t know if it is great poetry or not; I cannot be that objective about it because I love it. I love it because it is about autumn and because I loved Mrs. Martin.


October's Party 
George Cooper 

October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came-
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band.

The Chestnuts came in yellow,
The Oaks in crimson dressed;
The lovely Misses Maple
In scarlet looked their best;
All balanced to their partners,
And gaily fluttered by;
The sight was like a rainbow
New fallen from the sky.

Then, in the rustic hollow,
At hide-and-seek they played,
The party closed at sundown,
And everybody stayed.
Professor Wind played louder;
They flew along the ground;
And then the party ended
In jolly "hands around."


When I was grown, I met Mrs. Martin again. She was old when I was in first grade, and she was older and shorter when I saw her in the parking lot. But she seemed younger. She had a kayak on her car, and just that was like discovering an entirely new person. It is amazing that beautiful things change into other beautiful things, like summer to autumn; younger people into older people; strangers into friends. This is why I read this second poem to the students.


The Beautiful Changes


 One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides

The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies

On water; it glides

So from the walker, it turns

Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you

Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed

By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;

As a mantis, arranged

On a green leaf, grows

Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves

Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says

They are not only yours; the beautiful changes

In such kind ways,

Wishing ever to sunder

Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose

For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

Those poor children, having to endure such desperation thrust upon them. They didn’t even know what happened. “Did you like those poems?” I asked, and it was silent except for some boys in the back who shouted “No!” and a few Kindergartners who shouted “Yes!” because that’s how each group responds to everything. I did not read the third poem.

“When you go outside today, children,” I concluded. “Look up. Look around. It will be gone in a few hours.” To which someone said, “What? The sun?” and a few teachers chuckled.

And then the safari music started from the public address system, the PTA mothers took the microphone to launch the book fair, and I went out on the front porch of the school to watch the rain wash the rainbow off the trees.


Monday, October 06, 2008

Chasing After the Ukulele

“That’s it,” I thought. “That’s the sound I’ve been trying to get.” I was sitting cross-legged in my parents’ basement one Christmas several years ago with my Ukulele in my lap. Dad had set me up with a microphone, a mixer, and some headphones. He had angled the microphone and placed it close to the strings. When I strummed, the headphones delivered the rich, full tones that I had become accustomed to. When I tried to record at home, the result was flat and two-dimensional. This sound of the ukulele—the bell tones of the higher strings, the plucky and thick lower strings, the muted padding of my fingers pressing into the fret board—this sound was complete, except that it was even better because it was amplified perfectly directly into my head.

When I played it back, it seemed lackluster. It was definitely better than the recordings I had created back home, but something was missing. I put the headphones back on, pulled in the mic, and started over. Again, I found that intimate sound of the ukulele that I had never been able to capture before. And again, the playback was somewhat diminished. On the third try, I realized what was happening. When I played the ukulele, its vibrations buzzed through my torso. By being close, I heard the pure, warm, familiar tone, but I also experienced the physics of the music. By bringing a high-quality microphone nearly between my fingers and the nickel-wound nylon strings, the sound could be preserved, but the depth of the moment could not be duplicated.

It occurred to me that no one can know music like a musician does. A person will never really be able to understand the full sound of a saxophone unless he puts the wet reed in his mouth and his fingers on the padded buttons. I remember thinking this a few years later at an Interlochen Arts Academy student concert. The audience had no problem enjoying the performance, but no one there—even the musicians—could ever have the whole experience. The first violinist was privy only to the wooden box in her fingertips, and even though she was literally surrounded in sound, only her instrument reverberated through her in a deep and personal way. To know her violin so well, she could not—and may never—know the bassoon two rows back.

At Vandergriff Park last week, Marcy and I walked the little, oval track while the kids played on the playground equipment inside the loop. Several families were there as well as some teens and a very brave spandexed yoga troop. Marcy and I marveled at our little family, fretted over the economy and politics, batted about career plans, and breathed in the first breath of October. After the conversation subsided, I watched Marcy out of the corner of my eye. Her mind never slows, I can tell. I have periods of time in which no words are in my head; this, I believe, is unimaginable to Marcy. She is like my ukulele, reverberating deeply in me. No one else can know what it is like for me when I am engaged with her. Someone could get close and listen to us talk for a good while, but the experience would be lacking the subterranean tremors that make the bones hum like railroad tracks before the train.

The converse is true, too. Of all the people in the park, I understand no one except those with which I am connected. They are all bassoons and I am walking with my violin.

I imagine that a ukulele cannot appreciate itself the way I appreciate it. The vibration that I find so essential to its experience is probably inane to the ukulele—normal, even. I wish Marcy could see herself the way I see her. I wish everyone could. For that matter, I wish I could see myself the way Marcy sees me. If half the things she says about me to me are true, then I want to meet me.

What I do know is, none of this can be captured. The best I can do is to be awake, to be paying attention, to strum the strings, to listen, to feel, and to respond; to enjoy the wind through my fingers and not try to catch it.